Bunin’s Bad Grass.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Sokolov’s Между собакой и волком (Between Dog and Wolf); it’s both a delight and a real slog to read — I keep switching between text, translation, Ostanin’s annotations, dictionaries, and computer to look up things that aren’t in any of the books — and after each chapter I take a break to read other stuff so I don’t get too frustrated to continue. I usually turn to Bunin, simply because I never get tired of reading him, and the other day I reread Худая трава, which I hadn’t really appreciated the first time around. Now I think it’s one of his best stories, and I want to talk about it a bit.

The first thing to notice is the title. The adjective худой can mean either ‘thin, skinny’ or ‘bad’; I have actually seen the title translated as “Thin Grass,” but that’s ridiculous — the phrase is from a proverb (used as an epigraph and quoted in the story) “Худая трава из поля вон” ‘Bad grass [should be taken] out of the field,’ and it clearly means ‘weed.’ On the other hand, it’s also ridiculous to translate the title “The Weed,” as Serge Kryzytski does in his The Works of Ivan Bunin ($154.00!), since the usual Russian for ‘weed’ is entirely different (сорняк or сорная трава) and “The Weed” sounds banal and boring. So “Bad Grass” it has to be.

Bunin called the story “my Ivan Ilyich,” and one can see why: both are long, detailed accounts of the slow death of a male protagonist, with emphasis on his reflections on his past. But the two stories could not be more different — Tolstoy, in his late avatar as Finger-Wagging Moralist, makes very clear who’s bad and who’s good, freely employing his beloved generalizations (“The past history of Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”) and pointing out everyone’s hypocrisy as though it were a mortal sin. Bunin never moralized and certainly never thought that simple, ordinary lives were terrible; he wanted simply to present life and people as they were, in language as effective as he could make it, and he nearly always succeeded. In this story he is describing the final months of the old farmworker Averky (no surname is provided), who after decades of hard labor feels his end approaching and decides to go home and be with his family (who he hasn’t seen much of over the years). He feels himself indifferent to the concerns of those about him, doesn’t find their jokes funny, and when a drunken itinerant pilgrim (странник) he used to dislike shows up and starts being obnoxious, he thinks “Не хуже меня, такого-то” ‘He’s no worse than me.’ He hears girls singing an old wedding song in the distance and remembers hearing it the night he met his wife as she was scooping water from a river at dusk (the passage in the Russian text linked above starts at “Ай помочь?”):

“Can I help you?”

“Like I really need your help…”

Mastering himself, thinking it improper to impose his conversation on her, he silently climbs the hill into a dewy dark field, looks at the stars, listens to the quails, and thinks in a businesslike way:

“She’s pretty, but she’s poor. For heaven’s sake, she’s carrying water herself…”

That was long ago, when his life was just getting started… Was it really her, the woman who would be coming tomorrow and taking him home to die? It was her, her…

When he gets home, his daughter isn’t there, and he thinks perhaps the bad weather has kept her from coming. His wife’s beloved heifer disappears (she has raised it from a calf); one evening its head is dug up by a dog and they find evidence showing it had been stolen by a forester, but when they bring him for punishment Averky, “with his indifference to earthly affairs,” believes his denials and says to let him go, which the astonished villagers finally do. The daughter arrives with her husband, and Averky briefly revives, but quickly loses his strength and appetite again. Time goes by:

He had mentally already taken his leave of people: they gradually forgot about him, came to him less and less, and when they came, they said something touching, or funny, or sad, but never anything important.

А с людьми он мысленно уже простился: люди понемногу забывали о нем, заходили к нему все реже, а заходя, говорили то трогательное, то смешное, то грустное, но всегда неважное.

He is more and more ready to depart, and as early autumn comes, he thinks (“she” is death): “Ну, и норовиста! Не докличешься!” (‘She’s sure pigheaded! You call and call, but you don’t get an answer!’). The arrival of winter delights him: “Первый снег, первая метель!” (‘The first snow, the first blizzard!’). But again he sinks, and the final section begins:

Outside, the twilight turned blue-gray, but it was still light, white with snow. The hut was already filled with twilight.
In the twilight, all covered in snow, bending down at the threshold of the low door, the priest entered the hut.

На дворе сизели сумерки, но еще светло было, бело от снега. А изба уже наполнилась сумерками.
В сумерки, весь в снегу, нагибаясь па пороге низкой двери, вошел в избу священник.

