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My introduction to Vel’tman

December 27, 2013

Things are never what I expect. Take a look at these two opening passages:

Poor girl! Who can know what is in her heart? She says nothing; she has no friend. At sixteen the soul has so many thoughts, the heart so many feelings and desires: they overflow the edges and dare not spill over, they froth like a whirlpool and dare make no noise amid the noise of the crowd. Poor girl! Everywhere she is isolated. Charity has taken her in from her early years, shod her, dressed her, it feeds her, and teaches her everything, teaches her to be kind-hearted and obedient, teaches her to live not according to her own will, imparts modesty, entrenches feelings of gratitude. O, how much she owes her benefactors; her natural beauty has been nurtured, her mind developed, given all the sparkle of education, her ideas are noble, her soul is ready to receive love and friendship with sympathy, but all this does not belong to her: she does not have the right to dispose of anything, cannot make use of anything; every part of her is under lock and key, and she herself acts as key-holder, giving out what is required of the riches entrusted to her. (Russian text)

And this one:

I haven’t heard from you in quite some time, you venerable Pantagruelist; I really should repay you in kind, that is, by not writing to you at all, but in that case I’d suffer even more than you. Were I to be awarded a medal or be expelled from the civil service, you’d be the first to find out about it in the newspapers. Were I to die, they’d probably even write about that, too. Of course, I wouldn’t be described as a “high official whose passing is being mourned by his subordinates”; in fact, I must work another five years before I can even deserve to be called a “husband well respected by one and all”; still, you’d learn that a certain person named […], a civil servant who undertook special commissions, had been stricken from the register of a certain ministry. (Russian text; this translation by Michael R. Katz; the ellipsis replaces a last name)

One of these is an 1837 piece from an author who’s a favorite of Languagehat’s and who Victor Terras thinks is ripe for rediscovery: his “wealth of interesting detail, provided by his immense erudition, his delightfully unrestrained imagination which moves easily across the boundaries of time, space, and logic, and his cheerfully irresponsible humor are enhanced by an easy colloquial style.”

The other is from an 1847 “‘problem’ novel […] much admired by Belinsky […] showing the marked influence of George Sand,” in which “a young married woman is ‘liberated’ by her indulgent spouse to pursue an extra-marital affair but ultimately discovers that she really loves her husband” (Robert H. Stacy).

As you’ll have guessed, the second quote is from Aleksandr Druzhinin’s Polinka Saks (1847) and the first from Aleksandr Vel’tman’s “Ol’ga” (1837). I’m finally starting to read Vel’tman after LH recommended him several times and made him sound fascinating. The first story I tried was not disappointing but it was not what I expected, full of pathos and unsubtle indictments of society, where the good characters are good and the bad ones have no redeeming features. It’s a neat parable about class and sex, where a poor girl is taken advantage of by a rich man, saved by a poor man, implicitly threatened by a poor man, and then saved by a rich man (who is thereby disinherited and revealed to be adopted).

I’m guessing this wasn’t the most typical Vel’tman to start with, but it did have some hints of the erudite, goes-off-in-strange-directions Vel’tman:

In the east the sky began to clear up, the fog coalesced into clouds and settled here and there on the horizon like a silver-haired mountain range. A traveler who had visited the varied manifestations of nature around the globe and was riding drearily along this flat highland would have considered them the likeness of the Alps, where fairies dwell and chivalry once made its nests on inaccessible cliffs, or of the sacred Himalayas, that great temple of the god Shiva, dotted with shrines, wondrous caves, and the faces of deities carved out of gigantic cliffs, or of the hills of Gaul, over which were once heard the tinkling of invisible harps, the clash of swords against ringing shields, and the quiet songs of Selma in the choirs of the maids of Lochlin sparkling amid the morning mists. Or perhaps the enchanted traveler would take the wondrous shapes of the clouds for the Hyperborean Mountains, where there once dwelt on earth fortunate people who knew nothing in life but joys, feasts, and songs. (Russian text)

Not the usual provincial Russian landscape. There’s also an unexpected passage on the physical revulsion the otherwise irreproachable main character, a recipient of charity who is raped/seduced/threatened/insulted (?) by her benefactor and runs away, feels when touched by one of the maidservants she suddenly finds herself working alongside. A life in luxury has given her both complicated feelings of needing to feel grateful for things, including aspects of herself, that are not “hers,” and the day-to-day prejudices of those born to wealth.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2013 7:48 am

    Definitely not the most typical Vel’tman, and not what I would have recommended as an introduction, but I’m glad you’re giving him a try!

    • December 28, 2013 11:37 am

      I couldn’t resist after your posts on him! I’m on to “Orlando Furioso” now.

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