A Proper Education.

Having reached the year 1859 in my long march through Russian literature, I’m reading Turgenev’s Дворянское гнездо [A Nobleman’s Nest, also tr. Liza and Home of the Gentry], which has been called his “most characteristic, least controversial and most popular” novel. So far I’m finding it a bit of a slog, since it’s consisting mostly of long introductions to the family histories of each character, but I trust Turgenev and am willing to wait and see where it goes. At any rate, I thought I’d post this passage, which is of obvious LH relevance:

Despite all his adroitness, he found himself almost constantly on the verge of destitution, and left to his only son a small and unsettled fortune. On the other hand, he had, in his own way, taken pains with his education: Vladimir Nikolaich spoke French splendidly, English well, and German badly. That’s as it should be: for respectable people, it is shameful to speak German, but to make use of a German word in certain circumstances, for the most part humorous, is permissible; c’est même très chic, as Petersburg Parisians put it.

Несмотря на всю свою ловкость, он находился почти постоянно на самом рубеже нищеты и оставил своему единственному сыну состояние небольшое и расстроенное. Зато он, по-своему, позаботился об его воспитании: Владимир Николаич говорил по-французски прекрасно, по-английски хорошо, по-немецки дурно. Так оно и следует: порядочным людям стыдно говорить хорошо по-немецки; но пускать в ход германское словцо в некоторых, большею частью забавных, случаях — можно, c’est même très chic, как выражаются петербургские парижане.



  1. Were Russians in Turgenev’s time more likely to know English or German?

  2. Both were pretty common, but German was more so; Russians traveled to Germany for philosophy, poetry, and the waters, and to England for mod cons and the ideal aristocratic life (while complaining about the food and the refusal of anyone to talk about anything interesting).

  3. Are there any Russian novels or novellas of that period set in England? I can think of Asya and The Gambler for Germany, and there must be others.

  4. Can’t think of any offhand, but Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler has an extensive section set in London (see this LH post).

  5. I wonder if part of the issue was that many of those with good German in Russia were Jews. But this would have been pre-emancipation, I suppose, and so command of standard German wouldn’t have been as widespread among them as at the turn of the 20th century onwards.

  6. No, no, we’re talking about aristocratic Russians here; Jews are an entirely different stratum (and yeah, standard German wouldn’t have been that common). And then of course there were Baltic Germans, who spoke the language as of right (and come to think of it, prejudice against Baltic Germans may have fed into the “shameful to speak German” bit).

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    In revenge, in “Der Zauberberg”, the Russian language is described several times as knochenlos “boneless.” It’s not the word that would have occurred to me, but perhaps that’s why Thomas Mann had a Nobel Prize, and I (so far) haven’t.

  8. I know there’s an ocean out there of over-the-top subjective descriptions of languages (mostly other people’s), both complimentary and pejorative. I wish someone would gather a lot of them in one place for me to enjoy guiltily.

  9. I suspect Turgenev was making fun of the lesser, poorer, status-conscious nobility, for whom French was the language of the Bolkonskys and German, of the Stolzes (of Andrey’s father more than Andrey himself). Karamzin and Zhukovsky were fluent in German, and so was Turgenev – he went to college in Berlin. They all belonged to high society – Karamzin as the court historiographer, Zhukovsky as mentor to the heir apparent and Turgenev as the son of a rich landowner. Count Alexey K. Tolstoy, a childhood friend of Alexander II, wrote poems in German.

  10. That makes sense.

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