Post-Short Russian Fiction 2021

I finished grading the short Russian fiction class last week, and, having used a little new material and more new methods, wanted to write a few things down before I forget them.

First, one surprise was the Lyudmila Ulitskaya story “Happy” (Nadya L. Peterson, tr.), which was surprisingly easy to teach, probably because it is so packed full of life experience and history. It also paired well with Bunin’s “Light Breathing” and allowed me to talk more about frames and the way fabula and siuzhet can make a story more interesting. A double surprise was that some students read right through aspects of the story, even after I thought we had spent enough time doing the slow reading method that we began with. This meant that some of them didn’t even notice that the couple was Jewish. I guess this is what class discussion is for, as other students certainly did notice and had plenty to say about the Holocaust as a sort of backdrop to the story.

Another surprise for me was Konstantin Ryabov’s story “Spit” (in Victoria Mesopir’s translation) which I have taught before but this time found unsatisfying, even if it is well crafted. It seems a bit gratuitous and lacks any moment of rising above. But some of the students defended it, and one or two said they found it the most interesting story we read all semester. Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t interesting, only that it wasn’t satisfying. I am glad I included it.

I only taught one story each from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and “Notes from Underground,” respectively, and the latter was the longest and the last thing we read. NfU still works fine, but I find it harder and harder to teach because of the general nastiness of the second part, which makes me feel more and more like I need to bathe. The translation exercise that I have used several times (where I give them several versions of the first paragraph and have them craft something of their own) did not work as well this semester, and I’m not sure exactly why. Possibly I didn’t sequence enough of the reading of NfU before asking the students to do that first paragraph paraphrase.

The film adaptation exercise, on the other hand, worked very well. The most popular choice was Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” (one anime version was especially good), followed by Gogol’s “Nose,” Isaak Babel’s “My First Goose,” and Natalya Klyuchareva’s “One Year in Paradise” (in Mariya Gusev’s translation).

The tendency of many of the students to skip details and just read right through things that they didn’t understand was common, even though we spent time at the beginning of class reading very slowly. I hoped to make it if not a habit then at least a pattern for following in this class. Some students got it, or maybe already had it before they arrived, and some only did it for the slow reading parts. As soon as I assigned a whole story, even if it wasn’t long, many went back to a cursory and superficial reading method, so to really bring this home, probably the only thing to do would be to reduce the number of pages even more than I already have, something I will think about for the next installment of the course.

There was some plagiarism, even on the short reflection exercises that were due after each class. When TurnItIn flagged something, I would have a look and, when it was clear, give the students a zero, remind them that there was no need to look anywhere else but inside for a reflection piece, and give them the opportunity to do it again. A few people kept their zeros, and a few gave it another try with predictably better results.

The stories and authors students responded to were all over the place. Some loved Pushkin, others Gogol, others Chekhov, while some preferred Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and some, as mentioned above, took to the more contemporary authors like Ulitskaya and Ryabov.

Getting Students to Stay With Me

Keeping students motivated to come to class and do their work is one of the most challenging aspects of online teaching. Since I’m teaching a course that requires reading, encouraging them to read is yet another challenge. This semester I’ve tried a new teaching method and a different way of reading and writing with them that has seemed so far to work well.

Basically, I’ve used the “scaffolding” approach that education scholars have written so much about, where one assignment leads to the next, each building on skills and ideas that have come earlier. I noted in an earlier post that I had decided to read a lot few pages than usual, focusing on short texts that don’t require multiple meetings to discuss, though I do go back to review things we’ve picked up in the past, especially after I read the student essays, which give me a chance to see how they’re doing, what they’re responding to, and what they might be missing.

This class meets twice a week, and thirty minutes after every class they have a reflection piece due. These are short, no more than a page (300 words), and I’ve generally been asking them pretty narrowly focused questions (e.g., about the rain in “Gooseberries” or the personality of Gogol’s storyteller in “The Nose”) because I don’t want them to recount the plot for me or tackle the MEANING of the story. I have also asked them very simple things like which of these four stories that we just finished did you like the best and why, and which did you like the least and why. The why is of course the crucial part.

There are three other parts to this exercise that are essential–I’ve been adjusting as I go. First is that they don’t know exactly what the writing assignment will be until we are in class that day. I have it prepared already, but they just can’t see it yet. The topic and the “criteria for success” become available about 10-15 minutes into our class. In the meantime, however, we have already been discussing one or more aspects of the writing assignment without their knowing that it will be the writing assignment. And most often, we actually take time in class to write. For instance, I will ask them to put on their comparison caps and write for ten minutes on the similarities between this story and the one we just read, then they come back, and we play a little “tag,” with three or four of them offering their thoughts and passing the baton on to someone else.

We might do this two or three times in class on a given day, with writing time followed by discussion time. This is the second of the three essential parts–writing time in class. At some point, I actually say, “and this is what I want you to reflect on in your writing today.” They should be able to see the assignment by now on our Canvas site, and I also copy and paste the writing prompt in the chat. Then I give them some additional time to write and we come back to discuss. Sometimes I throw in an additional piece to it–I have warned them that I will do this, and this also helps to keep them coming and alert.

