Excerpts from «Variegated Tales»

Prince Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky

Translated by Olesya Surkova

 

Translator’s Preface

     In general, the American reader’s knowledge of Russian literary classics is limited primarily by the availability of English language translations. Extant translations have also largely defined the foreign audience’s pref­erences for certain Russian writers over others. Thus, while some authors, such as Tolstoy and Chekhov, have been translated and retranslated into English, others, such as Prince Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky, have un­fortunately been neglected or translated very selectively.[1] In the hope of restoring justice in regard to one of my favorite writers, I have translated several literary pieces by Odoevsky that were first published together in Pestrye skazki (Variegated Tales), a collection of stories from 1833. These translations are part of a larger work in progress, a project that will result in an English-language version of the collection in its entirety.

     The pieces translated here include the “Author’s Foreword” to the whole collection; two fairy tales from the collection: “A Fairy Tale about How Dangerous It Is for Young Ladies to Walk in a Throng down Nevsky Prospect” and “The Same Fairy Tale, but from the Inside Out”; and the “Epilogue” to Variegated Tales. The excerpts I have chosen, which are re­plete with satire and a multitude of cultural and historical references, are bound by implication and read as a whole.

     Their author, Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky (1803–69), was one of the central figures in Russian cultural life of the 19th century, although his life and work still have not received the attention they deserve in Russia or the West.[2] The Odoevsky family claimed descent from the Rurik Dynasty that ruled Russia before the Romanovs, from the 9th to the 16th century, and thus Vladimir Fyodorovich belonged to the highest stratum of the nobility. That alone gained him access to the best education, the best connections in society, and comfortable positions in government ser­vice. However, it was not his aristocratic title but his passionate and mod­est demeanor that made him friends with the most famous intellectuals of his time—Pushkin, Zhukovsky, Griboedov, Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Gogol, and many others—who regularly attended his literary and musical salons. Odoevsky’s curious nature, however, did not allow him to remain a mere patron of the arts; eventually he became a co-editor of one of the most influential literary journals in Russia, Sovremennik. He was also a musi­cian, an influential theorist of education, and a remarkably talented writer, who contributed greatly to the development of the Russian literary language.

     The leitmotif of Odoevsky’s oeuvre was the lie in art and in life. The genre of a literary fairy tale became one of Odoevsky’s favorite ways of ex­posing the lie in life—the disguised ignorance and artificial conventions of society. However, inspired by Schelling’s romanticism and Hoffmann’s fantastic tales, Odoevsky presented his satire in an elegant and creative way, forming his own unique style. Cornwell defines it as a “whimsical interplay of society tale and fairy tale.”[3] 

     A master of allegory, Odoevsky uses his fantastic characters and situ­ations to draw a caricature of the society he lives in, exposing its ridicu­lousness and its suffering in the same picture. In “A Fairy Tale about How Dangerous It Is for Young Ladies to Walk in a Throng Down Nevsky Pros­pect,” for example, a foreign magician and his devilish helpers trap a beautiful Russian girl and turn her into a brainless foreign doll. Then the doll is bought by an ardent young man who fails to find or revive true virtue within her, and so, desperate, he throws her out the window. Here Odoevsky addresses society’s overexposure to Western education and its blind imitation of the Western way of life. In the text, those allegories are expressed by the notorious use of French words, French being the official language of high society in 19th-century Russia, and references to Euro­pean writers on etiquette and morals (Madame Genlis, Chesterfield, Ben­tham), who were praised by society but whom Odoevsky obviously consid­ered ridiculous.

     In “The Same Fairy Tale, but from the Inside Out,” a sage, “the pro­genitor of the Slavic tribe,” picks the doll up in the street and undoes the spell of the foreign magician with the help of true art. Then one morning the doll discovers a brainless, soulless creature in her room, a creature akin to the one she used to be. She welcomes the creature into her home out of compassion, but it causes her so much suffering that she dies. Her dead body ends up being thrown out the window again. Here Odoevsky allegorically speaks about the healing powers of true art and promotes a return to Slavic heritage. He also portrays a typical society couple—a passionate and accomplished young woman and a proud obtuse husband who takes interest in nothing but his horses and is incapable of change. This amounts to the opposite of the first couple—a passionate young man and a brainless foreign doll who knows no true feelings.

     Curiously enough, Odoevsky uses a fictitious editor, whose foreword precedes the original collection of Variegated Tales, as well as a fictitious author, and the second fairy tale is supposedly written by a third fictitious person or even a group of people as a response to the first fairy tale. Thus Odoevsky imitates at least three different writing styles, which together with the blend of elevated language, colloquial speech, and various rhetor­ical devices, creates the finely woven variegated canvas of his tales.

