BENE RESHEP.

I’ve finally started Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time by Joseph Frank, very generously given me by Noetica back in 2010; part of the reason for my chronological progress through Russian literature has been to build up a background for reading Dostoevsky in Russian, and now that I’ve gotten up to the 1840s I’ve begun Frank’s magisterial bio. One of the things I’ve learned so far is that unlike every other major nineteenth-century Russian writer, Dostoevsky grew up with a traditional Orthodox religious education (most aristocrats by then “had long since ceased to be concerned about Orthodox Christianity, even though they continued to baptize their children in the state religion and to structure their lives in accordance with its rituals”), and along with the Gospels and lives of the saints, he particularly loved the book of Job (“Years later, when Dostoevsky was reading the book of Job once again, he wrote his wife that it put him into such a state of ‘unhealthy rapture’ that he almost cried. ‘It’s a strange thing, Anya, this book is one of the first in my life which made an impression on me; I was then still almost a child’”). Fortunately, the Church Slavonic Bible he would have known is online, so I’ve been reading Job (pdf) alongside my modern Russian Bible (since my Church Slavonic is rusty).
Job has always been one of my favorites, too, and it’s been a pleasure to reacquaint myself with it in its Slavonic guise. But when I got to one of the most famous lines in the Bible, “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7), I did a double take. The Slavonic has “но человѣкъ раждаетсѧ на троудъ, птенцы же соупѡвы высокѡ парѧтъ”: ‘but man is born to trouble; the vulture birds soar high’ (I don’t know how to render же here, so I’m going with a vague semicolon). Vulture birds?? I checked my modern version, which had the expected “но человек рождается на страдание, как искры, чтоб устремляться вверх,” with искры ‘sparks.’ How did those birds get there? The ancient but easily accessible Barnes’ Notes on the Bible (Job 5) says:

As the sparks fly upward – The Hebrew expression here is very beautiful – “as רשׁף בני benēy reshep – the sons of flame fly.” The word used (רשׁף reshep) means flame, lightning; the sons, or children of the flame, are that which it produces; that is, sparks. Gesenius strangely renders it, “sons of the lightning; that is, birds of prey which fly as swift as the lightning.” So Dr. Good, “As the bird-tribes are made to fly upwards.” So Umbreit renders it, Gleichwie die Brut des Raubgeflugels sich hoch in Fluge hebt – “as a flock of birds of prey elevate themselves on the wing.” Noyes adopts the construction of Gesenius; partly on the principle that man would be more likely to be compared to birds, living creatures, than to sparks. There is considerable variety in the interpretation of the passage. The Septuagint renders it, νεοσσοι δε γυπος neossoi de gupos – the young of the vulture. The Chaldee, מזיקי בני benēy mezēyqēy – the sons of demons. Syriac Sons of birds. Jerome, Man is born to labor, and the bird to flight – et avis ad volatum. Schultens renders it, “glittering javelins,” and Arius Montanus, “sons of the live coal.”

That’s considerable variety, all right; can we get a better explanation of what’s going on? The most detailed commentary I could find was in C. L. Seow’s Job 1 – 21: Interpretation and Commentary, which renders the phrase “the offspring of pestilence” (!) and explains:

Most of the Vrss take bĕnê rešep to be some sort of bird or just birds in general (so OG, Aq, Symm, Vulg, Pesh). The view that bĕnê rešep refers to birds may be due partly to the presence of ‘wp, “flying,” and partly to the expression yagbîah nāšer, “the eagle soars,” in 39:27. The association of rešep with birds may have arisen in Egypt, where the Semitic deity Resheph is identified with the gods Montu and Horus, who are portrayed in the form of the falcon (see Lipiński 1999, 255-59). [He casts detailed doubt on the 'bird' hypothesis.] The different variants of Targ offer an interesting variety of interpretations: (1) Targ1: gysyn dntkyn, “sparks that leap (from burning coals)”; (2) Targ2: bny mzyqy, “sons of demons”; and (3) Targ3: gwmryn dghyhnm, “burning coals of Gehenna.” The first and third interpretations assume that rešep means something burning, following later interpretations of Song 8:6[...]. Hence, bĕnê rešep is taken to mean “sparks” [...] Targ2, however, relates rešep to pestilence, as in Deut 32:24 [...]; Ps 78:48; and Hab 3:5, which echo the role of the god Resheph, a winged god of pestilence in ancient Near Eastern mythology [...] Thus, bĕnê rešep may mean “offspring of Resheph,” that is, arrows or anything that is shot into the air. Since “arrows” may be a metaphor for one’s progeny (Ps 127:4-5), bĕnê rešep may refer to the deadly issues of pestilence, perhaps diseases in the air [...] Given the context and the unabated development of the plant metaphor, one may take these airborne things to be pollen. At the same time, these things that are in the air may point to other forms of contagion — diseases that passed on from one person to another. soar.

