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“…when people were used to even a move from one room to another being pointed out…”

April 24, 2014

The structure of Koshchei the Deathless, a Tale of Old Times (Кощей бессмертный. Былина старого времени, 1833) was one of “feebly linked separate scenes (there is no plot, so the interest of the individual scenes is not disrupted by the development of the plot)” (36-37). Some critics forgave Vel’tman for this because “ancient Rus in the memory of the people, in the depictions of poets, and in the very pronouncements of historians” also consists of disconnected episodes (44). Earlier some had forgiven Vel’tman for this because he was a beginning writer, and might later get the hang of making unified works of art. But even friendly critics saw Vel’tman’s non-unified structure as something that needed to be justified or apologized for, and after six novels that shared this feature or defect, they lost patience: an 1836 review in The Northern Bee complained that “works with no beginning and no end are no good. One cannot sew excerpts together without being selective and call the sewn-together rags a book; one cannot abuse readers’ patience, take no notice of them, laugh at them […]” (52-53 and passim).

After 1836 Vel’tman turns to the form of the povest’ (novella or “long short story,” often rendered as “tale”) and later to a different kind of novel.

I’m not sure if this is a side effect of Vel’tman’s preferred method of composition:

Vel’tman is not at all interested in the personalities of his characters. He ascribes to them whatever qualities are required to advance the plot and nothing more. For example, in The Lunatic the author needs the hero to have three attacks of lunacy, so he can meet the heroine and be captured twice by the French. After these requirements have passed (in the first half of part one of the novel) there is not another word about the hero’s lunacy. (50)

For someone like Bukhshtab, who in 1926 seems to be working in a very descriptivist critical framework, and who also clearly likes Vel’tman enough to read an awful lot of his fiction, this sounds rather critical. The impression he gives throughout is that Vel’tman’s contemporaries had a blind spot. The critics couldn’t see that his chaotic structure was essential for his methods because it was too radical and because, by the mid-1830s, artistically unified works of art were increasingly in demand. But he never seemed to take the step of explaining why it was impossible for Vel’tman to write less disconnected works without giving up his other virtues; maybe he was still making up his mind about this, or maybe he was leaving it for an article on Vel’tman’s late novels (which I don’t think Bukhshtab ever wrote, but please point me to it if I’m wrong).

Maybe the closest place is when Bukhshtab talks about how Vel’tman’s methods stretch the contemporary limits of the genre of the historical novel:

Works like Koshchei are always perceived as shifting their genre, but that in itself means they are perceived in the context of that genre, i.e. they belong to it, because genre — not as an abstract, theoretical bit of cleverness, but as a living, historical feeling — is that context of analogous works in which a given work is perceived.

In the context of genre, all the distinctive features of Koshchei‘s construction acquired a special meaning. Jumping through a number of historical eras instead of staying inside a modest-in-length and definitely fixed period of time; rearranging [events?];* an unrestrained, nervous storytelling tempo instead of a solid and monotonous, slow, chronological progression; sudden shifts of the action, when people were used to even a move from one room to another being pointed out; a joking, mocking tone instead of the usual grand seriousness.

This sort of construction was original, but what is original is not always good, and not for every reader’s mindset. Reproaches for the novel’s scatteredness come from many sides, and for some this scatteredness outweighs all the virtues of the work. (43-44)

This is a subject I’d like to know more about, but I think Bukhshtab’s 88-year-old understanding of genre has held up very well.

See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56 (original publication in 1926, overview here).

* The Russian here is перестановки, and I’m not sure I’m reading it correctly.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2014 8:56 am

    I think the mathematical sense ‘permutations’ might work for перестановки here.

    It’s funny, from the time I started reading Veltman I always knew his novels (or whatever they are) weren’t like any others I had read, and that was fine with me — I was happy to let him define his own genre(s) as long as he kept me interested and amused. I guess plot isn’t important to me except in stories that explicitly depend on it.

  2. April 24, 2014 10:03 am

    “Permutations” sounds plausible to me, but in English I still feel like I have to specify permutations of what, and I don’t know Vel’tman well enough to guess with any confidence (I supplied “events” above — it’s just переставновки with no complement in Russian). You know Vel’tman, though — what kind of permutations do you think Bukhshtab had in mind?

    Reading between the studiously scientifically neutral lines, I think Bukhshtab agrees with you and thinks it’s to Vel’tman’s credit that he altered the genre the way he did. “What is original is not always good” is a segue to explaining the increasingly negative reaction of contemporary critics, but for Bukhshtab I think writing something that’s close enough to a genre to be seen as belonging to it, but so unusual that it rewrites the definitions of that genre, is the best thing a writer can do. In any case I’m even more interested in reading Velt’man after learning that his historical novels are so unlike Zagoskin’s, Bulgarin’s, or Zotov’s.

  3. April 24, 2014 10:15 am

    Yes, it’s really a misnomer to call them “historical novels” at all, since that creates expectations he has no interest in meeting. It’s like Schiller’s Don Carlos, which I just got through reading in M. Dostoevsky’s translation: he has the events of Carlos’s turbulent career, when ended in the 1560s, mixed in with things like the Spanish Armada, which took place decades later. He was interested in other things than historical facts, using history as a colorful backdrop against which to tell his story and make his philosophical points, and the same is true in spades of Veltman. To me, Странник and Кощей бессмертный have far more in common with each other than the latter does with anything called a “historical novel” — or indeed with anything by anybody else. I think the phrase is sui generis.

    “Permutations” sounds plausible to me, but in English I still feel like I have to specify permutations of what

    Eh, I’m fine with reproducing in English the vagueness of the Russian. Formalist critics loved permutations and repetitions and conjunctures and other such quasi-scientific terms, and I don’t think it’s always possible to pin down exactly what they mean in a given case.

  4. April 24, 2014 10:26 am

    Formalist critics loved permutations and repetitions and conjunctures and other such quasi-scientific terms, and I don’t think it’s always possible to pin down exactly what they mean in a given case.

    That may be true, but to me this feels like a low-level grammatical difference in how much you’re expected to specify, like having to decide whether to translate в карман as “in her pocket,” “in his pocket,” “in a pocket,” etc. There might be a situation where you don’t know enough of the context to get it right, but I don’t want to go around saying “in pocket.”

  5. April 24, 2014 10:39 am

    Sure, but “permutations” doesn’t feel that way to me. I guess it’s an idiolectal thing (or maybe the result of my misspent youth as a math major).

  6. April 24, 2014 10:47 am

    Fair enough. I’d have no problem with it in a math context. Now I’ll probably spend weeks watching out for examples of “permutations” and “combinations” to see what people do.

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