Authors: Fyodor Sologub
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I feel that there is not much to be gained by trying to explain in great detail the literary and linguistic subtleties of
the original Russian text to an English-speaking audience. Obviously those who know Russian can compare the original with
the translation and come to their own conclusions. For better or worse the English-speaking reader finds himself at the mercy
of the translator and can only hope that he is reading a “faithful” translation. Unfortunately, no two translators, or critics,
are apt to agree fully on what “faithful” should mean. Faithful to what? The content? The style? The sensibilities of a reader
who desires a smooth and readable text? Or perhaps a wonderful compromise among all these factors which is achieved through
some magical formula in the sole possession of the translator? In any event, the reader does have the right at least to know
what the translator thought he was trying to accomplish and how he set about it.
In the case of Sologub’s
The Petty Demon
I have attempted to abide as closely as possible by the “content” of the original. Except in isolated circumstances I have
directly translated what Sologub wrote without trying to “interpret” the content or to take undue license by striving above
all for a musical or poetic effect in English. Not have I attempted to adorn the original text, or worse, to delete words
and phrases which did not “fit” well into English. I made a special effort to preserve the
of the text by utilizing vocabulary items in English which I felt were of the same semantic value and level in Russian. My
intention was neither to aggrandize nor to mitigate the effect of Sologub’s language in order to achieve some desired effect.
I took particular care in preserving the
of Sologub’s vocabulary, for this is one of the hallmarks of Sologubian prose. While the author does not draw on a particularly
rich and varied lexical store, nevertheless, he is extremely fastidious in what he does use and he consciously
his favorite words and phrases. The repetition of this selective vocabulary in Sologub’s works was often meant to induce
an incantational and hypnotic effect that is frequently reminiscent of music, poetry or even religious rites. The reader will
also recognize, of course, that such repetition performs the role of creating convenient verbal leitmotifs for the various
characters and situations.
I did, however, deviate from the above principles in two circumstances. The first was in rendering the counter-spells uttered
by Peredonov. The second concerned the many puns and word plays that abound throughout the novel. In both cases it was my
intention to avoid laborious footnotes which explain the actual content or meaning of the counter-spells or puns. In the case
of the counter-spells I produced what I felt would be a reasonable English equivalent. As far as the word plays were concerned,
I believed that it was more important to reproduce the spirit or intent of the Russian original while still creating a word
play in English. In a few cases where I thought that the spirit of the original would be unduly violated, I reluctantly resorted
to a footnote.
A final point concerns the translation of the Russian words
because the attentive reader may notice a discrepancy between the text of the translation and various references made in
the articles contained in the critical appendix. Some critics (and former translators) have rendered
’ as “werewolf” in English. The actual root of
’ is based on the word meaning “to change”. I have chosen to translate the word as “changeling” rather than as “werewolf.”
Obviously a “werewolf” belongs to the category of “changelings” but both in English and in Russian the words
’/”changeling” can indicate a human being that assumes the identity of
animal or bird, or even of another human being. This is obviously a very important theme in the novel when one realizes the
great number of “transformations” or “changelings” that Sologub interpolates into the text. Peredonov’s diseased imagination
manufactures all manner of such phenomena: Volodin alternates between his human identity and that of a sheep; the playing
cards become real kings, queens and knaves; Peredonov believes that Volodin is trying to kill him and assume his identity.
Costumes are used throughout to depict changes in identity: Sasha dresses as a geisha girl; both Lyudmila and Sasha don various
costumes in order to alter their personalities; Peredonov displays his own “changeling” aspirations by ordering a new uniform,
throwing away his old hat and wearing his official cap. Finally, a great scandal is caused by Peredonov accusing Sasha of
being a girl in disguise.
In the novel, Volodin is regularly described in terms of a
. In Russian this means a “male sheep” or “ram.” Some translators and critics have chosen to translate this quality in Volodin
as being “ram-like.” My feeling is that the word “sheep” is more neutral and evocative of Volodin’s antics and behavior and
at the same time it does not deny the fact that he is a male. Moreover, the word “ram” might suggest the appearance and qualities
of the mountain variety to the English reader. This particular problem is a veritable Pandora’s Box that I do not care to
open any further since it touches upon a host of difficulties in translating the differences between male and female counterparts
of the same animal and whether the masculine or feminine determination is used to create adjectival forms. For example, in
Russian one says
for “lamb” or “mutton chops,” yet surely this does not mean that only the unfortunate male of the species ends up on the
dinner table. I add this merely as food for thought to the readers of the text.
S THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
drew to a close, a diverse number of Russian thinkers acid writers declared a metaphysical and aesthetic war against insipid
materialism and vulgar utilitarianism in art and thought. The salvation of mankind lay in the search for a new spiritual idealism.
The salvation of art lay in the creation of new forms of artistic expression. The inspiration for this new idealistic impetus
came from at least two discernible directions. The first was a reaction against a predominant mood of pessimism in Russian
literature and thought, which was perceived to be a legacy of the lugubrious and depressing themes of Russian civic art. The
second was an acceptance of the “new art” of literary sensitivity that was being imported from France, England and other European
One of the earliest exponents of a renewed philosophy of idealism in art and thought was the Russian philosopher-poet, Vladimir
Solovyov (1853–1900), who directed man’s vision to the divine realm for inspiration:
And man, as one who belongs to both worlds, can and must by an act of rational contemplation concern himself with the divine
world, and finding himself yet in a world of contention and vague apprehension, he must enter into communication with vivid
images from the kingdom of glory and eternal beauty.
Solovyov’s theories were to have a profound effect on a later generatio of symbolist writers that would include both Alexander
Blok 1880–1921) and Andrei Bely (1880–1934).
However, the first genuine “manifesto” of the new artistic and philosophical sensibilities is usually accredited to Dmitri
Merezhkovsky (1865–1941) who wrote his famous treatise “On the Reasons for the Decline and on the New Tendencies in Contemporary
Russian Literature” in 1892. Merezhkovsky was among the first in Russia to outline in great detail what he envisaged as the
genuine requirements of the new artistic idealism that would do battle with the “suffocatingly dead positivism of the 19th
Century.” Referring to the works of Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Flaubert, Turgenev and Ibsen, Merezhkovsky distilled the
… the three major elements of the new art [are] a
mystical content, symbols
, and the
expansion of artistic impressionability
… only a
creative faith in something infinite and immortal
can ignite the soul of man, create heroes, martyrs and prophets … People have need of faith, they need inspiration, they
crave a holy madness in their heroes and martyrs.
As we will see later, these words were to arouse a creative response in the heart of Fyodor Sologub.
While some writers of this “first generation” of Symbolists that included Merezhkovsky, his wife Zinaida Hippius (1867–1945),
and Nikolai Minsky (1855–1937), devoted themselves to the creation of idealistic and inspirational content in the new art,
other poets, such as Konstantin Balmont (1867–1943) and Valeri Bryusov (1873–1924) preferred to explore and promote new aesthetic
forms and sensibilities:
Rare and powerful harmonies exist,
Shaping both scent and contour in a flower.
Thus brilliance lies unseen by us until,
Beneath the chisel, it blazes in the diamond.
And I desire that all my dreaming visions
That reach the light embodied in the word,
Find for themselves their long-sought forms.
A Sonnet to Form
In the works of Bryusov and Balmont there were, at times, simply the undeniable attempts to
épater le bourgeois
, to shock, amaze and anger. Hence Bryusov's notorious one-liner:
O, cover your pale legs!
Virtuosity in form, musicality in tone and exotic dreamlike sensuality in content were the trademarks of Konstantin Balmont:
Beneath this youthful, sickle-Moon
That glows above the emerald Sea,
You walk beside the waves with me.
I whisper words, we silently dispute.
This came to me in dreams one night,
As combers roared in you and me.
I saw with moonlight-flooded sight
That you and I were sinking in the Sea.
We were, in crespuscule and brine,
Two ocean flowers, entwining blooms
Of salt and sea-dreaming Moons
And stars of novel lands and strange designs.
