Alexander and the Mosquito.

I’ve just started Turgenev’s novel Накануне (On the Eve) — I’ve reached the 1860s! — and in the first few pages, in the course of a conversation between the young friends Bersenev and Shubin, the latter, lying on his stomach and observing the goings-on in the grass, says:

Меня больше всего поражает в муравьях, жуках и других господах насекомых их удивительная серьезность; бегают взад и вперед с такими важными физиономиями, точно и их жизнь что-то значит! Помилуйте, человек, царь созданья, существо высшее, на них взирает, а им и дела до него нет; еще, пожалуй, иной комар сядет на нос царю создания и станет употреблять его себе в пищу. Это обидно.

What strikes me most in the ants, beetles, and other gentlemen of the insect kingdom is their astonishing seriousness; they run back and forth with such grave expressions you’d think their lives actually meant something! For heaven’s sake, a person, lord of creation, a higher being, is looking at them, and they could care less. What’s more, some mosquito might sit on the nose of a lord of creation and start using him for its food. It’s insulting.

Fortunately, thanks to my strictly chronological path I had just read Turgenev’s famous lecture Гамлет и Дон-Кихот [Hamlet and Don Quixote], and the memory of this passage was fresh in my mind:

Если бы мы не боялись испугать ваши уши философическими терминами, мы бы решились сказать, что Гамлеты суть выражение коренной центростремительной силы природы, по которой все живущее считает себя центром творения и на все остальное взирает как на существующее только для него (так комар, севший на лоб Александра Македонского, с спокойной уверенностью в своем праве, питался его кровью, как следующей ему пищей; так точно и Гамлет, хотя и презирает себя, чего комар не делает, ибо он до этого не возвысился, так точно и Гамлет, говорим мы, постоянно все относит к самому себе).

If we were not afraid of frightening you with philosophical terminology, we would have said that Hamlets are the expression of the fundamental centripetal force of nature, according to which every living thing considers itself the center of creation and looks on everything else as existing only for it (so a mosquito, sitting on the forehead of Alexander of Macedon, with quiet conviction of its right to do so, fed itself on his blood as its proper food; just so does Hamlet — though he despises himself, which the mosquito does not do, because it has not raised itself to that point — just so does Hamlet, we say, constantly relate everything to himself).

It’s fun to see Turgenev using the same image in such different contexts! I presume the mosquito is the one that is supposed by some to have infected Alexander with his fatal disease.

Comments

  1. Lars (not the regular) says:

    and they could care less

    Surely you mean “and they couldn’t care less”?

  2. Are you baiting the Hat? Well, Turgenev might not have approved of the slangy construction, but I’m translating him into my dialect.

  3. Yvy tyvy says:

    Frankly, I could care more if people say they could care less.

  4. I’ve decided “they could care less” is actually not stylistically appropriate in this context, but I’m having trouble coming up with a substitute that works; maybe “they aren’t interested”?

  5. You can simply say “they don’t care”. The Russian expression is not slangy, but informal.

  6. Excellent suggestion! I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me. Brains are funny things.

  7. The use of “centripetal force” in that translation bothers me. Something like “centripetal impetus” would be fine, but “centripetal force” is such a common term in physics that seeing used to mean something entirely different from the usual scientific definition is quite off-putting. The overlapping of the standard phrases “centripetal force” and “force of nature” probably doesn’t help either.

  8. That’s a good point; I’ll change it to “impetus.”

  9. Re centripetal force: But Центростремительная сила is the exact Russian equivalent of “centripetal force” as scientific term (see the Russian Wikipedia article), so whether Turgenev uses it in a way a physicist would recognize is beside the point – he uses the physical term, not some near equivalent. So my vote goes for Hat’s original translation. 🙂

  10. OK, you’ve convinced me, and I’ve changed it back!

  11. Bathrobe says:

    Hat, will you stop flipflopping?

  12. Never!

  13. Lars (not the regular) says:

    I’ll admit to not having studied the archives; I did not intend to troll you. Something else caught my eye: For the longest time, I’ve been arguing in various forums for the existence of a certain ‘academic we’ where the referent is singular. These things have always been on the spur of the moment, and as such without examples to hand, and I’ve always been told that it doesn’t exist. I remain unconvinced, and as fate would have it, I believe I spy one here:

    “If we were not afraid of frightening you…”

    So, is this an instance of the “academic we” or is it something else?

  14. I think it is such an example — not that Turgenev was an academic, of course, but he was operating in a quasi-academic context, giving a public lecture on literature.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    I keep misreading the post title as this song title:

    Alexander og Margido (mel. Auld Lang Syne)

    To brødre gikk en gang til sjøs med skonnertbriggen Fido,
    Alexander var den enes navn, den annens var Margido.

