Pisemsky’s Tyufyak.

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.

Comments

  1. when you’re introduced to a French teacher who can whistle entire operas and speaks suspiciously good Russian

    An enormous number of native English speakers with not much in the way of skills or work ethic are now making money teaching English in China, Japan, etc. It’s a windfall of super-powerdom, like having the world’s reserve currency. In the 18th and 19th centuries that windfall was mostly enjoyed by the French instead. The stereotypes that this generated were similar to the ones about today’s English teachers.

  2. The problem isn’t with the fact of a French teacher — Russia was crawling with them — it’s the over-the-top jocularity of the description:

    Старуха помирала со смеху, слушая рассказы своего милого француза, который был действительно мил. Имел ли он, собственно, достоинства воспитателя, я не знаю; по крайней мере если их и имел, то тщательно скрывал таковые. Но зато он владел другими достоинствами, а именно: имел чисто французскую выразительную физиономию, был прекрасно одет, щегольски ездил верхом и мастерски стрелял, играл довольно недурно на фортепьяно, а главное – наделен был способностью болтать по целым дням на всевозможные тоны и насвистывать целые оперы, причем обыкновенно представлял оркестр, всех певцов и даже самый хор. По-русски m-r Мишо говорил чисто, что и заставляло думать, что вряд ли он и не родился в России; но, впрочем, сам он уверял, что произошел на свет на берегах Сены, и даже в Сен-Жерменском предместье откуда для развлечения приехал в Россию и принялся образовывать юношество.

  3. Well, as your quote indicates, we can’t be sure that m-r Micheaux(?) was indeed a Frenchman.

  4. Perepetuya Petrovna? Feoktista Savvishna?

    Are these names even real?

    On the other hand, the author’s name is Alexei Feofilaktovich(!) Pisemsky.

    That Chukhloma district of Kostroma governorate where he was born must have been a very strange place.

  5. and wonderful quote from his autobiography on English Wikipedia:

    I come from an ancient noble family. One of my ancestors, a diak named Pisemsky, had been sent by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to London with a view of coming to an understanding with Princess Elisabeth whose niece the Tsar was planning to marry. Another predecessor of mine, Makary Pisemsky, became a monk and has been canonized as a saint, his remains still lying at rest in the Makarievsky monastery on the Unzha River. That’s about all there is to my family’s historical glory… The Pisemskys, from what I’ve heard of them, were rich, but the particular branch that I belong to has become desolate. My grandfather was illiterate, walked in lapti, and ploughed the land himself. One of his affluent relatives, a landowner from Malorossia, took it upon himself to “arrange the future” of Feofilakt Gavrilovich Pisemsky, my father, then fourteen. This “arranging” process was reduced to the following: my father was washed up, given some clothes, taught to read, and then sent as a soldier to conquer Crimea. After having spent 30 years in the regular army there, he, now an army Major, took an opportunity to re-visit Kostroma Province… and there married my mother, who came from the wealthy Shipov family. My father was 45 at the time, my mother 37.[4]

  6. marie-lucie says:

    m-r Micheaux(?) … indeed a Frenchman.

    The name is probably Michaud, a fairly common name which I don’t remember spelt any other way.

    The abbreviation for Monsieur is just M. (the dot is part of it).

  7. Theophylact sounds like a normal name to me for someone from rural 19c Russia. I have no reference, but read somewhere that normal practice was to baptize children according to святцы (sv’atzy — church calendar with saints names after which the children had to be named). But local priests could always fudge a little or maybe even a lot and required payment from parents to fudge in the more popular direction. Hence poor children were often given preposterous names.

  8. Marie-Lucie, right you are. But. m-r was in the quote (in Latin script) and Micheaux is not completely unknown, though it is much more rare.
    http://annuaire.118712.fr/ finds 1520 Michaud and only 50 Micheaux.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Micheaux

    Ooops! I forgot the poet Henri Michaux. But he was Belgian not French.

  10. Well, as your quote indicates, we can’t be sure that m-r Micheaux(?) was indeed a Frenchman.

    Right, that’s why I said he speaks suspiciously good Russian. Note that I called him a French teacher, not a Frenchman.

  11. 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

    I always had the opposite impression, that though there are a few admirable or at least decent characters mixed in, most of the time Pisemsky wants us to see that his characters are much more flawed and much less deep than they themselves (we ourselves) realize. I’m curious if this is a difference in interpretation or in which works we’ve each read.

    I’m in the middle of One Thousand Souls, and predictably I’m enjoying it, but if you’re not sure whether Pisemsky’s worth continuing with, I’d recommend skipping One Thousand Souls and going straight to the less respected Troubled Seas, or maybe “The Wood Goblin” (Леший) if you want something shorter. (If you do start One Thousand Souls you’ll at least appreciate that the first sign of trouble between Kalinovich and Nastenka is that he doesn’t share her appreciation of Veltman.)

