I’ve finished Lazhechnikov‘s Ледяной дом (The ice house; see this post), and I enjoyed it despite the bad writing and melodramatic contrivances (the plot is often driven by intercepted letters, overheard conversations, and the like). The focus of the story is the downfall of Artemy Volynsky, who plots unsuccessfully against the hated Biron, the empress’s favorite. Historically, this came about because of foreign policy (Biron thought that a generous indemnity should be given to the Poles for Russian violations of Polish territory during a recent war, whereas Volynsky thought the Poles were all a bunch of traitors and no indemnity should be paid at all, and in the course of his objection he used language that Biron took extreme offense at), but Lazhechnikov invents a princess of obscure origin who has become a favorite of the empress’s and who Volynsky falls hard for, neglecting both his wife and his patriotic duty. While very silly, this works well in terms of basic storytelling (a great deal of classic literature, not to mention opera, boils down to love versus duty) and it keeps you reading despite the overlong digressions and tedious outbursts of predictable emotion (tears, handwringing, broken exclamations, verbose assurances of eternal love, etc. etc.). If you like Scott or Dickens, you’ll probably like Lazhechnikov.
One interesting point is that he found it necessary to change some of the names of his hero’s coconspirators, who were either executed or exiled: Khrushchov becomes Shchurkhov, Eropkin becomes Perokin, and (my favorite) Musin-Pushkin becomes Sumin-Kupshin. I’m guessing that the real aristocrats involved had powerful descendents who, even if their ancestors had been vindicated by history, would not have appreciated the tarnishing of their family names in a popular novel.
And now: more Gogol!


  1. Jeffry House says:

    From Musin Pushkin to Lyapkin Tyapkin!

  2. This reminds me of The First Circle, where the security officers Major Shikin and Major Myshin are conflated by the prisoners into “Shishkin-Myshkin”.

  3. Did Solzhenitsyn and his fellow-zeks conflate the guards’ names because they couldn’t tell the two apart, or to imply that they might as well have been the same person, given the way they acted?
    A friend once had a pair of identical twins living next door, whom she called ‘Pan’ when she met one or both. They were mischievous 5-year-old red-headed boys named Pat and Dan, she couldn’t tell them apart, and she was a Classics major, so ‘Pan’ seemed an appropriate collective name.

  4. I can understand Lazhechnikov changing the names. But why on earth did Akunin change the name of General Skobelev to General Sobolev in The Turkish Gambit (pub.1998)?

  5. why on earth did Akunin change the name of General Skobelev to General Sobolev in The Turkish Gambit (pub.1998)
    Or rather on The Death of Achilles … and there is nothing Skobelev-specific; most historic personalities have subtly changed names in this series. Like Dolgorukov, the General-Governor of Moscow, is Dolgorukoy in the novel.
    On a different subject (ok, a loosely related subject if we shift “between the Greeks” from Achilles to Alexander the Great). We discussed Efremov earlier on LH. I just leafed through my volumes of Efremov (I got all genres, adventure novels, historical fiction, sci-fi, uncovered in the “fog of remodeling”). I was surprise how dense is Greek in the “Thaïs of Athens”. Every custom and every object are being introduced in classic Greek, before being, very educationally, explained away. I guess when I had this book in my hands as a teenager, I must have skipped all the Hellenisms to advance to the next scene of love?

  6. Dmitry, great summary but every one has their own slant. Me? Ah! to be an unknown lovely princess, and be highly favored by the empress’s. Why wouldn’t Volynsky falls hard for her blindly forgetting both his wife and his duty.
    Seldom do I look over a book again. I always have a list to get to. I have plenty of time for reading since I was struck with fibromyalgia.

  7. Did Solzhenitsyn and his fellow-zeks conflate the guards’ names because they couldn’t tell the two apart, or to imply that they might as well have been the same person, given the way they acted?
    The latter. From their own viewpoints, they are intense rivals: Shikin is the head of security for the sharashka (scientific institute), whereas Myshin is the head of security for the prison camp itself, so they have distinct but overlapping functions. To the prisoners, though, they are interchangeable MGB bureaucrats.

  8. So very much like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, at least as portrayed in the last two productions at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA. In each case, they were played by a totally mismatched pair: Rosenkrantz a big fat guy in the first production, a very buxom woman in the second, Guildenstern a tiny woman and a rather small man, respectively. Despite the blatant disparity in size and even gender, the King and Queen constantly mixed up their names, as if they couldn’t be bothered to remember which is which among their obsequious subjects.

  9. I trust everyone here is familiar with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; if not, go remedy the omission. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and the King and Queen constantly mixing up their names is a recurring source of irritation to them and amusement to us.

  10. Michael: The tradition I was riz in is rather more subtle: it’s only the King who gets it wrong, and the Queen corrects him more or less subtly. This is presumably based on the pair’s introduction to the royals in II:ii, where the King says “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern”, and the Queen promptly overrides him with “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.”
    A similar passage is in Macbeth I:vii, where Macbeth says (per the First Folio) “If we should faile?” and Lady Macbeth replies “We faile?” There are a number of ways to deliver this, from “We fail!” to “We? Fail?” to “We — fail.” But an interesting possibility is that it is textual corruption, and should read “We fall”, a flat affirmation of the all-too-frequent outcome of ambition. This would fit with the many paired alliterations of the play: the Captain’s speech in I:ii, for example, has “spent swimmers”, “merciless Macdonald”, “shipwracking storms”, “surveying vantage”, “cannons … cracks”, and even “doubly redoubled”. They are usually not quite this thick on the ground, but in the very next scene we have Banquo’s “so withered and so wild”, “seem to fear things that do sound so fair” (a full consonance, like “fail … fall”), and “insane root that takes the reason prisoner”.

  11. Yes, that’s how the Blackfriars troop does it, and that’s what I was thinking of: the King and Queen nod to the same two in the same order, which means the Queen is correcting the King. But they had them both show some confusion in the action at other times, so I suppose they were Stoppardizing Hamlet.
    The schene could easily be done differently, with them nodding to the same two in the opposite order. What would that mean? I imagine monarchs would tend to thank their flunkies in order of precedence (social rank, age, length of acquaintance, whatever), so reversing the order would mean either that the Queen thought G. outranked R. and was correcting the King, or (more likely) that the two were so equal in rank that it was only fair to have them take turns being first and second – as if they were a pair of identical (or even Siamese) twins. Or just interchangeable flunkies not worth keeping straight.
    The same troupe did Comedy of Errors in the same season, and there they made the two pairs of twins as identical as possible – confusingly so, at times. I assume the resemblance of the two Dromios’ costumes to Tweedledee’s and Tweedledum’s was not a coincidence. The two Dromios were played by the two fattest actors, who played Rosencrantz and Polonius in Hamlet and in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The two Antiphili played Hamlet and Laertes/Alfred.

  12. John Cowan says:

    Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is being shown on the PBS series Great Performances this week; check local listings for details. I presume it’ll be at later. The performers in question are the National Theatre of Britain.

  13. Thanks!

  14. The blurb I found says:
    “The 50th anniversary of the National Theatre of Great Britain is marked with live extracts and archival footage of NT productions. Included: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” with Benedict Cumberbatch; “Mourning Becomes Electra” with Helen Mirren.”

    Do you know if they will show the whole play or just excerpts?

  15. Yup, looks like just excerpts. Rats. Well, should be an interesting program anyway.

  16. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was a contemporary of Shakespeare. “Rosencranz and Gyldenstern” figure in his coat of arms.

  17. It was indeed interesting.

  18. Yes, we were glad we watched it, so I appreciate the heads-up.

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