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20 November 2018

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Book Review

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City Folk and Country Folk

by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (Columbia Russian Library, $14.95), translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

From the first page of this revelation of a novel we know it is not going to be like any other nineteenth century Russian tale we have read. Central to this is the writer’s superb voice – light, mocking of authority and conventional wisdom, yet patiently understanding of the characters’ foibles and flaws.

It rests on the sort of central device that drives many novels: an outsider arrives in a community and unexpected interactions, challenges and scandals ensue. But the difference here is that this device is employed by a very accomplished, gifted writer who happens to be female. Which means we get to return to the drawing rooms and usadbas of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky without those fellows in tow, giving us a refreshing new take that is neither preachy nor political, and decidedly more fun. (Disclaimer: The translator of this novel is our own translations editor, Nora Favorov.)

The main character, the accomplished and capable noblewoman, Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova, has no interest in enlightenment or analysis. She just wants her estate to work at a profit and for everyone to be happy. Yet her own happiness is hardest to come by, because she is far too worried about what others think. Her daughter, Olenka, meanwhile, is a flighty, flirtatious, and restless young woman who feels claustrophobically confined in their little town, and is not at all convinced that she needs or wants to be married.

And then there is the catalyst-visitor Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a pompous, psychosomatic world traveler who can’t sort things out on his estate (which borders Nastasya’s), so, he must take up residence for the summer in Nastasya’s banya, not unlike a bothersome bannik spirit.

There are plenty of other fantastic minor characters as well, not least of which is the self-righteous, 43-year-old “spinster,” Anna Ilinishna, whose dissatisfaction sets all sorts of things in motion. All the characters are richly drawn, and Khvoshchinskaya (who, along with her prolific sister, had to publish under male pseudonyms) patiently awaits their slow progression toward doing the right thing.

The story takes place one year after the liberation of the serfs, so uncertainty rules. The landowners are trying to work out settlements with their former vassals, to understand what their own futures hold. Meanwhile, Olenka and Nastasya are navigating the minefield of nuptial negotiations, while the clueless, self-obsessed Erast just wants to bathe in the river and pen his unpublishable screeds.

Nicely paced and well plotted, this is not a novel imbued with a great moral or message (except perhaps that rarely do the most deserving get their due in the end). Instead, it is more an entertaining account of what can happen when worlds collide – Gogolian perhaps, but with a far lighter touch.

An introduction to the work by Hilde Hoogenboom provides invaluable context and data to the novel, for instance that 16 percent of Russia’s productive writers in 1880 were women. Would that this novel will set in motion a serious effort to see that more of those voices are heard.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Nov/Dec 2017