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The childhood — First writings — The college years

FEODOR SOLOGUB WAS BORN on March 1 [which is February 17, according to the old Russian calendar1], 1863, in Saint Petersburg to the family of a tailor, former peasant of the Poltava province and a landowner’s illegitimate son, Kuzma Afanasievich Teternikov (in official papers he was called Tiutiunikov). Two years later Feodor’s sister Olga was born. The family lived poorly, though Kuzma could settle in an apartment where he worked as an independent tailor, but he did not live for long: in 1867, when his son was four years old, he died of consumption. The mother tried to continue an independent life, for a while she held a laundry, but difficulties compelled her to return as a general servant to the Agapoffs, an old noble family, whom she had once served. Sologub. 1870 In the Agapovs’ family the future writer spent all his childhood and youth. The duality of life — on the one hand, the masters indulged him and set special conditions for him (he read books, magazines, listened to music and frequently visited the theater), on the other hand, there were the fumes and stifling smells of the kitchen where his mother worked hard and vented cruelly her anger and irritation on the children, — developed estrangement and reticense in the young Feodor Teternikov. Frequent whippings (practically for everything, though there were no real reasons: Feodor was a diligent pupil and helper) and quarrels with their mother did not leave bitterness in the children’s hearts who grew accustomed to the ruthless validity of punishment; it was a deeply secret family circle, which they did not let anybody in, and later losses of relatives — of his mother (d. in 1894) and sister (d. in 1907) — were therefore endured by Sologub very hard. The view of that period of his life can be found in the short story Consolation (1896) which with almost autobiographical accuracy reproduces the atmosphere of the author’s childhood and that is unique for Sologub who left neither a curriculum vitae nor memoirs and who extremely seldom converted episodes of his private life into a plot of a literary work.

        His poetic gift was revealed at the age of twelve and the first available finished poems date back to 1878. At that time he read much, he was especially impressed by Auerbach’s On the Height, Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, King Lear — the latter were not only read many times, but literally scrutinized, line by line. Of poets Feodor was especially fond of Nikolai Nekrasov and that is remarkable, — young Feodor knew by heart almost all poems of this deadly somber, even somewhat decadent poet who disguised himself as a civic bard, and he esteemed him far higher than Lermontov and Pushkin. The narrative, metaphorless and ‘prettinessless’ yet facile poetry of Nekrasov was reflected in Sologub’s early poems with their prosaic plot, scenes or reasonings that are rather peculiar to a realistic short story than poetry, with their attention to everyday details, plain lucid comparisons.
        In 1878 Feodor Teternikov entered the St.-Petersburg Teacher’s Training College. Under the direction of the highly educated and progressive principal Karl Saint-Hilaire this outstanding college had the most advanced teachers of the time. An atmosphere of individual liberty developed the best features of its students. In the college, which had a status of boarding-school, Feodor studied and resided for four years; he was a diligent student and a good son who wanted to become independent and to spare his mother a humiliating work. Among his mates Feodor Teternikov stood out for his offishness and beautiful appearance. “He drank neither wine, nor beer, did not go to restaurants and pubs. Even on the College day he remained aloof and did not participate in dancing and booze,” a fellow-student recollected half a century later.
        In these years Sologub translated much: Shakespeare, Heine, Goethe, Hungarian and Polish poets, the Icelandic saga Edda. He also attempted to write prose: in 1879 he began an epic novel ,Night Dews, about the fate of three generations and a theoretical research about the nature of novel. Although such a grandiose plan was not completed, it worked as a necessary literary practice for the young writer.
        In his final year at the college Sologub started Loneliness, an immense poem, similar in the idea and also having autobiographical motives. It was dedicated to Nekrasov. The hero of the poem is a young man dying from an illness; he lives alone and aloof, having achieved nothing, yet he has been dreaming of a feat, but in fact he is only giving in vices, — in a strange way one person combines a dreamer ńapable to perform an exploit and a selfish aesthete despising the crowd. Thus erotic and morbid elements, so typical for the future Russian decadence, penetrate into the civic themes. Feodor apparently sympathized with democratic sentiments of his time (within his family circle he heartily advocated Vera Zasulich who shot at the Petersburg vice-governor in 1878), but he failed to find an ideological affinity with the common people and the lower classes.

        “...But somehow it does not come to his mind to sacrifice for others”, Sologub writes about a similar hero in the essay About Loneliness around the same time. “And even if he thinks of it, it is accompanied by such vain dreams that he feels very disgust then. And those thoughts about himself lead him to a conviction that one should not value life: the future is not worth for us because we do not have it, and is there any difference between this future and death so far? After death we shall not find that difference. The question is: to be or not to be? But the answer, “not to be”, should be pleasant to the one for whom it is hard to be...“

        Feodor continued to write the poem Loneliness all the time up to the end of 1883. Last time he tried to do something with the poem was in 1889.
        In the summer 1882, on graduation from the college, he left St. Petersburg for northern provinces to serve as a teacher — first in Krestsy, then in Velikie Luki and Vytegra, — in total having spent ten years in the provinces.




