Sollogub and Sologub, the Remix.

Back in 2008 I wrote about how Fyodor Teternikov changed his name to the aristocratic Sollogub when he became a writer, “but one of the ls was removed in an attempt (unavailing, as it turned out) to avoid confusion with Count Vladimir Sollogub.” Now that I’m reading Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball, translated for NYR Books by Jenny McPhee, I’ve run across a glaring example of such confusion. On p. 28 we find:

“He is the devil,” said Madame Budyonny, wife of Marshal Budyonny, but her meaning of the word devil was not the same as Sollogub’s, the author of Wayward Devil, nor was it that of Ilyusha in The Brothers Karamozov.

Not to cavil, but there are four errors in this single sentence. Karamozov for Karamazov is presumably a typo, but whether it went wrong in the English version or already in the Italian is anybody’s guess (though of course a copyeditor should have caught it in either case). Ilyusha for Ivan Alyosha is probably Malaparte’s mental slip (he never finished the book, and some characters occur with more than one name) a foolish error in the translation [see Biscia’s comment quoting the Italian original] — the only Ilyusha in Karamazov is the little boy who bit Alyosha’s finger and whose funeral ends the book. Wayward Devil for The Petty Demon (the standard English rendering of «Мелкий бес») is bizarre, and I can only guess it’s an artifact of translation from Italian, where the title is Il demone meschino. (Incidentally, the Italian Wikipedia article on Sologub is an absurdly brief stub.) Finally, of course, the author’s name is spelled Sollogub rather than Sologub; to add insult to injury, the footnote reads:

Sollogub’s: Count Vladimir Alexandrovich Sollogub (1813–1882) was a minor Russian writer of novellas and plays who hosted a well-known literary and musical salon in St. Petersburg.

This is on a par with the errors in annotation I complained about here (Karakhan confused with Kamenev, Rostov the Great with Rostov-na-Donu), and I’d dearly love to know who to blame for it. (I’m ignoring the pointless “minor” slur.) Does anyone have access to Ballo al Kremlino? Apart from that, however, I’m greatly enjoying the book — Malaparte is a close observer and a pleasingly cynical writer.

Unrelated, but this Laudator Temporis Acti post has a joke by Aristophanes that would have been hilarious to his original audience, and links to a typically energetic and offensive Fugs song. Also, I’ll be getting my second vaccination (Moderna, if you’re curious) in a couple of hours; I’m hoping I won’t be as knocked out as some people are (*knock wood*), but if I am, there might not be a post tomorrow. You will, I am sure, consider that an acceptable tradeoff for my not getting Covid.


  1. I forgot to mention that Lev Karakhan, misidentified in the Bunin annotations, is a major character in Malaparte (“Karakhan was the handsomest man in the Soviet Union and perhaps, according to Frau Dirksen, the German ambassador’s wife, the best-looking man in Europe”).

  2. All the best with the vaccine. My second Pfizer is Saturday, and I hope to still be up for participating in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

  3. David Marjanović says

    second vaccination


  4. J.W. Brewer says

    I got my second (Pfizer) shot yesterday and am definitely feeling “out of it” today both as to vague achiness/lassitude of body and fogginess of mind. But not so out of it that I can’t peruse and post on languagehat!

  5. The original seems to be: “nel senso che Sollogub, l’autore del Diavolo meschino, dà alla parola diavolo, e neppure in quello che gli dà Aliosha, nei Fratelli Karamazov […].”

    Happy Modernization!

  6. The original seems to be: “nel senso che Sollogub, l’autore del Diavolo meschino, dà alla parola diavolo, e neppure in quello che gli dà Aliosha, nei Fratelli Karamazov […].”

    Thanks (and for the well-wishing). Looks like only the extra -l- is carried over from Italian (and frankly, it’s the easiest of errors to make — what a stupid pseudonym!); the others are all on McPhee (or her copyeditor, if there was one). How do you turn Aliosha into Ilyusha??

  7. (Feeling OK so far, but it’s only been an hour…)

  8. The Hero of Hattic Labor medals are flying off the shelves!

  9. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying The Kremlin Ball, Languagehat!

    Fingers crossed that Moderna2 doesn’t hit you too hard.

  10. I never know what to think of Malaparte – he is never boring, but he likes bizarre events and dramatic effects, so I am never sure about how factually correct his narrations are (I have read the “Coup d’État” and “La Pelle”, both in German translation).

