I’m reading Сердце и думка [Heart and head], an 1838 novel by Veltman (and one of the young Dostoevsky’s two favorites, the other being Narezhny’s Бурсак—see this LH post), and I’ve just gotten to a scene where a magpie transforms itself into a young woman carrying milk into Moscow because magpies are not allowed in the city (Veltman’s novels aren’t like anybody else’s). At that point we get a tumultuous description of the big city that begins (Russian below the cut):

She found herself in the middle of a street full of carriages, a street that it is impossible to describe, where today is unlike yesterday and tomorrow will be entirely new: signs and goods, exterior and interior, names and appellations, color and form; in place of uniformity, diversity; in place of length, width; in place of merino, Thibet and Terneau; in place of manteaus, cloaks; in place of N, ci-devant N; in place of a shop, a store, and in place of the store, a kaleidoscope…

The ever-changing metropolis! But in my edition, the annotator has misunderstood “si devant N” and explained that it refers to an incorrect pronunciation of the French nasal vowel. I guess knowledge of French among educated Russians is not what it was in the early nineteenth century.

The original:

Вот очутилась она посреди улицы, полной экипажей; посреди той улицы, которую невозможно описать; где вчера не похоже на сегодня, где завтра будет все ново: вывески и товары, наружность и внутренность, имена и названья, цвет и форма; вместо единообразия пестрота, вместо длины ширина, вместо мериноса тибет и терно, вместо манто — клок, вместо N—si devant N, вместо лавки магазин, вместо магазина калейдоскоп…


  1. Veltman’s novels aren’t like anybody else’s
    Sounds like magic realism, which is, as someone says, the fantasy that dare not speak its name. (Dr. Google finds only references to imaginary rapes and muscle cars, so I can’t provide a citation.)
    si devant N
    It may just be too early in the morning for me, but I can’t follow Veltman here, never mind his annotator. What could Veltman have meant by saying that N was replaced by former, obsolete, out of date N? Things are replaced by advanced versions of themselves normally, not by out-of-date versions. If the annotator is right, I could well understand that correct French nasal vowels could be replaced by Russianized non-nasal vowels followed by /n/, but that seems like a progression (or, from the francophone viewpoint, a degeneration), not like a retrogression.
    Perhaps Veltman really didn’t know quite what he was talking about. He obviously couldn’t spell in French (no matter, neither can I).
    (Another reference I can’t track down: “the ci-gît aristocracy”, implying that the people in question were not merely out of date but dead and buried, whether literally or metaphorically I can’t recall.)

  2. Am I crazy in seeing a parallel between “ci-devant“ and American use of “Antebellum“, as in “Antebellum landowners”?

  3. @John Cowan re ci-devant. Wikipedia, as usual, gives all the answers. Someone who used to be N (for example, a compte) is now a used-to-be N (ci-devant compte). Quite a good joke and even better because Veltman had no way of knowing that it will happen in Russia (see бывшие).

  4. marie-lucie says

    I don’t understand the annotator’s comment and I don’t think Veltman’s French words have anything to do with French nasal vowels. Veltman may not have known or remembered the correct French spelling ci-devant, and obviously the annotator did not know it.
    Ci-devant, literally ‘before this’ is known mostly from the revolutionary period, when titles of nobility had been abolished, and aristocrats were referred to by le/la ci-devant N, before their names or titles (commoners would be referred to as le citoyen/la citoyenne N) (N or NN was used in French where English would use X for an unknown or irrelevant name). So “the former N”, referring to a person’s name or title, would be the right translation. It is not clear to me who or what Veltman is referring to, since I am unfamiliar with the Russian context.
    Ci-devant also became used as a noun, as in les ci-devants, meaning the former aristocrats.
    Ci-devant was older than the revolutionary period but went out of use afterwards, after the monarchy was reestablished. Its opposite ci-après ‘after this’ is still understood but hardly used except in some very formal contexts.
    JC, you are right about “the ci-gît aristocracy”, implying that the people in question were not merely out of date but dead and buried, both literally and (especially) metaphorically. The phrase seems to be a pun on ci-devant as well as the old traditional inscription on tombstones, ci gît ‘here lies’.

