LeBlanc’s Pilnyak.

Ronald D. LeBlanc, the Russianist I mentioned back in 2012 when I was reading Narezhny’s Российский Жилблаз (A Russian Gil Blas: 1, 2), has been working for years on a translation of Boris Pilnyak’s 1932 О’кэй. Американский роман, which he renders O’kei: An American Novel. He has, most admirably, put both annotated and (for those who just want to read it undistracted by notes) non-annotated versions online and made them freely available; the links are at this University of Washington press release. The novel is a modernist (fragmented and poeticized) account of a trip Pilnyak took in 1931, from New York to Hollywood by train and back to New York (via the South and Detroit) by car, in a Ford Pilnyak couldn’t resist buying (and shipping back to the USSR); I’ll pass along some language-related passages from his extraordinarily interesting and informative introduction, which is worth reading on its own:

Perhaps the most favorable and easily the most detailed scholarly study devoted to Pilnyak’s travelogue-novel thus far, however, is Milla Fedorova’s ambitious Yankees in Petrograd, Bolsheviks in New York: America and Americans in Russian Literary Perception (2013). Unlike other American travelogues in the genre, Fedorova observes, “Pilnyak’s narration ignores his actual trajectory and follows, instead, unfolding recurrent motifs and the development of the narrator’s thoughts.” And although readers of Pilnyak’s travelogue-novel will find traditional descriptions of such iconic American landmarks as Coney Island, the Ford factory in Detroit, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls, they will also be struck by the “absence of a traditional, cohesive narrative.”

Striving for a universal scale of social and historical analysis, its author chooses instead an impressionistic, fragmentary form. A modernist writer with a superimposed ideological task, Pilnyak tries to convey the essence of America by scattering personal observations, reports of seemingly random meetings and conversations, statistical data, newspaper articles, and surveys of historical events throughout the text.

As a result of this non-traditional narrative structure, Fedorova points out, Pilnyak’s O’kei has been “praised for its detailed, critical overview of American life as well as criticized for the haste, superficiality, and anecdotal nature of its approach.” Another departure that Pilnyak makes from the genre of American travelogues written by Soviet writers is the way the author employs poetic means to achieve his rhetorical purpose of showing how the global financial crisis foretells the impending collapse of capitalism in the United States. “It is impossible to grasp the peculiarity of the travelogue if we leave aside its poetic nature,” Fedorova insists. “As with a poem, the succession of the travelogue’s elements is based on phonetic similarities, subtle semantic shifts, and associations of memory. Repetitions of lengthy passages, so unusual in a novel, become understandable as the mark of a poetic work.” These poetic features in Pilnyak’s text often violate speech norms, however, and take the form of lexical, grammatical, and even compositional neologisms, features that can be not only off-putting, but also confusing, for many readers, leading them to view the text as simply a motley mosaic of disparate fragments. “On closer reading,” Fedorova explains, “we recognize the recurrent patterns and threads that disappear from the surface to be picked up again later. The author eventually returns to and finishes the sentences and stories broached in the beginning of the novel.” As Fedorova’s insightful analysis of O’kei makes clear, Pilnyak has written a travelogue-novel whose linguistic features and narrative structure impose some very heavy demands upon readers as they seek to understand the author’s impressions of America. […]

