I’ve finished Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which I wrote about here, and I guess I’m glad that there’s a severe falling-off in quality in the last couple of stories, because that enables me to move on to something else—Bestuzhev-Marlinsky‘s «Испытание» [The Test] as it happens—without too much gritting of teeth, but still it’s hard. Bestuzhev-Marlinsky is a very enjoyable writer in the European tradition, the “I say, old chap, let me tell you a story…” style I mentioned in the previous post; I laughed out loud when his narrator described the tobacco habit as spreading “от мыса Доброй Надежды до залива Отчаяния, от Китайской стены до Нового моста в Париже и от моего до Чукотского носа” (from the Cape of Good Hope to the Bay of Despair, from the Wall of China to the Pont Neuf in Paris and from my [nose] to the Chukotka Promontory [literally ‘nose’]), but the play on the word “nose” took me right back to Gogol and his infinitely greater comic genius.

But Gogol’s comedy would not be as powerful as it is without the flip side, and one thing that kept calling itself to my attention as I was reading these stories is that every one, even the most apparently silly or jolly, ended in a minor key. The first story, “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” is about as fluffy a story as you could ask for, focusing on the plot hatched by a young man to get the father of the girl he loves to let him marry her. The Wikipedia summary says it ends with their wedding, and so it does in a plot sense, but here are the last two paragraphs, the image the story leaves you with (Russian below the cut):

The noise, laughter, and songs became quieter and quieter. The [violin’s] bow died away, weakening and losing the vague sounds in the emptiness of the air. Somewhere you could still hear the stamping of feet, something like the murmur of a far-off sea, and soon everything became empty and indistinct.

Isn’t that the way joy, that beautiful and inconstant guest, flies from us, and a lonesome sound thinks in vain to express merriment? In its own echo it already hears sorrow and wilderness and heeds it in fright. Isn’t that the way the playful friends of our wild and free youth, one by one, one after the next, disappear to the ends of the earth and in the end leave in solitude their brother of old? It’s depressing to be left behind! And the heart is heavy and sad, and there’s no help for it.

Ho ho ho, right? “May Night, or the Drowned Maiden” has a very similar plot—the young Cossack Levko’s father won’t let him marry the woman he loves, but winds up agreeing—and ends in a similarly downbeat way: “The earth was just as lovely, in the marvelous silver gleam [of the moon], but nobody was intoxicated by it any more: everything was plunged into sleep. The silence was interrupted only by the rare barking of dogs, and for a long time yet the drunken Kalenik staggered through the sleeping streets, looking for his house.”

Of course Gogol would intensify both the humor and the sadness in his later, greater stories—”The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” Dead Souls—but there’s no call for Nabokov to have been as dismissive of these first stories as he was (“operatic romance and stale farce”); they are written with superb brio and a deeply felt sense of lacrimae rerum, and frankly I suspect Vladimir Vladimirovich’s aristocratic tastes made him turn up his nose at good honest Russian skaz.

The end of “The Fair at Sorochintsy” in Russian:

Гром, хохот, песни слышались тише и тише. Смычок умирал, слабея и теряя неясные звуки в пустоте воздуха. Еще слышалось где-то топанье, что-то похожее на ропот отдаленного моря, и скоро все стало пусто и глухо.
Не так ли и радость, прекрасная и непостоянная гостья, улетает от нас, и напрасно одинокий звук думает выразить веселье? В собственном эхе слышит уже он грусть и пустыню и дико внемлет ему. Не так ли резвые други бурной и вольной юности, по одиночке, один за другим, теряются по свету и оставляют наконец одного старинного брата их? Скучно оставленному! И тяжело и грустно становится сердцу, и нечем помочь ему.

The end of “May Night” in Russian:

Так же прекрасна была земля, в дивном серебряном блеске; но уже никто не упивался ими: все погрузилось в сон. Изредка только перерывалось молчание лаем собак, и долго еще пьяный Каленик шатался по уснувшим улицам, отыскивая свою хату.


  1. Sharat Buddhavarapu says

    Nabakov has very definite opinions, which in posterity tend to hurt our perception of him. For instance, in the book collecting his series of lectures titled “Lectures on Literature,” he opens by explaining how Austen, who is one of the seven authors he chooses to lecture on, is barely competent enough to make the list and that none of the other women authors of the 19th century are worth studying. It was a hard start to what I had hoped would be a good study on close reading literature by a major author.