I’m way out of my depth here, but I don’t care what modern scholarship says, in this case I’ll stick with my old mumpsimus: “as the sparks fly upward” is just too beautiful and too deeply ingrained to give up.
Another surprise in reading the modern version was the word скимн in 4:10: “Рев льва и голос рыкающего умолкает, и зубы скимнов сокрушаются” [The roar of the lion and the voice of the roaring one fall silent, and the teeth of the skimny are broken]. It turns out that скимн (or ски́мен) is a borrowing from Greek σκύμνος ‘lion cub’; it would be unsurprising to encounter it in Church Slavic (which in fact has something totally different), but what on earth is this terminally obscure word, which is in no Russian dictionary I can find and which I can’t believe any modern Russian could possibly understand without special instruction, doing in a version allegedly for modern Russians?

Comments

  1. Hat, is this from Frank?
    “unlike every other major nineteenth-century Russian writer, Dostoevsky grew up with a traditional Orthodox religious education (most aristocrats by then “had long since ceased to be concerned about Orthodox Christianity, even though they continued to baptize their children in the state religion and to structure their lives in accordance with its rituals”
    I’m not at all sure about “most aristocrats” – but certainly major writers cared about Orthodoxy, in one way or another, and certainly knew it. Think of Tolstoy, or Chekhov, or Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva…

  2. Hat: what does skimny mean pls ?

  3. I’m not at all sure about “most aristocrats” – but certainly major writers cared about Orthodoxy, in one way or another, and certainly knew it. Think of Tolstoy, or Chekhov, or Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva…
    It’s not a matter of caring about Orthodoxy “in one way or another”; Orthodoxy as a cultural/ritual phenomenon was closely identified with Russianness, and even non-Christian Russian writers were fascinated with it. It’s specifically a matter of being steeped from childhood in things like the Сто четыре священные истории из Ветхого и Нового Завета and the lives of the saints, which the vast majority of aristocrats (and even more so the European tutors to whom they entrusted their children’s education) considered foolishness fit only for peasants; Frank says “Most upper-class Russians would have shared the attitude exemplified in Herzen’s anecdote about his host at a dinner party who, when asked whether he was serving Lenten dishes out of personal conviction, replied that it was ‘simply and solely for the sake of the servants.’” About other writers, he says (p. 23):

    It was only at fifteen (after he had read Voltaire, as Herzen remarks) that Herzen’s father “brought in a priest to give religious instruction so far as this was necessary for entrance into the University.” Tolstoy, though raised largely by devout relatives, was also never given any religious education as a child. Turgenev’s monstrous mother held the religion of the common people in such contempt that, instead of the usual prayers, she substituted each day at table the reading of a French translation of Thomas à Kempis.

    Later (pp. 26-27):

    One can gauge from such details how completely Dostoevsky’s childhood immersed him in the spiritual and cultural atmosphere of Old Russian piety and brought him emotively close to the beliefs and feelings of the illiterate peasantry still untouched by secular Western culture. For the Russian upper class, of course, religion and the people were inseparable, and it was by frequenting the servants’ quarters that the offspring of the aristocracy first became acquainted with the sources of their native culture and the deep religious roots of Russian folk-feeling. The role that Pushkin assigned to his old nurse as a transmitter of folk tradition has immortalized this crucial encounter in the lives of so many educated Russians. Dostoevsky also went through a similar archetypal initiation, but for him the contrast between his home environment and that of the servants and the peasants was much less accentuated. One can scarcely imagine him hiding in a closet, like the young Tolstoy, to watch the exciting and unfamiliar spectacle of the saintly fool (yurodivy) who lived in the Tolstoy household saying his nightly prayers amid sobs and exclamations. There was nothing exotic about the people and their faith to Dostoevsky as a child, and both entered his world in a more natural fashion.