The first publications — Service in the remote places — Poetry of 1880’s

IN KRESTSY, A SMALL TOWN of the Novgorod Province, Sologub spent three years teaching in the Krestsy public school. He continued to write verse, the poem Loneliness, exceprts from which he sent his former instructor at Teacher's College Vassili Latyshev, who also was the editor of the journal Russki Nachalny Uchitel [‘Russian Elementary Teacher’]. Sologub. Early 1880s Latyshev agreed to promote the poem after it would be completed, but Sologub never did it. He may have been affected by the constant criticism of Latyshev, who considered the poem a little risky and ponderous (it dealt with the hero’s inclination to automanipulation), besides, by the time, Feodor had an intention to write a novel that would inherit the ideas of the poem. This time he worked on the novel (the future Bad Dreams) more elaborately and after many long years eventually finished it.
     It was Lisitsa i yozh [‘Fox and Hedgehog’], which became Sologub’s first publication. It was printed in a small magazine called Vesna [‘Spring’] on January 28, 1884, under the name of “Te-rnikov”; this date marked the beginning of Feodor Sologub’s literary career. Another few poems were published in subsequent years.
     Sologub’s poetry of those years conveyed little about an original poetic language. What is important is that his lyrics was not civic poetry, typical for the 1880s. Personal emotions did not get attached to the outward, to the common; there were no appeals, allegories appropriate, for example, to Semion Nadson, the most brilliant poet of the time. The lyric hero is he himself, both a poor teacher and a barefoot boy absorbed in work and dreams.

     As a kind of exercises, many poems were written on everyday subjects: family, work at school, — they were stories in verses with unpoetic descriptions and feelings. Their utmost naturalism (including frequent scenes of whipping and family squabbles) promoted to overcome sentimentalism and rhetorical clichés of Sologub’s early poetry.
     Almost nothing of his poetry apperared in print at the time, and later Sologub would quite seldom include poems of 1883—1886 in his books. Such a mystery produced a surprising result: when Sologub appeared ‘from nowhere’, many were amazed at the perfect mastery of verse: his poetic way had been invisible for everyone.

     In the provinces the new teacher found himself in cultural isolation to which it was difficult and unpleasant to adjust, besides the entourage of the local life, full of savage customs, also left an oppressive impression upon the young man.

     “A teacher in the provinces,” Feodor wrote to Latyshev to Petersburg in December 1883, “is often doomed to intellectual and moral isolation. Two or three companions are all his society and even it gets often bogged down in the morass of provincial life. By his education, by his development he does not stand high. He needs mental pabulum, but all he finds is people who are more blind than himself, narrow-minded, with vague confused concepts of morals. If at least he met honest and vigorous workers… but no. It is all the usual Russian swalling-up and good-natured mass of people.”

     Indeed, Krestsy, as Chebotarevskaia wrote later, represented at that time “a true type of ‘backwater district’, where one can view the fields from every house’s window, on dark evenings people walk on streets with their own lanterns at the risk of sinking into the impassable mud, and where shopkeepers receive sausage and canned goods once a year.” Life in such towns was strictly regulated: one had to receive guests on a regular basis and pay visits back, to go to church, to gather at dinners, clubs, etc. And all that besides work at school that also meant being on the beat for houses where pupils lived. It was impossible to evade that way of life, and it was difficult to withstand it, and occasionally there were frustrations.

“…I came to Saburov [pupil] in a bad mood,” Feodor wrote from Vytegra to his sister, “I recalled all his failures and birched him very hard and then I slapped in his aunt’s face twice for her indulgence and strictly ordered to whip him more often…”

     He blamed such displays of incontinence in relations between a teacher and a pupil. And what Sologub could internally refer to himself, he did not project onto others, whatever the critics later spoke about his works where they saw only flogging and sadism. Moreover, in his numerous articles dealing with issues of pedagogics Sologub repeatedly advocated truly humanistic principles of school, without punishments, uniform, constant shadowing and informing, without a bureaucratic element in teacher’s work. “We desire such a school,” Sologub wrote in the article Under A Bushel, published in 1904, “where pupils could come in with ready inquiries and teachers would be to solve their queries. Teachers would be there for explanation, for help, to tell what to read as well as in what order to work”. “And what do they beat them for? — for minor pranks, for a broken glass, for bad marks,” — complained the writer in another article, Like A Boy. — “They beat them only because children are weak and cannot protect themselves. Simply, without ceremony, — as though children do not have any rights. But if it is exact that boys have no rights to corporal immunity, such rights should be made. Because it is really terrible, that the fate of little Vankas and Vaskas depends to such an extent upon an arbitrariness and (sometimes ignorant) parents. Tens of millions kids, future citizens, are a value enough significant to be under the protection of a certain law!”
     It might be a self-slander, typical for Sologub, who was rarely open in conversation, did not like direct questions and generalized judgements about himself. Although in this case it was most likely to be the truth, since Sologub was frank enough in his letters to Olga. “I lived in such an environment; it was teacher's milieu, rude, harsh,” he would say once about that period. Besides, his mood was aggravated by a nervous overexcitement caused by the intrafamily customs. It should be said that the mother kept her domination over the family and kept birching Feodor, the bread-winner and adult person. Punishments were, as it were, ‘for good reason’: for not cleaning up the house, torn clothes, coming late... But such Domostroi upbringing methods, once probably pertinent for playful children (which the Teternikovs were not), became the rule of Feodor’s daily life; he gradually grew willing psychologically to be punished for any excuse found; on the surface he perceived it as ‘human humility’ (“...Resignedly I accept my suffering, // As Thou, Christ, did. // Having undergone submissively the beating, // I kiss the severe hands // As a thanks for the cruelty of punishment, // For the justice of acute torments”). The mother’s authority was consequently indisputable; when she died (1894), the duties of the executioner were taken over by sister Olga.
     This secret nightmare of family life was expressed in a number of poems of that period (one of them is mentioned above, Gospod moi stradania slyshit… [‘The Lord Hears My Suffering…’], 1885). After the poet’s death they were found in a folder titled “Diary”: what Sologub meant by that is unknown, as it is obvious that, despite of naturalism of the scenes, a part of the poems was of purposely fictitious content.