I don’t really care that we tend to get the same volunteers (though I’ve been happy that it seems to be a variety of about 10 students out of the 30 or so) because I want the students who might not have any ideas to hear the students who do. If they borrow each others’ ideas for reflection pieces, that’s great. By-products of these writing periods are that (a) we don’t need to take any scheduled breaks; and (b) class time goes by strangely fast. This last was a surprise to me, and some of the students have remarked on it as well. Filling 2.5 hours of class time is not a struggle. In fact, I sometimes feel that we don’t quite have enough time–just like a face-to-face class…

The third of the three parts to this that seems to me essential is that these short reflection pieces are due (again through the online system) 30 minutes after class is over. I do this for several reasons. First is that I don’t want them putting them off and then trying to remember what we discussed and then staying up all night to finish them. Second is that we have the class time, so why not use it? Third is that we are doing a lot of these, one for every meeting, which means I need to read them and give them back some comments and a score (out of 10, which is based primarily on their answering the question, using examples from the text, and demonstrating that they’ve thought). Then I post their grades ASAP. Those who might be inclined to skip see what happens to their score in the class very quickly when they get a 0, and while there were a few at the beginning who weren’t showing up or turning in their papers, most of them have shaped up. It is not hard, but they have to stick with me, which might in fact be the main benefit that I’ve seen.

The scaffolding for this comes partly from the fact that once I’ve asked the same question a couple of times, they start to get the hang of it, and I can ask slightly harder questions. And then partly it’s because at the end of class, I want them to take two of these reflection pieces and polish them as basically mini-essays of 500 words each. We’ll see how that goes.

Teaching Russian Short Fiction in Practice

My eight-week online course is now underway, with two meetings and several short assignments under our belts. As the class satisfies a number of requirements in the Arts and Humanities and World Cultures categories, the students come from all over the university and have lots of different backgrounds, career trajectories, skill sets, levels of preparation, and interests.

Out of the thirty-some enrolled (“some” because some have yet to show up, and I can see they have never visited the Canvas page, so who knows whether they will turn up ever), there are individuals all class levels, from first-year to (two) grad-student auditors, with majors from finance and sustainability studies to kinesiology, arts management, biology, chemistry, and history. Their backgrounds are all over the place — a number come from Indiana, a couple from Bloomington proper, but others are from other states (Illinois, New York, and South Carolina are those I know of at this point) and countries (China, Korea, Mongolia, and India), with one military veteran (there could be more I haven’t learned about yet), and at least one transfer student.

Two of the students seem to have had some Russian in high school, but most have no background or particular knowledge about Russian literature, culture, or history. Their hobbies — I know some of this because I had them make introductory videos or write introductions of themselves for their classmates — include fencing, stock market investing, rock climbing, music (listening and performing), yoga, vegetarian cooking, and — surprise — reading. Actually, quite of few have noted how much they like to read, and a few have read these stories before in Russian.

So far the two-and-a-half-hour Zoom meetings have sped by, and several of the students in our one-on-one conferences have said they were surprised by this, just as I was. I’m still trying to decide why they seem to go so fast. At this point, I think it is due to multiple things.

First, since this is all online and I need to be super-prepared, I have really super-prepared and lined things up so that we move from one thing to another without my needing to check my notes or think what’s next. This doesn’t mean I’m always moving fast, only that I’m not fumbling over my notes. There’s enough fumbling with the technology already, so no one needs more fumbling.

Second, I’ve been using regular in-class reading and writing moments. So we might have a twenty-minute discussion of a passage they read before class, using questions I gave them beforehand (plus, I either put those questions up on my shared screen or post them in the chat to remind them).

But then, when we do get to that discussion, I have used the “tag” method that my colleague Rebecca Spang recommended, where I say, okay, now we’re going to be using that discussion “tag” method we used last time, where I tag someone, who answers the question, and then that person tags someone else, who answers or spins off from what the first person said. One reason I like this method so much is that I get out of the way and give the students the opportunity to take things in directions I might not think. It also lets me triangulate a bit, zeroing in on issues that several people have mentioned. I’m never really out of the discussion obviously, but that little bit of distance helps a lot.

Sometimes I break this up by reading to them, and as long as they have adequate connections and are not struggling with audio quality (some of them are struggling at times with such quality), these moments are a little like a podcast, and my semi-pro headset mic is doing exactly the work it needs to do.

And then beyond the in-class discussion and reading, I give them time to read sometimes on their own, timing the availability of, let’s say, the end of the story we’re reading, such that they can’t read it before class starts, only when I say go. Then we all get quiet for some time (10 minutes or so if the passage is long) while they read, then return to talk about it: for instance, how does that ending change the things you were thinking about before? It’s short fiction, so the ending almost always does change something fundamental. This was a surprise discovered during my prep, but now that I’ve used it a couple of times, I think I can fine tune it a bit and use it more effectively.

Then there’s writing. I decided I wanted to give the students a variety of different kinds of writing to do, not just analytic expository essays. So they’re doing a number of other things, e.g., an adaptation exercise where they create the ancillary materials (cast list, advertisement, soundtrack) for a film adaptation they would like to see made on the basis of one of the stories, along with a one-page rationale for how they’ve approached the piece (got this idea from Tom Beebee’s essay years ago in Teaching World Literature); or, one I devised years ago myself, they create their own version of the first paragraph of Notes from Underground, either compiling it on the basis of multiple translations I provide for them, or creating something brand new, potentially changing the medium as well. In the past I’ve had students create dramatic settings (the U-man is split into different characters, or different versions of himself) or innovative language experiments (the monologue in Tweets, or Nadsat, or LOL Cat) along with, here again the most important part, a rationale and explanation for what they’ve created, from whom (audience), and how they’re choices follow from that.

