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Last chance to read Icons and Their Interpretation

October 29, 2020

David is closing the incredibly useful Icons and Their Interpretation. Yesterday it was gone from the internet except for what you could find on the Wayback Machine. Today he’s reopened it, but only for a brief time. If you want to go there and catch up on icon posts you’ve missed, now is your chance!

Thanks, David, for all the work you put into your amazing blog. If you happen to read this, I hope you’ll consider leaving the blog up on the internet for people to find in the future, even if you no longer have the time to add to it.

Bread and soup

September 13, 2020

Jonathan Waterlow has been reading in the Soviet archives about people imprisoned for telling jokes in the Stalin era:

One day, during the food shortages, our jokesters joined a gathering in the girls’ dorm where the students sang songs and played cards. There was a small portrait of Stalin sitting on one of the nightstands, next to which someone — presumably the bed’s owner — had left a piece of bread. Spotting this little still life, class clown Penkov shouted over the hubbub, “Whose bread’s that?” After a brief silence, he pointed at the picture of Stalin and said, “Grab it before he gets the last of it!” The NKVD interpreted this as “an anti-Soviet attack designed to discredit the leader of the peoples.” But what if it was just a throwaway line from a hungry student who enjoyed the limelight and wanted to give his friends a reason to laugh?

This struck me as weirdly similar to a story from the early 1830s told by Joe Peschio:

The second episode, also involving sedition in the form of the abuse of state symbols, concluded less fortuitously for Buturlin and his comrades. It took place in a private room at Dubois’s restaurant in the early evening, a common starting time and place for this trio’s exploits.

Romanov arrived there already a little, as they say, in his cups, sat down on a divan, behind which stood a pedestal with a plaster bust of Emperor Nicholas I, and, accompanying his speech with gesticulations, produced a tremor which passed to the bust. I remarked that he should be more careful, and not break the bust, which would have added to our already considerable debt at the restaurant. To this he replied with a laugh: “Bah! Ce n’est qu’une tête de [plâtre]” (it’s nothing but a plaster head), and then, with an indecent (of course) joke (but purely a schoolboy joke), he began to bring a few spoonfuls of soup up to the mouth of the bust. There was no one in the room besides us three; but it must be assumed that someone heard and saw everything from the next room because the whole episode was reported to the highest authorities in detail.

Later that week, Buturlin was summoned by General Arps of the Life Guards. Arps informed him that reports of “certain incidents” had reached the tsar, and that Buturlin was under suspicion of involvement in them. He ordered Buturlin to write an account of his association with Romanov and Golitsyn. Buturlin was then arrested and spent six weeks in the stockade before being demoted and sent back to the Pavlograd Regiment. Golitsyn was transferred to a civil post in the Caucasus, and Romanov to Arkhangel’sk. (13–14)

These punishments for Pushkin-era noblemen were severe enough, but in 1941 the five teenage Moscow University students of peasant origin were sentenced to between three and ten years imprisonment, with one dying in the Gulag and another being rearrested and exiled to Siberia shortly after his release, still for the same initial “crime” of anti-Soviet agitation and counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Like Buturlin before them, the Soviet students were coerced into informing on their friends.

See Waterlow’s “The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street: The Cost of Humor in the USSR” (August 25, 2020), in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Peschio’s 2012 The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin.

The Nest of the Wood Grouse

August 17, 2020

I can’t get over how much Russian and Soviet culture is on the internet for anyone to enjoy. I’ve still been watching perestroika-era things occasionally, and I recommend The Nest of the Wood Grouse (Гнездо глухаря), a 1987 film based on a 1979 play of the same title by Viktor Rozov (1913–2004). (A wood grouse or capercaillie is a bird in the same family as the peacock, turkey, and ruffed grouse, but from a genus found only in Europe and northern Asia. Here’s one in Russia.)

