Zhitkov and the Modernist Novel.

I’m finally reading Boris Zhitkov‘s Виктор Вавич (Viktor Vavich), and my thoughts on reading the opening paragraphs were as follows, in this order: “No wonder Pasternak liked it; this is a modernist novel; this guy has definitely read Bely.” Here is the opening (my translation, then the Russian):

The sunny day poured across the city. At noon the empty streets were languishing.

In the Vaviches’ courtyard the wind stirs the straw and gives up — too lazy to raise it. A puppy has placed its muzzle between its paws and is whining from boredom. It twitches its leg and raises dust. The dust is too lazy to fly, too lazy to settle, and it hangs in the air like sleepy gold, squinting in the sun.

And it was so quiet at the Vaviches’ that you could hear the horses chewing in the stable — like a car: “hram-hram.”

And all of a sudden, making the porch and his boots creak, the dashing young Vavich strutted into the courtyard. A volunteer of the second rank. With soft little, dark little mustaches. He tightened his belt: for whom, in the empty courtyard? His jackboots were polished — not government-issue but his own, and not foppish but moderate. Ingratiating jackboots. Not government-issue, but no cause for hazing. He held his rifle lightly, like a walking-stick, tilted forward. Impeccably cleaned. The ducks, startled, toddled into a corner, quacking in annoyance. And Viktor Vavich began to stamp out starting with the left foot, from the garden to the fence, at drill step:


Солнечный день валил через город. В полдень разомлели пустые улицы.
У Вавичей во дворе шевельнет ветер солому и бросит — лень поднять. Щенок положил морду в лапы и скулит от скуки. Дрыгнет ногой, поднимет пыль. Лень ей лететь, лень садиться, и висит она в воздухе сонным золотом, жмурится на солнце.
И так тихо было у Вавичей, что слышно было в доме, как жуют в конюшне лошади — как машина: “храм-храм”.
И вдруг, поскрипывая крыльцом и сапогами, молодцевато сошел во двор молодой Вавич. Вольнопер второго разряда. С маленькими усиками, с мягонькими, черненькими. Затянулся ремешком: для кого, в пустом дворе? Ботфорты начищены, не казенные — свои, и не франтовские — умеренные. Вкрадчивые ботфорты. Не казенные, а цукнуть нельзя. Он легко, как тросточку, держал наперевес винтовку. Образцово вычищена. Утки всполошились, заковыляли в угол, с досады крякали. А Виктор Вавич от палисадника к забору с левой ноги стал печатать учебным шагом:
— Ать-два! .

I’m not at all confident of my translation in a couple of places: цукнуть is not in the dictionaries, but I’m assuming it’s a perfective form of цукать ‘to scold, reprimand,’ comparable to Ivan Savin’s 1924 “Но Главнокомандующий понял, что за любовь не наказывают. Главнокомандующий не цукнул”; учебный шаг is some sort of military pace between slow march and quick march — cf. Gleb Uspenksy’s 1869 “Узнала также от солдата, который, возвратясь с ученья, любил посидеть на крыльце и покурить трубочку, что прежде был тихий учебный шаг и скорый шаг, а теперь осталась одна пальба, а шаг запрещен” — but I have no idea how to render it appropriately, so I’ve used the literal “training pace.” [Changed to “hazing” and “drill step” thanks to helpful commenters.] Вольнопер is a colloquial [and contemptuous] shortening of вольноопределяющийся, which my Oxford dictionary defines as “‘volunteer’ (person with secondary education serving term in tsarist Russian army on privileged conditions)”; there’s obviously no way to convey any of that, so I’ve settled for “volunteer,” and I’m not sure what “второго разряда” (“of the second rank”) means in this context.

The immediate focus on the weather, the streets, the courtyard, the personification of the wind and the dust are pure Pasternak: opening my edition at random, I find Десятилетье пресни (“Глушь доводила до бесчувствия/ Дворы, дворы, дворы…”), Оттепелями из магазинов (“Небу под снег хотелось,/ Улицу бил озноб,/ Ветер дрожал за целость/ Вывесок, блях и скоб”), Весна (“Земля, земля волнуется,/ И катятся, как волны,/ Чернеющие улицы, —/ Им, ветреницам, холодно”), and in the second chapter of Детство Люверс [The Childhood of Luvers] there’s a passage starting “Стоял теплый, солнечный апрель” [It was a warm, sunny April] that resonates with the Zhitkov.

