A Syntactic Tangle.

I’m currently reading Спокойные поля [Peaceful fields] by Alexander Goldstein (or Goldshtein; see this post); it’s a real struggle because of his uniquely difficult prose. It’s not only that he uses unusual words and obscure cultural references; as Stanislav Lvovsky’s preface to my edition says, “все усложняющийся от книги к книге синтаксис в «Спокойных полях» временами совсем сходит с ума и отказывается говорить, сходит на бормотание, почти ремизовскую хлыстовскую скороговорку” [the syntax, increasingly complex from book to book, in Peaceful Fields at times goes completely out of its mind and refuses to speak, descending into mumbling, almost Remizovan Khlyst patter]. (Remizov had a notoriously complex style, but I don’t know what the Khlysts are doing here — perhaps a reference to his 1906 novella Чертик [The Little Devil], which features a very similar sect, or is there a Khlystov I’ve never heard of?) Here’s a sterling example, from the chapter На тропе [On the path]; I’m giving a substantial chunk for context, but the phrase that baffled me is in the last sentence (I’ve bolded it):

Месяца через три, через шесть, через девять, время имело иное значение, не мерилось привычной мерой, месяцы были иные, подвижные, яркие, с ящеричной повадкой, о них нельзя было знать, с какой скоростью, почтовой, курьерской, побегут минуту спустя, а взбрыкнут — совсем остановятся, что будет крайней, опаснейшей прытью, гнетущим сердцебиением и одышкой, выпаденьем то марта, то прериаля, то сентября, обморочной перетасовкой всей дюжины, ничего, обошлось, он сидел на прогретом камне в лесочке, босой, холщовые штаны, кобзарская рубаха, летатлин-бандурист. Складской запас маскарадный, личина телесного сокрывания, послеполуденный дремного отдыха театр — нет, не так, все не так: вещного мира, в котором одежда, не замечающий, вышел в первом, что приглянулось для пешего хода.

I’m not even going to try to translate it, but if you know Russian, you might take a moment to try to figure out why that phrase is in the genitive and what it depends on. In desperation, I wrote to the always helpful Anatoly, and his response is after the cut.

This one is a little maddening, I didn’t parse it right at first, and I’m not sure I’d have done it right if I were reading this casually. Though can you even read such a text casually? Anyway, вещного мира refers forwards, not backwards, through a longish inversion: не замечающий вещного мира, в котором одежда. The whole sentence has this structure:
[what’s the explanation for this strange outfit?] 1) masquerade costume from a stockroom 2) a disguise of sorts 3) a species of a daydreaming theater performance for oneself – no, none of those: actually he’s someone who doesn’t notice the material world in which clothes exist, so took the first thing that seemed fit for a walk.

As I told him:

I’m just relieved that even a native speaker stumbled over it. And no, it’s impossible to read Goldstein casually; no matter how sternly I tell myself to just bull ahead and leave the details for a rereading, I can’t, because unless you focus on everything as you go along, you don’t understand anything, it all becomes a colorful blur. But I really do enjoy his prose, so I’m sticking with it!

For those who don’t care about Russian syntax, here’s ooh.directory, “a place to find good blogs that interest you.” Yes, it’s an old-fashioned blog directory! I’m delighted to see that not everyone considers blogs extinct, and of course I’m pleased the Language section includes LH.

And for anyone who might know: what is the background of the name Guslagie Malanda? I can’t find anything about the actress’s background (just that she’s playing a woman of Senegalese descent), and I have no clue how the intriguing name Guslagie is pronounced (in its original language — I presume the French say /gyslaʒi/).


  1. This article (in English) has a quote from Guslagie Malanda: ‘I am of Congolese (Brazza), Angolan, and Portuguese descent… I spent most of my life in France’. Malanda seems to mean ‘follower’ in Kikongo (cf. the verb kulanda ‘to follow’). I wonder if Guslagie is a name formed by blending the parents’ names — perhaps Gustave and Pélagie?


    Is хлыстовский simply to be taken as ‘glossolalic’ here?

  2. I wonder if Guslagie is a name formed by blending the parents’ names, such as Gustave and Pélagie?

    Ah, very possible! It’ll do as a hypothesis to relieve my mind, anyway.

    Is хлыстовский simply to be taken as ‘glossolalic’ here?

    …Maybe? But the only citation I can turn up that might bear such an interpretation is this, from Л.Ч. “Об авторе «Евуллы»” [«Ковчег», 1978]:

    Когда она принесла в больницу к умиравшему знаменитому критику Акиму Волынскому свой неизданный «хлыстовский» сборник «Крылатый круг», тот, вечно брюзжавший на современную ему поэзию, сказал: «Вот приходит настоящее, а уже глаза закрываются».

    But it could just as well mean simply ‘deviant, heretical.’

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I don’t know any KIkongo, but in Lingala, “follower” is molandi, plural balandi.

    I was interested to discover from the publicity for this film (which sounds well worth seeing) that Omar Sy is of Fulɓe descent (or at least, speaks Pulaar/Fulfulde.)

  4. neat to know about sy! i often walk past the storefront of the Pulaar Speaking Association in brooklyn – profiled here, with a photo that almost manages to crop their sign into illegibility. it’s in the very multi-ethnic west african stretch of fulton street, which is underrated as a multilingual hot spot (and multi-dialectal, too, if that’s how to think about the amazing variety of englishes and frenches from across several creole continua that are on display alongside everything else).

  5. @LanguageHat: “But it could just as well mean simply ‘deviant, heretical.’”