  5. Trond Engen says

    Swedish has före detta “before this”. It makes sense as a calque from French. Norwegian and Danish use the much more stilted forhenværende, strangely enough not a calque from whatever the Germans say (ehemaligen).

  6. marie-lucie says

    Sorry, I should have reread the original, which did spell ci-devant correctly. It is the annotator who wrote si devant.
    LH, you did not say when the novel takes place. Could it be at the time when many ci-devants fled the revolution?

  7. D.O.: Yes, I follow now: you start out as a count and then become an ex-count.
    m-l: The trouble is, I definitely read the phrase ci-gît aristocracy long before I ever heard of ci-devant aristocracy, and I cannot now find the former phrase either in French or in English, or any reasonable variant of it. So whoever said it has been forgotten….

  8. Wikipedia (that is to say, His Hatness) says the novel is contemporary to its time of publication, 1838.

  9. marie-lucie says

    D.O.: Someone who used to be N (for example, a compte) is now a used-to-be N (ci-devant compte)
    You mean un comte ‘a count (or earl)’. Un compte (pronounced identically with comte and conte ‘tale’) is ‘an account’ (at the bank, etc; not a report).

  10. Perhaps Veltman really didn’t know quite what he was talking about.
    It is generally unsafe to assume, when encountering a locus difficilis, that an author doesn’t know what he is talking about, and particularly when the author is as learned as Veltman.
    He obviously couldn’t spell in French
    I would instead blame the Russian typesetters, then and now.
    Also, the phrase “ci-gît aristocracy” is new to me.

  11. marie-lucie says

    LH: the phrase “ci-gît aristocracy” is new to me.
    It is new to me too. I am sure it is a nonce phrase, the result of a pun.

  12. marie-lucie, as they say, excuse my French. Of course, I meant comte. Though a misspelled version has also its merit, you start with a mortgage and end up…

  13. I got curious what happened with Moscow and magpies and Dahl has an idea
    Сорока проклята в Москве, и их там нет (за то, что унесла у великопостника лепешечку с окна; или, что выдала боярина Кучку)
    I won’t attempt a translation, but the idea is that magpies are banished from Moscow, because one of them has stolen something or alternatively because they did something terrible to боярин Кучка (a legendary Moscow nobleman).

  14. @Trond
    I’m not sure whether I’ve seen “forhenværende” before or not. I don’t have the necessary level of fluency to judge whether it feels stilted or not. I suppose it might sound a little newspaperish, but I can’t be sure. (I always did have difficulty reading newspapers. If I was going to put that much effort into something I’d much rather read Ludvig Holberg or H.C. Andersen than the newspaper for the joy I got from it.) It’s quite easy to break up the morphemes and understand the word – as long as you’re not a beginning student of Danish. It was a couple months before I knew enough Danish to break up the compound words that are absolutely everywhere so that I could find the individual pieces in the dictionary. That’s just a hazard of learning Danish. I long since ceased blinking (mostly) at long compound words like that one. What expression would be less stilted? Besides “føre dette,” which I think directly corresponds to the Swedish you gave.
    You know, mentioning Hans Christian Andersen reminds me that I’ve been meaning to get the book down from the shelf and read “Snedronningen” (The Snow Queen) before I have to find out what violence Disney may have done to it. The last time I tried reading it, I got a ways in, but not even halfway through, mainly due to the fact that I was using a paper bilingual dictionary. Those things take an exorbitant amount of time to use. This time, I’ll be using an electronic one, assuming I can find something suitable on the net. Does anyone have any recommendations either for particularly good or particularly bad ones.

