The Crocodile: a Preface

Regular readers will know that The Crocodile is one of my favourite works by Dostoevsky, because of its connections to the Crystal Palace as well as its humour. But it was only a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing a class on the story, that I got round to reading the fake “Editorial Preface” that accompanied its original publication in Dostoevsky’s journal The Epoch. I don’t know why this is not normally published with the story – it’s hidden away at the back of volume 5 of the 30-volume Complete Works (pp. 344-6), and I’ve not seen it included in other editions – but I think it’s brilliant. It’s a rambling masterpiece of pomposity and equivocation, but also, in raising the question of the attribution and veracity of the story, it acts as a hilarious addition to the parody of knowledge that is so central to The Crocodile itself. So I decided to translate it (I admit, this was a displacement activity – I had a set of essays that needed marking), and because I’ve not had time to publish many posts recently, here it is. The translation is somewhat rough and ready, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions for improvements. The original text can be found at the end of this version.

The Crocodile: An Editorial Preface

The editors are surprised to print this almost incredible story only because perhaps somehow all of it really did happen. The story explains that a gentleman of a certain age and a certain appearance was swallowed whole by a crocodile located in the Passazh arcade, and that he not only remained alive, but even lived in the bowels of the crocodile unharmed and, apparently, willingly for two weeks; that he was, during this time, visited by vacuous members of the public inclined to amusements, that he entered into conversation with visitors, fussed about his pension, often changed direction (both physically, i.e., turning from side to side, and morally, in terms of his behaviour) and, towards the very end, from idleness and frustration, became a philosopher. Such dreadful piffle would, of course, be unnatural, if the extremely sincere tone of the author had not inclined the editors in his favour. Besides which, almost all the newspaper articles, even poems and furious polemics, that appeared on account of the swallowed gentleman, were cited in the greatest detail. All this rubbish was delivered to the editors by Mr. Fyodor Dostoevsky, a close associate and member of the editorial board, but the real author of the story remains unknown. One day, while Mr. Dostoevsky was away from home (on business not germane to the reader) some unknown person turned up at his apartment and left on his table a manuscript with a short letter from himself, but without a signature. In this letter he briefly but pompously recommends his work and asks for it to be made public by publishing it in “The Epoch”. Since the story was also not signed by anybody, the editors authorized Fyodor Dostoevsky, for the sake of appearances, to sign it with his name, and at the same time, by way of justice, to invent a decent pseudonym for the unknown author. Thus, the unknown author was named Semyon Strizhov, for some unknown reason. As for Mr. Dostoevsky, he eagerly signed his name, justly arguing that if the public liked the story it would be better for him, because they would think he’d written it, but if the public didn’t like it, he would only have to say he didn’t write it and that would be the end of it.

The editors, however, do not conceal from the public one very important fact, namely, no matter how they tried, how much they sought at least something that might shed some light on the unheard of incident in the Passazh, nothing helped! No-one, absolutely no-one had heard or read a word about anything even remotely similar to it, although it turned out that many people went to see crocodiles in the Passazh. In short, to the great regret and annoyance of the editors, there turned out to be no gentleman whatsoever who had been swallowed alive. The editors tried to find the newspapers issues and articles mentioned by the author, but to their surprise, quickly realized that newspapers with such names do not exist. In such an emergency only one possibility remained: to believe it all and decide, albeit reluctantly, but at the same time in all honesty, that the stranger who had revealed the manuscript could not be lying, and therefore everything reported by him was truthful. This we did, but right here we consider it our duty to declare that if, by chance, it all turns out to be a lie and not the truth, then there has never been a more incredible lie in our literature, except perhaps that famous case when a certain Major Kovalyov’s own nose one morning escaped from his face and later went for a stroll in the Tauride Gardens and down Nevsky in full dress uniform with a feather in his hat. In any case the editors would very much like the public to believe it all, for if they don’t believe it, it means they’re accusing the editors of lying, which would be disagreeable.

