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September 16, 2014

“…the cumulative weight of poisoned nights and dirty-pale days”

September 2, 2014

Here’s a poem from just outside the nineteenth century (1906):


О, как я чувствую накопленное бремя
Отравленных ночей и грязно-бледных дней!
Вы, карты, есть ли что в одно и то же время
Приманчивее вас, пошлее и страшней!

Вы страшны нежностью похмелья, и науке,
Любви, поэзии — всему вас предпочтут.
Какие подлые не пожимал я руки,
Не соглашался с чем?.. Скорей! Колоды ждут…

Зеленое сукно — цвет малахитов тины,
Весь в пепле туз червей на сломанном мелке…
Подумай: жертву накануне гильотины
Дурманят картами и в каменном мешке.

I’m posting it because of line 11, which is strange for the same reason lines 3, 5, and 8 in Fedor Sologub’s “Men of the Eighties” (Восьмидесятники, 1892) are.* One more for my collection. Is this kind of rule-breaking everywhere, if I keep looking? Or just in early modernist poetry? Or in poems that call attention to formal elements (“Iambs” for a title) or have rebellion against classical education (and by extension neo-classical metrical rules) as a theme?

This poem is by Innokentii Annenskii (1855-1909), who I knew was much older than Viacheslav Ivanov, Kuzmin, or Blok, but I had forgotten was older than Chekhov. Here’s a quick prose translation:


O, how I feel the cumulative weight of poisoned nights and dirty-pale days! You, cards — is anything at once more alluring, more vulgar, and more terrible than you!

You are terrible in your tender hangover, and people prefer you to science, love, poetry — everything. What villainous hands have I not shaken, what have I not agreed to…? Quick! The decks are waiting…

The green cloth is the color of malachite pond-scum, the ash-covered ace of hearts is on top of a broken piece of chalk… Think: the night before the guillotine, the condemned man finds cards intoxicating in the very dungeon.

* I think накануне ‘on the eve’ was sometimes written as two words (на канунѣ) in pre-revolutionary orthography (though more often not), but it looks like that was almost gone by 1906. (Also, it seems that Google Ngrams will miss some old words if you leave out a word-final hard sign, but you can search for “е” and get results that cover both “е” and “ѣ.”) Still, I suppose Annenskii could have treated the break between на and кануне as sufficient for the caesura, and then my list would be back down to just Sologub.

Words not as new to me as I thought: шаккендс

September 1, 2014

From Ol’ga N.’s/Sof’ia Engel’gardt’s “The Old Man” (Старик, 1857):

He kissed her hand with that feeling of respect and love for a woman which, unfortunately, people of our era know only from legend. He did a shakkends with me, saying a few words of welcome, and clapped Rostislav on the shoulder. (29)

It took me longer to figure this one out than I should probably admit. It seems to be a foreign word and a kind of greeting an old-fashioned man could use with a younger woman in the mid-nineteenth century. Could it mean a ritual kiss on each cheek? I wanted шакк to be French chaque, but ендс looked like English “ends,” or possibly the suffix “-ence,” or maybe the double к was a sign that the whole word was from a different Germanic language. But I had trouble finding шаккендс anywhere online, with or without a hard sign or double к, or with з instead of с.

Then it dawned on me: he did a “shake hands.”

Also, I suspect chivalry has been dead almost as long as young people haven’t known how to speak properly.

A Tiutchev e-book

August 31, 2014

A comment on Lizok’s self-publishing post led me to John Dewey’s site about Tiutchev. I’ve hardly ever posted about Tiutchev here, but he’s an amazing poet, even if Brodsky did say (with some justice) that he wrote the most loyal-subject-y poetry in all of Russian literature. I was excited to learn of Dewey’s biography of Tiutchev, Mirror of the Soul, and I think it’s good news that it’s available as a relatively affordable e-book. You can also find a book of Dewey’s translations of Tiutchev into English on his site.

Poetry translation competition

August 30, 2014

The 2014 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize is accepting entries of Russian poems translated into English. It costs £5 to enter and offers prizes of £1,500, £1,000, and £500. Past winners include Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski (2012) and Constantine Rusanov (2011). Details on how to enter here.

“Why didn’t he marry her? That isn’t even explained.”

August 29, 2014

Characters in 1860s Russian fiction like to discuss George Sand. Here it’s a married couple and the husband’s soon-to-be lover arguing about the morality of her Leone Leoni (1833):

“Well? Did you like the book?” asked the countess.

I replied that I had.

