Vera Alexandrova (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "Mikhail Prishvin (1873-1954)," in A History of Soviet Literature: 1917-1964, From Gorky to Solzhenitsyn, translated by Mirra Ginsburg, Anchor Books, 1964, pp. 222-35.
[In the following essay, which was first published in Russian in 1963, Alexandrova offers an overview of Prishvin's life and works.]
Among the writers of the older generation who had won their literary fame before the revolution of 1917, but had later become an organic part of Soviet literature, we must name, first and foremost, the late Mikhail Prishvin.
In his autobiography, written for the anthology Writers (edited by V. Lidin, Moscow, 1928), Prishvin relates only a few basic facts about his life:
Out of my childhood, adolescence, and early youth I fashioned a tale which I have not yet altogether finished living, and which gives me great joy. The title of this autobiographical tale is Kurymushka. It would be tedious now to talk again about that period. My youth was revolutionary—the customary youth of the Russian intellectual. I belonged to the circle of the archaic Bolshevik, the well-known Vassily Danilovich Ulrikh. After serving a prison term in Riga, I went to Leipzig, where I studied agronomy at the university. Returning to Russia, I engaged in agronomic work for a year and a half. The special literature in this field still retains from that period  a bulky work on Potatoes in Field and Garden Culture and several pamphlets and articles. At the same time I devoted myself to the study of folk speech. In 1905 I abandoned forever the profession of an agronomist and went north, where I wrote the book In the Land of the Unfrightened Birds.
In this autobiographical sketch Prishvin does not speak of his first story, "Sashok," published in a children's magazine, Rodnik, in 1906. We might also have omitted to mention it if the writer had not used its plot again in the story "At the Burnt Stump," which appeared in the magazine Apollon in 1910. Later the same plot—about the hunter and dreamer Gusyok—was developed for a third time in the opening part of the long autobiographical epic The Chain of Kashchey, which began to appear in print in 1923.
Prishvin's first story, "Sashok," went unnoticed by the critics. The writer won recognition only after the publication of his book of sketches In the Land of the Unfrightened Birds (1906). This book has its own curious history. When he was still working as an agronomist, Prishvin began to write stories and sketches for children. Soon afterward he went to live in Petersburg. Here he met the future academician and ethnographer. N. Onchukov, who advised him to go north to study and record folklore. Prishvin went to Vyg Lake, in the province of Arkhangelsk. When he returned, he brought with him the manuscript of the book of sketches. The book was not merely noticed; it produced a great impression.
Soon afterward the writer Alexey Remizov brought Prishvin into a circle of young decadent writers, who influenced him to some extent. Inwardly, however, they remained alien to him. Among the writers who exerted a lasting influence on him, he mentions only Lermontov, Tyutchev, Aksakov, and Lev Tolstoy.
Prishvin's second book, The Bun, utilizes for its plot the famous Russian folk tale about a bun (Kolobok). Out of a handful of flour, an old woman bakes a bun and puts it on the window sill. The bun jumps down from the window, rolls across the house and into the street, and begins to wander over the world, becoming a symbol of free and footloose wandering. Prishvin's bun encounters on its way many other folk-tale characters—Marya Morevna, Kashchey the Deathless, Baba-Yaga. The Bun begins in the spirit of a fairy tale; written on two levels—fairy tale and autobiography—it is imbued with fine lyricism. In this book Prishvin introduces himself for the first time as a lyrical hero. His goal is to realize his dreams of a new, happy, and beautiful world, where the childhood vision may be reborn within the hero himself in all its unspoiled freshness and integrity. And foremost among Prishvin's dreams is the desire for freedom of thought and for creative freedom.
It was of this book that Alexander Blok said that it was not poetry, but added a moment later: "No, it is poetry, and something else as well." Prishvin refers to this comment in his essay "Baring the Method," in the book Crane Homeland. After long reflection on the meaning of Blok's "something," Prishvin came to the conclusion that a sketch or an essay always contains two elements: the writer begins with direct observation of people and nature; some of this he succeeds in condensing into poetic images, the rest is presented as direct material, inter-woven with his comments and ideas. Prishvin started out on his literary path by combining elements of the folk tale with original philosophic lyricism. Such a synthesis of two entirely different genres in the essay had never been attempted in Russian literature before.
Among the works published by Prishvin before the revolution of 1917, one must name Adam and Eve (1909), The Black Arab (1910), At the Walls of the Unseen City (1907), Nikon Starokolenny (1907), and The Beast of Krutoyarsk (1907).