  4. what does skimny mean pls ?
    It means ‘lion cub’ (or by extension ‘dangerous wild animal’), like the Greek.

  5. Fokkelman’s new translation has “sparks” and comments that it was probably a proverb, so no help there.

  6. How did those birds get there?
    The Septuagint, as with all the weirdness in Church Slavic translations.
    Somewhat OT, but related, James Kugel‘s remarks on the origin of Job:

    “No one knows for sure when the book of Job was written. Some modern scholars have claimed on the basis” of its language that it is a very ancient work, indeed, one of non-Israelite origin, but there is little in the book itself to support such a view. The language is, to put it impolitely, phone baloney, a language no real person ever spoke. The reason is that, while the book is written basically in Hebrew, the author has stuffed it with loan words from Aramaic, Akkadian and other foreign tongues. This was done in an attempt to give the work a foreign flavor – rather the way Tolstoy liked to insert long passages of French into his Russian novels so that readers would feel they were peering into the aristocratic circles of dvorjanstvo.”

  7. Man, I really have to get around to reading Kugel (jamessal gave me a copy which is peering at me from a shelf to my left).

  8. Dostoevsky’s family was not aristocratic. As another example, Chekhov was brought up with a full dose of Orthodoxy, the traces of which is very hard to find in his stories, at least for non-expert reader like me.

  9. Dostoevsky’s family was not aristocratic.
    It’s not that simple. The Doestoevskys were from the Lithuanian nobility; the name is from Dostoevo, a village granted to an ancestor in the 16th century. They then, as Frank says, “sank into the lowly class of the non-monastic clergy,” but D’s father managed to get himself inscribed on the rolls of the hereditary nobility of Moscow, and Frank says “It is clear from the memoirs of Dostoevsky’s younger brother Andrey—our only reliable source for these early years—that the children had been informed about the family’s ancient patent of nobility, and looked on their father’s recent elevation as a just restoration of their rightful rank. The Dostoevskys thought of themselves as belonging to the old gentry aristocracy rather than to the new service nobility created by Peter the Great—the class to which, in fact, their father had just acceded.” (Proust would have loved this.)
    That said, of course their way of life was very different from that of the “true” aristocracy, which is why his education was so unusual for a writer of his day.

  10. J. W. Brewer says:

    The work (written maybe circa the late 1860′s?) by St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) titled in at least one English translation “The Spiritual Life and How To Be Attuned To It” is in the form of a series of letters of advice/instruction to a young lady from the higher echelons of Russian society (I don’t know if a real person, or if this epistolary structure was a literary device) interested in understanding Orthodoxy more deeply. (She is wondering if there is perhaps more to life than wearing expensive dresses and going to balls etc. etc.) Separate and apart from the substance of its affirmative message, it is perhaps an interesting contemporaneous document as to the low level of religious instruction/understanding it assumes the addressee and her social set have been exposed to.

  11. From a modern Hebrew perspective, for what that’s worth, the “flames” reading seems hardly possible: יַגְבִּיהוּ עוּף “fly high” (lit. “make high [their] flying”) couldn’t conceivably be said of sparks, only of things whose flight is agentive rather than passive. “Man was born to toil, as sons of the lightning/birds were born to fly high” makes pretty good sense, taking bĕnê rešep as a kind of kenning.

  12. Interesting, thanks!

  13. Joe Burke says:

    See Robert Alter’s take here.
    He goes with a traditional “sparks flying upward,” but also notes the possibility of a mythological reference.

  14. Though come to think of it, I think you could say יַגְבִּיהוּ עוּף “make high their flight” of arrows. So maybe it’s not about agentive flight, but flight with a defined trajectory? In any case it sounds totally wrong applied to sparks.
    (I have some distant relatives who are literally bĕnê rešep, by the way, since Reshef was the Hebraization of the surname Recht chosen by a cousin of mine.)

  15. things whose flight is agentive rather than passive
    I don’t know, the modern Russian rendition with sparks goes “чтоб устремляться вверх”, “to thrust oneselves upwards” which comes across as agentive rather than passive. So it must Hebrew specific way of never ascribing agency to inanimate objects?

