In addition to reading my way through Russian literature, I’m also sampling European authors who had an influence on Russian writers, which gives me a chance to acquaint myself with some important authors who had been only names to me. One such is Balzac, who was omnipresent in the 1830s and 1840s but who I’d never read. I decided to try La Peau de chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin, 1831), which is one of his more famous and had an intriguing premise (the titular piece of skin grants wishes but shrinks with each one, and when it’s gone, so is the possessor). Alas, I found it quite silly and badly written; I realize Balzac was constantly in debt and scribbling away to sell as much and as fast as he could, but still, I wasn’t impressed. (I’ve since gone on to George Sand, whose Spiridion [1839] I’m greatly enjoying.) However, I was amused and intrigued by one feature of the book: the beautiful but cold-hearted woman who lures and finally rejects our protagonist (who loves her and would do anything for her! how could she!) rejoices in the name of Fœdora. Here is how she is introduced:

Demain soir tu verras la belle comtesse Fœdora, la femme à la mode. — Je n’en ai jamais entendu parler. — Tu es un Cafre, dit Rastignac en riant. Ne pas connaître Fœdora ! Une femme à marier qui possède près de quatre-vingt mille livres de rentes, qui ne veut de personne ou dont personne ne veut ! Espèce de problème féminin, une Parisienne à moitié Russe, une Russe à moitié Parisienne !

Which is rendered in this online translation thus:

To-morrow evening you shall go to see that queen of the moment – the beautiful Countess Foedora…

” ‘I have never heard of her…

” ‘You Hottentot!’ laughed Rastignac; ‘you do not know Foedora? A great match with an income of nearly eighty thousand livres, who has taken a fancy to nobody, or else no one has taken a fancy to her. A sort of feminine enigma, a half Russian Parisienne, or a half Parisian Russian.

Now, where on earth did Balzac get this name, with its bizarre spelling? I’m guessing it’s based on Feodora, thought to be a feminine version of Fedor/Fyodor, which used to be written Feodor in Latin transcription, but the transposed and conjoined vowels make it an enigma indeed. The correct feminine form is Fedora, about which I wrote last year; Sashura has a nice post on “the real Fedora” (in reference to a Kornei Chukovsky poem).


  1. David Marjanović says

    The front rounded vowels of French and German are regularly rendered as ё and ю in Russian, preserving the roundedness and blaming the frontness on the preceding consonant. Looks like somebody was aware of that and reverse-engineered it, or plainly misinterpreted the Russian sound system from the spelling.

  2. But there is no ё in the Russian equivalent! I mean, I can imagine the hypothetical process you suggest, but I can’t really imagine it being combined with the hypothetical process I suggested — too many entia multiplicanda.

  3. marie-lucie says

    LH: Balzac: the supernatural element in La peau de chagrin is not at all typical of Balzac. Read something more typical, such as Le Père Goriot or Splendeur et misères des courtisanes (in that order), or Eugénie Grandet (and many others).

    George Sand: I have not read Spiridion but her major works feature strong, independent women.

  4. Fœdus is Latin for “foul, filthy, loathsome, ugly, unseemly, detestable, abominable, horrible” (thus Lewis and Short) – an implicit criticism of the character, beautiful on the outside but monstrous on the inside?

  5. Ah, I’ll bet you’re right.

  6. I think the process was this: read “Feodora”, write “Foedora”, which is then typeset as “Fœdora”.

  7. John Emerson says

    What M-L said. The Wild Ass’s Skin is highly atypical, One of his first books, when he was emerging from romanticism.

  8. David Marjanović says

    But there is no ё in the Russian equivalent!

    …Oh. Yeah. :-] Looks like someone in the line of transmission didn’t get what fun Russian stress can be… or, of course, John Cowan or TR are right.

  9. I think John Cœan above is right – Balzac was simply trying to convey the phonetics of the Russian ё.

  10. Trond Engen says

    David Marjanović:

    … or, of course, John Cowan or TR are right.

