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The Old Man (5)

May 23, 2016

My aunt got up, went over to him, and said rather stiffly, “Mountains do not come together, Mikhail Fyodorovich, but people do; and now it has come about that we too see each other after 12 years.” He kissed her hand with that feeling of respect and love for a woman which, unfortunately, is known to people of our era only as legend. He shook my hand, saying a few words of welcome, and clapped Rostislav on the shoulder.

“So, have you finished your studies? Did you graduate with honors?” he asked.

“I did,” replied Rostislav modestly.

“Well done!” said the handsome old man, looking him over with a pleased smile. “Well done indeed. No, at your age I was just beginning on the alphabet. Do sit down, do sit down,” he went on, sinking into an armchair and pulling one flap of his frock coat over the other. “Let’s talk, so I can learn a thing or two from you.”

This approach so warmed Katerina Alexeyevna’s maternal heart that she prepared to listen quietly and resolved not to interfere in her son’s conversation with Mikhail Fyodorovich. She foresaw that Rostislav was to have a chance to display his abilities and knowledge in all their glory, but neither she nor I were to be able to judge this. The conversation took such a serious turn that I, at least, stopped listening, though I could not take my eyes off Mikhail Fyodorovich.

The kind Tatyana Grigoryevna entertained us as best she could, but the resources of her imagination would soon have been exhausted if her niece, a young widow named Stepanida Andreyevna Milshina, and her four-year-old son had not come to her aid. At the sight of strangers, the boy stopped in the doorway and covered his face with his hand. In vain did his mother and great-aunt try threats and entreaties to persuade him to walk politely up to their guests: he remained stubborn, unable to bring himself to look at us.

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The Old Man (4)

May 20, 2016

After breakfast we set off for the Lutvinovs’. We were received by a small but still lively old woman in a taffeta blouse and a tulle bonnet with a wig of black hair peeking out from underneath. Katerina Alexeyevna introduced her son and me.

“I’m very glad to meet you, thank you so much for coming,” she said, as if she were embarrassed by the presence of people she did not know. “Please do sit down. I wouldn’t have recognized Rostislav Mikhailich. My, how he’s grown! And I saw the young lady when she couldn’t yet walk; and now how she’s grown! A head taller than I am.”

Tatyana Grigoryevna Lutvinova spoke in a kind and welcoming tone that was at the same time respectful. She personally pulled out a chair not only for my aunt, but also for me. She asked Rostislav whether his chair might not be uncomfortable? In Katerina Alexeyevna’s affectionate manner of addressing her, the difference in their upbringing and social position was involuntarily revealed. My aunt asked a few questions about the management of the household, about the harvest, and particularly about a certain apple pillule that Tatyana Grigoryevna was an expert at making.

The Lutvinovs’ house was one of those manor houses of the former kind that were built and even furnished according to a particular widely adopted plan. Along the walls of the living room, which were painted dark green, armchairs with straight backs shaped like lyres had been arranged symmetrically. At the far end of the room, a massive, barbaric canapé occupied its rightful place between two tiled stoves. In front of the canapé was an oval mahogany table. Our hosts apparently paid little heed to repainting their walls or refurbishing their furniture, and by now it was difficult to guess the original color of the woolen material with which the chairs were upholstered. However, the room was brightened by a few antiquated pastels and engravings, and three or four marble busts of excellent craftsmanship. A half-open door led from the living room to a large room that our host had converted to a library and office, which I peered into with interest, when suddenly an old man of about seventy appeared in the doorway. He was pale and gaunt and extremely tall. Thick curls of white hair encircled his cheeks; I found his dark eyes, hawklike nose, and thin lips — all his features — striking not only for being handsome, but also for their intelligent and meditative expression. Mikhail Fyodorovich Lutvinov was wearing a long frock coat of English cut, and he looked every bit the gentleman.

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The Old Man (3)

May 18, 2016

I spent a bad night. After my recent illness, my nerves were in a sorry state, God knows, and I imagined all sorts of things my first night in that large and unfamiliar house. One moment I heard uneven steps in the hallway, and the next fragments of the sounds of voices. I would jump up in bed and listen with my heart terribly still; but the sounds would suddenly fade away. In the end I gave up sleep, lit a candle, and once I had calmed down, I began to examine the objects that surrounded me. On a wide section of wall opposite my bed hung some family portraits in blackened frames that were not particularly large or elegant.  One of them depicted an old man wearing powder and a black suit, with a hooked nose and a double chin. His look was haughty, his head tilted back; but the painter had tried to emphasize this expression, violently pulling up his lower lip so that it rested right under his nose. Next to the portrait of the old man, in an ugly gold frame bedecked with stars, hung in all its splendor a pastel depicting a young woman with a long, curved neck and a thirty-inch bodice who had a dove on her shoulder; the whole pose betrayed pretentions to a head by Greuze. The third portrait was painted in oils and seemed an outsider in the family circle; in the first place, it was hung simply, with no frame, on a nail that protruded through the canvas, and in the second place, it was the portrait of a handsome, dark-haired young man wearing a military coat of modern cut. In the morning I learned from Rostislav that this was a portrait, painted by Tropinin some 15 years ago, of a previous owner of Politino, who, dying, had directed his wife not to sell this village, where he had been born and had grown up. But the will of the deceased was not carried out; and now, Rostislav added, there is a belief among the peasants of Politino that the shade of the deceived owner appears at night a few times a year with a candle, in that very summer house where, according to my aunt, there were snakes. It was true, Rostislav said, that night watchmen occasionally saw a light in the frame of the locked glass door. During the day I was braver than I was in the evening, and I laughed at the tale Rostislav had invented; but he swore it was no tale and referred me to the house-serfs and peasants as witnesses.

