The structure of Koshchei the Deathless, a Tale of Old Times (Кощей бессмертный. Былина старого времени, 1833) was one of “feebly linked separate scenes (there is no plot, so the interest of the individual scenes is not disrupted by the development of the plot)” (36-37). Some critics forgave Vel’tman for this because “ancient Rus in the memory of the people, in the depictions of poets, and in the very pronouncements of historians” also consists of disconnected episodes (44). Earlier some had forgiven Vel’tman for this because he was a beginning writer, and might later get the hang of making unified works of art. But even friendly critics saw Vel’tman’s non-unified structure as something that needed to be justified or apologized for, and after six novels that shared this feature or defect, they lost patience: an 1836 review in The Northern Bee complained that “works with no beginning and no end are no good. One cannot sew excerpts together without being selective and call the sewn-together rags a book; one cannot abuse readers’ patience, take no notice of them, laugh at them [...]” (52-53 and passim).
After 1836 Vel’tman turns to the form of the povest’ (novella or “long short story,” often rendered as “tale”) and later to a different kind of novel.
I’m not sure if this is a side effect of Vel’tman’s preferred method of composition:
Vel’tman is not at all interested in the personalities of his characters. He ascribes to them whatever qualities are required to advance the plot and nothing more. For example, in The Lunatic the author needs the hero to have three attacks of lunacy, so he can meet the heroine and be captured twice by the French. After these requirements have passed (in the first half of part one of the novel) there is not another word about the hero’s lunacy. (50)
For someone like Bukhshtab, who in 1926 seems to be working in a very descriptivist critical framework, and who also clearly likes Vel’tman enough to read an awful lot of his fiction, this sounds rather critical. The impression he gives throughout is that Vel’tman’s contemporaries had a blind spot. The critics couldn’t see that his chaotic structure was essential for his methods because it was too radical and because, by the mid-1830s, artistically unified works of art were increasingly in demand. But he never seemed to take the step of explaining why it was impossible for Vel’tman to write less disconnected works without giving up his other virtues; maybe he was still making up his mind about this, or maybe he was leaving it for an article on Vel’tman’s late novels (which I don’t think Bukhshtab ever wrote, but please point me to it if I’m wrong).
Maybe the closest place is when Bukhshtab talks about how Vel’tman’s methods stretch the contemporary limits of the genre of the historical novel:
Works like Koshchei are always perceived as shifting their genre, but that in itself means they are perceived in the context of that genre, i.e. they belong to it, because genre — not as an abstract, theoretical bit of cleverness, but as a living, historical feeling — is that context of analogous works in which a given work is perceived.
In the context of genre, all the distinctive features of Koshchei‘s construction acquired a special meaning. Jumping through a number of historical eras instead of staying inside a modest-in-length and definitely fixed period of time; rearranging [events?];* an unrestrained, nervous storytelling tempo instead of a solid and monotonous, slow, chronological progression; sudden shifts of the action, when people were used to even a move from one room to another being pointed out; a joking, mocking tone instead of the usual grand seriousness.
This sort of construction was original, but what is original is not always good, and not for every reader’s mindset. Reproaches for the novel’s scatteredness come from many sides, and for some this scatteredness outweighs all the virtues of the work. (43-44)
This is a subject I’d like to know more about, but I think Bukhshtab’s 88-year-old understanding of genre has held up very well.
See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56 (original publication in 1926, overview here).
* The Russian here is перестановки, and I’m not sure I’m reading it correctly.
According to Boris Bukhshtab, all significant Russian novels from 1829 to 1834, not just Vel’tman’s, were historical novels. Some stuck very close to history and were very dry, like Bulgarin’s Dmitry the Pretender (Дмитрий Самозванец, 1830), where the main character and the supporting cast are actual historical figures, and the plot strings together their conversations about historical events. A larger set of novels by Lazhechnikov, Masal’skii, Zotov, and others had characters who were imagined rather than known historical figures, and the historical events described have little to do with the story involving the imaginary characters (34-35). In 1833 the following aphorism was so much the conventional wisdom that you could find it in a textbook: “One may make a very important observation that applies to all Historical Novels, that in them the History has no connection to the fiction” (35). Zagoskin wrote a kind of novel of manners where historical events faded into the background and the main thing was a series of separate scenes illustrating the manners of a particular time, but there were two problems: the manners were those of Zagoskin’s own time, not of the past he purported to be describing (according to contemporary critics), and the alternating scenes of manners and weak historical plot got in each other’s way (35-36).