As for the modernism, it leaps to the eye, but I’m not sure how to define it. (If I’d been a literature major, I might have had a better set of tools for this.) What it reminded me of specifically was Bely’s 1913-14 Petersburg (see this post and the earlier ones linked therein), and that made me wonder what the similarity consisted of, and whether Bely’s was the first Russian modernist novel (it certainly was a major source for Russian modernism of the 1920s, like Pilnyak and Tynyanov). For that matter, what was the first modernist novel? I did some googling, and here are the results.

The earliest novel mentioned was Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), and yes, that’s a fine candidate, but in this context it’s too early: it heavily influenced writers for almost a century, but then realism swept the field. What was the first modern modernist novel? Some investigation suggests it was Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pecuchet (1881), which starts with exactly the inhuman impersonality I associate with the kind of prose I have in mind:

Comme il faisait une chaleur de 33 degrés, le boulevard Bourdon se trouvait absolument désert.

Plus bas le canal Saint-Martin, fermé par les deux écluses étalait en ligne droite son eau couleur d’encre. Il y avait au milieu, un bateau plein de bois, et sur la berge deux rangs de barriques.

Au delà du canal, entre les maisons que séparent des chantiers le grand ciel pur se découpait en plaques d’outremer, et sous la réverbération du soleil, les façades blanches, les toits d’ardoises, les quais de granit éblouissaient. Une rumeur confuse montait du loin dans l’atmosphère tiède ; et tout semblait engourdi par le désoeuvrement du dimanche et la tristesse des jours d’été.

Deux hommes parurent.

L’un venait de la Bastille, l’autre du Jardin des Plantes. Le plus grand, vêtu de toile, marchait le chapeau en arrière, le gilet déboutonné et sa cravate à la main. Le plus petit, dont le corps disparaissait dans une redingote marron, baissait la tête sous une casquette à visière pointue.

Quand ils furent arrivés au milieu du boulevard, ils s’assirent à la même minute, sur le même banc.

It is impossible to suppose we are going to be expected to sympathize or identify with these two men; they are being held out for inspection as if with tongs. The next novel mentioned in this context is Hamsun’s Hunger (1890); there’s no question that it’s modernist, but not in the sense I’m trying to get at. It begins (in Sverre Lyngstad’s translation) “It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its marks upon him. . . . Lying awake in my attic room, I hear a clock strike six downstairs.” That’s a first-person narration reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s The Double (see this post), and I assume Dostoevsky was a considerable influence on Hamsun; the modernism here is in the psychology, not the narration — there is not the immediate defamiliarization you get in the Flaubert. The same is true of Gide’s Paludes (1895: “Leur plaisanterie me parut prétentieuse, de sorte que je crus devoir n’entrer qu’après eux. Le salon d’Angèle etait déjà plein de monde ; au milieu de tous Angèle circulait…”), Conrad’s Nostromo (1904: “It was trying to the nerves. Old Viola had risen slowly, gun in hand, irresolute, for he did not see how he could prevent them. Already voices could be heard talking at the back. Signora Teresa was beside herself with terror”), and Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal (1904: “One of the few things, in fact about the only thing I was sure of was my name: Mattia Pascal. Of this I took full advantage also”). In fact, after Flaubert the first real exemplar I find is Bely’s first published work, the 1902 Simfoniya (2-ya, dramaticheskaya [Symphony (2nd, dramatic)], which begins (first the translation by Roger and Angela Keys, then the Russian):

1. A season of sweltering grind. The roadway gleamed blindingly.

2. Cab-drivers cracked their whips, exposing their worn, blue backs to the hot sun.

3. Yard-sweepers raised columns of dust, their grime-browned faces loudly exulting, untroubled by grimaces from passers-by.

Стояла душная страда. Мостовая ослепительно сверкала.

Трещали извозчики, подставляя жаркому солнцу истертые, синие спины.

