M E Saltykov

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M E Saltykov

Dez 9, 2020, 11:25 am

I am in the midst of reading Saltykov's 'The Golovlyov Family'. It is an entertaining, satirical look at late 19th century Russian life through the eyes of a lowly aristocratic family. I had not heard of the author until I saw him mentioned in a footnote in Svetlana Alexievich' 'Second Hand Time'. Her book of verbatim interviews contains a number of footnotes explaining Russian cultural references. I learned that the author and this particular book are well known in Russia. The characters of the family have become idiomatic symbols in conversation for people having particular characteristics. In that respect Mr Saltykov is to Russia as Dickens is to Britain whose famous characters such as Uriah Heep are well known even now. But the oddity is that Mr Saltykov, as famous and popular in his day as Turgenev, is now almost completely unknown and unread. I can find only one reference to him on the whole of the Librarything site. I wonder why it is that he has faded so totally from view?

Dez 9, 2020, 11:34 am

Thank you for the recommendation! As it happens, my library has a Saltykov/Leskov omnibus (1674 pages!) that I can borrow, and I'm quite tempted. When I've worked on my lower-arm strength...

Dez 9, 2020, 12:38 pm

>2 Dilara86: Dear me, that sounds like the proverbial 'weighty tome'. My version of The Golovlyov Family is a mere 283 pages.

Dez 9, 2020, 7:52 pm

Wow! I consider myself above-average in my Russian literature knowledge, yet Saltykov is a new name to me. Sadly my library does not have any of his works.

>1 Steve38: Are you liking the novel? How similar to Turgenev? (Turgenev is one of my favorites!)

Dez 10, 2020, 11:29 am

>4 sparemethecensor: Yes, I've read a number of the Russian classics but until I saw the footnote in Svetlana Alexievich book I had never heard of Saltykov. I'm certainly enjoying 'The Golovolyov Family'. It is quite a savage but amusing satirical look at rural aristocratic life in late Imperial Russia. When I looked up Mr Saltykov it seems he was quite a radical of his day, wrote widely in magazines and eventually lost his job in the civil service because of his writing. The puzzle to me is how someone who was extremely popular, well known and respected in his day could be so unknown now.

Dez 12, 2020, 10:02 am

The Golovolyov Family is superb but one of the darkest novels I've ever read; I don't think I could bring myself to reread it. Here's an excellent review by one of my favorite lit bloggers:
As I wrote in the comments there:
"At first it was enjoyable, and I couldn't quite understand why it had such a grim reputation -- sure, the characters were a pretty rotten bunch, but there were bright spots, and the brio with which it was told carried me along with a smile on my face. But as the saga went on it got grimmer and grimmer, and when I got to the final chapter -- the return of bedraggled Anninka with her tale of ruin and suicide -- I had to physically force myself to finish it. It felt as though Shchedrin had set a plate of ashes sprinkled with vodka in front of me and was watching me nibble at it, smirking diabolically. What a book!"

I reviewed his other major novel, The History of a Town, here:


It may not be as great, considered as literature, but it's much more enjoyable to read!

And no, Saltykov-Shchedrin is nothing like Turgenev; in fact, I'd say they're pretty much opposites. Turgenev is very European (which is why non-Russians tend to like him so much), whereas Shchedrin is very, very Russian.

Dez 12, 2020, 10:06 am

Also, he's not at all unknown in Russia, but because he's so specifically Russian, he hasn't caught on elsewhere (the same is true of the great Nikolai Leskov).

Dez 12, 2020, 6:50 pm

I think the issue here is mostly one of perspective. For instance, Saltykov-Shchedrin had been published in German practically simultaneously with the Russian, within at most a few years--that's from the 1860s onward. And not only was he translated and published early, all of his major works seem to have been reprinted/republished continuously up to our days. He even has a street named after him in Berlin.

I don't expect that would necessarily translate into familiarity for a random person asked, but then I'm not sure what 19th century writer commands such familiarity these days, globally anyway.

In the much smaller subset of readers of classics in any country, I expect far more would have heard of and read him outside the Anglo-dom.

Dez 12, 2020, 8:41 pm

>7 languagehat: I adore Leskov. His work is so deep and compelling but also has so much humor in it.

