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February 21, 2014
  • Via Robert Chandler on SEELANGS, here’s the table of contents of the latest New England Review. There are a lot of translations of Russian poetry and prose: Pushkin (Alyssa Dinega Gillespie), Dostoevskii (Michael R. Katz), and Chekhov (Rosamund Bartlett) from the nineteenth century, and quite a few more from the twentieth and twenty-first. Unfortunately most of it isn’t available online.
  • Amateur Reader is seeing Hegel everywhere, including in Gertsen’s My Past and Thoughts (Былое и думы, published 1868). And here he is on Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин, written 1823-31). I always forget how over-the-top Nabokov’s translation is: “of the pampered senses joy,” “trample vernant blooms.” Google gives me 6 instances of “vernant blooms” on the whole internet, all this passage. I assume Nabokov’s train of thought must have been весенний = vernal, and вешний is related to весенний but less ordinary, so let’s stick a different suffix on and get “vernant.” But for my money “vernal” is already fancier and less comprehensible than either весенний or вешний, which are transparently connected to весна ‘spring.’
  • In the years after the October Revolution, Aleksandr Chaianov “published (at his own expense) five short Gothic-fantastic tales in separate volumes with print runs of no more than 300 copies, mostly under the whimsical pseudonym ‘Botanist X,’” stories that are “indulgently intertextual, erratically citing Hoffmann, Pushkin, Karamzin, Catullus, and the occasional authority on agronomy.” From Muireann Maguire in a guest post at Writers No One Reads.
  • Languagehat liked Gogol’s The Gamblers (Игроки, published 1842). My favorite Gogol play is Marriage (Женитьба, also published 1842), but reading LH’s post and being reminded of the deck of cards named Adelaida Ivanovna makes me want to give The Gamblers another try.
  • And here is Phillip Routh on Sologub’s The Petty Demon (Мелкий бес, published partially in 1905, fully in 1907): “Initially I took this to be a comic novel because every character and every encounter highlight the absolute worst in human nature; since people aren’t that bad, the results are absurd. Peredonov, the main character, is made up of a plethora of vices, with not one virtue thrown in. Some examples: ‘Everything that reached his consciousness was transformed into something vile and filthy’ and ‘He had no objects that he loved just as there were no people he loved.’ Despite his odiousness, women are in hot pursuit of him as a husband. This sadist (yes, he’s that too) is a schoolteacher in a provincial town, and the haphazard plot revolves around his bumbling machinations to be appointed to the post of inspector. At the midway point the author escalates the level of outrageousness by introducing an androgynous, pubescent boy and having him engage in sex games with a young woman; this comes perilously close to pornography. He also has Peredonov, who from the beginning was paranoid and superstitious, turn into a full-blown maniac. No longer did I find anything comic about this novel; the grimy desolation that pervades it had became dull and monotonous, and I went into skimming mode. From the Introduction I learned that Demon was enormously successful in Russia when it came out in 1907. Some critics credited Sologub with exposing the petty and vicious vulgarity of provincial life, and that, in Peredonov, he was presenting an individual with a spiritual void. I don’t buy this. Without real people, no point about life can be made. This isn’t a novel about moral corruption; rather, it’s a corrupt novel conjured up by a man with an odd and undisciplined mind.” I feel like I had Routh’s reaction to the novel in every particular but the opposite one overall. I felt the “grimy desolation that pervades” the novel, but to me that made it horrible and mesmerizing. Peredonov doesn’t seem human, and usually anything we can’t interpret as being about people is boring, but magically The Petty Demon works anyway.
14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2014 6:47 pm

    Peredonov doesn’t seem human, and usually anything we can’t interpret as being about people is boring, but magically The Petty Demon works anyway.

    I entirely agree, and readers who insist literature be about “real” people are missing a lot. None of Gogol’s characters are real, they’re all collections of verbal tics and over-the-top characterizations plunked down into ludicrous situations, but Gogol was a genius, so it’s all irresistible (well, except Taras Bulba). Sologub was no genius (and not a pleasant person), but he put all his white-hot loathing of humanity into this book, and it gave his prose a life that can’t be extinguished.

    By all means read Игроки; I’ll be very curious to know your reaction! (And the filmed version I linked to in the Addendum to my post is superb, if you have a spare hour-and-three-quarters.)

    • February 21, 2014 8:33 pm

      I did read Игроки a few years back, and at the time I think I had the same impression of it that Mirsky did as quoted in your post. But you’ve convinced me it deserves a second look.

      And on the whole I agree with you about Gogol’s characters, but somehow in those bizarre comic one-trait exaggerations there’s a spark of something recognizable as human, isn’t there? I put them in a different category than Peredonov, anyway.

      • February 21, 2014 8:45 pm

        Oh, sure, I didn’t mean to imply they were inhuman — it’s just my automatic (Nabokovian) pushback against the unthinking (Belinskyish-Sovietesque) “Gogol — laughter through tears — his people are so recognizable!!” approach that once was too common (I don’t know if it still is).