Дворники поднимали прах столбом, не смущаясь гримасами прохожих, гогоча коричнево-пыльными лицами.

Here is clearly the kernel of the style he developed more luxuriantly in The Silver Dove (see this post) and to perfection in Petersburg; it only got a few years to flourish before Stalin shut down Russian literature, but it produced wonderful offspring, and Zhitkov’s novel is among them.

Incidentally, my wife and I, after spending a couple of years reading Trollope’s parliamentary novels, are now on his autobiography, and we’ve started watching the BBC adaptation of the novels, The Pallisers, which is absolutely splendid and which I heartily recommend to anyone with a fondness for period drama and great acting.

Addendum. I should add that Zhitkov, like Pasternak, is teaching me all sorts of new words; in the last couple of pages I’ve learned вейка ‘Finnish cabman’ (from Finnish veikko ‘brother’) and кокора ‘tree stump; uprooted tree.’ Also, the cabman says “рисать копек” [risat’ kopek] for тридцать копеек [tridtsat’ kopeek] ‘thirty kopecks”; I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve seen a Finnish accent represented in Russian.

Update (2020). In my survey of putative early modernist novels I forgot about Sologub’s Тяжёлые сны [Bad Dreams], first published in 1895, which begins:

Начало весны. Тихий вечер… Большой тенистый сад в конце города, над обрывистым берегом реки, у дома Зинаиды Романовны Кульчицкой, вдовы и здешней богатой помещицы…

The start of spring. A quiet evening… A large, shady garden at the edge of the city, over the steep slope of a river, by the house of Zinaida Romanovna Kulchitskaya, a local widow and rich landowner…

That clearly belongs in the line of modernism I’m trying to describe, and should replace Bely’s 1902 Simfoniya as “the first real exemplar” (which makes sense, since Bely was strongly influenced by Sologub).


  1. I’m not sure what “второго разряда” (“of the second rank”) means in this context

    Well, the Russian Wikipedia article you linked actually goes into detail about this, though the definition changed over time. The article makes it clear that whether one was a volunteer of the first or second rank was determined by one’s educational background, and the rank affected one’s length of service and possibilities for advancement. I assume the understanding of the второй разряд relevant to the novel would be the one noted in the “Изменение срока службы в 1886 году” subsection on the WP page.

    The seemingly relevant web definition that pops up for цукать (“Грубо издеваться над кем нибудь (школ. устар.”)) suggests to me more sneering or scoffing, rather than “reprimanding” or any other sort of formal official censure, but, not being Russian, I’m only guessing at the nuance myself.

  2. Thanks! That fills out my understanding of “второго разряда,” and (happily) gives me no cause to change the translation. As for цукать, that may have been the schoolboy meaning, but I think “reprimand” (which I got from my largest R-E dictionary: “fig to scold, reprimand, reproof; to preach, lecture”) fits better in the military context (cf. the Savin quote above).

  3. In a military context, tsukat’ is to assert, sometimes abuse, the power one has, by virtue of seniority in rank or greater experience, over other servicemen.Tsuk also refers to the informal hierarchy in old military schools, yunkerskie uchlischa, a kind of codified continuous hazing. I suggest Googling “zhit’ po tsuku” – last time I tried to paste Cyrillic passages here, it didn’t work.

    Don’t forget Sologub and Remizov. The Petty Demon appeared in 1905 and might have been the first Russian modernist novel. As one of the smartest Russian critics has noted, Zhitkov’s optics and compositional technique in Viktor Vavich is largely borrowed from the “symbolist prose” by Remizov, Bely, and especially Sologub. But it’s a questionable grouping, “symbolist prose.”

  4. I should have mentioned Sologub; I thought of The Petty Demon and got out my copy, but it didn’t seem to me formally modernist in the sense I’m trying to get at here. And I really have to read Remizov. I agree that “symbolist prose” is a questionable grouping.

  5. Not sure if the nuances are all that important. But “tsukat'” has a 100% connotation of informality, of behind-the-scenes hazing rather than formal reprimanding.
    “Vkradchivye” means “sneaky” (his boots are better than the government-issue sh*t, but they are better in a sneaky way … they just don’t look too fancy, they won’t get their owner in trouble)
    “Learning step” has everything to do with his counting at-dva, as in marching step practice. A pretense of experience, an unmistakable truth of being a rookie, a training-school foffer.

