The History of a Town 
by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, translated by I.P. Foote.
William Meeuws, 192 pp., £9, March 1980, 0 902672 33 9
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The French improved their lot at the end of the 18th century by chopping off their oppressors’ heads. Not long afterwards, the inhabitants of Glupov in Russia had a sadly different experience. They had enjoyed a period of unparalleled prosperity under a governor whose head was stuffed with truffles, when the marshal of the nobility, an irrepressible gourmand, brought back the bad time by literally swallowing the source of their contentment.

The author of this fable, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-89), was much concerned with heads, with the stuff inside them, and with their relationship to the body; and the discomfiting episode of the truffle-stuffed head reflects a profound and bleak analysis of the relationship of ruler to ruled in Russia. Saltykov – Shchedrin was his pen-name – was Russia’s leading satirist during a crucial period in her history. His literary output coincided roughly with the reign of Alexander II, an era which began with reform – notably, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 – and ended in a reaction against revolutionary activity which paved the way to the events of 1917. Saltykov saw that a few liberal measures were not curing Russia’s social ills: their roots went too deep into her autocratic history, were part of the structure of the state. A long and successful career in the civil service, bringing him close to the machinery of authority, may have contributed to his angry and pessimistic view of the system. At any rate, he gave it up for literature, and for 16 years edited the radical journal, Notes of the Fatherland.

Censorship meant that a lot of his satire took the form of fables and allegorical sketches, but – partly because of the topicality of this satirical work – he is known outside Russia mainly for his one long novel. The Golovlyov Family. It is commonly described as chronicling the decline of a landowning family – as it were, a sequel to War and Peace; and it has been suggested that it draws on Saltykov’s first-hand experience of that milieu, which would go a long way to explain his gloomy outlook: but to see it as social history or even as realistic novel is to miss the point. It’s certainly not about economic changes. Although Golovlyovs seek their fortune beyond the estate, they can and do retreat to it when the going gets rough. They come to various sticky ends through what might be called lack of character, yet their lack of character in another sense makes their troubles seem curiously unreal, and unaffecting, as would not be the case in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. They may be weak and dissolute, but that’s beside the point: the sense of spiritual malaise makes individual character, as well as concepts of time and place, appear irrelevant.

Life at Golovlyovo is strikingly characterised by its inhabitants’ casual use of verbal violence, yet the atmosphere of the place is one of stifling cosiness. ‘I’ll kill you!’ drops from the lips of the matriarch, Arina Petrovna, and her son is told: ‘She’ll eat you!’ This old dame is hard-hearted and obsessed with money, yet the chumminess with which she fusses round a pregnant servant, keeping the menfolk out of these mysteries, is as much as any dim-witted knocked-up serf girl could wish. Her son Porfiry, who becomes the master, is known in the bosom of the family as Yudushka (little Judas) and, frequently, as ‘bloodsucker’: he lives off the labour of others, but he doesn’t do any ostensible harm, keeping to his nest, drinking nice hot cups of tea, saying his prayers, a little accounting and fornication on the side, while he keeps up an unending homily about Christian morality and the joys of family life.

The boredom of this life and his incessant insistent empty talk drive Yudushka’s family and servants away. Head of the household, at the last he is alone, entirely cut off from the others. When gambling ruins his son’s army career Yudushka refuses to help him, invoking the ‘authorities’ who have decreed that the lad be punished. Even Arina Petrovna has enough at this point, and curses Yudushka. He reacts to this, because he reacts to formulas – a mother’s curse is a bad thing: but has no sympathy for his son’s predicament. Hypocrites pretend what they don’t feel, and in this category Yudushka is Russia’s gold medallist: but the real point is that he is aware of nothing, except superficial forms. His existence is a matter of card games, meal-time rituals and word-patterns.

The sense of that awful divorce from life is unforgettable. Not so much a novel as a nightmare, The Golovlyov Family is not typical of the work that made its author’s reputation in Russia, and we must now thank I.P. Foote for bringing us the first English version of The History of a Town, Saltykov’s satirical masterpiece, and for reproducing so accurately its calculated stylistic effects.

