Dombrovsky’s Useless Things.

Last year I was pleasantly surprised by how good Yury Dombrovsky’s Хранитель древности [The Keeper of Antiquities] was; now I’m let down a bit that the sequel, Факультет ненужных вещей [The faculty of useless things, translated as The Faculty of Useless Knowledge], wasn’t as good as I expected, based both on the earlier book and the fact that everyone treats Keeper as less important. I can see why they feel that way: Keeper is small-scale, focused on the titular archeologist and his feelings and observations as he tries to preserve his messy collections at the Alma Ata museum, while Faculty widens its scope tremendously, including a whole new set of characters who either work for the NKVD or are imprisoned by it. Furthermore, it incorporates a slew of cultural, literary, and historical allusions, from Georges Borman chocolates (“Жорж Борман — нос оторван”) to Avvakum to Yagoda (who in 1937 had recently been replaced as director of the NKVD by Yezhov — and I was pleased with myself for knowing when a reference to “Nikolai Ivanovich” in the book meant Yezhov and when it meant Bukharin), quoting Mandelstam several times without naming him. It’s got powerful descriptions of gulag and prison life. And it’s over twice as long.

The thing is, none of that makes it a good novel. A good novel, in my view, may be a baggy monster, but it has to have some kind of coherence, a sense that all the balls are being juggled according to an esthetic pattern that will eventually become clear, even if perhaps only on a second reading. I am reasonably confident that that is not the case here. When Dombrovsky was asked to write a sequel after the success of Keeper in 1964, he obviously decided to put in all he knew, both from personal experience and accounts by others, of the gulag system his hero was headed for, even as Brezhnev’s overthrow of Khrushchev put a definitive end to the Thaw and made the new novel unpublishable in the USSR. What he couldn’t base on the experiences of his protagonist (named Georgy Zybin in the sequel) he shoveled in by having an old hand share a cell with Zybin and give long monologues about what he’d been through or by creating a character who writes to Stalin asking to be released from a camp (described in detail) on the basis of a loan he’d made back when the dictator was just a poor fugitive named Dzhugashvili back in 1904. There’s a section told from Stalin’s point of view, musing about his mother, his childhood, his love of nature. A whole section of the book (Part Three) is devoted to an otherwise minor character named Kornilov just so he can show him being turned into an informer, while the implausibly perfect Zybin keeps his integrity (and implausibly gets away with hurling long, angry, truth-telling monologues at his NKVD interrogators).

All of this is effective, but not nearly as effective as it would have been if the same ground hadn’t been covered by others, notably Solzhenitsyn (more thoroughly) and Shalamov (more artistically). That’s not Dombrovsky’s fault, of course; he felt a strong imperative to bear witness and let people know what was going on, and he did so to the best of his ability. But now that we all know pretty much everything there is to know about the gulag and its denizens, that informational aspect is deflated, and we’re left with an overlong, incoherent novel. It reminds me of those well-meaning progressive novels of the 1860s and 1870s that grabbed the reader by the lapels and educated them about the horrors of serfdom and autocracy — without the context that gave them their urgency, nobody wanted to read them any more. I don’t mean to say Faculty is that bad; it’s got very effective scenes and is well worth reading. I was just disappointed, is all, as I was with Aksyonov’s В поисках жанра [In search of a genre] (see this post) and Trifonov’s Старик [The Old Man], where a powerful investigation of the protagonist’s Civil War past is diluted by a rather tedious squabble over the disposition of a dacha in the novel’s present (the early 1970s). But as I continue with the year 1978, I’m heading on to Valentin Kataev’s Алмазны мой венец [My diamond crown/wreath], his controversial novel-memoir about 1920s literary life; since Sashura lists it as his favorite Kataev, I doubt I’m going to be disappointed.

Oh, one bit I enjoyed from the Dombrovsky is that in the first chapter of Part Two he has a character quote “Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?” I’m glad to see Russians have been infected with Cicero’s earworm just like I was back in Brother Auger’s Latin class.

Comments

  1. he has a character quote “Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?” I’m glad to see Russians have been infected with Cicero’s earworm just like I was back in Brother Auger’s Latin class.