    The best way I can think of to convey the idea in English is “lump,” so I’m going with The Lump.

    I like that!

  12. There’s nothing wrong with Feofilakt, historically speaking: even Wikipedia lists a dozen illustrious Theophylacts, all of them from the first millennium. (St. Perpetua and St. Theoctista are legit saints, too, venerated by both the Latin and the Greek church.) I rather doubt that a rural priest would have the temerity to force a cacophonous name on a gentleman’s child. On the other hand, I suspect Feofilakt was more typical of a monk and a bishop, perhaps a priest or a priest’s son, rather than a lay person. At any rate, the young lady from Chekhov’s Ionych found it quirky (“А как смешно звали Писемского: Алексей Феофилактыч!”) – in a flirtatious conversation with a doctor whose father had been, somewhat parochially, named Iona (Jonas).

    Feofilakt Kosichkin was a literary persona Pushkin used to attack Bulgarin and Grech.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    LH: I called him a French teacher, not a Frenchman.

    I did notice, and I can tell the difference.

  14. Jeffry House says:

    I have a Russian-speaking friend who speaks both English and Russian almost natively. I asked her:
    “How would you translate “tyufyak”? She thought for two seconds, and responded: “Couch potato!”

  15. couch potato implies watching TV and I am pretty sure in 1850 it wasn’t invented yet!

  16. But it’s an excellent modern equivalent!

  17. I’d recommend skipping One Thousand Souls and going straight to the less respected Troubled Seas, or maybe “The Wood Goblin” (Леший) if you want something shorter.

    Thanks, I’ll definitely give Леший a try — it’s in the second volume of my трехтомник (which for some reason doesn’t include Troubled Seas).

    If you do start One Thousand Souls you’ll at least appreciate that the first sign of trouble between Kalinovich and Nastenka is that he doesn’t share her appreciation of Veltman.

    OK, I’m now favorably disposed to it!

  18. Perepetuya Petrovna? Feoktista Savvishna? Are these names even real?

    The only one which is actually odd is the delightful Perepetuya, which is a folk-etymologized version of Perpetua, a fine old saint’s name.

  19. “Perepetuya, which is a folk-etymologized version of Perpetua:” the people’s input is the second “e”; without it, Perpetuya is the standard OCS/Russian version. Highfalutin Greek (sometimes Latin or Hebrew) names mutating into folksy-sounding peasant Eastern Slavic names can be amusing. Eudokia to Avdotya, Glykeria to Lukerya, Melania to Malanya. Aemilianus, a proud old Roman, becomes Yemelya (“Мели, Емеля, твоя неделя”) and the prophet Jeremiah gets domesticated into Yeryoma (“я ему про Фому, а он мне про Ерёму”).

  20. @D.O.
    >normal practice was to baptize children according to святцы

    Gogol seems to confirm the practice: From “The Overcoat”:

    Родильнице предоставили на выбор любое из трех, какое она хочет выбрать: Моккия, Сессия, или назвать ребенка во имя мученика Хоздазата. «Нет, – подумала покойница, – имена-то всё такие». Чтобы угодить ей, развернули календарь в другом месте; вышли опять три имени: Трифилий, Дула и Варахасий. «Вот это наказание, – проговорила старуха, – какие всё имена; я, право, никогда и не слыхивала таких. Пусть бы еще Варадат или Варух, а то Трифилий и Варахасий». Еще переворотили страницу – вышли: Павсикахий и Вахтисий. «Ну, уж я вижу, – сказала старуха, – что, видно, его такая судьба. Уж если так, пусть лучше будет он называться, как и отец его. Отец был Акакий, так пусть и сын будет Акакий».

  21. The Book of Saints is a godsend to literary monsters like Gogol. Actually, Trifily was once in use, judging by the surname Trefilov, not very common but not unheard-of either. Incidentally, Akaki is relatively common in Georgia.

  22. The Lump (aka today’s Dilbert strip).

  23. “Highfalutin Greek (sometimes Latin or Hebrew) names mutating into folksy-sounding peasant Eastern Slavic names can be amusing.”

    Apparently my paternal grandfather, from north Roscommon, used to pronounce Mary Magdalene as Mary McDillon.

  24. I also thought “Couch potato”, but I can see SFReader’s point – what about “a layabout”?

  25. “Layabout” is good too. I like “lump” because it preserves something of the physicality of тюфяк (and such a mattress is of course likely to be lumpy).

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Naming children according to the calendar, so that their birthday and their patron saint’s day wouldn’t have to be celebrated separately, was a very widespread practice in Catholic places, too. And the established nickname for Cäcilia in my linguistic homeland was Zenzi.

