heir appearance in this great literary sphere was sudden and
unexpected. Their reports, however, were unfavourable. Merimee
was the first to recognize the possibilities of this little-known
country and had remarked upon some writers of talent and originality.
Turgenev appeared amongst us as the pioneer missionary of
the Russian genius, and in himself showed the high value of
that same genius. But the Western public remained sceptical.
French opinion about Russia was then expressed in one of those
neat phrases, with which we crush a nation as readily as an
individual: "A nation prematurely rotten" - and
that covered everything. Segur, with greater personal experience,
said with more justice: "The Russians are still what
they have been made. Some day becoming free, they will know
themselves."That day, still future in other respects,
has arrived as regards Russian literature, and long before
Europe deigned to admit it...
Next to human sympathy, the chief
characteristic of the russian writers is their knowledge of
the lower classes, and their circumstances, which are detailed
to an extent and obvious relish previously unknown. Nevertheless
the invisible is not neglected. Their characters are anxious
about the universal mystery, and however much the characters
seem to be engaged with the dramatic events of the moment,
they ever lend an ear to the murmurings of abstract thought...
In the creations of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky these
are never absent from their minds.
As with their inspirations, their literary
methods are similar to the English. The interest and emotions
of both have to be purchased by patience. At first the seeming
absence of plot or specific action, and the tax on our memory
of these Russian efforts puzzles and tries us. Their own lazy
and dreamy character, delay at very step to occupy themselves
with unnecessary detail, which obscures the whole. These are
made too important and too far-fetched for our taste... The
Russian words measure as many yards as ours do feet... Nevertheless
one is charmed with the unexpected combination of their native
simplicity and their mode of psychological analysis...The
delineation of the human heart is marvellously detailed such
as I have never yet met with.
None of the russian writers have any idea
of writing mere literature, but are always actuated by the
double desire of arriving at righteousness and truth; double
in name only, one in themselves. The Russian word pravda
stands for both righteousness and truth, or rather it implies
two ideas in an indivisible one. This is a point of greal
importance and worthy of our deepest consideration, for language
betrays the philosophic conceptions...
Righteousness and Truth! In this pursuit
of the pravda I repeat, they never separate the double
ideals, the divine from the human. The creed which they wait
for must realize the one and the other, both together. Not
having found it, and being still a young and ingenuous nation,
they are now occupied with the religious and social discussions
which fascinated our Western minds in the dark ages, at the
dawn of the Reformation. These same doctrines are by the Slav
dressed with a fresh character, or, let us say, one more pronounced.
It is a historic fact that no part of the human family has
ever been more favoured, or received less than another of
its patrimony - the ideal of righteousness and truth. That
lies in every heart. But the Man of the North, steeped in
the gloomy thoughts of his habitual misery, broods over it
long, and in the humble homes of the Slav people, less accustomed
to the compromises of civilization, there are a great number
of inexperienced, ardent and tenacious natures who, feeling
impatient at the slowness of progress, rush at their new chimeras
regardless of all obstacles...
When one enters St. Isaac's Cathedral
in St. Petersburg it is as if stepping into night. Badly lit
from above, the imposing building is all darkness. On the
doors of the chancel being opened, a flood of light descends
from a great Christ painted in the window panes of the apse,
whence only the church obtains her daylight. The image seems
alone to illumine the night in the temple, and the visitor's
eyes are involuntarily held by that face. It has not the same
calm expression given it by the " Western " to the
Son of Man. It is thin, emaciated, fervent, with a wild look
in the eyes. It is the Slavonic Christ, betraying intense
human anguish at the loss of a dream unrealized, or that of
a god dissatisfied with his divinity. For him all things have
not been attained, and the last word has not been spoken.
It is, indeed, the face of the god of a people still groping
about in darkness, and truthfully represents all their anxieties.
One often hears Hamlet's words applied to
her as to there being "something rotten" in that
empire. Possibly, but in any case the rottenness is confined
to the bark. The core of that mighty tree is sound and full
of sap. This at least is the conviction of all who have been
in the country and studied the writers who witness to it.
Behind their mental maladies, behind the passing nihilism
of a Tolstoy and the intellectual spasms of a Dostoyevsky,
one feels there is a deep-rooted vitality and a soul ready
to submit to any sound words that will arouse her. Judging
from their language, which is unmistakable, they seem as if
weary and worn out before they have lived, like young people
who are in despair waiting long for the moment of action to
arrive. They at times seem to be themselves unaware that they
possess the treble treasure of life - faith, hope and love.
As soon as one digs down the lode glistens and clanks. It
is the pledge of their future greatness.
That is what I have discovered in
this Russian land. - Poor, pale Russia! Her sons will, perhaps,
tell me that I have painted her in too ghastly a colour, that
I have not been able to breathe the perfume of her pungent
air. That would be an unmerited insult. We belong to a world
that is content to grow older by the dim light of austere
reason, which looks coldly on life whilst trying to understand
its phenomena. But when, owing to the - inconclusiveness of
the eternal rush of human life, this anxiety for an understanding
ceases to trouble our soul and allows it to return to its
primitive instincts, we realize and feel how well this land
can be loved, though still in the savage nudity of its youth.
Even though the plough has till now only run a few furrows,
the hand of man has not as yet effaced the imprint of that
of the Creator. She retains the charm of great sadness, the
most powerful, perhaps, because the happiest amongst us at
heart deplores the waste of things, whatever they may be,
and though he may never have known them. Virgin soil! Crude
and vague like her children, made in her image, like their
heart and speech, she cannot tell of the curious histories
of the past as known to older lands. She ever speaks in melancholy
murmurs with the sad music of the sea... The Koran contains
a beautiful saying: " How shall we know that the end
of the world has come? " asks the Prophet.” It
is when one soul can no more help another," was the answer.
Pray Heaven that the Russian soul may yet do much for ours...
E.- M. de Vogüe. "The russian novel"