Two Princesses by Vladimir Odoevsky

Two Princesses is a far cry from the Odoevsky I’ve read in the past. No Gothic fairy tales here, folks, just a pair of society tales that skewer the Russian upper classes of the 1830s like nobody’s business. And we can thank the Hesperus folks for another great cover. Those two apples, one rotten, the other just managing to remain upright—well, one is Princess Mimi and the other Princess Zizi.

Those are the titular characters of the two novellas collected here. The first, Princess Mimi, tells a rather depressing story of a generally upstanding (if not in any way angelic) baroness brought low by the scandalmongering—and that is truly the appropriate term—of a disgruntled spinster, Princess Mimi herself. The first thing of interest here is the really great job Odoevsky does at painting the “bolshoi svet” as absurd, petty, wasteful, and unfair. As a society tale, this is really good, and according to the foreword by Bridget Kendall, one of the first in Russia. Another fun thing: Odoevsky includes a “preface” to the tale about two-thirds of the way in. The authorial intrusion brings back a whiff of the dark humor I remember from his other stories, and I find I generally like Odoevsky the narrator. And the way he uses the preface and then the abrupt ending give a strange structure to the end of the story. While the foreword complained of the ending as perhaps being too pat or easy, I would say that the use of the duel—the totally pointless, wasteful, completely stupid duel—fits with the rest of what Odoevsky is showing. And structurally, the abruptness mirrors the thing itself. The world of Princess Mimi gets really harmful, all of a sudden like.

Princess Zizi holds a mirror up to the same society, but the particular circumstances are far removed. The title princess here is a self-denying sister-in-law to the man she loves, sacrificing her life and sanity to her dead mother’s wishes and her own obsession with her sister’s husband. But she’s actually sacrificing—she’s basically acting as their housekeeper, managing their domestic affairs and caring for their child while her sister is off shopping and dancing the night away. But Zizi finds she’s been tricked all these years, and at the last moment breaks with her family and is irrevocably classified as an eccentric—like Mimi, never to marry. But not to become the bitter spinster, either; Zizi is just good through and through.

There are fun structural things in this one as well. First, there’s a frame: a writer who needs to come up with a new story asks his industrialist friend to yarn him one. The industrialist narrates Zizi’s tale, with the aid of letters in his possession written among Zizi, her confidante, and others. There’s also a pretty serious psychological portrait of Zizi, and the tribulations she goes through from falling in love with her future brother-in-law, to living in his home, to nearly marrying another man, on down the line. Powerful and believable.

New, unexpected thoughts from the depths of her soul, as though from another secret world, arose before her. She sensed in herself the origination of new feelings that were involuntarily intermingling in her whole existence and directing a magic light on to everything surrounding her. But then, as so often, having taken such notice of her inner spiritual impulses, she could not recognise herself and was astonished at her regeneration. And then, mockingly, she would look back at herself in the past, compare herself with her peers, and in her heart there would come into being a powerful pride—that human strength and sickness. And so there forms in her an impatience to get out of the tight circle in which her home life has enclosed her.

Both novellas have made me reevaluate somewhat my initial picture of Odoevsky. I am rather inclined now to read all of his work.

7 comments to Two Princesses by Vladimir Odoevsky

  • They look like persimmons, those two apples do. But I could be mistaken. I wonder, assuming they are persimmons, if some sublte shade of meaning is being expressed. They’re bloody difficult to remove, those tasty, sweet-and-sour seeds. And they’re terribly bloody, staining everything in sight, fingers, cutting boards, walls. Cheers. K

  • Of course, you are totally right! My fruit knowledge is so pathetic.

  • Funny! Nicole nicole’d apples. Then Kevin kevin’d persimmons. Praise AR for his knowledge of fruits. (Or is that damn thing a vegetable!) What’s funny is that I ate three pomegranates yesterday, and even used the word multiple times but only thought persimmons when in my mind’s eye I saw pomegranates.

  • I’m looking at a novel. which I cannot read, by Dany Laferrière, entitled Cette grenade dans la main du jeune Nègre est-elle une arme ou un fruit?.

    Soemone recently explained the title to me. So I, too, have grenades / pomegranates on my mind. Also, I was sure Kevin was actually describing pomegranates.

    Should someone say something about the whatayacallit, the book? The messing around with structure – the misplaced prefaces and whatnot – still makes Odoevsky sound like the Russian Hoffmann. But the content is something else. I never read a Hoffmann story that I would call a society tale. That sounds more like Pushkin. Or Balzac? How do you think these compare to the stories in that Salamander collection?

  • Society tales from 1830s Russia – sounds fantastic. I’m curious along with AR about how Odoevsky compares to other 19th century writers.

  • I still would call Odoevsky the Russian Hoffmann. The narrator takes center stage in things like the preface but he is always there. Hoffmann never wrote a society tale, but if he had, and he was Russian…or something. I think these are better than most of the stories in the Salamander collection, Princess Zizi especially.