Gorky and Tolstoy.

Aaron Lake Smith has a good piece for Lapham’s Quarterly about Maxim Gorky, focusing on his “troubled friendship” with Leo Tolstoy; it makes me want to read his 1919 reminiscence about the older writer:

His essay on Tolstoy is one of the most complex depictions of the love and hate that intertwine within a friendship that I have ever read (I wish all magazine profiles—of celebrities, politicians, writers—could be so good). Such portrayals run against the popular conception of Gorky as a black-and-white zealot who sought to erase all human complexity.

Nowhere is he more complex and self-honest than in this sketch, with its delicate handling of the class and power dynamics. Gorky’s evident awe and respect for his hero are undercut by his descriptions of Tolstoy’s rampant sexism—“He speaks about women readily and at length, like a French novelist, but always with the crudeness of a Russian muzhik, which in the beginning used to bother me extremely”—and unabashed cultural appropriation. Tolstoy informed Gorky, “I am more of a peasant than you, and can feel things the way peasants do better than you can.” In the essay, Gorky protested, “My God! He shouldn’t boast of that! He mustn’t!”

Gorky “never tires of marveling” at Tolstoy, but the elder writer also evokes

something close to hatred for me, much like an oppressive burden on my soul. His hypertrophied personality is a monstrous thing, a thing almost deformed…He has often struck me as a man who is fundamentally, in the depth of his soul, indifferent to people, being so much higher and more powerful than they that they all seem like midges to him, and their frantic concerns ludicrous and pitiable…It’s difficult to see him too often, and I could never live in the same house—let alone the same room—with him. That would be like trying to live in a desert where everything has been burned by the sun, while that sun itself is also burning down, threatening a dark night without end.

About his first meeting with Tolstoy, Gorky wrote: “It was as if I had met not the author of The Cossacks, ‘Strider,’ and War and Peace, but rather a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’ and this tended to upset my idea of him.” Sounds plausible to me. Thanks, Paul!

Butcher Bird.

I’m reading the early stories of Wallace Stegner; so far they’ve mostly taken place in the hardscrabble farmland of southwest Saskatchewan, where he spent part of his youth, and they’re as grim as life there must have been (though lightened by the irrepressible spirits of his young viewpoint characters). The latest, the 1940 “Butcher Bird,” has a number of words and phrases of LH interest. On the first page, the boy reflects on the possibilities of the weather: “If it was rain everything would be fine, his father would hum under his breath getting breakfast, maybe let him drive the stoneboat or ride the mare down to Larsen’s for mail.” Stoneboat? Turns out it’s (per the OED, entry from 1917) “U.S. (chiefly north.) and Canad. A flat-bottomed sled used for transporting or removing stones, and for other purposes.” The first and last citations:

1859 N. P. Willis Convalescent 75 A stone-boat would run glibly over such a shallow snow!
1962 J. Onslow Bowler-hatted Cowboy viii. 79 A stone-boat is best described as a heavy wooden sled, on which can be hauled rocks and stones..dead cows, sick cows, or other heavy objects.

The earlier sense (dating back to c. 1336) is “A boat for transporting stones”; there’s no indication of how it got transferred to the new sense.

There are a couple of odd expressions used by the boy’s brutal father and presumably peculiar to him: “I hope to whisk in your piskers” and “Just thinking about [X] gives me the pleefer.” And the title of the story is itself interesting; it’s a regional expression for the shrike (as the boy’s mother explains to an English neighbor, “They kill all sorts of things, snakes and gophers and other birds”), and the OED dates it back to 1668 (Bp. J. Wilkins Ess. Real Char. 146 “Lanius or Butcher bird, is of three several kinds”), in the etymology saying “Compare French bouchari ‘un des noms vulgaires de la pie-grièche.’”

Saving Language.