(Video also available on culture.ru)

It’s easy to see why the Moscow Academic Theater of Satire wanted to put on this play in the 1980s. For one thing, it draws parallels between the Soviet nomenklatura and the pre-revolutionary aristocracy as explicitly as A Riddle (Загадка, 1984) and The Answer to the Riddle (Разгадка, 1985). Prov, the son of a privileged Soviet family with a six-room apartment in downtown Moscow, is dating Zoia, whose mother works at a corner store and whose father is in prison for having a knife on him during a fight; when Prov’s father is scandalized, Prov says he might marry Zoia “for the sake of the health of [our] social estate,” для оздоровления сословия.

The dramatic method of making you feel a certain way about a character, then showing the same character from a new point of view that forces you to consciously revise your opinion of them also made me think of The Riddle and its sequel, though in The Nest of the Wood Grouse the technique felt less gimmicky.

At first I thought the critique of the Soviet elite must have been played up for the 1987 film—could you really say all that in the open under Brezhnev? But the text of the 1979 play seems to be the same as what I watched. It’s too simple to think of post-Stalin Soviet culture as alternating freezes and thaws with sharp borders and homogeneous contents, and my sense of what would or wouldn’t have been allowed under Khrushchev or Brezhnev or Gorbachev is often wrong. That said, I think of 1970s mainstream Soviet culture as being fairly open about the minor inconveniences of everyday life, but focusing on the drama of individual lives instead of social critique. An extreme example is Leonid Filatov’s light and silly The Cuckoo Clock (Часы с кукушкой, 1978), but the same is true of more famous things like Office Romance (Служебный роман, 1978), where Samokhvalov’s luxurious lifestyle is peripheral to the story, a product of his personal flaws as much as the country’s, and associated with his time in Switzerland. So the 1979 text of The Nest of the Wood Grouse, where the central characters are implicated in an unjust society that’s Soviet, not Western at second hand, stands out a bit.

Based on this play, Rozov reminded me of Pisemskii (and I promise not everything does, even though I’ve been immersing myself in Pisemskii this summer!). Part of the plot concerns maneuverings and betrayals to get a much-desired position in a government office, just like Pisemskii’s The Plunderers (Хищники, 1873). And like The Masons (Масоны, 1880), Rozov’s play combines some fairly harsh satire against people born into privilege with a harsher attack on successful social climbers. The closest thing to a villain in The Nest of the Wood Grouse is Prov’s brother-in-law Egor, who went from humble origins to a series of better and better posts, and who (until a reversal at the end) is poised to marry a series of young women whose fathers can help him advance higher and higher professionally. This improbable rise that depends on talent, ambition, marrying well-placed people, and possibly lying is exactly like pseudo-Tuluzov in The Masons, the calculating man who probably started out as a serf, uses the real Tuluzov’s documents to get free raznochinets status, becomes a nobleman through a position as a provincial teacher, and after marrying Catherine Krapchik/Chentsova gets promoted all the way to actual state councillor.

The Nest of the Wood Grouse was translated by Susan Layton and produced in New York in 1984, according to this review in New York magazine by John Simon. Simon’s review is readable and interesting and explains the wood grouse metaphor admirably, though calling the play “a love letter to the bourgeois world” is pretty far from my own understanding of it. The play was revived in 2018 at the Cheliabinsk Chamber Theater, and blogger Penelopa Urgumova liked it, finding it “so topical it’s disgusting […] if anything has changed, it’s whose portraits are on the wall.” Urgumova also says the play had trouble getting past the Brezhnev-era censor, so that wasn’t just me.

Words new to me: боскетная

August 13, 2020

On my third pass through Pisemskii’s The Masons (Масоны, 1880) I’m noticing a bunch of words that already sounded old-fashioned then and helped give the novel its 1830s period piece flavor. One is bosketnaia, from the French word bosquet ‘grove,’ a diminutive of the Occitan bosc ‘woods,’ related to the French bois ‘woods.’ It’s clearly a kind of room:

Sin’kovo, which Petr Grigor’evich had let fall into neglect, was being renovated and rebuilt day by day. First of all the interior of the manor house was repaired: the marble walls in the great hall, which had cracked in a few places, were made entirely anew; the walls of the living room were covered with the green cloth hangings then beginning to come into fashion; the bosketnaia was repainted; but as Catherine wished, most sumptuous of all were the new decorations of her and her husband’s bedroom: its walls were entirely covered with a doubled-over pink damask; its furniture was upholstered with the same fabric. The ordinary stove that used to be in the bedroom was replaced with an attractive fireplace, and finally the newlyweds’ marriage-bed was an improbable sight: it was extremely wide, made out of an entire alder, and enormous mirrors had been installed at its head and foot, so that anyone lying on the bed could see themselves from head to toe. (part 3, chapter 2; Russian text)

The focus is on the bed, of course—Catherine, a previously single 28-year-old who has inherited a lot of money from her late father Petr Grigor’evich Krapchik, recently married Chentsov, a broke spendthrift, gambler, heavy drinker, and ladies’ man, with her eyes wide open because, as the narrator almost tells us in so many words, she wants to have lots and lots of sex with him. I’ve been reading Maya Jenkins’s excellent dissertation on Pisemskii, and she occasionally seems surprised nineteenth-century critics found Pisemskii so risqué, but sometimes it’s easy to see why. Besides the mirrors, we have Catherine constantly trying to get rid of everyone else to be alone with Chentsov, the two of them reading the erotic Paul de Kock and Boccaccio (undoubtedly “Putting the Devil Back in Hell”), and Chentsov making remarks about how insatiable Catherine is until he starts escaping by playing checkers at night with the estate manager (who will become Catherine’s second husband). But what is this bosketnaia?

It really is a “grove room”: the definition in Efremova’s dictionary is “room (usually in a manor house) whose walls are painted to look like a park scene.” It gets a page on a Russian website devoted to forgotten words, which gives a different work by Pisemskii as a usage example. And it’s not a recently forgotten word:

I was evidently destined never to find the count at home. This time too he was absent. The same servant informed me that “his lordship has gone riding to the water mill, and her ladyship is in the bosketnaia [italics in original].”

I did not entirely understand what sort of a thing this “bosketnaia” was at first. But I gathered enough courage to ask to be taken to the countess. I was dirty all over, and although they did brush me off a bit in the entryway, there were several pounds of dust on my face and in my beard. I paid no heed to any of this.

I was taken through a large, long dining room into another corner room, painted to look like a garden with a “hill” in the corner covered with all kinds of stones and shells. This, it turned out, was the “bosketnaia.” The count kept up this decoration from the era of Alexander. (Russian text)

That’s from Pisemskii’s former colleague Petr Boborykin’s novel Half a Life (Полжизни, 1873). The phrase I translated as “servant,” by the way, is vyezdnoi lakei, a highly specific bit of realia in its own right.

 

Links

August 8, 2020

August is Women in Translation Month, but Russian literature bloggers started early.

“…equally voracious, submissive, and improbable”

August 7, 2020

Muireann Maguire recently reviewed Lisa Hayden’s translation of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov (Соловьев и Ларионов, 2009). In it a post-Soviet graduate student (Solovyov) researches a fictional White Army general (Larionov):

Solovyov visits Yalta, where the general spent his final decades as a tenant in a communal apartment, to make contact with the woman to whom the old man dictated his memoirs. Instead, Solovyov meets—and is rapidly seduced by—her daughter Zoya. Here and elsewhere, Vodolazkin struggles to write convincingly about female sexuality. Leeza, Solovyov’s first love, is a study in Portnoy-ish passivity, constantly available and readily forgotten. The Crimean seductress Zoya is equally voracious, submissive, and improbable. Take their first encounter: “He went over to Zoya’s bed and pressed his legs into her. […] A moment later he was lying next to her. […] As if out of nowhere, she took a condom and placed it in Solovyov’s hot hand.” Compare Ustina, the hero’s perfect helpmeet, in Vodolazkin’s second novel, Laurus; or Anastasia in his third, The Aviator, whose romantic interchangeability with her granddaughter Nastya (both are, at different times, engaged to the narrator) is ludicrous. Vodolazkin captures minor female characters brilliantly (like Solovyov and Larionov’s glorious Professor Dupont), but as soon as a woman becomes a love interest, she loses all subjectivity. This is a rare weakness in the author’s otherwise carefully crafted style.

