Friday, April 12, 2024

'Where I Went and Cannot Come Again'

A brief return to the Russian word toska mentioned in Thursday’s post by Gary Saul Morson in reference to Chekhov. Dave Lull alerted me to Nabokov’s explication of the word in his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. In the second of the four volumes, Nabokov writes: 

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka.”


A word layered with nuance for Russian speakers. No wonder it’s tough to translate. Later in the same volume Nabokov writes: “The vocabulary of ennui also includes toska (a preying misery, a gnawing mental ache).” Among English-language writers whose work is suffused with a toska-like sentiment, I think first of Housman, as in XL from A Shropshire Lad:


“Into my heart an air that kills 

  From yon far country blows: 

What are those blue remembered hills, 

  What spires, what farms are those? 


“That is the land of lost content,

  I see it shining plain, 

The happy highways where I went 

  And cannot come again.”


Housman’s lyrics often teeter between the lachrymose and the genuinely toska-like, an honestly earned sadness, not cheaply sentimental. Given his themes, it’s remarkable how gracefully he approaches but avoids the maudlin. I think of John Williams’ novel Stoner (1965), and stories and novels by Edith Wharton, William Maxwell and John McGahern. In its cumulative power and sadness, Stoner reminds me of nothing so much as Henry James’ final, hopeless sentence in Washington Square (1880): “Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were.” And I think toska is frequently encountered in Japanese literature, what little I know of it -- Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro, for instance.


[Dave also supplies a link to a 2017 thesis by Jason Scott Jones, “The Concept of Toska in Chekhov’s Short Stories.”]

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