Soloviev, Leskov, de Genlis and Gibbon


July 16, 2017 by AK

From Erik McDonald’s translation of It Didn’t Come Off (1867) by Ol’ga N. (Sophie Engelhardt, 1828-1894):

Once I started a sentence this way:

“I think…”

Madame Petitpierre, my governess, interrupted me: “You think? In that case you will have dinner in your room tonight. Children do not think.”

This made me appreciate the passage in Sergei M. Soloviev‘s private memoir where he speaks of his liberal upbringing:

A pure Slav brought up in a free, Russian way, without a foreign tutor, I could give free reign to the inclinations of my Slavic nature…

The flip side of this was having difficulty speaking foreign languages, as opposed to understanding, reading and writing them:

I am a poor speaker of the languages I know – the four of them being French, German, English and Italian, in addition to Polish and Latin… by “knowledge” I understand the ability to read authors easily… I am not quite fluent in written Czech…

That was probably more than enough for his work as a historian of 17-19th century Russia and its European relations. Undoubtedly he understood old Russian as well: his early work focused on the transition to the more or less absolute monarchy of Ivan III and his successors.

Back to Mme de Genlis now. Her spirit made a major appearance in Russian literature in 1881 with a memoir by Leskov. As Erik McDonald explains:

Leskov’s story “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (Дух госпожи Жанлис, 1881) is built around an anecdote found in the works of the actual Madame de Genlis (1746-1830): a blind French woman is used to feeling the faces of famous people she meets in society, but when she feels the fat face of Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, she thinks she has been tricked into feeling someone’s buttocks instead of a face and exclaims, “what a vile joke!”…

Erik also provides a link to the original joke. An English version of Leskov’s story can be found here. Alexander Zholkovsky called it a “little metatextual masterpiece.” See Erik’s blog entry for more details.


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