  6. Perhaps something like “drill step” would be closer to the point. I haven’t encountered учебный шаг during my own spell in the Soviet military (which had inherited quite a lot of marching- and uniform-related matters from the old Russian army) but it somehow feels to be alike to строевой шаг.
    Also, “с левой ноги” means starting with the left foot (as any parade movement must start as per the statute), and “затянулся ремешком” probably just means he tightened his belt: he must have been wearing a belt with two shoulder straps (портупею — from porte-épée) but those are not usually tightened.

  7. Ah, yeah, and vol’nopyor isn’t merely an abbreviated way to say “volunteer”, it’s a sneering, ridiculing way to say the same as well. From the verb “peret'” which to barge ahead when not asked, to press on without looking, it’s used when someone pushes you in the crowd or when a crowd is surging ahead in a mindless stupor. Vol’nopyor is like, yeah right, volunteer, you should have thought about it before joining…

    Google “Kudy presh'” in Cyrillic

  8. Thanks, all; I’ll use “hazing,” “drill step,” “starting with the left foot,” and “belt.”

  9. Giving this post a “bump,” as inquiring minds would like to know: Did LH finish the novel? Thumbs up, thumbs down?

  10. January First-of-May says

    Boris Zhitkov is probably much better known to Russian kids as the recipient of the Leningrad postman’s letter in Samuil Marshak’s famous poem.

    Or, at least, I personally didn’t find out that he was also an author in his own right until much later.

  11. Giving this post a “bump,” as inquiring minds would like to know: Did LH finish the novel? Thumbs up, thumbs down?

    Your question/bump is well timed. I finished the first of its three parts, which was published as a separate book in 1929 (the second part appeared in 1934, the third was suppressed by censors in 1941), and I took the occasion to set it aside and go back to the 19th century. It’s not that I hated it — it’s certainly well written, and there’s lots of interesting stuff in it — but it’s not what I was expecting, whatever that was, and I was getting a bit bored and irritated. There are a bunch of short chapters, jumping from one character to the next (I don’t know why Vavich gets the eponymous role, since he doesn’t seem to have any more significant a role than any of half a dozen others), and there’s very little in the way of plot. Vavich becomes a policeman; another guy gets arrested; a couple of people fall in love… it’s not much meat for what must be hundreds of pages worth of text (on Kindle, I’m almost halfway through the complete text, which runs seven or eight hundred pages in print depending on the edition). It’s a nice panoramic view of a provincial city in late imperial times, but I was expecting something much more focused on the years 1904-05 with the war and ensuing revolution, and so far all that might relate to that is a factory strike. Maybe the rest will be more focused, and maybe someday I’ll get to it, but for now I’m cutting my losses — it’s just not worth postponing Dostoevsky for.

    So I read Turgenev’s “Prizraki” [Phantoms], a “fantasy” in which the ghost-woman Ellis carries the narrator night after night to the Isle of Wight, Rome (and Julius Caesar), Lago Maggiore, the Volga (and Stepan Razin), Paris, Germany, and Petersburg, and I’ve just started Leskov’s Nekuda [No way out], a long novel (it takes up the entire second volume of my Sobranie sochinenii, over 700 pages) and so far very enjoyable.

  12. @January First-of-May: It’s unlikely that you never read Zhitkov’s tales for children while growing up. You may have forgotten the author’s name.

  13. John Cowan says

    If Tristram Shandy is the first modernist novel, it is most certainly the first postmodernist novel as well.

  14. Sure. And the older I get, the less I’m sure there’s a meaningful distinction between modernist and postmodernist; I suspect it’s mainly marketing, as Leo Livak has shown for the various supposedly opposing schools of what he refers to simply as Russian modernism (symbolism, decadence, acmeism, futurism, etc.).

  15. the older I get, the less I’m sure there’s a meaningful distinction between modernist and postmodernist

    Evidence for this: the academic reactionaries who growl about “postmodernism” in exactly the terms in which their fathers growled about “modernism.”

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