Monday, 14 May 2012

Free PhD

I must apologize to regular readers for this blog's recent irregularity - caused by a mad dash to finish my academic monograph, and also by self-indulgent visits to some rather eclectic conferences - including a Byron Society conference in Nottingham where so many Russianists spoke that I shall try to review their papers here in a future post, and where my name was prominently misspelled in two brand-new and original ways (although I admit Trisseratopz is hard to write). Nabokov would sympathise with my plight, since he admitted that his own surname 'is often misspelt, because the eye tends to regard the "a" of the first syllable as a misprint and then tries to restore the symmetrical sequence by triplicating the "o"- filling up the row of circles, so to speak, as in a game of crosses and naughts. No-bow-cough. How ugly, how wrong' (from Strong Opinions).

But now to the substance of this post - my free PhD offer. Not a BOGOF, no terms and conditions, and no obligation to supply your social security number, your grandmother's maiden name or the ISBN of the last book you read. This PhD is free to take home - but only the topic, not the degree. Consider the passage below:

'I am standing by a slippery mound of sticky earth and looking into the pit wherein they have thrown the coffin of my father. At the bottom there is a quantity of water, and there are also frogs, two of which have even jumped onto the yellow lid of the coffin. [...] The gravediggers, bending nearly double, began to fling the lumps of earth on the coffin rapidly, striking the frogs, which were leaping against the sides of the pit, down to the bottom.'

Which Russian writer does this frog resemble?
The four-year-old Maxim Gorky - not yet the 'formidable mediocrity' that Nabokov would call him - is famously more concerned with the fate of the drowning frogs than with the funeral of his own father. As he is brought away, he asks his grandmother anxiously, "Will those frogs ever get out?", thus showing even as an infant the keen, instinctive empathy with underfrogs that would determine his long career and eventually see him become Soviet Russia's Prince of Proletarian Poetics. (In fact, the American cartoonist William Steig - better known for creating Shrek - actually wrote and illustrated a children's book, Gorky Rises, about a frog called Gorky, but that's beside the point.)  And Gorky's My Childhood is only one example of the key symbolic role of frogs in Russian literature. At the recent conference of the British Society for Literature and Science, I gave a paper called 'Faith in Frogs' which reflected (slightly gruesomely) on how amphibian vivisection became a key trope for describing Russian fictional scientists who pose any kind of threat to social norms: namely, Bazarov from Ivan Turgenev's 1852 Fathers and Sons and Professor Persikov from Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 novella The Fatal Eggs. Vivisection as a trope used to flag nasty customers is also found in British fiction (most famously in Eliot's Middlemarch, where Dr Lydgate prefers slicing up animals (a logical process) to developing illogical love relationships with the opposite sex), and please don't deprive yourself of Mrs Leo Hunter's Ode to an Expiring Frog from Dickens's Pickwick Papers. In Russian literature, however, vivisection appears to be almost inevitably associated with amphibians. In Turgenev's novel, for example, Bazarov is rarely mentioned without some reference to his frog collection. For instance, he settles down at the Kirsanovs' estate, Marino, with ‘his frogs, his infusoria, and his chemical experiments’; and before he leaves Marino for the last time, he frees all his experimental subjects – insects, birds, and, naturally, frogs. And his final, disastrous and wasteful death – when he accidentally infects himself with typhus – results from carelessly treating himself like one of his frogs, as another experimental subject. It is Pavel Kirsanov who declares that Bazarov 'doesn't have faith in principles, but he has faith in frogs'; and it is this overriding faith in frogs - that is, in pure scientific observation and analysis - that offers a convenient tagline for the nihilistic, unromantic social vision that Bazarov represents. While Bazarov's frogs are seen from several perspectives - those of Arkadii and Pavel Kirsanov, for example, and of the peasant boys on the estate - we don't really get a frog's-eye view of narrative until Bulgakov's Fatal Eggs. As they did for Bazarov, frogs here provide a leitmotif to the character of Professor Persikov, an ingenious but obsessive biologist. We learn that Persikov’s first wife abandoned him for an opera singer, leaving a note: ‘Your frogs instil in me feelings of unbearable revulsion. Because of them my life will always be a misery’. The vicissitudes of his personal life and his career are expressed in terms of the presence, absence, or relative health of his collections of frogs and toads. He can only conceptualize the atrocities accompanying the revolution and its aftermath relative to the consequences for his frogs; for example, the death of the Surinam toad in his vivarium causes him to remark, “People are shot for less!” – apparently unaware of the multiple ironies of this comment. The death of the Institute’s custodian is, for Persikov, simply a footnote to the death of his specimens. His first major post-revolutionary scientific publication is entitled ‘The Embryology of Frogs’. And Persikov's major discovery, the Ray of Life, is prefaced by a prolonged examination of a dying amphibian:

“Vladimir Ipatych, I have opened up the frog’s mesentery. Would you like to see?”
Abandoning his microscope, Persikov eagerly climbed down from his stool and went into his assistant’s office, slowly twirling his cigarette in his hand. There, on the glass table, stretched out on a cork base, lay a frog in a semi-asphyxiated state, half dead from pain and fear. Its transparent, slimy entrails had tumbled out from under the microscope.
“Excellent!” exclaimed Persikov, looking through the eyepiece of the microscope.
The frog’s intestines were clearly revealing something of unusual interest; corpuscles of blood were flowing swiftly along the vessels. Persikov forgot about his amoebas and, for the next hour and a half, he and Ivanov took turns looking through the eyepiece, the two of them all the time engaged in animated conversation, using vocabulary that would be incomprehensible to ordinary mortals.
Finally Persikov sat back from the microscope.
“The blood is congealing”, he announced. “There’s nothing more to be done.”
The frog slowly moved its head, its dying eyes clearly enunciating the words: “You absolute swine, you…”

It's not easy being... metonymous for so many important things
The martyrdom experienced by this frog, however, foreshadows Persikov's own demise at the hands of a frustrated mob - who also torture and trample his beloved amphibians and reptiles. So although the frogs in both novels suffer at the hands of scientists, they should not be interpreted as direct symbols of the proletariat. What, in fact, do they symbolize? But that's the topic of today's special  PhD offer... frogs in Russian literature. Horses have been done; I'm working on dogs already. But that's no reason to neglect amphibians. A reviewer once almost scuttled one of my (unrelated) articles by commenting, 'one can do a Google tour of almost anything nowadays and pull out enough references to write an article. I have just googled "Russian literature" and "cows" and found enough to write a quite interesting article'. Perhaps (s)he was right, but the role of search engines in their discovery is no reason to reject striking resonances. Shortly afterwards, Robert Bird's article 'The Poetics of Peat in Soviet Literary and Visual Culture, 1918-1959' came out in Slavic Review 70:3: clearly the product of a truly worrying Google addiction. Here's to apparently random connections with underlying significance... and continuing the froggy theme shortly with a trip to inter-war Paris, the next post will be a guest piece on translating Gaito Gazdanov, by Justin Doherty of Trinity College Dublin, the translator of Gazdanov's acclaimed novel Night Roads.

  1. Citation from Gorky's My Childhood, 1915 edition, translator unknown, digitized here.
  2. All Turgenev citations from Constance Garnett's translation.
  3. All Bulgakov citations from Roger Cockrell's new translation of The Fatal Eggs (Richmond: Oneworld Classics, 2011).
  4. For my comments on vivisection in Eliot's Middlemarch, I am indebted to George Menke, ‘Fiction as Vivisection: G. H. Lewes and George Eliot’, ELH, 67: 2 (2000), pp. 617-653.

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