By Vladimir Odoevsky
Translated by Neil Cornwell
Hesperus Press, 2010
This volume tells a tale of two princesses, both unmarried women in 1830s Russia.
It collects together two society tales, one a novella and the other a rather lengthy short story, originally published some five years apart. Together, they depict an aristocratic world of drawing-room gatherings, salons and masked balls, where the life-goal of women was usually to make a good match. As for the gentlemen, they had whist and billiards of an evening and duels at dawn.
Princess Mimi (1834) is a novella of seven chapters, the main character being a moral guardian, a tin-pot spinster, a dried-up shell of a human being. We are given the history of a hypocrite; Odoevsky attempts an analysis of how people become like this, their lives molehill-limited and fuelled by slights real and imagined. The good Princess Mimi is always hatching petty schemes and jackass intrigues to get her own back, wielding gossip as power just like J.J. Hunsecker, Burt Lancaster’s character in Sweet Smell of Success. You imagine Mimi as having a smile false and an eye made of glass, as being not really a looker. Here her malignant lies have fatal consequences.
Our second tale, Princess Zisi (1839), is about a woman on the other side of the fence; Zisi (or Zinaida) is a noble beauty unjustly slandered. She is a spirited lady, living way before her time, who finds herself crippled by convention and mauled by rumour. There is a sense in this story of how Russia was changing; and it is clear as well that Odoevsky approved of the change and trusted the younger generation. What’s noteworthy also, besides a fetchingly emphatic eulogy to wine, is the artistic way in which the story is told: through an assemblage of letters and conversations. Not entirely an epistolary tale, but close.
A complaint serious enough to merit an authorial incursion in both tales is that too many Russians of noble birth speak and write in French, and a Pidgin French at that. It’s probably like in the olden days, when the educated in England would write in Latin and not the vulgar language that Shakespeare would have recourse to.
Neil Cornwell’s excellent translation captures the vitality of Odoevsky’s vision. These vivid tales still live.