Skip to content

It Didn’t Come Off (1)

June 23, 2017

It Didn’t Come Off

A Novella

I had turned 17 when my mother moved to Moscow from the country for my coming out. My education was over, though I remained a child in the literal sense of the word. I still played with dolls, and everything that might have left me inclined to any even slightly serious occupation was painstakingly kept away from me.

Now I am forty, and the system of educating children has changed significantly since my youth. Then the task was not complicated: to bring the child to the point where it would think as it was told, or would not think at all. Once I started a sentence this way:

“I think…”

Madame Petitpierre, my governess, interrupted me: “You think? In that case you will have dinner in your room tonight. Children do not think.”

Thought was hateful to our preceptors, and no less hateful was the word “love.” It was not only avoided in conversation, but inked out in books. Speaking of books: at 17 I knew the name Pushkin only by hearsay, and in our house Gogol was called a “hayseed writer.” One understands that his works were not permitted in the drawing room. As for our children’s library, it was composed, as if by design, of the dullest books, mostly French ones. I remember one in particular that was called Les Annales de la vertu. It was given to me on my name-day to distract me from my lessons, but they made an instrument of torture out of it. The moment you would do something wrong, the voice of the governess was raised: “Prenez à l’instant Les Annales de la vertu.”

next installment
“It Didn’t Come Off” is a translation of “Не сошлись” (1867) by Ol’ga N. (Sophie Engelhardt).





Мне минуло 17 лет, когда мать моя переселилась из деревни в Москву, чтобы вывозить меня в свет. Мое воспитание было кончено, хотя я осталась ребенком в буквальном смысле слова. Я еще играла в куклы, и от меня тщательно удаляли все то, чтó могло бы меня приохотить к cколько-нибудь сериозному занятию.

Мне теперь сорок лет, и cистема воспитания значительно изменилась с моей молодости. Тогда задача была не сложная: довести ребенка до того, чтоб он думал как прикажут, или вовсе не думал. Раз я начала фразу таким образом:

— Я думаю…

Мадам Петипьер, моя гувернантка, меня перебила:

— Вы думаете? в таком случае вы будете обедать сегодня в своей комнате. Дети не думают.

Нашим наставникам была ненавистна мысль, и точно тaк же ненавистно слово любовь. Его не только избегали в разговоре, но вымарывали чернилами в книгах. Кстати о книгах: в 17 лет я знала имя Пушкина лишь понаслышке, а Гоголя у нас прозвали избeным писателем. Понимается, что его произведения до гостиной не допускали. Наша же детская библиотека была составлена, как на подбор, из самых скучных книг, большею частию французских. В особенности мне памятна одна, под заглавием «Les annales de la vertu». Мне ее подарили в имянины для развлечения от уроков, но сделали из нее орудие пытки. Кaк, бывало, в чем-нибудь провинишься, возвышался голос гувернантки: «Рrenez à l’instant «Les annales de la vertu».

It Didn’t Come Off: A Novella

June 22, 2017

I really enjoyed translating an Ol’ga N. (Sophie Engelhardt) story in this space last summer, and I think I’ll do another, again a few hundred words at a time. This time it’ll be “It Didn’t Come Off” (Не сошлись, 1867). The title was harder to translate than I thought it would be. “They Did Not Come Together,” the literal placeholder I used here, doesn’t really work, and nothing I could think of is perfect for both the title and the uses of the same verb in the text. For now at least, I’ll go with “It Didn’t Come Off.” I’ll start installments soon, and as always, I’ll be grateful for any corrections and suggestions you offer in the comments.

Thanks to everyone who’s already helped me think through the options for the title: Melissa Miller, Molly Peeney, Shannon Donnally Spasova, Victoria Thorstensson, and Jose Vergara.

Words new to me: пахитоска

May 21, 2017

This in context clearly means something like a cigarette:

I realized how awkward I had been, got embarrassed, and muttered something. Elena gave a short laugh. Red spots appeared on her cheeks; she kept discarding the butt of one pakhitoska and lighting up another.