  2. Sir JCass says

    Nabakov has very definite opinions, which in posterity tend to hurt our perception of him.
    Yes. The first thing I read about Nabokov was a critical essay slagging him off for slagging other great writers off. So for a long time I denied myself the pleasure of reading his fiction.
    Some artists are like this and they have a compulsion to be “good haters”. Debussy is another example. Had I read his “Monsieur Croche” essays and his dismissal of Beethoven as the ”vieux sourd”, maybe I would have been put off him. Fortunately, I heard ”La Mer” and the ”Faune” first.
    But Debussy probably needed to reject Beethoven to become Debussy and Nabokov needed to despise Dostoyevsky et al. to become Nabokov. So their prejudices were productive ones. Luckily, no one needs to share such opinions to appreciate Nabokov or Debussy.

  3. Well said. I long ago learned to ignore the negative opinions of artists and focus on what they love, about which they often have illuminating things to say. I don’t blame them for their crotchety negativity, because as you say they seem to need that to define themselves, but I don’t feel the need to subject myself to it.

  4. Sorry to Pound the dead horse, but what about his positive attitude to fascism? I grant in general that people are more interesting on what they approve of (and therefore tend to have informed themselves about) than what they reject (which is lumped with everything else they reject), but I don’t think matters are so simple as “‘good’ is good, ‘bad’ is bad”.

  5. Sorry to Pound the dead horse, but what about his positive attitude to fascism?
    I thought we were talking about artistic rather than political matters here. Pound may very well be illuminating about the troubadours (I don’t know, I haven’t read The Spirit of Romance etc.), even if he was befuddled about Mussolini.

  6. JC: Sorry to Pound the dead horse, but what about his positive attitude to fascism?
    SJ: I thought we were talking about artistic rather than political matters here.
    For a very long time people have disputed whether moralizing should always triumph over everything else in every respect. Although this used to be primarily a religious matter, democracy has turned it into a political one. Note the word “moralizing” here, not “morality”.
    I go with de mortuis nil nisi bonum: don’t badmouth the dead. This is not to deny that they may have done bad things, but to affirm that it’s no good harping on them. Such a policy is not out of place towards the living, I believe. To put it another way, fairness don’t come free.

  7. Somethere in one of his books, Luhmann wonders why people rarely have a bad conscience about having a bad conscience.

  8. John Emerson says

    Gogol’s unfinished opera Sorochintsky Fair is based on the Gogol story. Several composers have completed the opera, and there are a number of recordings.

  9. I thought we were talking about artistic rather than political matters here.
    I certainly was.

  10. Hat: Sorry, my mind just jumped from “ignore the negative opinions of artists and focus on what they love” directly to your incomprehensible-to-me view of Pound, which is that he was a great poet with unfortunate political views, whereas to my mind he started out well enough (but no world-beater) on both points, but descended into political scumbaggery and arrogant incompetence (“in order to make sure he would not be understood, [he] at times even wrote in Chinese” —Primo Levi) in near-perfect harmony. But I’ll say no more about that.
    Grumbly: Our conscience is our reflection on our past actions, but having a conscience, good or bad, is not an action, so having a conscience about it is a category mistake. Having a good or bad conscience about reporting on the contents of your conscience makes some sense.

  11. I thought that John and Grumbly might be talking at cross purposes to some extent, so I went looking for different senses of the word “conscience”.
    Can anyone explain to me why, according to Wordnik, the New Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia gives as one sense “same as breastplate, a bellarmine”?
    As far as I can make out, a bellarmine is a sort of jug.

  12. John, that argument is tinged with a certain complacency about motives, which is what Luhmann is hinting at.
    Each of us has a conscience with a particular makeup. Each of us allows our actions to be guided by it. We can reflect on this, for instance when we find ourselves in hindsight doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
    As a result, we may come to approve or disapprove of that particular makeup, precisely because of what it encourages us to do. Actions are actionable, and their motives too. Regretting may not be an action, but nor is it a category mistake.

    Having a good or bad conscience about reporting on the contents of your conscience makes some sense

    Why would someone want to report on the contents of their conscience, if not to justify them ? Yet a report is not a justification.

  13. Grumbly, certainly regretting is an action; it’s just the bare fact of having a conscience that isn’t. If by “have a bad conscience” you mean “regret your past bad actions” or even “regret the dispositions that led you to commit your past bad actions”, then I agree.

