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
Continue reading Two Princesses by Vladimir Odoevsky
“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
Continue reading Odoevsky’s phantasmagoria
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
Continue reading Odoevsky the Gogolian
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
Continue reading “whatever you got up to, it all hits you right in the eye”: Odoevsky on cause and effect