Curious neigbour girls
Are standing in their garden
And watching the windows of the pavillion,
Where I am being birched.

I have noticed them
Standing by the alder trunk,
When my mum was leading me from the porche
To punish me.

And one of the boys
Who have come to whip me
Said, “Young ladies, Stepanov,
Wanted to know much”.

I stood firm and tried
Not to scream and not to cry,
Nevertheless I got bawling, —
It was so painful you can’t stand.

After whipping I came into the garden,
As red as a poppy,
And I heard their sneers:
— How they have rouged you!

     Against such a background, undisposed to creativity and self-development, Feodor Teternikov read much, Velikie Luki. Late 19th centuryreinforced his skills of foreign languages, kept up with the latest foreign literature, studied the history of classical, European and Oriental philosophies, translated Homer and Aeschylus, worked on an innovative textbook of geometry, tried to inspire the pupil’s souls, — all that helped the young man withstand the depressing provincial routine. “My main objective,” he wrote in a letter to Latyshev, “is to achieve such an extent of erudition that is achievable so far in my conditions.” There are pupils’ recollections about Sologub the teacher, which were written down by Vera Kalitskaia, an acquaintance of Sologub in the 1920s. After his death she went to Vytegra (Sologub taught there in 1889—1892) and found many people who had known Feodor Teternikov back then.

     “We used to come with compositions, — recalled a former Vytegra teacher's seminary student, — discussed them and begged for good marks. He would give ‘two plus’ and we would shout: “That’s not enough, Feodor Kuzmich, add a little.” “Enough,” he would say, “enough.” Then he would smile and give ‘three’ and add a big minus… He taught to play chess. “You play bad,” he would say, “look how you should have.” In the classroom he was on formal terms with us, called us by surnames, but at home he called us simply: “Senka, Vaska”…
     — Was Feodor Kuzmich hot-tempered ever?
     — No, I never heard. He controlled his temper very well; always even, smooth, always with an ironical smile. Unless he would be very annoyed, but then he would just turn red in the face…
     We had a choir in the seminary, I sang; choir practises were on evenings. As soon as the choristers would find out that Feodor Kuzmich is the attendant in the hostel [for seminary pupils], they would run after the practise to him… well, so would I…
     — What did you talk about?
     — Well, he didn’t expatiate, he answered our questions, gave explanations, narrated…
     — Did he narrate his own stories or from books?
     — I can’t tell that, we didn’t understand back then — his own or someone else’s stories, but he narrated a lot… We loved him very much…”

Vytegra. Late 19th century     The diligent teacher, who conscientiously fulfilled his duties, did not miss a class, had ideals concerning pedagogics, — such a teacher irritated the headmaster and colleagues. From time to time tension was heightened. To crown it all, a scandal took place, “Grigoriev's case”. Teacher Grigoriev lodged in the Teternikovs’ house and seduced their maid, a fourteen-year-old girl. Grigoriev was jailed, but the case would never be brought to trial: the ‘society’ interfered in — Krestsy ladies who, spreading rumours throughout the town about Grigoriev's innocence, at the same time were slandering the Teternikovs. Thus, in townspeople’s opinion, the criminal turned into a victim hero. Grigoriev was set free, the case was dismissed. Grigoriev was discharged, but that was due to an order from St. Petersburg. This story was used as a source for Bad Dreams where Grigoriev was portrayed under the name Molin.
     Obviously, after what happened, it was impossible to live on in Krestsy and it was so disgusting that the young teacher was even thinking to give up his work:

     “The things in Krestsy have been developing rather badly for me,” Feodor confined his experience in a letter to Latyshev. “I have tasted the sweetness of slander, spite, underhand plotting and schemes, — the things which I had not been skilful with and often did not want to struggle against: foully to play, hands to blacken. — I wish I could get out from Krestsy… I would be pleased to change even for a district school, or even to leave the service at all…”

     Thus he was reduced to leave Krestsy in 1885 and move to Velikie Luki. Later there would be a conflict in Vytegra, in 1891, — Feodor refused to connive at the headmaster’s peculation.

*  *  *

     Sologub’s poetic skill was formed in the 1880s, the time known for its lethargy in the Russian society and arts. It was a ‘fatigued’ era when the former ideals were muffled and receded. The literature of those years was touched with the same apathy, especially it concerned fiction. As for the poetry, the only ray of light in the emptiness of the 1880s was Semion Nadson who was a truly ‘man of the eighties’ as were Sologub, Chekhov and Gorki. They all were deeply touched by the ‘deadness’ of the time and each expressed it perfectly in their own way. And Sologub’s way was the most unique of his contemporaries’. His lyrics of the late 1880s, enriched already with developed poetic technique, now were getting defined much clearer by mental experiences and moods, having been accumulated and developed for the years of provincial life: an increasing languor, sickly melancholy and impotent impulses are entangling Sologub’s verses. The poet is tireless in analyzing them and searching for a way to express them.

By various asprirations
     My soul is torn,
And life with its fatigues
     Is dark and good.

