I’ve finished Gogol’s “Старосветские помещики” (Old World Landowners; see this post), and once again I’m bowled over by what an amazing writer he was. The story itself is a trifle, barely a story at all, but how well it’s told! Take this sentence, which alone would make me want to read anything else I could find by him: Комната Пульхерии Ивановны была вся уставлена сундуками, ящиками, ящичками и сундучочками (other editions have сундучечками for the last word; the pronunciation is the same, sunduchóchkami). You could translate that “Pulcheria Ivanovna’s room was all filled with trunks, boxes, boxlets, and tiny trunklets,” or (like Isabel F. Hapgood) “Pulcheria Ivanovna’s room was all furnished with chests and boxes, and little chests and little boxes,” but there’s no way to reproduce its effect in English because English doesn’t use diminutives (or rather, uses them in such a restricted fashion that an attempt like my version of the sentence sounds ridiculous). Now, any good writer with the requisite playfulness and a feel for chiasmus could have produced the sentence “Комната Пульхерии Ивановны была вся уставлена сундуками, ящиками, ящичками и сундучками,” ending with the normal diminutive of сундук ‘trunk, chest,’ but only Gogol would have added an additional diminutive to produce the monstrous unexpected сундучочками and as far as I can tell this is the only time that double diminutive has been used in Russian literature. It’s like a little procession of cherubs, the last one to cross the stage having two heads. [Note: It seems I originally overstated this—Russian-speakers in the comment thread don’t think there’s anything abnormal about it—so I’ve toned it down while keeping what still seems to be a valid point.]

And the following paragraph is, again, pure Gogol (Russian below the cut):

But the most remarkable thing in the house was the singing doors. As soon as morning came, the singing of the doors was heard throughout the house. I can’t say why they sang: whether it was because the hinges were rusty or because whoever made them installed some hidden mechanism, but what was remarkable was that each door had its own particular voice: the door leading into the bedroom sang in the thinnest of trebles, the door to the dining room wheezed in a bass, but the one in the entrance hall emitted a strange sort of tinkling and at the same time moaning sound, so that listening to it you eventually heard very clearly: “oh, I’m so cold!” I know that many people don’t like that sound at all, but I’m very fond of it, and if here from time to time I happen to hear the squeaking of doors, then all at once I smell a country village, a low little room lit by a candle in an old-fashioned candlestick, supper already on the table, a dark May night looking in from the garden through the open window at the table with its place settings, a nightingale pouring its resonant song over the garden, the house, and the distant river, the fright and rustle of the branches… and lord, what a long string of memories wafts over me then!

Any writer might mention the squeaking of the hinges in an old house, a writer with a poetic bent might call it singing, but only Gogol would take the opportunity to create an entire set of differentiated voices making up the chorus, one of them tinkling and at the same time moaning “oh, I’m so cold!” And then the flight of the imagination from (presumably) Petersburg back to his native Ukraine, and the movement from the room with food on the table out to the night looking in at it and the nightingale and the branches (and yes, “the fright and rustle of the branches” is very odd, but that’s what he writes, and it does him no favors to normalize it to “the rustle and the murmuring of the boughs” as Hapgood does), and that final clause after the ellipsis, whose lyricism makes you sit back and savor it dreamily before you go on to the description of the massive chairs and the various tables and the mirror with its gold frame and its carved leaves which the flies have strewn with black dots.

The original Russian:

Но самое замечательное в доме – были поющие двери. Как только наставало утро, пение дверей раздавалось по всему дому. Я не могу сказать, отчего они пели: перержавевшие ли петли были тому виною или сам механик, делавший их, скрыл в них какой-нибудь секрет, – но замечательно то, что каждая дверь имела свой особенный голос: дверь, ведущая в спальню, пела самым тоненьким дискантом; дверь в столовую хрипела басом; но та, которая была в сенях, издавала какой-то странный дребезжащий и вместе стонущий звук, так что, вслушиваясь в него, очень ясно наконец слышалось: “батюшки, я зябну!” Я знаю, что многим очень не нравится этот звук; но я его очень люблю, и если мне случится иногда здесь услышать скрып дверей, тогда мне вдруг так и запахнет деревнею, низенькой комнаткой, озаренной свечкой в старинном подсвечнике, ужином, уже стоящим на столе, майскою темною ночью, глядящею из сада, сквозь растворенное окно, на стол, уставленный приборами, соловьем, обдающим сад, дом и дальнюю реку своими раскатами, страхом и шорохом ветвей… и боже, какая длинная навевается мне тогда вереница воспоминаний!