The History of a Town, purportedly a chronicle rediscovered and retold by the narrator, begins with the incompetent tribe of Headbeaters seeking a prince to bring order into their lives. Disdained by several on account of their idiocy and deciding to find a stupid prince whom they would let eat honey cakes and who would not bother them, they end up subject to a clever prince, who dubs them ‘Glupovites’ (Stupid Folk) for wishing this bondage on themselves. The story obviously recalls the legendary invitation made by the Russian tribes to certain Scandinavian princes in the ninth century, and is the first of many historical parallels, most of which led Saltykov’s contemporaries to believe, when the work was published in 1869-70, that it was a send-up of Russia’s more recent history. They could easily see, for instance, in the town-governess Amalya Stockfisch the German-born Catherine II; while a solemn progress across the town common by Governor Ferdyshchenko, ‘former orderly to Prince Potemkin’, would have been understood as casting ridicule on Potemkin and Catherine’s progress through Russia. These and many other allusions are elucidated by I.P. Foote in his editorial matter, but he also points to Saltykov’s own statement of intention: that he was not writing a parody of recent Russian history so much as pointing out the basic evils of the country’s system. If The History of a Town’s relevance were exclusively to the 18th century, and its satirical power depended only on transparent allusions, it would scarcely have been worth translating. Its significance lies in its conception of the relationship between authority and the masses, with implications which would not necessarily be lost on Saltykov’s readers in the Soviet Union, where he is officially approved as having condemned the Czarist autocracy.

The chronicler ends his introduction with a fine rhetorical flourish. Glupov, like Rome, was built on seven hills: ‘The only difference is that ... Rome was infected with turbulence. Glupov – with meekness; in Rome the plebeians ran riot, in Glupov it has been the authorities.’ The Glupovites are ‘dazed’ and childlike. A new governor finds them after a bad patch sucking their fists and ‘covered with hair’: one might mistake them momentarily for cuddly toys, but the activities of the governors which give the story its wild impetus plunge the Glupovites into a macabre, erotic and sinister world reminiscent of the nursery only in the primitiveness of its impulses.

The target of Saltykov’s satire is not just the individual peccadilloes of the governors, but also the communal connivance of the townsfolk, who are so busy pushing each other into the pond and off the bell-tower in the name of ‘authority’ that they scarcely ever question the nature or rights of that authority. They are simply material for bureaucratic processing through ‘measures’. One governor, finding there are not ‘measures’ enough, seeks to promulgate new ‘second-class’ laws, appropriate to Glupov’s status, and, denied permission (it’s not in his superiors’ rule-book), has to settle for regulating the baking of pies.

This type of satire, reminiscent of Chekhov’s juvenilia, was a commonplace of Russian journalism. That Saltykov could do better, and use the grotesque as brilliantly as Gogol, is demonstrated in the story of the governor who, unnervingly, utters only two phrases: ‘I’ll break you!’ and ‘I’ll not have it!’ Then his head is found empty on his desk, ‘like some flamboyant paperweight’: it contained a musical-box mechanism.

But Saltykov’s most powerful pictures of repression for repression’s sake have a grim single-mindedness absent in Gogol. The ideal of the last governor, Ugryum-Burcheev, is to see everybody regimented in military camps: the uniformity of life there and his system of spies – based on the real-life activities of Arakcheev – provide direct inspiration for modern satires on the totalitarian state. Ugryum-Burcheev’s means are not justified by any end: the shadowy figures marching through his mind’s eye (it is an image of extraordinary power) move towards an abyss. Ugryum-Burcheev himself has no suppositions about anything at all, but recently, comments the narrator, ‘the idea of combining the principle of the straight line with the principle of bestowing universal happiness has been developed into an administrative theory of some complexity ... not devoid of certain ideological niceties.’ The ominous implications of these words are now obvious.

Less obvious is Saltykov’s use of disconcerting shifts in style – for example, from deliberate explicitness to a reassuring blandness and back again – in order to convey an impression of insecurity. He handles superbly the literary and official language familiar to his readers. In accomplished parodies he satirises the whole spirit of chronicles, as in the comment, apropos the charging Headbeaters drowning in a bog: ‘Many showed zeal for their native land.’ He also has Gogol’s trick of semantic manipulation, but unlike Gogol can be erotic or crude: two aspiring town-governesses on the rampage ‘ate babies, cut off women’s breasts and ate them too’. At one moment he seems to be writing a fable, at the next a realistic novel, as when the mob corners one governor’s mistress and real fear breaks in, followed immediately by a reversion to the chronicler’s unctuous tones; or when a man is trapped in a burning shed, and the cavorting townsfolk suddenly see a hideous dance of death. Unlike Gogol, Saltykov never gives the impression that he himself scarcely distinguished fantasy from reality, and one result is that his narrative has moments of genuine pathos. Where he was critical of the system, it is possible to discern intense feeling in the dense, allusive prose which the censorship made necessary.

The History of a Town may be read on different levels, but each element is inseparable from the others and the double-think of the style reflects the world it describes. At one point an inhabitant of Glupov decides to investigate the heretical idea that frogs might have souls like men – and they do, he says, ‘but only a small one, and not immortal’. The spirit of this remark – that the essential nature of things is subject to infinite qualifications and bureaucratic adjustments – pervades Saltykov’s world of empty heads and mindless bodies.

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