Sanine is a thoroughly uncomfortable book, but it has a fierce energy which has carried it in a very short space of time into almost every country in Europe and at last into this country, where books, like everything else, are expected to be comfortable. It has roused fury both in Russia and in Germany, but, being rather a furious effort itself, it has thriven on that, and reached an enormous success. That is not necessarily testimony of a book’s value or even of its power. On the other hand, no book becomes international merely by its capacity for shocking moral prejudices, or by its ability to titillate the curiosity of the senses. Every nation has its own writers who can shock and titillate. But not every nation has the torment of its existence coming to such a crisis that books like Sanine can spring to life in it. This book was written in the despair which seized the Intelligenzia of Russia after the last abortive revolution, when the Constitution which was no constitution was wrung out of the grand dukes. Even suppose the revolution had succeeded, the intellectuals must have asked themselves, even suppose they had mastered the grand dukes and captured the army, would they have done more than altered the machinery of government, reduced the quantity of political injustice, amended the principles of taxation, and possibly changed the colours of the postage stamps? Could they have made society less oppressive to the life of the individual? Like all intellectuals, M. Artzibashef is fascinated by the brutality of human life, and filled with hatred of his own disgust at it. As with all artists, it is necessary for him to shake free of his own disgust, or there will be an end of his art. Intellectual and an artist, less artist for being intellectual, responding to the despairing mood of those around him, it became clear to him that political agitation had failed and must fail because it has a vision of government and no vision of human life. Society is factitious. The intellectual asks why. The artist never asks these absurd questions. Art is free. If he can attain art that is enough for him. Life, whether or no it be the slow process of evolution it is generally supposed to be, can and does look after itself. Society is certainly a nuisance and a heavy drag upon human energy, but so long as that energy can express itself in art, society cannot be altogether obstructive. That, says the intellectual, is well enough for the artist, but what of the individuals to whom art can only be at best a keen stimulus, at worst a drugging pleasure? Is the dead weight of society altogether to crush their delight in life? What is society? What is it but the accumulated emanations of the fear and timidity and shyness that beset human beings whenever they are gathered together? And to this accumulation are those who are not artists to bring nothing but fear and shyness and timidity to make the shadow over life grow denser and darker? Is there to be no reaction? How can there be individuals worthy of being alive except through reaction? And how can there be good government unless there are good individuals to be governed⁠—individuals in fine, worthy of being governed?

In the matters of being fed, clothed, and housed few men and women feel the hindrance of society. Indeed it is for those purposes that they are gathered together. Being so, it is then that their fear and shyness and timidity make them disguise their real natures and suppress their other desires and aspirations. It is in the matter of love that men and women feel society’s oppression, submit to it and set up their subjection as the rule which must be obeyed. Very rarely is it obeyed except by a few virtuous women who go through life coldly and destructively, driving the men with whom they come in contact into the arms of their more generous sisters. Women have fewer defences against the tyranny of society, which makes all but a very few either prostitutes or prigs, exploiting their womanhood in emotional and physical excitement, their motherhood to defend themselves and their self-respect from the consequences of that indulgence. Men are of harder stuff. Some of them can escape into the intellectual life; many preserve only their practical cunning and, for the rest, are insensible and stupid and fill their lives with small pleasures and trifling discontents, and feed their conceit with success or failure as they happen.

In Vladimir Sanine Artzibashef has imagined, postulated, a man who has escaped the tyranny of society, is content to take his living where he finds it, and determined to accept whatever life has to offer of joy or sorrow. Returning to his home, he observes and amuses himself with all that is going on in the little provincial garrison town, where men and women⁠—except his mother, who is frozen to the point of living altogether by formula⁠—are tormented by the exasperation of unsatisfied desires. He sees Novikoff absurdly and hopelessly in love with his sister, Lida; he sees Lida caught up in an intrigue with an expert soldier love-maker, and bound, both by her own weakness and by her dependence upon society for any opinion of her own actions, to continue in that hateful excitement; he sees men and women all round him letting their love and their desire trickle through their fingers; he sees Semenoff die, and death also in that atmosphere is blurred and meaningless. Men and women plunge into horrible relationships and constantly excuse themselves. They seek to propitiate society by labouring to give permanence to fleeting pleasures, the accidents of passion and propinquity. Love is rare; physical necessity is common to all men and women; it is absurd to expect the growth of the one and the satisfaction of the other often to coincide. Nature is apparently indifferent and does not demand love of human beings but only mutual attraction, and of that are most children born. They grow up to dwell in the heated confusion which passes for life. Of that mutual attraction and in that heated confusion two children are born in this book, Lida’s and Sarudine’s, Sanine’s and Karsavina’s. Lida yields to Society’s view of such affairs and is near broken by it; Sanine sustains Karsavina and brings her to the idea, cherished by Thomas Hardy among others, as a way out of confusion, of a woman’s right to have a child without suffering from impertinent curiosity as to who the father may be if he be such that she thinks herself better rid of him. This does not necessarily mean that women would at once become as loose and casual as men. On the contrary, it would probably make many of them realize their responsibility and fewer of them would capture men as Arabella captured Jude the Obscure. In any case there is no excuse for the cruelty which regards a child born out of wedlock as nothing but evidence of wickedness. A child born in wedlock may be as lustfully and lovelessly begotten. Marriage does not necessarily provide relief from physical necessity and often aggravates it; and when a child, as often happens, is nothing to its father and mother but a sordid tie, a constant reminder of a connection which both would be happier to forget, then, for its sake, they are better separate.

It has been objected to M. Artzibashef’s work that it deals so little with love and so much with physical necessity. That arises, I fancy, because his journalistic intention has overridden his artistic purpose. He has been exasperated into frankness more than moved to truth. He has desired to lay certain facts of modern existence before the world and has done so in a form which could gain a hearing, as a pure work of art probably could not. He has attempted a revaluation where it is most needed, where the unhappy Weininger failed. Weininger demanded, insanely, that humanity should renounce sex and the brutality it fosters; Artzibashef suggests that the brutishness should be accepted frankly, cleared of confusion with love, and slowly mastered so that out of passion love can grow. His book has the noble quality of being full of the love of life, however loveless. It cannot possibly give the kind of pleasure sought by those to whom even the Bible is a dirty book. It is too brutal for that. Books which pander to that mean desire are of all books the most injurious. But this is not one of them.