Veltman’s Time-Travel Jape.

Over a decade ago I discovered the delights of Alexander Veltman’s Странник [The wanderer] and wrote an enthusiastic review; having since read more Veltman than doubtless all but a handful of Americans, I’ve finally gotten around to one of his early works I missed along the way, Предки Калимероса: Александр Филипович Македонский [The forebears of Kalimeros (i.e., Bonaparte): Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon] (1836; you can see the first edition here), and enjoyed it… sort of. As with the Bely novels I recently reviewed, I have no idea to whom I could recommend it; the plot is minimal (narrator rides to ancient Greece on a hippogriff, finds himself in the camp of Philip of Macedon, meets Aristotle in Athens, and accompanies Alexander the Great on his journeys of conquest) and serves mainly as an excuse to pile up ridiculous pseudo-etymologies that depend on analyzing ancient words and names as if they were constructed from modern elements; furthermore, nineteenth-century characters (e.g., Kizilbash) and habits keep intruding into the ancient setting, serving as a clear signal that the reader is not supposed to take any of it even a little bit seriously. I don’t mind the basic idea, but I don’t see why Veltman included quite so much potted history — couldn’t he have taken it for granted that if we’re reading the book at all we’re familiar with who these people are and what happened at Issus, and concentrated on the fun bits? But Vissarion Belinsky, a fine critic when he wasn’t being the stern smiter of reactionaries (the side of him that appealed to the Soviets), summed it up nicely in his review when the book was published, which ends:

At first Mr. Veltman’s novel surprised us a little; we thought: how can he waste his time on such certainly very sweet, but at the same time fruitless little things? It’s all the more strange because Mr. Veltman’s talent would be suitable for something more practical and more significant… What is it? a fairy tale but not a fairy tale, a novel but not a novel, and even if it is a novel, it is not historical at all, but perhaps etymological, because all the characters are obsessed with the etymological production of words. Did Mr. Veltman really want to be the inventor of a special kind of novel, the etymological?!..

But then we understood everything: this is not a novel but a subtle, malicious satire on historical mystics and desperate etymologists. Here is the proof: Mr. Veltman proves, jokingly of course, that Omir [Homer] comes from po miru [‘through the world’] because the creator of the Iliad was a blind old man and walked around po miru [a Russian idiom for begging]!.. Among the Greeks, Mr. Veltman found varenitsy [?], and tubs, and barrels, and everything that you can find in the Okhotny Ryad [a shopping street] in Moscow… Obviously, it’s a joke!..

But this joke is written sweetly, sharply, entertainingly, charmingly; reading it, you don’t see the pages turning, you only notice with annoyance that the end is near. So the reader who just wants to have fun and has the free time for it can safely take up Mr. Veltman’s new novel.

I have no idea what he means by вареницы — it doesn’t occur in the text of the novel and isn’t a standard Russian word (though it’s presumably some sort of derivative of варить ‘to boil, to cook’). At any rate, here are some piquant bits:

Может быть читатели спросят меня, на каком языке разговаривал я с Филиппом? может быть я удивлю их, если скажу: на пеласгическом, древнеславянском. Да, Филипп был истый и чистый славянин и прозывался Добромиров; соседи же греки прозвали его по-своему — Килимеросом.

[Perhaps readers will ask me what language I spoke with Philip, and perhaps I will surprise them if I say: in Pelasgic, Old Slavonic. Yes, Philip was a true and pure Slav and was called Dobromirov; his Greek neighbors called him in their own way – Kilimeros.]

— «It is Boran, Bur, or Fyr; it is chaf-bock; it is watch, or ewein, or giwe, — говорили Скифы [said the Scyths].
— To Брама, то Шиве, то Вишну, то Дивель, — говорили Гиндуи.
То Перун, то живый, то вечный, — говорили Сильваны.

[It is Brahma, it is Shiva, it is Vishnu, it is Divel, said the Hindus.
It is Perun, it is living, it is eternal, said the Sylvans.]

Песто, песто то копели
Екаме тин хриан кэ фэли

[Πες το πες το το κοπέλι
έκαμε τη γριά και θέλει.]

Это чудо — думал я, — что значит Филология! и по сие время люди не хотят понять, что Мелезиген есть ничто иное, как испорченное азское Слово Malsingan, т. е. поющий сказания, и что, следовательно, Илиада есть перевод с азского языка на греческий, песни о падении власти Азов в Helionе, что Priamus Kongur var sem adur er sagt kalladur Oden, en drottning hans Frygg, af thui tok Riked sydann naffn oc kallas Phrigia thar sem borgen (Troia) stod.

— T. e. что Приам Князь (kong — Конеж) был тот самый, как говорят, который назывался Оденом, а жена его Фритта; от неё и получило царство прозвание Фригии, где был град оный (Троя).

[This is a miracle – I thought – what Philology means! and to this day people do not want to understand that Melesigenes is nothing more than the corrupted Az word Malsingan, that is, singing legends, and that, therefore, the Iliad is a translation from the Az language into Greek, a song about the fall of the power of Azov.