     Unfortunately, Odoevsky’s style is very hard to preserve in transla­tion, and his subtle satire is time-bound and hard to understand even for the average contemporary Russian reader, not to mention the American reader with a different historical and cultural background. Therefore, put­ting Odoevsky’s tales in a historical context can undoubtedly give the reader new appreciation for this understudied classic of Russian litera­ture. This translation of Odoevsky’s fairy tales has turned out to be a chal­lenging yet enjoyable endeavor. Although there is still a lot of work ahead, I hope that one day these translations will find their audience and con­tribute to making Odoevsky known by and popular with the American reader.

 

§

 

Excerpts from Variegated Tales

Vladimir Odoevsky

 

Author’s Foreword 

My dear reader! 

     First of all, I consider it my duty to confess to you, dear sir, my unfortu­nate weakness… What can you do? Everyone has his faults and should be forgiving of his neighbor’s—this, as you know, is an undeniable truth; the only one of those truths that have ever had the honor of obliging human­kind; the only one that’s attained the rank of axiom; the only one that miraculously survived the attack of southern barbarians[4] in the 18th cen­tury, like a lonely cross in a nearly empty cemetery. And so, you are about to learn my fault, my misfortune, the eternal smear on my family’s name, as my grandmother used to say—I, my dear reader, am a scholar, but un­fortunately, however, not one of those scholars that Pascal described, who never read a thing, write but little, and crawl around a lot. No! I am just an idle scholar, i.е., I know all the possible languages, living, dead, and half-dead, all the disciplines that are and are not taught by all the Euro­pean universities; I can debate upon all subjects known and unknown to me; but most of all, I like to contemplate the origin of things and other such unprofitable subjects.

     Knowing all that, you can imagine what a miserable part I play in this society. However, in order to improve upon my poor reputation, I try to gain entrée to all the distinguished houses; I never miss anybody’s name day[5] or birthday, and show my face at every ball and dinner party, but, unfortunately, I don’t dance or play cards either for small or large stakes; I’m not versed in the art of discussing scandalous love affairs or eaves­dropping on the city’s gossip or even talking about such things; I’m no means to a better position or higher rank or finding out some state secret… If somewhere in a corner of a salon you meet a little man, slim, short, wearing a black tailcoat, well-groomed with patted-down hair, a man whose expression says, “For God’s sake, leave me alone,” and who — for that reason — puts his fingers between the buttons of his coat and bows to everyone with the utmost respect or attempts to start a conversa­tion with one person, then another, or with veneration observes the sagacious expressions of old men playing cards and inquires with compas­sion about a win or loss; in short, one who tries to show in every possible way that he is also a decent man and does nothing of value in this world, who at the same time is afraid to give his hand to an acquaintance, fearful the man might turn his back absent-mindedly—this is me, dear sir, me—your humble servant.

     Imagine my suffering! I who have spent my entire soul on emotions, who am burdened with a manifold family of thoughts, oppressed by the thoroughness of my knowledge, which I very much want to show off in society sometimes, but as soon as I open my mouth, a mustached young man, stiff and tight-laced, appears and interrupts my speech with some remark about the temperature in the rooms, or some venerable gent cap­tures everybody’s attention with a story about those inconceivable circum­stances that accompanied his loss of a grand slam;[6] meanwhile, the even­ing comes to an end and I go home with my mouth shut.

     In this predicament, I conceived the idea of addressing you, my dear reader, since, and I say this with no trace of flattery, I know you to be a kind and educated person, and at the same time you have no means of hushing me up. You can read or not read, close or open this book, but printed letters will not be silenced. And so, whether you want to or not, listen, and if you don’t like my story, then know that I have plenty of thoughts, which means I will speak to you till the end of time.

 

§

 

VII. A Fairy Tale about How Dangerous It Is for Young Ladies to Walk in a Throng Down Nevsky Prospect[7]

 

“Pray, madam, must you be going so soon?
Please allow me to accompany you.”
—“No, I do not wish to trouble such an
obliging gentleman.”
—“Not at all, madam.”
Manuel pour la conversation par Madame de Genlis


 

     Once there was a sunny day in Petersburg. A whole throng of young ladies was walking down Nevsky Prospect. There were exactly eleven of them, no more, no less, and each prettier than the next, and three mamás, who, un­fortunately, could not be described in such terms. Their pretty heads turned here and there, their little feet tread on the smooth granite, but they were all very bored. They had already appraised each other’s dresses and discussed everything with one another; they had long ago ceased laughing at each other and had bored each other to death. However, still walking hand in hand, trying to keep up with one another, they looked like a group of nuns from a convent. Such is our tradition—a young lady should rather die of boredom than give her hand to a man if he doesn’t have the fortune of being her brother or uncle, nor have the more enviable pleasure of being 80 years old, because “what will the mamás say?” Oh, those mamás! One day they’ll pay! I’ll bring their old tricks to light! I’ll rip their code of discipline apart and prove to them that neither was it nature that conceived it nor the mind that thought it up! These mamás are poking their noses in everyone else’s business while our young ladies wither from boredom until they themselves resemble their mamás, and that makes the mamás exceedingly happy! Just wait! I’ll show you!