But in class these are too elaborate and require too much time. What they can do is short reflective pieces, so we’re taking class time to do these, and I’m having them turn them in within a half-hour after class is over. I don’t want them spending a lot of time on these in the wee hours. I’d rather have them think and write (and write and think, because these two work together), turn something in, then get my comments. From these, they’ll be able to pick two to polish and expand (but not a lot) to turn in at the end of class. Basically, they get to pick which stories they want to return to in this way. So far this is working exactly as I envisioned, and since that almost never happens, here it is for future me to remember, especially later in the class when future me might be doubting all this. And obviously for anyone interested–feel free to take anything you think might work for you.

Workshop Meets Gogol

The fifth of the seven chapters in George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (which, I will repeat here for those who have not been following, I am enjoying immensely and learning a lot from) features Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” This was a risky move on Saunders’ part because the basically rational and construction-focused approach he has adopted, exploring “the physics of the [short story] form,” for his book does not seem to match up well with much of Gogol’s work, “The Nose” perhaps least of all, with its tendency to veer away from rationality and structural consistency, to exhibit — let’s call them — bulges, protrusions, and assorted eccentricities that make it difficult to analyze from any sort of efficiency-minded standpoint.

In part this is because Gogol’s language is idiosyncratic, which highlights issues of language per se, making it difficult to translate, on the one hand, but also difficult to discuss without invoking language, on the other. Saunders appropriately brings in the notion of skaz here, and remarks, parenthetically, that there are “American variants” of this narrative technique in Mark Twain, Sacha Boren Cohen, and others: an intriguing idea, but this supposed parallel is mostly about point of view, not language. And if one is approaching the text as if it were written in English (see this earlier post), then we’re left with a conundrum, something Saunders indicates with disarming frankness when he remarks, “It’s kind of problematic to be talking about the language of a piece we can read only in translation” (p. 286). My inner translator wants to agree with him with something like what he writes in response to the narrator’s admission that “there is much that is improbable in [“The Nose”]”: “‘Uh, yeah.” But another, more rational voice has a better response: “Well, it depends on what you want to say about it.”

I recall the rigorous reading practice of a fiction writer colleague of mine, who used to help me evaluate stories for publication at The Iowa Review: if he noticed a rich, exuberant style at the beginning of a submission, he would immediately be on the lookout for structural flaws; if he read through the whole of it and found the piece structurally sound, he would read back through it to see whether the language held up all the way through. This is a version of Saunders’ approach, which is focused on the form’s perfection, its lack of superfluousness, where every detail is where it is for a reason, and one can always ask the question, as he does often in the book, usually to good effect, “What is this doing here?” Saunders refers to this as a “rather hard-ass model of a story [that] says that every part of it should be there for a reason” (91), an idea of the form that is consistent throughout the book — except for in the chapter on Gogol, where it falls apart.

Notions of rationality and efficiency anchor this approach to writing, which some have critiqued as the “workshop model” or, in Mark McGurl’s formulation “program era” fiction, a sort of institutionalized high Modernism whose best precursors include writers like, well, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. This approach is on display in Saunders’ attempts to read “The Nose,” which comprise the only twenty pages or so of the 400 plus in the book that seem to ring false. He asks many perfectly reasonable and rational questions about how and why things are the way they are here — “How did [the nose] get out of the river?” “Why does the nose feel the need to leave town?” “Why is Kovalyov thwarted [at the newspaper office]?” “What caused [the nose’s] reversion to nosehood?” And so on. Much of this is the sort of questioning that would take place in a workshop, where, as Saunders notes, “one of the first critiques that will be made about a story is that it doesn’t make sense.”

This story, says Saunders, again in a perfectly rational comment, “doesn’t add up.” All this is fine and correct enough, but by comparison with the nuanced analyses of the formal aspects of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy that we might have got used to in the earlier portions of the book, here one could easily lose patience. The amount of time spent on this somehow does not seem worth it, such that when he notes, about a short segment in the newspaper office, that it is “not essential to the action of the story,” I even grow a bit frustrated: What in the world is essential to the action of this story? The question, which comes out of the particular method of writing short stories, has completely overtaken the manner in which we read short stories, and with this story it is inadequate and mismatched.

The method of reading we’ve grown accustomed to in earlier portions of the book, where we analyze pieces and see how they fit, does not work well here, and Saunders is left making grand generalizations about how Gogol is a “supreme realist,” but for no demonstrable reason other than that, for example, “‘The Nose’ suggests that rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments.” Well, yes, that could be, but the person making the claim hasn’t offered evidence of the same quality as that used for the other big claims regarding Chekhov and the others. The basic problem here is that this story doesn’t align with the conception of the short story introduced in this book. It doesn’t fit.

And when Saunders tries to make it fit by attempting to make “sense” of the irrational in Gogol’s story, he essentially makes the rather sweeping argument of Vissarion Belinsky regarding the stretching of reality via the grotesque, which, Belinsky claimed (in the 1840s), was a way of making a social critique that reached into the everyday and reflected its distortions. Life was so out of whack (because of serfdom and the other deformations of humanity produced by the Russian autocratic state) that everything in the world was distorted, and Gogol was simply describing that distorted reality: he was a “supreme” realist. While Saunders updates this idea of what it all means to include the horrors of the mundane in the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and Stalinist purges, it is still a version of Gogol as a social satirist who uses the grotesque in ordinary life as his primary tool.

