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July 11, 2020


7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2020 8:16 am

    Thanks for the mention! I’ve never come across the earlier translation but if you ever do manage to do a comparison, I would be fascinated! 😀

    • July 11, 2020 11:41 am

      Maybe someday! It must have been a challenge for Hulick and Shaw and any other translators despite the language being relatively transparent, since as you point out, it’s full of lines that have turned into famous quotations..

  2. languagehat permalink
    July 11, 2020 8:45 am

    The contrast between “Russian” and “non-Russian” characters has been a big deal for many writers in many periods, of course, but there’s something striking about how it gets prominent for lots of dissimilar writers in the 1870s and 1880s (like Nekrasov, Turgenev, and Pisemskii, and maybe Leskov and Dostoevskii, though at least Leskov was continuing a preexisting interest in the theme). There seems to suddenly be an extra charge, with male characters erotically fascinated by both ethnic sameness and ethnic difference, and also disgusted by ethnic difference.

    That is striking; I wonder if anyone has studied it? Seems like it could be a productive topic.

    It’s a good question, but I’d put it down to 1) Russian culture focusing more on Europe than Asia, occasional references to Japan notwithstanding, and 2) Russia-China cultural contacts happening farther from Moscow and St. Petersburg than Russia-Europe or Russia-Caucasus contacts.

    Sure, and no one would expect China to get equal time, but it has essentially zero presence (if you have to go to one-off jokey names for counterexamples, you’re just strengthening the point). The US is much farther away, and yet China has been a much larger presence here. Again, we’re not talking about a dominant presence (the way China and its literature and culture are in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam), just visible. China as a cultural entity (as opposed to source of tea and funny names) is not visible in Russian literature — it might as well not exist. That seems to me to need explanation.

    • July 11, 2020 11:33 am

      (if you have to go to one-off jokey names for counterexamples, you’re just strengthening the point)

      Oh, absolutely, and I think your original question is a good one! I don’t know the answer, but I meant to be gesturing in the same direction as Anichkin saying China was a closed country. Out of the people with access to St. Petersburg and Moscow journals and publishing, many traveled to Europe or the Caucasus or were exiled to Siberia, but few went to China. Out of the smaller number of Russians who lived in China, not that many were in the literary elite. But supposing that’s right, I think it doesn’t fully explain why even the cultural slot for an exotic and mysterious “the East” should be filled by something like The Prisoner of the Caucasus or “Imitations of the Koran” so often and China so rarely.

      A related question might be why the Harbin and Shanghai émigré literary cultures-in-exile feel so much farther from the mainstream than the ones in Paris or Berlin or London.

  3. July 11, 2020 11:19 am

    When I was young and first saw sonnofabitch in print, probably in Chandler or Hammett, I thought it looked like a Slavic name. Tolstoy’s joke depends on the reader’s understanding one basic fact about China – its antiquity. When asked why there was no order in China (Tolstoy’s favorite riff), the rank-and-file mandarins responded, “because we’re so very young, only five thousand years old!” It was probably aimed at those who said that Russia was a rather young country compared with France or England so it’s got everything ahead of it.

    • July 11, 2020 11:37 am

      I completely agree. Except for that one fact, Tolstoi’s China might as well be Maiakovskii’s Peru. Part of the joke is how transparently the other country stands in for Russia, how the poet is going through the motions of Aesopian language for a laugh without intending to fool anyone.

      • July 11, 2020 12:12 pm

        By the way, in Разговор с фининспектором о поэзии Mayakovsky used Venezuela in the sense of a faraway, God-forsaken place, a bit like Michael Bond would later use “Darkest Peru.”

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