    Og briggen kom til Frisco by efter første tørn til vanns
    Alexander i en kirke gikk, Margido dro på dans.

    I Zansibar bandittene en skibsgutt ville henge,
    Alexander reddet guttens liv, Margido tok hans penge.

    Og skuten Fido fikk en last og lasten var konjakk,
    Alexander sto til rors så fast, Margido lå og drakk.

    Så kom de på sin lange reis omsider til Torino,
    Alexander skrev et brev til mor, Margido gikk på kino.

    En natt gikk kokken over bord som han sto ved vaskebaljen,
    Alexander øvet redningsdåd, Margido fikk medaljen.

    Så ville deres gamle mor dem en Trondhjemsnål forære,
    Alexander bar den på sitt bryst, Margido lot det være.

    Så satte de for England seil men skuten Fido hvelvede,
    Alexander kom til himmelen, Margido kom til…England.

  16. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Så satte de for England seil men skuten Fido hvelvede, / Alexander kom til himmelen, Margido kom til…England.

    I wasn’t expecting England at the end, but it somehow seems appropriate.

  17. Google Translate renders skonnertbriggen as fiancé (masculine!). What the helvete is it thinking?

  18. Trond Engen says:

    (Warning: I’ve been propagating false facts. I was lazy and cut&pasted the text from the ‘net, just correcting obvious errors. Now I’ve pulled out tne songbook from the shelf, and there were more errors.)

    John C.: Google Translate renders skonnertbriggen as fiancé (masculine!). What the helvete is it thinking?

    Good work on ‘helvete’. Danish rhyme dictionary?

    ‘Skonnertbriggen’ means “brigantine”. I’ve been trying to imagine the pathway. I can’t think of any other occurence of that word than this song, and surely no other context as widespread in a Norwegian corpus. I wonder if there could be a translation of the song somewhere out there, in which Alexander asked politely for a girl’s hand and Margido took the rest of her.

    I probably should translate it myself, but the simple meter of rhyming couplets is really hard. I’d have to come up with new but equivalent ideas all the way through. Like e.g. a stanza about asking for a girl’s hand.

  19. Congratulations on reaching the 1860s in your chronological read-through of Russian literature!

    Your project has actually inspired me to undertake a similar effort (albeit in a different language’s literature). I’m wondering though what are the actual selection principles you use to determine what you read. Do you just open up a chronology of Russian literature and read through all the publications of a given year, year upon year? Or do you limit yourself just to certain major authors you’re already familiar with, and use this as a way of filling in the gaps of minor works by major writers that you never got around to before? In other words, how do you keep a project like this from spinning out of control and roaming ever farther afield?

  20. Danish rhyme dictionary?

    No, a dim memory of the word, which I checked against Wiktionary. It lists No Sw helvete but not Da. I wasn’t too sure about -ete/-ede (cf. hvelvede), but took a chance. Checking, helvete appears five times on this site alone, probably in comments by you or your landsmen.

  21. Also helvetti in Finnish.
    I remember reading a passage from a book called Побег из ада (An Escape from Hell) by Mikhail Devyatayev, translated into Finnish as Pako helvetistä. It describes his escape from a German concentration camp (in Russian).

  22. David Marjanović says:

    I knew Switzerland had a dark secret.

  23. Your project has actually inspired me to undertake a similar effort (albeit in a different language’s literature).

    Excellent! I’d be glad to hear the results; I find it incredibly useful to read each story or novel with the recent literary background fresh in my mind.

    I’m wondering though what are the actual selection principles you use to determine what you read. Do you just open up a chronology of Russian literature and read through all the publications of a given year, year upon year? Or do you limit yourself just to certain major authors you’re already familiar with, and use this as a way of filling in the gaps of minor works by major writers that you never got around to before? In other words, how do you keep a project like this from spinning out of control and roaming ever farther afield?

    Well, first I had to create my own chronology of Russian (prose) literature, because there was no such thing as far as I could discover; I started it in the summer of 2009, and it’s ballooned from a few pages to (at the moment) 232. I’ve taken a lot of trouble adding information on first publication (the March issue of such-and-such a journal) so that I can to some extent go chronologically even within a given year. I started out basically reading everything available, because up to about the 1830s there really isn’t that much, and I’m deeply grateful I was so omnivorous, because I discovered terrific authors like Vasily Narezhny and Aleksandr Veltman, who I knew only as names and would never have read for their own sake — I liked them so much I sought out and read everything I could find of theirs, and being omnivorous was really the only way I could have found them. If I started reading something and just didn’t enjoy it, I quit and moved on; I’m not a masochist.