    By extension, yes – khlystovstvo is heresy to most Christians – but the primary meaning is literal. It’s a poem by Olga Cheremshanova AFAIK, not a collection of poems. Its first two lines clearly describe the Khlysty circle dance, радение:

    Во святом кружении душевном
    Словно парус риза раздувается.

    Chukovskaya’s mistaking this poem for a collection is understandable. Anna Radlova, another poet who wrote about Russian “ecstatic” sects, published Kрылатый гость, a book of verse, in 1922.

    I’m still not sure that Goldstein’s late prose was not a case of advanced graphomania. His earlier fiction has exquisite passages bordering on purple prose. It’s easy to see how it could degenerate into verbose silliness.

  6. Is хлыстовский simply to be taken as ‘glossolalic’ here?

    At least, glossolalia seems to be a regular feature at the радения:
    Эта благодать, как то было во времена апостолов, и изливается во время кружений на радеющих, и они начинают говорить “иными языки странные глаголы”, которых и сами иногда не понимают. Эти “глаголы и суть пророчества”. Каков бы ни был вид радения,- все равно: вследствие насильственных и неестественных движений хлысты впадают в состояние сильнейшего нервного возбуждения или исступления и становятся способными к галлюцинациям. Они начинают болтать бессмысленные и непонятные слова, не употребляющиеся ни на каком языке. Когда лжепророк начинает говорить “новыми языками”, то хлысты приходят в неописанный восторг; затем оказывается, что “Дух Святой” сошел и на весь корабль

  7. It’s a poem by Olga Cheremshanova AFAIK, not a collection of poems. Its first two lines clearly describe the Khlysty circle dance

    Thanks! Obviously, I was just going by the quote, and was too lazy to look up the context.

  8. вещный means pertaining to a thing (вещь) (TIL expression вещное право as a translation of jus in rem). By the way, вещь can mean more specifically “personal belonging”. I thinhk, the last clause, the one after the colon is crystal clear (colon basically means that all previous stuff was just prefatory): “the realm of things, to which closing belongs, not noticing, [he] went out in the first [thing] which [he] fancied for a walk”. In (more) normal English it’s “Not caring about the realm of things, to which closing belongs, he went for a walk in the first thing that looked good to him”. If you want an answer in syntactic terms, “вещного мира” is a complement of “не замечающий”.

  9. I think Avva and D.O. have made it clear by now. Why did this character dress like a Letatlin-bandurist? (I have no idea if Vladimir Tatlin – who sometimes called himself Letatlin, from letat’ – ever dressed like that, but it would have been unsurprising if he had. If not Tatlin then Khlebnikov.) Did he pick an old carnival suit from his attic? Did he believe it was the best way, visually, to cover his nudity? Was he cosplaying the afternoon faun? No, he just didn’t care about the world of things… and so on.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    This kind of construction (i.e., fronting the object of the gerund with interpolation of qualifiers or a qualifying phrase between) is possible in Latin also, e.g.,
    nocte perfugit Tanagram, suam magis conscientiam quam indicium hominum nullius rei consciorum metuens…
    Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 33.28.10-11
    Is the special comprehension problem in Russian that the object is in genitive (for me the Latin accusative conscientiam signals “look for the next verb/gerund”)?

  11. I’m still not sure that Goldstein’s late prose was not a case of advanced graphomania.

    I am. Its difficulty is that of prose that is trying to accomplish a number of complicated things at once; it not only encourages but demands rereading, which always sheds new light and provides a three-dimensional view (so to speak — I’m not even clear on how to talk about it). Rereading graphomania just produces boredom and irritation. He creates brilliant phrases like “колечки руна на груди книгочея” (Nabokov would have been jealous). And has there ever been a better description of the appearance of the air over hot metal than “кривой воздух плывет”?

  12. Is the special comprehension problem in Russian that the object is in genitive (for me the Latin accusative conscientiam signals “look for the next verb/gerund”)?

    Yes, I think so; a clear accusative in Russian (without an antecedent verb) also signals the reader to look ahead.

  13. Finländare says

    I translated the sentence into Finnish to see if it would work using the exact same syntax and lo and behold, for someone who grew up “thinking in cases” (sometimes like with the German verb you just have to wait for what is referred to) it is not that difficult to parse, even if the result sounds awkward:

    вещного мира, в котором одежда, не замечающий, вышел в первом, что приглянулось для пешего хода.

    asioiden maailmaa, jossa on vaatteita, huomaamatta, lähti ulos ensimmäisessä, johon tykästyi kävelyään varten.

    Apparently Finno-Ugric languages are responsible for some of the more unique aspects of the Russian case system among the Slavic languages. I knew of things like чашка чаю, but не замечающий вещного мира also makes sense as a morphological calque.

  14. David Marjanović says

    вещного мира, в котором одежда, не замечающий

    Isn’t the genitive simply caused by the negation?

    Or is it just: “not noticing anything of the world of”…

  15. The problem is not why the noun is in the genitive but its position before the governing verb, separated by a phrase.

  16. David Marjanović says

    It didn’t occur to me that that could be a problem. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this exact word order (plus of course one more verb in the inserted phrase) in German of comparably literary style.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    German of comparably literary style.

    Der materiellen Welt, in der Kleider existieren, nicht gewahr werdend …

  18. David Marjanović says


  19. And thus we learn that Russian is not German, nor even Latin.

  20. John Cowan says

    ~~ sigh ~~

    From the anglophone perspective, they might as well be. Of course our verb syntax is another story.

Speak Your Mind