In the Russian, the repetition of words and sounds (the /s/ of сизели сумерки, светло, снега, священник, the /b/ of было, бело, изба) is magical. The priest is loud and abrupt and frightens Averky’s wife (the daughter, not thinking the end was near, has gone to a friend’s betrothal, which reminded me of Rasputin’s Borrowed Time), and he irritatedly tells Averky to take off his cap. When Averky timidly asks him if “she” (death) is already in him, he snaps “Есть, есть. Пора, собирайся!” (‘Yes, yes. It’s time, get ready!’). He obediently lies on his back and holds the lit candle the priest gives him, imagines his future grave, and thinks he hears his daughter keening over him. Then comes the splendid final sentence:

He died in the quiet, dark hut, behind whose window the first snow showed dimly white — so noiselessly that the old woman didn’t even notice.

Умер он в тихой, темной избе, за окошечком которой смутно белел первый снег, так неслышно, что старуха и не заметила.

I’ve been thinking of that story ever since, and I find it hard to believe it’s never been translated, as is true of most of Bunin’s stories, some of the best short stories ever written. If the world were just, his Collected Stories would stand on the shelves of every literate person next to Chekhov’s (whose batting average, while high, is lower than Bunin’s in my estimation). But all the average reader knows, if they know anything at all, is “The Gentleman from San Francisco.” Ah well, at least he got his Nobel…


  1. Would ”couch grass” work as a translation?

  2. I didn’t get it in what sense Averky was a “bad grass”.

    The saying (“Худая трава из поля вон”) I remember as “дурную траву из поля вон” (“stupid” instead of “thin”, but both words, of course, mean simply bad, i.e. weeds). But in that version it is associated in my mind with Stalin’s purges…

  3. Bathrobe says

    I always call it “couch”; “couch grass” sounds strange. But “Couch” on its own wouldn’t do at all!

  4. Would ”couch grass” work as a translation?

    Definitely not — hardly anyone would have a clue what it meant.

  5. can’t say i’ve ever heard “couch grass”, but i did have the same thought about “crab grass”, which i assume is just as limited as a generic for bad (or at least wrong) grasses…

    i only did a cursory search, but has the Hattery ever addressed the “crab” in “crab grass”, “crab apple”, and such? wiktionary doesn’t have much to say (“From Middle English crabbe (“wild apple”), of Germanic origin, plausibly from North Germanic”), and doesn’t seem interested in how much etymological overlap there is betwen those crab(be)s and the ones that are evolution’s chosen darlings.

  6. Bathrobe says

    Couch (pronounced “cooch”) is not a bad grass. It’s favoured for lawns and other uses (at least in Australia).

    The Internet tells me it’s known as “Bermuda grass” in the US.

    Its scientific name is Cynodon dactylon, and confusingly it’s not the only grass referred to as “couch grass”. Elymus repens is also known as “couch grass”, among other things.

  7. Couch with a “coo” is also a surname and a street in Portland, Oregon. Read all about it.

    Couch is supposedly a Cornish surname. Does Cornish have affricates? Is there a Brython in the house?

  8. Apparently it’s kogh [kox] ‘red’.

  9. If “The Weed” sounds banal and boring, how about “Weeds”? That is at least idiomatic.

  10. How about “poor grass”?

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Or “onion grass” (which is thin).

  12. Bathrobe says

    Or “Shabby grass”. “Unwanted grass”.

  13. Lars Mathiesen says

    RSS is officially dead when the Hattery advertises a Twitter feed instead. (This may be old news, but I just noticed).

  14. Kate Bunting says

    Elymus repens https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elymus_repens (couch or twitch) is a nuisance in Europe and elsewhere because of its creeping habit; the rhizomes spread through the roots of the plants you want and are consequently almost impossible to dig out.

  15. Well, худая трава is simple.

    Худая is an archaic/regional for “bad”. Дурная is slightly less so (still used in literary language). Also note that apart of сорняк we have сорная трава (slightly archaic).

    Both are natural translations for mala herba cito crescit.

    I looked up Russian for mala herba cito crescit, and a dictionary offered худое споро не сживёшь скоро

    Je suis de la mauvaise herbe,
    braves gens, braves gens,
    c’est pas moi qu’on rumine
    et c’est pas moi qu’on met en gerbe…

  16. Trond Engen says

    couch or twitch

    Norw. kveke (with long e in both Bokmål and Nynorsk).

    The Swedish form kvickrot is clue to the etymology < ON kvikkr “alive, lively, prolific etc.” I wonder what happened in English.

    The Swedish form is also a clue to its use. The roots of the grass were once an important nutritional supplement, ground to flour and added to unleavened doughs. (I don’t know why “unleavened”. Maybe just becaiuse leavened bread wasn’t common yet.)

  17. Bathrobe says

    Wikipedia gives Lean Grass.

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    It’s commonly called kvikgræs or just kvik in Denmark. Through MLG quecken (pl.) it says, and gives E quitch, OE cwicetwitch would be an alteration of that; it’s a bit harder to see couch there but Wiktionary accepts it, Etymonline has the simple “a corruption of”.

