Veltman’s Misfortune.

I’ve finished Alexander Veltman’s last novel, Счастье несчастье [Good luck is bad luck/Fortune is misfortune] (1863), and once again I’m disappointed (see this post) — as a novel, it has virtually no interest. It’s basically an anecdote: Mikhailo Ivanovich, trained as a clerk, wants nothing more than to return to Bessarabia and live with his beloved Lenkutsa in a small house with a garden, but is promoted by a remorseless Fortune to ever-higher positions, acquiring all sorts of things he doesn’t want while remaining unable (because of his weak sense of self and hypertrophied sense of duty) to chuck it all and lead the life he longs for. It’s not a bad anecdote, and would have made a nice jeu d’esprit like Tynyanov’s “Подпоручик Киже” [Second Lieutenant Kizhe], but stretching it out to fill a 700-page novel is ridiculous; it’s full of repetitious activities by characters no one cares about, even the author. The one good character is the drunken but faithful ex-soldier Larin, and in the course of researching that unusual surname, known to me only from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, I discovered this passage from Nabokov’s commentary on Onegin:

The name Larin exists. Sometime in the 1840’s, in Moscow, the writer Aleksandr Veltman (Weldmann [sic]; 1800-60 [sic; should be 1870]) ran into an old acquaintance of his, Ilya Larin. He was “a character,” a crackpot and a bum who had roamed all over Russia and, a quarter of a century before, in Kishinev, had amused Pushkin with his antics and drinking parties — incidentally presenting the poet with a name for his squire (perhaps a subliminal link may be distinguished here connecting Larin, Pushkin’s court fool, and the Yorick of the next lines). In the course of the conversation, Larin asked Veltman, “Do you remember Pushkin? He was a good soul. Where is he, do you know?” “Long dead,” answered Veltman. “Really? Poor fellow. And what about Vladimir Petrovich” (whoever that was), “what is he doing?”

Now, that’s an excellent anecdote, and the real Larin is just the same as in Veltman’s novel.

Here are a couple of passages of linguistic interest; the first, on lexical distinctions:

Aleksei Alekseevich [the governor, and Mikhailo’s boss], threw on a greatcoat, which he liked to wear instead of a dressing gown, donned a service cap, and set off on his unexpected descent upon the municipal hospital [bol’nitsa], alias gospital’ [‘military hospital’]. The names might seem to be identical, but careful philological consideration will show them to be completely different. A military gospital’ cannot possibly be called a military bol’nitsa; a municipal bol’nitsa cannot possibly be called a municipal gospital’. A gospital’ can go on campaign, but a bol’nitsa can’t. And herein lies a subtlety of the enrichment of language. The medical facility of the provincial capital never went on campaign, and so we will call it a bol’nitsa.

Между тѣмъ Алексѣй Алексѣевичь, снарядясь, накинулъ на себя шинельку, которую любилъ иногда носить вмѣсто халата, надѣлъ фуражку, и отправился совершать непредвидѣнное нашествіе на городскую больницу, она же и госпиталь. Казалось бы названія тожественны; но при внимательномъ филологическомъ воззрѣніи совершенно различны. Военнаго госпиталя никакъ нельзя назвать военной больницей; городской больницы никакъ нельзя назвать городскимъ госпиталемъ. Госпиталю можно быть походнымъ; но больница въ походъ не ходитъ. И въ этомъ заключается тонкость обогащенія языка. Врачебное зданіе губернскаго города, никогда въ походъ не ходило, и потому мы будемъ называть его больницей.

And the second, on women’s education:

They [Lizochka and her friends] considered themselves in the forefront of the highest provincial circle; they could distinguish the enlightened European languages, except for Greek, from the Asiatic, they knew that the climate of Russia is worse than any other, that church services in Russia are carried on in some unintelligible Slavic language, and that the ne plus ultra of a girl’s education is being able to understand French novels.

