Metaliterary Commentaries in Verbickaja’s Keys to Happiness

Charlotte Rosenthal, University of Southern Maine

Various aspects of Verbickaja’s bestseller, Keys to Happiness (1908-1913) have been discussed by scholars – the novel as a phenomenon of popular fiction (Holmgren and Goscilo, Brooks, Stites, Engelstein, and McReynolds); its ideological underpinnings (Gračeva, Holmgren and Goscilo, Engelstein), the novel as “romance novel” (McReynolds, Holmgren) and as “sensational novel” (Kelly), possible models for the main characters (Engelstein), the novel’s readership (Brooks, McReynolds, Engelstein), the heroine’s psyche (Holmgren), and the significance of the ending (Engelstein, McReynolds, Holmgren).

One aspect of the novel that has not received much notice is the large amount of metaliterary commentary. Verbickaja has planted several characters in the novel who are writers: the Modernist poet and dramatist Harold, who becomes Mania’s third lover, and three women writers: Lilja, Dora, and Nina Glinskaja. This aspect of the novel is not a new feature in Verbickaja’s work. Her very first published prose fiction, “Razlad,” (Discord, 1887) centered around a heroine, Valentina, who publishes her original writing in newspapers. Several years later she wrote one of her best stories, “Estetika,” (Aesthetics, 1901) about the writer, Nina Mixajlovna Goržel’skaja. Both these stories, however, appeared in thick journals in the first period of Verbickaja’s career, while the writers in Keys appeared in her newly developed popular novel format and in the post-1905 era when censorship had been greatly curtailed. This paper will take a closer look at these four figures and other parts of the novel in which literature itself is discussed to see what it tells us about Verbickaja’s view of literature and the nature of writing. Among other issues to be explored, the paper will look at contrasts between the image of the writer and the nature of literature in the two earlier stories and in the later novel, the male and female writers, as well as between different modes of writing (poetry, prose, and drama), and the competing literary movements of the day (Critical Realism, Modernism, and popular literature).


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