The Creative Potentials of Unsuccess: On Karolina Pavlova’s “A Double Life”

By Vadim ShneyderDecember 21, 2019

The Creative Potentials of Unsuccess: On Karolina Pavlova’s “A Double Life”

A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova

A GLIMPSE AT the front cover of Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life already shows that this is not what most of us think of as the typical 19th-century Russian novel. After all the thick tomes by Fyodors and Leos and Ivans, here we have a slim tale authored by a woman, and that alone should alert us that our old expectations may need to be altered. By the end of the first chapter, this possibility has been confirmed: little of our experience with various Raskolnikovs and Kareninas has prepared us for the forms and themes of this book, which was first published in 1848, about 20 years before the great flourishing of the Russian novel. And yet this is very much a familiar Russian novel in at least one substantial sense: it is a story of defeat whose principal interest lies not in realized aspirations but in its recuperation, for art, of the creative potentials of unsuccess.

So why this novel now? The basic outline of the plot and the identity of the author suggest themselves immediately as good reasons. A Double Life tells a story we are not used to reading in 19th-century Russian literature: Cecily, a young noblewoman whose social fate is to be married off, possesses a poetic gift so secret that not even she is capable of recognizing it. The mother of her best friend manipulates her into marrying a mediocre man in hopes of securing a better match for her own daughter. Cecily goes along with it. Like Anna Karenina, Cecily is greater than the stultifying life she is forced to inhabit. Unlike Anna, however, Cecily does not reject that life. And unlike the remarkable heroines in novels of women’s emancipation written by men, such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? or Vasily Sleptsov’s Hard Times (recently translated by Michael R. Katz for the University of Pittsburgh Press), Cecily’s future holds no hope of escape or rescue. Instead, a distinctly female narrator, voiced by a woman writer, tells the story of a young woman who has internalized the oppressive social restrictions of her world and become blind to her own gifts. In place of a story of successful escape, we are given the aesthetic recuperation of constraint, formally realized in the culmination of each prose chapter by a section of verse. In the original, this verse is, as almost all 19th-century Russian poetry was, metrically regular and rhymed. The translation eschews this structure in favor of a more literal rendering of the sense. Unfortunately, this means that the contrast between prose and verse becomes less striking.

Most English-language writing about A Double Life has a double focus: both the work and its author, since both are remarkable and too little known, and since each becomes more interesting in light of the other. Pavlova’s life spanned nearly the entire 19th century, and a comprehensive biography would also be an intellectual and literary history of Russia, France, and Germany. The daughter of a Russified German professor of natural science, Karolina (born Jaenisch) received an excellent education and put her knowledge to good use, translating poetry from most of the major European languages into French, German, and Russian, as well as composing original poetry in all three. Vissarion Belinsky, the most distinguished Russian literary critic of the period, praised her “remarkable talent” for translating “poetry from all the languages she knows and into all the languages she knows.” As a young woman in the 1820s, she was received into several important Moscow salons and societies, meeting the likes of the poet Yevgeny Baratynsky, whom she regarded as her mentor. There was a marriage proposal, or at least hints thereof, from Adam Mickiewicz, the great Polish romantic poet. He refused to commit and denied that he had promised anything; as far as Pavlova was concerned, he was the unhappy love of her life. She translated Mickiewicz’s controversial poem Konrad Wallenrod into German, and the great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt purportedly showed this work to Goethe. Franz Liszt set one of her poems to music. Balzac praised her renditions of Russian poetry into French. Alexander Pushkin and Ivan Turgenev gossiped about her engagement to the minor writer Nikolai Pavlov, who squandered her fortune and whom she later, inadvertently, got arrested. Later, when she lived in impoverished obscurity in Germanophone Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia), the poet and playwright Aleksey K. Tolstoy became her last important literary friend. As a woman fully committed to literature, she stood out in Russian literary circles. Contemporaries were impressed by her linguistic and poetic talent but mocked her for trying too hard. She remained devoted to poetry for decades after her reputation was ruined by personal scandals, changing literary tastes, and her persistent association with the ultranationalist Slavophiles.

