Archives for March 2014

Poor Folk I.

Last year I wrote about the experience of coming upon Pushkin via the back door of his own past rather than the usual front door opening onto the future; now I’m having the same experience with Dostoevsky. I’m pretty sure if I read his first work, Бедные люди [Poor Folk], after having read, say, the Brothers K, I’d be impatient with it, alert to all the ways it falls short of mature greatness. I’m very glad I’m not doing it that way, because that would be unfair both to the author and to my own reading pleasure. As it is, coming at it after a thorough immersion in the literature of the 1830s and early ’40s, I can see exactly why its first readers were so excited, why Grigorovich and Nekrasov shed tears over it and rushed to Dostoevsky’s apartment at four in the morning to congratulate him, and the next day brought it to Belinsky, who was equally thriled — as he told Annenkov, “You see this manuscript? I haven’t been able to tear myself away from it for almost two days now.”

The first startling thing about it is that it’s an epistolary novel. That has no bearing on quality, of course, but it’s attention-getting, because the epistolary novel, so wildly popular in Western Europe during the 18th century that parodies like Fielding’s Shamela (1741) had made it pretty much impossible to take seriously by the end of the century, never really caught on in Russia. The examples I’m aware of are Nikolai Emin’s Roza, poluspravedlivaya i original’naya povest [Rose, a half-true and original novel] (1786) and Igra sud’by [The game of fate] (1789); Aleksandr Druzhinin’s Polinka Saks (1847); Evgenia Tur’s Zakoldovanny krug [The enchanted circle] (1854); Ekaterina Letkova’s Oborvannaya perepiska [An interrupted correspondence] (1902); and Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo, ili pisma ne o lyubvi [Zoo, or Letters Not about Love] (1923). Toss in Pushkin’s “Roman v pis’makh” [A novel in letters] (a few pages he worked on in the autumn of 1829 and never finished or published) and a few short stories by Turgenev (“Perepiska” [A Correspondence], 1856), Kuprin (“Sentimental’ny roman” [A sentimental novel/romance], 1901), and Bunin (“Neizvestny drug” [An unknown friend], 1923), and you still don’t have much of a tradition. (Of course, I’m sure there are examples I’m unaware of, and will appreciate any that are pointed out in the comments.)

But in the usual epistolary novel, the letters are a vehicle for conveying plot in a particular way (“Dear X, My father has forbidden me to see Y! What shall I do?”); here, the letters actively frustrate the reader’s desire to know what’s going on. The aging Makar Devushkin is corresponding with the considerably younger Varvara Dobrosyolova; we know that he can see her window across the courtyard from his, we know that they are fond of each other, and we know that she keeps asking him to come visit and he keeps ignoring the requests and telling her to take better care of herself. But who are these people, why are they corresponding like this, what are their backstories? For a long time we have no idea; we have only their words, their endless, repetitive, subtly varied words, reminiscent of the unstoppable verbalizing of Beckett characters buried up to their necks and holding our attention like so many Ancient Mariners. Eventually Dostoevsky gives in and provides a connected text Varvara gives Makar to fill in her background, and I’m guessing the novel will settle into a more predictable groove (I will report further when I finish it, if not before), but for the moment let me provide a brief snippet from Varvara’s text that gives a hint of the mastery to come:

Я целый день надрывалась от раскаяния. Мысль о том, что мы, дети, своими жестокостями довели его до слез, была для меня нестерпима. Мы, стало быть, ждали его слез. Нам, стало быть, их хотелось; стало быть, мы успели его из последнего терпения вывесть; стало быть, мы насильно заставили его, несчастного, бедного, о своем лютом жребии вспомнить! Я всю ночь не спала от досады, от грусти, от раскаянья.

I tore myself up all day from repentance. The thought of how we children through our cruelties had brought him to tears was intolerable to me. We, therefore, had awaited his tears. We, therefore, had wanted them; therefore, we had managed to exhaust his last reserve of patience; therefore, we had compelled him forcibly, the poor unhappy man, to remember his cruel lot! All night I couldn’t sleep from vexation, from sorrow, from repentance.

