As I wrote here, I’ve been reading Tynyanov’s Смерть Вазир-Мухтара [Smert’ Vazir-mukhtara], “The death of the vazir-mukhtar [ambassador plenipotentiary],” and now that I’ve finished it, I’m trying to figure out why I didn’t like it more than I did. Tynyanov is a fine writer (as well as a brilliant critic), and I certainly enjoyed his novella Podporuchik Kizhe (“Lieutenant Kije”), but I found the novel something of a slog. It wasn’t just that the characters were uniformly unsympathetic, and it certainly wasn’t a failure to paint an adequate background for the protagonist Griboyedov‘s doings—in fact, it was the well-drawn picture of Qajar Iran and its courtly intrigues that kept me going toward the end. No, I think Chukovsky hit the nail on the head in his diary entry for March 17, 1926, discussing the excerpts Tynyanov read him: “They were well written—too well written. He overdoes the archaic style. There isn’t a line left unstylized. The result is overly concentrated, lacking in inner truth, smacking of ‘literature.'” [Отрывки хорошо написаны — но чересчур хорошо. Слишком густо дан старинный стиль. Нет ни одной не стилизованной строки. Получаются одни эссенции, то есть внутренняя ложь, литературщина.] And as I was trying to finish last week’s New Yorker (the new one has already come), I found that James Wood, in his review essay on David Mitchell, has things to say that are equally relevant to Tynyanov:

Mitchell is ancestral in another respect, too. He may be self-conscious, but he is not knowing, in the familiar, fatal, contemporary way; his naturalness as a storyteller has to do not only with his vitality but also with a kind of warmth, a charming earnestness. This is why he can so speedily get a fiction up and running, involve the reader in an invented world. One would be hard pressed to separate the quality of his sentences from the quality of the human presence.[…]

Despite the novel’s liveliness and deep immersion in the foreignness of its world, there is something a bit mystifying about its distance from contemporary life, something a little contrived in its brilliant autonomy. The publisher promises “a bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history,” and this is not wrong, except that choosing rarely visited points in history for novelization seems to lack inner necessity. Mitchell’s new novel has already been likened to Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace” because he felt compelled to examine and dramatize a great national crisis, and it is that compulsion that makes “War and Peace” a novel of the eighteen-sixties, and not merely “a novel of 1812.”

It is precisely War and Peace that kept occurring to me as a point of comparison as I read Tynyanov, who sometimes seems to be deliberately playing off its methods. It is, of course, unfair to use Tolstoy as a stick to beat another novelist with, but I think it’s reasonable to point out the difference between Tolstoy’s compulsion (the mot juste, as one expects from Wood) and Tynyanov’s… desire to illustrate his critical theories? I’m frankly not sure what made him want to write historical novels (this was his second), but one doesn’t get the sense that he had a burning need to tell us this particular story. And there is certainly none of the warmth and “charming earnestness” Wood sees in Mitchell; this is even more unfair, of course, but let’s face it, “the quality of the human presence” is something most of us look for in a piece of writing, and here it’s so dry and arm’s-length it doesn’t invite us in or lure us onward.

I think the main point Tynyanov wanted to emphasize is the ways in which a title, and the role that goes with it, can take over a life (and cause a death). Here are a few salient quotes involving the Persian phrase vazir-mukhtar ‘ambassador plenipotentiary,’ which provides both the book and its hero with a title:

Abu’l-Kasim-Khan came up to him in a gold-embroidered robe and bowed low:
“Bon voyage, votre Excellence, notre cher et estimé Vazir-Mouchtar.”
Griboedov sat in the coach.
Thus he became the Vazir-Mukhtar.

[Абуль-Касим-хан подошел к нему в шитом золотом халате и низко склонился:

– Bon voyage, votre Excellence, notre cher et estimé Vazir-Mouchtar.
Грибоедов сел в карету.
Так стал он – Вазир-Мухтаром.]

