The Bodiless Masquerade.

As promised, I am reading Leskov’s Воительница [The Battle-Axe], and I found this description of the protagonist interesting and amusing enough to share:

Furthermore, Domna Platonovna’s manner was refined. Not for anything in the world would she say in a drawing room, as others do, “I’ve been to the public bathhouse”; instead she would express herself thus: “I had, sir, the pleasure yesterday of attending the bodiless masquerade.” About a pregnant woman she would never blurt out, like others, that she was pregnant; she would say “She is in her nuptial interest.”

In general she was a lady with manners and she knew how to give tone with her education where it was needed. But even so, truth to tell, Domna Platonovna never acted superior, and she was what is called a patriot. The narrowness of her political horizon meant that her patriotism itself was of the narrowest sort; she considered herself bound to praise the Oryol province to everyone, and she received cordially everyone “from her place” and treated them kindly in every way.

К тому же и обращение у Домны Платоновны было тонкое. Ни за что, бывало, она в гостиной не скажет, как другие, что «была, дескать, я во всенародной бане», а выразится, что «имела я, сударь, счастие вчера быть в бестелесном маскараде»; о беременной женщине ни за что не брякнет, как другие, что она, дескать, беременна, а скажет: «она в своем марьяжном интересе», и тому подобное.

Вообще была дама с обращением и, где следовало, умела задать тону своей образованностью. Но, при всем этом, надо правду сказать, Домна Платоновна никогда не заносилась и была, что называется, своему отечеству патриотка. По узости политического горизонта Домны Платоновны и самый патриотизм ее был самый узкий, то есть она считала себя обязанною хвалить всем Орловскую губернию и всячески привечать и обласкивать каждого человека «из своего места».

The last bit is an example of the kind of local patriotism which became so notorious in WWI; as General Yanushkevich said, “A Tambov peasant is willing to defend the province of Tambov, but a war for Poland, in his opinion, is foreign and useless.”

As for the fancy diction, the phrase “bodiless masquerade” is funny in itself, but it seems маскарад ‘masquerade’ was an old humorous euphemism for ‘bathhouse’ — does anybody know the history of that?

Addendum. Having read a bit farther, I see that the beginning of the next chapter is equally LH-worthy:

My acquaintance with Domna Platonovna began for a trivial reason. I was renting a room from a colonel’s wife who spoke six European languages, not counting Polish, which she mixed into all the others. Domna Platonovna knew a frightful number of such colonel’s wives in Petersburg and for almost all of them carried out a wide variety of little tasks: affairs of the heart, of the pocket, and combined pocket-heart and heart-pocket. My colonel’s wife was truly an educated woman; she knew the world, behaved in the most proper way, knew how to make it appear that she valued in people their straightforward human worth, read a great deal, went into unfeigned raptures over poetry, and loved to declaim from Malczewski‘s Maria:
Bo na tym świecie, śmierć wszystko zmiecie,
Robak się lęgnie i w bujnym kwiecie.
[For in this world death destroys everything;
the worm hides in the luxuriant flower.]

Мое знакомство с Домной Платоновной началось по пустому поводу. Жил я как-то на квартире у одной полковницы, которая говорила на шести европейских языках, не считая польского, на который она сбивалась со всякого. Домна Платоновна знала ужасно много таких полковниц в Петербурге и почти для всех их обделывала самые разнообразные делишки: сердечные, карманные и совокупно карманно-сердечные и сердечно-карманные. Моя полковница была, впрочем, действительно дама образованная, знала свет, держала себя как нельзя приличнее, умела представить, что уважает в людях их прямые человеческие достоинства, много читала, приходила в неподдельный восторг от поэтов и любила декламировать из «Марии» Мальчевского

I’m not sure I’ve correctly understood “на который она сбивалась со всякого,” and I don’t know why the name of Malczewski’s poem is given in some sources as “Maria” and in others as “Marya.” (I’ve corrected the spelling of the Polish from here.) Of course one wonders which are the six languages (apart from Polish); French and German obviously, and I suppose English and Italian, but what are the other two? Hungarian, Spanish, Dutch, Finnish? What might a well-educated and cosmopolitan colonel’s wife have known in the 1860s?

Update. I found the story boring after a while and gave up on it; I’ve moved on to Dostoevsky’s Gambler, which grabbed me right away.


  1. This reminds me of the lady in the mystery story (I’m not identifying it further because I’m revealing the punchline) who used unabridged as a fancified version of uncut. Of course when it comes to books they aren’t the same thing at all.

  2. It’s PlatonovNa, not Platonova. It’s a patronymic, not a surname.

  3. SFReader says:

    Reminds a famous anecdote from1917:

    Provisional Government comissar appeals to patriotic feelings of soldiers, tells them that they are defending their homes from the enemy.