In contrast to other writers, who are loath to offer autobiographical data, Prishvin willingly and even joyously talks about his life. In addition to the brief essay written for the anthology Writers, we know of four other autobiographical sketches, each of them containing pages of in-comparable freshness and perfection. In "The Hunt after Happiness," (included in the book Crane Homeland), the writer tells of the mistake he had made shortly before the revolution in building a house on the plot of land he had inherited from his mother. In the eyes of the peasants Prishvin was a pomeshchik, a "landowner." After the revolution, for a time, they did not molest the writer, respecting his mother's memory. Later, however, "strangers" arrived from "other parts," and soon Prishvin received an official order to vacate the premises. At the meeting which passed the resolution to evict him, a friend of the writer attempted to intervene in his behalf: "One day we may raise a monument to him, as we did to Pushkin." But others cried: "There you are! That's why we should throw him out now, so that we wouldn't have to bother raising monuments afterward."
In his essay "Baring the Method," Prishvin tells in detail how he arrived at his own literary genre and how it was, generally, that he chose such a "slow road to literature, through ethnography, by horsecart, as it were":
I came to literature at an age when a man no longer has any need to strike a pose, and without any thought of gaining a position in society.… I began to write in the era of superfluous people, of Chekhov characters. The absence of a way of life in which an artist's personality develops thoughtlessly, like a flower, was about to condemn me also to impotent meditation about the problem of moral reconciliation of life with one's childhood vision.…
Prishvin first described how he overcame this "impotent meditation" in his Adam and Eve (1909), in which he made use of the Biblical legend of the two Adams. According to this legend, the second Adam came into the world long after the first had sinned and suffered exile from Paradise, after he had multiplied, and his children had populated the earth. This second Adam became the Landless Adam; he took up the work of cultivating a narrow strip of land. The ocherk or "sketch" form developed by Prishvin was just such a "narrow strip of land." And one of the most characteristic qualities of his sketch is its rich suggestiveness, its wealth of "subtextual" content.
The introductory chapter of Prishvin's autobiographical prose epic The Chain of Kashchey sheds a good deal of light on Prishvin, the writer. In this chapter—"The Rabbit"—Prishvin describes a walk he took one autumn day, which led him past the country house where he had spent his childhood. As he looked at the house and the surrounding landscape, Prishvin was struck by the picture of "triple dying": everything around seemed to be dying—the house, the day, and the year, with its golden falling leaves. And in the midst of this, at the end of a long avenue strewn with maple leaves, on the ivied terrace, sat a rabbit. At first the presence of this rabbit seemed to the writer almost a deliberate mockery. He was at that time struggling with the idea of a novel in which he hoped to describe the house and the years of his youth spent in it. Many of the pictures were already formed in his mind, but he still had no central hero. And he asked himself: "Can it be that my beloved native land will not provide me with a hero? I thought of the many remarkable men born on this land. There, not too far away, lay the fields once plowed by Tolstoy; here were the woods where Turgenev had hunted; here Gogol had come to seek advice from the extraordinary old monk Amvrosy. How many great men had sprung from this black-earth region, but they seemed, indeed, to have come and gone like spirits, while the land was left all the poorer—exhausted, gutted with clay ravines, covered with dwellings unworthy of man, resembling heaps of manure."
It occurred to the writer that some little old peasant, who had done nothing in his lifetime beyond the humble planting of orchards in the ravines to hold down the soil, was perhaps a worthier hero for his novel than many of the great men who had left this land. Presently another idea came to Prishvin: it was not necessary to have a hero; the novel could do very well without him—"he can simply come out, like the rabbit, to sit for a few moments on the terrace, and the most grandiose events will follow."
When he reached this conclusion, Prishvin ceased to torment himself and began to write a story, told in the first person by his alter ego, Alpatov, whose childhood nickname was Kurymushka, a local expression meaning "Little Rabbit." Kurymushka was first published as a children's book. At the same time Prishvin began his major novel, The Chain of Kashchey, the separate parts of which he called "links."
The Chain of Kashchey was conceived as a cycle of povesti or "tales," linked by the events in the life of his principal character, Mikhail Alpatov, beginning with the period of Czar Alexander II and ending with the overthrow of Nicholas II. In a certain sense The Chain is a parallel to Gorky's Klim Samgin, and it helps us, to some extent, to see where Gorky had sinned in his work against the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia.
Prishvin is right, of course, in saying that The Chain of Kashchey grew out of sketches and essays. It is reminiscent of an antique patch-quilt, in which a multitude of pieces are sewn into one large fabric. It is not by chance that the narrative abounds in lyrical digressions addressed to the contemporary reader. Each digression is rich in allusions, which heighten the modern reader's interest in the tale of the distant past. Thus, in "The Green Door" (the sixth link), the author says that, in the days of Alpatov's youth, "there was a law for men of conscience in our land, which...
(The entire section is 4796 words.)