September 01, 2004

Lenten Beef

The Russian realist writer Sergei Timofeevich Aksakov (1791-1859) is best known for his autobiographical trilogy, A Family Chronicle, Childhood Years of a Bagrov Grandson, and Memoir, books that vividly depict life among the nineteenth-century nobility. Although Aksakov is not as widely read today, in his time he garnered much praise. The critic D.S. Mirsky considered Aksakov’s evocative language to have “a beautiful Russian purity and an air of distinction and unaffected grace that gives it a fair chance of being recognized as the best, the standard, Russian prose.” Similar superlatives were attached to Aksakov’s other writings, particularly those focused on his passion for the hunt: Notes on Fishing, Notes of an Orenburg-Province Hunter, and A Sportsman’s Stories and Memoirs on Various Kinds of Sport. These books combine practical advice with lovely meditations on nature. After reading Notes on Fishing, none other than Nikolai Gogol wrote to Aksakov: “Your birds and fishes are more alive than my men and women.” High praise, indeed!

In fact, Notes on Fishing was Aksakov’s first book. It was also Russia’s first treatise on fishing (English-language readers had already been enjoying Isaak Walton’s Compleat Angler for two centuries). In his book, Aksakov shared not only his observations on technical aspects of fishing but also his love of the Russian countryside. He was, however, forced to publish the book without his chosen epigraph, words that perfectly conveyed his sense of release in nature: “I venture into nature’s world,/The world of serenity and freedom.” The censors deemed the mention of freedom too subversive, and only in the book’s third edition (1854) did the epigraph finally appear. 

Aksakov fished in rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, at each site intently observing the world around him. His entries on individual species of fish provide lessons in etymology, botany, biology, behavior (both human and piscine), and gastronomy. Even with his keen eye for nature, Aksakov did not ignore the culinary dimension of fish. He notes whether a fish makes for good eating, what time of year it tastes best (fish often taste muddy in summer; and sluggishness coarsens their flavor), how difficult they are to prepare, how bony they are, how best to cook them. 

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