Here’s another bit from the Second Act of Bykov’s Orfografiya (see this post for an earlier sample); it illustrates the fascination and frustration of reading the book:

Bookseller’s Row in the Haymarket was a grotesque sight—like almost all sights then: destitution and wretchedness were carried to such absurd lengths that they ceased to provoke tears but only decrepit, wise laughter such as the last Romans must have aimed at themselves and the Gauls. Somewhere in the hidden, half-legendary Petersburg cellars precious manuscripts were still being exchanged for equally fabulous, apocryphal things—a pound of butter, a ham; but in the Haymarket they dealt mainly in the literature of the Russian Golden Age, naive literary almanacs in which vulgar quarrels were carried on, with opponents caught in misprints and hidden peccadillos hinted at—so-and-so lost everything at gambling, or had informed on someone, or was a kept man… The public was most picturesque and ill-assorted: here was the beginning of the disintegration of the Petersburg School—zaumniks, “ushkuiniks,” pustoglots, nothingists, metaphorists, columbines, going-to-the-peoplists, and the completely enigmatic quasists. Here stood the gnomelike graybeard Trufanov with a bundle of “northern antiquities” transcribed in a decorative style and said to have been collected at the time of the Arkhangelsk rites—in fact they had been taken from a collection of byliny and worked up into a state of complete incomprehensibility; he was seen with his group singing the bawdy songs of Nesein [No-sow] (“My name is because we are not simple peasants: we do not sow nor reap, we are peasants not by calling but by willing”).

(The Russian is below the cut.)

The “disintegration of the Petersburg School” section drives me nuts: “zaumniks” I know, they were practitioners of Zaum, but what’s the status of the rest? Ushkuiniks were medieval Novgorodian pirates, and there was a literary almanac called Ushkuiniki published in Petersburg in 1922 and later a 1927 self-published poetry book of that name by Aleksandr Tufanov, a now-forgotten futurist, zaumist, and “sound poet” (note the apperance of a character called “Trufanov” immediately below in the passage—Bykov consistently renames characters based on real people, so that Shklovsky turns up as “Lgovsky” and Gorky as “Khlamida,” an early pseudonym); was there any group of “Ushkuiniki” in 1918, or is it pure invention? “Pustoglots” [pustogloty] has the Russian prefix for ’empty’ and the Greek suffix for ‘tongue, language’ (as in polyglot), and the Russian word gets a few Google hits as an insult; “nothingist” [nichevoshnik] is a rare word defined by Dahl as ‘someone for whom everything is nothing’; columbines [akvilegi] is, as far as I can make out, simply the name of a flower; lyudokhod isn’t an actual word but has a prefix meaning ‘people’ and a suffix meaning ‘going,’ and it’s used as a caption for this photo; kvazer seems to sometimes be used for kvazar ‘quasar’ and sometimes in ways I don’t understand [these words are explained in the comments below]. What’s a poor translator supposed to do with this farrago? But it sure is fun.

Addendum. A correspondent points out to me that “Nesein” is a “very transparent to a Russian reader allusion to the peasant-poet Sergei Esenin,” something that was obvious as soon as she mentioned it but that hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks, Evgenia!

Писательский ряд на Сенной являл собою зрелище гротескное — как почти все тогдашние зрелища: нищета и жалкость дошли до такого абсурда, что перестали вызывать слезы, а только дряхлый, мудрый смех, каким, должно быть, последние римляне смеялись над собою и галлами. Где-то в тайных, полулегендарных питерских подвалах еще выменивались драгоценные рукописи на такие же сказочные, недостоверные вещи — фунт масла, окорок; но на Сенном торговали в основном литературой русского золотого века, наивными альманахами, где шла площадная литературная борьба, где ловили оппонентов на опечатках и с витиеватым многословием намекали на их тайные грешки — проигрался, донес, жил на содержании… Публика была самая живописная и разношерстная: тут было начало распада петербургской школы — заумники, «ушкуйники», пустоглоты , ничевошники, метафористы, аквилеги, людоходы и вовсе уж загадочные квазеры. Тут тихо стоял похожий на гнома седобородый Труфанов с пачкой узорчато переписанных «Северных старин», якобы собранных во время радений под Архангельском, — на деле же взятых из сборника былин и обработанных до полной невнятицы; был замечен со своей кодлой распевавший похабщину Несеин («А прозванье-то мое — от того, что крестьяне мы не простые: не сеем, не жнем; крестьяне не по труду, а по нутру»).