    • February 26, 2014 7:13 am

      Hard to recommend anything in particular, but I’m partial to “Расточитель” (“Измотал я безумное тело”), “На серой куче сора” (from which, apparently, Akhmatova’s famous “Когда б вы знали, из какого сора” grew out), and of course “Чертовы качели”, probably his best-known poem. The poetry collection that moved Mandelshtam, Chukovsky and Annensky so much is “Пламенный круг” (1908). It’s classic Sologub but not it’s not the only Sologub out there. I would single out “Порой повеет запах странный”, “В село из леса она пришла”, “Злая ведьма чашу яда”, “Зачем возрастаю?” but one should read through the whole book to appreciate it.

      I also recommend Annensky’s and Chukovsky’s notes (at least) on Sologub here:

      • February 26, 2014 7:15 am

        Thanks very much, I’ll check them out!

      • February 27, 2014 10:44 am

        Let me add my thanks, Alexei K.! I also still have Vaginov’s poetry on my list of things to read, from an earlier recommendation of yours – I started once and liked what I read, but didn’t get too far.

    • November 9, 2014 3:36 pm

      Indeed – a great many readers seem to think that a “caricature” is a failed attempt at portraiture, and, hence, inferior. When one look saround thet net, teh criticism that Dickens’ characters are “merely caricatures” is quite a common one. And, whether it is applied to Dickens or to Gogol or to Sologub, to make such a criticism is to misunderstand the author’s purpose,

  2. February 23, 2014 11:49 pm

    Gertsen! Really? I had no idea. Although I knew “Herzen” was some pretty odd Russian.

    I thought about turning “vernant” and some of the other Nabokovian curiosities into a post. Neglection, taboon, shandrydans.

    • February 24, 2014 2:55 pm

      I’m one of a very few who likes to backtransliterate Gertsen and similar names instead of restoring the German Herzen.

      I’d love to read the post on Nabokovian curiosities. I actually really enjoy reading Nabokov on translation and poetic meter, but seeing how his methods work out in practice always surprises me.

    • February 25, 2014 12:11 am

      Hey, I take requests! So a post on Nabokovian curiosities has appeared, more limited than what I had first imagined, yet still good fun.

  3. February 24, 2014 12:23 am

    Cannot get my comment posted for some reason – but Routh’s comment must have hit a nerve with me so I’m going to try again and again.

    “Initially I took this to be a comic novel…” Why this reflex to pigeonhole? It’s the first Russian modernist novel, and one of the first such in the world. If it’s hard to genre-label some of the perfectly canonical Gogol and Dostoyevsky, why should we expect Sologub to please taxonomists?

    For me, the problem with The Petty Demon has been its unevenness, but according to Victor Yerofeyev, the incongruous shifts in the narrative voice – somewhat like a teenage boy’s cracking voice to me, uncontrollably breaking down into bass then spiking to a shrill falsetto before settling into a moralizing tenor – only complement the complex but defective world of the novel.

    Within that world, Peredonov is a natural; and the Rutilov sisters are unforgettable anyway. And недотыкомка isn’t easy to forget either – do you remember how Peredonov tried to glue it to the floor? I wonder what happened to the creature in English translations.

    BTW, Erik, are you familiar with Sologub’s poems?

    • February 24, 2014 3:32 pm

      Sorry for the comment trouble. Not sure why that was happening.

      Недотыкомка really is unforgettable, though I don’t remember the scene of Peredonov trying to glue it to the floor. All of a sudden it’s been more than ten years since I read The Petty Demon. I read some of Sologub’s poetry at the same time, but I don’t know it well – mostly I’ve been hung up on his lines of iambic hexameter without a caesura. In this poem it might be a clever way for the poet to refuse to go along with neo-classicism (by choosing not to write in the line associated with Corneille, Racine, Molière), but I think Sologub does the same thing in other poems, and I’m not sure how to take it overall. What do you think of his poems?

      • February 25, 2014 1:40 am

        “Передонов придумал средство: намазал весь пол клеем, чтобы недотыкомка прилипла. Прилипали подошвы у сапог да подолы у Варвариных платьев, а недотыкомка каталась свободно и визгливо хохотала. Варвара злобно ругалась.”

        BTW the paragraph right above it is worth rereading in Russian, starting with “Недотыкомка бегала под стульями и по углам и повизгивала.” It sounds so good, so darkly charming. It’s an entirely different kind of magic than Gogol.

        Sologub’s poetic output was hefty, about 3,000 poems; some of them had better be forgotten, but some are excellent. Mandelshtam, Blok, Kuzmin, Annensky and Shestov were admirers of Sologub the poet.

      • February 25, 2014 6:15 am

        Can you recommend a few in particular? I actually own a volume of Sologub’s poems, but haven’t spent much time investigating it.

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