Odoevsky’s The Salamander

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A Finnish Legend

A few weeks ago I moved from beautiful Amsterdam to beautiful Finland. A leap of faith, yes, but one that I have every faith in that it will turn out very well. It was love at first sight, both with the man and the country, and that love has blossomed into something profound. I look forward to getting to know Finland and its people better and wonder with a big smile what the future has in store for me.

Finnish Characters in Russian literature

Finland is of course neighbors with Russia, and Russian literature features many Finnish characters. I thought it would be interesting to investigate this subject a bit more and came across The Salamander, a gothic story by the romantic writer Odoevsky. I had never read Odoevsky, and was pleasantly surprised.

Odoevsky

Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky (1803-1869) was an impoverished nobleman, like Tolstoy descending from the highest branch of aristocracy in Russia: the Rurik dynasty. He worked for the Russian government until he died, and was extremely interested in literature, music, education, philosophy, science and the occult. His house was a regular meeting place for writers like Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name but a few. Together with Pushkin he founded the famous magazine The Contemporary. On his Wikipedia page it says that he even predicted blogging and e-readers. So definitely a remarkable character!

He is not exactly widely read nowadays, overshadowed by those aforementioned giants, but I found him captivating and genuinely enjoyed reading his stories.

The Salamander

The Salamander (1841) is a complex tale that combines several legends and influences. It tells the story of Finnish Yakko and his sister Elsa, children of a poor fisherman. Yakko makes a good career in Saint Petersburg under the care of Peter the Great. Elsa, who has clairvoyant powers, initially stays behind in Finland. Her wealthy brother brings her to Russia, but she dislikes the Russians and they, in turn, think her beautiful but very strange and suspect her of witchcraft. The story continues to take us on a journey full of legends, superstition, sorcery, greed, and alchem, and it ends eventually with a haunted house in Moscow.

The Kalevala

The story starts with a mythological description of Finland that echoes the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala*. The Kalevala was first published in Finland in 1836 and had not yet been translated into Russian in 1841. Elias Lönnrot had based it on the Karelian legends he had collected. The Russian Yakov Grot, who was a friend of Odoevsky, had however accompanied Lönnrot on several of his research journeys, and had published articles about the Kalevala and Finnish people and customs in The Contemporary. This explains Odoevsky’s detailed knowledge of the subject.

Pushkin

Another major source of inspiration was his friend Pushkin: the primitive Finnish lad being educated by Peter the Great reminds the reader of course of The Moor of Peter the Great (1837) and the image of the poor Finnish fisherman and the flooding of Saint Petersburg seem to come straight from The Bronze Horseman (1833). Yakko’s frenzied greed in the second part of the story is very similar to that of Hermann in Queen of Spades (1834). As I’ve explained before, this was not considered plagiarism, but was seen more as a tribute.

Finns versus Russians

So how are the Finnish portrayed compared to the Russians? The Finnish are portrayed as half wild compared to the educated and advanced Russians. They have a splendid city, and an army, whereas the Finns live in primitive huts and are forced to fight the wars of other nations. Clearly the Russians considered themselves superior. But there is also a (romantic) admiration of their pure soul, simple customs, and closeness to nature. In his introduction Odoevsky describes the Finns as “kind, patient, obedient to the authorities, attached to their obligations, but distrustful and so cunning that, when they see a stranger, they can opportunely pretend not to understand him. Once annoyed, their vengeance knows no bounds”.

Well! Forewarned is forearmed!

*******

*The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic poem, the Finnish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey. Elias Lönnrot compiled it from legends and songs he collected in the Karelia region (nowadays partially in Finland and Russia). This epic has been of immense importance for the shaping of the Finnish identity.

 

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Sources used:

The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales – Vladimir Odoevsky

Empire and the Gothic / The Politics of Genre – A. Smith & W. Hughes

To whom does the Kalevala belong? – Timo Vihavainen

The north in Russian romantic literature – Otto Boele

Rekonstruoidusta kansaneepoksesta Lönnrotin runoelmaksi – Kalevala Venäjällä – Kalevala maailmalla. Helsinki: SKS. 2012 – Mirja Kemppinen ja Markku Nieminen

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Odoyevsky

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44 thoughts on “Odoevsky’s The Salamander

  1. We all need leaps of faith. Thank you for inspiration and information on your blog. When I was a child, I decided Finland was one of my favourite countries; though I never visited it, the idea of it was powerful, and we should trust our childish instincts. Congratulations and best wishes.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My very best wishes of love and well-being in your new home, Elisabeth ! 💐 ✨
    Never been in Suomi, but a best friend of my Dad married there with a Finn girl, long ago, and he is still there (in Kaustinen, I think) and has grandchildren there. My Dad told us he was in love with that country, but got a bit nuts with the very difficult language at the beginning 🙂
    *A big hug* 💙

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elisabeth,

    This is a fascinating post. The way you put it together is itself fascinating. And admirable.

    It’s a good example, I believe, of how a writer can make a topic one would never expect to read about interesting. And “stitch together” various facts, literary works read, and source materials, while also bringing to bear the cultural aspect.

    Russia and Finland are so close, as you note, but it would have never occurred to me to think about the interchanges between the two peoples.

    The sources you have used and drawn upon inspire, in me, curiosity and a desire to read more. I would love to be able to read the Kalevala in the original.

    Thanks for a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, Fragile Books! I had heard his name, but really didn’t know anything about him. I wanted to write something about Finns in Russian literature and found out about the Salamander. I couldn’t find it online either, so I ordered it online. Now I’ve also ordered his biography and another set of stories. It’s always nice to make new discoveries 😊 Happy reading!

