City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, Nora Seligman Favorov (translation)


“And what kind of illnesses do we have here in the country? All good-for-nothing; we don’t have the more refined illnesses here. In town, if you look around, well, there they do have them.” 

Why does Nastasya Ivanovna, a widow, feel so inferior to the upper classes? Just how does her teenage daughter go from vexing her widowed mother to helping her find her bite? The wit is in young Olenka’s reactions to the snobbery around her. That she perceives Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov as ridiculous and a hassle, that she resents giving up her room for her sanctimonious  relative Anna, unimpressed by her status and holiness which to be fair, would annoy anyone is just what enlivens this novel.” I’m staying out of it; I’m staying out of it,” Anna Ilinishna interrupted her, waving her hands. “Do as you see fit. It’s in my nature to prevent evil- that’s all.”  Shocked a man is staying in the unfinished bathhouse, Anna is too pure for these lesser relatives. Olenka sees past the social masks everyone wears, especially her Auntie Anna’s holy facade. Just how accommodating must Nastasya be to everyone? Olenka is exhausted and irritated by Anna’s ‘suffering’ and complaining nature. Olenka’s youth is refreshing and her insight, though less educated than her ‘betters’, is much wiser.

Ovcharov is unimpressed by the home straight away, seeing the shabby old mixed with the tasteless and ugly. He should know, with his rich fashionable tastes, he-a much more cultured, worldly being. Living in the ‘backwoods’, so self proud of ‘roughing it’ with the ‘rural gentry’ it’s hard not to laugh at his snobbery. He longs to bring the peasants up to his level, him being intelligent and elegant of course in comparison to the savages. He laughs at them, not imagining he, in all his rank and glory, is comical to young teenager Olenka. The working class has their own dirt on their superiors, as they always do. To Olenka, the wealthy writer Ovcharov , is nothing but a troublemaker and how she loves to humor him, but isn’t in love with him- though he doesn’t know it.  He, much like her Auntie Anna, is just another person causing her mother nothing but stress! He sees her as young, and beneath his class, he the wiser older man and of course he ‘respects ignorance.’ Ha! That is, when he isn’t set on ‘educating her’! His thoughts on femininity and the way it’s fading with the new generation certainly seems to be something said even today, much the same way the old thinks the younger generation is crude, ignorant and so on and so forth. It could be written today! My favorite ‘thought’ he shares ” They were inveterate dreamers idolizers, they read Byron and George Sand, without understanding it, but that didn’t matter.”  They didn’t understand it, huh? Those… women! Well, at least he notes there is more variety in women in his present now than with his generation. Men always know just what women should be, lucky for us. So what if women are losing their femininity, which he is sure they are!

I love Olenka’s ‘coarseness’, particularly on their promenade when he is attempting to be manly and carry her across the stream. He, who is ill… “What on earth are you doing? I’m stronger than you are. If you like it, it might be better for me to carry you.” Fiery little minx she is, our Olenka. Will her mother learn to stand up to the very people she is terrified of upsetting? Finally realize what her daughter knows, that they aren’t necessarily ‘better’? Will Anna remain in residence torturing the mother and daughter forever, besmirching their characters? Will Nastasya Ivanovna wake up to the devious nature of her relative? Will Ovcharov take his leave and cease his attempts to educate the ignorant backwoods folk?

This really is what it claims to be, an unsung gem of nineteenth-century Russian literature, it was a delightful read that reminds me of the English classics, like Pride and Prejudice. What’s better than biting wit?

Publication Date: August 15, 2017

Columbia University Press

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