A Russian Gil Blas, or The Adventures of Prince Gavrila Simonovich Chistyakov
Although Vasily Trofimovich Narezhny (1780-1825) is generally considered to be one of the pioneers of the modern novel in Russia, his works have yet to be sufficiently recognized for their many artistic merits. He receives little critical attention in most histories of the rise of the novel in early nineteenth-century Russia. Born in Ukraine, but educated in Moscow, Narezhny wrote lengthy satirical novels imbued with a sardonic tone and an earthy brand of realism that tended to offend the refined aesthetic sensibilities of many contemporary followers of Nikolai Karamzin and his dominant school of literary Sentimentalism during the early years of the nineteenth century. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere (see The Russianization of Gil Blas, 1986), Narezhny's reworking of his putative model, Alain-René Lesage extremely popular Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735), was mistaken for an imitation of this very tame and light-hearted French roman de moeurs. Soviet scholars, as a rule, failed to recognise it for its bold attempt to revive the genre of picaresque fiction that had flourished two centuries earlier, during the so-called Spanish Golden Age, through works written by such native novelists as Mateo Aleman, Francisco de Quevedo, and the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes. Following the example of these enterprising literary forerunners in Spain, Narezhny sought to depict, in a highly satirical manner, the adventures of a lowborn rogue, Prince Gavrila Chistyakov (he's an impoverished "prince" in name only), who lives by his wits in a sinful and morally bankrupt Russian society that is filled with hypocrisy, deception, and falsehood. The tsarist censors, deeply offended by the sharp social criticism to be found in A Russian Gil Blas, refused to allow Narezhny's novel to be published when it was submitted to them to consider for publication in 1815. Indeed, his novel would only see the light of day during the Soviet period (in 1938, to be exact), when it was hailed as a realistic satire of life in Russia under corrupt tsarist rule. It is my hope that this English-language translation of Narezhny's Rossisskii Zhilblaz will enable, among others, American and British readers who cannot read Russian to become acquainted at last with this rollicking novel written by a pioneering Russian writer who has dwelled for far too long -- and far too unfairly -- in relative obscurity.