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Poetry where you least expect it

February 23, 2015

Guess where this is from:

                Иль, может быть, она оттуда видит и читает?
                        Иль, может быть, не сны одни мне снятся,
                    а в самом деле, для нее не нужны двери,
                    и, измененная, она владеет средством
                        с струею воздуха влетать сюда,
                                здесь быть со мной и снова
            и даже черные фигурки букв способна различать…
                        Нелепый бред! Луна меня тревожит:
            лучи ее как будто падают мне прямо в мозг и в сердце.
                        Что умерло, то спит и не придет
                    перевернуть рукой забытую страницу.

(Or perhaps she can see and read from there? Or perhaps I am not just dreaming dreams, but she truly has no need of doors and, changed, has the means of flying into this place with a current of air, of being here with me, and of rushing around again/bothering with this again [?], and is even able to make out the black shapes of the letters… Delirious raving! The moon troubles me: its rays seem to fall right onto my brain and heart. What has died sleeps and will not come to turn a forgotten page with its hand.)

Except for the line breaks I added, it’s from Leskov’s The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), where embedded poetry adds intensity to the end of a lengthy passage inside one character’s mind, almost half a century before the ternary meter passages in Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg (Петербург, 1912-13, 1922). It’s toward the end of part 3, chapter 10. Dolinskii has found a bookmark where Dora wrote what page of Spinoza she’d read up to three days before her death, and her bereaved lover imagines (or senses?) her coming back to read further and be with him again.

The sentences quoted above are a nearly perfect разностопный ямб (iambic lines of varying length, common in Russian poetry), with even the caesuras in the hexameters as expected: а в самом деле, для ‖ нее не нужны двери cuts a prosodic word, but not a graphic one, and и, измененная, ‖ она владеет средством and перевернуть рукой ‖ забытую страницу cut neither.

It’s true I had to use a weird-looking one-foot line with feminine rhyme to make it work. For a while I thought that an editor might have mistaken нОсится (parallel to владеет) for the less surprising носИться (parallel to влетать and быть), so we could read the line as “здесь быть со мной и снова носится.” But I’m not sure that makes sense: the conjunction и makes it look like we have a series of three infinitives as written, and носится would be the only dactylic line-ending.

(If you think you can do this with any prose passage, try it. Clues that this pattern of stresses didn’t arise by chance include the alignment of “line” ends with punctuation marks and syntactic boundaries, the placement of the passage at the end of a paragraph, the gradual approach to it with imperfect iambic lines right before the quoted passage, the strategic use of words that have an optional extra syllable like иль, струею, and мной, and the anaphora with Иль, может быть.)

I’m afraid no one out there is going to find this as exciting as I do. I think Boris Bukhshtab would have liked it (and probably saw it himself), or the character who hangs out in the library in Nausea and tells the narrator how important it is to remove inadvertent alexandrines from one’s prose.


February 16, 2015

In Dostoevskii’s Demons (Бесы, 1871-72), Shatov’s estranged wife gives birth to Stavrogin’s baby, and her labor is described in some detail, as are Shatov’s attempts to help, including his search for a midwife:

The issue of the midwife is significant and reveals both Shatov’s rather surprising familiarity with the social politics of obstetrics in nineteenth-century Russia, and Dostoevsky’s display of detailed knowledge of an arena traditionally confined to women. Shatov’s wife requests a baba or starukha, that is, the lowest level of midwife: usually an old woman who had assisted at many births but lacked any formal medical training. The official term for this category was a povitukha (later used incorrectly by the narrator of Demons to describe Virginskaia […]). Shatov insists on providing his wife with a [povivaln’aiababka, meaning a certified midwife who has taken obstetric training in a licensed institute; in the 1860s this would have been one of the Imperial Foundling Homes in St Petersburg or Moscow […] We learn that there are at least three people qualified to act as midwives in this town: Virginskaia herself, considered the best, a certain Maksheeva and an army doctor called Rozanov who is trained as an akusher or male midwife. (The terms akusherka and [povival’naiababka were interchangeable in common parlance but only the second had legal status). (4)

This is from Muireann Maguire’s 2014 article “Dostoevsky and the Politics of Parturition.” It’s a wonderful explanation at the intersection of something difficult for everyone, imperial Russian realia, and something difficult for us non-native readers, the different meanings of related words: babka ‘woman who assists at a birth’ (with other meanings too) is not a simple diminutive of baba ‘peasant woman’ (discussed in this old post).* (Povitukha and povival’naia are also visibly related, but with no confusing difference in meaning, just of formality/officialness; both come from the verb povivat’/povit’ ‘wind around,’ in this context ‘swaddle.’)