I.e., Prince Priam (kong – Konezh) was the same one, as they say, who was called Oden, and his wife Fritta; from her the kingdom received the nickname Phrygia, where that city (Troy) was located.]

Что настоящее наше время? — Ниц! цемно вьиендзе, глухо вшендзе! — говорит очень умно один воспитанник Русского Парнасса.

[What is our present time? – Prostrate! “Ciemno wszędzie, głucho wszędzie” – very cleverly says one pupil of the Russian Parnassus (Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady. Część II).]

Here’s a long passage I’m too lazy to translate (GT is your friend):

Если б перенести сюда всех читателей во время сна, и когда они проснутся, спросить их: где вы? — им бы и в голову не пришло сказать, что они в одном из давно прошедших столетий. Они бы увидели знакомое им небо, знакомое синее море, увидели бы лес мачт в пристани, кипы и груды товаров на берегу, матросов в куртках, народ в Азиатской и Европейской одежде, увидели бы черноглазых красавиц за решетчатыми окнами, и под покрывалом на улице, услышали бы говор, шум, спор, ссору, дружбу, ласки, брань, и поняли бы, что все дело основано на тех же самых отношениях, выгодах и самолюбии, на каких оно основано и в XIX-м столетии; они поняли бы, что жизнь за 22 века также сложна и разнообразна, радостна и горька, что поле усеяно знакомыми цветами: ни краска, ни запах не переменились.

— Но мы не понимаем, что они говорят? сказали бы читатели. Прислушайтесь и поймете. Вот старуха Египтянка шепчет что-то этому молодому человеку, — она часто произносит слово дщери, дщери, Она говорит про дочь свою. — Вот раздаются слова: хэ братр х-адем-у хут![74] —Э значат: эй, брат, идем в хату. Вы поймете, что значит речь, произносимая нежным голосом из окна: ио хотео витан тао херта, че ту миннас? Это значит: я хотела видеть твое сердце, что ты мнишь, или думаешь.

Таким образом читатели могут видеть, как легко было в древности изучать языки, — да и удивительно ли — океан, покрывавший некогда землю, иссяк, раздробился на тьму морей, озер и рек; тоже случилось и с первым языком — Океаном: он раздробился на тьму наречий, которые цветут и покрываются тиной; как стоячая вода, вместо древних слов, Океанических гигантов, теперь речи наполнились словами-Инфузориями, которые не имеют ни весу, ни протяжений, на пример….

Но примеры можно найти во всех мелких стихотворениях и в Гомеопатической философии века, и во всех современных гениальных произведениях… Лежит у меня на душе новая наука, великая наука! Есть механика ремесленная, есть механика небесная, должна быть и механика литературы. Теперь век малого учения и многого знания… О, эта наука нам необходима! — она уже существует, действует уже на великое наше поколение, совокупилась уже с ним и плодит гениев; а мы этого как будто не примечаем!..

And here’s a final bit of language fun:

Так рассказывала Минизия Александру на Скифском языке, который он изрядно понимал, ибо в то время все языки еще не так далеки были друг от друга, и стоило только присесть, чтоб изучить какое угодно наречие первого земного языка.

That is what Minizia told Alexander in the Scythian language, which he understood pretty well, for at that time all languages ​​were not yet so far from each other, and you only had to sit down to study any dialect you liked of the first earthly language.

(Which was, of course, Dutch.)

Addendum. I forgot to mention that the epigraph at the start reads:

И снова в путь.
  ”Странник”, ч. IV.

On the road once more.
  Strannik [The Wanderer], Part IV.

In other words, it is explicitly presented as a continuation of the earlier novel, with its free-and-easy flitting across time and space and random ruminations.


  1. Kalimeros (i.e., Bonaparte)

    How is κᾰλή ημέρα = bona parte? Where is that from?

  2. No, no, it’s μέρος ‘part.’

  3. A later novel of his is called General Kalomeros, where he corrects the word formation. (It’s explicitly about Napoleon.)

  4. Here’s Belinsky’s (not Veltman’s) explanation:
    …известно, что Наполеон происходит от одной греческой фамилии, переселившейся в Италию по падении византийской империи, что эта фамилия носила имя Калимеросов и что греческое «Калимерос» было переведено на италиянский слово в слово чрез — «Buona-parte», что значит добрая участь

    …it is known that Napoleon came from a Greek family that moved to Italy after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, that this family bore the name Kalimeros and that the Greek “Kalimeros” was translated into Italian word for word as “Buona-parte”, which means “good fate” [GT tells me that good fate is καλή μοίρα]

    Addendum: I don’t know who is now having a little joke. Russian участь does mean “fate” but is very close to часть “part” (as Wiktionary calls it “by surface analysis”). In a sense, I guess, that it is a part (of what?) given to a person. I wouldn’t take it too seriously, though.

