A nous deux, Building 240!

It seems like just yesterday that I was at Stanford’s Building 460, reading with n+1 magazine; but already the time has come for me to make another appearance in this fine edifice. On January 23 at 5pm in Building 460, Room 429, I will be a respondent for Luba Golburt’s presentation on Pushkin and the historical romance, sponsored by the Working Group on the Novel.

The idea of the Working Group is that everyone reads a paper and a designated novel in advance; then, at the appointed time and place, they all confront the author of the paper, who sits at a long table with a respondent (me), who “kicks things off” with some hard-hitting questions that cut through the rhetoric and get to what really matters to you and me. Dinner will be provided. Think you can handle it? Here are the readings: Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter; and Luba Golburt’s “Seeing History: The Russian Historical Novel between Sir Walter Scott and Les Jeunes-France.”

You don’t actually need a very firm idea of who the Jeunes-France were, in order to appreciate Luba’s paper; nonetheless, I share with you the definition from the Tresor de la Langue Française Informatisé:

A group of eccentric young writers and artists, wearing long hair, forked beards, velvet doublets, and soft fedoras, who, from 1830 on, exaggerated the theories of the Romantic school, drawing notice with their behavior and with their literary and artistic opinions, which tended to alarm the “bourgeoisie”… The most flattering thing for a Jeune-France at that time was to persuade his parents to let him wear a sky-blue habit and the yellow breeches of a young Werther (SAINTE-BEUVE, Literary Portraits).

Daudet Young Werther

Alphonse Daudet

Young Werther

Members included Alphonse Daudet (above), who was possibly wearing yellow breeches when that picture was taken… unless the yellow breeches were part of a different look from the forked beard and floppy hat…? I’ll be asking Prof. Golburt when we’re playing “hardball” next Wednesday.Luba’s paper is about visuality in the Russian historical novel, particularly in Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (1836), and Ivan Lazhechnikov’s The House of Ice (1835). One general idea is that, whereas The House of Ice demonstrates the sensationalism and “freneticism” favored by the Jeunes-France, The Captain’s Daughter remains closer to Sir Walter Scott’s “domestic” treatment of historical themes.

Personally, my favorite part is about the interplay between fictional versus “world-historical” characters in the historical novel. (It’s because of my interest in how the novel finds “epistemological access” from ordinary/ private life, to the stuff of romances… this was the subject of my dissertation.) In The Captain’s Daughter, Pushkin—again, following Walter Scott—invents a fictional protagonist; in The House of Ice, Lazhechnikov uses as his protagonist an actual cabinet minister, albeit one entangled with a fictional Moldavian-gypsy princess.

I’m particularly looking forward to this event because Luba and I have a personal history with Lazhechnikov’s House of Ice (à nous trois, Lajetchnikov!). Back in our naïve student days, Luba and I planned to collaborate on a first English translation of this novel, which narrates the political and romantic intrigues surrounding the 1740 construction of an ice palace for the wedding of Empress Anna Ioannovna’s favorite jesters. These jesters—incorrectly memorialized by posterity as dwarves—had to spend their wedding night in the palace and almost froze to death. Here is a painting of the Wedding at the House of Ice (1878) by Valery Jacobi.

Wedding at the House of Ice
You can imagine how excited Luba and I were to discover, in early 2006, that a Petersburg ice- and sand-sculpture company (”Ice Studio“) was reconstructing the House of Ice on the banks of the Neva—exactly according to the plans left by the designer, Georg Wolfgang Krafft (whose Description et répresentation exacte de la maison de glace, construite à St. Pétersbourg au mois de janvier 1740, may be consulted at the New York Public Library).Naturally, we rushed straight to Petersburg to witness this amazing spectacle (about which I subsequently wrote an article for the New Yorker), thereby to gauge the role of Lazhechnikov’s novel in the “Russian cultural imagination.”

Luba is an art history aficionado, as you will appreciate when you read her paper, so it was really convenient for us that the House of Ice was located right outside the Hermitage. The Hermitage and the “Ice Studio” even co-hosted a festival outside the House of Ice, commemorating the 200th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen: some Russian children were prevailed upon to draw pictures incorporating works from the Hermitage with themes from Andersen’s stories, and ice sculptors then transformed these pictures into ice statues.

Sasha Permyakov, age seven, drew the “dog whose eyes are big as saucers” sitting on an Italian Renaissance chest; Vova Mikhailov, age six, drew a “Troll’s Magic Mirror” incorporating a Gorgon Medusa; Anastasia Golubeva, age eleven, represented a Snow Queen selling Eskimo bars out of the Hermitage’s “Kolyvan vase” (a nineteen-ton Roman vessel cut from a jasper monolith).

