What's to be done? A romance/III

What's to be done? A romance.  (1909)  by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, translated by Benjamin R. Tucker


Love is the subject of this novel; a young woman is its principal character.

"So far good, even though the novel should be bad," says the feminine reader; and she is right.

But the masculine reader does not praise so readily, thought in man being more intense and more developed than in woman. He says (what probably the feminine reader also thinks without considering it proper to say so, which excuses me from discussing the point with her),—the masculine reader says: "I know perfectly well that the man who is said to have blown his brains out is all right."

I attack him on this phrase I know, and say to him: "You do not know it, since it has not been told you. You know nothing, not even that by the way in which I have begun my novel I have made you my dupe. For have you not failed to perceive it?"

Know, then, that my first pages prove that I have a very poor opinion of the public. I have employed the ordinary trick of romancers. I have begun with dramatic scenes, taken from the middle or the end of my story, and have taken care to confuse and obscure them.

Public, you are good-natured, very good-natured, and consequently you are neither quick to see nor difficult to please. One may be sure that you will not see from the first pages whether a novel is worthy of being read. Your scent is not keen, and to aid you in deciding two things are necessary: the name of the author and such a style of writing as will produce an effect.

This is the first novel that I offer you, and you have not yet made up your mind whether or not I have talent and art (and yet this talent and art you grant liberally to so many authors!) My name does not yet attract you. I am obliged, therefore, to decoy you. Do not consider it a crime; for it is your own ingenuousness that compels me to stoop to this triviality. But now that I hold you in my hands, I can continue my story as I think proper,—that is, without subterfuge. There will be no more mystery; you will be able to foresee twenty pages in advance the climax of each situation, and I will even tell you that all will end gaily amid wine and song.

I do not desire to aid in spoiling you, kind public, you whose head is already so full of nonsense. How much useless trouble the confusion of your perceptions causes you! Truly, you are painful to look at; and yet I cannot help deriding you, the prejudices with which your head is crammed render you so base and wicked!

I am even angry with you, because you are so wicked towards men, of whom you nevertheless are a part. Why are you so wicked towards yourself? It is for your own good that I preach to you; for I desire to be useful to you, and am seeking the way. In the meantime you cry out:

"Who, then, is this insolent author, who addresses me in such a tone?"

Who am I? An author without talent who has not even a complete command of his own language. But it matters little. Read at any rate, kind public; truth is a good thing which compensates even for an author's faults. This reading will be useful to you, and you will experience no deception, since I have warned you that you will find in my romance neither talent nor art, only the truth.

For the rest, my kind public, however you may love to read between the lines, I prefer to tell you all. Because I have confessed that I have no shadow of talent and that my romance will lack in the telling, do not conclude that I am inferior to the story-tellers whom you accept and that this book is beneath their writings. That is not the purpose of my explanation. I merely mean that my story is very weak, so far as execution is concerned, in comparison with the works produced by real talent. But, as for the celebrated works of your favorite authors, you may, even in point of execution, put it on their level; you may even place it above them; for there is more art here than in the works aforesaid, you may be sure. And now, public, thank me! And since you love so well to bend the knee before him who disdains you, salute me!

Happily, scattered through your throngs, there exist, O public, persons, more and more numerous, whom I esteem. If I have just been impudent, it was because I spoke only to the vast majority of you. Before the persons to whom I have just referred, on the contrary, I shall be modest and even timid. Only, with them, long explanations are useless; I know in advance that we shall get along together. Men of research and justice, intelligence and goodness, it is but yesterday that you arose among us; and already your number is great and ever greater. If you were the whole public, I should not need to write; if you did not exist, I could not write. But you are a part of the public, without yet being the whole public; and that is why it is possible, that is why it is necessary, for me to write.