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Love and lies

May 17, 2016

Last week I wrote about my first impressions of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Years” (Три года, 1895), and now Scott Bailey, who knows the story much better, has a post on it. I should read the story with his interpretation in mind, but for now I’m having trouble reconciling myself to his central idea that “‘Three Years’ is a theme and variations: the theme is self-delusion and falsehood, the variations take the form of fantasies and lies. Almost every character lives in an imaginary reality, blinding himself to the truth. Almost every page has an example of someone either lying to himself or to someone else.”

I see the story in almost the opposite way: real reality intrudes on the characters’ lives so that, after three years of large and small chance events, Alexey Fyodorovitch Laptev and Yulia Sergeyevna Lapteva are changed in ways neither anticipated. At the beginning he loves her and she cannot love him, and both realize this (219); at the end she has come to love him and he no longer loves her, and both realize this (327-29). When he proposes, it would be useful for each of them to pretend that she loved him, but neither even tries to live strategically in that imaginary reality.

She loves him at the end even though he is unattractive, and is reluctant to marry him at the beginning even though he is rich. His love has cooled at the end even though she has grown more attractive: “She was not now the slender, fragile, pale-faced girl she used to be; she was a mature, beautiful, vigorous woman” [Это была уже не прежняя тонкая, хрупкая, бледнолицая девушка, а зрелая, красивая, сильная женщина, 91]. I felt that this late description of Yulia Sergeyevna was one of several lines that discouraged Bailey’s reading that “Alexey’s love for Yulia is mere physical attraction, for he doesn’t know her at all and during the course of the story he never gets to know her.” I take it that he knows her intimately well at the end of the story, but doesn’t love her because he isn’t the same man as three years earlier.

Bailey has a list (see below) of “examples of self-delusion, falseness and fantasies,” and I see where he’s coming from, but I would put the same items into several categories:

Examinations of human psychology under extreme circumstances. A terminally ill person like Nina Fyodorovna might inaccurately convince herself she is going to get better, but this is best seen not as falseness, but as an animal drive to live coming up to the civilized surface when day-to-day concerns can no longer keep these layers of a person separate. This could happen to anyone.

Examinations of passing psychological instants that do not represent the totality of a person’s feelings. Laptev’s desire for Yulia Sergeyevna to be unfaithful to him (273) is at the end of a long night that has shown him he’s useless to the young despite his money, and unable to enjoy the good things he has or could have that his brother covets. His despairing jealousy shows that he’s still not indifferent: at this moment he fears his wife coming to love Yartsev (or someone else, but probably Yartsev) so much that he wants it to happen immediately so he can stop dreading it. Later he’ll bring Yartsev to see his wife, speculate about them getting together, and not care.

Self-delusion, falseness, and fantasies. Panaurov’s “no means yes” ideas about women and his self-description as a “decent, honest man” seem false — evidence that he’s trying to deceive others if not himself — and to me at least they seem qualitatively different than anything the sympathetic major characters think, say, or do. Kostya’s legal speeches probably belong here too, and Kostya’s belief that “he had a subtle, aesthetic temperament” is immediately undermined by the narrator. I’m not sure how well I understand Laptev’s belief that “if he had studied he might have made a good painter” or his overconfidence in the world of art, and he seems different from Kostya in some respects, but I can see why it would count as an example of self-delusion.

On another topic, Bailey’s reading of “why this was so” (in “It was disagreeable to Laptev to hear his wife, not yet twenty-two, speaking so seriously and coldly about love. He understood why this was so”) as “because Yulia has been reading Tolstoy” is very interesting. I’d read this in a story-internal way: “why this was so” was because she didn’t then love her husband, wouldn’t even consider adultery, and therefore was inclined to belittle love and wish people would write about other important things. But maybe it really is about Tolstoy.