    From Alphonse Allais’ “À Monsieur Ousquémont-Hyatt, à Gand” in Deux et deux font cinq

    Car le vélo, cher monsieur, n’est pas d’invention aussi récente que vous semblez le croire.
    Des morceaux de silex me tombèrent sous la main dernièrement qui sont les fragments de vélocipèdes préhistoriques.
    Sans remonter si haut, le tandem, ce fameux tandem dont vous faites votre dieu, était une machine courante (courante est le mot) à l’époque de la vieille Rome.
    Une des marques les plus appréciées alors était le Quousque tandem dont se servait, à l’exclusion de tout autre, l’équipe des frères Catilina.
    Quand Cicéron (voyez la première Catilinaire) avait parlé du Quousque tandem aux Catilina, il avait tout dit.
    Et il ajoutait, ce Marcus Tullius, abutere patienta nostra, ce qui signifiait : Est-ce que l’équipe des frères Catilina ne nous fichera pas bientôt la paix avec leur dangereux Quousque tandem ?

  2. C’est très à propos!

  3. Yes, I too am writing about the Catilina quote. But I wont copy the whole verse, just a link: Катерина

  4. The immortal Kozma Prutkov!

  5. re “baggy monster”, does ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ count?

    We see a “counterpoint … multiple narratives” in the Life of Tristram’s Uncle Toby; and the Opinions of his father Walter.

    Shandy is a good novel, in my view, precisely because it’s a baggy monster.

  6. This calls up a question. For those of us who came out of a Western European tradition, Latin and Roman history is foisted on us as “This is where our culture comes from and by gum, you’re going to learn it”. I think this is due to the influence of the Catholic church, even in places that haven’t had the Catholic Church for some 500 years. So we learn about Cicero even though he wasn’t a Christian at all.

    But the Orthodox Church comes out of the Greek church based in Constantinople. Were children in Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc., ever forced to study Greek and learn all about Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War?

    I know that the Orthodox church was organized along national lines a lot more than the Catholic church. But when Constantinople fell to the Turks, there was talk about Moscow becoming the “third Rome”.

    I can see Russians gravitating to Roman history as part of the whole Peter the Great Europeanizing thing. But was there any kind of Graecophile movement to counter it?

    Fancua: Merci. That is a perfect contribution. It reminds me of some other literature about ancient bicycles I encountered at some time, but I cannot now recall the source. Not Mark Twain.

    AntC: I am a big fan of Tristram Shandy. I see it as a forerunner of Flann O’Brien and Thomas Pynchon.

    While mentioning Flann O’Brien, we have just passed his anniversary.

  7. When I was a schoolboy, my friend and his classamates who studied Latin joked about Catilina.

  8. maidhc, both Greek and Latin were studied in our classical gymnasia. But for some reason in modern Russian schools that imitate “classical” education Greek is less popular. Cf:

    St_Petersburg_Classical_Gymnasium
    The curriculum is based on the model of late 19th – early 20th century Russian classical gymnasia with the following core subjects: Latin and Ancient Greek, English and German, Mathematics. At the moment it is the only school in Russia where Ancient Greek is a compulsory core subject and one of the few schools where Latin is a part of the curriculum.

    I see no good reason for this. In past (18th century) Latin gave you access to modern learning. You would expect it to dominate.

    But in present both offer you history and – as an exposure to traditional (in style and methods) education and an experience of studying old languages – a certain perspective on “books”*.

    In 1990s, when many such schools were opened (some explicitly called “Orthodox”), the country was undergoing a religious revival and actively rediscovering pre-Revolutionaty heritage, it would have made absolute sense to teach Greek. Yet Latin was more common.


    *cf. Franciscans who taught European languages to locals – and Jesuits who, conversely, compiled grammars and vocabularies of local languages.

  9. re “baggy monster”, does ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ count?

    Sure — “baggy monster” is a description, not a putdown. Tristram Shandy is not only a wonderful novel, it was a tremendous influence on European literature, including Russian, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. Books from Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler to Shklovsky’s A Sentimental Journey would have been unthinkable without Sterne.

    But the Orthodox Church comes out of the Greek church based in Constantinople. Were children in Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc., ever forced to study Greek and learn all about Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War?

    No, not en masse. Plenty of people got a classical education (which was considered reactionary, partly because the more conservative tsars enforced it at the expense of more modern subjects) and were forced to study at least a little Greek, but it was not considered foundational to Russian culture, and nobody read Thucydides except for professional reasons as far as I know. The “Third Rome” thing was caesaropapist propaganda, and all it meant in practice was “We Russians are now the most important people in the world and the tsar the most important ruler.” In short, the answer to “But was there any kind of Graecophile movement to counter it?” is a straight “No.”