This could be a reasonable way to make sense of Gogol’s work — others have used it — but it is just one way, and the narrowing of Gogol’s rather open-ended verbal slapstick, nonsense, lyricism, sloppiness, caricature, absurdity, sound painting, and sometime carnival wackiness down to this one idea is unfortunate. The strengths of other parts of the book, moreover, come from the closeness of the connection between the manner of reading, the specifics of the details analyzed, and the claims about the overall effects of the stories, their broader meanings, expressive richness, and emotional impact. That connection is largely lost in these twenty some pages, I think, because there’s no real way to do it well without delving into the language.

But then, just as I find myself giving up hope that Saunders might have anything new to tell me about Gogol’s story, he has an afterthought (No. 5), and in the course of the six pages that follow, a bit like a Bach chorale in the St. Matthew Passion, he gathers up the loose threads and launches me into the next section. It is almost not even about Gogol, at least not ostensibly, and feels more like a set of free associations on his own writing practice, where he “follows the voice.”

An idea for a voice appears, and off you go. You just ‘feel like’ doing that voice. (And you find that you can.) Sometimes the inspiration for that voice might be a real person. Sometimes it’s a tendency in myself that I’ll exaggerate […]. Sometimes it’s a fragment of language that came from elsewhere” (306).

Here I’m making associations with things I know about Gogol’s writing practice: his tendency to keep lists of unusual words and expressions; his notoriously entertaining readings, where he would do the voices of his characters; his inability to come up with plots of his own, imploring his friends to give them to him — all he needed was a start and off he would go. And I’m waiting, for three pages of this afterthought I wait, and there’s no mention of Gogol, only reflections on Saunders’ own practice, on stories he’s written through this method, until he gets to this:

So, one way to get a story out of ‘the plane of its original conception’ is to try not to have an original conception. To do this, we need a method. For me, (and, I like to imagine, for Gogol, when he was in skaz mode) that method is to “follow the voice.” (p. 308)

This little remark, in a parenthetical aside no less, seems the strongest part of the entire analysis of Gogol’s “The Nose,” a story so clearly rooted in voice that structurally it would not hold up in workshop. Because it does not make the right kind of sense or exhibit the typical coherence, measure, and balance of the workshop’s models or pristine products.

Teaching Tolstoy’s Master and Man

In the three decades or so that I have been teaching works by Tolstoy, I don’t remember ever teaching the one known in English as “Master and Man.” This could be because it didn’t speak to me when I first read it or because I have consistently felt there were other, more effective works that I already had in my classes, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it more seriously as I’ve been reading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which I’ve already written about a few times in these posts (with maybe two more to go–I can’t skip what he has to say about “The Nose” and “Gooseberries” so more soon). Having thought about it, I still think I won’t teach this story, but the exercise has clarified some things for me.

First, the existing best-known translation has some serious flaws, not least of which is the title itself, which I don’t want to delve into too much at this point: titles are always tricky, and this one appears to have been filtered through the “Tolstoy the great spiritual thinker” prism, distorting it a bit from something in fact rather mundane into the grand sounding (please imagine my voice dropping a full register to pronounce) MASTER AND MAN! Well, it could be that, but Хозяин и работник could also be “Owner and Laborer” (Tolstoy the anti-capitalist) or even “The Owner and the Worker” (Tolstoy the fabulist). But this is for another discussion.

Now, I have frequently written about my distaste for the translation police tactic of cornering a single word or phrase to pronounce a translation inadequate, and I refuse to do that here. But there is a key line in the story, in fact the line on which the entire story pivots, when the main character appears to be transformed. So getting this line right is very important.

The two principal characters, lost in a blizzard, are in a crisis. One (the worker) appears to be near death. The other, the hitherto selfish owner, opens his coat and lies down on top of the first in order to warm him. This is done, as Saunders characterizes it in his reading and I agree, as “kind of a miracle of writing,” after Tolstoy has put himself “in a tough spot,” needing “to pull off a transformation [of the character] in which we can believe, one that mimics the sort of transformation a real-life stinker might actually undergo” (239). So far so good.

But then Vasily Andreevich speaks a line that overwhelms him and makes the transformation meaningful: “‘There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way….,” upon which “tears came into his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ‘Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,’ he thought. But this weakness was not only not unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy as he had never felt before. ‘That’s our way!'” he said to himself, experiencing a strange and solemn tenderness….” This is the Maude translation, which is what Saunders uses, and the passage is on pp. 211-212 of his book. (I’ll have more to say about the translations Saunders uses in another post.)

I sensed there was something off about the awkward phrase “that’s our way” even before looking at the source text. Tolstoy’s writing is nothing if not natural sounding, including in dialog, and when it isn’t, there is generally a reason for it in the characters. Here “that’s our way” takes readers, as it does Saunders, down a side path that leads away from one of Tolstoy’s constant preoccupations, a combination and complication of the internal and external states of a character that often makes it hard to say where an apparent transformation comes from.

