The “too much information” simile and the “not enough information” simile are my two favorite new bits of literary jargon, from Greta Matzner-Gore on Gogol’s “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich” (Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем, 1835). Here are some of her examples:
[...] early in the story the narrator insists that the effect Ivan Ivanovich’s pleasant speech has on its listeners can only be compared to one thing. But then he goes on to compare it to three: “The sensation can only be compared to when you’re having your head deloused, or when someone runs a finger gently over your heel. You listen and listen — and you hang your head. How pleasant! Extremely pleasant! Like sleeping after a bath.” (2: 226; 8). The first two comparisons — being checked for lice and getting tickled — at least describe similar physical sensations, but how could either possibly resemble a post-bath nap? In the car chase of this comparison the narrator has switched “vehicles” so many times that the “tenor” has been lost entirely, left behind somewhere in the dust. (25)
In a footnote she remarks that there’s a tradition of criticizing this aspect of Gogol’s comparisons as a flaw. An example of the opposite kind of simile is the last of a list of carriages, which “wasn’t like anything [byla ni na chto ne pokhozha], representing some strange being, utterly formless and extremely fantastical” (25). So a Gogolian narrator sometimes compares one thing to several things that are arguably mutually incompatible, and sometimes declares it impossible to compare a thing to any other thing at all.
So far, so good; I think the terms “too much information” and “not enough information” simile are what’s new here, since I think I remember Judith Deutsch Kornblatt making much of the “not enough information” simile in her course on Gogol, especially w/r/t a woman’s face in Dead Souls, and I suspect the phenomenon is well known to Gogol readers and scholars. It’s certainly an important technique worth drawing attention to and defining. At one point I thought Matzner-Gore was going to lose me, when she brought the landowners from Dead Souls in as examples:
Gogol’s “too much information” simile, exemplified by the description of Sobakevich [who is likened to just about every animal and object in his house], and his “not enough information” simile, exemplified by the incomparable Pliushkin, are two sides of the same coin. Both landowners, the one who looks like so many different things (a bear and a chair and a thrush), and the one who looks like nothing at all (neither man nor woman, like nothing you have ever seen), the one who can be exchanged for anything and the one who can be exchanged for nothing, have equally indeterminate identities. They are both impossible to visualize. Splintering and shattering, or simply melting away, they disappear into the ever-fluctuating landscape of Dead Souls.
Here’s where I started to argue with the article in my head. Surely the landowners aren’t hard to pin down — in my reading they’re centuries-old stereotypes, jokes that ought to be lifeless but have life breathed into them by the bizarreness of Gogol’s narrative techniques, including the two types of similes Matzner-Gore singles out. But then I had one of those satisfying moments when I turned the page and all my objections were anticipated and dealt with, as Matzner-Gore shifts the emphasis from the supposedly unstable landscape and indeterminate characters to the way these similes — and other techniques like lists that, midway through, swerve away from what we expect them to be a list of — affect our perception of the narrator’s voice (28-30). It is not that Mirgorod is a particularly magical, mysterious, kaleidoscopic place to direct your gaze at, but this pair of eyes would make anything seem crazy, even a miser that belongs in Molière.
The whole article is enjoyable, and one last part I want to highlight here is Matzner-Gore’s overview of how different scholars take the ending of “The Two Ivans,” the passage up to “Скучно на этом свете, господа!” (“It’s dull in this world, gentlemen!”) when the storyteller’s voice shifts. Robert Maguire says the change is so extreme that the narrator at the end can’t possibly be the same person as the narrator at the beginning; Christopher Putney says that the “demonic boredom and restlessness” that caused the two Ivans to quarrel has infected the town and even the narrator; and Donald Fanger says that the “theme introduced by the closing line is the instability of the comic attitude” (30-31).
Read the whole thing! You can find it here: Greta Matzner-Gore, “Gogol’s Language of Instability: ‘The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich’ and the Problem of Identity,” Slavic and East European Journal 58.1 (2014): 19-32. (No link as of now, but it should eventually be on JSTOR.)
