Thursday, April 13, 2017

Revolutionary fiction

Tariq Ali, who I hadn't heard of for quite a while, had an interesting piece in the Guardian recently, about the literature that influenced Lenin.

Apparently, it was a near unreadable utopian novel by one Chernyshevsky which influenced him most.  I guess its terrible reputation as literature is a reason I don't think it counts as a famous book these days.  Just goes to show the writing doesn't have to be good to be disastrously influential.   From the article:

The writer who had perhaps the strongest impact on Lenin – on, indeed, an entire generation of radicals and revolutionaries – was Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky was the son of a priest, as well as a materialist philosopher and socialist. His utopian novel What Is to Be Done? was written in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, where he had been incarcerated because of his political beliefs. What Is to Be Done? became the bible of a new generation. The fact that it had been smuggled out of prison gave it an added aura. This was the book that radicalised Lenin, long before he encountered Marx (with whom Chernyshevsky had exchanged letters). As a homage to the old radical populist, Lenin titled his first major political work, written and published in 1902, What Is to Be Done?

The enormous success of Chernyshevsky’s novel greatly irritated the established novelists, Turgenev in particular, who attacked the book viciously. This bile was countered with a burning lash of nettles from the radical critics Dobrolyubov (regarded by students as “our Diderot”) and Pisarev. Turgenev was livid. Encountering Chernyshevsky at a public event, he shouted: “You’re a snake and that Dobrolyubov is a rattlesnake.”

What of the novel that was the subject of so much controversy? Over the last 50 years I have made three attempts to read every single page, and all three attempts have failed. It is not a classic of Russian literature. It was of its time and played a crucial role in the post-terrorist phase of the Russian intelligentsia. It is undoubtedly very radical on every front, especially gender equality and relations between men and women, but also on how to struggle, how to delineate the enemy and how to live by certain rules.

Vladimir Nabokov loathed Chernyshevsky but found it impossible to ignore him. In his last Russian novel, The Gift, he devoted 50 pages to belittling and mocking the writer and his circle, but admitted that there “was quite definitively a smack of class arrogance about the attitudes of contemporary well-born writers towards the plebeian Chernyshevsky” and, in private, that “Tolstoy and Turgenev called him the ‘bed-bug stinking gentleman’ … and jeered at him in all kinds of ways”.

Their jeers were partly born of jealousy, since the subject of their snobbery was extremely popular with the young, and born also, in the case of Turgenev, of a deep and ingrained political hostility to a writer who wanted a revolution to destroy the landed estates and distribute the land to the peasants.

Lenin used to get cross with young Bolsheviks visiting him in exile, during the inter-revolutionary years between 1905 and 1917, when they teased him about Chernyshevsky’s book and told him it was unreadable. They were too young to appreciate its depth and vision, he retorted. They should wait till they were 40. Then they would understand that Chernyshevsky’s philosophy was based on simple facts: we were descended from the apes and not Adam and Eve; life was a short-lived biological process, hence the need to bring happiness to every individual. This was not possible in a world dominated by greed, hatred, war, egoism and class. That was why a social revolution was necessary.
Well, I can't say that I had realised that a radical change in gender relations was so closely tied from the earliest days of  Russian revolutionary thought. I see the book is downloadable (all 488 pages of it!) in English translation here.   I've a quick scan - it does seem incredibly turgid, and to mainly be about relationships.   Amazing what people read before TV/movies/the internet....  

1 comment:

not trampis said...

Lenin was always well red!