Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)

Let me start by saying that I’m honored by the invitation to address you and would like to thank Professor Reynolds and the faculty and graduate students of the Slavic Departmnebnt for choosing to have me. And I’d like to dedicate this talk to the memory of my friend and co-author, the University of Wisconsin’s late Professor Yuri Shcheglov.

I’m pretty sure he would subscribe to many of the points I’m going to make. On some others, however, we have disagreed quite seriously, so that there I will be keeping up a sort of polemical dialogue with him, interrupted prematurely by his death.

As for the title, I probably outdid myself there, overreaching for a catchy one. What I’ll speak about are at best issues that, if burning, are doing so rather slowly, like so much that happens in our slow-mo profession. There is, however, an upside to this slowness: it means that there are opportunities galore and not too much competition. Thus: Poetics Today: Some Smoldering Issues.

The general thrust of my today’s address is a defense of the long-reviled and effectively abandoned structuralism. Abandoned in part because it is quite demanding and thus hard to practice but quite easy to discuss and dismiss on general philosophical terms. I’ll try to argue that it’s actually a very promising avenue of approach to our discipline — provided we agree on the crucial role in our studies of looking for invariants.

What’s an invariant? Shcheglov and I were very young when he challenged me to solve an elementary problem in poetics. He asked me to formulate what all the stanzas/episodes of the popular Alexander Vertinskii’s song “Malen’kaia balerina” [“The Little Balerina”, verse by Vertinskii and Grushko; 1938] had in common.

Я — маленькая балерина,
Всегда нема, всегда нема,
И скажет больше пантомима,
Чем я сама.

И мне сегодня за кулисы
Прислал король, прислал король
Влюбленно-бледные нарциссы
И лак фиоль…

И, затаив бессилье гнева,
Полна угроз,
Мне улыбнулась королева
Улыбкой слез…

А дома в маленькой каморке
Больная мать

Мне будет бальные оборки

И будет штопать, не вздыхая,
Мое трико,
И будет думать, засыпая,
Что мне легко.

Я маленькая балерина,
Всегда нема, всегда нема,
И скажет больше пантомима,
Чем я сама.

Но знает мокрая подушка
В тиши ночей, в тиши ночей,
Что я усталая игрушка
Больших детей!

I failed the test. Answers are usually hard to find, but once found, seem obvious as two times two. In this case, the answer is that every stanza is a silent pantomime with eloquent gestures but not a word uttered, thus fitting the character of the protagonist, who is vsegda nema, always mute. I failed the test — and learned the lesson. Identifying invariants is a basic skill in our profession.

I will bring up three types of issues, each combining theory with practical analysis. As a young firebrand, I (along with Shcheglov) was all for theory but even then valued the practical advantages it could offer. With age, I became even more text-oriented. In my view poetics is interested in meanings, but of a very narrow and specific kind: that thin layer of esthetic topsoil which is intimately connected with the literary structures that carry the meaning, rather than the free-flying ideological categories some critics love to impose on texts. To use another metaphor, out of Hemingway and corrida, the challenge is to work real close to the bull.

As I don’t set much store by pure theorizing, the three points I’ll submit for your consideration are based on my own detailed research. After laying down the facts I’ll try to outline some theoretical lessons to be drawn from them, separately and as a group. My leitmotifs will be textual, in particular verbal, effects, structures, invariants — and the corresponding research opportunities, all served with a generous mixture of bragging and complaining.

1. My first issue will be the proper place in our studies of linguistics, — not as a scientific model (i. e. not the so-called “linguistic metaphor of literary scholarship”) but as the discipline studying the actual medium of literature and thus our bread and butter. Paying close attention to what the text says is of paramount importance.

Several years ago I started pondering the exact wording and meaning of the famous Futurist line about “throwing Pushkin at al. from the ship of modernity” — and was amazed to realize that for about a hundred years now it has been consistently misread and consequently lost in translation. InRussian, whatdoesitsay? Пушкина, Достоевского, Толстого и проч. и проч. с современности.I researched and wrote a whole article about it, making the obvious but perennially overlooked point that it was not just sbrosit’, in the Bloomean sense of displacing, but brosit’, in the deliberate and sadistic sense of an unusual and cruel, execution-style punishment. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, a small prefix for a verb, but a big difference for poetics.

