Search Results for: Leskov

Karamazov: Suddenly Halfway.

I’ve reached what is structurally the halfway mark of The Brothers Karamazov, the end of Part Two (Book Six) and of the first volume of my faded yellow 1970 Soviet edition, even though it’s considerably less than half the number of total pages, and I thought I’d post a few thoughts about what I’ve read. I’m not going to go on and on about the Grand Inquisitor and the Life of Zosima (which end the first half) like everyone else does, partly because everyone else does and partly because I just can’t take them as seriously as I did in college now that I’ve read the Writer’s Diary — the first just seems to me like a fictionalized version of the rants from the Diary (Catholicism is going to merge with socialism and become atheist and stamp on the human face forever!) and the second like a barely fictionalized version of the ideals he promotes there (we must all love our neighbor and take on each other’s guilt!). It’s kind of interesting to see how Dostoevsky handles the intractable problem of theodicy (no better than anyone else, because there’s really nothing you can say but “God works in mysterious ways,” no matter how you dress it up), but it does stop the novel dead in its tracks for a while, much as the historical rants do in War and Peace (the difference being that Dostoevsky’s rants are better written). I will, however, quote the bit that resonates most strongly with my personal sense of how to approach the world morally, Alyosha’s response to Lise’s “aren’t we showing contempt for him, analyzing his soul like this?”:

Рассудите, какое уж тут презрение, когда мы сами такие же, как он, когда все такие же, как он. Потому что ведь и мы такие же, не лучше. А если б и лучше были, то были бы все-таки такие же на его месте…

Think about it, how can it be contempt when we ourselves are just like him, when everyone is just like him? Because we too are just like him, no better. And even if we were better, we would have been just the same in his place….

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Imi zhe vesi.

This is one of those posts that will not be of wide interest, but having put so much time and effort into understanding a few words, I feel compelled to publish my results, and since those few words are found in The Brothers Karamazov, I figure someone might benefit. So: at the end of Part One (Book Three, Chapter 11), Alyosha offers up a prayer that includes the words “У Тебя пути: ими же веси путями спаси их.” Most of this is clear: ‘Thine are the ways (or ‘paths’); by them … by the paths save them.’ But that ellipsis represents the word vesi, which I knew only as the plural of the word весь ‘village,’ which made no sense here. And when I checked the old-spelling text, I found it was вѣси (with yat), and I was even more confused.

Eventually I figured out that it was the second-person singular form of the OCS verb вѣсти/вѣдѣти, whose present-tense forms are вѣмь, вѣси, вѣсть, вѣмы, вѣсте, вѣдѧтъ; the preceding ими же [imi zhe] is the instrumental plural form of the old relative pronoun иже, equivalent to modern которыми. So the final clause of the quoted sentence means ‘by the ways that Thou knowest, save them.’ (David Magarshack, alas, misunderstood веси as a form of весь ‘all’ and translated “All the ways are thine.”) I then discovered that the phrasing was found in a number of traditional prayers, e.g. “Единый, Ты Сам точию можеши, аще восхочеши, спасти нас ими же веси путями и судьбами,” and was used in two Leskov novels, Некуда (Nekuda: Господи! ими же веси путями спаси его [Lord! save him by the ways that Thou knowest]) and Соборяне (The Cathedral Folk: Господи, ими же веси путями спаси! [Lord, save (him) by the ways that Thou knowest!]) And now you know as much as I do. (I’m guessing native Russian speakers these days have almost as much trouble as I did with that phrase.)

Update. The Bloggers Karamazov (the official blog of The North American Dostoevsky Society) has published an expanded version of this post.

Moses Murin.

