I finally picked up the first volume, called Childhood, Youth, and Exile, a few weeks ago, maybe because Herzen has been in the air (he’s a character in a recent Stoppard play that I haven’t seen). The memoirs are something of a mess and it’s easy to see why they’ve never become particularly popular, but so far I’m very glad to be reading them (I’ve been hunting for the remaining volumes).
The book was written in fits and starts, with brilliant and charming sections of obvious interest, like the section describing Napoleon’s burning of Moscow, giving way to private anecdotes related in far too much detail – various university shenanigans, for example, which even Herzen apologies for narrating at such length – until the narrative revives with an incisive observation or a moving character sketch (this happens repeatedly).
Here, for example, is a tossed-off observation about Herzen’s mother: “An exceedingly kind-hearted woman, but not strong-willed, she was utterly crushed by my father; and, as often happens with weak characters, she was apt to carry on a desperate opposition in matters of no importance.” Herzen’s opinions are rarely startling, but he has a gift for communicating the essence of an idea in a few sentences – a person’s character, or the atmosphere of a depressing provincial town. "The relative conventionality of his psychology makes it all the simpler and truer," D. S. Mirsky writes, but it is an earned conventionality. Herzen seems to have thought everything out for himself, accepting in the process a great deal of everyday wisdom as accurate. And so he moves in and out of the commonplace, and it is only later that you realize – Berlin points this out too – how original he is capable of being under his genial, conversational manner.
There was one passage in particular that I kept thinking about. It is about how Herzen found out he was an illegitimate child. Herzen’s father never married his mother according to the Russian rites, and gave his son an invented last name because he said that he was the child of his heart (Herz in German). Quite calmly, Herzen narrates this discovery
Children in general find out more than people think. They are easily put off, and forget for a time, but they persist in returning to the subject, especially if it is mysterious or alarming; and by their questions they get at the truth with surprising perseverance and ingenuity.Why did I find this passage so impressive? It was the second sentence, mainly, that was affecting me – “They are easily put off, and forget for a time, but they persist in returning to the subject...” There is Herzen’s insight into how children figure things out, but most of the passage’s originality is produced by the interval of time separating Herzen’s era of storytelling from ours.
Once my curiosity was aroused, I soon learned all the details of my parents’ marriage – how my mother made up her mind to elope, how she was concealed in the Russian embassy at Cassel by uncle’s connivance, and then crossed the frontier disguised as a boy; and all this I found out without asking a single question.
I tried to imagine myself writing a story about a child in this situation and realized I would never have written that second sentence, which covers so many years and casual attempts to figure out the truth. I would instead have thought of the crucial scene, the moment when the pieces fell into place for the child, and I would probably have succumbed to the cliché of the inquisitive child and had the boy ask lots of questions.
Modern writers almost always build their stories around such spots of time; very few would think of having a passage like Herzen’s, where a child is "easily put off" and then takes in vital knowledge in a mysterious, gradual way that doesn't lend itself to condensation into a scene or two.
Herzen’s method isn’t dramatically satisfying – it isn’t “good” storytelling – but I think it's much closer to how life is actually experienced. Looking back on my own childhood – or my adult life, for that matter - it’s rare for me to be able to pinpoint a moment where something profound was learned. Such lessons, for most of us, are simply absorbed, and it’s only after we’ve already made them part of our way of looking at the world that we realize that anything at all has changed. This is just the sort of experience Herzen describes, and yet modern storytellers relentlessly drive their characters towards epiphanies, something I’m quite certain I’ve never had in my life.
Film and television, I think, are partially responsible. We have been raised on a storytelling medium that cannot comfortably depict gradual change: a second on screen in a second in life, and to give an audience the transformation that makes a story satisfying and consequential, artists often have to fabricate a “moment” that communicates this change.
Then again, the same is often true of Dickens, so perhaps the real culprit is the impulse to entertain – to create vividness on the page for a mass audience – which overwhelms the desire to tell the truth.
This is not a small matter, because storytelling is how most of us learn to look at our lives and create a sense of significance – we’re always writing a narrative that leads somewhere. And if we’re unable to stitch together these moments into a coherent story that has, for us, the ring of truth, life can seem pointless, or worth living only for isolated moments which form no narrative. There are always ready-made stories, of course, but most people have to do some work to fit their lives comfortably into them.
Guy Davenport has said this beautifully: "We all lead a moral inner life of the spirit, on which religion, philosophy, and tacit opinion have many claims. To reflect on this inner life rationally is a skill no longer taught, though successful introspection, if it can make us at peace with ourselves, is sanity itself."
Davenport is writing about Plutarch and Montaigne, and part of his point is that words, if we retain a sense of how to use them, are by far the best tools for this introspection. As even that ordinary passage from Herzen shows, we haven’t come up with anything better to describe the texture and flow of our thoughts and spirit, and our obsession with giving our narratives immediacy encourages a falsification of reality that I think damages our ability to be truthful about our lives.
As Davenport says, no one teaches this skill anymore, but there are still books – Herzen’s is one of them – that show us how it might be done. He survived personal agonies that would destroy most people, and lived through an era when revolutionary fervor was often accompanied by the sacrifice of every ordinary human value. But he never stopped being generous and thoughtful; he knew how to meditate on his experience, find words for it, and put himself at least somewhat at peace.
He didn't end up writing anything like a cohesive work of art, I suppose. Characters take center stage and then disappear, again and again, and one doesn't get a sense of how it all fits together, except for the consciousness through which the events are presented. But, as with Gandhi's memoirs, I prefer this book for its lack of self-conscious artistry. Neither man was too concerned with literary perfection, just telling people how he saw things. If you've lived and thought well enough, it turns out, that's plenty.