Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Green Goggles’: A Gogol Pastiche

Katherine Mansfield 6

Between recent pieces on the British literary magazine The New AgeCarl Erich Bechhöfer’s regular feature ‘Letters from Russia’, and Katherine Mansfield’s short drama ‘Stay-Laces’, I came across a couple of short pastiches contributed by the two writers for the Vol. XI No. 10 issue of 4 July 1912.

Katherine Mansfield‘s pastiche is entitled ‘Green Goggles’, clearly a send-up of Russian literature and its numerous tales of provincial life, overburdened with philosophy and long names, encapsulating something of the ‘superfluous man’. It could just as well target Turgenev, but Mansfield’s biographer Kathleen Jones has referred to it as a pastiche of Gogol – and beyond the title, in its conversational hesitations, its materiality and strange sort of shopkeeping, perhaps this is true. We can trace the transmission of Nikolai Gogol in the English-speaking world.

Working separately, Carl Lefevre and Anthony Cross have suggested that the first English comment on Gogol in print occurred in the Westminster Review of July 1841, where William Henry Leeds wrote in dismissive terms about Mirgorod, the collection of stories published in Russia in 1835 and containing ‘Old World Landowners’, ‘Taras Bulba’, ‘Viy’, and ‘The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich’. Leeds, writing anonymously under just the initial ‘L.’, reserved special disdain for ‘Old World Landowners’, ‘considered the gem of the whole’, which he found ‘nothing more than a tedious, prosy account of a stupid, good-sort-of Philemon and Baucis couple, who live in clover on their estate, and suffer themselves to be imposed upon by a set of lazy, cheating, overfed servants’.

Lefevre states that the first English translation of any of Gogol’s works came in 1847, when the short story ‘The Portrait’ was translated by Thomas Budge Shaw – a professor of English literature at the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo – and published first in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, then in the American Living Age.

A translation of ‘Viy’ followed in 1854 in Sharpe’s London Magazine under the title ‘A Russian Ghost Story’, but the translator was unattributed and Gogol’s name mentioned only in the introduction. The same year his great ‘poem in prose’ Dead Souls emerged in a spurious translation entitled Home Life in Russia, by a Russian Noble; Revised by the Author of ‘Revelations of Siberia’. In two volumes, the work was courtesy of the London publisher Hurst and Blackett, who in 1852 had taken over the long-established business of Henry Colburn. In his book-length study of Gogol, Vladimir Nabokov notes that it appeared:

‘with the remarkable notice “This Work is Copyright and the Publishers reserve to themselves the Right of Translation” and a foreword containing the following no less remarkable passages:

“The Work is written by a Russian nobleman, who offered the Ms. in English to the publishers, and the editor’s task has been confined to altering such verbal errors as might be expected, when we bear in mind that the Author has written in a language which is not his own. . . . It gives us an insight into the internal circumstances and relations of Russian society. . . . The Author affirms that the story is true, and that the main facts are well known in Russia.

“. . . In conclusion we may regret that we are not at liberty to mention the Author’s name – not that the work itself requires any further verification, for its genuineness is avouched by almost every line – but the truth is, that the writer is still anxious to return to his native country, and is perfectly well aware that the avowal of his handiwork and such a display of his satirical power, will not serve as a special recommendation except possibly as a passport to the innermost regions of the Siberian wilds.”‘

Cross laments this translation of Dead Souls as ‘an outrageous act of plagiarism’, while Lefevre argues it was the work of the ‘Polish colonel Lach-Szmyrna’ (i.e. Krystyn Lach Szyrma), who was then ‘spoiling for a fight with Russia, or anything Russian, even a literary masterpiece by Gogol’. This was the time of the Crimean War, which meant a growing interest in the Russian ‘interior’, and various attempts to convert literature for the purposes of propaganda.

Home Life in Russia had been preceded in 1853 by Sketches of life in the Caucasus, by a Russe, Many Years Resident amongst the Various Mountain Tribes – a similarly plagiarised translation, published in London, of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. It was followed in 1855 by Russian Life in the Interior, or, The Experiences of a Sportsman. Edited by James D. Meiklejohn. – a translation of A Sportsman’s Sketches published in Edinburgh, which at least credited ‘Ivan Tourghenieff of Moscow’, although it was based on a distorted French copy of his work.