While reading Leskov’s excellent 1879 novella Шерамур [Sheramur (i.e. cher amour, a distortion of the protagonist’s original nickname Chernomor, in Pushkin’s Ruslan i Lyudmila the dwarf sorcerer who steals Lyudmila)] I came across a reference to Моисей Мурин, which looked like “Moses Murin.” Upon googling, however, I discovered he’s known in English as Moses the Black, a fourth-century monk with a captivating life story (seriously, read that Wikipedia article). And мурин turns out to be an obsolete word meaning ‘Moor,’ from Church Slavic муринъ ‘αἰθίοψ,’ according to Vasmer borrowed from OHG môr < Latin maurus. An interesting word, applied to an interesting character, a sort of “holy fool” who is somehow involved in a student disturbance, flees Russia, and winds up in Paris living on the streets. The narrator takes an interest in him and tries to help him, but all his schemes fall through thanks to Cheramur’s stubbornness and prickliness (he walks out on one aristocratic lady who’s trying to help because she offers him Trollope’s comic novel Is He Popenjoy? to read). Then he’s saved by the Balkan conflict of 1876-77! For once Leskov manages to rein in his discursiveness and produce a compulsively readable narrative.

The Language of Wool.

I’m reading Leskov’s «Некрещеный поп» (The Unbaptized Priest, translated by James Y. Muckle as “The Priest Who Was Never Baptized”), which uses a great many dialectal and Ukrainian words, and one of them is the extremely interesting волна ‘lamb’s wool.’ One point that struck me is the uncertainty as to stress; Dahl, and following him Vasmer, give initial stress, vólna, and so does my 1908 11th edition of Makaroff’s Russian-French dictionary, but both my Словарь ударений [Dictionary of stresses] (1984) and my three-volume Russian-English dictionary (1997) give it with final stress (volná). The Wiktionary entry gives initial stress (вóлна, вóлны)… but the audio file has end stress! Clearly it historically has initial stress, but being a dialectal word and probably obsolete to boot, my guess is that it’s been assimilated to the far more common end-stressed волна ‘wave.’

It’s the etymology that’s worth noting, however; it’s a basic Indo-European word, given by Wiktionary as *h₂wĺ̥h₁neh₂ and widespread in the major branches: Hittite ḫulanaš, Old Armenian gełmn, Ancient Greek λῆνος, Latin lāna, and many descendants in Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, and Indo-Iranian. Slavic vьlna survives as the basic word for ‘wool’ in all branches but Russian, where for some reason it’s been replaced by шерсть (and here one feels the lack of a Russian equivalent of the OED). One of the Germanic descendants is, of course, English wool, so I looked that up in the AHD… and was astonished to find for an etymology only “[Middle English wolle, from Old English wull.]” Surely they didn’t dispute the Indo-European origin of that word? I checked the Indo-European Roots Appendix and found that there was nothing corresponding to *h₂wĺ̥h₁neh₂. I looked up words like vellus (“[Latin, wool.]”) and lanugo (“[Middle English, pith, from Latin lānūgō, down, from lāna, wool.]”); there was no indication that they were in any way related. The whole Indo-European cluster appears to have been inadvertently ignored and omitted; you’d think by the fifth edition they might have noticed!

An interesting factor in the Leskov story is that the brutal Dukach, disliked by everyone in the village and therefore unable to find godparents for his newborn son there, tells the equally disliked Kerasivna (the villagers think she’s a witch) to take him to a nearby village to have him baptized, adding that she should make sure the priest there doesn’t spoil the boy by naming him Ivan or Nikola. She says of course she won’t allow a Christian boy to be called by a “Moscow name” like Nikola, and Dukach agrees: “Никола самый москаль.” He winds up being called Savva. I hadn’t realized there was such a sharp geographical division of acceptable names (at least in the late 1820s, when this is supposed to have occurred).

At the Edge of the World.

