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“…the era when vice and virtue dared not combine in the same character…”

March 19, 2014

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2014 9:45 am

    I’m intrigued enough to keep reading him.

    I’m very glad to hear it! And I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Veltman is primarily and by nature a novelist. In the longer genre he can stretch out, play with form and content, and generally exercise his peculiar but real genius; in the short-story form his wings are clipped, though (as you’ve seen) he’s still enjoyable to read.

    • March 19, 2014 9:52 am

      Yes, next time I’ll have to try one of his novels! You make them sound wonderful.

  2. between4walls permalink
    March 22, 2014 1:31 pm

    Glad my ramblings on Fiesco were useful to someone- it’s a rather obscure play now, coming between the much better known The Robbers and Intrigue and Love. What bits of it were quoted?

    This story sounds fascinating; what were the other two plays?

    While I say “everyone should read Don Carlos,” you might get more out of it than most.

    The Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov is directly inspired by it (though The Robbers is the bigger influence on the book. But it isn’t as good a play).

    Herzen references it in My Past and Thoughts (fantasizing about replicating the Marquis de Posa’s interview with the tyrannical Philip II) and in a lot of other places, and various books claim his and Ogarev’s oath was modeled after it.

    And apparently it was just generally very popular. I highly recommend it.

  3. March 22, 2014 2:26 pm

    OK, you’ve convinced me; I’m adding it to my list.

  4. March 22, 2014 2:30 pm

    Well, for Pete’s sake, there don’t appear to be any Russian translations online, not even Mikhail Dostoevsky’s. Bah!

  5. March 23, 2014 5:43 pm

    What bits of it were quoted?

    I have to admit that I don’t know in every case which lines came from which play, but here’s a bit from chapter 8 that comes from Fiesco. The actor says in a public square something like “Surely I — I, Fiesco — cannot have killed my wife…? O, I curse you! Look not upon this game of nature’s as if you were pale phantoms! I thank you, Almighty One! There are things a man cannot fear because he is a man…! Is he to whom divine ecstasy is refused actually fated to endure the devil’s torment?” Which gets the response “There he is! He killed his wife!” from the crowd.

    This story sounds fascinating; what were the other two plays?

    According to Iurii Akutin’s notes, besides Orlando Furioso and Fiesco, the other two are The Virtuous Feloness, or The Felon for Love (Добродетельная преступница, или Преступник от любви, 1792) by Filiter Matveev and something called Вольные судьи (The Free Judges or Les Francs-juges), by someone called Ламатьер (Lamatierre?), apparently a play known from an 1831 manuscript in the Leningrad Theater Library. I see on Wikipedia that Berlioz wrote but did not finish an opera called Les Francs-juges.

    everyone should read Don Carlos

    Thanks for the suggestion – Schiller has been on my list for a long, long time. He’s probably the first writer I learned about from Russian writers’ allusions to him.

    • March 23, 2014 5:49 pm

      Here’s that Schiller passage as translated into English (anonymously?) in the text available on Project Gutenberg: “But tell me truly, Genoese, have I indeed slain my wife? I conjure you look not so ghastly upon this illusion! Heaven be praised! there are fates which man has not to fear, because he is but man. This must be one of them. He who is denied the joys of heaven can scarce be doomed to bear the pains of hell.”

      • between4walls permalink
        March 23, 2014 9:24 pm

        Thanks! That’s the text I read. The free translations are surprisingly readable.

        “Which gets the response “There he is! He killed his wife!” from the crowd.”
        lol. The context is that during a violent uprising, Fiesco has mistaken his cross-dressing wife for his worst enemy, whose stuff she’s wearing, and killed her by accident, so it’s doubly funny that the response from the crowd responds to that line as if the actor is your average wife-killer, needing to be caught.

        “He’s probably the first writer I learned about from Russian writers’ allusions to him.”

        Interesting. In what context?

      • between4walls permalink
        March 23, 2014 9:25 pm

        Especially since there is a crowd in that scene of Fiesco and they are sympathetic to/played by him.

  6. March 23, 2014 6:44 pm

    The Free Judges or Les Francs-juges), by someone called Ламатьер (Lamatierre?)

    That’s La Martelière; Google Books has the text.

    Berlioz wrote but did not finish an opera called Les Francs-juges.

    The overture is a grand thing; here‘s a lively performance. Warning: the melody that comes in at the four-and-a-half-minute mark is a real earworm!

    • March 23, 2014 7:57 pm

      That’s La Martelière

      Thank you! I was getting frustrated trying to figure out what Ламатьер could have been originally. I should have tried searching for the French title on Google Books — I never would have guessed La Martelière, and regular web searches kept giving me Berlioz or telling me I must have meant “la matière.” (And thanks for the Berlioz link too – I’m listening now.)

  7. March 23, 2014 9:45 pm

    so it’s doubly funny that the response from the crowd responds to that line as if the actor is your average wife-killer, needing to be caught.

    That’s great – I’m sure there are lots of jokes in Vel’tman’s story that make sense to those who know the plays.

    Interesting. In what context?

    I think Schiller, and especially The Robbers, came up in several things I read by Dostoevskii early on, either explicitly in the text or in the introduction or notes.

  8. April 13, 2014 5:13 pm

    I’m reading Don Carlos now, and have mentioned a possible allusion to it by Dostoevsky in the Addendum to this post.

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