He stopped understanding the rank of ambassador plenipotentiary.
The Persian word Vazir-Mukhtar seemed to him more understandable.
[Он переставал понимать звание: полномочный министр.
Персиянское слово Вазир-Мухтар казалось ему понятнее.]

And it was true that the Vazir-Mukhtar saw himself in mirrors. But he tried not to look for long. The tenfold, brightly colored Vazir-Mukhtar did not bring any special pleasure to Alexander Griboyedov.
[И правда, Вазир-Мухтар видел себя в зеркалах. Но он старался не смотреть долго. Удесятеренный, расцвеченный Вазир-Мухтар не приносил особого удовольствия Александру Грибоедову.]

After his death (which is slipped in casually), it is repeated several times that “the Vazir-Mukhtar continued to exist” [Вазир-Мухтар продолжал существовать]. When a false story of his death, putting all the blame on him, is told to and accepted by the Russian court:

The Vazir-Mukhtar moved no more.
He did not exist either now or earlier.
[Вазир-Мухтар более не шевелился.
Он не существовал ни теперь, ни ранее.

And in the final chapter, when another Russian is named ambassador to the Qajar court: “The Vazir-Mukhtar was now another” [Вазир-Мухтар был ныне другой]. In a way, he’s making the same point he did with Lieutenant Kije, but the novella was a lot shorter, and funnier.

This is totally irrelevant, but I can’t resist quoting a paragraph from David Mitchell’s new novel that Wood also couldn’t resist quoting; it shows why I like Mitchell so much, and why I’m looking forward to reading more of him:

“On Mr Grote’s last trip home,” obliges Ouwehand, “he wooed a promising young heiress at her town house in Roomolenstraat who told him how her heirless, ailing papa yearned to see his dairy farm in the hands of a gentleman son-in-law, yet everywhere, she lamented, were thieving rascals posing as eligible bachelors. Mr Grote agreed that the Sea of Courtship seethes with sharks and spoke of the prejudice endured by the young colonial parvenu, as if the annual fortunes yielded by his plantations in Sumatra were less worthy than old monies. The turtledoves were wedded within a week. The day after their nuptials, the taverner presented the bill and each says to the other, ‘Settle the account, my heart’s music.’ But to their genuine horror, neither could, for bride and groom alike had spent their last beans on wooing the other! Mr Grote’s Sumatran plantations evaporated; the Roomolenstraat house reverted to a co-conspirator’s stage prop; the ailing father-in-law turned out to be a beer porter in rude health, not heirless but hairless.”

Addendum. There’s a new Russian television serial based on the novel; you can watch it here. It’s in ten parts; I’ve watched the first (45 minutes) and enjoyed it greatly.

Update (Mar. 2021). My favorite critic of Russian literature, Gary Saul Morson, reviews two translations in the March 25, 2021 issue of the NYRB (most of the review is taken up with a lengthy discussion of Griboedov’s life and his play Woe from Wit; I quote the final section):

In 1927–1928 Yuri Tynyanov, arguably the greatest of the Russian Formalist critics and a significant fiction writer, published in serial form The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, a novel following Griboedov through the last eleven months of his life. By this point the Formalists had abandoned their early idea that authors have no relevance to a text, and recognized that sometimes an author’s biography (or legend) can become a “literary fact” in itself. They also became fascinated by “the literature of fact,” which sometimes referred to fiction that was as factually accurate as possible and occasionally consisted entirely of documentary material. Tynyanov’s novel relies on meticulous scholarship. It can almost be read as a straight biography of Griboedov, except at moments when the author fills in what obviously could not be documented, such as a character’s passing thoughts. “Literature differs from history,” Tynyanov explained, “not through ‘invention,’ but through a greater, more intimate understanding of people and events.”