    The practice fell out of use shortly before the practice of celebrating patron saints’ days followed it in the 20th century.

  27. As I am lying on my döșek stuffed with sheep’s wool and spread on the floor ready to fall asleep here in the heart of Kurdistan, I am wondering why the š of Tatar tüšäk (if that is the proximate etymon) shows up as ф in Russian тюфяк. Do any of the denizens of the Language Hat comments section, most of whom are far, far more competent in Slavic than I am, know of parallel cases? Surely it is not influence from the unrelated but homophonous тюфяк “primitive firearm (hand cannon? bombard?)”, another word that reached Russian via Turkic? What could be less similar than a mattress and a (pre-)matchlock?

  28. тюфяк
    I тюфя́к
    I, род. п. -а, диал. тюша́к – то же (Даль). Из тат. tüšäk “перина, матрац”, крым.-тат., чагат., балкар., караим. töšäk, казах. töšök, тур. düšäk (см. Радлов 3, 1265 и сл.; 1268, 1589, 1818; Прёле, KSz. 15, 262); см. Мi. ТЕl. I, 288; Nachtr I, 56; Корш, AfslPh 9, 499, 674; ИОРЯС 8, 4, 13; Фасмер, RS 3, 266.

    II тюфя́к
    II “род пушки, пищали”, стар. (Даль), др.-русск. тюфякъ “катапульта” (Новгор. 4 летоп. под 1382 г., I Соф. летоп. под 1472 г., 2 Соф. летоп. под 1408 г. и др.). Заимств. из др.-вост.-тюрк. tüfäk, тур. tüfenk, tüfäk “трубка, ружье, арбалет”; см. Корш, AfslPh 9, 676; Мi. ТЕl., Nachtr. I, 60; Крелиц 58 и сл. (там же приводится перс. этимология).

    Perhaps tyushak merged with tyufyak, borrowed earlier.

    The word for oriental cannons/bombards became obsolete by 16th century, I believe, replaced by pushka of Czech origin (ultimately from German).

    So there was a similarly sounding foreign word which was no longer used (and presumably easier to pronounce)

  29. marie-lucie says:

    David: Naming children according to the calendar, so that their birthday and their patron saint’s day wouldn’t have to be celebrated separately, was a very widespread practice in Catholic places,

    It was a common practice in Catholic countries, but I doubt that avoiding two celebrations was the cause. In many old church records (often the only official ones) only baptism dates are recorded, not birthdays. Besides, while in some countries the birth of an heir to the throne and later a king’s birthday might be celebrated, ordinary people would not give their own birthdays much attention (one reason why they might not quite know their own ages).

    In France the word for “birthday” is l’anniversaire, that for a saint’s day is la fête, but in traditional use in French Canada la fête is used for “birthday”, from the custom of naming a baby for the name of one of the saints listed for that date on the church calendar.

    There was a discussion of that practice here a few years ago (linked to the use of feminine names among males’ names in some circumstances, if I recall accurately).

  30. marie-lucie says:

    the closet / le cabinet de débarras

    I would say le cagibi. I understand the phrase, but I don’t recall it: in any case it is too long for daily use, and just le débarras would be all right too. In modern French le cabinet is usually reserved for the office(s) or other room(s) used for professional activities by a doctor, lawyer, architect or similar person, and by extension it refers to the personnel sharing them.

    Un cabinet de toilette when I was young was a tiny room containing a bathroom sink, and colloquially les cabinets used to mean “toilet” (in a private house), but nowadays French people tend to use les toilettes even at home, a plural which used to be applied to facilities for the use of the public.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Federmann’s use of these words as the title of a work refers to his mother’s pushing him into a closet and closing the door on hearing German police coming to arrest the family. This move made him the only survivor. (Thanks Wikipedia).

  32. Ian Press says:

    In my French family the abbreviation for ‘monsieur’ is Mr. I know, it surprises me too. Not sure whether the ‘point’ is included, but I wouldn’t think so. My father-in-law was born in England, though left as a baby and I don’t think that explains it.

    I loved ‘A Thousand Souls’ when I read it many years ago. Doubtless felt it was a good, simple story. ‘The Lump’ sounds perfect to me; I’ve not read it and probably won’t.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    In my French family the abbreviation for ‘monsieur’ is Mr

    It is possible that the abbreviation has been changed under the influence of English, or that it is special to the family. One problem with M. is that it can be confused with the initial of a first name such as Michel or Maurice, among others.

  34. French Wiki says

    Monsieur est désormais abrégé en M.. On trouvait anciennement Mr . L’abbréviation Mr est un anglicisme fautif.
    L’existence ancienne de Mr est attestée dans les manuscrits du xvie au xviiie siècle ou encore le dictionnaire de Ménage (1694), mais celle-ci est tombée en désuétude au profit de la seule abréviation M. à partir du début du xxe siècle1. L’abréviation M. apparaît ainsi seule depuis la huitième édition du dictionnaire (1932) de l’Académie française.

