A few days ago, Erik at XIX век posted some quotes from what sounded like a very interesting book, Joe Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin. I took Amazon up on their offer to send a sample of the book to my Kindle, and I thought I’d quote this passage on a heretofore little noticed, but according to Peschio vitally important, genre of early-19th-century Russian literary activity, which might be labeled “insignificant.” He says:

My case for the significance of the insignificant, so to speak, relies heavily on a concept for which I have been forced to borrow a term from the formalists that has long since fallen into disuse: “domesticity.” This is a rough calque from Boris Eikhenbaum, who describes the role of “literary domesticity” (literaturnaia domashnost’) in the early nineteenth century as part of the shift of authorial ethos from the court to high society. A fairly rare word, domashnost’ is used by the formalists in a sense peculiar to the early twentieth century. Only Ushakov’s dictionary defines this usage: “A familial, unofficial attitude toward something. Domesticity cannot be allowed in public work.” […]

As Eikhenbaum notes, domesticity became an increasingly important social context for Russian poetry of the early nineteenth century, and it was, in many respects, the period’s most important “laboratory” for the creation of new forms. In particular, domesticity served as the pragmatic setting for the development of the light genres, from which the new Russian poetry of the 1820s and 1830s, in large part, emerged. These were all, in one way or another, intensely personal genres, and much of the poetry was produced not for public consumption but, as Zhukovskii liked to put it, für wenige (for the few). This is especially true of a little-known genre called the shalost’, which has been all but ignored in Russian literary history, and which lies at the conceptual heart of this book. With Igor Pil’shchikov, I have described shalosti as a peculiar but stable verse genre practiced by the poets of the Lyceum Circle, the Green Lamp, and Arzamas. The word shalost’ is usually translated into English as “prank,” “caper,” “mischief,” or “naughtiness.” In the early nineteenth century, as I discuss at length in chapter 1, an even broader range of behaviors was associated with the word, including deception, practical jokes, assault, mutiny, vandalism, rape, and kidnapping. Lacking a single English equivalent, I am compelled to use the Russian throughout. As a verse genre, the shalost’ is defined not by formal characteristics but by behavioral ones. In other words, it was called thus because it was defined by what it did rather than what it was: whether a long poem or just a couple of lines in the context of a longer work, a shalost’ in one respect or another flaunts [sic] the prescriptions of literary propriety, adhering instead to the behavioral codes and semantics of domesticity.

This might seem harmless to us, but the tsar took it very seriously indeed; in fact, the book begins with a description of Alexander Polezhayev being arrested for his 1825 satirical poem “Sashka” (based on student life and probably a parody of Eugene Onegin) and not only sent to the Caucasus with the army but persecuted relentlessly until his wretched death in 1838. Peschio connects his theme to my own hobbyhorse when he says that “prankishness was still associated with writers and writing well into the 1830s, when it became an embattled political discourse. By the late 1830s, prankishness was on the wane. In the early 1840s it was supplanted by a new ‘serious’ political activism in literature that arose in reaction to what was perceived as the aristocratic frivolity of prankishness. It continued to exist on the margins of Russian literature … before undergoing a metamorphosis and a revival in the early twentieth century.” Long live frivolity! Down with “serious” discourse!


  1. Judging by Russian National Corpus домашность in the sense “coziness, familiarity” takes off from 1930. Before that its almost exclusively “small household items” collectively. But even in that (clearly irrelevant sense) the earliest quote is from 1884. Maybe it’s still OK to use it for for-friends-and-family aristocratic poetry…

  2. Trond Engen says:

    whether a long poem or just a couple of lines in the context of a longer work, a shalost’ in one respect or another flaunts [sic] the prescriptions of literary propriety

    What’s with the ‘sic’? To this non-native that convoluted noun looks singular.

  3. Dmitry Prokofyev says:

    It continued to exist on the margins of Russian literature
    — not quite, I believe. Doesn’t e.g. Kozma Prutkov provide a brilliant – and far from marginal – development of the same trend?

  4. SFReader says:

    Example of Alexander Polezhaev’s shalost’:

    И каждый день повечеру,
    Ложася спать, и поутру
    В молитве к Господу Христу
    Царя российского в пизду
    Они ссылают наподряд

    Czar Nicholas definitely felt offended!

  5. Doesn’t e.g. Kozma Prutkov provide a brilliant – and far from marginal – development of the same trend?

    Here’s the full sentence; as you see, he doesn’t neglect KP:

    It continued to exist on the margins of Russian literature, producing some of the nineteenth century’s humorous masterpieces, such as Aleksei Tolstoi’s and Aleksei, Aleksandr, and Vladimir Zhemchuzhnikovs’s Koz’ma Prutkov and Ivan Miatlev’s Madame Kurdiukova, before undergoing a metamorphosis and a revival in the early twentieth century.

    But of course it was marginal — not in the sense that it was ignored, but in the sense that nobody talking about the central stream of Russian literature would mention it. It was brilliant and much-loved, but definitely on the margin.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    juha: flaunt vs flout

    I couldn’t even make sense of the sentence with ‘flaunt’, but I thought that was just convolution.

  7. Using ‘flaunt’ for ‘flout’ is particulary egregious in journalese. Given the well-known ignorance of newspaper hacks, surely exercising peefishness against them ought to be acceptable, given that they are encouraging that usage amongst hoi polloi. Yet they are a part of same, and simply reflecting their usage. Ipso facto peevers such as I must suffer in silence or be censured.

  8. Curses! Two ‘givens’ in one sentence!

    You should have seen how I spelt ‘their’ automatically. I plead the mental slippage of those slipping into Eldernesse.