Linguistic expertise is especially critical in the study of poetry. The test case we will consider is that of “infinitive poetry,” or “infinitive writing,” a concept I introduced over a decade ago.

At that time I came across a poem by a living poet (still very much alive today at 60), Sergei Gandlevskii, — his “Ustroit’sia na avtobazu…” [ToGetaJobAtaCarPark…] (1985).

Устроиться на автобазу
И петь про черный пистолет.
К старухе матери ни разу
Не заглянуть за десять лет.
Проездом из Газлей на юге
С канистры кислого вина
Одной подруге из Калуги
Заделать сдуру пацана.
В рыгаловке рагу по средам,
Горох с треской по четвергам.

Божиться другу за обедом
Впаять завгару по рогам.
Преодолеть попутный гребень
Тридцатилетия. Чем свет,
Возить “налево” лес и щебень
И петь про черный пистолет.
А не обломится халтура —
Уснуть щекою на руле,
Спросонья вспоминая хмуро
Махаловку в Махачкале.

I was instantly taken by it (I will be insisting today on how important these first emotional reactions are) and started looking for relevant secondary criticism. I found two essays, by two leading Russian scholars, which identified the poem’s two ”subtexts,” respectively. Namely, Alexander Blok’s classic “Greshit’ besstydno, neprobudno…” [To Sin Shamelessly, Without Waking Up…] (1914):

Грешить бесстыдно, непробудно,
Счет потерять ночам и дням,
И, с головой от хмеля трудной,
Пройти сторонкой в божий храм.

Три раза преклониться долу,
Семь — осенить себя крестом,
Тайком к заплеванному полу
Горячим прикоснуться лбом.

Кладя в тарелку грошик медный,
Три, да еще семь раз подряд
Поцеловать столетний, бедный
И зацелованный оклад.

А воротясь домой, обмерить
На тот же грош кого-нибудь,
И пса голодного от двери,
Икнув, ногою отпихнуть.

И под лампадой у иконы
Пить чай, отщелкивая счет,
Потом переслюнить купоны
Пузатый отворив комод,

И на перины пуховые
В тяжелом завалиться сне…
Да, и такой, моя Россия,
Ты всех краев дороже мне.

and the more recent Joseph Brodsky’s “Rodit’sia by sto let nazad…” [Oh, ToBeBornaHundredYearsAgo…] (1971).

Родиться бы сто лет назад
и, сохнущей поверх перины,
глазеть в окно и видеть сад,
кресты двуглавой Катарины;
стыдиться матери, икать
от наведенного лорнета,
тележку с рухлядью толкать
по желтым переулкам гетто.

вздыхать, накрывшись с головой,
о польских барышнях, к примеру;
дождаться Первой Мировой
и пасть в Галиции – за Веру,
Царя, Отечество, – а нет,
так пейсы переделать в бачки
и перебраться в Новый Свет,
блюя в Атлантику от качки.

The observations were clearly correct and valuable, but typically Russian: they focused on the specific, more or less immediate and literal sources, leaving unattended and thus undetected a possible systemic intertextual background of Gandlevskii’s poem.

The most fashionable pastime of Russian scholars is hunting for sub-texts — the text’spodteksty, sources, objects of imitation, emulation, parody etc. A theoretically more sophisticated, Western, in particular, Riffaterrean, but also Russian, notably Mikhail Gasparov’s, strategy is to look for generic inter-texts, or hypo-grams: the memory of a genre, a meter, a motif, a trope, i.e. the invariant discourse type that underlies the text in question.

I started groping for possible invariants, in this case, obviously, grammatical ones. And I found out that there existed a huge poetic tradition of what I labeled infinitive writing.

What is “infinitive writing”? It is the mode of writing exhibited in poems that consist exclusively or predominantly of sentences governed by infinitives. Imagine Hamlet’s soliloquy reduced exclusively to such patterns.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end then? To die; to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache
To die; to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub…

It turned out that in Russian poetry such writing went all the way back to Vasilii Trediakovskii, who borrowed it from French originals, — then gained momentum in Pushkin’s time (to an extent that it is there right in the very first stanza of Onegin:

Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Полуживого забавлять,
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же черт возьмет тебя!»

and is in full blossom in Onegin’s letter to Tatiana):

…Нет, поминутно видеть вас,
Повсюду следовать за вами,
Улыбку уст, движенье глаз
Ловить влюбленными глазами,
Внимать вам долго, понимать
Душой все ваше совершенство,
Пред вами в муках замирать,
Бледнеть и гаснуть… вот блаженство!
Когда б вы знали, как ужасно
Томиться жаждою любви,