Я поняла свою неловкость, смутилась и что-то пробормотала. Елена усмехнулась. Красные пятна выступили на ее щеках; она беспрестанно бросала кончик докуренной пахитоски и зажигала другую. (792)

That’s from Ol’ga N.’s (Sophie Engelhardt’s) “They Did Not Come Together” (Не сошлись, 1867). I’ve seen the word пахитоска here and there and it seemed odd to me that it was so close in both meaning and sound to папироска ‘kind of cigarette,’ but was still different enough that it didn’t look like another form of the same word.

It turns out that pakhitoska is thought to be “from the Spanish pajitos ‘straws’” (though Spanish dictionaries seem to think the word should be feminine, at least in the modern language: pajapajita). And Spanish plays a part in the story of the word papiroska too: “from the Polish papieros, formed from papier ‘paper’ by analogy with the Spanish cigar[r]os.”

Here’s how popular the words пахитосы, папиросы, and сигареты have been over time (in each case the diminutive is common enough for an Ngram, but less common with this ending than the non-diminutive).

Oblomovs and Goncharovs

May 19, 2017

Languagehat on Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (Обломов, 1859):

Unfortunately, the first segment is by far the best, and it makes up only a quarter of the novel (the first of four parts). Oblomov and his lazy, incompetent, but loyal servant Zakhar (who’s looked after him since childhood, pulling off and putting on his boots and brushing his coat) are magnificent characters, straight out of Gogol […]

But alas, the main characters apart from Oblomov are his childhood friend Stolz (whose father was German and mother Russian) and his great love Olga, and they are both straight from the prop room. They are of the finest cardboard and lovingly decorated, but still, he is the active Role Model (to set against Oblomov’s passive Bad Example), and she is the Angelic Woman, and as soon as they enter the picture the novel goes dead as a work of art. […] There are wonderful moments and descriptions throughout, but basically the book turns into one of those sad realist works in which the characters illustrate life principles that it hopes to inculcate into the reader and society at large (Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done being the locus classicus). The last section should have been cut altogether, and the previous two should have been much shorter and funnier.

Tom agrees:

You may make it sound worse than it is, but everything you say is accurate. The Rousseau-like section, the pedagogical idyll, is brutal.

Alexei K. sees it differently:

Like most novels, Oblomov would benefit from a skilled editor’s scissors but cutting out part four – the story of the protagonist’s slide into a numb, drowsy, half-conscious happiness in Agafia’s soothing arms – would disfigure the novel, destroying the sombre symmetry between its beginning and ending. “Shorter” is almost always sound advice; “funnier,” not necessarily – Oblomov is one of the saddest books I’ve read.

laowai adds:

It would be odd if a novel whose primary theme is inertia didn’t involve repetition and longueurs.

Pisarev in 1861 thought Oblomov did anything but try to inculcate life principles into the reader:

Anyone who has read The Frigate Pallas or Oblomov will not find my opinion surprising. Ever tranquil, never carried away, our novelist brashly walks up to the convoluted problems of the public and private life of his heroes and heroines; without passion or prejudice he examines the situation, giving himself and the reader a most clear and detailed account of its minor idiosyncrasies, adopting the point of view of each of the characters in turn, without manifesting a strong sympathy for any of them, but understanding all of them in his way. He picks apart the situation and the qualities of his characters, but always refrains from pronouncing a final verdict.

Similarly, Dostoevskii called Goncharov a man who had

the soul of a petty official, not an idea in his head, and the eyes of a steamed fish, whom God, as if for a joke, has endowed with a brilliant talent.

In the 1860s the story of Oblomov and Ol’ga was so romantic it made women swoon like Pushkin, Turgenev, or Ostrovskii could:

Goncharov’s “Ol’ga,” before our eyes, made such an impression on one very lovely, intelligent, and young lady that she covered her eyes with her hand, began to shake her little head, and declared, “Oh, how I would like to meet Oblomov, fall in love with him, and make him love me.”

And by the 1880s some readers found Oblomov shockingly sexy:

“I know he’s a great artist, but so much the worse—you must admit there are arousing subjects in him.” Asked what she means, she whispers “elbows” and goes on to elaborate, “Don’t you remember… how that one… the hero at some point… admires the bare elbows of his… of some very simple lady?” (words in quotes translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Goncharov thought Turgenev was stealing his ideas around the time Oblomov came out, and would eventually think Auerbach and Flaubert were also parasites on his genius.

