so to speak
We were walking away from the bookstore, where we had just purchased a second copy (with a nicer cover) of Nabokov’s translation of and commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and to pass the time before dinner we talked about Pushkin’s short stories. PF mentioned that Pushkin was noted for his use of skaz and this led, of course, to a discussion of what exactly that meant.2 In the context of this discussion (and, indeed, much literary criticism) skaz, from сказать (to say or tell), refers to a colloquial narrative style that reflects the limitations (linguistic, cultural, and intellectual) of the purported narrator. Examples? Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, naturally, but what else?
We disagreed on examples. PF cited Marlow from Heart of Darkness, but I thought perhaps Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe would be a better example (mostly because I am not particularly fond of Conrad).3 We agreed, however, on the general meaning: it is a question of artifice, of the illusion of speech, rather than a matter of authorial limitation – something like the Uncle Charles principle, but extended over the entire work. A poorly written book may feature many of the hallmarks of skaz, but does not achieve it.4 In his essay ‘The Illusion of Skaz’, Boris Eikhenbaum described it as ‘the battle between bookishness and the living word’ (235) and, considering Belkin in particular, he gets at something we ignored in our discussion: ‘it is as if Pushkin wished to strengthen the illusion of first-hand skaz by tracing the stories back from the writer to the oral narrator’ (234).5 I don’t recall if we discussed framing – the example of Marlow makes me think we did – but it was quite some time ago and I was so interested in knowing the right answer, the best, most intuitively satisfying solution, that I declined to think about it.
At this point I will confess that I got a bit hung up on the word skaz, which, as David Lodge notes in a discussion of J.D. Salinger, is ‘a nice word with echoes of jazz and scat in it’ – and its jazziness and its foreignness combined to give it a baggage it probably doesn’t need.6 As the months passed, I found myself returning to the library stacks (literal and metaphorical), trying to make sense of something that is not, I think, all that complicated, but that defied what I was willing to understand. Whether I have successfully understood anything, I leave to the reader to determine. It was hot outside and a long walk to dinner, which is perhaps why the memory of the conversation lingered. I find I am no longer particularly interested the poetics of the matter – my own preference for bookishness being, at last, sufficient.
- I see by this image that I meant to include Rousseau somehow. I’m not quite sure what I was thinking, but it probably wouldn’t have worked very well. I think I was intending to bring more Gogol into the matter, too, but that hasn’t happened either. [↩]
- The use of an arbitrary term from another language always adds interest to any discussion; it gives the word a gnomic weight with all of the other untranslatables, which makes such a différance. [↩]
- I feel like we discussed Wuthering Heights in this context, too, and after the fact I thought of Barbara Comyns’ Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, but narrative frames and narratorial limitations became distracting and diverted me from the matter entirely. [↩]
- One thinks here of An American Tragedy, where perhaps Dreiser’s limitations enhance the reader’s sense of Clyde Griffith’s muddled state. This is the example I always trot out for this type of thing – I apologize. [↩]
- A translation by M.P. Rice was published in 1975 in issue 12 of the Russian Literature Triquarterly, pp. 233–236, which is not particularly helpful unless you can find a copy (I have a PDF if anyone is desperate); it did, however, set me on the trail of some of Eikhenbaum’s other literary criticism, which is interesting in itself, but beyond the scope of my ramblings here. [↩]
- Lodge’s application of the term to The Catcher in the Rye certainly did not help, but no application of thought to Salinger ever seems anything other than phony, with the possible exception of Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. [↩]