    In 19th century usage, apparently the Mr. was still considered correct.

  35. I loved ‘A Thousand Souls’ when I read it many years ago. Doubtless felt it was a good, simple story.

    More incentive for me to give it a try; thanks!

  36. I find it highly peculiar that there is an “English-language” abbreviation for “monsieur” at all. “M.” is evidently used in Britain, but it does not exist in the U.S.—because we do not, when communicating in English, refer to French (or francophone) men as “monsieur.” We use “mister” without regard to nationality. ( I don’t know about other varieties of English, which might be expected to be more similar to British English on general principles, yet which lack Britain’s close proximity to France.) I have an anecdote about this—that I was once part of a conversation among four or five undergraduates from elite Boston-area universities; we were all Americans, and none of us knew, as that time, what the abbreviation “M.” was supposed to stand for.

  37. “M.” is evidently used in Britain, but it does not exist in the U.S.—because we do not, when communicating in English, refer to French (or francophone) men as “monsieur.” We use “mister” without regard to nationality.

    Not true. We often use foreign terms of address when referring to foreigners — prefixing German names with “Herr,” Spanish ones with señor (anybody remember Señor Wences, a regular on the Ed Sullivan Show?), and French ones with M., Mme., or Mlle.

    we were all Americans, and none of us knew, as that time, what the abbreviation “M.” was supposed to stand for.

    No offense, but there were a lot of things I didn’t know when I was in college. That cannot be extended to “all Americans.”

  38. Re Russian, for Tolstoy fans: I’m just reading Jeffery Meyers’ Married To Genius. What a marriage Tolstoy had! I don’t know whom to feel sorrier for, him or his wife or his children.

  39. Obviously, this is a stylistic thing, but I (and most major media outlets, from what I think I have seen) do not refer to anybody by foreign titles when I’m speaking English.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Monsieur

    Of course there is no English abbreviation for monsieur, but the equivalent is Mister abbreviated as Mr.

    Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle

    French abbreviations: M., Mme, Mlle. The period dot shows that only the initial is used, no other letters, as for a first name. For the feminine forms, the initial and final letters (and others within the word) are included in the short form, so there is no need for a dot. The abbreviation Me cannot be used for the feminine forms because it is already the abbreviation for Maître, used for a lawyer of either gender.

    In France Mademoiselle is no longer an official term for an unmarried female of any age, it is replaced by Madame in official correspondence and government documents, but it is still used informally for girls unlikely to be already married.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    Monsieur, Mister

    Some years ago I stumbled on a copy of a book by Gurdjieff (in English) and browsed through it out of curiosity, but found it unreadable as it seemed to be French translated word for word. Among other things, the author often referred to “a mister”, obviously a translation of un monsieur ‘a man, a gentleman’.

  42. Obviously, this is a stylistic thing, but I (and most major media outlets, from what I think I have seen) do not refer to anybody by foreign titles when I’m speaking English.

    Well, sure, I’m not saying it’s common, just that it’s not nonexistent. Have you really never, in a moment of francophilia or parody thereof, referred to (e.g.) “monsieur Chirac,” or heard anyone else do so? People used to talk about “Herr Hitler” back in the day, even in major media outlets. It’s an occasional spice, not a main course, but it’s definitely part of the language.

  43. In my experience, teachers of modern languages in American high schools are often referred to as “Señor Smith”, “Madame Jones”, “Herr Thomson”, and so on, not just by their students (who need the practice) but by their colleagues as well – and not just the native speakers, either. Then again, this also helps distinguish Spanish teacher “Señor Smith” from English teacher “Mr. Smith”, and so on.

  44. Yes, that’s another good example.

  45. In the unlikely case if Mongolian is ever taught in American high schools, the titles to use are “noyon Norman” and “khatagtai Kirby”

  46. Five years ago, I left this brief comment about Pisemsky’s accent. I’d like to add that Pisemsky is one of the few major Russian authors (for he was a major author of his time, if dwarfed by names like Tolstoy and Chekhov) born and reared in the “old” Russia of the woods as opposed to the “new” Russia of the steppe, settled more recently.

Trackbacks

  1. […] There’s plenty of half-forgotten Pisemskii. His fiction takes up 20 20 1/2 volumes of this 24-volume edition (vol. 1 half of vol. 1 is others writing about him, and vols. 22-24 are plays). In the last few years I’ve read what’s in vols. 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, and part of 3 and 8, and I still haven’t overlapped with LH’s reading at all (see also his post on The Lump). […]

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