  9. I’m with you. I wonder how long it will be before I stop noticing the mistypings and correcting them before hitting Post.

  10. Trond Engen says:

    I lost a &lt and a &gt in my last comment.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    I lost them again!

  12. There is a classic Galich verse about Polezhaev being confused with a heroic fighter / juxtaposed with the Soviet nonconforming authors:
    …Так оставь, художник, вымысел,
    Нас в герои не крои!
    Нам не знамя жребий вывесил –
    Носовой платок в крови.

  13. Peefishness, eh?

  14. Yeah, I just noticed. Does that taint water you don’t want to swim in?

  15. Bky the way, JC, how do you pronounce that ‘eh?’, eh?

  16. Bky?

  17. With the FACE vowel.

  18. That pronunciation bugged me greatly when I learned people were spelling it ee aich. ‘Don’t these ignorant young buggers know that’s pronounced with the vowel in MET?’ I might have said. ‘That’s how it’s always been pronounced! I would write it “ay?” .’
    It tied me up in knots until I recognized that you can’t stand up to a juggernaut. Wisps of that turmoil still lash me occasionally until I exert calm.
    At the time that I learned it (the Seventies?), it was mainly confined to Ontario, though beginning to infiltrate BC. I theorized it might have been a descendant of a French expression I read occasionally, hein? And that it had spread west from the Ottawa Valley, losing its nasality. Has anyone investigated its history?

  19. Eh!

  20. The OED2 (1891) gives the FACE vowel as the only pronunciation, and traces it back in the sense I was using (‘an interjectional interrogative particle; often inviting assent to the sentiment expressed’) to 1773. As Paul’s WP link shows, there is a distinct particle with the DRESS vowel that expresses the badness or mediocrity of something; the OED does not yet list this. As an expression of sorrow, eh goes back to Middle English times, when the spelling was ey, clearly representing the FACE vowel (though face itself had a different vowel at the time).

  21. Interesting. AHD says (ā, ĕ). I suspect my use of the latter is a spelling pronunciation picked up as a wee lad.

  22. Apropos of eh, I recently reread Ivan Chonkin, in translation. Near the beginning is the story of the previous kolkhoz chairman, who got drunk and committed suicide, leaving a note containing only the word “Эх!!!” Are there any subtleties to эх which the Russian reader would be attuned to here?

  23. The Oxford dictionary says эх [ekh] expresses “regret, reproval, amazement, etc.”; I await with interest anything Russian commenters have to say about its use in this context.

  24. When I was growing up, I was familiar with both of the interjectional particles that are usually spelled “eh.” However, I did not realize until I was a teenager that they were actually both spelled that way; I think I must have encountered the spelling “ey” once early on—perhaps in one of the letters my mother showed me from her Canadian relatives. Things were further confused by the fact that a fair number of people use the spelling pronunciation for the interrogative word and pronounce it the same way as the grumbling interjection. So I would have recognized three words: “ey” the interrogative; “eh” the expression of dissatisfaction; and “eh” the interrogative, which was pronounced like the other “eh” but had the same meaning as “ey.”

  25. In hindsight I should have used “hey?” But it’s an interesting conversation anyhow.

  26. Wa-al, I’m gobsmacked! Shows how isolated you get looking at the world only through the internet, and not knowing how to use it properly. Not that I see that as an entiredly bad thing.
    Thanks to everyone for seeing I get adjamicated.
    One complaint aboout the Wiki article: it doesn’t reveal pronunciation away from N. America.
    I would add a further comment to the discussion: it seems to me not everyone uses this grunt (I insist on this term; just because it carries a semantic load doesn’t really make it a word, IMlessthanHO). Some just toss it into their speech without looking for a response. One can experiment by not reacting.
    I see my imagined origin of Canadien eh pronunciation (ay or ey) is a false trail, unless it received a nudge there. It’s occurrence in Middle English is an eye-opener.

  27. Entiredly, eh?

  28. Speaking of grunts, I do recognize the existence of monosyllables.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    ‘Eh’ is used in Australia and pronounced ‘ay’. As in, ‘Whaddyer reckon, ay?’ (What do you reckon, eh?).

    Totally unremarkable although fairly colloquial.

    The one that mystifies me is the particle that expresses the badness or mediocrity of something. I assume I’ve heard it at some time in my sheltered existence, but it certainly doesn’t ring a bell.

  30. The Oxford dictionary says эх [ekh] expresses “regret, reproval, amazement, etc.”

    In context of a suicidal kolhoz chairman it’s probably regret. I am surprised about the “amazement” option. Never heard anything even close. Maybe they mean эк [ek] a shortened/colloquial form of как [kak] = how, but it has nothing to do with эх. Anyways, in addition to its regrets etc. meaning эх has also an uplifting meaning. Like when you try to do something difficult and need just a little bit of a push: “Эх, дубинушка, ухнем!” which GT helpfully gives as “Oh, dubinushka, ukhnyem!” (after being instructed that it’s not in Mongolian).

  31. I am surprised about the “amazement” option. Never heard anything even close.

    I have crossed it out; thanks!

  32. Maybe эх overlaps with “dang”?

  33. gwenllian says:

    ‘Eh’ is used in Australia and pronounced ‘ay’. As in, ‘Whaddyer reckon, ay?’ (What do you reckon, eh?).

    Totally unremarkable although fairly colloquial.

    I get the impression it’s more common in New Zealand English. It seems to be one of the expressions used by Australians when they poke fun at the way New Zealanders speak.

Speak Your Mind