The foreword to Home Life in Russia spurred a brief flurry of criticism in the pages of Athenaeum and Eclectic Review, whose writers condemned the forgery and unveiled Gogol’s identity as the original author of the translated text. Then in 1855, ‘Old World Landowners’ was translated in the Dublin University Magazine; and in 1860, someone named George Tolstoy translated under the title Cossack Tales the stories ‘Taras Bulba’ and ‘Christmas Eve’.

But it was not until the translations of Isabel Hapgood, published in the United States from the middle of the 1880s, that Gogol began to establish a firm reputation among English readers. Hapgood translated ‘Taras Bulba’ and Dead Souls in 1886, and over the next two decades went on to publish her translations of ‘St. John’s Eve’, ‘Old World Landowners’, ‘The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovich’, ‘The Portrait’, and ‘The Overcoat’.

If Mansfield’s pastiche draws explicitly from Gogol’s fiction, it is surely based on a reading of Hapgood’s translations. Mansfield’s taste for Russian literature began with Chekhov, to whom she was introduced during her stay in the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria in 1909. She began contributing to The New Age immediately upon her return to London, with more than thirty short pieces appearing between February 1910 and October 1917. The issue of 4 July 1912 which featured ‘Green Goggles’ itself contained a translation, by Paul Selver, of Chekhov’s comic short ‘In Search of Information’, which has also been translated as ‘An Enquiry’.

In 1917 Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis. By October 1922, she had moved to George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France, where she was cared for by Olgivanna Lazovich (who later married Frank Lloyd Wright), and spent her time in the company of Alfred Richard Orage – then still the editor of The New Age, but preparing to sell the magazine and move to the Institute full-time.

Mansfield had only months to live, and she died on 9 January 1923 at the age of just thirty-four. In a letter sent soon after her arrival in Fontainebleau to her husband John Middleton Murry, on 18 October 1922, she wrote:

‘I don’t know whether Mr. Gurdjieff will let me stay. I am ‘under observation’ for a fortnight first. But if he does I’ll stay here for the time I should have been abroad and get really cured – not half cured, not cured in my body only and all the rest still as ill as ever. I have a most lovely sumptuous room a kind of glorified Garsington for the fortnight. As for the food it is like a Gogol feast. Cream, butter – but what nonsense to talk about the food. Still, it’s very important, and I want you to know that one is terribly well looked after, in every way.’

 

As for the transmission of Gogol in English, after Hapgood, in 1916 Thomas Seltzer translated The inspector-general: a comedy in five acts for Alfred A. Knopf. It was left to Constance Garnett to produce the full body of Gogol’s literature in English. This careful and prolific woman – who translated seventy-one volumes of Russian literature in all throughout her life – translated Dead Souls in 1922, The Overcoat and Other Stories in 1923, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and The Government Inspector and Other Plays in 1926, and Mirgorod in 1928.

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Green Goggles (A Pastiche)

By Katherine Mansfield (1912)

“Green goggles, green goggles,
The glass is so green. . . .” 

(Russian Folk Song.)

The servant girl, wearing a red, sleeveless blouse, brought in the samovar. “But it is impossible to speak of a concrete ideal,” thought Dimitri Tchernikofskoi. “In the first place, concrete is a composition. It is not a pure substance. Therefore it must be divided against itself.” “There is a gentleman in the passage,” bawled the servant girl. Dimitri Tchernikofskoi disguised his nervousness by frowning deeply and plucking at the corners of his collar, as though the starch were permeating his skin and stiffening the throat muscles. “Show him in,” he muttered, “and,” – he closed his eyes for a moment – “bring some cucumbers.”

“Even so, Little Father.”