    I think I would have said John Cowan or TR is right. Is it me or David who is the funny non-native?

  11. Another vote for marie-lucie, although I’d insert Illusions perdues inbetween Le Père Goriot and Splendeur et misères des courtisanes, as the three form a loose trilogy featuring the master criminal Vautrin. Illusions persues is about the corruption of French journalism in the 1820s, which makes the antics of today’s British tabloids look pretty tame.

  12. Well, maybe I’ll give Balzac another try. But:

    llusions persues is about the corruption of French journalism in the 1820s, which makes the antics of today’s British tabloids look pretty tame.

    Yeah, there’s a fair amount of that sort of thing in the one I read (the central event is a grand dinner to celebrate the founding of a newspaper), but I just don’t get much out of sarcastic commentary about long-forgotten political/journalistic feuds. In fact, I don’t get much out of sarcastic commentary about today’s political/journalistic feuds. Tell me about the human soul, in fresh and engaging language! And for god’s sake don’t be a nasty misogynist, which reeked from every page of La peau de chagrin (talk about your goddess/whore dichotomy!), and I find it hard to believe Balzac changed his spots in that regard. But I’ll give him another chance one of these days, since so many fine Hatters recommend him.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Sir JCass, you are right, Illusions perdues belongs to the same trilogy (recurring characters, etc). I read those three as a student and have not reread them in a long time (although I have read others), and when I wrote above I had forgotten the third title.

    LH, in those novels both male and female major characters are fully developed. I didn’t get the feeling of the goddess/whore dichotomy. It helps if you know something of the politics of the time, but while there is journalism in those novels there is a lot more about society in general, from top to bottom (or the opposite).

  14. What Marie-Lucie says. Years ago when I first read Balzac (my grandmother urged me to), he struck me first as a shrewd observer of human character.

  15. Do we have Polish speakers here? Could it be something in Polish that affected Balzac’s transliteration?

  16. Why Polish?

  17. Why Polish?

    I presume because Balzac’s missus was a Pole. I know a bit of Polish and “Foedora” doesn’t look particularly plausible as a “polonism” to me. “Foe” is not a common aggregation of letters in Polish.

  18. “Theodora/Fyodora” is “Teodora” in Polish.

    I’d go with TR’s answer: Foedora is most likely a play on Latin “fœdus”.

  19. marie-lucie says

    Balzac’s wife (whom he married very late, after the death of her husband) was indeed Polish, but she lived in the Ukraine and no doubt she spoke Russian. I had always thought she was Russian until I looked her up on Wikipedia. What would be the Polish equivalent of Theodora/Feodora? “Foedora” is no doubt a misunderstanding, whether it is due to Balzac himself or a typesetter. ‘Fœdora” must be another misunderstanding, since œ rarely appear without a following u. When setting type from an author’s manuscript (or from an earlier edition), it would be very easy to mistake oe for œ, especially if the name was unfamiliar.

    It is easy to confuse œ and oe since there are hardly any minimal pairs (if any at all). In informal writing I usually use “oe” rather than hunting on the keyboard for the right “alternate” letter. A few years ago I saw a French phonetics textbook written by a Frenchwoman for American students, where the author quoted the word mœlle (sic) as an exception to the rules of pronunciation of œ as [œ] (as in œil ‘eye’). Unfortunately, she had the spelling wrong: it is moelle /mwal/ (which was /mwɛl/ in older French).

  20. marie-lucie says

    p.s. La moelle means ‘marrow’ (of a bone).

  21. John Emerson says

    Balzac is interesting because he was a social novelist and a kind of naturalist who really changed the novel, but he also tended toward the lurid and was involved in spiritualism. His writing is businesslike and unbeautiful.

    A lot of realists had some kind of belief that it was possible to intuit someone’s essence merely by looking at them. Via the Romantics there was a loose connection to neoplatonism, which held that beautiful bodies were the mark of beautiful souls, and likewise for ugly bodies. With Balzac it was spiritualism. With Joyce there was some kind of scholastic ground, I think. I’m quite dubious about the whole thing.

