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More than “a timeless and placeless Esperanto of literary ‘commoners’”

April 22, 2014

Here is Boris Bukhshtab on an 1830s controversy:

The language of the “common people” in the novels of that time was conventional. It was not a language actually based on popular dialects, as in Dal’ or Vel’tman, but a timeless and placeless Esperanto of literary “commoners,” which, created then, has survived to our days and can easily be recognized by a series of lexemes that establish its particular feel, such as ежели, таперича, вестимо, чай, право-слово and so on. (47)

One one side Bulgarin, Grech, and Senkovskii thought the speech of commoners was too crude and ugly for literature; writers on the other side thought the Bulgarin camp’s language was “soulless.” Most of them used the literary Esperanto Bukhshtab describes — he provides an example from Masal’skii — but Vel’tman (like Dal’) goes further. Senkovskii quotes this from Vel’tman’s The Lunatic: An Occurrence (Лунатик. Случай, 1834):

— Э, э! что ты тут хозяйничаешь?

— Воду, брат, грею.

— Добре! Засыпь, брат, и на мою долю крупки.

— Изволь, давай.

— Кабы запустить сальца, знаешь, дак оно бы тово!

— И ведомо! Смотрико-сь, нет ли на поставце? (qtd. in Bukhshtab 48)

and laments, “and this is called refined Literature!” Elsewhere Vel’tman transcribes “Дай-ка огоньку!” as “Дак ганькю!” (47).

That literary Esperanto reminds me of Robert Maguire’s view that the best one can do in translating substandard speech in Gogol is find supposedly universal markers of such speech like “‘ain’t,’ double negatives, ‘-in’’ instead of ‘-ing,’ and a paratactic sentence structure.” Maguire was worried about the translation-specific situation of activating an inappropriate set of associations — he thought that the speech of a Russian peasant shouldn’t make readers think of slaves from the antebellum South — but evidently even when only one language is involved some are drawn to a one-size-fits-all substandardness.

Bukhshtab puts Vel’tman’s linguistic innovations in the context of the 1830s:

If we look at the lexicon of Koshchei the Deathless not from the point of view of its special significance in the historical novel, but from the more general point of view of the literary language of the period, we must characterize Vel’tman’s efforts as an attempt to bring a mass of new, unused linguistic material into the literary language. Here Vel’tman is not alone: at roughly the same time there are other authors who use unusual, unliterary linguistic material in their works. In a particular work this material is taken as one of the means of creating couleur locale, but in the broad process of literary evolution it serves the goals of creating a new literary language. Such is Gogol’s Little Russian language, as well as Dal’s language of popular dialects. (38-39)

I’m sometimes wary of the kind of language that talks about the “task” or “goal” of a certain generation of writers being to bring about particular innovations, but here I think the point is pretty convincing: Gogol, Dal, and Vel’tman seem to be doing very different things, but on one level of abstraction all of them are challenging and expanding the boundaries of what’s linguistically acceptable in fiction. Archaizers and innovators unite against a bland old guard.

Bukhshtab twice compares Vel’tman to Leskov (his Vel’tman article appeared 51 years before the one on Leskov and the censors): “Thus, following the principle of the struggle between and mixing of semantic elements, over the course of 20 years Vel’tman develops a distinctive linguistic system that will later become the foundation of Leskov’s language” (30) and “No one in Russian literature uses as many puns as Vel’tman, with the possible exception of Leskov” (31).

See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56. It first appeared in 1926. Here is an overview of the article, and I still intend to post about other parts of it too.

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