Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0022266, Mon, 26 Dec 2011 03:26:59 +0300

devil's joke in The Event
"The Event" ends in Meshaev the Second (who toyed with occult studies during the long winter evenings in the country) reading Lyubov's hand and then pausing over that of Barboshin. Svyatki (Yuletide, the twelve days from the birth of Christ to Epiphany) is the traditional time of divination. In Eugene Onegin (Five: VII-XXI) Tatiana plans to conjure on a Yuletide night but suddenly gives up and goes to bed and dreams a wondrous dream.

"Onegin, our prankster" is mentioned by Vyazemski in Svyatochnaya shutka" ("The Yuletide Joke"):

Кто сват его: Европы ль Вестник,
Или Онегин, наш шалун?

(Who is his [the devil's] matchmaker: Europe's Herald
or Onegin, our prankster?)

Shutka (joke) comes from shutit' (to joke) and is related to shut (jester, buffoon, clown), the word sometimes used as an euphemism of chyort (the devil). Here is the closing stanza of Fet's poem "Полно смеяться! что это с вами?.." ("Stop laughing! What's the matter with you?..") from the cycle "Гадание" ("Divination," 1842):

"Гроб забивают крышей большою,
Кто-то завыл!
Страшно, сестрицы! знать, надо мною
Шут подшутил."

("They are hammering down the big coffin lid.
Somebody started to wail!
It is terrible, my sisters! The devil
must have played a joke on me.")

Alfred Afanasievich Barboshin shares his patronymic with Afanasiy Afanasievich Fet (1820-92). Just as Shenshin (Fet's "real" surname), the names Barbashin and Barboshin end in -shin.

Another word that comes from shutit' is shutnik (joker, in the sense "a person who jokes"). In Chekhov's play Three Sisters* (1901) Tuzenbakh calls Solyonyi (who later kills Tuzenbakh in a duel) shutnik.

In Pushkin's novel in verse (Chapter Six) Onegin kills in a duel Lensky. Barboshin, as he prepares to perform his duty of the private detective hired by Troshcheykin, sings from Chaykovski's opera: Начнём пожалуй ("Yes, if you like, let's start").**

Like Yegor, a character in Chekhov's story "Na svyatkakh" ("At Christmas Time," 1900), Barboshin is poshlust' itself. But, according to Nikitin, the main character in Chekhov's story "The Teacher of Literature" (1894), there is nothing more terrible in the world than poshlust'. Ergo, the private detective Barboshin is as terrible as his alter ego, the killer Barbashin. In fact, Barbashin and Barboshin are two incarnations of one and the same old character: the devil. It is the devil who plays a joke on Troshcheykin, the portrait painter who forgets the saying "the devil is not as terrible as he is painted" and fails to recognize him in "cozy and terribly original" Barboshin. Moreover, with a little help of Meshaev the Second and the maidservant Martha the devil turns Troshcheykin and his wife, the two "provincial guinea pigs" (as in a letter to Suvorin Chekhov calls the characters of "The Teacher of Literature"), into regular swines (a similar metamorphosis happens to a character in Chekhov's story "The Gooseberries," 1898).

*In "The Event" (Act One) Troshcheykin complains of the misrable existence his family leads in a provincial town and mentions Chekhov's Three Sisters: мы разлагаемся в захолустной обстановке, как три сестры.
**In Pushkin's novel Lenski speaks these words with a different intonation: "Let's start if you are willing."

Alexey Sklyarenko

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