    Bored soldiers reply: “We are from Vyatka, the German won’t get there!”

  4. The notion of zeml’ak and zemly’achesvo (a person from one’s local area and the group of persons from one’s local area) was extremely important at the time of mass movement of people from villages to big cities. I don’t see how it applies to Domna Platonovna, though. She is not relying on people from her Orlov district for anything.

    I never heard masquerade as an euphemism for public baths (maybe its obsolete?), but it is pretty common and not much marked to say about a pregnant woman that she is in the “interesting situation”.

    A nit as usual ( 🙂 ). What you translate “got carried away” (zanosit’s’a) means behaving as if you are better and above the others.

  5. In English it was interesting condition from about 1850 to 1950. Probably both are derived from French position/situation intéressante, état intéressant.

  6. maybe in the bathhouse all wrapped in sheets

  7. It’s PlatonovNa, not Platonova.

    Thanks, typo fixed now.

    A nit as usual ( 🙂 ). What you translate “got carried away” (zanosit’s’a) means behaving as if you are better and above the others.

    I always appreciate your nitpicking, and I’ve changed it accordingly!

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Not really relevant to your story, but I’m reminded anyway of the time when David Hilbert wanted to appoint a woman (the great Emmy Noether — not just any old woman), to a faculty position in mathematics at the University of Göttingen. However, this was in 1915, and some of his colleagues were worried that soldiers returning from the front would not accept being subject to a woman. His retort has gone down as one of the great put-downs in history: “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission. We are a University, not a Bath House.”

  9. -“на который она сбивалась со всякого”
    [not literally, but f.ex., as means to explain] starting a phrase in any of other six languages, she inevitably ended it in Polish – it being the language she knew best. In effect, she spoke in pidgin x Polish of a kind.

    -the other two: might be Latin and Greek, of the гимназической variety

    -«на квартире у…» не означает <in an apartment belonging to" – but "renting a room in somebody's dwelling (not necessarily "apartment") while the owner was in occupancy"

  10. Thanks for the explanations; I’ve incorporated them as best I could, while trying to preserve concise, natural-sounding English.

    might be Latin and Greek

    Maybe, but wouldn’t they be reading rather than spoken languages?

  11. Regarding masquerade and euthemism for interesting condition I would say that those particular expressions from the text in Russian are not common phrases. For me they sound odd and exaggerated. The author probably expressed that the person was hypocritical to some extent. I am not sure if I am clear in explanation – this is my first attempt and I do not have relevant experience in translation. My point is that there is no need to look for any recurring pattern of these expressions. “Interesting condition” is commonly used, but the phrase from the text is not.

  12. Oh, you’re absolutely right, which is why I translated them as odd individual expressions rather than trying to make them idiomatic.

  13. David Hilbert

    Wikipedia says that his surname is pronounced [ˈhɪlbɐt] in German. Is that really true, or is it just an overapplication of the rule that final -er is pronounced [ɐ] to final -ert? My German-pronunciation instincts, such as they are, go with [ˈhɪlbɛɐ̯t]; I never heard my mother mention anyone of that name, but I assume she would have said [ˈhɪlbɛʁt], as she was fully rhotic.

  14. @John Cowan:. I have heard “Hilbert space” pronounced with /ˈhɪlbɐt/ from at least one physicist who was a native German speaker.

  15. It’s simple – if your pronunciation of unstressed “er” is [ɐ], you’l also use that in Hilbert; if it’s [ɛɐ̯], you’ll use that. The rule is valid for all cases of unstressed “er”, whether followed by a consonant or not. It only doesn’t apply in transparent compounds, like e.g. Mehrwert “added value”, where the second element doesn’t count as unstressed (in longer compounds, there is a secondary stress on the second element). But names like Hilbert or Albert etc. aren’t perceived as transparent compounds any more.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’ve never heard a German pronounce Hilbert. All the anglophones I’ve say it pronounce it like Gilbert with [h] instead of [g]. (I suppose that in Russian these would be the same name.)

  17. David Marjanović says:

    But names like Hilbert or Albert etc. aren’t perceived as transparent compounds any more.

    Well, except by those who recognize -bert as a name-forming (if meaningless) morpheme. Roughly, Schubert is reduced in Germany, but not in Austria, where he’s treated as a compound of Schuh + -bert. I don’t reduce Albert; I have no idea how to treat Hilbert.

    There is a rare adjective-forming suffix spelled -ert, which gets the reduced pronunciation. The only example I can think of right now, though, is deppert “dumb”, from Depp “dumbass”, which obviously doesn’t show up much in writing and seems to be regional… but I’ve long thought this is what Schubert-reducers have in mind.

