I hope you enjoyed reading “The Old Man” half as much as I enjoyed translating it. I’ll post the author and a link to the original publication on Monday. Before I do, does anyone who hasn’t looked it up want to guess who the author is, or say anything about the story before you find out? This post is your chance to comment — pick any pseudonym you want if you want to guess without going on record.
Soon I’ll put up an e-book of the story in one piece. There are at least three places in the text I want to solicit your collective advice about first, though. One is a problem pointed out to me by Languagehat, with another I think I got something right but am not confident of my knowledge of contemporary realia, and in a third I came up with a solution I’m not sure I’m happy with. Posts on those to come soon.
There are no doubt other things I got wrong, and if you have noticed or do notice any, I’d be very glad if you’d point them out (don’t spare my feelings; I’d rather know!).
“Hmph! Be glad, will he!” began Mikhail Fyodorovich. “An idiotic people! What is there to be glad about? What have they accomplished? Who benefits from it? England. And what is England to them? Their natural and irreconcilable and principal enemy! A frivolous, empty people! They are ready to do anything for the sake of a phrase, out of a frivolous love of words. That’s just it — Voltaire was right when he mocked the French. And where is the true glory to be found here…? On whose side? Doesn’t everyone know that a properly carried out siege must sooner or later overcome any stronghold? But who could have predicted that a stronghold thrown together haphazardly in plain view of the enemy would be able to withstand a year of a properly carried out siege? Yes, sir, it’s an empty victory on the part of the French, and on ours it’s something truly heroic, it’s lasting glory! And what are you all so glum about? Don’t you see that the defense of Sevastopol is as good as ten victories?”
M. Dubois came in. The old man stood erect and looked proudly at the Frenchman… The latter looked at him in the manner of a man prepared to listen and respond; but Mikhail Fyodorovich walked slowly out of the room without saying a word.
“Qu’a donc monsieur, au nom du ciel?” asked the puzzled Frenchman.
I left as quickly as I could. A cold autumn rain beat against the windows of the carriage; the final groans of the martyrs of Sevastopol sounded in my ears; the furious face of the old man, Lutvinov, remained before my eyes… But Katerina Alexevna came out to meet me, beaming.
Rostislav is safe and sound; Rostislav has been given the Cross of St. George; Rostislav has been sent from the army to Petersburg… We shall see him.
Naturally, it was decided that we should go to Moscow the very next day; but I did not want to leave without enquiring about Mikhail Fyodorovich, and in the evening I set off to take leave of him. I was received by Tatyana Grigoryevna; the poor old woman was terribly flustered: Mikhail Fyodorovich had fallen ill in earnest.
I visited the Lutvinovs again on a day memorable to me, September first. Mikhail Fyodorovich was pacing the living room in terrible agitation and greeted me with a question:
“Have you heard? Sevastopol has been abandoned to the enemy!”
The old man was holding a crumpled poster, which he handed to me; I read the report. For a long time we said nothing. Seryozha appeared with a rifle on his shoulder; he was just back from hunting.
“Seryozha, Sevastopol has been abandoned!” said the old man.
“Sevastopol…?” repeated Seryozha. “Has it really?”
He read the poster, stood motionless for some time, and then put it on the table and started walking around the room.
“What do you say? Are you sad?” asked the old man.
“It’s annoying!” replied Seryozha. As he did not have any warmth of spirit, his pride had awakened. “M. Dubois will be so idiotically glad. But I tell you this in advance, uncle, I won’t allow him to be glad about it.”
“Oh, how can you say that, my dear,” observed Tatyana Grigoryevna, wiping away her copious tears. “He may well take offense if you are too hard on him.”
Mikhail Fyodorovich clapped his grandnephew on the shoulder.
“No, let him! Don’t let our boys down!” he said, and again began to pace the room. He was so upset that one could not help being concerned for him. Tatyana Grigoryevna and Seryozha kept a close watch on his every movement.
It was a cold but clear day. Stepanida Andrevna asked if I wanted to look at the garden for old times’ sake. This was almost a sacrifice on her part… The poor woman could scarcely walk, tumbling onto one foot, then the other like a duck, and our walk did not come to a good end.