Exhausted by impulses
     I seem to dream,
By timid hopes
     I am excited and confused.

Poisoned by anxiety,
     I keep waiting for someone.
Which way and,
     Where should I go?
         (September 19 1886)

     The way is not clear, and is it really necessary to go anywhere?.. Life is “ailing and vain” anyway, wish we got rid of it... So come motifs of nonexistence, prebirth, and — death, which especially imbue the matter of Sologub’s lyrics from the early 1890s on.

     After a life, ailing and vain,
     After strange and false fatigues,
     We shall steep in a dreamless slumber,
     We shall be lost in the responseless darkness,
And let people’s tears shed and a storm rage
On the earth, on the sad expanse:
Neither pale prehensile grief,
     Nor boisterous intolerable happiness shall find us.

     The delay in Sologub's literary career was caused by a complete cultural seclusion. He felt that he could not write any longer in the solitude, in social and cultural isolation:

     “To write verse and prose (that I also do) one can only under the circumstances of a possibly greater communication with people and their social interests, — I have been out of such communication,” Feodor wrote to Latyshev in a letter, dated June 17, 1890. And further about the innermost: “…I do not want to give up writing verse and prose, and I shall not want it for a good while, even if I would remain a failure in this field, I have a strange self-confidence, I believe that something practical still may come out; is it possible and how to carry it out?”

     There could be only one answer: to go back to Saint Petersburg where it was possible to realize talents. Furthermore, there were sympathizing writers to find: it was the time when young writers, the forerunners of new art, joined around the magazine Severny Vestnik [‘Northern Herald’] which became a kind of house organ for the first Russian symbolists: it published works by Nikolai Minski, Zinaida Hippius, Dmitri Merezhkovski, Konstantin Balmont. Of all literary magazines of the time this one stood out for its new trends and fresh authors, and it perfectly matched the aspirations of Feodor Teternikov. In the summer of 1891 he went to St. Petersburg to see Minski and Merezhkovski and met only the former. Minski seriously considered the talent of the Vytegra poet and agreed to render his assistance. But Teternikov could not move out right away from Vytegra. It took a year before he was allowed, at the patronage of Latyshev, to change the workplace, and finally moved to the capital city. Vytegra teacher’s seminary school was about to be closed down anyway and disagreements with the headmaster were growing aggravated. In Petersburg Feodor was appointed a teacher of Rozhdestvenskoe city school.

     The ten years in the provinces certainly had left a deep imprint on Sologub’s works and attitude, they rather had strengthened and developed some of the writer’s strains. Velikie Luki. Late 19th century The outward — life of small towns, the essence of the northern nature — had been studied by him well. Many scenes of Bad Dreams and The Petty Demon were copied directly from nature in Krestsy, Velikie Luki and Vytegra; although, as Sologub said later, he considerably softened some episodes in The Petty Demon, there were facts which, if to depict them, no one would believe. As the consequence, the scene of action of all his novels and most short stories were provincial towns. He, who was born in St. Petersburg, who knew the city well and lived almost all his life in it, quite seldom located his heroes in the capital; he almost never depicted it, and in his lyrics it appeared a little, described with brief terse lines. The inward — the roots of his talent got firmly established in those years: loneliness, hopelessness, ‘fatal fatigue’, — what would later be identified with ‘decadence’.




Severny Vestnik — The pseudonym — In Petersburg’s literary milieu

THE MAGAZINE SEVERNY VESTNIK [‘Northern Herald’] played a key role in Sologub's biography. This journal published widely Sologub’s works in the 1890s: poems, short stories, a novel, translations from Verlaine, book reviews, which all established him as a ‘quiet’ decadent in the Russian lirerary world. As a matter of fact, Feodor Sologub, the pseudonym, was made up in the magazine’s editorial office. If before Severny Vestnik there had been ‘a teacher’ writing and sending poems, after the co-operation with the journal, there was only the poet and writer Sologub ‘working somewhere as a teacher’. He contributed to the magazine until 1897, and in 1898 Severny Vestnik ceased to exist due to losing popularity and consequently financial difficulties.
     By the time of moving back to Saint Petersburg in September 1892, Feodor had known some people of the new art — first of all, Nikolai Minski, one of the first Russian symbolists. Early in 1892 Minski gave Sologub’s poems to the editor of Severny Vestnik, Akim Volynski. “I remember distinctly,” Volynski wrote later, “that I got excited very quickly. The poems astounded me by their clear simplicity, a subtle lucidity in the superfine poetic train of thought. The thought was always unexpected and the simplicity of expressions imparted an original charm. And in everything there was a cold rhythm of chiselled verses and a white cloudy veil of the most gentle moods enveloping all motives… We both decided right then to promote the young poet on the magazine’s pages.” (The poem Vecher [‘Evening’] was printed in the February 1892 issue of Severny Vestnik.)
     At the insistence of Minski, who considered the poet’s own surname Teternikov unpoetical, they decided to give Feodor a pseudonym; although, as one can notice by his previous publications, the poet himself had constantly avoided the use of his real name — there could be various reasons: first it may have been trying out himself, then his unwillingness to have any troubles with Ministry of Public Education, since he was a teacher in public service. Akim Volynski suggested “Sollogub”, a surname that associated at the time with an aristocratic family which had given Count Vladimir Sollogub, a fiction writer of the mid-19th century; for the distinction, they omitted one ‘L’ in the surname and the pseudonym “Feodor Sologub” was thus created (but that did not help completely: misspelling would be frequent during Sologub's lifetime). And Minski and Volynski, by the way, were also pseudonyms made up from the names of provinces where those men of letters of Jewish origin were born.