I may have mentioned before that one of my favorite radio programs is To the Best of Our Knowledge, which consistently features the most interesting and thought-provoking interviews around; almost every time I listen (it’s on Saturday mornings from 6 to 8 on our local PBS station) I learn new things or new ways of looking at things. This morning when I staggered into the living room, my wife (who gets up earlier than I do) said “You’re just in time, they’re going to do an hour on languages!” And so they did; the show, “Saving Language,” is available here, and I particularly recommend the first two segments, David Harrison on documenting endangered languages and Danna Harman on the Yung Yiddish library in Tel Aviv.

Related: Pablo Helguera’s Conservatory of Dead Languages (“In building his Conservatory of Dead Languages, Helguera has created a kind of symbolic museum of dying languages by recording them on wax cylinders, using the method invented by Thomas Edison in 1877”). Thanks, Trevor!

The Licentious Thrush.

I’ve been reading Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Губернские очерки [Provincial sketches] (1856-57), a now-forgotten work consisting of delightful descriptions of the endemically corrupt town of Krutogorsk (a lightly fictionalized version of Vyatka, where he had spent seven years in exile), and at one point a character mentions a woman who sang “гривуазные песни” like “Un soir a la barrière” (a song which, alas, has been even more thoroughly forgotten, so that I have been unable to find out anything about it). Now, the adjective гривуазный was clearly borrowed from a French grivois, but I was unfamiliar with that word; when I looked it up, I discovered it meant ‘saucy, smutty,’ so the Russian phrase meant ‘smutty songs.’ It’s first recorded in 1690 as a noun, meaning ‘soldier,’ and then in 1696 meaning ‘person of free-and-easy morals’ (« personne de mœurs libres et joyeuses ») — a natural semantic transition, I fear. By 1707 it was an adjective (« très libre, hardi »), and the phrase cited as an example is chansons grivoises, a French equivalent of the Russian phrase that started me off.

But where did grivois itself come from? That turns out to be quite interesting. It’s derived from grive ‘thrush’ (or, in the words of the Trésor de la langue française informatisé, “Oiseau de l’ordre des Passereaux, proche du merle, au plumage blanc et brun, dont la chair est appréciée des gastronomes”), which is from Latin graecus ‘Greek,’ because apparently the Romans thought the thrush, a migratory bird, wintered in Greece. Grive developed, for obscure reasons, the slang sense ‘war; army; corps de garde,’ hence the original sense of grivois. Now, that’s a well-traveled word.

A Year in Reading 2016.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year; my contribution is up, featuring my review of Aileen M. Kelly’s great biography of Herzen, The Discovery of Chance, as well as my other favorites of the year, including some I’ve discussed here at LH.

Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan.

Forrest Gander has a wonderful account at Literary Hub of translating Neruda, starting by describing his reluctance to take on the task: “It’s not that I don’t love Neruda, but given the attention he’s justly received […] I’ve wanted to champion terrific lesser-known and more contemporary Latin American writers in translation.” I’ll leave you to discover most of the details at the link (a sample: “There’s an ode to Neruda’s wife’s ear that depends upon a conceit that most Chileans today wouldn’t fathom, since few remember the 1940s vernacular for abalone: ‘little ears of the sea'”) and just quote the anecdote he himself ends with:

But it might be fun to consider a single poem, the oddest in the collection, the one that gave the Spanish-language editors fits. A typed version of this poem, dated June 1968, was found in a filing cabinet with some conference papers. Subsequently, a handwritten version turned up.

It begins: “Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan / were moored in these waters.” In the next lines, Lynn and Morgan sail off “to sea or to hell” while the dark river bearing “grief and blubbering” and all the particulars of our tumultuous world rushes toward us carrying—what else is it carrying? Something remarkable, we gather from the last lines. For the editors of the Spanish edition, this is an apocalyptical poem and the names Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan refer to two of the ships’ figureheads that Neruda collected and fondly nicknamed Jenny Lind and Captain Morgan. How Jenny Lind became Roa Lynn and why the famous pirate Captain (Henry) Morgan changed his name to Patrick remain unexplained. But to make matters a little less clear, the editors add a series of curious etymological details, starting with the information that “roa,” in some language, may be a nautical term for the prow of a ship.

