Saltykov had long been a prominent representative… – Сustom Literature essay


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Paranoia, and it did not appear in print until 1917. Political convictions of various sorts diminished the contemporary appreciation of Leskov's talent, but his innovative approach to language and narrative style exerted a major influence on such twentieth-century artists as Alexey Remizov, Eugene Zamyatin, and Boris Pilnyak.

Even more than in Leskov's work, political satire played a leading role in Mikhail Saltykov's prose of the 1880s. Saltykov had long been a prominent representative of the radical intelligentsia, and he continued to direct his critical eye on the major socio-political developments of his day, despite the 1884 closing of his major editorial outlet, the progressive journal Fatherland Notes. The satirical thrust of Saltykov's prose is evident in such cycles as Abroad (Za rubezhom, 1880-1), a caustic survey of the prevailing social order in France and Germany; Letters to Auntie (Pisma k tetenke, 1881-2), a series of epistolary exhortations to resist deceit and depression in Russia; A Contemporary Idyll (Sovremennaya idill-iya, 1877-83), a parodic vision of Russian society as represented in the activities around a St. Petersburg police station; and numerous skazki (fairy tales) written from 1880 to 1886. Saltykov was a master of "Aesopian language" - a method of circumventing the censorship by couching one's observations in complex, allegoric images decipherable only by a sophisticated reader. As a result, much of his satiric work has become nearly inaccessible to a modern reader because of its topicality and allusiveness. Some of Saltykov's skazki, however, retain their impact because of their expressive language and broad human relevance.

A prime target of Saltykov's fairy tales is a simplistic view of society and its problems. While defending the necessity of social change, the writer is dismayed over the pace at which such change occurs. Thus in "The Liberal" ("Liberal," 1885) he depicts a liberal dreamer who agrees to ever-greater compromises to influence those around him and eventually ends with nothing but "rubbish." Some of these stories create unrelievedly dark impressions. Even the Easter tale "Christ's Night" ("Khristova noch," 1886), in which Saltykov illuminates the compassion of the resurrected Christ for the downtrodden poor, concludes with a picture of a resurrected Judas condemned by Christ to wander the world "sowing discord, treachery, and dissension" down to the present day. Saltykov's language merits notice. He blends folk-tale


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Formulas with colloquial slang, the language of abstract philosophy, and foreign terms to fashion an unusual conglomerate that highlights the folly or wisdom of his characters.

Very different in tone are Saltykov's two prose cycles dealing more openly with Russian social issues - Trifles of Life (Melochi zhizni, 1886-7), and Old Days in Poshekhone (Poshekhonskaya starina, 1887-9). Written after the suppression of Fatherland Notes, Trifles of Life is one of the darkest works Saltykov ever created. He himself admitted in 1887 that his "humor had entirely disappeared, and it had always been [his] main strength." In this cycle Saltykov surveys the sociological and psychological make-up of numerous segments of Russian society, from priests and peasants to lawyers, journalists, and readers. No matter where he looks, he finds no indication that life has improved materially since the reforms of the 1860s. In the concluding sketch, "So and So" ("Imyarek"), the ailing writer's despair as he gazes upon the failed aspirations of the past attains a chilling depth. He concludes: "behind him trailed a heap of crumbs and trifles, while ahead lay nothing but solitude and neglect."

Saltykov followed this somber evaluation of the recent past with an equally gloomy depiction of relationships between land-owners and peasants of the pre-Reform era in Old Days in Poshekhone. Although ostensibly the family chronicle of a first-person narrator named Nikanor Zatrapezny (whose surname means "ordinary, average"), the narrative incorporates certain autobiographical elements as well. Through Zatrapezny's panoramic yet detailed account of gentry life the reader is immersed in a turbid stream of domestic tyranny, child abuse, and mistreatment of servants and peasants. As the narrator recounts his life story he comments on its larger significance, and in this way charges a personal document with broad social relevance. One is reminded of The Golovlyov Family, but this late work is devoid even of the infrequent rays of joy found in the earlier novel. From The Golovlyov Family to Old Days in Poshekhone Mikhail Saltykov fashioned a striking indictment of social and personal injustice that has earned him a unique place in nineteenth-century Russian literature.

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7 September 2014. Author: Criticism