Tuesday, April 29, 2014

business as usual

Today is the feast day of St Catherine of Siena, who is more or less the patron saint of my novel Go Home, Miss America. I had no plans to write about St Catherine or Go Home, Miss America. I was going to write a post about Benito Perez Galdos' novel My Friend Manso (starts strong, continues as a great novel, begins to dissolve a bit toward the end, but the final chapter is excellent; maybe I'll write something more useful than that in the coming days), and I was thinking I'd write about how Ralph Waldo Emerson is known in America as a sort of kindly grandfather figure in love with the splendor of nature but if you read his essays (I'm reading The Portable Emerson now) you discover that he was just another of those 19th-century Will to Power guys, who privileged himself and his own needs above those of everyone else, a guy who hated the idea of charity ("Why should I feed the poor? Are they my poor?") and set the tone for an America which feels free to act on the global stage with no regard for any other nation. In other words, a lunatic. You should read the bit in "Self-Sufficiency" (by which he means something more like "self-regard" or "self-worship" than anything about paying one's own way) where he gives God a job description. Koo-koo-ca-choo, as we say at my house. The Thompson Gale Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes all of this as Emerson's "torturous metaphysical hallucination." I laughed out loud when I read that. But I'm not posting about Grampa Emerson, not today. Today I'm posting to say that I continue to query literary agents regarding my novel Go Home, Miss America. I'm also revising a book called Mona in the Desert which seems pretty good, and I'm tinkering with the first chapter or so of a book called The Transcendental Detective before I send it off to a publisher for possible rejection. We'll see. Anyway, business as usual, I guess. The detective novel has a lot about Immanuel Kant as a crime-fighter. There's a sequel in which the detective comments on the moral bankruptcy of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics when she's not interrogating circus animals.


  1. Have you read the Michael Gregorio written novels also featuring Kant?
    1. I have not. Is Kant an actual character in the novels? That would be cool. A friend of mine wants to write a series of mysteries featuring Franz Josef Haydn as the detective. They'd be called The Kapellmeister Mysteries. "Got a problem? Call the Kapellmeister!"

    2. An aged Kant is present in two or three that I read and reviewed. The authors behind the pen name are husband and wife team. I interviewed them for the now defunct Mystery News several years ago. The mystery novels feature Hanno Stefanis, a Kant protege. I recommend them.

    3. I have a friend who read one of those. She reads Kant in German. She was very disappointed in the use of Kant. "You wanted him to be the detective?" I asked. "No, I wanted him to be the killer!"

    4. That would be excellent. "How do you know that corpse exists? And if it does, how do you know that corpse is experiencing what you call death? Where's your a priori experience of the experience of that corpse, eh? No, gentlemen, I deny everything."
  2. Glad to hear about your projects, Scott. Go, go, go! I found this post about not being about anything to be fairly educational for what it was or was not.
    1. I owe you an email! This post is all about the spaces between being and nothingness. And circus animals.
  3. Koo-koo-ca-choo, indeed! I fully admit I don't know much about Emerson, but now I have a healthy interest in reading a bit more of him to discover this quite distasteful attitude of his. I want an email too, Mr. Bailey. Or maybe I should write one to you ...

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Today, more or less I suppose and why not, I'm celebrating the hundredth birthday of my violin, pictured above. Back when I acquired it on this day in 2007, Mighty Reader gave the instrument the nickname "Czech Hussy" because not only was it built (sometime in 1914) by a Czech luthier, this violin also alienated my affections from the serviceable Chinese violin I owned at the time. The Czech Hussy is a fine violin, not a world-class concert-quality instrument maybe, but certainly a pretty good fiddle. With the exception of the house, it's the most expensive object I own. I don't know if the man who carved all those bits of wood, glued them all together and varnished them in the shape of a violin had any idea his handiwork would still be in use a century later. I am happy that it is.

