Pisemsky’s Bitter Fate.

After reading minor works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I’ve read a major one by Pisemsky, and oh what a difference! The first two were still trying to figure out where they were going; Pisemsky was at the top of his game, and created one of the masterpieces of Russian drama. Горькая судьбина, translated as A Bitter Fate in 1933 by Alice Kagan and George Rapall Noyes (it’s been reprinted in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama, edited by Noyes and published by Dover), is a tragedy in four short acts that achieves its effects with brutal efficiency. It’s about a man whose wife has a child with a lover, an ancient subject hopelessly complicated by the fact that the man and his wife are serfs and the lover is their owner. The central character is Ananii, the husband; he’s been off in Petersburg earning money to pay obrok (much more lucrative than staying on the estate and farming), and while he’s been gone his wife Lizaveta, who apparently resented the marriage from the beginning, has had an affair with Cheglov, the sentimental and ineffectual landowner.

A lesser writer would have set up the situation with an interminable backstory; Pisemsky starts in medias res, with Lizaveta’s mother Matryona and her neighbor Spiridonevna waiting for the long-absent Ananii to arrive. He comes with gifts for everyone, in the company of a resentful drunk, Nikon, who almost immediately spills the beans about the child they’ve been trying to hide. Before he does, though, there’s an amazing conversation that is apparently irrelevant but in fact crucial (as is clear from the fact that it takes place at all in this pared-down drama); I’ll translate it here (for the Russian, search on “Что, батюшко, Ананий Яковлич” at the first link):

Spiridonevna. Tell us, Ananii Yakovlich, did you come by the Vologda highway?

Ananii Yakovlev. No, ma’am; what’s the point in that? The highway’s not much use, it’s almost overgrown. These days the railway takes thousands of people at a time and flies like a bird: it goes thirty versts an hour [about 20 m.p.h.].

Matryona and Spiridonevna (at the same time). Oh! how can that be? Thirty, really ?

Ananii Yakovlev. That’s not so much… it’s still a new thing here, and people are a little afraid of it; in foreign parts it goes even faster! Now you can save a lot of time, and you can make a profit on food; also, it doesn’t break your sides, you sit there as if you were in a room and it doesn’t shake you or toss you around — it’s an excellent thing!

Uncle Nikon. Yeah, I know about that, brother, I’ve seen it… Now a thousand people go on it, it’s the size of a house… and it only takes a team of four horses, I’m not kidding! ‘Cause the road is so smooth… it goes on the highway…

Ananii Yakovlev (looking down). There are no horses here, not one… Or if there is one, it’s being carried… Maybe you’ve seen a stagecoach; the railroad is a different thing, it runs on steam.

Spiridonevna. But how can that be, on steam? We’ve only got that in the bathhouse, and we steam pots.

Matryona. These days people get up to everything.

Uncle Nikon. I know that, too, brother, what you’re talking about, I know it too!… And you two are all “Ooh, aah!” with your mouths hanging open… Real peasant women, that’s what you are! Mityushka, the blacksmith, told me all about it: when there’s steam coming out, that means it’s the evil spirit! I’m not kidding, it starts neighing, as it moves from its place, it’s heavy and moves right away. See, the German has got the devil himself to do his work: “Go on, you devil, try and move it!”

Spiridonevna. Oh, stop it, there you go swearing again, and at the table, of all places.

Uncle Nikon. I’m not kidding, that’s the way it is, snub-nose! What did you think? I know more than he does… what’s he bragging for?

Ananii Yakovlev (solidly). There’s no devil here, and there couldn’t be. These days even on the sea they’ve almost stopped using sails and oars like they used to, because this same steam is a lot more convenient. They quietly put a machine inside the ship; it turns the wheels, and it doesn’t care if there’s a storm. When the wind gets stronger, they add to the fire, and it gallops on from wave to wave.