Vel’tman finds an effective way of combining history and fiction. He fills Koshchei up with the names of obsolete things (but does not describe them, cf. Bestuzhev-Marlinskii) and reconstructs, inventing as necessary, a complete world of old-time everyday life (36-38). His narrator uses many long-gone words, but as quotations, and plays openly with the difference in his and the reader’s perspective and that of the characters. “Vel’tman considers the description of historical events in the novel to be purely a retardation device and plays on this.” There is some history, then the narrator breaks in with “But what do we care about this? Where is Koshchei the Deathless? Where is Iva?” (36).
It sounds like Vel’tman is to Bestuzhev-Marlinskii what Kuzmin will later be to Briusov, in that he artfully declines to explain realia the modern reader can’t be expected to know. And perhaps Vel’tman is not just like Kuzmin, but like the playful Kuzmin of Venetian Madcaps (Венецианские безумцы, written 1912), which is set in eighteenth-century Venice but has more than an occasional wink from the twentieth-century author.
See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56 (originally published in 1926; see this overview and this post on Vel’tman’s language).
Here is Boris Bukhshtab on an 1830s controversy:
The language of the “common people” in the novels of that time was conventional. It was not a language actually based on popular dialects, as in Dal’ or Vel’tman, but a timeless and placeless Esperanto of literary “commoners,” which, created then, has survived to our days and can easily be recognized by a series of lexemes that establish its particular feel, such as ежели, таперича, вестимо, чай, право-слово and so on. (47)
One one side Bulgarin, Grech, and Senkovskii thought the speech of commoners was too crude and ugly for literature; writers on the other side thought the Bulgarin camp’s language was “soulless.” Most of them used the literary Esperanto Bukhshtab describes — he provides an example from Masal’skii — but Velt’man (like Dal’) goes further. Senkovskii quotes this from Vel’tman’s The Lunatic: An Occurrence (Лунатик. Случай, 1834):
— Э, э! что ты тут хозяйничаешь?
— Воду, брат, грею.
— Добре! Засыпь, брат, и на мою долю крупки.
— Изволь, давай.
— Кабы запустить сальца, знаешь, дак оно бы тово!
— И ведомо! Смотрико-сь, нет ли на поставце? (qtd. in Bukhshtab 48)
and laments, “and this is called refined Literature!” Elsewhere Vel’tman transcribes “Дай-ка огоньку!” as “Дак ганькю!” (47).
That literary Esperanto reminds me of Robert Maguire’s view that the best one can do in translating substandard speech in Gogol is find supposedly universal markers of such speech like “‘ain’t,’ double negatives, ‘-in’’ instead of ‘-ing,’ and a paratactic sentence structure.” Maguire was worried about the translation-specific situation of activating an inappropriate set of associations — he thought that the speech of a Russian peasant shouldn’t make readers think of slaves from the antebellum South — but evidently even when only one language is involved some are drawn to a one-size-fits-all substandardness.
Bukhshtab puts Vel’tman’s linguistic innovations in the context of the 1830s:
If we look at the lexicon of Koshchei the Deathless not from the point of view of its special significance in the historical novel, but from the more general point of view of the literary language of the period, we must characterize Vel’tman’s efforts as an attempt to bring a mass of new, unused linguistic material into the literary language. Here Vel’tman is not alone: at roughly the same time there are other authors who use unusual, unliterary linguistic material in their works. In a particular work this material is taken as one of the means of creating couleur locale, but in the broad process of literary evolution it serves the goals of creating a new literary language. Such is Gogol’s Little Russian language, as well as Dal’s language of popular dialects. (38-39)
I’m sometimes wary of the kind of language that talks about the “task” or “goal” of a certain generation of writers being to bring about particular innovations, but here I think the point is pretty convincing: Gogol, Dal, and Vel’tman seem to be doing very different things, but on one level of abstraction all of them are challenging and expanding the boundaries of what’s linguistically acceptable in fiction. Archaizers and innovators unite against a bland old guard.