I haven’t read Vodolazkin yet, but Maguire’s examples are persuasive. I’ve been wondering lately why we as readers have such strong reactions to how authors write about sexuality. In a way the topic is like all others: artifice is required to make a literary simulation of something seem like the real thing. But since sexuality is typically private and clearly different from person to person, you’d think we’d be forgiving, even credulous, when reading about it, leaving open the possibility that the author is accurately describing something we’ve never encountered. The opposite is true: we’re strict on this point. Many ways of writing sexuality don’t feel right, and they quickly start to seem ridiculous.

Our instinct that an author does this well can also be strong. Anna Kozlova’s F20 (F20, 2017) felt like the most convincing portrayal of female sexuality I’d ever read—but why do I have an opinion? I also thought male sexuality in Roman Senchin’s Nubuck (Нубук, 2003) and Moscow Shadows (Московские тени, 2008) seemed realistic, even though what many of his male characters feel—a minor temptation for adulterous or otherwise illicit sex with female strangers, in service of a major temptation to wreck one’s own life—is as far from my experience as Kozlova’s teenage girl protagonist.

I suspect readers often agree about which portrayals of sexuality seem plausible (just as they agree about which written simulations of oral speech sound authentic), but not always. To move to a nineteenth-century example, I once thought Fet’s poems written from a female persona would seem implausible to a female reader, but I’ve since heard women say that “Sister” (Сестра, 1857) rang true to them.

Maguire’s full review is mostly about other things and makes the book seem well worth reading!

Kinship terms in one picture

July 28, 2020

Via Ilya Klishin (@vorewig) on Twitter:

I’ve seen versions of this, but this one is as compact and intuitive as any I’ve seen. Note that two words are given common but prescriptively incorrect spellings: husband’s father should be свёкор (not свёкр), and one’s wife’s sister is properly one’s свояченица (not своячница).

This isn’t a complete picture. Your wife’s sister’s husband is your свояк, for instance, and your husband’s sister’s husband is your зять, the same term used for your daughter’s husband or your sister’s husband. Also notice the asymmetry of зять and невестка. Невестка works for your brother’s wife and, if you’re a woman, for your son’s wife, but if you’re a man, your son’s wife is your сноха; on the other side зять covers all the analogous relationships. The situation has become even less parallel as сноха has expanded to encroach on невестка: now сноха can be used to mean a woman’s son’s wife as well as a man’s son’s wife. Ushakov’s dictionary says this is absolutely not allowed (with an exclamation point that proves people were using it that way anyway), and Ozhegov’s more recent dictionary matter-of-factly says it is.

The tweet accompanying this chart says “the human brain is not capable of mastering this information,” which matches my impression that native speakers of Russian recognize all these words as kinship terms and use the ones that mean mother- or father-in-law all the time, but parts of the chart get a bit hazy for them too.

Crazy Money

July 27, 2020

The Maly Theater has been posting videos of entire plays to YouTube since at least 2014 (collected on this playlist), and about a month ago they published a 1978 televised version of Ostrovskii’s Crazy Money (Бешеные деньги, 1870):

The story is one of those late 1860s/1870s reactions to capitalist culture emerging after the end of serfdom. Lidiia and her mother are heavily in debt but refuse to give up their stylish Moscow lifestyle. The daughter is surrounded by suitors: several aristocrats whose main talent is putting on a show of not being penniless, and one up-and-coming “practical man” from the provinces, who is un-aristocratic even in his first name. Ostrovskii describes him like this: “Savva Gennadich Vasil’kov, provincial, about 35. He doesn’t fully reduce his unstressed Os and uses expressions belonging to residents of the middle Volga: ‘kogda zhe net’ instead of ‘da’ for ‘yes,’ ‘ni Bozhe moi’ in place of a negation, ‘shaber’ instead of ‘sosed’ for ‘neighbor.’ His provincial origins are noticeable in his clothes.” Lidiia holds her nose and marries the non-aristocrat, only to discover he wasn’t offering her the carefree life of luxury she was expecting. This, oddly, made the first two-thirds of the play remind me of the first two-thirds of the perestroika movie Intergirl (Интердевочка, 1989), where a woman also marries an older man from another social sphere, expecting riches, and is disappointed. In Ostrovskii, however, the mother helps the daughter as she (with shocking forthrightness) tries to exchange her youth and beauty for the best offer of economic security. Vasil’kov has some lines at the beginning that make his “love” for Lidiia seem like a reciprocally shocking attempt to buy a wife who is striking enough to be useful in his business meetings.