”My pseudonym is a sheer chance… I do not know why we decided in favor of Sologub,” the writer said a little archly in one interview. “Sometimes the Clipping Office sends me, through misunderstanding, articles about the old Count Sollogub. I was indifferent to all that, — in fact, one does not choose a name so far, — so I was christened as Feodor without asking for my consent.
     Once in my life I felt a big advantage of using a pseudonym. It happened in the rebellious years [1905—1907]. Being in public service, I could not feel the inconveniences of being a writer in those years. I published freely what I wanted, without rousing censure from the authorities, and I signed [by the pseudonym] some resolutions which were so popular back then. My authorities certainly knew that I write, that Sologub is my pseudonym, but formally my [real] name was not used anywhere, and they did not give any troubles to me.”

        For the first time the pseudonym appeared in print in the April 1893 issue of Severny Vestnik (under the poem Tvorchestvo [‘Creativity’]). During a year and half it was used occasionally until it eventually became firmly established. Sologub’s first published short story, Ninochka’s Mistake (1894), was signed by “Feodor Mohovikov”. A great deal of Sologub’s reviews was published unsigned in Severny Vestnik in 1895—1897; those were mostly reviews of pedagogical books. Nevertheless, in his correspondence Sologub used his real name and all his letters up to the 1910s were signed by “Feodor Teternikov”.
     In the mid-90s Sologub is gradually joining Petersburg literary circles: he is a frequent visitor at the Merezhkovskis’ (where one can meet established men of letters and new talents, Chekhov, Balmont, Rozanov at the time), visits The World of Art’ Wednesdays, Sluchevski’s ‘Fridays’; at last, Sologub himself has regular poetic meetings on Sundays, which become a center of the Petersburg decadents, such as Vladimir Hippius, Alexander Dobroliubov and Ivan Konevskoi. Sologub is carried by the general enthusiasm for Schopenhauer’s philosophy; he acquaints himself with the latest European literature — O. Wilde, M. Meterlink, S. Mallarme, J.-K. Huismans, F. Nieztsche, etc.
     One of such meetings (at the Merezhkovskis’) was reproduced by Alexander Benois:

     “…Among them I was particarly interested by the young poet Vladimir Hippius and a man of the somberest appearance who was not leaving the chair in the corner by the window all evening long and who was persistently silent with the extremely disapproving face until he, having taken offence at something, burst out into rebuking in a little bit hysterical tone. It was the poet Feodor Sologub of whom I had had no idea, but whose poems extremely pleased and even excited me when he read a number of them right then — without being specially asked to, — as though he took the occasion to express himself. He recited them in a flat, ‘sepulchral’ voice, abruptly casting words out. The poems were very gloomy yet extraordinary beautiful and convincing.”

     Zinaida Hippius expands the writer’s aspect of that time, describing their first encounter in her memoirs:

     “It was on a summer- or springtime sunny day. In Minski’s room, there was an all light red-haired man sitting in the armchair by the oval, clothed in velvet, table. A straight beard, the same light falling moustaches, a bald spot from the forehead, pince-nez on the black lace.
     In his face, in his eyes with heavy eyelids, in the whole clumsy figure there was a composure up to an immobility. A man who could never, under any circumstances, ‘fuss’. Silence went surprisingly well with him. When he spoke, it was just a few distinct words spoken in a very even, almost monotonous voice, without a shadow of haste. His speech is the same quiet impenetrability as his silence.”

Sologub. 1896     This description of Sologub’s appearance and his bearing concurs with all reminiscences of those who knew the poet in various years. Others marked his offishness, coldness of manners, indifference, — the ‘mask’ behind which it was rare and difficult to see the real face. Sologub's age was also always remarkable: the early thinning hair, the late-19th-century beard, — all that made him look much older, especially in the perception of the following generation of poets, the younger symbolists, for whom he was ‘out of time’. And such he remained in memory of many: “impenetrably quiet, tacitum, sometimes maliciously, without a smile, witty. Always a little a wizard and a sorcerer” (words by Hippius).




1st Book of Poems — Bad Dreams — Shadows — Creative process

THE YEAR 1896 was a breakthrough for Feodor Sologub, whose first books, Stihi [‘Poems’], the novel Bad Dreams and Teni [‘The Shadows’], a united collection of short stories and poems, were published. The publisher of all the books was Sologub himself. Each edition was about 1.200 copies, which actually was a usual quantity at that time; he also engaged in their distribution, taking the advices of Lubov Gurevich, the publisher of Severny Vestnik.
     Stihi [‘Poems’], Sologub’s first book of poems, came out at the end of December 1895. Most poems were written in 1892—1895 (the earliest — in 1887; in the edition they are all undated), the years when Sologub’s individual poetic language and the basic lyrical emotions were defined and established.