Bukhshtab twice compares Vel’tman to Leskov (his Vel’tman article appeared 51 years before the one on Leskov and the censors): “Thus, following the principle of the struggle between and mixing of semantic elements, over the course of 20 years Vel’tman develops a distinctive linguistic system that will later become the foundation of Leskov’s language” (30) and “No one in Russian literature uses as many puns as Vel’tman, with the possible exception of Leskov” (31).
See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56. It first appeared in 1926. Here is an overview of the article, and I still intend to post about other parts of it too.
In “Vel’tman’s Earliest Novels,” Boris Bukhshtab looks at six long works of prose:* The Wanderer (Странник, 1831-32; see also this Languagehat post), Koshchei the Deathless, a Tale of Old Times (Кощей бессмертный. Былина старого времени, 1833; LH post), The Year MMMCDXLVIII: The Manuscripts of Martyn Zadeka (MMMCDXLVIII год. Рукопись Мартына Задека, 1833), The Lunatic: An Occurrence (Лунатик. Случай, 1834), Svetoslavich, the Devil’s Nurseling: A Curiosity from the Time of Vladimir the Fair Sun (Светославич, вражий питомец. Диво времен Красного Солнца Владимира, 1835; LH calls it “satisfying and indescribable”), and Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii (1836).
The Wanderer made Vel’tman’s reputation as the “Russian Sterne”; Koshchei the Deathless made the greatest impression on his contemporaries; and Svetoslavich was considered Vel’tman’s best novel by V. F. Odoevskii (26-28, 48). Of the rest, The Year MMMCDXLVIII was apparently written in haste, derivative, and perplexing to critics, since its imagined future was “exactly like the present year of 1834.” Bukhshtab suggests that setting the novel in 3448 was just a way to get the plot, in which one ruler is substituted for another similar in appearance, past the censors (44-46). The Lunatic is set in 1812, like other novels of the early 1830s by Zagoskin and Bulgarin. Critics were especially hostile to it and to all 1812 novels, as they were beginning to turn on historical novels in general, which had recently held a dominant position (46-48). Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii involves time travel and a lot of etymology: “the whole piece is filled with such outlandish etymologies of various words that contemporaries were unsure whether they were ‘a satire on etymologists’ or ‘putting forth his own new hypotheses under the guise of joking’” (50-53, quote on 51).
Later generations, according to Bukhshtab, don’t share Vel’tman’s contemporaries’ view that Koshchei the Deathless was his best. Instead, they were more likely to prefer the later Salomeia (Саломея, 1846-47), the first of a projected five parts of Adventures Extracted from the Ocean of Life (28).
The post-revolutionary wave of interest in Vel’tman that Bukhshtab claimed to see in 1926 didn’t really take off; I suppose it could have been wishful thinking or a tactical move on Bukhshtab’s part to predict one, or maybe there really would have been one if the 1930s had turned out differently.
There’s a lot in Bukhshtab’s article, and I’m saving what he says about Vel’tman’s language, innovations in the historical novel genre, and chaotic structure for later posts.
See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56. I read it in that 2000 book, but the article apparently first appeared in Russkaia proza (Leningrad, 1926), pp. 192-231. That collection was reprinted by Mouton (The Hague, 1963) and translated by Ray Parrott for Ardis (Ann Arbor, 1985). I’ve posted about two shorter pieces by Vel’tman, “Ol’ga” (1837) and “Orlando Furioso” (1835), but to judge by what Bukhshtab and LH have written, they aren’t much like the early novels.
* Bukhshtab calls The Wanderer Vel’tman’s “first work in prose” (he had written poetry for years before that) and Koshchei the Deathless his “first novel” (26-27).
It was possible for Leskov to create a shield against censorship through the special genre of “skaz” that he cultivated. This genre is marked by the failure of the views and opinions of the narrator and those of the author behind him to coincide. The narrator’s position is clear in these cases, but the author’s is not always clear; frequently it must be guessed at, and this cannot always be accomplished by readers, or even critics and literary scholars. Behind a right-thinking narrator may be hidden the far from innocent thoughts of the author. (239)
Skaz, however, wasn’t just a way to get around the censors. Bukhshtab’s summary is that Leskov first used skaz for aesthetic purposes, starting with “The Battle-Axe” (Воительница, 1866). He had little trouble with censorship until the mid-1880s and 1890s. Then he began to use skaz as a form of Aesopian language, a way to say something publishable that could possibly be interpreted in an unpublishable way by at least some readers, as with “Night Owls” (Полунощники, 1891). In that story there’s a conflict between John of Kronstadt and a young woman who’s fallen into the Tolstoyan “heresy”; by having the narrator thoroughly on John’s side, the author shows that he is (and the reader should be) on the other side (241).
On the other hand, skaz wasn’t the only weapon Leskov had to deploy against the censors. “A Winter’s Day” (Зимний день, 1894) used a lot of dialogue and a minimally intrusive narrator, which was unusual for Leskov — unlike, say, Dostoevskii, who did use a lot of dialogue and direct speech (242). Since people leave a lot implicit when they talk to each other, vague and ambiguous insinuations seem realistic in dialogue, and they’re especially hard to pin down when the clues about what unexplained references might mean are a few dozen pages apart. Such references are seen as comprehensible to the characters talking, and “become clear to the reader to the extent the author wishes them to.” Taking advantage of this, “Leskov clarifies some themes, allows us to guess about others, for yet others he merely points the reader’s thoughts in a general direction, with others still he creates the possibility of dual interpretation, while he makes still others completely obscure, evidently to take away the unwanted reader’s willingness to decipher a jumbled-up piece of fiction” (242-43).
Bukhshtab traces in some detail the insinuations that — along with the many more obvious kinds of corruption and immorality described in the story — two of the characters are paid police informers. This is evidently subtle enough that many readers miss it, but it’s still in the first category or two of themes Leskov makes clear or at least lets us guess. But Bukhshtab also gives even trickier examples. There’s a running “Persian” theme, where one of the informer characters is repeatedly driven to hysterics by other characters’ allusions to the Shah of Persia or a fragrance called lilas de perse. One of these scenes was cut from the journal publication. Bukhshtab isn’t sure what the significance of Persia is, but he thinks the journal cut that one scene because contemporaries would indeed have understood the reference — but he’s not even sure about that, and allows the possibility that the editors took out that scene because they thought it would be annoyingly mysterious to readers (247-49).
In one case Bukhshtab quotes himself getting one of these veiled references wrong. Earlier he had taken a line saying something like “we have to bring in another miracle-worker” (in a conversation about a will) as meaning “we need to find an expert forger and have a false will made in our favor.” In this reading it would have alluded to the real-life Sollogub trial. But now Bukhshtab, looking at all the evidence, including an oblique reference to John of Kronstadt and another popular religious figure, thinks that the line should be read literally, with “wonder-worker” meaning a religious leader adored by the crowd like John of Kronstadt (249-51). This shift from a plausible reading to a straightforward one reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of literary criticism, when Kuzmin scholars found a clever explanation for why a certain character, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Dem’ianov, had that name, which convinced everyone until in 2005 Nikolai Bogomolov argued that the character was named that because Kuzmin knew a Mikhail Aleksandrovich Dem’ianov.
See Boris Bukhshtab, “Тайнопись позднего Лескова (Рассказ ‘Зимний день’)” [“The Codes of Late Kuzmin (The Story ‘A Winter's Day’)”] in Фет и другие: Избранние работы (St. Petersburg, 2000), 239-252. The article doesn’t seem to be available online, though there’s a snippet view of its original 1977 publication here or the 2000 one here.