Пылать — и разумом всечасно
Смирять волнение в крови;
Желать обнять у вас колени
И, зарыдав у ваших ног
Излить мольбы, признанья, пени,
Все, все, что выразить бы мог,
А между тем притворным хладом
Вооружать и речь и взор,
Вести спокойный разговор,
Глядеть на вас веселым взглядом…

— then it reached an important watershed in Afanasii Fet’s “Odnim tolchkom sognat’ lad’iu zhivuiu…” [With One Push To Chase the Live Boat…] (1887):

Одним толчкомсогнатьладью живую
С наглаженных отливами песков,
Одной волной подняться в жизнь иную,
ветр с цветущих берегов,

Тоскливый сон прервать единым звуком,
Упиться вдруг неведомым, родным,
Дать жизни вздох, дать сладость тайным мукам,
Чужое вмиг почувствовать своим,

Шепнуть о том, пред чем язык немеет,
Усилить бой бестрепетных сердец —
Вот чем певец лишь избранный владеет,
Вот в чем его и признак и венец!

where it was pressed in the service of the author’s favorite metapoetic theme, — then became a rave in the Silver Age – was revived in the 1960s — and continues unabated to this day.

The project that resulted from this discovery is twofold: practical and theoretical, and the two aspects are us usual interconnected.

The practical task is compiling a representative annotated anthology of Russian infinitive poetry: about 500 major poems by about 200 poets written over the three centuries of the modern period, a work still in progress. (An interesting byproduct of the study is being able to name the hall-of-famers of the genre: Bal’mont, Voloshin, and Alexander Kushner, with scores of infinitive poems by each.)

The stickiest point in working on the anthology is finding a balance between showcasing the poems and devising an appropriate metalanguage. The latter is needed for identifying and labeling the various infinitive structures and their semantic roles. As I promptly realized, the entire concept owed itself to a fusion of two seminal ideas of Russian structuralist poetics: the Jakobsonian poetry of grammar and the Taranovsky/Gasparov study of the semantic haloes (oreoly) of verse forms.

So what is the most general semantic tenor of various infinitive structures and thus the invariant theme of all infinitive writing? It can be defined as a meditation on a certain alternative or special mode of being. This very general theme has of course many sub-variants of, for instance, the portrayal of a habitual behavior of a character type, his/her daily routine or even an entire lifetime of standard behavior. This is the variant that underlies the infinitive sequence in Onegin’s first stanza. (9) Another is the romantic flight of imagination, soaring into the skies or reaching for other shores (the word chuzhoi is a favorite in that type of infinitive poem), see for instance Fet’s poem about a metapoetic boat, lad’ia.(11). There are of course many other sub-genres of infinitive writing, awaiting to be listed and studied.

Several interesting problems concern the recurrent types of infinitive structures.

A major distinction is between absolute infinitive structures (Gandlevskii’s and Brodskii’s poems are clear cases (5), (7)) and those dependent on a finite main predication (That is the question; Vot chem poet lish’ istinnyi vladeet; kakaia skuka…) but, being themselves very long sequences, form an entire infinitive zone of the text.

Length and hierarchy of infinitive sequences is another exciting avenue of study. Very briefly, there is the type of poem that piles up numerous parallel infinitives, creating a sort of punctuated syntactic rhythm (see Blok, Gandlevskii, Onegin’s letter), and the opposite type, that builds a powerfully sprawling network of non-infinitive structures (noun phrases, participle and gerund constructions, subordinate clauses) governed by just one or two infinitives (e.g. Kuzmin’s “Sladko umeret’…” [‘Tis Sweet to Die…; 1905-1906] and Mikhail Zenkevich’s «V sumerkah» [In Twilight; 1926; quite likely influenced by Kuzmin’s poem]).

