We don’t have the more refined illnesses here

Dear Sofia,

Reading your novel City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov (Городские и деревенские, 1863), feels like following a deceptively simple pattern with the tip of our fingers: we can cherish it for its softness to the touch; or we can look further into its intricacy, and admire the way the different threads weave in and turn over each other.

The book is centred around Nastasya Ivanovna, a widow of the lower rural gentry, and her 17-year-old daughter, Olenka. Their untroubled life together in the village of Snetki is suddenly put to test by the arrival of two unexpected guests. Anna Ilinishna, a distant city relative who has spent most of her life under the protection of princesses in Moscow, comes to live with them after falling out of favour. To make matters more complicated for Nastasya, her rich, well-travelled, long-absent neighbour, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, is determined to rent her unfinished bathhouse, after having discovered that his own estate is now uninhabitable.

Set in 1862, the story takes place shortly after the abolition of Russian serfdom by Alexander II’s Emancipation Manifesto of 1861. The highlight of your novel for me lies in the sharp light you manage to throw upon the insecurity and the class clashes of the time. You take various intertwined social conflicts – between rich, not so rich and poor; between men and women; corruption and purity; city and countryside – and filter them into a straightforward, satirical narrative.

Strong characterisation is one of the delights of the book. The visitors, in particular, are mockingly portrayed: Anna wears her piety and religion like a mask, and is prone in creating intrigue; Ovcharov is a city (pseudo-)intellectual who suffers from hypochondria and a strong sense of self-importance – for instance, he is convinced that enlightened noble men like him have an important role to play in a changing Russia.

Here again your way of playing with contrasting elements provides for much of the novel’s biting wit: despite feeling (and being considered) inferior to Ovcharov, Nastasya is a hardworking woman who knows how to manage her estate, while her supposedly more intelligent neighbour has allowed his estate to fall into disrepair; Ovcharov claims to be an enlighted intellectual, but harbours incoherent theories and changes his ideas according to his convenience; he claims to want to live in a simple country manner, but cannot do without the expensive furniture and tapestry he brings along; convinced of the inferiority of women, Ovcharov remains largely oblivious to the fact that his infatuation for Olenka is not reciprocated.

Nastasya‘s self-doubt about her place among her visitors mirrors (and mocks) the larger theme of a changing society in which no one is really sure of their position anymore. Olenka is the driving force that helps her mother to overcome her sense of inferiority and duty towards the aristocracy.

Unlike other female characters in Russian 19th-century fiction, Olenka is coarse, self-assured and clever. She almost felt to me like your alter-ego, or a force of nature driving the narrative forward. Olenka can see through the visitors’ pretension and snobbery; she can see past their facades; Olenka laughs at the nonsense of social expectations based on class or gender; Olenka skilfully avoids Ovcharov’s attempts to “educate”/tame her. Olenka is a Russian delight, my dear.

Behind an entertaining comedy of manners, we are pleasantly presented with a subtle tale of two women standing up for themselves against repressive social norms; a tale of two women denying the unquestioning obedience obliviously expected from them by their so-called ‘socially and morally superior’ visitors; and, finally, a tale of two women learning to assert a free space, a well-deserved room of their own.

Yours truly,

J.


Boris Kustodiev. “Russian-girl near the windon”,1923.

“And what kind of illnesses do we have here in the country? All good-for-nothing; we don’t have the more refined illnesses here. In town, if you look around, well, there they do have them.” – Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, City Folk and Country Folk

“Would we really dare to be angry, Ma’am? We may have been freed, but we still depend on your will in everything, you being our mistress. They’ll do with us whatever you order. And it’s God’s will that we serve the other lady. We don’t have to answer to you for that.” – Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, City Folk and Country Folk

“Of course, intelligence is a fine thing, but all the same it’s frightening” – Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, City Folk and Country Folk

“Maybe we are a couple of country fools, maybe we do need to be taught, if only there was anyone with something to teach us! As it was, we had fine teachers: two crazy old hags and a pompous fool!” – Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, City Folk and Country Folk


About the book

  • Columbia University Press, tr.  Nora Seligman Favorov, 2017, 272 p. Goodreads
  • Original title: Городские и деревенские
  • First published in 1863
  • My rating: 5 stars
  • This book was kindly sent to me by Columbia University Press for review.
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