This edition of A Double Life is a reissue of Barbara Heldt’s pioneering 1978 translation, originally published by Barbary Coast Books, and is the second 19th-century novel to appear in Columbia University Press’s ambitious Russian Library series, following Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. Neither Pavlova nor her novel is as obscure as Khvoshchinskaya and her work, but neither book has appeared in a separate edition in Russian in the past 150 years, and both have to some degree fallen victim to the consistent neglect of 19th-century Russian women writers, who, scholars regularly remind us, were numerous and prominent in their own time. In Russia, Pavlova is remembered as a poet, and while she is not a household name, a volume of her work, including A Double Life, was published in the prestigious Soviet-era series “The Poet’s Library” in 1964. The Columbia edition appears with an introduction by Heldt, which provides valuable background information on Pavlova’s life and the place of women writers in Russian society and offers the reader a précis of the novel’s carefully worked structure. An afterword, by Daniel Green, provides further reflections on Pavlova’s work as a translator and on the reception of her book by its first readers. These sturdy bookends do much to ensure the successful transmission of this by no means easy work to readers far removed from the scene of its creation. Unfortunately, the text itself comes with very few annotations. What, the reader might want to know, does it mean that a Spanish Carlist visits the salon of Vera Vladimirovna, Cecily’s mother, in the third chapter?

Among the reasons that the Carlist — a supporter of the traditionalist, anti-liberal faction that was involved in a series of 19th-century Spanish civil wars — matters is that his appearance is one of the very few moments when the wind of history makes itself felt inside the walls of Cecily’s home. The novel’s narrator (who provides abundant wry commentary in the prose sections but withdraws completely from the verse sections) observes repeatedly that the education of young Cecily has been aimed above all at stifling her awareness of possibilities beyond a narrow set of conventional behaviors, expectations, and desires. Although A Double Life is a Bildungsroman of a certain kind, the education that takes place here does not and cannot culminate in a young person’s entry into a rich relationship with the broader world. Only once does Cecily experience the possibility of escape from the confinement of her strictly regimented life: during a carefully scripted outing, she lets her horse gallop off beyond the group. This momentary taste of erotically charged liberation only ensnares Cecily further when her best friend’s mother, a master social manipulator, goads the less desirable suitor into rushing to “rescue” Cecily. From this moment, the marriage plot beings to roll on its ineluctable course.

A Double Life is difficult to summarize adequately because the novel’s story belongs to the prosaic world in which mothers vie to arrange suitable marriages for their daughters and everyone conspires to extirpate any traces of other modes of living. Visiting Carlists and poets are just decoration, and while the plot follows the seasons of the year, even the natural world only enters the experiences of these aristocrats as an anaesthetizing simulacrum. Only when consciousness, fully in the thrall of convention, recedes, does something else break through. This is one of the few works of 19th-century literature in which sleep constitutes not just a motivation for narratively consequential dreaming, but an alternative to diurnal plotting as such, where the temporality of lyric verse, necessarily both anticipatory and retrospective on account of its rhyme, arrests the advance of biographical inevitability. However, Cecily is a poet only in her dream life, and this is not the story of an artist developing her gift in the face of worldly opposition. In somewhat different terms, the conventionality that confronts Cecily is twofold: the conventional plot of the society tale that privileges social interaction over solitary creation, and the conventional world of the noble salon in which no one — and certainly not noblewomen — should get too invested in poetry. She could have become a poet, perhaps, but only in a different genre and a different world.

However, there is much more going on here than the waking protagonist knows. Each of the novel’s 10 chapters, set in the world of prose, is followed by a section of poetry, in which Cecily journeys through the dreamworld and has a series of encounters with a disembodied male presence — who does all the speaking. The contrasts between the dream of poetry and the waking life of prose are easy enough to enumerate, but when the male speaker tells Cecily on the second night that “[t]hat prisoner of society’s world, / That sacrifice to vanity, / The blind slave of custom, / That small-souled being isn’t you,” this is not unambiguously true. Cecily does not reject the social world and strike off like some Byronic adventurer into wilderness or into the organic community of some foreign nation. She remains in her mother’s richly appointed house, playing by its rules. Unlike the other works combining verse and prose in the Russian literary tradition, the verse sections of A Double Life are not transcriptions of the protagonist’s deliberate poetic achievement — they are communications from an interior so remote that no possibility exists for bringing its creations into the light of day.

How do you write a novel about boredom without being boring? A Double Life chooses a reliable strategy: a narrator who is wiser and smarter than any of the characters comments sardonically on the threadbare opulence of Cecily’s life. On her birthday, for example, Cecily receives three dozen notes “all saying precisely the same thing, to which it was necessary to respond with precisely the same variations.” The greater part of the plot concerns the efforts by Madame Valitskaya, mother of Cecily’s best friend Olga, to manipulate Cecily into marrying the mediocre Dmitry Ivachinsky, so that her own daughter can get the more desirable Prince Victor. Madame Valitskaya emerges as the chief architect of the novel’s intrigues, and the later chapters skillfully arrange her equally skillful manipulations. She manages to manipulate nearly everyone in the novel, including people far shrewder than Cecily, until it all falls apart on account of the unaccountable whim of Prince Victor. Aside from that final caprice, men in this novel are usually mere pawns, or even less than that. At a critical moment, when Cecily’s unnamed and usually absent father might have intervened to reject Dmitry’s inevitable proposal, Vera Vladimirovna neglects to request his intervention because she seems to have forgotten he exists.