The nesting of the four-times-repeated стало быть ‘consequently, therefore’ between the two occurrences of раскаянья ‘(from) repentance’ is beautiful — and I can’t find any translations that reproduce it. What is this dread of repetition? At any rate, it’s a product of the same literary mind that came up with the unforgettable opening to Записки из подполья (Notes from Underground): “Я человек больной… Я злой человек. Непривлекательный я человек.” [I am a sick man… I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man.] It is impossible in English to reproduce the way in which the pronoun я ‘I,’ the noun человек ‘person, man,’ and the three adjectives are shifted around to form a kaleidoscopic array of sentence patterns, but in the original it is immensely satisfying. I like this fellow Dostoevsky, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next!

Why Some Languages Sound More Beautiful.

This piece by Bernd Brunner may not have any particular conclusion to offer (“In the end, beauty in language is just one of those things”), but it’s always enjoyable to think about ineffabilities like “why do so many people think German sounds awful?” — and the fact that the author is German (it’s translated by Lori Lantz) makes it interesting for those of us who are used to hearing it talked about from an English-language perspective, and this is a thoughtful paragraph:

Until three years ago, before I started to learn Turkish, I didn’t really feel strongly about the language one way or another. It certainly didn’t sound particularly beautiful to me. But then I began to distinguish sounds as words or components. What’s more, I understood that the ways Turkish combines these components to produce meaning are radically different from the ways Indo-European languages function. As speaking and understanding Turkish required me to perform some mental acrobatics, my perspective on the language shifted dramatically. My deeper appreciation of Turkish not only went along with a deeper understanding of the country’s culture and people, but I also began to realize why Turks who learn German speak the way they do. And, of course, pride in mastering a language, only if to a certain extent, colored my emotional attitude towards it. Simply by learning Turkish, I was inclined to find it more beautiful.

Thanks, Paul!

More on Ninilchik.

Five years ago I posted about a dialect of Russian spoken in the Alaskan village of Ninilchik; here‘s an interview with Mira Bergelson, professor of linguistics at Moscow University, that gives some background and continues the story:

Andrei was making his survey of the Upper Kuskokwim language [in 1997], when, suddenly, we were approached by activists from the settlement of Ninilchik. They were descendants of the very first settlers.

The people were a bit older than us — the generation that had already stopped speaking Russian themselves, but remembered how Russian was still spoken when they were kids.

Russian, and everything connected with Russia, is a cultural legacy for them. And, just as there’s huge interest among native peoples in many parts of America in their own history, these people, too, want to preserve their legacy.

The people desperately wanted to capture the language, because they realized that it was dying out.

They asked us if we could compile a dictionary of their language. […] This was our first expedition; and then, for a number of years, we had to put the project on hold. In the mid-2000s, one of the advocates of recording the cultural heritage of Ninilchik, Wayne Leman — who is a specialist in the Cheyenne language — picked up the task of collecting the vocabulary of Ninilchik Russian. […]

In October 2012, we were able to return to Ninilchik and double-check almost the entire dictionary. Now, if only we can secure some time “in the field,” then we will be able to complete the dictionary project. It will be a multimedia dictionary, including photographs and sound. […]

The thing here is that the Ninilchik language existed — and continues to exist — over a very small area, in just one village. When Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, the village became cut off for 20 years; not a single ship entered the Cook Inlet.

The village population never exceeded two or three hundred people. That’s very few people. It’s here where individual differences become massively important. […]

The pronunciation norms in one family could differ from those in another, simply because, in one family, the man, who began a family with a local woman, might have been from one part of Russia, while, in another family, the man might have been from some other part of Russia. There was a large influence of bilingual Alutiq northern peoples too.

But the only language in the settlement of Ninilchik for 80 years — until the English-speaking school was opened — was Russian.

I love this kind of thing. Thanks for the link, Dan!

Elephantine.