Beneath a Lunar Sign
In both treatise and poem these new prophets of exotic sensations
attracted converts as well as enemies who labelled them “decadent” because of the unabashed eroticism and frequent escapism
into realms of artificial experience. The designations of “Symbolist” and “Decadent” became confused and interchangeable in
the minds of the conservative reading public who preferred less spicey fare than was being dished up. Scant distinction was
made between those writers who seemed genuinely dedicated to seeking the creative synthesis of heaven and earth and those
who were more inclined to an exotic aestheticism. The confusion was compounded by the fact that both Symbolists and Decadents
shared a common interest in renewing artistic forms and were frequently attracted to identical themes and motifs. This initial
movement which became known as Symbolism or Decadence, depending upon the aesthetic bias of the reader or critic, began to
proliferate and diversify in the early part of the twentieth century as more and more writers and poets were attracted. A second
generation of younger, or belated, writers, hastened to join the ranks of the new aesthetic modernism that held out such promise
for a genuine renaissance in Russian letters. The second wave of Symbolism included such hopefuls as Andrei Bely, Alexander
Blok and Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866–1949), to name only the most prominent. Bely and Blok apprenticed themselves in their early
years to the established Symbolist masters like Solovyov, Merezhkovsky, Bryusov and Balmont, but rapidly developed their own
aesthetic forms and philosophies.
The faint rustlings of Russian Symbolism in the early 1890’s echoed across the frontier of the twentieth century and grew
to resounding proportions in the literary world of pre-World War I Russia. Particularly after the aborted revolution of 1905,
this literary tendency began to diversify and fractionalize as one literary-artistic journal after another was created as
a rallying-point for a fresh alignment of Symbolist writers, thinkers and artists. Vehement
professions de foi
and militant “manifestoes” were hurled at friend and foe alike in a furious verbal barrage over literary matters pertaining
to Symbolism. One might well characterize this period between roughly 1905 and 1910 as a period of “War Symbolism” in which
long-time friends became foes overnight while implacable enemies were embraced as committed symbolists moved from one literary
camp or publishing house to the other.
It is fair to say that Russian Symbolism was never a lukewarm experience. The passionate alliances, the vicious rivalries,
the fiery, often absurd, debates, the ridiculous antics and aesthetic poses of many of its adherents proved to be the rule
rather than the exception. The hopes, dreams and aspirations of Symbolism were just as exaggerated, perhaps as futile, as
the works they created.
Considering the many divergent theories of Symbolism proposed by its adherents over the course of almost a quarter century
(from the early 1890s up until the Revolution) it is not an easy task to select a single salient or unifying theme, a single
central tenet that would fairly represent the thrust of Russian Symbolism. However, a great deal of the spirit of Russian
Symbolism might be summed up in the predominant concern for
this concept presupposes the existence,
or even opposition, of two realms, be it the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine, the ugly and the beautiful.
The desire of the Symbolist was to annul this opposition, to resolve it. The ugly, the earthly and the human were to be transformed
or transfigured into their loftier counterparts. The method or magic formula for achieving this common design was as diverse
as the membership and personality of Russian Symbolism. The philosopher-poet, Vladimir Solovyov, proposed a vision for the
transformation of mankind that was essentially Christian, if unorthodox. In his theory of Godmanhood, he sought the union
between earth and heaven in which man would ascend to the divine level and be transfigured. Both Bely and Blok, particularly
in their younger years, were deeply influenced by Solovyov and espoused many of the principal tenets of his teachings on the
divine purpose of art and the desire to achieve Godmanhood. Bely was the more active of the two in pursuing and developing
new theories of Symbolist art that were usually eclectic and idiosyncratic. But over the years Bely invariably returned to
the same Symbolist concerns: the resolution of opposites, the transformation of earth into heaven, man into the godman. Like
Solovyov, Merezhkovsky was also fascinated by opposites. In his scheme for mankind’s transfiguration, he sought a synthesis
of the pagan and the Christian spirits to create a new being that would be beauteous in body and spirit. Merezhkovsky’s own