Once I complained that I’d heard too much about Oblomov before reading it to find it interesting. I think I’m coming around to where I’ve heard enough that’s contradictory that it’s interesting again. Do read LH’s full post, including the comments.

Peter M. Lee

April 21, 2017

This remembrance of Peter M. Lee, the champion of Bayesian statistics who posted passages from dozens of translations of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Bronze Horseman, makes him sound as delightful as I’d expect someone with that combination of interests to be. My condolences to all who knew Dr. Lee, who passed away last month.

Words new to me: мурмолка

April 18, 2017

K. E. Makovskii, “The Old Man” (Старик), 1890s

murmolka was a men’s hat like the one in this 1890s painting. (There’s a very nice gallery of them here.) A Wikipedia contributor helpfully explains that “in the mid–nineteenth century, the murmolka became fashionable among Russian Slavophiles; it was worn by K. S. Aksakov, A. S. Khomiakov, and others; and it was used polemically as a symbol of Slavophilism by opponents of that movement.”

That’s just how it turns up in Sophie Engelhardt’s (Ol’ga N.’s) “A Stumbling Block” (Камень преткновения, 1862):

“Listen, Boris Pavlovich,” he began. “You’re one of the most honest men in the world; you wear a caftan and a murmolka: you’re an out-and-out Russian peasant, and for all that — it’s a strange thing! — you bear a striking resemblance to a man of my acquaintance, a man of high society who could not be said to be beyond reproach, a genuine eighteenth-century marquis. He is no more, and I will not take it upon myself to lie for a dead man.” (623)

This is the female main character’s friend and onetime suitor Mukhranov, leading up to the speech that lets her see the similarity between her late husband, a bad man of ultra-Western tastes, and her current love Tramonin, a good man of unfortunately rigid Slavophile views. Neither would let her be free.

The story had some themes I’ve seen in Ol’ga N. before:

  • characters discuss the proper attitude to take toward a male relative fighting in the Crimean War, as in “The Old Man” (Старик, 1857)
  • gender roles are fought over through characters explicitly discussing George Sand, as in the 1864 story “Liza” (other Russian authors do this too, of course)
  • we learn about a woman (the Slavophile love interest’s great-grandmother, who, he asserts, was just like the woman he loves and is writing to) exclusively through the words of a male character, as in “Martha” (Марфа: Быль, 1876)
  • and the way men try to control the main character’s language (her husband would only let her speak French; her Slavophile beau gives her a Russian dictionary as a gift to help her prune Gallicisms from her conversation, 608-09) reminded me of the post where I first heard of Ol’ga N.

I thought I’d found some other new words in “A Stumbling Block,” but голлоу was just a typo for (очертя) голову, and as far as I can tell, янтарные сливки wasn’t the forgotten special thing I first took it to be, but just a description of the color of some cream. Unless anyone knows another kind of amber cream?

New World

March 27, 2017

Samuil Marshak (1887-1964) translating William Blake’s “I askd my Dear Friend Orator Prigg” in 1962 in Novyi mir

Via Nikolai Podosokorskii, I see that many issues of Novyi mir (New World) are online; as of now they have most of 1925-30, everything since mid-1993, and isolated issues in between. November 1962 is there, presumably for Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Один день Ивана Денисовича); you can see him sharing the issue with Samuil Marshak, Viktor Nekrasov, and Ernest Hemingway (“The Butterfly and the Tank”). In other issues you’ll find Fedin, Erenburg, and Zabolotskii; Grin and Grossman; Marietta Shaginian in 1934 on mentoring beginning writers; and a certain “Outsider” endorsing Sen. William Borah’s views on a 1920s Anglo-American dispute about the “freedom of the seas.” I hadn’t realized that Russian at the time used the abbreviation САСШ, which would be like NAUS (North American United States) instead of USA. There’s plenty of fun to be had browsing (the half- or fully forgotten names are maybe the most interesting — Solzhenitsyn is not hard to find elsewhere), and I’m sure the issues will be useful to people looking for something specific, too.