A young man, wearing a bear-skin coat and brown top boots, entered the room. His head was completely covered in an astrakhan cap, having enormous ear-flaps, and his pale, kind eyes smiled timidly from behind a pair of green goggles. “Please to sit down,” said Dimitri Tchernikofskoi; and he thought: “How do I know those eyes? Are they green? Da, if they were green I should not know them. I feel that they are blue. Lord help me! I must try to keep
calm, at all events.” The young man sat down and pulled his coat over his knees. Twice he opened his mouth and twice he closed it. A round spot of red, about the size of a five-rouble piece, shone on his cheek-bones. Dimitri Tchernikofskoi fumbled in his waistcoat pocket for his watch, and then he remembered that he had pawned it three months before – or sold it, he could not remember which – to Ivan Dvorsniak. And he saw again the little evil-smelling shop and the grotesque, humped figure of the Jew, bending over a green-shaded lamp, weighing the watch on the index finger of his right hand. He fancied he heard it ticking quite sharply and distinctly. Then he realised it was the voice of the young man. “My name is Olga Petrovska “Eh? What’s that? What’s that you are saying?” Olga Petrovska. raised her band. “Please do not speak so loudly. You must remember we are only on the fifth floor, and the servant girl may be listening in the basement.” Her brilliant grasp of the technique of the house calmed him. He waited for her to explain. “I came to see you,” she said, “because I could not stay away, Dimitri Tchernikofskoi. I am leaving Russia to-night, and I felt that I owed it to you to explain my reasons. For I shall not return -at least, not for a long time. And – people speak so falsely. Truth must be first-hand.” Her words fell upon his soul like flakes of snow; he counted them – one, two, three, four-wondering, grimly, how large his soul was, how many flakes it would take to cover it completely. “Why are you going?” he asked gently. The young girl stiffened. “I am going because they will not arrest me. Think of it! I have killed five officials, I have kidnapped the children of three noblemen-and look at me!” She stretched out her arms, lifting her bosom so that it strained the buttons of her coat.

“Ah, it is shameful – shameful! I do not mind about the noblemen, but the children” – she suddenly spoke in French – “ je sais ce que je dis; even the noblest soul does not care to have three children thrust upon him without . . .” She paused, and for the first time in his life Dimitri saw her smile. It caught his heart; it was miraculous, as the unfolding of a lily on a desolate sea. His emotion was so terrible that he turned up his coat collar and began to pace the room. Olga Petrovska continued speaking: “But that is all over now. Da, da; I am free again,” “But,” stammered the unfortunate man, pouring out a glass of tea and thoughtlessly stirring into it a spoonful of peach preserve, “what have you done with the children?” “Now that was quite simple. I borrowed this suit from a young coachman, then I hired a sleigh, and, having carefully labelled the little ones with their correct names and addresses, I drove them to the chief Post Office. They were very good. Only Ani cried a little-the darling – she bit off the fingers of her gloves and her hands grew quite cold. When we arrived I told them to wait for me while I posted a letter, and I simply disappeared round a corner. They are bound to be found you know.” she added confidently. His admiration for her knew no bounds. Taking a book from a shelf covered in black “American” cloth,” bound in red cotton, he turned the pages feverishly. “The women of Russia do not only hear children, they keep them alive,” he read. Yes, that was deep! Olga Petrovska removed her cap. He sat down opposite to her and searched her face: the red colour had faded, giving place to green shadows cast by the goggles. “Where are you going?” She did not know. All she knew was that, like all of them, “she was going on.” “But,” he cried, “you must take a ticket, Olga Petrovska.” With a quick movement she seized his hands and bent her face over them. He felt her tears falling – her tears on his hands. “Ah,” he thought, with fierce, intense joy, “they must never be washed again. They are purified. They must never know sweeter water.” “Sometimes,” she whispered, “it seems to me that the universe itself is nothing but an infernal machine hurtling through space and destined to shiver, ’- a crack of laughter, harsh as blood, burst from her lips – “the hosts of heaven.” He did not answer; he was infinitely troubled at this. In the silence they heard the servant girl wiping down the stair rails with a greasy rag. Olga raised her head. “Have I white hairs?” The fringe of her stiff black hair was covered in fine white snow-crystals. “They will melt, Olga Petrovska.” At that she laid her cheek a moment against his hands. “What a child you are,” she murmured; “I did not mean that.”

And suddenly all that he had imagined and thought and dreamed – the values and revalues and supervalues of good and evil, his hopes, his ambitions – faded away. He knew only one thing. He must go with this woman. That settled, action became easy. He drew his handkerchief from his pocket and spread it on the table. She watched him. He went over to the washstand and, taking a toothbrush and a half-used cake of some yellowish soap, he wrapped them neatly in the handkerchief. ‘‘What are you doing?” she asked? vaguely troubled. Come,” he said, “it is time.”