Tolstoi wants you to understand that it isn’t funny to open all the windows in winter while an old woman coughs and prays on the stove, or to tie a bear to a policeman and push the bear into a river. Pisemskii writes about Moscow University students throwing a dead cat on stage because they didn’t like a certain actress in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863, part 2, chapter 3). In Nekrasov’s “About the Weather” (О погоде, 1858-65), two young men flirtatiously take two young seamstresses out of the city, then abruptly dump them in a snowy cemetery and drive away (see the passage beginning “Невский полон: эстампы и книги”). Officers in a Leskov story try to remember if they had cut off anyone’s nose while drunk the night before.
I’d never tied these incidents together before, and it’s easy to see each one as typical of the particular author. Pisemskii shows us how petty we are. Nekrasov makes us empathize with the downtrodden poor. And so on. But thanks to Joe Peschio, I see that all of them can be seen as mid-century reactions against the early-century idea of shalosti.
Shalost’ is often translated as “prank” or “mischief,” but its meaning in Russian is broad. What all its meanings had in common was “not doing what is expected of one, or doing what is not expected of one” (11). Shalost’ and related words could belong to any of three overlapping semantic fields: “play,” “dysfunction,” and “rebellion” (11-12).
Here are a few of Peschio’s examples of shalosti (in some cases contemporaries used another word formed on the root shal- or the French word folie to characterize these):
- Polezhaev writing a “comic poema drawn from student life” (3-5)
- Pushkin going to “a gathering at a regional governor’s house wearing see-through pantaloons and no underwear” (9)
- The organized catcalling of an actress in Odessa by M. D. Buturlin and his friends (cf. Pisemskii; 10)
- An officer kidnapping and raping a merchant’s wife (11)
- Pretending to feed real soup to a plaster bust of Nicholas I (14)
- Men dressing up as nuns and going to a pious woman’s house, pretending to solicit donations for a convent, but dancing the trepak when she returns with money for them (18)
- Men riding through the inspection of a cavalry regiment by Nicholas I, dressed as “an unusually fat lady in a green riding-habit and a hat with feathers” and “a desperate fop” who “showered her with flattery” (19)
- Offering to explain a French play to a theatergoer who supposedly knew no French, and substituting ridiculous inventions for a straightforward explanation (19-20)
These examples (drawn from memoirs, not fiction) cover a range from the silly to the brutal that’s too broad for the English “prank,” so Peschio uses shalost’. These shalosti were not punished the way we might choose to punish them. Emperor Paul had someone’s tongue cut out for allegedly writing a humorous couplet, and Emperor Nicholas I sent Polezhaev to the army for his poem “Sashka” and “personally saw to it that [he] should continue to suffer in the worst conditions” (11, 4). Conversely, in the case of the rape, “the governor-general of Moscow […] persuaded the merchant to refrain from filing a report because he took pity on the officer, saying that he himself had ‘capered plenty [nashalil] as a young man’” (11).
Since the rulers acted afraid of irreverent young men like Polezhaev, Peschio argues, light verse and the tradition of shalosti must have been a greater threat to the social order than openly political poetry:
The story of Polezhaev and “Sashka” gives the lie to the entrenched literary-historical notion that strident civic verse was the real voice of social change and that this makes it somehow more significant than the “light” verse of the period. In fact, the more trenchant challenge to the legitimacy of the regime and of the social order it created and oversaw is to be found in the formal innovations forged in the lightest genres: the friendly epistle, the burlesque, the familiar letter, the comic narrative poem, the epigram, the prose parody. (5)
Peschio claims that shalosti in Russian literature peaked in popularity in the late 1810s and early 1820s, declined after the failure of the Decembrists in 1825, and mostly went away after Pushkin died in 1837 (with some exceptions, like Koz’ma Prutkov and “Ivan Miatlev’s Madame Kurdiukova,” 6). Then, in the 1840s, “it was supplanted by a new ‘serious’ political activism in literature that arose in reaction to what was perceived as the aristocratic frivolity of prankishness” (6). Indeed,
The social consciousness for which Russian literature is famous was, in some respects, a reaction to prankishness. For example, the striking earnestness of the Russian “social prose” that came to the fore at midcentury and subsequently gave world literature Lev Tolstoi and Fedor Dostoevskii can be understood in historical perspective partly as a counterpoint to the “frivolity” and “cynicism” of their forebears. A comparison might be made to the recent “death of irony” in American culture: after a decade of amused detachment in the 1990s, the earnest brusquely staked a claim to cultural authenticity in the early years of the twenty-first century, often piggybacking on tragedy and fear. This bien-pensant “new sobriety” can be understood only in terms of its precursor. In much the same way, the writers of the “post-Pushkin” era homed in on the angst of a nation built on slavery. (6-7)
As long as we’re comparing things to American culture, I’d have to say that even if there’s no English word as broad as shalost’, Peschio’s description of shalosti and those who committed them — a combination of drunkenness, sexual humor, mean-spirited practical jokes, unpunished rape, solidarity within a private all-male society, and loud rebelliousness by young members of the ruling class — sounds like a negative stereotype of American college fraternities, which I suppose could be seen as epigones of the boisterous young aristocrats of old.
See Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012). I’ll probably post about this book again, but for now I’ll mention that he goes on to discuss Arzamas, the Green Lamp, and Pushkin’s Ruslan and Liudmila (Руслан и Людмила, 1820). He also argues that the two-way distinction between public and private is not a useful way to think about Russian culture of this period and proposes a three-way contrast between domesticity (домашность), (high) society, and the state. Disclaimer: I once met Joe Peschio.
I’m happy to agree with Russell Scott Valentino that literature is a “narrow and hyper-conventionalized form of communication,” though I’d insist that the actual use of non-literary language is also governed by conventions that we internalize and forget, that linguistic conventions arise in every repeated communicative situation. You can find my earlier thoughts here and here. Rightly or wrongly, I’m inclined to see human language as something special, and non-linguistic symbolic systems as qualitatively different, while RSV seems to lump non-literary language together with forms of communication like “how close you stand to someone” and put literature in a special category.
I don’t want to keep going around on that subject, but there’s a different tension in RSV’s latest post that I find interesting because I agree with two parts of his argument that seem contradictory:
If we were discussing misrepresentations or outright semantic errors, then I would be on board. But that has not been the issue in these posts. Interpretive differences, like those that often surface in comparisons among multiple published translations of the same text, are not misrepresentations, they are interpretive differences. […] The original book, original poem, original story, or play, or literary essay is not a unitary thing.
To be clear, I am excluding outright errors (where the translator has clearly not understood the source language) and deliberate manipulation (where the translator has willfully made the text into something else, e.g., an updated version of The Inferno replete with contemporary figures in their appropriate circles of hell). […] As a result, no one is being called in to tell us what is the “true” or “most accurate” or “authentic” or “ideal,” because this monolithic, unitary, most accurate version does not exist anywhere in reality. […] Thinking that it does exist would be like thinking that there is one correct interpretation of any artistic work and that you could write that version down somehow, capturing the entirety of it in other words than those in which it was first expressed.
Theory and practice seem to be pointing in different directions. What I’m calling “theory” is the idea that a text can be interpreted many ways, and it’s impossible to reduce even one sentence from a literary work to a single correct interpretation. The disclaimers about errors and misrepresentation seem to come from “practice.” We all know that sometimes a translator just plain gets something wrong — I know I have. Strong claims that it’s impossible to judge how faithful a translator is to the original work fall pretty fast to John Cowan’s reductio ad absurdum: if no one can say what any part of Anna Karenina means for sure, and one interpretation is as good as another, why not translate the first sentence as “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”?
Both these things are obviously true, aren’t they? Literary works can be interpreted in many ways, and a translator can be guilty of “outright errors” or “misrepresentation.”
But they can’t both be true, at least not the way I understand these ideas in RSV’s telling.
Here’s how I understand RSV’s position: We have a field of possible interpretations, where if Constance Garnett translates something one way and Isabel Hapgood translates it another way, it’s an interpretive difference. A Russian-speaking reviewer shouldn’t come along and say that Garnett’s reading is better than Hapgood’s because Garnett makes an ambiguous word in chapter 41 harmonize with a use of the same word in chapter 62, and Hapgood doesn’t. Then we have a space outside that field, where the translations are different because Hapgood has committed an outright error (or deliberate misrepresentation) and Garnett hasn’t. Bilingual readers know which cases are errors, which are misrepresentations, and which are interpretive differences.