  11. Oh, I’m sure lots of the facts are dubious at best, but I don’t care — his books are irresistible (though sometimes very grim).

  12. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Who knows what Malaparte wrote? After all, he wrote unpublished sketches. Clearly editors feel free to adjust his transliterations however they see fit.

    I believe the first edition is Vallecchi 1971, edited by Enrico Falqui. That’s entitled Il ballo al Cremlino and reads:

    È il diavolo — diceva di Karakan madame Budjonnaja, la moglie del maresciallo Budjonnyj: ma non lo diceva nel senso che Sologub, l’autore del Demone meschino, dà alla parola diavolo, e neppure in quello che gli da Alyoška, nei Fratelli Karamazov, ma lo diceva nel senso byroniano di Puškin, o in quello popolare di certi racconti pietroburghesi di Gogol.

    The more recent edition is Adelphi 2012, edited by Raffaella Rodondi. It’s entitled Il ballo al Kremlino and seems to have the transliterations reported by Biscia above, though I don’t have access to a copy of the volume itself and can only find second-hand quotations online.

    The first edition seems to do best by Hattic standards, but I’m unqualified to judge how much of an error the k in Алёша is.

    P.S. Congratulations on completing your vaccinations! Hurrah!

  13. Thanks, and thanks!

  14. how much of an error the k in Алёша is

    It’s not an error, but an unnecessary diminutive as if Alyosha (already a familiar form) was a personal friend.

    racconti pietroburghesi

    Well, this is a near miss, should be racconti dikankiesi

    What should we exclaim on taking a vaccine? Prosit is my choice.

  15. Ow?

  16. Dmitry Pruss says

    Антитело – Гуляй смело?

  17. Shouldn’t it have been Ivan, not Alyosha? Aren’t all demons wayward by definition?

    What a great word is meschino, an Arabic loan traceable (allegedly) via Aramaic down to Akkadian. (Cf. also mezquino and mesquinho).

  18. 完肺!

  19. Shouldn’t it have been Ivan, not Alyosha?

    That was my thought as well.

  20. My first Russian vector vaccine shot presented me with a night of very pleasant (you know what I mean) fever. It would be really nice to have something like this at home, to have a fever each time you want it.

  21. 完肺!

    That was intended by analogy with—and as an homonym of—乾杯 kanpai! ‘cheers!” and is composed of 完 kan, short for 完璧 kanpeki ‘perfect’, and 肺 hai ‘lung’, ie ‘perfect lungs!’

  22. If Madame Budyonny said “diavolo” in Italian and “devil” in English then in Russian should she not say “Дьявол” rather than “бес”? Sologub used the latter word in the title of his work; did he use the other within its text? Which word did Dostoevsky’s character use?

    (just for reference).

  24. I added the Sologub novel.

  25. a night of very pleasant (you know what I mean) fever. It would be really nice to have something like this at home, to have a fever each time you want it.

    That’s a really nice sentiment, especially because it sounds like it came from some early modern novel. I wouldn’t mind reading the rest of the novel, if it weren’t imaginary.

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    since no one else is answering, the short answer is that the word is “chert”. Here is a bit more about the dream scene where he appears to Ivan:

    Это был какой-то господин или, лучше сказать, известного сорта русский джентльмен, лет уже не молодых, «qui faisait la cinquantaine», как говорят французы…

    This was a sort of [person you would call] Mister [Russian : gospodin] or rather a well-known type of Russian “gentleman”, no longer young, qui faisait la cinquantaine, as the French say….

    The author goes on to describe his physical aspect and dress (fine but old and no longer fashionable) and to give an impression of a lonely gentleman without ties paying a social call to another gentleman with whom he had long been acquainted. Ivan and the gentleman recognise one another and are “na ty”. The word for devil in this segment is chert and appears first in this line spoken by the “gentleman”

    И наконец, если доказан черт, то еще неизвестно, доказан ли бог?
    And in the end, if the devil is proved/demonstrated [to exist], then it is [is it] still unclear that God is proved/demonstrated [to exist].[?]

  27. Thanks PP; so it seem Budyonny’s comment can’t make sense in Russian, which may be a character error by Budyonny or an authorial error by Malaparte; either of which might have added to McPhee’s difficulties.

    A similar authorial metalanguage fail previously on LH.