Violin shop, Saska Street, Prague, October 2013. Photo by Mighty Reader

I have a fondness for handmade objects that are both useful and beautiful. Mighty Reader can tell you about my obsession with small boxes; I have rarely met a small, handmade box that I did not covet. A small handmade box that also makes music is a pretty impressive thing. About twenty-three years ago I had the chance to buy a 3-octave clavichord from a guy on the street on Capitol Hill here in Seattle. He wanted about a hundred bucks for it but unfortunately I did not buy the thing. It had a nice tone, strung with brass. The guy had built it himself and really needed money. I remember the keys were mahogany and ebony, very lovely. The case was unfinished and made of maple, I think. I hope someone owns that clavichord, and plays it regularly.

Me and Josef Haydn's fortepiano, Vienna, October 2013. Photo by Mighty Reader

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"one of the least important things about the book"

Mel at The Reading Life has for some reason posted an interview with me here. Mel is a cool guy. As usual, I come across as pushy and arrogant. Now why could that be? No idea, really.

That's all I got. It's raining again. The ospreys are back at the nest on Harbor Island.


  1. Do not be so hard on yourself about coming across "as pushy and arrogant." We all must remember than the printed word, especially in the blogosphere, does not very well portray a person's tone, attitude, or personality. Keep smiling! Ospreys and rain are worth a smile.
  2. The thing is, I am alleged to have some sort of above-average linguistic skills, as a writer. Anyway, the poetry-on-sale post was more fun. I love being interviewed because I am exceeding vain, but I am ashamed of my vanity.
    1. If your worst sin is being vain in interviews, I think you are doing all right. That was a very interesting interview--opinionated people are often good subjects. I find that agree with you in most things, although I must confess that I do indeed get more writing done while living in a Yankee snowdrift and avoiding the great outdoors as much as possible than if still living in the South. 

    2. Vanity is hardly my worst sin.

      I can't imagine living in the South again. I've become acclimated to the North. Last time I was in Georgia, the humidity nearly killed me.

    3. I am often down South in July and August, and up here it the excruciating winters. I really can't fathom the madness of it. But I do get to Georgia for funerals sometimes, and am always grateful when relatives choose not to die in high summer--although I imagine they feel more like it then.

      Well, I expect you are mortal, so what else could you say?
  3. This was all by email, right? You didn't go to Manila? Maybe I'll try to interview you when the next book comes out. A creature of my age, all of my question will begin "What is the deal with..."

    I didn't pick up "pushy & arrogant," except when you were asked about Frasier. i could tell that there was a lot packed into that one word answer.
    1. I was near apoplexy, my fingers trembling above the keyboard as I forced out that "no."

    2. Well, I pity your child, Daphne. And I pity any good
      Manchester girl that comes here to this vile coffee-
      swilling Sodom and lets it change her like it's changed you.
      Daphne: But I haven't changed! Really, we're not the awful people
      you think we are.
      Frasier: No, the truth is we've been lying to you all night!
      Daphne: Yes!
      Clive: Well, I don't care to be lied to anymore. Goodbye, Daphne,

    3. That was all meaningless to me because I really have only the vague notion that Frasier is t.v. I could be wrong. Definitely weak on certain corners of pop culture.
  4. Amateur Reader- I think Manila might come across a bit rough to a Seattle resident, even one that dislikes Frazier!
    1. You forget that not only is possession of marijuana legal in Seattle, so is the carrying of concealed firearms. At the farmers' market a month or so ago, some guy was packing a 9mm. I assume he was afraid someone would try to boost his organic potatoes or jack his recumbent bike. But Seattle folk are tough, urban folk. Do not mess with us.

      Also, thank you again for the interview. I repeat that you do writers (and readers) a great service with your blog.

    2. Nice to know you can be stoned and armed, both legal, at the same time. 

    3. That's progressive politics for you!
  5. I wouldn't have described that as "pushy and arrogant." For one thing, you call yourself an idiot. Above-average linguistic skills are not enough. You have to be a complete pig. You have to refer to yourself as "one." Interview very nice though.
    1. One likes to occasionally cast one's pearls before the teeming swine and bask in their wide-eyed look of adoring but nonetheless repulsive bewilderment.

      How was that?

