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Fyodor Sologub (1863-1927) - pseud. of Feodor Kuzmich Teternikov


Russian poet, novelist, translator, and playwright, a pessimist with a morbid sense of humour, and a significant figure of the Symbolist movement. Sologub became in Russia one of the four best-known writers in his time with Andreev, Kuprin, and Gor'kii. A central symbol in Sologub's poetry is the Manichean dual image of Dulcinea-Aldonsa from Cervantes's Don Quixote, in which the beauty is hidden behind ugly and vulgar reality. Satanism, sadism, perversity, and general rejection of life were his recurrent themes.

"I take a piece of life, coarse and barren, and from it I create an exquisite legend, for I am a poet. Whether life, dull and common, stagnates in the gloom, or bursts forth in a raging fire, I, the poet, will erect above you, life, my legend which is being created, my legend of the enchanting and the beautiful." (from The Created Legend, 1914)

Fedor Kuz'mich Teternikov (Fyodor Sologub) was born in St. Petersburg. His father, a tailor and a shoemaker, died when Sologub was four. He was brought up by his mother, who was illiterate and worked as a servant and laundry woman. After graduating from a community college and Teachers' Training Institute in 1882, Sologub worked, with his mother and sister, as a teacher in provincial schools in Northern Russia. He taught mostly mathematics and in 1892 he returned to St. Petersburg. There he was employed first as a teacher at the town community college and then appointed inspector (deputy head) for the Andreyevsky Civic School. In 1907 he devoted himself entirely to writing. In the same year his sister died - the loss left deep marks on Sologub's calm poetry. "Forgotten are wine and merriment, / Abandoned are armour and sword. / Alone he descends to the dungeon, / And refuses to light a lamp."

As a writer Sologub started his career in the 1880's in magazines and published his first collection of poetry, Stikhi, in 1886. By 1889 he had begun to translate the poetry of Verlaine. His reputation as an "archetypal decadent" stemmed from his early prose works, which are characterized by the blending of reality and fantasies, quietly demonic spirit, world-weariness, and existential despair. "It's life that's the dream / I relinquish the old lies / And the torturing of time." His poems were published in all of the leading Russian Symbolist journals, and his stories attracted a large number of readers. Sologub's double role as a decadent poet and a respected civil servant was also ridiculed by his literary friends. In Maxim Gorky's story 'Fairy Tale' the hero, Mister "Smertyashkin" (Mister Death) makes his living by writing gloomy verses for obituaries and in memoria; critics took it as a parody of Sologub's fascination with decay and death.

The antiheroes of Sologub's tales have much in common with Joris Huysman's notorious Duc Jean Des Esseintes from A Rebours (1884). Des Esseintes seals himself off from the world so hermetically that he does not even dare to go on a journey since he is afraid of being disappointed by reality. Sologub's portrayals of the children have arisen debate - some critics regard their innocence in a decadent milieu as a contrast to the vile adults, some look hints of paedophilic imagination. Sologub's children are often haunted by abnormal psychic experiences and a longing for death. The sexual undertones of Sologub's work and correlation of sex and death was noted in 1909 by G.S. Nezlobin in his study The Pornographic Element in Russian Literature. Thus Sologub's reputation as the "incomparable Russian pornographer" was secured.

His most famous novel, Melkii bes (The Petty Demon), Sologub started during the years when he was a provincial schoolteacher. The work, completed in 1902, was published in 1907, dramatized in 1909 as a five-act tragedy, and republished in 1926 with a print run of 5000 copies. Set in a provincial Russian town, the story tells of an ambitious teacher, Peredonov, who is unable to fight against everyday frustrations. Gradually Peredonov is driven into paranoia and violence and the town's people to a riot in the novel's climax. His main persecutor is the "Nedotykomka", the petty demon, which represents nothing, which is Nothing. The libidinious servant-girl Varvara tricks Peredonov into marriage. He bullies Sasha Pylnikov, who is captivated by the Rutilov sisters; Peredonov's school is run by an impotent headmaster and his neighbors are from hell. In a fit of delirium and rage Peredonov cuts the throat of his friend. Peredonov has been characterized as an evil incarnation of Gogol's civil servants, but also Dostoevsky influenced Sologub's characters. The Petty Demon was reissued in 1933, and after a long interval, it was published in 1958 in Siberia, with a note stating that the novel "shows masterfully the rotting of the bourgeois-gentry society."

Plamennyi krug (1908, Circle of Flame), Sologub's collection of poems, was a kind of manifest of his belief that a poet is a seeker in the worlds of forbidden knowledge, magic and Eros. "Born not for the first time, and not for the first time in the process of completing the circle of external metamorphoses, I open up my soul calmly and simply. I open it for I wish that the intimate become universal." (from the foreword to The Fiery Circle) Life on earth is created by a malicious demiurge and dominated by cruelty and perverse sensualism but although death is "the last consolation", by a creative imagination one can enter a realm of harmony and beauty. Earth is a prison and the human existence is painful.

