Butkov’s Attics II.

Having finished Yakov Butkov’s Петербургския вершины [Petersburg attics] (see this post), I thought I’d report on the second half of the book, which consists of three longish stories, because they are considerably deeper than those in the first half, almost rising in places to the level of tragedy. Butkov wasn’t much of a stylist and certainly couldn’t have held a novel together — and he was resentfully aware of his subordinate place in the Petersburg literary world — but he was intimately familiar with the lives, fears, and compromises of the petty clerks who made up such a substantial part of the population of the capital, and he reported on them in a way that can grip and hold the reader despite the determinedly jocular names and heavily ironic turns of phrase. He might have made a fine writer of detective fiction had such a genre existed in his day. Since hardly anybody has read him since his death in 1856 except Dostoevsky scholars (he died, poor and forgotten, in his mid-thirties of pneumonia, and Dostoevsky, who was appalled by his sordid end, apparently based a number of characters on him), I thought I’d memorialize him by summarizing the three final stories.

The first and longest, “Первое число” [First of the month], follows two roommates, Collegiate Secretaries named Evsei Evteevich and Evtei Evseevich (remember what I said about the jocular names?) both quiet fellows who work as clerks in some government department, as they live through the titular payday. Evtei, who has a university education and considers himself a Deep Thinker, earns ten silver rubles a month for copying documents when what he really wants to do is write them. Evsei, a half-educated parish-school graduate with beautiful handwriting who would like nothing better than to copy documents but is forced by his job to compose them, gets twelve silver rubles a month; by dint of scrupulous saving, denying himself every luxury, he is accumulating a nest egg with which he hopes to make a good marriage and set himself up in life, while his dreamier and more feckless roommate can never resist wandering along Nevsky Prospekt on payday, dropping into the Wolf and Beranger café for some expensive liqueurs and piroshki. On this particular day each announces to the other, shyly but proudly, that he is intending to get married; they congratulate each other and go their separate ways. What they don’t know is that they are planning to marry the same woman, whom one of them knows as Anna Alekseevna and the other as Karolina Ivanovna. The long central section tells her story: once known as Русая головка (the girl with the light brown hair), she worked in a store until her eye was caught by a passing uhlan with jingling spurs and fine mustaches, who took her away and set her up in a fine second-story apartment. Unfortunately, he eventually lost interest in her and stopped paying the rent, after which she had to move to progressively cheaper apartments ever closer to the attic and cultivate gentleman callers who could help with her finances. She is trying to decide which of the petty clerks to accept as her fiancé; alas, the impetuous Evtei barges into her apartment as she is entertaining his roommate, who has just told her he has saved a thousand rubles and can afford to give her the good life she’s been dreaming of. Evtei rushes out, goes home in a frenzy, and shoves a battered old clerk’s uniform he thinks is his into the stove. When Evtei arrives, flushed with romantic success, it turns out that the uniform is his — and he had sewn all his painfully accumulated banknotes into it. Both men’s lives are in ruins, and both go mad.

The second story, “Хорошее место” [A good place/job], tells the story of Terenty Yakimovich Lubkovsky, who leaves the Ukrainian village of Chechevitsin (“Lentiltown”) to seek his fortune in Saint Petersburg. He soon discovers that he is not (as he had expected) going to be made a governor upon arrival; over time he lowers his ambitions to the point that he is grateful to be given a five-ruble-a-month job as the pettiest of clerks. He gradually makes acquaintances who explain to him the mysteries of the capital, such as the fact that people in his situation, unable to make ends meet on their miserable salaries, sometimes take jobs on the side as night watchmen in the vegetable gardens that line the Obvodny Canal, where they get free food and lodging for ten months out of the year. He gets such a job and manages to save enough money to get married, but married life is much more expensive and he is once again in despair until he discovers another of the secrets of Petersburg life, pimping his wife out to a superior official in exchange for a fine apartment in the center of town. He’s OK with leaving the apartment at six every evening and returning after an hour, except that when it’s nasty out, with a cold driving rain, he’d really prefer to stay in his warm office. He forces himself out, nodding to his Милостивец (Benefactor) as their paths cross. When he returns, he is upset for a while, but then he lets his gaze rest on all the nice objects he has accumulated, returns to his usual calm acceptance, and says “Yes, a good place!”

