Poplavsky’s Choice.

I’m finally getting around to Elizabeth Klosty Beaujour’s Alien Tongues: Bilingual Russian Writers of the “First” Emigration, which I was excited about getting and couldn’t wait to read… a decade ago (sigh), and was struck by this passage about the largely forgotten émigré poet Boris Poplavsky (only Russian Wikipedia has an article on him):

It is illuminating to compare briefly Marina Tsvetaeva’s essentially nonlinguistic rejection of French with the choice of another Russian poet of the first emigration who seemed predestined by all objective factors (age, linguistic training, and literary tastes) to become a French writer, but who instead insisted on writing only in Russian. Boris Poplavskii (1903–1935) might have been a major, if not great, French writer in the Surrealist vein. […] Linguistically, Poplavskii was much more than half French and nowhere near half Russian. He had had a German nurse and French governesses, had gone to live abroad with his mother when he was three, and had some schooling in Switzerland and Italy. According to his father, when Poplavskii and his brother returned to Russia they had forgotten Russian to such an extent that their parents enrolled them in the French lycée of Saint Philippe Néri, where Poplavskii remained until the Revolution. After his arrival in Paris in 1921, what further education Poplavskii had was, of course, also in French. His literary tastes inclined him toward French poetry, so that Karlinsky, one of Poplavskii’s strongest supporters, can quite reasonably declare: “I did not know then, as I know now, that Boris Poplavsky was in a sense a very fine French poet who belongs to Russian literature mainly because he wrote in Russian.”

But why did he write in Russian? Aside from the elements mentioned above, all of which would have seemed to incline him to write in French, there are still other factors that should have encouraged Poplavskii to write in French rather than in Russian. His control of Russian appeared to many to be sometimes shaky, and there was really nothing specifically Russian in the content of Poplavskii’s poems and prose that might have demanded or justified their being written in Russian,rather than in French. In fact, although they are written in Russian, his poems frequently have French titles.

That Poplavskii wrote in Russian was the result of a quite deliberately paradoxical choice: how better to be a poète maudit (and be one up on Rimbaud) than to write in the wrong language! This choice also continued the linguistic anomalies of Poplavskii’s earlier life. For as Vladimir Padunov has rightly noted, Poplavskii’s life in Russia took place in French, whereas his intellectual and artistic life in France took place in Russian. The resultant tension is attested to by those passages in Poplavskii’s diaries where identical entries are made first in Russian, then in French. […]

One factor that had surely influenced Poplavskii to choose the apparently least appropriate language is what might be labeled the lycée français syndrome, whose symptoms are seen in adolescents who have been molded into caricatural little Frenchmen: they have French intellectual tastes but cannot fully identify themselves as French emotionally; at the same time, they have lost or have never developed any mental and linguistic fluency in their native cultures. However idiosyncratic Poplavskii’s fate was in some respects, one should not forget that he was also in many ways a quite typical, almost commonplace, product of the colonial lycée system. […] Poplavskii’s life was a curious compound of drugs, various forms of spiritualism, outrageous behavior, poverty, and hard work on his poetry and prose. It is difficult to make any causal judgments, but one might hazard the hypothesis that, in large part, there was no solid psychic ground beneath Poplavskii because he had no dominant language — or, rather, because he did have a (technically) dominant language and did not wish to recognize and capitulate to the fact that it was not Russian but French.

Isn’t that fascinating? (Incidentally, one of the ambiguities of English is revealed in “might have been a major, if not great, French writer in the Surrealist vein”: I have no idea if she means he might or might not have been great.)

Comments

  1. Fascinating!

    I think that “might have been a great, if not major, French writer in the Surrealist vein” makes more sense for me. Or have I got it the wrong way round??

  2. I think the intended meaning is “might well have been a major, or perhaps even great, French writer….” I parsed it that way instantly and had to go back to look for any ambiguity. Bathrobe’s inversion, on the other hand, is completely opaque to me.