Pale and severe is
The capital under the foggy haze,
Like the gray sea’s

Rising from the darkness,
It flashes and hurries up to be destroyed back in it, —
A flock of

     The images and structure of the verses belonged to a new period of the Russian literature, the epoch of modernism. At the same time their superficial utmost simplicity, without highly refined metaphors and depictions, essentially marked out Sologub among the poets of his orientation. With ‘decadent bizarreness’ not to be found, his poetry soon proved to be quite decent for conservative magazines. Sologub once told V. Piast that writers of the ‘non-decadent’ camp rather willingly published his poems in their periodicals, considering him a fellow and believing that he purposely mocked at the decadents when he associated with them and wrote like them.
     The first book of poems is pure lyrics: feeling the nature in its clear and silent beauty, which is imbueed from time to time by the author's bitterness and melancholy. Actually the nature as such is not interesting to Sologub the poet, — he is more concerned about the sacrament of transfiguring a dream into a creation. Yet Sologub's clear soft landscapes and visions suddenly go dark, giving in dreary and “sickly fatigues”.

My lamp is shining indifferently to me,
The dull business’s been given up
     The song has not ripened yet, —
What would it respond to the intimate anxiety?

The white curtain hangs without motion.
     Someone's steps behind the wall…
     That is the sickly fatigues —
     Before a disaster!


We are tired to pursue purposes,
To waste our forces for work, —
     We have ripened
     For a grave.

We shall give ourselves away to the grave without dispute,
Like babies do to their cradle, —
     We shall decay within it soon,
     And with no purpose.

     Nevertheless, even such emotions are dear for Sologub, even if it is “gloomy dreams”, — in fact, everything is metamorphosed through reverie:

I do not know a free life,
There are gloomy dreams my soul,
I cover them carefully
With the gentle fabric of spring.
         (Ognyom [‘By Fire’])

Stihi also contained a remarkable translation of a Paul Verlaine poem. Later, in 1907, Sologub would make his seventh poetic book entirely consisting of his translations of Verlaine.

     Concurrently in accord with his poetry, Sologub, since 1883, had been writing the novel Bad Dreams [it may be also translated ‘Heavy Dreams’ — Tyazholye sny]. He had begun it in 1883 and the novel reflected the everyday life of the provincial towns he worked in and autobiographical elements dealing with his service at schools, but, first of all, Sologub depicted a tired, “unnerved and very vicious man who had lost the old laws of life,” as the author put it in a letter to Lubov Gurevich. Teacher Login is a dreamer having found himself in the slough of a small town. He rather thinks than acts; outward things appear through a mist of heavy dreams, only melancholy fills him up with dark and dismal visions which he is uncapable either to overcome, or to banish (a similar character is given in the versified novel Kremlev, written in 1894, about a self-tormenting and self-surpressing man).

        “…There was a time when he put his whole soul into teaching, but soon he was told that his activities were bad; he carelessly wounded someone’s self-esteem, sick from stagnation and idlenesses, he came to into collision with someone's ossified ideas, — and proved, or seemed, to be a disturbing, unsociable man… He was transferred to our city… For a year he has been wearing and pining away…”

     So begins the protagonist’s biography in the novel. The strong realism of Bad Dreams, depicting everyday scenes of the provinces, petty and big scoundrels ruling the life of a small town, blends with an illusive, stupefying atmosphere of half-slumbers, half-reality which are filled with erotic visions and panic attacks. Such a form and content of a novel were completely alien to the 1880s Russian fiction which explored realism of everyday life. Sologub embodied his own view of art in this work: within a realistically written novel he unhesitatingly brings in the fantastic and grotesque. “Sologub remains within realism,” one critic wrote later, “only until it does not impede him. But as soon as he needs to leave it, he does it easily as easily he returns into realism back.” Thus a bridge is thrown to Gogol and the German romanticists… however, Sologub's heroes — poisoned with melancholy and hopelessness — had no predecessors of their kind.

        “We have learned the secret too early — and we are unhappy. We pursued phantoms. We do not live the way we are supposed to, — we have lost the old recipes of life and have not found new ones.”

     So speaks Login. It feels there is so much personal in this novel as in none of any other later works of Sologub. The author never spoke openly about it, only once in the 20s, in a conversation with Vera Kalitskaia, Sologub let drop:
     “— Do you know that the critics saw me in Login from “Bad Dreams”?
     — No, I did not know.
     — They did. That is true, however.”
     A fellow-teacher from Vytegra recollected the writer’s appearance and emotions that precisely reflected in the hero of Bad Dreams:

     “On the way home from the seminary we used to walk along Voskresenskaia Street for a long while. We were talking. Feodor Kuzmich spoke much, got inspired, daydreamed. The dreams were hazy, complex… well, something like this: how to turn sounds into colors…”

     It was a pratice of the time, that novels were first published in literatury magazines and then they appeared in book form (so appeared novels by Turgenev, Dostoievski and Chekhov), Sologub’s novels, short stories and a great deal of poems also would first appear in periodicals and then — as editions. In Sologub’s case, some of his works passed a complete lucrative cycle: first they are published as contributions, then as editions (and second printings) and at last as parts of collected works. So published Bad Dreams that had been finished in St. Petersburg in 1894 and appeared in serialized form in Severny Vestnik’s issues of 1895. As a matter of fact, the publication of Bad Dreams turned out to be a sort of harsh experience for Sologub who, while the novel was being published in the magazine, confronted with editors’ numerous captious objections concerning the style and ethics of Bad Dreams; ‘erotic’, in editors’ opinion, scenes were smoothed and other were ommited completely. That made the young writer feel naturally insulted. “I treat my literary labor as severely as I can,” he wrote the magazine’s publisher in November 1895, “and, in spite of my pecuniary embarrassment, I write not for money. Whether the novel is good or bad, it depends only on the extent of my abilities, but I have worked upon it not like a mercenary and my submission to someone else's opinions therefore cannot be limitless.”
     Those disagreements might have compelled Sologub to publish the novel in book form, a few months later after its last chapter was published in a Severny Vestnik issue. The edition came out in late March 1896, with the author's will restored.