My wife and I have begun watching Simon Schama’s BBC series The Story of the Jews, and I was quite taken aback when I heard him refer to the island of Elephantine (once inhabited by Jews) as “el-ə-fan-TEE-nee.” All my life I’ve thought of it (when I had occasion to think of it, which was very infrequently) as “el-ə-FAN-tine,” just like the adjective, but once I heard him pronounce it I realized that was ridiculous — of course it wasn’t the English adjective. So I investigated and discovered that it’s from Greek Ελεφαντίνη, Latinized as Elephantine, which gets pronounced in English either as traditional el-ə-fan-TIE-nee or reformed el-ə-fan-TEE-nee. Schama uses the latter; I, being an unreconstructed traditionalist, will train myself to use the former.

Incidentally, Wikipedia doesn’t connect this name (“after its shape, which in aerial views is similar to that of an elephant tusk, or from the rounded rocks along the banks resembling elephants [or] because it was a trading center in the ivory trade”) with its Ancient Egyptian name of Abu or Yebu; Russian Wikipedia, on the other hand, flat-out says that the Greek name “восходит к переводу древнеегипетского названия острова и города — «Абу» (транслит. егип. ȝbw), означавшего одновременно и слона и слоновую кость” [goes back to a translation of the Ancient Egyptian name of the island and city, Abu (transliteration of Egyptian ȝbw), which means both ‘elephant’ and ‘ivory’]. (I note with amusement that they do not give the alternate transliteration Yebu, which sounds incredibly obscene in Russian.) Anybody happen to know anything about this?

Imaginary Books.

Adam Smyth has a very enjoyable LRB review of The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed, by Georges Minois, translated by Lys Ann Weiss (Chicago, 2012). The book doesn’t sound great (“There are ways to articulate complexity, and Minois’s isn’t generally one of them”), but the review is a delight, full of lists of names:

Many accounts of imaginary books originate in Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1532), where, between the giants and the scatology, Rabelais describes the Library of St Victor in Paris – perhaps Europe’s earliest imaginary library. Among the volumes Pantagruel finds are The Codpiece of the Law; The Testes of Theology; On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company; Three Books on How to Chew Bacon; Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers; and The Spur of Cheese. Imaginary books get funnier when they collide with enumerative bibliography – bodiless texts meticulously pinned to a board – and Rabelais’s catalogue lists 140 titles, some of which, he tells us, ‘are even now in the presses of this noble city of Tübingen’.

The iterative wit of the phantom bibliography is at work in the best-known early English example: John Donne’s Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, or The Courtier’s Library of Rare Books Not for Sale. Unpublished until 1650, Donne wrote the text between about 1603 and 1611, and it proved popular in manuscript with his coterie readers. It is a parody of guides to courtly behaviour – a turning on its head of Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528) – and lists 34 titles including Edward Hoby’s Afternoon Belchings; Martin Luther’s On Shortening the Lord’s Prayer; and The Art of copying out within the compass of a Penny all the truthful statements made to that end by John Foxe. ‘With these books at your elbow,’ Donne suggests, ‘you may in almost every branch of knowledge suddenly emerge as an authority.’

But the review gets really riveting when it comes to the focus of Minois’s book, De tribus impostoribus, or the Treatise of the Three Imposters: “‘an aggressive work, a frontal attack upon religion’, according to Minois’s always exuberant prose, which labelled as imposters the heads of the three great monotheistic religions, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and thus reduced the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran to beguiling tricks. […] Between the 13th and the 17th centuries, De tribus circulated as a rumour and (in Minois’s words) ‘a sulphurous reputation’. Minois calls it a ‘virtual work’, but in the early centuries it was essentially an accusation” (of having been the author). The accusation was first directed by Pope Gregory IX against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, but was eventually “levelled at a who’s who of Renaissance Europe,” including “Bernardino Ochino, author of Disputa intorno (Basel, 1561), and ‘that villain and secretary of hell’ (according to Thomas Browne) who converted to all three religions in turn.”

