THE UNGENTLE STEPMOTHER.

I’ve finished Alexander Veltman’s third novel, Svetoslavich: Vrazhii pitomets (Svetoslavich: The devil’s foster child, 1835)—you can get a lot read in a four-hour bus ride—and I found it both satisfying and indescribable. I mean, there’s a fairly straightforward plot line involving Vladimir‘s campaign to get Kiev back from his treacherous brother Yaropolk in the late tenth century, but it’s all intertwined with the tale of a princess who is raised as a prince and wants to find a worthy warrior to engage in combat rather than get married (Veltman uses male pronouns when referring to her in her chosen role, and female ones only when discussing her rejected biological gender) and the even more fantastic tale of Vladimir’s ungodly brother, the titular Svetoslavich, who is the tool of unholy forces who live in and around the Dnepr near Kiev and want to drive Christianity out of it and restore the Old Gods. There’s lots of mad galloping from one part of Russia to another and travel across to Scandinavia (the Swedes come into it) and down to Constantinople (Svetoslavich wants to retrieve his father’s skull, which has been made into a jeweled drinking cup, so the unholy forces will give him the woman he loves)…. well, you get the idea.
At any rate, I was struck by this sentence, which occurs at a grim point in the novel: Жизнь неласковая мачеха, слезы пьет, горем людским питается [Life is an ungentle stepmother; she drinks tears and feeds on human grief]. Not only is it a memorably pithy expression of the idea, but I couldn’t help but think that if it had been written by Dostoevsky rather than Veltman it would be one of those much-anthologized lines Russians like to quote. But literary history, like life, is ungentle; it feeds off unjustly forgotten talent.

Comments

  1. You are really into Veltman!
    I am curious about the syntax of the sentence. The comma after stepmother suggest the fleeting ‘is’: Life is this, this and this. But the first time I read it I thought it was ‘Life-Evil-stepmother [Subject] drinks tears and feeds on grief.’

  2. If it’s as good in Russian as it is in your English translation, then hats off (if you’ll pardon the expression) to Veltman.

  3. You are really into Veltman!
    Yes I am, he’s a wonderful writer, and I think a lot of people would be into him if he were readily available. Russians love science fiction, and he was the first Russian sf writer, for heaven’s sake; I’d love to read his «MMMCDXLVIII год: Рукопись Мартына Задека» and «Александр Филиппович Македонский: Предки Калимероса», but they don’t seem to be available. I want to see a Veltman revival!

  4. I’m in, just let me catch up on reading V. On this site, I found Belinsky praising Veltman to the skies as unique in Russian literature. “Veltman’s talent is distinctive and original in the highest degree; he imitates no one, and no one can imitate him. He has created a unique world that no one can copy; his approach and his style also belong to him alone.” Remember what you wrote about Belinsky killing ‘the other literature’ a few posts ago?
    There must have been something that alienated him at some point from the progressives. But what?

  5. Another nice quote from the novel: Svetoslavich says “не хочу и Царством править… пусть правят люди…” [I don't want to rule a kingdom... let people rule...] Let people rule! A startling sentiment in 1835, and for a long time afterward.

  6. I like your choice of “ungentle” for неласковая! I always want to use “affectionate” for the positive version, but it often ends up sounding like “visibly demonstrating love” when I want “feeling affection.”

  7. It appears that he is going through a slow revival. There has been some re-assessmnet of him beginning from 1970-s. And there is a 2001 10 episode TV series ‘Salome’ based on his novel “Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского” (Adventures from the Sea of Daily Life). The final, 5th book, of the novel is still apparently unpublished. Dostoyevsky, a huge fan of Veltman, was preparing it for publication but somehow didn’t.
    Here is a ten minute extract on YouTube.

  8. Jeffry House says:

    Life being a stepmother (мачеха) rather than a mother is a nice touch, too. Maybe it is simply because “mother” doesn’t work there, but I thought of it in Christian terms as the earthly, flawed life that occurs before death.
    I might have translated “неласковая” as “cruel”, though. “Ungentle” doesn’t sound like an ordinary English word to me, whereas (I think) “Неласковая” is an everyday Russian word, used often.
    But then again, “Life is a cruel stepmother” sounds cliched.

  9. I might have translated “неласковая” as “cruel”, though. “Ungentle” doesn’t sound like an ordinary English word to me, whereas (I think) “Неласковая” is an everyday Russian word, used often.
    Yes, неласковый is fairly common in Russian (though I’m not sure I’d call it “everyday”), but context is all. If I were translating, say, Shukshin’s “И вот ― на тебе, она, оказывается, правда горевала, что он такой молчаливый и неласковый,” I’d translate it as “unfriendly.” (I don’t think of it as quite as extreme as “cruel,” though of course I’d be glad to hear what Russians have to say about it.) But this is a very high-flown, literary sentence, and I wanted it to be as memorable in English as it is in Russian. As you say, “cruel stepmother” is a cliche, whereas if you put “неласковая мачеха” into Google Books, you will get five hits, three of which are this passage of Veltman.

  10. if you put “неласковая мачеха” into Google Books, you will get five hits, three of which are this passage of Veltman.
    I read this and wondered if the infrequency of мачеха was doing most of the work. It wasn’t. “жестокая мачеха” gets 99 hits and “недобрая мачеха” 27.