    2. Perhaps "bewildered but nonetheless repulsive adoration" is better.

    3. Better. "Repulsive adoration" is very pretty.
  6. I quite enjoyed the interview, Scott! Made me want to read "To The Lighthouse" again, and visit Seattle again, possibly at the same time.
    1. Well, what's stopping you? Aside from time and money, that is?

      I'm happy to see a release notice for If I Forget You! I will buy a copy!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Down and Out in the Garden of Eden, or Last Thoughts on "What Is To Be Done?"

I have no idea what book the original readers of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 novel What is to be Done? thought they were reading. When I learn about the reception of the novel among Russian revolutionaries, I am baffled. I suppose we all read into books what we hope to find, and the revolutionaires of the latter 19th century saw a call to action, a spur to overthrow rather than to reform. Perhaps it's just the distance of 152 years that makes Chernyshevsky's concerns seem naive and rather quaint instead of urgent and something upon which a sweeping social change could be built. Vladimir Lenin claimed that What is to be Done? "ploughed him up." I just can't see it, kids. Certainly the novel (which, I am led to believe, only made it past the tsar's censors with some luck and possibly ironic help from the state itself) calls for changes, most especially for the liberation of women from the patriarchal limits of traditional society. Certainly Chernyshevsky alludes to the problem of the serfs, tying that question to the question of American slavery (this novel was written just before the outbreak of the Civil War but after some fierce battles had already been fought in the American Midwest about the geographic limits of slave-holding territory), and certainly Chernyshevsky mentions Uncle Tom's Cabin in the last section of the novel, implying that serfdom is as morally reprehensible as Negro slavery is, and also implying that the repression of women is slavery. And there's more political speech squirming along all through the book. But in my reading, this is not really a political book.

I cannot help but feel that What is to be Done? is primarily wish-fulfillment fantasy, a novel in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky (a frustrated and socially awkward young intellectual whose dreams of teaching at the university level have been quashed because of his politics, a married man whose wife is unconcerned with social issues and wants primarily to be furnished with a comfortable bourgeois life, an essayist and editor of a literary magazine who finds himself imprisoned on trumped-up charges) attempts to create a fictional world in which he personally would be happy. Chernyshevsky is obviously in love with Vera, the liberated woman. The book is written so that Vera can be liberated. Chernyshevsky wants to liberate his real-life wife Olga, but apparently Olga had no real wish to be liberated, educated, empowered and employed in meaningful work. Chernyshevsky's male intellectual radical characters are also clearly stand-ins for the author, and the author makes sure that all of these characters have happy endings.

That happy ending is so false, so clumsy. The important work all takes place around page 300, when Vera is given her freedom by her first husband, Dmitry. After that, Chernyshevsky has no real idea where to go with his novel. He spends a lot of energy (and a lot of pages) explaining how important it is that Vera has been freed, though society does not yet allow her full freedom (as evidenced when agents of the tsar take Vera's new husband aside and warn him that Vera's dress shop has been given a name that the tsar would not like, a name that references French revolutionary literature, and Vera bows to the pressure and changes the shop's name). Vera has an involved dream showing the historical process by which woman will be freed and given compass to act in her own interests, though as Tom pointed out last week, Vera will likely have a lot more dreams before that ultimate and complete freedom is granted. So Chernyshevsky gives us a Vera/Olga who could conceivably lead a useful and productive and liberated life in 1863 if she so desired, and then he's stuck. What next? What next? A new character is introduced, Katya, daughter of a wealthy man who wants to do something with her life. She starts a sewing collective patterned upon Vera's work. Vera's first husband comes back into the book, equipped with a Dickensian false identity, gets a job running a factory and marries Katya. He and Katya settle down next door to Vera and Vera's second husband. Vera is now a medical doctor. The two couples entertain lots of young intellectual radicals, have a swell time. Everyone is smart and educated and considerate and working toward the ultimate social good (which is where all Russia is a land in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky would be happy and comfortable). All of this action is essentially more explanation of the importance of Vera's emancipation. What next? What next? None of this is leading anywhere new, for scores of pages. Finally, Vera and Katya and their husbands host a winter party, complete with sleigh rides. On one sleigh is a young woman dressed all in black. It is Olga, Olga Chernyshevsky. She wears mourning because her beloved husband is in prison, writing the novel she now inhabits. Olga is happy to share the company of intellectual radicals and she sings songs predicting the ultimate liberation of all people. Finally, her husband, the Nikolai Chernyshevsky who is writing the novel he now fully inhabits, walks into the final chapter, kisses his Olga, predicts a revolution will take place in 1865, and blows the audience a kiss. Curtain, bows, applause, flowers.