“No, no, let’s go to the right!” Stepanida Andrevna said to me, with uncharacteristic liveliness, when I stepped onto the boardwalk that led to a grove that had been planted on the far side of the pond. “No, people aren’t to walk here.”
“Why is that?”
“The other side is infested with snakes.”
“Did ours move here from Politino, perhaps?”
“Do they have them in Politino too?”
I naively told her about the razing of the summer house and, of course, about the ghost that had appeared to me personally. Imagine my surprise when poor Stepanida Andrevna became very embarrassed at the end, turned red as a beet, and seemed to avoid looking at me. I was quite flustered myself; we said nothing for about five minutes. My companion made a quite inopportune complaint about the heat, and we headed home.
Seryozha glanced out the window, announced quite indifferently that his mother had arrived, and unhurriedly went to meet her. It was true: an old-fashioned four-seated carriage had stopped by the porch, and Stepanida Andrevna had emerged from it with numerous children and possessions. Stepanida Andrevna was flourishing even more than before: her full figure had reached such an extreme that it seemed she could not gain any more weight out of courtesy, lest others feel embarrassed. She did not put on airs with me at all, but was good-natured and happy to see me as a past acquaintance; she introduced her children to me, asked all about me and about Katerina Alexeyevna, but — strangely? — not a word about Rostislav; on the other hand, she went on at length about her happy married life and spoke of her eldest son with pride.
“Did you know he is bound for foreign lands soon?” she said, pinching her son’s cheek. “And he is a one! He wants to go so badly that he doesn’t mind leaving us. Meanwhile I can’t bring myself to think what it’ll be like to take him to the train station.”
Seryozha comically raised his eyes heavenward, shrugged, and gave his mother a kiss.
“Maman,” he said, “you know I’ll be very sorry to leave you.”
This boy, who had grown up among people of mature years and been raised in an extremely methodical way, had retained nothing of the child. The child of nature looked a proper egoist. His attachment to Mikhail Fyodorovich was apparently his only living feeling, and even it was cold in its expression. Seryozha’s manner with his mother betrayed against his will the distance put between them by the difference in their upbringing.
A few quick links in between episodes of “The Old Man”:
- Everyone here should put this new blog in their RSS reader.
- There’s a new nineteenth-century journal, Dawn (Заря), in the links on the right. To me it will always be the journal where Pisemskii felt, when most of one novel was already printed, that he had to write to Strakhov for guidance on what ideological points he should shoehorn in at the end. It also has plenty of Fet and Tiutchev and Maikov.
- Don’t miss Languagehat tracing a line from the earliest Tolstoi writing about the siege of Sevastopol to Tolstoi writing something similar differently in War and Peace.
“You know, uncle,” the boy replied, blushing, “I only cried because we wouldn’t be able to go hunting.”
“And what about those men in Sevastopol? Are they thinking about hunting?”
“All honor and glory to them. You must agree, however, that indifference to life demonstrates a lack of acquaintance with life, just ignorance,” replied the boy, somewhat put out, and accustomed since childhood to drawing philosophical conclusions.
“You just try and reach consensus with this one; he’s my philosopher… No! Young people today are somehow cold,” said the old man, wavering between his partiality for his grandnephew and his feeling of patriotic enthusiasm.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Or is our congenital feeling of love for our country so strong that neither time, nor habit, nor prejudices can overcome it? In the old man’s ardent nature it had declared itself late, but with such energy that all his convictions had been shaken; the principal object of his admiration, England, had been felled from the pedestal where he had been used to seeing her for over half a century. Sinop, the steamship Vladimir, Sevastopol left him enraptured — he got carried away talking about the hopes Russia placed in her young tsar. I was convinced that Mikhail Fyodorovich not only loved Russia, but also knew her as only a Russian can know her.
“That’s just it,” he was saying, “Napoleon was a great man. He knew England and wanted to bring her down. She has a great deal of deceptive glitter. But learn what she’s like in her colonies, where all freedom is smothered; in her schools, where children are beaten till they’re crippled… you will see that the English are despots, an egotistical nation. Let them write whatever nonsense they want about us if it makes them happy and makes us laugh! They won’t defeat Russia that way,” concluded the old man with youthful ecstasy.