     Be that as it may, the throng was dashing down the street, often bumping into passers-by, who would stop to admire the beauties. How­ever, nobody would approach them—and how could they? One mamá in front, another behind, and one in the middle—frightening, isn’t it?

     Here on Nevsky Prospect, a newly-arrived fashion expert had put out a shiny sign. Through the windows of his boutique one could see the glow of transparent silk, cascading iridescent flowers, golden satin streaming down velvet like a waterfall, and pretty dolls all togged up and nodding their pretty heads under their bell jars. Suddenly, the first pair of our ladies stopped, turned around, and hopped onto the cast-iron steps; then another pair, then a third, and finally, the boutique was full of beauties. Hours were spent looking and admiring—and there was indeed something to admire! The owner was so nimble, in blue glasses and a fashionable tailcoat, with large whiskers, stiff and tight-laced, so stiff one might think he was about to break his spine. He was talking and selling, praising and criticizing, taking money, fitting and cutting, all at the same time. He was continuously unfolding and laying out for our beauties gauze made of cob­webs sprinkled with butterfly wings, or watches the size of a pinhead, or a lorgnette made of fly eyes that let one see everything that was happening all around in an instant, or blonde lace[8] that melted at a touch, or shoes made of dragonfly claws, or feathers made of bee hairs, or, unfortunately, rouge that stuck to the cheek when blown into the air. Our beauties would have stayed in that boutique forever if it had not been for the mamás! The mamás came to their senses, shook their lace caps, turned left about face, and as soon as they were outside on the steps, began sensibly to count to make sure that all the beauties had exited the boutique. But, unfortu­nately (they say a crow can only count up to four), the mamás could only count up to ten, therefore, it was no surprise that they miscounted and went home with only ten young ladies, observing the same order and disci­pline as before, and forgot the eleventh young lady in the boutique.

     Once the throng had left, the foreigner locked the door and leapt at the beauty, took off her hat, shoes, and stockings, leaving only a skirt and a top; he grabbed the poor thing by her plait, put her on the shelf, and cov­ered her with a bell jar.

     And he then grabbed a pocket knife and a hat and with amazing dex­terity started cutting off the street dust that had landed on it; he cut and cut and cut and soon there were two hats in his hands, and one of them nearly took off into the air when he put it on the stand. Then, just as carefully, he cut off the floral imprint on the fabric out of which the hat was made and produced another hat; then again—he produced another one with only a hint of that floral imprint on it; then again—he produced another, simpler hat; he repeated this again and again until he had twelve hats. He did the same with the dress, shawl, shoes, and stockings, and got a dozen of each, which he carefully put into boxes with foreign labels… and all this, I assure you, he finished in a few minutes.

     “Don’t cry, belle,” he kept saying in broken Russian. “Don’t cry! This will be your dowry!”

     When he finished his work, he added, “Now it’s your turn, belle!”

     With these words he waved his hand and stomped; all the clocks chimed thirteen; all the bells began to ring; all the organs began to play; all the dolls began to jump; and a brainless French head jumped out of the powder box; a sensitive German nose with ass’s ears jumped out of a snuff-box; and out of a soda bottle jumped a stuffed English belly. These respectable gentlemen sat down in a circle and fixed their eyes on the wizard.

     “What a misfortune!” cried the magician.

     “What a misfortune, indeed!” answered the brainless French head. “Face powder is out of fashion!”

     “Is that a misfortune?” grumbled the English belly. “They throw me out of the house like an empty sack.”

     “My misfortunes are greater,” sniffed the German nose. “They mount me and, worse still, prick me with their spurs.”

     “Those aren’t misfortunes!” objected the magician. “Indeed they’re not! There is something more terrible—Russian ladies don’t want to be foreign dolls anymore! That is the real misfortune! If it continues like this, Rus­sians might think they’re our equals.”

     “A misfortune indeed!” cried all the foreigners as one.

     “We need to invent a new hat for them,” said the head.

     “We should impress our morals on them,” said the belly.

     “We should marry them to our fellow countrymen,” said the sensitive nose.

     “That is all very well!” answered the magician, “but not enough! Now it is quite different! But where there is a new problem, there is a new solu­tion. We need to invent some new tricks.”

     The magician thought for a long time and finally waved his hand again and there appeared before the assembly a tripod, a bain-marie,[9] and a retort,[10] and the villains got to work.

     They squeezed into the retort a lot of Madame Genlis’s romances, Chesterfield’s letters,[11] several moldy sententiae, canvases,[12] Italian rou­lades, a dozen new contredanses, several citations from Bentham’s Felici­fic Calculus,[13] and distilled all that into a colorless soulless fluid. Then the magician opened the window, ran his hand through the air of Nevsky Prospect, and grabbed a handful of city gossip, rumors, and stories. Finally, he pulled out a huge pile of papers from the drawer and, rejoicing wildly, showed it to his friends. There were clippings from diplomatic let­ters and excerpts from a manual on letter writing, which contained an assurance of the utmost respect and true faithfulness. Hopping and laugh­ing, the villains began to mix them into the devilish potion: the French head was fanning the fire, the German nose was stirring, and the English belly was pounding like a pestle.