Saunders wonders, “What does he mean, ‘that’s our way’? The Russian way, the way of Russian masters, the human way?” and notes “It’s beautiful: it doesn’t occur to him that this has never been his way, not at all, until this moment right now.” The problem with this line of interpretation is that the key phrase, Вот мы как (Vot my kak), doesn’t have anything about a way in it and is actually rather hard to pin down in terms of its meaning. My sense is that it has more of an emotional aspect than a denotative one (and thanks to Tatiana S. and Vika T. for confirming this for me). It strikes me as the sort of thing that a parent might say to an ailing child, comforting the child and trying to make him feel better. “There now” might do it, or maybe “Here we are then,” all comfy and warm, no need to be afraid anymore, just lie still, and you’ll feel better soon…. In other words, it’s mostly emotional, an endearing little flourish tacked on to V. A.’s, “There, and you said you were dying! Lie still and get warm….” It does not hinge on anything especially Russian, on a Russian way, or a Russian master, or even on an explicitly “human way.” But it is a trigger for the character, as if the action of comforting another, saying these words aloud, makes him feel something has hasn’t felt before, or at least for long enough not to remember it anymore.

How to interpret this is, as often in Tolstoy, a good question, and Saunders quite rightly wonders more about the “transformation,” including the possibility that Vasily Andreevich might be being consistent with his previous self in this behavior and not really exhibiting any especially radical change at all, though he himself interprets it as such. This is a good line of inquiry for a Tolstoy work. Vasily Andreevich’s emotional state here could be seen as akin to that of little Tanya Oblonsky, in Anna Karenina, when she secretly shares her dinner with her brother Grisha, who’s being punished for misbehavior, and a sense of her own “noble action” brings tears to her eyes.

Tolstoy routinely taints moments of apparent spiritual transformation, making them “real” by embedding them in specific sets of conditions that might have been different, sometimes linking them to bodily injuries, lack of sleep, and misinterpretations of someone else’s words or the natural world. This case appears to be another example, rather understated and mundane like the story’s title, complexly interwoven with the outside world (the raging snowstorm), and the imperfect but powerful words we use to say things, especially the most intimate kind, to others and to ourselves.

On Fairytales, Folktales, Wondertales, and… Tales

Vladimir Propp makes clear in his Исторические корни волшебной сказки (Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki) that the subject of his study is indeed the волшебная сказка [volshebnaia skazka] announced in its title. However, in his exposition, he often uses the term сказка [skazka] without any attribute. This term happens to be the word used for “folktale,” “fairy tale,” and simply “tale” in English, which led my colleagues and co-translators Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and me to a lot of discussion about how best to render the term in our on-going translation of Propp’s book. Alternate translations for the term volshebnaia might be “fairy,” “magical,” “enchanting,” “bewitching,” or “fantastical.” As “wondertale” has gained currency in translations into English, and as the author’s use is primarily technical rather than poetically descriptive, we have been using it as both the title of the translation and in many of the initial instances of the term skazka in the text, where it is clear he is using it as something of a short-hand for the longer, more descriptive term. But this only helps a bit around the margins and does not provide a definitive strategy for rendering the much more frequently and variously encountered skazka (without attribute) throughout the book. 

Propp’s Morfologiia skazki is known as Morphology of the Folktale in English. It is regularly cited and has come to occupy a central place in global folklore studies as such. This title rests upon an interpretive move that is not often remarked upon, an assumption about what the author intended without noting explicitly, namely, that the word skazka was an abbreviated version of narodnaia skazka (folk tale) and therefore equivalent to “folktale” in English. This is a reasonable assumption and a reasonable interpretation, but it is an interpretation all the same, as the word “folk” is not to be found in the Russian title of that book. 

While such an observation might seem on its face inconsequential to the overall translation of the work, it gathers additional weight when we turn to the translation of the continuation of Propp’s earlier begun study, which is in fact this work, with its more explicit title: Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki (Historical Roots of the Wondertale). Here, in his introductory chapter, the author explicitly notes, “By ‘wondertale’ [volshebnaia skazka] I shall intend those tales whose structure I examined in The Morphology of the Folktale [Morfologiia skazki], a book that sets out the genre of the wondertale [volshebnaia skazka] with adequate precision.” 

Now, it could be assumed that the previous book delineated a variety of folktale categories in equal measure, naming the wondertale as one of them but leaving the specifics of analysis for later. This is not the case. Actually, in fact, the entire book known by the English title Morphology of the Folktale was concerned with the wondertale (or, as rendered by earlier translators, the “fairy tale”), and the issue of the title’s ambiguity was not only known to earlier translators but remarked upon, as in Louis A. Wagner’s preface to his revised version of the book for its second edition: 

The expression narodnaja skazka has been rendered as “folktale,” volšebnaja skazka as “fairy tale,” and the words skazka (noun), skazočnyj (adjective) simply as “tale.” The chief departure from this practice is in regard to the title itself (Morfologija skazki), since a change here might have led to undue confusion. The morphology presented by the author is, of course, a morphology of the fairy tale specifically and he is careful to make note of this fact in the Foreword and in Chapter II. Thus the title of the work is, unfortunately, somewhat unclear. It is evident from the text that the unqualified word skazka is used by Propp both in the sense of tale in general and in the sense of fairy tale, depending upon context. The reader must infer the appropriate meaning in each instance. (Propp 2009: ix, emphasis added) 

In other words, Morphology of the Folktale perhaps should have been called Morphology of the Fairy Tale in its first English translation since that was its subject, and indeed the first edition’s introduction, by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, opened with the clear declaration, “The subject of this study, the Russian fairy tale…” (Propp 2009: xix). 