I don’t think evaluating translations can work this way, with a bright line between error and permitted interpretation. I believe in the errors, and I believe in polyvalence and ambiguity and their wonderfulness in literature, but I don’t believe in the bright line. We’re not always sure, and when we are, we’re one piece of information away from changing our minds. What seemed like a clear error (or non-error) on the part of a translator may no longer seem so after we recognize an allusion or learn an obsolete, technical meaning of a word we know in another sense.
I guess I see the fidelity of translations like this: there’s a continuous spectrum from persuasive interpretation, to possible interpretation, to an interpretation that’s a stretch, to a potential error, to a clear minor error, to a howler. A reader with specialized knowledge, such as knowledge of the source language or experience as a literary translator, is well placed to make an argument about where on this spectrum a concrete choice by a translator falls. It’s fine to argue that one error-free, defensible interpretation is less faithful to the original than another, and this doesn’t require us to believe that the original text has one fixed meaning: the original (and the translations that come from it) can have multiple but not infinite interpretations, which are plausible but not interchangeably, equally plausible.
- Chris Tessone, who blogs at Dobro Slovo and has published a translation of Tolstoi’s Childhood (available as an e-book for $2.99), writes on how translating something makes you read it differently: “it compels me to engage with the text at a much more granular level than I ever would as a reader.”
- Scott G. F. Bailey on The Three Sisters versus things that start good but become “a pointless exercise in completion.” Some of Nekrasov’s best lines are from a play with no beginning or end because he wrote the speeches he liked and then said скучно досказывать басню — it was boring for him to tell the story to the end, just to make it whole.
- The case of the dead cheese master, parts seven, eight, and nine. From Alison Smith.
- Jamie Olson translates Tiutchev, because Kibirov alluded to him and “if you’re going to make patches, you’ve got to have cloth to cut from.”
- Languagehat doesn’t like Gertsen’s fiction but at least found the word равендук ‘ravenduck.’ He does like Vel’tman and, if there’s any justice, will singlehandedly wrestle him back into the canon. But contrasting Vel’tman’s “clever plot construction and examination of identity and deception” to “a thousand mournful accounts of the sufferings of downtrodden peasants” is a straw man if ever there was. Drably mournful accounts may exist, but don’t A Sportsman’s Sketches, Oblomov, Troubled Seas, War and Peace, “The Last One” [Последыш], “The Sealed Angel,” and even “The Toupée Artist” do a bit more than wallow in peasant suffering? (Add your own examples; my list is things I’ve happened to read that have important peasant characters and are by some of the authors who displaced Vel’tman.)
- Eliot Borenstein on the death of Boris Nemtsov. Three weeks ago even the Russian Language Blog was talking about assassinations.
- “Russia as Hunger Games territory” and “American versus Russian exceptionalism.”
- Russian but not 19c: Richard on Petersburg and Belyi’s “poetic and/or antipoetic style.” He reads @DavidWMcDuff‘s translation. And Kaggsy reviews Red Spectres.
- 19c but not Russian: Rohan Maitzen reads Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864-66); Obooki reads Renée Mauperin (1864) by the brothers Goncourt; Tom reads Scott’s Waverley (1814).
In 1938 the poet Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945) published “The Riddle of Nekrasov” (Загадка Некрасова) in the short-lived émigré journal Russian Notes (Русские записки, 1937-39). In 2009 I finished a dissertation on “Nekrasov and Russian Modernism” without ever finding Gippius’s piece. Now it just popped up when I was searching for something else on the internet, thanks to the website gippius.com, which started in late 2011, and volume 13 of Gippius’s collected works (2001-), which came out in 2012. If those sources didn’t exist, there’s now also the site emigrantika.ru, which has scanned reproductions of tons of émigré journals, including Russian Notes (which looks worth browsing; issue 3 has Tsvetaeva, Merezhkovskii, Shestov, and others, besides Gippius on Nekrasov). I’m still kicking myself for not finding “The Riddle of Nekrasov” before, but every year the internet makes life easier.