  16. Hat, no.
    Maybe you’ve got things confused here. Are you talking about writers or aristocrats? It’s absolutely wrong to say “unlike every other major nineteenth-century Russian writer, Dostoevsky grew up with a traditional Orthodox religious education.” As someone has already mentioned, Chekhov had an extremely intense Orthodox education. Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were church-goers and believers from childhood. Those are the writers who come to mind immediately, which already makes your statement false.
    As for the aristocracy — come on. Frank sounds ridiculous. “Most upper class Russians would have shared the beliefs..” — did he do a sociological survey? This is a great exaggeration.
    And then, calling Dostoevsky part of the aristocracy? Having a claim is not the same thing as living in a palace and having one or more estates.

  17. As someone has already mentioned, Chekhov had an extremely intense Orthodox education. Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were church-goers and believers from childhood. Those are the writers who come to mind immediately, which already makes your statement false.
    Chekhov straddles the centuries and his most famous works (to the English-speaking world) are from the twentieth century, and Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva are twentieth-century writers pure and simple, which makes your statement false. And I’m not sure why you’re being so belligerent about this and so determined to try to show I’m peddling total bullshit. Perhaps you’re not aware that Frank is and has been for decades the great Dostoevsky scholar of the English-speaking world; he’s deeply immersed in the writer’s times and knows them and the family history far better than you do. I’m sorry his conclusions displease you for some reason, but yelling at him or me isn’t going to affect their truth.
    And then, calling Dostoevsky part of the aristocracy? Having a claim is not the same thing as living in a palace and having one or more estates.
    Again, he was part of the aristocracy, whether that thought pleases you or not. As I said, “of course their way of life was very different from that of the ‘true’ aristocracy, which is why his education was so unusual for a writer of his day.”

  18. I mean, you seem to be saying Dostoevsky’s religious upbringing and attitudes were not significantly different from those of other writers of his time. Is that what you believe?

  19. J. W. Brewer says:

    Tolstoy’s presumably equally-aristocratic sister ended up as a nun.* It is certainly possible that this was a reaction against a secularized/Westernized upbringing (rather than implying a more pious Orthodox upbringing), although Tolst’s own need to feud publicly with the Church rather than paying it nominal lip service while ignoring it for practical purposes made him in his own way at least as much of an outlier (for an aristocrat-turned-intellectual) as Dost, didn’t it?
    In any event, I’m not sure what’s meant by “major nineteenth-century Russian writer.” If it means “someone famous enough to be on the syllabus of an American college 19th-century-Russian-lit-in-translation survey class,” we’re talking about maybe six or eight names, tops, so for one of them to have something biographically distinctive not shared by the others is not very statistically interesting because it’s such a small sample. On the other hand, if you figured out, for example, which 200 books sold the most copies over the course of the 19th century in Russia and treated their authors (many perhaps now lapsed into obscurity and perhaps never translated into English) as the relevant sample, you might get somewhat different results in terms of the range of class backgrounds and philosophical/political/theological outlooks of the writers. I know hat is engaged in a project of working through a lot of the now-forgotten Russian authors from early in the century, but whether he’s working strictly from the best-seller list or some quote literary unquote subset of it is not clear to me.
    *Via google one can pull up the N.Y. Times story (Nov. 14, 1910) hilariously headlined TOLSTOY IN CONVENT; A TYPIST IS WITH HIM, after he ran away from his wife shortly before his death and paid a visit to his sister. She was in the Shamordino convent, which was located near (and sort of informally affiliated with) the monastery of the legendary Optina Fathers, who were by most accounts very influential on Dost and drew more than a typical share of intelligentsy visitors/pilgrims (including Turgenev and Gogol, if wikipedia is to be believed).

  20. I know hat is engaged in a project of working through a lot of the now-forgotten Russian authors from early in the century, but whether he’s working strictly from the best-seller list or some quote literary unquote subset of it is not clear to me.
    I’m basically reading everything I can find freely available unless I start it and find it too damn boring (like Lazhechnikov’s «Последний Новик»).
    I’m not sure what Tolstoy’s sister ending up as a nun has to do with anything, but if people want to reject Frank’s informed analysis based on their own preconceptions and random factoids, I can’t stop them. Me, I like to learn new things that overturn my preconceptions.

