A while ago I mentioned “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity,” which made a huge impression on me when I first read it. Roger Brown and Albert Gilman say that Shakespeare and Marlowe used “thou” and “you” quite fluidly, with characters switching from one to the other to express temporary emotional states. In French neo-classical theater, “tu” and “vous” were almost always determined by stable social relationships; “Racine reserved the expressive pronoun as some composers save the cymbals” (278).
For years I thought nineteenth-century Russian more or less resembled the seventeenth-century French situation. Then I started finding examples of ты and вы in Pisemskii that seemed as free as the pronoun shifts in Shakespeare, notably the many times Baklanov switches pronouns in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), even though ты obviously didn’t go the way of English “thou.”
In Leskov, on the other hand, I think there are socially inappropriate shifts from вы to ты that are like Racine’s cymbal crash.
Take Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72). Nikolai Afanas’evich is an elderly dwarf (карлик in the text) of peasant origin, and he speaks in a dignified and respectful way to just about everyone. Naturally he called his late mistress and owner вы while she called him ты, but besides that he calls his own sister, also a dwarf and unlike him a half-wit (тупоумная), вы and uses the deferential plural forms when referring to her in the third person.
His unexpected ты comes in a story he tells at a name-day party. He had been bought by Marfa Andrevna Plodomasova. His sister was thrown in free, but he has been separated, apparently forever, from his parents and brother. Marfa Andrevna senses his hidden sorrow and wants to cheer him up; she offers him money as a name-day gift, but each ruble she offers he says he would give to a different family member. When his name day arrives, he is astonished by the sight of his family in the church at his new home, and Marfa Andrevna then gives him a purse full of rubles to distribute to his father, mother, brother, and (another surprise) his brother’s new family. He can’t believe his good fortune, but there’s more:
“[...] Up to this time Marfa Andrevna, who was walking with Father Aleksei, kept talking about the mowing and didn’t seem to be paying any attention to me, and then suddenly she stepped onto the porch, turned around to face me, and said the following: ‘My servant, here is a document of manumission: set your folks and your brother and his children free!’ And she put the document in my vest… Well, that was too much for me to take…”
Nikolai Afanas’evich raised his hands up to the level of his face and started talking again:
“‘You [ты]!’ I cried in a frenzy, ‘with all this it must be that you [ты],’ I say, ‘cruel woman, want [хочешь] to flatten me completely with your kindness!’ And then I felt a tightness in my chest, my temples started to hurt, I saw lights in my eyes on all sides, and I fell to the ground unconscious next to my father’s carts with that document.” (book 2, chapter 3)
So he actually calls the woman who owned him ты to her face when he is overwhelmed by her generosity. In the time when the story takes place, Nikolai Afanas’evich doesn’t come to for nine days (thus missing out on the unexpected reunion with his family). In the time when he tells the story, the passage with ты earns him an interruption and a friendly thump on the shoulder from the deacon Akhilla.
- “The barriers between mind and object, the ambiguities which metaphysicians discern in the very notion of reality and perception, impeded neither Homer nor Tolstoy.” That’s George Steiner, as quoted by Russian Dinosaur. It seems like a positive recasting of “monologic.” Humphry House (known to me as a favorite of Amateur Reader’s) pops up in that post too.
- Speaking of AR, Wuthering Expectations has several posts on The Idiot trans. David McDuff, starting here. Before you click through, guess what follows this paragraph in Dostoevskii’s novel? “It was at this very moment that Aglaya entered calmly and grandly, made a ceremonious bow to the prince, and solemnly took the most conspicuous place at the circular table. She gave the prince a questioning look. Everyone realized that the resolution of all their bewilderment had begun.”
- I’ve also been meaning to link to an earlier series of posts on My Past and Thoughts here, here, and also here. Mostly on the book as literature. And as rhetoric. I think this is spot-on: the author’s “own troubles are always small stuff against the other crimes of the autocratic Nicholas and his allies – executions, torture, corruption.” The last post, on Gertsen’s approach to the nonsense statistics made by and for the imperial bureaucracy he had to serve in, makes me want to compare My Past and Thoughts to all Pisemskii’s books on working civil servants and to Moscow to the End of the Line.