I recently read Nikolai Leskov’s 1875-76 novella На краю света [At the edge of the world], a tale told by an elderly archbishop (based on Nil) about how, many years ago in Siberia, his heathen guide had saved him during a snowstorm, teaching him a lesson about tolerance; one of the memorable figures in it is the priest Kiriak, who was once renowned for converting the heathen but by the time the narrator arrived was refusing to do so any more. They have a discussion in chapter 4 in which the narrator is alternately charmed and irritated by his stubborn interlocutor, and finally asks him to teach him the local language (which he, unlike the other priests, has taken the trouble to learn):

Clearly and quickly he revealed to me all the secrets of comprehending that speech, so impoverished and laconic that it can barely be called a language. In any case it is no more than a language of animal life, and not of intellectual life, and mastering it is very hard: the turns of speech, short and aperiodic, make it extremely difficult to translate into it any text composed according to the rules of a developed language with complex periods and subordinate clauses; poetic and figurative expressions can’t be translated into it at all, and the concepts conveyed by them would remain inaccessible to this poor people. How can you tell them the sense of the words “Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” [Matthew 10:16] when they have never seen serpents or doves and cannot even imagine them. They can’t match the words martyr or baptizer or forerunner [John the Baptist is called John the Forerunner in Russian], and if you translate Most Holy Virgin into their words as shochmo Abya, it comes out not as our Mother of God but as some kind of shamanic female divinity — in short, a goddess. It’s even harder to talk about the service of the precious blood or other mysteries of the faith, and to construct for them some sort of theological system or just to say a word about a virgin giving birth without a husband — there’s no point even thinking about it: in the best case they won’t understand a thing, and they may even guffaw right in your face.

Толково и быстро открыл он мне все таинства, как постичь эту молвь, такую бедную и немногословную, что ее едва ли можно и языком назвать. Во всяком разе это не более как язык жизни животной, а не жизни умственной; а между тем усвоить его очень трудно: обороты речи, краткие и непериодические, делают крайне затруднительным переводы на эту молвь всякого текста, изложенного по правилам языка выработанного, со сложными периодами и подчиненными предложениями; а выражения поэтические и фигуральные на него вовсе не переводимы, да и понятия, ими выражаемые, остались бы для этого бедного люда недоступны. Как рассказать им смысл слов: «Будьте хитры, как змии, и незлобивы, как голуби», когда они и ни змеи и ни голубя никогда не видали и даже представить их себе не могут. Нельзя им подобрать слов: ни мученик, ни креститель, ни предтеча, а пресвятую деву если перевести по-ихнему словами шочмо Абя, то выйдет не наша богородица, а какое-то шаманское божество женского пола,— короче сказать — богиня. Про заслуги же святой крови или про другие тайны веры еще труднее говорить, а строить им какую-нибудь богословскую систему или просто слово молвить о рождении без мужа, от девы,— и думать нечего: они или ничего не поймут, и это самое лучшее, а то, пожалуй, еще прямо в глаза расхохочутся.

(I haven’t tried to render the Church Slavonic tinge to his narration, like the archaic word молвь.) I imagine he got the shochmo Abya phrase from Nikolay Ilminsky‘s article Практические замечания о переводах и сочинениях на инородческих языках [Practical remarks on translations and compositions in the languages of national minorities] (1871; available at Google Books), where on p. 182 the same phrase is cited (as Cheremiss, i.e. Mari) with the same explanation. (Ilminsky was an interesting guy who thought “that mother tongue instruction was the key factor in ensuring that nominally orthodox believers could become more committed to these beliefs,” which is the view Leskov has his priest convey.)
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On Translating Soboryane.

I’ve started reading Leskov’s 1872 novel Соборяне [The Cathedral Folk], and am enjoying it tremendously — he’s great at creating memorable characters and telling good stories about them. But he also loves using odd bits of language, often dialectal, which means the reading is slow, since I’m constantly looking things up. Well, one of the odd words was взвошу, and while googling it I came across Jack Matlock’s 2013 dissertation, Leskov into English: On Translating Soboryane (Church Folks) (from that link you can download the pdf), which discusses this passage and many others, comparing existing translations and providing his own commentary — what a wonderful gift from the internet! Here’s his passage on взвошу (pp. 193-4):

19 (28) взвошу: Dal’ defines звошить as meaning to lift something, as with a lever, or, dialectically, to anger someone. Neither meaning fits here, and a note to the 1957 Russian edition of the text says simply “здесь: наказать.” It therefore is not clear whether this is an aberrant use of the word by Leskov or a rare or dialectical meaning. In all its meanings the word is unusual and does not appear in most dictionaries. The translator should, therefore, seek something less ordinary than “punish” to translate it.