The condemnations were accompanied by an even more frenzied hunt for the missing manuscript: rumours spread of texts circulating in Europe and De tribus was (in Minois’s phrase) ‘in the process of becoming a reality’. ‘People claimed to see the book everywhere,’ he writes. ‘They confused it with other books; they fabricated fakes, which others bought at the price of gold; and they did this while cursing the work.’ (In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton condemned ‘that pestilent booke’, ‘not to be read without shuddering’.) Minois delights in strange, Eco-esque vignettes of doomed book-hunting obsessives, like Christina, the daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who criss-crossed Europe in the 1650s looking for De tribus, flinging out rewards for information. Her diplomat Salvius was rumoured to have tracked down a manuscript after a lifetime of searching but, according to his confessor, guilt overtook him and he burned his copy shortly before he died of ‘excessive sexual activity’.

De tribus had been a rumour since the 13th century, but in the early 18th century it became a reality, several times over: multiple versions were written, in print and in manuscript, in different languages. […] A Latin manuscript, De tribus impostoribus, seems to have been in circulation in late 17th-century Germany. A Protestant minister called Johan Friedrich Mayer had a copy in his library, which brought agitated requests from readers, a few of whom were permitted to make copies. After Mayer died, and after much petitioning, Leibniz was granted permission to read the text, watched over by Mayer’s son. ‘The work consisted of 14 leaves and 28 pages in a small folio,’ Leibniz wrote in 1716. ‘One could read nothing more execrable, more impious, or even dangerous … The style is full … of affected gallicisms. The fourth page of the work has been almost entirely effaced with a pen, apparently because of the blasphemies it contains.’ This manuscript, purchased in 1716 by Prince Eugen of Savoy and now in the National Library of Vienna, appeared in print in 1753 in Vienna with the false date of 1598. […] Some claimed there was a copy in Italian. Responses and refutations of De tribus began to appear too, as did denials on the part of those accused of writing them, including Peter Arpe, who nevertheless admitted to having ‘held … in his hand’ De tribus. At some point between 1712 and 1716, a forged letter from Frederick II to Otto of Bavaria began to circulate, purporting to confirm the 13th-century origins of the (in fact newly composed) text. Publishers began to use the title De tribus to stimulate sales in any vaguely heterodox book. ‘Where do all the copies come from of this book,’ the librarian Mathurin Veyssière de La Croze fretted in 1718, ‘until now unknown to the learned world?’

What a story! The Necronomicon is a piker by comparison.

Crimean Words.

I’m getting close to the end of Orlando Figes’s The Crimean War: A History (see this post), and I was thinking of posting about the words for items of clothing related to the war; fortunately Sashura, aka Alexander Anichkin, saved me the trouble with Crimean words in English at his blog Tetradki. Besides the trio of balaclava, raglan, and cardigan that I had planned to write about, he also briefly discusses some other words and phrases. A couple of clarifications: the reason Lord Raglan would have wanted “a type of clothing that has sleeves without seams on the shoulders” is that he had had an arm amputated after Waterloo (he was well past his prime by the time of the Crimean War), and Russell did not actually write the phrase “thin red line” — he wrote “[The Russians] dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel,” and vox populi compressed it into the more memorable wording that has become a cliche.

Addendum. I might as well add this here, since it’s related to the Crimean War and isn’t worth a post on its own: before the Allied troops were shipped to the Crimea, they were pushing the Russians out of Wallachia (part of modern Romania and then under Ottoman sovereignty); the main camp was at the port of Varna, but it was overcrowded and unhealthy and there was a cholera epidemic, so many troops were moved out of town, some to a place variously called (in English-language sources) Alladyn, Aladyn, Aladdin, Aledyn, and probably other forms as well. I, of course, wanted to know where this was. Poring over maps suggested to me that it had to be what is now the Bulgarian town of Strashimirovo (Страшимирово); that Bulgarian Wikipedia article gives its old name as Голям Алъдан (Golyam Alъdan), which was suggestive, and I finally googled up a Bulgarian webpage which confirmed it: “Aladyn – Голям Аладън (дн. с. Страшимирово, Област Варна, Община Белослав).” So I’m leaving the information here to save other curious readers of history some trouble: Alladyn is modern Strashimirovo. As to whether Wikipedia’s Алъдан is a mistake for Аладън or just a variant form, I leave it to Bulgarian readers to figure out.

