Today's guest essay is from Nathaniel Popkin, author of Lion & Leopard, who discusses one of his main characters, the duplicitous would-be painter Pavel Svinin, as well as the combination of creativity and truth involved in transforming historical personages into fiction.
Scenes from the life of a wannabe artist, 1812
At the age of twenty-three in 1811, Pavel Petrovitch Svinin, a distant relative of the poet Lermontov, arrived in Philadelphia a minor official in the Russian consulate. Svinin, who imagined himself a painter from the Russian Academy, could speak English, which made him one of the few people suitable for the job. Almost immediately, he offered to a Philadelphia publisher some essays and pictures he claimed were his own, “taken from nature,” for a book on Moscow and St. Petersburg. The pictures were poorly executed copies, “exceedingly uneven stylistically,” as art historian Anneliese Harding, with herculean restraint, points out. In spring 1812, he exhibited a few of them at the annual show of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In that same show, the painter Rembrandt Peale presented his much anticipated painting The Roman Daughter, based on an ancient story of a girl who allows her imprisoned father to suckle from her breast to save him from starvation. Rembrandt was the second son of the American art progenitor Charles Willson Peale, who made a habit of naming his children for European masters with the idea that his American copies would live up to their names (Rembrandt certainly believed the hype). Standing in the gallery, the flippant Svinin, already with a reputation as a braggart and windbag, offhandedly claimed that Rembrandt’s painting was no more than a plagiarism of a painting by Gérard, humiliating him in broad view. When forced to justify his statement, Svinin retreated.
All this takes place in my book Lion and Leopard, a work of literary historical fiction released this week by The Head & The Hand Press. My fictional Svinin, Rembrandt, and Krimmel are semblances, assuredly, of the historical figures as gleaned from the available record, perhaps as Rembrandt himself was a semblance of a lauded master.
But my interest in Svinin continues beyond his time in Philadelphia to his misadventures later on in Russia (indeed, I grant him a return to the U.S.). This period, as it turns out, was, fictionalized by the writer Nicolai Gogol in the 1835 drama The Government Inspector. It’s this fictional portrayal that came to color the Svinin of Lion and Leopard.
The year he published his rather fraudulent A Picturesque Voyage in North America, Svinin, still a minor bureaucrat, was sent to Bessarabia to observe village life (one wonders if it wasn’t an excuse to get the annoying man out of the capital). Thinking he was sent there on a military or political mission of some importance, the villagers plied Svinin with gifts and treated him to banquets, which he was more than happy to accept, as proof to himself of his outsized importance. Svinin played the naïve villagers for money and treats as he promised them advantages he could never deliver.
In 1821, having heard of Svinin’s misadventures, Pushkin sought him out for an explanation. Now Svinin claimed his own naïveté. Pushkin passed the story along to Gogol, who turned Svinin into Khlestakov, the title character of his first overtly serious work, The Government Inspector. Meaning “to lash” or “to prattle” or “to lie,” “Khlestakov’s very name is a stroke of genius,” says Nabokov, “for it conveys to the Russian reader an effect of lightness and rashness, a prattling tongue, the swish of a slim walking cane, the slapping sound of playing cards, the braggadocio of a nincompoop and the dashing ways of a lady-killer.” From scene eight of The Government Inspector (Penguin Classics edition, in translation from the Russian by Ronald Wilks):
Mayor: If it’s not too presumptuous… well, there’s an excellent room at my home, so cheerful, so quiet… But no—the honor would be too great! Please don’t be offended, I merely offered it all in sincerity, from the purist motives.
Khlestakov: On the contrary! I’d be delighted! I’d be far better off in a private home than in this dosshouse.
Mayor: It will make me so happy! My wife will be overjoyed. Yes, that’s the way I am. Ever since I was a child I’ve always tried to be hospitable—especially if the guest is a cultured gentleman like yourself. Please don’t think I’m saying this to flatter you. No: that’s not one of my vices. I speak from the bottom of my heart!
Khlestakov: Much obliged, I’m sure. And I’m like you—I’ve no time for two-faced people. I find your frankness and cordiality most gratifying. I do confess that I ask for nothing more out of life than devotion and respect, respect and devotion.
The Svinin of Lion and Leopard, a book whose central themes are originality and duplicity, naturally had to quote from Gogol’s Khlestakov. There’s a certain historical justification for this: Gogol’s 1835 version of Svinin is close to contemporary (Svinin died in 1839). But a work of literary historical fiction has three masters: history, fiction, and literature. As a version of history, it has to acknowledge a distant past that may not, as the Norwegian writer Karl O. Knausgaard has posited, be readily understandable. So it has to recreate that world and also pay heed to the distance between, say 1813, when Svinin left Philadelphia, and 2013. (In A Time for Everything, Knausgaard does so by having his biblical-era characters wear sneakers.) As fiction, of course, it has to conform to the narrative rules of conflict, reversal, and denouement.
As literature—or art, really—which grants the work certain cover from the necessarily specific pursuit of history, it must engage in the ancient conversation about letters—about man’s relationship to each other and the earth. One enters that conversation by quoting, riffing, devouring, plunging into the vast impossible library that came before and that will go on forever. This is an ancient practice. “An artist would adapt a pose or even an entire composition to his own story requirements, sometimes in the expectation that the theme of the earlier painting would help to explain the current meaning,” says Rembrandt Peale biographer Lillian Miller, in explaining the context of Svinin’s outburst at the Pennsylvania Academy show. Notably, Miller goes on to say that this act of quoting is the seed of creativity. Svinin, she says, “was attacking the very heart of the artistic process—the artist’s claim to inventiveness, to originality.” My Svinin, petulant and fatuous, tries to tear it all down.
Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press, November 12). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily, the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for the “Bookmarked” column for Art Attack/Philly.com and The Smart Set. Lion and Leopard is available from the publisher and via Amazon ($18.00, trade pb, 360pp).