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.


  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    “Mazurik” is “pickpocket”? Wow! I know that stem in “mazurka” and the WW1 Battle of the Masurian Lakes, which I vaguely took to have happened somewhere near where the mazurka was a popular dance style, later made the basis of some short, wonderful Chopin piano pieces. What’s going on here?

  2. Just for giggles, and not that it will help your quest for information on the original Russian words, here is the sentence with the pickpockets, etc., from the French translation at
    Il y avait là des meurtriers par imprudence, des meurtriers de métier, des brigands et des chefs de brigands, de simples filous, maîtres dans l’industrie de trouver de l’argent dans la poche des passants ou d’enlever n’importe quoi sur une table.
    So this whole part of the sentence seems to be just more description of what pickpockets are, rather than citing a new kind of criminal or a new kind of activity. The French translator, whoever s/he was, seems to have thought that anyway.

  3. Oh, and if we go by this translation, then столевской seems to be just an adjective “table-y”, “having to do with tables.”
    Looks like стол to me, so why not?

  4. table-y
    Wouldn’t that be столовской?

  5. yeah, I had that question too: why would an adjective formed from a noun ending in a hard consonant act like an adjective formed from a noun ending in a soft consonant?
    but my knowledge of russian is pretty minimal, so i don’t know. maybe it could?

  6. also: did you notice the structure of the sentence I quoted the French translation of above? it has a kind of parallelism going on for two phrases:
    accidental murderers and career murderers,
    bandits and bandit leaders,
    and then the structure/parallelism thing changes:
    simple pickpockets, masters of the art of finding money in passersby’s pockets or of lifting any old thing off a table
    just thought it might help if someone who knew Russian better would see if the original Russian version had such structure – might be a clue to the meaning of some of those obscure words…?

  7. the French translation of И указали тут они нам одно дело, по столевской, то есть по нашей, части (the other sentence in which столевской occurs) completely bypasses that adjective:
    Ils nous indiquent alors un endroit où l’on pourrait faire un bon coup.
    (The French translation uses the historical present tense to narrate this little anecdote.)
    maybe столевской is slang of the period and class about which this passage was written?

  8. My edition says столёвская часть means ‘burglary’, but does not provide any further explanation.
    As for находные деньги, Efremov’s dictionary has an interesting entry: “Наход м. устар. нашествие, набег.” (=”obsolete for ‘raid, foray'”). Could Dostoevsky refer to robbers here?

  9. As for находные деньги, Efremov’s dictionary has an interesting entry: “Наход м. устар. нашествие, набег.” (=”obsolete for ‘raid, foray'”). Could Dostoevsky refer to robbers here?
    Yes, I think that’s quite plausible—thanks!
    dveej: No, столевский can have nothing to do with стол. I’m afraid the French translation is as useless as the English ones I checked (Garnett, if I recall correctly, just says “pickpockets”; MacDuff has “burglary with breaking and entering”); the translators were clearly guessing and/or faking it. I assure you that if Dahl didn’t know what столевский meant, they didn’t either.
    rootlesscosmo: “Mazurik” now means ‘rogue, swindler,’ but Dahl’s first definition is “pickpocket” (and under that heading he gives an entertaining list of words used by thieves), which is clearly the sense here. It may or may not be related to Polish mazur ‘inhabitant of Mazovia,’ from which the word “mazurka” (Polish mazurek) comes; Sobolevski, for instance, derives it from mazurá ‘kind of dove.’ As Vasmer says, it’s all very problematic.

  10. callasfan says:

    Taken from here
    Стр. 271. …промышленники по находным деньгам и по столевской части. – См. СТ, запись 44. (с. 639)
    В комментарии (с. 512) сказано, что «Столёвская часть» – воровство, кража со взломом. И чуть дальше: «Менее ясно контекстное значение слова “меняло”».
    У Даля: столечник – меняла; менялы за стольцами сидят (IV, 328). Если исходить из этого, то, наверное, «по столевской части» – промышлять променом.
    В том же комментарии сказано (с. 512): «Не вполне ясно выражение “по находным деньгам”, хотя несомненно, что это тоже разновидность воровского промысла.».
    Может, от слова «наход»? У Даля: наход – набег, нападенье. И тогда «находные деньги» – деньги полученные грабежом.