Nekrasov, for people of my generation, is childhood, the earliest childhood, almost infancy. Nekrasov — not by name, of course — is in songs: grandfather playing whist and half-humming, half-singing something pleasant and incomprehensible: “my attachments have all been broken” or an aunt at the piano: “look longingly at the road…” “you ruined your youth… two or three flowers…” [I think “two or three flowers” is a child misunderstanding А ты цветка весеннего свежей as Два-три цветка… – EM] And how much more singing too! It is true that the principal quality of Nekrasov’s poetry is its “songfulness [песенность].” Not its musicality [напевность], o no!, but precisely its songfulness (his best pieces, of course): critics were right to point this out. In songs he remained alive even then, as he probably also did in various “winged” words and lines that we heard from “grown-ups” and committed so thoroughly to memory (a child’s memory!) that even thirty years later we come upon them like old acquaintances. But that was all. At the time of my — our — childhood, Nekrasov had, it seems, nearly run his course. After we learned to read, we read him in anthologies, and even read his books, but we read them (people my age and I) not as poetry but as stories. “Vlas,” “The Pedlars,” “Sasha” — aren’t these stories, and fairly interesting ones? Poetry was something else. Poetry was Lermontov, but also any random garbage in any random volume, which felt to us at the time to be closer to Lermontov than to Nekrasov. His satires entirely failed to interest even me, with my early inclination toward satirical verse and the epigram. (222)
This fits with my basic picture of how Gippius’s generation saw Nekrasov, but I’m struck by the contrast with Valerii Briusov (1873-1924), who in a draft of an article on Nekrasov was enthusiastic about his satires and called him “our only satirist in verse.” On the other hand, the fact that Gippius suddenly mentions Nekrasov’s satires as a subset of his poetry says something, just as the fact that she writes a ten-page article about him in 1938 is in tension with the limited importance she says he had in her generation’s formative years and afterward.
Briusov also remembered young admirers of poetry in his late–nineteenth century youth as breaking into two camps, roughly a “pure art” Pushkin camp and a “civic poetry” Nekrasov/Nadson camp. Gippius has a similar division: long after the 1860s, the civic line continued in literature and culture, but had no use for Nekrasov with his poems to his muses (“and such despondent ones!”; 225); and when at the end of the nineteenth century “literature began its tortuous rebirth” from decades of civic concerns, Nekrasov was quite forgotten on that side too (223). The difference may only be one of emphasis: Briusov speaks of young readers admiring Nekrasov “through Nadson,” and Gippius says that among students of the time, “Nekrasov’s influence, his direct influence at any rate, could not be discerned” (222, emphasis added).
Much of Gippius’s article is a direct response to what Kornei Chukovskii wrote about Nekrasov in the 1920s. Chukovskii makes much of Nekrasov’s “duality” — he is both a poet and a citizen, both a gentleman and a plebeian, both a “man of the 1840s,” in the tradition of the liberal, Europe-oriented gentry like Gertsen or Turgenev, and a “man of the 1860s,” a raznochinets like Chernyshevskii or Dobroliubov. Gippius essentially says he’s neither; he was always his own thing, different in essence from and misunderstood by his early friends and his later allies, and destined to fall out with the Turgenev set even if circumstances (Chernyshevskii coming to The Contemporary, Gertsen accusing Nekrasov of stealing Ogarev’s money) had been different (224-26).
Gippius doesn’t like what Chukovskii does with the contradiction between Nekrasov’s supposedly Homeric love of life and his constant despondency and spleen. A rank-and-file critic following the 1860s tradition (“some Skabichevskii or other”) would have been content to say Nekrasov was unhappy because the misery he saw on all sides was so far from the ideal society he wanted (226). Chukovskii was close to blaming Nekrasov’s despondency on physical ailments, but that wouldn’t fly, because his writing showed the same tendency when he was a healthy nineteen-year-old (226-27). Gippius has her own answer: Nekrasov had a conscience (227-29).