    The parts of transparent compounds remain separate phonological words in German. This is quite unlike English, where -man and -land are usually reduced (we’ve talked about the minimal pair batman vs. Batman), or Greek, where the phonemic stresses of the components are completely erased and a new one assigned by a mora-counting rule.

    (Paradoxically enough, the fact that the components stay separate phonological words is why the end of many non-final ones is “reinforced” by adding -s or sometimes -(e)n, which in turn is why the components don’t remain separate orthographic words.)

    I never heard my mother mention anyone of that name, but I assume she would have said [ˈhɪlbɛʁt], as she was fully rhotic.

    Fully rhotic, as found in and around Switzerland, or rhotic only behind short vowels, as found farther north along the Rhine (Martin Schulz is a good example)?

  18. It’s hard for me to be sure after almost forty years: I think she said lehrt with /ʁ/, but it may just have been a pharyngeal constriction. Remember that she was not allowed to speak the local (Thuringia/Hesse border) dialect, and her Standard German accent was artificial as well, both the result of being isolated from what would have been her natural peer group but her family thought of as riffraff (probably Pö­bel, but my mother used riffraff in sarcasm intonation when talking about it in English).

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Phonemically, it would have been /ʁ/ in any case; phonetically, I expect [ɐ̯] here, forming a long diphthong.

  20. I meant to write [ʁ]. But probably it was more like the uvular or pharyngeal approximants [ʁ̞[ or [ʕ̞]. I should mention that she sometimes pronounced /-g/ as [χ] rather than [k] (Tach for Tag, e.g.); she considered this an error, and used to warn her students not to do the same.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    /-g/ as [χ]

    That is common in the north, possibly only north of where I’d expect Rhineland rhoticity, but I’m not sure.

  22. It always struck me as weird that that kind of pronunciation was considered “correct” for –ig, yet was deemed substandard in other contexts.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    That’s indeed weird, because it’s not the product of a regular sound change. It’s originally part of stage pronunciation, where this concession to Low German was made for acoustic reasons. It’s not commonly done south of the White Sausage Equator, where the old /ɣ/ has been a plosive in all positions in the local dialects since about the High German Consonant Shift.

  24. My mother was born in Heringen, Thuringia, but grew up nearby in Aumühle, or rather in the Aumühle, the mill itself, which at that time (the 1920s) was apparently the only building at the site. Note that Au- in this connection is just ‘water’ and not a river meadow, though there are several Auen around Heringen, locally known as Rohrlachen.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    That’s far enough north for local /ɣ/ to have merged into /x/ rather than /k/ by Inderior German Gonsonant Weagening.

  26. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    and I don’t know why the name of Malczewski’s poem is given in some sources as “Maria” and in others as “Marya.”

    Polish underwent a spelling reform in the 1930’s (fairly silly one if you ask me). Spellings like “partja, partya, konstytucya, Marya, Marja” were abolished in favour of “partia, konstytucja, Maria” (it’s j after consonants which can be softened, i otherwise).

  27. Thanks!

  28. David Marjanović says:

    So Radio Maryja is reactionary in orthography and not just in everything else?

  29. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    More like reactionary in its phonetics. Latin loans like akcja, Maria, lilia used to have 3 syllables (they were once pronounced “akcyja, Maryja, lilija” — the spelling was “akcya, Marya, lilya”) but at some stage the -y/i- (which was unaccented because Latin antepenultimate stress was kept) dropped out. It reappears in diminutive forms (akcyjka, lilijka, Maryjka), nonetheless. “Maryja” is a partial exception, though, because the long pronunciation was preserved in the sense ‘mother of Jesus’ (otherwise it’s Maria /marja/).

  30. There is a rare adjective-forming suffix spelled -ert

    This must be the same as the English pejorative suffix -ard, as in coward, sluggard, dotard — also in French, and in Dutch as -erd — which per Wiktionary comes from hard, though I don’t know what the semantic development is supposed to be. (Blowhard an unelided relic?)

  31. Per Etymonline, blowhard is a recent creation (1790) rather than a relic. The underlying meaning of Germanic hard is not ‘hard’ but ‘bold’, as in hardi/hardy, but it became -ard through proper names like Reynard < Reginhard.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Specifically, through French forms of such names, like Reynard, which remains Reinhard/Rainhard in German to this day; the form Reiner/Rainer is originally a nickname, like Heiner still is (for Heinrich). Also Bernhard, Eberhard, Leonhard (“bear-“, “boar-“, “lion-“) and Gerhard/Gerhart (“spear-“). Only Ekkehard/Eckhart (“edge-” [of the sword]) also shows up as Eckart.

    Admittedly, Deppenhart would be a great name for Leeroy Jenkins.

  33. I was joking about blowhard — I’m surprised it’s as old as 1790. It’s still not clear to me exactly how the suffix came to have a pejorative sense, though.

Speak Your Mind