The business of comparing national literatures across languages and time is definitely tricky. Take the English 19th century prose from Jane Austen through Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Trollope, George Eliot, Hardy, to Joseph Conrad. By any yardstick it would be recognized as an exceptional constellation of talent. How exceptional? Maybe not so exceptional when one brings in the Russians. The 19th century Russian novelists and short story writers, that is. What we have there is a fully comparable embarrass des riches: Pushkin (yea, “Eugene Onegin” is a novel) Lermontov (“A Hero of Our Time”), Gogol, Herzen, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekov.
It may not come as a complete surprise to the reader of this blog that I love 19th century Russian literature (I love the English 19th century too). In fact, the alert reader of “The Estate of Wormwood and Honey” might notice that the book pays specific homage in a number of instances to these 19th century Russian writers by making references to the various themes that were important either in their lives or in their books.
I challenge you to engage in some harmless literary detective work. Your object is to match a theme in the book to at least one 19thcentury Russian writer from among those listed above. Some connections are fairly obvious, others might not be. Correct answers will be provided in future posts.
Themes/references in “The Estate of Wormwood and Honey”:
1. Battle of Borodino (Chapter XXX)
2. Inanities of provincial courtship (Chapter XXXII)
3. Libraries (Chapter XXXII)
4. Provincial officialdom (Chapter V)
5. Close bonds with old servants (Chapter X)
6. Siberian penal settlements (Chapter XXVIII)
7. Losing one’s prized possessions to gambling (Chapter XXVI)
8. Cruelty to and abuse of one’s own family members (Chapters XXII, XXIII, and XXVIII)
9. Elderly decorated officials and their pretty young wives Chapter (Chapter V)
10. Obrok vs. barshchina (modalities of settling serfdom obligations) (Chapter VIII)
11. German relatives (Chapters X, XIX, and XXIII)
12. Natural sons (Chapter XVII and many others)