  28. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    Not knowing Russian, I don’t see the meta-language fail. On the contrary.

    Suppose Russian distinguishes between petty devils, who go by the Slavic names of чёрт (as in Dostoevsky) or бес (as in Sologub), and grander Byronic devils, who warrant the Greek treatment of демон (as in Pushkin) or дьявол (as in Gogol).

    Italian doesn’t. There may be slight differences between diavolo, demonio and demone, but there’s no split along those lines. Then, if you need the distinction between the two kinds of devil, you need to explain it separately. Which is what Malaparte does, albeit pretentiously by citation, and then with the slip of naming the wrong brother Karamazov (whereas I reckon he has cover for Gogol because at least The Portrait comes in a Petersburg version too).

    Should he have specified that Budyonnaya used not just a particular meaning of the word devil, but a particular Russian word for devil which more precisely conveys that meaning? That would seem unnecessarily pedantic to me, even if the split between Slavic and Greek devils in Russian were indeed watertight. Which it may not even be (I wouldn’t know).

  29. I agree — the fact that Malaparte wasn’t writing in Russian and may not even have known Russian (at least there’s no indication of it in his Wikipedia article) means the specific Russian words are not relevant.

  30. Re: Madame Budyonny

    A few months after the death of his wife, a new mistress turned up in Budyonny’s home – an opera singer (at that time a student of the Conservatory), Olga Mikhailova, a beautiful, elegant young woman who knew very well what she wanted from her life. She wanted to become a famous actress, to shine and conquer all around her. She reasonably decided that a famous husband was exactly what she needed, and very soon she became a prima at the Bolshoi Theatre. But this was not Budyonny’s dream of a family life: he wanted a cozy, friendly home, with quiet evenings and, of course, children. To Olga, however, kids were a catastrophe, which would mean a long break in her singing and acting career, she could not even think about turning into a housewife. And again, Budyonny was accused of inability to have kids, and the old story repeated itself. They lived together for almost 14 years, though. They would probably live longer, but suddenly, politics intervened in the case.
    In the winter of 1937, Stalin called for Budyonny. He told that Olga was not behaving appropriately, compromising Budyonny and the Revolution itself. Stalin recommended Budyonny to meet with the NKVD (former name of KGB) Head, Nikolai Yezhov. Yezhov announced that, to his knowledge, Olga Mikhailova was having an intimate relationship with the artist of the Bolshoi Theatre Alexeyev; she had also been frequently seen around in the foreign embassies of Moscow, and noticed gambling at the races. Yezhov insisted that it was necessary to arrest her, interrogate and find out the details of her relationships with foreigners. Budyonny tried to intercede for his wife by saying that it was not a political case, but rather a relationship issue, but the KGB officers decided otherwise. In August of 1937, while Budyonny was away from Moscow inspecting military districts, Olga was arrested.

  31. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Malaparte’s language skills are surprisingly under-discussed on Wikipedia and on the wider web. That’s probably just as he would have wanted, so people are encouraged to overestimate them.

    His own claim (in Io, in Russia e in Cina) is to have started learning Russian in 1915 from Gorky’s son when they were both volunteers on the Western Front. He calls him “Alessio Peskow” but surely it has to be Zinovi Alekseïevitch Pechkoff.

    For a couple of years right after the war, Malaparte had a brief career as a professional diplomat, first as military attaché at the peace conference, then at the Italian legation in Poland. In Malaparte: vies et légendes Serra writes acerbically that during this period, as befits an aspiring young diplomat:

    Il polit son français, étudie l’anglais et baragouine un peu de russe, dont il affichera toujours une connaissance bien supérieure à la réalité.

    More surprising if less acerbic, Baldasso (2019) claims Malaparte knew less German than “French, English and even Russian” and quotes his sister’s statement that: “Our father didn’t teach us a single word of German.” The full article in Italian, Malaparte e la letteratura tedesca, is available online at:

  32. Very interesting, thanks! The Russian is what I expected, but I am surprised about the German.

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    Re the distinction in Russian between various words for devils:
    Черти и беси это все прихвостни дьявола. Но они сильно отличаются друг от друга. Черт, это мелкий пакостник, покрытый шерстью имеющий рога и копыта от него исходит мерзкий запах силоса. Черти менее вредны в отличие от бесов.
    Бес, является более ужасным неопознанным существом, который способен нанести более крупный вред чем черт. Бесы так же покрыты шерстью и имеют не только рога и копыта но еще и крылья, так же имеют не приятный запах смрада. Бесы способны вселяться в человека и принимать любой облик, они так же страшны как и дьявол только способностей у них чуть меньше.

    Cherts and Besses are all henchman of Satan. But they are very different from one another. A Chert is a minor tormentor covered in hair, with horns and hooves, exuding a disgusting odour of [PP: rotting] silage. Cherts are less harmful in comparison to Besses.
    A Bes, appearing in the more horrible “nondescript” [PP: maybe this is the source of the “men in green”] guise, is capable of inflicting more harm than a Chert. Besses aee also covered in hair and have not only hooves and horns but also claws, they also stink. Besses are capable of inhabiting a human and taking any form, they are as scary as Satan, only their powers are somewhat less.

    This is only a brief extract from this informative site. I am quite certain that the interested reader could gain (perhaps an undesirable level of) further intimacy with various servants of Satan through a more attentive and thorough reading of its contents. I note finally that I refuse to take sides on chert/chërt, as I did with Levin/Lëvin, not being able to obtain the true form from an unimpeachable source.

  34. @PlasticPaddy: That’s a weird site. I would say that some of the Russian бесы correspond to the demons in the New Testament, as can be seen from the second epigraph to Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.

  35. January First-of-May says

    Suppose Russian distinguishes between petty devils, who go by the Slavic names of чёрт (as in Dostoevsky) or бес (as in Sologub), and grander Byronic devils, who warrant the Greek treatment of демон (as in Pushkin) or дьявол (as in Gogol).

    My (inexpert) impression is that Russian дьявол is typically the devil (~= Satan); multiple devils rarely show up (that I could recall) outside of the kind of modern fantasy settings that might also have an occasional archdevil hanging around.
    Meanwhile, чёрт is typically a more petty demon (not really a “devil” at all), and I’d say that бес is something at an even lower level, though I do have to admit that it’s also the kind of demon associated with demonic possession (as in изгнание бесов and/or бес попутал).

    I don’t think we use демон much. It seems fairly generic.

  36. I confess that I’ve completely misinterpreted Malaparte’s quote. I didn’t think that he distinguishes the words Russians use for diavolo, but that the meaning of diavolo as applied by Mme. Budyonny to M. Karakhan was different from what the distinguished Russian authors had in mind. Isn’t it what nel senso means?

    I imagined that Gogol, in Malaparte’s estimation, used popular interpretation of diavolo (be it expressed as chert or bes) in Dikanka or more probably (which slipped my mind), as Giacomo Ponzetto noticed a mythicist’s interpretation from Portrait. That for Pushkin diavolo was a romantic Byronic figure (Lermontov would be better, IMHO, and Pushkin used chert/bes in demotic sense as well). That Dostoevsky’s diavolo is a figure akin to Goete’s Mephistopheles. I really don’t know what kind of diavolo was meant by Sologub.

    As to Mme. Budyonny’s use of (almost certainly) chert, my best guess is that it is just a placeholder (maybe with emphasis) word for man. Probably Karakhan was “handsome as a chert” or smart, fast, sly, etc. “as a chert”.

  37. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    I don’t think you misunderstood Malaparte. At least, you must have misunderstood him less than I have misunderstood myself his pretentious definitions by citation, in light of my poor knowledge of Russian literature.

    Specifically, nel senso does mean “in the meaning.” What he’s writing is explicitly that Mrs Budyonny called Karakhan “the devil,” but she didn’t intend the meaning the word has for Sologub and Dostoevsky, but rather the one used by Pushkin and Gogol.

    All I was trying to say is that, even if Russians use distinct words for the two meanings (still unclear to me), and even if Malaparte could be trusted to know that (unlikely according to his biographers), he wouldn’t make a point of highlighting that what in Italian is just a difference in the intended meaning of a single word is actually a distinction between related words in Russian.

    Having said this, I have no idea what poor Mrs Budyonny the person may have said about Karakhan in Malaparte’s presence. That is not known to have unduly constrained Malaparte’s retellings … What Mrs Budyonny the Malaparte character is clearly saying is that Karakhan is the devil, not a devil. If not Satan, at least Mephistopheles. But a Byronic artistic seducer, not a petty tormentor nor a world-weary gentleman.

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