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Tea with Plums

In response to:

Under the Cranberry Tree from the March 3, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

Much as I am in sympathy with Nicolas Nabokov’s completely justified criticism of Mrs. Jacqueline Onassis’s In the Russian Style (NYR, March 3), I do confess to a soft spot in my heart for Alexander Dumas père, whose works I treasured as a child. The widespread legend that he is responsible for the phrase razvesistaya klyukva, “a branchy cranberry,” is apparently a spurious one. I have never been able to find the phrase in his works, including his travel book about Russia, and the Russian Krylatye slova (a dictionary of phrases and quotations) of 1960 exonerates him of guilt. Indeed, it seems unlikely that any foreign author should have used such a phrase, even for the sake of local color, when there are so many more juicy Russian terms, such as muzhik, pomeshchik, barin, knut, obrok, et al. ad nauseam. Krylatye slova suggests that the phrase may have arisen around 1900, long after Dumas père‘s death, and that it has a Russian source rather than a French one, first appearing perhaps in some parody of foreigners and their uninformed views on Russia. Certainly it would be easy to imagine a more witty slip, and the real mystery is why such a phrase became proverbial. Constance Garnett’s unfortunate error (Russians drink their tea with “little plums”—so slivkami, actually with cream) would seem a happier choice.

Russians have firmly clung to the opinion that foreigners will never really understand them (Mr. Nabokov’s cousin Vladimir is an ardent adherent of this point of view), and after some thirty years of study I am tempted to agree with this view. Still, it is some slight comfort to note that Western scholarship has long since discarded the notion of a “Slavic soul,” and that even our popular journalism (witness the recent books by Robert Kaiser and Hedrick Smith) is reasonably accurate.

William E. Harkins

Professor of Slavic Languages

Associate Director, Russian Institute

Columbia University

New York, New York

Nicolas Nabokov replies:

I greatly admire Professor Harkins’s scholarship and am in full agreement with him that due to the achievements of Western Scholarship (as opposed to Amateurship) a number of false notions about Russia and Russians have been discarded.

I admire even more Professor Harkins’s tenacity and endurance in his search for the mythical “branchy cranberry tree” in Père Dumas’s vast oeuvre (including, I assume, his correspondence from, to, and about Russia).

Yet the fact remains that, whether rightly or wrongly, the term razvesistaya kliukva, as the symbol of nonsense that was being spread about Russia, has been attributed to the easy-going Père for over a century. It had entered proverbial Russian long before the study of the Russian language and its literature had emerged in the West. It remains proverbial among Russians and was used by me exclusively in this sense.

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