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Amphitheaters

June 4, 2020

Quick follow-up to the post on Melissa Miller on Zola and Chekhov. When Zola was comparing his experience as a writer to doctors’ and artists’, I found it confusing that he mentioned both “the analytical work which surgeons perform on corpses” and “a doctor who lectures to students about disease.” The autopsy example seemed to go well with “the artist who has a naked woman stretched out before him, and whose only thought is to put down on his canvas the truth of her form and coloration.” But why mention lecturing to students?

I wonder if this is a mistake in translation (not by Miller, but in the published English edition of Thérèse Raquin that she cites). The French text has “cet écrivain est un simple analyste, qui a pu s’oublier dans la pourriture humaine, mais qui s’y est oublié comme un médecin s’oublie dans un amphithéâtre.” A literal gloss might be “this writer is a simple analyst who may have forgotten himself in human rottenness, but who forgot himself there as a doctor forgets himself in an amphitheater.” (Zola is summarizing the defense he hoped others would step up with, but which didn’t come, after his work was criticized as pornographic.)

As far as I can tell, “lectures to students about disease” comes from an interpretation of the word amphithéâtre as a place where lectures on medicine were given. And it could be! But the Larousse dictionary online gives “À l’hôpital, lieu où se pratiquent les autopsies” (place in a hospital where autopsies are performed) as one meaning of amphithéâtre, and this 1885 text talks about amphithéâtres d’operations meaning ‘operating rooms’ (for living patients, not just for autopsies). The medical advances of the day, it seems, included gurneys with wheels and having an operating room on the same floor as patients’ rooms to avoid stairs.

So I suspect the Zola line should be “this writer is just an analyst, one who may perhaps have become engrossed in human rottenness, but who became engrossed in it only the way a doctor does in the operating room” or “…the way a doctor does while performing an autopsy.” And without the lectures, Zola’s point becomes that much clearer (and even more compatible with Miller’s broader argument about Chekhov). The artist doesn’t get turned on by the nude model, and the doctor doesn’t get disgusted by the corpse on the operating table; both, like the Naturalist writer, seek the truth so fervently they forget that third parties might have these reactions.

“Human brutes and nothing more”

June 3, 2020

Paul Cézanne, Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Zola, 1869–70 (oil on canvas, 130 cm x 160 cm)

Émile Zola (1840–1902) was popular in 1870s and 1880s Russia, and Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) is thought to have gone through a brief Zolaesque period (1886–87), where Zola’s chief qualities are understood to be “his graphic sexuality and love of raw detail” and “his often haphazard blend of in-vogue scientific theories and imaginative literature” (294). Literary elder statesman Dmitrii Grigorovich (1822–1900) wrote two letters to Chekhov (March 25 and April 2, 1886) where he warns Chekhov against including inelegant, unliterary details in his fiction, in one of them mentioning Zola explicitly (297–98). Aleksei Suvorin, who published Chekhov’s Zolaesque stories as well as translations of Zola, corresponded with Chekhov about Zola and may have suggested that Chekhov read Thérèse Raquin (1867), Zola’s first major novel, which came out in Russian translation in 1879 (300n37, 301n39).

French critics attacked Thérèse Raquin as pornographic, and Zola wrote a defense of his “scientific” (iii) and “naturalist” (viii-ix) methods in the 1868 preface to second edition (i-ix). Melissa Miller argues that images and scenes in Chekhov’s very short story “Aniuta” (Анюта, 1886) reproduce and argue with images from Zola’s preface published in Russian seven years earlier.

Miller is most interested in these passages from about a third of the way through Zola’s defense of his novel (French text at the end of this post):

  1. “I have simply carried out on two living bodies the analytical work which surgeons perform on corpses” (301).
  2. “The humanity of the models disappeared for me as it does for the artist who has a naked woman stretched out before him, and whose only thought is to put down on his canvas the truth of her form and coloration” (301).
  3. “[In the chorus of voices crying ‘the author of Thérèse Raquin is a wretched hysterical man who enjoys laying out pornographic materials for sale,’] I waited in vain for someone to say: ‘No, you are wrong, this writer is just an analyst, one who may perhaps have become engrossed in human rottennness, but only in the same way as a doctor who lectures to students about disease [is in the operating room]’” (301; brackets are my addition; on the translation of “comme un médecin s’oublie dans un amphithéâtre” see this post).

