Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Excerpts from Variegated Tales by Prince Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Excerpts from Variegated Tales by Prince Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky

Article excerpt

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 The excerpts I have chosen, which are replete with satire and a multitude of cultural and historical references, are bound by implication and read as a whole.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. …

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