Не окончив завязавшегося разговора,
Притушив недокуренную папиросу,
Оставив недопитым стакан чаю
И блюдечко с вареньем, где купаются осы,
Ни с кем не попрощавшись, незамеченным
Встать и уйти со стеклянной веранды,
Шурша первыми опавшими листьями,
Мимо цветников, где кружат бражники,
В поле, опыленное лиловой грозой,

Исступленно зовущее воплем сверчков,
С перебоями перепелиных высвистов,
Спокойных, как колотушка ночного сторожа,
Туда, где узкой золотой полоской
Отмечено слиянье земли и неба,
И раствориться в сумерках, не услышав
Кем-то без сожаленья вскользь
Оброненное: “Его уже больше нет…”

I do not intend to further smother you with syntactic technicalities, mitigated from time by unctuous epithets like interesting, exciting and enthralling. The project may seem very unusual, arcane and boring. The fact is, it qualifies today as an interdisciplinary one, finding itself at the borderline poetics and linguistics. Unfortunately, in today’s conventional wisdom, the role of linguistics is considered negligible, while the profession’s entire interdisciplinary attention is trained on the visual, the bodily, the political, the gender etc. Meanwhile an entire unexplored continentof literary facts awaits attention, with potential discoveries lying there on the surface, ready for picking up. Imagine suddenly discovering for the first time the existence of say, the form of a sonnet, Onegin stanza, trochaic pentameter or, for that matter, blank verse!..

What it takes – in order to avail oneself of these prodigious opportunities — is a linguistic competence in Russian, an interest in the linguistic underpinnings of poetry and an awareness of and focus on systemic, structural, invariant patterns.

2. My second example is from the finale of the Epilogue to Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem.

…А если когда-нибудь в этой стране
Воздвигнуть задумают памятник мне,
Согласье на это даю торжество,
Но только с условьем — не ставить его
Ни около моря, где я родилась:
(Последняя с морем разорвана связь),
Ни в царском саду у заветного пня,
Где тень безутешная ищет меня,
А здесь, где стояла я триста часов
И где для меня не открыли засов.

…And if someday in this country
They decide to erect a monument to me,
I give my consent to this festivity
But only on this condition — not to build it
By the sea where I was born,

(I have severed my last ties with the sea),
Nor in the Tsar’s Park by the hallowed stump
Where an inconsolable shadow is looking for me;
But here, where I stood for three hundred hours
And no one for me did slid open the bolt.


I always felt there was something very remarkable — brilliant, yet strange, almost fishy — about this sequence, especially the part about the choice of place for erecting the monument. Such acute immediate reactions must be treasured because they are usually quite relevant but, alas, susceptible to being repressed by received wisdom and canonized reading. In this case, the canon here is of course that of Akhmatova the heroic selfless victim/survivor of Stalinism. In a sense, this is like the story of the famous humane passage in Gogol’s “Overcoat,” which was seen as a humane pronouncement by the humane Gogol of his humane championing of the underdog Little Man Akakii Akakievich – until Boris Eikhenbaum came along and taught us that the passage was just one more verbal tune among the many stylistic registers of the text. Because, as he provocatively – and yet programmatically — stated, everything in a literary text is postroenie i igra, construction and play.

Strange first impressions are reactions to what Michael Riffaterre in his Semiotics of Poetry called the ungrammaticalities of the poetic text, which are evidence that something creative is at play precisely there. Ungrammaticalities are clues that yield, on a second reading, an understanding of the deep structure and significance of the text.

By the time I started thinking about these Akhmatova’s striking lines I already had an idea of how to read her poetry as part of her zhiznetvorchestvo and in light of her subsequent cult. Her core invariants I defined as a narcissistic will to power and self-promotion under the guise of weakness, poverty, self-abnegation etc. For this I was of course much attacked on both continents, including by my friend Shcheglov. At issue here is not a simple difference of opinion but an important distinction between semantics and pragmatics in the study of poetry, especially the poetry of those authors who opt for zhiznetvorchestvo.

But let’s stick to the text. My first attempt at figuring out what was so remarkable there, zeroed in on the convoluted pattern of the speaker’s articulated desire. Namely, the strange way the insistence on sharing the common fate of Stalin’s victims was combined with a rather unique sort of “female willfulness, even capriciousness,” quite characteristic of Akhmatova in general: the choice of place for the monument follows the whimsical pattern of “I want this but not that, I want it in this way but not in that way.”

I wrote that up, published — and of course got a lot of flak for daring to find fault with Akhmatova the heroine of resistance. In response, I stressed the importance of paying attention to the specific way she voiced that resistance — as opposed to merely noticing the generic resistance. And there the matters stood for a while.

