A Neglected Russian Novel: Alexander Herzen’s “Who Is to Blame?”

A few years ago, I discovered Alexander Herzen’s lively memoirs, Childhood, Youth & Exile:  Being Parts I and II of My Past and Thoughts (1854).  Herzen, a 19th-century Russian intellectual and radical writer, delineates Russian politics, society, and culture, as well as the events of his life.  He wrote four volumes of memoirs, continuing to revise them until his death in 1870.  And his work influenced Tolstoy, who based a scene in War and Peace on Herzen’s description of his family’s flight from the fire of Moscow in 1812 after the French occupation. (Herzen’s nurse tells him the story, because he was only a baby then.)

Herzen wrote only one novel, Who Is to Blame?, published in 1845-46 in the journal, Notes of the Fatherland, and as a book in 1847.  I read it over the holiday, and enjoyed it thoroughly.   It’s a shame this short novel is not better-known, because it is great fun, brimming over with allusions to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermentov’s A Hero of Our Time

Divided into two parts and rather oddly cobbled together, Who Is to Blame? is part comedy, part romance, part tragedy.  Part I is at times farcical:  Herzen depicts the  routine of a comical provincial family whose lives revolve around food and sleep.  Aleksai Abramovich Negrov, a retired major general, “followed only one rule of hygiene: he never allowed mental exertion to upset his digestion.”  His obese wife, Glafira Lvovna, lives for meals and naps, but as a slim, beautiful, novel-reading bride did one good deed:  she insisted that they raise his illegitimate daughter, Lyubov, as their own. The snarky, skeptical authorial voice of the narrator intrudes to mock her supposed idealism, saying the reason  “is obvious:  romantic ecstasy predisposed her to prefer above all else tragic scenes, self-sacrifice, forced acts of charity.”

 Though their parents are slothful in middle age, the younger generation is unspoiled:  Lyubov, now a serious teenage girl, and Dmitry Yakovlevich, her brother’s tutor, fall in love.  There are elements of farce:  through a mistake, he kisses Glafira Lvovna on the balcony, thinking she is Lyubov.  But what a kiss!  The snarky narrator dwells on that unforgettable kiss. Glafira is furious when she learns he mistook her for her daughter, and he, of course, is horrified. But it all works out: Part I ends with the marriage of the young couple.  

And then, lo!  Where are Dmitry Yakovlevich and Lyubonka?  In Part II,  Herzen embarks on the story of Beltov, a talented, handsome, once idealistic man who did not fulfill his youthful promise.  After wandering the world and finding nothing interesting, Beltov becomes what the Russians call “a superfluous man,” a rich man who does nothing, in the tradition of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin.  Finally, the two parts of the novel connect, when the superfluous man meets Lyubov – who is similar to Pushkin’s Tatyana Larina – and the two fall in love.  

Having just read Tolstoy’s novel about marriage and love triangles, Anna Karenina, I found Herzen’s book a bit simplistic.  Yet Herzen portrays a woman who does not act on impulse.   Lyubonka is a  serious moral thinker, and she wonders philosophically if or why it is wrong to love two men.  She writes in her journal, wondering if she can bear to hurt her husband, who she suspects  could not survive without her. They were perfectly happy, until Beltov arrived. And we ask, along with Herzen: Who is to blame?

I missed the comedy of Part I, yet Herzen just manages to pull the narrative together at the end of Part II.  I will reread this novel, though it is uneven, because I am fascinated by the development of 19th-century Russian literature.