  1. Kvazery probably stays for the multiplicity of quasi-something movements.
    Lyudokhody – those who are going “v lyudi”, into the world (the very well-known work of Gorky – sort of autobiography – was called “V lyudyakh” and was about the harsh life of the young writer-to-be doing all kinds of jobs to survive.
    Nichevoki (ничевоки) rings a bell for me although I never was much interested what they were exactly busy with.
    Pustogloty – either those who could not speak any language properly, or those who had /wanted nothing to eat / swallow? (Glotat’ means to swallow), or somebody who were leading emply (and/or loud) talks (from glotka глотка – gullet, throat; there is an expression орать во всю глотку – cry at the top of one’s voice.

  2. Thanks very much—you’re both obviously right about людоходы and квазеры, and I’ll change the translation accordingly.

  3. Maxim Afanasiev says

    Actually, “ничевоки”, mentioned by Ashalynd, are real and — probably — relevant, as quick googling shows:
    As for “аквилеги”, this link to a Russian translation of Seneca:
    mentions the name in its footnotes as that of the “ancient Roman corporation of water-finders”…

  4. Thanks! Here‘s the direct nichevoki link: “Н. провозгласили «отделение искусства от государства», а свое творческое бюро выдвигали в качестве аппарата по руководству искусством. Н. выявили себя откровенно буржуазной, враждебной революции, пролетарской диктатуре группировкой, оспаривавшей принципы культурного строительства пролетариата. В литературе Н. не оставили никакого следа…” They sound like a perfect group for this novel!

  5. Maxim Afanasiev says

    Another thought: “квазеры”, I would venture to suggest, might be an anachronism, and so a mistake by Bykov if it’s indeed invented. I believe the more likely form, for 1920s, would be “квазёры” or “квазисты” (“акмеисты” being a case in point) — this is supposed to be happening before the onslaught of English-inspired neologisms, after all…
    Or is it just a case of “ё” replaced by “e” — maybe it was “квазёры” all along, and, then, a word that immediately invoked, by the sound of it, the word “фразёры”, “(empty, useless) phrase-crackers”(?). The latter is probably a bit far-fetched, though.

  6. Maxim Afanasiev says

    Just some comments on the possible translations of the cryptic names of some real or imaginary literary groups from the text; I do not know what groups or movements, if any, Bykov is hinting at, so I am just speculating from what I think the meaning of the name might be.
    “людоходы” and the googled-up photograph: I don’t think the word is related to what the photograph’s title hints at — the photograph is likely comparing the chaotic movement of people on the square with “ледоход” (thawing of ice on a river in spring producing chaotic ice-plate movement); “людоход” as a title hints at “ледоход”, I believe.
    As for the supposed literary group’s name “людоходы”, it is probably related to the expression “пойти/ходить в люди” or “ходить в народ”, so the group’s name might point to some sort of literary populism (those going out to the people, populists).
    “квазеры”: likely hinting at the prefix “квази-” (“quasi-“, almost), and probably means some sort of imitation; another example of an artificial word constructed in this way would be “псевдоквазия” (“pseudo-quasia”, invented word that is supposed to mean deceptive imitation) — I remember it used in one of Strugatsky brothers’ novels.

  7. I believe that “ушкуйники” here refers to the poetry almanac and possibly to the corresponding group of poets:
    ЧУКОВСКИЙ, НИКОЛАЙ КОРНЕЕВИЧ (1904–1965), русский писатель, переводчик. Сын К.И.Чуковского.[..]Начал выступать со стихами в 1922 в альманахе Ушкуйники (Петроград), изданном Чуковским за собственный счет (под псевд. Н.Радищев), в литературном приложении к берлинской газете «Накануне» (4 июня) и петроградском журнале «Современное обозрение» (№ 2).

  8. Adrian Bailey says

    “pustoglots” makes me think of The Puszta, so my instinct (wrong as it may be) would be to say that it means “speakers of the plains dialect”.

