"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 8, 2014

"The Golovlyov Family" by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1880)

There exists one great 19th century Russian novel almost nobody knows. I am not talking of Oblomov, which by now is reasonable famous, but about The Golovlyov Family (Gospoda Golovlyovy), a novel written by the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. Note that the writer, who was also a civil administrator and magazine editor, was called Mikhail Saltykov (1826-1889), but used the pen name "Shchedrin." Those two names are therefore often coupled with a hyphen, but the author can also be called just by his pen name as "Shchedrin."

[Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, portrait from Wikipedia]

The Golovlyov Family is one of the darkest Russian novels ever written. It tells the story of a land-owning family, in three generations, that destroys itself before the reader's eyes. Why? Because they waste their lives in pettiness, stinginess, faked religiousness and, finally, vodka. The lives of all characters in this novel are meaningless and pointless. They all die miserably, almost one per chapter.

The place where they live is just as desolate as their lives: an endless and dreary plain, full of mud, far from civilization. It either rains or snows. The house of the Golovlyovs is like the land: gloomy and depressing. There is also nothing to do here, life is one stretch of unrelieved boredom, the characters are just vegetating. One by one the family members fail in their endeavors in the outside world, and are sucked back to the remote estate, only to perish in misery.

Everything in the novel is related to the family's decay, an unrelieved catalog of mistrust, misdeeds and wretchedness. No opportunity for meanness is missed. The core of the novel consists of a series of conversational duels between the main characters, where they try to manipulate each other. Shchedrin has paid much attention to these dialogues: the speech of each character has its own genuine flavor.

There was frequent discussion about nihilism in the works of, for example, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, but one could say that The Golovlyov Family shows nihilism in operation. Or rather, what we find here is not even nihilism (as a philosophy), it just total emptiness, the absence of any values. It is the absolute void. And it is from this emptiness that evil is born, rather than from any "positive" maliciousness.

Besides the matriarch, Arina Petrovna Golovlyov (who is a tough sort of tyrant, controlling the estate with an iron hand, while treating here own children and others in a mean and stingy way - and who becomes a sort of King Lear after she releases power), Shchedrin's most original creation is Porphyry, one of her sons - nicknamed "Little Judas (Iudushka)," he is surely the greatest hypocrite in world literature. Porphyry is an unfeeling wretch who babbles on all the time in self-righteous and pseudo-pious talk, about family, work or duty, He can't keep his mouth shut for a moment. He continually calls on God to sanction all his misdeeds and lies spontaneously, without principles. He just prattles on in verbal incontinence and this useless prattle has smothered his feelings. His words have no meaning, because Porphyry has no morals, something which is made clear when we see his indifference to the suicide of his son and the suffering of others. In contrast to hypocrites in the French sense, like Tartuffe, who pretend to lead a proper life while playing the seducer when nobody watches, this is a Russian type of hypocrite, as Shchedrin tells us: one who thrives in the absence of fundamental principles.

When all this may seem off-putting, The Golovlyov Family is, on the contrary, a great read. It is a grim comedy, written in an intense style. Shchedrin is indeed a very accomplished author, whose lively novel is a strong protest against the greed, hypocrisy, falsehood, treachery and stupidity he saw around him.
The Golovlyov Family has been published by New York Review Books, in a translation by Natalie Duddington.