  1. Sweet, I didn’t remember this “cтрахом и шорохом ветвей” – expected to see the more familiar трепет and was pleasantly surprised.
    Double diminutives are common in Russian and in no way come across as monstrous; more like softly humorous, exactly the way Gogol intended. It wouldn’t be weirdfor someone to be called Ленусенька or Тимошенька or to be get asked to “пропустить рюмашечку” (to drink a teensy tiny shot-glass). Google gives half a million hits for цепочечка.
    A classic college student song, Ode to Butt, went,
    Мы на турбазу ехали – не ныли
    В грузовичочке, на рюкзачочке,
    А в результате синячки набили
    На пятой точке, на пятой точке

  2. PS: Котеночкин is even a legit surname, attesting to the ease of constructing words like “kittenlet” in Russian.
    Another multi-hundred-thousand Google hit is девчоночка.
    And lastly, for triple and quad diminutives of Gogol’s little chest, check this poem 🙂

  3. I know double diminutives are common, and I didn’t mean to make a general statement about them; I was talking specifically about сундучочками. Doesn’t that sound even a little bit weird to you? If not, I guess I’ll have to write my reaction off to non-native-speaker-ness.

  4. In stature the Manlet was dwarfish —
    No burly, big Blunderbore he;
    And he wearily gazed on the crawfish
    His Wifelet had dressed for his tea.
    “Now reach me, sweet Atom, my gunlet,
    And hurl the old shoelet for luck;
    Let me hie to the bank of the runlet,
    And shoot thee a Duck!”
    She has reached him his minikin gunlet;
    She has hurled the old shoelet for luck;
    She is busily baking a bunlet,
    To welcome him home with his Duck.
    On he speeds, never wasting a wordlet,
    Though thoughtlets cling, closely as wax,
    To the spot where the beautiful birdlet
    So quietly quacks.
    Where the Lobsterlet lurks, and the Crablet
    So slowly and sleepily crawls;
    Where the Dolphin’s at home, and the Dablet
    Pays long, ceremonious calls;
    Where the Grublet is sought by the Froglet;
    Where the Frog is pursued by the Duck;
    Where the Ducklet is chased by the Doglet–
    So runs the world’s luck!
    He has loaded with bullet and powder;
    His footfall is noiseless as air;
    But the Voices grow louder and louder,
    And bellow and bluster and blare.
    They bristle before him and after,
    They flutter above and below,
    Shrill shriekings of lubberly laughter,
    Weird wailings of woe!
    They echo without him, within him;
    They thrill through his whiskers and beard;
    Like a teetotum seeming to spin him,
    With sneers never hitherto sneered.
    “Avengement,” they cry, “on our Foelet!
    Let the Manikin weep for our wrongs!
    Let us drench him, from toplet to toelet,
    With Nursery Songs!
    “He shall muse upon ‘Hey! Diddle! Diddle!’
    On the Cow that surmounted the Moon;
    He shall rave of the Cat and the Fiddle,
    And the Dish that eloped with the Spoon;
    And his soul shall be sad for the Spider,
    When Miss Muffet was sipping her whey,
    That so tenderly sat down beside her,
    And scared her away!
    “The music of Midsummer madness
    Shall sting him with many a bite,
    Till, in rapture of rollicking sadness,
    He shall groan with a gloomy delight;
    He shall swathe him, like mists of the morning,
    In platitudes luscious and limp,
    Such as deck, with a deathless adorning,
    The Song of the Shrimp!
    “When the Ducklet’s dark doom is decided,
    We will trundle him home in a trice;
    And the banquet, so plainly provided,
    Shall round into rose-buds and rice;
    In a blaze of pragmatic invention
    He shall wrestle with Fate, and shall reign;
    But he has not a friend fit to mention,
    So hit him again!”
    He has shot it, the delicate darling!
    And the Voices have ceased from their strife;
    Not a whisper of sneering or snarling,
    As he carries it home to his wife;
    Then, cheerily champing the bunlet
    His spouse was so skilful to bake,
    He hies him once more to the runlet
    To fetch her the Drake!
    —Lewis Carroll, dancin’ the diminutives jig
    The original is much shorter, of course:
    There was a little man, and he had a little gun,
    And his bullets were made of lead, lead, lead;
    He went to the brook, and saw a little duck,
    And shot it right through the head, head, head.
    He carried it home to his old wife Joan,
    And bade her a fire to make, make, make.
    To roast the little duck he had shot in the brook,
    And he’d go and fetch the drake, drake, drake.
    The drake was a-swimming with his curly tail;
    The little man made it his mark, mark, mark.
    He let off his gun, but he fired too soon,
    And the drake flew away with a quack, quack, quack.