Hapgood comes up with “pay off,” which is not bad, for a change. Mongault used “frotter les côtes,” and Luther “abrechnen.” I wish I could find something more exotic, but at this writing I have nothing better to suggest than “settle scores with.”

A great resource, which I discovered at the perfect time.

The Bodiless Masquerade.

As promised, I am reading Leskov’s Воительница [The Battle-Axe], and I found this description of the protagonist interesting and amusing enough to share:

Furthermore, Domna Platonovna’s manner was refined. Not for anything in the world would she say in a drawing room, as others do, “I’ve been to the public bathhouse”; instead she would express herself thus: “I had, sir, the pleasure yesterday of attending the bodiless masquerade.” About a pregnant woman she would never blurt out, like others, that she was pregnant; she would say “She is in her nuptial interest.”

In general she was a lady with manners and she knew how to give tone with her education where it was needed. But even so, truth to tell, Domna Platonovna never acted superior, and she was what is called a patriot. The narrowness of her political horizon meant that her patriotism itself was of the narrowest sort; she considered herself bound to praise the Oryol province to everyone, and she received cordially everyone “from her place” and treated them kindly in every way.

К тому же и обращение у Домны Платоновны было тонкое. Ни за что, бывало, она в гостиной не скажет, как другие, что «была, дескать, я во всенародной бане», а выразится, что «имела я, сударь, счастие вчера быть в бестелесном маскараде»; о беременной женщине ни за что не брякнет, как другие, что она, дескать, беременна, а скажет: «она в своем марьяжном интересе», и тому подобное.

Вообще была дама с обращением и, где следовало, умела задать тону своей образованностью. Но, при всем этом, надо правду сказать, Домна Платоновна никогда не заносилась и была, что называется, своему отечеству патриотка. По узости политического горизонта Домны Платоновны и самый патриотизм ее был самый узкий, то есть она считала себя обязанною хвалить всем Орловскую губернию и всячески привечать и обласкивать каждого человека «из своего места».

The last bit is an example of the kind of local patriotism which became so notorious in WWI; as General Yanushkevich said, “A Tambov peasant is willing to defend the province of Tambov, but a war for Poland, in his opinion, is foreign and useless.”

As for the fancy diction, the phrase “bodiless masquerade” is funny in itself, but it seems маскарад ‘masquerade’ was an old humorous euphemism for ‘bathhouse’ — does anybody know the history of that?

Addendum. Having read a bit farther, I see that the beginning of the next chapter is equally LH-worthy:

My acquaintance with Domna Platonovna began for a trivial reason. I was renting a room from a colonel’s wife who spoke six European languages, not counting Polish, which she mixed into all the others. Domna Platonovna knew a frightful number of such colonel’s wives in Petersburg and for almost all of them carried out a wide variety of little tasks: affairs of the heart, of the pocket, and combined pocket-heart and heart-pocket. My colonel’s wife was truly an educated woman; she knew the world, behaved in the most proper way, knew how to make it appear that she valued in people their straightforward human worth, read a great deal, went into unfeigned raptures over poetry, and loved to declaim from Malczewski‘s Maria:
Bo na tym świecie, śmierć wszystko zmiecie,
Robak się lęgnie i w bujnym kwiecie.
[For in this world death destroys everything;
the worm hides in the luxuriant flower.]

Мое знакомство с Домной Платоновной началось по пустому поводу. Жил я как-то на квартире у одной полковницы, которая говорила на шести европейских языках, не считая польского, на который она сбивалась со всякого. Домна Платоновна знала ужасно много таких полковниц в Петербурге и почти для всех их обделывала самые разнообразные делишки: сердечные, карманные и совокупно карманно-сердечные и сердечно-карманные. Моя полковница была, впрочем, действительно дама образованная, знала свет, держала себя как нельзя приличнее, умела представить, что уважает в людях их прямые человеческие достоинства, много читала, приходила в неподдельный восторг от поэтов и любила декламировать из «Марии» Мальчевского

I’m not sure I’ve correctly understood “на который она сбивалась со всякого,” and I don’t know why the name of Malczewski’s poem is given in some sources as “Maria” and in others as “Marya.” (I’ve corrected the spelling of the Polish from here.) Of course one wonders which are the six languages (apart from Polish); French and German obviously, and I suppose English and Italian, but what are the other two? Hungarian, Spanish, Dutch, Finnish? What might a well-educated and cosmopolitan colonel’s wife have known in the 1860s?

