Stepnova’s Orchard.

I had been looking forward to Marina Stepnova’s 2020 novel Сад [The orchard] (the word сад can mean either ‘garden’ or ‘orchard,’ but since this one is full of apple trees I have preferred the latter), because it’s set in Russia in the late 19th century and I am especially interested in that period these days; now that I’ve finished it, I have mixed feelings, which (as usual) I will try to disentangle here. In brief, I started out enchanted and ended up disenchanted; my discussion will (as usual) include spoilers.

There are five chapters, whose titles translate to Mother, Father, Daughter, Brother, and Son; the first, which makes up almost a quarter of the book, is to my mind far and away the best. It focuses on a rich aristocratic woman, Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Boryatinskaya (née von Stenbok), in her early forties, who is leading a pleasant life with her older husband Vladimir, a military man — their two children, one of each sex, are grown and living their own lives. They live in Petersburg but are visiting their recently acquired (third) estate near Voronezh, called Anna, when the novel opens; the first line is “Что за прелесть эта Наташа!” [What a delight this Natasha is!], and it turns out Nadezhda is reading the hot-off-the-presses novel by Count Tolstoy, War and Peace — it is 1869. Her husband makes gruff but loving fun of her addiction to reading (which she does in French, German, and “even Russian”; all of their estates are chock full of books). After describing the mute, hopeless passion of the “boring German youth” hired to catalogue her library (he moons over a pair of pink ball slippers he finds in a closet, unaware that they have never been worn by his employer but belong to one of her nieces), Stepnova has the one-sentence paragraph:

Россия, Лета, Лорелея.
[Russia, Lethe, Lorelei.]

Which is the last line of Mandelstam’s 1917 poem Декабрист [The Decembrist]; reading it, I found myself falling for the book as hopelessly as the poor pimply German fell for his boss.

Soon we find Nadezhda wandering in her orchard at night, hungrily eating ripe fruit from the trees and thinking that her married existence, though contented, was missing something depicted in the novels she read: “чудесную, полнокровную жизнь” [wonderful, full-blooded life]. Surprised by the voice of her husband, who had come out to look for her, she pushes a juicy plum into his mouth and finds herself seducing him; they make love with a passion they haven’t felt in years, and wind up sleeping together, also for the first time in years:

Since that kiss in the garden they had not said a word to each other in anything but Russian — their usual French could not withstand the living, torrid pressure, it pinched unwontedly in the crotch — and this, too, was new and happy, and Nadezhda Alexandrovna believed that now it would be with them for their whole life.

С того самого поцелуя в саду они и слова друг другу не сказали не по-русски – привычный французский не выдерживал живого, жаркого напора, жал непривычно в шагу – и это тоже было новое, счастливое, и Надежда Александровна верила, что теперь это с ними – на всю жизнь.

But of course it isn’t. The next morning, Vladimir is his usual jolly, distant self, and Nadezhda is depressed and disillusioned; that night she locks the door to her bedroom, and for the first time in twenty-five years her husband is turned away. Their relations become frosty, but it turns out she is pregnant, and this fills them both with shame — at their age, it’s indecent. She can’t go back to Petersburg in that condition, so they stay on at Anna, and in due course, after almost dying in childbirth, she and the baby, a girl, are saved by the kind but inarticulate Dr. Meizel. Nadezhda names her new daughter Natalya after Tolstoy’s heroine, but calls her by the unusual nickname Tusya; Meizel becomes a surrogate father, and Vladimir, who doesn’t care about the girl and to whom no one pays any attention, eventually leaves the estate. All of this is wonderfully described, and I found myself gripped and wanting more.

But then the novel introduces another character, a seamstress who makes wonderful clothes for Nadezhda and who also gives birth to a little girl, also attended by Meizel, and little Nyuta (a diminutive of Anna — Nadezhda, in her Frenchy way, calls her Annette) becomes a friend and rival of Tusya. And then it focuses on another character, Viktor Radovich, who grew up in Simbirsk as the scion of an old Serbian royal line whose father insisted on princely behavior even though they were poor as churchmice; his best friend was a budding scientist named Aleksandr Ulyanov, whose kid brother Volodya would eventually become Lenin. (I was terrified that the novel would go there, but it doesn’t; the ten-year-old Volodya only shows up once, chased out of his brother’s bedroom so he can talk with Viktor, and there is no mention of Lenin or Bolshevism.) By this time it is clear that the original heroine, Nadezhda, has faded into the background, and I wound up less and less interested in the melodramatic entanglements of the various other characters.

Now, Evgeniya Lisitsyna in her review makes a case for the novel as a catalogue:

This genre was once very popular, and it can be placed in the context not so much of imitative literature as of literary studies. Thus the apple from The Orchard turns out to be generalized rather than stylized. To paraphrase James Joyce, who asserted that “Horseness is the whatness of allhorse,” we can say that The Orchard is the whatness of the entire corpus of Russian classics.

Этот жанр некогда был очень популярен, и его можно отнести не столько к подражательной литературе, сколько к самому литературоведению. Так что и яблочко из «Сада» получается не стилизованное, а обобщенное. Перефразируя Джеймса Джойса, утверждавшего, что «лошадность — это чтойность вселошади», можно сказать, что «Сад» — это чтойность всего корпуса русской классики.

She says it doesn’t make sense to talk about character and plot in such a work; the point is to include everything that appertains to a classic Russian nineteenth-century novel. Which is well and good, and could be said of both Mikhail Shishkin’s Записки Ларионова [Larionov’s notes] (see this post) and Vladimir Sorokin’s Роман [Roman] (see this post), but it’s not enough for me — I need to be invested in the people on the page, even if on some level they’re representatives of some abstract quiddity of whatness. And I was annoyed by the cavalier way in which Stepnova shoves characters offstage when she doesn’t need them any more. But it’s wonderfully written, and a lot of people loved it, so I wish it well and hope it gets translated.

As usual, I will excerpt some passages dealing with language. On Meizel’s ancestor Georg, who came to Russia in the time of Ivan the Terrible:

The clerk from the Ambassadorial Prikaz waited a little longer, hovering with his pen, and then asked in muffled, clumsy German if he needed an interpreter.

Georg did not need one. Twelve years of study. Leipzig. Strassburg. Leiden. Oxford. Paris. Padua. Six languages. He stuttered terribly in all of them. Imperial [i.e., German], Latin, French, Italian, Dutch.

And Russian, yes.

Дьяк из Посольского приказа потерпел еще немного, выжидающе вися пером, и уточнил на глухом неповоротливом немецком – не надо ли толмача.

Георгу было не надо. Двенадцать лет учебы. Ляйпциг. Штрассбург. Лейден. Оксфорд. Парис. Падова. Шесть языков. На всех заикался ужасно. Цесарский, латинский, французский, итальянский, голландский.

И русский, да.

On Georg’s conversations with his son Johann:

Watt is loss mit dir, Vatter? Häste Ping? Willste jet drinke?

German words mingled with Dutch, Saxon, and Russian, the Cologne dialect fought with the Kleverland [?] dialect, and suddenly, gurgling, living Italian jumped out. It was their own koine, the language of the Muscovite Meizel family, which in a couple of generations was to be purified to a dry Hochdeutsch — and finally to become Russianized.

Немецкие слова мешались с голландскими, саксонскими, русскими, кёльнский диалект бодался с клеверландским, и вдруг выпрыгивало, журча, итальянское, живое. Это был их собственный койне, язык семьи московских Мейзелей, которому через пару поколений предстояло очиститься до сухого хохдойча – и окончательно обрусеть.

On the horse-crazed Tusya, who wants to spend all her time in the stables but whom Meizel is teaching to act at least part of the time as a civilized young woman:

Tusya, as Meisel advised, divided life in two: in one, the female half, she spoke French, German and Russian with equal fluency and confidence (a luxury available to noble children from a few really very rich families), and behaved appropriately and with propriety in any situation.

Туся, как и посоветовал Мейзель, разделила жизнь надвое – в одной, женской половине, она одинаково свободно и уверенно говорила по-французски, по-немецки и по-русски (роскошь, доступная дворянским детям из немногих действительно очень богатых семей), уместно и сообразно приличиям вела себя в любой ситуации.

There is a funny line about the stuttering ancestral Meizel: “Заика, почти немой (дважды, выходит, немец)…” [Stuttering, almost mute (and therefore twice a German)…] The Russian word for ‘a German,’ немец, etymologically means ‘mute’ (Russian немой). And there’s some great мат (Russian cursing). If you don’t need a connected plot and consistent characters, there’s a lot to love in this book.


  1. I so much want to learn Russian just to read that book, maybe what does “сад” mean in current Russian?

  2. Sorry, I meant to post that in another thread.

  3. Kleverland [?] dialect

    Probably Cleveland a duchy centered on Cleves.

  4. Brilliant! I’ll bet you’re right.

  5. David Marjanović says

    That would be here; the local dialect is a Low Franconian one, so arguably closer to Standard Dutch than even to Kölsch. The -r- makes sense as an adjective-forming -er: *das Klever Land.

  6. Stu Clayton says

    so arguably closer to Standard Dutch than even to Kölsch

    Yeah, to me a bit looked like Kölsch, a bit didn’t. So I read this and that about Kleve and its history and the languages spoken. Even Carl the Great turned up ! [I never was much of a one for history …]

  7. John Cowan says

    Mother, Father, Daughter, Brother, and Son

    In Lois McMaster Bujold’s novella “Penric and the Shaman”, the shaman has lost his ability to go into trance, and Penric teaches him a prayer which both invokes the Five Gods and serves as a trance-inducing mantra: “Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, Other / Bless this work and let me serve another.” The shaman doesn’t like this at all, so Penric’s chaos demon suggests an alternative: “Other, Mother, Father, Brother, Sister / Thwack my head and make me less a blister.” The shaman settles for the first choice, and it eventually works. The Other is an illegitimate child of the Mother and the original chaos demon, and is usually called the Bastard.

  8. For out-of-universe context: Bujold originally wanted to write a novel (which became a series) that took place in a fantasy setting inspired by late Reconquista Spain. The most obvious issue with doing that is that, if divine interventions are real, it becomes challenging to create an analogue to the historical religious conflict between Christianity and Islam. The Bastard was the key to her clever resolution of that quandary. The two religions’ fundamental disagreement is not whether the Bastard exists, but whether he is a god or a demon; and that is a big enough difference to fight over. (The Bastard himself, when he shows up in Paladin of Souls, implies that he is personally agnostic on the question.)

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