Онѣ считали себя въ высшемъ губернскомъ кругу на первомъ планѣ, умѣли отличать просвѣщенные европейскіе языки, кромѣ греческаго, отъ азіатскихъ, знали, что климатъ Россіи хуже всѣхъ, что церковная служба въ Россіи идетъ на непонятномъ славянскомъ языкѣ, и что nес рlus ultrа дѣвственнаго образованія есть пониманіе французскихъ романовъ.

And now, on to Leskov and (bracing myself in advance) Chernyshevsky!

Comments

  1. Oh dear! What is to be done?

  2. Quite.

  3. I don’t expect to finish it, but I owe it to generations of Russian intelligentsia to at least give it a shot.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Funny how the supposedly same Latin phrase has been established in different forms in different languages – in German it’s non rather than ne or nec

  5. Judging by its sound Larin should make a completely unremarkable Russian last name. And there are many people who have it.

    By the way did you read Who is to blame?

  6. The beloved, if she is doomed to be romanized, might prefer Lencuṭa.

  7. Looking forward to Leskov. I read Lady Macbeth of the Mstsenk district, which I liked, but couldn’t connect with Nabokov’s comment on “trivial Leskovian jollity” (in Pnin). When the time comes, I hope you’ll have something to say about it.

  8. in some unintelligible Slavic language

    “Some” is unnecessary. In 19th century, Slavic was simply the common name for Church Slavonic language.

  9. January First-of-May says:

    Judging by its sound Larin should make a completely unremarkable Russian last name.

    IIRC (I distinctly recall it, but can’t source it), there’s a scene in one of the popular-linguistic works of Lev Uspensky where the number of people with assorted literary names in Moscow is given (I have no idea whether it was taken from phonebooks or estimated in some way); for example, there is supposedly one Evgeniy Onegin.

    The number of people named Tatyana Larina is given as 150.

  10. Surname Larin comes from Russian first name Illarion (from Greek Ἱλαρίων which means ‘hilarious’ or maybe just ‘cheerful’)

    Cognate of English Hillary.

    The name used to be quite common in Russia and many people have the surname Larin derived from it.

    First name Tatiana is, of course, one of the most popular female names in Russia.

  11. “Some” is unnecessary.

    In English it impliles that the services are held in a language whose name the ladies do not know and do not want to know.

  12. And that’s what makes it wrong, since the ladies do know the name of this language and actually just named it – Slavic.

  13. I guess, the ladies of the second excerpt could recognize Latin script (and, presumably, scripts derived from Latin) and knew that they are different from Arabic, but were not sure where to put Greek. I very much doubt that Veltman imagined them really understanding anything about spoken foreign languages and anything about written language as well beyond scripts. This is to some degree is news to me; the rest of the stuff (climate, liturgical language, and French novels) being a litany of banality to the degree that even making jokes about it induces only a yawn. Sorry, if it was obvious to everybody.

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The anecdote about Pushkin is paralleled by one about Lenin, who spent a lot of time in the reading room of the British Museum in the early 20th century. In the 1920s an employee of the museum, who had seen him many times there, was heard to wonder what had become of him, as he stopped coming to the reading room.

  15. what had become of him [Lenin]

    He was in Zurich, appearing in a play by Tom Stoppard. Something about trousers.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    By the 1920s he had moved beyond Zurich! Otherwise he would be forgotten by now.

  17. January First-of-May says:

    And that’s what makes it wrong, since the ladies do know the name of this language and actually just named it – Slavic.

    Perhaps “Slavonic” would be a more appropriate translation than “Slavic”?

    For what it’s worth, the modern Russian name for that language literally translates to “Old Slavic” (старославянский).

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Lenin

    “Was? Der Bromstein aus’m Café Central?”

    – reported reaction by someone in Vienna when told Lenin had seized power

  19. Sorry to be dumb, but my German’s not colloquial enough for that. Should that be Bronstein — i.e. Trotsky/Trotzki ?

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, that’s possible. I probably confused the two and misremembered the pseudonym.

