In my march through the Russian nineteenth century, I’ve finally reached 1850, which brought me to Alexei Pisemsky, a favorite of Erik McDonald of XIX век (see this list of posts). His first published novel (an earlier one was suppressed by censors for a decade) was Tyufyak, and right away we face the problem of how to translate that. The translation is called The Simpleton, but that’s wrong; the protagonist, Pavel Beshmetev, is no simpleton, he’s been to college and wants to be a professor. For тюфяк the Oxford dictionary gives two definitions, “mattress (filled with straw, hay, etc.)” and “flabby fellow.” The term is introduced in the first pages of the novel, when Pavel’s aunt Perepetuya Petrovna (wonderful name!) says to the gossip Feoktista Savvishna “Леность непомерная, моциону никакого не имеет: целые дни сидит да лежит… тюфяк, совершенный тюфяк! Я еще его маленького прозвала тюфяком.” [Stupendously lazy, never gets any exercise, spends whole days sitting around and lying around… a tyufyak, a total tyufyak! Even when he was a little boy I called him a tyufyak.] The best way I can think of to convey the idea in English is “lump,” so I’m going with The Lump.
Our hapless lump Pavel goes to a provincial town and falls for the local belle Yuliya, but when he marries her he learns that she despises him and loves the cad Bakhtiarov. That’s the whole story in a nutshell, and it’s stretched out for 160 pages. I enjoyed it enough to keep reading, but I wanted it to be something other than it was. Odoevsky or Sollogub would have taken a third the number of pages to tell the story and treated it with humor and irony; Tolstoy or Dostoevsky would have intertwined it with other people’s stories and given it power and pathos. Pisemsky apparently wants us to feel bad for his characters, but he doesn’t make them real enough for that to happen — they’re all of purest cardboard, and when you’re introduced to a French teacher who can whistle entire operas and speaks suspiciously good Russian you have a hard time feeling the world of the novel is one to be taken seriously. Furthermore, the writing is workmanlike at best. I can see why people enjoyed him, but I probably won’t read his longer 1858 novel Tysyacha dush (One Thousand Souls) unless the beginning really grabs me.