And yet, we say sincerely, although not without some embarrassment, there are people, even among the editors, who have opposed us heatedly for deciding to believe such (supposedly) arrant mystification. This minority has furiously accused us, despite us doing everything required of us to vindicate such an incredible occurrence in the eyes of the public. Not sufficiently appreciating our efforts, they screamed, obviously missing the point, that the unknown person’s story is not only contrary to the natural sciences, but even anatomy, that it’s impossible for a crocodile to swallow a person of a certain age, perhaps seven vershoks tall and, most importantly, educated, etc., etc. – you don’t need to read all their clamour, it’s not worth it, especially since the majority vote was in favour of the editors, and it’s already been decided there’s nothing better than the principle of the majority vote for establishing the truth. Nevertheless the editors, to fulfil their duty in all good faith, bent their ears to these interjections. Immediately four permanent members were commissioned from their midst to find the truth in the Passazh. They were all required to enter the crocodile room as a collective, acquaint themselves with the crocodiles and search everything themselves on the spot. On the commission were both secretaries to the editorial board, with and without portfolio, a critic and a novelist. Sparing no expense, the editors gave each of them a quarter-ruble to pay for their entrance to the crocodile room. All the quarter-rubles comprised the inalienable property of the editors and were acquired by them through legal means, without any kind of intervention from any other editors whatsoever.

The members of the commission came back just an hour later in the greatest indignation. Moreover, they did not even want to talk to us, probably from frustration, and all looked in different directions. Finally won over by the strenuously tender attentions of the editors, they agreed to break their silence and announced directly, but quite rudely all the same, that the editors had no business sending them to the Passazh, that the whole absurdity of it was apparent at first glance, that a crocodile could not swallow a person whole, but that, who knows, perhaps it could somehow happen. This sharp and even, one might say, one-sided verdict alarmed the editors in earnest. Nevertheless, it was all very soon definitively settled. In the first place, if “perhaps it could somehow happen”, then that means it really could have happened, and secondly, according to the research of the former commission it turned out to be clear that the unknown person’s story was not talking about those famous crocodiles now being shown in the Passazh at all, but some other, foreign crocodile that was also apparently shown in the Passazh, that lived there for three or four weeks, and, as is clear from the story, was taken back to his homeland in Germany. This latter crocodile could, of course, have been bigger and more capacious than the two crocodiles there now, and, consequently, why shouldn’t he have been able to swallow a gentleman of a certain age, and educated to boot?

Such reasoning finally resolved all the editors’ perplexity. The main thing was that they triumphantly vindicated the story and could print it, although they could have managed quite well without it, already having a sufficient set of articles and exactly the number of pages that had originally been promised to the public for each issue of “The Epoch”. But, not constrained by this promise, the editors added those superfluous pages. If we’ve already let “superfluous men” out into the world, why should it not come to pass that a magazine can also have superfluous pages?

*****

The lib.ru version does not include the letter that supposedly accompanied the manuscript, but it appears in the Complete Works (p. 346):

Письмо неизвестного сочинителя к Ф. Достоевскому

Милостивый государь, спешу сообщить Вам, как члену редакции журнала “Эпоха”, историю об одном из самых необыкновенных и даже, смею сказать, невероятных событий, которое может обогатить оригинальностью не только одну вашу “Эпоху”, но даже и всю нашу эпоху. Прошу вас немедленно предать его гласности.

Неизвестный сочинитель

Letter from an unknown writer to F. Dostoevsky

Sir, I hasten to inform you, as a member of the editorial board of “The Epoch”, of a story about one of the most extraordinary and even, dare I say, incredible incidents that may enhance the originality not only of your “Epoch”, but even of our entire epoch. I ask you to publish it immediately.

An unknown writer

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7 Comments

  1. Very enjoyable! In the second sentence, “located in Passazh” should be “located in the Passazh,” as later, but in my opinion Пассаж should be translated “the Arcade,” to give the reader unfamiliar with that particular element of SPb a fighting chance of understanding it.

    What a shame it is that Эпоха failed so disastrously!

  2. Thanks. I’m still not sure about the best way to deal with ‘Passazh’. My feeling is that ‘the Arcade’ in English sounds a bit too general, as though it doesn’t refer to a specific place. Perhaps ‘the Passazh arcade’ in the first instance would be better.

  3. Jeffry House

     /  December 30, 2013

    I didn’t understand it as Arcade when I read it, which proves Mr. Languagehat right. I never knew there was an actual place with that name.

    So I thought the word might have been chosen to play with the idea of Russia and its culture being on a trip westward, towards “modernity” or at least a reference to a cultural gap to be traversed, as in Passage to India.

  4. Yes, “the Passazh arcade” would be a fine way to introduce it. (But since пассаж is just as general a word in Russian as arcade is in English, I’m not sure I see any difference between using “the Passazh” and “the Arcade,” since in each case the capital letter indicates a unique location.)

  5. Thanks – I think the idea of movement movement is part of it, which is one reason why it’s worth preserving the idea of ‘passage’.

  6. Very true, but as Jeffry House notes, the sense of movement in the use of ‘Passazh’ is not there in ‘Arcade’.

  7. Good point; I guess it’s likely that Russians perceive that connotation in the word, even if only subconsciously.

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