  22. marie-lucie says

    I did not know that Balzac was into spiritualism. I agree with you that he is a social novelist and not a model of style. But it is hard to put down his novels, and many of the characters stick in the reader’s memory.

  23. What would be the Polish equivalent of Theodora/Feodora?

    “Teodora” (I did put this in a follow-up comment, but it must have been swallowed).

  24. What is the origin of this “online translation”? “La femme a la mode” = queen of the moment? If that’s the best they can do, better to read elsewhere.

  25. Yeah, it’s not an impressive translation, but it was there, and it was easier to copy it than do my own.

  26. What is the origin of this “online translation”?

    It’s not by some Google robot; it’s by Ellen Marriage (1865–1946).

  27. Ellen Marriage

    What a surname! My Dictionary of English Surnames suggests that it may be a variant of Marrick (itself from a Yorkshire place name).

  28. marie-lucie says

    The translation is not great, but it will do.

    Marriage : if it is a variant of Marrick one would expect the spelling Marridge, but since the pronunciation is the same as Marriage, barely literate people may have assumed that “marriage” was meant.

  29. “I agree with you that he is a social novelist and not a model of style. But it is hard to put down his novels, and many of the characters stick in the reader’s memory.”

    You could say the same of Stendhal.

  30. marie-lucie says

    I think that Stendhal was a better writer than Balzac, although not as ambitious in his goal.

  31. John Emerson says

    Stendhal’s style was deliberately flat and businesslike. It was an effect he wanted. Stendhal’s friend Merimee wrote a few good things (including “Carmen”) and then decide that he fiction wasn’t worth it. He went into archeology and preservation and a few other things.

  32. Trond: Either your form or David’s form is, or are, usable. Certainly “John Cowan or TR or both are right” would be right.

  33. Maugham wrote that Balzac was ‘the greatest novelist the world has ever known.’ ‘But I think Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest novel,’ he added. This is from the chapter on War and Peace, the opening one in his book ‘Greatest Novelists and Their Novels’. He put Old Man Goriot (Le Père Goriot) in his list of ten best novels, and the chapter on Balzac is second in the book after the chapter on Tolstoy. He writes: ‘Of all the great novelists that have enriched with their works the spiritual treasures of the world Balzac is to my mind the greatest.’

    When I was at school it was my grandmother who insisted that I should read “Шагреневая кожа” – La peau de chagrin. I remember how fascinating it was to read it the first time. Of his other novels I liked Les paysans. It struck me with his uncomplimentary description of the cunning country folk. I haven’t read him for ages.

  34. I looked up La Peau in Russian. They translated it as Феодора without blinking at his unusual spelling. And yes, I asked about Polish because I thought that maybe there was a different pronunciation or spelling of the name. But I see know it must have been Balzac’s or typesetters’ error.
    By the way he has been widely translated into Russian. His collected works in 24 volumes (the green Balzac) were once a must in every educated home.
    There is a 1968 Soviet film “Ошибка Оноре де Бальзака” – ‘The Mistake of Honoré de Balzac’ (produced by the Kiev studio) describing his relationship with Hanska. Direct link, the quality isn’t very good.

  35. Ha! I only just noticed that in English they put hottentot instead of cafre. Is it pc or just because hottentot is more recognisable in English?

  36. I just posted another comment and it’s disappeared.

  37. I still can’t post my comment. Maybe it’s because it contains a hyperlink?

  38. I’ll try again, minus the link to the poem.

    I think I prefer Balzac to Stendhal. He’s not as flat and there are plenty of memorable passages. I haven’t read him for a while either, but now you can get the whole of the Comédie Humaine (In French) on Kindle for under £2, I’m tempted to go back to him.

    By the way he has been widely translated into Russian. His collected works in 24 volumes (the green Balzac) were once a must in every educated home.