Potential readers of O’kei should also be forewarned that the modernist Pilnyak, who was a highly word-conscious verbal artist throughout his literary career, seems to have loved the sound of the English language, a language that he himself did not understand, and that he never seemed sufficiently motivated to attempt to learn. In his travelogue-novel, which was written, of course, for native Russian readers not for English-speaking American ones, Pilnyak tends frequently to provide the Russian transliteration of English words rather than their Russian translation. For example, the word “breakfast” is rendered as brekfest, rather than zavtrak. And the word that serves as the travelogue-novel’s title, “okay,” is rendered as o’kei, rather than khorosho or ladno. The native Russian reader is thus provided with how an English word sounds rather than what it means. There are also instances in the text where Pilnyak puns playfully with Russian words that are close in sound but distant in meaning: for example, grob (“coffin”) and gorb (“hump”), standart (“norm,” “cliché”) and shtandart (“banner,” “flag”), sobstvennyi (“private,” “in-house”) and sobstvennik (“owner,” “proprietor”). Word play of a sort also occurs when Pilnyak uses Russian wording that is hopelessly awkward (and unfortunate) for those readers who know both Russian and English, such as saying kovboiskie zhenshchiny (“cowboy women”) when he refers to the female equestrians who are riding at the rodeo he attended in Arizona. A humorously fractured, macaronic brand of Russian mixed with English is on display when Pilnyak relays bits of the conversations that occur at the religious gathering of Russian “Jumpers” (members of a sect of spiritual Christians) that he and some friends of his attend in Los Angeles. It is important for readers of O’kei to bear in mind that Pilnyak’s “American novel” was not merely a travelogue-novel, but also a highly “modernist” text, one that is similar in a number of respects to E. E. Cummings’s EIMI: A Journey Through Soviet Russia (1933), where the style is, in the words of one critic, deliberately “obscure and convoluted,” and where there are numerous passages that “cannot be easily grasped in the more conventional way.” Both of these modernist texts are, in short, intentionally designed to be challenging to the reader. […]

Two additional words of warning should be given to the reader preparing to read O’kei. The first warning is that the clever verbal trickery in which Pilnyak frequently engages while narrating the story of his visit to America can prove to be highly annoying, if not downright aggravating, to some readers. This is certainly the case, for instance, with Boris Paramonov, the renowned Russian essayist, who openly vents his irritation with Pilnyak and his frequent verbal tricks in a podcast devoted to Pilnyak’s O’kei, part of a five-part series on Radio Liberty (Radio Svoboda) called “Soviet Writers on the USA” (“Sovetskie pisateli o SShA”). In this podcast, which originally aired in September 2015, Paramonov castigates the Soviet writer for, among other things, deforming several words that have long been familiar to the Russian reading public (and coining many unnecessary new ones), refusing to develop “an intelligibly articulated story,” failing to describe some phenomenon and instead enumerating numerous instances of it (in the case of “electricity,” providing an inventory of applications – stretching from subways to sewing machines – that runs for over a page and a half), filling whole pages with statistics rather than with words (to the point where the prose becomes nearly unreadable), and providing an image of America that is, in Paramonov’s opinion, not very profound or lasting. “Pilnyak’s so-called American novel,” the award-winning essayist concludes, “says more about Pilnyak as a writer – and about his stylistics, and, what is much sadder, about his fate – than it does about America.” The second word of warning to the reader concerns Pilnyak’s chronic practice of borrowing (often without attribution) from the works of other writers. […]

On the titular O’kei, he writes:

Pilnyak then proceeds to illustrate how widely used (overused, actually) this word had now become in the United States: “An American loses everything in the stock market and goes broke – o’kei. An American totally wrecks his automobile – o’kei. An American has his cheekbone broken while playing football – o’kei. An American is robbed by bandits – o’kei. Presidents now sign o’kei on bills passed into laws out of solidarity with the presidential ignorance that preceded them.” The exclamation o’kei, Fedorova explains, “conveys the essence of the American character,” its etymology demonstrating “an officially acknowledged respect for ignorance.” It seems entirely appropriate, therefore, that this exclamation should become the title of Pilnyak’s “American novel.” And, in light of the author’s love for the sound of English words – as well as his preference for sound over meaning, for transliteration over translation – it seems entirely appropriate that throughout my translation the Russian transliteration o’kei should be used, rather than the English translation okay (or O.K.). My hope is that it will serve to remind English-speaking readers that Pilnyak’s travelogue-novel was written primarily for a Russian-speaking audience of his fellow countrymen in the Soviet Union.