     When the brew had cooled down, the magician leapt at the beauty. He took the poor shaking thing out from under the bell jar and started cutting out her heart! O! How she suffered, how she struggled, poor thing! How vigorously she clung to her ardent, innocent heart! With such Slavic cour­age she stood against the foreigners! The villains were almost in despair and ready to give up when, unfortunately, the magician stumbled upon an idea, grabbed a little lace cap, and threw it on the coals. The cap began to smolder and the beauty was intoxicated by the smoke.

     The villains took advantage of that moment, removed her heart, and put it into their devilish potion. They steamed, stretched, and blew on the poor heart of the Russian beauty for a long, long time, and when they glued it back in its place, the beauty let them do anything they liked to her. The damned foreigner grabbed her plump cheeks, skinny legs and arms and began to scrape the fresh Slavic blush from them with a pocket knife and to carefully collect it in a little jar labeled Rouge végétal, and the beauty became white as a tailbone. But the jeering villain was not yet satisfied; he wiped the whiteness off her face with a little sponge and squeezed it into a bottle labeled Lait de concombre, and the beauty became yellow, even brown. Then he put a pneumatic device up against her slim, juicy neck, turned it, and her neck dropped, barely hanging onto the bones. After that he opened her mouth with small pincers, caught hold of her tongue, and twisted it so that it could not properly pronounce a single Russian word. Finally, he laced her up tightly into a stiff corset, threw some ugly, thin silk cloth on her, and put the beauty by the window in the cold. The foreigners calmed down after that: the brainless French head jumped into the powder box with a chuckle; the German nose started sneezing from pleasure and sneaked back into the snuff-box; and the English belly silently slapped the floor out of happiness and then also dragged himself back into the soda bottle; and everything in the boutique returned to the way it was before save for there being one more doll!

     Meanwhile, time flew by; customers came to the shop, bought cobweb gauze and fly eyes, and admired the dolls. On one occasion, a young man looked at our beauty, thought for a while, and, though his friends laughed at him, bought her and brought her home. He was a lonely man of quiet disposition. He liked neither noise nor loud arguments. He put the doll in a visible spot, dressed her, put shoes on her, kissed her feet, and admired her like a child. But soon the doll sensed a Russian spirit about; she liked her master's hospitality and kindness. Once, when the young man was deep in thought, it seemed to her that he had forgotten about her. She be­gan to move and chatter. The young man, surprised, walked up to her, re­moved the bell jar, and looked at the beauty—she was a doll, nothing more. He attributed what he had heard to his imagination, put the bell jar back on her, and once again let himself be carried away by his thoughts. The doll got angry and began to move, hop, scream, and knock on the bell jar. She obviously wanted out.

     “Is it true? Are you alive?” said the young man. “If you’re alive, I’ll love you more than anything in the world. Please, prove that you’re alive! Say something!”

     “Perhaps you’re right!” said the doll. “I am alive, indeed I am.”

     “What? You can talk as well?” cried the young man. “Oh, how lucky I am! Is this an illusion? Let me make sure one more time—talk to me about something!”

     “But what can we talk about?”

     “What about? There is kindness and there is art…”

     “Why should I care about them?” answered the doll. “That is all very boring!”

     “What do you mean? How is that boring? Has it never occurred to you that there are thoughts and feelings in the world?”

     “Ah, feelings! Feelings? I know,” she said quickly, “the feelings of re­spect and faithfulness with which I have the honor to be at your service, dear sir…”

     “You are mistaken, my belle. You confuse conventional expressions that change every day with what constitutes the eternal and essential adornment of a man.”

     “Did you hear what people were saying?” interrupted the beauty. “One young lady got married, but another man is courting her and she wants a divorce. What a shame!”

     “Why do you care about that, my darling? Just think how much you don’t know about this world; you don’t even know that feeling essential to a woman’s life—that sacred feeling they call love, which penetrates one’s whole body, becomes the food of one’s soul, and creates heaven and hell on earth.”

     “When there’s a lot of dancing at a ball, it can be amusing, but when there isn’t, it’s boring,” answered the doll.

     “Ah, I wish you couldn’t talk!” cried the young man. “You don’t under­stand me, my belle!”

     He tried to bring her to reason, but in vain. He would bring her books, but they were left unopened; he would talk to her about the music of the soul, and she would answer him with a roulade; he would show her a painting by a prominent master, and she would show him a canvas.

     Then the young man decided to walk up to the bell jar every morning and every evening and say to the doll: “There is kindness, there is love. Read, learn, dream, get lost in music. Feelings and thoughts are in one’s soul and not in sophisticated expressions.”