    I remember there’s a poem entitled “Balzac” by Pasternak. (Would post the link but it might be the source of my trouble here).

  39. Here‘s the Pasternak poem, which begins with the kind of irresistible brio P. was a master of:

    Париж в златых тельцах, в дельцах,
    В дождях, как мщенье, долгожданных.

    Various translators have rendered it as follows:

    Paris all golden calves, all wheeler-dealers,
    all rains, like vengeance, long awaited.

    Paris all golden calves and businessmen,
    All rains, like vengeance, long in coming.

    Paris in golden calves, in sharp dealers
    In rains, long awaited like vengeance

    But it almost doesn’t matter what it means; listen to the sound of it!

    Parízh v zlatýkh tel’tsákh, v del’tsákh,
    V dozhdyákh, kak mshchen’e, dolgozhdannykh.

    The insistent drumbeat of the -ákh rhymes, the repeated -sh- and -zh- sounds, the general air of reckless galloping—it won’t let you stop reading. All it takes is a couple of lines of Pasternak to let you know you’re in the hands of a superb poet.

    I don’t know why it wouldn’t let your comment through; links don’t normally cause any problems.

  40. I thought Fedora was a kind of hat, which is supposed to be the other half of this blog.

  41. See this post from last year for the hat.

  42. Sashura: Cafre is relatively rare in English, which normally uses the form kaffir, fairly direct from the Arabic term for ‘unbeliever, non-Muslim’. Both Hottentot and kaffir are insulting in English, but the latter is far more so: it has the same impact in South African English as nigger has in American English. Indeed, it is euphemistically called “the K-word” when it must be referred to. (In Sri Lanka, however, Kaffir has become an endonym for the African-descended minority and is used with pride.)

  43. Political correctness is so complicated! (I say this not with a sneer; I’m all for the respect for other people’s sensitivities that is mocked by some under the rubric of “political correctness.” But it’s complicated, something that proponents of such respect often lose sight of.)

  44. Indeed. In Canada and Greenland, Inuit is the standard term for The People With Four Words For ‘Snow’, as Eskimo is considered derogatory there. But on the Alaskan side of the line, where Inuit covers less than half of them, the rest (particularly the Yupik, who live on the far side of a hard linguistic boundary and for whom inuit is a foreign word), object to the term and insist on Eskimo. The problems with Indian and Native American are even worse, because it’s an individual matter: some Native Americans object to the first term, whereas some Indians object to the second. Ah, for the simplicities of European nation-states, where you can only insult nationalities on purpose!

  45. marie-lucie says

    Well-meaning political correctness often runs into problems. Earlier today I was looking at the BBC website, which reported the sale of a totem pole supposedly originating with the Haida, who were identified as a “Native American” group living in parts of Canada and the US. Although there is a Haida group in Southern Alaska, it has only been there for a relatively short time, and the traditional Haida homeland is Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, officially a part of Canada. So, some of the Haida are Americans, but most of them (I think) are Canadians. Depending on the exact origin of the totem pole, it could have been carved by “Native Americans” or “Native Canadians”, even though the people themselves used to be a single ethnic group before any groups identified themselves as “Americans” or “Canadians”. The choice probably depends on the writer’s and the publisher’s nationality.

  46. @Marie-Lucie: I’d always thought that “Native Americans” refers to the native inhabitants of the >i>continent, not only of the USA. Live and learn…

  47. Hans, it should, but “Americans” in most people’s usage refers to citizens of the US, so one assumes that “Native Americans” are those living in the US too. It would be awkward to say “Native Americans of Canada or Brazil”, for instance.

  48. Marie-Lucie, thanks – I’d never thought eskimo survived and prospered.
    But is there a word for native Canadians, ‘Canadian Indians’?

  49. and is there a type of ice-cream in Americas that’s called an ‘eskimo’?

  50. John Cowan – thanks, I thought it was something like that. So are we to assume that the English translator used the word ‘Hottentot’ instead of ‘Cafre’/’Kaffir’ as less loaded?

