Having being remembered

©Igor Pomerantsev translated by Frank Williams


Having being remembered
Having being remembered

It could be that the key to the riddle of Russian history is to be found in the pluperfect. In the fact Russian doesn't have one. In Latin the pluperfect is used for the past beyond the past. It is formed by using an auxiliary verb. Plug in a  little verbal gadget, and you're off, back into the past, disappearing into the pre-past. English, German, French still still tinker away with these whatnots. Russian had them at one stage, but they've been worn away to almost nothing. In old books you occasionally find now-redundant colloquialisms such as „he was having been accustomed“. These days grammar has to be supplemented by phrases like: „I remember how it used to be that...“ or „Back in the olden days...“. This grammatical inadequacy or, if you prefer, grammatical romanticism costs users of the language dear. Their history cannot become history; like one of those pesky pages in a new book that when you open it sticks to the next one; desperate to stay in the present. Russian history has no grammatical bridle to restrain it. But you do encounter the pluperfect in ordinary Russian life. The emigration is a classic example. The mature prose of the two Ivans, Bunin and Shmelyov, with their charming recollections of their roots, was written as though in the pluperfect. The allure of their prose is in this 'as though', in the grammatically not fully spoken. But these writers pass not just lameness off, but stammering, lisping, too, as perfection.

Or another example of the pluperfect from life. It is with a sweet late-Roman jadedness that I can recall my own imperial childhood, when Empire was written with a capital letter. My home town had four names at once; the Austro-Hungarian Czernowitz, the Romanian Cernauţzi, Ukrainian Chernivtsi, the pre-war Russian Chernovitsy. As soon as you walked out onto the street the sounds of a number of languages and dialects wafted past, with Yiddish, Hutsul and Polish added to the list above. This is what culture is, it seems: to live on an air current of several tongues. But all that is to be said about culture already has been, but about the history of grammar.... I remember, once upon a time... long ago... neon Ukrainian hieroglyphics МЕБЛИ hung over a furniture store, no, not over the store, but over what the locals called a склеп (sklep), which to my tender Russian ear signified a burial vault. And there was the having been visiting Chief Ideologist Suslov with an award – the Order of Lenin – for the people of Chernovtsy. And on Soviet Square he repeatedly abused the delicate ears of the locals by placing the stress on the penultimate syllable – Chernovtsy. And nobody had been brave enough to corrrect him. And then there was the being remembered schoolboy delight in the elevated expressiveness of two lines of Little Russian verse

                        As having fallen down from the horse

                        there below on the white snow...

And Latin at the University, Mme. Zinoviya, recollected now, and her unyielding Pluperfect, armour-plated like a legionary.

Translator's note: Ivan Bunin (1870-1955) and Ivan Shmelyov (1873-1950) were two of the most prominent representatives of the Russian post-revolutionary literary emigration. Bunin was the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, much to the chagrin of the Soviet authorities.

Little Russia was the usual, if somewhat condescending, term for the Ukrainian territories that formed part of Imperial Russia.

Further contributions from Igor Pomerantsev on Zeitzug