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Reading Russian literature: А. П. Чехов «Человек в футляре» Posted by on Feb 18, 2009 in Culture, History, language, Literature

Today is the day I share with you – long overdue, of which I am aware – my post on how to read a Russian short story in the original. For a long time I pondered on exactly what short story to choose for today’s post, as there is an abundance of great short stories available in Russian, all of which are worth reading at one time or other. If one does not know what one should start with when it comes to reading a piece of fiction in the original Russian, I would recommend to start with Лев Николаевич Толстой [Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy], because of the comprehensibility of his language (never mind his sometimes exceedingly long sentences!). I would not recommend starting with Фёдор Михаилович Достоевский [Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky], even though that was what I did – naturally – and never for any beginner to try their luck at reading a hefty piece of 19th century fiction straight away – again, this was the mistake I made back in 2005, when I lived in Omsk and started out my journey in Russian literature by taking on his book set in that same Siberian town; «Записки из Мёртвого Дома» [“Notes from the Dead House”] – as a scholar I must state firmly that even though most of you might not be used to seeing «Дом» in this title written with a big «Д», it is how Mr. D himself wrote it, thus that’s also what we must write. I had three potential short stories for this post, all of which I love equally – «Три смерти» [“Three Deaths”] by Leo Tolstoy, or «Золотые корреспонденции Ферапонта Ферапонтовича Капорцева» [“The Golden Reports of Ferapont Ferapontovich Kaportsev”] and in that short story especially my favorite (tiny, but brilliant!) second chapter called «Корреспонденция вторая: Лжёдмиртий Луначарский»[“The Second Report: The False Dmitry Lunacharsky”] by «Михаил Афанасьевич Булгаков» [Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov] or «Человек в футляре» [“Human Being in A Case”] by «Антон Павлович Чехов» [Anton Pavlovich Chekhov]. In the end I decided upon the last short story of those mentioned above, because of three good reasons: 1. Chekhov is the undisputed master of the short story not only in Russian, but also in world literature, 2. his sentences are almost as comprehensible as Tolstoy’s, in addition to this they are also shorter, and 3. there’s always a humoristic component. Humor always helps you to carry on reading even when you understand less than half of the words, and that’s very important indeed.

There are many ways of learning how to read fiction in a foreign language. One way is to first read the work in a translation into your native language, thus making it easier to later understand the original as you’re already acquainted with the basic story. Such a strategy can be helpful in the beginning, but it doesn’t end there – it will get more and more interesting to read fictional works in that way the better you know the ‘new’ language, because the more you know, the more you can argue with the translators and perhaps come to outright disagreement of their translation. I don’t like this method, though, as it kills the natural suspense involved in reading a piece of fiction for the very first time. I am also of the somewhat radical opinion that translators take far too much freedom in translating, and can in some instances ruin the piece of fiction. For example, I blame the first Swedish translator of «Мёртвые души» [“Dead Souls”] by «Николай Васильевич Гоголь» [Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol’] for the fact that I did not have the opportunity to fall in love with his art until I was advanced enough to read him in Russian, because the translation was so poorly done it did not deserve to have the name ‘Gogol’ put on the cover. Translations of Russian are, however, better done in bigger languages – a point that should be clearly made here.

Another way of doing it is to constantly look up new, unknown words as you read. I recommend this method for those of you who are comfortable with breaking the flow of the language from time to time. For some this might even be necessary, especially if your knowledge of Russian is still basic enough for one page to more than satisfy your daily dose of new knowledge.

The third way, and the way I ‘preach’, is to read the whole short story straight away without stopping, underlining words you don’t understand as you go along, and only to look them up in the dictionary once you’ve finished reading the whole thing. This method can be applied to a novel if you check new words after each chapter. After you’ve finished, you start going through the story from the beginning and look up the words you’ve underlined. Some people like to write the translations straight in the book, between the lines. I am not a fan of this method, as I like to keep my books ‘clean’. I try to keep my underlining, exclamation points and question marks to a minimum so that the books might be used again by someone else in the future. Instead I use small notebooks (size A6, for example) for new words. During my four and a half year of studying Russian I have filled over twenty small notebooks with words and sentences, and I’m not ashamed to confess that I’ve probably written 25% of those words at least twice in them, perhaps even more. One of my old roommates, a Japanese girl, liked to mark the words she looked up straight in the dictionary, so that she would feel bad if she was to see that she had looked up one word twice. I don’t do this, for the same reason as mentioned above – I believe books should be allowed to live unmarked far beyond their owners.

Chekhov’s short story «Человек в футляре» [“Human Being in a Case”] was first published in the magazine «Русская мысль», number 7 for the year 1898, as the first in his ‘small trilogy’ containing also the two further stories «Крыжовник» [“The Gooseberry Shrub”] and «О любви» [“About Love”]. The story was very popular, and the expression «человек в футляре» [a person who’s all bundled up in clothes or other materials in order to be protected by them from the outside world, thus being a ‘human being in a case’] became a «нарицательное имя» [common noun] while Chekhov was still alive. It has the frame story of two hunters resting for the evening in a small village, and one of them decides to tell the other one a story about his neighbor, a certain Belikov, a teacher of Greek language. Despite the fact that Belikov was a true ‘human being in a case’, always dressed in galoshes and carrying an umbrella with him at all times, even when there wasn’t a single indication it would rain, he was once close to marriage – to a Ukrainian girl, the sister of one of his fellow teachers. Here’s a piece of the description of Belikov in Russian:

«…Он носил тёмные очки, фуфайку, уши закладывал ватой, и когда садился на извозчика, то приказывал поднимать верх. […He woredark glasses, a jersey, stuffed his ears with cotton, and when he got on a carriage he asked to be lifted up.] Одним словом, у этого человека наблюдалось постоянное и непреодолимое стремление окружить себя оболочкой, создать себе, так сказать, футляр, который уединил бы его, защитил бы от внешних влияний.» [In a word, this person had a constant and insurmountable yearning to surround himself with a shell, to create for himself, so to speak, a case that would isolate him, protect him from external influences.]

In the end there’s, as always with Chekhov, a twist that makes one ponder on one’s own existence as a human being in this society of ours. Happy reading everyone! Next time we’ll try some other short story, perhaps it’ll be time for Tolstoy then…

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  1. Lisa:


    I’ve been thinking for months about writing a similar post for my blog so was glad to see yours!

    I have always read in Russian (and even French, many years ago) using very similar methods, though I have never been good at keeping lists of new words. Like your former roommate, though, my dictionary has tick marks next to certain words I have looked up many times. I love to mark up my books.

    One thing I would add to your excellent suggestions: I made real progress reading in foreign languages when I trained myself to stop translating as I read. My teachers also stressed figuring out new words from context and using a Russian-Russian dictionary whenever possible.

    Enjoy your reading!

  2. Piuma:

    Unluckily I’m not yet ready for reading Russian in the original (I fell in love with this wonderful language only five months ago) but I’ll treasure your suggestions. Reading in a foreign language (English and French so far) is kind of adding a new drive on my brain.Thanks for your excellent post and thanks to the net which makes me free from my own case.

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