Update. I found the story boring after a while and gave up on it; I’ve moved on to Dostoevsky’s Gambler, which grabbed me right away.

Crime and Punishment.

I finished Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) a few days ago, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. It’s the first of Dostoevsky’s Late Great Novels I’ve read in Russian, and it would be ridiculous to try to summarize it or make general points about it after all the commentary that’s already piled up. I will say that I had trouble with the melodramatic aspects (the drunken father, the daughter forced into prostitution, the mother who goes mad and drags her little children out into the street to dance and sing); I realize it’s something that comes with the author, as with Dickens (who Dostoevsky loved), and I just have to put up with it, but I can’t help rolling my eyes and thinking of Wilde’s “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” I’m not crazy about organ music either, but if the composer is great enough (Bach) or the performer brilliant enough (Larry Young) I can get past my first reaction. But I’d trade half the wallowing in the misery of the Marmeladovs for another chapter with Porfiry Petrovich.

Also, a word about Svidrigailov. Erik McDonald recently posted links to a longish interview with Michael Katz and Nicholas Pasternak Slater, both of whom translated the novel and both of whom (in Part 2) picked Svidrigailov as the most misunderstood character. I can’t quarrel with Katz’s “he remains something of a mystery,” but I don’t like NPS’s more extended response:

On one reading, he is so enigmatic as almost to make no sense – is he fundamentally good (clearly not), or fundamentally evil (also not), and how do the good and bad sides in his character coexist? On the bad side, he may (or may not) have caused his wife’s death, he is a self-confessed libertine, he tries (or threatens) to rape Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia, and he plans to marry a child for his sexual gratification. Yet he performs many good actions, including saving Katerina Ivanovna’s orphan children and giving Dunia a large sum of money. Perhaps the last of his moral actions is to commit suicide. I think his character actually hangs together quite well: though repugnant, he is an intelligent man with a philosophical bent and humane instincts of empathy and kindness, who is saddled with sexual appetites that he can barely control. This is a paradox we meet often enough in real life (in this day and age, might he have been a charity worker in a third-world disaster area?). Dostoevsky, of course, must condemn him because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion: he is an amoral freethinker.

Talk about false equivalence! His “good actions” boil down to giving lots of money away; in the first place, that’s the easiest way for bad people to try to salvage their reputations (you can read about such lavishness in the papers every day), and in the second place, he mostly gives it to women he wants to seduce, which makes it not a good action at all. He’s a thoroughly bad man, which is why Dostoevsky condemns him — not “because none of his humane motivations come from God or religion.” He doesn’t have humane motivations, for Pete’s sake.
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The Crocodile and the Liars.

After reading a novella by Leskov and dipping into the first version of War and Peace (see this post), I turned to a little-known piece by Dostoevsky, Крокодил [The Crocodile], and enjoyed it thoroughly. I mean, I can see why it’s little-known; it’s not only unfinished but very silly, a throwback to his early days writing feuilletons for the newspapers. It’s about a man who is dragged by his wife to see a crocodile on display in the St. Petersburg Arcade and winds up inside, quite content and expecting to become famous — he wants his wife to start having salons in their apartment and have him wheeled in to give lectures. When I described the plot to my wife, she said “That doesn’t sound like Dostoevsky!” It doesn’t, and yet it is, and it’s a lot of fun. Here’s a passage of philological interest, from the swallowed man’s imaginings of his future salon lectures:

Даже этимология согласна со мною, ибо самое название крокодил означает прожорливость. Крокодил, Crocodillo, — есть слово, очевидно, итальянское, современное, может быть, древним фараонам египетским и, очевидно, происходящее от французского корня: croquer, что означает съесть, скушать и вообще употребить в пищу.