Shatov’s wife’s baby, as I understand Maguire’s argument, shows “the futility of the post-Chernyshevskian materialist school” (2) in two ways. By being born, the baby makes the worldview of the materialists looks sterile in contrast to the miracle of new life. Then, by dying in infancy (after Shatov’s death, his wife “run[s] down the snowy street in her bedclothes, dooming both herself and the infant to premature death,” 6), the baby shows that materialists can’t create and sustain life. There is much more to this short article: Stavrogin as “a remarkable combination of fecundity and futility” (8), Stavrogin’s wife’s “presumably fantastic” baby and Shatov’s sister’s suspected pregnancy that never comes to pass, and Virginskaia’s methods:

As a midwife, she brings new life into the world, yet she does so unconventionally, swearing and spouting anarcho-socialist propaganda at her patients. Her reputation as the best midwife in town withstands the general dislike of her opinions; she is even credited with having shocked one difficult case into delivering more promptly. (7)

The source of that last anecdote, about Virginskaia shocking a woman into giving birth faster, is the army doctor (shtab-lekar’) and male midwife Rozanov, who I believe is mentioned nowhere else in the novel. I can’t help wondering if the name was inspired by Dr. Rozanov in Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), especially since Dostoevskii began serializing Demons at the same time and in the same journal as Leskov was finishing At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71).

* Likewise neither is the same as babochka ‘moth, butterfly,’ even though babka and babochka look like diminutives of baba. It’s worse than the sliva ‘plum’ vs. slivki ‘cream’ (and not ‘little plums’) situation; those words come from different roots and just happen to look similar, but I think even native speakers hear babka and babochka as diminutives of baba, along with their more specific meanings. Nochnaia babochka ‘moth,’ lit. ‘nocturnal butterfly,’ can also mean ‘lady of the night, prostitute.’

Arguing from authority

February 14, 2015

A quick addendum to yesterday’s post: I think Russell Scott Valentino is unfair to Masha Gessen on one point. Making an argument using specialized knowledge that not all readers have isn’t an “implicit argument from authority,” or experts could never weigh in on anything. It would be one thing if Paul Krugman said “fiscal stimulus was urgently needed in 2009, and if you don’t understand why it’s because you don’t have a Nobel prize” and another if he wrote blog posts about whether unconventional monetary policy can get any traction at the zero lower bound or what the current crisis says about IS-LM versus New Keynesian models with intertemporal optimization. The first would be obnoxious, the second is wonderful for people like me who have a lot to learn about economics.

The fact that I like it when experts share their knowledge with the less expert is one of the reasons I’m glad Valentino’s blog exists, since his practical experience with translation and his knowledge of translation theory are much more extensive than mine. I have plenty to learn there too.

The humblest communication can’t interpret itself

February 13, 2015

A while ago I posted about Masha Gessen’s review of Anna Karenina and Russell Scott Valentino’s response to it. RSV has thoughtfully replied. He clarifies his position by saying, as I understand it, that it’s fine for specialists to compare translations to the original and look at specific examples among themselves, but that this is not the best line to take in writing a book review for general readers who don’t know the source language.

Besides this, he talks about the intentional fallacy. In my first post, I tried to say pretty explicitly that we can’t know what was in the mind of the author of a book. We can’t know what Tolstoi’s intentions were, even if we believed that Anna Karenina meant only what he intended it to mean, which I don’t.

I think RSV and I agree that we all create our own partially idiosyncratic reading in our mind when we read a book. I’d add that part of this process is creating an idea of an author, a storyteller, a speaker, some human being that these words are coming from.

