“…the era when vice and virtue dared not combine in the same character…”
I’m between long novels and thought I’d continue my slow introduction to Aleksandr Vel’tman (1800-1870), who Languagehat thinks has been arbitrarily shut out of the canon. This time it was “Orlando Furioso” (Неистовый Роланд, 1835), which as LH says shares its plot — in a Russian provincial town, a man is mistaken for a government inspector — with Gogol’s Inspector General (Ревизор, later in 1835, but plausibly from a common source that was “in the air”).
In Vel’tman the man thought to be a high-ranking official is actually an actor who has fallen and hit his head, and he spends the story reciting lines from four different plays to characters who are meant to believe he’s speaking in his own voice. One of the four is Orlando Furioso, an adaptation of the long sixteenth-century Italian poem. Another is Schiller’s Fiesco, or The Genoese Conspiracy, as I learned (before checking the commentary, where they’re all listed) by reading a well-timed blog post by between4walls. I can only imagine how good the story would be if I had recently seen all four of these plays — I remember almost jumping up and down when I first read the way lines from Hamlet are used as lines in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — but as it was, I could understand but not fully appreciate what Vel’tman was doing.
I liked this passage on the increasing sophistication of theatrical audiences and performers:
The troupe of actors that had come to town did not belong to the time when an audience was called to the theater with tambourines and kettledrums, when an actor dared not set foot on the stage without a preliminary word about the merits of the play and a request that the acting be judged leniently, and for its part the audience would not understand the meaning of a play without a synopsis or explanation of it in advance. Instead the troupe belonged to the era when vice and virtue dared not combine in the same character, but did battle separately, battled with each other and not with the human soul. (chapter 3)
It’s a bit like those stories about early Hollywood and the movie audience shouting to the onscreen sheriff that the criminal was hiding in a barrel. Or like Pisemskii’s three formations of women. The other passage that stood out for me is worth reading just for the glimpse of vintage astronomy:
A reception room is also a sphere of the sun’s world in which planets of different sizes and attributes rush about. Quick, bright Mercury rushes from the office to the reception room, and the reception room to the office, whirls around the Sun like a demon, made important by a light not his own; august Jupiter, the embroidered collar of his uniform up to his ears, with his four satellites, stands legs apart, looking down haughtily at everyone else; distinguished, bald Saturn, who was given a bright aureole for his long and faithful service, sits in the corner of the room, silent and grand; cold, blue-nosed Uranus, gloomy and dour, stands in another corner; he is not in the Sun’s good graces, no one looks at him, no one sees him except observant astronomers and his seven pitiful subordinates. Mars, in a red collar, one finger inserted behind a button on his uniform, ruddy and puffed-up, stands with his head held high and motionless, his eyes moving left and right but ready to look straight ahead at the bright eyes of his superior. All the other minor planets and satellites are scattered through the room like motionless stars; in a deferential stance, looking east, they await the Sun. Lucifer visits him… He rises, and the planets’ grandeur vanishes, they are invisible, and it seems as if there is no one in the room except the Sun. (chapter 6)
After “Orlando Furioso” and “Olga” I am not yet ready to say that mere bad luck has kept people from remembering Vel’tman as well as the younger Gogol or Lermontov, but I’m intrigued enough to keep reading him.