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B : rough and a bit hasty, but quite a bit of interest
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Sofya Kovalevskaya was a remarkable figure: as Natasha Kolchevska notes in her Introduction, she was:
the first European woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics, summa cum laude at the age of twenty-four, from the University of Göttingen. She was the first nineteenth-century European woman to hold a tenured teaching appointment in mathematics, at the University of Stockholm.Nihilist Girl tantalizingly begins with a narrator with a similar biography, someone just returned to Petersburg after five years abroad studying mathematics in Germany and getting her doctorate. Back in Russia, she: "threw myself into new interests" -- reveling in everything, from: "Theaters, benefit galas, and literary circles with their endless discussions of every kind of abstract topic ultimately leading nowhere". But the novel does not chronicle the path she -- or Kovalevskaya -- took: the 'nihilist girl' of the title is another, and it is her story that this novel presents, the Kovalevskaya-stand-in narrator's role barely more than a framing device.
The narrator is visited by one Vera Barantsova; as it happens, their parents owned neighboring estates -- an underexplored connection in the novel -- and Vera turns to her for help and advice:
My personal life is over. I don't expect or want anything for myself. My passionate, my fervent wish is to be of use to 'the cause.' Tell me, teach me what to doIn fact, Vera has no clear concept of what 'cause' she wants to dedicate herself to; she turns to the narrator presumably because the latter is admired, and wise and accomplished (as having obtained a doctorate at age twenty-two would suggest) rather than any specific cause she might be involved in (as, indeed, she does not appear to be involved in any).
As the narrator recognizes:
She was completely engrossed in a single thought -- to find a purpose, a goal in life.In order to help her, the narrator wants to understand her better -- the excuse for Vera to share her own whole story, her background, experiences, and disappointments, an account of which then takes up much of the novel.
The youngest of three daughters, Vera grew up in comfort on the Barantsov estate, her father a count -- though not a man with much ambition or particularly interested in managing his property; hence the estate continued to diminish, as the count and countess continued to live above their actual means. Vera was still a child when the event that people had been talking about for twenty years came to pass: "February nineteenth, that terrible date so long anticipated and so fraught with consequences, finally arrived" -- the decree emancipating Russia's serfs. Inadequately prepared for it and its consequences, the Barantsov family was plunged into even more dire straits, the household now a miserable place, the impractical count and countess having no idea how to (or much interest in) setting things right.
Vera's escapist fantasies begin to take on form, as she first regrets not having lived in a time of religious martyrs, then is pleased to learn about:
three English missionaries in China who had been burned at the stake by savage heathens. And to think this happened only five or six years ago ! So even now there were heathens in China ! Even now one could earn a martyr's crown there !If this is just a childish dream, Vera eventually comes to learn that there are opportunities for martyrdom closer to home as well, as the harsh Russian system tries to crush those it sees as enemies of the state -- a growing number, in these uncertain and uneasy times.
The neighboring estate belongs to a Petersburg professor, Vasiltsev, who, however, practically never visits. His liberal tendencies eventually cause trouble, however, and he is advised to: "put in for retirement and remove himself to his ancestral estate, without the right to leave it". Still, it happens at an opportune time: here, at least, he can serve as tutor to Vera, providing the girl with a bit of an education (including about some of the injustices of contemporary society ...).
Vasiltsev also provides an inappropriate sort of love-interest for Vera -- stuck out in the middle of nowhere, with no other suitors in sight -- but that does little more than cause a bit of awkwardness between them. Eventually, the matter is resolved by Vasiltsev's removal, the government having decided he was too dangerous even for this place and forcing him again to move on.
The Barantsov family's decline continues apace, until its final collapse (the count falling ill and eventually dying; the countess turning to religion and settling in a convent), bringing Vera to Petersburg, where she looks for a purpose. Vasiltsev had taught her, in the abstract, about contemporary suffering and the oppressive system in place, but this had: "ill prepared her for any sort of real action". She is determined, however, to make a difference, hoping to join the nihilist movement, and disappointed that she doesn't know how to find an entrée to it -- so too that the narrator can't help her in this regard:
She as greatly disillusioned to discover that I personally did not know a single nihilist, and that I didn't even believe in the existence of a broad-based revolutionary organization in Russia. That simply hadn't entered into her calculations. She had expected more of me.The narrator notes the efforts of some in the intelligentsia in those times, and how hapless these often were, the propagandists carrying out their well-meaning missions "impractically and ineptly", not knowing how to convince -- or even communicate effectively with -- the peasant-class. Amusingly, it's the government's over-reaction that helps fuel what success the movement has: "political trials were a fine instrument for propaganda", and it is through these trials that Vera is able to root out who the true nihilists are. It is through these, also, that she finds her long longed-for possibility of martyrdom, making a great sacrifice in order to help save the life of one leading revolutionary figure.
It makes for a reasonably effective and affecting novel, if somewhat rushed and rough. The more or less nesting of one narrative -- Vera's experiences, especially growing up -- in another is slightly awkward, but the narrator is a useful contrasting figure, sympathetic to Vera and her craving, and cognizant of the increasing political turmoil around her -- if not, herself, in any meaningful way active. Indeed, though immersed in the cultural and social life of Petersburg of the time, the narrator remains something of a character apart, observer (and commentator) rather than woman of action. Vera, on the other hand, is presented as a much more full-blooded character -- desperate for a sense of purpose even as it is implied the actual purpose isn't what is most important. A basic sense of right and wrong move her -- but this also makes for a revolutionary driven by emotion, not reason; the mathematician-narrator is, in comparison, much more coolly calculating (though a nice touch has the closing scene again contrasting the two, with the narrator also showing emotion: "'Are you crying for me ?' said Vera with a bright smile" is a devastating final image).
Nihilist Girl feels somewhat hastily written -- as evidenced also by a few editorial footnotes noting flaws in the text: the observation that: "Something is missing her", or that: "Kovalevskaya forgets that in chapter 2 she named Vera's mother Mariya" (as she is suddenly referred to as 'Alina'). So too Kovalevskaya rushes through some of the scenes; indeed, much of the narrative feels impatient, as if she simply wants to get to her point. Certainly, there's more than enough to the story to have made for a considerably more substantial work, and there are quite a few parts that would have benefited from being expanded on -- not least the narrator's commentating role.
Still, even just as such, Nihilist Girl is a sharp and quite well thought-through novel, and offers an interesting glimpse of Russian turmoil in the second half of the nineteenth century. A thorough Introduction provides additional useful context and background -- so also about fascinating and remarkable Kovalevskaya, and the elements from her own experiences that are used in the story.
If more of historical (and literary-historical) interest than for its literary quality, Nihilist Girl is still a worthwhile and interesting text.
- M.A.Orthofer, 16 May 2020
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Sofya Kovalevskaya (Софья Васильевна Ковалевская) was a mathematician; she lived 1850 to 1891.
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