    By the way, it does exist in Russian too, – кафир or кяфир, rare, roughy equivalent to гяур (gyaur) from Turkish gävur, meaning infidel. The more common word, I think, is busurman or basurman, from, assumedly, via Turkish becermek (from Persian?) The invading French in 1812 were also called busurmáne.

    When Hat progresses to Lazhechnikov’s novel ‘Basurman’ we might discover more.

  51. But is there a word for native Canadians, ‘Canadian Indians’?

    They call them First Nations.

    When Hat progresses to Lazhechnikov’s novel ‘Basurman’ we might discover more.

    I’m afraid I’m skipping that one; I think Ledyanoi dom gave me all the Lazhechnikov I need. But басурман is from Turkic forms with b– like Kirghiz busurman, equivalent to standard musulman; see Vasmer.

  52. a type of ice-cream in Americas

    Eskimo Pie is a brand name for a bar of vanilla ice cream covered with chocolate and with a stick planted in it to hold it, invented in 1921. WP says that Эскимо is a generic Russian name for such an object, and similarly in French and Ukrainian.

    the English translator used the word ‘Hottentot’ instead of ‘Cafre’/’Kaffir’ as less loaded?

    Yes, I think so, but “less obscure” would also be a reason. Giaour also exists in English, but is now very rare, probably only remembered because of Byron’s poem, in which the title character is a Venetian Christian.

    They call them First Nations.

    Well, that’s the collective. The distributive is First Nations person(s), per Wikipedia. Note that these terms exclude the Inuit as well as the Métis.

  53. marie-lucie says

    LH, you are right that “First Nations” is the PC term now, but when applied to individuals it is rather awkward. “Indians” is frowned upon (although acceptable to many older people), so “Canadian Indians” is too. “Native Canadians” is better (and better than “Canadian Natives”, I think), and many people prefer “Aboriginal Canadians” (the word “aboriginal” does not have the negative connotations it has in Australia, instead it connotes the “original” population of the country).

    “Eskimo” is really frowned upon in Canada. The origin is obscure but in any case not from a language of this group, and supposed to have been a derogatory term in some other language. The people are now referred to as “Inuit” (singular: “Inuk”), although that name is more specifically that of the largest one of four groups speaking related languages, living in Canada, Alaska and Greenland. The language is “Inuktitut”, again the majority language of the Canadian Inuit. Like most aboriginal languages, it is on the endangered list. But the language family is still referred to as “Eskimo-Aleut”.

    The ice-cream sandwich called “esquimau” in France does exist in N.Am. but is not called “eskimo”, for obvious reasons! When I was a child, this sandwich was typically sold in cinemas during the intermission (between the newsreel – this was before television – and the feature film). Popcorn was unknown in those days.

  54. marie-lucie says

    Following LH’s link to “First Nations” on Wikipedia, I was surprised to encounter (in the third paragraph) a reference to the well-remembered 18th C eruption of the “Tseax Cone”, a volcano in an area where I used to live (in a “First Nations” territory in British Columbia). I was pleasantly surprised to find a link to a Wiki article under that name, with pictures of the area! From the main village one can walk down to the “lava beds” or drive up to a place from which to hike up to the cone (and the adventurous and fit can go down into it as it is not currently active). “Tseax” in the local (Nisga’a) language is Sii Aks meaning ‘new water’, referring to a small river flowing down from a lake created by the blocking of the valley by the lava flow. The lava also pushed the main river (Nass) to one side of the valley, creating a canyon. Another village is built on the “land” side of the canyon, the other side, at the edge of the lava beds, showing the distinctly different features of the lava rock at that point.

  55. As far as I can tell, there is no broad-based objection to aboriginal or Aboriginal in Australia. (Abo is quite another matter; it is offensive.) Aboriginal Australians does not include Torres Straits Islanders, who are however included in the overlapping term Indigenous Australians. There are the usual scattered objections by individuals, as to any term, of course.