Then I decided to study these peculiar lines in a relevant broader context: the “monument” (pamiatnikovyi) topos going back to Pushkin, Derzhavin and Horace by way of Maiakovskii, Esenin, Briusov and some others. I’ll spare you the many twists of this study (my article is available, including online), among them the tell-tale fact that Akhmatova envisages a real physical bronze monument, not a figurative poetic one.

What’s even more interesting, is that her willfulness does not stop at the use of the whimsical pattern “not this or that but only that other thing.” By requesting a particular place for her monument she actually goes beyond the familiar “monument topos”, which does not foresee such choice-making, and thus transforms it, by fusing it with another motif, that of “death and grave,” in Russian I call it the mogilnyi, i.e. sepulchral, topos, which does offer options. Let me stress, that that is a different topos, and she willfully – creatively – mixes the two.

To illustrate the sepulchral topos with its insistence on posthumous options let me quote two classical examples – Pushkin’s “Brozhu li ia vdol’ ulits shumnykh…” [Whether Wandering Along Noisy Streets…; 1830]:

…И хоть бесчувственному телу
Равно повсюду истлевать,
Но ближе к милому пределу
Мне все б хотелось почивать.
И пусть у гробового входа
Младая будет жизнь играть,
И равнодушная природа
Красою вечною сиять.

and Lermontov’s Vykhozhu odin ia na dorogu…” [Alone I Come out Onto the Road; 1841].

Я ищу свободы и покоя!
Я б хотел забыться и заснуть!
Но не тем холодным сном могилы…
Я б желал навеки так заснуть,
Чтоб в груди дремали жизни силы,

Чтоб дыша вздымалась тихо грудь;
Чтоб всю ночь, весь день мой слух лелея,
Про любовь мне сладкий голос пел,
Надо мной чтоб вечно зеленея,
Темный дуб склонялся и шумел.

There are more examples, notably the influential ones from Kuzmin:

Сладко умереть
на поле битвы
Сладко умереть
маститым старцем
Но еще слаще, еще мудрее,
истративши все именье
и, прочитав рассказ Апулея

в сто первый раз,
в теплой душистой ванне,
не слыша никаких прощаний,
открыть себе жилы;
и чтоб в длинное окно у потолка
пахло левкоями,
светила заря,
и вдалеке были слышны флейты.

and Gumilev (1917):

И умру я не на постели,
При нотариусе и враче,
А в какой-нибудь дикой щели,
Утонувшей в густом плюще,

Чтоб войти не во всем открытый,
Протестантский, прибранный рай,
А туда, где разбойник, мытарь
И блудница крикнут: вставай!

But I’ll skip analyzing them.

What makes Akhmatova’s capriciousness both so pronounced (that is, defamiliarized, equals ungrammatical) and so persuasive (that is, naturalized, equals, in Riffaterrean terms, converted), in a word, poetically successful? Precisely the fact that, in order to transcend one topos, the monument one, she resorts to another, cognate, proximate one – the sepulchral, which? Being a ready-made, legitimizes her desire to pick and choose.

[As I looked into these posthumous topoi, I realized there was a third cognate one, which was probably also instrumental in helping Akhmatova to naturalize her “willfulness.” It is the zaveshchatel’nyi, or “testamental,” topos, where the poet, imagining his/her death, outlines the various desires and agendas to be fulfilled by the posterity, be they personal, literary, or political, including sometimes the wish that a street or city be renamed after the late poet.]

Leaving aside the many subtleties of Akhmatova’s “Epilogue” and its highly intricate play of desires and preconditions, let’s proceed to some conclusions.

After I gave a paper on the subject in Moscow, at the Lotmanovskie chteniia several years ago, a colleague, a doktor philolgicheskikh nauk, came up to me with a most unexpected remark. She said: “What did you want to say – that she was bad, plokhaia?” This is a very telling reaction. For this kind of scholar, in contemplating Akhmatova, there are only two possible tacks: finding her good (obviously, the right one) or bad (obviously, wrong). Thus predisposed, essentially brainwashed, such a scholar fails to see that I actually was able to pinpoint and demonstrate some heretofore undetected aspects of the poet’s creativity, her art. In fact, I showed how original and innovative she was. But for that I had, of course, to abandon the beaten path of unconditional, uncritical, incurious and therefore unscholarly admiration for the poet as traditionally perceived and to take the path of surprised reaction, curiosity, probing and, yes, demythologization.

