Poor Liza (Bednaia Liza) by Nikolai Karamzin, 1794

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POOR LIZA (Bednaia Liza)
by Nikolai Karamzin, 1794

"Poor Liza" ("Bednaia Liza") is by some way the most celebrated piece of Russian prose fiction in the pre-Pushkin period. Together with Pis'ma russkogo puteshestvennika (Letters of a Russian Traveler), which Nikolai Karamzin began publishing in installments in 1791, it is the outstanding example of sentimental literature in Russia. First published in the author's own Moskovskii Zhurnal (Moscow Journal) and subsequently in book form in 1794, it has a hackneyed plot that, although it bears a passing resemblance to an actual incident described in the "Letters of a Russian Traveler," derives largely from literary sources. Among the most notable foreign influences are Marmontel's Il le fallait, which Karamzin had translated, Goethe's Werther, Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloise, Richardson's Clarissa, the idylls of Gessner, and the tales of Madame de Genlis. Russian influences are fewer, the most notable among them being the eclogues of Sumarokov and Kniazhnin's 1783 romance Nakazannaia nevernost' (Unfaithfulness Punished).

The eponymous heroine of Karamzin's story is a peasant girl who is forced to sew, sell flowers, and pick cherries to maintain herself and her widowed mother. While selling flowers, she meets a young nobleman, Erast, and they fall in love. The social gap between them makes marriage impossible, however, and in any case Liza's mother wishes to marry her off to a rich peasant. Erast claims that the social gap is unimportant, and they consummate their passion. Erast soon tires of her and departs to join the army. After two months they meet again, and Erast explains that, although he still loves Liza, he is engaged. (We later learn that he has lost his money at cards and has decided to marry a rich widow.) Erast gives Liza money but forbids her to see him again. Grief-stricken, Liza commits suicide, and her mother dies shortly afterward. These events took place 30 years before, and the narrator learned of them from Erast himself, who died a year earlier.

The movement of the story is matched by the seasons. Love blooms in the spring, is consummated in summer, and wanes in autumn. Both Liza and Erast are idealized, stereotypical figures. Karamzin, through his narrator, has a sympathetic attitude to their plight and clearly wishes to appeal to the "sensibility" (chuvstvitel'nost') of his readers. The adjectives applied to Liza all convey the same tone: "kind," "tender," "innocent," "shy." Despite this, however, Karamzin succeeds in imparting psychological depth to his portrayal of the lovers, and Liza's grief and despair after her loss of innocence and rejection by Erast have an unexpectedly realistic quality. Nor is Erast a conventional seducer-villain. In Karamzin's words he is "quite a rich gentleman, with reasonable intelligence and a good heart, good by nature, but weak and fickle." In this respect he is a prototype of the nineteenth-century superfluous man, and Karamzin refuses to condemn him. Indeed, in his conclusion he suggests that the lovers have been reconciled in heaven.

The realistic qualities of the story were important to Karamzin, who repeatedly contrasted art and real life. At the point at which Liza and Erast part for the last time, Karamzin has his narrator exclaim, in an attempt to establish the authenticity of his tale, "Ah! Why am I not writing a novel [ roman ], rather than relating a sad fact [ pechal'nuiu byl' ] . " This insistence on the reality of the story seems to lie behind Karamzin's having called the story a rossiiskaia povest' (Russian tale), the word povest' being for Karamzin a neutral term with no overtones of fiction or invention.

"Poor Liza" is also remarkable for its language, which attains a simplicity and clarity hitherto lacking in Russian prose style. The opening lines of the story provide an excellent example of the meticulous balance between clauses and of Karamzin's paramount concern with the rhythm, melody, and intonation of his prose. The most famous line in the story refers to the grief felt by Liza's mother when her husband died: "… for even peasant women know how to love" (ibo i krest'ianki liubit' umeiut). Although Karamzin omits anything coarse or brutal in his description of peasant life, this line was often quoted in the context of portraits of peasants by nineteenth-century Russian writers such as Turgenev and indeed in increasingly "realistic" portraits of women, from Griboedov's Sophia, through Pushkin's Tat'iana, to Tolstoi's Anna Karenina.

Karamzin's descriptions of nature were an innovation for Russian literature. Nature is not a backdrop for the story; rather, it reflects the emotions of the protagonists. Erast dreams of withdrawing from the world to live with Liza in an idyllic rural setting. As H. M. Nebel puts it, Karamzin prefers nature "neither indecorously wild nor unnaturally decorated," a statement well exemplified by the scene in which Liza watches a sunrise. Overall, however, Karamzin appears to be criticizing the unreality of such Arcadian pastorals.

There were numerous imitations of "Poor Liza," notably V. V. Izmailov's "Rostovskoe ozero" (The Lake at Rostov), A. I. Izmailov's "Bednaia Masha" (Poor Masha), I. Svechinskii's "Obol'shchennaia Genrietta" (Henrietta Seduced), and I. I. Il'in's "Liza, ili torzhestvo blagodarnosti" (Liza, or the Triumph of Gratitude). "Poor Liza" was the first work of Russian literature to find a readership abroad, being translated into German by J. G. Richter and into English, via Richter's German, in 1801. The story, however, won success well beyond literary circles. It was the first Russian best-seller, with many readers convinced that the events described were real. The place of Liza's suicide, Lizin prud (Liza's pond), located near the Simonov monastery on the site of what is now the Avtozavodskaia metro station, became a place of pilgrimage for Muscovites, who carved their initials on a nearby oak tree. A number of writers who made this pilgrimage testified to the accuracy of Karamzin's description. By the 1830s, however, the story, though still well known, was more an object of ridicule than of admiration. Pushkin, for example, made parodic use of the name Liza for the heroines of his The Queen of Spades and "Baryshniakrest'ianka" (Mistress into Maid), while the critic Vissarion Belinskii wrote, "Now tell me frankly … who is to blame that 'Poor Liza' is now being laughed at as much as it was once cried over." Nevertheless, the use of a storm to symbolize passions was taken up by three works published as late as 1860, Turgenev's "Pervaia liubov"' (First Love) and On the Eve and Alexander Ostrovskii's famous play Groza (The Storm).

—Michael Pursglove

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Poor Liza (Bednaia Liza) by Nikolai Karamzin, 1794

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