The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar opens with “the crack of breaking bones” as the Decembrists, their revolt having failed, begin to flee over the bodies of their comrades. “The age itself was being tortured,” Tynyanov remarks; “it was ‘one big prison cell’ (as they said in Peter’s day).” Peter the Great died exactly a century before the revolt, and more than one reader has suggested that Tynyanov was inviting us to contemplate the prison cell of Soviet Russia a century later, when Tynyanov himself was writing. The suggestion is plausible because the novel’s narrator is always sly and often ironic. He takes special delight in describing the Russian obsession, bemoaned by Chatsky, with everything European. Wryly observing that Karl Robert Nesselrode, the man the tsar chose to direct foreign relations, was the “son of a Prussian father and Jewish mother…born on an English ship sailing to Lisbon,” he points out that this Russian minister spoke no Russian. When the emperor appears at a concert, Tynyanov explains, “there was…a call for the anthem to be repeated—the Russian national anthem, the one composed by a German for the English king.”

Tynyanov grows still more irreverent in his handling of Russian cultural tradition, which, especially in the Soviet period, always portrayed great writers as spotless heroes. Tynyanov’s Griboedov, by contrast, is complex and often less than admirable, as Griboedov himself is well aware. The high-minded speeches in his play come back to haunt him as the words of his conscience. Time and again, Tynyanov describes how Griboedov, in a determined quest for what he calls “profit,” connives to get official support for his plan to set up a Russian equivalent to the British East India Company. If it had been approved, the plan would not only have enriched him, but also made him a quasi monarch. He doesn’t seem bothered that thousands of people would have perished or been enslaved if his plan had succeeded.

In Russian literary mythology, Pushkin above all was irreproachable, but Tynyanov has Griboedov call him “the supreme…weathercock of poetry.” Tynyanov instead chooses as Griboedov’s best friend the usual embodiment of evil, Faddei Bulgarin, and then, despite Bulgarin’s constant help and devotion, Griboedov has an affair with Bulgarin’s wife. None of these blemishes, however, diminishes Griboedov’s genius as a satirist, integrity as a diplomat, courage in refusing to deliver up Yakub Mirza, or, when the mob invades the embassy, heroism in slaying a dozen crazed assailants. One senses that Griboedov’s untimely death deprived us of masterpieces even greater than Woe from Wit.

Much as Griboedov didn’t live to finish his life’s work, Susan Causey, the translator of The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, died in a road accident before she could polish or publish her work, and her husband, already gravely ill, died soon after. Their friends worked with their sons to recover the manuscript in the hope it could appear in print. The Slavicist Tim Johnson commissioned Vera Tsareva-Brauner, a lecturer at Cambridge, to edit it from the perspective of a native speaker. So edited, Causey’s version is not only the first complete rendition of the novel, but usually reads as if it were written in English. Another fine rendition of The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar, translated by Anna Kurkina Rush and Christopher Rush, will soon be published by Columbia University Press, with a splendid introduction by Angela Brintlinger and helpful supplementary material identifying people and allusions unfamiliar to the nonspecialist. A brilliant thinker and a splendid writer, Tynyanov deserves to be better known. With his works, at least, good translators will be able to convey, as Causey does, what makes his novel so important a contribution to historical fiction.

Tynyanov had an eye for the perfect story, like the one about how Pushkin, traveling through the Caucasus, encountered some Georgians leading an oxcart. When he asked what was in the cart, they answered, “Griboyed.” Pushkin reflected, “I know of nothing more enviable than the last years of his stormy life.” He married the woman he loved and “his death itself, overtaking him in the midst of courageous, unequal combat, had nothing terrible, nothing agonizing for Griboedov. It was instantaneous and beautiful.”

Causey’s translation is called The Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar, the Rush’s version the disarticulated The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar; I don’t know why Morson prefers the latter, which seems to me pointlessly confusing — vazir-mukhtar is a title, not a name, and at an earlier point in the essay Morson writes “When it came time for the shah to return [Griboedov’s] body to the Russians, it was so badly mutilated there was no telling which body parts belonged to the vazir-mukhtar.” At any rate, he clearly likes the novel better than I did, so I thought I’d provide another well-informed perspective.