The Calvert Journal.

I’ve been alerted by a reader who works there to an online magazine about contemporary Russian culture, The Calvert Journal, and having finally had the leisure to check out the links, I’m impressed enough to pass them on and add the journal to my blogroll. A very topical piece by Uilleam Blacker is called “Blurred lines: Russian literature and cultural diversity in Ukraine“; it starts off [with a passage I’m deleting because it appears to be flamebait — you can of course read it at the link — and] goes on to discuss the complexities of Ukrainian literature, both past and present:

Despite their nationalised, politicised images, both Gogol and Shevchenko span the Russian-Ukrainian linguistic and cultural divide. This tradition continues today: across contemporary Ukraine, there are dozens of writers, from sci-fi novelists to prize-winning poets, who operate across the two languages. Andrei Kurkov, a Russian-language writer from Kiev, has probably sold more books in translation than any other contemporary Russian-language author. He writes his fiction in Russian, but often includes un-translated Ukrainian dialogue, while some of his children’s books and media articles come out only in Ukrainian. There are bilingual literary journals, like the Kiev-based Sho (its title means “what”, not in Ukrainian or Russian, but in surzhyk, the hybrid dialect spoken by many across the country), and one can buy anthologies of new and classic literature on Kiev or Kharkiv with texts in both languages (all of them original works: translation is not needed).

Kevin M. F. Platt writes about Latvia in “Multiple voices: Latvia’s Russophone poets embrace the power of difference“; he starts by describing the fraught history of Baltic Russians, then goes on to “the Riga-based poetry and multimedia collective Orbita, which has made a name for itself in over the past decade or so”:

Against this backdrop, the poets of Orbita stand out in sharp relief. This is a loose organisation comprised of the five poets who created the group in 1999: Timofejev, Semyon Khanin, Zhorzh Uallik, Artur Punte and Vladimir Svetlov. In addition, the group includes a large number of affiliates active in literature, visual art, music and so forth. Orbita is a hotbed of activity: a web portal, exhibitions, happenings and group appearances at festivals in Latvia, Europe, Russia, and publications of various sorts, poetic, artistic and critical. Although the poets of Orbita write in Russian, the group’s publications — including the poetic almanac, Orbita, multimedia DVDs, and a variety of other projects — are bilingual Russian–Latvian editions, produced in exquisitely designed and inventively laid-out volumes. Much of Orbita’s activity takes the form of poetic performance in collaboration with ethnic Latvian musicians, composers, artists, and poets in multimedia happenings involving recitals, music (either live or DJ), and projected video art with subtitles in Latvian and at times in English. Bilingualism is a distinctive feature of Orbita, and it reflects the group’s highly self-conscious location on the border between Russia and Latvia, or between Eurasia and Europe.

And a piece from last fall by Owen Hatherley describes “a lost generation of Yiddish writers”:

With the demise of Yiddish, due both to the Holocaust and the state of Israel’s preference for Hebrew, the poets, novelists and critics who wrote in this language have become obscure. Sherman’s anthology restores their importance. Yet the material in this book will be familiar to readers of those Russian Jewish writers who wrote in Russian, especially Isaac Babel and Vasily Grossman. The pivotal experiences are the same: revolution, a civil war accompanied by the ferocious pogroms of the White Armies, the “building of socialism”, Stalinism and the Holocaust. But the focus is different: we see a deeply local and specific commitment to internationalism and modernism, claiming both on their own terms, not as impositions from outside.

The poetry resembles German Expressionism in its intensity and angularity, appropriate to the often horrific subject matter. Leyb Kvitko’s 1923 cycle of poems 1919, for instance, about the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, are expressions of horror and helplessness from the perspective of the massacred in the shtetl: “We are small, very small / Terror drags us to the ground / A kin to its own dust” (Day and Night).

Each of the pieces is full of quotes and illustrations, and I’m looking forward to exploring the journal more thoroughly. Thanks, Jamie!

Efimok, Efimon.

