Saturday, April 7, 2012

Don't tell me how to feel!

After reading so many 19th century authors who seem to go to great lengths (often literally) to broadcast their own opinions (nihilism is dumb!  Christianity!  Peasants!), I’ve found Zamyatin and Olesha’s willingness to embrace ambiguity and nuance very refreshing.  Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy all appeared to have well-formed ideas about how one should live and seemed to utilize large parts of their novel to convey these thoughts.  Turgenev has long periods of philosophical debate about the tenets and merits of nihilism.  The premise of Dostoevsky’s entire work was premised on the question of how someone functions in a modern society and he comes to the relatively straightforward conclusion that God can solve it all.  Tolstoy spends literally hundreds of pages romanticizing the simplicity of peasant life and concludes that living for God is the only way to go.

Zamyatin and Olesha, by contrast, seem much more willing to embrace vague and open-ended conclusions.  Both critique communism and the new Soviet Union while simultaneously acknowledging some benefits.  While Tolstoy was perfectly at home making broad categorical statements (“All happy families…”), Zamyatin and Olesha seem very uncomfortable doing that, preferring to prod and poke rather than wholly praise or condemn.  This is perhaps best exemplified by the warm welcome Envy received in the Soviet press and its simultaneous endorsement by critics of the Soviet Union.  After reading so many novels that seemed like lectures, I’ve really appreciated Zamyatin and particularly Olesha’s willingness and ability to praise opposite ends of the spectrum at the same time. 

Does anyone else feel the same way about the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries?


  1. You make an interesting observation about both authors (Olesha and Zamyatin) embracing ambiguity and nuance unlike the literary giants of the 19th century who are very specific in their normative recomendation of how one should be. One may want to consider that the writers of the 19th century lived in a society which was aching for change due to its long-standing existence, and they may have felt compelled to offer their view of how such society should change/be. Russian society at that time was feudal in its nature with values and institutions lacking the rest of Europe; the change was inevitable but they did not quite know what is going to happen next. Zamyatin and Olesha, on the other hand, were living through the period of social and ideological change. Possibly, they were trying to understand the conflicting emotions about two systems of values,: people trying to embrace the new system, some rejecting the change, and others not quite comprehending what is happening.

  2. I didn't really get the feeling you described when reading the books, but hearing you voice it out, I can definitely see it. It appears to have been in the back of my mind, but I hadn't noticed it before. While reading We, I certainly got the feeling of having more of a, so to say, "conversation" with the author than of a one-sided monologue, which was the case with Anna Karenina, per say. I apologize for this generalization, but in my opinion the books of the 20th century seem to focus more on you as an individual, and try to give you room to form your own opinion regarding what was happening. Where as the books of the 19th century seem to already have a firm plot line and opinion. I feel like they're books that don't require too much thinking on the reader's part, because the whole content is already there, where as in We, the actual content is hidden and it's the reader's decision what to make of it.

  3. I think you are right, Petar, that these novels are very much products of the sociopolitical situations of their time. But I think Lea raises a good point: that the style of these books is largely a product of the author's situation. I feel like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky believed in their own brilliance and were afraid readers would distort anything they wrote (thus they included those epilogues). I really appreciate how 20th century writers seem to embrace the conversation with the reader and shy away from lecturing.