Bailey’s list broken down by character

The Old Man (2)

May 16, 2016

We came to Politino (as the village belonging to my aunt was called) a little before five o’clock in the evening. My aunt understood the laws that govern people living under one roof as well as anyone can, and she held to the rule that the mistress of the house should allow one and all complete freedom in their activities. I wanted a rest; I declined dinner, and as I went to my room I heard Rostislav tell his mother that he had ordered me to go to bed. I could tell that in all things he found the role of guardian and instructor to his liking; he especially liked to carp at me because my manners and thoughts were too refined. With what pleasure I stretched out on the fresh, snow-white bed! as sleep imperceptibly closed my eyes, as happy thoughts did not abandon me in sleep, I felt I was within sight of the fields, with plenty of space, and free… When I woke up, it was completely dark, and nightingales were wailing in the garden. I quickly got up and left the room, feeling my way and trying to figure out how long I had been asleep. My aunt and Rostislav were sitting with a samovar on a little terrace from which one could see a lane of lindens that adjoined a sort of building.

“What is that dark shape at the end of the lane?” I asked.

“The summer house,” replied Katerina Alexeyevna, “only please don’t go near it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s very old. When my late husband and I lived here, a snake was found near it, and since then the summer house has been kept locked. They say the snakes have established themselves in it.”

“But that’s frightening… Why don’t you have it torn down?”

“Well, that ought to be done,” replied Katerina Alexeyevna. “You should attend to that, Rostya.”

“It’s fine, let the place stay standing,” replied Rostislav. “Nothing happened except that a grass snake got killed.”

But Rostislav’s words did not reassure me. I was terribly afraid of snakes, and much else of which I would later cease to be afraid. Rostislav knew this and took advantage of a chance turn in the conversation to start telling stories that redoubled my fear, a fear he enjoyed like a schoolboy. My kind aunt grew angry and ordered him to be quiet and tried to distract me in all sorts of ways. It was decided that the next day we would go to visit the neighbors, the old Lutvinovs; they had known Rostislav as a child, and Katerina Alexeyevna was impatient to show him to them as a young man. He did not object, and I gladly agreed, remembering my late mother’s stories about Mikhail Fyodorovich Lutvinov, in which he was a wonderful old man.

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A ray of light

May 14, 2016

…or rather Луч света, from Dobroliubov’s “A Ray of Light in the Kingdom of Darkness” (Луч света в темном царстве, 1860), is a blog I just found out about that started in fall 2015. It’s by Sarah Ruth Lorenz, who does research on Belinskii, the radical critics, and Dostoevskii, and it’s aimed mainly at people teaching and learning Russian. Most posts are news videos about current events, and they come with partial transcripts, accompanied by translations designed for someone who wants to understand the Russian syntax. I’ve added a link on the right. I think it’s wonderful Lorenz is willing to take materials she uses to teach language and offer them to other teachers or self-directed learners — I think that’s something that’s getting very easy to do, and I hope it will be increasingly common.

The Old Man (1)

May 13, 2016

The Old Man

It was… was it really only 12 years ago, and not a hundred? I had been ill all winter, and my doctors sent me off to the country for the spring. It is difficult to convey how strong my desire to leave Moscow had become, as I had spent several years in that city without a day away. At the arrival of each spring I envied those fortunate people who were parting with Moscow, from the landed gentleman who had spent all his money there, to the factory worker heading back to his native village for Easter Day. In the city, the signs of spring take on a caricatured form: sidewalks instead of fields; birds in cages, and not free; instead of a forest, the scraggy lindens of Tver Boulevard whose leaves begin to turn grey from dust the moment they start to grow… I had been in thrall to melancholy all summer. How great was my joy when it was decided that I should go to the country, with my aunt, Katerina Alexeyevna N., and her son Rostislav, recently graduated from the university.

My aunt was a darling old woman who was always a bit dressed up, rather fastidious in her ways, as modest in her language as a girl in boarding school, and as soft as wax when it came to exercising her authority. Rostislav, her only and much-beloved son, was a rather original sort: at the university he was considered not only an excellent student, but also an excellent lad to have about.

It must be said that nature had created him with rather rough tools; but the lack of beauty in his broad face and bulging gray eyes was made up for by the originality of his good-natured and somewhat roguish expression. Fortunately for Rostislav, he was most willing to come to terms with his looks, boasted of his Herculean appearance and solid build, and was in ecstasy over the breadth of his own shoulders. He had failed to reach an accommodation with high society and turned his back on it once and for all, in spite of all Katerina Alexeyevna’s pleas and remonstrances. Rostislav was, however, right: elegant manners did not come at all naturally to him; a suit and a white tie rendered him weighty and awkward in a way high society would not have forgiven. On the other hand, in the sort of company where the wearing of overcoats was permitted, Rostislav made a tremendous impression, as one could learn from the good-natured stories of Rostislav himself: one had only to listen to him, and Rostislav liked to be listened to.

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