“Nekrasov is the only Russian poet that, to this day, it is considered good form to say bad things about” (1:06). From there Dmitry Bykov quickly moves to a comparison of the big nineteenth-century poets’ lyric heroes. The poet and his persona coincide most often, he says, in Pushkin, whose poetry is sincere and confessional and always in the first person (6:24). Lermontov plainly wears a mask, with at least three important ones: the demonic-Byronic mask, the mask of the unhappy child lost in a terrifying world, and that of a poet of pure music and servant of harmony (6:36). Nekrasov’s persona is usually an idiosyncratic expulsion of what he hates most in himself; he isolates his personal Mr. Hyde (7:07). Of Nekrasov’s embittered, prose-of-love love poems, Bykov says “there have never been love lyrics like that in Russian poetry, and God grant there never will be again” (10:03).
One thing I like about commentary on Nekrasov is that it’s almost hard for it not to sound like Aesopian commentary on the present. Soviet scholars wrote about Nekrasov’s battles with tsarist censors, and without any explicit parallel, you could take it as commentary on Soviet censorship or a how-to guide on evading it.
Something similar happens with Bykov’s reading of “The Last One” (Последыш), my favorite part of Who Can Be Happy in Russia? (Кому на Руси жить хорошо?, about 1863-77). It’s the part where an old landowner refuses to accept the fact of emancipation and has a stroke, and his heirs and ex-serfs conspire to trick him into thinking the decree has been rescinded. This old man sees a peasant, Agap Petrov, stealing wood and orders him beaten, not for the theft but for being insolent afterward. The peasants arrange a mock beating, giving Agap vodka and pretending to flog him as he simulates cries of pain. But he dies “almost that same day,” even though they hadn’t “laid a finger on him, let alone the cane.”
I take this as Nekrasov’s pet theme that people — even peasants, enserfed or otherwise — need dignity as much as food and shelter. In Nekrasov’s world, an Ivan who’s been in a humiliating position for his whole life, and for a thousand hopeless years of family history, can cry out “Хоть бы раз Иван Мосеич Кто меня назвал!” (“If only someone would call me Ivan Moseich just once” [instead of shouting ‘Hey, Ivan!’ without the patronymic]) before the emancipation.*
But Nekrasov also describes peasants being elevated above their station and then forced back down to it, with the special suffering this causes. A serf is trained to be a chef, starts “to read, to reason, to discuss,” and is flogged to remind him of his place, so he drowns himself. A peasant woman “В барском доме была учена Вместе с барышней разным наукам” (“She was taught different arts in the manor ‘longside the young mistress”) but then she’s sent back to the village and can’t stand wearing a sarafan or doing menial work: her coachman husband laments, “Погубили ее господа, А была бы бабенка лихая!” (“The gentlefolk ruined her, or she’d’ve made quite a girl!”).
Bykov puts Agap in “The Last One” in the subcategory of people who’ve been offered a taste of dignity and freedom, then had it taken away. And that’s reasonable. But perhaps it’s an especially natural way to take things in post-perestroika Russia. Bykov makes no comparisons, but it seems non-accidental that he dwells on the idea that the Great Reforms of the 1860s were disappointing, that freedom of speech and of the press were rolled back soon after they were incompletely granted.
Like Bykov I’m fascinated with the way Nekrasov helped make ternary meters popular in Russian poetry. I’m not sure about his argument that using ternary meter corresponds to adding a third term to a prior unsatisfactory left-right binary of ideas. (Does it do the same thing in Fet?) And his favorite long works, like Contemporaries (Современники, 1875) and Russian Women (Русские женщины, 1871-72), are among those I find least satisfying (though of course they have their strong points).
Several times Bykov quotes Nekrasov in an attempt to expand the audience’s idea of what he wrote about and how. I wonder if he quoted У русского особый взгляд, Преданьям рабства страшно верен: Всегда побитый виноват, А битым — счет потерян! (“A Russian has a particular view. He is terribly faithful to the traditions of slavery: whoever has been beaten must be guilty, and those beaten are too many to count!”) and it was cut. That’s my favorite example of the Nekrasov that Russians aren’t asked to memorize in school.
Thanks to Dasha S. for sending me the link to Bykov’s lecture!
* Ivan is reported as saying this before the emancipation, but the poem was written after, and was part of broader polemics about how high a priority this kind of symbolic social equality was for ex-slaves, or whether they wanted it at all.
I’ve been thinking on and off about how people could or should translate nonstandard dialects, and translating Leskov is making the question urgent, since his characters’ voices all sound different and their speech is often marked for region, class, or subculture. A universal English substandard of “ain’t,’ double negatives, ‘-in’’ instead of ‘-ing,’ and a paratactic sentence structure” for every different kind of interestingly non-literary Russian doesn’t seem like enough.
I thought I’d look at an English-to-Russian example. Mary Barton (1848) by Elizabeth Gaskell has a lot of Lancashire dialect. Here’s the beginning of a song inserted into the text called “The Oldham Weaver”:
Oi’m a poor cotton-weyver, as mony a one knoowas,
Oi’ve nowt for t’ yeat, an’ oi’ve woorn eawt my clooas,
Yo’ad hardly gi’ tuppence for aw as oi’ve on,
My clogs are boath brosten, an’ stuckins oi’ve none,
Yo’d think it wur hard,
To be browt into th’ warld,
To be—clemmed, an’ do th’ best as yo con.
Gaskell gives “clem” a footnote, defining it as “to starve with hunger” and providing an example from Ben Jonson.
T. Kudriavtseva preserves the line length, rhyme scheme, and songlike lack of enjambment in her 1963 translation, but there are no “dialect” features obvious to me, certainly nothing as unusual as “clem” is in English:
Я ткач, каких много, бедней меня нет,
Мне нечего есть, я разут и раздет,
Заплатанней в мире не сыщешь штанов,
Все пальцы глядят из худых башмаков.
Доли тягостней нет,
Чем явиться на свет,
Чтобы биться как рыба об лед.
E. Beketova had changed the rhyme scheme but added a few more “dialect” features in 1861:
Я бедный работник, я ольдгемский ткач,
Каких в белом свете довольно:
Не мало видал на веку неудач,
Ни дня не жилось мне привольно.
За всю-то одежду мою, ни гроша
Тряпичник не даст, пожалеет.
А тело, от голоду еле-дыша
Того и гляди омертвеет.
Зачем бы, кажись, и родиться на свет,
Коль нечего есть и пристанища нет?
But perhaps it’s different with dialogue, when the formal aspects of the stanza aren’t competing for the translator’s attention. Let’s look at Job Legh speaking to Mary Barton about the subpoena she has received for the trial of Jem Wilson:
Ay, poor wench, I see how it is. It’ll go hard with thee a bit, I dare say; but keep up thy heart. Yo cannot have much to tell ’em, that can go either one way or th’ other. Nay! may be thou may do him a bit o’ good, for when they set eyes on thee, they’ll see fast enough how he came to be so led away by jealousy; for thou’rt a pretty creature, Mary, and one look at thy face will let ’em into th’ secret of a young man’s madness, and make ’em more ready to pass it over. (chapter 23)
Here the nonstandard elements are not as overwhelming, but still noticeable; the use of “thou” and related forms, long obsolete in the standard language but preserved regionally, especially stands out. Taryn Hakala says that Job Legh’s “dialect speech constructs him as the novel’s moral center,” that his status as an authentic speaker of the local dialect “allows him to usurp John Barton’s role as a central male character” (62, 42). The way he talks is important in the book, and its function is not just local color or comic relief.
