On the one hand, I am constantly feeling like a latecomer to culture, having to figure out allusions that I would have been aware of had I been educated a century or so earlier. On the other hand, living as I do in the twenty-first century, I have blessedly little trouble figuring them out. I’ve gone back to Karamzin’s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler], to which, as I said here, I return whenever I need a break from my reading schedule, and I’m greatly enjoying his stay in Paris in the spring of 1790 — what a time to be young and traveling in France! (I confess, though, I do skim or skip his lengthy descriptions of paintings, statuary, and the like, written in a sentimental style that was all the rage at the time but is fairly tedious now.) Karamzin describes Bieder, the fellow he hired to show him around (German by birth, though he’s long forgotten the language, he sleeps in the attic above Karamzin’s rooms at the Hotel Britannique on the rue Guénégaud), as “беден, как Ир, а честен, как Сократ”: poor as Ir and honest as Socrates. But who was Ir? A little googling told me he is known in English as Irus; he’s the greedy beggar Odysseus meets and knocks out on his return to Ithaca in Book 18 of the Odyssey: “Arnaeus was the name his mother had honoured him with at birth, but all the young men called him Irus, because he ran errands on demand” (Irus [Ἶρος] is a masculine form of Iris [Ἶρις], the messenger of the gods). Brewer, of course, has an entry:
The beggar of gigantic stature, who kept watch over the suitors of Penel’ope. His real name was Ar’neos, but the suitors nicknamed him Iros because he carried their messages for them. Ulysses, on his return, felled him to the ground with a single blow, and flung him out of doors.
Poorer than Irus. A Greek proverb, adopted by the Romans (see Ovid), and existing in the French language (“Plus pauvre qu’Irus”), alluding to the beggar referred to above.
And in Russian, “бедный/беден, как Ир”; the Национальный корпус русского языка finds five occurrences, in Karamzin, Lazhechnikov, Herzen (twice), and Saltykov-Shchedrin. There’s a Greek epigram purporting to be an epitaph for Epictetus:
Δοῦλος ᾽Επίκτητος γενόμην, καὶ σώμ’ ανάπηρος,
καὶ πενίην ῏Ιρος, καὶ φίλος ἀθανάτοις.
The traditional translation is:
Slave, poor as Irus, halting as I trod,
I, Epictetus, was the friend of God.
While I’m on the subject of Karamzin, one pleasure of reading the Letters is occasionally running into the germs of future (and now better known) writings of his. In the section where he describes some of the streets of Paris, he visits the Rue de la Grande-Truanderie because of a sad event that took place there centuries earlier:
Агнесса Геллебик, прекрасная молодая девушка, дочь главного конюшего при дворе Филиппа-Августа, любила и страдала. От Парижа далеко до мыса Левкадского: что же делать? броситься в колодезь на улице Трюандери и концом дней своих прекратить любовную муку.
Agnès Hellebick, a beautiful young woman who was the daughter of the head equerry at the court of Philip Augustus, loved and suffered. From Paris it is a long way to the Leucadian rock [from which Sappho supposedly leaped to her death out of love for Phaon]: what could she do? She threw herself into a well in the Rue de la Truanderie and put an end to the torments of love along with her life.
Surely this is the source of his most famous story, “Poor Liza,” which I discussed briefly at the end of this post. And when he meets Pierre-Charles Levesque, he tells us that although Levesque’s History of Russia is very good, it has serious inadequacies:
Больно, но должно по справедливости сказать, что у нас до сего времени нет хорошей российской истории, то есть писанной с философским умом, с критикою, с благородным красноречием. Тацит, Юм, Робертсон, Гиббон – вот образцы! Говорят, что наша история сама по себе менее других занимательна; не думаю: нужен только ум, вкус, талант. […] Левек как писатель – не без дарования, не без достоинств; соображает довольно хорошо, рассказывает довольно складно, судит довольно справедливо, но кисть его слаба, краски не живы; слог правильный, логический, но не быстрый. К тому же Россия не мать ему; не наша кровь течет в его жилах: может ли он говорить о русских с таким чувством, как русский?
Painful though it is, justice requires me to say that to this day there is no good history of Russia, one written with a philosophic mind, with critical ability, with noble eloquence. Tacitus, Hume, Robertson, Gibbon — those are models! They say that our history is in its own right less entertaining than others, but I disagree: one only needs intellect, taste, talent. […] Levesque as a writer is not without gifts, not without merit; his comparisons are adequate, he tells a story adequately, his judgments are adequate, but his brush is feeble, his paints are not lively; his style is correct and logical, but not rapid. Furthermore, Russia is not his mother; it is not our blood that flows in his veins: can he speak of Russians with as much feeling as a Russian?
A quarter of a century later, Karamzin would begin publishing his own history of Russia, which would not only replace Levesque’s as the standard account but would be considered by Russians as the height of Russian prose style. I wonder if he was already considering trying his hand at a better version when he was setting down those remarks?