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“He approaches any enthusiasm with a subtle and polite tinge of irony…”

May 9, 2015

The generational conflict in Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (Обыкновенная история, 1847) mostly boils down to

Тогда вы все узнаете, —
Как глуп я прежде был,
Мечтал, как вы мечтаете,
Душой в эфире жил,
Бежать хотел в Швейцарию, —
И как родитель мой
С эфира в канцелярию
Столкнул меня клюкой,
(Nekrasov, “The Talker” [Говорун, 1845])

but with an uncle instead of a father yanking the young Aduev out of the ether and into a practical office. After reading so much about the generational conflict of the nihilist 1860s, jumping back to 1847 feels not just different, but backwards. The young nephew is not an indefatigably rational champion of science and progress, but a series of Romantic poses: the dreamer, the man disenchanted with life. And the uncle is not just an experienced player of the game who’s figured out how to go about making a fortune and a career in St. Petersburg. He’s also the one who gets to throw around the key words for Belinskii’s followers in the 1840s and 1850s, like дельный ‘practical, efficient, useful.’ From an 1860s point of view, it seems like young people should be the ones who care about everything being дельный. The uncle also uses гражданин ‘citizen’ in one of his speeches to his nephew:

Why did you imagine what does not happen? Didn’t I tell you plainly that up to now you have been trying to live a kind of life that’s never possible? According to you a man’s only business was to be a lover, a husband, father…. and of anything else you won’t even hear. Man is something beyond this; he is a citizen [гражданин] as well, and has a calling, an occupation of some kind—he’s an author, a landowner, a soldier, an official, or a manufacturer. You have read novels, and listened to your auntie out there in the wilds, and have come up here full of these ideas. You still imagined—a sublime passion.
(part 1, chapter 6, trans. Constance Garnett)

Here’s what Pisarev had to say in 1861 in “Pisemskii, Turgenev, and Goncharov”:

Read Goncharov from beginning to end, and in all probability you will never be carried away, nor fall into any reveries; you will not begin a heated argument with the author, nor will you call him either a reactionary or a fiery progressive. As you close the final page, you will say with perfect calm that Mr. Goncharov is a very intelligent and thoroughly rational man. Goncharov has no hobbyhorse, no pet idea; any sort of Utopia is quite uncongenial to him; he approaches any enthusiasm with a subtle and polite tinge of irony; he is a skeptic who does not carry his skepticism to extremes; he is a practical man and materialist capable of living harmoniously with the dreamer and idealist; he is an egoist who does not choose to accept the logical extremes of his world view and expresses his egoism in a tepidly warm attitude toward common ideas or even, when possible, in the ignoring of human and civic interests. This egoism shows through in all his works. Anyone who has read The Frigate Pallas or Oblomov will not find my opinion surprising. Ever tranquil, never carried away, our novelist brashly walks up to the convoluted problems of the public and private life of his heroes and heroines; without passion or prejudice he examines the situation, giving himself and the reader a most clear and detailed account of its minor idiosyncrasies, adopting the point of view of each of the characters in turn, without manifesting a strong sympathy for any of them, but understanding all of them in his way. He picks apart the situation and the qualities of his characters, but always refrains from pronouncing a final verdict. After reading An Ordinary Story, the reader cannot say the author is sympathetic to the elder Aduev, nor can he say that he considers him wrong. Nor does one observe any sympathy for the younger Aduev, either at the moment when he is the exact opposite of his uncle, or at the moment when he comes to resemble him. Consequently, while finishing the final page of the novel, the reader feels unsatisfied. An Ordinary Story produces the kind of impression that a superbly painted but dimly lit picture might produce. We feel that the author of the novel is an intelligent man, who is observant and capable of making sense of his observations; this man speaks to us about the phenomena of our life, describes them in detail for all to see; he depicts the influence these phenomena have on a young person who is becoming acquainted with life, but he depicts all this in a purely external way, only enumerating the symptoms of the changes taking place within his hero.

Pisarev goes on to complain that the narrator never takes a stand, that we never hear learn what he thinks of the people he is describing. He doesn’t want stories with a moral (“God forbid! That’s even more dull!”), but he says it’s impossible to tell a story without knowing why you’re telling it unless you’re “an idle prattler or a doddering old man,” and you should try harder to make sure the readers get their money’s and time’s worth.

It’s true that the voice of the narrator doesn’t really take the uncle’s or nephew’s side by commenting directly on them, but the author, in the sense of the architect of the plot, takes more of a stand than Pisarev gives him credit for. What seemed to be foreshadowing pointed to several possible endings that didn’t actually happen. In particular, I thought there were rather heavyhanded suggestions that Aduev the nephew and his uncle’s wife, both in their 20s, were going to fall in love; she had had a chance to see through her 50ish husband’s tactical approach to love. The older Aduev’s practicality would be revealed as useless; he needed the spark of youth, and didn’t have it either in himself or in the young wife he thought he had acquired. But the author has her remain true to her husband.

In the actual ending, the once naive nephew becomes the kind of man his uncle advised him to become, but more so. He marries for money and pushes himself forward in his career through blackmail and by asking for money and favors from powerful friends.

I think Pisarev’s right that the authorial point of view is that of a skeptic, but wrong to think it’s wishy-washy. The final verdict, as I read the novel, is that the nephew and uncle are both wrong, at nearly every stage. The uncle’s calculated way of materially getting the most out of life works, but the luxuries and prestige it gets him (and, ultimately, the nephew too) aren’t important. The nephew’s early commitment to Love and Friendship, like his belief in his artistic Talent, was play-acting: he failed to recognize real friendship because it didn’t follow the script he’d learned from books, while men who weren’t his friends could play the role he wanted them to play in order to get money from him. Every so often you can see a spark of humanity in the young or the old (in the uncle’s wife before she retreats into the book of household expenses; in the way women are drawn to the nephew, not because he has learned the art of attracting them, but because of something in him; in the extensive interest the uncle takes in his nephew without any hope for personal gain), but it is obscured or put out altogether by the uncle’s and nephew’s commonplace but incorrect ways of living their lives.

“Conversational style” in literary works

May 8, 2015

Yesterday I stopped with this quote from Joe Peschio:

The argument runs that an illusion of conversation between author and reader is maintained by borrowing certain conventions and features of real spoken discourse and representing them textually. The main obstacle here is laughably obvious: lacking recordings, we have no idea how people talked two centuries ago, and a priori definitions of conversational style are therefore an analytical dead end. (47)

I’m still thinking my way through this, and I should read a lot more about it, but on the whole I don’t think it’s true that “we have no idea how people talked” in the early 1800s. We don’t know everything about how they talked then, but then we don’t know everything about how everyone talks now.

Imagine a rural Russian had invented a wax cylinder recording system in 1800 and recorded lots of conversations, but then a natural disaster destroyed the whole village, kept word of the invention from getting out, and preserved the recordings. Tomorrow someone finds them. How much would it change our opinion about whether something written in 1800 mimicked actual conversation of the period?

We might learn some interesting particulars — I’d want to listen — but even something as concrete and “objective” as a recording wouldn’t solve all our problems. It would always be possible that Linguistic Element X from literary conversational style was used in those days in speech in at least one corner of the culture, but didn’t happen to be captured and preserved; the creator of the recordings might have selectively destroyed the interestingly non-standard ones; and people may have changed they way they talked because they were being recorded. We have movies, radio, TV, and documentary recordings of 1950s English speech, and this is useful, but we have to be careful how we interpret individual examples of recorded 1950s speech, much as we do with transcribed 1950s speech.

Also, readers have strong intuitions about whether written words sound like they could have been said aloud, and this is true even when they’re reading the purported speech of people who lived before their grandparents were born. It may be difficult, as a practical matter, to test these intuitions against nonexistent recordings of nineteenth-century conversations, but I suspect they’re intersubjectively verifiable — we’re mostly going to pick the same authors as the ones who seem to be transcribing real speech they heard, or as the ones who seem to be making stuff up about a linguistic milieu they’ve never been in.

Isn’t Boris Bukhshtab probably correct when he says that Dal’ and Vel’tman made a literary representation of the speech of the common people that was “actually based on popular dialects,” while Masal’skii’s commoners spoke in a conventional and inauthentic “literary Esperanto”? None of us, Bukhshtab included, were there to hear how peasants talked in Vel’tman’s day, but there are several lines of indirect evidence we can use to substitute for the missing recordings of actual speech. We can use the spoken and written Russian (and perhaps Ukrainian, or other languages of the relevant part of the Empire) of later periods to reconstruct the spoken Russian of the early nineteenth century, the way people use taboo words in Romance languages to recreate unwritten classical Roman swearing. We can check how contemporaries who did know how (some) people talked in those days reacted to different examples of “conversational” writing. We have contemporary metalinguistic laments about the difference between actual speech and written convention. We can look for text-internal evidence, such as whether non-standard phonological, morphological, or syntactic features occur in a regular way, or we can compare a text to contemporary literary simulations of conversation to see if it is idiosyncratic or resembles writing we consider authentic or writing we consider conventionalized.

I’d even say that learning any language involves repeating that last process over and over: we hear a phrase that stands out from our favorite writer, or a stranger at a bus stop, or a younger cousin, or a docent at an art museum, and in our minds the sociolinguistic and stylistic coloring of the phrase takes on a little of our opinion of the speaker and setting, while our opinion of the speaker and setting are slightly recalibrated depending on our pre-existing idea of the phrase. I assume Bukhshtab believed that ежели, таперича, вестимо, чай, and право-слово were conventionalized markers of peasant speech that traveled from one literary work to another because he had seen them in a whole network of texts, some of which he considered inauthentic for other reasons.

No two generations or even people will hear/read the same words and have the same attitude toward them, which explains semantic change over time and idiolectal differences. But communicative situations overlap with each other. Without even trying, if we’re exposed to enough different kinds of language, over time we develop a sense of how Linguistic Element X was used and perceived by people of different ages and social groups in 1810 writing, 2015 speech, and 1965 radio broadcasts. This lets us guess how it might be used and perceived in a linguistic environment we have no direct access to, like 1810 speech, or for that matter like the majority of 2015 speech that will not be preserved and that we will never encounter.

Long story short, I’m pretty sure that recordings of 1810s speech would help less than Peschio implies in that one sentence, but that the written sources we do have let us infer more than he acknowledges about the spoken language we don’t have.

See Joe Peschio, The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

Arzamas letters as letters

May 7, 2015

Joe Peschio’s chapter on Arzamas has a good quote from Filipp Vigel’ on how official and formal the meetings of the Colloquy of Admirers of the Russian Word* (the group Arzamas opposed, a.k.a. Beseda) were

In order to imbue these meetings with more grandeur, the fair sex came in ball costumes, the ladies-in-waiting with their portraits of the Tsar, the grandees and generals were in their ribbons and stars, and everyone was wearing dress uniforms…. As in a Government Council made up of four departments, Beseda, too, was broken up into four sections […] Overall, it had more the appearance of a government office than of a learned society, and even in the seating arrangement, the table of ranks was observed more than the table of talent. (36)

Peschio is interested in the private rituals and inside jokes of Arzamas members and the way they play with the “domestic” sphere, but he makes clear that the group was set up as it was partially because the writer-members had no way to publish their work. Some of them had tried to make a different official society, the Free Society of Admirers of the Letters, Sciences, and Arts (VOLSNKh), which had its own print organ, into an anti-Beseda group. This failed, however. There was a terrible poet named Dmitrii Khvostov (1757-1835) who was aligned with Beseda and mocked by the future members of Arzamas. Despite their contempt for his work, the anti-Beseda faction allowed Khvostov to be inducted into VOLSNKh in 1812 as a sort of political cover, thinking that this move would placate their enemies, and they could go on to publish their own work in VOLSNKh’s periodical. For the induction ceremony, Dmitrii Dashkov (1789-1839) was to give a speech in praise of Khvostov, but “his encomium was an exercise in deadpan mockery” and led to Dashkov’s expulsion from VOLSNKh, with the rest of the anti-Beseda faction soon to follow (38-39). Viazemskii was angry with Khvostov for the tactical misstep, even though Viazemskii himself “wrote no less than twenty-two works ridiculing Khvostov” from 1810 to 1817 (39-40).

Without VOLSNKh, the anti-Beseda writers founded Arzamas and created its style of funny, aestheticized private letters, speeches, galimatias out of necessity (nowhere to publish) as well as inclination. In Peschio’s analysis of the Arzamas members’ letters I have the feeling of coming in in the middle of an argument. Contra an earlier view that the letters were pure literary objects, whose entire function was aesthetic and not social, Peschio argues that despite their calculated humor and linguistic intricacy, they were acts of communication like other letters. When Pushkin wrote to his uncle Vasilii Pushkin “in a hilarious imitation of chancellery style,” asking him to repay money he had borrowed, he actually wanted the money, and thought “Arzamasian play” was the approach most likely to get it sent (43). As evidence that Arzamas letters in general worked like this, Peschio points out that letter-writers used the formal and informal pronouns that matched their actual, real-life relationship to the addressee at that moment — unlike in verse epistles, where they consistently used a conventional, poetic “thou” (45-46). They also “hardly ever wrote letters to fellow Arzamasians living in the same city at the same time,” though they were happy to write verse epistles (44).

The part of Peschio’s chapter that has me thinking the most is an offhand remark about “conversational style in literary works” and whether it makes sense to think of it as “a mimicking of actual conversational speech”:

The argument runs that an illusion of conversation between author and reader is maintained by borrowing certain conventions and features of real spoken discourse and representing them textually. The main obstacle here is laughably obvious: lacking recordings, we have no idea how people talked two centuries ago, and a priori definitions of conversational style are therefore an analytical dead end. (47)

There is obviously something to this, but I think the relationship between “real spoken discourse” and attempts to sound “conversational” in writing (or writing that is so perceived) is less obvious than it seems at first glance. More on this tomorrow.

See Joe Peschio, The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

* For some reason there is a tradition of translating любители as “lovers” in the Colloquy of Lovers of the Russian Word and as “amateurs” (as well as “lovers”) in the Free Society of Amateurs of the Letters, Sciences, and Arts, but I’m going to translate it as “admirers” in both.


Is this a pun?

May 2, 2015

I’ve been listening to an audio version of Ivan Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (Обыкновенная история, 1847, a.k.a. The Same Old Story and A Common Story) — the first Russian book translated by Constance Garnett — and it’s wonderful. The combination of a straightforward prose style, plus a manner of storytelling that lets you see three but usually not ten steps ahead and makes you want to know what happens next, makes it perfect for that format, and Goncharov in Russian joins Trollope in English as the most audio-friendly of my favorite novelists. An Ordinary Story is also at one of the sweet spots in the canon. The repeated conversational duels between the (naively, theatrically) idealistic nephew Aleksandr and the practical and at first glance cynical uncle Petr Ivanych are a delight. Shoving the same two characters at each other over and over again must have been one of Goncharov’s specialties (cf. Oblomov and his servant).

The reason I’m posting about it now is to ask if you hear a pun in this passage:

— Да ты вспомни, как ты хотел любить: сочинял плохие стихи, говорил диким языком, так что до смерти надоел этой, твоей… Груне, что ли! Этим ли привязывают женщину?

— Чем же? — сухо спросила Лизавета Александровна мужа.

— Ох, как колет поясницу! — простонал Петр Иваныч.

— Потом вы твердили, — продолжал Александр, — что привязанности глубокой, симпатической нет, а есть одна привычка…

Лизавета Александровна молча и глубоко посмотрела на мужа.

— То есть я, вот видишь ли, я говорил тебе для того… чтоб… ты… того… ой, ой, поясница! (part 2, chapter 5)

“But remember what your approach to love was: you wrote bad poetry, you spoke in outlandish language, so that you bored that Grunia of yours, or whatever her name was, to death! Is that any way to snag a woman?”

“And how does one?” Lizaveta Aleksandrovna asked her husband drily.

“Ouch, my back is killing me!” moaned Petr Ivanych.

“Then you kept saying,” Aleskandr went on, “that there is no such thing as a deep, sympathetic attachment, but only habit…”

Lizaveta Aleksandrovna gave her husband a silent and piercing look.

“That is I, don’t you see, I said that to you to… to… you… that… ow, ow, my back!”

(The Garnett translation skips over this passage, going straight from понимать ее только с светлой стороны to Вместо того, чтоб руководствовать мое сердце в привязанностях, omitting 17 conversational turns and over 500 words. I don’t know if she was working from a different Russian text, abridging for length, censoring out of prudishness, had two pages get stuck together, or what. See p. 229 starting with “Yes, and what did you create?” There is also a c. 1955 translation by Ivy Litvinov and a 1994 translation by Marjorie L. Hoover, but I don’t have either handy. My quick translation above fails to preserve at least two repetitions. I wonder if they managed to keep either of them.)

Nearby there are three instances of “Ох, поясница!” along with a few other variations. I first heard поясница ‘small of the back’ as its homophone пояснит(ь)ся ‘explain oneself, be explained, become clear.’ Do you take it as a play on words? The main sense: Petr Ivanych complains his back is hurting to stall for time or change the subject. But in the overtones we hear him lamenting the need to explain himself, how awkward it is, in his wife’s presence, to say what men need to do to attract women. The repetitions make me think there’s something going on, but this is just the sort of place a non-native reader like me can go astray.

“Is it to be wondered that, after this nation had borne the yoke for centuries… its gentle character should have sunk into the artful, cruel indolence of the slave?”

April 22, 2015

I just started Dale Peterson’s Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul. Its premise is that the Europeans of the Enlightenment created a supposedly scientific classification that excluded black people and Slavs from the civilized races, and in response to this exclusion Russians and African Americans each made “the counterclaim of an ethnic essence” (4-6). Their group was not inferior, primitive, unworthy of attention. Instead it had some special quality that no one else had. This special quality, this “ethnic essence,” is the “soul” of the title.

Coming to the book I had assumed the parallel was built on the pre-1860s experience of slavery common to African Americans and Russian peasants and thought Peterson would look at pairs of authors similarly situated on the master-slave scale. Anti-slavery Russian noblemen (like Turgenev) might resemble white abolitionists (like Stowe). Ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves, like Chekhov and Chesnutt, might interpret their present through similar ideas about the pre-emancipation past. Some, like Chernyshevskii, wouldn’t be easy to categorize.

But that isn’t what Peterson does in his juxtapositions. In each case he takes an African American author and a Russian author who is as often as not from a landowning, slaveholding family. Petr Chaadaev and Alexander Crummell represent “Eurocentric and ‘civilizationist’” movements (7). Ivan Kireevskii and W. E. B. Du Bois show “the beginnings of what may truly be described as cultural nationalism” (7-8). By “reproduc[ing] the semantic gaps and contested meanings present in numerous dramatized exchanges between a literate master and an illiterate peasantry,” Turgenev and Chesnutt cleverly depict “the deliberate evasiveness of an oral peasant culture confronting the blindness and insights of Western literacy,” as does, in a different way, Zora Neale Hurston (8). Dostoevskii and James Weldon Johnson show us “self-divided bicultural characters who represent the paradoxical mentality of Westernized Russians and hyphenated African-Americans” (8-9). Maksim Gor’kii and Richard Wright “rejected populism and nationalism and sought instead to attach their people to a new secular universalism” (10). The Eurasianist movement and the “New Negro” movement marked a turn toward cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism, but with a “residual ethnocentrism — namely, the idea that Russians or African Americans were inherently more synthetic or more comprehensively multicultural than other modern nationalities” (10-11). In the late twentieth century, Valentin Rasputin and Gloria Naylor “construct an island refuge of ethnic ‘soul’ and relate its dramatic encounter with a ‘mainstream’ culture that threatens to inundate it” (11-12).

At first I wondered if the inclusion of Russian slaveholders was pragmatic, a decision made so Lomonosov and Chekhov wouldn’t have to stand for pre–twentieth century Russian culture. But Peterson has different divisions in mind. He’s thinking about which groups were left out in various European discourses about whose culture counts, and within those groups he contrasts the elite to a larger mass the elite feels bound to speak for (or at least about):

It matters that the cultural construction of Russian and black “soul” has not been an enterprise of the folk masses but of a self-consciously literate class obligated by racial ties to identify with a vast population of illiterate and enslaved bondsmen. The literature actually written by the small number of educated black slaves and Russian serfs (who were even fewer in a peasant culture whose religion was rooted in Orthodox liturgy rather than scriptural warrant) was devoted to the abolition of cultural inequality and not to the preservation of cultural difference. It has been, for understandable reasons, the deracinated or socially advantaged brothers and sisters of the folk who have most felt the imperative to define the irreducible particularity of a nationality that had been denied any historic significance of its own. (9-10)

In this sense Turgenev and Chesnutt are not looking at “the people” from opposite sides of the divide, but each as an elite, literate member of a marginalized nationality.

I’m looking forward to reading the next eight chapters, plus an epilogue on the interest scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker Jr. have had in Bakhtin (3, 186-200). The full citation for the book is Dale E. Peterson, Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). The title of the post is from a quotation by Peterson of something Johann Gottfried von Herder wrote about Russians in 1791. I’m coming to Peterson’s book via Julie de Sherbinin and John MacKay.

Justyn Feliksovich “was entirely Russian and did not even consider himself a Pole”

April 17, 2015

Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864 — the book Victoria Thorstensson and I are translating) is a bit like a Dickens novel in that the characters don’t all seem to belong in the same world, or perhaps the same genre. A lot of them seem human and have the kind of interesting psychological complexity you expect from a nineteenth-century Russian novel — Liza Bakhareva, Mother Agnia, Doctor Rozanov. But Reiner is an angel, the Marquise de Baral and her entourage are comic figures, and the Poles Raciborski and especially Jaroszyński are cartoonish villains.

Not every Polish character is a caricature, though. Justyn Pomada anticipates Prince Myshkin from The Idiot (Идиот, 1868-69) as an unworldly saint, though women don’t take the childlike Pomada as seriously as Myshkin. He’s as fully drawn as any of the Russian characters but cut off from them, with one foot in the world of idiosyncratic psychology and human weakness, and the other on Reiner’s plane of moral purity.

Aleksandr Kuz’min gives Pomada and No Way Out a whole section (30-34) in his chapter on how Poles are portrayed in Leskov. Despite the presence of Jaroszyński later in the novel, the author’s position when Pomada is introduced seems critical of Russian prejudice against Poles in the wake of the January Uprising of 1863. Pomada’s parents were brought to Russia in the wake of the failed November Uprising of 1830-31, but Russia had no use for them (33). Their son grew up in Russia and was educated in Russian schools; the narrator declares that “he was entirely Russian and did not even consider himself a Pole”; but Russians, asked to describe him, laconically say he’s Polish as if that were all anyone needed to know (32). He fought and died in the 1863 uprising, but his motives, like those of Reiner and a minor character named Kajetan Słobodziński, were a belief in universal human freedom and independence, while the more pragmatic Jaroszyński just wanted political power transferred from certain Russians to certain Poles (33).

At the beginning of the novel, Pomada is employed as a teacher of penmanship in the house of the noblewoman Mereva. He stayed there as her children grew older, ignoring hints to leave, but never thrown out decisively; the episode seemed to me to point out Pomada’s impracticality and lack of ambition. But Kuz’min notes the irony that this supposed foreigner is a teacher of penmanship for children whose ethnic Russian mother’s Russian is bad (32).

Kuz’min gives a list of novels of the period with unsympathetic Polish characters that looks like a list of the most famous anti-nihilist novels (30). I wish he’d had the space to go into more detail on one of them, Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863). I thought the main Polish character from that novel, Panna Kazimiera, was neither negatively portrayed nor a stereotype. Not one I’m familiar with, anyway — most of the “typically Polish” traits I know from Russian writing of the time apply to men, and I may just not know enough about how Russians pictured Polish women c. 1863. However, I think you could argue that of the four women the main character Baklanov hurts — the luxury-loving noblewoman Sonia, the peasant girl Masha, his landlady’s daughter Kazimiera, and the devout and serious Evpraksiia — the Polish woman is the least commonplace.

See A. V. Kuz’min, Инородец в творчестве Н. С. Лескова: Проблема изображения и оценки (St. Petersburg: Filologicheskii fakul’tet SPbGU, 2003).

Bonawentura Kajetanowicz Chrząrzczkowski

April 11, 2015

Back in 2013 I was thinking about the use of Ukrainian in Russian literature and how Leskov and Pisemskii dealt with dialogue between Ukrainian and Russian characters. But as I just read in a book by A. V. Kuz’min, “the device of linguistic conflict between characters who belong to different ethnic groups [natsional’nosti]” is “fairly persistent in Leskov’s poetics,” and not just with Ukrainians (22).

Among his examples is the story “Kuvyrkov” (Кувырков), which I haven’t read (it’s in the ongoing 1996- collected works, but didn’t make it into the 1902-03 or 1956-58 or 1993 collections):

In Leskov’s early story “Kuvyrkov” (1863) there is a Polish character named Bonawentura Kajetanowicz Chrząrzczkowski. The comic nature of this character is embedded in his very name, which was deliberately invented by the author — on the model of Polish names — to be difficult to pronounce. However, in the story he is described in a positive way. “No materialism, no nihilism: quiet, pious, respectful, and modest. I’d even wish to have a son like him” (PSS 2:90), the main character of the story, Aleksei Kirillovich Kuvyrkov, says of him. Once, while a guest at someone’s house, Bonawentura Kajetanowicz decided to ask the hostess about the health of one of her daughters:

“Oh, nothing much is wrong with her,” replied the mother, “but she walked a little yesterday and felt worse. There is some unsightly swelling.”

“In her whatsit? [В самой вещи?]” Bonawentura Kajetanowicz asked sympathetically. (PSS 2:91)

Asked in this form, the question shocked those present. One of the guests explained to Bonawentura Kajetanowicz what had happened, and he […] apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to offend anyone and that “‘[where I’m from], instead of в самом деле [‘really, is that so’] people say w samej rzeczi [sic], which literally translates to в самой вещи [‘in the thing itself’] […]’ but everything was already ruined” (PSS 2:92). His apology was accepted, and the incident was quickly forgotten, but it had the most tragic consequences for the main character, Kuvyrkov, who from that moment on began to pay so much attention to how language is used that he soon went out of his mind. The episode involving Bonawentura Kajetanowicz is presented by Leskov in a comic light, but in the context of the Polish problem of the early 1860s (the January Uprising of 1863; significantly, the story was published that same year), it symbolizes, in veiled form, the lack of mutual understanding between Poles and Russians. (23)

Kuz’min spends more time on a pair of travel accounts, “From a Travel Diary” (Из одного дорожного дневника, 1862) and “Russian Society in Paris” (Русское общество в Париже, 1863, 2nd ed. 1867). In them the Russian traveler-narrator begins with a certain “sentimentality” toward the Poles that he picked up in “liberal Petersburg circles” (27-28). He more or less keeps it in Krakow, where he finds the local Poles don’t suffer from any “narrow-mindedness of tribal or religious thinking” (26), but loses it in Lemberg (present-day Lviv), where the Polish population is demonstratively hostile to the larger Rusyn population, which in turn despises them and prefers German domination, to the amusement of the Austrian overlords. The Galician Rusyns, if I understand Kuz’min’s summary of Leskov right, were seen as a subset of Little Russians (Ukrainians), who were in turn a subset of Russians, and therefore the Polish-Rusyn conflict in Lemberg was like the Polish-Russian conflict in the Russian Empire, but with the dominant side reversed (26-30). Later, in Paris, the narrator sees Polish expatriates as less tolerant than Russian expatriates, but envies their patriotism and solidarity, Russians being the only group in a diverse Paris who fail to set up a mutual aid society for their own set (28). (Poles and Russians in Paris is a theme Leskov would return to in The Bypassed [Обойденные, 1865], book 3, chapters 12-18, when Dolinskii meets “M-r le prêtre Zaionczek.”)

Overall it seems like the narrator’s position should make you a little uncomfortable whether you’re a Russian, Ukrainian, Rusyn, or Polish nationalist, or a liberal “people are people” cosmopolitan. The narrator remarks early on that he has often been mistaken for a foreigner: for a Frenchman in St. Petersburg, and for a Jew by women in Orlov Province (because he was dressed “properly, that is, like a foreigner/German,” как следует, то есть “по-немецки,” 21-22).

See A. V. Kuz’min, Инородец в творчестве Н. С. Лескова: Проблема изображения и оценки (St. Petersburg: Filologicheskii fakul’tet SPbGU, 2003). The book is organized into chapters on “Representations of Poles and the Polish Theme,” “Russia and the West,” and “The Jewish Theme and Representations of Jews” in Leskov.


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