— Вот оно что, бедняжечка! Пожалуй, и правда, тебе-то это будет нелегко, но ты не падай духом. Что бы ты ни сказала, на дело это повлиять не может… Нет, постой-ка! Глядишь, ты и поможешь Джему: как посмотрят на тебя в суде, сразу поймут, откуда у него ревность такая взялась — ты ведь красивая девушка, Мэри. Судьи чуть увидят твое личико, так тут же разберутся, почему молодой человек вдруг совсем обезумел. Ну и отнесутся к делу снисходительнее.
—Эх, бедняжечка! вижу я, каково тебе. Трудно тебе это, тяжело; да делать нечего, держись. Ведь тебе вероятно почти нечего им сказать ни за, ни против. Может быть даже присутствие твое в ассизах будет для него полезно, потому что взглянув на тебя, все тотчас поймут, что он очень мог посягнуть на жизнь человека просто из безумной ревности; что и говорить, ты ведь хороша на редкость, Мери, и стоит только посмотреть на тебя, чтобы согласиться, что от такого личика молодой человек может сойти с ума, и тогда преступление его легче будет простить ему.
Russianists and native speakers, how do these voices sound to you? Kudriavtseva’s Job Legh is clearly not stylistically neutral (e.g. -то, -ка, так as a conjunction). Much of the middle (как посмотрят на тебя в суде, сразу поймут, откуда у него ревность такая взялась — ты ведь красивая девушка, Мэри) sounds colloquial but not regional or necessarily rural to my ear. In this case, unlike “The Oldham Weaver,” I think Beketova plays down the Lancashire dialect compared to Kudriavtseva (granted, we do get каково тебе), though Beketova’s language seems and is older.
Are these examples the mirror image of Robert Maguire’s strategy of using supposedly universal markers of substandard language, to avoid inappropriate associations (“If one wants to find English equivalents, one must beware, once again, of decentering the text: such a character can begin to sound like a slave in the ante-bellum South, or a hillbilly from Appalachia, and any illusion of Russianness is shattered”)? Or is Kudriavtseva (or Beketova) subtly or overtly transforming Job Legh’s English into a particular kind of marked Russian, associated with a particular place and time or social group?
By the way, Beketova’s translation appeared in Dostoevskii’s journal Time, next to translated Czech poetry, an article about Mormonism in the U.S., a piece called “February 19th, 1861,” poems by Polonskii and Nekrasov, and Dostoevskii’s own Notes from the House of the Dead and The Insulted and Injured. You can read it here: beginning-chapter 5, chapters 6-9, chapters 10-14, chapters 15-21, chapters 22-29, chapters 30-38 (end). Dostoevskii also published Gaskell’s Ruth.
In 2009 the historian Stephen Saperstein Frug posted excerpts from translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин, 1823-31) by Stanley Mitchell (2008), Tom Beck (2004), Douglas Hofstadter (1999), James Falen (1990), Charles Johnston (1977), Walter Arndt (1963, 1972, 1978), Vladimir Nabokov (1964, 1975), Babette Deutsch (1936, 1964), and Henry Spalding (1881). You can see their versions of the opening stanza and the last couplet of chapter 1, stanza 60. Saperstein Frug blogs at Attempts. H/T Ian Appleby, retweeting Nick Admussen, crediting Brendan O’Kane.
There have been several new translations since SSF’s post. Henry M. Hoyt, in his translation dated 2008-2011, says there have been “at least sixteen English translations” of the novel in verse in the last 50 years, but that appears to be an undercount. Hoyt’s contribution is to lose rhyme but keep meter, in an attempt to find a happy medium between the prose/Nabokov approach and the fully rhymed approach with its inevitable changes of lexical meaning and emphasis.
It turns out that it’s not just historians comparing translations of EO on the internet! Peter M. Lee, who has written a textbook on Bayesian statistics, has an impressive bibliography of 43 English translations (several translate only part of the text, and the figure of 43 counts multiple editions by a single translator individually), also with versions of chapter 1, stanza 1. I see 20 translations since 1990 on his list, not including 4 post-1990 revisions of pre-1990 translations. Lee has done the same thing for 24 translations of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman (Медный всадник, 1833) from between 1882 and 2010. There he uses lines 44-58 (Люблю тебя, Петра творенье…) as a comparison.