  21. J. W. Brewer says:

    Oh, I see; you were treating Frank’s claim as interesting new information contrary to your preconceptions whereas others were perhaps treating it as an old cliche of the sort that’s unlikely to be true if examined closely. But whether it’s true or not may in any event depend on who Frank is including in the set of “major” writers, where, as I suggested before, you could have a list of 6 or a list of 16 or a list of 60. I note that the New York Times obit of Frank says lots of glowing things about his work on Dost, but interestingly enough lists a dozen or more other famous literary types (ranging from Flaubert to Robert Penn Warren) he had also written about, none of whom were Russian, and indeed none of whom wrote in a language other than English or French. It is nice to think that so deep was his devotion to Dostoevsky that he turned himself into a competent social historian of 19th century Russia solely in order to have an appropriate context in which to understand Doestoevsky, but I’m not sure that I would assume that to be the case. I’m pretty sure I’ve read a number of well-reviewed biographies of literary figures that did not actually reflect any deeper knowledge of the religious/political/historical context of the subject’s life than could have been gained from skimming (in pre-wikipedia days . . .) a few English-language secondary sources.

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    Let me try it in the form of a syllogism:
    Major premise: most (although certainly not all) people who end up becoming monks or nuns grew up in more-pious-than-average households.
    Minor premise 1: Tolstoy’s sister grew up to become a nun.
    Minor premise 2: Tolstoy and his sister grew up in the same household.
    Conclusion: it is plausible, albeit not certain, that Tolstoy (who is assumed arguendo to qualify as a major nineteenth-century Russian writer) grew up in a more-pious-than-average household.
    Indeed, as quoted above Frank says that Tolstoy was raised by “devout relatives” and that the estate had a real live yurodivy right on the premises. Saying “oh yes but he nonetheless felt subjectively distant from all the religious stuff he was exposed to as a child by some sort of mysterious psychosocial barrier that Doestoevsky by contrast didn’t feel” may be a claim that’s not inconsistent with the evidence, but I’m not sure if it’s falsifiable.
    Or is Frank saying that Orthodoxy is somehow not authentic Orthodoxy without the accompanying baggage of peasant superstition?

  23. This is interesting! I have a print Church Slavonic Bible (1910, approved by the Sinod) – and! – there are no скимены in Job 4-10, it reads: “Сила львова, гласъ же львицы, веселiе же sмiєвъ (змиев) оугасе (угасе)”.
    The verse you quote comes under 4-11 (д-аi): “мраволевъ погибе, занеже не имае(ять)ше брашна, ски(ижица)мни же льво(омега)вы о(омега)ставиша друг другу.”
    So, the lion cubs are there, but no teeth crunching. Mravolev (old lion) dies because there is no food (brashno) and the cubs stop fighting. Does this make better sense?

  24. Mravolev (old lion) dies
    and apparently the whelps are left behind to die, but it only gets more convoluted from there. Is Mravolev actually a lion at all? It looks like it might have been a lion, or maybe a tiger, in the original Hebrew, but then it fell to another Septuagint mistranslation of Job (in this section, the Book of Job used a whole succession of words for lions, each being used only once; the same literary effect is maintained in the Slavonic Bible too. Alas, one of the words was so obscure that the Septuagint translator mistook it for an entirely different “lion” creature)
    For “мраволевъ” ~ муравьиный лев, Eng. antlion, an insect rather than a big cat. Building on the translator’s mistake, the interpretation of Nikodim Svyatogorets posits that it isn’t even an antlion but an ant and a lion as in small sins which bite like an ant leading to larger sins tearing you apart like a lion and then you are done with, yeah!
    Anyway “antlion” is stably calqued across languages; scientific Myrmeleo <= Gr. μύρμηξ+λέων isn’t exactly the word from the Septuagint Job which AFAICT was myrmecoleon, but as close as it gets.

