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Roman and Olga

March 29, 2013
"The Novgorod Marketplace" (Новгородский торг), a 1909 painting by A. M. Vasnetsov (1856-1933)

“The Novgorod Marketplace” (Новгородский торг), a 1909 painting by A. M. Vasnetsov (1856-1933)

There are brilliant rock songs whose lyrics would not make readable poetry but which would be dull as instrumentals. That’s how I feel about Aleksandr Bestuzhev-Marlinskii’s historical fiction: Roman and Ol’ga (Роман и Ольга, 1823) wouldn’t work if you took away the conventional if over-the-top story (it’s not very long, and Roman escapes from certain death three times) or the wealth of fourteenth-century details.

It’s fun to read about the вече, the comparatively democratic town meeting summoned by a famous bell in the Republic of Novgorod, which occasionally gets its honorific title господин Великий Новгород. It did sometimes feel like an 1823 proto-Decembrist teetotaler was about to jump out from behind a suit of armor, between the surprisingly heroic highwayman lecturing the sober Roman on the evils of alcohol and all the reveling in republican, Novgorodian patriotic resistance to the Grand Prince of Moscow and Vladimir. At times it also seemed like a Corneille-like love-vs.-duty drama, but here duty won for the boy and love for the girl without a fight.

I was reminded of something Lada Panova wrote about the twentieth-century writer Mikhail Kuzmin. The thing that made Kuzmin’s “Alexandrian Songs” so effective, made them seem as if they could have been rediscovered poems written centuries ago by an Alexandrian, was that there was not a ton of period detail. Like authentic classical texts, you couldn’t read them without noticing unfamiliar cultural references or strange things that were hard to interpret. But you didn’t find an ostentatious proper noun on every line crying out for a footnote. Bestuzhev-Marlinskii belongs to the other tradition, of historical fiction that seems like historical fiction because the author seems to be trying to educate the reader, or just showing off how much he knows, through an accumulation of obsolete items, names, and practices. Take the Western/Russian joust scene in chapter 3:

– Прекрасны ваши брони, – говорили, поднимая их, новогородцы, – но для нас несручны: русский не согласится сидеть, будто в засаде, в таком панцире и, как в тюрьме, дышать божьим воздухом сквозь решетку!
Литовские пятигорцы[26] на резвых конях взнеслись на площадь. Их было трое; легкие кольчуги облекают стан до колена, медвежьи шкуры веют на левых плечах, орлиные крылья шумят за спиною. Бобровые прильбицы[27] надвинуты на брови; кривые сабли их бренчат; мелькают копья, увенчанные полосатыми значками; высоки сафьянные седла их, убитые золотом, увешанные корольковыми кисточками[28] и ременными плетнями; лядунки[29] с снарядом огнестрельным висят на правом боку; фитили курятся в жестяных трубках. Они гарцуют и с воплем скачут по полю, крутят дротиками, мечут и ловят их на полете или, покинув повода на шею послушных бегунов, берутся за едва виденные дотоле самопалы[30] и, как Перуном, разят перелетных ласточек и дивят народ своим проворством.

Five footnotes (three by the author), endless details: would a fourteenth-century reader (or listener, more likely) need to be told, and would a fourteenth-century writer need to specify so much?

So far I agree with Languagehat’s description of Bestuzhev-Marlinskii as “a very enjoyable writer in the European tradition, the ‘I say, old chap, let me tell you a story…’ style.” Though maybe there will be more: I’ve just started Lauren Leighton’s book about Bestuzhev-Marlinskii and have already found out that “Alexey Remizov used to declaim the prose tales purely for their sound effects” (8).

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 29, 2013 9:26 am

    I recently finished «Испытание» and enjoyed it a lot; he’s not a “great writer” (though the more I read the less I find that matters — if you’re in the mood for greatness, that’s what you need, but if not, not), but his prose is always a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to «Аммалат-Бек» when I get to it. At the moment, though, I’m in the middle of Veltman’s «Странник», which is wonderful in a very different (Sterne-like) way.

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