A conscience is a strange gift. To what degree is one given to whom? Nekrasov’s conscience lived in him from his childhood and kept growing, even though he didn’t think about it. This made it the more terrible: like a blind serpent in his heart. He did not know how to protect himself from his passions; they easily took control of him; the more easily, as he sought an occasional “breather”: a way to forget the stings. And he did forget them… But how the serpent made him pay afterward! (228)
Gippius disagrees with an unnamed “modern critic, a person with taste,” who, however, “suffered from an inclination toward paradoxes,” and therefore decided to call Nekrasov “a true Christian poet” (230). I suspect she means her husband Merezhkovskii (1865-1941), who wrote in Two Mysteries of Russian Poetry (Две тайны русской поэзии, 1915) that “no Russian writer has so prayed or at least so thirsted for prayer” as Nekrasov did. (She might conceivably have meant Sergei Solov’ev or someone else, but why not name the critic unless it was her husband?) Gippius’s idea of Nekrasov’s conscience recreates the “thirsted for prayer” argument, but as an atheist blindly groping toward Christ’s forgiveness (230-31).
Recently I’ve been reading Russian novels in parallel with English ones, and I’ve been struck all over again by the perhaps obvious point that the world of Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Leskov, and Pisemskii was very different from the world of Dickens, Gaskell, and Trollope. Even the most “realist” fiction doesn’t directly show us the true nature of the time and place it was written in, of course, but if you make numerous and substantial allowances for different writers describing different characters in different genres for different purposes, the real world still must have put different constraints on Russian and English writers. What was believable in one place would ruin the illusion of reality in the other.
Leskov and Trollope both created a lot of literary clergymen who were somewhere between one-trait caricatures and three-dimensional portrayals, portraits with some real bite and some real warmth, mixed with a bit of humility in the “are you and I any better, reader?” vein. But a clergyman in Trollope is a different animal than a clergyman in Leskov.
Archdeacon Grantly and his wine cellar couldn’t have existed in Russia, where the clergy were a nearly hereditary class separate from the gentry, instead of a career for the gentry’s younger sons. Bishop Proudie’s struggles to escape his wife’s domination couldn’t have happened if only the lower ranks of priests could marry. Intrigues about the clerical appointments of Whig and Tory parliaments have only the slightest similarity to the slower comings and goings of Russian tsars and ministers.
And could this bishop from Leskov’s “The Little Things in a Bishop’s Life” (Мелочи архиерейской жизни, 1878-79) have occurred in an English novel? The anecdote is introduced with the observation that women can drive a clergyman to be guilty of faults quite unlike him, even if the clergyman is a bishop known for his liberalism and the women are a respectful group of nuns. The bishop had given a service at the nuns’ convent; they had tried to thank him with a valuable icon; he had thanked them but refused the gift because he knew it was beyond their means; but the nuns bribed one of his subordinates to give it to him anyway, and the subordinate pocketed the money.
A good deal of time has passed; the bishop is doing his scholarly work and proofreading Zyrian books with his assistant, when once he suddenly needed his cell-attendant, who by ill luck had gone off and did not present himself at the bishop’s call. The assistant wanted to go call him, but the speedy Innokentii anticipated him and went to the cell-attendant’s room, where he thought he would catch his servant sleeping. But he did not find the cell-attendant here, and instead found a familiar icon on his wall, the work of the sisters of the Vologda sanctuary. The bishop got mad. Calling the cell-attendant to him, he immediately beat him, not just striking him but kicking him. The upset bishop beat the bribe-taker until he was exhausted and, abandoning said practice, he promptly sent this very “insatiable brute” to the abbess to take back the icon, through which that insistent woman, by her disobedience and stubbornness, had brought her bishop to such fury that he, in the words of an eyewitness, “in spite of his frustratingly small stature, manifested the energy and strength of Peter the Great.” (chapter 6 in the 1956-58 collected works, emphasis in original)
Now, this wasn’t a typical way to write about bishops in Russia either, and Leskov had trouble with the censors. The beating was less energetic and didn’t include kicking in chapter 8 of the last major prerevolutionary collected works (1902-03): most of the paragraph is the same, but that part is just “…he immediately beat him and sent him to the abbess to take back the icon…” with no italics.
The вексель ‘(promissory) note’ comes up in at least three contexts in Russian books, one of which might be distinctively Russian:
1. Russians traveling to Western Europe would hold векселя, or have them sent from Russia, instead of carrying large amounts of cash.
In The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865) by Leskov, Dolinskii meets the sisters who will become the two great loves of his life when one of them drops a letter with a вексель in Paris (part 1, chapter 1); later, in Nice, he settles a debt connected with the younger sister’s funeral expenses by giving a вексель to another Russian abroad (3.11).