  11. it’s in Dahl
    I again find myself somewhat confused by the online versions / editions of Russian reference works. It isn’t in any of the Dahls linked to by Wikipedia. However, it is in a recent edition in Google Books preview, in brackets.
    Anyway, I am pretty sure it’s Paul Boyer (1864-1949), from the Ecole nationale des Langues orientales vivantes, who, among other things, spoke at the St. Louis World’s Fair, along with Leo Wiener.

  12. Yup, that’s gotta be the guy. Thanks!

  13. Thank you for mentioning my blog entry — I’m glad you’re enjoying the book, Languagehat. I’ll have to read it again when I have the benefit of your posts! This was one of the first camp-related books that I read in Russian, so it was loaded with new vocabulary for me. The passage on cursing is wonderful stuff, a nice sample of the tone and observations on human behavior that I liked so much about the book.

  14. Off on a tangent, just thought I’d mention that I’ve seen a Japanese word for people who rifle or steal people’s stuff in public baths:
    板の間稼ぎ ita-no-ma kasegi
    Ita-no-ma is a room with flooring, which is the kind of flooring that is found (used to be found?) in changing areas for public baths. 稼ぐ kasegu is ‘to profit’. So ‘one who profits in wooden-floored rooms’ is the name for a thief in a public bath.

  15. Isn’t language wonderful?

  16. Christophe Strobbe says:

    You should also listen to Leoš Janáček’s last opera, based on the novel. It has an almost exclusively male cast, which gives it a very dark tone. (I recommend Mackerras’ recording. Those who prefer DVD should check out the version conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chéreau.)

  17. There’s a new production of the Janacek at the Metropolitan Opera this fall, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, which I am very much looking forward to. Thanks for the chain of recommendations reminding me to go back to the Dostoevsky.

  18. I’d be tempted to translate pomyshlenniki as sharpers.

  19. John Emerson says:

    I love Janacek’s orchestral music, but his vocal and choral music is meant to be closely integrated with the text, and I don’t understand Czech. But I envy our local Czecks and Slovaks.

  20. Zapiski iz mertvogo doma is my favourite of FD’s books too
    it’s not that depressing even compared to his other books, because describes everyday life of the incarcerated people with a lot of interesting stories about them, sometimes gets even funny? iirc
    i remember i read Bratiya karamazovu following only Alesha’s line, skipping all other things related to that awful woman about whom the two other brothers were fighting with their repulsive father who gets then killed by one of them iirc or by their half-brother-monster? i forget
    coz was skipping, which was pretty difficult coz Alesha’s line wouldn’t skip them like

  21. sometimes gets even funny?
    Yes, the management of tone is brilliant. And what fascinates me is that he’s already obsessed by the idea of someone killing little children; three times already (I’m still in the first few chapters) he’s mentioned criminals who режут детей.

  22. I read Notes from the House of the Dead last summer, and one question has stuck with me. Among all the talk of criminals and their punishment, I don’t believe execution was ever mentioned. Even people convicted of the most heinous crimes seem to be sentenced to at most a severe beating and a long sentence at the prison camps. We know Dostoevsky himself sentenced to execution, so surely it existed in Russia at this time. So what’s up with that?

  23. According to Russian Wiki, death penalty in the relevant part of the 19c was only for the “crimes against the state”, military crimes, and some cases of recidivism.

  24. SFReader says:

    Executions in Russia were suspended by empress Elizabeth in 1740-50s. She didn’t sign a single death sentence in her reign. Catherine the Great did order execution of political prisoners, especially since she had a horrible civil war to deal with – the Pugachev revolt of 1773-1775, but she wouldn’t apply it to anyone else.

    Ever since then and until Russian Revolution of 1905-1906, death penalty in Russia remained extremely rare, only given to the most dangerous criminals (terrorists, for example) and every death sentence had to be approved by the reigning monarch personally.

    Exception was the military which had several types of corporal punishment which could end in death of the convicted soldier (eg, running the gauntlet as it was called in the British army). However, it wasn’t meant to be death penalty since there was a chance of survival. And in a wartime, there could be executions of soldiers for military crimes, but not during the peace.

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