What is not clear is why the first edition’s translator, Laurence Scott, or perhaps that volume’s editor or publisher, chose to specify “folktale” in the title when everyone seems to have understood that the book’s subject was actually narrower and more specific. This strategy, moreover, had a long-term impact on the field, as evidenced by one reader of our text, a prominent folklorist who does not happen to work with Russian sources, emphasized in his comments that “skazka equals folktale.” Well, no it doesn’t, even if it might look that way from the English title of Propp’s earlier book.

The opposite tack was taken in the 1984 translation—by Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin—of an excerpt from the Historical Roots of the Wondertale published as part of the book Theory and History of Folklore. Here the translators chose to render every instance of skazka in the source as “wondertale” in their translation, despite Propp’s sometimes more expansive use of the term. Actually, Propp uses the same word (skazka) to refer to the tales collected by Russian nineteenth-century ethnographers as well as the “fairy tales” of the Brothers Grimm, Native American stories collected by Boas, Micronesian, African, and Australian tales, and stories from the Rig Veda and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By contrast, he uses the full “wondertale” [volshebnaia skazka] relatively infrequently in his book—many times in the first chapter, then not at all from chapters two to nine, then again a few more times in chapter ten—and as we asked ourselves upon encountering each successive instance of the much more commonly used skazka whether he had in mind “wondertale,” “folktale,” or a broader and more general “tale” or even “story,” we found ourselves occasionally hesitating. It is clear that it does not always simply refer to “wondertale,” but it is not always clear from context what he might have had in mind for each instance.  

Essentially, we have found ourselves in the hermeneutic dilemma set out by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century: namely, whether to bring the text closer to readers in the receiving culture, by interpreting for them (the strategy adopted in the Martin and Martin translation), or bring the readers of the receiving culture closer to the original text, by introducing aspects of the source, including its very ambiguity and polysemy, into the English. Faced with this choice, the Scott translation, in effect compromised by translating skazka as “tale” without differentiation and leaving it to readers to decide based on the context of its usage what Propp might have meant in each case. Except for in its title, that is.

Recent translation practice has favored different interpretive and expressive strategies on the part of translators, who, recognizing the implicit cultural power and expressiveness of particular words, phrases, and other linguistic features, often leave them untranslated in the new text. We considered this idea and even partially revised our version leaving skazka or the plural skazki in the English wherever Propp used those terms without an adjective but then pulled back: it’s already a complicated text with lots of terms in it; did we really need to add another? Do we?

Intentional Fallacy, Meaning It, and Generous Ways of Reading

Robert Allen Papinchak’s LARB review of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is mostly filled with praise. Among the two objections he notes (the other being Saunders’ tendency to be overly self-deprecating) is what he characterizes as his “bête noire” and the “one persistent objection” he had, in his many years of teaching, to discussions and analyses of fiction. This is the intentional fallacy, which students committed when they “claimed to know what a writer had in mind,” “when they presumed an understanding of a story that even its writer might claim not to have.” Papinchak points out a number of occasions where Saunders’ does precisely this.

In commenting on Turgenev, [Saunders] wonders if “technically rickety” parts of “The Singers” make it a “clumsy work of art” by intention. Did Turgenev “intend” the story to “serve as an apologia for his lack of craft”? With Chekhov, he surmises that the relationships in “The Darling” were “intentionally” carrying forward “some set of variables.” With Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot” he brings up intention at least six times, even attempting to rewrite the story to what he considers Tolstoy’s intentions might have been.

In response, Papinchak notes that “a story is what it is” and “it has a mind of its own,” and quotes D. H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” I suppose he means by this that what we have access to is the story itself and any presumed understanding of the author’s ideas outside of that is speculation on our part, something Tolstoy once suggested in a response to a reader who asked him what he meant in a particular passage of Anna Karenina: “If I wanted to tell you want I meant in that passage, I would have to write the whole book again from the beginning.” In other words, the story is on the page. Read it. Don’t ask me to reconstruct what I “meant” to say, especially after the fact, when I might not even remember what I had in mind at the time. There’s a similar, perhaps apocryphal, line attributed to Samuel Johnson: “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what I was thinking, myself and God. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that!”

Papinchak moves on rather too quickly for me, but fine, it’s a relatively brief review, and, as I noted to begin with with, a basically positive one — indeed he calls his objections “minor nits to pick in an otherwise overwhelmingly constructive book.” The reason I find the observations too fast and perhaps based on too cursory a reading is, mainly, that Saunders brings up the intentional fallacy almost immediately after one of these instances, in “Afterthought #2” to “The Singers,” where he notes:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. ¶The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully. (p. 110)

What I find so interesting in this passage is how, by the end of it, the point of view has shifted from that of reading to that of writing. This, I think, explains the page-before instance of what looks a lot like the intentional fallacy:

Did Turgenev intend ‘The Singers’ to serve as an apologia for his lack of craft? While he was writing it? After he had written it? I’m pretty sure he didn’t ‘aim’ to produce an apologia–didn’t start out to do that. I doubt he realized what he’d done, and I don’t know that he’d necessarily bless our assessment of it. But here’s the important thing: I don’t think it matters. He did it, and then he let it stand. Which is a form (the ultimate form, for an artist) of ‘meaning to do it’ (of taking responsibility). The blessing an artist gives the final product (which he gives by sending it out into the world) is his way of saying that he approves of everything within it, even parts of it that may, in that moment be hidden from him. (p 109)

Besides the fact that “he did it” isn’t too clear (he did what? produce an apologia? or write what he wrote?) and that there are a lot of male pronouns here standing in for “the artist” (let’s just assume this is Saunders writing based on his own experience), what I find especially remarkable is the pull of perspective from reading to writing, which is constant throughout the book, such that sometimes, if we’re not paying close attention, we might get stuck squarely between the two.

