The Novel as Battering Ram.

I’ve been a fan of Veniamin Kaverin since reading his 1971 novel Перед зеркалом [Before the mirror] (LH post); I also enjoyed his early Скандалист [The troublemaker] (LH post), and I’m now reading his 1931 novel Художник неизвестен [The artist is unknown, tr. by P. Ross, whoever that is, in 1947 as The Unknown Artist] and savoring it slowly. I haven’t gotten very far and haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but I thought I’d share this bit from near the start, a rant by one of the main characters, Aleksei Arkhimedov:

— Мне тяжело смотреть на этот щит, — сказал он наконец. — Он безобразен. Скульптору, который слепил его, следует вынести общественное порицание. И не только за то, что он плохо исполнил свою работу, смешав гербы ремесла с эмблемами власти, но за то, что он не понимает связи между личным достоинством и ответственностью за труд. Ты скажешь — романтика! Я не отменяю этого слова. У него есть свои заслуги. Когда-то русские называли романом подвешенное на цепях окованное бревно, которым били по городским укреплениям. Роман был тогда тараном. Потом он опустился. Он стал книгой. А теперь пора вернуть ему первоначальное значение. Романтика! Поверь мне, что это стенобойное орудие еще может пригодиться для борьбы с падением чести, лицемерием, подлостью и скукой.

Ross’s translation:

“It pains me to look at that coat of arms”, he said at last. “It’s ugly. […] The sculptor who carved it should be publicly rebuked. Not merely because he performed his work badly, mingling the arms of professions with the emblems of power, but because he has failed to understand the connection between self-respect and the responsibilities of labour. You’ll call it romanticism! I won’t reject the word. It has its uses. Once upon a time we Russians used to call a log of wood hanging from chains and bound by hoops, used in city fortifications, romanticism. Romanticism in those days was a battering ram. Then it lost caste. It became а book. Now it’s time we gave it back its original meaning. Romanticism! Believe me, this ramming weapon can still be of use in the fight with —— against honour, with hypocrisy, baseness and boredom.”

(I have omitted a sentence that is not in my Russian text.) You’re probably wondering about that “Romanticism in those days was a battering ram”; it makes no sense because the Russian actually says this:

Once upon a time Russians used to call a log of wood hanging from chains and bound by hoops, with which they beat at city fortifications, a roman. A roman in those days was a battering ram. Then it lowered itself. It became а book. Now it’s time to give it back its original meaning.

This is classic formalist fun; the point is that besides the word roman which in modern Russian means ‘novel’ (as well as ‘romance,’ but that seems irrelevant here), there used to be a homonym meaning ‘battering ram,’ and how could a novelist trained as a critic and scholar of literature resist the pun? The odd thing is that the ‘ram’ word, though it is in Dahl (“барс, таран, баран”), is — most unusually — not in Vasmer’s etymological dictionary, which uses Dahl as its basic source of words to be explained. Does anybody know of any work that’s been done on this mysterious lexeme, or have any theories?

Addendum. I’ve found a different translation of the passage in Donald Piper’s V. A. Kaverin: A Soviet writer’s response to the problem of commitment, about Skandalist and Khudozhnik neizvesten in relation to the development of Soviet literature in the late nineteen-twenties:

At one time we Russians used to call a log of wood hanging by chains and bound by hoops a ‘roman.’ It was used against city fortifications. Romance was then a battering ram. Then it lost caste. It became a book. Now we must restore its original meaning.

I’m dubious about “Romance” (that’s one meaning of roman, to be sure, and it does work with “Романтика!”), but it’s basically an impossible passage to translate, so I cut it some slack.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    Vasmer has рамяный, with a sense “strong” and a reference to Dahl. Wiktionary connects the P. Ger *rammaz with what appears to be the corresponding OCS word.

  2. So he does! It would have been very helpful if he had cross-referenced it to an entry for this роман, but he seems to ignore it for some reason. But if it is in fact part of that knot of words, then it might be cognate to our (battering) ram, for which the OED (entry revised 2008) says “further etymology uncertain, perhaps < the same Indo-European base as Old Russian ramjan″, raměn″ strong.”

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Google translate yields, in pertinent part, “The novel was a battering ram back then. Then he sank. He became a book. Now it’s time to return it to its original value. Romance! Believe me, this wall-breaking weapon can still be useful in the fight against the decline of honor, hypocrisy, meanness and boredom.” So it doesn’t get the learned pun that requires knowledge of the now-archaic homonym.

  4. That’s interesting. I was familiar with not-quite-as-forgotten word рамена (sing. рамо), meaning shoulders, which can be found in Pushkin. Wiktionary says “Proto-Slavic *ormo or *ormę. Cognate to Bulgarian рамо (ramo), Czech rameno, Polish ramię.” And further, From Proto-Balto-Slavic *írʔma-, *írʔmen-, *árʔmen- from Proto-Indo-European *h₂erH-mo-, *h₂erH-men-, from *h₂erH-. Cognate with Lithuanian ìrmėdė (“gout”), Old Prussian irmo (“arm”), Ancient Greek ἁρμός (harmós), Latin armus, Proto-Germanic *armaz (“arm”), Sanskrit ईर्म (īrmá, “arm”).

  5. David Marjanović says

    Polish ramię

    Also ramieniowa kość “upper-arm bone”. I wonder if that’s a calque of humerus, actually (which is hypercorrect for umerus “shoulder”).

  6. Nat Shockley says

    Google translate

    ChatGPT fares no better. But DeepL demonstrates that it is still better than either of them – it doesn’t “get” the pun either, of course, but it gives the user enough information that they can probably work it out, certainly if they know some basic French or German. Which, alas, is more than the human translator did.

  7. ramjan, raměn

    Those have soft m.

    Of course баран and таран could affect it, but then rom- can have a number of sources including possibly ram (> *ram-an > roman).

    There is also a strange word романистъ said to be < ῥωμανίσιον. See.

  8. Wow, that is strange: “дверная задвижка, запор.” Thanks, I love weird words.

  9. “dug-around”
    Must be a typo: окоВанное. That would be logical… [P.S. checked. Yes, it is окованное].

  10. Dictionaries are horrible.

    I just learned that ромашка “daisy, chamomile” is a diminutive of романъ (the older word for the same, another homonym of our novel and romance) – it is transparent enough, but it is one of those words you learn early (easily when you’re 1) and take a whole – and also a word for “wrong” (catholic, muslim, etc.) temples, ropata, ropat’ whose etymology I’m unable to guess.

  11. Must be a typo: окоВанное. That would be logical… [P.S. checked. Yes, it is окованное].

    Thanks very much, I’ve fixed it! (I should have guessed “typo”…)

  12. Yes, you should have – but окопанный too is associated with warfare… That is окапывать is what you do to a tree, but окапываться is what a soldier does to herself…

  13. Yes, that’s what threw me off. It didn’t exactly make sense, but it seemed to fit the context…

  14. “Herself”
    An exaggeration:)
    And of course окапываться is modern. But medieval warfare involved lots of digging.

  15. David Marjanović says

    But medieval warfare involved lots of digging.

    Треба блядь копати!

  16. DM,
    Ебать-копать! is an expletive on its own, by the way. It extends the swear word, so it is more suitable for expression of annoyment rather than for what you feel whenyou hurt your toe.

    When you thoughtfully say еба-а-а-ать… (or when objecting to someone ну еба-а-а-ать…) you can just as thoughtfully extend it.

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