Two marvelous interventions solve the riddle of the poem for us. First, a Mexican journalist and reviewer of the Spanish edition of these lost poems bothered to google the perplexing names Roa Lynn and Patrick Morgan. He discovered both names in a May 1968 Argentine weekly. Here’s my translation of the full newspaper notice:

POETS. Unintentionally but notably, the Buenos Aires Herald recently acted as matchmaker: an interview published two weeks ago has culminated in a marriage. When Patrick Morgan read, on April 13th, the tale told by North American poet Roa Lynn Lanou, who spoke of herself, her country, and the Brazilian favela where she lived for a while, Morgan asked his secretary to find her phone number. “I’m going to marry that girl, I said to my secretary,” Morgan, sales manager for Brassovora and an occasional versifier, remembers saying. “My secretary answered I must be crazy.” But that wasn’t the case, clearly. On March 16th, Patrick and Roa met each other in the Golf Club in Palermo; after lunch, they read her poems and “spent the afternoon reciting Shakespeare.” On Friday the 19th, the day Roa was supposed to leave for Chile, the lovers took off to Montevideo, where they were married. On Monday the 22nd, Roa moved into her new residence, a house in the North Barrio of the capital. On Tuesday, she rushed a cable of 30 words to her parents in Ohio, telling them the news.

Isn’t that a gas? What makes it especially piquant for me is that I was living in Buenos Aires then, and we subscribed to the Herald (as did pretty much all the English-speakers in town), and I may very well have read that interview at the time. Thanks, Trevor!


I have little interest in demonology, but when I happened on Esther Inglis-Arkell’s webpage The Five Best and Five Worst Demons to Get Possessed By, I knew I had to post about #3 on the Worst Demons list:

Agares can be a woman or a man. If the demon is a man, the man is old and riding a crocodile. If the demon is a woman, she’s young and angelically beautiful […]. The good news is a short time with Agares will give you knowledge of every language in the world. The bad news is that he or she will only teach you the foulest and most offensive words.

Now, that’s my kind of demon!

Italy’s Last Bastion of Catalan.

Raphael Minder has a nice NY Times piece on Catalan in Alghero:

The first Catalans reached Sardinia in the 14th century, when troops sailed from the eastern coast of what is now Spain as part of an expansion into the Mediterranean.

After an uprising slaughtered the forces garrisoned in this northern port on the island, King Peter IV expelled many of the locals. In their place, he populated Alghero mostly with convicts, prostitutes and other undesirables, many of them Catalans.

Today, Alghero is a linguistic anomaly. This walled and picturesque city is, quite literally, the last bastion of Catalan in Italy. […]

But while the traditional insularity of Alghero has helped to preserve Catalan, the language is struggling to survive even here.

Only about one-quarter of the 43,000 inhabitants of Alghero speak Catalan as a main language, according to local officials. It is hardly spoken among younger people and barely taught in schools. Nearly a century ago, almost everyone spoke Catalan, according to a census conducted in 1921. […]

After Sardinia was taken over by the Turin-based House of Savoy in 1720, eventually becoming part of what is modern-day Italy, the Catalan language virtually disappeared on the island.

Now, Catalan is not only overshadowed by Italian, but it must also compete for recognition with a handful of other languages and dialects, including the dominant indigenous language, Sardinian.

Catalan is rarely heard on the streets in Alghero, though many signs are written in the language. Restaurants also label some of their dishes as Catalan, including a local version of paella.

There’s more at the link, including a useful map and some photos. Needless to say, I regret the approaching disappearance of Algherese (as the locals call it), but I can’t see much hope for staving it off. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Translating Sade’s Obscenities.