attempt to put theory into practice resulted in a series of grandiose novels wherein various historical figures were selected
as symbolic incarnations of the mighty struggle between contrasting forces in mankind and the universe. His first trilogy
was given the expressive title of
Christ and Antichrist
One of the most important and seminal ideas proposed by Merezhkovsky in his original manifesto of 1892, and which echoed the
thoughts of Vladimir Solovyov, concerned the utilization of symbols to portray both metaphysical and artistic truths:
Characters can … serve as symbols. Sancho Panza and Faust, Don Quixote and Hamlet, Don Juan and Falstaff, in the words of
Goethe, are “schwankende Gestalten” … apparitions which haunt mankind … from generation to generation. It is impossible to
communicate in any words whatsoever the idea of such symbolic characters, whereas symbols express the unrestricted aspect
Indeed, every Symbolist worthy of the title felt obliged to create his own system of Symbols, his own symbolic mythology,
and to personify the inexpressible truths of his particular vision. The cornerstone symbol of Solovyov’s scheme was the Divine
Sophia (the Divine Wisdom of God) who would inspire mankind to actively seek and participate in his own transfiguration through
the process of Godmanhood. This archetype of the Eternal Feminine resonated through the works of other Symbolists such as
Blok and Bely. They both created their own personal variants of Solovyov’s Divine Sophia. Blok espoused the “Beautiful Lady”
and Bely the “Woman Clothed in the Sun.” Particularly during their younger years, these Symbols
apotheosized their vague, at times inarticulate, at times verbose, longing for earthly transformation.
The role of the poet was viewed in a similar way by many of the Symbolists. Theirs was not a passive function. They stood
as intermediaries between two realms, as heralds of transformed existence, the travellers between worlds who beckoned to others
to follow. Vyacheslav Ivanov, a classical scholar and Symbolist poet who drew many of his archetypes and inspiration from
antiquity, stated this Symbolist role as inspired messenger:
And thus I am not a Symbolist if in the heart of the listener I do not arouse with intangible nuance or influence those incommunicable
sensations which resemble at time some primeval remembrance …
I am not a Symbolist if my words do not summon forth in the listener sensations of the connection between that which is his
“ego” and that which he calls his “non-ego” … if my words do not convince him immediately of the existence of a hidden life
where his mind had not suspected life; if my words do not move in him the energy of love towards that which he was previously
unable to love because his love did not know of the many abodes it possessed.
Thoughts on Symbolism
Symbolism, as a vibrant, often chaotic force in Russian letters, lost ground with the approach of World War I and the Russian
Revolution. Other -ism’s (Acmeism, Futurism, etc.), while less ambitious in their designs, eventually proved to be more vigorous
and attractive. Even the most stalwart and hopeful grew weary of maintaining their vigil of faith atop deserted mountains
in expectation of the dawning of the new age so often heralded by the Symbolists. Succeeding times and generations do not
readily accept the proposals of their immediate predecessors.
This, in brief and simplified terms, is the aesthetic landscape wherein the literary work and artistic sensibility of Fyodor
Sologub blossomed and grew to prominence. While profoundly a part of that same Symbolist world, nevertheless he was at the
same time a foreigner within it.
Fyodor Kuzmich Sologub (pseud. of F.K. Teternikov, 1863–1927) was one of the most striking curiosities produced by Russian
Symbolism. His background, his profession, his age, even his appearance, made him a very unlikely, even ridiculous figure
among the Russian Symbolists and frequently deprived him of the respect which was his due. Especially for the younger poets,
Symbolism was as much a lifestyle, an aesthetic pose, as it was a genuine literary pursuit. Flamboyant dress, exaggerated
manners, verbal pyrotechnics and suspect behavior were liberally flaunted as proof of membership in what must have seemed
a somewhat exclusive literary club. Moreover, most Symbolists came from the middle or upper classes with strong intellectual
traditions. Yet, hovering on the fringes of this pride of lions was Sologub, the son of a former serf, a provincial teacher
for most of his life, balding, rather insignificant and hapless in appearance, awkward, taciturn and touchy, and looking much
older than his years. And who had
conceived the somewhat absurd-sounding pseudonym of “Sologub” for him? While Sologub was almost a solitary figure, almost
an outcast within the very Symbolist circles he moved in, nevertheless, his works were undeniably a reflection of and a resonant
echo of that same world.