Гончаров Иван Александрович
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Гончаров Иван Александрович
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The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Precipice, by Ivan Goncharov
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**Welcome To The World of Free Plain Vanilla Electronic Texts**
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Title: The Precipice
Author: Ivan Goncharov
Release Date: January, 2005 [EBook #7307]
[This file was first posted on April 10, 2003]
Character set encoding: ISO Latin-1
*** START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK, THE PRECIPICE ***
Susan Skinner, Eric Eldred, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed
Original Russian Title: _OBRYV_
TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL RUSSIAN; TRANSLATOR UNKNOWN
[This text is condensed from the original.]
Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov (1812-1891) was one of the leading members
of the great circle of Russian writers who, in the middle of the
nineteenth century, gathered around the _Sovremmenik_ (Contemporary)
under Nekrasov's editorship--a circle including Turgenev, Dostoyevsky,
Tolstoy, Byelinsky, and Herzen. He had not the marked genius of the
first three of these; but that he is so much less known to the western
reader is perhaps also due to the fact that there was nothing
sensational either in his life or his literary method. His strength was
in the steady delineation of character, conscious of, but not deeply
disturbed by, the problems which were obsessing and distracting smaller
and greater minds.
Tolstoy has a characteristically prejudiced reminiscence: "I remember
how Goncharov, the author, a very sensible and educated man but a
thorough townsman and an aesthete, said to me that, after Turgenev,
there was nothing left to write about in the life of the lower classes.
It was all used up. The life of our wealthy people, with their
amorousness and dissatisfaction with their lives, seemed to him full of
inexhaustible subject-matter. One hero kissed his lady on her palm, and
another on her elbow, and a third somewhere else. One man is
discontented through idleness, another because people don't love him.
And Goncharov thought that in this sphere there is no end of variety."
In fact, his greatest success was the portrait of Oblomov in the novel
of that name, which was at once recognised as a peculiarly national
character--a man of thirty-two years, careless, bored, untidy, lazy, but
gentle and good-natured. In the present work, now translated for the
first time into English, the type reappears with some differences.
Raisky seems to have been "born tired." He has plenty of intelligence,
some artistic gifts, charm, and an abundant kindliness, yet he achieves
nothing, either in work or in love, and in the end fades ineffectually
out of the story. "He knew he would do better to begin a big piece of
work instead of these trifles; but he told himself that Russians did not
understand hard work, or that real work demanded rude strength, the use
of the hands, the shoulders, and the back," "He is only half a man,"
says Mark Volokov, the wolfish outlaw who quotes Proudhon and talks
about "the new knowledge, the new life." This rascal, whose violent
pursuit of the heroine produces the tragedy of the book, is a much less
convincing figure, though he also represents a reality of Russian life
then, and even now.
The true contrast to Raisky of which Goncharov had deep and sympathetic
knowledge is shown in the splendid picture of the two women--Vera, the
infatuated beauty, and Aunt Tatiana, whose agony of motherly concern and
shamed remembrance is depicted with great power. The book is remarkable
as a study in the psychology of passionate emotion; for the western
reader, it is also delightful for the glimpses it gives of the old
Russian country life which is slowly passing away. The scene lies beside
one of the small towns on the Volga--"like other towns, a cemetery ...
the tranquillity of the grave. What a frame for a novel, if only he knew
what to put in the novel.... If the image of passion should float over
this motionless, sleepy little world, the picture would glow into the
enchanting colour of life." The storm of passion does break over the
edge of the hill overlooking the mighty river, and, amid the wreckage,
the two victims rise into a nobility that the reckless reformer and the
pleasant dilettante have never conceived.
Goncharov had passed many years in Governmental service and had, in fact,
reached the age of thirty-five when his first work, _"A Common
Story,"_ was published. _"The Frigate Pallada,"_ which followed,
is a lengthy descriptive account of an official expedition to Japan and
Siberia in which Goncharov took part. After the publication of _"The
Precipice,"_ its author was moved to write an essay, _"Better Late
Than Never,"_ in which he attempted to explain that the purpose of
his three novels was to present the eternal struggle between East and
West--the lethargy of the Russian and the ferment of foreign influences.