The final story, “Партикулярная пара” [A suit of clothes], is perhaps the best constructed. Its protagonist, born Pyotr Ivanovich Charochkin, decided before the story opens that the many deficiencies in his life were due to his unfortunate surname (based on чарочка ‘little goblet’). After much thought (he almost decided on Vyzhigin, the name of the hero of Faddey Bulgarin’s wildly popular 1829 historical novel Ivan Vyzhigin) he changed it to Shlyapkin (from шляпка ‘woman’s hat’) because of his immense love and respect for women, and sure enough, his fortunes improved immediately. He got a better job and a raise, making 27 assignation rubles and 11 kopecks a month. Now he has discovered a means of augmenting his income so that he can afford occasional luxuries: he takes government paper home with him and makes envelopes out of it, which he sells to businesses for less than they have been paying (since he can cut out the middleman). His best customer, Geldsack & Co., is right on the way between his apartment and his work, so he starts spending time there on a regular basis and gets to know the clerks, who enjoy his jolly company and the tidbits of news he passes on. One day, leaving the theater (one of the luxuries he treats himself to), he saves a couple of women from the unwanted attentions of a boor, walks them home, and discovers they are Mrs. Geldsack and her daughter Maria, who are so taken with him they invite him to visit them any time he likes. He begins dropping by in the late afternoons, enjoying their company and dreaming of somehow marrying the lovely Maria but invariably refusing dinner invitations on the pretext that his martinet of a boss insists on his going back to the office. The truth is that the only outfit he has is his aged, much-mended work uniform (everybody with a government job in tsarist Russia, military or civilian, wore a uniform); it’s okay to wear it when he’s plausibly on his way to or from work, but he can’t possibly show up to dinner in it. What he needs is a партикулярная пара, a black civilian suit, but he’s given up the envelope business as unbefitting a companion of the Geldsack ladies, so he can’t afford one. Finally Maria gives him a pressing invitation to her birthday party, saying his boss can’t possibly keep him from that — she will brook no excuses. He tries to borrow enough money from a friendly supervisor to buy a suit — thirty rubles will do it — but no dice. The night of the party, he walks by the building where it is being held, watches all the well-dressed people getting out of carriages and streaming in, and hears the strains of the mazurka she had especially wanted to dance with him. He goes to the Moika canal to drown himself, but when he shoves his hands in his pockets he discovers a three-ruble bill and a few kopecks, and decides to have dinner instead. He is, after all, a happy fellow by nature.

There are lots of linguistic tidbits in Butkov; one of the most interesting is “перъ-прокура,” the job title of the second-in-command at Geldsack & Co., which comes from the Italian phrase per procura ‘by proxy, by power of attorney’: the bitter Shchetochkin, who used to hold the position, explains to Shlyapkin that Stein, who has it now, couldn’t borrow any money on his own name and credit, but if he presents a bill for a hundred thousand rubles signed “Перъ-прокура Штейнъ,” it will be paid without question. That’s the kind of thing the miserably poor and downtrodden author must have mulled over in his Petersburg attic as he hid from his creditors.


  1. And, of course, Geldsack is German for “money bag”.

    The plots sound like something Gogol could have written – how does Butkov measure up in comparison?

  2. Gogol was a huge influence on almost everybody writing in the 1840s, and Butkov is no exception (“Evsei Evteevich” and “Evtei Evseevich” are pure Gogol). Of course, nobody measured up to Gogol, least of all Butkov. But what people took from Gogol was pretty superficial, as was most of the critical response to him; people saw the ethnographic details and the joviality, but they had no idea of the complex webs of imagery that Nabokov explicates so well in his brilliant little book on Gogol, nor of the fact that Gogol is creating a funhouse-mirror fantasy version of Russia that had nothing to do with the grim realism produced by writers who thought they were following in his footsteps.

    The more immediate influence on Butkov was actually the “physiological sketch,” as championed by Belinsky; I’d love to get hold of the 1845 Fiziologiya Peterburga [The physiology of Petersburg] edited by Nekrasov, but it doesn’t seem to be available online, even at Google Books.

  3. I’d love to get hold of the 1845 Fiziologiya Peterburga [The physiology of Petersburg] edited by Nekrasov, but it doesn’t seem to be available online, even at Google Books.

    Searching google books with “decimal i” in the title seems to help 🙂

  4. Thanks, I’m reading it on my Kindle now!

  5. As a Saint Petersburgian who recently moved to US I want to express my admiration. That is wonderful to see people reading Russian classics.
    Best regards,

  6. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, and I hope you keep reading the blog! (If you put names like Pushkin, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Mandelstam, etc. in the search box on the right, just below the Archives box, you will find lots of older posts that may be of interest to you.)

  7. Stefan Holm says

    Although I took three years of Russian in secondary school I have never dared to read the classics (in Russian, that is, in Swedish I’ve read a lot of them). The main problem is of course that you seldom or never in daily life get in contact with this great language – and thus get no proper training.

    What I however do remember is our text book in third class, the wonderful piece Дама с собачкой (The lady with the dog) by Chekhov. The beginning I can still recitate from memory:

    Говорили, что на набережной появилось новое лицо: дама с собачкой. Дмитрий Дмитрич Гуров, проживший в Ялте уже две недели и привыкший тут, тоже стал интересоваться новыми лицами. Сидя в павильоне у Верне, он видел, как по набережной прошла молодая дама, невысокого роста блондинка, в берете; за нею бежал белый шпиц.

    In particular, in the contemporary turns of tide, I came to think of the passage: проживший в Ялте уже две недели и привыкший тут (staying in Yalta for already two weeks and feeling accustomed there). It seems – not that I have any objections – that Dmitriy Dmitrich’s love for the Crimean peninsula lasted a little more than just two weeks. 🙂


  1. […] when he is, because of Dostoevskii’s interest in him. The three stories LH talks about here sound rather good, and they sound more like the prototypical literature of the 1840s than anything […]

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