Friday, April 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Plays - Part II

--Счастливые часов не наблюдают.

--Those who are happy do not watch the clock. 

(A.S. Griboyedov, Woe From Wit)

This phrase was first introduced to me by a person who has always boasted that he has read less books than he possesses fingers on one hand, when I asked what time it was one evening. I mention this fact, in order to illustrate the impact of Griboyedov's writing on the Russian language, which extends far beyond the narrow circles of the intellectual elite. For the non-Russian speaker, one would need to explain that the syllable "chas" appears to act as the root for both "schastlivye" (the happy people) and "chasov" (the clock) in this instance -- it is a rather clever play on words.

Griboyedov's play does not yield itself easily to translation. There is a mysterious subtext, a chemistry between the main characters, Sophia and Chatsky. It is as if they secretly adore one another, but would go to any extreme in order to avoid making this clear. All of the characters, in fact, seem to be engaged in a wicked scheme calculated to alienate one another at the first opportunity.

Apparently, when Griboyedov's contemporary Alexander Pushkin got his hands on a hand-written copy of Woe From Wit, he immediately predicted that approximately half of the play would end up in everyday speech. At the time, Pushkin was engaged in the composition of a play of his own: Eugene Onegin.

Pushkin wrote of Griboyedov, "I met Griboyedov in 1817. His melancholy character, his embittered mind, his good nature, his very weaknesses and vices, which are the unavoidable companions of mankind--all of this was in him extremely attractive. He was born with an ambition equal to his gifts, but for a long time he was tangled in a net of petty problems and lack of notoriety. He was capable of governing but this ability was not put to use; his talent as a poet was not recognized; even his cold and bright bravery were not recognized right away. A few friends knew his true value, and saw that suspicious smile, that stupid, unbearable smile, when it happened that someone spoke of him as someone not unusual. People only believe in glory, and don't understand that among them might exist some sort of Napoleon, who has never lead a single battle, or another Descartes, of whose writing not even a stroke has appeared in the Moscow Telegraph. However, our respect for glory arises, perhaps, from self-esteem: within this very glory is the echo of our own voice."
In 1829, while traveling in the Caucausus, Pushkin wrote,

"What a pity that Griboyedov did not leave any notes! It should be the job of his friends to write his autobiography; but it is the most wonderful people who disappear without leaving a trace..."

To Pushkin, Griboyedov was not only close literary competition; he was a slightly older and more experienced mentor and friend. By the time Pushkin had appeared on the scene as a teenage poet, Griboyedov was an experienced officer already returned from war, had learned more languages than one could shake a stick at, and was poised on the razor's edge of a generation ready to change the world.

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