Archives for April 2008


Having finished Proust, my wife and I have started reading Speak, Memory at bedtime, and I am reading the corresponding section of the Russian version, Drugie berega [Other shores], afterwards; I want to make a post about the amazing Russian tradition of literary autobiographies and memoirs (and autobiographical novels), but I don’t have time at the moment, so I’ll confine myself to noting that the differences between the Russian and English texts are fascinating and illuminating for understanding Nabokov’s writerly instincts. Here’s a sample from the first section of Chapter Two (he is describing the visions he has before falling asleep, which are not “muscae volitantes—shadows cast upon the retinal rods by motes in the vitreous humor”):

At times, however, my photisms take on a rather soothing flou quality, and then I see—projected, as it were, upon the inside of the eyelid—gray figures walking between beehives, or small black parrots gradually vanishing among mountain snows, or a mauve remoteness melting beyond moving masts.

Here is the Russian:

Но иногда, перед самым забытьем, пухлый пепел падает на краски, и тогда фотизмы мои успокоительно расплываются, кто-то ходит в плаще среди ульев, лиловеют из-за паруса дымчатые острова, валит снег, улетают тяжелые птицы.


But sometimes, before I lapse into drowsy oblivion, plump ashes fall on the colors, and then my photisms spread soothingly, someone walks in a cloak among beehives, smoke-colored islands turn violet beyond a sail, snow falls thickly, heavy birds fly away.

What is basically the same set of images is expressed very differently. And in this instance I think I prefer the Russian; as usual with Nabokov, it is more reader-friendly—the use of the French word flou ‘blurred, out-of-focus, fuzzy’ seems to me ostentatious and self-indulgent (compare his intention of calling the book Speak, Mnemosyne, from which he was dissuaded by his sensible publisher)—and I don’t really believe in those parrots. On the other hand, the English version ends with the “mauve remoteness melting beyond moving masts,” a subtle anticipation of the very end of the book, with its harbor view that includes “a splendid ship’s funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture.” So, as always, it’s good to have them both; binocular vision is preferable to monocular.
Addendum. I just ran across this near the end of II:3 (his mother has been off picking mushrooms in a light rain):
…бисерная морось на зеленовато-бурой шерсти плаща образовывала вокруг нее подобие дымчатого ореола.
[…the beadily-minute drizzle on the greenish-brown wool of her cloak formed around her the likeness of a smoke-colored aureole.]
(English version: “…her small figure cloaked and hooded in greenish-brown wool, on which countless droplets of moisture made a kind of mist all around her.”)
Note that the not-all-that-common words плащ [plashch] ‘cloak’ and дымчатый [dýmchatyi] ‘smoke-colored’ occur in the same order, separated by a similar number of words, as in the photisms quote. Can this possibly be a coincidence? Even in a writer less careful about his word choice than Nabokov, it would seem unlikely; with VV, if it is not deliberate it surely indicates a psychological connection between the visions he sees before sleep and his beloved mycophilic mother.

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For those of you who have been wondering where Language Log went, it’s back at a new URL — — and with new content management software (WordPress 2.5). Adjust your blogrolls and bookmarks accordingly (and prepare yourself to get used to the New Look).
Heidi Harley was “the first to post using the swanky new system,” and she came up with a doozy: Keep related words, as a rule, together. That’s a summary of a self-negating quote from the bible of those who want to sneer at other people’s use of language without bothering to actually learn something about it themselves, Strunknwhite: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” As Heidi says:

I was afraid someone was playing a joke on me. But no, that’s really it!
I was so amazed, of course, because the statement of the rule violates itself. In the sentence, the verb be is the ‘principal verb’. The parenthetical as a rule could be transferred to the beginning. The subject of the sentence is the NP The subject of the sentence and the principal verb. So the rule breaks itself; to be true of itself, it should say, As a rule, the subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.

She goes on to analyze the rest of the section, and concludes: “So out of eleven sentences about keeping related words together, in which one key tip is to keep any parentheticals which can be sentence-initial in sentence-initial position, five of them counterexemplify the point.” Delightful!