    Indeed, the most common objections to aboriginal seem to come from North America, where some people believe that ab- has some sort of negative or privative force in this word, as it does in abnormal. (I anticipate a loud sound of annoyance from AbHat at this point.)

    I’m reminded of the scene in Catch-22 in which the chaplain is asked “Doesn’t the word Anabaptist simply mean that you’re not a Baptist?” On the contrary: Baptists are, in theory if not usually in practice, anabaptists (“re-baptizers”), though most of the groups called “Anabaptists”, such as Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites, don’t belong to any of the mainstream Baptist denominations.

  56. oh, thanks everybody for that wealth of knowledge!

    I am slightly puzzled with ‘ice-cream pie’ and ‘ice-cream sandwich’ as used by comrades in Americas. It reads as though simply saying ‘ice-cream’ is not enough, as it is in British English, or glace in French. As though ‘ice-cream’ is an adjective.
    Is there something to it?

  57. marie-lucie says

    Sashura, perhaps ice-cream is served in different ways in different countries. In North America an ice-cream sandwich has ice-cream “sandwiched” between two “slices” of something else, such as hard chocolate or crusty layers. It does not mean separate layers and flavours of ice-cream, as in “Neapolitan” ice-cream (vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice-cream). For ice-cream pie, only the filling is ice-cream, like apple pieces in apple pie.

  58. You’ve probably heard this before, but I’m not seeing it here, so: Balzac’s ‘Père Goriot’ was a major influence on ‘Crime and Punishment’. Worth reading just for that. (Also: ‘Lost Illusions’ is one of Lewis Lapham’s favorite books, for whatever that’s worth.)

  59. Actually, I hadn’t heard it, so thanks — I’ll give Père Goriot a try!

  60. I am delighted to learn of the Tseax Cone! I had never known of this lava field, though I’ve been to BC many times, been to Sitka and Kodiak in Alaska, flown over Haida Gwaii at 10,000 ft on a clear day in a twin-prop when they were yet the Queen Charlotte Islands, and regret not yielding to temptation when in Williams Lake long, long ago and driving the 450 km to Bella Coola. Another wonder to put on my list (sigh).

    BTW, Eskimo is not to be confused with Esquimalt.

    (Still no preview function so hope the hyperlinks work.)

  61. marie-lucie says

    PO, I am delighted that you are delighted! A place worth seeing and hiking. It used to be very hard to get to but now that the lava beds have been designated a park, there are trails. I have been elsewhere on the BC coast in small planes (landing in the water) and even a helicopter, but never to Haida Gwaii by any means of transportation. I have also been to Bella Coola by that road (in 1966, before much of the Interior was “developed”. The silence whenever the car stopped was amazing).

    It is not surprising that you did not know of the Tseax volcano and the lava beds, because most road maps of BC only cover(ed) the Southern half of the province, and the area I am talking about is just North of the top edge of those maps. But I haven’t been back in several years, and there are probably more up-to-date maps now.

  62. At least in the U.S., the prototypical ice-cream sandwich has the ice cream between two rectangular chocolate cookies.

  63. David Marjanović says

    Certainly “John Cowan or TR or both are right” would be right.

    That’s what I was probably aiming at, possibly overestimating the degree to which English or leans toward “inclusive or” because it does so more than German oder does.

  64. I just got to the following sentence in Aleksey K. Tolstoy’s Князь Серебряный [Prince Serebryany]; Fyodor Basmanov is talking with the titular prince after a battle with the Tatars, and is explaining that he’s only been dressing like a woman and dancing at court because that’s what the tsar demanded: “А ты думаешь, Никита Романыч, мне весело, что по царской милости меня уже не Федором, а Федорой величают?” [Nikita Romanych, do you think I like it that by the grace of the tsar people don’t call me Fyodor any more, but Fedora?].

  65. John Cowan says

    I’ve decided I like First National for an indigenous person (not an Inuit or a Metis) of Canada, and if it startles and confuses Canadians, perhaps they could use a bit of that.

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