    That aside, I think the modern (Danish) language instinct assumes it’s ‘quick’ = ‘fast’ from the rate of spread and wants to add -græs to specify what kind of thing it’s a fast version of; but it’s probably from the older sense ‘alive’ because the stuff is almost impossible to kill. (Rizomes 20 cm underground up to 60 cm from the original plant. But only a botheration in gardens, and not quite as labor intensive as Asian Knotweed which now threatens to change the look of open land here).

  19. If “The Weed” sounds banal and boring, how about “Weeds”? That is at least idiomatic.

    But a) it doesn’t represent the Russian (which does not contain the normal word for ‘weed’) and b) it is plural, which makes a hash of the metaphor (Averky is the weed that needs to be pulled from the field).

  20. If you google [“худая трава” -Бунин] you get only proverbs (“Худая трава с поля вон” and “Худая трава быстро растет”); it’s a strongly marked phrase that makes for a memorable title, the opposite of “weed(s).”

  21. A. Sasportas says

    Linguistics aims to be objective. Etymonline’s “corruption” is not an objective term.

  22. This has come up before : http://languagehat.com/couch-quack-quitch-witch/. I meant to link to it.

    ‘Bad grass’ makes sense as a title because its oddness makes you curious. And perhaps its plainness is right for Bunin? But having no Russian I don’t know if the oddness is there in the original. Is the ‘bad grass’ something already well known, either as a literary word, like tares among wheat in the parable, or a real plant pest, whose proper name translated would only mean anything to specialists? If the oddness isn’t there then Rozele’s ‘crab grass’ sort of works – to someone like me who’s never heard of it it’s clearly a thing, and doesn’t sound like a good thing.

  23. Lars Mathiesen says

    corruption — it was probably copied from a 19th century edition of the OED.

  24. But having no Russian I don’t know if the oddness is there in the original.

    Yes, it’s essentially only in proverbs; see my earlier comment.

  25. ktschwarz says

    corruption — the OED entry is old, but it’s innocent on this count. OED has for couch, n.2 (1893):

    Etymology: A variant (apparently originating in the southern counties, where still pronounced /kutʃ/) of quitch n.1 < Old English cwice; compare the phonetic series swylc, swich, swuch, such.

    Maybe “corruption” comes from the Century Dictionary (1895):

    couch-grass, n. [Also cooch-, cutch-grass; a corruption of quitch-grass: see quitch.]

    This is my problem with Etymonline: it strips out the sourcing, so the naive user (which is almost all of them) has no indication of how antiquated the information may be.

  26. The French malherbe refers to weeds in general and to Plumbago, or leadwort, in general. The surname Malherbe presumably started out as a nickname.
    The surname originates in northern France or Brittany, out of the range of leadwort, so it would have referred to bad plants or weeds in general.

  27. Or rather it comes from a toponym for where the grass is poor for grazing. The oldest Malherbe I could find was born in the early 11th century, and took his title from the Norman village of La Haye-Malherbe.

  28. GardeningHat: some years back I planted plumbago in a small space by my front door. The garden center sold it as an annual that does well in the summer heat, and indeed it was a pretty little plant with purple flowers and glossy, dark green leaves. But it spread ferociously, strangling everything in its path. I eventually pulled it all up and boy, it was hard work. Its root system was a dense tangle of thick, wiry tentacles of remarkable tensile strength.

    So yes, malherbe, bad grass it most certainly was.

  29. Yes … I learned to fear any plant sold as “easy to grow”, “requires little maintenance”, or, indeed, “does well in our climate”. It usually means a merciless invasive.

  30. in my garden, we have an ongoing multiple-front war of the vines, in which we’ve just deployed two different kinds of mint in hopes of out-rhizoming the unholy alliance of english ivy, trumpet vine, and morning glory. but at least my block is knotweed-free so far (tfu tfu tfu)!

    and i actually think we have some Elymus grass turning up this year, which i didn’t have a name for. and now i’m not sure whether i want to call it “quitch”, “cooch”, or “witch”, so i’ll probably just alternate and confuse the rest of the household.

  31. Trond Engen says

    Me: Norw. kveke (with long e in both Bokmål and Nynorsk).

    This really bothered me. The word would seem to be from an unattested meaning of ON kvika f. with various meanings such as “flesh between the hooves”, “running water” and “an illness in the nose”. This is a balance word, and it ought to yield dialect forms as such. Which it actually did — Norsk Ordbok 2014 has the usual variety, with e.g. Trønder kuku. It also ought to yield forms with -i- in both written standards.

    It’s probably a feminine form of the same derivation as e.g. older Nyn. kvike n, “brewer’s yeast”, kvike m. “living creature” and the opposite vankvike n. “someone or something that isn’t thriving”.

  32. Alexander Shapiro says

    Why not “Frail grass”?

  33. Hmm… maybe!

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