Veltman’s Wigs.

I’m about a third of the way through Alexander Veltman’s novel Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского (Adventures drawn from the sea of life, published in book form as Саломея [Salomea] — see this LH post), and I’m completely hooked. (One of the problems with recommending Veltman to people is that he’s the opposite of one of those grab-the-reader-by-the-lapels-and-don’t-let-go writers; he is deliberately confusing and seems almost to be driving the reader away, and it usually takes many chapters to settle in and start to see what he’s up to.) I’ve run across one of those startlingly modern, or postmodern, moments that keep cropping up in Veltman (compare my evocation of Pirandello here), and I’m hoping my readers can come up with parallels that I am too ignorant or forgetful to think of myself.

One of the protagonists is Dmitritsky (his given name has not so far been revealed); what he cares about most in life is gambling, and whenever he comes into money he immediately goes and finds a card table. Unfortunately, he’s not a very good gambler, and towards the beginning of the novel he gets cleaned out by a cardsharp named Zhelynsky (i.e., Zieliński, a common Polish name) and is forced to flee because he can’t pay what he owes. Many pages and adventures later, dead broke once again, he hires himself out to a rich traveler named Chernomsky (presumably Czarnomski), refusing wages and saying he’ll work for food until things pick up. He is a perfect servant (renamed Mateusz: “I call all my servants Mateusz”), treating Chernomsky so deferentially and behaving so imperiously with innkeepers and merchants that they treat his boss far better than usual. When they pull into Gomel, Chernomsky tells him he’s going to visit some friends, and he comes back to the inn so drunk he collapses and starts snoring. Dmitritsky takes the opportunity to extract the key Chernomsky keeps on his person at all times and opens the trunk his boss won’t let anyone touch. There, along with great quantities of coins, bills, and valuables, he finds wigs and false mustaches. He’s had a niggling feeling all along that Chernomsky was somehow familiar, and once he sees a reddish wig, it comes to him: he puts it on the head of his boozed-up boss, and realizes he’s looking at none other than the very Zhelynsky who had long ago cheated him of the money he had been hoping to cheat Zhelynsky out of, and who was responsible for his life of nervous exile without identity papers. He then puts on the wig Chernomsky had been wearing, attaches a pair of false mustaches, looks in the mirror, and says: “Браво! Черномский, да и только!.. Да! надо надеть мое платье, а дрянную венгерку отдам этому пьянице, моему камердинеру Матеушу Желынскому.” [Bravo! Chernomsky to the life!.. Yes, I just have to dress myself, and give the wretched dolman to this drunkard, my servant Mateusz Zhelynsky.] I love not only the peripeteia but the identification of clothes and wig with personhood: if he dresses as Chernomsky, he is Chernomsky. This must be a well-known trope, but I’m not well-read enough to cite other examples; can my readers?

Another question, a niggling linguistic one: he keeps throwing in bits of Polish and/or Ukrainian, and one phrase that gets repeated is пан(е) грабе [pan(e) grabe], apparently an address to a rich, high-ranking, or otherwise impressive person. Pan, of course, is a well-known Western Slavic and Ukrainian honorific, but what’s the grabe? It looks like it might be related to German Graf ‘count,’ but I can’t find out anything about it.


  1. Wonderful scene! “Grabe” is a Russian rendering of the Polish “hrabia” (count), which indeed related to “Graf.” The vocative is “hrabio,” and you’ll find many hits for “Panie Hrabio.”

  2. Thanks! I always forget to check h- equivalents.

  3. Having read Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl in Russian last week, I recall the protagonist wearing an old венгерка. Apparently, a венгерка is a civilian version of the доломан, usually short like the latter but sometimes long like a кафтан (links 1 and 2). A dolman-style male coat, apparently popular in Russia and Central Europe in the first half of the 19th century.

    Except that Schlemihl’s garment, it turns out, was “Kurtka” in the original German. By the time Chamisso published Peter Schlemihl, he had not yet entered Russian service so I would think “Kurtka” was a Polish loan. In one English translation, it is rendered as “frock-coat”, so presumed knee-length. But whether derived from “court(e)” or “curtus”, “Kurtka” is probably shorter than that. Венгерка sounds like a sensible choice because it is short by default although Chamisso does not mention braids in front.

  4. Here is a Kurtka.

  5. Here is one example of a wig at a card table, in the Soviet fil, ‘Kotivsky’, 1942, starts at 7th minute. Later they read Blok and a Vertinsky look-alike sings at 29:30 min.

  6. Kotovsky

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