The book’s pattern is to begin with reading, and this makes it look like it’s about about how to read, how to interpret, and this is where Saunders’ references to what Chekhov or Turgenev were “trying to say” look like instances of the intentional fallacy pure and simple. But this reading is always in the service of how to write, and its intended primary audience is writers who want to create their own stories. So he consistently moves quickly past these interpretive moments and turns them to the service of writing. When, for instance, he writes about “the actual process” in the passage above, he has shifted over to the process of creation, away from where he started, which was with the process of discussing art (“we often discuss art this way”). Well, of course, one might object, since this is a book billed as a master class for writers. But that is only partly the case: it might have emerged from a fiction writing class, but somewhere in the process of taking on its final form, it became a “master class on writing, reading, and life” (my emphasis, but it’s the subtitle of the book, so it’s not at all unfair). This is where it raises larger questions.

When you’re the one doing the creating, you’re faced with different questions from those of all other readers, mostly about your own intention, and these will include how much control you need to feel you have over the story you’re creating, and the responsibility you take for what you leave on the page as the final version. This, I think, is what Saunders means by “meaning it,” confronting those moments “when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve” (108). I understand this, and I certainly appreciate both the sense of responsibility it seems to want to emphasize authors should take for their creations, and the way that it complicates the intentional fallacy for them in their practice. Not so much for readers who aren’t thinking of writing, where I agree with Papinchak: it’s the intentional fallacy.

What I’m still trying to fathom is a habitual manner of reading the words of others that is so implacably turned toward expressing oneself. As Saunders jokes (“and yet not”) on the opening page, “we’re reading to see what we can steal” (p. 3). The book is certainly consistent in this sense. A writerly approach to reading, I suppose, one perfectly suited for a fiction writing workshop, where the works explored are there as models and examples. This is the master class on fiction writing.

But reading and life? I suppose one could argue that life is like a short story, but that is not an argument Saunders employs. In fact he frequently points out the opposite, the starkness and efficiency of the form as such, which is highly artificial. This reading-for-writing-fiction clearly counts among the various ways one might read, and it wouldn’t preclude learning other things from the texts read that might be helpful to one in life, if only by happenstance. But it’s not a generous way to read. In fact, in its own way, it is as narrow as that used by students and scholars when they are focused on writing an analysis, where they ignore all the parts of the story that don’t support their argument and emphasize only those that do. Aren’t these stories worth reading in a more open spirit? For their history, and beauty, and critique, and richness, and subtlety, and tragedy, and all the other things you might discover if you weren’t focused on taking something to use? This is the biggest problem I see: I have doubts about being able to read both ways at once.

To put it more bluntly, I’m afraid that you narrow down the stories when your readings turn, again and again, to what you can use as part of your “own” stories? The approach reminds me a bit of those people we have conversations with sometimes who (we can sense it) are really only listening in order to be able to respond, a little like if someone learned a foreign language only in order to tell people things in it. I find myself hoping for a more generous approach, in which one is ready for anything the text might bring, because, I think, this kind of reading is what results in challenges to one’s accepted notions, in deeper engagement with the perspectives of others, in discovery and empathy.

This would be the master class on reading and life.

As If Written in English

In a previous post I mentioned how excited I was to take up George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain as I prepared for my Russian short fiction class. I still am, and there are plenty of strong points I have discovered so far. The book comes out of a fiction writing context, and Saunders’ approach focuses most often on questions of how the stories he’s chosen do what they do, how we experience them as readers, and how the choices made by the author create the various emotional responses we have as the stories move from one line, paragraph, and page to the next. There are plenty of quotable passages, short descriptions of technique, and clever analogies to help students understand such principles as when a story feels like a story and when it might not yet, why not, and what might still need to happen in order to get to the point at which it is, in fact, story.

But (you knew that was coming), it also has some drawbacks, the main one, which is rather a global concern, being its conflicted approach to the fact of translation. While Saunders notes from the beginning that he is not a scholar and doesn’t approach these stories from a scholarly standpoint (fair enough), he only mentions in passing that these stories were all written in Russian and that he’s working with them as translations. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. He seems to want to approach them as translations and, at the same time, as if they were written in English, and this presents a conflict as we read claims about the “effects” of certain word combinations that the author created. Here is a key moment in the opening frame:

The stories were, of course, written in Russian. I offer the English translations that I’ve responded to most strongly or, in some cases, the versions I first found years ago and have been teaching from since. I don’t read or speak Russian, so I can’t vouch for their faithfulness to the originals (although we’ll do some thinking about that was we go). I propose that we approach the stories as if they were originally written in English, knowing that we’re losing the music of the Russian and the nuance they would have for a Russian reader. Even in English, shorn of those delights, they have worlds to teach us.

p. 6

The acknowledgment of the Russian source and the author’s lack of access to it is fine and good, and I really don’t have any misgivings at all about using the translations that speak most to you (indeed, why would anyone in this context use translations that were somehow less evocative to teach from?). And I suppose admitting that he’s not going to have much to say about the accuracy of the translations he’s using is also fine. But then the paragraph, and the thinking, goes down a rabbit hole and gets lost in it, as if this “faithfulness” bugaboo flipped a trap door. Now we have shifted to a “rhetoric of loss” that clashes with the book’s overall tenor and, it seems to me, purpose. It’s as if he’s saying this is the best we can do, these texts being in their derivative Englished form, “shorn of the delights” of the Russian sources with their attendant “music” and “nuance.” I mean, are we going to approach them as if they were written in English or not?