The Economist‘s “Correspondent’s diary” last week featured a series of columns on language: “My obsession, on which I’ll be expounding this week, is how languages are constructed and the differences in how they express things.” For the most part, it’s what you’d expect of a foreign correspondent nattering on about foreign languages (“not one of the languages I have studied has a word for ‘accountability'”), and you’d be well advised to take everything he says with a grain of salt, but it’s enjoyable reading, and I learned a Russian saying that appeals to me: На бесптичье и жопа – соловей [Na besptich’e i zhopa – solovéi], which the reporter translates as “When there are no birds, even an arse is a nightingale.” (In Russian, the first phrase actually reads ‘in (a condition of) birdlessness…’) I find it very odd that he writes “When a Cuban says ‘take the bus’, coge la guagua, most of the rest of Latin America hears something quite unprintable” (coger means ‘fuck’ in the Argentine Spanish I learned; as far as I know guagua is just a Cuban word for ‘bus’), but then insouciantly uses the word cunt in his Friday column. I guess U.K. sensibilities are very different than U.S. ones. And judging by the comments, he offended a lot of Russians by using the Russian equivalent of cunt (pizdá); either he didn’t realize how “bad” a word it is, or he didn’t expect actual foreigners to be reading The Economist.
Thanks for the link, Kári!


What would you think if you read “Yahoo has been giving them the Heisman for two months now” in a discussion of Microsoft’s offer to purchase Yahoo? Even if you’re familiar with the Heisman Trophy as an annual award to the most outstanding player in college football, it’s completely unclear what the expression might mean. So this AskMetaFilter thread was very enlightening: “it’s from the pose of the figure in the Heisman trophy, with his hand extended, palm out, warding-off an oncoming opponent (thusly). So, Yahoo isn’t metaphorically giving Microsoft the Heisman trophy, it’s metaphorically giving Microsoft the Heisman gesture.” Other commenters weighed in with examples (“we would go to the club and of course most of us would try to pick up on girls. when the rejection was particularly embarrassing or decisive, we would say ‘oh damn, that chick just gave him the fucking heisman'”). So all is clear, slang shows its versatility once again, and once again I am grateful for the educational power of the internet.


I’ve been rereading Evgenii Onegin and appreciating more than ever the line-by-line brilliance of the poetry. When I was young and foolish and first studying Russian, I thought of Pushkin as a romantic; the first poem of his I read, the anthology piece “Я вас любил” (“I loved you [once]; perhaps love has not entirely been extinguished in my heart…”), seemed to me (a hormone-soaked adolescent) a passionate declaration, and it sank instantly into my long-term memory. I still love the poem, but I realize now that it’s not romantic at all. Pushkin, despite being born into a generation that was besotted with Anne Radcliffe, August Lafontaine, and other conjurers of dank vaults, far-off lands, and improbably chaste romances, was at heart as much a classicist as Walter Savage Landor, and “I loved you” is quite comparable to Landor’s own anthology piece “Rose Aylmer.” Both take a powerful human emotion and distill it into eight perfectly balanced lines, unforgettable compounds of vowels, consonants, and rhythms. Note that the point is not to “express” the emotion (which is what we’re all desperate to do as hormone-soaked adolescents writing terrible poetry) but to distill it, to extract from it an essence that will power the engine of a great poem. Pushkin, of course, is a far greater poet than Landor, and he is not only a classicist; his Mozartean combination of classical expression and frequently romantic sensibility can be found in English poetry only in Coleridge. What Nabokov calls “the extraordinary lines, among his greatest, that Pushkin added in 1824, four years after its publication, to the beginning of Ruslan i Lyudmila” (‘By a sea-cove [stands] a green oak,/ on that oak a golden chain,/ and day and night a learned tomcat/ walks on the chain around [the oak]…’) is the only thing in any language I know that can be set beside Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”

What I would like to do is to take a stanza from Chapter 2 of Evgenii Onegin (I will provide Cyrillic, transliteration, and literal translation) and try to explain how it works in terms that would not offend the easily offended Nabokov, and then to take a bit of Nabokov (in Russian) and show that it works in a similar fashion; hopefully we’ll all learn something in the process. Here is the stanza (II.28):

Она любила на балконе
Предупреждать зари восход,
Когда на бледном небосклоне
Звезд исчезает хоровод,
И тихо край земли светлеет,
И вестник утра, ветер веет,
И всходит постепенно день.
Зимой, когда ночная тень
Полмиром доле обладает
И доле в праздной тишине,
При отуманенной луне,
Восток ленивый почивает,
В привычный час пробуждена,
Вставала при свечах она.