Sologub was an enormously productive poet. The years from 1896 to 1908 is considered his best period. His collected works, published in St. Petersburg in 1913-14, had nineteen volumes, the five last volumes comprising works written over a period of about two years. In 1916 the composer Sergei Rachmaninov put music to one of his poems, 'All wish to sing.' A number of Sologub's poems are untranslatable (as exemplified in The Concise Encyclopaedia of Modern World Literature, edited by Geoffrey Grigson, 1963):

Lilá, lilá, lilá, kachála,
dva tél no-ályie steklá.
belyéy liléy, alyéye lála
belá bylá ty i alá...
Its translation loses the music of the words:
She poured, poured, poured swung
Two body-crimsoned glasses,
Than lilies whiter crimnoser than lala
White were you and crimsoned

The story V tolpe (1907) told on the incident in which more than 1,000 persons, including many children, were trampled to death at the coronation of Nicholas II. Popeda smerti (1908), perhaps Sologub's best play, was set in mediaeval times. Sologub based this work on the legend of King Clovis. Dar mudrykh pchel (1907) drew on the Greek myth of Laodamia, who asks the skulptor Lysippus to create her dead lover in wax. One of his less popular plays, Zalozhniki zhizni (1912), was produced by Vsevolod Meyerhold; both Sologub and Meyerhold advocated the idea of pure theater, that did not strive to replicate every detail of reality. In 'The Theatre of One Will' (1908) Sologub called for a theatre in which the actor serves as automata, expressing with slow and graceful movements and calm recital the poet's vision.

Sologub's controversial novel, The Created Legend (1914), appeared originally in several parts, and finally in an authorized German translation. The main story lines are set in Russia on the eve of the revolution of 1905 and in a fictious kingdom, called the United Isles of the Mediterranean. Again Sologub blended fantastic and supernatural occurrences with everyday, played with the conventions of narrative, and had references to contemporary ideas, events, and movements, such as Black Hundreds, satanic rites in honor of Lucifer, and an anti-Semitic group. The critics, Maxim Gorky including, were not happy with the sado-masochist thematics.

In 1908 Sologub married the playwright and critic Anastasija Chebotarevskaja, who "preached the union of all futurists." Anastasija gathered together and edited a number of critical reviews and articles in her husband's work. Together with Gorky, L. Andreev, and others, Sologub published a collection of essays entitled Shchit, which dealt the situation of the Jewish minority. In order to learn of the views of his compatriots  on the Jewish question, Sologub and Gorky drew up a questionnaire. Their concern was caused by severe repression by the government against that minority. "Russia is not only for those who are Russians by language and birth," wrote Sologub in his article, 'The Fatherland for All, "she is for all who live under her sovereign dominion. No one in Russia in benefited by the unequal rights of her various peoples; this inequality does not add to our political power, it only supports our ideological disorder."

Although Sologub had sided in 1905 with the revolution, he was not enthusiastic about the October Revolution of 1917 and the chaos it brought to the social structure. Once he asked the authorities to provide a pair of galoshes for his wife. Sologub's ideal was that of a "European Humanitarian Civilization". In 1920 he requested with Anastasija a permission from Lenin to travel abroad. Most probably their destination would have been Paris. The next year she drowned herself in the River Neva, one day before they were given permission to leave Russia. Sologub's own request was denied, and he fell into a long lasting depression. For his deceased wife he wrote a cycle of poems, in which the main theme is resurrection. In a poem from 1926 he called Lenin a "despot" and a "tyrant."

Sologub continued to publish verse during the last years of his life, but his other works were censored, and he was dismissed as an old-fashioned writer. In 1918 he became the first president of a writers's organization. Following disagreements with the organization, Sologub and his wife resigned, but he then served in various administrative positions in the literary scene. The last of his eight slim volumes came out in 1923. In 1927 he was appointed chairman of the Leningrad Writers' Union. In one poem he said: "Whatever they give you, even vomit on a plate, / Eat it and don't bare your teeth." Sologub died in Leningrad on December 5, 1927. He was said never to have been seen laughing during the whole of his life.