The last quarter of the novel is a mess, is what I'm saying. It reveals itself to be the author's personal fantasy, a fantasy that becomes a tragedy for the modern reader who is able to learn that Chernyshevsky is not freed from prison after all. He's sentenced to 18 years hard labor. He only serves seven years of the sentence before he is exiled to southern Russia where he lives out his life in poverty, only seeing his beloved materialistic Olga once in all this time. The 1865 revolution doesn't come. Nikolai Chernyshevsky dies in exile, aged 61, in 1889. Somehow his novel, the only novel he wrote and the last significant literary work to come from his pen, becomes a rallying point for the radicals of Russia, who do rise up and paint the east red. Like I say, I am not at all sure what book they thought they were reading. But somehow, desperate shy defeated Nikolai Chernyshevsky became a hero, an influential novelist, a man who went down in history.

Today I'm recovering from the flu, and I've spent a good chunk of time not thinking about Mr Chernyshevsky, instead reading Rebecca West's 1918 novella The Return of the Soldier. It's a small masterpiece, is that book.


  1. Amateur Reader (Tom)April 15, 2014 at 9:15 PM
    I had been keeping up but this was not such a good weekend for reading, so you pulled way ahead. Or perhaps I was balking, remembering what was in waiting for me after Vera's dream.

    Maybe I will write a little bit about the book's reception, all pinched from Joseph Frank - he knows what book they were reading. I have been reading the book the way you have, although I have the excuse that I am under Nabokov's influence. I do not believe you have read The Gift? It is almost as if you have.
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 15, 2014 at 9:51 PM
      No, I've not read The Gift yet. I really want to see that Chernyshevsky chapter now.

      I hope you do write about this book. I thought I was going to be riding your coattails. But yeah, reception would be interesting to read about. I mean, they must've thought he was kidding, right? Abandon Petersburg and Moscow to build the agrarian paradise along the Black Sea, filled with shining aluminum furniture? What was in that prison water, anyway?
  2. marly youmansApril 16, 2014 at 12:29 PM
    Completely fascinating and illuminating journey through the book. That doesn't mean I will read it, of course.

    Perhaps they all stopped around p. 300... I always want to do something like that to "David Copperfield." As soon as he goes off to the "proper" school, I know it's downhill.
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 16, 2014 at 2:10 PM
      Maybe there are a lot more readers like me than I thought: I can tell you the middle of lots of novels but draw a blank when I get to the final act. That's convenient for me as a re-reader. As a writer, that makes me put a lot of effort into the middles of my own books, I think. Or perhaps it makes me a middling reader/writer. I have not figured that out yet.

      There is no compelling reason for you to read What is to be Done? except to compare it to other books. I might have a different opinion after I re-read Notes from Underground, but I doubt it.
    2. marly youmansApril 17, 2014 at 8:09 PM
      I'm always glad to have a bad memory when I reread a favorite book...

      You don't read for plot, so why should it matter about the final act?

      I hope the flu is gone!
  3. RTApril 16, 2014 at 4:15 PM
    I cannot say anything sensible about what you are reading or what you are saying, but I can -- with full commitment to the sentiment -- wish you a speedy recovery from the dreaded flu. Ah, those viruses are amazing, aren't they? Tiny, microscopic critters can make us miserable. They can destroy us. We are humbled by them. But we can fight them. So, fight the good fight! Get well soon!