Here’s a transliteration; stress is on the penult unless marked:

Oná lyubila na balkone
Preduprezhdát’ zarí voskhód,
Kogdá na blednom nebosklone
Zvyózd ischezaet khorovód,
I tikho krai zemlí svetleet,
I vestnik utra, veter veet,
I vskhodit postepenno den’.
Zimói, kogdá nochnaya ten’
Polmirom dole obladaet
I dole v prazdnoi tishiné,
Pri otumánnenoi luné,
Vostók lenivyi pochivaet,
V privychnyi chas probuzhdená,
Vstavala pri svechákh oná.

And a literal translation:

She loved on the balcony
to anticipate the rising of the dawn,
when on the pale (sky above the) horizon
the stars’ ring-dance disappears,
and quietly the edge of the earth brightens,
and the herald of morning, the wind, blows,
and gradually rises the day.
In winter, when the night’s shadow
possesses half the world longer,
and longer in idle silence
by (the light of) the misted moon
the lazy East sleeps,
awakened at the accustomed hour
she would get up by (the light of) candles.

The first thing to note is that the wonderfully flexible “Onegin stanza” of fourteen lines (ababccddeffegg) is here, unusually, divided in half, with a strong break after line 7 (the more common break is after line 8, so that rhymes are kept together). In fact, when you get to line 8 it almost seems that a separate poem is beginning; after the stately description of the sunrise in the first seven lines (oddly reminiscent of the mood and rhythm of MacLeish’s “You, Andrew Marvell“: “To feel the always coming on/ The always rising of the night… And strange at Ecbatan the trees…”) comes the abrupt “Zimói…” [‘In winter…’], which turns out to introduce another perspective on her early rising. The whole thing is as circular as the khorovód (which Nabokov uncharacteristically mistranslates “choral dance”); it starts and ends with the word oná ‘she,’ and she gets up in the last line to go out to the balcony of the first (“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun”).

But it’s the complicated machine made of words nestled within this framework that kept me going back to the stanza until I had it memorized. The first line is almost ostentatiously bland: “She loved upon the balcony” could perfectly well be followed by a description of having tea and looking at the garden, or reading the kind of romantic novels mentioned in the following stanza. (Side note: there’s a funny story here about a teacher who wanted to declaim the opening of this stanza to his tenth-grade class, got as far as “Oná lyubila na balkone”—and couldn’t come up with the second line, leaving an image that aroused the hilarity of his students.) But then we hit the mouth-filling and unexpected verb preduprezhdát’, which now usually means ‘warn’ or ‘notify’—Nabokov translates it “prevene,” saying “I chose to use this obsolete verb in order to stress that the Russian word (a translation of the French prévenir or devancer) is obsolete, too”—and the phrase ‘rising of the dawn,’ which seems to have religious connotations in Russian as it does in English (Genesis 32:24 “And Jacob remained alone; and a man wrestled with him until the rising of the dawn” = “И остался Яаков один, и боролся человек с ним до восхода зари”), and we realize something special is going on.

Notice the pattern of consonants in the first line: n-l-b-l-n-b-l-k-n; without the interruption of the voiceless k (a crunchy crouton), there would be an exact repetition of the b-l-n sequence. Now look at the end of the third line: na blednom nebosklone, n-bl-d-n-m-n-b-sk-ln. This is the kind of detail you don’t intellectually notice without the kind of close analysis I’m doing here, but the ear (if you have an ear for poetry) notices, and it makes you want to say the lines over and over. Meanwhile, the third and fourth lines each end with similarly constructed, unusual, resonant words, nebosklón (‘sky-slope’) and khorovód, which produce a sort of quasi-rhyme.

Next come the three lines that remind me of MacLeish:

I tikho krai zemlí svetleet,
I vestnik utra, veter veet,
I vskhodit postepenno den’.

Notice, surrounding the showy alliteration of the middle line (vest- ut- vet- veet), the subtler interweaving of t’s, kh’s, v’s, and s’s in the outer lines, all bound together with the repeated initial I… I… I ‘and… and… and’; the rhythm of the third line, with the “scud” (Nabokov’s term for a stressless foot, with its “expressive delaying note”) in the third foot adding to the impression of finality I mentioned above.