Dez 13, 2020, 7:13 am

>7 languagehat: "Also, he's not at all unknown in Russia,"

Indeed so. As I mentioned earlier I first came across mention of him in a footnote in Svetlana Alexievich's 'Second Hand Time'. It was necessary for her to have the footnote in order to explain Russian cultural references in her verbatim reports of conversations. As I understand it 'The Golovlyov Family' and all its characters are very well known in contemporary Russia and used as typical characters to portray typical characteristics in Russian society. In mentioning Turgenev I wasn't comparing the two as writers but as contemporaries each well known whilst they were alive. But whereas Turgenev is still well known and read outside Russia Saltykov is almost unheard of. A historical curiosity which it is interesting to speculate why that is so.

Dez 13, 2020, 7:36 am

>6 languagehat: "Here's an excellent review by one of my favorite lit bloggers:"

Thanks for that link. An interesting review which portrays 'The Golovlyov Family' as a comment on contemporary nihilism. Something which struck of the book and its characters was the intense boredom of life for Russian rural aristocrats. A theme that comes up in other writers of the period. Families stuck on isolated estates, well enough off for a good life but with little to do except manage their servants. No ambitions beyond maintaining the status quo. Another element, which has something in common with writers of the same period in other countries, is the rigidity of social norms. A bit like Victorian explorers in Africa and Asia insisting on dressing for dinner even in the most remote circumstances. What little I have read about Mr Saltykov tells me he was a radical writer of his time so this book is his satirical comment of some aspects of the society of his day which he thought needed to be ridiculed.

Dez 13, 2020, 11:02 am

But whereas Turgenev is still well known and read outside Russia Saltykov is almost unheard of.


Dez 13, 2020, 12:01 pm

>12 LolaWalser: 'Almost unheard of' may indeed be a little hyperbolic but certainly Mr Saltykov is not as well known now in some parts of the world as he was in his day and as compared to his contemporaries such as Turgenev. The Golovlyov Family has 496 entries in Librarything and 18 'mentions'. Fathers and Sons has 7188 entries and 330 'mentions'. Here is a link to an article that describes him as 'relatively unknown in the West'. I'm just curious as to why that should be so.


Jan 9, 2021, 8:08 am

I've read a couple of his works and reviewed them on my blog and on Shiny New Books. His writing is quite dark and satirical, and also long, but both of those characteristics are common to other Russian works. However, as Languagehat says, the Golovyovs is *very* dark and I'm not sure I could re-read it. But a fascinating author!



Editado: Jan 9, 2021, 10:37 am

I'm not sure Saltykov has entirely faded in "Anglo-dom." The book is part of the "New York Review Books Classics" collection and its edition appeared somewhat recently (in 2001) and remains in print: https://www.nyrb.com/collections/shchedrin. In addition, that eminently reliable and indisputably correct source, amazon.com, shows several other works of Saltykov's available in English, for anyone so disposed.

The NYRB volume is a translation was made by Natalie Duddington (nee Nataliya Aleksandrovna Ertel, befriended by--and later assistant to--Constance Garnett). Unfortunately, the NYRB copyright page nowhere indicates that they are merely reprinting her 1955 translation. She died in 1972 and the NYRB people didn't give her so much as a one-line bio, though they offered a bio of James Wood, who wrote an introduction. I also have a copy of Samuel Cioran's translation, published in 1977 by Ardis but no longer in print. Cioran is a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Canada with a number of translations to his credit.

Jan 10, 2021, 7:59 pm

I was able to get a beatup copy of The Golovlyov Family via inter library loan. It is the 1977 edition translated by Samuel Cioran. Planning to start it next after my current book club read.

>15 Gypsy_Boy: Looks like we may have the same edition. What a tragedy that NYRB couldn't give Duddington the basic courtesy of acknowledging her....I find that infuriating.

Jan 11, 2021, 12:19 pm

>15 Gypsy_Boy:, >16 sparemethecensor:

I just looked at my NYRB copy of TGF and Ms. Duddington is clearly acknowledged as the translator on the copyright page... (?)

Jan 11, 2021, 3:07 pm

>17 vaniamk13: Yes, she is named. But although there is a brief biography of the writer and a brief biography of the guy who wrote the intro, there is no biography of the translator.