    BTW . . . I look forward to what you have to say about Notes from Underground. When I read it, I was mesmerized. Is that too strong of a word? Perhaps. But I really was blown away by it. Enjoy!
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 16, 2014 at 4:34 PM
      Thanks for the exhortation to fight the good fight! I sometimes hope that a draw is my best chance. Two months ago the flu got me into the hospital. I am trying to have better luck this time out.

      I've read Notes twice already, once about 25 years ago (maybe longer ago than that), and again about eight years ago. So it will be interesting to see what I think.
  4. RTApril 16, 2014 at 4:37 PM
    Repeat readings are always adventures. Those readings have a way of "correcting" our first impressions in interesting ways. I will stay tuned for whenever you comment about that little gem of a book.
  5. Amateur Reader (Tom)April 16, 2014 at 6:51 PM
    End of April, I'll get writing at the end of the month. I don't like to write seriously about a book until I have finished it. I think of this as training, but I can also think of some less flattering words, like neurosis.

    Now, RT's word, "mesmerized" - that sounds about right.

    Now I will go read a chunk of the end of Chernyshevsky's novel while listening to the Jackson 5's Greatest Hits, which I hope will cheer me onwards.
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 16, 2014 at 9:08 PM
      Easy as 1-2-3.
    2. scott g.f.baileyApril 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM
      I have found, to my surprise, that I most enjoy writing about novels while I'm in the thick of reading them, while I'm caught up in the author's web of tricks. When I'm done, my enthusiasm is always tempered with the urge toward evaluation, which acts as a wet blanket on my initial joy of the reading experience. So I try to write while the flame is still burning, as it were. Otherwise, I find myself doing little but summarizing and forgetting to mention the really brilliant or surprising parts of the book.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"He behaved quite admirably once the suffering began." The madness of Chernyshevsky

There is a big scene about 75% of the way through What is to be Done? It's the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortess prison and began the book. This is the scene that launched What is to be Done? into its place as the most influential Russian novel of the 19th century. There are a couple of things going on in this scene, or possibly I should say this section, as it's actually made up of several scenes and a great deal of backstory. Wait, let's just map it out:

The novel opens in Moscow, where an unidentified man checks into a hotel, has a meal and then walks to the middle of a bridge and apparently kills himself with a revolver. This action is presented out of chronological order, as it depicts events that occur about six years or so into the story. Chernyshevsky--almost but not quite apologetically--uses this narrative cliche to hook the reader and then tells the story of Vera, Dmitry and Alexander up to that opening scene, at which point he interrupts the narrative to introduce a new character, Rakhmetov (or, as we call him at my house, Saint Rocky Socialist Christ). Rakhmetov is given a detailed, twenty-page biography including a geneology going back many generations. He's a sort of revolutionary superhero, an uberman, a lunatic, an aesthete, a machine in the shape of a bodybuilder with a pile of inherited money in the bank. He's so many things, in fact, that there is no critical agreement about who or what he really is, or how Chernyshevsky felt about him. Either Saint Rocky Socialist Christ is a holy fool, or he's the coming soviet hero (as Lenin thought), or he's a very bad idea and an example of the kind of guilt-ridden nobleman with no real ideals that Chernyshevsky despised in real life. Opinion is quite mixed. See Drozd, Verhoeven and Kharkhordin for details. Verhoeven points out, for example, that Rakhmetov might never come back to Russia for the revolution; he might disappear into America after his tour of Europe. We have no way of knowing, because in What is to be Done?, after Rakhmetov's long and detailed history, he shows up at Vera Palovna's house to lecture her for a couple of hours, delivering a couple of letters and The Theme Speech which allows her and the reader to go forth and be fully and completely liberated. And then, Saint Rocky disappears from the novel forever. After all this action, Chernyshevsky lectures the reader (especially the "perspicacious" reader) for a couple of pages, chiding the reader's stupidity, and explaining the dramatic/artistic purpose of the Rakhmetov character, some or all of which claims may be lies. Chernyshevsky has already written himself into a previous scene with Rakhmetov wherein the author admits that he is lying about something. We do not learn what that something is, unless (as I suspect) Chernyshevsky is lying about Rakhmetov. It's hard to say, because the arguments point in all sorts of directions.

