Bukhshtab on Vel’tman
In “Vel’tman’s Earliest Novels,” Boris Bukhshtab looks at six long works of prose:* The Wanderer (Странник, 1831-32; see also this Languagehat post), Koshchei the Deathless, a Tale of Old Times (Кощей бессмертный. Былина старого времени, 1833; LH post), The Year MMMCDXLVIII: The Manuscripts of Martyn Zadeka (MMMCDXLVIII год. Рукопись Мартына Задека, 1833), The Lunatic: An Occurrence (Лунатик. Случай, 1834), Svetoslavich, the Devil’s Nurseling: A Curiosity from the Time of Vladimir the Fair Sun (Светославич, вражий питомец. Диво времен Красного Солнца Владимира, 1835; LH calls it “satisfying and indescribable”), and Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii (1836).
The Wanderer made Vel’tman’s reputation as the “Russian Sterne”; Koshchei the Deathless made the greatest impression on his contemporaries; and Svetoslavich was considered Vel’tman’s best novel by V. F. Odoevskii (26-28, 48). Of the rest, The Year MMMCDXLVIII was apparently written in haste, derivative, and perplexing to critics, since its imagined future was “exactly like the present year of 1834.” Bukhshtab suggests that setting the novel in 3448 was just a way to get the plot, in which one ruler is substituted for another similar in appearance, past the censors (44-46). The Lunatic is set in 1812, like other novels of the early 1830s by Zagoskin and Bulgarin. Critics were especially hostile to it and to all 1812 novels, as they were beginning to turn on historical novels in general, which had recently held a dominant position (46-48). Aleksandr Filippovich Makedonskii involves time travel and a lot of etymology: “the whole piece is filled with such outlandish etymologies of various words that contemporaries were unsure whether they were ‘a satire on etymologists’ or ‘putting forth his own new hypotheses under the guise of joking’” (50-53, quote on 51).
Later generations, according to Bukhshtab, don’t share Vel’tman’s contemporaries’ view that Koshchei the Deathless was his best. Instead, they were more likely to prefer the later Salomeia (Саломея, 1846-47), the first of a projected five parts of Adventures Extracted from the Ocean of Life (28).
The post-revolutionary wave of interest in Vel’tman that Bukhshtab claimed to see in 1926 didn’t really take off; I suppose it could have been wishful thinking or a tactical move on Bukhshtab’s part to predict one, or maybe there really would have been one if the 1930s had turned out differently.
There’s a lot in Bukhshtab’s article, and I’m saving what he says about Vel’tman’s language, innovations in the historical novel genre, and chaotic structure for later posts.
See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56. I read it in that 2000 book, but the article apparently first appeared in Russkaia proza (Leningrad, 1926), pp. 192-231. That collection was reprinted by Mouton (The Hague, 1963) and translated by Ray Parrott for Ardis (Ann Arbor, 1985). I’ve posted about two shorter pieces by Vel’tman, “Ol’ga” (1837) and “Orlando Furioso” (1835), but to judge by what Bukhshtab and LH have written, they aren’t much like the early novels.
* Bukhshtab calls The Wanderer Vel’tman’s “first work in prose” (he had written poetry for years before that) and Koshchei the Deathless his “first novel” (26-27).