(Pilnyak passes on the misinformation that the word is derived from President Jackson’s alleged oll korrekt for “all correct,” but of course there was no way for him to know about the correct derivation from Old Kinderhook [see this post].) I wrote about the Cummings book back in 2010. And in his message to me, LeBlanc passed on the very good news that he’s finished a first draft of his translation of the Narezhny novel I mentioned at the start of the post; I hope to be reporting on that sometime next year.


  1. What should we make of the apostrophe in О’кэй?

  2. David Marjanović says

    Pilnyak passes on the misinformation that the word is derived from President Jackson’s alleged oll korrekt for “all correct,” but of course there was no way for him to know about the correct derivation from Old Kinderhook [see this post]

    That post says the two reinforced each other, and implies that OK for “Old Kinderhook” would not have been possible without OK for “all correct”.

    I’ve never heard of Jackson being involved, though.

  3. “Pilnyak” is apparently a pen name, but I can’t immediately google up any explanation of why Бори́с Андре́евич Вога́у chose it or what it might have been taken to mean or signify to his readers. Boris appears to be the only Pilnyak known to English-language wikipedia, from which I infer that if it’s a “real” Russian surname it’s not a common one.

  4. To half-answer my own question, further googling finds multiple sources asserting (which may mean it’s true or may mean that everyone’s just directly or indirectly relying on a single source of unknown reliability) that the pen name was derived from the toponym Pilnyanka, variously claimed to be in what is now Belarus or in the Ukraine. My best guess is that that’s the Ukrainian place whose 21st century English spelling seems to be Pyl’nyanka. It’s near Kharkiv, f/k/a Kharkov.

  5. the pen name was derived from the toponym Pilnyanka

    Yes, and the crucial point is that the inhabitants of Пильнянка were apparently called «пильняками» (pilnyaks).

  6. back to New York (via the South and Detroit) by car, in a Ford Pilnyak couldn’t resist buying

    When I first read this, my immediate response was “there was never a car named a Ford Pilnyak!”

    Although perhaps there should have been…

    As I was motivatin’ over the hill
    I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Villle
    Cadillac a-movin’ down the open track
    But nothin’ out-runnin’ my Ford Pilnyak

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Ford Pilnyak is a Betelguesian related to the better known Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox.

  8. You guys are definitely making my morning merrier.

  9. the correct derivation from Old Kinderhook

    Must be a slip of the fingers; Hat well knows that the original derivation was “oll korrect” at the Boston Morning Post and other Boston newspapers, that “Old Kinderhook” was a coincidence that reinforced the fad and took it national, and that the supposed origin with Andrew Jackson was political mockery dating from the same election. See Wordorigins for the more-than-a-paragraph, less-than-a-book version.

    Professor LeBlanc footnoted this, but all he says is “Andrew Jackson’s misspelling of ‘all correct’ is one of several explanations that have been advanced for the origin of the American word ‘okay.’” I think he should have taken the opportunity to give the true origin (it’s in dictionaries, it’s not hard to find!) while explaining that Pilnyak couldn’t have known anything besides the Andrew Jackson story.

  10. Ah yes, I was misremembering — thanks!

  11. @David Marjanović. “I’ve never heard of Jackson being involved, though.”

    In 1941, 1963, and 1964, Allen Walker Read published seven articles about the origin of the English word O.K., which, barring the discovery of new evidence, probably say all there is to say about the subject. The fourth article is the one dealing with Andrew Jackson:

    “The Evidence on ‘O.K.’” Saturday Review of Literature. Vol. 24. No. 19. July 1941. Pp. 3–4 and 10–11.

    “The First Stage in the History of ‘O.K.’” American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage. Vol. 38. No. 1. February 1963. Pp. 5–27.

    “The Second Stage in the History of ‘O.K.’” idem. Vol. 38. No. 2. May 1963. Pp. 83–102.

    “Could Andrew Jackson Spell?” idem. Vol. 38. No, 3. October 1963. Pp. 188–195.

    “The Folklore of ‘O.K.’” idem. Vol. 39. No. 1. February 1964. Pp. 5–25.