I bet you can guess who this translation of Какое низкое коварство Полуживого забавлять comes from:
What base perfidiousness
the half-alive one to amuse
A hint: in the second edition, he calls his own work “basically unassailable.” Using “base” for низкое in these lines goes all the way back to Spalding in 1881:
Ye need dissimulation base
A dying man with art to soothe
I prefer Babette Deutsch’s “low cunning,” adopted by Mary Hobson (2011). Hoyt opts for “What despicable calculation/ To keep a half-dead man amused.” Another version that got my attention was “What prostitution of one’s wit/ To raise a smile on lips half cold” (Clive Phillips-Wolley, 1883). Overall 7 translators on Lee’s list use “base,” about 24 avoid it, and 2 translations were so obscure Lee couldn’t find a copy. “Base” sets off my personal alarm bells as translationese (and not just mine) and I would expect to prefer translations that don’t use it, so it surprised me that the ratio is much higher in the relatively famous translations Saperstein Frug looks at (4 out of 9 translators use it). “Base” is preferred by Spalding (1881), Nabokov (1964 and 1975), Johnston (1977 and 2003), Falen (1995), Roger Clarke (2005 and 2011), Julian Henry Lowenfeld (2010), and D. M. Thomas (2011).
You can find Spalding’s translation here. He mentions chapter 2, stanza 35 as especially difficult, since it’s full of culturally specific practices (Russian text, Spalding’s translation, Spalding’s notes). The middle of the stanza, Spalding writes, “was at first deemed irreligious by the Russian censors, and consequently expunged,” but most everyone seems to reinstate the censored lines, from Spalding himself (1881) to Iurii Lotman in his commentary (1980) to the editors of various Russian editions. But not Nabokov, who uses lines of dots for half of 2.35. It looks like he’s following the last edition published during Pushkin’s life (January 1837); the notes to the 1937-1959 collected works say the lines were omitted in 1826, 1830, 1833, and 1837:
<Стихи заменены точками>
Гл1, Гл2, 33, 37
I only have Nabokov’s text, not his commentary, and he may include the missing lines there. It’s just as well I can’t check, as I’ve had as much of VN’s contempt for lesser mortals as I can take for a night, after reading his showy non-acknowledgements. Nabokov appears to have textological differences with almost everyone else when it comes to The Bronze Horseman too.
Definitely go to Lee’s site, and check out his Word file of translators’ biographies, where I learned that Clive Phillipps-Wolley (1853-1918) wrote a book called “Sport in the Crimea and Caucasus , based on his time hunting in Russia,” was praised by Theodore Roosevelt for his writing on hunting, also wrote poetry (“with readership in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa”) and novels, gave up hunting for photography, and ran for office in his adopted home of British Columbia on an anti–Chinese immigration platform.
Белковина is an obsolete equivalent of белок ‘egg white, white (of an eye), protein’; it is also synonymous with the Russian альбумин, a cognate of albumin and albumen. The OED tells me that albumen means primarily egg-white and secondarily soluble protein (plus some other meanings), while albumin means primarily soluble protein and secondarily egg-white. Protein, meanwhile, comes from the French protéine, which is based on a Byzantine Greek root meaning “of the first quality” and is “so called on account of its being a primary substance or fundamental material of the bodies of animals and plants.” The other words — albumin or -en, альбумин, белок, белковина — derive from Latin or Slavic words for “white.”
More from the OED on protein:
Originally: †a complex, nitrogenous, organic substance obtained from casein, fibrin, and egg albumen, taken to be a distinct compound and regarded as the basic component of a large group of substances essential to living organisms (obs.). Later: any of this group of substances, which occur in all living organisms, esp. as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, collagen, keratin, etc., and as functional components such as enzymes and antibodies. Also as a mass noun: such compounds collectively, esp. as a component of the diet; food consisting chiefly of proteins, as meat, fish, soya beans, etc.