The craziness of the novel has reached a fever pitch here. The pages following the lecture to the perspicacious reader include letters that attempt to further explain The Theme Speech, and then some flashbacks to further explain the further explanations. I won't quote any of that here, because it won't help. Chernyshevsky sits in his cell at Peter and Paul Fortess, squirming on the edge of his uncomfortable wooden chair, pulling on his beard and wondering what on earth he could write next, what more can he say to demonstrate the importance of Vera's absolute liberation. Oh, he has ideas, and he will write them all down (I almost typed "writhe them all down," which is nearly accurate, I think), and the lunacy and desperation of What is to be Done? ratchets into higher gear. I can't wait to see what the last 50 pages hold as Chernyshevsky launches these characters and his imaginary self into the imaginary future of Russia. I think I should find something to hang onto.


  1. marly youmansApril 10, 2014 at 2:57 PM
    “Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,' the Mock Turtle replied, 'and the different branches of arithmetic--ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision.”
    1. scott g.f.baileyApril 10, 2014 at 3:05 PM
      There's some pillowtalk about statistics after the flashbacks, between off-stage amorous activity, very sweet. Some long passages of this novel could well have been written by Mr Carroll's Mock Turtle.
    2. marly youmansApril 10, 2014 at 4:25 PM
      Oh. My. Pillowtalk about statistics.

      I have enjoyed your commentary on this one very much, despite doubting my readiness to tackle such a book!
    3. scott g.f.baileyApril 14, 2014 at 9:19 PM
      Tom and I read it so you don't have to.
  2. Amateur Reader (Tom)April 11, 2014 at 9:20 PM
    Some other parts could have been written by Ayn Rand.

    Otherwise, I will just say that we are reading the same book. Sometimes, you read someone and think, "Is that the same book I read?" Not here.

    Fortunately Vera's 115th Dream is still to come, or the rest of the book would be in danger of anti-climax.
    1. marly youmansApril 12, 2014 at 5:06 AM
      Your twitter arrow pointing here was amusing--had to look and see if it was yet another bout of Chernyshevsky!
    2. scott g.f.baileyApril 14, 2014 at 9:22 PM
      The goal of collectivism in What is to be Done? does seem to be the ability to maintain a nice apartment, have tea twice a day and entertain one's friends in the evenings and on holidays. Chernyshevsky's situational morality doesn't seem like a solid foundation for utopia, unless one is Chernyshevsky.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Confessions and footnotes in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?

I'm about halfway through Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be Done?, and because I've recently re-read the Confessions of St Augustine, I'll start this post with a couple of confessions. First, one from Chernyshevsky:
Yes, the first pages of my story reveal that I have a very poor opinion of my public. I employed the conventional ruse of a novelist: I began my tale with some striking scenes taken from the middle or the end, and I shrouded them with mystery. You, the public, are kind, very kind indeed, and therefore undiscriminating and slow-witted. You can't be relied upon to know from the first few pages whether or not a book is worth reading. You have poor instincts that are in need of assistance...I was obliged to bait my hook with striking scenes. Don't condemn me for it: you deserve all the blame...No mysteries lie ahead: you will always know the outcome of every situation at least twenty pages in advance. And, to begin with, I shall even tell you the outcome of the entire novel: it will end happily, amidst wine and song.
And now one from me: At least so far, I am enjoying this book, but that's because I'm reading it as a comedy, which is not, I'm sure, how Chernyshevsky intended the novel to be read. But the thing is, it's almost a pretty good novel despite the fact that it's not really a novel at all; it's actually a persuasive essay in the vague form of a romance. An essay about materialism, feminism, and utopian socialism. I also confess that I'm having a hard time structuring this little essay about the book, because the book is actually a few separate forces lashed together, all pulling in different directions:
  • The argument for a utopian state, which is an argument against then-current socioeconomic conditions in Russia,
  • The surface structure of a romantic novel, the story of Vera and Dmitri who fall in love and marry and go on to attempt to live as utopians,
  • Chernyshevsky's postmodern assault on the form of the novel itself, presented under the guise of his being a novice novelist, and
  • [Bonus literary element] A possible response to Ivan Turgenev's portrayal of young intellectuals in the novel Fathers and Sons.
The argumentative essay is alleged to be the most important aspect of this book, so we'll dispense with that. I now elucidate for you the author's primary concerns during the first 150 or so pages: Money, especially the unequal distribution thereof. Middle-class values. Class awareness and the inherent hypocrisies arising therefrom. The acquisition of wealth via deceit and other inhumane behavior. The commodification of people, including one's children. Patriarchy. Chernyshevsky is wise enough to leave out a discussion of hereditary nobility and the right to rule, though kings (yes, French kings) are mocked and a strong vein of anarchism trots along with the story.