“Oh, comme vous êtes romanesque! In my opinion that book is simply indecent.” She turned to her husband, “I mean, the hero isn’t married! What do you think, could a well-brought-up woman fall in love with anyone but her husband? And this woman even travels all over Europe with her lover! — Why didn’t he marry her? That isn’t even explained.”

Permskii jumped up from his chair.

“Tell me, my dear,” he asked, “where did you get all this commentary? Is it from Karl Fedorych? But even he wouldn’t say that a decent upbringing will stop a woman from falling in love.”

The countess was offended, since even before that she had been out of sorts; I started to feel sorry for her and inserted myself into the conversation.

“Countess,” I said, “the novel’s principal goal is to prove that a woman’s devotion knows no bounds. You’re right: I don’t understand why G. Sand didn’t have Leoni get married. Her goal would have been accomplished just the same.”

When the countess considered herself insulted by her husband, she tried to get her revenge with insinuations.

“Aha! That’s just it!” she replied. “And what was I just saying? If Léoni were married to the heroine, well, then I’d understand how she could love him so much. How could one fail to love such a husband? — He takes care of her and spoils her in every possible way, and even steals so he can buy her clothes. — He is prepared to defile his soul just so she can enjoy herself.” (21-22)

The “I” here is the title character of Ol’ga N.‘s “Liza” (Лиза, 1864). The center of “Liza” is a contrast between Count Permskii’s love for Liza, as told in an inserted narrative by Liza herself (18-24), and the main narrator’s love (?) for Liza, as revealed in the part of the story he tells (1-18, 24-26). Neither man will love her forever, but Liza prefers the count’s reckless love (first revealed when he gives her a copy of Leone Leoni after the conversation above) to the narrator’s cautious love. The narrator thinks it would be unfair to her and himself if he slept with her knowing he didn’t want to marry her, but Liza finds this no sort of love at all, and would rather have the pleasure and subsequent pain of the count’s temporary love than have neither.

The narrator and Liza don’t trust people who “never make mistakes,” like the narrator’s sisters, who grew up with him in a house where “women’s life was dedicated only to duty and prayer” (6), and unlike the count (9). In the end the narrator proves to be such a person himself.

Two of the three stories I’ve read by Ol’ga N. have a female character who is too fond of clothes and has no sensibility to great art or true love (the countess here, Anna in “Live Not As You Like, But As God Commands” [“Не так живи, как хочется, а так, как Бог велит,” 1854]). Two of the three show the life of a woman through a rather generic but apparently well-born male narrator (this one and “Martha: A True Story” [Марфа. Быль, 1876]). In both cases that man remarks that the main female character is хорошо сложена ‘nicely put together.’

She wrote a lot, and I shouldn’t rush to judgment, but based on one story from the 1850s, one from the 1860s, and one from the 1870s, there seems to be a trend in Ol’ga N.’s approach to narration. In “Live Not As You Like,” I think the third-person narrator commented often on what the main male and female characters did or should feel. Here in “Liza,” we mostly see the main woman through the eyes of a man who misunderstands her, but the flashback about Permskii is told in her voice, as the narrator memorized those 1,774 words “word for word” (18). And in “Martha,” most of the story is what a priest tells the narrator, who then tells us, while a little is what the narrator sees of Martha directly; we hear her say a few things, but never tell her own story. More and more, we see women through what men fail to see.

Words new to me: карачун

August 20, 2014

From chapter 5, section 3 of Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863):

It is known that many of the Big Wigs who practise have this custom: if death, according to the opinion of the Big Wig, is inevitably approaching the patient, and if, by unfortunate [chance], they cannot get rid of the patient by sending him to any mineral springs or to any place abroad, then it is necessary to place him in the hands of some other medical man; and in these circumstances the Big Wig is willing to offer money from his own pocket for his colleague to take the case. (Dole and Skidelsky’s translation, p. 401)

Tucker has “death” here too (p. 281), and Katz has “demise” (p. 390). If I only saw the English and had to guess, I would assume the Russian was смерть or кончина, but it’s карачун.

Since I just learned the word, I can’t claim to understand its stylistic nuances, but I take the use of it to be part of the narrator’s attempt to sound savvy and cynical, to talk about important things in an irreverent way, to invite the reader to join him in being unimpressed by “Big Wig” doctors. Is it anything like “if a patient is definitely going to croak” or “snuff it” or “kick the bucket”? I see Dal’ uses капут before смерть in his definition, Ozhegov marks it as substandard, and Ushakov considers it substandard and regional. There is a long and complicated, and if I’m reading it right inconclusive, etymology in Fasmer under корочун.

Карачун can also be a last name, a place name (among other things, it’s the name of a mountain in eastern Ukraine near recent fighting), or an old name for the Christmas fast.


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