Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Golovlyov Family

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin's The Golovlyov Family has been called "the gloomiest novel in all Russian literature" by D. S Mirsky, who wrote the first scholarly history of Russian Literature. It certainly is a very dark and uncompromising work, even a shocking and disturbing at places. Stylistically it is very similar to Gogol's Dead Souls. In fact some of the caricatures and portraitures specially of the landowners are derived directly from Gogol's classic. What Shchedrin adds of his own is the Swiftian rage and his extreme vision of human beings completely dehumanized by mindless traditions, social institutions, shallow religious nonsense and just plain unthinking ignorance.

Such is the overall negativity of the book that from a realistic perspective the story and the characters sound a little unconvincing. James Wood in his introduction notes it as well:

"At times The Golovyov Family seems less a novel than a satirical onslaught. Its relentlessness has the exhaustiveness not of a search for the truth so much as the prosecution of a case. Its characters are vivid blots of essence, carriers of the same single vice. Indeed, Shchedrin would seem to enjoy shocking the reader by annulling the novel's traditional task, that of the patient exploration, and elucidation, of private motives and reasons as they are played out in relation to a common condition. Instead, he gives us his sealed monsters, people whom we cannot explore since they are shut off from the moral world."

Not the kind of book one should read at a nice time like this when everybody is supposed to have some fun but certainly it deserves a place on the reading lists of everybody interested in the nineteenth century Russian Literature.

James Wood's introduction in pdf format is available here.

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