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Somebody I Used to Know? Reviewing Woe from Wit: A Verse Comedy in Four Acts3 min read

 In Culture, Review, Russia
While reading the introduction to Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit, I have come to the conclusion that if the term “woke” existed and could have been applicable to 18th century Russia, this book would have been just that – woke.

The liberal ideas expressed by the protagonist, Alexander Chatsky, who returned to Moscow’s high society after spending several years abroad, rendered some parts of the manuscript unpublishable by the tsarist censorship machine for 38 years. Despite the fact that all of Moscow memorized it long before the complete manuscript was published (or had gotten their hands on a handwritten copy) apparently did not matter. From 1824, when Griboedov first finished his manuscript, excerpts were published and put on stage. Gribodoev himself was also invited to various salons and the homes of the rich and famous to read it out loud before going abroad in 1828 to work as a diplomat.

As revolutionary as the content might have been, from criticizing the culture of Moscow’s conservative high society to the hypocrisy of the tsarist autocracy, Griboedov still checks all of the boxes of a typical Russian 18th century writer. Yes, his family belonged to the Russian elite; yes, he spent summers at the residence of some rich old uncle; yes, he dabbled in the arts for a bit; and yes, he ended up in the tsarist bureaucracy as a military diplomat – just to – yes, suffer an early death at the hands of a Persian mob which stormed the Russian embassy in Tehran in the aftermath of Russo-Persian War 1826-1828.

By all accounts, Alexander Griboedov fits the prototype of a typical 18th century Russian writer, yet he has virtually remained a nobody in Russian literature translated to English. Despite being played on stages all over the country for the last two centuries, Woe from Wit is little known outside of Russia. The fact that it is a comedy might even raise some eyebrows as the perception of Russian literature outside of Russia has the reputation of being brooding, deeply philosophical, satirical or just plain sad.

In Betsy Hulick’s new translation, the plot unravels before my eyes just as fluidly as a Jane Austen novel – it has a bit of everything; love, misunderstanding, plotting, irony and disappointment (some would even call it heartbreak).

Set in Moscow a few years after the end of the Napoleon wars, Chatsky returns from his adventures abroad to find that some things have changed, while others have stayed the same. His teenage sweetheart, Sofia, has found another lover – and even though Moscow has been burnt to the ground and rebuilt, not much has changed.

New houses, but old prejudices linger.
Rest assured, not fashion’s iron decree,
nor time nor fire can prize them utterly
from those among whom they have taken root” 

It appears that it is Chatsky who has been transformed. Influenced by liberal ideas and the cultures he had been exposed to abroad, he quickly gets labelled rude and revolutionary by his old friends and sweetheart – who eventually starts spreading the rumour that he has gone mad.

While I initially was sceptical about the iambic verse and rhythm of the text, I must confess that I was fully entertained while reading Woe from Wit. Just as intended (it is a play, after all) I can easily visualize it set on stage: the scenography and clothes, even the intonation and body language of the different characters as they are being portrayed by different actors. This is in large part due to the new translation, which makes the text flow easily and humorously.

With that being said, for those of you who feel the urge to broaden your horizon of the Russian classics, Woe from Wit offers a few hours of light and satisfying entertainment that I highly recommend.

Book details: Griboedov, Alexander. Woe from Wit. Translated by Betsy Hulick. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. It is available to buy here.

Featured image: Woe from Wit cover (adaptation) / Amanda Sonesson
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