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the precipice

22 may 2012

Ivan Goncharov entered the pantheon of Russian novelists, and became a minor classic in world literature, with his odd, marvelous Oblomov. He wrote two other novels, though, which I hadn't heard of till recently. Earlier than Oblomov is The Same Old Story (sometimes also called in English A Common Story). I tried to check out my library's copy of The Same Old Story – a yellowing, clumsily-printed Soviet edition from the 1950s – only to be told that it did not circulate. Which was odd because I found it in open stacks with a barcode pasted to its cover; but some aura of Soviet censorship must cling to the volume, in spite of its emigration to the west, glasnost, and the fall of the USSR.

I had better luck with Goncharov's last novel, The Precipice. The library computer let me check out a taped-together 1970s American paperback edition. The volume was produced by Hyperion Press of Connecticut, which seems to have specialized in books that nobody then or since has heard of. Before the 1979 Thor Power Tool case, publishers blithely filled warehouses with extremely backlisty items like The Precipice and other titles listed on its back cover: The Fifth Pestilence by Aleksei Remizov or The Golovlyov Family by M. Saltykov-Schedrin. In fact, the 1960s and 70s were a golden age of a particular kind of intellectual publishing. In an age when copyrights actually expired after 56 years, and printing off a press run of a few hundred copies of some public-domain classic conferred some tax advantage, the backwaters of world literature were in some ways more accessible than in our digital age. All you had to do was send Hyperion Press $3.95 check or money order, and they'd send you back a paperback translation of Aleksei Pisemskii's One Thousand Souls. I wish I had lived then. My God, I did.

The 1977 Hyperion edition of The Precipice doesn't even list a translator. It's a photo-offset reprinting of a 1915 London edition by Hodder and Stoughton. A bit of detective work on WorldCat makes me mildly confident that the translator was one "M. Bryant," but I have no idea who M. Bryant was, nor do I know M. Bryant's given name or gender. Suffice to say that Hyperion was better at getting books out the door than surrounding them with bibliographical accoutrements.

Still, M. Bryant, whoever he/she was, was a pretty good translator – I mean at least in the sense of composing readable English fiction, of course. The old-fashioned translation (leaving the occasional French sentences in French, as was the convention in Constance Garnett's translations, for instance) conveys Goncharov's odd, affecting mix of complex Russian aristocratic social networks and eccentric, often very modern appreciation of the individual personalities at odd with society.

Most notable of all the battles between individual and society is that of Vera Vassilievna, the novel's heroine. She is courted by a free-thinking pariah named Mark Volokov. Well, she is courted by every man she meets, being the beautiful heiress heroine of a Russian novel. But the closest thing to a protagonist in the novel, her cousin Boris Raisky, is almost an Oblomov manqué: he's great at sitting around deciding what kind of art to pursue, but less at actually making any art, and still less good at living any kind of life, preferring to hang around Vera passive-aggressively in hopes she'll fall in love with him. Vera is also wooed by Tushin, "the Forester," who shoots guns and works hard chopping wood in his many hectares of woodlot.

Tushin is truly a mensch, but Mark – advanced in ideas, mercurial in habits, manipulative in money, careless with stuff you lend him – is the kind of rebel that Russian-novel women love to sleep with. And Vera does sleep with him, once, despite carrying around steamer-trunks full of religious scruples. The conventions of the mid-19th-century novel would seem to demand that she immediately throw herself in front of the nearest train. Few trains pass through the little community of Malinovka, it's true, but all Vera really has to do is proceed to the title topographical feature:

There were tragic memories connected with this precipice. In the lifetime of Boris's parents a man wild with jealousy, a tailor from the town, had killed his wife and her lover there in the midst of the thicket, and had then cut his own throat. The suicide had been buried on the spot where he had committed the crime. (33)
To paraphrase Chekhov, if you introduce a romantic suicide precipice on p.33, somebody better jump off it at some point in the novel. The wonder, and the great delicacy, of Goncharov's Precipice is that nobody actually does. Vera eventually loses her virginity to Mark, and regrets it even before doing it: she knows that his disdain for marriage is both a bold rebellion against inertial conventions and a reluctance to commit to her. She is "ruined," and roughly accurate rumors of her ruin spread through Malinkova, rumors that Vera confirms to family and friends. When she tells her "Grandmother" (I believe actually her great-aunt, but who knows in Russian novels) Tatiana Markovna about her ruination, Tatiana Markovna tells her not to worry so much – the same thing happened to her in her youth. These women are survivors; they're not about to go all Emma Bovary just because a local rake has enjoyed their favors.

The back cover of the Hyperion edition informs me that The Precipice is a depiction "of the conflicts between the old truths of the patriarchal society and the new truths of the socialist revolutionary movement." Remember that this was printed in 1977, when it was almost obligatory to talk about Russian literature in such terms. Mark Volokov is indeed one of the young radicals who populate 19th-century Russian novels; he'd be at home wandering off these pages into some of Dostoevsky's. But though he agrees with Proudhon that property is theft, and all that, he's neither particularly socialist not particularly truthful. Goncharov is interested in social commentary, and in The Precipice he sketches a hidebound, appearance-obsessed traditional community very well. But he also really is interested in psychology, and in relationships. Irrational, emotional human behavior is at the center of The Precipice, not some stick-figure novel-of-ideas clash between competing values.

Goncharov, Ivan. The Precipice. [Obryv, 1869. Translated by M. Bryant, 1915.] Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1977.