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Monsieur Kozlenev

June 7, 2016

Last year I was taken with Joe Peschio’s story about шалости ‘pranks (in a broad sense).’ Writers of Pushkin’s generation loved pranks, in literature and life, meaning free-spirited, silly and/or cruel acts that made a mockery of authority, but not in a political way. The tsar himself feared the unpredictability of their pranks more than Decembrist-style civic poetry. Then the Dostoevskii and Tolstoi generation of writers reacted against pranks, seeing them as aristocratic self-indulgence and meanness.

This is the sort of idea you keep seeing examples of once you’ve heard it, and I thought I’d make a note of one from Aleksei Pisemskii’s A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858). Our hero, Kalinovich, has thrown over the love of his life, married for money and connections, and has now returned to the provinces as Vice Governor and is energetically rooting out corruption. He doesn’t tolerate bribes and follows the letter of the law in a way that surprises and horrifies much of the town. But he has his supporters:

Another disaffected individual was a certain Monsieur Kozlenev, a very good-looking young fellow, the son of the Governor’s sister. An extremely rich woman, she had implored her brother with tears to take this scapegrace on his staff, for it was impossible to leave him in Petersburg where he might at any moment be recruited into the army or exiled to the Caucasus. Such antecedents may give an idea of the pranks likely to be played in a gubernia town by such a young gentleman [Из одного этого можно заключить, что начал выделывать подобный господин в губернском городе]. For instance, on the day on which the uncle gave a magnificent ball for the whole gubernia, the nephew gave one for serving maids: one day for brunettes, and another for blondes. Needless to say the wenches ran in on the sly from all over the town, and were treated so generously that many ladies returning from the Governor’s ball found their maids dead drunk. Almost every day of public importance the young scamp and his menservants would seat themselves on the gateposts, tucking their feet beneath them, each with a huge ring between his teeth, wrinkling up their noses, and really looking very much like stone lions. These pranks [штуки], however, might be passed off as pardonable high spirits [шалости], but there was worse. For instance, his mother having extracted from him a promise to dine at the General’s every day, Kozlenev went about telling everyone that his aunt, the Governor’s lady, deported herself like Potiphar’s wife every day after dinner, in proof of which he carried about, and showed to all, two frock-coats, the skirts of which really were torn. (part 4, chapter 5; pp. 397-98 in Ivy Litvinov’s translation)

This wild Monsieur Kozlenev ends up on the same side as the driven, ambitious, rather humorless Kalinovich, scourge of the cozily corrupt older generation.

I hadn’t realized until I looked up this passage that Litvinov transliterates губерния as “gubernia” instead of using “province.” Do other translators do this? I don’t know why it should be stranger than “arrondissement” or “department” in English writing about France, but “gubernia” sure sounds odd to me.

Другой протестант был некто m-r Козленев, прехорошенький собой молодой человек, собственный племянник губернатора, сын его родной сестры: будучи очень богатою женщиною, она со слезами умоляла брата взять к себе на службу ее повесу, которого держать в Петербурге не было никакой возможности, потому что он того и гляди мог попасть в солдаты или быть сослан на Кавказ. Из одного этого можно заключить, что начал выделывать подобный господин в губернском городе: не говоря уже о том, что как только дядя давал великолепнейший на всю губернию бал, он делал свой, для горничных — в один раз все для брюнеток, а другой для блондинок, которые, конечно, и сбегались к нему потихоньку со всего города и которых он так угощал, что многие дамы, возвратившись с бала, находили своих девушек мертвецки пьяными. Каждый почти торжественный день повеса этот и его лакей садились на воротные столбы, поджимали ноги, брали в рот огромные кольца и, делая какие-то гримасы из носу, представляли довольно похоже львов. Все эти штуки могли еще быть названы хоть сколько-нибудь извинительными шалостями; но было больше того: обязанный, например, приказанием матери обедать у дяди каждый день, Козленев ездил потом по всему городу и рассказывал, что тетка его, губернаторша, каждое после-обеда затевает с ним шутки вроде жены Пентефрия и в доказательство этого возил с собой и всем показывал два сюртука действительно с оборванными полами.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2016 8:36 am

    I’ve seen “gubernia” in English and I think occasionally used it myself; “province” seems inadequate somehow, though I’m not sure I could put my finger on why.

    • June 8, 2016 10:36 am

      Maybe it bothers me that it feels like half a cognate. Then again, if I’d been reading “mile” for верста and “gubernia” for губерния for years, instead of “verst” and “province,” I’d probably have different intuitions.

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