There are lectures from characters (and many directly from the constantly-intruding author) on human greed, history, materialism and utopian socialism, that last for pages and pages. I assume this sort of thing will only increase as the novel progresses, which might make for some heavy going. But at this point, as I say, I'm enjoying What is to be Done? The story of Vera and Dmitri is a pretty good story. Yes, there's actually a love story.

The romantic heroine is Vera Pavlova, daughter of a low-level government clerk/apartment manager named Pavel Rozalsky and his wife Marya. Vera has had "an ordinary upbringing," by which Chernyshevsky means that Vera has been surrounded by dishonest, greedy people her whole life so far (19 years). The foremost dishonest characters in Vera's life are of course her parents. Pavel and Marya have each managed to put by tens of thousands of rubles between them, some of Pavel's got by cheating the landlord for whom he works, but most of their savings were got by lending money at usurous rates or acting as pawnbrokers. These clever characters don't, however, limit their gainful activities to loansharking and pawnbrokering when they hear opportunity knocking. At one point Marya allows a woman to use a spare room for a few weeks, possibly during her final confinement and the birth of an illegitimate child. It's unclear, but something illegal, immoral, and probably downright evil was going on for a few days under Marya's direction.

Vera wishes to escape from the corrupt home of her parents. Her options are all pretty bleak. She can marry the landlord (a cad who falsely claimed to his pals that he'd already made Vera his mistress) although she's refused his offers many times already. She can become a governess, but certainly not in one of the better families if she's running away from an engagement. She can throw herself out the window and end it all. Or, she can marry romantic hero Dmitri Lopukhov, a medical student who tutors Vera's young brother Fedya once a week. Dmitri is in love with Vera, just as Vera is in love with Dmitri, this love springing suddenly forth when they talk briefly about egalitarian utopianism at a dance. Yes, you feel the heat pulsing on the page in that scene, Reader. Later there is a Socratic dialogue about materialism that made my palms quite damp. Needless to say, Vera accepts Dmitri's proposal and they run off to be secretly wed. Vera moves into an apartment with Dmitri and he gets a job as a translator while Vera starts a sewing collective. That's the first half of the novel, more or less. All of this is pretty fast-paced, and much of it is wildly funny in that typical 19th-century Russian ironical manner.

Chernyshevsky manages to maintain this ironical comic tone when he's not earnestly editorializing or lecturing the reader. So it's easy to read What is to be Done? as comedy, but certainly I'm laughing at a lot of sections the author intended as portrayals of idealistic utopians or condemnation of greed and inhumanity. My favorite scene so far is the one where Vera visits Julie (a fallen Frenchwoman with connections to Petersburg's young fashionable rich persons) to drum up business for the sewing collective Vera has started:
But soon Lopukhov arrived. Julie was instantly transformed into a respectable society lady, endowed with the sternest tact. She didn't maintain this pose for long, however. After congratulating Lopukhov on having so beautiful a wife, she became excited again. "Yes," she cried, "we must celebrate your marriage." She ordered an impromptu breakfast, complete with champagne. Verochka had to drink half a glass to toast her marriage, half a glass to her new establishment, and half a glass to Julie's health. Her head started spinning. Then she and Julie began to shout, yell, and raise a rumpus. Julie pinched Verochka, jumped up, and began to run around, chased by Verochka. They ran through all the rooms, bouncing on chairs. Lopukhov sat and laughed. It came to an end when Julie decided to boast about her strength. "I can lift you into the air with one hand." "Oh, no, you can't." They started to struggle, but fell onto the sofa; they no longer tried to stand up, but merely continued to shout and giggle; soon they both fell asleep.
What, no pillow fight? Oh, girls. You know how they are: you can lead them to socialism but you can't make them into men. Lopukhov sat and laughed. Chernyshevsky intends an egalitarian, feminist propaganda with this book, but he can't help seeing women as sort of cute and frivolous. Lopukhov, Vera's husband and savior (though he has only the most pure materialistic reasons for saving Vera, reasons so selfish she can't help but admire them), is not going to appear in a scene that shows him acting like a clown or giggling with his pals. Lopukhov and his friends tend to lecture one another, or give joint lectures to the reader.