From S. A. Reiser’s notes to What Is to Be Done? (the 1975 Nauka edition):
Lopukhov’s words reflect the numerous and persistent attempts by scientists, beginning in the eighteenth century, to find a method of artificially synthesizing protein [белок] (in the terminology of the time, белковина). In the 1850s and 1860s several initially unsuccessful attempts were made to penetrate the mysteries of its structure. Scientists were, however, correct to surmise that protein was the foundation of the biological development of matter (F. Engels wrote about this in 1876; see Anti-Dühring, Moscow, 1966, p. 78). The first blow against vitalist immanence was struck in 1828 when F. Wöhler artificially synthesized urea [мочевина]. Subsequent stages in the collapse of vitalism occurred when P. E. Berthelot artificially synthesized fats in 1854 and A. M. Butlerov artificially synthesized carbohydrates in 1861. Chernyshevskii probably knew about all these experiments. Proteins were synthesized only in the mid-twentieth century. Albumins or proteins [протеины], organic compounds of high molecular weight, play an important part in the structure and life of organisms and are one of the most important sources of nourishment: the possibility of producing them artificially held the promise of making food products significantly more abundant and less expensive, which was of colossal importance to the poorer segment of the population. This in particular explains the revolutionary democrats’ interest, and that of scientists close to them, in the aforementioned problem. (links added)
If I’m getting the biology right, proteins are now taken to be a large class of compounds important for life, but in the mid-nineteenth century it was thought that one particular chemical found in egg-whites was a building block of all life, and this is the connection between the idea of “(egg-)white” (albumin, albumen) and the idea of “fundamental thing” (protein).
In chapter 3, section 22, “A Theoretical Conversation,” Lopukhov goes to see Kirsanov and starts an oblique conversation about the emerging love triangle involving the two of them and Vera Pavlovna. Kirsanov is annoyed and doesn’t want to talk about it. Lopukhov ostentatiously changes the subject to science, which also annoys Kirsanov, and recent experiments purporting to synthesize protein are what he seizes on as a good scientific topic. Here’s Tucker’s 1886 translation of the passage:
“[...] What do you think of these strange experiments in the artificial production of albumen?”
Lopoukhoff drew another chair up to his own to put his feet on it, seated himself comfortably, lighted his cigar, and continued his remarks:
“In my opinion it is a great discovery, if it be not contradicted. Have you reproduced the experiments?”
“No, but I must do so.”
“How fortunate you are in having a good laboratory at your disposition! Reproduce them, reproduce them, I beg of you, but with great care. It is a complete revolution in the entire alimentary economy, in the whole life of humanity,—the manufacture of the prinicipal nutritive substance directly from inorganic matter. That is an extremely important discovery, equal to Newton’s. Do you not think so?”
“Certainly. Only I very much doubt the accuracy of the experiments. Sooner or later we shall reach that point, indisputably; science clearly tends in that direction. But now it is scarcely probable that we have already got there.”
“That is your opinion? Well, it is mine, too. So our conversation is over. [...]”
I think in Oryx and Crake (2003), science is still clearly tending in that direction. Though to be fair, I guess there has been a revolution or two in the world alimentary economy since Chernyshevskii.
Here’s an analysis by Kenneth Yalowitz and Matthew Rojansky on why resources are diminishing for Russian and Eurasian studies in the United States:
1) Ambitious students who would have studied the USSR during the Cold War now study the Middle East and Asia
2) Economists and political scientists inside academia belittle the importance of “language and regional knowledge” and “cross-disciplinary regional expertise”
3) Private foundations have cut back on Russian-related programs, partly because of the Russian government’s hostility to foreign NGOs
4) The U.S. government has reduced funding for Title VI and Title VIII programs for language instruction and area studies, as well as a program run by the Library of Congress that brought people from the former Soviet Union to the U.S.
