The Golovlyov Family

Written by M.E. Saltykov S. D. Cioran (trans.)
Review by Hanne Pearce

Carl Proffer’s introduction begins with the sobering words, “The Golovlyov Family is one of World Literature’s most depressing books.” Indeed it cannot be denied that this story, set in 19th-century Russia, provides little optimism. In time when the grand Russian aristocracy was in its twilight, Arina Petrovna is an imperious matriarch determined to further the family holdings. Her efforts are hindered in great part by the antics of her own family, or more accurately her sons, Stepan or “Stoypka the Dunce,” Porfiry, a manipulator, and Pavel, an apathetic introvert. Adding to the mêlée is Arina’s husband, self-professed poet and father to the boys, who refers to his wife as “the witch,” and the children of a deceased daughter. As the decades pass, arguments, greed, and bitterness sow seeds of hatred and mistrust in the family, and Porfiry, the family heir, takes the reins from his mother to begin the cycle anew.

This novel is a textbook example of how poor parenting and sibling rivalry can slowly push a family into decay. While there is a real misery to the actual events of this tale, a certain charm arises out of the family dynamics, especially between Arina and her sons. None of these characters is lovable, and yet there is something endearing, and partly humorous about them; they epitomize what we cannot fathom to be ourselves. Also, a certain joy can be attained through the scrutiny of someone else’s misery. Cioran’s translation is clean and practical, the conversation is easy to follow, and the descriptions have been made easy for a modern reader to understand. Recommended for those interested in Russian literature or the period.