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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Comely Cook

Mikhail Chulkov

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Three Russian Tales of the Eighteenth Century

Title: The Comely Cook
Author: Mikhail Chulkov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1770 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 49 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: in Three Russian Tales of the Eighteenth Century - US
in Three Russian Tales of the Eighteenth Century - UK
in Three Russian Tales of the Eighteenth Century - Canada
  • Russian title: Пригожая повариха, или Похождения развратной женщины
  • Translated by David Gasperetti
  • Published in Three Russian Tales of the Eighteenth Century

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable if limited

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Comely Cook is an early Russian novel, generally considered to be of considerable literary-historical significance; Viktor Shklovsky was a fan and mentions it repeatedly in his writing. Its comic, somewhat irreverent tone and risqué subject-matter are a significant contrast to the ponderous Russian literature of the day, and it shares more with the rising European novel -- Moll Flanders is a commonly cited influence and comparison; the anonymous The History of Charlotte Summers another.
       The story is narrated by happy-go-lucky Martona. Widowed at age nineteen, she finds herself poor and with few prospects, but quickly allows herself to be settled into as the mistress of a servant who freely spends (his master's ...) money on her. When she is able to switch servant for master, she does so without hesitation, and devotes herself to Sveton. Sveton eventually turns out to have a wife, and she puts an end to this, leaving Martona impoverished again.
       Soon enough, she finds another position in Moscow, is dismissed -- "I did not grieve so much, for there was no one there to part with, and therefore I wasn't being deprived of anything" -- and already a day later a panderer assures her he can set her up nicely -- as he does, with a widower. Typical for the rushed story, everything goes fast:

Thus in one hour I took control in the house and had the entire estate in my hands, and not much more than two hours after that I had command of the master as well, for he did not hesitate to reveal that he had fallen head over heels in love with me and that if I were toleave him, he told me, he would pass away before reaching his natural end.
       Martona finds herself drawn to another admirer, Akhal -- and manages to both enjoy his company and not arouse her benefactor's jealousy by having Akhal visit dressed up as a woman, passing as Martona's sister. ("I have never seen such ardent love between sisters", the deceived old man observes .....)
       When the old man dies, Martona's life is again thrown into disarray; she's saved by Akhal and a fellow officer, Svidal -- to whom, of course, she soon enough finds herself drawn. It comes to a duel between Svidal and Akhal -- with an outcome that is the source of further confusion and comedies of errors.
       The end is billed as: 'The End of Part One', suggesting continuing adventures, but Chulkov left the story relatively open-ended, and never continued it; it makes for a rather abrupt end -- and a somewhat limited novel.
       Martona's carefree ways and willingness and ability to change more or less at the drop of a hat-- sometimes voluntarily, sometimes out of necessity -- make for an amusing narrator, and even though she is more or less a kept woman almost the entire time, she shows considerable independence and is a sympathetic, strong female lead. Her proverb-strewn philosophy of life takes almost everything very lightly -- no doubt a contrast to most of the Russian literature of the time (though in keeping with the European picaresque tradition).
       Sly digs at Russian literary traditions (and pretensions) are also found throughout the text -- as is the occasional very open one:
The other day, I don't know how, an ode by someone named Lomonosov was dropped off at work, and not a soul in the entire department could make sense of it, and what's more, the secretary himself said it was pure delirium and not worth the most insignificant official document.
       The Comely Cook is quite amusing, but at a mere fifty pages -- and with the pace a fairly rushed one -- a thin adventure novel that's not that much more than a few episodes strung together. Certainly clever, it's presumably more enjoyable taken in direct contrast to much of the other Russian writing of that day. On its own, it is too small to make much of an impact. It's fine, and quite fun, but there's not really enough to it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 September 2017

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The Comely Cook: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Mikhail Chulkov (Михаил Дмитриевич Чулков) lived ca. 1743 to 1792.

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© 2017-2020 the complete review

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