  3. I think the intended meaning is “might well have been a major, or perhaps even great, French writer….”

    If I had to bet, I’d bet that’s what she meant, but “if not” is often used in the literal sense of “[even] if not,” so that’s a possibility too.

  4. Fascinating indeed. As for that sentence, this is where I despair of my ‘knowledge’ of what I think is my native language. In secondary school I was told by teachers that my English was very lacking and that no way would I survive university. I think I learned English as a skill, eventually, but had already acquired it as a rather wanting variety of Lancashire dialect. Anyway, for me there’s a difference between a major writer and a great writer, so I see no problem. If I read some Poplavsky, I might change my mind, but that’d be a quite different matter.

  5. I think I learned English as a skill, eventually, but had already acquired it as a rather wanting variety of Lancashire dialect.

    Speaking of ambiguity, did you mean that dialect is a wanting variety of English, or that standard English is a wanting variety of dialect? I’ve certainly felt the latter was true at times.

  6. Oh, I definitely tend towards the latter. I did find that sentence difficult to write. Lancashire dialect as it came to me was only partial, I feel it was fading rapidly in my environment. My mother wanted me to ‘speak proper’, and there was a certain amount of pressure at primary school to do the same. I became scared of English and devoted my life to something ‘safer’, so my thinking went, namely foreign languages. A desire to be elsewhere, and most often not even to speak to people.

  7. Glad you’re reading, and enjoying, this. Beaujour was my adviser at Hunter and was/is a stunningly good lecturer, opinionated and authoritative. Her class on Nabokov was probably the high point of my college career, which is faint enough praise. I wish she’d write another book; she’s got at least another dozen in her.

  8. I do too; she’s one of those authors who’s constantly stimulating to read. She looks at things from unexpected angles and backs up her points. Tell her to write more!

  9. marie-lucie says:

    “might have been a major, if not great, French writer”

    I read this to mean a major, although perhaps not great and was surprised that almost everyone here interpreted it as perhaps even great. Translating into French, if not would be sinon, which is just as ambiguous! but according to the TLFI (which lists a large number of examples in several contexts), in a positive sentence it is likely to reinforce the positive meaning, so even great.

    One thing that surprises me about this sentence is the absence of the article: I would have expected a major, if not a great (,) French writer. What do native speakers say?

    Finally, this case reminds me of that of Julian/Julien Green, born of American parents but raised mostly in France as a French-dominant bilingual, who lived in both countries and wrote in the language of whichever country he was living in at the time.

  10. One thing that surprises me about this sentence is the absence of the article: I would have expected a major, if not a great (,) French writer. What do native speakers say?

    It sounds perfectly natural to me as is; in fact, to me, “a major, if not a great” sounds slightly prissy, like someone trying too hard for parallelism.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, LH. Perhaps this reflects my reading choices! (which tend to be mostly academic these days).

  12. David Marjanović says:

    It sounds perfectly natural to me as is; in fact, to me, “a major, if not a great” sounds slightly prissy, like someone trying too hard for parallelism.

    Same for me; I’m of course not a native speaker of English, but German generally uses articles more often than English does, and doesn’t normally use it here either.

  13. @marie-lucie: The phrase could be read the way you suggest, although it seems pretty unlikely on pragmatic grounds. The two meanings would probably be easy to distinguish in speech, but the one you suggest could easily seem rudely dismissive even when spoken. It would be very odd to take that tone in the original paragraph’s quite positively oriented context.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks to all who responded to my query directly or indirectly.

    I had been surprised that my first reaction was the opposite of the one that came spontaneously to other Hatters, and I supposed that it was probably coloured by what would have been a French equivalent with sinon. That’s why I asked for native reactions. When I checked sinon in the TLFI to see actual examples, I realized that my own interpretation of sinon was perhaps more negative than that of most French speakers (or at least writers), for whom the word seems to be ambiguous. English if not also seems to be so, although perhaps more inclined than sinon towards the positive than the negative.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    I first read it like marie-lucie.

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