A Brief Introduction to Alexander Herzen

I have been reading over the past few months Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts – or, more accurately, an abridgement of My Past and Thoughts. It is a book about which I could,  and probably will, write at inordinate length. Herzen is a companion for life. But I wanted to start by attempting to explain why I like him so much, and then make some remarks about his life and the book.

I will start with a quote from Isaiah Berlin’s (who is a big admirer and indeed through whom I came to Herzen) Introduction….

‘All his life X perceived the external world clearly, and in proportion, but through the medium of his own self-romanticising personality, with his impressionable, ill-organised self at the centre of his universe. No matter how violent his torment, he retains full artistic control of the tragedy which he is living through, but also writing.’

Now X is naturally here Herzen. But could not one with complete truth and assurance substitute another name? That name of course is Byron – the Byron anyway of Childe Harold, Don Juan and the letters. And this is far from the only connection – Byron and Herzen share a highly developed sense of the comic, both come from aristocratic families, both had rather peculiar childhoods, both love digression and stories, both are natural rebels and lovers above all of liberty, both were exiles. Of course there are many differences too – Herzen is a far more systematic political thinker (although he distrusted systems so never created one) and Byron a far greater artist, for starters; but the similarities are most definitely there and I think may give me some clue as to why Herzen so strongly attracts me.

Herzen was born in 1812, the illegitimate child of a rich Russian landowner and a  young German woman, although his illegitimacy made no difference to his aristocratic upbringing. He attended Moscow University but in 1834 was sent into exile in the north-east of Russia for subversion. In 1840 he returned to Moscow but his position was always tenuous and in 1847, having married his cousin Natalya, he left Russia never to return. He was in Paris for the Revolution of 1848 but was bitterly disillusioned by its failure, and that of the other 1848 uprisings. In 1852 he settled in London where he remained until 1864 prior to spending the last six years of his life until his death in 1870 in Geneva and Paris. This, naturally, is an absurd summary of a convoluted life.

Trying to describe the evolution of the text of My Past and Thoughts is almost equally complicated. Dwight Macdonald, who produced the abridgement I own and read, attempts to explain this evolution and his task in the Preface. He writes….

>>In one way, My Past and Thoughts is a hard book to prune because it’s alive all through, remarkably sustained in style and thought, very few longueurs. But, in another way, it’s an easy book to cut because it’s not really a book. Herzen was a temperamental anarchist – his adherence to Proudhon and Bakunin and his rejection of Marx had much deeper roots than politics. Therefore he planned his masterpiece according to the best anarchist principles i.e., he didn’t….The architecture is the most irregular Gothic style with all sorts of outbuildings – some elegant, some grotesque – proliferating around the central mass (if there can be a centre to so amorphous an assemblage)….Like Sterne in Tristram Shandy,  Herzen made digression a formal principle

Herzen himself remarked in the fourth letter of Ends and Beginnings, a series of ‘super-Gothic articles disguised as letters to Turgenev‘ …

>>Please don’t be angry with me for so continually wandering from the point. Parentheses are my joy and my misfortune….It is for the sake of digressions and parentheses that I prefer writing in the form of letters to friends; one can then write without embarrassment whatever comes into one’s head.

Macdonald explains “My Past and Thoughts began as a series of reminiscences of his childhood and youth which he ran in Russian-language magazines – The Pole Stra and later The Bell”  both of which he published and edited in London. When these proved a great success Herzen ‘added from time to time the products of his prolific journalism, finally giving the medley a title which covers anything and everything’. The standard Garnett-Higgens version is in four volumes which are “structurally an anthology which includes a variety of subjects in a variety of prose styles’. These styles include what MacDonald calls ‘the novel’, ‘the memoir’, ‘the profile’, ‘reportage’ and ‘history’. His cuts sadly include Herzen’s short stories, a considerable section on his relationship with Natalya and two long historical essays. Even so the abridged book is 684 pages long – but it still leaves me wanting more. Faber have now released the complete Garnett version in a new 6 volume edition so I may start collecting those!

Because of its loose structure My Past and Thoughts is ideal for the kind of companion blogs which I have in mind so these will appear from time to time. I cannot really recommend this book highly enough – there is simply nothing like it.

One thought on “A Brief Introduction to Alexander Herzen

  1. Pingback: The Romantic Exiles « Moving Toyshop

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