  14. Then we are in agreement thus far. The bare fact of having a nose is not an action either, but having a nose for business involves actions: recognizing business opportunities and taking them. Blowing these opportunities, like blowing your nose, involves actions that can be regretted (for instance when attempted without a Kleenex).
    Someone who thinks he has a nose for business but is often unsuccessful may question the particular ways he acts on his intuitions, or he may question the intuitions themselves. The latter is analogous to having a bad conscience about having a good conscience, in that it involves questioning (one of) the very springs of one’s motives.
    Without such questioning, nil nisi bonum makes no sense.

  15. Wow, two hat-related spam in a row!

  16. Empty: For whatever reason, two definitions of conscience, both marked as obsolete, were physically run together on the same line in the Century. One says “same as breastplate 4” (i.e. the fourth definition thereof) the other says “a bellarmine”. The fourth definition of breastplate reads “A plate or piece, which receives the butt-end of a boring-tool, and is held against the breast when the tool is in use. Also called conscience and palette.” This is substantially equivalent to the OED’s sense 3b, which is illustrated by this quotation:
    1678 J. Moxon Mech. Exercises I. i. 7 The Drill-plate or Breast-plate..hath an hole punched a little way into it to set the blunt end of the shank of the Drill in.
    Under conscience we get these:
    1856 M. L. Booth tr. Marble-workers’ Man. 239 Palette or conscience.—A kind of drill plate, composed of an iron plate perforated with several holes, in which the head of the drill is placed, and which is rested upon the breast of the workman.
    1874 E. H. Knight Pract. Dict. Mech., Conscience, a plate resting against the drill-head and enabling the pressure of the breast or hand to be brought upon the drill. A palette.
    And under palette this:
    875 E. H. Knight Pract. Dict. Mech. II. 1599/1 Palette (Metal-working), the breastplate against which the person leans to furnish a pressure for the hand-drill.
    The OED’s definition of bellarmine (which is marked “obsolete except historical use”) is:
    A large glazed drinking-jug with capacious belly and narrow neck, originally designed, by the Protestant party in the Netherlands, as a burlesque likeness of their great opponent, Cardinal Bellarmine. (See R. Chambers Bk. of Days I. 371.)
    This quotation is the only one for this sense, and appears in both the Century and the OED:
    a1643 W. Cartwright Ordinary (1651) iii. v. 52 Like a larger Jug, that some men call A Bellarmine, but we a Conscience.

  17. Here is a Bellarmine jug, manufactured right down the road from me in the 15C.

  18. Which OED are you using? Because the online one has only the following citations:
    1720 in T. D’Urfey Wit & Mirth VI. 201 With Juggs, Muggs, and Pitchers, and Bellarmines of Stale.
    1783 Ainsworth’s Thes. Linguæ Latinæ (new ed.) v, Amphithetum, a great cup or jug..a rummer, a bellarmine.
    1861 Our Eng. Home 170 The capacious bellarmine was filled to the brim with foaming ale.

  19. Sorry. That quotation is s.v. conscience, and it does appear in both dictionaries — probably no accident, as Murray worked with a copy of the Century open to his current working position, and in the early days he used it as a rough guide for the number of pages he ought to produce.

  20. To return to N’s criticism, idiosyncrasies aside, what do you guys think of his Lectures on Literature? I haven’t read it in years, but I remember more insight than hate.

  21. Certainly his talents weren’t as evenly divided as, e.g., Kenneth Rexroth’s or John Gardner’s, but I think N’s aesthetic, as conveyed through his criticism, helped me both as a reader and writer.

  22. Now that I’m in Mongolia, I’ve finally managed to get hold of the Cyrillic Mongolian version of the Mandelstam poem that we discussed some aeons ago. At some stage I tried to transliterate the poem into Cyrillic but the results weren’t very satisfactory (I’m unable to locate it at the moment). This is the correct version:
    Хулжсан хойр. Хомэр. Махир дарвуулууд.
    Хөлөг онгоцны нэрсийн хагасыг нь л би уншлаа.
    Хэзээ нэгтээ Эллад газрын дээгүүр
    Энэ урт зэлэнд тогоруун цуваа жагсч,
    Харийн хилийг шаантаг мэт цүүцэдсэн сэн.
    Хаадын тэргүүн дээр далайн хөөс үсчсэн сэн.
    Хаачих нь вэ, та нар? Элена л үгүй бол,
    Харь хот Трой юу сан билээ, ахэйн эрс ээ!
    Тэнгис ч тэр, Хомэр ч тэр, дурлалаар халгина.
    Тэгээд би хэнийгээ сонсох билээ? Хомэр дуугүй,
    Шуугиант хар тэнгис хөвсөлзөн дайвж,
    Шураг хяхтнах чимээ дэрэнд минь дөхнө.

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