  10. The “Third Rome” thing was caesaropapist propaganda, and all it meant in practice was “We Russians are now the most important people in the world and the tsar the most important ruler.”

    Indeed, propaganda (a certain cleric promoted it), but still the context is that Byzantine empire (known to Arabs as Rum) used to be the cultural and religious centre (appointing church hierarchs among other things) who we learned the alphabet and religion from and … it fell.*

    I assume the idea was that Moscow princedom (one of many princedoms, including HUGE Lithuania with large Prthodox population) is now the center of mass of the world and our knyaz’ <*keningiz is now a tsar < Caesar.


    *was quite a shock. there was also influx of Greeks to Italy, who brought with them funny books which contributed into Renaissance – speaking about interaction between L and G.

  11. “the center of mass of the world”

    Cul du monde. We borrowed (жопа мира) this French expression without trou de… part:)

  12. there was also influx of Greeks to Italy, who brought with them funny books which contributed into Renaissance – speaking about interaction between L and G.

    There’s a lot about this in Merezhkovsky’s Воскресшие боги. Леонардо да Винчи (Resurrected Gods: Leonardo da Vinci).

  13. David Marjanović says:

    In 1990s, when many such schools were opened (some explicitly called “Orthodox”), the country was undergoing a religious revival and actively rediscovering pre-Revolutionaty heritage, it would have made absolute sense to teach Greek. Yet Latin was more common.

    That’s the one part that surprises me a bit.

    *keningiz

    *kuningaz, borrowed as *kъnęgъ and vowel-harmonized to *kъnęd͡zь.

    It’s still kuningas in Finnish.

    The ö in Standard German König could be from More or Less Low German *[ʏ] > [ø] (also *[ɪ] > [e], *[ʊ] > [o]); it’s not found in Bavaria. The -ig in Standard German is in any case part of a more widespread confusion between -ig and -ing.

    жопа мира

    Also Arsch der Welt.

  14. That’s the one part that surprises me a bit.

    It shouldn’t; Latin and its cultural offshoots had been basic to Russian culture for centuries, while Greek was peripheral. They restored Latin in the same way they restored so much else from tsarist culture; why would they drag in Greek? You might as well expect them to learn Chagatay.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    I’m a bit surprised the restoration was so accurate. After 70 years, the past is usually distorted in various ways.

  16. *keningiz
    Oh!
    Thank you for correction and sorry for confusion. I did not mean that. I understand what -ĭz is doing here (because Old Russian kŭnęd͡zĭ), but I have no slightest idea about -e-:((

  17. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    There is a lot here. It really depends on what was being restored and why. The why would seem to be a reaction against Soviet culture and education (including suppression of the anti-semitic and ultra-nationalist “tosh” that had been commonly associated with reaction previously). The what would seem from drasvi’s post to be the subjects taught pre-1917 to smart cadets in sailor suits, with a colouring of Orthodoxy and romantic Russian nationalism. I am not sure the Orthodoxy would entail Classical Greek studies, my impression is that even the Greek Church father writings were mediated through OCS (or OCS-flavoured Russian) in Russian Orthodox religious education formerly. Maybe Drasvi could say whether the teaching of Russian now includes more emphasis on the unique qualities of the Slav with some illustration using OCS.

  18. my impression is that even the Greek Church father writings were mediated through OCS (or OCS-flavoured Russian) in Russian Orthodox religious education formerly.

    Yup. Reading Greek was an eccentricity, not a staple of the seminary curriculum.

  19. my impression is that even the Greek Church father writings were mediated through OCS (or OCS-flavoured Russian) in Russian
    Correct. One big difference between the Orthodox and the Catholic worlds is that in the Catholic world, learning was monoplised by Latin for a long time, while in the world of the oriental and orthodox churches, there were separate languages of learning for the major ethnic groups (Church Slavic, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, etc.), so Greek (except for the Greek orthodox) wasn’t central to learning after the initial period of translation into the ethnic Church languages, and therefore not as widely taught and known as Latin in the Catholic world, where all priests were expected to have some knowledge of Latin (whether they did varied of course widely depending on location and period).

  20. Croates have Slavonic mass .

  21. Once, S. (a specialist in math economy known to both me and January First-of-May) taught in an institution named Maimonides’s Jewish Academy. They just installed new chalkboards, and before the lecture he decided to try it and wrote the word he was famous for… or was it he who made it famous? Anyway.