I hope I succeeded in demonstrating the advantages of such an approach. If you simply side with the idealized image of the author, imposed on us by his/her own pragmatic strategies we rob ourselves, as scholars, of an opportunity to actually study that image. We let ourselves be co-opted by the posthumous estate of the poet (the AAA institution, as I dubbed in my early piece on Akhmatova) and start behaving like cult followers, groupies, practitioners of a religion, rather than like anthropologists, historians of religion. Speaking in our own literary-theoretical terms, it’s still the same old fallacy of believing that everything in the poetic text is natural, rather than constructed. Prodded by the Formalists we have once allowed ourselves to study the patterns and devices underpinning the syntax (structure) and semantics (tropology) of the poetic text. It is now time to realize that zhiznetvorcheskie strategies are also just postroenie i igra, that they rely on similar devices, techniques, fictions, tropes, and that our task is not to perpetuate the belief in their naturalness but, on the contrary, to see and analyze their artfulness. Otherwise we miss the best – artistic — part of it. The relationship between the poet and the reader, i. e. the pragmatic aspect of poetry, is no less subject to structural analysis than rhymes, meters, metaphors and other poetic devices.

Among the poets with a strong zhiznetvorcheskii component, Akhmatova and Khlebnikov seem to have been especially — outrageously — successful in turning the corresponding disciplines into extensions of their cults. Akhmatovedy and khlebnikovedy tend to take every word – poetic, artistic — of these masters of self-promotion literally, at face value. You can hear them saying, for instance, that Khlebnikov discovered the laws of time and such like. As a result, the actual serious study of the rich poetic oeuvre of such poets as Akhmatova and Khlebnikov remains in its infancy – hampered by the self-imposed limits of following strictly in the footsteps of the authors. Hence there is a huge field for research practically unexplored and open for mining. But open only if you come to it with open eyes and thus ready to discover “bad’ – actually, exciting – truths.

Sadly, Shcheglov never agreed to make this leap from syntax and semantics to pragmatics and to look at Akhmatova as a powerful poetic manipulator rather than a revered beautiful lady of the Silver age. I sometimes flatter myself with the thought that had he lived to see my latest analyses, like the one I briefly outlined today, he might have changed his mind. But perhaps not. The general problem is that the pragmatic paradigm that I am trying to develop was quite alien to our generation of scholars, who insisted on pure descriptivism and proclaimed “reading in the soul of the author” (chitat’ v dushe u avtora, Mikhail Gasparov) an absolute no-no. In that mindset, form, yes, structured meaning, yes, but pragmatics, no, as something beyond our scholarly competence. Alas.

3. My first example was of an impressive individual text (Gandlevskii’s “Ustroit’sia na avtobazu…”) that, it turned out, could be seen in relation not just to some other individual texts but to an entire type of texts? sharing invariant formal and semantic characteristics, practically a genre with its own memory calling for a systemic structural and semantic analysis. With the second example (a fragment from Akhmatova’s Requiem) I also proceeded from a striking individual detail to its unorthodox analysis in terms of the poet’s own invariants and of relevant literary topoi. The decisive step there was moving out from under the canonized shadow of the poet and looking at her zhiznetvorcheskie strategies as a sort of art – the art of pragmatics. Both times the move was away from an individual case towards systemic, invariant, intertextual patterns – in order to return to the studied text with a new understanding of its structure.

My third case, dealing with Pushkin, will be similar in this general sense but less radical perhaps in its heuristic novelty. And like the two previous cases it will harp on the optimistic note regarding our professional opportunities: despite the hoary tradition of Russian, in particular, Pushkin studies, much has been left unstudied, so that future discoveries galore are there, ours for the taking.

Since childhood I remembered, like every Russian child did, the lines about the ridiculous would-be poet, Monsieur Tricquet, who fits an old tune to suit the occasion by changing the name Nina to Tatiana.

С семьей Панфила Харликова
Приехал и мосье Трике,
Остряк, недавно из Тамбова,
В очках и в рыжем парике.
Как истинный француз, в кармане
Трике привез куплет Татьяне
На голос, знаемый детьми:

Réveillezvous, belle endormie.
Меж ветхих песен альманаха
Был напечатан сей куплет;
Трике, догадливый поэт,
Его на свет явил из праха,
И смело
вместо belle Nina
Поставил belle Tatiana.