  15. лепешечку с окна – flapjack from the window
    poor magpies, to be banned for some stolen flapjacks, the punishment is not proportional to their guilt
    but if vydala, vydala means to betray, to let any some authorities know the hidden place of someone who is trying to hide from them, then the banishment is according to their magpies deeds

  16. Life to learn, I never knew that Boyard Kuchka had something to do with the absence of magpies in Moscow! (Since Kuchka means “little pile” / “piece of sh*t”, it sounds to a modern ear that the magpie produced a pile of dung for a boyar)
    Other sources say that Alexiy, legendary Moscow Metropolitan in XIV c. (and a bird-catcher prior to his Church career), banished magpies after observing a witch taking magpie’s shape. Still others say that it was a different Metropolitan, Phillip in XVI c., and poor magpie stole a chunk of Eucharist from him.
    BTW read – it couldn’t have been an ordinary flapjack because the whole crime happened during Lent, and the stolen fast-observers’ flatbread must have had no butter in it.

  17. pS: as to the legend of Boyard Kuchka, that was “the crime which started Moscow”. Moscow’s legendary founder Yury (immortalized as a horse-riding hero in the 1940s at a cost of an apartment block where my Mom used to live) supposedly coveted either Kuchka’s wife, or his property, or both. Anyway Yury found a pretext to invade Kuchka’s estate, kill the owner, rape his wife, and confiscate his property, which has become Moscow.

  18. The things I learn around here! Thanks to all for the Moscow/magpie lore.

  19. Sometimes I wonder if all 19th century literature is one incredibly well-crafted reaction to shock.

  20. oladii i know flapjacks but lepeshki are perhaps flatbreads
    such a villain Yuri Dolgorukii was, disappointment again, in someone and in that, human nature, never knew, the same St. George from MT’s poem about Georgii Pobedonosets, right? or maybe be i mix them up all, those are different saints and princes i guess, well, nobody is saintly and it’s all of course light and shadow, good and evil, yin yang etc. etc., too bad

  21. lepeshki are also cowpies, read. And naan. And tortilla.
    The name of Prince Yury means George, but no saint. His nickname meant “Long Arms”, obviously a reference to a tendency to grab what didn’t belong to him (especially his designs on faraway Kiev). The Kuchka legend is more less that, a legend. The Chronicles are more precise on the fate of his son Andrey “God-Loving” (killed by vengeful children of Kuchka’s). Yury himself died peacefully of over-eating at a feast.

  22. interesting, Andrey Bogolyubskii’s mother was a kipchaqi princess the wikipedia says and he was hisband of the georgian queen Tamar, so multinational cosmopolitan ways and allegiances
    the kipchaqis (polovtsy) were included in the Golden horde and eventually became our kharchin uriankhai wiki says too, i always wondered what happened to them, never knew, wow, one of my father’s childhood friends was uriankhai i recall, there are many people calling themselves yenshebuu too, history feels as if like so close

  23. interesting, Andrey Bogolyubskii’s mother was a kipchaqi princess the wikipedia says and he was hisband of the georgian queen Tamar
    I think you misplaced the marriages by a generation. It was St. Andrey’s son who ended up in Georgia; and Andrey himself has been married twice, first to Boyard’s Kuchka’s daughter (and thus his own step-sister), second time to a Bulgarian lady who hated him for many evil deeds ndrey has brought on the Volga Bulgars, and plotted his murder together with Andrey’s in-laws from the first marriage. Per a chronicler, “Бе бо болгарка родом, и дрьжаше к нему злую мысль, не про едино зло, но и за то, что князь великий много воева на болгарскую землю, и сына посыла и много зла учини болгарам”.
    Incidentally Yury Dolgoruky’s father was married to a Norse princess from the British isles, but Yury himself has been born to a different marriage. The dynastic marriage with the Norse were quickly becoming a thing of the past,though.

  24. yes, my mistake, it was his son who was the first husband of Tamar, the second one was from alans, for Tamar herself was half-alan the wiki says, and alans turned out are our faraway kin too, a long lost hunnu tribe
    it seems like Yuri had many children with both his wives, the Kipchaqi princess and the second Byzantine one, all children from the first wife became princes of this or other cities, almost ten of them, so half-russian half-kipchaqs they were then
    but perhaps all that mattered at that time was religion and paternity, not ethnic origins

Speak Your Mind