The acting let the script speak for itself. Nikita Podgornyi’s (1931–1982) Teliatev was my favorite—he came across as good-naturedly cynical and clear-sightedly tipsy. At first I thought the actress playing Lidiia could have played her in a more faux-naive way, instead of making her seem worldly and composed as if she were as old as her husband and suitors—Ostrovskii’s list of characters says she is exactly 24, while the men range from about 35 to about 60—but then I saw that Elina Bystritskaia (1928–2019) must have been 50, only 8 years younger than the actress playing her mother, Irina Likso (1920–2009), and it’s remarkable she made Lidiia seem as young as she did. I could imagine a different director taking a more exaggeratedly mocking attitude toward all the characters.

Crazy Money is the title used by the late Stephen Mulrine (1937–2020) in his translation of the play; besides Ostrovskii, he translated Pushkin and Chekhov and Venedikt Erofeev. I’ve also seen the title as Money to Burn, which is fine for the title in isolation, but “crazy” works better when Teliatev explains his philosophy of money in act 5, scene 3:

Telyatev. It certainly is [a pity]. Even the money’s smarter these days—it all goes to these business chaps, and not to the likes of us. Money was a bit dumber in the old days. And that’s just the sort of money you need.

Lidiya. What sort?

Telyatev. Crazy money. That’s the only sort I ever had, you can’t keep it in your pocket. Easy come, easy go. You know, it’s just dawned on me why our money was like that—it’s because we didn’t have to earn it ourselves. Now, money you get by your own labour, that’s smart money. That stays where it’s put. We try and attract it, but it won’t come. It says, “No, I know the kind of money you want, and I’m not coming near you.” And you can beg all you like, it won’t come. Which is a bit offensive, really, that it doesn’t want anything to do with us. (250)


Телятев. Еще как жаль-то! Теперь и деньги-то умней стали, все к деловым людям идут, а не к нам. А прежде деньги глупей были. Вот именно такие деньги вам и нужны.

Лидия. Какие?

Телятев. Бешеные. Вот и мне доставались все бешеные, никак их в кармане не удержишь. Знаете ли, я недавно догадался, отчего у нас с вами бешеные деньги? Оттого, что не мы сами их наживали. Деньги, нажитые трудом, — деньги умные. Они лежат смирно. Мы их маним к себе, а они нейдут; говорят: “Мы знаем, какие вам деньги нужны, мы к вам не пойдем”. И уж как их ни проси, не пойдут. Что обидно-то, знакомства с нами не хотят иметь. [This is Ostrovskii’s text, which Podgornyi delivers with superficial changes in the video, 2:07:48–2:08:34]

Based on this passage, I like Mulrine’s translation a lot—I translated these lines myself before I realized I had access to his version, and in that half-page he made a dozen choices that were better than mine and found a perfect voice for Teliatev.

Next I’m curious about the theater’s 2009 recording of Aleksei Tolstoi’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible (Царь Иван Грозный, originally called Смерть Иоанна Грозного, 1866).

Winged and wingless realists

July 24, 2020

Which of Pisemskii’s works would you expect to see translated into English first?

There are a few that made a good impression on contemporary audiences and critics and later scholars, mainly A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) and A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859).

There are the early “peasant” stories that gave Pisemskii “the false reputation of being primarily a chronicler of peasant life” (54). and you might see a translation of a popular one like “The Carpenters’ Guild” (Плотничья артель, 1855).

There are his later plays, of which Mogilianskii singles out Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886), Fledglings of the Last Flight (Птенцы последнего слета, written 1865, published 1886), and Baal (Ваал, 1873).