If we consult commentaries to Onegin, in particular by Nabokov but also others, we find out a lot about this fragment: about the author of the tune, the various names that figured in its different versions, the possible origins of the name Tricquet, and so on and so forth. What lacked — until I came to the scene, that is – was the source of the actual trick of replacing one name with another, clearly highlighted in Pushkin’s text. Where could it come from?

It turned out that there was a tradition of appropriating extant poetry, in particular, comic, satirical, epigrammatic, especially French, by substituting for the foreign names some topical Russian ones. Russian poets of the early 19th century practiced this quite frequently, among them Pushkin, whose famous 1815 anti-archaist epigram was patterned on a French one, most likely a 1790s one by Beaumarchais ( see the works of Добрицын, Коровин, Glasse).

Угрюмых тройка есть певцов —
Шихматов, Шаховской, Шишков,
Уму есть тройка супостатов —
Шишков наш, Шаховской, Шихматов,
Но кто глупей из тройки злой?
Шишков, Шихматов, Шаховской!

Vit-on jamais rien de si sot
Que Merlin, Basire et Chabot?
A t’-on jamais rien vu de pire
Que Chabot, Merlin et Basire?
Et vit-on rien de plus coquin
Que Chabot, Basire et Merlin?

This epigrammatic tradition offers one type of invariant to project onto Tricquet’s act. Another is provided by the name of Beaumarchais, and in his tow, of Rossini, both of whom were objects of Pushkin constant attention and admiration (see Vol’pert). Actually an interesting structural borrowing from a Rossini opera (Gazza Ladra, The Thieving Magpie) was discovered by Tomashesvskii 85 years ago, in Boris Godunov: it underlies Grishka the Impostor deliberately misreading his own police description.

A third relevant cluster of similarities is Pushkin’s recurrent play, in Onegin, with references to various literary characters, in particular, other poets, and their ironic treatment as his own demoted alter egos, a primary example being Lenskii. This sheds additional light on Tricquet being a frantsuz, which of course was one of Pushkin’s nicknames at the Lyceum. And this can now be linked to the fact that Tricquet resorted to a technique (of name-switching) earlier practiced by Pushkin himself.

Once we put the three sets of invariants together we will be quite justified in looking for a ridiculous old amateur poet composing an occasional lyric dedicated to a young lady and involving a substitution of names in an old poem in a Beaumarchais play and/or Rossini opera…

And lo and behold! such a scene is right there in The Barber of Seville, 1816, attended by Pushkin in Odessa in 1820s. Bingo!

Sentite, Don Alonso; eccola qua.
Quando mi sei vicina,
Amabile Rosina
            (con vezzo verso Rosina)
L’aria dicea Giannina,
Ma io dico Rosina…
Quando mi sei vicina,
Amabile Rosina
Listen, Don Alonso, here it is:
When you are close to me,
My charming Rosina…
            (tenderly, turning to Rosina)
The aria said Giannina,
But I am saying Rosina…
When you are close to me,
My charming Rosina

That’s the way the discovery should have been made in a sophisticated state-of-the art profession. Alas, it wasn’t — because it isn’t. I just happened to wander into the other room where my wife, Lada Panova was watching and listening to her favorite Il Barbiere. I sauntered in at the precise moment Bartolo was singing his Arietta. — Well, there’s Tricquet for you, I said. — Wow, she said. So write about it! — Ah, it must have been written about to death by now, I’m sure, I said. — Look it up, maybe not, she said.

The looking up took a lot of time and effort, but apparently my observation was new, although one can never be sure, even after the Pushkinists in the Pushkinskii Dom in Petersburg confirmed that I was indeed the first — to their best knowledge.

Now for the lessons. Having known from my childhood the lines about Tricquet, I never experienced as an adult the striking immediate reaction to them that should have provoked my investigative curiosity, as in the previous two cases. But in the profession at large they should have! What I owed to an accidental lucky strike, should have been long ago established by methodical research. But it wasn’t. As I keep insisting, our slow-mo field is there for the taking! Just remember the magic words: strange reactions – structures – invariants.

I am afraid I have abused your patience and good will long enough. Let me end on a conciliatory note by repeating what Leo Tolstoy said in one of his phonograph recordings, in 1908 (he was just five years older than me) to the Yasnaia Poliana school kids:

«А то, что я вам говорю, нужно для вас будет. Вы вспомните, когда уж меня не будет, что старик говорил вам добро. Прощайте, будет.» (