     The doll was silent.

     One day the doll began to think and she thought for quite a while. The young man was delighted until she suddenly said, “Now I know, I know! There is kindness, and art, and love. Feelings and thoughts are in one’s soul and not in sophisticated expressions. I assure you, dear sir, of my feelings of true kindness and ardent love, with which I have the honor…”

     “Oh! Stop it, for heaven’s sake,” cried the young man. “If you don’t know what either kindness or love is, then at least don’t humiliate them by connecting them with stupid, fake expressions…”

     “I do know!” cried the enraged doll. “No one can please you, ungrateful man! Yes, I do know, I know very well that there is kindness, and art, and love, as well as respect, with which I have the honor…”

     The young man was desperate. Meanwhile the doll was very happy with her new discovery. An hour did not pass without her crying “there is kindness, and art, and love,” and adding the assurance of her utmost respect. It would start snowing, and the doll would say, “There is kind­ness!” Dinner would be served, and she would cry, “There is love!” And soon it came to the point where the young man was sick and tired of it. Whatever he did—whether he talked with tenderness and delight or proved something dispassionately, or was enraged, or laughed at the beauty—she could not understand the difference between those new words she learned by heart and those sophisticated expressions so common in society. She could not understand that love and kindness could be used for something other than the coda to an ornate expression.

     The young man often cried, “Ah, I wish you couldn’t talk!”

     Finally, he said to her, “I see that I cannot bring you to reason, that you cannot attribute any meaning other than respect and faithfulness to the sacred words of kindness, love, and art… What can I do? I feel upset, but I don’t blame you. Listen now, everybody should do something in this world. You cannot think or feel, I cannot put my soul into your body, so take care of the household according to the old Russian tradition: put food on the table, and keep the accounts, and be obedient at all times. When you free me from mechanical labors, I will love you. Not as much as I would if our souls had become one, but I will love you anyway.”

     “What kind of a housekeeper would I make?” the doll raised her voice. She got angry and began to cry. “Is that what you bought me for? Since you bought me, you must now cherish me, dress me, and comfort me. I don’t care about your soul and your household! Look, I’m faithful to you. I don’t run away from you, so be grateful for that. My arms and legs are fragile. I prefer to do nothing around the house and nothing at all, to think and feel nothing, and your duty is to entertain me.”

     And so it was indeed. When the young man spent time with his doll, dressed and undressed her, kissed her feet, the doll was calm and kind, even though she remained silent. But if he forgot to change her hat, or fell into contemplation, or took his eyes off her, the doll would begin to rap on the bell jar so fiercely that he couldn’t take it. Finally, he lost his patience, for no matter whether he picked up a book, sat down to dinner, or lay down on the sofa to get some rest, the doll would rap on the bell jar and cry as if she were alive and give him no peace, neither day nor night; and his life turned into a virtual hell. The young man grew angry. He did not know what the poor beauty had suffered, how strongly she had clung to the heart given her by nature, and with how much pain she had given it to her torturers, or teachers. One day he woke up and threw the doll out the window. All the passers-by condemned him for that; yet nobody picked her up.

     And who was to blame? First of all, the foreigners who spoil our beauties, and then the mamás who cannot count to eleven. Here is the moral of your story.

 

§

 

VIII. The Same Fairy Tale, but from the Inside Out

 

I seem to be standing before a sort of a
raree show, watching the little men and
little horses jerk before my eyes; and I
often ask myself if everything is not an
optical illusion. I join in the play or,
rather I am moved about like a mario­nette,
and sometimes, when I grasp the wooden hand of
my neighbor, I shrink back with a shudder.
—Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther[14]


 

     You must feel good, my dearest quasi-reading and quasi-thinking fellow-scribblers! You must feel good sitting high up in your garrets, in your small studies, between the obedient books and the silent paper! You look into a salon through a dormer window or sometimes, forgive me for saying this, from the hallway. You only make out some indecipherable conversa­tions and shuffling, or see tailcoats, lorgnettes, bows, and chandeliers—so why do the salons irritate you so? It’s ridiculous! Forgive me again for the comparison, as I’m not the one to blame for it, but you and a footman are irritated by the fact that the noblemen ride in a comfortable four-in-hand carriage, that they stay at the ball till four in the morning, that the Stras­burg Cathedral’s bronze bell-tower clock counts off the time for them, that Raphaels and Correggios hang before them in gilded frames, and that one nobleman pays another compliments that no one believes. But is that the problem? Good heavens! When will people give up the habit of saying com­mon, meaningless, honey-sweet words and indulging in hypocritical specu­lations about a simple, honest, and sincere family circle which considers waking at 7 a.m., having lunch at 2:30 p.m., and going to bed at 10 p.m. to be humanity’s duty? Once again—is that the problem? What could be more repulsive than ignorance that confides the secrets of its absurdity, that discloses its ugliness and the meanness of its soul to you? What could be more unbearable than seeing a person who is not forced by the rules of decency to conceal his scrupulous anger aimed at all the sacred things in the world, who is neither ashamed of his stupidity nor his dishonest deal­ings, in short, who is so openly stupid, angry, mean, and so on? Why do you attack those societal customs that make stupidity appear sensible, ignorance shy, brazen impudence modest, and fierce pride polite; those customs which give a large assembly the pleasant air of a desert, through which a calm and aimless brook murmurs harming nary a soul with an absurd thought or a deeply humiliated feeling? Think about it: weren’t all things labeled under the name of decency born, perchance, merely out of the continuous flow of education? Are they not a tribute of respect that mediocrity inadvertently pays to intelligence, love, education, and a deep humility of spirit? Are they not a fog before the light of some new world that the rulers of public opinion dream about, like how they long ago, in past centuries, dreamed of discovering a new part of the world, blood circulation, the steam engine, and all the things people laughed at so eagerly?

