Katayev’s White Sail.

I’ve finished Valentin Katayev’s Белеет парус одинокий [A White Sail Gleams; I’ve just discovered there’s a full Soviet translation from 1954 here], and how one sees the novel depends to a great degree on the angle from which one observes it. From one point of view, it’s a Boy’s Own adventure novel in which Petya and Gavrik are the Tom and Huck of 1905 Odessa, getting into scrapes and fooling parents and police alike. That element didn’t excite me, and if that were all there had been I probably would have given up and read something else. From another, it’s Kataev’s attempt to navigate the dangerous cultural waters of Stalin’s USSR by converting himself into a children’s writer; it was successful both in terms of his career (the novel was wildly popular) and of self-preservation. It can be seen as a way for him to smuggle into his writing his favorite elements (learned from Bunin) of using exact language to describe the world while defamiliarizing it without incurring the charge of aestheticism, since he is, after all, describing a child’s view of things. It is also a glorification of the Bolshevik revolutionary movement, as personified by the escaped Potemkin mutineer Rodion Zhukov and Gavrik’s older brother Terenty; that was, of course, a requirement of the times, but it left me cold (and led to later charges that Kataev was a complaisant follower of the party line).

But the element that hooked me and kept me reading was the loving description of the Odessa of Kataev’s youth — not the city center, with its famous statues and cafes and theaters, but the grubby fringes, particularly the area around the train station, with the court and jail to the north, the gymnasium (high school) to the northeast, and (across the large empty space of Kulikovo Pole) the military headquarters to the east, next to which lives Petya’s family, the Bacheis; it expands to take in the shoreline, from Lanzheron in the north to Maly Fontan in the south (and even further, to Arcadia and Bolshoi Fontan and Lustdorf), and the down-and-out neighborhood southwest of the station wonderfully known as Sakhalinchik (“little Sakhalin,” for the large criminal population). I was able to find most of the areas mentioned, no matter how obscure, by using the resources of the internet (especially this detailed 1916 map), but when that failed me, I turned to Odessa native Boris Dralyuk, who invariably provided full details. For example, when I asked about the “дача Вальтуха” [Wahltuch dacha], he said the Wahltuchs “were a worldly, multitalented clan that got its start in Odessa”; the “dacha” was “a tract developed by a less intellectually aspirational member of the clan, a merchant, who sensed which way the Odessan breeze was blowing” — it was at Frantsuz’ky Blvd, 35, though it’s since been demolished. He adds, “A part of the property, at No. 33, became a cine-pavilion and, later, the Odessa Film Studio.” As I have warned him, if he keeps giving me such thorough answers, I’m going to keep pestering him with questions.

And I learned some new vocabulary from the book, like гик [gik] ‘(ship’s) boom’ (I had only known the homophone meaning ‘whoop’); it’s from Dutch, like so many nautical terms, and Dutch Wikipedia says “Verder werd de benaming giek vroeger ook wel gebruikt voor een kleine kapiteins(roei)boot die door meerdere mannen werd geroeid (vergelijk het Engelse “gig”).” I’m not sure whether they’re saying Dutch giek is borrowed from English gig or just pointing out the resemblance; in any case, the OED s.v. gig (entry not fully updated since 1899) says “Perhaps onomatopoeic; the identity of the word in all senses is very doubtful.”

Oh, and out of mild curiosity I clicked on the Vietnamese Wikipedia page for the novel and found that the description was lifted from the Russian page. When I say “lifted,” I don’t mean translated, I mean it begins “Действие происходит в Одессе в 1905 году” and carries on in Russian for a couple of paragraphs. What’s the point of that?


  1. from Dutch, like so many nautical terms

    Beats me how the Dutch zwakhals, aka ‘bitter end’, becomes Жвака-галс in Russian.

  2. SFReader says

    Etymologically ‘dacha’ is a noun formed from verb “darit” – “to give, to grant”, so it’s literally “a gift, something given”.

    It was originally a grant of undeveloped (usually forest) land given people for various services to the state where they usually built their summer villas.

  3. David Marjanović says

    I’m not sure whether they’re saying Dutch giek is borrowed from English gig or just pointing out the resemblance

    vergelijk = vergleiche = compare

    Borrowing in that direction is unlikely because of the vowel length mismatch.

    aka ‘bitter end’

    “Weak neck” literally. Plenty of “necks” on… whatever that thing is.

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    Re giek:
    M. Philippa et. al, “Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands”
    Wrsch. [=Waarschijnlijk] een variant op pgm. *gīg-, zie → giechelen, of direct afgeleid van pgm. *gī ‘gapen, schuin gaan’, zie → gijpen 1. Het woord betekent dan dus ‘heen en weer gaande spriet’.
    On. geiga ‘zijdelings afwijken, scheef lopen’ …Verwant is voorts ohd. gīga ‘vedel’, de Nieuwhoogduitse dialectwoorden geigen die ‘heen- en weergaan’ betekenen zijn alle afgeleid van het instrument, en niet omgekeerd (Grimm)….De tegenwoordig algemene vorm giek moet afkomstig zijn uit een dialect waarin de lange -i- niet werd gediftongeerd tot -ij-.
    Source: http://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/giek2
    1. Word is made by reference to the oscillating motion of the part when in use.
    2. The word Geige in German is related but the German dialect words geigen (“to oscillate”) are derived from the instrument and not vice versa.
    3. The reason the word is giek and not gijk is due to dialect borrowing in Dutch.

