First Great Russian Fabulist
"Tell me, Mr. Gardener, do you by any change enjoy Krylov's Fables? I ask this because there is something Krylovian about you"- by Russian Ambassador spoken to Chauncey Gardner at an embassy party-from the 1979 movie Being There starring Peter Sellers
It was in a wonderful in scene in the marvelous movie Being There that I first heard of Ivan Krylov when the very cultured Russian ambassador to the United States convinced himself that the child like Chauncey Gardner knew the fables of Ivan Krylov in Russian. Now 30 or so years later thanks a wonderful book recently published by One World Classics How the Two Ivans Quarrelled by Nikolai Gogol and Other Russian Comic Stories I have at long last become acquainted with the work of Ivan Krylov.
Ivan Krylov (1769 to 1844-Moscow) sold his first comedic play when he was 14. He used the funds to buy a number of French literary works, most importantly the stories of Jean de La Fontaine, Moliere, and Racine. For several years he lived on the estate of a Russian prince. In 1809 he published a collection of 22 fables. From 1812 to 1844 he was curator of Russian Books at the Imperial Library, a very non-demanding job that allowed him the freedom to write full time. He began to write more and more stories and he was a huge success. In 1838 he was given a nice pension by the Tsar. He was a friend of Pushkin and was greatly honored in his life.
Most of Krylov's stories were sort of Russian versions of Aesop or La Fontaine Fables. His work can be seen as a good natured satire of the corruption and inefficiency of Russian society in the first half of the 19th century. I think in 19th century Russia if the right people laughed at or enjoyed your stories you could be a little daring in your satires and thinly veiled social criticism.
"A Panegyric in Memory of My Grandfather" (translated by Guy Daniels in 1970) is a story of praise for a nobleman. It is told in the first person in a deeply ironic mode. The narrator begins by saying he does not know why the creator made serfs and nobles in the same form. He feels they should be radically different in appearance. He tells us how on his grandfather's estate the peasants, animals and even the grass all appeared to be starving but if you went to dinner in the great house, you would find a feast with enough left over for the dogs to feed 100s of peasants for a week. Everyone greatly admired his grandfather for how much he could squeeze out of his peasants.
When a son of the noble man gives his wet nurse a savage bite for no reason, he exclaims with joy that this shows he will really know how to punish the serfs when his time to rule comes. By the time the boy is five, he has learned he can scratch or kick any of the servants when ever he feels like it. This is treated as a clear mark of future nobility. He joins the civil service because one is supposed to do that. His grandfather advises him not to degrade himself with any real work. He knows he owns 2000 serfs so nothing can really be done to him.
One day he notices his estate is overrun with hares. He comes up with a brilliant solution. He destroys all the crops, plants and trees on his land. When he is told that now his peasants will starve, he basically says yes but if i keep this up just for five years all the rabbits will be gone and I will have shown them I am not to be trifled with. All of this is told with a perfectly straight face as if it shows how wonderful this is and how great the system that produced it must be considered.
This was a fun work-It shows exactly how Russian nobility felt about the peasants. Krylov's fables are part of the Russian literary canon and all the great writers knew his work. As far as I can find, his work is not available online in English.
I am so grateful to One World Classics for including this story along with the longer work by Gogol. There are also two stories by the comic writer Mikhail Saltykov and "Ivan the Fool" by Leo Tolstoy. I have already read and really like the two stories by Saltlykov and will post on them next, from this volume. I will also post on the Gogol and Tolstoy works.
In the interests of full disclosure, I was given this book by the publisher. I will comment more on the wonderful production values of the book, something important to me in a time when we are reading more and more E books, in my post on the Gogol story.
Please let us know of your experience with lesser known 19th century Russian comic writers.
If the movie Being There (based on the book by the same name by Jerzy Kosinski) comes on cable in your area, try to catch it.