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Slavism

In response to:

Notes on Pushkin from the December 3, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

While we welcome with enthusiasm the Cyrillic baptism of The New York Review of Books, most appropriately in an article on Pushkin [NYR, December 3] and especially by such an eminent critic as Edmund Wilson, being professionally pedantic, academic Slavists (members of the MLA!), we are moved to defend our profession against Mr. Wilson’s implied slurs, and also to point out to your readers that Mr. Wilson may not be the most dependable guide to what lies concealed behind those arcane letters.

Citing Vladislav Khodasevich, Mr. Wilson “wonders at never having found…mentioned by anyone else” the story entitled “The Secluded Little House on Vasilievsky Island,” which V. P. Titov published in 1829, with Pushkin’s permission, after having heard it narrated orally by the poet. Though Mr. Wilson may not have read them, this tale has been discussed by many Pushkin scholars. A recent thorough treatment by a Soviet scholar is the article “Vljublennyj bes” (“A Fiend in Love”) by T. G. Cjavlovskaja in Pushkin: issledovanija i materialy, III (Moscow, 1960), 101-130, which traces the various permutations of this theme in Pushkin’s manuscripts, including his drawings. In the emigration, the story has been discussed in 1969 by N. Oulianoff in The New Review, a Russian-language literary magazine published in New York (No. 94, pp. 101-112). This article led to a polemic between Oulianoff and Professor Zbigniew Folejewski about the role of Pushkin as the originator of the image of “demon-ridden St. Petersburg,” in the course of which a number of other commentators on this story were mentioned.

In English, there is a whole section on it in an otherwise unsatisfactory book by Charles Passage, The Russian Hoffmannists (The Hague, 1963, pp. 116-130). Like Mr. Wilson, Passage also misreads the adjective in the title—“uedinennyj” means “secluded,” not “lonely” (which would have been “odinokij“). Mr. Wilson’s behest that the story be included in Pushkin’s collected works has already been heeded, some dozen years in advance, in the second small-format edition of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (1956-58) and in subsequent reprints of it (this is the most widely used Russian edition of Pushkin). The editors, however, are taken to task for doing so by Mme. Cjavlovskaja, who considers the story unworthy of such canonization: if the theme was Pushkin’s, the prolix and pedestrian implementation was Titov’s.

Mr. Wilson believes that “The Gypsies” has been “imperfectly understood, even by Russians,” and he offers us his newly discovered key to its meaning. The hero, Aleko, is “fleeing from the law on account of having committed a crime of violence”; this fact presages his committing another during the action of the poem, the murder of Zemfira and her lover. Mr. Wilson is partly right, of course, although his insight has been a commonplace of Pushkin criticism for generations: Aleko indeed has a dark and lawless past and a cruel, vindictive nature; his violent crime is thus adequately prepared for psychologically, if only by hints and undeveloped allusions. But to us Mr. Wilson’s conjectures seem too limiting, too specific. The darkness of the hero’s past—both its criminality and its vagueness—was, after all, a Byronic cliché. The darkness may conceal a previous crime of violence, to be sure, but other possibilities exist, even more titillating: the quintessentially Byronic incest, for instance, and, especially in the Russian context, political rebellion. One of Pushkin’s strategies in the poem is to strip the glamour off this ultra-romantic stock figure by having him commit a squalid and despicable “crime of passion.”

Mr. Wilson’s translations of the Cyrillic originals fall short of complete accuracy. To translate “strasti rokovye” (“fatal passions”) as “predestined passions” may perhaps be justified by the alliteration, though we doubt it. After all, the idea of fate rather than predestination is basic to the poem’s conclusion. But Mr. Wilson’s “Be quiet, young man, you’re not dealing with a brother” as a rendition of “Potishe, molodoj chelovek, ty ne s svoim bratom svjazalsja” is a typical schoolboy’s howler: the dictionary definitions of the individual words do not render their idiomatic meaning in sequence. The actual sense of the passage is “Watch your step, young man, you’re tangling with somebody bigger than you are.”

Finally, Mr. Wilson’s rendition of the first name of Titov’s pseudonym (Russian Tit, English Titus) by the unexpected Italo-Yugoslav form “Tito” suggests to us a difficulty all too familiar among students of Russian in reconstructing the correct nominative form of a Russian noun standing in some oblique case.

Hugh McLean

Simon Karlinsky

Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

University of California, Berkeley

Edmund Wilson replies:

It had already been brought to my attention that Titov’s story has been included in one of the editions of Pushkin; but I was glad to have the references that Messrs. McLean and Karlinsky give. If, however, they will consult the Oxford dictionary, they will find that “lonely” means primarily “solitary, isolated.” As to my translation of “brat” as “brother,” I knew what the phrase meant but did not want to use “equal,” as not colloquial enough, and counted on the context to make the meaning clear. The suggested rendering of my critics does not recommend itself. As for “predestined passions,” there are two Russian words for “fate”: “rok” and “sud’ba.” I did not want to repeat “fate,” so resorted to “destiny.” Are Messrs. McLean and Karlinsky—who seem stronger on Russian than English—confusing “predestined” with “predestinated”? My remarks about “Tsygany” were prompted by several arguments I have had with Russians, who insisted that Aleko’s crime must have been merely political. I did not know that incest was a punishable crime in Russia. Finally, I acknowledge my mistake about Titov’s first name: I should have noticed that the story was signed “Tit.”

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