Skip to content

“I don’t like to say вы to servants…”

August 28, 2015

I’ve occasionally posted about how the informal pronoun ты and the formal вы were used in nineteenth-century literature. Within the nobility, Dostoevskii characters talk about Tolstoi characters talking about how hard it can be to switch from вы to ты, while Pisemskii characters express feigned or serious displeasure by switching from ты back to вы with (what seems to me) comparative freedom. An ex–house slave in Turgenev is offended when a still enslaved man calls him ты, and answers sarcastically with вы-с. For most of the century nobles addressed slaves as ты as a matter of course, but after February 19th, 1861, some nobles started using вы with newly freed peasants and servants on egalitarian grounds, and others didn’t. In an 1867 Nekrasov poem, a man can be driven to suicide not by material hardship, but by the petty disrespect of never being addressed formally, while in an 1864 Tolstoi play, freed serfs themselves see the new use of вы to address them as improper, ridiculous, offensive, bemusing.

One more for my collection: long after 1861, a woman hires a servant named Fedora, but doesn’t like her name and insists that she answer to Katia:

I say to her, “My dear, I don’t like your [informal] name” — I don’t like to say “you [formal]” to servants — “I’m going to call you Katia.”

Я говорю ей:

— Моя милая, мне твое имя не нравится (я не люблю говорить людям вы), я буду звать тебя Катею. (chapter 3)

She goes on to complain that although the servant answers to Katia, she stubbornly says “Fedora” when someone asks what her name is, because she refuses to lie for religious reasons. This the employer finds impudent, and she quotes her brother as saying “even though it’s not pleasant, still, ever since our blessed Nineteenth of February it’s been inevitable”; the woman she is telling all this to remarks, “Yes, ever since that February they’ve had us where they wanted us.”* I haven’t finished the story, but I gather both women are awful human beings and paid police informers.

This is from Leskov’s “A Winter’s Day” (Зимний день, 1894). Leskov is full of retrospective abolitionist fervor. The anti-egalitarian woman in the 1894 story is also anti-Tolstoyan, which may or may not strike you as ironic given Tolstoi’s attitude on the narrow question of ты and вы in 1864.

See also this post on Boris Bukhshtab’s article about “A Winter’s Day” and the atypically large amount of dialogue in it. I’ve gotten to the first mysterious allusion to the Shah of Persia, but I haven’t figured it out.

* The story was translated by William Edgerton in 1969 and David McDuff in 1987. Quotations above are from Edgerton’s translation, p. 367, except the first one, which I glossed, since for understandable reasons, neither Edgerton nor McDuff directly translates the parenthetical remark about pronouns. For the Russian see here.

“The Spirit of Mme de Genlis”

August 19, 2015

Leskov’s story “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (Дух госпожи Жанлис, 1881) is built around an anecdote found in the works of the actual Madame de Genlis (1746-1830): a blind French woman is used to feeling the faces of famous people she meets in society, but when she feels the fat face of Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, she thinks she has been tricked into feeling someone’s buttocks instead of a face and exclaims, “what a vile joke!”* (you can find the original joke on pp. 310-313).

In the Leskov story, a Russian princess who swears by Mme de Genlis asks for the narrator’s help finding suitably chaste reading for her daughter. She considers Russian writers, even Goncharov and sometimes Turgenev, too risqué. The narrator (who is meant to be identified with Leskov, as he has recently published “The Sealed Angel”) stands up for Goncharov’s unobjectionableness, but she answers his arguments with an “oracle”: she has him open a book by Mme de Genlis at random so that the spirit of Mme de Genlis can show him the error of his ways. It seems to work, as he opens to a passage about how the choice of reading material is too important to be left to the taste of young people, which supports the princess’s views. Later she tries her trick again and has her innocent daughter read a random passage aloud at a New Year’s party, but this time the spirit of Mme de Genlis has the poor girl open to the story about the blind woman feeling Gibbon’s face, which the well-protected girl does not understand.

The mockery of the princess and her oracle in this story has clear connections to the satirical passages about spiritualism in Leskov’s At Daggers Drawn  (На ножах, 1870-71), but I want to mention another connection here as a note to myself: the comedy of Mme de Genlis’s spirit perhaps coming back and opening a book to a certain page echoes and inverts the tragic, eerie scene — complete with poetry hidden in the prose — in The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865) where Dora’s spirit perhaps comes back to read Spinoza with Dolinskii.

