Odoevsky’s Russian Nights.

Readers may be wondering what happened to my Russian reading, which I haven’t mentioned for a while now. Well, for one thing, I’ve been absorbed in the Bible material I’ve been posting about recently, but that’s not all there is to it — I read at least some Russian literature every day. The thing is that as I approach the plunge into the familiar nineteenth-century realist literature that might be said to begin in 1846 with the publication of Dostoevsky’s first work, Бедные люди [Poor Folk], I’ve been slowing down and savoring the last of the earlier material (Romantic, I guess you’d call it) I’ve come to enjoy so much. I recently finished Русские ночи [Russian Nights], which I had been looking forward to, since I enjoyed his earlier stuff so much (1, 2, 3, 4), and this was supposed to be his masterpiece. I guess it is, but, well, I have serious reservations about it.

People at the time did, too. It was published too late; ten years earlier, when Odoevsky was one of the most popular writers in Russia, it would have been a hit, but by 1844 he was already considered out of date, and reviewers objected to the fact that the stories it contained had all been published in the previous dozen years. The stories themselves are excellent, among the author’s best; Бригадир [The Brigadier], about a dying man who realizes he has wasted his life, is a worthy precursor of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilich; “Opere del Cavaliere Giambattista Piranesi” is a wonderful character sketch of a madman who thinks he’s the long-dead Piranesi and begs for money to bring his impossible architectural visions to realization; Город без имени [City without a name] is a grim vision of a society that’s taken the ideas of Bentham to extremes; Импровизатор [The improvvisatore] tells the tale of a young man desperate to be able to compose poetry easily so as to woo his Charlotte, but comes to regret his deal with the demonic Segeliel; and there are brilliant little romanticized biographies of Beethoven and Bach, the latter providing a fine ending for the series of stories. But not, alas, for the book.

The stories, you see, are set in a tale-telling framework comparable to those of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (LH post) and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (LH post). In this one, a group of poorly differentiated young people visit their wise friend Faust (a stand-in for the author) and argue about life, history, and everything. Let me quote Ralph E. Matlaw’s introduction to his 1965 translation, Russian Nights:

The range of problems and questions raised by the discussants and the illustrative stories is enormous: the boundaries of knowledge, the meaning of science and art, the sense of human existence, atheism and belief, education, government rule, the function of individual sciences, madness and sanity, poetic creation, logic, Slavophilism, Europe and Russia, mercantilism, to name some of the important issues. Clearly, this is not merely a collection of stories, or a novel, but an imaginative exposition of human achievement and limitation at a specific time.

The book thus differs from collections like Hoffmann’s Serapionsbrüder and others that intersperse commentary between stories. The primary argument rests in the speeches of the four leading characters, to which the stories are subordinate.

And subordinating stories to philosophical-historical commentary is pretty much always a bad idea as far as I’m concerned. Still, I was going along with it, enjoying the stories greatly and the philosophical filler mildly, until I got to the end of the Bach story, saw that there was still a lot of the book to get through, and realized to my mounting horror that it was a worthy precursor of the dreaded Second Appendix of War and Peace (LH post), and it too could be called “the literary equivalent of an extremely long-winded Hyde Park orator, haranguing passers-by about how the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about.” As a matter of fact, if I were forced at gunpoint to reread one of the two, I don’t know which I’d choose. Perhaps the bullet. At any rate, with that caveat, I recommend the reprint of the Matlaw translation to whose Amazon page I linked above to anyone interested in Russian literature of the period, especially if they’re more interested in Romantic ideas of history and progress (spoiler: the ancients already knew all about our so-called modern discoveries!) than I am. To wash away the bitter taste of my captious complaints, let me quote the concluding passage of Neil Cornwell’s Afterword (1997):

Russian Nights may also appeal more to the “postmodern” age than to earlier epochs. Odoevsky’s mysticism and his Gothicism may be, if anything, better displayed in certain of his other works (see The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales). However, Russian Nights, Odoevsky’s single completed magnum opus, with its mixture of genres and styles, mingles fiction with nonfiction, romanticism with social reality, philosophical dialogue with historical reportage. It will perhaps be in the twenty-first century that Odoevsky’s reputation will finally be made.

Comments

  1. I suppose the title is a nod to Aulus Gellius‘s Attic Nights?

  2. Presumably, yes.

  3. I thought the title was nod to Straparola’s Le piacevoli notti (Приятные ночи) popular at the time. Pushkin used Straparola’s plot for the Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish.
    Beethoven is one of the most popular short stories in Russia, and City without a Name could be seen as one of the first distopias (anti-utopia) in literature.

    Have you been reading it in Russian with Matlaw at hand? I wonder if he used the 1844 or the 1913 version. Odoyevsky heavily edited the Nights in 1860s but did not live to see it published. And when the new edition came out in 1913 there was a big debate about the corrections.

  4. Have you been reading it in Russian with Matlaw at hand?

    I read it in Russian without aid other than the Russian footnotes; I just consulted the Matlaw to get some context after I finished.

    Thanks for the info about Straparola; I had never heard of him.

  5. As a big fan of the Russian literature (i have been reading Russian novels since i was in the fifth grade), in English unfortunately, i’ve red Russian Nights for the first probably 10 years ago when i was 20 years old and i thought it was very provoking and interesting. It is not a novel, more like a collection of parables and although it is dnse and philosophical it isn’t by far one of my favorite Russian literature pieces. Maybe one of the best thing about Russian Nights and Odoevsky in general is that he was so prophetic – predicting the blogging and the threat of a nuclear war… A story of a Rooster, Cat and Toad is brilliant!

  6. John Cowan says:

    The Nights of Straparola in English at the Internet Archive. The translator’s introduction begins thus, in a leisurely Victorian sort of way (the date is 1894), only somewhat abridged here:

    The name of Giovanni Francesco Straparola has been handed down to later ages as the author of the “Piacevoli Notti,” and on no other account, for the reason that he is one of those fortunate [sic!] men of letters concerning whom next to nothing is known. He writes himself down as “da Caravaggio; ” so it may be reasonably assumed that he first saw the light in that town, but no investigator has yet succeeded in indicating the year of his birth, or in bringing to light any circumstances of his life, other than certain facts connected with the authorship and publication of his works. The ground has been closely searched more than once, and in every case the seekers have come back compelled to admit that they have no story to tell or new fact to add to the scanty stock which has been already garnered. Straparola as a personage still remains the shadow he was when La Monnoie summed up the little that was known about him in the preface to the edition, published in 1725, of the French translation of the “Notti.”

    He was doubtless baptized by the Christian names given above, but it is scarcely probable that Straparola can ever have been the surname or style of any family in Caravaggio or elsewhere. More likely than not it is an instance of the Italian predilection for nicknaming — a coined word designed to exhibit and perhaps to hold up to ridicule his undue loquacity; just as the familiar names of Masaccio, and Ghirlandaio, and Guercino, were tacked on to their illustrious wearers on account of some personal peculiarity or former calling. Caravaggio is a small town lying near to Crema, and about half way between Cremona and Bergamo. It enjoyed in the Middle Ages some fame as a place of pilgrimage on account of a spring of healing water which gushed forth on a certain occasion when the Virgin Mary manifested herself. Polidoro Caldara and Michael Angelo Caravaggio were amongst its famous men, and of these it keeps the memory, but Straparola is entirely forgotten. [...]

    The first edition of the first part of the “Piacevoli Notti” was published at Venice in 1550, and of the second part in 1553. It would appear that the author must have been alive in 1557, because, at the end of the second part of the edition of that year, there is a paragraph setting forth the fact that the work was printed and issued “ad instanza dell’ autore.” Some time before 1553 he seems to have been stung sharply on account of some charges of plagiarism which were brought against him by certain detractors, for in all the unmutilated editions of the “Notti ” published after that date there is to be found a short introduction to the second part, in which he somewhat acrimoniously throws back these accusations, and calls upon all “gratiose et amorevole donne” to accept his explanations thereof, admitting at the same time that these stories are not his own, but a faithful transcript of what he heard told by the ten damsels in their pleasant assembly. [...]

    [what La Monnoie and the Grimms made of this introduction omitted]

    Besides the “Notti” only one other work of Straparola’s is known to exist — a collection of sonnets and other poems published at Venice in 1508, and (according to a citation of Zanetti in the “Novelliero Italiano,” t. iii., p. xv, Ven. 1754, Bindoni) in 1515 as well. A comparison of these dates will serve to show that, as he had already brought out a volume in the first decade of the century, the “Piacevoli Notti” must have been the work of his maturity or even of his old age. With this fact the brief catalogue of the known circumstances of his life comes to an end.

    The translator, W.G. Waters, sounds interesting too:

    William George Waters, first English translator of Straparola (1894), and his wife Emily were an elite “creative couple” in late-Victorian and Edwardian London, a world that her Cook’s Decameron (1901) mirrors in witty dialogues. Together they Englished Vespasiano’s Lives (still in print). W. G. Waters, scion of old country gentry, published numerous books of his own: biographies of Girolamo Cardano and Piero della Francesca, A Traveller’s Guide to Italy, Five Italian Shrines, The Early Italian Sculptors, Journal of Montaigne’s Travels in Italy by way of Switzerland and Germany in 1580 and 1581. Best remembered for tales he translated — also Masuccio’s Novellino and Ser Giovanni’s Pecorone, he was a regular correspondent in the TLS and Librarian of the Saville Club, the “heart” of literary London.

    Unfortunately the article from which this abstract is taken is not on line. It was presented by Victoria Kirkham at the 2011 meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, a three-day meeting so immense that its abstracts alone make up a 450-page book.

  7. thanks, John, it’s very interesting!

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