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.

Odoevsky’s phantasmagoria

“The Cosmorama” and “The Salamander” are the longest and most substantial of the stories in The Salamander and other Gothic tales, translated (and possibly edited) by Neil Cornwell. Both are excellent examples of the Romantic tale and very much in the style of Hoffmann; “The Golden Pot” and “The Sandman” both come to mind as close siblings in the form.

While the shorter stories tend to contain elements of the supernatural and fantastic, it is in these longer works that characters have time and space to delve into a darker fantasy world, where they, enchanted or otherwise intoxicated, see terrible creatures, evil spirits, parallel worlds, the dead. Odoevksy gives ever-creepier images, of “lions, dragons, the dead skeleton and monstrous birds…flying round them”; “little blue flames running down her body, and her body was going black and blacker”; “a being whose gaze I shall never forget: its face was a dull green colour; crimson hair, like blood, streamed over its shoulders; from earthen coloured eyes there dripped fiery tears.”

These scenes give a bit more of a sensational aspect to Odoevsky’s stories, and also invite further comparison to Hoffmann. And along with the endings to the most phantasmagorical stories, which are less than happy ones, they create an impression of a more pessimistic Romanticism, without resolution in the union of reason and feeling.

“The Sylph,” an exploration of madness and possibly my favorite of these tales, contains such pessimism. A young man writes several letters to his friend in the city after he himself retires to the country for his health. The “high society whirl” was driving him mad, as were books:

When there’s a book lying on the table, then you can’t help but reach for it, you open it and you read it. The beginning is enticing, promises you the earth, but you get a bit further and all you see is soap bubbles and you get the horrible feeling that all scholars have experienced, from the year dot to this year, inclusive: seek, and ye shall not find!

Things are not looking good, then, for a successful resolution in a story like this one. Two months after his first letter, the unfortunate man has now also shut himself off from country society after discovering “the same ambition, the same vanity, the same envy, the same selfishness, the same spite, the same flattery and the same meanness” as in high society. So much for “salvation in ignorance,” or the elevation of the naive.

The young man turns back to books and has unlocked the secret library of his uncle, a student of alchemy. He begins to believe that though “[m]any of these thoughts may have seemed fallacious in the eighteenth century,” they may now be confirmed just as other things previously thought magical can now be achieved through science. Rather than ignorant country folk, the writer is now seeking “a kind of knowledge that has now been lost,” a typical Romantic ideal.

Soon the young man begins to believe in his alchemical experiments, and can be found sitting in front of a carafe of water all day long. In it, he can see a beautiful flower and a tiny woman, a sylph. Deemed a madman, he is to be cured by his friend, “a highly reasonable man.” But Odoevksy’s pessimism comes through when the sylph-watcher explains he would choose madness over this life:

You are very pleased that you have, what you call, cured me: that is to say, blunted my perceptions, covered them with some impenetrable shell, made them dead to any world except your box…. Wonderful! Now, when in the midst of the daily round I can feel my abdominal cavity expanding by the hour and my head subsiding into animalistic sleep, I recall with despair that time when, in your opinion, I was in a state of madness, when a charming creature flew down to me from the invisible world, when it opened to me sacraments which now I cannot even express, but which were comprehensible to me… where is that happiness? Give it back to me!

The friend, reasonable man that he is, chides him for being “a poet and that’s all there is to it.”

Odoevsky the Gogolian

Some of Odoevksy’s stories are less in the Gothic or Romantic mold and more in the Gogolian framework of the grotesque as seen in the Russian countryside. “The Tale of a Dead Body, Belonging to No One Knows Whom” is a nice swipe at the bureaucracy with a bit of a ghost story thrown in. Its principle character is charged with finding a relative or owner of an unidentified corpse. As he sips his drink he becomes drunk with his own power, also reminiscing about “his father, a local scrivener of blessed memory by virtue of the attribute of having been discharged from his duties in the town of Rezhensk for slander, bribery and indecent conduct. Such, moreover, was the case elucidated against him, that henceforth he would be appointable nowhere and no petitions from him would be accepted—for which status he enjoyed the respect of the entire district.”

When the owner—quite literally—of the corpse does show up, the bureaucrat takes pains with the proper paperwork despite the unusual circumstances: “All in good time, sir, but it’s a bit tricky to do this sort of thing, just like that—it’s not a pancake, you know, you can’t just wrap it round your finger. Inquiries have to be made…. If you were to make a small contribution….”

Rezhensk pretty well takes the place of Gogol’s Mirgorod. Its mayor, Ivan Trofimovich Zernushkin, is another fine specimen, as depicted in “The Story of a Cock, a Cat and a Frog.” His principle function is to dissuade the town’s inhabitants from “unreasonable demands” such as banning the throwing of rubbish into the street and buying a fire hose:

Concerning the fire hose, Ivan Trofimovich proved that there had been no such thing before in Rezhensk, and now, when three parts of it had already burnt down, there was no point in going to such length for the fourth; that finally he, Ivan, Trofim’s son, Zernushkin, retired ensign of a carbine regiment, had not exactly been born yesterday, and he knew himself how to perform his office, how to run the town and answer to the authorities. Such prudent arguments, repeated more than once, soon closed the lips of these jokers, especially when once, in a moment of anger, Ivan Trofimovich added that his, the town mayor’s duties, lay not in concerning himself with mud on the pavements and rotten fish, but with those who start spreading vicious rumours in the metropolis and stirring up resentment against the town services.