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  5. Thank you so much, Karen! Yes, it’s a big adventure, but Finland is the right place for adventures 😉 It’s an interesting story, with many references to other stories, from before and after it was published. I’m sure you’d enjoy it, if you can find the time for one more book that is 😄

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  6. Hey Li! Thank you for your wishes, they’re much appreciated 😄 I agree with your Dad, the country is beautiful, but the language… not so easy 😄 Big hugs from Finland to you! 💙

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Roger, for your kindness and encouragement. It was Pushkin who sparked the idea, and after further investigation I came across Odoevsky. It seemed appropriate to write something about my new country and managed to translate that into a blogpost, which I’m glad to hear you found fascinating. The Kalevala is already difficult to read in English, I can only hope that one day my Finnish will be good enough to read it in the original.

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  8. You’re welcome, Elisabeth. I am trying to read the Kalevala myself in English, thanks to you having reminded me of it the other day. There are old translations into English (i.e., published quite a while ago), one in particular that is supposedly very faithful to the original. There seem to be two English translations commercially available now: Francis Peabody Magoun’s and a recent one by Keith Bosley. I am inclined to read the Magoun translation.

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  9. I took a look at the Bosley translation (Oxford UP) of the Kalevala on line. The Harvard University Press edition features an older translation by renowned linguist Francis Peabody Magroun, Jr. From a perusal of Bosley’s translation, it appears that it may be more faithful to the original. But Magoun’s translation is very clear and readable, and nothing is left out.

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  10. What a marvellous new adventure for you, Elisabeth! And thank you for highlighting Odoevsky – I’d not come across him before and his work sounds fascinating. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Geography was never my strong point, so I had no idea Russia and Finland are actually neighbours (I thought they were just close by). Interesting too how the Finnish feature in Russian literature.
    Are you learning / already know Finnish too? I’ve heard it’s one of the hardest languages to learn!

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  12. Hey Pistachio, I’m glad to hear you found it interesting. Yes, Finnish is a difficult language, completely different from their languages I know. I already know a little bit (my way around the supermarket 😉) and will need to take lessons.

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  13. Oh my gosh, Elisabeth. I read The Salamander as a teenager and couldn’t remember who the author was but always wanted to read it again. Thank you for finding it for me!😘

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  14. ich wünsche dir ein glückliches Leben in deiner neuen Heimat.
    Finnen sind wunderbare Menschen, offen, ehrlich .ich habe einen guten Freund,der hier in Oberbayern ein Ferienhaus hat..
    er ist mein Nachbar.(Tommy Salmelainen ein ehemaliger Eishocky Nationalspieler )
    ganz liebe Grüße zu dir
    Sarah

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  15. Danke für deine lieben Wünsche, Sarah!
    Finnen sind wirklich wunderbare Menschen, und ich bin sehr glücklich hier in meiner schönen Heimat, endlich zusammen mit meinem Partner.
    Ganz liebe Grüße zurück aus Finland,
    Elisabeth

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  16. How could I miss this post!!!! I am excited for you Elisabeth, for you have changed the trajectory of your life and have moved into a different place that offers new possibilities and opportunities. And I have the benefit of learning about Finnish literature and culture. I was in Helsinki several years ago and want to return. Looking forward to tagging along on your adventures.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Thank you! Yes, it’s a new chapter in my life, and I couldn’t be happier. Interesting that you learned about Finnish literature and culture, Finland definitely has a lot to offer in that respect. I’m also enjoying Finnish literature, particularly Tove Jansson.
    Perhaps we’ll meet in Helsinki one day 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  18. So great to hear that you happy with that step you did. I feel a huge respect that you dared it… …and it turn out good. Finnland is a beautiful country with wonderful people. Everytime I was visiting Finnland I took something home with me that enriched my life. Wish you both a lll the best. Enjoy everything!

    So interesting to hear how the Finns are considered in russian literature. I didn’t knew that, but I knew from nowadays that the Russians love to travel to Finnland and enjoy its wonderful nature. I even met a woman from St. Petersburg who learned the Finnish language for a better communication with the Finns on her travels.

    all the best for you,
    Markus

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  19. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Yes, I’m more and more happy I finally took that step.

    You’re right, nowadays Russians like to visit their neighbours, also here in Porvoo. I don’t think there’s much prejudice anymore, luckily 😄 It’s always nice if people make an effort to learn the language of the country they like to visit.

    Have a good week, Elisabeth 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

  20. …and, as I learned, the finish language should be a pretty difficult language to learn. 🙂
    …and Porvoo is so close to Viborg and St. Petersburg … …cool… …and I you in Piter it’s so close to the wonderful city of Tver. 🙂 Would be great to see you there one day. 🙂 🙂 🙂

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  21. Exciting move! I hope you enjoy living in Finland. I’m here 4th year in a row and loving it. There are btw various events in Helsinki around Russian literature. Two years ago the annual book festival had Russian literature as a main topic and there were quite a lot of interesting discussions there. As for Odoevsky, unfortunately I’m not that familiar with most of his works. However, the childhood favourites of mine were his fairy tale stories “The Little Town in the Snuff-Box” and “The Little Black Hen”. I still remember amazing illustrations from the book and the stories were captivating.

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  22. So far I’m enjoying living here a lot, and all is going well; I’m working now and going to Finnish class (thanks for the Finnish reading tips). And if you still love it here after four years, I’m sure I will too;-) Actually I went to the book fair when it had Russian literature as a topic, and I found it super interesting. I saw many writers there like Shishkin, Akunin and Ulitskaya. Those fairy tales sound good, must try to get my hands on them!

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