    I’ve started becoming more selective in the last year or so; when you get to the 1850s there’s just too much, and the point, after all, was originally to have a good background for reading Dostoevsky, not to become the world expert on Russian literature of the mid-19th century. So I’m skipping stuff I have no reason to think will be of interest, but reading absolutely everything by authors I care about, like Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and at least giving a chance to works I think might be worth it (especially those by women writers, who have historically been shoved under the rug whether they were good or not). I’m not sure what you mean by “roaming ever farther afield,” but I’m making good progress — about a decade a year — and even though that will slow now that I’m in the 1860s and hitting a string of major novels, I should get to my white whale, The Brothers Karamazov, in the next few years. Then I’ll have to decide whether to press on through the ’80s and ’90s or leap ahead and read the modernist prose of the early 20th century, which I’m excited about.

  24. it’s ballooned from a few pages to (at the moment) 232.

    Update: it’s now (mid-2020) up to 304 pages.

  25. John Cowan says:

    GT has been fixed: it now translates skonnertbriggen as ‘the schooner’, which if I had half a brane I would have seen for myself.

  26. Sashura says:

    / the “academic we”/
    I agree! It’s similar to the well-established ‘doctor’s we’ – ‘Well, how are today?’
    It has long been established as good form for lectures and seminars to use ‘we’ as if inviting the audience to follow the lecturer’s argument.

  27. AJP Crown says:

    Language, it’s in the form of a chronological list but does that include a synopsis or commentary on each work as in your posts here, or just the facts? Either way a terrific, inspiring project! I wonder what Brian’s language is, he was being a bit cagey but that’s the academic way when you’re beginning something, I suppose.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    “The academic we” is obligatory in French, absent from the natural sciences in English nowadays, and not much used in German anymore either, where lectures rather resort to the impersonal pronoun.

  29. Sashura says:

    /…not to become the world expert on Russian literature of the mid-19th century./
    You sort of have!
    And let us/me know when you start on the Karamazovs, I’ll follow you page on page.

  30. Language, it’s in the form of a chronological list but does that include a synopsis or commentary on each work as in your posts here, or just the facts?

    Here’s a couple of samples (the + means I’ve read it and stand behind the description; bold means a particularly important work — I figure there’s no need to provide a plot description for them, since they’re so well known):

