Having finished War and Peace, I wanted to follow up Tolstoy with Dostoevsky, but on the other hand, after a 1,200-page novel I really wasn’t up for The Brothers Karamazov just yet. Fortunately, Lisa at Lizok’s Bookshelf gave me a great idea in her post “Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Dostoevsky (+Dovlatov and Dal’)“: why not read Записки из мёртвого дома (Notes from the House of the Dead or Notes from the Dead House), his 1862 novel based on his time in a Siberian prison? It’s a compact 300 pages, and Lisa says it’s one of her favorites, so I pulled it off the shelf.
From the start you’re plunged into a completely different world. Tolstoy, like Nabokov, was born into a rich and aristocratic family, and whatever trouble he got into, by gambling away all his money for instance, he could get out of by selling one of his estates, and when he decided it was sinful to profit off literature, he simply gave up his copyrights without a qualm. Despite all his spiritual torments and compassion for humanity, he viewed life from above, and it shows. Dostoevsky grew up in a lousy neighborhood, the son of a drunken and violent military surgeon, and always had to worry about money; when he lost at gambling, he was in the same kind of trouble any ordinary person would be, and had to write desperately to get out of it. He writes from ground level, and thrusts you into the midst of the mess to be found there. Tolstoy is by turns a genial storyteller and tedious professor; Dostoevsky is the Ancient Mariner, grasping you by the lapels and refusing to let you go while he tells you about things that are more likely to upset than edify you. His sentences have the kind of urgency that compels you to keep reading.
I’m still on the first chapter, but I’ve already hit one good language-related passage and one lexical mystery. Here’s the passage, on cursing (I wish I’d read it when I was putting the book together; the Russian is below the cut):
I doubt even one of [the narrator's fellow prisoners] confessed his lawbreaking to himself. Let somebody who wasn’t a prisoner try to reproach a convict with his crime, to abuse him for it (although it is not to the Russian taste to reproach convicts) — there will be no end to the cursing. And what masters they all were at cursing! They cursed elaborately, artistically. Cursing, with them, was raised to the level of a science; they were not trying to select an offensive word so much as an offensive thought, spirit, idea — and that is more elaborate and more venomous. Their endless quarrels developed this science even further among them.
The mystery is this: a couple of pages earlier, talking about the various kinds of criminals incarcerated there, he mentions “мазурики и бродяги-промышленники по находным деньгам или по столевской части”: “pickpockets and wandering promyshlenniks trying to come by nakhodny money or in the stolevskii part/section/field.” I was puzzled by three words here, that came at me in increasing order of difficulty. Promyshlennik now means ‘industrialist’ but etymologically simply means someone who promyshlyaet, who uses his wits to acquire something—in earlier times it was used of Siberian hunter/trappers and Black Sea fishermen, and here it would seem to mean those who try to get nakhodny money. Nakhodny is a rare (obsolete?) adjective based on nakhodit’ ‘to come upon; to find,’ and Dahl says it means ‘having come to someone by happenstance’ or ‘coming up to,’ so the combination could mean “wandering thieves who take whatever money they come upon’… except that we then get или по столевской части “or in the stolevskii part/section/field,” and stolevskii is not in the dictionary. Well, it’s in Dahl, the closest thing Russian has had to the OED, but all he does is enter it with a question mark, quote this line, and refer to a guess by one Paul Boyer that it might be from Yiddish and related to German stehlen ‘steal,’ which sounds like a desperate stab in the dark. Now, it occurs one other time in the novel, in Part 2, Chapter 3: “И указали тут они нам одно дело, по столевской, то есть по нашей, части”: “And here they showed us one business/affair, in the stolevskii, that is to say in our, part/section/field.” The phrase that I have bolded is obviously important… but it’s still not at all clear what the adjective might mean. Any suggestions, or references to recent scholarship, will be gratefully received.
The Russian of the cursing passage:
Вряд ли хоть один из них сознавался внутренно в своей беззаконности. Попробуй кто не из каторжных упрекнуть арестанта его преступлением, выбранить его (хотя, впрочем, не в русском духе попрекать преступника) — ругательствам не будет конца. А какие были они все мастера ругаться! Ругались они утонченно, художественно. Ругательство возведено было у них в науку; старались взять не столько обидным словом, сколько обидным смыслом, духом, идеей — а это утонченнее, ядовитее. Беспрерывные ссоры еще более развивали между ними эту науку.