Jan 17, 2021, 8:18 am

I have never been able to face the bleakness of The Golovlyov Family. But I did read a collection of his short stories.

I was out on to them by a Russian friend who thought him the best of the Russian satirists.

Jan 19, 2021, 8:53 pm

In the introduction, we learn that following Dostoyevsky's exile to Siberia in 1848, Saltykov and Dostoyevsky became, "life long literary and political enemies." As I read the novel, I wonder how much is literary or political and how much is a true diametrical opposition in outlook. We know Dostoyevsky's religious views and how they influenced his work. Saltykov's black humor reflects a drastically different outlook on god-and-man.

Perhaps also of note for those whose Russian fluency outpaces mine: I was interested to see its Russian title is Господа. (I perhaps naively expected семья.) I'm only familiar with this word in the phrase "ladies and gentlemen" (дамы и господа) so I'm wondering if there's some other meaning to it here? Does господа include women or is it referring only to the upstanding men of the Golovlyovs?

Jan 20, 2021, 8:42 am

Excellent question! Although the singular господин can only refer to a man, the plural господа can be used for a mixed group. Of course, "family" isn't a good lexical translation, but it's a good title translation, since the alternative would be something like "The Lords and Ladies of the Golovlyov Family" or "The Golovlyov Family of Wellborn Landowners."

And yes, S and D had every reason to despise each other, for all the reasons you mention.

Jan 20, 2021, 7:26 pm

>21 languagehat: Thank you for sharing! I'm now in my brain considering it "The Landed Gentry Golovlyovs" hehe

Jan 21, 2021, 7:46 pm

I finished reading. I loved the Cioran translation. He truly captured/differentiated the characters' voices. This novel (or the translation) is more staccato and direct than some Russian literature which made it a much quicker read than, for instance, Oblomov.

I mention Oblomov because this is what I was most reminded of. And I am not alone! The introduction to my edition ascribes this quote to a contemporaneous critic named Dobrolyubov (surely a pseudonym):

Add a drop of venom to Oblomovism, and you get Golovlyovism.

I can't say it better than that. If you know Oblomov then you know the questions of nihilism and idiocy and tragedy in the state of 19th century Russia. The Golovlyov Family, more nihilistic, more tragic, is perhaps one of the gloomiest novels I've read. (Even for Russia.) What is the point of life for the landed gentry? Nothing. The satire here is to give each character an exaggeration of a common Russian trait then twist the knife.

Many readers will find this to be too much, but I liked it and I'm grateful to this thread for bringing it to my attention.

Jan 22, 2021, 7:43 am

I loved the first part of Oblomov but got disillusioned; here's my review:


Jan 22, 2021, 10:19 am

>24 languagehat: Great review. I think Oblomov is one of many vitally important works to understand the Russian psyche. I'm fascinated by that era's take on the superfluous person (лишний человек). Across cultures, I'm fascinated by how people grapple with modernity, and the superfluous person is a piece of that grappling with social upheaval question. But you are of course correct that for Goncharov (like so many people of his era) is willfully blind to the humanity/complexity of women (Olga). I was less bothered than you were by the cardboard Stolz, since I see him as a purposeful foil to Oblomov,

Jan 24, 2021, 12:11 pm

I've read "Oblomov" numerous times over the last 50 years, and I enjoy it every time. (There is also a quite good Russian movie of it from 1980, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov.) I read "The Golovyov Family" many years ago, and found it very depressing. I thought at the time "I will never read THIS again!" But I should probably give it another try, since I love Russian literature in general.

Jan 25, 2021, 7:19 am

If you like Oblomov so much, I'd recommend you try what I think constitute Goncharov's best writing: his first novel, from 1847, which has been translated as A Common Story, The Same Old Story, and An Ordinary Story (it's been called “one of the most personal and autobiographical novels” of Russian literature), and his great travel account The Frigate Pallada about the Russian 1852-55 expedition to Japan, a “blend of warm sympathy and sly humor”; Goncharov called it his “rose without thorns,” and it became a model for all subsequent Russian travel writing (it was “studied in schools and military academies and read by government officials, making it the third most-read text in Russian history”).

Fev 18, 2021, 11:54 am

>27 languagehat: Thanks very much for those Goncharov suggestions! I will definitely look for them.

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