I recommend Aleksandr Zholkovskii’s article about this story; there’s so much in it I can’t adequately summarize it here, but I want to share three points he makes about Leskov’s implied commentary on contemporary Russian literature:

  • The first of three reasons the princess takes an interest in Leskov the narrator is that “for some reason, she liked my story ‘The Sealed Angel,’ which had been published shortly before then in The Russian Messenger.”* As Zholkovskii says, the princess’s “choice of Leskov, who was noted for his free use of erotic themes, as a guardian of decency was doomed to failure.” Throughout the story we see she is a bad reader of what she claims to like, whether it’s the works of Mme de Genlis or Leskov’s own “Sealed Angel,” where she could have seen “a prefiguration of herself: a society lady who put her trust in false prophecies that did, however, come true for a time” (section 5).
  • Turgenev is actually the living Russian author the princess comes closest to approving of: “Of new authors, Turgenev alone was approved without question, but minus the passages ‘where they talk of love.’”* Zholkovskii argues that Turgenev is not singled out by accident, but that the princess in Leskov’s story is in part modeled on the widow in Turgenev’s “Faust: A Story in Nine Letters” (Фауст. Рассказ в девяти письмах, 1856), which is also about a woman guarding her daughter’s innocence by restricting her reading, and has other similarities to “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (section 10).
  • The princess’s objection to Goncharov? “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?”* Zholkovskii notes that Oblomov’s housekeeper’s elbows, while “far from pornographic,” are described over many pages and “become an object of Oblomov’s amorous fixation.” Oblomov sees her bare elbows from behind, which in the context of Leskov’s story anticipates the blind French marquise thinking she is touching Gibbon’s behind (section 8). Zholkovskii also suggests there is a connection between the fictional Oblomov’s fascination with his housekeeper and the biographical Leskov’s love for his at the stage of his life when he wrote “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (section 13).

See Aleksandr Zholkovskii, “Маленький метатекстуальный шедевр Лескова” [A Minor Metatextual Masterpiece by Leskov], NLO 93 (2008). As you can see on my list of Leskov stories, “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” was translated into English by R. Norman in 1944 and by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 2013. See also Ilya Vinitsky on “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis.”

* Quotations in English from “The Spirit of Madame Genlis” are from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, available as an e-book or in print. Here is the Russian for each: «Какая гадкая шутка!» (in French, “Voilà […] une infâme plaisanterie!…”) /// ей почему-то нравился мой рассказ «Запечатленный ангел», незадолго перед тем напечатанный в «Русском вестнике» /// Из новейших одобрялся несомненно один Тургенев, но и то кроме тех мест, «где говорят о любви». /// — Я знаю, что он большой художник, но это тем хуже, — вы должны признать, что у него есть разжигающие предметы /// — Неужто вы не помните… как его этот… герой где-то… там засматривается на голые локти своей… очень простой какой-то дамы?

Words new to me: приворотное зелье

August 16, 2015

Приворотное зелье is more or less equivalent to “love potion,” but it’s something that’s added to a drink, not a drink itself. “Herbs of attraction”?

I found it in Lev Mei’s play in verse The Tsar’s Bride (Царская невеста, 1849), which was made into an opera by Rimskii-Korsakov (first performance 1899). Some dictionaries call the term obsolete or folk-poetic, and Ushakov’s quotes Mei’s play as the usage example, but the internet is full of recipes for this kind of love potion, and a Russian translation of a Monster High online game wants you to help Cleo de Nile make some приворотное зелье for Deuce Gorgon, so it’s not as obsolete as all that.

The play is set during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, in a world where people believe in love potions. We never find out if the playwright does, though. Griaznoi, the man who secretly puts the herbs in his beloved’s drink, learns later (at the same time as the audience, who had reason to suspect something like this, but weren’t explicitly told) that his former lover, Liubasha, had substituted a slow-acting deadly poison for the love potion, so that Griaznoi would actually kill his new love Marfa, Liubasha’s rival. The nineteenth-century writer avoids having to commit himself by having the love potion work or not work, according to his characters’ or his audience’s view of the world.

This intrigue takes place as Ivan the Terrible is selecting his third wife, by choosing 24 semifinalists and 12 finalists out of thousands of young women he orders brought to him. Marfa, the object of Griaznoi’s obsession, is engaged to another man, but is chosen by the tsar. Her friend Duniasha, like Marfa from a merchant family, is the runner-up and is to marry the tsar’s son. In one scene that I think strains credulity — though I wonder if it’s just me — Liubasha peeks in a window, sees Duniasha and takes her for Marfa, then looks again and sees Marfa. Somehow, in an instant and with no battles between confidence and insecurity, Liubasha can rank herself as more beautiful than Duniasha but less beautiful than Marfa, even though it took the imperial family a multi-round competition to decide these were the two most attractive and accomplished eligible women.

Mei has some remarks at the end of the play that seemed both of and ahead of his time. Calling women underrepresented in the chronicles that are the main source of historians, he says we must turn to oral history to learn what their life was like. His historical male characters he cobbles together from chronicles, Karamzin, and Kurbskii’s letters to Ivan IV, but he claims to have created Marfa and Liubasha as incarnations of two strains of folk song: Marfa, from the song of a girl who will die if not allowed to marry her beloved; Liubasha, from a song to a straying lover that goes “I will bury you, my dear, in the green garden under the pear tree…” I still don’t know Mei very well, but folk song seems pretty central to his work.

“One cannot even call him a house-serf…”

June 15, 2015

Back when I was collecting commonplaces of literary slavery, Russian and American, one thing that made my list was that house and field slaves were distinct categories in the eyes of masters and slaves alike. I recently realized that Lgov (Льгов, 1847), one of Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches (Записки охотника, 1847-51, 1872, 1874) plays a lot on these groups’ social and linguistic divisions.