- And I guess I can see how Karamzin’s “light, Gallic style” could seem refreshing, but I always thought he had an unfortunate knack for crushing all the wonderful variety of the things he wrote about into a homogenous elegance. I may not have given him, or the eighteenth century, enough of a chance. Languagehat’s post is surprising and well worth your while, whatever you think of Karamzin.
Can I ask for your help in a quick experiment? Go to the front page of Google Books. Search for “even although” in quotes. Do you get an Isabel Hapgood translation of Turgenev as the second result (or one of the top results)?
I tried that search because of Languagehat’s post on the mostly obsolete “even although.” For me Hapgood was second, and I’m curious whether that’s a coincidence or something about how Google Book Search works. Does Google remember that I’ve used their site to look at Hapgood’s translations, or does it give me Turgenev first because it’s classified me as Russian? I logged out of my Google account and still got Hapgood, but I’m not sure if that’s significant.
Here is Michael R. Katz describing a Bakhtin counterfactual:
In the chapter entitled “The Hero in Dostoevsky’s Art,” Bakhtin analyzes [“Three Deaths”?] as a characteristic example of [...] Leo Tolstoy’s “monologic manner” and poses the following question: “How would [Tolstoy’s] ‘Three Deaths’ look if… Dostoevsky had written them, that is, if they had been structured in a polyphonic manner?”
The critic goes on to make a more general point:
Of course, Dostoevsky would never have depicted three deaths: in his world, where self-consciousness is the dominant of a person’s image and where the interaction of full and autonomous consciousness is the fundamental event, death cannot function as something that finalizes and elucidates life. Death in the Tolstoyan interpretation of it is totally absent from Dostoevsky’s world.
Bakhtin’s 1963 edition contains further provocations:
In Dostoevsky there are considerably fewer deaths than in Tolstoy – and in most cases Dostoevsky’s deaths are murders and suicides. In Tolstoy there are a great many deaths…. Dostoevsky never depicts death from within. Final agony and death are observed by others. Death cannot be a fact of consciousness itself…. In Dostoevsky’s world death finalizes nothing, because death does not affect the most important thing in this world – consciousness for its own sake…. In Dostoevsky’s world there are only murders, suicides, and insanity, that is, there are only death-acts, responsively conscious….
But then he describes an exception to this Dostoevskii/Tolstoi contrast: Stepan Verkhovenskii in The Devils (Бесы, 1872), who “undergoes a sort of conversion” and whose death is more “Tolstoyan” than a typical murder or suicide in Dostoevskii. See the whole post at the Oxford University Press’s blog.
Here’s a list of the 100 best novels ever written, as chosen by Clement K. Shorter in 1898. Tyler Cowen sent his readers there to be amazed at how many we’d never even heard of. It’s true and amazing in that Ozymandias way that a lot of them are completely obscure to me. About 70 of the 100 titles came out in a period of 50 years, and Shorter limited himself to one book per author, which makes it less surprising some have faded.
It’s also interesting to see how many things on the list have held their spot in the canon. The three Russian novels listed are the three most likely to be taught in a college survey course. Most of the French and American ones I’ve either read or heard a lot about. And the books and authors that I know primarily because they were important to nineteenth-century Russian writers are all there: Gil Blas, Tobias Smollett, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. All except Tristram Shandy, that is.
I’m actually in the middle of 2% of Shorter’s picks right now: Ruth and Trollope’s Barchester Towers. Leskov and Pisemskii didn’t make the cut, though.
If you add the prefix на- to the verb говорить ‘say, speak,’ you get a verb that can mean ‘say (a lot of something),’ or, colloquially, ‘slander.’ According to Ushakov’s dictionary, there’s a third regional sense: ‘imbue something with magical power by whispering a znakhar‘s incantations over it.’ A znakhar is a sort of self-taught traditional healer specializing in folk remedies and magic, and is translated with anything from ‘sorcerer’ to ‘medicine man’ to ‘wise man.’ This gives the noun наговор and the adjective наговорный, used in наговорная вода, ‘water that has been given magical power by incantations, enchanted water.’
“I give him, I have to admit, I give him nagovornaia voda to drink each day. He doesn’t know, of course, and doesn’t notice it, but I give it to him, only it doesn’t help, and besides it’s a sin.”
— Я его, признаюсь вам, я его наговорной водой всякий день пою. Он, конечно, этого не знает и не замечает, но я пою, только не помогает,— да и грех. (Leskov, Cathedral Folk, part 1, chapter 14)
I like the critiques of the concept of двоеверие ‘dual faith’ mentioned in its Russian Wikipedia article, but here the idea of imported Christian culture coexisting with remnants of local pagan culture seems to be real in the mind of a character who believes in both. She even uses the pagan folk remedy as part of a campaign to turn her suddenly nihilist and anti-religious son back to the true church.
Enchanted water seems to be mentioned more often in books about language or folk remedies than in fiction, but here’s an 1874 story by Kokhanovskaia (real name: Nadezhda Stepanovna Sokhanskaia) about a знахарь using наговорная вода to cure Catherine the Great after a variety of Western and Eastern healers failed. (If you have a minute, browse the table of contents of the collection that story appears in: all the literary stars of 1874 combined forces, and the proceeds were to go for famine relief in Samara Province.)
Наговорное зелье ‘enchanted herbs’ is also reasonably common.
I’ve been thinking more about the dominance of “social-realist” prose in mid-to-late nineteenth-century Russia, following Languagehat, and I wanted to quickly mention three points:
1) There’s a conventional explanation for why social themes were more important in Russian literature than elsewhere, which I’m not sure I’ve heard in the recent discussion. Censorship in tsarist Russia made it difficult to discuss politics openly. This led some people whose main interest was in the government’s policy choices, or political and economic theory generally, to write fiction or even literary criticism. If arguments about abortion had to take the form of book reviews of Margaret Atwood, there would be more and different critics.
2) The division of literature into “social” or “aesthetic” doesn’t work as well as I’ve recently been pretending it does. Nineteenth-century Russian critics may have argued about “civic poetry” vs. “art for art’s sake,” or the Gogolian trend in Russian literature vs. the Pushkinian one, but with the distance we have we can see those categories are artificial. By the late nineteenth century the Gogol (social!) vs. Pushkin (aesthetic) contrast was giving way in the popular imagination to Nekrasov (social) vs. Pushkin (aesthetic). But already then, and certainly through the twentieth century and beyond, it’s been easy to see how you can’t just strip away the social and political aspects of Pushkin writing about Pugachev, or the Decembrists, or the November Uprising in Poland, or the role of the poet. Likewise much of Nekrasov’s poetry is quite personal, and at his most “social” his poems still wouldn’t have interested anyone then or since – they wouldn’t even have made effective rhetoric – if they were not so interesting from an aesthetic point of view. With Gogol it’s hard for people today to take the contemporary social reading seriously.
3) Recently I read Pisemskii’s “The Wood Demon” (Леший, 1853), a story about an overseer who abuses his position to seduce, coerce, or rape several peasant women under his authority, and the policeman who brings him down. It’s “social” in its subject matter, it first appeared in Nekrasov’s The Contemporary, and Pisemskii later altered it to conform to Chernyshevskii’s ideological critiques (see V. A. Malkin’s notes at the end of the lib.ru text). But its implicit critique of serfdom is not even a little like Languagehat’s pastiche of Radishchev. The aesthetic complexity of the nested narrators’ perspectives and manners of speech (the frame narrator hears the story from the policeman who hears much of it from a peasant woman) strikes me as more interesting than Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin. In general I don’t like to look at the restrictions writers of realist prose placed on themselves (or that critics, readers, and other writers placed on them) as suffocating limitations of their creativity. Here I’m thinking of implicit rules like that dialogue should reflect characters’ psychology and social origin; events should not depend on unlikely coincidences, magic, or the intercession of saints; and so on. However you define these rules, why not think of them as the same kind of aesthetically productive restrictions as Racine’s alexandrines and neoclassical unities, or Shakespeare’s sonnets or blank verse? You have to have some rules to follow or break, or you’re playing tennis with the net down.