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- Best Russian Short Stories - 1/56 -
BEST RUSSIAN SHORT STORIES
THE QUEEN OF SPADES _A.S. Pushkin_
THE CLOAK _N.V. Gogol_
THE DISTRICT DOCTOR _I.S. Turgenev_
THE CHRISTMAS TREE AND THE WEDDING _F.M. Dostoyevsky_
GOD SEES THE TRUTH, BUT WAITS _L.N. Tolstoy_
HOW A MUZHIK FED TWO OFFICIALS _M.Y. Saltykov_
THE SHADES, A PHANTASY _V.G. Korolenko_
THE SIGNAL _V.N. Garshin_
THE DARLING _A.P. Chekhov_
THE BET _A.P. Chekhov_
VANKA _A.P. Chekhov_
HIDE AND SEEK _F.K. Sologub_
DETHRONED _I.N. Potapenko_
THE SERVANT _S.T. Semyonov_
ONE AUTUMN NIGHT _M. Gorky_
HER LOVER _M. Gorky_
LAZARUS _L.N. Andreyev_
THE REVOLUTIONIST _M.P. Artzybashev_
THE OUTRAGE _A.I. Kuprin_
Conceive the joy of a lover of nature who, leaving the art galleries, wanders out among the trees and wild flowers and birds that the pictures of the galleries have sentimentalised. It is some such joy that the man who truly loves the noblest in letters feels when tasting for the first time the simple delights of Russian literature. French and English and German authors, too, occasionally, offer works of lofty, simple naturalness; but the very keynote to the whole of Russian literature is simplicity, naturalness, veraciousness.
Another essentially Russian trait is the quite unaffected conception that the lowly are on a plane of equality with the so-called upper classes. When the Englishman Dickens wrote with his profound pity and understanding of the poor, there was yet a bit; of remoteness, perhaps, even, a bit of caricature, in his treatment of them. He showed their sufferings to the rest of the world with a "Behold how the other half lives!" The Russian writes of the poor, as it were, from within, as one of them, with no eye to theatrical effect upon the well-to-do. There is no insistence upon peculiar virtues or vices. The poor are portrayed just as they are, as human beings like the rest of us. A democratic spirit is reflected, breathing a broad humanity, a true universality, an unstudied generosity that proceed not from the intellectual conviction that to understand all is to forgive all, but from an instinctive feeling that no man has the right to set himself up as a judge over another, that one can only observe and record.
In 1834 two short stories appeared, _The Queen of Spades_, by Pushkin, and _The Cloak_, by Gogol. The first was a finishing-off of the old, outgoing style of romanticism, the other was the beginning of the new, the characteristically Russian style. We read Pushkin's _Queen of Spades_, the first story in the volume, and the likelihood is we shall enjoy it greatly. "But why is it Russian?" we ask. The answer is, "It is not Russian." It might have been printed in an American magazine over the name of John Brown. But, now, take the very next story in the volume, _The Cloak_. "Ah," you exclaim, "a genuine Russian story, Surely. You cannot palm it off on me over the name of Jones or Smith." Why? Because _The Cloak_ for the first time strikes that truly Russian note of deep sympathy with the disinherited. It is not yet wholly free from artificiality, and so is not yet typical of the purely realistic fiction that reached its perfected development in Turgenev and Tolstoy.
Though Pushkin heads the list of those writers who made the literature of their country world-famous, he was still a romanticist, in the universal literary fashion of his day. However, he already gave strong indication of the peculiarly Russian genius for naturalness or realism, and was a true Russian in his simplicity of style. In no sense an innovator, but taking the cue for his poetry from Byron and for his prose from the romanticism current at that period, he was not in advance of his age. He had a revolutionary streak in his nature, as his _Ode to Liberty_ and other bits of verse and his intimacy with the Decembrist rebels show. But his youthful fire soon died down, and he found it possible to accommodate himself to the life of a Russian high functionary and courtier under the severe despot Nicholas I, though, to be sure, he always hated that life. For all his flirting with revolutionarism, he never displayed great originality or depth of thought. He was simply an extraordinarily gifted author, a perfect versifier, a wondrous lyrist, and a delicious raconteur, endowed with a grace, ease and power of expression that delighted even the exacting artistic sense of Turgenev. To him aptly applies the dictum of Socrates: "Not by wisdom do the poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration." I do not mean to convey that as a thinker Pushkin is to be despised. Nevertheless, it is true that he would occupy a lower position in literature did his reputation depend upon his contributions to thought and not upon his value as an artist.