2. People who wanted money in any form might settle for a promissory note. If they couldn’t borrow on their future prospects or reputation, they would get their wealthier or more trustworthy friends and relatives to sign a note securing a loan for them. Or if they couldn’t get the right person to sign, they might forge someone’s name. These notes were sold to disreputable speculators who paid a fraction of the nominal value and tried to collect the whole. The resulting honor, shame, and intrigue happens at an intersection between moral quandaries and practical necessities that can be useful in a novel.
Dolinskii’s wife in The Bypassed extracts a note from him not to control him, but to get money from him as best she could (3.1). Mlle Blanche has the narrator of Dostoevskii’s The Gambler (Игрок, 1866) sign a note for 50,000 francs and demands the money a week later, but this is just a variation on asking him for 50,000 in cash directly, as she also did (chapter 16). Salov (the mortar-and-pestle guy) in Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) finally finds some comeuppance when he has a merchant’s son forge his father’s name to a note (part 3, chapter 19). Similar things happen in English novels: Phineas Finn signs his name to a bill he cannot pay for his Irish colleague, while Alice Vavasor signs four bills she can pay for her cousin and fiancé George. The devout Mr. Bradshaw’s less devout son forges Mr. Benson’s name on a deed of transfer (not a promissory note, but here nearly equivalent).
3. Women get their husbands or lovers to sign promissory notes as leverage. They do not want money directly but want to be able to live independently, or to protect themselves from being beaten, isolated, or abandoned, through the threat of scandal or debtor’s prison. Is this a specifically nineteenth-century Russian commonplace? Was there a famous extraliterary example that was on Leskov’s, Dostoevskii’s, and Pisemskii’s minds in the mid-1860s?*
Mlle Blanche has her future husband the general sign a few notes at the end of The Gambler and compliments herself on not having made the narrator sign analogous notes for more than he could pay (chapter 16). A poor Ukrainian artist’s Italian common-law wife uses a promissory note as insurance that he won’t tire of her and their children and find another Italian woman in The Bypassed (1.7 and “A Few Lines in Place of an Epilogue”).
In Men of the Forties, there is an elaborate subplot about Fateeva demanding a promissory note from her husband after he attacked her with a knife. Others see this as a disgusting act on Fateeva’s part (1.18), but her second lover Vikhrov defends her as pushed to such action by an abusive husband (2.2). Later Vikhrov himself is, however, surprised she won’t give back the note. Fateeva says her husband is ready to write to the provincial governor to demand his wife return to him, but she has already responded to the same legal demand by saying she came to St. Petersburg for medical reasons, and her husband just wants her to give back the promissory note (2.15). Fateeva wanted her husband to pay her interest on the value of the note, which he refused to do, but fearing scandal she refused to legally demand the principal as her first lover, Posten, had wanted (2.16). When changed circumstances make Fateeva think Vikhrov may marry her, she writes him a letter that refers to “the story of that stupid promissory note” (3.3). Finally we learn that Fateeva and a female friend had practically coerced the dying Fateev to sign a will leaving Fateeva everything, but Fateeva says she would have inherited all he had anyway through the combination of the promissory note and the one-seventh of the estate she was entitled to as his widow (3.8).
If this third use is distinctively Russian, I wonder if it has to do with married women’s property rights in different places. That probably isn’t the whole story: in England, Lady Glencora Palliser doesn’t stop thinking of her fortune as her own after she is married. But from what I can remember, women in English and French novels don’t use the promissory note tactic. Actresses in Zola might get as much ready money as they could from wealthy admirers to preserve their independence, but I can’t think of one living on other means while keeping a promissory note in reserve as blackmail. (Mlle Blanche is of course French, but plans to marry a Russian man in a Russian novel.) Does anyone have an explanation or a counterexample?
* Perhaps the “Ogarev-Panaeva affair,” which started with Ogareva getting a promissory note from her husband and involved many of the famous writers of the time? Here’s Panaeva telling the story in a light favorable to herself and Nekrasov, and here is a 300-page book about the incident from 1933 by Boris Pasternak’s friend Ia. Z. Cherniak.
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.