  5. Poor little duck!
    LH, a lot of my examples came from poems and ditties, and Gogol’s phrase is so wonderfully musically flowing that he himself called his prose poems … so it made me think that multiple diminutives are sometimes invited by the needs of the meter, rhyme, and tone … and if so, then your mental image of a procession of cherubs punctuated by some outlandishly-shaped cutie isn’t far off the mark.
    There isn’t anything impossibly weird about a particular pile-up of diminutive suffices, but yes it may be helping to add spice and punctuation to what would have otherwise been a monotonous list?
    To my surprise, it’s suggested in Russian literature analysis using, as an example, yes, the same Gogol’s passage:
    При перечислительной интонации каждый из однородных членов получает ударение и отделяется паузой от другого. Голос на каждом из них повышается. Повышения голоса на следующих один за другим однородных членах однотипны. Наиболее сильно голос повышается на предпоследнем из однородных, а на по­следнем понижается, ударение на этом слове наиболее сильное. Особенно заметно это последнее понижение, когда перечень однородных членов завершает предложение. Например:
    «Комната Пульхерин Ивановны I была вся уставлена ‘ сун­дуками, I ящиками, I ящичками I и СУНДУЧОЧКАМИ». (Н. Го­голь. «Старосветские помещики».)
    В этом примере однородные дополнения «сундуками», «ящи­ками», «ящичками» получают ударения, связанные с повы­шением голоса; на однородном «ящичками» голос повышается более сильно, а на последнем из однородных — «сундучочка- ми» — самое сильное ударение и голос понижается к точке.

    Of course “сундук” storage chest is relatively uncommon in Russian even without diminutives, as Russian chests remained old-fashioned and never got drawers like in English. It remains an anthropology-museum kind of a word, and an unmistakable Tatar borrowing at that. So any “sunduk” derivatives retai a flavor of an unusual word in Russian, maybe a play-word. Still “в сундучочке” / “сундучочка” yields numerous Google hits, including cute sayings like “Заморочки из сундучочка”

  6. For comparison, try searching the web for some of Carroll’s diminutives. “Toelet” yields pages of Hebraisms and misspelled toilets 🙂 🙂 and just a first-order diminutive. But in Russian, the double-diminutive “пальчонок” is a common personal name (which dominates the first page of a search) and made it to the dictionaries just fine (Lopatin’s and Efremova’s)

  7. My uneducated point about сундучочками is that it is not at all weird, but somewhat excessive. It also breaks the obvious parallelism. But that’s exactly the point. Gogol is a (and probably THE) master of hyperbole and this absolutely unnecessary diminution of what a reader would certainly consider already a fairly small object is very distinctive. The art, of course, is to make it both notable and unobtrusive.

  8. What do you think of Isabel F. Hapgood rendering the first quoted sentence without the chiasmus? Shouldn’t that scheme make into English? Or can you see her reasoning?

  9. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Double diminutives are also very common in Chilean Spanish: for example, chiquitito, which just means little, with no implied very.
    We had dinner in the Gogol Restaurant when we were in St Petersburg last month (in the building where he lived). Very nice, and not too expensive, especially for a place with a live pianist.

  10. What do you think of Isabel F. Hapgood rendering the first quoted sentence without the chiasmus? Shouldn’t that scheme make into English?
    Of course it should. From what little I’ve seen of her work, I don’t think much of it.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Miss Hapgood’s versions may or may not have aged well but presumably she ought to get some credit for having been out there giving it a go when very few people (and even fewer Americans) were trying to translate anything Russian into English. Her Taras Bulba, for example, was published in New York in 1886, which was five years before wikipedia says Constance Garnett first began trying to learn Russian.

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