     As a matter of fact, Bad Dreams is a first Russian decadent novel, and the critics rated it quite naturally, for the time, — ‘decadents’ were treated haughtily and the reviewers did not care to distinguish a true piece of art from a counterfeit: ‘a decadent’ and that’s all about it. Most reviews were expressed in traditional civic terms; Bad Dreams were called a “funny literary incident, a simple groundless fiction”; the Russkaia Mysl rated the novel as a “decadent nonsense mixed with vulgar, exaggerated and pessimistic naturalism”; some considered it an immoral imitation of bad German and French novels; one wit named Bad Dreams “Hazy Dreams”. The idea of the Bad Dreams was criticized in a review of a Nizhni Novgorod periodical from a different point of view: since the author is a man of the 80s, he is not capable to depict really his own hero representing a man of the 80s, and consequently he is not able to guide his character to positive noble goals. The reviewer was 28-year-old Maxim Gorki, another eminent man of the 80s, who, like Sologub, had started his literatury career a few years earlier. Their life-long antagonism began just from the start and their paths would intercross more than once in the century to come. A surprisingly positive review was given by Russkaia Beseda which marked the novel and its author: Bad Dreams were called “perhaps the most outstanding — in terms of aesthetics and art — phenomenon of the literature of the passed year”, and the author — “the most original of new fiction writers”.
     It took years until the novel was fairly perceived as a piece of literary work, after the publications of the second (1906) and the third (1909) editions. Although, by that time, the novel would associate closely with the subsequent one, The Petty Demon, on which Sologub began to work right after the publication of Bad Dreams. A year later a German translation of the novel appeared in Austria-Hungary, which flattered the young writer whose name was still of no account in his own country at the time. Into English Bad Dreams were translated by V. W. Smith in 1978.

     In October 1896 the third Sologub book, Teni [‘Shadows’] came out. The volume consisted of three short stories and The Second Book of Poems.
     The short stories were about children, with sad ends. The adults do not understand these children, they are dead, only children are alive with their dreams (but it is terrible that these dreams, not having found a way of realization, lead to death or insanity). Sologub's all early prose is imbued with this insanity, hopelessness of main characters’ situations from the very beginning. Thus, the heroes of the title short story, mother and son, are gradually captivated in a shadowplay, and the shadows do not release them. In The Worm an imaginary worm exhausts a little girl to death. Sologub had been obsessed with death from his youth and that affected the subject of a significant number of his short stories and poetry, which earned him a label of ‘advocate of suicide’, ‘poet of death’.

        Seriozha came up to his father. The father pretended severe and mad, but Seriozha knew that he did not care, that he was alien.
     — Now what? Again played pranks, madcap? — asked the father.
     Seriozha frowned and found that it was not necessary to answer. The father thought for a second and could not find harsh words. It annoyed him and he laughed with vexation.

     Thus is depicted the scene of a naughty boy’s making his apology to his father, in the short story To The Stars. The style and themes were new to the Russian literature. If to refer in general to literature about children (and it is not children's literature), Sologub's little ‘malicious’ and ‘bad’ heroes confused the critics who could not manage to define all that, it was easier to label it ‘decadence’, meaning a ‘delirium’.
     The Second Book of Poems that followed the short stories in the volume is close to The First Book of Poems: the poet’s visions, interrupted by gloomy and deadly spirits against his will, now get a more definite form (Posle zhizni neduzhnoi and tschetnoi… [‘After a life, ailing and vain…’], Dlya chego etoi tlennoi zhinzniu bolet… [‘Why should one be sick with this perishable life?’], Kto mne dal eto telo… [‘Who gave me this body?’], etc.).

*   *   *

        As for creation, poets are not inclined to expatiate upon this subject, and Feodor Sologub was not only an exception, but he seemed even to be ideologically hostile to attempts to learn about his creation. However, Sologub, who was rarely open with anybody and particularly on such mystical matter as creation, once revealed his way of writing in a conversation with poet Valentin Krivich-Annenski (the son of Innokenti Annenski) which took place on June 29, 1925. Krivich, having understood at once what importance Sologub’s words were of, wrote down everything that remained fresh in his memory on the same day:

     “I have just come back from Sologub and I am all under the impression of what I have heard from him. […]
     — For me it is often enough that my blood temperature would raise on 2–3 degrees... — said Sologub slowly, as if recollecting, while tapping his thin nervous fingers on the yellow cigarette-box of his customary “Neva”. […]
     — For many things it is really necessary to concentrate strongly... — continued Feodor Kuzmich, after rather a long pause. — To go out of time...
     Another long pause and quite tapping on the cigarette box.
     — Such going out of time happens frequently to me. The first time I felt it was at the age of eight… I was running somewhere across the Nikolaevski Bridge... and all of a sudden I felt my thoughts rushing forward somehow too fast... thoughts and images... one by one... It surprised and irritated me. I tried to stop them and comprehend... I tried to make something that would allow me to scrutinize any such idea. And at that second I went out of time for the first time...
     I: — Do such sensations concern creation process?
     Sologub: — Yes... You feel sometimes that behold and there is a kind of a tiny bell tinkling in your head... Behold and you are separated from the present, from time.... Here (he passed his hand across the table) is the reality and there is something different, something that inside you... And you write exactly what is inside you... and that’s why you are not able to write other than you do. Because that is the way it is... What can you do with it? In one of my short stories Christ turns water into wine... And I write that two women look at it as students do at a research experiment... I have received a great deal of censure and even abuse for that comparison. But I really was not able to say it in another way.
     I: — Have you ever written down anything similar to what you have been telling me now? […]
     Sologub: — No. I am really afraid to delve deeply into introspection. It is not necessary... Neither do I like to peer at people and I have never or, rather, almost never portrayed living real people in my works... These people are also there — inside me. And so far… a first impression, a first sight is the man! Afterwards the man is not himself! It’s a nonsense that one has to eat up a pood of salt with someone to get to know him! That’s where he would deceive you...
     The conversation gradually came to Sologub’s creation process.
     Sologub: — It’s like a grain first... Then the grain brings a birch, a flower, etc.; but in the beginning there was a grain and from it, from the grain, it all had grown... Not a lump out of which one grinds a thing, taking the pieces off, but one grows a grain...
     — And often, — continued he calmly, putting his hands on the chair arms and looking at the wall, — and often the most, in one’s opinion, inappropriate things give this grain the necessary sap... Often during working I read the most casual books... and suddenly — there, in some astronomy, in someone’s story, in a newspaper article there is a drop of sap for my grain...
     I: — So you must delete a little?
     Sologub: — Almost nothing. I rather add. From whence may something appear to be abridged? The skeleton is designed on one page... And behold, a word expands into a line, the line — into a page... The bones become covered with muscles and skin... And behold, there is even hair on the skin... Of course, you choose what to write, you cannot write everything! So, under these conditions, what can be deleted? Cut a piece off the skin? off the flesh? Add — yes, that’s different; sometimes one needs to add in one place or another...
     He broke off, as if not having finished the phrase, and by the intonation of his last words and by some movements it became clear that he would not speak anymore on that subject.
     — Feodor Kuzmich, can you tell me, — I dared ask a final question: — such “going out of time” occurs to you only when you’re writing prose or when you’re writing poetry, too?
     — No, why only when prose?.. — said Sologub with a slight shade of discontent in his voice. — In poetry, too... But, of course, the choice is more difficult there and the technique is more difficult because there are more laws of craft...”

     Sologub treated his works reverentially, and how else — it was his own labor, his own subjects, his own world unlike to any other. Later, critic Kornei Chukovski, not being familiar personally with Sologub, would come to the same conclusion, going by Sologub’s lyrics. “He does not write effective poems, ‘for no particular reason’ — just because he fell in love, or because today the dawn blazed beautifully, as many, even great, poets write. He is one of those writers who are half-fanatics, half-prophets who know only God, only their soul, only eternity and only death, — whose creative work, no matter whether they are little or great, genius or just ridiculous, is always religious; whether they write about a woman or the sun, about a worm or voluptuousness — all that is lit up for them by their religion.” But such an attitude of the poet did not concern only poetry. The critics were shocked by a declaration in the introduction to Sologub’s tragedy The Victory of Death: “Is not his poetry great? Is not his prose sweet-scented? Does not he have charms to subjugate the words?” And it was not a self-advertisement, boasting about himself... A challenge, it may be (Sologub loved to perplex deliberately). “However, he did not hide the fact that he knew the price of himself and that he considered this price high, on merits,” recollected Valentin Krivich.
     “‘And when I want to read a good poetry,’ he said once, standing on the stage in Tsarskoe Selo, ‘I usually take one of my books from the shelf for I know that I shall meet the good poetry there.’
     Also it was spoken with the usual ‘sologubian’ tone: easy and slightly haughtily. He did not contend anything, he did not throw down a challenge, he simply informed the audience...
     By the way, who else would get away with such a phrase? At best, it would cause laughter. But such a statement seemed completely natural from Sologub's lips: speaking that kind of truth was in the harmonious and complete accordance with the whole aspect of the writer.”
     With such a attitude to creation, one can find it odd that the writer not only considered it possible to borrow plots for his writing from works of others, but he even stated it a kind of a common writers’ practice: “All our literature is a sheer plagiarism. And if it were not true, we would not have great poets, as well as there would not have been Shakespeare, Goethe… who, as is well known, always worked on someone else’s sources...” (from a 1925 conversation with Vladimir Smirenski). Of course, Sologub let himself speak so only to a chosen person. But the meticulous critics themselves found out some ‘borrowings’. It caused a wave of accusations of plagiarism. “These accusations are completely unfair,” Sologub wrote the editor of the Birzhevye Vedomosti in March 1910, “if I borrow from someone I do it by the rule ‘I take mine everywhere where I find it’. If I were engaged only to copy from someone else's books, even in that case I would not manage to be a plagiarist and everything would be affected by the imprint of my pronounced literary self. There where they want to see me as a casual and rare visitor, they should not treat me like a pickpocket.”






1 — Apart from the birthdate, all other dates in the biography up to January 1918 refer to the old Russian calendar.
2 — All copyright English translations of Sologub’s original works quoted in the biography are marked with asterisk (*).

        A little more extended biography including all original quotations can be found in the Russian version of the biography. For additional information on Feodor Sologub‘s works visit the section BIBLIOGRAPHY. For a more visual presentation of the sequence of Sologub’s life, see Chronology of life events.

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