As Miller shows, Chekhov’s “Aniuta” takes up the images of the doctor/surgeon and the artist—positive in Zola’s piece and associated with Naturalist writers—in the two male characters of the story. Klochkov, a medical student cramming for an anatomy test, makes Aniuta stand in a cold apartment without a shirt on so he can write the location of her ribs on her body in charcoal. His friend Fetisov comes over and unceremoniously asks to borrow Aniuta to use as a nude model for a painting of Psyche he is working on. But where the dispassionate surgeon and artist are good in Zola, in this Chekhov story they are bad (302–06). Aniuta has already been used as a temporary housekeeper and lover by a series of poor but up-and-coming male students, and Klochkov makes it clear he is going to abandon her too. Klochkov and Fetisov not only seem like mean people for failing to empathize with Aniuta as a human being, treating her instead like one of the tacky furnishings of a cheap apartment, but are also bad at their jobs. Even after using Aniuta’s body to study for his test, at the end of the story Klochkov is struggling to memorize the same information about the lungs as at the beginning, and Fetisov’s painting, for which he has used a sequence of different models since he can’t afford to pay one, isn’t going anywhere (304–05). What Klochkov, Fetisov, and Zola’s self-presentation have in common is the failure (accidental or deliberate) to see people as body and soul together. The fact that Fetisov’s painting is of Psyche (= soul) makes his failure ironic, and his story about one of his previous models’ legs being stained blue from cheap stockings might be a reference to Zola’s talk of the artist’s model’s “coloration” (304–05).

Miller closes with a few pages on Chekhov’s “A Medical Case” (Случай из практики, 1898), which also features “a coolly clinical examination” of a female patient by a male doctor (307). The doctor in “A Medical Case,” unlike the medical student in “Aniuta” and the Naturalist novelist in Zola’s preface, helps his patient by “acknowledging the ‘splendid, interesting person’ inside her, that is, her soul” (308).

I’m persuaded that Chekhov, in “Aniuta,” is reacting to Zola and is against viewing people as mere bodies. I am curious to learn more about Zola’s views, since in the preface to Thérèse Raquin he appears to argue that looking at bodies separate from souls is not so much a necessary feature of the Naturalist approach as it is connected to the particular story he was telling in that novel:  “In Thérèse Raquin I tried to study temperaments and not characters (caractères). That’s the whole book. I chose characters (personnages) who were inexorably dominated by their nerves and their blood, deprived of free will, drawn to every act in their lives by the inevitabilities of their flesh. Thérèse and Laurent are human brutes and nothing more” (ii). He goes on to say “The soul is entirely absent, I am happy to concede, since I wanted it that way” (iii), which fits perfectly with Miller’s argument that Chekhov, in this “Zolaesque” story, is actually polemicizing with Zola, but it’s not obvious to me that Zola is saying he would want it that way in future novels not about Thérèse and Laurent. In the parts of the preface that Miller quotes, I’m also struck by Zola’s contrast between a surgeon performing an autopsy on the dead and the novelist vivisecting “two living bodies”: if the Naturalist writer’s characters are always separated from their souls, why emphasize that they’re alive? Maybe the answers are in Zola’s essay “The Experimental Novel” (“Le Roman expérimental,” 1880), which Miller mentions but I haven’t read.

See Melissa Miller, “Chekhov and Zola’s Naturalism,” The Russian Review 79.2 (2020): 293–308. Disclaimer: I know the author personally.

French text of Zola quotations

Yet more ты and вы in Pisemskii

June 1, 2020

There’s nothing like low expectations: Pisemskii’s The Masons (Масоны, 1880) has probably always been the sixth most popular of his six long novels, which means that I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would and started the 33-hour audiobook over as soon as I got to the end.

I noticed before that Pisemskii likes to have characters who are on familiar terms switch from the familiar pronoun ty back to the formal pronoun vy to show short- or long-term changes in their feelings toward each other, especially Aleksandr Baklanov, the main character of Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), and the non-peasant women he is involved with. This was apparently more common in the nineteenth century than it is now.

