I’ve started reading Karamzin‘s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler] (1791–1801), a series of novelized diary entries masquerading as letters to friends from his European travels of 1789-90 when he was in his early twenties, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly—his light, Gallic style is tremendously refreshing compared to the Slavonic-laden prose of other writers of the time, and he has a good eye for the people and places he encounters. He’s heading south and west from Petersburg via Riga, Mitau, Memel, Tilsit, and Königsberg, and in the Tilsit section he briefly threw me for a loop with this passage of overheard dialogue (the lieutenant has just been complaining about an evening at the theater):
Лиза. И, ваше благородие! Разве вы не жалуете комедии?
Поручик. О! Я люблю все, что забавно, и переплатил в жизнь свою довольно полновесных талеров за доктора Фауста с Гансом Вурстом.
[Liza: “What, your honor! Do you really not like comedy?”
Lieutenant: “Oh, I like everything funny, and in my time I’ve paid quite a few good solid thalers for Doctor Faust and Hanswurst.”]
I had a vague idea that Hanswurst was some sort of low comic figure (and Wikipedia tells me that “he was a buffoon character in rural carnival theaters and touring companies… In the later 18th Century Hanswurst was out of fashion and was only used in the puppet theater”), and I couldn’t figure out what the majestic Faust was doing in such company. Then I realized this was twenty years before Goethe would turn him into a high-flown figure of world literature; at this point Faust, like Hanswurst, was a staple of the comic puppet theater. Just one of those cultural banana peels it’s so easy to slip on when visiting a foreign country.