     No, dear sirs, you don’t know society! You don’t know the important part of it—the salons! You know nothing about their evilness or their kindness, their Osiris[15] or Typhon.[16] And considering that, do your epi­grams reach their target? You should see how they laugh in the salons as they look at your battles with phantoms and watch how angry and ex­hausted you get deriding something that is non-existent! Oh, if you could put your hand on the real wound of the salons, you would see something other than cold laughter! You would fall sadly into silence, or hear crying and teeth grinding coming from the marble walls.

     If you found yourself in the corner between two sofas where a cold cross wind was blowing, chilling your chest, freezing your brain and bring­ing your heart to a stop! I would love to see how you would survive that cold! Would you have enough warmth in your hearts to notice how a Michelangelo bought out of vanity suddenly inspired poetry in the soul of a colorless, senseless creature through the cold shell of decency; and how Mozart’s, or Beethoven’s, or even Rossini’s chords revealed more to refined feelings than your morals did; how the caprice of fashion brought to the salon the seeds of some new thought that had just been unveiled by humanity like a flower brought by a newcomer from a distant land, which he threw on the ground, unexpectedly enriching it with a new wonder of nature?

     But where was I? Forgive me, my dear reader, I promised you a fairy tale, but instead I got carried away by some irrelevant speculations… That is the power of habit for you! It’s definitely worse than nature, which seems so boring in the descriptions of our poets and novelists! Forgive me, too, my dear fellow-writers! I didn’t want to quarrel with you at all; on the contrary, I intended these lines as a compliment, but the devil confused me. Forgive me, for heaven’s sake, forgive me. I won’t do it again.

     I remember I began like this, “You must feel good, my dearest fellow-scribblers, sitting high up in your garrets and warm studies surrounded by books and paper, etc.” After that I meant to say the following:

     I love you, because I can argue with you. Let’s just say that we have opposite points of view. With all of you, except for those to whom decency forbids me to speak, I can talk and argue, I can prove my point to you, because you know that one cannot argue with logic; and so you give up and agree. It is different in the salons. A salon is like the woman described by Shakespeare: you may struggle with her for three hours trying to prove something; she agrees and you are finished, but do you think you have persuaded her? Not even close. What will she reply? The same thing she said at the beginning. And so you’ll have to start all over again! That is her kind of ever-present wisdom. You must understand that in cases like this one cannot argue, but can only blindly agree. That is what I did; the devil tempted me to publish the previous fairy tale in a miscellany and what is more, under a nom de plume. I did it on purpose so that no one would know it was me, but they guessed, dear sir! If you only knew what an uproar my ladies created and what they did to me! They sang in chorus, “We are not dolls! We don’t want to be dolls! The time when we were dolls is over. We understand our lofty mission; we know that we are the soul of that four-footed animal you call a married couple.” I was about to cry, but from happiness, my dear reader! But that was not the end of it. They collected all the inquiries into the beauty's life, like those of my Ivan Sevastyanych Blagoserdov.[17] They put together an article and almost made people sign it and me publish it along with the others. What could I do? I had to obey. Read on now, but blame them, not me, because I have suffered enough for my other fairy tales. Unfortunately, I know they will have no mercy on my imagination for my ardent, incorruptible, but bitter feeling. Well, read on.

 

The Wooden Guest, or a Fairy Tale about the Doll that Came to Her Senses and Mr. Noddingwood

     So the poor doll was lying on the ground without thinking, feeling, or suffering, disfigured, abandoned and despised by everybody. She could not grasp her circumstances and kept saying to herself that she was lying on the ground to express her utmost respect and absolute faithfulness…

     At that moment, a thousand-year-old sage, the progenitor of the Slavic tribe, was passing by. He had a gloomy and cross expression on his face, but he was as kind as any man possessing the highest knowledge would be. He had been sent from the ancient Slavic homeland of India to the North Pole on a very important mission—he had to measure and mathe­matically define how much stupidity had evaporated from the half-empty human vessel over the last century and how much blessed intelligence had been added to it. That important problem had long been solved by my esteemed grandmother, but Indian sages were still trying to solve it by means of extended observation and the most sophisticated tests and calcu­lations, as if they had no better way to spend their time!

