I’ve been reading Sergei Aksakov’s Years of Childhood, a wonderful memoir of growing up in the region of Ufa in the 1790s. Aksakov became a well-liked theater critic (and the father of two famous Slavophile sons, Konstantin and Ivan). He came to literary writing late in life, under the influence of Gogol; before writing the family chronicles and reminiscences for which he is mainly remembered, he produced books on fishing («Записки о рыбалке», 1847) and hunting («Записки ружейного охотника Оренбургской губернии», 1852) that were successful with both the public and with critics (the Russian Wikipedia entry says “Каждая главка книги представляла собой законченное литературное произведение” [‘every chapter was a finished literary work’]), and one of the many striking elements of Years of Childhood is the vivid portrayal of his excitement at discovering the world of nature and learning how to fish. (For an overlong and pedantic excursus on a fish name, see below the cut.)

D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature has a full and admiring treatment of Aksakov:

The principal characteristic of Aksákov’s work is its objectivity. His art is purely receptive. Even when be is introspective, as he is in the greater part of Years of Childhood, he is objectively introspective. He remains unmoved by any active desire except to find once again the time that has been lost — “retrouver le temps perdu.” The Proustian phrase is not out of place, for Aksákov’s sensibility is curiously and strikingly akin to that of the French novelist… Like Proust, Aksákov is all senses. His style is transparent. One does not notice it, for it is entirely adequate to what it expresses. It possesses, moreover, a beautiful Russian purity and an air of distinction and unaffected grace that gives it a fair chance of being recognized as the best, the standard, Russian prose. If it has a defect, it is the defect of its merit — a certain placidity, a certain excessive “creaminess,” a lack of the thin, “daimonic,” mountain air of poetry…

The most characteristic and Aksakovian of Aksákov’s works is unquestionably Years of Childhood of Bagróv-Grandson. It is the story of a peaceful and uneventful childhood, exceptional only for the exceptional sensibility of a child encouraged by an exceptionally sympathetic education. The most memorable passages in it are perhaps those which refer to nature, for instance the wonderful account of the coming of spring in the steppe. … [I]f ordinary life, unruffled by unusual incident, is a legitimate subject of literature, Aksákov, in Years of Childhood, wrote a masterpiece of realistic narrative. In it he came nearer than any other Russian writer, even than Tolstóy in War and Peace, to a modern evolutionary, continuous presentation of human life, as distinct from the dramatic and incidental presentation customary to the older novelists.

I myself thought of Proust while reading Aksakov, as well as the opening pages of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; few writers give so clear a picture of what it’s like to be a child.

On the topic of fish, I managed to solve an amusing little lexical problem. In Chapter 9 of Duff‘s translation (which I’m reading, while frequently checking against the Russian text) the family makes its first visit to the new land his father has bought from the local Bashkirs, “over 19,000 acres of excellent land on the river Belaya, thirty versts from Ufa, with a number of lakes, of which one was about three versts in length,” and little Sergei is getting his long-awaited chance to fish in the lake just mentioned. He says, “Our sport began instantly: fair-sized perch and pollen, a fish I had not seen before, took constantly.” I didn’t recognize “pollen” as a fish name, but that doesn’t mean anything—I don’t know much about fish, and English has far more fish names than any one person could know. But “pollen” wasn’t in the OED, except of course as a “fine granular or powdery substance,” and it wasn’t in Webster’s Third New International, and I was starting to despair when I looked up this old LH post, purely to refer to my complaint about the messiness of fish-related vocabulary, and found a mention of the name “pollan.” I slapped my forehead, went to the OED again, and discovered it is indeed an old alternate spelling of pollan: 1807 R. C. HOARE Tour Ireland 224 “The pollen, which is the same as the ferra of the lake of Geneva.” The Russian word, by the way, is подлещик [podleshchik], which is not in my trusty Oxford but which the massive New Great Russian-English Dictionary defines as “1. zool white bream, silver bream (Gustera blicca bjoerkna, Blicca bjoerkna); 2 small bream.” For the pronunciation of bream, see here; as for “white bream,” “silver bream,” and “small bream,” I don’t even want to think about it.


  1. robert berger says

    Aksakov sounds like a Tatar or Bashkir
    name.Aksak is the Turkic word for”lame”,
    as in Tamerlane,the Turkic warlord who got
    his name because an injury in battle left
    him with a limp.

  2. That’s exactly right, it is from aqsaq ‘lame.’ And thank you for commenting on this poor lonely post!

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