  5. John Cowan says

    Addendum: I don’t know who is now having a little joke. Russian участь does mean “fate” but is very close to часть “part” (as Wiktionary calls it “by surface analysis”). In a sense, I guess, that it is a part (of what?) given to a person. I wouldn’t take it too seriously, though.

    Exactly parallel to Greek: μοῖρα is both ‘fate’ and ‘portion’ < μείρομαι ‘receive as one’s portion’, cf. L mereo ‘deserve, merit; earn, get, obtain, acquire’ and Hittite mar-ak-zi ‘divide’, likewise cf. μέρος ‘part’ vs. μόρος ‘fate’, the e-grade and o-grade respectively. In a semantic network, two terms that stand in a part:whole relationship, like leaf:tree, are a meronym and holonym respectively.

  6. January First-of-May says

    Veltman’s time travel jape has some notoriety in science fiction history on account of being apparently one of the first few (known) literary works anywhere ever (IIRC possibly the very first, though opinions differ) to depict time travel into the past. This was the only reason I’ve (previously) ever heard of the story, and if not for this very blog’s old-Russian-literature progress might well have been the only reason I’ve ever heard of Veltman.

    I’m personally rather more a fan of Andersen’s Lykkens galocher, but it is, alas, two years newer (1838).

  7. Intrigued by your варенины mystery, I’ve found an allusion to it in Dal’…some sort of boiled swill or mash specifically for cattle? At least, that’s what the cited snippet implies.

  8. Interesting and plausible, and now I’m wondering if I read an abridged text, because there are no варенины in my version.

  9. Exactly parallel to Greek: μοῖρα is both ‘fate’ and ‘portion’

    Neat – the exact same metaphor as “kismet” (qism-at, from qsm “divide”).

  10. @LH, it’s a typo: варениЦы


  11. @laowai, actually, its appearance in Dahl’s source indicates that it could not be a familiar thing from the largest market in Moscow. It comes from a supplement to the dictionary compiled by someone Naumov, who in turn took the word from a collection of folklore by Rybnikov. Rybnikov mentions it twice.

    All of this is very weird, because it is just the stem of the participle from “to cook/boil” and a very productive suffix. One expects it to find everywhere, but no, just some story about two Russian folk epic heroes and one foreign hero (Idol the Pagan).

  12. So they are eating and drinking and Idol enters their tent and complains that nowhere in the world he can find a fighter who would match him, and when offered their food he refuses because what they have is not enough to satisfy his epic appetites, to which the Russian hero responds that he can find such fighters in the tent but not outside and that in the glorious city of Murom, in his native village there was a horse with similar epic appetite who would eat one cart of hay at a time and drink one tub of varenina at a time which eventually led to loss of integrity of the outer covers of the horse’s body …
    And so on.

  13. ‘Если б перенести сюда всех читателей во время сна, и когда они проснутся, спросить их: где вы? — им бы и в голову не пришло сказать, что они в одном из давно прошедших столетий. …. они поняли бы, что жизнь за 22 века также сложна и разнообразна…’

    Something I remind myself about once in a while. (A forest of masts at the quay is not a familiar sight anymore of course, what I remind myself about is human expereince, not tech)

  14. January First-of-May says

    A forest of masts at the quay is not a familiar sight anymore of course

    I’ve gotten to see one of those (or, at least, something very much like one) once, at the marina in Herzliya. It was quite an experience. I imagine rather more organized than the medieval versions, though.

    (Wikimedia Commons has a picture of the Herzliya marina that doesn’t feel too far off what I remember seeing, though it’s rather more majestic in person – on account of the boats being actually fairly large – and IIRC my viewing angle didn’t have those buildings in the background. In fact now that I think about it I might have been viewing from near those buildings.
    There’s a few other pictures in the category that make it look even more like a forest.)

  15. PlasticPaddy says
    Long and illustrious history of варенец…

  16. «На сырной неделе в стол еству подают: … кисель [sg] белый со сливками, кисель [sg] овсяный, молоко [sg] тверское, варенцы [pl]»,

    Why plural if it is a liquid? (Domostroy which I quote was the symbol of oppresion of women in soviet times. Supposedly, it contained instructions for beating women. When I was.. I don’t know, 11? 12? I bought a copy and found a hosekeeping manual, with cooking recipes).

  17. @LH, it’s a typo: варениЦы

    Thank you!! That was really bothering me. As you say, the misprinted word looks perfectly normal, so I didn’t suspect a typo… (I’ll go put the ц in the post now.)

  18. But wait: вареницы isn’t a word either, and it isn’t in Veltman’s text! (And neither is варенцы.) So it’s the same problem, but with a different letter…

  19. vareniny is worse, because in modern Russian you find govyádina, baránina, svinína, olenína, konína (kinds of meat: “beef” etc. Why most of these roots have -n!?), or from a participle solonína “salted meat”, or blevótina “vomit”, and they are not used in plural and you don’t expect cooked meat here.

    Varenitsy implies *varenitsa, which does sound as some kind of food they could sell there.

    So it is less perplexing but remains a problem.

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