The largest collection of novellas, consisting of several dozen individual texts, was translated from Polish in 1680. It is the Facetiae,27 which combines both classical European novellas, beginning with Boccacio, and the “minor genres” of comic literature (usually called “simple forms”), namely jokes, witticisms and anecdotes. It is the “simple forms” that provided nourishment for the novella. By the seventeenth century the Latin word facetiae had entered many European languages with the meaning of “witticisms, humorisms”. In Russia, this word was translated as uteshitelnaya or smekhotvomaya izdyovka (comforting or ridiculing mockery), stressing that facetiae were not “edifying”, but amusing, entertaining. The Facetiae introduced the Russian reader to the “historical” anecdote that derived from the Greek tradition, with such anecdotal personages as Diogenes and such traditional anecdotal couples as Socrates and Xanthippe.
The famous Cynic Diogenes, on being asked what was the best time to dine, replied: “For a rich man whenever he likes. For a poor man whenever he has something to eat.” The same Diogenes, who led a truly dog-like, “Cynical” life, once began to eat in the market place amid a crowd of people. Someone laughed at him: “Why do you not eat at home, like a man, instead of in the market place like a cur?” To which Diogenes replied: “When a man eats, the curs always gather round him.” One day when Socrates’ wife Xanthippe scolded her husband for a long time, as was her wont, and finished by pouring some slops over him, Socrates said: “Thunder is always followed by rain…”
The combination in a single collection of “simple forms” and longer novellas was perfectly logical, because their poetics had much in common. All of them are characterised, first and foremost, by a single theme: the plot is limited to a single event (even if this event consists of several episodes). It is only natural, therefore, that the anecdote and the novella have few characters. This is a laconic genre. The characters always pursue definite, unambiguous aims. They are shown in action. They are like marionettes. Their life outside the event in question is not shown. It depends entirely on the event. Therefore the character of the heroes is void of psychological complexity or contradictions. It is unambiguous, portrayed with a single brush stroke.
Let us take as an example one of the novellas in The History of the Seven Wise Men (the seventh story of the mother-in-law) on the theme of love. A certain queen, whose jealous husband keeps her locked up, sees a knight in a dream and falls in love with him. The knight also dreams of the locked-up queen. He enters the king’s service and finds a way of getting into the queen’s chambers. The lovers meet constantly. One day the knight forgets to remove the ring given to him by the queen. The king becomes suspicious. But the knight manages to communicate with his mistress before her husband sees her, gives her the ring and she is able to lull her husband’s suspicions. In the end the king gets so confused that he accidentally marries his vassal and the queen, sends them off in a boat and does not realise until he gets home that he has been tricked. Here the number of personages is reduced to a minimum—the classical triangle. Their characters are unambiguous—determined by a single trait. About the king we know only that he is jealous (this is necessary for the structure of the plot), about the queen only that she is in love and unfaithful to her husband, and about the knight only that he is the lover of a married woman. Their aims are clear: the king wants to keep his wife, and the lovers want to be united. Their behaviour is governed by these aims.
The novella neither condemns nor justifies. This genre does not try to be didactic, sententious or edifying. At its base lies entertainment, unexpected twists and turns of the plot, novelty (the Italian word novella actually means “something new”). These qualities of the novella and its dynamic plot were one of the discoveries of seventeenth-century Russian literature.
In the Facetiae we find historical personages: Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Demosthenes, Alfonso of Spain, Charlemagne, Michelangelo (naturally, their words and actions belong for the most part to the realm of pure fantasy). We also find “certain” people who are not given a name: “a certain rich and fine man”, monks, merchants, barbers, rogues, “two maidens”, “a certain peasant”, “an old woman”, “our next-door neighbour”. But in fact there is no difference between the characters with historical names and the anonymous personages. Emperors, philosophers, generals and poets behave like people from the third estate. The reason for this is simple: the novella is an urban genre and selects only everyday incidents (what the “next-door neighbour” is doing), which do not depend on the code of behaviour and prejudices of the different estates. The novella as a genre is democratic. It does not stand in awe of the powers-that-be.
The chance to use material from everyday life artistically was immediately appreciated by Russian writers. The seventeenth century produced many attempts at the original novella, from “simple forms” to complex subjects.