  25. Or is Frank saying that Orthodoxy is somehow not authentic Orthodoxy without the accompanying baggage of peasant superstition?
    It’s not a matter of authentic or not, it’s a matter of types of religious existence. Surely you see that there’s a difference between being raised in a household where religion is treated as a source of annoying fast days and occasional required church services and one where it forms the unquestioned framework of daily life and thought.
    Conclusion: it is plausible, albeit not certain, that Tolstoy (who is assumed arguendo to qualify as a major nineteenth-century Russian writer) grew up in a more-pious-than-average household.
    Oddly, we actually know quite a bit about Tolstoy’s life and don’t have to depend on syllogisms derived from his sister’s. His father read Buffon, Cuvier, and Songs of the Freemasons. His early education was provided by Rössel the German tutor and Aunt Toinette, who taught him French; Troyat says “At five Leo Tolstoy knew the French alphabet as well as the Russian; and he said later that he often thought directly in French.” His father “came into the boys’ room, quickly sketched something with a sure hand,” chatted a bit with Rössel in German, told Leo to recite Pushkin, told a funny story, and left. Does that really sound to you at all comparable to the way Dostoevsky grew up?
    Look, I’m not saying Frank (despite his years of concentration on Dostoevsky) is automatically right and you and Mab are automatically mistaken, but I’m going to need more than vague generalizations and references to sisters who became nuns to have serious doubts about his conclusions.

  26. Don’t mind me, I’m not as fighty as I sound, I just enjoy arguing!

  27. J. W. Brewer says:

    I suppose I am not enough of a Slavophil to take evidence of exposure to, or even facility in, the French language as establishing frivolity or heresy. Many very pious Russians post-1917 even settled in Paris without losing their faith. But this notion of uniformly secularized rich kids v. uniformly pious-yet-superstitious peasants seems even more simplistic than the Capital-City-v.-Nowheresville dichotomy you were complaining about in the other thread. Tolstoy himself in hindsight painted his childhood religious upbringing as superficial and pro forma and his lapse from it as nigh-inevitable for someone of his social class and education. But he would, wouldn’t he?

  28. Hat, you wrote: unlike every other major nineteenth-century Russian writer, Dostoevsky grew up with a traditional Orthodox religious education (most aristocrats by then “had long since ceased to be concerned about Orthodox Christianity, even though they continued to baptize their children in the state religion and to structure their lives in accordance with its rituals”),
    This means: no other major 19th century Russian writer had a traditional Orthodox religious education and Orthodoxy didn’t mean much to most aristocrats.
    The first part of that statement is simply wrong unless you define “major” and “traditional Orthodox religious education” and “19th century” in such particular ways that you eliminate Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, Tyuchev, and Aksakov, to name a few writers.
    And then what about all those 20th century writers – Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelshtam, Blok — with strong religious educations, strong religious beliefs, or strong religious imagery in their work? Does Frank posit some kind of late 19th century religious revival? Where did they all come from?
    The second part of that statement is mushy. What is “most”? What does “long since ceased to be concerned about Orthodox Christianity” mean? Yes, a large part of the aristocracy was Europeanized and not particularly religious. But another part was fiercely conservative and extremely religious.
    (And unless I misunderstand Frank, his “aristocrats” are a social class – not a poor doctor’s family who had some noble blood.)
    I agree with JWBrewer that you seem to be making/quoting a very simplistic – and incorrect – “notion of uniformly secularized rich kids v. uniformly pious-yet-superstitious peasants.” I don’t know if that’s your point or if that’s Frank’s point, but I disagree with it – and not based on (your insulting insinuations about) preconceptions and ignorance and random factoids. Come on, now, Hat. You guys pounce on anything and anyone — surely you can take some questioning without getting insulting.

