Aleksandr Griboedov's woe From Wit

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Woe from Wit is unique in the history of Russian literature. Pushkin knew it. “Half the lines will become proverbs,” he said. And he was right. Its distillations of common experience, witty, perceptive, profound, have been absorbed into Russia’s national consciousness. They are still quoted by those who may no longer remember their source. It seems extraordinary, therefore, that such a work should not be more widely known.

This work seeks to account for the disparity between Griboedov’s Woe from Wit and his other works, by examining his plays and poems, letters and travel notes, the memoirs of his contemporaries, his literary sources and social milieu. The early works in which Griboedov exercised his craft, his single work of art and the few later works are related to three distinct periods in his life.

Positive and negative influences are discussed. The former include Griboedov’s association with Shakhovskoi, his wide knowledge of Russian, Classical and European literature, his admiration for the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the salutary shock of a duel; the latter, Griboedov’s ability to write a passion out of his system and his reaction to the Decembrist uprising.

A comparison with earlier Russian verse comedies shows Woe from Wit to be rooted in neo-classicism. The final test of the play is compared with the earliest known version and the effect of numerous alterations assessed. A synthesis of Griboedov’s own character and that of Aleksandr Odoevskii is seen as the source of Chatskii’s disruptive naturalness; this is discussed in relation to the neo-classical tradition in Russia, of which Woe from Wit was the fatal drowning achievement.

In translating not only Woe from Wit but the numerous passages quoted from other Russian works, and including translations of European and Classical material quoted, this work both sets this important play in its cultural and historical context and makes it accessible to Anglophone readers.


“Aleksandr Griboedov’s verse comedy Woe from Wit is one of the most original and sparkling works of all Russian literature, comparable only to the best works of Pushkin and certainly eclipsing all other Russian plays in the nineteenth century … Fiction writing does not always present an entrée to poetry, but Griboedov’s brilliant play provoked and inspired novelist Mary Hobson to attempt an English version, retaining the meter and rhyme, which has not only won a prestigious prize in Britain but has already gained some celebrity in Russia itself. This faithful yet lithely flexible version will give the Anglophone reader a splendid glimpse of a coruscating play that, for all it profusion of contemporary references, has much for the modern audience: from the eternal generation divide and war of the sexes, to fear and suspicion of the unknown, of the Other; from deft social comedy to trenchant political satire. The hero may be the first in a long line of superfluous men in Russian literature, but he is also a universal type and may remind Western readers of angry young men and outsiders of every stripe. Above all, however, it is nimble elegance and witty invention that most distinguishes this play, and here the English version rises admirably to the challenge. The publication of this thoroughly researched study and acclaimed translation will be of undoubted value to scholars, but should also delight a far wider audience.” - (from the Commendatory Preface) Professor Arnold McMillin, University College London

“Alexander Griboedov’s play Woe from Wit has long been recognized by Russians as one of the most influential works of their 19th century literature. Particularly important is Griboedov’s verse, which has provided the Russian language with an enormous number of phrases that can be and still are applied to everyday situations … In the English-speaking world, however, the play is almost unknown. Now in Dr. Hobson’s sparking verse translation, Anglophone readers can for the first time appreciate Griboedov’s brilliance. And Hobson’s extensive commentary helps those same readers to appreciate the cultural and historical specificity of the period in which the play was written.” – Professor Andrew Baruch Wachtel, Northwestern University

“Dr. Hobson’s translation of the classic comedy by the Russian playwright and satirist Griboedov tackles a task that to many would seem insurmountable despite previous attempts. I believe the latest version of the play to be successfully performed on the London stage was by Anthony Burgess. Dr. Hobson’s translation is a much more careful, accurate and sensitive version than the one by Burgess … In short, as a bold, resourceful and sensitive rendering of Gore ot uma into contemporary English, Dr. Hobson’s translation fully deserves the wider appreciation and approval that publication would give it.” – Richard Freeborn, Emeritus Professor, University College London

" ... [Griboedov's] short life springs from the pages of this commentary like an elegantly written novel, whether he be putting down fellow Russians whom he disdains to know, or handling the 'natives' with a heavy-handed lack of understanding ... the light tone of Dr. Mary Hobson's narrative, rich in aphorisms, anecdotes and witty quotations, makes for a most enjoyable as well as informative read ..." - East-West Review, April 2006

Table of Contents

Preface by Arnold McMillin
Griboedov’s Woe from Wit: Translation – Acts I-IV
Griboedov’s Woe from Wit: Commentary
1. Rhyme and Reason: a Marriage of Convenience
2. ‘Criticism and Anti-Criticism’: Writing as a Weapon
3. Collaboration
4. St. Petersburg and Moscow: Last Impressions
5. The Prophet without Honour
6. A Poem of the Utmost Significance
7. The Play We Have
8. Duality and Opposition
9. A Perfectly Natural Misunderstanding

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