    “Later Stages in the History of ‘O.K.’” idem. Vol. 39. No. 2. May 1964. Pp. 83–101.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW while poking around wikipedia for other Pilnyak-related content I came across this article on a topic that is perhaps underappreciated in the Anglophone world. (Indeed, the article shows fairly strong signs of having been written/edited in ESL.)


  13. Wow, that’s a weird article that should be redone from the ground up if it’s valid in the first place. Sacchisachi, who created it (and it’s barely been touched since), says “Hello. I’m Japanese malt lover.” For what that’s worth. (Does it mean “I’m a lover of Japanese malts” or “I’m a Japanese lover of malts”?)

  14. David Marjanović says

    Lies! All lies! I found out today that OK is short for oberes Kremstal.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    All those missing “the”s … Rest of world is never going to get it right, despite complicated and exhausting explanations by exports. I prepose EFL speakers drop “a”s and “the”s. It might raise our approval ratings.

    Theodicy was always losing game.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Kremskrams !

  17. Sure, that’s a weird article but Pilnyak did spend a few months in Japan in 1926 and did publish a book based on his sojourn; and Roman Kim, a man of mystery, did contribute an addendum (“glosses”) to that book.

  18. The fact that the article includes a few actual facts does not make it a good article. Why can’t what information there is be presented in the Pilnyak article?

  19. There’s an article Ninja presence in Myanmar, for chrissake. There’s a nut out there creating these nutty articles, and somebody should put a stop to it.

  20. I am surprised that there is no article on Ninja presence in Mongolia.

    The country is full of them…

  21. And why isn’t there an article on Ninja presence in Japan? Too close to home?

  22. Stu Clayton says

    They all were expelled from Japan. Now they are wretched refugees in Mongolia and Myanmar. A few of the smarter ones moved to Hollywood.

  23. OK, probably no one got the obscure joke, but “Ninja presence in Mongolia” actually looks like this


  24. Stu Clayton says

    The article lists a documentary as if it were about these ninja miners:

    # A feature-documentary Price of Gold [4] (Sven Zellner, Chingunjav Borkhuu; D 2012) ARTE #

    But that is about illegal gold mining in Peru.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    So ARTE in 2012 produced at least two documentaries with the title Price of Gold. Maybe it was a series. No, wait: the one on Peru came out in 2019.

  26. John Cowan says

    All those missing “the”s … Rest of world is never going to get it right, despite complicated and exhausting explanations by exports. I prepose EFL speakers drop “a”s and “the”s.

    Done already fifty-five years ago:

    I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect—and tax—public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize “Sons of Revolution” talk-talk.

    My old man taught me two things: “Mind own business” and “Always cut cards.” Politics never tempted me. But on Monday 13 May 2075 I was in computer room of Lunar Authority Complex, visiting with computer boss Mike while other machines whispered among themselves. Mike was not official name; I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story written by Dr. Watson before he founded IBM. This story character would just sit and think—and that’s what Mike did. Mike was a fair dinkum thinkum, sharpest computer you’ll ever meet.

    Not fastest. At Bell Labs, Bueno Aires, down Earthside, they’ve got a thinkum a tenth his size which can answer almost before you ask. But matters whether you get answer in microsecond rather than millisecond as long as correct?

    Not that Mike would necessarily give right answer; he wasn’t completely honest.

    —Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis

  27. January First-of-May says

    Done already fifty-five years ago

    Which conveniently provides an opening to link to JBR’s Fantastic Statistics, a newly posted (last week as I write this) examination of 20th century SF across various statistical lenses. Turns out that the work quoted above has a very low frequency of the but (supposedly) a fairly normal frequency of a.

  28. Wow, that’s great — I’m gonna post the sucker.

  29. I am pleased to note that the “Ninja presence in…” articles were deleted last year.

  30. David Marjanović says

    What was in them? I feel like I missed something slightly hilarious.

  31. PlasticPaddy says

    Jbr has or had an interest in conlangs/ alien languages and blogged about them:

Speak Your Mind