    It were those nasty boards where you can write but it is impossible to erase anything. So during most of his first lecture he and the students were fighting with the word (so that superiors and future generations of Jewish students did not have to deal with it). And no, he is a Christian. He needed a job, they needed a teacher.

    What I mean, when I mention classical “Orthodox” hymnasia of 1990s do not take them too seriously.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Croates have Slavonic mass .

    Up to the 2nd Vatican Council only in a few special places that were given special exemptions by some medieval pope. I don’t think they’ve spread since then.

  23. Yes, that are basically historical residues of the Orthodox mission of Cyril and Method, like the use of the glagolitic script in some Catholic Croatian monasteries (maybe those are even the same places)?
    That also fits into a pattern – where the Catholic Church encountered existing Christian churches that submitted to the pope, they mostly were allowed to keep their own rituals and sacral languages – Greek Catholics using Greek, Maronites using Syriac (until they switched to Arabic in Modern times), etc.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Do Greek Catholics use Greek? They’re the people of western Ukraine, basically – the rite is Orthodox, even the priests marry, but they acknowledge the Pope.

    Cyril & Method lived long before the official date of the schism (though they already had plenty of trouble with its more secular manifestations).

  25. Well, Cyril was before the schism.

    There were political differences. But it was the same Church.

    P.S. oops. I did not see David’s comment.

  26. Do Greek Catholics use Greek? They’re the people of western Ukraine, basically – the rite is Orthodox, even the priests marry, but they acknowledge the Pope.
    Oh, not those, I forgot that there are so many churches called Greek Catholic. I thought about the Melkites in the Middle East, whom I learnt about while I lived in Lebanon. They mostly use Arabic nowadays, but parts of the liturgy are still in Greek.
    On C&M – yes, they lived before the schism. But my understanding is that the Western Balkans were christianized both from Constantinople with a Slavic liturgy and from Western Europe with a Latin liturgy, and the uses of Church Slavic and Glagolitic in Croatia are a survival of their Slavic mission and its traditions in an area where the Latin mission won out.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Yes.

  28. January First-of-May says:

    The immortal Kozma Prutkov!

    I’ve been wondering where I got “Доколе, о Катилина…” from; Kozma Prutkov sounds plausible. (Though as far as I can tell this specific form seems to be a misremembering.)
    For some reason I was under the impression that the Katerina verse was author song rather than Prutkov, though now that I’ve looked at it, I can’t see how it looks even remotely like author song. (In retrospect, I probably somehow mixed it up with Kazimira.)

    Were children in Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc., ever forced to study Greek and learn all about Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War?

    Post-Renaissance? Not as far as I know. (It might have been more common in the olden days; a lot of big-name Greek works had been translated into Slavic, and IIRC a few only survive in those translations.)

    I suspect that some Greek was part of a classical education, and even less highly educated people would have been expected to know at least a little Greek-relevant history (Александр Македонский, конечно, великий полководец…), but probably not to the extent of actually having to learn much actual detail, except maybe as part of overall history classes.
    OTOH, some Greek literature had apparently made it into the curriculum; for example, Eugene Onegin had read Theocritus (though didn’t like it).

    S. (a specialist in math economy known to both me and January First-of-May)

    …I can think of only one candidate offhand, a certain Ш., but as far as I recall he’s not famous for any particular word.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    My impression is that the prevalence of Latinity in the education of Russian elites (including the clergy) was an innovation from the time of Peter the Great, who was a persecutor of the Church and a Slavophobe. That said, it’s not like Greek (either ancient-pagan or Christian/Byzantine) was widely understood before then. The unfortunate 17th-century debacle of the Nikonian reforms versus the Old Believers was the result of a few folks in positions of power and/or with the ear of those in power learning better Greek than the generation before them but not learning it well enough (or having the historical resources) to fully understand the situation — i.e. they were able to read Greek well enough to note what they considered alarming differences between the then-extant Greek liturgical texts and the Slavonic liturgical texts but without doing enough work to figure out the historical reasons for the differences and then via sort of a colonial-cringe mentality assumed that the right solution was to modify the Slavonic to conform to the latest Greek editions while ignoring the possibility that the latest Greek editions themselves may have in some instances reflected considerable textual drift from earlier Greek MSS that the Slavonic texts had been based on.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Compare and contrast the Catholic attitude: most parts of neither the current Latin-rite mass (“of Paul VI”, from 1970) nor even the Tridentine Mass (from 1570, last tweaked in 1962) were claimed to be restorations of some original – they were both claimed to be improvements from the very beginning.