Even etymology supports me, for the very word crocodile means voracity. Crocodile — crocodillo — is evidently an Italian word, dating perhaps from the Egyptian Pharaohs, and evidently derived from the French verb croquer, which means to eat, to devour, in general to absorb nourishment.

(The translation is Garnett’s, from the link above.)

After that, I turned to Pisemsky’s Русские лгуны [Russian liars], a series of eight stories published, like the Dostoevsky, in 1865. The first seven are basically humorous anecdotes; the eighth is longer and more serious: Красавец [The handsome man], in which Marya Nikolaevna, an official’s wife, falls in love with the worthless but handsome Imshin and follows him into exile when he is arrested for murdering a 14-year-old girl. The striking thing about it to me was the similarity of the ending to that of Leskov’s Леди Макбет Мценского уезда [Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District] — both Katerina Izmailova and Marya Nikolaevna accompany the men they passionately love on the long journey to Siberia, though the former is a murderess and in shackles and the latter only an adulteress there by choice. I wonder if both Leskov and Pisemsky were inspired by the famous example of the Decembrists’ wives?

Next I move on to 1866 and Crime and Punishment. Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering what my wife and I are reading at bedtime these days, it’s Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; we’re about three-quarters of the way through.

Tolstoy’s 1805.

Having finished Doctor Zhivago (see this post), I have returned to the 19th century, first Leskov’s famous 1865 Леди Макбет Мценского уезда (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District — it gets excessively melodramatic in the middle, but the end is brilliant) and now Tolstoy’s 1805, the first version of War and Peace, published in the Jan.-Feb. 1865 and Feb.-April 1866 issues of Русский вестник (The Russian Messenger; you can read the beginning yourself at p. 48 of the Google Books scan). Had I but world enough and time, I’d go through the whole thing and compare it to the final version, but I’m restricting myself to the first few chapters, and the results are what you’d expect — some passages were cut, others added, and it’s quite interesting to see the changes. One addition is the passage at the very end of ch. 2 in which Anna Pavlovna keeps an anxious watch on Pierre; this means that this early appearance of the word интеллигенция [intelligentsia] can’t be backdated from 1869: “тут собрана вся интеллигенция Петербурга” [the whole intelligentsia of Petersburg was gathered here]. (The earliest occurrences in the Национальный корпус русского языка are from Afanasy Fet‘s 1863 Из деревни [From the village], e.g. “При старом порядке город был единственною целию всякой интеллигенции, а деревня не более как гнусным средством” [Under the old order, the city was the only goal of every intelligentsia, and the village was no more than a vile means].)

But what particularly struck me was this passage from ch. 1; Anna Pavlovna is chaffing Prince Vasily on being a bad father, and he responds:

— Je suis votre вѣрный рабъ, et à vous seule je puis l’аvouer. Мои дѣти — сe sont les entraves de mon eхistence. Это мой крестъ. Я такъ себѣ объясняю. Que voulez vous? — Онъ пoмолчалъ, выражая жестомъ свою пoкорность жестокой судьбѣ. — Да, ежелu бы можно было по проuзволу имѣть и неимѣть ихъ… Я увѣренъ, что въ нашъ вѣкъ будетъ сдѣлано это изобрѣтеніе.

“I am your faithful slave and to you alone I can confess it: my children are the bane of my existence. It is my cross. That is how I explain it to myself. Que voulez vous?” He fell silent, expressing his resignation to cruel fate by a gesture. “Yes, if it were possible arbitrarily to have or not have them… I’m sure that will be invented in our century.”

The last part, from Онъ пoмолчалъ [He fell silent] on, is deleted from the later text, and one can see why. The suggestion makes Anna Pavlovna nervous, and I’m sure it made the God-fearing public of the 1860s equally nervous — I’m actually surprised the censors let it through the first time.

By the way, I am now officially retired as a copyeditor (my Social Security deposits have begun arriving), so I’ll have lots more time to gobble up books!