RSV says “The text is what we have. The author’s intention is what we imagine.” I agree. Only I think the imagining in that second sentence is a big piece of what we do with the text, while I suspect RSV means it in a pejorative way — the author is a mirage, banish the phantom from the land of interpretation. But a text just sits there until someone tries to make sense of it, and almost any attempt to understand a piece of writing is going to treat it, explicitly or implicitly, as something written by someone, not a collection of words that grew by itself.

And, with no way to confirm our hypotheses, we ascribe motives to this speaker. When I notice that the Trollope novel I’m in the middle of implicitly contrasts the marital decisions of four women, one with beauty and money, one with just beauty, one with just money, and one with neither, I understand this pattern as having a purpose. I don’t think it’s likely that these four women are naturalistic depictions of randomly selected real women, and I don’t think four different authors made them up and their separate creations were accidentally bound together into a book. I imagine a single intelligence doing something with these elements of the novel.

Keep in mind that I don’t have to be right. I may not even know who the author of a text was, or I may be mistaken, or tricked. There are anonymous texts, collective pseudonyms, texts corrupted by additions made after the original writer’s death, controversies about attribution, all manner of possibilities. But we hear the story as having a teller. (And for now, at least, it really does come from one or more people. I doubt anyone has ever read a 700-page novel written by a Markov chainer.)

RSV: “Translation combines interpretation and writing in really interesting ways, but it makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication, especially when the author of one’s text has been dead for over a hundred years.” This is where we part ways.

I continue to see every kind of literature as an act of communication related to other uses of human language. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? Going up the scale from a one-sentence practical note to Anna Karenina, when do the words stop being interpersonal communication and start being Text, Writing, Narrative that is subject to an entirely different kind of Interpretation? Someone could tell a joke, improvise a bad poem, tell a friend about their day, tell a group of friends a story around a campfire, record such a story and type it out the next day, read a Zoshchenko story and retell it as if it happened to them… I don’t think good criteria exist.

And why does it matter if the author is dead, or for how long? If I leave a voice mail message for someone, that probably counts as interpersonal communication, and it would remain interpersonal communication even if I died before anyone heard it, or if a future historian used it to reconstruct daily life in 2015. If for some reason ten different people listened to it, they’d construct different interpretations of it in their mind. Three would be sure I’d made a reference to a TV show; one would be sure I hadn’t meant to; six wouldn’t notice the possible allusion. They’d split on whether I meant something ironically or not. The future historian would be so unfamiliar with Minneapolis street names c. 2015 that there would be (what I would consider, if I could hear them) wild misreadings.

This is pettier in scale but not qualitatively different from interpreting Shakespeare or Tolstoi, who wrote things for other people to read. The things they wrote remain acts of communication even though the authors couldn’t and didn’t anticipate all the recipients (eavesdroppers, if you like) their messages would have. That remains true even if an underappreciated post horse of enlightenment tries to receive one of their complex linguistic messages and retransmit it to others in a different linguistic code.

Kalganov’s sexuality, two pairs of Poles, and the burden of being important

February 8, 2015

Yesterday we had Eric Naiman on Kalganov and what being a minor character means. The rest of his article was about sexuality and some links between Dostoevskii’s last two novels.

Kalganov’s sexuality: The key scene is Dmitry’s trip to Mokroe, Dmitry’s “discovery of this most blatantly sexual of Dostoevsky’s women in the company of four men entirely impervious to her charms” (401). Those four men form two implicit couples: two Poles in one couple, and Kalganov and Maksimov in the other. Innuendo from the innkeeper and the narrator, digressions on Kalganov’s youth and beauty, and Kalganov’s asking “Where’s Maksimov?” when Grushenka is being flirtatious all suggest these pairs of men are more than friends (401-09). “Maksimov is probably not Kalganov’s first male object of desire,” and we may or may not read something into the fact that he is a friend (приятель) of Alesha Karamazov (405).