  5. I read that as a child in Czech translation and remember nothing about it other than the book on my shelf with the alluring title which in Czech was “Na obzoru plachta bílá” (White Sail on The Horizon). But never realised the Pushkin reference in the original.

  6. The reason the word is giek and not gijk is due to dialect borrowing in Dutch.

    Vasmer actually gives gijk as the Dutch form the Russian word was borrowed from.

  7. SFReader says

    Now I wonder what is the Dutch for obrasopit’ bom-blinda-rey

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    bras 1 zn. ‘scheepstouw’
    Vnnl. bras ‘scheepstouw’ [1598; WNT waarnemen].
    Ontleend aan Frans bras ‘bras’ [13e eeuw], eerder al bras, braz ‘arm’ [1080; Rey], teruggaand op vulgair Latijn bracium < Latijn bracchium ‘arm’ < Grieks brakhiōn ‘arm, poot’, wrsch. een substantivering van het bn. brakhiōn ‘kort’.
    Een bras is een van de twee touwen die zijn bevestigd aan de nokken van een ra. De brassen zijn dus als het ware de armen van de ra, vanwaar de benaming. Aan het Nederlands is als scheepsterm Duits Brasse en wrsch. ook Fries bras ontleend.
    ♦ brassen 1 ww. ‘de ra's door middel van de brassen richten’. Vnnl. braste 't zeil ‘stelde het zeil met behulp van de brassen’ [1685; WNT]. Afleiding van het zn. [=Zuidnederlands].
    Source: http://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/brassen2
    So basically the brassen are two ropes that resemble arms of the "ra" (= Russian rej) and the word was borrowed from French bras = "arm" (via Flemish? ). I will look up "ra" and post that. I like boats but am not a sailor so i am less familiar with even the English terms.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    ra zn. [=Flemish]. ‘loodrecht op de mast bevestigd rondhout’… < pgm. *ráhō-. Daarnaast met grammatische wisseling pgm. *ragō-: nzw. dial. raga ‘lange wortelloot’…Mogelijk verwant met mnl. raghen ‘uitsteken’ (naast o.a. mhd./nhd. ragen ‘oprijzen’) < pgm. *(h)ragēn- (Vercoullie)… Uit pgm. *rah- reconstrueert men pie. *rok- of *rHk…
    J. de Vries (1971), Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek, Leiden
    ree 3 znw [= west Flanders Flemish dialect] . v. de in het westen geldende vorm van ra…
    Source: http://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/ra1
    So ra is a spar perpendicularly (or vertically ???) fastened to a mast and ree is a dialect version. The PIE and/or PG root seems to mean "stick" or "something that protrudes).

  10. David Marjanović says

    Definitely transverse, quite contrary to the German meaning of lotrecht.

  11. Die Rah (auch Raa oder Rahe)

    That seems awfully loosey-goosey; I thought German had Rules.

  12. @Dominik Lukes: “But never realised the Pushkin reference in the original.” It’s Lermontov, actually, but this line is as widely known as the most popular quotes from Pushkin. Lermontov was only 17 when he wrote this poem.

    I suspect, although without evidence, that Kataev had in mind Bunin’s line, “Тонет белый парус на лимане,” but Bunin was still beyond the pale in the USSR in 1936.

  13. An interesting thought, but the Bunin poem doesn’t have much resonance with the novel (though of course Kataev knew all Bunin’s poetry).

  14. David Marjanović says

    That seems awfully loosey-goosey; I thought German had Rules.

    Not on the High Seas, where German is Lowest.

    Rahe actually seems etymologically nativized into Landlubber German, and the etymologically correct -h- sheer dumb luck.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    TIL that Danish used to have an umlauted plural ræer. Possibly still does if you learned it at sea, but I don’t recall seeing that form ever.

  16. I suspect, although without evidence, that Kataev had in mind Bunin’s line, “Тонет белый парус на лимане,” but Bunin was still beyond the pale in the USSR in 1936.

    I agree with Hat, the proposition, while seducing, knowing how much Kataev idolised Bunin, doesn’t fit the poetics of “The Sail”

  17. John Cowan says

    On the HIgh Seas, there are no Rules for anyone Germanic: No Peace beyond the Line.

  18. Tangentially relevant to Katayev:

    утром 8 августа 1925 года загорелый мужчина южной внешности в темном пиджаке, белых брюках и лакированных штиблетах сошел с поезда на станции Гомель. Багажа при нем не было. Уверенным шагом он направился в местный губисполком. Председатель Егоров был растерян и смущен неожиданным визитом. Респектабельный южанин представился председателем Центрального исполнительного комитета Узбекистана Файзуллой Ходжаевым и предъявил документ. Как оказалось, товарищ Ходжаев попал в весьма затруднительное положение — в поезде воры украли у него все деньги и вещи.


  19. Interesting, thanks! “Настоящий Остап Бендер не был сыном лейтенанта Шмидта. Он был председателем ЦИК Узбекистана.”

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