The Golovlyov Family is a classic Russian novel focused on the eponymous family. The matriarch of the landowning family is Arina Petrovna, who rules her fiefdom with an iron fist. With her husband (a drunken alcoholic who does not much figure in the novel) she has had four children: three sons and a daughter. The eldest son Stepan Vladimiritch, a ne’er-do-well, dies in the first chapter, as does the daughter Anna. Anna’s death leaves her two children, Anninka and Lubinka in the care of Arina. It’s 10 years later and Arina’s husband has recently died and the youngest son Pavel follows in the second chapter which sets the stage for the showdown between the middle son, Porphyry (aka Iudushka). Through the early pages of the novel, Arina is shown to be a rather petty, vindictive scion. But we ain’t seen nothing yet.
When Iudushka takes the stage, we see a master manipulator, a deadly pedant, and one of the most devious and hypocritical characters that you’re likely to come across in literature. Arina, in what turns out to be a tactical error, divides her estate between Pavel and Porphyry, as she has found her power slowly slipping away to Porphyry (nicknamed “Little Judas”). The times of serfdom are rapidly coming to an end. When Arina, worn out and tired of the passive-aggressive battle tactics of Iudushka, takes the young children of the late Anna to a small estate that she had given to Pavel, her fate is sealed.
The plot moves along in an interesting style. Most chapters begin with a sort of state of the union, the story picks up at some future point. Then it circles back to show how we got there. The novel begins with Arina getting the upsetting news that Stepan has sold the Moscow house that Arina specifically had granted him. We don’t know Arina, nor Stepan at this point. The author quickly remedies this with “before I go on with my story I will ask the reader to make a closer acquaintance with Arina Petrovna and her family.” This is a device that Mikhail Evgrafovich Saltykov (pseudonym: Schedrin) uses several times in his novel.
The novel takes a dim view of humanity as one era dies and another takes its place. Tough to find a character that has any redeeming value, or at least you can respect and ‘root’ for.