I was looking through Ivan Shmelyov‘s Лето Господне [Leto Gospodne, The summer/year of the Lord], a loving reconstruction of the religious and folk life of prerevolutionary Russia, when my eye hit on the unusual word ефимоны [efimóny]. Curious, I looked it up in Vasmer (who has it as ефимон, even though it seems always to be used in the plural), and discovered it meant “great penitential psalm of Andrew of Crete read at the evening service in the first week of Great Lent,” the Old Russian form was мефимонъ [mefimon], and the etymology — wait for it — is from Greek μεθ’ἡμῶν ‘with us [is God]’! Isn’t that great?

And just above it was an equally obscure word with an equally wonderful etymology, ефимок [efímok], a name for an old coin, which comes (via Polish joachymik < Latin Joachimicus) from Joachimsthal (now Czech Jáchymov); to quote Wikipedia, “The Joachimsthaler coins minted there in the 16th century became known as thaler for short, with the word ‘dollar’ and similar words for monetary units in many languages deriving from it.” So ефимок and dollar are twins, coming from different ends of Joachim’s Valley!

Unrelated, but as a public service announcement: there’s a Kickstarter campaign for an effort to “write, illustrate and publish four books in the endangered languages of indigenous cultures in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region”; if that is of interest to you, check out the link.

New Words in the OED.

The OED new words list is always fun to peruse; the latest, for March, is perhaps more so than usual. (WARNING: If formerly unprintable vocabulary offends you, read no further.) As Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel puts it (or whoever wrote the headline for her piece): “Cunty, Cuntish, Cunted and Cunting Added to Oxford English Dictionary.” The base noun (so to speak) was omitted from the first edition but added in the 1972 Supplement, and the entry has just been updated; the first two citations are:

c1230 in M. Gelling & D. M. Stenton Place-names Oxfordshire (1953) I. 40 (MED), Gropecuntelane.
a1325 (▸c1250) Prov. Hendyng (Cambr.) xlii, in Anglia (1881) 4 190 Ȝeue þi cunte to cunnig, And crave affetir wedding.

The etymology says “Probably the reflex of an Old English form *cunte that is not securely attested (see note), cognate with Old Frisian kunte, [etc.; many Germanic forms]; further etymology uncertain.” And they have a special section on “Use in names” that makes for lively reading:

The word is recorded earliest in place names, bynames, and surnames. Compare e.g. the street name Gropecuntelane, Oxford (now Grove Passage and Magpie Lane; see quot. c1230 at sense 1); some twenty instances of this name are recorded throughout the country, at least six of them in the 13th cent., although all are now lost. It has also been suggested that the word was applied at an early date to certain topographical features, such as a cleft in a small hill or mound (in e.g. Cuntelowe, Warwickshire (1221; now lost)), a wooded gulley or valley (in e.g. Kuntecliue, Lancashire (1246, now Lower Cunliffe), Cuntewellewang, Lincolnshire (1317; now lost)), and a cleft with a stream running through it (in e.g. Cuntebecsic (field name), Caistor, Lincolnshire (a1272; now lost), Shauecuntewelle, Kent (1321; earlier as Savetuntewell (1275), now Shinglewell)), although some of the examples (from Danelaw counties) may reflect the early Scandinavian cognate rather than the English word, and some may instead show an unrelated personal name.

The Old English word itself may be shown by (to) cuntan heale (compare hale n.2) in the bounds of a piece of land at Bishopstoke, Hampshire, recorded in a charter of 960 (and again in an 11th-cent. forgery of a charter of 900). This has usually been interpreted as a topographical reference, although a more concrete interpretation is possible, and some commentators have preferred to take it as a personal name (compare use of Old Icelandic kunta as a byname).

For a full discussion of the place-name evidence, see K. Briggs ‘OE and ME cunte in place-names’ in Jrnl. Eng. Place-name Soc. 41 (2009) 26–39.

The word is also recorded from an early date in Old English and Middle English bynames and surnames. Early examples include Godewin Clawecuncte (1066; compare claw v.), Simon Sitbithecunte (1167), Gunoka Cunteles (1219), John Fillecunt (1246), Robert Clevecunt (1302), Bele Wydecunthe (1328).