For further reading: 'Introduction' by S.D. Cioran, in The Petty Demon, with an Appendix of Critical Articles edited by Murl Barker (2006); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 4, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1995); Fedor Sologub 1863-1927 by Nina Denisoo (1987); Insidious Intent by Diana Greene (1986); Fedor Sologub 1884-1984, ed. by Berhard Lauer (1984); Fedor Sologub as a Short-Story Writer: Stylistic Analyses by Carola Hansson (1975); Sologub's Literary Children: Keys to a Symbolist's Prose by Stanley J. Rabinowitz (1980); Prekhitraia viaz' by Galina Selegen(1968); Fedor Sologubs Roman-Trilogie by Johannes Holthusen (1960); O F Sologube: Kritika, stat'i i zametki, ed. by Anastasia Chebotarevskaia (1911)

Selected bibliography:

  • Tiazhelye sny, 1895 (in Severnyi vestnik, 7-12)
  • Teni, 1896 (in Severnyi vestik)
  • Tyazhelye sny, 1896 (in Severnyi vestik)
    - Bad Dreams (translated by Vassar W. Smith, 1978)
  • Rasskazy i stikhi, 1896
  • Zhalo smerti, Skorpion, 1904
  • Rodine, 1906
  • Dar mudrykh pchel, 1907 (play; Gift of the Wise Bees)
  • Pobeda smerti, 1907 (play; The Triumph of Dead / The Victory of Death)
  • Nochnye plaski, 1908 (play; Nocturnal Dances)
  • Van'ka kliuchnik i pazh Zhan, 1908 (play; Vanka and the Steward and Jehan the Page)
  • Melkii bes, 1908
    - The Little Demon (translated by John Cournos and Richard Aldington, 1916) / The Petty Demon (translated by Andrew Field, 1962; S.D. Cioran, 1983)
    - Riivattu: romaani (suom. Werner Anttila, 1918)
  • Plamennyi krug, 1908
  • Teatr odnoy voli, 1908
  • Kniga ocharovanii, 1909
  • V tolpe 1909
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1909-12, (12 vols.)
  • Malenky chelovek, 1911
  • Otrok Lin, 1911
  • Voyna i mir, 1912
  • Zalozhniki zhizni, 1912 (play; Hostages of Life)
  • Opechalennaya nevesta, 1912
  • Sobranie sochinenii, vols. 1, 3, 5, 6, 9, 11-20, 1913-14
  • Lyubov nad bezdnami, 1914 (play; Love over an Abyss)
  • Tvorimaja legenda. Eine Legende im Werden, 1914
    - The Created Legend (translated by John Cournos, 1916; the trilogy includes Tvorimaja legenda, 1907; The Created Legend, repub. as Kapli krovi, 1908; The Created Legend / Drops of Blood; Koroleva Ortruda, 1909; Queen Ortruda; Dym i pepel, 1914; Smoke and Ashes)
  • Voina: Stikhi, 1915
  • Shchit, 1915 (with M. Gorky, L. Andreev, et al.)
    - The Shield: The Jewish Question in Russia (edited by Maxim Gorky, Leonid Andreyev, Fyodor Sologub, translated by A. Yarmolinsky, 2012)
  • Kames, broshenny v vodu, 1915
  • The Sweet-Scented Name and Other Fairy Tales, Fables and Stories, 1915 (edited by Stephen Graham)
  • The Old House and Other Tales, 1916 (translated by John Cournos)
  • Yary god, 1916
  • The Shield, 1917 (with Gor'kii and Andreev Leoniv, translated by A. Yarmolinsky)
  • Little Tales, 1917
  • Alya lenta, 1917
  • Aly mak, 1917
  • Pomnish, ne zabudesh, i drugie rasskazy, 1918
  • Slepaya babochka, 1918
  • Nebo goluboe, 1921
  • Zaklinatelnitsa zmey, 1921
  • Odna lyubov, 1921
  • Sobornyi blagovest, 1921
  • Charodeinaia chasha, 1922
  • Koster dorozhnyi, 1922
  • Svirel, 1922
  • Strazh veligo tsarya, 1922 (play; The Guard of the Great Czar)
  • Stikhi, 1923
  • Baryshnya Liza, 1923
  • Stikhotvorenia, 1939
  • Izbrannoe, 1965
  • Fimiamy, 1972
  • Stikhotvopreniia, 1975
  • The Kiss of the Unborn and Other Stories, 1977 (translated by Murl G. Barker)
  • Rasskazy, 1979
  • Neizdannoe i nesobrannoe, 1989
  • Izbrannoe, 1990
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1992, 1997 (2 vols., edited by Ulrich Steltner)
  • Selected stories = Izbrannye rasskazy: Russian text with parallel English translation of eight short stories and fables, 1994 (research papers on Fedor Sologub; collected and introduced by Vassar W. Smith)
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1995
  • Consolation: A Story; Selected Verse, 1997 (translated and with an introduction by Vassar W. Smith)
  • Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh, 2000-2004 (8 vols., edited by T.F. Prokopov)

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