I will mention also the judicious sprinkling of obsolete meanings (preduprezhdát’), words (pochivaet), and forms (dole ‘longer,’ now dol’she); the leisurely, delaying syntax of lines 8-12; and the irresistible sonic puzzle of line 13, which sounds almost like two long words, fprivychnyichás probuzhdená, with a repetition of pr…á and a matching up of the teasingly similar sounds v/b, y/u, ch/zh that make the whole thing into a verbal worry bead you can mutter as a kind of mantra.

Now notice that the entire stanza, to the kind of person who reads for plot, reduces to “She liked to get up early.” This is not the kind of reader Pushkin is writing for, and that goes double for Nabokov, who probably never wrote a sentence he did not roll around in his mouth several times to make sure it produced the effect he wanted. I take, pretty much at random, a fragment of a long sentence from the fourth paragraph of Drugie berega (the Russian equivalent of Speak, Memory): “судя по густоте солнечного света, тотчас заливающего мою память, по лапчатому его очерку, явно зависящему от переслоений и колебаний лопастных дубовых листьев, промеж которых он падает на песок” [‘judging by the thickness of the sunlight, immediately flooding my memory, by its palmate outline, manifestly dependent on the interlayings and vibrations of the laciniate oak leaves between which it falls onto the sand’]. Here’s a transliteration (again, penultimate stresses are unmarked, and I’ve added a few y’s to aid pronunciation):
sudyá po gustoté sólnechnovo sveta, totchas zaliváyushchevo moyú pamyat’, po lápchatomu yevó ócherku, yavno zavísyashchemu ot peresloyénii i kolebánii lópastnykh dubóvykh list’yev, promézh kotorykh on pádayet na pesók…

Very similar things are going on here, though of course without the framework of rhyme and meter. The fragment starts and ends with simple, everyday language (“judging by the thickness of the sunlight … between which it falls onto the sand”); in between, it takes detours through the poetic (zaliváyushchevo moyú pamyat’ ‘flooding my memory’), the archaic (ócherk in the sense ‘outline’ rather than today’s ‘sketch, study’), and the scientific (lápchaty ‘palmate,’ peresloyénie ‘interlaying, interstratification,’ kolebánie ‘vibration, oscillation,’ lópastnyi ‘laciniate’ [OED: “Cut into deep and narrow irregular segments; jagged, slashed”]), all of which are hallmarks of Nabokov’s style in English as well. Note the interplay of sounds: the s’s in sudyá po gustoté sólnechnovo sveta, totchas, the z-shch- in zaliváyushchevo and zavísyashchemu, the l’s in lápchatomu … peresloyénii i kolebánii lópastnykh … list’yev,, the p’s in promézh kotorykh on pádayet na pesók… I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. If you find this kind of verbal play enjoyable, you will get much more out of Nabokov than if you don’t.

For comparison, here is the same fragment in Speak, Memory: “Judging by the strong sunlight that, when I think of that revelation, immediately invades my memory with lobed sun flecks through overlapping patterns of greenery…”


My wife and I unexpectedly finished Proust last night (I’d thought it would last another day) and sat up talking about it for a while, and now I’m going to try to organize my thoughts about the year-and-a-half-long experience and inflict them on you. My lengthy ramblings will be below the cut; up front I want to say that they will, as you might expect, contain spoilers, so if you’re planning to get around to reading the book someday and don’t want to know in advance who dies and who comes to sudden realizations about Life and Time, don’t click on the “Continue reading.” And since I will be mainly engaged in complaining, I should state for the record that Proust is a great writer, A la Recherche is a great book even if it could stand to lose a few pounds, and I don’t regret a moment of the time I’ve devoted to it. Furthermore, I accept in advance all charges of philistinism and ignorance; I am but a humble ruminant grazing the vast fields of literature, and what I don’t know about great writing would fill Borges’s Library of Babel. But I have my opinions nonetheless, and you’re welcome to join me in my ruminations if you accept the above Terms of Service.