Quick pronoun shifts happen in The Masons too, but with a difference. Near the beginning of the novel, the central character Egor Egorych Marfin, who is around 50, uses ty when speaking to his nephew (who “definitely could not be over 35,” according to the narrator), but the nephew, Chentsov, uses an ostensibly respectful vy:

“Want [informal] some tea?” the latter [=the uncle, Marfin] asked him.

“Are you [formal] sure you’re willing to part with some?” asked Chentsov.

— Хочешь чаю? — спросил тот его.

— А вам не жаль его будет? — спросил Ченцов. (part 1, chapter 3, page 36)

Chentsov is irritated that his uncle refused to give him a ride back to the hotel from a ball the previous night. But later in the same conversation, the uncle offers his broke nephew “a thick wad of paper rubles,” and the nephew is moved to switch to the familiar ty:

“No, uncle, I am unable to accept it!” he said, declining the offer, “you [informal] are too generous to me. I came with the execrable intention of making you [informal] mad, and you [informal] repay me with kindness.”

Overcome with emotion, Chentsov even began saying ty [informal] to his uncle instead of vy [formal].

— Нет, дядя, я не в состоянии их взять! — отказался он, — ты слишком великодушен ко мне. Я пришел с гадким намерением сердить тебя, а ты мне платишь добром.

От полноты чувств Ченцов стал даже говорить дяде: “ты”, вместо “вы”. (part 1, chapter 3, page 43)

Near the end of the novel, a ne’er-do-well ex-chamberlain owes Miropa Dmitrievna 10,000 rubles that he never intends to pay. To get out of repaying the debt, he coaxes her into a sexual relationship, which leads both of them to switch from vy to ty. Neither feels very much for the other, so when the debt comes due and he doesn’t pay, she asks for the money. He objects that he can’t pay it all at once, and she says installments are all right:

“I’m not asking you [informal] to pay me back right away, but in several installments,” she went on in the same tactful and meek tone. “You [informal] know that I’m a poor woman and work to support myself.”

“On the contrary, I know that you [informal] are a rich woman, since you are engaged in pawnbrokery,” objected the chamberlain, “but I have always understood love not as you [plural] do, not as pawnbrokers do, but instead I supposed that if a man and a woman had got together, they should share everything: their thoughts, their feelings, their property… You [formal] say that you support yourself (the chamberlain had now changed from ty to vy), that is excellent, madam; then tell [formal] me all about your [formal] means, your [formal] affairs, all your [formal] intentions, and I shall work with you [formal].”

“But you [formal] tell me first about your [formal] property,” Miropa Dmitrievna said, also changing from ty to vy […]

— Я прошу тебя уплатить мне не вдруг, а в несколько сроков, — продолжала она прежним деликатным и кротким тоном, — ты сам знаешь, что я женщина бедная и живу своим трудом.

— Напротив, я знаю, что ты женщина богатая, так как занимаешься ростовщичеством, — возразил камергер, — но я любовь всегда понимал не по-вашему, по-ростовщически, а полагал, что раз мужчина с женщиной сошлись, у них все должно быть общее: думы, чувства, состояние… Вы говорите, что живете своим трудом (уж изменил камергер ты на вы), прекрасно-с; тогда расскажите мне ваши средства, ваши дела, все ваши намерения, и я буду работать вместе с вами.

— Но прежде расскажите мне об вашем состоянии, — изменила тоже и Миропа Дмитриевна ты на вы […] (part 5, chapter 15, page 222)

As you see, the narrator comments on these pronoun shifts whenever they happen in this 1880 novel, while in 1863 we were expected to notice them ourselves. Perhaps this is evidence of a step in the evolution from the older, more fluid pattern of pronoun use to the current, relatively fixed pattern. You can find examples from Troubled Seas, where the shifts happen without commentary by the narrator, here and here.

What a game show tells us about the intelligentsia and the shestidesiatniki

May 30, 2020

Yesterday I mentioned an article about the game show What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?). In it Pavel Khazanov argues that the evolution of What? Where? When? from the late 1970s through the 1990s tells us a lot about how the Russian intelligentsia saw itself from the Brezhnev years to perestroika to the Yeltsin era. Here’s how I understand his history of how a typical person who identified as a member of the intelligentsia imagined the intelligentsia:

After Stalin, but before Soviet tanks put down the Prague Spring (the “sixtiers”): During the Thaw, the shestidesiatniki (Khazanov translates this as “sixtiers”) see the intelligentsia as a new narod. The complicated word narod is often translated as “the people,” and in pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia and narod were seen as opposed to each other, with the intelligentsia drawing on the raw and pure cultural traditions of the narod to create their own more self-conscious and cosmopolitan cultural products. But the shestidesiatniki (exemplified by Grigorii Pomerants writing in 1967) argue that the intelligentsia have become the source of folklore, so that, as Khazanov summarizes the argument, “the forging, synthesis, and consumption of culture are taking place within the same social body” (273). This large intelligentsia collective, which holds cultural power and has political influence, will help bring about a better future with the help of “networks of international ‘solidarity’ between East European cultural elites” (274).

The Brezhnev years (“disavowed sixtierism”): After the Prague Spring the “sixtiers” stopped believing in this idea of the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia now conceived of themselves as dissidents who were “permanently in the minority” (275). They were, as Mark Lipovetsky put it, stuck “in double opposition: to the state and the ‘people’ [narod], to the absurdity of the regime, on the one hand, and to the idiocy of the ‘uneducated masses,’ on the other” (275). This view of the intelligentsia was similar to the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia’s conception of itself (275). According to Khazanov, “this paradox of a collective feeling of being a ‘mass elite’” is something that’s typical of modern conservative ideology (275), and it was this mindset that ushered in What? Where? When? when Vladimir Voroshilov created it in the mid-1970s (276).

Perestroika and the 1990s: Gorbachev was “a shestidesiatnik to his core” who had somehow “missed the formative moment of Brezhnev-era collective disillusionment,” and in initiating perestroika, he expected a “rejuvenated intelligentsia” to reinvigorate the Soviet system and sustain it. Instead, however, when the intelligentsia won power, they “used it to support Yeltsin’s dismantlement of the USSR” (279). Voroshilov and the teams of contestants on What? Where? When? had gone through the collective disillusionment, and on the show they “both performed the intelligentsia subjectivity of disavowed sixtierism, and also started to run up against its inherent subjective problems, particularly as the lived practice of capitalism started to make its appearance on the show” (280).

In 1988, prizes for the show—no longer just signed copies of books by Soviet authors—were funded by corporate sponsors who sometimes dictated what the questions would be. In the answers, “American market-driven solutions to Soviet economic problems would regularly appear as self-evident truths” (281). Then, “in 1989, after a season of corporate-friendly questions about Soviet economic liberalization, Voroshilov apparently felt he needed to find a way to balance out his show’s need for money with the sense that the symbolic universe of his intelligentsia audience was at odds with the capitalist transition” (282–83).

Soon after he would accomplish this using Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама, 1833) and Tchaikovsky’s opera based on it (1890):

Since 1990 the game’s venue had been a small Catherinian-era hunting cabin in Moscow’s historic Neskuchnyi sad. In the winter of 1991–92 the show took another step in its game of Imperial dress-up. It would now start with the logo of an owl under a crown, accompanied by Herman from Peter Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, singing, “What is our life? A game!” Moreover, starting with the summer of 1993 every episode would be opened by a visual prologue—the methodical placement of cash on a roulette table in the darkened, candlelit Catherinian gazebo, with Voroshilov’s disembodied voice directing the croupier, and the French aria of the Countess from The Queen of Spades playing in the background (269).

In May 2020 the game is still being played in that gazebo (with host Boris Kriuk replacing Voroshilov, who died in 2001), though the usual crowd of dressed-up observers (members of teams other than the one playing that night) is absent because of the current pandemic.

Why “The Queen of Spades”? Khazanov notes that it is Tchaikovsky’s version that “has become famous in contemporary Russia” (287). In the opera, Herman (one “n” in Tchaikovsky, two in Pushkin) is “a poor soldier truly in love with Liza” instead of “a fairly well-to-do German bourgeois scion” and “a thoroughly cynical operative, as in Pushkin” (288). In both versions of the story, “Hermann’s fateful outcome enforces normative morality—the devilish force that governs luck at cards appropriately valorizes romantic passion over crass greed” (288), but in Pushkin’s version “the point is to punish Hermann not for being greedy, but for being bourgeois” (288). Also, the typical intelligentsia viewer of What? Where? When? can be imagined to know the continuation of Herman’s aria after “What is our life? A game!”: “good and evil are mere dreams!/ Labor and honor are fairytales for hags” (290).

One team of contestants played on the show in both 1988 and 1991; in 1988 they were introduced with job titles typical of educated Soviet citizens, and in 1991 the same people had become “director of a joint stock company,” “director of an LLC,” and so on (289–90). The references to “The Queen of Spades” and the casino setting of What? Where? When?, combined with the fact that (unlike the contestants) the intelligentsia viewers have mostly not traded their 1980s professional titles for 1990s markers of capitalist success, emphasize that post-Soviet business is a gamble, that “post-Soviet capitalism has elevated some but not others into contemporary elite status for no good moral reason at all” (290).

Khazanov closes with some remarks on today’s intelligentsia. Though regretting their “post-Soviet devil’s gamble” that led to a highly imperfect capitalist world and then to Vladimir Putin, today’s “mass intelligentsia collective subject, often referred to as the Russian liberal, has consistently resisted pursuing politics in a socialist or otherwise left-wing key” (291–92). There is a taboo among this group against saying anything good about the Soviet project. Meanwhile, “the most potent collective movement challenging Putin’s rule—Alexei Navalny’s opposition—is explicitly eschewing the discourse on intelligentsia values, while also increasingly taking up the platforms of the current international progressive left” (292). Khazanov recommends “returning to the late Soviet social scene and partially recovering the socialist shestidesiatnik intelligentsia project” (292).

By the way, Khazanov’s dissertation (“Russia Eternal: Recalling the Imperial Era in Late- and Post-Soviet Literature and Culture,” University of Pennsylvania, 2017) sounds fascinating; it comes up when he discusses the phenomenon of players on the game show dressing up as “Imperial hussars” for New Year’s Eve episodes in the early to mid-1980s (278).

See Pavel Khazanov, “‘What Is Our Life? A Game!’: What? Where? When? and the Capitalist Gamble of the Soviet Intelligentsia,” The Russian Review 79.2 (2020): 269–92.

Black boxes

May 29, 2020

”Remember how one of Akunin’s novels talks about the wife of a General Sobolev?”

“No, I don’t.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Shrukht. “General Sobolev’s wife was named Princess Titova. I thought a long time about why Boris Akunin, with his exquisite knowledge of the realia of the past, gave a princess what’s obviously a merchant’s last name. And then I found out that the wife of the real General Skobelev was… who do you think? Princess Gagarina!”

“And?”

“What do you mean?” Shrukht went so far as to spread his hands in disappointment. “You of all people ought to be able to guess, given your… let’s say your gift for historical insight. What do Gagarina and Titova have in common? How could Princess Gagarina turn into Princess Titova?”

I should have told the clown to go to hell and walked out. But unfortunately I’m not indifferent to charades, brainteasers, and intellectual rebuses either. I especially don’t like to admit defeat when it comes to them. I had to furrow my brow. It came to me:

“I’ve got it. Gagarin was the first cosmonaut, and Titov was the second.”

“Correct,” Shrukht said, pleased, and unexpectedly shouted, ”Prize to the studio!”

I was expecting a girl to come out with a black box, but I only saw Shrukht, who had taken an envelope out of the safe.

“Your honorarium.”

On the way there I had firmly decided not to take any money. Now I began to be tormented by doubts.


— Помните, в одном из романов Акунина речь зашла о жене генерала Соболева?

— Не помню.

— Не имеет значения, — сказал Шрухт. — Жену генерала Соболева звали княжна Титова. Я долго думал, зачем тонкий знаток древностей Борис Акунин назвал княжну какой-то явно купеческой фамилией. А потом узнал, что женой реального генерала Скобелева была… кто б вы думали? Княжна Гагарина!

— И что?

— Ну как же? — Шрухт аж руками развел от разочарования. — Уж вы-то, с вашей, так сказать, исторической проницательностью, могли бы и догадаться. Гагарина, Титова — что общего? Как княжна Гагарина может перейти в княжну Титову?

Надо бы послать этого паяца и уходить. Но я, к сожалению, тоже не равнодушен к шарадам, головоломкам и интеллектуальным ребусам. Особенно не люблю признавать свое поражение на этом поприще. Пришлось наморщить лоб. Меня осенило:

— Я понял. Гагарин — первый космонавт, а Титов — второй.

— Правильно, — обрадовался Шрухт и неожиданно закричал: — Приз в студию!

Я ожидал выхода девушки с черным ящиком, но увидел лишь Шрухта, доставшего из сейфа конверт.

— Ваш гонорарий.

По дороге я твердо решил отказаться от денег. Теперь меня затерзали сомнения.

I’ve rarely been so proud of myself as when I thought I’d recognized this “black box” in part 3, chapter 5 of Gleb Stashkov’s International Brigade (Интербригада, 2015)—I was positive it was an allusion to the game show What? Where? When? (Что? Где? Когда?), but given the “prize to the studio!” line, the reference is probably actually to the game show Field of Wonders (Поле чудес), the Russian equivalent of Wheel of Fortune. Inside a black box on What? Where? When? is the answer to a question, while the box on Field of Wonders contains a mystery prize for a contestant. Then again, the question about Gagarin and Titov could be right out of What? Where? When?, a late- and post-Soviet show where a team of six gets a minute to brainstorm an answer to a question that’s often about the most canonical things in Russian (and Soviet) culture (Pushkin, Repin, Tchaikovsky, Ryazanov, Gagarin…).

(I’m sure this is obvious to anyone who lives in Russia or grew up there, but for those of us who know Russia mostly through books, pop culture references are harder.)

In the last few years I’ve watched a lot of What? Where? When? and used clips from it in language classes. So I was delighted to see an article about the show in The Russian Review, with a nineteenth-century connection that gives me an excuse to post about it here. But I’ll save that for tomorrow, and for now I’ll just recommend International Brigade for anyone who wants a dark and funny novel with a fast-moving plot, full of cultural references of various kinds, about different ways members of the post-Soviet intelligentsia can compromise their principles.

A black box is brought out by a man during What? Where? When?

A woman carries in a prize in a black box after the host says the catchphrase “prize to the studio!” on Field of Wonders

“Something at once ‘Lermontov’ and ‘not Lermontov’”

May 27, 2020

Thanks to an article by Peter Orte, I just read Lermontov’s “Ashik-Kerib” (Ашик-Кериб, written 1837, unfinished, published posthumously in 1846) for the first time. It’s a short prose piece about a poor musician in love with a rich young woman, who leaves for seven years to seek his fortune so he can marry her as an equal. His rival plays a trick that convinces everyone but his beloved that he’s dead; he, the musician, almost misses the seven-year time limit before she marries the rival; with magical help, he arrives just in time. He can now finally marry his beloved, and he invites his rival for her hand (if not her affection; she was ready to kill herself at the wedding to avoid marrying the man she didn’t love) to marry his, the musician’s, sister.

Everything in it seemed to remind me of something I’d just read. One thing was parallels to the Odyssey (547), just like with Griboedov’s Woe from Wit (Горе от ума, 1823–25), but there was also this:

В это время жил в Халафе паша, большой охотник до песельников; многих к нему приводили — ни один ему не понравился; его чауши измучились, бегая по городу; вдруг, проходя мимо кофейного дома, слышат удивительный голос; они туда. “Иди с нами к великому паше, — закричали они, — или ты отвечаешь нам головою”. — “Я человек вольный, странник из города Тифлиза, — говорит Ашик-Кериб, — хочу пойду, хочу нет; пою когда придется, и ваш паша мне не начальник”. Однако, несмотря на то, его схватили и привели к паше. “Пой”, — сказал паша, и он запел. (179)

At that time there lived in Halaf a pasha, a great lover of singers; many were brought to him, but not one pleased him; his chiauses were worn out from running around the city; suddenly, while passing by a coffeehouse, they hear a remarkable voice; they go there. “Come with us to the great pasha,” they exclaimed, “or you will answer for it with your head.” ”I am a free man, a wayfarer from the city of Tiflis,” says Ashik-Kerib, “If I want to go, I will; if I don’t, I won’t; I sing when the time is right, and your pasha is not in charge of me.” However, despite this, they grabbed him and took him to the pasha. “Sing,” said the pasha, and he began to sing.

As Orte explains, Halaf is Aleppo, and Tiflis is Tbilisi. But why did this passage feel familiar? I think it was that I’d just been reminded of Stenka Razin and his coat in Pushkin. The rebel verbally refusing to obey but backing down right away in the face obviously irresistible force was apparently something of a theme in the post-Decembrist years.

Kurshud-Bek, Ashik-Kerib’s rival, tricks him by stealing his clothes and taking them back as evidence he has drowned (from a 2014 animated version of the story drawn by schoolchildren in Rostov-on-Don)

The story of Ashik-Kerib is not original to Lermontov: his prose piece “has generally been assumed to represent a transcription or translation of Azerbaijani folklore, namely, the dastan Aşiq Qərib” (543). A dastan is an “‘epic’ poem containing both narrative and lyric elements” (543n1). But “Azerbaijani” may be too narrow. Orte is inclined to see the source text as “of mixed, or shattered, origin,” coming out of a place and time where Azerbaijani and Armenian and Georgian and other cultures were intermingled (543–44 and 544n4). Even the work of selecting and adapting parts of the story from a pre-existing oral tradition was probably not just Lermontov’s, but was him collaborating with an unknown local translator while in the Caucasus (559).

We don’t know exactly what Lermontov and his co-author left out of their selection, since the posthumous publication of “Ashik-Kerib” is the earliest known written version of the dastan it came from. But a lot was left out. The original dastan is a “massive oral epic” that Lermontov converted into a Russian literary fairy tale (547). A later transcription of the dastan from 1892 included “229 lyric songs,” but Lermontov kept only three or four as songs, incorporating others into the narrative (546–47, 555n34); he left out all the songs sung by the musician’s beloved (547n15). The text we have feels unfinished or incomplete. A key plot point involves a platter (блюдо) that we seem to be expected to recognize, but had not been mentioned before (547n17).

Orte wants to add to this account by looking at “Ashik-Kerib” in the context of Lermontov’s works. The main character is a poet-wanderer figure who was not only congenial to the exiled Lermontov on biographical grounds, but also fit with Lermontov’s ideas about the archetypical poet, seen, for example, in “The Death of the Poet” (Смерть поэта, 1837), the poem that got him exiled (550–55).

An important character in “Ashik-Kerib” is Khidr-Ilyas. The main character, about to miss the seven-year deadline to return to his beloved, is impossibly far away and ready to kill himself in despair; a mysterious stranger transports him to three different cities (for unclear reasons, he keeps naming the wrong city, though he’s specifically warned to tell the truth about where he wants to go) in a single day. In Lermontov’s text this stranger turns out to be “none other than Khaderiliaz (St. George).” By looking at other versions of the dastan, Orte is able to flesh out a part of the story that’s reduced to traces in Lermontov: that Khidr-Ilyas is a prophet who gave the musician character “the gift of song¨ (553). Those three songs from the dastan that Lermontov kept all “reveal [Ashik-Kerib’s] becoming a true ‘lyric hero’ through the encounter with Khidr-Ilyas, momentarily transcending space, time, and human comprehension” (555).

Quoting Nietzsche on “imperial translation,” Orte concludes by considering “Ashik-Kerib” as “poetic conquest” and orientalism (557–59), noting, however, that

just as Lermontov’s creation constitutes an exception within post-Decembrist Russian literature, questioning the value of imperial war and the orientalist histrionics of a Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, for example, “Ashik-Kerib” constitutes an exception within his works adapting Caucasian folklore. First, it is noteworthy that “Ashik-Kerib” was left unfinished […] More importantly, as nearly all scholars of the tale affirm, “Ashik-Kerib” owes part of its existence to an unidentifiable local translator, with whom Lermontov must have worked. […] it may be interesting to approach “Ashik-Kerib as something not simply accidentally, but essentially unfinished, as something at once “Lermontov” and “not Lermontov,” which speaks to the problems and unfulfilled possibilities of translation. (558–59)

See Peter Orte, “Lermontov’s ‘Ashik-Kerib’ and the Lyric Hero,” Slavic and East European Journal 63.4 (2019): 543–61 (no link).

How often should we say “even”?

May 26, 2020

Anyone who’s here will definitely want to read Russell Scott Valentino’s post about translating даже ‘even’ and ведь (which is often close to ‘after all’ in meaning, but not like anything in English in the way it’s used) and about the pros and cons of avoiding anachronistic language to translate Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.