It takes an enormous amount of skill to end a book with the birth of its author and not come off as pretentious or, worse yet, sentimental. However, Sergei manages to pull this feat off so effortlessly I’m at a loss to find enough words to praise this amazing book.
“The Family Chronicle’ is a simple enough book – the grandparents and parents of the author, Sergei Aksakov, a remembered and immortalized through a series of sketches that read more like short stories connected with a common theme. But this is no normal memoir because while many of the events he writes about probably did happen (one way or another), there is honestly no way he could have had the insight to all these characters fears, flaws, desires, and other innermost thoughts. The book, though a memoir, is really a novel and a work of fiction.
Take, for example, this passage (from a footnote, no less!):
“I knew the worthy man well (Yevseyitsch). It is now some fifteen years since I last saw him. It was at the estate of one Stepan Michailovitsch’s grandsons in the Government of Pensa, where he, a blind, old man, was spending the last years of his life. That summer I spent a whole month at the place, and every day I went to fish in the early morning, in the lake formed by the mouth of of the rivulet Kakarma where it joins the charming Insa. The hut, where Yevseyitsch lived, was built close to the water’s edge, and each day as I approached the lake, I perceived the bent, white-haired old man leaning against the wall of his cottage, facing the rising sun; his withered hands clasped round a staff which he pressed against his breast; while his sightless eyes were raised towards the Eastern sky. He could not see the light, but he enjoyed the warmth, which comforted him in the chilly dawn; and his countenance was at once both serene and melancholy.”
I have no doubt Sergei knew this man, that the man was blind, and that all the details are true. What sets this above just mere telling is the artfulness of the telling. You can smell the forest, hear the river, clearly see the contrast of green trees, the white beard, and the silver, pearling water. The image is frozen in time like a painting and while the exact image may have been far less dramatic in real life, Sergei gives us his memory by making it better than reality. I will always remember this Yevseyitsch because he has been given to me. I will always have an image of a crooked old man standing half in shadow as the rising sun comes up over the immense forest; birds chirping, the wind rustling through the trees, the sound of footsteps as Sergei comes up the path to greet the blind, old man. This moment will love forever long as there is someone to read this book!
And there are far more blatant examples of the author liberally borrowing literary technique to tell his story.
The grandfather, Stepan, who’s figure shadows over the entire book like a god, is a wise, but fierce old man with a temper so terrible it would cause grown men to flee the house and send them hiding in a nearby orchard where they would strike branches of the tress in fits of frustrated rage. At one point Sergei parallels one of these rages with the intense thunderstorms of the area. Anyone who has read King Lear can immediately recognize what’s going on here.
Sergei is also not ashamed to play favorites with his family. For his mother, Sofia, the other dominating character in the book, he is not shy of getting so far into her character that only a true mind-reader could know here thoughts but as for his aunts and grandmother, Sergei turns them into a gossipy gang of malicious malcontents barely worthy of being called ‘family’. In no way does he sympathize with them and they become the closest thing to a villain in the book.
Yet Sergei is fair, too. For as much as he loves his mother and grandfather, and the place he grew up, he does not hide their flaws, either. His mother is proud, impatient, and controlling. His grandfather is demanding, simple (but not at all stupid), and capable of terrible wrath. Sergei does not hide these traits and goes to lengths to show us how that affected everyone in his family – especially his impressionable, but devoted father.
Still, this is a work influenced by nostalgia, but a nostalgia so beautiful and so recognizable to each of us, that you can’t help but fall in love with every scene, every character, every word in the book. Above all else, this is a book of supreme artfulness and is a work of genius and beauty. I can easily see how Turgenev and Tolstoy were influenced by Aksakov (especially Turgenev) and it’s no wonder this book marked the beginning of the flowering of Russian literature of the 19th century.
This book is the first great work of art that would eventually see War And Peace, Crime And Punishment, Father And Sons, Dead Souls, and all the great works of Russian literature. And as those books were so concerned with ‘Russianness’, with the identity of the Russian people and character, this book is the cornerstone that with one hand holds the actual past of Russian history and all her struggles, and with the other hand holds onto the great works that tried to explain those struggles through art.
In some way this is THE Russian book; the key to all Russian literature is in these pages.
This is a wonderful book and is easily one of the best books I have ever read and has immediately become one of my favorite books, too.