    1859: Goncharov, Oblomov [Oblomov] (in Jan.-Apr. OZ; as book 1859)
        Turgenev, Dvoryanskoe gnezdo [A Nobleman’s Nest, also tr. Liza and Home of the Gentry] (+young Liza Kalitina is wooed by both the worldly Panshin and the gloomy Lavretsky, who ditched his unfaithful wife in Paris; his “most characteristic, least controversial and most popular” novel; in Sovremennik 1; filmed 1915, 1969)
        Pisemsky, Gor′kaya sud′bina [A Bitter Fate] (+play: tragic triangle of Lizaveta, her serf-husband Ananii, and her sentimental and ineffectual landowner lover Cheglov; the first play to show peasant life, it “has the tensity and inevitability of the classical drama … a genuine tragedy”; in Nov. BDC)
        A. Ostrovsky, Vospitannitsa [The (female) ward, tr. A Protegée of the Mistress] (play: the “cruel, aristocratic” Ulanbekova takes in girls to raise and dispose of as she sees fit, and she insists on marrying Nadya off to the drunkard Negligentov; in Russkaya beseda 1; premiere Oct. 21, 1863)
        Dostoevsky, Selo Stepanchikovo i ego obitateli [The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants, also tr. The Friend of the Family] (+Sergei visits his kindly uncle Egor Rostanev at his country estate, where he discovers that a former hanger-on and fool, Foma Fomich Opiskin [based on Gogol], has taken despotic control of the entire family; in Nov.-Dec. OZ; as book 1860; often successfully staged, notably by MKhAT in 1919)
        Dostoevsky, Dyadyushkin son [Uncle’s Dream] (+the doddering Prince K. arrives in the town of Mordasov and Marya Aleksandrovna wants her daughter Zina to marry him for his money, but his nephew, himself in love with Zina, causes trouble; in Mar. RS; successfully staged many times, first in 1878 and notably by MKhAT in 1929)
        L. Tolstoy, Semeinoe schast′e [Family Happiness] (+teenage orphan Marya Aleksandrovna marries her guardian Sergei Mikhailovich and they are happy until they travel to Petersburg and her head is turned; overlong, didactic; in Apr. RV; as book 1886)
        L. Tolstoy, “Tri smerti” [Three Deaths] (+describes the deaths of a noblewoman, a coachman, and a tree; in Jan. BDC)
        Nikolai Dobrolyubov, “Chto takoe oblomovshchina?” [What Is Oblomovism?] (very influential review of Oblomov; made oblomovshchina a catchword among Russians; in Sovremennik 5)
        Dobrolyubov, “Tyomnoe tsarstvo” [The dark kingdom] (review of Ostrovsky’s early plays; the samodurstvo [domestic tyranny] of O’s merchant patriarchs is equated with the government and serfdom; D’s longest review; in Sovremennik 7)
        Tur, Povesti i rasskazy [Stories] (4 vols.)
        Grigory Danilevsky (as A. Skavronsky), Selo Sorokopanovka [The village of Sorokopanovka]
        Sokhanskaya (Kokhanovskaya), Iz provintsial′noi galerei portretov [From a provincial portrait gallery] (the narrator reflects on Anna Gavrilova, whose portrait she finds in a back room: Anna had run away with a suitor, escaping her overbearing father, who finally accepted the couple after flogging the young man; in RV 5; praised for its depiction of 18th-c. life and compared to S. Aksakov’s Semeinaya khronika)
        Sokhanskaya (Kokhanovskaya), “Stepnoi tsvetok na mogile Pushkina: Kriticheskii etyud” [A steppe flower on Pushkin’s grave: A critical study] (Pushkin should be seen as a deeply religious writer; in Russkaya beseda 5)
        M. Mikhailov, Blagodeteli [The benefactors] (in June-Aug. RS)
        Pavlova, “Za chainym stolom” [At the Tea-Table] (the bored, intelligent Princess toys with a young man, Khozrevsky, of inferior social position and rejects him when he admits that he has been feigning stupidity to try and get a job with a rich man; in RV 12)
        Yakov Polonsky, Rasskazy [Stories] (prose by the lyric poet)
        Marko Vovchok (Mariya Vilinskaya/ Markovich), Rasskazy iz narodnogo russkogo byta [Stories from the everyday life of the Russian people] (stories of peasant life, told in “a lilting idiom that stylizes peasant speech and oral tradition”; +“Masha” [first in Russkaya beseda 3] features a serf girl who for years refuses to work for her owner – highly praised by Dobrolyubov, but called artless by Dostoevsky)
        Mei, Na paperti [On the church porch] (autobiog. story, as book 1887)
        Grigoriev, “Vzglyad na russkuyu literature so smerti Pushkin” [A look at Russian literature since the death of Pushkin] (calls Pushkin “our everything”; in Russkoe slovo 2-3)
        Zotov, Teatral′nye vospominaniya [Memories of the theater]
        Stepan Zhikharev [as “Zh-v”], Zapiski sovremennika [Notes of a contemporary] (selection of letters in two parts: Zapiski studenta [Notes of a student], covering 1805-07, and Zapiski chinovnika [Notes of an official], 1807-17; many observations about literary circles and the theater)

    1929-30: Nabokov (Sirin), Zashchita Luzhina [Luzhin’s defense, tr. The Defense] (N’s “first masterpiece”: Berberova wrote “A tremendous, mature, sophisticated modern writer was before me… We were saved”; in SZ Oct. 1929–April 1930; as book 1930)
        Mayakovsky, Banya [The Bathhouse] (satirical play: the Phosphorescent Woman arrives from the year 2030, when discipline, efficiency, and hard work are cultivated, and wants to bring a Soviet citizen back with her; the ignorant, self-promoting Pobedonosikov takes her up on it and shows up with his mistress, a huge amount of luggage, and paper for the bureaucracy he expects to run; excerpts pub. 1929-30, separate ed. 1930; premiere Jan. 30, 1930 in Leningrad, in Moscow at Meyerhold’s theater Mar. 16, both fiascos; scathing reviews on political grounds)
        G. Ivanov, Tretii Rim [The third Rome] (Petrograd in Oct. 1916–Feb. 1917: bureaucrats, spies, titled Marxists, card sharps…; first part in SZ 39-40 1929, second part [influenced by French surrealism] in Chisla 2-3 1930; unfinished)
        Malyshkin, Sevastopol′ [Sebastopol] (“emotional perplexities of a sailor who, between February and December 1917, gradually opts for the Revolution”; as book 1931)

    (The journal abbreviations are explained in the introduction.)

  31. And let us/me know when you start on the Karamazovs

    That was last year!

  32. AJP Crown says:

    My God what a project. Interesting juxtapositions. Categorising work according its date is fascinating in art & architecture too.