Compare also apparent use in the names of flowers in Middle English, as cuntehoare fumitory (a1300; compare hoar adj. and n.), countewort butcher’s broom (a1400), counteminte catmint (a1500).

Butkov’s Attics.

Over six years ago I wrote about “an obscure mid-19th-century Russian writer called Yakov Butkov” (Russian Wikipedia), an ambitious, self-educated writer from Saratov who made his way briefly into the Saint Petersburg literary world but died young and poor; ever since then I’ve been wanting to read his best-known work, Петербургския вершины [Petersburg attics], and having found it on Google Books (and downloaded it as a pdf for my Kindle — what a great world!), I’m making it my final read before plunging into Dostoevsky. It’s by no means great literature, but it’s enjoyable reading and is clearly the product of the resentful, somewhat paranoid, hanging-on-by-his-fingernails scrivener described in the Milyukov piece. Thumbnail sketches of the stories I’ve read so far will give you an idea: in “Poryadochny chelovek” [A respectable man], poor Chubukevich wins a fortune at cards and becomes “respectable,” happily cheating others; in “Lentochka” [The ribbon], Ivan Anisimovich gets a promotion and a ribbon (because he can copy documents in a fair hand without understanding a word) and hopes this will help him win the hand of the fair Wilhelmina (“Minchen! Minochka!”), but when he shows it off to her she barely notices it and tells him happily she’s engaged to another man; in “Pochtenny chelovek” [The estimable man], the narrator (trying to evade his creditors) runs into his old pal Luka Pachkunov, who tells him how and his wife make money from fake charities; in “Bitka” [Smart guy], Samson Samsonovich, once an up-and-coming “smart guy,” now spends his time cadging drinks in a German-style tavern called Kitai [China].

Since the last-named story starts with a bit of linguistic humor, I’ll quote the opening here:

It’s a shame that from day to day the Russian Language loses the meanings and even the use of many ancient, powerful, accurate words that have been driven out by foreign ones, supposedly because our language is poor and inexpressive! Nowadays, for example, the word genius is very much in fashion. It’s worth inquiring about who gets called a genius, and why. A contributor to a magazine whom the thrifty editor or publisher doesn’t feel the need to pay for his work is called a genius by way of encouragement, when in fact he’s no genius, he’s just an unskilled laborer of the literary world. In an office, a man who has perfectly mastered officialese, who knows how to confuse a matter with clerkly flourishes and can write and copy with equal perfection passes for a genius, when he’s nothing but a pettifogger […]

Furthermore, they call someone a genius who can’t be called a unskilled laborer, or a pettifogger, or a thief, not to any extent, someone who is nothing other than a smart guy.

This story is about a smart guy.

The Russian:

Жаль, что день отъ дня теряютъ свое значеніе въ Русскомъ Языкѣ и вовсе выходятъ изъ употребленія многія древнія, сильныя, мѣткія слова, тѣснимыя иными чужеязычными словами, будто потому, что языкъ нашъ бѣденъ, невыразителенъ! Нынѣ, напримѣръ, въ большомъ ходу слово геній. Стоитъ освѣдомиться, кого и за что величаютъ геніемъ. Журнальный сотрудникъ, которому разсчетливый редакторъ, или издатель журнала, не находитъ нужнымъ платить за трудъ, называется, для поощренія, геніемъ а между тѣмъ онъ не геній, а только литературный чернорабочій. Въ канцеляріи, человѣкъ, совершенно владѣющій казеннымъ слогомъ, умѣющій запутать дѣло подьяческими крючками, съ одинаковымъ совершенствомъ пишущій и переписывающій слыветъ геніемъ, а онъ только строка
. . .
Далѣе, геніемъ называютъ такого человѣка, котораго нельзя назвать ни чернорабочимъ, ни строкою, ни воромъ, въ какомъ бы то ни было размѣрѣ, человѣка, который не что иное какъ битка.

Идетъ рѣчь о биткѣ.

The word битка [bitká] is long obsolete; Dahl defines it as “челов. бойкий, бывалый, опытный, дошлый, смелый.”