     Be that as it may, the Indian sage stopped beside the poor doll, and a bitter tear rolled down his grey eyelash and dropped on the beauty, bring­ing her back to some kind of dead life and making her quiver like a frag­ment of a nerve touched by a magic wand.

     He picked her up, surrounded her with the harmonious sounds of Beethoven, painted her face with bright, eloquent colors scattered throughout the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, looked at her with his magic eyes that, like borderless domes, reflected all the manifestations of centuries-old human wisdom, and the evil chains of monkey magic and the lace cap’s smoke turned to ash. A new heart started beating in the beauty, her fragrant chest expanded, and a fresh Slavic blush once again appeared on her cheeks. Finally, the sage pronounced several mysterious words in ancient Slavonic, which foreigners call Sanskrit,[18] blessed the beauty with the poetry of Byron, Derzhavin, and Pushkin, breathed the art of suffering and contemplation into her, and then continued on his journey.

     Life breathed anew in the beauty, thought glowed, and sentiment burned in her. Nature smiled at her, radiating rainbow beams. There were no more Chinese pearls, only real ones in the string of her existence, and each one of them shone with the light of dreams, love, and sound…

     The beauty remembered her former misery and thought about it with shame and sadness. She was proud of her new charm, power, and under­standing of her lofty mission.

     However, the villains whose magical power had been defeated by the inspirational power of the Indian sage refused to give up. They conceived a new plan to ruin the life of the Slavic beauty.

     One day the beauty fell asleep. All the harmonious images of life came to her in her poetic dreams: whimsical roundelays of melodies in the bor­derless country of ether;[19] living crystals of human thought that reflected the iridescent sunshine of poetry, which became brighter by the minute; the ardent, beseeching eyes of young men; the virtue of love; and the great power of the mysterious unity of souls. She imagined life as peaceful ocean waves, cheerfully plowed by her boat, which glowed with a playful phos­phoric light with every motion. Then she saw herself holding the hand of a handsome young man whom she seemed to have known for a long time. A while ago, in time immemorial, as if before she was born, they were to­gether in some mysterious temple without vaults or columns or exterior design, receiving some solemn blessing. They both kneeled down before an invisible altar of love and poetry; their voices, eyes, feelings, and thoughts merged into a single entity; they lived each other’s lives, and proud of their dual harmonious power, they laughed at the desert of a grave since they knew it could not put an end to human love…

     A loud laugh awakened the beauty. She opened her eyes. Some crea­ture in a human body appeared before her. Through the haze of the dream that had not yet left her, it seemed to her that it was the handsome young man invented by her imagination. She reached out for him with her hand and shrank back with a shudder.

     It would have been a crime to call the creature that stood before her human. The bulges of his belly consumed the rest of his body; his de­formed head nodded constantly as if agreeing with someone; his thick tongue moved between sagging lips without uttering a word; his wooden soul showed through the holes he had instead of eyes; and on his narrow forehead a sarcastic hand had written: Noddingwood.

     For some time the beauty could not believe her eyes. She could not be­lieve that a human image could be so degraded. But she remembered her former circumstances and the tortures she had suffered, and thought that the creature she saw in front of her had undergone the same tortures. Her heart filled with compassion for poor Noddingwood, and she yielded to her fate with resignation. Proud of the art of love and compassion passed on to her by the Eastern sage, she swore to dedicate her life to exalting and re­viving the crude degraded creature that had fallen to her lot, and through that she would accomplish her lofty mission as a woman in this world.

     At first, she tried in vain—whatever she did or said, Noddingwood just nodded in agreement with her. Nothing touched his wooden soul. With much effort the beauty managed to somehow fix his wobbly head, but what came of it? The head did not nod anymore; it remained motionless like the rest of his body. And then she set to work again, and after some time managed to make Noddingwood’s heavy body move in some mechani­cal way.

     Having accomplished that, the beauty began to think of how to inspire feelings in her new friend. She tried for a long time to appeal to the need for pleasure that nature had placed inside of all creatures. She laid before him all the possible things that could have moved an animal's imagina­tion, but Noddingwood, who was already proud of his success, chose a pleasure for himself—his thick lips locked onto an amber cigar holder and clouds of tobacco smoke became his only source of continuous poetic pleasure.

     More useless, however, were her efforts to inspire in her friend a pas­sion for something that he could talk about, that could teach him about the existence of something that they called thought. But proud Nodding­wood chose his own passion—a horse became his science, art, poetry, life, love, kindness, crime, and faith. For hours he would stand and reverently gaze at that animal without remembering or feeling anything, greedily taking in the air of the stables.