    I suppose you’ve got more layout options in Word or whichever program you use. You must have graphics (background color & type) like the OED (for example) has, something that steers you subliminally through the info.

    I like the Phosphorescent Woman from the year 2030 – quite prescient.

  33. AJP Crown says:

    If you’re up to 1930, does that mean you’re almost finished, done with the Futurists and the 1890s?

  34. I suppose you’ve got more layout options in Word or whichever program you use.

    I use Word, and it looks pretty much like you see there except the indents are more indented. Yes, I think seeing what was published in the same year is fascinating. (They’re arranged in very rough order of importance — other things being equal novels come first, then novellas, then collections, then plays, then stories, then critical works, but other things are rarely equal; in 1883 Garshin’s short story “The Scarlet Flower” comes first, because it made a much greater impact than anything else published that year.)

  35. If you’re up to 1930, does that mean you’re almost finished, done with the Futurists and the 1890s?

    You’re conflating two different things. The Chronology has always been up to the moment; it’s got several entries for 2020 already. As I continue my reading, I keep adding more + descriptions (as well as more descriptions I take from elsewhere). At the moment, I’m reading stuff from the 1960s, but every once in a while I dip back into the 1880s to read more Tolstoy and Chekhov. I like having a general plan, but I can’t stand being too rigid about it.

  36. Here’s the first few entries from 2017 (too much trouble to add the formatting for a couple dozen):

    2017: Gigolashvili, Tainy god [The secret year] (hist. novel: two weeks in 1575, when Ivan the Terrible withdrew to Alexandrova Sloboda; “unflinching depiction of the sordid squalor and casual cruelty” of the times; “masterfully archaised language modelled on the florid style of Ivan the Terrible’s epistolary writings”)
            Lev Danilkin, Lenin: Pantokrator solnechnykh pylinok [Lenin: Pantocrator of dust motes in sunlight] (biography; “detailed and absorbing”; Big Book 2017)
            Pelevin, iPhuck 10 (the robot Porfiry Petrovich investigates crimes and writes popular novels; 2017 Andrei Bely award)
            Bykov, Iyun′ [June] (three intertwining stories take place in Sep. 1939-June 1941)
            Sorokin, Manaraga [Manaraga (name of mountain in Urals)] (diary set in mid-21st c.; involves chefs who use illicitly procured books to grill food in private homes; “in the bosom of Mount Manaraga … molecular ‘originals’ of archaic copies of great classics are secretly manufactured”)
            Slapovsky, Neizvestnost′: Roman veka 1917-2017 [Uncertainty: Novel of a century] (history of a family in diaries, letters, documents, and stories: a Civil War hero is crushed by the NKVD, his son works for the NKVD, his grandson works in advertising; “muddled”)
            Petrushevskaya, Nas ukrali: Istoriya prestuplenii [We’ve been kidnapped: A (hi)story of crimes] (set in 1980s-90s: babies get switched in hospital; melodrama ensues)

    As you see, for recent years I’ve noted when books won major awards (Booker, Big Book, Andrei Bely).

  37. Owlmirror says:

    Pelevin, iPhuck 10

    I wondered what the Russian version of this was, but the WikiP page shows that it was originally written only using Latin characters. And that it refers to a “sex machine” (per Google Trans), which I was also wondering about.

    the robot Porfiry Petrovich

    And I also wonder if the name was chosen because the author liked the sound, or if it was a deliberate allusion to either the stone or the philosopher.

  38. AJP Crown says:

    As I continue my reading, I keep adding more
    It must be kind of fun fitting the pieces into the jigsaw as you go.

    iPhuck 10
    How did this transliteration come about (ie what was the original, that it worked with both iPhone and Fuck)?

    Gigolashvili, Tainy god [The secret year] (hist. novel: two weeks in 1575, when Ivan the Terrible withdrew to Alexandrova Sloboda
    That might be worth comparing with Hilary Mantel’s Thos Cromwell novels since they’re almost contemporaneous.

  39. AJP Crown says:

    Ha ha, Owl Mirror had the same thought.

  40. Owlmirror says:

    I also note that the WikiP page says that Porfiry (Porphyry?) is an “algorithm” (AI?) rather than a robot.

    In addition to iPhuck being the sex machine, it’s the title of a novel written by the algorithm. So “iPhuck” is the title of the novel by Pelevin, the name of the sex machine, and the name of a novel inside the novel.

  41. And I also wonder if the name was chosen because the author liked the sound, or if it was a deliberate allusion to either the stone or the philosopher.

    It’s the name of the detective in Crime and Punishment.

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