  21. Judging by its sound Larin should make a completely unremarkable Russian last name. And there are many people who have it.

    The name used to be quite common in Russia and many people have the surname Larin derived from it.

    You both say “many people,” but compared to what? Nabokov was unfamiliar with it outside of Onegin, and it is not in Unbegaun’s very comprehensive book Russian Surnames. I submit that if you went out in the street and started looking for someone named Larin, you’d have to walk a long way.

    By the way did you read Who is to blame?

    I started it but gave up — it’s not a good novel.

    “Some” is unnecessary. In 19th century, Slavic was simply the common name for Church Slavonic language.

    What were Czech, Polish, etc. called?

    The beloved, if she is doomed to be romanized, might prefer Lencuṭa.

    An interesting issue. She’s not a local, she’s Russian, the daughter of Colonel Andrei Levonov, and she’s known to most Russians as Elena Andreevna; as far as I remember, it’s just Larin and the author who refer to her as Lenkutsa, which is presumably the name by which she is known to the local peasants, who are doubtless illiterate. And was the ṭ used in the 1820s (when the novel seems to be set)?

    When the time comes, I hope you’ll have something to say about it.

    Definitely!

    Was? Der Bromstein aus’m Café Central?”

    AntC is of course correct; it’s Bronstein and Trotsky.

  22. You both say “many people,” but compared to what?

    according to the study “500 most popular Russian surnames”, Larin ranks 193 in the list, between Petukhov and Nikulin.

    http://imja.name/familii/pyatsot-chastykh-familij.shtml

  23. Huh! Very interesting; I wonder why it was unknown to Nabokov and Unbegaun? Maybe it was primarily a peasant name that didn’t turn up in the official sources Unbegaun used?

  24. What were Czech, Polish, etc. called?

    We are talking usage among common people, not linguists. If asked, most of them would probably venture to say that Poles spoke Latin…

  25. Unbegaun listed 100 most popular surnames. Larin naturally didn’t make it there being 193rd…

  26. No no, I’m talking about his magnum opus giving the etymology of many thousands of family names; the index (three columns, small print) is almost 60 pages long, and there is no Ларин (it would be between Лапшин and Ларинцев).

  27. I’m reading Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, and I have to pass on this remarkable paragraph, irrelevant as it is to this thread:

    Virtually all the Bolsheviks employed nannies to take care of their children. It was a practical necessity for most Party women, at least until the state provided universal nursery care, because they went out to work. In many Party families the nanny acted as a moral counterweight to the household’s ruling Soviet attitudes. Ironically the most senior Bolsheviks tended to employ the most expensive nannies, who generally held reactionary opinions. The Bonners, for example, had a series of nannies, including one who had worked in Count Sheremetev’s household in St Petersburg, a Baltic German (an acquaintance of Batania’s old landowner friends) who taught the children ‘good manners’, and even one who had once worked for the Imperial family.

    I mean, I knew about grandmothers and nannies (Batania was Bonnier’s grandmother), but still, that’s quite remarkable.

  28. Surname Larincev is just a variant of Larin. From dimunitive Larinec, derived from the same first name.

  29. Sure, but it’s in there and Larin isn’t.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    And was the ṭ used in the 1820s (when the novel seems to be set)?

    Nope. Romanian was (to the extent that it was) written in Cyrillic for several decades more.

  31. What about Larionov? According to SFReader’s (ok, Zhuravlev’s, who cares) list its a bit down from Larin. Must be the same source though. If the name comes from Illarion there is some chance that it was originally from clergy. On the other hand, if a surname is popular it almost inevitable that it was a peasant one at some point in history. Most Russians are not descendants of princess Marya Aleksevna (though maybe from her serves).

  32. but were not sure where to put Greek

    A thing not unknown today. A Russian coworker once asked me “Greek is written in Cyrillic, no?” I considered how complex a reply was justified, and weakly went with “Yes”.