  11. Jeffry House says:

    I read this and wondered if the infrequency of мачеха was doing most of the work. It wasn’t. “жестокая мачеха” gets 99 hits and “недобрая мачеха” 27.
    And the big winner is “злая мачеха”, “evil stepmother”, with 130,000 hits!

  12. But there’s nothing particularly memorable about “неласковая мачеха”. It may be rare per se, but it’s a pretty straightforward inversion of “ласковая мать” – which is almost a collocation.

  13. but the standard expression is злая мачеха (wicked stepmother), which gets 276,000 hits.

  14. It may be rare per se, but it’s a pretty straightforward inversion of “ласковая мать” – which is almost a collocation.
    In other words, because it’s different from something that’s normal and unmemorable, it is therefore normal and unmemorable itself? That makes no sense. You might as well say that “Such, Such Were the Joys” is unmemorable because “such were the joys” is almost a collocation. Language and memory don’t work that way.

  15. nelaskovaya is more like uncaring, indifferent, bc laskovaya is caring, showing affection
    gentle/ungentle is maybe about one’s own character, mental disposition something, not the attitude towards others, how it sounds to me, so ungentle is more like surovaya maybe and nelaskovaya sounds more neutral than just plain wicked or cruel, cz even though nelaskovaya the person could be a kind or harmless person at heart

  16. but the description of drinking tears and feeding on grief doesn’t apply to the kind-hearted but indifferent looking life-stepmother, so maybe ungentle it is indeed

  17. In other words, because it’s different from something that’s normal and unmemorable, it is therefore normal and unmemorable itself?
    That’s not what I said.

  18. No, it’s my interpretation of what you said, bringing out why I think it’s silly. A “pretty straightforward inversion” is something that’s different from the uninverted form, and ipso facto cannot share the putative unmemorability of the latter. The example I gave, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” is a lot closer to the original form, and yet is infinitely more memorable. If you think I have somehow traduced your thinking, I’ll be glad to listen.

  19. A “pretty straightforward inversion” is something that’s different from the uninverted form…
    Since my original failed to convey the intended meaning, I’m afraid any attempt at elaboration will be only more confusing (even in Russian, most probably).
    To me transition from “ласковая мать” to “неласковая мачеха” is nearly as mechanic(?) as transition from “мать” (Nom.) to “матери” (Gen.). To drag logic into this – the connection between them to me is of the same character as connection between “if A then B” -> “if not B then not A” (transposition), or between “if A then B” -> “if not A then not B” (inversion), etc.

  20. I understand your point, but I don’t accept it. Language is not logical, memory is not logical, and “неласковая мачеха” gets five hits on Google Books, three of which are this passage of Veltman. It is neither an obvious nor a common phrase.

  21. As an English example, “happy accident” has 834 kGhits (and is a cliche, though not especially idiomatic); “unhappy accident” has only 22 kGhits.
    “The pineapple is a prolific and dangerous weed, edible only by a happy and irrelevant accident.” —James Blish, quoted here back in 2010

  22. It’s quite frustrating that you keep interpreting my remark about this particular pair as a general claim about how language works.
    Search not just google books but web in general. Don’t search for exact phrase (in quotes) and try “неласкова” instead of “неласковая”.
    Among others you will get hits for “мать-и-мачеха”, quite a common plant. E.g. from a text intended for elementary school:

    Если взять в руки листочек этого цветка, то почувствуешь, какой он снизу мягкий и теплый, а сверху твердый, гладкий и холодный. За эту особенность цветок и получил свое название: верхняя сторона – «неласковая мачеха», нижняя – «добрая мать».

    The following, as far as I understand, is recorded speech of some ordinary woman:

    Про мать-и-мачеху слыхала я: мать – внизу [листа] тёплая, мягкая – мать, вверху [листа] гладкая – это мачеха. Мачеха-то неласковая, а там-то ласкова, бархатна, это-то мать, а это тётка.

    From Дмитрий Быков:

    Есть у него только тоска от ощущения вечного сосущего долга перед неласковой, суровой мачехой, требующей новых и новых жертв неизвестно во имя чего.

    The following quotes *are* on google books, but are only found if you search for “неласковая мачеха” without quotes.

    Известно про злую и неласковую мачеху, но и отец оказался неласков: так и не прислал сыну ни копейки.

    Какая была мачеха лиха,
    Лиха, лиха, неласковая.

    Неласковая к нему, как мачеха, жизнь куда-то отодвинулась, ушла за дальние берега Днепра, за покрытый дымкой горизонт.

    Это просто жизнь, неразумная, неласковая ко мне, мачеха!

    Мне не было у мачехи пригреву-то, была она горяча, неласкова, била меня.

    etc, etc.

  23. OK, good point, and I thank you for the follow-up. I should know better than to just use a search in quotes.

  24. That said, I still don’t think “cruel stepmother” would be a good translation, because that’s clearly “злая мачеха.”

  25. Would злая мачеха not be “evil stepmother”?
    -
    I hesitate to ask, because my knowledge of Russian has dwindled to almost nothing over the past 35 years, but I would also think that ‘evil stepmother” is the more cliché expression, or perhaps “wicked”. Cruel?

  26. Hm, maybe you’re right and “cruel” would be better. Bah, it’s all so complicated!

  27. By this measure cruel was gradually overtaken by wicked between the 1890s and the 1950s and did not fall behind evil until the 1980s.

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