They think this is bad, and the funding cuts should be reversed to further the U.S. national interest.
While I’m naturally sympathetic, I’m worried by the naked self-interest of such pieces — they are no more surprising (if no less sincere) than calls by billionaires’ children to abolish the estate tax, or defense contractors’ belief in high military spending, or doctors’ support for high Medicare reimbursement rates, or the importance K-12 teachers place on teachers’ salaries and job security. I’d like to see the cuts to Russian-related programs put in the context of cuts to other domestic programs since the 2010 midterm elections. If the larger and more prestigious NIH and NSF lose funding, are they a surprise? How much of the federal budget would ideally go to Russian vs. Arabic or Chinese or Portuguese, and why? How much to language/area studies vs. other important areas of academic research, and how much to academic research vs. other education spending, and how much to education vs. anti-poverty and other programs? It’s neither intellectually satisfying nor, I’d guess, a particularly effective form of lobbying if every small, specialized group whose budget has been cut just says “what I do is important.”
As long as Ukraine is in the news, “what I do is important right now and may be in the future” might work, but surely Slavists were making similar arguments before Maidan and would continue to make them if the Russia/Ukraine situation magically returned to the status quo ante.
On another level, I think there’s always a bit of unresolved tension between the cosmopolitan outlook of the scholars who want funding, the U.S. government’s soft-power “proactive efforts to engage” ordinary Russians, and its hard-power effort to train the next generation of spies and assassins.
- Richard at Caravana de recuerdos is reading A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes. In this post, Bertrand Russell writes “If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky’s characters should be governed, you will understand.” Gor’kii asks if the revolution only brought out “the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people” in this post on peasant sex and violence, which makes Russian peasants sound too unselfconscious to be human but too sadistic to be animals. The next post taught me that Gor’kii was at one time an icon painter and has an interesting debate on whether the peasants were “ripe for manipulation by the Bolsheviks” or (as Figes believes) could fill any post-revolutionary vacuum with their own “moral order or ideology.” (This fits with my pet idea that peasant ideas about gender roles were quickly dressed up in Bolshevik language and pushed out the remnants of 1860s free-love feminism.) Also read about why Figes starts in 1891 (a major famine and cholera outbreak), plus an appreciation of Figes’ Tacitean style.
- Via Alexei K., a U.S. court concludes that an allusion to the Man in Black from Pushkin’s “Mozart and Salieri” (Моцарт и Сальери, published 1831) was “too obscure (and too vague) to be defamatory.” The expert witness seems to have misunderstood who killed Mozart in the play, and Eugene Volokh highlights AK’s comment explaining matters.
- I think Languagehat is quoting Peter Hodgson with approval here: Dostoevskii “experimented with patently inadequate European forms, not so that he might hit upon a combination of techniques which would ‘mirror’ the familiar Nevsky Prospect but because he felt that Russian literature had yet to give form to the psychological and moral reality of his countrymen. In following Gogol’s lead and exploiting the native baroque traditions which resided in the subculture, Dostoevsky drew on a set of literary forms which were appropriate to the peculiarly unwestern aspects of Russian reality. At the same time, however, he manipulated their innately irreverent tendency as a weapon against the inappropriate European forms which had accrued to legitimate Russian prose during a century of Europeanization.” I’m curious how this is different from Belinskii’s call for “national character” (народность) in literature, which LH discussed with less approval here.
- Don’t miss Elena Gapova on Gogol’s “Viy” (Вий, 1835) and a recent movie version of it. I’m a little skeptical that the world “is becoming more visual than textual” when the younger generation communicates more in writing than by telephone, for the first time since their great-grandparents. If there was a time when people didn’t “watch more than they read,” I bet it was before television, if not before newsreels and early cinema; if you count the stagecraft of church services as visual, most Europeans for a thousand years have watched more than they read. This nitpicking aside, what Gapova has to say about Gogol and the way Russian literature is or isn’t sold to the world is well worth reading.