If we do in fact approach them as if they were written in English, then they haven’t “lost” anything. We are looking at what they do in English, how they resonate in and by means of the English language, among the body of English-language literature. There is a source context we need to be aware of, that of the period and the place where they were created, but we’ve now put the language outside of this domain by approaching these works as if they were not written in that source language context but in this one.

Questions of effect now take on a different aspect. An example will help, I hope. On page 5, in the context of arguing for the renewing power that “fastidiously constructed scale models of the world” (those of well made short stories) can have on the ways we appreciate our place in it, Saunders quotes Isaac Babel: “‘No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.'” That’s a great line. The thing about it is that the right place might be different in different languages. Thinking that the sentence period works the same in one language as in another would be like thinking the music and rhythm of one language are the same as another’s. And who decides where to put the period in the English text? Not the author of the Russian text, certainly not the author of the nineteenth-century Russian text.

The English stories we are now working with, in this rhetoric of fullness and effectiveness that we’ve adopted to sell the idea of this book, comes from the way all these periods have been placed in the English texts. And obviously not just the periods, but the titles, the possible synonyms, the word order, sometimes the paragraphing, the dialog markers, the dashes, and commas, and more. Who made these decisions that have created these English-language effects, the phrasing, the pace, and so on, in short that have helped these English stories to be effective as stories in English by means of the language itself?

Sixty-two pages in, and I haven’t read one of their names mentioned even once.

Teaching Russian Short Fiction

I’ll be teaching what is called a “second 8-week” class this semester. This is a special format that my university came up with to address two problems. The first one is that sometimes a professor offers a class that doesn’t get enough students to sign up, such that it has to be canceled. The second is that some students find that the classes they signed up for at the beginning of the term are not for them, so they need another class to take (often in order to maintain their full-time student status, which is important for such things as financial aid, scholarships, and so on). I was hoping to teach a graduate seminar, but I didn’t get enough students, so instead I’ll be teaching “Russian Short Fiction,” an intro-level course that I taught once before. The title sounds like an oxymoron to some, but there’s actually quite a bit to choose from, and I’m looking forward to it.

As part of my preparation for the course, I began George Saunders’ new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which just happens to include four of the stories I use in the class: Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and “Gooseberries,” Turgenev’s “The Singers,” and Gogol’s “The Nose.” The book is based on a course he has taught for over twenty years in the MFA program at Syracuse, which means it is perfect for the sorts of students who are likely to take my course: interested in a general way, probably without Russian language or at least not enough to read the stories in the original Russian, and likely to respond to a practical approach that asks questions about what Saunders calls “the physics of the form (‘How does this thing work, anyway?'”

I have been surprised in the past by how a new book can come out just at the moment when you can use it in one of your classes, and this one has me really excited. While I know the material from having studied and taught it for many years, and from having written about it in a scholarly vein, I anticipate learning things from Saunders, who comes at it from a different perspective. I also anticipate sharing more here as I find little gems of concise, effective writing like this:

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind” (p. 4).

From Non-Space to Landscape

I am struck by the notion of the absence of space in Vladimir Propp’s account of the wondertale. This is similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation about the absence of the effects of time on the hero and heroine of romance, where they have adventure after adventure but, in the end, don’t seem to have aged or been left psychologically changed by any of their experiences. They remain the same couple “of marriageble age” at the end that they were before the kidnapping, the pirates, the crocodiles, the earthquake, and so on. This, in part at least, is what Voltaire makes fun of at the end of Candide when Cunegonde turns out to be old and ugly from having waited so long.

Propp’s suggestion is that wondertales developed from rituals in set places (the forest hut, the boundary between this world and the next, the animal and human realms) and that the “in-between” spatial elements were added only later. He describes this in an eloquent phrase: “The road is present only in the composition, not in the texture.” By this he means that while there are great spaces traversed, the tales skip over the time of movement itself, often by means of a set formula like “He road for a long or a short time, near or far…,” which, as he puts it, “refuses” to describe the journey itself in any detail.

He contrasts this to epic spatial descriptions, especially those of well-known works like The Odyssey, about which he has this to say:

For us there is no doubt that the Odyssey, for example, is a later phenomenon than the wondertale. In it the journey and its space are elaborated in the style of epic. Hence we conclude that the static elements, the stops of the wondertale, are older than its spatial composition. Space has intruded into something that already existed before. The key elements were created prior to the appearance of spatial representations. We shall see this in greater detail below. All the elements of the stops already existed as ritual. Spatial representations separated into long distances things that were actually the phases of ritual.

(Historical Roots of the Wondertale, Chapter Two; tr. by Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and Russell Scott Valentino; in ms.)

Describing the “phases of ritual” from which wondertales emerged constitues the heart of the book, it seems to me.

But I am struck by the contrast between this primordial (in the sense of story telling) absence of space and the sense of landscape that encompasses everything for a writer and thinker like Anne Whiston Spirin, whose work I’ve been exploring. She is not alone, of course, though her work might be the most profound on this score, especially her description of the obstacles she faced in approaching landscape as language (in her The Language of Landscape) and the ways she set out to overcome them. Space here is a conceptual tool, the fundamental texture that makes composition possible.