I personally would prioritize translating his later long novels like Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), which was something of a succès de scandale, and In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), a favorite among contemporary readers.

And mostly this is indeed what you see, though the translation of the peasant stories has been scattered, A Bitter Fate and Baal are the only plays of his that exist in English, and A Thousand Souls the only one of the six long novels. But one of the main Pisemskii translators and scholars, Maya Jenkins, also translated “Nina“ (Нина, 1848) and “The Comic Actor” (Комик, 1851). Why those?

Jenkins doesn’t like the view that Pisemskii was “a ‘wingless’ realist who was skeptical of all idealistic aspirations and deliberately avoided any manifestation of life’s beauty and poetry” (12). Beauty and poetry meant “the perfect world of art” or “the beauty of nature” or “the realm of pure love,” which mattered to Pisemskii’s most sympathetic characters and gave them “an escape from life’s drab reality” (12). Jenkins sees evidence of this throughout Pisemskii’s career, with examples from Troubled Seas and The Masons, but she chose to translate “Nina,” “The Comic Actor,¨ and “An Old Man’s Sin” (Старческий грех, 1861) to prove her thesis and show English-speaking readers another side of Pisemskii, the side that wished he could write more like Turgenev (13).

“Nina” was Pisemskii’s first published story and was mangled by a journal editor so badly that the author turned his back on it forever, but Jenkins thinks it can tell us something about Pisemskii anyway (13). The narrator is in love with Nina and shares with Nina’s father a love for art as well. But, Jenkins says, Nina disappoints him:

“It is not for this world that you were destined!” thinks the young man of Nina. In characteristic romantic fashion he envisages trials and sorrows in her life, which he fears begin to take shape when the local “lion” Mazurin, with whom Nina becomes infatuated, tires of her company. But Nina does not die of grief. Instead, she marries a fat and rich suitor and becomes a nagging, gossiping young matron, fully satisfied with her worthless existence. On seeing her after an absence of several years, the narrator comes to the painful realization that this was the real Nina, and that her heavenly, “otherworldly” aura had been created entirely in his imagination. (14)

So far, so pessimistic, and the story has been read as anti-Romantic, a clear-headed bursting of idealistic bubbles. But for Jenkins the main thing is the narrator’s plea at the end, “May God grant me the ability to make mistakes like this all my life and imagine people to be better than they really are!” (Дай мне Бог так ошибаться весь век и видеть человека лучшим, нежели он в самом деле!) Jenkins sees this as “sympathy for a disillusioned romantic,” not “derision for a superficial one” (15).

Jenkins also argues there was a “kinship of talent” between Pisemskii and Gogol (17, 19), unlike Mogilianskii, who would later argue that Gogol’s comic influence was a false path Pisemskii had to learn not to take.

 

Funny Dostoevsky

July 20, 2020

Years ago I linked to a 1906 anthology of The World’s Wit and Humor where Dostoevskii was included in the Russian section, right between Gogol and Nekrasov. Lynn Patyk and Irina Erman are organizing a whole conference next May on that principle:

Has the global pandemic, economic recession, and creeping authoritarianism of 2020 got you down? If it has, then there’s one surefire cure: read Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky is chock-full of hilarity in all forms: satire, parody, good old-fashioned vaudeville, the carnivalesque (of course!), and micro humor. Sadly, literary criticism has focused overwhelmingly on “dark Dostoevsky” or “heavy Dostoevsky,” in the process saddling Dostoevsky with the partially undeserved reputation of being one of the deepest, darkest, and most depressing writers of European modernity. No doubt this is because the high seriousness of the academic enterprise, following the classical genre system, leads it to devalue the comedic and privilege more elevated styles and themes: the philosophical, the psychological, the metaphysical. Yet in Dostoevsky’s novels, many of these themes sound or are manifest in a slyly or raucously comic key, Ivan Karamazov’s devil being one outstanding example.

I’m going to guess that non-academic readers of Dostoevskii in English also make him out to be dark and depressing, since the act of translation and the passage of time are both enemies of the comic more than the tragic, but it sounds like a great conference to me. Here is the complete call for papers.