  9. Waving our dicks from a belfry
    To chase away the clouds

    Although I can’t read the Russian, this rendering sounds like it might mean “swinging our dicks in the belfry”, as if they were bell clappers. It reminds me of the German expression die Eier schaukeln [rocking your balls], meaning to sit around wasting time – in anodyne English “fiddle your thumbs”. Feminists will note with satisfaction that only men can be accused of this.

  10. OK the cast of blog aficionados changed over time, and the topic is open once again, owing to a grander question about the theory of The Grammar Conspiracy suppressing the freedom of expression with the rules and norms of the language (or, as some Bykov’s characters had it, preventing the very laws of physics from changing!).

    On the narrow subject of this thread though:
    Bykov’s fictional groups and movements should resemble or parody the myriad known literary, political, and neo-religious movements of Russian Silver Age. We just need an expert to recognize them! Not an expert myself, but I think that aquilegs resemble akmeists; pustoglot seems to be related to “zhivoglot” or “proglot” (with the shared root meaning to “consume, to swallow”) and the meaning may be unsatiable, voracious consumers of something, swallowing but remaining empty.
    The most transparent allusion is probably of Esenin / Nesein and his horny couplets. One can’t but recall the following venerable couplet:

    Мы не сеем и не пашем
    Мы валяем дурака
    С колокольни х*ем машем
    Разгоняем облака

    It’s so fitting in the story of idled linguists, no longer useful for the humankind!

    We aren’t sowing or plowing
    We are just wasting time
    Waving our dicks from a belfry
    To chase away the clouds

  11. I just knew something was wrong with that: “twiddle”, not “fiddle”.

  12. this rendering sounds like it might mean “swinging our dicks in the belfry”, as if they were bell clappers.
    No, it definitely says “from” rather than “in” the belfry. And may I point out that the activity you suggest could hardly be said to drive away or disperse clouds; for that you need a vigorous waggling directed to the exterior of the belfry.

  13. Well then, to chase the bats out of the belfry. This would put new spin on the expression “all clapped out”.

  14. I’m reminded of an old joke about a duke pissing out of his box and onto the orchestra seats at a musical performance (being either too lazy or too wrapped up in the performance to visit the facilities, I don’t remember the psychological backstory) whose punchline includes the query “Could you waggle it about a bit, Your Grace?”

  15. The Pissing Duke, or, A Device to Disperse Commoners.

  16. I’m leaving this link here as an easy way to find a hilarious bit from the novel where the hero buys a book full of Russian-sounding but unintelligible language: «Тарабумкая, глумкая, глубкая плешть…».

  17. I suppose that Тарабумкая is connected with Tara(ra)boom-de-ay (which, I learn from WP.en, is spelled Tha-ma-ra-boum-di-hé in French), a verbal representation of a variety of can-can dancing.

  18. I presume that’s the subtext/connotation, yes.

  19. marie-lucie says


    My maternal grandfather knew the first few syllables of several English songs popular around WWI (in which he had participated). As I remember, one of them was Ta—ra—ra—boum! ça y est (the last words = more or less ‘that’s it, it’s done’, and similar comments). As children my sisters and I sang along with him, pronouncing the -a—‘s slow and long while balancing from one foot to the other on each syllable until “boum!”came fast. It was perhaps a kind of a dance, but not anything approximating a can-can.

    Another song I remember was It’s a long wé – to Tipérrérré (“rr” here being a heavy uvular trill).

  20. According to Wikipedia, it was sung/danced in London in 1891 (the music was American in origin):

    According to reviews at the time, [Lottie] Collins delivered the suggestive verses with deceptive demureness, before launching into the lusty refrain and her celebrated “kick dance”, a kind of cancan in which, according to one reviewer, “she turns, twists, contorts, revolutionizes, and disports her lithe and muscular figure into a hundred different poses, all bizarre.”

    It was in fact performed in French at the Folies Bergère the following year, many years before nudity was first featured there, presumably using the same general style of dance.

    Performances of both “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay” (though without dancing insofar as I have found) and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (a city in Ireland, though the song was written by an Irishman born in England) are readily available on YouTube, and I have known both of them since my youth, along with “Mademoiselle from Armentières”, pronounced in this context /ˈɑrməntirz/, more or less the Dutch pronunciation — it is in French Flanders — and other songs of the First World War. I got many of them from my father (1904-1993).

  21. David Marjanović says

    It’s a long way from Amphioxus.

    (From the early 1920s, and it shows.)

Speak Your Mind