     That was the end of Noddingwood’s education. Every morning he would get up at dawn, look through eighty chibouks[20] laid out neatly be­fore him, take out his tobacco pouch, stuff all eighty pipes very scrupu­lously and as evenly as possible, sit down by the window and quietly, thinking of nothing, smoke all of them, one by one—forty pipes before lunch and forty after.

     Very rarely was his silence interrupted by an ecstatic exclamation coming from the bottom of his heart when he saw a horse gallop by. He would also call his groom and ask him in a portentous manner after a long thoughtful pause, “How are the horses?”

     “Fine.”

     “They’re in the stables, aren’t they?” continued Mr. Noddingwood.

     “Yes, there’re in the stables.”

     “Very well then…”

     That was how the conversation would end, and Mr. Noddingwood would go back to smoking his pipe. He smoked in silence and thought of nothing.

     Years went by like that, and every day Mr. Noddingwood would smoke eighty pipes and ask the groom about his horse.

     The beauty used up all the power of her determination, feeling, intelli­gence, and imagination. She turned to prayer, a soul’s inspiration, and tried to tempt her wooden guest with all the charms of art. She looked at him with her magnetic eyes to communicate something that a human tongue could not say. She suffered and felt restless, but it was all in vain – neither her words, nor her begging or despair, nor that bitter sneer that can only escape from the soul of a deeply insulted person, nor even the tears forced out by the heart from long, continuous suffering, nothing touched Mr. Noddingwood’s soul, not even a little.

     On the contrary, he settled in her house and began to treat the beauty like a slave. He was very angry with her for her reproaches and did not forgive her even a minute of forgetfulness. He jealously followed every in­nocent movement of her heart, her every thought and feeling. He deemed every word that differed from his own a violation of divine and human law, and sometimes in his spare time, between smoking and admiring his horse, he lectured the beauty, praising the humility of his own spirit and condemning what he called the corruption of hers…

     Finally, everything came to an end. The Eastern sage, who had taught the beauty the art of suffering, had not taught her the art of enduring suffering. The beauty was exhausted and burned-out by her hectic life. She withered more and more, and soon Noddingwood threw her dead body out the window again.

     Passers-by condemned her even more.

 

§

 

IX. Epilogue

     “I seem to be standing before a sort of a raree show, watching the little men and little horses jerk before my eyes; and I often ask myself if every­thing is not an optical illusion. I join in the play or, rather I am moved about like a marionette, and sometimes, when I grasp the wooden hand of my neighbor, I shrink back with a shudder...”

 


Download: Odoevsky, Vladimir. "Excerpts from Variegated Tales," trans. Olesya Surkova. Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 125-43.


[1] I am aware of only one published English translation of any story from the Variegated Tales: “The Tale of a Dead Body, Belonging to No One Knows Whom,” in The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales: Eight Stories by Vladimir Odoevsky, trans. Neil Cornwell (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992), 17–25.

[2] Neil Cornwell’s The Life, Times and Milieu of V. F. Odoevsky, 1804–1869 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1986) was the first book on this literary figure in English and still remains the most authoritative source of information on the writer for the Anglophone audience.

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Odoevsky here refers to the Turks. (Trans.)

[5] The celebration of the day on the calendar associated with one’s given name. (Trans.)

[6] A high score in contract bridge involving winning all the tricks in a hand. (Trans.)

[7] A thoroughfare in St. Petersburg that also serves as a main shopping district. (Trans.)

[8] Unbleached silk lace of two threads twisted and formed into hexagonal meshes; Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 1: 50. (Trans.)

[9] Double-boiler (borrowed from French). (Trans.)

[10] (Historical) a glass container with a long neck used for distilling liquids and other chemical operations. (Trans.)

[11] In his private letters, published in the 18th century, Lord Chesterfield advises his son on how to impress and influence people around him. (Trans.)

[12] A strong unbleached cloth of hemp, flax, or a similar yarn woven in regular meshes and used as a basis for tapestry and embroidery (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1: 337). (Trans.)

[13] The Felicific Calculus is an algorithm formulated in the 19th century by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham for calculating the degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause, which, according to Bentham, can help determine the moral status of any action. (Trans.)

[14] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan (New York: Random House, 1971).

[15] The Egyptian god of the afterlife, underworld, or the dead. (Trans.)

[16] Son of Gaia, fathered by Tartarus, and the most deadly monster of Greek mythology. (Trans.)

[17] A government file clerk and protagonist of “The Tale of a Dead Body Belonging to No One Knows Whom,” from the Variegated Tales. (Trans.)

[18] Some believe classical Sanskrit to be analogous to the Old Church Slavonic language created in 863 AD.

[19] The clear sky; the region above the clouds; the substance formerly believed to occupy this, above the air of the lower region (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1: 864). (Trans.)

[20] A long Turkish tobacco pipe. (Trans.)