Mikhail Artsybashev. Sanin: A Novel. Translation by Michael R. Katz. Introduction by Otto Boele. Afterword by Nicholas Luker. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001, 268 pp. Select Bibliography. $42.50, cloth. $17.95, paper.
With his masterful translation Michael R. Katz has revived an important novel-one that sent shock waves from one end of the Russian Empire to the other in 1907. Some Russian critics attacked it as immoral, others as a distortion of reality, and a few found some art in it. Even so, its fame was short-lived. Later, Soviet critics uniformly expressed contempt for it. Nevertheless, in 1932 Three Sirens Press (New York) published Percy Pinkerton's abridged translation in a large printing, part of which was in a numbered luxury issue. Mark Slonim, in his From Chekhov to the Revolution, declared the novel lacking in intrinsic value and thought Sanin's philosophy of free love merely Artsybashev's attempt to prove a thesis (freedom to do what one pleases). Victor Terras, in his History of Russian Literature, summed up the novel in half a sentence as "a somewhat pornographic vulgarization of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, or Lidiia Zinovyeva-Annibal's Thirty-three Abominations...."
Professor Katz, Otto Boele (Introduction), Nicholas Luker, (Afterword), and the far- sighted people at Cornell University Press, deem Sanin worthy of republication and study, and they are right. Unfortunately the lurid covers of the softcover impression seem at cross purposes with the seriousness and quality of the Cornell publication: On the front cover a figure in Russian costume stares with gaping mouth and dazed expression. He sits in something resembling a satanic throne, surrounded by visions (?) of naked, muscular men and undraped statues. On the back cover the words of Kornei Chukovskii and other serious scholars, cited out of context, give the impression that the book is not only pornographic but preoccupied with gay and lesbian love, incest, suicide and murder. In fact, suicide is the only shocker realized in Sanin.
True, Sanin is quite willing to relieve his sister of her virginity, which she seems to find burdensome, and she is sexually drawn to her brother, but she lacks his philosophy and nerve. So no incest transpires. True, Sanin's handsome, powerful physique is stressed by Artsybashev, and there is a scene with Sanin and a friend sunbathing and swimming together in the nude. But there is no evidence that the men are attracted to one another sexually; on the contrary they spy, spellbound, on a group of nude young women sporting by the water. Sanin and a rascally officer each seduce a virgin in the novel, but neither woman is taken by force and both enjoy their initiation, though they suffer guilt afterwards. The seduction scenes are described abstractly and briefly, not in "naturalistic detail," as Slonim suggested. There is no pornography in this novel. And Sanin stops short of murder when disfiguring the officer with one blow of his Herculean fist. Humiliated, the soldier commits suicide.
Boele's and Luker's essays are perceptive and go far toward correcting misjudgements and neglect. For example, Luker's comments on the seminal importance of Max Stirrer (Johann Kaspar Schmidt, 1806-56) to Artsybashev are particularly enlightening. Valuable also is Boele's review of Russian critical and scholarly writing about the novel, pro and con. Both articles are rich in biographical and socio-political information and are constructively provocative.
If the two scholars err in any way it is only in their somewhat narrow view of the novel's functions and importance. Boele asserts (p. 12): "The significance of Artsybashev's novel, then, lies in its function as a framework for structuring and understanding the confusing reality of a rapidly changing society. Whether it was held responsible for the corruption of educated youth or perceived as an objective document, as a mimicry of reality, Sanin seemed to hold the key to understanding what was really happening in Russia. …