Thus he ranged himself more closely with the great figures among his
contemporaries. Two other volumes consist of critical study and
Boris Pavlovich Raisky had a vivacious, unusually mobile face. At first
sight he appeared younger than his years. The high, white forehead gave
an impression of freshness and vigour; the eyes blazed one moment with
intelligence, emotion or gaiety, a moment later they wore a meditative,
dreamy expression, then again they looked young, even childlike. At
other times they evidenced knowledge of life, or looked so weary, so
bored that they betrayed their owner's age; at these times there
appeared between them three furrows, certain indications of time and
knowledge of life. Smooth black hair fell on his neck and half covered
the ears, with here and there silver threads about the temples. His
complexion had kept the tints of youth except on the temples and the
chin, which were a brownish-yellow colour.
It was easy to guess from his physiognomy that the conflict between
youth and maturity was past, that he had passed the early stages of
life's journey and that sorrow and sickness had left their marks on him.
Only the mouth, with its delicate lines, with the fresh, almost
childlike smile remained unchanged by age.
He had been left an orphan in childhood, and for some time his
indifferent, bachelor guardian had left his education to a relative,
This lady was endowed with a rich temperament, but her horizon did not
stretch far beyond her own home, where in the tranquil atmosphere of
woods and gardens, in the environment of the family and the estate,
Boris had passed several years. When he grew older his guardian sent him
to the High School, where the family traditions of former wealth and of
the connexion with other old noble families faded.
His further development, occupations and inclinations led him still
further from the traditions of his childhood. Raisky had lived for about
ten years in St. Petersburg; that is to say he rented three pleasant
rooms from a German landlord, which he retained, although after he had
left the civil service he rarely spent two successive half-years in the
He had left the civil service as casually as he had entered it, because,
when he had had time to consider his position, he came to the conclusion
that the service is not an aim in itself, but merely a means to bring
together a number of men who would otherwise have had no justification
for their existence. If these men had not existed, the posts which they
filled need never have been created.
Now, he had already passed his thirtieth year, and had neither sowed nor
reaped. He did not follow the same path as the other ordinary arrival
from the interior of Russia, for he was neither an officer nor an
official, nor did he seek a career for himself by hard work or by
influence. He was inscribed in the registers of his police district as a
It would have been hard for the expert in physiognomy to decipher
Raisky's characteristics, inclinations and character from his face
because of its extraordinary mobility. Still less could his mental
physiognomy be defined. He had moments when, to use his own expression,
he embraced the whole world, so that many people declared that there was
no kinder, more amiable man in existence. Others, on the contrary, who
came across him at an unfortunate moment, when the yellow patches on his
face were most marked, when his lips were drawn in a sinister, nervous
quiver, and he returned kindness and sympathy with cold looks and sharp
words, were repelled by him and even pursued him with their dislike.
Some called him egotistic and proud, while others declared themselves
enchanted with him; some again maintained that he was theatrical, others
that he was not to be trusted. Two or three friends judged otherwise. "A
noble nature," they said, "most honourable, but with all its virtues,
nervous, passionate, excitable, fiery tempered...." So there had never
been any unanimous opinion of him.
Even in early childhood while he lived with his aunt, and later, after
his school-days had begun, he showed the same enigmatic and
It might be expected that the first effort of a new boy would be to
listen to the teacher's questions and the pupils' answers. But Raisky
stared at the teacher, as if seeking to impress on his memory the
details of his appearance, his speech, how he took snuff; he looked at
his eyebrows, his beard, then at his clothes, at the cornelian seal
suspended across his waistcoat, and so on. Then he would observe each of
the other boys and note their peculiarities, or he would study his own
person, and wonder what his own face was like, what the others thought
"What did I say just now?" interrupted the master, noticing Boris's
To the teacher's amazement Boris replied word for word, "And what is the
meaning of this?" He had listened mechanically, and had caught the
The master repeated his explanation, and again Boris caught the sound of
his voice, noticing that sometimes he spoke shortly, staccato--sometimes
drawled as if he were singing, and then rapped out his words smartly
Raisky blushed, perspired with anxiety, and was silent.
It was the mathematical master. He went to the blackboard, wrote up the
problem, and again began the explanation. Raisky only noticed with what
rapidity and certainty he wrote the figures, how the waistcoat with the
cornelian seal and then the snuff-spattered shirt front came
nearer--nothing, except the solution of the problem, escaped him.
Now and then a notion penetrated to his brain, but when it came to
equations he grew weary with the effort required. Sometimes the teacher
lost patience with him, and generally concluded: "Go back to your place,
you are a blockhead."
But if a whiff of originality passed over the master himself, if he
taught as if it were a game, and had recourse neither to his book nor to
the blackboard, then the solution flashed on Raisky, and he found the
answer quicker than any of the others.
He consumed passionately history, novels and tales; wherever he could he