For a long time I thought Russian-to-English translation started when Constance Garnett (1861-1946) introduced Dostoevskii to the English-speaking world; after that came David Magarshack (1899-1977); and after him all the translators working today. Of course it’s more complicated and began much earlier. For example, there was William David Lewis (1792-1881). In 1849 he published a volume of Russian poems, supposedly “the first collection of translations from the Russian ever made by an American,” which was favorably reviewed by Nikolai Grech, who evidently had known Lewis in Russia, in The Northern Bee (Северная пчела) on July 18, 1851.
Here is Lewis’s translation of the end of the scene in Pushkin’s The Bakhchesarian Fountain (Бахчисарайский фонтан, 1821-23) where the jealous Georgian woman Zarema (the Grusinian Zarem in his version) confronts the Polish Catholic Maria in Khan Giray’s harem (original at the end of this post):
Throughout the harem none but thou
Could rival beauties such as mine
Nor make him violate his vow;
Yet, Princess! in thy bosom cold
The heart to mine left thus forlorn,
The love I feel cannot be told,
For passion, Princess, was I born.
Yield me Giray then; with these tresses
Oft have his wandering fingers played,
My lips still glow with his caresses,
Snatched as he sighed, and swore, and prayed,
Oaths broken now so often plighted!
Hearts mingled once now disunited!
His treason I cannot survive;
Thou seest I weep, I bend my knee,
Ah! if to pity thou’rt alive,
My former love restore to me.
Reply not! thee I do not blame,
Thy beauties have bewitched Giray,
Blinded his heart to love and fame,
Then yield him up to me, I pray,
Or by contempt, repulse, or grief,
Turn from thy love th’ungenerous chief!
Swear by thy faith, for what though mine
Conform now to the Koran’s laws,
Acknowledged here within the harem,
Princess, my mother’s faith was thine,
By that faith swear to give to Zarem
Giray unaltered, as he was!
But listen! the sad prey to scorn
If I must live, Princess, have care,
A dagger still doth Zarem wear,–
I near the Caucasus was born!”
I think this sort of old-fashioned elegance is hard for any modern translator to achieve, and not only because the conventional wisdom has shifted about how to render meter and rhyme. The last line, “I near the Caucasus was born!” is a bit unfortunate, since it sounds more like moose-and-squirrel word order than poetic inversion, but overall I think Lewis succeeds in making his text give a similar overall impression in English as Pushkin’s does in Russian. Many things change. There are 33 lines in this passage in English to 31 in Russian, but there aren’t as many out-and-out additions as you’d think. Instead, Lewis is fond of rearranging and repeating material. His line 3, “Nor make him violate his vow,” looks ahead to клятвы in line 10 of the Russian and измена in line 13 (and perhaps back to another измена 7 lines before the passage starts). Where Pushkin has вера матери моей in line 26 and the pronoun ею referring back to it in line 27, Lewis has “my mother’s faith” in line 27, “by that faith” in line 28, and an anticipatory/clarifying “by thy faith” back in line 24.
Once I argued that the narrator and Zarem(a) position themselves between East and West in this poem, while the static and silent Khan and Maria represent the pure East and the pure West. So I couldn’t help noticing that this aspect of the poet’s perspective is partly lost in translation. In the original, the poet says of the eunuch, “Воля хана/ Ему единственный закон;/ Святую заповедь Корана/ Не строже наблюдает он.” Святая ‘sacred’ is not qualified or restricted (it’s not ‘sacred to them’). Pushkin fought with the religious censors to keep it this way, but Lewis has merely “His only law his chieftain’s pleasure,/ Which as the Koran he maintained.” As far as I can tell, святая ‘sacred’ drops out altogether.