"We are all descended from Gogol's _Cloak_," said a Russian writer. And Dostoyevsky's novel, _Poor People_, which appeared ten years later, is, in a way, merely an extension of Gogol's shorter tale. In Dostoyevsky, indeed, the passion for the common people and the all-embracing, all-penetrating pity for suffering humanity reach their climax. He was a profound psychologist and delved deeply into the human soul, especially in its abnormal and diseased aspects. Between scenes of heart-rending, abject poverty, injustice, and wrong, and the torments of mental pathology, he managed almost to exhaust the whole range of human woe. And he analysed this misery with an intensity of feeling and a painstaking regard for the most harrowing details that are quite upsetting to normally constituted nerves. Yet all the horrors must be forgiven him because of the motive inspiring them--an overpowering love and the desire to induce an equal love in others. It is not horror for horror's sake, not a literary _tour de force_, as in Poe, but horror for a high purpose, for purification through suffering, which was one of the articles of Dostoyevsky's faith.
Following as a corollary from the love and pity for mankind that make a leading element in Russian literature, is a passionate search for the means of improving the lot of humanity, a fervent attachment to social ideas and ideals. A Russian author is more ardently devoted to a cause than an American short-story writer to a plot. This, in turn, is but a reflection of the spirit of the Russian people, especially of the intellectuals. The Russians take literature perhaps more seriously than any other nation. To them books are not a mere diversion. They demand that fiction and poetry be a true mirror of life and be of service to life. A Russian author, to achieve the highest recognition, must be a thinker also. He need not necessarily be a finished artist. Everything is subordinated to two main requirements--humanitarian ideals and fidelity to life. This is the secret of the marvellous simplicity of Russian-literary art. Before the supreme function of literature, the Russian writer stands awed and humbled. He knows he cannot cover up poverty of thought, poverty of spirit and lack of sincerity by rhetorical tricks or verbal cleverness. And if he possesses the two essential requirements, the simplest language will suffice.
These qualities are exemplified at their best by Turgenev and Tolstoy. They both had a strong social consciousness; they both grappled with the problems of human welfare; they were both artists in the larger sense, that is, in their truthful representation of life, Turgenev was an artist also in the narrower sense--in a keen appreciation Of form. Thoroughly Occidental in his tastes, he sought the regeneration of Russia in radical progress along the lines of European democracy. Tolstoy, on the other hand, sought the salvation of mankind in a return to the primitive life and primitive Christian religion.
The very first work of importance by Turgenev, _A Sportsman's Sketches_, dealt with the question of serfdom, and it wielded tremendous influence in bringing about its abolition. Almost every succeeding book of his, from _Rudin_ through _Fathers and Sons_ to _Virgin Soil_, presented vivid pictures of contemporary Russian society, with its problems, the clash of ideas between the old and the new generations, and the struggles, the aspirations and the thoughts that engrossed the advanced youth of Russia; so that his collected works form a remarkable literary record of the successive movements of Russian society in a period of preparation, fraught with epochal significance, which culminated in the overthrow of Czarism and the inauguration of a new and true democracy, marking the beginning, perhaps, of a radical transformation the world over.
"The greatest writer of Russia." That is Turgenev's estimate of Tolstoy. "A second Shakespeare!" was Flaubert's enthusiastic outburst. The Frenchman's comparison is not wholly illuminating. The one point of resemblance between the two authors is simply in the tremendous magnitude of their genius. Each is a Colossus. Each creates a whole world of characters, from kings and princes and ladies to servants and maids and peasants. But how vastly divergent the angle of approach! Anna Karenina may have all the subtle womanly charm of an Olivia or a Portia, but how different her trials. Shakespeare could not have treated Anna's problems at all. Anna could not have appeared in his pages except as a sinning Gertrude, the mother of Hamlet. Shakespeare had all the prejudices of his age. He accepted the world as it is with its absurd moralities, its conventions and institutions and social classes. A gravedigger is naturally inferior to a lord, and if he is to be presented at all, he must come on as a clown. The people are always a mob, the rabble. Tolstoy, is the revolutionist, the
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