Because--as he repeatedly tells us--he's not really writing a roman, Chernyshevsky plays with the form of the novel: he takes the typical 19th-century romance as his model, and shoves a political/social discourse just under the skin of that romance, and crams it so full that the romance skin splits open and the pure polemics come tumbling out. But that's easy, a low degree of difficulty. More entertaining is how he maintains that he's giving the reader a true story, and so the narrative can't follow the typical rules of a novel, because we are reading an account of what really happened and no, it is not a romance, you:
I'm recounting this affair the way it happened, rather than the way needed to establish my artistic reputation. As a novelist I very much regret that I wrote several pages in which I stooped to the level of vaudeville>
Nobody believes either of those claims. Chernyshevsky does some clever spoiling while making fun of the romantic novel ("Dear reader, you know of course, well in advance that there will be a conversation between Verochka and Lopukhov which will clear up the misunderstanding between them and that they will fall in love. That goes without saying.") and meanwhile he wants you to know that What is to be Done? is serious business:
I'm forewarning the reader about everything...I'm not the sort of author whose every word hides some kind of surprise. I describe what people thought and what they did, and that's all. If some action, conversation or internal monologue is needed to characterize a person or situation, then I'll relate it, even if it should prove to have no influence on the future course of my novel.
I don't know if that's intended to be funny (I expect it isn't), but I laugh whenever I run across these sorts of passages (which is often in this book). If someone had edited out all of the lecturing and the propagandist asides, this would've been a good, second-tier Russian novel. As it is, I don't know what it is. Neither fish nor fowl, and clearly (even at only halfway along), not a success as a hybrid form. Yet it was possibly the most influential late 19th-century novel in Russia. Possibly it earned that place by its role as bibliography; book titles and names of authors who treat the "modern problems" and offer up utopian solutions fly out of What is to be Done? in every chapter. I am surprised that so many of the utopian socialist ideas come not from Russia but from Western Europe, especially from France. The footnotes in this edition make pretty great reading.

[Bonus literary element] What is to be Done? is alleged to be a rebuttal, I guess, against claims made by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons. The only possible reference I've seen to Turgenev comes on page 126:
...that was the way it used to be, gentlemen; not any more. That may be the way it still is, but not among the group of our young people who are now referred to as "modern youth." These young people, gentlemen, are somewhat strange.
It is evident from the context that "strange" here means "not corrupt like everyone else." I go out on a short limb here to say that maybe Chernyshevsky's argument contra nihilism might be the implication that the "new man" is not Turgenev's Bazarov; he is not actually a nihilist but is instead an anarchosocialist utopian, where Bazarov was more like the intellectual dilettante of every age who turns his back on all social customs, acting to no particular end, good or bad. Chernyshevsky's "modern youth" has a clear goal in mind, and is led there by "modern woman." Chernyshevsky might claim that Turgenev's characterization of young intellectuals is a false one, and that there are few if any true nihilists among the bright students/artists of the 1860s. Maybe.

There are some dream sequences coming up in the second half of the novel, I'm told, that smack of science fiction. So that'll be interesting. I have entirely failed to give you the feel of this book. It's preachy and digressive and the prose is not great, but the prose is not as bad as I'd heard it was. I'm actually having a pretty good time with it.