  31. It’s probably worth adding that the works of Byzantine theologians remain under-translated into Russian to this day. While the hesychasm of Mount Athos had a great following in Russia in the 15th and the early 16th centuries (cf. Nilus of Sora and the “Non-Possessors”), most of Gregory Palamas’s writing had to wait until centuries later to be translated. People like Maximus the Greek were extremely rare in post-Mongol, pre-Petrine Russia, and Maximus had to focus on liturgical translations because the Moscow church had become fixated on ritual by that time.

    After Moscow had annexed the left-bank Ukraine and parts of Belarus in the 1660s, quite a few Polish-educated Orthodox monks from those regions were appointed to senior positions in the Russian church — specifically, graduates of the Kyiv Mohyla Collegium, where Latin was the language of instruction. In the later years of Peter’s reign, arguably the two most influential bishops of the Russian church were both Kyiv Mohyla graduates: Stefan Yavorsky, who is usually described as pro-Catholic, and Feofan Prokopovich, who had Protestant leanings.

  32. J.W. Brewer says:

    Alex K. Yeah, those Kiev-educated 17th-century dudes were a mixed blessing for the subsequent history of Orthodoxy, because they had learned how to explain and advocate for Orthodoxy in the context of polemical debates w/ Jesuits where they had (largely due to the fact that they lacked the resources to do otherwise) let the Jesuits frame the conceptual framework within which the debates took place. That said, that the 17th-century Ukraine was a place you could have vigorous polemical debates about theology w/ relatively low risk of being burned at the stake if your side lost put it way ahead of most of Western Europe at the time.

  33. J.W. Brewer says:

    To David M.’s point, the obvious Slavophil rejoinder is “well, duh, there’s the West being all rationalistic and hubristic again, thinking they’re so smart they can do better than the Holy Fathers did.” Although there’s the interesting example of the 17th century Pope Urban VIII, who was simultaneously a hubristic rationalist and a neo-pagan (or possibly Satanic?) restorationist. He was scandalized by the fact that many of the venerable Latin breviary hymns dating back to the age of St. Ambrose did not conform to the proper prescriptivist rules for elegant Latin verse that had been promulgated by various dead pagan authors of the Silver Age and accordingly ordered them edited/rewritten to conform to those pagan prescriptivist norms — an act of impious vandalism that was not undone until the early 20th century.

  34. Long may the Satanic Restorationists reign!

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    “The first prescriptivist was the Devil,” as Dr. Johnson almost put it.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. In looking for it on Wikipedia, I found this in the article on Urban VIII:

    For the purposes of making cannon and the baldacchino in St Peters, massive bronze girders were pillaged from the portico of the Pantheon leading to the well known lampoon: quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini, “what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did.”[11]

    and this in the article on the Liturgy of the Hours:

    Pope Urban VIII made further changes, including “a profound alteration in the character of some of the hymns. Although some of them without doubt gained in literary style, nevertheless, to the regret of many, they also lost something of their old charm of simplicity and fervour.”[31]

    Pope Pius X made a radical revision of the Roman Breviary, to be put into effect, at latest, on 1 January 1913. See Reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Pius X.

    31 Breviary [link] in Catholic Encyclopedia. The article also spoke of “blemishes which disfigure this book.”

    The undoing in the early 20th century must be the reform of the breviary by Pius X in 1911, which contained staggering innovations, but the article doesn’t say anything about language.

    I’ve seen very little of the Vulgate; but my impression, after 6 years of Gold & Silver Age Latin, is that it’s barely in Latin at all. It’s essentially in a modern Romance language with the Latin morphology restored. Perhaps Urban VIII was similarly surprised.

  37. @J.W. Brewer: ” Yeah, those Kiev-educated 17th-century dudes were a mixed blessing for the subsequent history of Orthodoxy…” They were the best Russia could get at that moment and did a good job educating their Russian students, mostly along Jesuit lines. They helped start the Slavo-Greek-Latin Academy in Moscow, chartered by Tsar Feodor, Peter’s elder half-brother, in 1682. However, they didn’t care much about the Greek part. The brothers Leichoudes (Likhuds), both highly educated Orthodox Greeks, were banished from the Academy after less than 10 years as professors.

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