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My wife has been baking bread lately (and very good it is too), and this morning as I was gazing fondly at the latest loaf the phrase “staff of life” popped into my head and I wondered about it. The metaphor seemed clear—a staple food is something you lean on—but still somewhat odd, and I wondered if there were a backstory. I went, of course, to the OED, where I found the phrase as definition 4c (first cite: 1638 PENKETHMAN Artach. Ajb, “Bread is worth all, being the Staffe of life,” where Artach. = Artachthos; or a new booke declaring the assise or weight of bread); definition 4b, which gave rise to it, is:

In the Biblical phr. to break the staff of bread (literally from Heb. maṭṭēh ‘leχem, Vulg. baculum panis), to diminish or cut off the supply of food.
1382, 1388 WYCLIF Lev. xxvi. 26. 1560 BIBLE (Geneva) Lev. xxvi. 26. Ps. cv. 16. Ezek. iv. 16. [And so 1611]. c1586 C’TESS PEMBROKE Ps. CV. iv, Scarse had he spoken, When famine came, the staff of bread was broken. 1596 BARLOW Three Serm. i. 121 God in his lawe threatneth that he will breake the staffe of bread, that is, bread shall not nourish them that eate it.

So it’s a metaphor specific to the Hebrew Bible that managed to get solidly rooted in the English language; a quick look through my dictionaries suggests English is unique in that respect—staff of life is defined by phrases that translate to ‘most important foodstuff,’ ‘support of life,’ and the like. (The Hebrew word mateh, incidentally, now [also] means ‘military staff’: mateh ha-klali ‘General Staff.’)
I close with a quote from a letter by the 14-year-old Emily Dickinson (Thursday, September 26. 1845, to her friend Abiah Root):

I am going to learn to make bread tomorrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up mixing Flour, Milk, Saleratus &c with a deal of grace. I advise you if you dont know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.

Saleratus (sal aeratus ‘aerated salt’) was a nineteenth-century form of baking powder; the stress is on the penult (sal-uh-RATE-us).

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A couple of years ago I mentioned “teju cole, a temporary blog reporting on a visit home by a Nigerian long resident in the U.S.; it’s full of beauty, sadness, and keen observations on life in Nigeria and in general,” adding “I recommend it to your attention before it vanishes away at the end of the month.” Towards the end of the month I provided a few extended quotes in this post, and I figured that would be the end of it—anyone who didn’t catch it during its brief run was out of luck.
But Cassava Republic Press, based in Abuja, Nigeria, and aiming “to make quality contemporary literature available to the West African market at an affordable price,” has published Every Day is for the Thief, a novel based on the contents of the blog, and I’m here to report that it holds up excellently well in permanent form (with lovely photographs presumably by the author). The publisher says “His subtle and nuanced prose explores themes as diverse as the minor joys of daily Lagosian existence to the crudities of contemporary forms of corruption”; the Author’s Note says “What could possibly be said about this most complex of cities that could compete with the reality?… I have sought to capture a contemporary moment in the life of the city in which I grew up.” I love cities and descriptions of them, and I love good prose, and I relished this small, intense book more than I can say. (And it has an epigraph from the wonderful poet Maria Benet, whose book Mapmaker of Absences I celebrated here and whose poem “A Dish of Peaches in Cluj” was the occasion for what is still perhaps my favorite LH thread ever.) I don’t know if you can come by a copy of the novel outside of West Africa, but if you make the effort It’s available at; if you give it a try, you won’t regret it.

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On a day already full of shocks, like Mark Liberman’s leaving Language Log for the Science News section of the BBC and Anatoly Vorobei (actually Warraughby) turning to English-only blogging, I have an announcement of my own to make. I have decided that fighting spammers—I mean, online entrepreneurs—is taking too much of my time and energy, so I have decided to join them. Enough boring language trivia! Look for future posts to feature pharmaceutical enhancements, mortgage possibilities, and ways to make good money from your own home with only a modest investment. Tomorrow: a guest post by Mrs. Mariam Abacha, the widow of the late Gen. Sani Abacha, former Nigeria military head of state who died mysteriously as a result of cardiac arrest. Her family has been going through immense harassment including undue police restriction and molestation, and the family accounts have been frozen by the government for reasons that are rather vindictive. I know you’ll want to hear her story, and find out what you can do about it!