    At one time Coptic was unified with Greek in Unicode except for the six letters derived from Demotic. As part of the argument for encoding Coptic separately, Michael Everson prepared this demonstration of the same passage from the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic, Greek, and Cyrillic scripts. Michael says the Cyrillic looks more like the Coptic than the Greek does.

  33. But is it a fair comparison? I know nothing about Coptic and hardly more about typesetting, but it seems to me that Cyrillic was done in “all caps” and Greek in lower case.

  34. JC: Yeah, for fun you can render the basic Greek letters seamlessly in Cyrillic – а в г д е з и ѳ і к л м н ѯ о п р с т ѵ ф х ѱ ѡ – maybe even with ѕ for lunate sigma, though that would be a little more fanciful. Of course I find Greek to be the prettiest of the three “European” alphabets (and Cyrillic, sadly, the least), so I wouldn’t really want to.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    it seems to me that Cyrillic was done in “all caps”

    Cyrillic is the 3rd, not the 4th. The 4th appears to be Coptic in another font.

    Both Coptic and (later) Cyrillic started out as Greek plus extra letters, with some of the original letters restricted to Greek words.

  36. January First-of-May says:

    Both Coptic and (later) Cyrillic started out as Greek plus extra letters, with some of the original letters restricted to Greek words.

    Cyrillic even originally borrowed the koppa, which by then had long since not been used except as a numeral.
    (The digamma/stigma was apparently reused as the zelo, and, to the best of my knowledge, the sampi was never borrowed into Cyrillic at all.)

  37. Add Gothic to this list too.

  38. 193rd-most-common is still relatively rare, hence potentially relatively obscure.

    Out of curiosity I looked up a list of the most common U.S. surnames (https://surnames.behindthename.com/top/lists/united-states/2010); #193 (Ryan) has a frequency of 0.05%, meaning one in 2,000 people, and although that specific one is very well-known, some of the ones above it are surnames that I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered in the U.S., like Salazar and Silva and Soto.

    So it’s not necessarily too surprising that Nabokov knew of only one Larin.

  39. Ken Salazar, former U.S. Senator and secretary of the interior

    Henry Silva, American actor best known for playing heavies in lower-budget European films

  40. And the late Frank Silva, “Killer Bob” in Twin Peaks.

  41. You’re very likely to encounter Silva if you find yourself in Rhode Island or southeastern Mass.

    On the topic of extra letters (I think I may have read this but forgot), how was it that k got so popular among Germanics when it seemed to be a dead letter in classical Rome? Was it influence from the Gothic script?

  42. David Marjanović says:

    I once read that one “Frankish” monk had the idea of taking this dead letter and using it to avoid the complications with C, and this happened to catch on. Another or the same monk also wanted to introduce the omega or something, I’m not sure for what purpose exactly, and that didn’t happen to catch on…

    Incidentally, modern normalized editions of medieval mainland Germanic texts tend to exaggerate the prevalence of K and downplay C in both of its uses. For instance, at the beginning of the Nibelungenlied there’s a word rendered today hôchgezîten; here’s the first page of Manuscript C (fittingly enough), and there in the third line is hochgecıten with a C.

  43. You’re very likely to encounter Silva if you find yourself in Rhode Island or southeastern Mass.

    And Horace Silver’s family name was originally Silva (his father was from Cape Verde).

  44. When I lived in San Diego I had a boss named Silvia, originally Silva, family from SE MA; and innumerable Salazars.

  45. Per contra, the un-normalized Klaeber edition of Beowulf (1922) is full of k, which is normalized to c in more recent editions of Old English text.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I was reading Aleksandr Vel’tman (“Ol’ga,” “Orlando Furioso”). Now LH has gotten to the end of Vel’tman’s fiction with Fortune Is Misfortune (Счастье несчастье, 1863). It sounds like it’s […]

Speak Your Mind

*