(I’m not sure about my translation in a few places — the peasant dialect gets thick — and welcome all corrections.) This is meant, of course, to show that Ananii is intelligent and sensible, but it also tells us this is a play about modernity. Ananii is a modern man; so is Cheglov, pathetic as he is, or he wouldn’t be wringing his hands and dithering about a fling with a serf woman (as his brother-in-law brusquely tells him); so is the one character in the play who’s depicted as one-dimensionally loathsome, the government official who shows up to investigate the culminating crime and treats everyone with equal contempt. The others are stuck in the traditional world of the Russian countryside, saturated with God and devils. But none of this is thrown in your face as it is in so much literature of the period; it’s implicit in the characterizations and interactions, which are so well done that I had to put the play down a couple of times because I couldn’t bear to see what was coming next. It’s a brilliant work, and I’m sorry there don’t seem to be any performances available on YouTube; I guess it’s fallen out of the popular repertoire. I highly recommend it to anyone who can read Russian or can find a copy of that long-out-of-print translation, and once again I thank Erik McDonald of XIX век, who brought Pisemsky so convincingly to my attention.

Comments

  1. The translation has been reprinted in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama, edited by Noyes, and published by Dover.

  2. Spiridonevna’s last remark should read something like: “Oh stop it, there you go swearing again: and at the table, of all places.”

  3. SFReader says:

    Reminds of a dialogue between Karp and Akulina Lykov. This family of Russian Old Believers fled from Communist persecution to remote Siberian taiga in 1930s and lived in the wilderness alone for forty years.

    Lykovs noticed that some stars began moving in the sky in 1960s. Karp Lykov deduced that it must have been some human invention, a kind of airplane, perhaps. His family disagreed and thought that it surely is a work of Anti-Christ.

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Your mention (brief as it is) of Tolstoy gives me the excuse to ask you a question that has been bothering me. A commenter in a news group has quoted this from War and Peace:

    Natasha had said she did not want to sing, but it was long since she had sung, and long before she again sang, as she did that evening.

    That struck me as a clumsy sentence, but it was not, of course, Tolstoy who wrote it, but a translator (I don’t know which, but probably you do). So the question is: is this an adequate representation of what Tolstoy wrote?

  5. SFReader says:

    Original says

    “Она сказала, что ей не хотелось петь, но она давно прежде, и долго после не пела так, как она пела в этот вечер. ”

    somewhat less clumsy than the translation (which really doesn’t make sense), but certainly not a good writing.

    I’d translate it as

    “She said she didn’t want to sing, but she did sing this evening, as she hadn’t sung for a long time before and as she wouldn’t sing for a long time after”

    Which is not a good translation either, I suppose.

    Anyway, who cares, it’s Tolstoy, he is supposed to be great no matter how badly he writes.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    “How she sang that evening” is moved to the end for emphasis; that kind of thing is much easier and more common in Russian than in English.

    German is intermediate; we could reproduce this order of clauses, but we’d have to put “sang” behind “that evening”, and we’d have to repeat it twice earlier (in two other tenses), which would add clarity together with the inelegant repetition.

    “Sie sagte, dass ihr nicht nach Singen zumute war, aber lange vorher hatte sie nicht so gesungen, und lange danach würde sie nicht so singen, wie sie an diesem Abend sang.”

  7. SFReader says:

    Aha. That’s where Tolstoy learned these tediously long sentences

  8. The translation has been reprinted in Masterpieces of the Russian Drama, edited by Noyes, and published by Dover.

    Thanks, that’s good to know.

    Spiridonevna’s last remark should read something like: “Oh stop it, there you go swearing again: and at the table, of all places.”

    Fixed, thanks!

  9. …so is the one character in the play who’s depicted as one-dimensionally loathsome, the government official who shows up to investigate the culminating crime and treats everyone with equal contempt.

    I didn’t read it this way. Yes, he treats everyone with contempt, yes he is brush and dismissive and rude. But his role at that place and time is to resolve the “case” according to the law, while everyone else (apart form the perpetual drunk Nikon) is absolutely determined not to let him do it. Surprising as it is, it feels to me that resolving the horrible situation according to the law and reality of what happened would be a better outcome in that situation.

  10. Hmm, you may be right — I’ll have to reread it more carefully!

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