There is no “authorial contempt” for Kalganov’s relationships (405). In this Dostoevskii is unlike Tolstoi. Two minor characters in Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина, 1875-77) — “eccentrics” in Woloch’s sense — briefly “attempt to start a conversation with Vronsky,” but Vronsky is disgusted by their apparent homosexuality and the author seems to share his disgust (398 and 398n5). There are two ways Dostoevskii creates a space where Kalganov’s sexuality can escape disgust or contempt. One is Kalganov’s minorness, his quiet space at the fringes. The other is the Polish couple: “at least a secondary function of the Poles in the novel is to create an environment in which an erotic pairing of two men — Kalganov and Maksimov — might seem if not completely natural then not noticeably unnatural” (413). The Poles attract the author’s contempt because they are Poles, which somehow prevents them, or Kalganov and Maksimov, from being on the receiving end of such contempt on sexual grounds (413).

Naiman reads the text on its own terms instead of mechanically imposing twenty-first–century socially constructed categories on top of nineteenth-century ones; he never falls into the trap of “people used to think X about human sexuality, but now we know Y,” as if current orthodoxies will be more eternal than those of the 1870s or the 1950s or the 1990s. Kalganov could be seen as “a man with same-sex desire trying to talk himself into heterosexual ‘normalcy’” or alternatively as “the first bisexual in modern Russian literature,” but Naiman prefers to say that “here Dostoevsky has captured the youthful fluidity of sexual desire” (409). Later he adds these possible interpretations:

If one wished to allegorize Kalganov’s same-sex desires, one might see him as an exemplary figure: the only character whose love is broad enough to understand and to take as its object Maksimov […] Alternatively, one could put him at the center of a homosocial continuum, represented by three figures—Alyosha, whose life has tended to put him in the midst of all male communities (the monastery, the boys), where a pure, holy love is diffused among his fellow men; Kalganov, representing desire of one man for another man, a character who takes another man as an object of erotic fascination if not explicitly as an object of sexual possession, and Smerdyakov, a man who loves only himself. (413-14)

Naiman draws on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, especially her contrast between a “minoritizing” view of “homo/heterosexual definition” as something that matters to “a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority” and a “universalizing” view, where the same issue is “of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities” (398). She is also the source of the idea that “in late nineteenth-century literary texts,” “a character’s homosexuality seems to be an ‘open secret’ that on one hand has never been noticed but which, on the other hand, once it surfaces in critical discourse, has always been too obvious to have been worth pointing out” (398-99).

In one scene Liza quotes Kalganov as saying “намечтать можно самое веселое, а жить скука”; Naiman remarks that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of this phrase (“One can dream up the gayest things, but to live is boring”) is “symptomatic if not intentional” in its “sexual connotation” for the modern reader (408-09, italics added). This reminded me of Leskov’s Captain Postel’nikov, who was “light blue” for the nineteenth-century connotation of the secret police, not the twentieth-century meaning of male homosexuality, but who seemed to be crying out for an anachronistic reading.

The Adolescent and The Brothers Karamazov: “Just as some of Makar’s stories [in The Adolescent] seem to be rough drafts of Zosima’s future preaching [in The Brothers Karamazov], so the drinking scene in The Adolescent — the moment of Trishatov’s greatest intimacy with Arkady and with the reader — serves as an embryonic version of the longer debauch in Mokroe” (412). In particular the two Poles in the scene in The Brothers Karamazov were already there in the corresponding scene in The Adolescent (413).

More broadly Naiman compares the two novels as a test case for his proposition that Kalganov’s very insignificance makes him independent and free. The first-person narrator of The Adolescent doesn’t have that luxury because he is so central, and in that novel, “same-sex desire is far more fraught,” and it’s tied up with images of filth (a dirty necktie, manure in the Haymarket during a winter thaw; 410, 409-12).

See Eric Naiman, “Kalganov,” Slavic and East European Journal 58.3 (2014): 394-418 (no link).