Dog with Eyes as Big as Saucers Саша Пермяков

The Dog Whose Eyes Are Big as Saucers
by Sasha Permyakov, age 7

Sasha Permyakov, with
The Dog Whose Eyes Are Big as Saucers

Looking back on those days that Luba and I spent in Petersburg, I find myself swept up in the romance of history… vividly do I see before me, for example, the clear, cold morning when we went to the Hermitage, to interview our former classmate’s grandmother’s friend, Valentin Molotkov, a restorer of eighteenth-century clocks, whose workshop literally overlooked the ice palace. Molotkov gave us tea and cookies, showed us a lot of clocks, and also took us on a personal guided tour of some old military uniforms. He was, however, reluctant to comment on the House of Ice, advising us only to “read Lazhechnikov: He explains everything.”“But we were hoping to learn your personal thoughts and observations,” we told him.

“Well… I did notice one difference from the original,” Molotkov finally said: “the roof. They reinforced it with wood and plastic, so it wouldn’t fall on our heads… But what of it? Roofs fall everywhere, we’re used to it.” He proceeded to show us a partially dismantled musical clock that had once belonged to Catherine the Great.

The most striking fact to emerge from this interview was that Molotkov had actually been inside the 19-ton Kolyvan Vase, used by the Snow Queen as an ice-cream freezer.“How did you get inside?” we asked.“I climbed a ladder,” he said.

Molotkov in clock workshop

Molotkov in his workshop





Kolyvan vase

The Kolyvan vase

Our second interview subject at the Hermitage was Kira Dolinina, then-editor of Hermitage magazine. Dolinina, it emerged, hadn’t even visited the House of Ice; “no intellectuals go there,” she told us. “And those who do go, all say the same thing: ‘It’s so small!’ The organizers told us it would be enormous, six meters tall. Well, in 1740, the Winter Palace hadn’t yet been built, so there was a different proportional standard. But for us, today, six meters is nothing. My colleague in Moscow was very surprised when I told her I didn’t go. She asked me: ‘How could you not go?’ But I told her: ‘What am I—a dwarf?’”Subsequent academic research confirmed Dolinina’s claims that “no intellectuals” went to the House of Ice.

Oleg Kharkhordin, Professor of Sociology and Political Theory at the European University of St. Petersburg: “I saw it for thirty seconds… I passed it in a taxi.” (When asked whether he was too intellectual to go inside, Kharkhordin replied: “No, I am just very busy.”)

Historian Evgeny Anisimov, the world’s leading expert on the reign of Anna Ioannovna: “It somehow wasn’t interesting to me.”

Ilya Utekhin, Dean of the Ethnology Department at EUSP, also hadn’t been to the House of Ice, but did speak to us at great length about the chaotic inverse of public celebrations in St. Petersburg; he was working on an oral history of the city’s 300th anniversary celebration in 2003, when hungry mobs were trapped on the embankments all night, after the bridges were raised and the metro was closed. There hadn’t been enough toilets, so people had instead used the lilac-bushes outside the Admiralty. One security guard had told Utekhin that an old lady had defecated on the very steps of the university, right in front of two police officers, who just sat in their police car, drinking beer and “doing nothing.”

“The other side of celebration is—disorder,” Utekhin concluded.

One of our more uplifting meetings on that trip was with Mira Abramovna Shereshevskaya: one of the first Russian translators of Henry James and, more recently, the Russian translator of Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony, by Luba’s and my former advisor, Monika Greenleaf. (Luba was either collecting or depositing some part of the manuscript.) She hadn’t been to the House of Ice either, but only because of declining health; she would have gone if she could.

We visited Mira Abramovna at home one snowy evening in a huge block of apartments, where she had made a wonderful dinner with rassol’nik (pickle soup); she showed us some beautiful editions of Henry James, and even gave me a copy of Lazhechnikov’s (out-of-print) House of Ice, in a Soviet children’s edition, which was, to my relief, totally unexpurgated, because I was really counting on some lurid mutilations and insinuated dwarf-sex.

Because of my fond memory of this evening, I was very sorry to hear of Mira Abramovna’s death in September 2007. She was 85 years old.

Пушкин и романтическая мода Ледяной дом

Pushkin i romanticheskaia moda,
trans. M. A. Shereshevskaia

Ivan Lazhechnikov’s Ledianoi dom
(Detskaia Lit., 1982)

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