If Garnett and Magarshack were about the same age as Chekhov and Nabokov, respectively, Lewis was older than Pushkin, though he died the same year as Dostoevskii and Pisemskii. He was born in Delaware and lived in Philadelphia for part of his life. In 1814 he went to Europe as Henry Clay’s private secretary, as part of the U.S. peace commission after the War of 1812. But he soon quit and went to Russia for 10 years, apparently 1814-1824, working for at least part of that time (one source says 1818-1824) for his brother John Delaware Lewis, a merchant based in St. Petersburg who did a great deal of trade with merchants in Philadelphia. While in St. Petersburg, William Lewis was “sued for slander by the [consul] at St. Petersburg, Leavitt Harris, and the seven year litigation [involved] eminent officials in the United States and in Russia, including John Quincy Adams and James Monroe.” In 1825 he returned to Philadelphia and started his own import business there, and he seems to have been active in business and Whig politics until he “retired to his estate near Florence, NJ” after 1853. During the Civil War he unsurprisingly supported the Union.
Lewis’s collection, available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg, is so old that it uses the spelling Pooshkeen instead of Pushkin. Around half of it is The Bakhchesarian Fountain. The rest: “Amatory and Other Poems, by Various Russian Authors,” namely, in Lewis’s spelling, Pelsky (1765-1803), Dmeetrieff (1760-1837), Nelaidinsky (1752-1829), Shatroff (1765-1841), Merzliakoff (1778-1830), Derjavin (1743-1816).
Sources: the book A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, Living and Deceased, from the Earliest Accounts to the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 2 (1870) and the website Social Networks and Archival Context, which draws on sources including the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and William D. Lewis’s papers at the New York Public Library.
The original Russian of the passage quoted above:
Итак, послушай: я прекрасна;
Во всем гареме ты одна
Могла б еще мне быть опасна;
Но я для страсти рождена,
Но ты любить, как я, не можешь;
Зачем же хладной красотой
Ты сердце слабое тревожишь?
Оставь Гирея мне: он мой;
На мне горят его лобзанья,
Он клятвы страшные мне дал,
Давно все думы, все желанья
Гирей с моими сочетал;
Меня убьет его измена…
Я плачу; видишь, я колена
Теперь склоняю пред тобой,
Молю, винить тебя не смея,
Отдай мне радость и покой,
Отдай мне прежнего Гирея…
Не возражай мне ничего;
Он мой; он ослеплен тобою.
Презреньем, просьбою, тоскою,
Чем хочешь, отврати его;
Клянись… (хоть я для Алкорана,
Между невольницами хана,
Забыла веру прежних дней;
Но вера матери моей
Была твоя) клянись мне ею
Зарему возвратить Гирею…
Но слушай: если я должна
Тебе… кинжалом я владею,
Я близ Кавказа рождена».
- Shalamov thought it was impossibly hard to describe the loss of language people undergo in a labor camp without using the language he’d since regained. Sarah J. Young compares this to Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Call of Cthulhu.
- I’m not sure which I enjoy more, when Languagehat writes about something I’ve read or someone I’ve never heard of. As he gets to mid-century in his march through Russian prose, I expect there’ll be more of the former, like this excellent post on Dostoevskii’s Poor Folk (Бедные люди, 1846), with many good serious and unserious comments. There’s quite a bit on the opening lines of Notes from Underground (Записки из подполья, 1864) and Michael Katz’s article on how to translate them. I haven’t checked how different translators handle the repeated стало быть in Poor Folk, but I wonder if “must have” could be repeated more naturally than “therefore.”
- Translation comparison: Bulgakov’s The White Guard (Белая гвардия, 1924) and his letters and diaries. The comparing is done by Russian Dinosaur, and the translating by Roger Cockrell, Michael Glenny, Marian Schwartz, and Julie Curtis.
- Lizok has The White Guard on her “up next” list, but for now see her review of Aleksei Motorov’s Male Nurse Parovozov’s Young Years (Юные годы медбрата Паровозова): “the heaviest lifting here was picking up the book itself, which weighs in at over 500 pages, though I’m certainly not complaining: Parovozov‘s first-person narrator is engagingly genial and his stories generally held my attention.”
- I enjoyed seeing Merezhkovskii on Obooki’s confessional list of authors never read, “to represent all foreign literature which is neglected by English-speakers due to habitual incuriosity, ignorance or occlusion beneath the shadow of Kafka.”