Veltman’s Sara.

I’ve finished Veltman’s Воспитанница Сара [The ward Sara] (see this post), and I regret to say that I’m grievously disappointed; it’s the first of his novels that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone except a Veltman completist (like myself). I was hoping for good things because Sara is a classic Veltman heroine: self-willed, impatient, eager to achieve her goals and not particular about how she does so. She’s left as an infant (by a poor mother who can’t take care of her) with a midwife and brought up with another little girl named Vera who has a rich benefactor and thus gets nice clothes and toys; when she’s able to talk, she says imperiously “я не хочу быть Сарой, я хочу быть Вѣрочкой!” [I don’t want to be Sara, I want to be Verochka!]. The midwife winds up keeping the other girl (who’s sickly and lovable) and palming Sara off on a rich family as Vera. She spends the rest of the novel as Vera, and causes no end of trouble.

The problem is that it’s all done sloppily, with cardboard characters and unbelievable contrivances. By the time I reached the end, I realized that it was essentially a rewrite of Salomea (see this post and the earlier posts linked therein), but with all the interest drained away and replaced by bog-standard country-house drama (mom wants her eldest daughter to marry the handsome hussar Lonsky, but he only has eyes for Sara; lots of mazurkas, card-playing, etc.). I’ll translate the relevant section from Saltykov-Shchedrin’s crushing review:

Let the reader imagine that the novel has to do with some Russian prince who turns his lawful and beloved daughter over for upbringing to the midwife Viktorina, who lives in one of the dark back alleys of Moscow, that this daughter is substituted for someone else and that all this is eventually discovered — not because it has to be but because that’s what the author wants. Besides that, there’s a dwarf Mitya, who weeps tears of emotion and nearly faints from his pleasure at being a serf. An innocent confusion occurs, in the course of which the author wants to deceive the readers, but the readers are not deceived, because they see right through the author. Before the readers’ eyes pass Ivan Artemiches, Marya Ivanovnas, Avdotya Petrovnas, the hussar Lonsky flashes his spurs — and they don’t believe any of it, they aren’t interested, because they know that the author isn’t writing truthfully about it, that no such thing has occurred or could occur anywhere at any time.

However, I’m not sorry I read it, because there are passages to delight any lover of Veltman. I’ll translate a couple; first, Sara/Vera’s thoughts on her equivocal position:

Who am I to be, even if only for myself — what I have been up till now, or the person I should be? an orphan dependent on the favor of others, or a prince’s daughter who doesn’t need anyone’s good deeds?.. […] Oh, that’s a terrible thought!.. I’m not I, but some sort of apparition: I exist and I don’t! Some sort of frightful creature, who also was born to a father and mother, but they’e afraid of it, don’t know what to do with it, and push it from one to the other!.. Neither here nor there can I get the rights of a daughter!

Чѣмъ же мнѣ быть, хоть для самой себя? тѣмъ ли чѣмъ была до сихъ поръ, или чѣмъ должна быть? облагодѣтельствованною сиротой, или княжескою дочерью, которая не нуждается ни въ чьихъ благодѣяніяхъ?.. […] О, да это страшная мысль!.. я не я, а какое-то привидѣніе: есть и нѣтъ! Какое-то страшилище, которое также народилось отъ отца и матери, и котораго они боятся, не знаютъ чтó съ нимъ дѣлать, и отталкиваютъ другъ къ другу!.. Ни тамъ, ни здѣсь мнѣ нѣтъ доступу къ правамъ дочери!

And a passage from much later, when she feels besieged in the Ligovsky house:

Sara looked with loathing at the monsters [ancient Chinese sages] exhorting humanity to virtues, left their ting, and entered the next room; but even here the portraits of the ancestors of Ivan Artemevich and Marya Ivanovna silently fixed their eyes on her from all sides. It seemed to her that their mute gazes were asking: who is this person?

Сара съ отвращеніемъ взглянула на чудовищъ наставиющuхъ человѣчество въ добродѣтелu и вышла изъ ихъ тингъ въ слѣдующую комнату; но и здѣсь портреты предковъ Ивана Артемьевича и Марьи Ивановны молча уставили на нее со всѣхъ сторонъ глаза. Ей показалось, что всѣ они нѣмымu взорами сmрашuвалu: кто это такая?

Note that both passages focus on the problem of identity, so crucial to Veltman (see this post). Not much of a prize, but it added to my image of the author and his concerns.

After finishing Veltman, I turned to an excellent palate-cleanser, Leskov’s first published story (I think), Разбойник [The robber]. It’s short (just ten pages in the collected works) and nothing much happens — some travelers stop at an inn and hear a tale of fear and violence — but it’s told in a wonderful skaz style (based on lively peasant speech) and constantly had me reading passages out loud. A sample: “Превеселый был парень, и лицо такое хорошее, не то чтоб очень умное, а так, открытое, веселое, словом, хорошее лицо” [He was a very merry fellow, with such a good face, maybe not too intelligent, but open and merry, in a word, a good face]. It’s clearly derivative of Gogol, but all the best Russian writers are derivative of Gogol (“We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat”), and this shows such promise that I’m pretty sure if I’d been around in 1862 I’d have set down that issue of the Northern Bee and said “That’s a name to watch!” (Of course, the name he was using at the time was Stebnitsky, not Leskov; I’m not sure when he changed over.) Like Gogol, he ends with an unexpectedly somber passage, and a mysterious and suggestive line — in this case, “Ждите, друзья, ждите” [Wait, friends, wait]. Good stuff, and I can’t wait to read more Leskov.


  1. I’ll leave XIX век’s list of Leskov stories here so I can find it easily.

  2. Yes, it’s a promising short story. Leskov shows great interest in peasant language, but as yet doesn’t quite know what to do with it. But penname Stebnitsky… he is lucky that it is well and truly forgotten.

  3. I’m so glad that you’re up to Leskov and very much looking forward to your future posts on him! I had thought Leskov’s enserfed dwarf who actually does faint (for nine days) out of gratitude at his mistress’s generosity was uniquely Leskovian, but maybe he got the idea from Veltman all along.

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