  1. Bill Walderman says

    And I can’t resist repeating this perfect tetrameter:
    “the Sea of Courtship seethes with sharks”

  2. As the author of a (now out of print) translation of
    Горе от ума I’ve always been intrigued by this book, but could never get into it.
    It was listed by Harry Matthews in a PEN survey that asked writers what untranslated
    books they would most like to see translated.

  3. Odd, since it was translated (as Death and Diplomacy in Persia, by Alec Brown) back in 1938 and reprinted in 1975.

  4. I thought maybe I had misremembered, but here’s the link:
    Guess he didn’t know about the Brown version. I’ve seen it referred to but
    somehow it never clicked. Have you read it?

  5. No, I didn’t know about it either until I’d finished reading the novel and was looking around for further information.

  6. He’s not very sure of himself: “As far as I know, Tinyanov’s novel … has never been translated; if this is the case I would strongly recommend it for your list.” I guess he didn’t take the request very seriously.

  7. I also couldn’t get into this book… I read about 100 pages last winter and then set it aside. I think you’re right, languagehat, that there’s nothing inviting or alluring about it, at least in practice. I was expecting to love it — as Alan Shaw says, it sounds intriguing — but everything about it felt flat.

  8. Mitchell’s little anecdote is an exact duplicate of an episode in Moll Flanders, right down to spending their last bean on wooing each other, and (if I remember rightly) the bit about paying the hotel bill.

  9. Interesting! If anyone can link to the Defoe version, I’d appreciate it; I’m not about to read the whole book any time soon.

  10. Here is where it starts to unravel. (To be fair, the other side of the deceit was in fact by his sister.)

  11. In that excerpt, Moll sounds more candid than she actually was: she did, in fact, originate the false rumors of her own wealth, but so subtly that no one suspected it; and was careful to never seem to confirm them.

  12. Back to the main subject, for an example of someone who really loves ”Смерть Вазир-Мухтара”, check out whoever wrote its TV Tropes page and all the references on related pages.

  13. It seems odd to see the words wazir and mukhtar linked. Jordanian wazeers are cabinet-level advisors to the King. Muchtars are the ones who remember all the family relationships. If you need to prove who you are, you don’t have a birth certificate, you get a letter from your mukhtar. Mayors are elected, mukhtars inherit the position by reason of being related to everyone whose births they remember. Wazirs are appointed and change chairs quite frequently, sometimes as often as once a year.

  14. There is little or no relation between official titles in modern Jordan and Qajar Iran.

  15. And Farsi is not Arabic is not Russian. But still, it’s rather startling to see these familiar Arabic words written in Russian practically unchanged (although “wazir” has been used enough in English fiction).

  16. I’ve added a review of two new translations in the Update.

  17. I don’t know why Morson prefers the latter, which seems to me pointlessly confusing — vazir-mukhtar is a title, not a name,

    Exactly this. I think the translator meant that in Russian it is used as a name.

    But well, this book was in my room, I mean, since I was born. I just realized for the first time that I know both words (Vazir and mukhtar), but of course when I first read the title in 3 I did not. Then, later of course I knew that it was a title, still before I learned what the words mean, and I thought: “a Persian title used by Russians as a name for a Russian and not as a title”.
    Now, being an adult I can’t be sure that it is how Tynyanov actually used it. But at least he capitalizes it.

    There must be some fine line where a word loses the article when moving from “title” to a person’s “name”. A fine line where it acquires capitalization in Russian two.
    I have no idea how well these two lines match.

  18. As the author of a (now out of print) translation of Горе от ума

    Of a book where every second line became a Russian proverb, that is. Hats off

  19. John Cowan says

    There is a similar line between the translation of אָדָם in Genesis as ‘the man’ and as ‘Adam’, which different translations cross at different points.

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