Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Bestuzhev Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Bestuzhev 1797-1837

(Also published under the pseudonyms Cossack Marlinsky, Alexander Marlinsky, and Aleksander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky) Russian novelist, poet, essayist, and literary critic.

Bestuzhev was a well-known literary critic, a minor poet of the Golden Age of Russian verse, and a popular writer of prose fiction. He took part in the Decembrist Revolt in 1825 and was exiled first to Siberia and later to the Caucasus. While in exile, he began a second writing career under the pseudonym Marlinsky and began promoting himself as the quintessential Romantic hero. Bestuzhev's popularity waned after the middle of the nineteenth century; his work was briefly revived in his own country in the middle of the twentieth century but has been largely forgotten elsewhere in the world.

Biographical Information

Bestuzhev was born in St. Petersburg on October 23, 1797, to Aleksandr Fedoseevich Bestuzhev and Praskovya Mikhailovna Bestuzheva. He attended school in St. Petersburg and at nineteen joined the military and became an officer a year later. By 1820 he was already gaining a considerable reputation for his literary criticism, his poetry, and his translations, and within the next five years he published a number of popular novellas based on Russian and Baltic history. In 1825 Bestuzhev and his four brothers were part of the Decembrist Revolt, a failed conspiracy designed to force Nicolas I into implementing reforms. Bestuzhev turned himself into the police and appealed to the tsar for forgiveness and was exiled to Siberia from 1827-29; he then received permission to serve in the army in the Caucasus, and he lived there for the rest of his life. In exile he began a second, even more successful, writing career under the pen name Cossack Marlinsky, producing many more novellas and two longer works that some critics classify as novels. Bestuzhev died in battle on June 7, 1837, but since his body was never recovered, rumors circulated for a number of years that he had been rescued and was living with the mountain people of the Caucasus.

Major Works

Bestuzhev embarked on his writing career as a translator of political and literary works from English, German, and French sources, and as a literary critic and reviewer. He rejected the classicism associated with the previous generation and embraced the aesthetic of European Romanticism (to an extreme, according to his detractors). From 1818 until the Decembrist Revolt in 1825, Bestuzhev produced numerous works of translations and criticism, establishing himself as an important contributor to the literary debates of the day. He composed several political poems and revolutionary songs, some of which detailed the misery of the peasantry and advocated the overthrow of the tsar. At the same time he began publishing fiction in various journals based on Russian and Livonian historical figures and events, including “Zamok Venden (Otryvok iz dnevnika gvardeiskogo ofitsera)” (1821; “Castle Wenden (A Fragment from a Guard Officer's Diary)”); “Roman i Ol'ga: Starinnaia povest'” (1823; “Roman and Olga: A Tale of Olden Times”); and “Zamok Neigauzen: Rytsarskaia povest'” (1824; “Castle Neihausen: A Tale of Chivalry”). After he was exiled, Bestuzhev published numerous works of fiction under the pseudonym Marlinsky, featuring extreme versions of the Romantic hero—men of action who were dashing, reckless, and skilled in weaponry. Fascinated with the sea, he produced a series of sea stories, the most famous of which is the naval adventure story Fregat “Nadezhda” (1832; The Frigate “Hope”). His descriptive seascapes figured prominently in a number of his other tales and in some of his essays. He also wrote three horror tales that contain elements of Russian folklore and were influenced by the Gothic works of Walter Scott and Anne Radcliffe. “Latnik: Rasskaz partizanskogo ofitsera” (1831; “The Cuirassier: A Partisan Officer's Story”), is considered the best of the horror tales; it consists of a main narrative and two anecdotes, each with its own narrator and frame story. Bestuzhev's tales of the Caucasus are filled with authentic detail on the history and cultures of the region, including information on the dialects of the area, which he quickly mastered, and on various ethnic customs and modes of warfare. The most famous of the Caucasian tales are the two longest, characterized by some scholars as novels rather than novellas: Ammalat-bek: Kavkazskaia byl' (Ammalat-bek: A Caucasian Legend) written in 1831, and Mulla Nur, written in 1836.

Critical Reception

Bestuzhev's early work, prior to his exile, captured the attention of readers and established his reputation as an important writer. According to some critics, however, Bestuzhev's fame was due largely to his stylistic novelty. N. Kovarsky explains Bestuzhev's success: “His ability to say everything somehow differently, and not just simply, was tremendously appealing; his similes were striking neither for their fidelity to nature nor for their beauty, but rather for their unexpectedness and strangeness.” Neil B. Landsman asserts that Bestuzhev was a leading figure in a uniquely Russian subgenre of Romanticism, Decembrism. Landsman describes Bestuzhev's style, both before and after the Decembrist Revolution, as “an amalgam of countless sayings, witticisms and turns of phrase.” By the 1830s, Bestuzhev was Russia's most famous writer of prose tales. His sea stories, his historical tales, his horror stories, and most especially his tales of the Caucasus, were enormously popular with the reading public. Ironically, though, it was the latter category that led to Bestuzhev's declining reputation among more sophisticated readers and scholars. Lauren G. Leighton reports that the Caucasian tales, written under the pseudonym Marlinsky, are characterized by “their wild improbability, their extreme exoticism, and their passionate tone of narration,” all of which were considered excessive and extravagant in serious literary circles. His name became closely associated with the worst excesses of Romanticism, and mature writers such as Turgenev and Tolstoy quickly outgrew their youthful enthusiasm for “Marlinism,” as they termed the aesthetics of the Caucasian tales. By the 1850s, Bestuzhev's work was no longer popular and remained out of print, even in Russia, until the middle of the twentieth century, when it captured the interest of scholars and literary historians. Lewis Bagby, in a book-length study of Bestuzhev's relationship to Russian Byronism, has attempted to restore the author's reputation as “arguably the most advanced writer of prose in the 1820s and demonstrably the most popular writer in Russia in the 1830s.”

Although many critics consider Bestuzhev a minor poet of Russia's Golden Age whose verse was inferior to his prose tales, Leighton insists that his lyric poetry deserves further consideration by modern scholars. According to Leighton, “in his technical practice, in his choice of verse genres, and in his Romantic attitudes, Marlinsky strikes a poetic stance which is remarkably apt as an illustration of the verse standards of his day.” She acknowledges his initial lack of imagination, but finds merit in the “strikingly unusual metric experiments in his later poetry.”