  29. I agree with JWBrewer that you seem to be making/quoting a very simplistic – and incorrect – “notion of uniformly secularized rich kids v. uniformly pious-yet-superstitious peasants.”
    Well, I don’t, but I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m sorry you felt I was being insulting, but my first response to you was straightforward and factual: I quoted enough to show (I thought) what I was talking about. Then you came in with guns blazing: “Hat, no. Maybe you’ve got things confused here. … which already makes your statement false. As for the aristocracy — come on….”
    Now, it’s one thing to disagree; I would have been perfectly happy to have you say “It seems to me it’s more complicated than you’re presenting it” or whatever. But “No, you’re confused, come on” got my back up. I responded “I’m sorry his conclusions displease you for some reason, but yelling at him or me isn’t going to affect their truth. … Again, he was part of the aristocracy, whether that thought pleases you or not.” That may be unsweetened, but I don’t see how you can call it insulting. And J. W. Brewer was saying I was so ignorant I was “treating Frank’s claim as interesting new information” when it was actually “an old cliche of the sort that’s unlikely to be true if examined closely.” And you keep repeating that D. was somehow not really an aristocrat when 1) his family was from the old Lithuanian nobility, 2) his father was on the rolls of the hereditary nobility, and 3) the children “looked on their father’s recent elevation as a just restoration of their rightful rank” and “thought of themselves as belonging to the old gentry aristocracy.” You seem so invested in the idea that he couldn’t possibly have been an aristocrat you don’t want to think about these facts. Unless, of course, you have evidence that Frank was just making all that up, in which case I’d love to hear it.
    Look, we all enjoy back-and-forthing about stuff, and I certainly prefer to keep it amicable, but I’m going to respond according to how I perceive I’m being treated. “Cet animal est tres méchant; quand on l’attaque il se défend.”
    As for the whole religion thing, I confess to being baffled at the pushback, which reads as if I had said “Dostoevsky was devoutly Orthodox, whereas no other Russian writer had ever heard of religion.” I mean, I think it’s interesting that he had a childhood more steeped in religion than most writers of his day, and certainly than the famous ones; I’m sorry I didn’t phrase it in exactly the way you and J.W. would prefer, but unless you’re claiming there’s no difference at all between his upbringing and that of the others (in which case, again, I’d like to see evidence), I don’t think there’s much to disagree about—we just differ in how interesting we find it.

  30. J.W. Brewer says:

    How does Frank characterize the religious aspect of Gogol’s childhood, described in a few references I just checked as more than nominally or pro forma religious, with his parents according to one source having married after a mystical vision experienced by his father. This is not inconsistent with Nabokov’s rather curmudgeonly bio of Gogol, which devotes less than a paragraph to his boyhood (which VN apparently thought too boring to get into) but seems to ascribe Gogol’s religiosity in later years (very much different from VN’s own personality and not to VN’s taste) to the influence of his mother (who was rather obviously not to VN’s taste).

  31. I would have been perfectly happy to have you say “It seems to me it’s more complicated than you’re presenting it”
    This made me laugh out loud. As if anyone has responded that way to just about anything I’ve posted recently. Maybe it’s the demographics.

  32. How does Frank characterize the religious aspect of Gogol’s childhood
    Well, he doesn’t, since he’s doing a biography of Dostoevsky, not Gogol, but that’s certainly an interesting question. Anybody know a good Gogol bio?
    This made me laugh out loud.
    Good, I’d much rather have you amused than pissed off! Again, I apologize if I caused offense; I certainly didn’t mean to.

  33. “As another example, Chekhov was brought up with a full dose of Orthodoxy, the traces of which is very hard to find in his stories, at least for non-expert reader like me.” – D.O.
    Dovlatov said Chekhov’s doctors were all nice people. What’s more surprising is that his priests are decent folk, and the bishop from “Архиерей” is one of the more endearing characters.
    “Why does his [Chekhov's] bishop have to die before Easter? So sorry for him (жалко ведь)!” said Sergei Sobolevsky (1864-1963), the man who “knew ancient Greek better than anyone in Russia or, perhaps, not only in Russia,” according to Mikhail Gasparov.

  34. J. W. Brewer says:

    The problem is that if Frank says “such-and-such about Dostoevsky’s childhood was unique among major 19th-century Russian writers” (not just atypical, unique), he is thereby necessarily making a specific empirical claim about the childhood of Tolstoy, the childhood of Gogol, the childhood of Turgenev, the childhood of Chekhov (come on, how much less prominent would he be if his TB had killed him in 1899 rather than 1904 and he thus didn’t write those last couple works?), etc. etc. So it’s a hazardous sort of claim to make if you don’t know enough about Gogol’s childhood, for example, to be sure he isn’t a counterexample. Moral of the story: claims phrased more vaguely are harder to falsify.
    The majority but not all of Nabokov’s book on Gogol (sort of criticism mixed with straight biographical narrative) can be seen for free via google books, and it’s delightfully written and enjoyable to read. But of course it expresses Nabokov’s own opinions with such strength that it probably shouldn’t be treated as objective or reliable without double-checking against a duller bio.

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