While most of the books I’ve received from Columbia University Press are from my specialist areas of Japanese and Korean literature, I was recently asked to take a look at something a little different. The idea of a Russian Library series of classic literary works has been around for several years, but it’s only now that Columbia has taken up the challenge other publishers eschewed and started to release some titles. Today’s choice is a perfect example of what the series is about, a lost classic by a female writer with hints of Austen (in style and setting) and Brontë (in family background). Sound interesting? Then let’s take a little trip to the country…
Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk (translated by Nora Seligmann Favorov, review copy courtesy of the publisher and the Australian distributor Footprint Books) takes the reader back to the Russian provinces at the start of the 1860s, at the time of the emancipation of the serfs. Middle-aged widow Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova is living on a fair-sized estate with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Olga Nikolayevna (Olenka), and a number of domestic staff. The problem of how to handle her fifty newly-freed ‘souls’ is a constant worry, but this fades into the background when she receives an unexpected visitor, one who is to throw the household into turmoil.
The newcomer is her neighbour, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a wealthy absentee landowner who has decided to spend some time on his estate ‘for the sake of his health’. With no liveable house on his land, he imposes himself on Nastasya Ivanovna, taking up residence in the new bathhouse on her estate, leaving the poor widow a bundle of nerves. To make things worse, there’s already an unwelcome visitor at the main house in the shape of Anna Ilinishna Bobova, a pious relative who decides to lock herself in her room after hearing some unflattering comments. It’s going to be a long summer for the poor country folk, and you wonder how they will defend themselves against the manners and demands of the city interlopers…
City Folk and Country Folk is a short novel focusing on a handful of major characters, with its strength coming from a series of explosive confrontations between them. Poor Nastasya Ivanovna, a woman with a preference for a quiet life, is forced into situations she’d much rather avoid as a result of her unwelcome visitors. Interestingly, though, she rises to the challenge, something which is hinted at on the first page when the writer talks of the enlightenment this summer is to bring her. Certainly, the woman who descends into the servants’ quarters to quell a looming rebellion is almost unrecognisable from the timid character who can’t bring herself to throw her parasitical relative out.
However, dealing with the hired help can’t be compared to standing up to people from a far loftier station in life, and the crux of the novel is the attitude the city-dwelling minor nobility have towards the ‘lower’ country folk. The writer makes it clear that Ovcharov is no great star of society himself:
But whatever society Ovcharov appeared in throughout his wandering life, he was never anything more than a fine fellow. Nowhere did he leave a strong impression: he was easily liked and easily forgotten. With women, in love and hate, he played only an incidental role; among serious people his presence brought on a slight sense of boredom; and through his entire life he had failed to attract a single devoted friend.
p.56 (Columbia University Press, 2017)
Despite this, in the country he regards himself as a man without equal, free to act as he chooses, and his patronising manner towards Nastasya Ivanovna isn’t exactly guaranteed to endear him to the reader.
Gradually, though, the country folk begin to stand up for themselves, mainly in the form of Olenka. Ovcharov has a number of ‘interesting’ views on women, and while he thinks he’s being progressive in his writings on helping them to reach the same level as men, in truth it’s nothing more than a whole lot of nineteeth-century mansplaining. Luckily, Olenka is far less reticent than her mother and is quite prepared to call Ovcharov out when he oversteps the mark – and I’m not just talking about polite contradictions. When the visitor makes his move during a carriage ride, his companion is more than up to the task of putting him (literally) in his place:
Ovcharov threw himself at her and, before she was able to say a word, kissed her neck and shoulders.
Apparently Olenka really was stronger than he. She grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him to the other end of the carriage, quickly and without making noise or uttering a sound, so that the coachman did not even turn around.
“You’re a vile person,” she said, crimson from agitation. “The slightest move and I’ll hit you. Don’t you dare say a word to me.” (pp.160/1)
There’s something very Austenesque in a confident woman putting an unwanted admirer in his place…
That’s not the only comparison you could make with British nineteenth-century fiction. City Folk and Country Folk delights in slightly sarcastic sketches of its protagonists, from Ovcharov to the penny-pinching Katerina Petrovna Repekhova-Dolgovskaya (a woman who has a vested interest in forcing Olenka into an unwanted marriage) and even the local priest, who tries to avoid giving sermons so as not to upset people. Kvoshchinskaya is also expert at creating memorable scenes, with the confrontation in the carriage just one of many excellent passages building up to a final confrontation in which the invading city forces finally realise that their cosmopolitan privileges count for little out in the country.
There’s a lot to like about the novel, but I do have some reservations. While the major scenes are wonderful, the story can drag a little in between, with large amounts of exposition for such a short novel. The comparisons with Austen aren’t always apt as there were passages here where I was tempted to skim a little, and it took a while for the story to really get going. In truth, it’s a work where the parts between the confrontations are mainly there to get us to those scenes, and you sense that the book is caught a little between being a taut, focused novella and developing into a longer, more psychological novel.
Still, it’s always good to see books rescued from oblivion, a point expanded upon in Hilda Hoogenboom’s expansive introduction. It’s here that the Brontë comparisons are highlighted, with Sofia one of three literary sisters writing under assumed names. Hoogenboom explains that while British female writers of the nineteenth century are celebrated (and rightly so), their Russian counterparts have been virtually erased from literary history, quite deliberately at times. Kudos then to Columbia for doing their small part to address that issue. Hopefully, we’ll be able to sample more works by ‘forgotten’ female writers as the series unfolds 🙂