“Pornography with Ideas”: Arcybašev’s Sanin in English Translation

Michael Katz, Middlebury College

Mixail Arcybašev’s sensational second novel, Sanin, was written (1902–07) and published (1907) at a critical moment in Russian history; it provoked heated debates among the reading public. Its hero exhibited a set of new values to be contrasted with the morality of the older intelligentsia. Sanin was an attractive, clever, powerful, life-loving man who, at the same time, was an amoral and carnal animal, bored by politics and religion. During the novel he lusts after his own sister, yet defends her when she is betrayed by an arrogant officer; he deflowers an innocent, but willing virgin; and, after befriending a Jewish intellectual, encourages him to put an end to his self-doubts by committing suicide. Arcybašev drew upon both Russian and Western sources for his inspiration: his novel represents a crude vulgarization of Dostoevskij’s anti-hero in Notes from Underground, of Nietzsche’s “superman,” and of the work of Max Stirner, a little-known individualist anarchist philosopher.

Literary reactions to Sanin were diverse and dramatic: Tolstoj ignored the book’s message, dismissing it as an expression of man’s “basest animal impulses.” Gor′’kij was offended by what he saw as a profanation of his own realist aesthetic. On the other hand, Blok defended Arcybašev’s “genuine Talent” pressed into service of his “large, dark, real work.” The wittiest pronouncement comes from the pen of the critic Kornej Čukovskij, who wrote: “Russian pornography is not plain pornography, such as the French and Germans produce; rather, it is pornography with ideas.”

Arcybašev’s novel was translated into English by Percy Pinkerton and published by Viking Press under the title Sanin in 1914. In spite of the novel’s style, which is clumsy, repetitive, and melodramatic, it was enormously popular in its English rendition. It was reprinted at least twenty-one times before 1926, but has been out of print since 1932. That first translation (now over eighty-five years old) is not only unavailable, but also inaccurate, heavily censored, badly bowdlerized, extremely awkward, and virtually unreadable.

I have recently completed a new translation of Arcybašev’s novel into contemporary American English. It will be published next year by Cornell University Press along with a comprehensive critical introduction written by the Dutch scholar Otto Boele, and a brief afterword by the English Slavist, Nicholas Luker. In my paper I will focus on the most notorious scene from this novel from the two English versions (Pinkerton’s and my own): namely, the scene in which the hero, after articulating his most cherished “ideas” about the nature of man, takes advantage of the heroine in a rowboat bobbing on a moonlit lake.

A critic writing in 1909, referring to reforms to encourage private enterprise, called Arcybašev’s hero “the natural and necessary product of our epoch, which has placed its ‘wager on the strong,’ on ‘people with bold initiative.’” Advocates of market capitalism at that time believed that Russia needed the kind of people who had succeeded in building bourgeois society in the West—creative, energetic, and selfish. With the recent political changes in Russia and the resulting cultural upheaval, theories of individualism, the pursuit of personal pleasure, and the resurgence of eroticism have made Arcybašev’s “pornography with ideas” relevant to the contemporary scene in unexpected ways.