Like the scrivener doomed to be made fun of for his drunken hallucination, Zernushkin is also sentenced by Odoevsky to a foolish end. Convinced by an old wive’s tale that a frog has taken up residence in his brain, the mayor is subject to such indignities from his doctor that Zernushkin throws him out the window.

Still, Russian town life does reward the “prudence” of men like Zernushkin:

[W]e recently acquired a fine green barrel with two equally green boat-hooks, but, by the terms of Ivan Trofimovich’s will, they are never taken out to a fire, for it they were, they might easily get spoiled; they are preserved under lock and key in a purpose-built shed. Time proved the prudent instruction of Ivan Trofimovich to be correct: soon afterwards a passing official considered it his duty to report to the governor on the excellent arangements for the fire-fighting equipment in the town of Rezhensk.

“whatever you got up to, it all hits you right in the eye”: Odoevsky on cause and effect

The stories in The Salamander and other Gothic tales by Vladimir Odoevsky are full of familiar Romantic themes: rational young nineteenth-century men ready to explain anything with science; disarmingly innocent maidens; alchemy; folklore and superstition; enchantment and intoxication; rivers, stones, the sun, the moon; ghosts; strange dreams. One thing that appeares to be a particular concern of Odoevsky, and which does not seem as recognizable, at least based on what Romantic tales I have read, is the complex weave of cause and effect.

A great part of one story, “The Live Corpse,” is given to exploring this theme. A man wakes up one day to find his body unresponsive and himself drifting above it as a spirit, able to watch and hear everything here on earth but unable to interact. He gets dressed and heads to the office, and as he makes his way around the city begins to come to grips with his new form. But he’s not very happy at the turn things have taken after his death. He is remembered in mostly unflattering terms; his sons believe they are taking after him by becoming scoundrels. He can’t believe that this is the sum effect of his life, misfortune stemming from what for him were non-events.

[L]ook at the traces I left behind me! And how oddly all these things are strung together, one after another! You see a man in prison, whom you’ve never clapped eyes on before; you go and find out what’s what—and I find that it’s all through my good offices! Another one’s taken off to the ends of the earth—and again it’s through my good offices. Widows and orphans, debotrs and creditors, old men, young men—they all remember me, and what for? All for trivia, yes, really for trivia….

Having wandered the earth for some time, the man laments the deeds of his life as “like the seeds of a poisonous plant” that “will all grow and multiply. …Horrible, horrible!…”

Though that man will wake up after his nightmare, alive, Odoevsky elsewhere affirms the same view of a dangerously hyperconnected world. In “The Cosmorama,” the narrator is given, as a young child, a toy that (seemingly) contains a mirror-multiplied diorama. In it he sometimes has the ability to perceive the future, or a kind of mirror universe where he can see and interact with the true natures of people and things. Years later, he is tormented in the cosmorama by the images everyone he knows.

Each one of them magically engendered from itself new creatures which, in their turn, pierced the hearts of other people, remote in time and space. I could see what a horrific, logical reciprocity there was in the actions of these people; the accretion of the smallest acts, words and thoughts, over the course of centuries, into one huge crime, the basic cause of which is completely lose to contemporaries; and how this crime has put forth new roots and, in its turn, engendered new centres of criminality. …In that minute, the whole history of our world from the beginning of time was accessible to me; the interior of human history was laid bare before me and the inexplicable, in terms of its outer series of events, now seemed to me very simple and clear. …I saw how my own heart’s momentary motivation had its origin in the affairs of people who existed several generations before me…. I understood how important is every human thought and word, how far their influence extends, what heavy responsibility for them lies on the soul and what evil for the whole of humanity can arise from the heart of one person exposed to the influence of unclean and hostile beings….

In “The Live Corpse” it was what the narrator said and did in life that percolated down through his family and acquaintances to change the course of the future. In “The Cosmorama” that causal power is extended to a world beyond superficial speech and action, where thoughts and feelings have real effects and create such a tight mesh that “the whole history of our world” is emcompassed in it. Indeed, the influence of the narrator’s thoughts and words soon extends from the moral world to the physical one, and he must cut himself off from society to avoid physically hurting people with dark thoughts and anger.

Similarly, in “The Salamander,” dark and “criminal” thoughts are powerful enough to “produce a diseased, noxious atmosphere around itself,” and “around every thought, every feeling, every word and action a magic circle forms, to which are involuntarily subordinated the less powerful thoughts, feelings and actions which fall into it.” And earlier in that tale, human will and desire have a power much greater than materially possible.

This leads back to something more traditionally Romantic. The web of cause and effect does have a connection to determinism, always a concern in the genre, but its extension to the power of words and feelings connects it to the familiar importance of a right-feeling state of mind, purity of heart, and the problem of being overcome by too-powerful emotion.