The other solution this novel offers lies in the most striking aspect of its design, that is, its formally innovative combination of prose and verse. In addition to the verse sections that conclude and reflect on each of the 10 chapters, several interludes of verse appear throughout the text. To be sure, experiments in combining verse and prose were not unknown in Russian literature. Pushkin had offered several models for doing this: his unfinished tale “Egyptian Nights” narrates an improvised poetic performance and reproduces the spontaneous creation. On a larger scale, his Eugene Onegin was a novel in verse, while Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls called itself an epic poem in prose. Later, the Russian Künstlerroman would periodically offer readers a sample of the poet-protagonist’s creations, as in Turgenev’s Virgin Soil in the 19th century or, more famously, in Nabokov’s The Gift and Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in the 20th.

What sets A Double Life apart is how this interpolated poetry realizes the novel’s central conceit of a woman poet’s duality. In Virgin Soil, we occasionally get glimpses into Nezhdanov’s notebook, where he scribbles down verses while trying to fashion himself into a revolutionary. In Doctor Zhivago, the vicissitudes of Yuri’s life and Russian history are sublated in the formal perfection of the appended poems. Both novels confront, in their different ways, the impossibility of living in both history and poetry. In A Double Life, the opposing terms are different, and so are the formal consequences. The epigraph, from Byron’s “The Dream” prepares the way: “Our life is twofold: Sleep hath its own world, / A boundary between the things misnamed / Death and existence.” In young Cecily’s double life, poetry is aligned with the time-traversing fluidity of dreams, while prose encompasses the atrophied world of convention, not history.

In their themes and allusions, the verse sections signal their allegiance to the romantic past while the prose sections cleave to the quotidian present, as befits nascent realism. On one side stand Schiller and Byron, on the other, a demand that literature be useful. A Double Life celebrated the emancipatory potential of dreaming at a time when other writers tended to stress the danger of fleeing reality. The romantic idealist in Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights,” which was published the same year as Pavlova’s novel, pines away in his fantasies, while Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov enjoys his famous dream of soporific contentment, which appeared as a separate story in 1849. While other writers were busy cutting through the blurry vagaries of senescent romanticism, Pavlova presents dreams as a refuge for those who are stranded in the wasteland of real life. In the verse dedication to the novel, she addresses “All of you psyches without wings, / Mute sisters of my soul!” and wishes them “[i]n the prison of this narrow life / just one brief burst of that other life.” The jump-cut to prose that follows is brutally clear about the difference between this life and that other one:

 — But are they rich?

 — I think so; the estate is sizable.

However, it isn’t simply the case that Cecily finds unconscious refuge in the gentle mysticism of romanticism. As the literature scholar Diana Greene has observed, the romantic Künstlerroman must be transformed in order for a young woman to find a place within it. This cannot be a story in which a brilliantly gifted young man finds his poetic vocation. Cecily is not a poet, at least not consciously, and she has no access to the fruits of the mystical education that takes place in her dreams: “What the genius learns in waking / You will learn, my child, in sleep.” The only way for a woman poet to enter this world is from another plane altogether: early in the novel, a nervous young poet reads his translation of Schiller’s “Song of the Bell.” The uncredited author of this translation is Karolina Pavlova herself. In this novel, a woman poet’s work can only be spoken through the lips of a male double, whether the poet in Vera Vladimirovna’s salon or the mysterious male voice who speaks to Cecily in her dreams.

There are certain moments when the world of waking life and the world of dreams come into contact, or at least proximity. Art throws a tenuous bridge between the two worlds, but for the most part, it plays a minor role in the drawing rooms of the perpetually bored. More significantly, erotic love — even when it is false — contains a moment of the true. It shimmers above the infatuated Cecily when she dances under the stars, where her naïve feelings are drawn into contact with the cosmos. It even lingers amid the banal conversation and impeccably arid manners of aristocratic sociality when Cecily recognizes that she and Dmitry have entered into a shared experience whose ineffable core convention cannot reach. The novel extends no promise that either art or love can provide a lasting refuge or grant meaningful freedom. Instead, it offers just a hint of that other life, just enough, perhaps, to leave a lingering sense that there is something wrong with this one.


Vadim Shneyder is an assistant professor of Russian at UCLA. He is the author of Russia's Capitalist Realism: Narrative Form and History in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. 

LARB Contributor

Vadim Shneyder is an assistant professor of Russian at UCLA. He is the author of Russia's Capitalist Realism: Narrative Form and History in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov


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