FORGIVE ME!

Having read Vladimir Odoevsky‘s 1834 novella Княжна Мими [Princess Mimi], a monitory tale of the deleterious effects of high-society gossip, I want to quote a passage from the preface (Предисловие), which occurs over halfway through; Odoevsky says that it is extremely difficult to write novels in Russian for a thousand reasons, and “я упомяну о тысяче первой” [I will mention the thousand-and-first]:

This reason—forgive me!—pardon!verzeihen Sie!scusate!forgive me! [in English]—this reason is that our ladies do not speak Russian!
Hear me out, madam: I am neither student nor schoolboy nor publisher, neither A nor B; I belong to no literary school and do not even believe in the existence of Russian literature; I myself rarely speak Russian, and express myself in French almost without errors; I burr my r’s in the purest Parisian fashion; in short, I am a decent, respectable person—and I tell you that it is both shameful and shameless not to speak in Russian! I know that French is already falling out of use, but what evil spirit has put it into your head to replace it not by Russian but by that damned English, which forces you to rack your tongue, clench your teeth, and shove your lower jaw forward? And then farewell, pretty little mouth with rosy, fresh Slavic lips! We would do better without.
You know as well as I do that powerful passions are at work in society—passions that cause people to turn pale, red, or yellow, to sicken and even die; but in the higher strata of the social atmosphere these passions are expressed by a single phrase, a single word, a conventional word that like the alphabet can neither be translated nor invented. The novelist, whose conscience will not allow him to render an Aleutian conversation in the language of society, must know this fashionable alphabet to perfection, must try to seize these conventional words, because (I repeat) it is impossible to invent them: they are born in the heat of fashionable conversation, and the sense attached to them in that moment remains with them forever. But where will you seize such a word in a Russian drawing room? Here all Russian passions, thoughts, mockery, vexation, the smallest movement of the soul is expressed in ready-made words taken from the rich stock of French, which is so artfully used by French novelists and to which they owe (talent aside) the greater part of their success. How rarely are they forced to have recourse to those long descriptions, explanations, preparations, which are a torment to both writer and reader and which are so easily replaced by a few fashionable phrases understood by one and all! Those who know something of the way a novel is constructed will understand the advantages of this circumstance. Ask our poet [Pushkin], one of the few Russian writers who truly knows the Russian language, why he uses the [English] word vulgar in his verses? This word depicts half the character of a man, half his fate; but in order to express it in Russian, you would have to write two pages of explanations—not very comfortable for the writer or pleasant for the reader! There’s one example for you out of a thousand that could be found. And for that reason I beg my readers to take into account all these circumstances and not put the blame on me if my heroes’ conversation is too bookish for some and not grammatical enough for others.

(Russian below the cut.) He goes on in this vein for a while, ending by saying that if people continue to refuse to speak Russian despite his exhortations, “then I… I… from now on I won’t write a single story for them; let them read A, B, and C.”
I’m not quite sure what he means by “an Aleutian conversation”; I’m guessing it refers to any “uncivilized” or unworldly conversation. Radishchev, in his Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву [Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow] (see this post), says he will paint a picture of “this honest company” so that the reader will feel part of it “хотя бы ты на Алеутских островах бобров ловил” [even if you hunt beavers on the Aleutian Islands], and Vladimir Sollogub in his once-famous 1845 novelette Tarantas [The tarantass] says “смотрят на него как на дикаря Алеутских островов” [they look at him as at a wild man of the Aleutian Islands], so it clearly had currency in that context.


The original:

Эта причина, — извините! — pardon! — verzeihen Sie! — scusate! — forgive me! — эта причина: наши дамы не говорят по-русски!!
Послушайте, милостивые государыни: я не студент, не школьник, не издатель, ни А, ни Б; я не принадлежу ни к какой литературной школе и даже не верю в существование русской словесности; я сам говорю по-русски редко; по-французски изъясняюсь почти без ошибок; картавлю самым чистым парижским наречием: словом, я человек порядочный, — я уверяю вас, что стыдно, совестно и бессовестно не говорить по-русски! Знаю я, что французский язык уже начинает выходить из употребления, но какой нечистый дух шепнул вам заменить его не русским, а проклятым английским, для которого надобно ломать язык, стискивать зубы и выставлять нижнюю челюсть вперед? А с этою необходимостию прощай, хорошенький ротик с розовыми, свежими славянскими губками! Лучше бы его не было.
Вы знаете не хуже моего, что в обществе действуют сильные страсти — страсти, от которых люди бледнеют, краснеют, желтеют, занемогают и даже умирают; но в высших слоях общественной атмосферы эти страсти выражаются одною фразою, одним словом, словом условным, которого, как азбуку, нельзя ни перевесть, ни выдумать. Романист, в котором столько совести, что он не может решиться выдавать алеутский разговор за язык общества, должен знать в совершенстве эту светскую азбуку, должен ловить эти условные слова, потому что, повторяю, их выдумать невозможно: они рождаются в пылу светского разговора, и приданный им в ту минуту смысл остается при них навсегда. Но где поймаешь такое слово в русской гостиной? Здесь все русские страсти, мысли, насмешка, досада, малейшее движение души выражаются готовыми словами, взятыми из богатого французского запаса, которыми так искусно пользуются французские романисты и которым они (талант в сторону) обязаны большею частию своих успехов. Как часто им бывают ненужны эти длинные описания, объяснения, приготовления, которые мука и сочинителю и читателю и которые они легко заменяют несколькими светскими для всех понятными фразами! Те, которые знают несколько механизм расположения романа, те поймут все выгоды, приносимые этим обстоятельством. Спросите нашего поэта, одного из немногих русских писателей, в самом деле знающих русский язык, п&#108
6;чему он, в стихах своих, употребил целиком слово vulgar? Это слово рисует половину характера человека, половину его участи; но, чтобы выразить его по-русски, надобно написать страницы две объяснений, — а куда как это ловко для сочинителя и как весело для читателя! Вот вам один пример, а таких можно найти тысячу. И потому я прошу моих читателей принять в уважение все эти обстоятельства и пенять не на меня, если для одних разговор моих героев покажется слишком книжным, а для других не довольно грамматическим.

Comments

  1. The original “Aleutian” of Russian literary tradition is Count Fyodor “The American” Tolstoy, a globe-trotting adventurist who sported tribal tattoo all over his body, and who’s said to have bragged that Aleut islanders offered him to become their chief. In the early 1820s, Griboyedov referred to him in “Woe from Wit”:
    Ночной разбойник, дуэлист,
    В Камчатку сослан был, вернулся алеутом,
    И крепко на руку не чист;

  2. Bill Walderman says:

    о тысяче первой
    Is that an archaic usage? Doesn’t only the ordinal component in a compound ordinal numeral decline in modern Russian? Of course, with vowel reduction, the pronunciation is the same as о тысяча первой.
    Another question: картавить — is it an uvular r (like the Parisian middle classes in the 19th century) or a trilled r (like the Parisian aristocracy)?

  3. For Russian in 1834, he’s exaggerating just a bit. But this is the story of how hard it is to write plain prose, that most sophisticated of the linguistic arts, in the L language of a diglossia. See Lameen’s recent blog posting “Why having ‘no word for X’ can matter” for the selfsame idea in the domain of technical writing rather than, umm, what is the English for belles-lettres, please?

  4. Yes, I highly recommend Lameen’s post.
    картавить — is it an uvular r
    I believe so.

  5. картавить
    Here is an example – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SI9u7mzkYA
    Of course you may want to puncture your eardrums after listening…

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    It would be interesting to trace via some Russian corpus the extent to which or rate at which these Aleutian references (as a way of indicating great remoteness/exoticism/etc.) declined when Russia sold the place off to the U.S. in 1867. Did everyone smoothly switch to a new cliche involving Kamchatka or something, or did the old cliche have some staying power despite the change in national borders?

  7. America and American became near synonyms of “exotic.”

  8. I’m hoping that they continued referring to the Aleutian Islands the same way Americans do to Siberia.

  9. s/o: What, as a notorious prison camp?

  10. You never heard of the AleuLag?

  11. FWIW, the back rows in Russian classroom are sometimes referred to as Kamchatka. So the change did come, at least 100 years since.

  12. Doesn’t only the ordinal component in a compound ordinal numeral decline in modern Russian?
    It is true, only the last component declines. Here it could also be a reference to ‘Arabain Nights’ – “Сказки тысячи и одной ночи”, not 1001 but a thousand and one, treated as two words.

  13. I know that French is already falling out of use, but what evil spirit has put it into your head to replace it not by Russian but by that damned English
    aha! a very early report on English replacing French as the foreign language of preference.

  14. I agree with D.O. on Kamchatka replacing Aleutians as a byname for a remote place.

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