First we meet Vladimir, a “freed house-serf” [вольноотпущенный дворовый человек] who “expressed himself with extraordinary elegance, and obviously plumed himself on his manners” (117 in Constance Garnett’s translation). When a serf accompanying the gentleman narrator tries to use ты, the informal “you,” with Vladimir, the narrator is impressed by Vladimir’s reply: an ironic вы-с, the formal “you” with an extra deferential particle attached (118).

Later a slave nicknamed Suchok tells his life story: a series of masters who had bought or inherited him abruptly made him a coachman, cook (on two occasions), waiter, actor, footman, postilion, whipper-in, gardener, or fisherman. His speech is marked as substandard, especially with non-standard spellings of words of French or German origin: кеятр for театр, ахтер for актер, фалетор for форейтор (see pp. 12125).

Here is Vladimir’s reaction to Suchok:

Sutchok ran to get his pole. During the whole time of my conversation with the poor old man, the sportsman Vladimir had been staring at him with a contemptuous smile.

‘A stupid fellow,’ was his comment, when the latter had gone off; ‘an absolutely uneducated fellow; a peasant [мужик-с], nothing more. One cannot even call him a house-serf [Дворовым человеком его назвать нельзя-с], and he was boasting all the time. How could he be an actor, be pleased to judge for yourself! You were pleased to trouble yourself for no good in talking to him.’ (126)

Сучок побежал за шестом. Во все время моего разговора с бедным стариком охотник Владимир поглядывал на него с презрительной улыбкой.

— Глупый человек-с, — промолвил он, когда тот ушел, — совершенно необразованный человек, мужик-с, больше ничего-с. Дворовым человеком его назвать нельзя-с… и все хвастал-с… Где ж ему быть актером-с, сами извольте рассудить-с! Напрасно изволили беспокоиться, изволили с ним разговаривать-с!*

That’s it – I just wanted to make a note of this neat and direct contrast, which is much more compact than, for example, the nobleman–house slave and nobleman–field slave romances in Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas and Men of the Forties.

* I used to be able to hide the Russian so that you’d only see it if you moused over the link at the end of the English quote, but WordPress doesn’t seem to let me do that anymore.

Vexation of spirit

June 8, 2015

There is a Leskov story called “Томленье духа” (1890), a title which William Edgerton rendered in English as “Anguish of Spirit” and Hugh McLean as “Vexation of Spirit.” At first I liked Edgerton’s title better: something about the word “vexation” struck me as overly precise and unnatural. Would people have said that? The answer, I’ve learned, is that they would and did and probably still do. After I heard “vexation of spirit” pronounced by a skilled English actor reading Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1871), my instincts on the naturalness of “vexation”  flipped completely.

“Vexation of spirit” turns out to be not just an established phrase, but a reference I wasn’t getting: “vexation of spirit” occurs 10 times in the King James Bible, mostly in Ecclesiastes, and corresponds to томление духа in Russian translations. (Newer English translations of Ecclesiastes have “a chasing after wind,” mirrored by погоня за ветром in newer Russian translations. Where the King James Bible has “vexation of spirit” in Isaiah 65:14, Russian translations have сокрушение духа ‘distress of spirit.’) The Leskov story has an epigraph from Ecclesiastes, so I should have picked up on this sooner.

Edgerton’s “anguish of spirit” is also a Biblical phrase: it’s what the NRSV has instead of “vexation of spirit” in Isaiah 65:14, while the King James uses it in Exodus 6:9 (Russian has малодушие or их дух был сломлен there; the NRSV has “broken spirit”). Some translations have “anguish of spirit” in places where Russian uses дух or душа but not томление, like Job 7:11 or John 13:21.

It’s hard for me to get back inside my former idea that “vexation of spirit” sounded odd, but I think I must have “vexation” in a set of words that I (in this case wrongly) hear as awkward translationese for difficult abstract concepts: I sometimes find “vexation” for досада as irritating as “nostalgia” for тоска (where I like “longing,” but it depends, and enough has been said about that word). Here, of course, there’s no досада involved, and I shouldn’t have let “vexation” for томленье bother me.


June 7, 2015

The Cause online

May 27, 2015

A conversation on Twitter led me to look for an online version of the journal Дело (The Cause), which Grigorii Blagosvetlov edited after Русское слово (The Russian Word) was closed by the government in 1866. Its most famous contributor was perhaps the radical critic Pisarev, though he died in 1868, and The Cause lasted until 1888; other well-known ones included Gleb Uspenskii, Mamin-Sibiriak, and Dmitrii Minaev. It turns out you can find links to most of the issues from 1867-1880 and a handful of later ones on Wikisource/Викитека. And the links are mostly not to Google Books, but to freely available scanned editions from the Russian State Library. I’ve added it to the list of nineteenth-century journals on the right. [Update: There’s even more out there than has yet been linked on Wikisource. Thanks to Katia Bowers for pointing out this May 1887 issue and to Philip Chadwick for bringing up the subject.]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers