In case anyone was wondering what Russian novel I turned to after finishing Fathers and Sons (discussed here), it was Andrei Bely’s 1909 Серебряный голубь (Russian text; translated as The Silver Dove). I had actually been planning to tackle Bely’s Петербург (Petersburg), which Nabokov called one of the four greatest novels of the twentieth century, but since it had been intended as a sequel to The Silver Dove and I had a copy of the latter, I decided to start with that and get acquainted with Bely’s prose style, and I’m glad I did, partly because it’s a wonderful read and partly because the Russian is so difficult just about anything I read next is bound to seem like a cakewalk.

I wouldn’t call it a great novel, because the plot is slender and pretty silly: a soulful young aristocrat, Daryalsky, is lured away from his virginal young fiancée Katya by a pockmarked village woman, Matryona, whose husband, the leader of a messianic/revolutionary cult called the Doves, wants them to have a child together for vaguely apocalyptic purposes. There’s a good deal of mystical hugger-mugger, and it’s impossible to take the characters very seriously, but who cares? The real hero of the book is Bely’s prose, and it’s mesmerizing, an astoundingly accomplished variant, sophisticated and flexible, of Gogol’s early village-bumpkin style. The novel is the first of what Bely intended as a trilogy on the East-West theme so dear to the Russian intelligentsia of a century ago; Petersburg, with its pastiche of official jargon, represents the West, and The Silver Dove the East, with its backwoods village of Tselebeevo, located (as is frequently pointed out) to the east of westernized Gugolevo, home of the forsaken Katya. The whole thing is told in the cheerful voice of a narrator from Tselebeevo (the first chapter is called “Our Village”), and it slides from thick dialect to highfaluting prose-poetry and back, depending on the situation. The opening paragraph will give an idea of the style:

Еще, и еще в синюю бездну дня, полную жарких, жестоких блесков, кинула зычные клики целебеевская колокольня. Туда и сюда заерзали в воздухе над нею стрижи. А душный от благовонья Троицын день обсыпал кусты легкими, розовыми шиповниками. И жар душил грудь; в жаре стекленели стрекозиные крылья над прудом, взлетали в жар в синюю бездну дня, – туда, в голубой покой пустынь. Потным рукавом усердно размазывал на лице пыль распаренный сельчанин, тащась на колокольню раскачать медный язык колокола, пропотеть и поусердствовать во славу Божью. И еще, и еще клинькала в синюю бездну дня целебеевская колокольня; и юлили над ней, и писали, повизгивая, восьмерки стрижи.
[Again and again, into the dark blue abyss of the day, filled with hot, cruel brilliance, the Tselebeevo bell tower sent forth loud cries. Hither and thither in the air above it fidgeted the martins. Whitsunday, sultry with fragrance, strewed the bushes with light, pink dogroses. And heat stifled the chest; in the heat dragonfly wings were glassy over the pond, they flew up into the heat into the dark blue abyss of the day, there, into the blue peace of emptiness. With a sweaty sleeve a perspiring villager diligently spread dust over his face, dragging himself to the bell tower to shake loose the bronze tongue of the bell, to sweat through and show diligence for God’s glory. And again and again, into the dark blue abyss of the day, the Tselebeevo bell tower pealed forth, and above it fussed the martins, shrieking and inscribing figures of eight.]

Besides the obvious repetitions of phrases, there is a subtler repetition of perhaps the most important word of the novel, дух [dukh] ‘spirit,’ hidden in воздух [vozdukh] ‘air’ and душный [dushny] ‘sultry’ and душил [dushil] ‘stifled.’ And many words and phrases from this prelude are repeated at significant points throughout the novel. Bely had been writing “symphonies” that were narratives in verse [a broken-up lyrical prose, sometimes in numbered sentences]; in his first novel he turned to [a more normal-looking] prose but kept the arsenal of techniques of manipulating sounds and senses he had learned, to superb effect. As I say, it’s not an easy read, full of dialect, idiosyncratic usages, and made-up words like росянистые [rosyanistye] and зызыкнет [zyzyknet], but it’s well worth the effort. (And for the benefit of those of us with philological leanings, at one point characters are said to be making clever remarks about Wilamowitz-Moellendorff “and even Brugmann.”)

I’ll add a little about the real-life sources of the novel. In the years before the 1905 Revolution, Bryusov and Bely quarreled over the affections of the young poet Nina Petrovskaya, a woman whom Kristi A. Groberg, in her essay on Petrovskaya in the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (pp. 500-02), calls a “Symbolist groupie” who “had affairs with Bal’mont, Belyi, Briusov, and Sergei Auslender in that order. In 1903-4, she was involved with Belyi, whom she saw as her spiritual salvation, the New Christ. When the romance faltered, she turned to Briusov.” She divorced her husband Sergei Sokolov in 1906 and tried to shoot Bely in 1907; the next year she moved to Paris, converted to Catholicism, and started calling herself “Renata” after the character (a witch) based on her in Bryusov’s novel based on “the stories Petrovskaia told Briusov about her fascination with Belyi,” The Fiery Angel, set in 16th-century Germany and full of mysticism and demonology. Her memoirs “treat the relationship with Briusov as the great event of her life and him as a man of spiritual depth, yet she describes it as a pact with the Devil.” Bely (who gave the novel a rather condescending review in the Symbolist journal Vesy) obviously read it attentively, and Groberg says The Silver Dove “can be read as his polemical answer to The Fiery Angel.”


  1. John Emerson says

    Wilamowitz-Möllendorf : Nietzsche =
    Marx : Böhm-Bawerk =
    Satie : Paladilhe / Lenepveu.

  2. perhaps the most important word of the novel, дух [dukh] ‘spirit,’ hidden in воздух [vozdukh] ‘air’
    Arabic does something similar, نفس nafs meaning both “breath” and “soul”.

  3. Am I correct in thinking The Fiery Angel is the source of Prokofiev’s opera?

  4. Nijma–and not just Arabic. In Hebrew the parallel word is neshama–nefesh, which is more directly cognate, can also mean ‘breath’ but usually is limited to ‘soul’ (or more precisely in fully developed Jewish teaching, the lower level of the soul, with neshama being higher, and yechida being the highest level, the “Divine spark” that unites us to God (yechida being a form of the word meaning unity or oneness).
    And passing out of the Semitic, there’s all the words derived from Latin of the -spire pattern: inspire, respire, spirit, etc.

  5. For more about Arabic nafs, and it’s quite a versatile word, Nun-Fa-Siin is about a third of the way down on this root list:

    ن ف س = Nun-Fa-Siin = was or became high in estimation, of high account or excellent, highly prized/precious/valuable and therefore desired with much emulation or much request, desired, it became loved or highly esteemed, console, cheer, envy.
    Was or became avaricious/tenacious/niggardly of it because of its being in high estimation or excellent, little to much good.
    Brought forth (e.g. gave birth to a child), menstruated, blood.
    Clear away grief/anxiety/sorrow, ease/relieve, delay.
    Breath, gust, drew breath, sigh, spoke long (due to regular intake of breath), become extended/long/increased, ability.
    Soul/spirit, the vital principle, intellect/reason/mind, inner desire or feeling, knowledge, pride, self-magnification, a state where there is ample scope for action, ‘willingly’ when used as adverb, nafs – soul of discrimination (mental) and ruh – soul of breath (physical), oneself/itself, whole, essential constituent, reality, sometimes ghayb and nafs are synonymous, a person/being/individual, quantity, man, life, soul + body, life-blood, body, contention/thought/face/substance, heart, stomach, gulp, drought.
    Brother or co-partner in faith/religion/relationship.
    Wide space, distance, width.
    Greatness, nobility, glory, scarcity, absoluteness, unseen, hidden reality which is beyond human perception, intention, requital, punishment.

    the “Divine spark” that unites us to God
    This sound a lot like the mysticism that came out of medieval Spain, where Christian, Jewish, and Moslem traditions coexisted and possibly fueled each other. In particular, I’m thinking of kabbala and zohar.

  6. anima and ψυχή, too.

  7. дух – spirit, but it is also smell, stink. At school we always giggled when reciting Pushkin’s famous line:
    Там русский дух, там Русью пахнет.
    The Russian spirit is there, it smells of Russia there.
    I am glad kishnevi points out the same connection in Latin – spirit, inspire, perspire.
    Душа – soul, at first didn’t seem to have a link to breathe, but then I remembered: за упокой души – to one’s (dead) soul, which might be linked to последнее дыхание (last breath), but roots дух/душ and дых/дыш don’t look like they are related?
    And чистая душа (clean/simple/honest soul) – is there any relation to French/Russian douche/душ (shower)?
    re English translation: abyss as sky? I’d thought abyss can only go downwards? Is this right? Maybe void is better?
    And раскачать медный язык колокола – to shake loose the bronze tongue of the bell. This doesn’t seem right to me: the man is giving the tongue a push, swinging, swaying, rocking it, but not making it loose?

  8. to shake loose the bronze tongue of the bell
    “To loosen the bronze tongue”, perhaps? With recourse to the expression “to loosen his tongue”, meaning to make him speak – by dissipating his fear of talking about a particular subject, or by threats as to what will happen if he doesn’t speak about it etc.
    “To set the bronze tongue pealing”?

  9. Victor Sonkin says

    The best description of Renata and her complex relationships with Bryusov and Bely can be found in a biographical sketch in Khodasevich’s “Necropolis”.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Sashura: And чистая душа (clean/simple/honest soul) – is there any relation to French/Russian douche/душ (shower)?
    No. The Russian word is one of many borrowings from French, and douche is a French adaptation of Italian doccia (pron. “dottcha”) which first meant a gutter (for instance along a roof: without a down pipe, the water would pour down at the end of the gutter).

  11. re English translation: abyss as sky? I’d thought abyss can only go downwards? Is this right? Maybe void is better?
    And раскачать медный язык колокола – to shake loose the bronze tongue of the bell. This doesn’t seem right to me: the man is giving the tongue a push, swinging, swaying, rocking it, but not making it loose?
    Yeah, I wasn’t sure about either of those, but it was a rough-and-ready version, and I like the sound of “abyss.” As for “tongue,” it should really be “clapper” in English, but at the time it seemed like a good idea to keep the bodily metaphor that is the standard word in Russian. You’re probably right about раскачать — maybe I’ll change it.
    The best description of Renata and her complex relationships with Bryusov and Bely can be found in a biographical sketch in Khodasevich’s “Necropolis”.
    Yes, that’s an excellent piece in an excellent book of literary-biographical reminiscences. I wonder whether it’s ever been translated?

  12. marie-lucie says

    the loose tongue of the bell
    When ringing a bell you don’t touch it, you just set it in motion, and the clapper, being loosely attached to it, follows the motion with a slight delay, which causes it to hit the bell when the latter moves back. So I don’t see any problem with the phrase “the loose tongue of the bell”, although I don’t know enough Russian to know whether this is a good translation or not.

  13. David Marjanović says

    but [the] roots дух/душ and дых/дыш don’t look like they are related?

    To me they do – у comes from Proto-Balto-Slavic short /u/, while ы comes from Proto-Balto-Slavic long /uː/.

  14. To dukh, -spir-, anima, and psuche, add Sanskrit [long]atman: ‘breath, life, spirit, soul; the supreme spirit or all-soul; nature, character; self, one’s self (as refl. pron.).’ (Cappeller’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary]

    Breath, life, awareness, and individuated selfhood: do these expressions indicate that something has been added to the raw material of existence, or do these expressions refer to the same (and only) scale of degrees of complexity of that ‘raw being’?

  15. Mari-Lucie: Thanks – and sorry, I hoped you’d comment on this, so I was just pulling your leggings. But seriously, douche/душ has been in Russian for such a long time that many won’t know the French connection now and, perhaps subliminally, link it to душа (soul, spirit.)
    About the bell tongue: I think I can see where the confusion is coming from. In most Russian churches (except Pskov/Novgorod region) ringers sway the tongue until it hits the bell, while as in Western churches a sort of belt transmission is employed to sway the bell until it starts hitting the tongue. There is a powerful, full of suspense scene in Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ (novella called Колокол/Bell) when the newly cast huge bell is rung for the first time. Everybody stands silent except for a group of chattering Italians, only the creaking of the ropes holding the tongue is heard – and then the booming sound. I think it’s somewhere on YouTube.
    I’ve just googled ‘tongue of the bell’ and it looks like it’s perfectly okay to say ‘tongue’ as well as ‘clapper’.
    Isn’t it fascinating that Bely uses синяя бездна (blue abyss) three times in a small paragraph? For most of C19th writers such repetitions would be no-no. Tolstoy once remarked that he wouldn’t permit kishki (guts) and koshki (cats) in one paragraph. There is the difference between the ‘Golden Age'(realism) and the ‘Silver Age’ (modernism).

  16. Yes, I was struck by the intensely modern(ist) feel of Bely’s prose, despite its being constructed from solidly traditional materials. He uses repetition to brilliant effect.

  17. marie-lucie says

    Sashura: I didn’t think that you really thought that douche/душ and душа were related (although as you say, some people would be inclined to see a connection), but it gave me an opportunity to look for the origins of douche, which I had never thought about. Note that une douche means a bathroom shower, not a shower of rain, which is called une giboulée. The French expression corresponding to April showers is giboulées de Mars.
    bells: Nowadays church bells are controlled by some electrical mechanism, but when I was a child, the village boys would pull on the rope from below, not alone but a whole group of them, like a “grape” of boys, in order to achieve a sufficient weight to move the heavy bells. They would alternately crouch to the ground and be lifted up several feet in the air – it looked like great fun but was probably dangerous.
    I see from the Wikipedia article of bells that in the West the biggest bells do not move, but another mechanism causes them to be struck. This would be the case with the enormous bell inside one of the towers in Notre-Dame in Paris, which weighs 13 metric tons (as the tour guide informs us) and is only rung on very special occasions, such as the liberation of Paris at the end of WWII. (The church has smaller bells too).

  18. Re: дух/душ.
    Душ can have an отдушина, to let steam out.

  19. J. W. Brewer says

    A lot of the distinctiveness of Russian bells was described in an interesting New Yorker piece published last spring which is alas not available free online in its entirety but is summarized here: Some block quotes liberated from the piece (fair use . . .) can be found here:

  20. MMcM’s “anima” link: 4 As expressive of love: vos, meae carissimae animae, my dearest souls,
    You can do this in Arabic too:

    inta gelbi(you are my heart)
    inta omri (you are my soul) (like the Um Kathoum song)
    inta eyuni (you are my eyes)
    inta nafsi (you are my breath)
    inta hayatee” (you are my life)…

    I can’t say more than two of these in a row with a straight face, but I am assured that it’s very bad form to laugh, that this is standard “bedouin poetry”, and that it is invariably successful in quickly leading to matrimony.

  21. Greek psykhe vs. pneuma; Latin anima vs. spiritus (from Online Etymology Dictionary):

    spirit (n.) c.1250, “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” from O.Fr. espirit, from L. spiritus “soul, courage, vigor, breath,” related to spirare “to breathe,” from PIE *(s)peis- “to blow” (cf. O.C.S. pisto “to play on the flute”). Original usage in Eng. mainly from passages in Vulgate, where the L. word translates Gk. pneuma and Heb. ruah. Distinction between “soul” and “spirit” (as “seat of emotions”) became current in Christian terminology (e.g. Gk. psykhe vs. pneuma, L. anima vs. spiritus) but “is without significance for earlier periods” [Buck]. L. spiritus, usually in classical L. “breath,” replaces animus in the sense “spirit” in the imperial period and appears in Christian writings as the usual equivalent of Gk. pneuma.

  22. English and American bell-ringers, at least, consider it very bad practice to ring a bell by hitting the bell using the clapper (as opposed to the method of rope and wheel); a bad hit can easily crack the bell. Even handbells (which are used for practice) are rung by shaking the whole bell.

  23. a bad hit can easily crack the bell
    That’s curious. Has the clapper been worked in a particular way, so that it strikes only a certain part of the bell?
    General considerations of action-reaction would not have lead me to expect that. But maybe when the bell swings there is torsion in it that makes it less stable.
    There is an analogy for doing things in a particular order in a chemistry lab:

    Erst das Wasser
    Dann die Säure –
    Sonst geschieht
    Das Ungeheure

    First the water
    Then [add] the acid –
    Otherwise something
    terrible happens.

    I think what happens is that concentrated acid splatters violently on contact with water. Like when you dash a drop of water into hot oil in a frying pan, to see if the oil is hot enough. That’s what someone once told me, at any rate.

  24. Water floats on the top of acid and spatters, whereas acid, which is heavier, sinks to the bottom and churns around there.

  25. I got my little speculation exactly bass-ackwards. The rhyme says the right way to do it: add the acid so that it sinks to the bottom.

  26. I’m still wondering why it makes a difference which strikes what: the bell the clapper or the other way around.

  27. The claim about bells – swinging the clapper can easily crack the bell – is so counterintuitive to me that my idea as to why it might be so came out supporting the counter-claim. I wrote:
    But maybe when the bell swings there is torsion in it that makes it less stable
    If swinging the clapper against a motionless bell can easily crack the bell, then the bell should be “less stable” when it’s at rest. By “less stable” I mean more likely to crack.

  28. G-Stu, try wiki on “campanology” and “Russian Orthodox bell ringing” for a discussion of the difference between tolling and pealing. Does it really sound that odd? When you consider inertia? Think of a ball peen hammer hitting a cookie sheet suspended in the air, then think of a cookie sheet hitting a ball peen hammer suspended in the air.

  29. marie-lucie says

    A bell is a lot thicker and heavier, compared to the clapper, than a cookie sheet compared with a hammer. But I don’t think that the clapper in a swinging bell is stationary (although it could be).
    I thought that the difference between tolling and pealing was that tolling applied to a single bell and pealing to a set of bells.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Otherwise something
    terrible happens.

    More literally: otherwise the monstrous happens.
    What happens is that water becomes hot when acid is (further) dissolved in it. Small amounts of water dropped on acid boil, sprinkling acid all over the place, your eyes included. Instead, stir the acid into the water, so that a large volume of water can take up the comparatively small amount of heat generated from dissolving each drop of acid.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Still gets very warm when strong concentrated acids are dissolved (pers. obs.).
    Ungeheuer: monster; ungeheuer: monstrous, horrible; nicht geheuer: uncanny. Without the negation, the word only survives in Swiss dialects where it means “totally” and is pronounced like Standard German Hure “whore”, which I suppose is not related…
    How much thread drift can I pack into a single paragraph? =8-)

  32. Here’s another attempt:

    First the water
    Then the acid –
    Otherwise your
    ass is grassid

  33. Does any one remember off hand why the Liberty Bell cracked? I seem to remember that happened the first time it was rung.

  34. According to the WiPe article on the Liberty Bell, it cracked for the first time during testing in a temporary scaffolding in front of the Philadelphia State House. The goal had been to install the bell in the steeple of the State House. After two recastings, it was finally hung there.

  35. The Liberty Bell cracked the second time, as the U.S. Park Ranger who serves as tour guide will tell you, because it wore out. Essentially everything Americans think they know about the Liberty Bell is mythology-made-real.
    Because of the resonant tuning of a change-ringing bell, its dynamic behavior is not trivial to model, and I haven’t found any technical discussion of it. The clapper of English-style bells is connected by a simple hinge joint, so it can only touch the bell at two points, and normally does so only at one in the slightly more than 360-degree turn that makes a single stroke of the bell; on the next stroke it strikes the other side. Eventually the bell needs to be rotated relative to the clapper so as to distribute the load, but this is only done once a decade or so.

Speak Your Mind