Will McMorran’s piece on translating the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom for Penguin might have been written with LH in mind. He calls it “a uniquely disturbing work”:

And therefore uniquely challenging to translate. Perhaps this was the reason no one had attempted a new translation since the one first published by Austryn Wainhouse in 1954 (and revised with Richard Seaver in 1966). In any case, Thomas Wynn and I felt a new version was long overdue, and, much to our surprise, Penguin Classics agreed.

Dealing with the violence was not the only challenge we faced: The 120 Days is also Sade’s most obscene work of fiction. Over the course of three years, this indeed was the issue that prompted the most discussion and debate between us. How exactly were we to translate the various rude words of the original French? Was a vit a prick, dick or a cock? Were tétons boobs, tits or breasts? Was a derrière a behind, a backside or, indeed, a derrière? Was a cul a bum or an arse? While Wainhouse adopted an eccentric idiom that could be best described as mock-Tudor, we decided to try as far as possible to use sexual slang that was still in use today – as long as it did not sound gratingly contemporary.

Translating obscenity into your own language takes some getting used to. […] Rude words in other languages never have quite the same force, so translating them into one’s own language brings the obscenity home in more ways than one.

English reserve probably plays a part in the process, too. When we started translating 120 Days I soon realised I was instinctively toning the original down, avoiding words that I found jarringly ugly. I may not have overcome that entirely (no dicks or cocks for me, thank you very much!) but I realised pretty quickly that a watered-down version of Sade’s novel would be the worst possible outcome. The last thing we wanted to produce was a text that was any less shocking – and therefore potentially appealing – than the original. We had a duty to be just as rude, crude, and revolting as Sade.

To ensure consistency we compiled our own Sadean lexicon as we were translating. Once we had debated the various possible translations of a particular word we would try to settle on one and stick to it. Usually. So a vit would always be a prick, and a cul would always be an arse.

Click through to read about the exceptions; their choices seem sensible to me, though I completely fail to understand why “no dicks or cocks” when you’re trying to be rude, crude, and revolting. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Voicing Surprise.

I was listening to NPR news this morning, as is my wont (a word, incidentally, that I pronounce identically to the contraction won’t, one of three or four versions current in the US), when a newscaster made me exclaim in astonishment: she pronounced the plural deaths with a voiced -th-, as /dɛðz/. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon involved, a historical process of voicing stem-final fricatives:

The voicing alternation found in plural formation is losing ground in the modern language, and of the alternations listed below many speakers retain only the [f-v] pattern, which is supported by the orthography. This voicing is a relic of Old English, the unvoiced consonants between voiced vowels were ‘colored’ with voicing. As the language became more analytic and less inflectional, final vowels/syllables stopped being pronounced. For example, modern knives is a one syllable word instead of a two syllable word, with the vowel ‘e’ not being pronounced. However, the voicing alternation between [f] and [v] still occurs.

As examples of optional voicing with -th- (which is, of course, not indicated by English spelling), they give ba[θ] – ba[ð]s, mou[θ] – mou[ð]s, oa[θ] – oa[ð]s, pa[θ] – pa[ð]s, and you[θ] – you[ð]s. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never before heard it with death.

Totally unrelated, but I want to get it on record: I occasionally mutter to myself a couplet from the deep recesses of my memory, “Keats had TB, Shelley drowned, Shakespeare lies in the cold, cold ground.” I vaguely assumed it was well known, part of everyone’s cultural detritus, but when I googled it to find out its origin, I discovered it’s from a forgotten science fiction story by a forgotten author, Winona McClintic’s “In the Days of Our Fathers.” It was first published in the inaugural (Fall 1949) issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, back when it was still called The Magazine of Fantasy, and apparently has only been reprinted once, in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction (1952), so I may be one of the few people on earth who keep it ready to the mind’s hand. Since I think it’s striking (and a useful memory aid), I’m putting it here so it can infect more people. And one of these days I’ll have to do a thorough search of the cellar and find the box containing the first issues of F&SF, always my favorite sf magazine; I haven’t seen it since we moved into this house almost a decade ago, and I’d like to wallow in nostalgia for a while.