Kalganov and those who “hover vulnerably on the borderline between name and number”

February 7, 2015

Kalganov is a character from The Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы, 1880) who appears in three scenes, “the scandalous visit of the Karamazovs to the monastery, Dmitry’s trip to Mokroe, and Dmitry’s trial” (395). He is described very fully, twice, despite his unimportance. Eric Naiman (who unraveled the hoax about Dostoevskii meeting Dickens) asks three related questions: What’s the point of a character so minor no one remembers him? What’s going on with Kalganov’s sexuality? And how do Kalganov and the Mokroe scene relate to The Adolescent (Подросток, 1875)? Here’s how he deals with the first one.

Naiman lays out a theory of minor characters by Alex Woloch. Literary characters are like real people, but not the same thing. Realist novels make their central characters seem more like real people than they are, and the minor characters who “hover vulnerably on the borderline between name and number” seem less real (qtd. on 396). This plays out differently in different authors; in Dickens, minor characters’ “physical and lexical distortions” are for Woloch “the collateral damage of being compelled to live on the outskirts of the plot” (395). But there are two recurring types, the worker and the eccentric. The worker has a clear function in the plot, while the eccentric “plays a disruptive, oppositional role” and is therefore cast out (397).

Kalganov is neither of these things. His “purpose” in the plot — half a sentence of redundant evidence at Dmitry’s trial — is negligible. He exists on the margins, and if he is unnecessary to the story, being at the center of the story is unnecessary to him. Being minor allows him “not to matter and accords him an independence and freedom that is not vouchsafed to more central talkative figures caught at a novel’s polyphonic core”; if in Dickens the minor characters are anxious, in Dostoevskii the major characters are “tormented by their own narrative centrality and denied the refuge of relative muteness” (416, see also 409).

There are other ways of explaining why Kalganov is described in such detail. Naiman says Vladlena Drabkina has argued that Kalganov “would have grown up to kill or attempt to kill the tsar” in a never-written sequel (as “nearly all heroes named Pyotr in Dostoevsky’s world” are “either villains or nihilists,” 414). It made me think of Gary Saul Morson, open time, and sideshadowing: Kalganov being set up as if he were going to be important to the narrative, but then not becoming important, is Gania in The Idiot (Идиот, 1868-69) writ small.

Naiman doesn’t expect us to remember Kalganov — I didn’t — and names several lists of Dostoevskii characters where Kalganov is too obscure to appear. That shows how huge The Brothers Karamazov is. My computer counts 65 instances of the name “Kalganov” (not counting his first name and patronymic or pronouns referring to him), including in the very last paragraph. For comparison, “Karamazov” comes up 74 times, “Grushenka” 278 times, “Smerdiakov” 151 times, and the novel is on the order of 194,000 words long.

See Eric Naiman, “Kalganov,” Slavic and East European Journal 58.3 (2014): 394-418 (no link). Greta Matzner-Gore has an article in the same issue that mentions Kalganov and Woloch.

Words new to me: тальма

February 6, 2015

François-Joseph Talma (1763-1826) was a French actor who, Wikipedia tells me, knew Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David, and Joseph Chénier, inspired Alexandre Dumas, and was credited by Nietzsche with formulating the idea that “what is meant to have the effect of truth must not be true.”

Petr Viazemskii wrote a long obituary of Talma in 1827, and I think Aleksandr Vel’tman used Talma as a character in Virginia, or A Journey to Russia (Виргиния, или Поездка в Россию, 1837), which Belinskii describes in a review.

But the actor’s last name also turned into a common noun in Russian, meaning a kind of sleeveless cloak worn by women. In part 1, chapter 9 of Leskov’s The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), Dolinskii is about to help Dora into her tal’ma when he throws it aside so he can go save a small child. There’s another тальма in the “woman’s outer garment” meaning in this 1911 poem by Igor’ Severianin. I suppose someone once compared a woman wearing this kind of cloak to a famous picture of Talma in a similar costume, and the joke caught on, but of course I don’t know.

The actor’s name comes up more often than the clothing term in a search on, just as if you search for “Mae West” you’ll get the person more often than the lifejacket (which makes the OED).

The last name Тальма, being French, is stressed on the last syllable, and there was apparently a time when lowercase тальма was prescriptively supposed to have that stress too, but it seems to have quickly become тАльма. The thing and the person it’s named for are then a minimal pair for stress.


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