Archives for December 2008


It’s very strange: I’ve been reading and memorizing great swatches of Mandelstam (I’m working on “Tristia” now), and just last night I was thinking that perhaps he was the greatest poet of the twentieth century; today I ran across an essay “Collecting Mandelstam” (pdf, Google cache) by R. Eden Martin (in the Caxtonian, November 2006) that makes the same suggestion:

Who was the greatest poet writing in any western language during the 20th Century? Many would answer: Osip Mandelstam…

Russia produced many excellent poets during the past century. Cab drivers in Petersburg regularly quote Pushkin at length. The very best Russian poets of the 20th Century would certainly include Akhmatova, Blok, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva—and one could make a case for dozens of others. I believe that many of these Russian poets were greater artists than any poet writing in America at the time, including Frost and Stevens. And some experts in a position to make such judgments believe that Mandelstam was the greatest of them all.

You needn’t agree with such an extravagant claim, however, to enjoy Martin’s essay, which provides a handy summary of the poet’s life and—since he is a book collector—includes photographs of some rare editions and (perhaps my favorite) an enticing one of a complete run of Apollon magazine (“the greatest Russian literary and arts journal of the pre-War era”), 1909-1917, as well as the title page of the August 1910 issue that included Mandelstam’s first published poems. I’ve just sent off for Clarence Brown’s 1978 biography Mandelstam; I’ll have to take Omry Ronen’s widely praised An Аpproach to Mandelstam (Jerusalem, 1983) out of the library, since it doesn’t seem to be available for love or money.

Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of Russian literature, I also ran across a blog I’m surprised I haven’t seen before, Lizok’s Bookshelf, written by Lisa Hayden Espenschade, who says “I’m a writer and Russian tutor/teacher who loves reading fiction, particularly Russian novels,” and has very informative notes on Russian books she’s read or that have won prizes. Definitely worth a bookmark.

Oh, and happy new year! May 2009 be better for all of us.


Ben Zimmer has a Slate article about the use of “X Czar” to mean “official in charge of dealing with X” (“drug czar,” “energy czar,” etc.). There’s all sorts of interesting history in there, but what grabbed me was this:

Czar first entered English back in the mid-16th century, soon after Baron Sigismund von Herberstein used the word in a Latin book published in 1549. The more correct romanization, tsar, became the standard spelling in the late 19th century, but by that time czar had caught on in popular usage, emerging as a handy label for anyone with tyrannical tendencies.

As it happens, Herberstein’s book, Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, is online (you can find versions in other languages linked from the end of the Wikipedia article), and sure enough, he writes “Czar Rhutenica lingua regem significat” [‘in the Ruthenian language czar means king’; the entire paragraph is below the cut].
The question is: why on earth did he choose such an odd spelling? (Incidentally, there’s an amusing dispute about the proper rendition of the word at Latin Vicipaedia.) Any ideas?

[Read more…]


A simple idea, well executed:

Forvo is the place where you´ll find words pronounced in their original languages. Ever wondered how a word is pronounced? Ask for that word or name, and another user will pronounce it for you. You can also help others recording your pronunciations in your own language.

When I visited, the “Language of the day” was Slovenian, and one of the “Top pronunciations” was Ljubljana; I clicked on the little triangular symbol and heard “ingridzb (Female from Slovenia)” say it. Addictive and educational. (They’re coy about what “forvo” means, but apparently it’s something close to “FOR-VOcalization.”) Thanks, Kári!


Dan Visel (of The Institute for the Future of the Book, and I can’t help but wonder how Visel is pronounced: VYE-z’l? vi-ZELL?) has put online a long, fascinating, infuriating interview with that amazing writer Helen DeWitt, who should by rights have had a dozen or two books published by now but who instead has seen The Last Samurai on actual bookstore shelves and has sold a few pdf copies of Your Name Here (and gotten a review by Jenny Turner in the LRB). The whole thing is worth reading (and I don’t say that just because she has nice things to say about me), but what I thought I’d excerpt here is a section full of thought-provoking ideas about books and what they might be:

When Ilya and I were working on YNH, one thing that interested me was the way that a text is the result of all sorts of discussions and constraints that normally aren’t visible. Every single published book is governed by a contract, a text readers don’t see, and it is generally the result of an enormous amount of scurrying around behind the scenes. So I thought: how can we possibly assess the texts we see when we don’t know the contractual restraints on the author? when we don’t know whether the publisher was willing to respect the contract? when we don’t know whether the author had a powerful agent or a weak one, whether the published book was substantially what the author wanted or the result of a lot of arm-twisting off-stage? Editorial comments are never made public; why not?
So I thought, not that all this material should be included in a book, but that it would be interesting if all the background correspondence and the contracts and so on where available on a CD. For that matter, why not include earlier versions of the book, or at least significant earlier versions?
I like books, actual printed books, a lot. It seems to me, though, that the culture which produces the ones we see has some misplaced anxieties. We live in a culture where standards of ‘correctness’ and consistency are applied to the printed word, so that ‘properly’ published books are expected to eliminate the traces of composition. A text is not supposed to bear the marks of the circumstances of its writing. That seems to me to be an unnecessary concern – but you don’t really need the Internet to stop fretting about it.
There are some things you can do more easily if you can draw on the resources of Hypertext. You can write a text in several languages unselfconsciously, or maybe I mean, without obtrusive consciousness of the reader. You can just have a couple of characters speaking Spanish, or Arabic, or Japanese, and readers who can read the languages can read the text, but those who can’t can click through to a translation. So you can make use of the textures of those different languages without giving the primary text a lot of extra baggage – and still make it comprehensible to readers who need more in the way of explanation. This isn’t especially relevant to YNH, but it’s the sort of thing I think could more easily be done online or in an e-book than in print-on-paper. I came across a wonderful website a while back with graphics which enabled you to drill down on results of Grand Prix racers, if one did this in a work of fiction online one could have something very stylish whereas if one tried to do it in a book it would feel not just long but cumbersome and messy.

Why not package books the way Criterion does DVDs, with alternate takes and translations and commentary from the author and informed readers and… well, who knows what all? Why is a book expected to stand on its own (unless it’s a Classic, in which case it gets a solemn Classic Edition with obtrusive footnotes), while a movie is thought to benefit from as much auxiliary information as possible?
I won’t even get into what she has to say about the hell that is commercial publishing, with its ignorant editors and unkept promises, and the terrible financial pressure that makes writers stifle current work they’re excited about to try and sell long-finished work they’re bored or nauseated by, because it gets me too upset. Why do zillionaires give zillions to museums and operas and never think of, as she says, sponsoring an admired writer’s travel expenses or offering them six months’ writing time at a vacation home? If I were a zillionaire, that’s the kind of thing I’d want to do… but of course to become a zillionaire I’d have to care about money and the making of same in large quantities, and then I’d be a different person and probably never think about the problems of writers. It’s a conundrum.


A letter from Charles Ellwood Jones (head librarian at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World) in the October 23 issue of the NYRB contains the following enticing information:

Indeed, the Oriental Institute has taken the bold and laudable decision to make all the published products of its research programs accessible without charge. A convenient list of the more than one hundred volumes of scholarship currently accessible can be found at Much of it documents the intellectual and material remains of the people who inhabited Iraq in the past.

Here‘s the actual catalog; click on the categories to get the lists of publications. I hope this generous policy is imitated by more institutions. An informed public is a public that is likely to purchase scholarly publications.


I’m still digesting filet mignon and Yorkshire pudding and asparagus (all washed down with pinot noir), but before I collapse completely I thought I’d give a brief report on some of the goodies I got. Pride of place goes to the magnificent Criterion edition of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (based on the 1929 Döblin novel, of which I have a beat-up and much-annotated copy); I saw the whole 15½-hour series when MOMA did a retrospective in 1997, and ever since I’ve longed to own it so I could watch it at my leisure, novel and maps at my side. Then there are Kate Brown’s A Biography of No Place, about the dreadful 20th-century fate of a borderland between Russia and Poland that’s been ethnic-cleansed and homogenized to within an inch of its life, and David Garrioch’s The Making of Revolutionary Paris, about the history of 18th-century Paris (a city in whose history I have an inordinate interest), and the winter boots, and the slack-key guitar CDs, and various other goodies. A thousand thanks to those who made this a memorable day: you know who you are!


Even as I type, my wife is cooking up a huge batch of Norwegian meatballs for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and one of the accompaniments (along with akvavit) is lingonberries. Well, I wanted to know how to say “lingonberry” in Russian (because I want to know how to say everything in Russian), and my dictionaries weren’t helping me; fortunately, Wikipedia came to my rescue, and I learned that the word I was looking for was брусника [brusnika]. This is not defined as “lingonberry” in my trusty Oxford, but as “foxberry; red whortleberry (Vaccinium vitis idaea)”; as a matter of fact, the Wikipedia entry isn’t called “lingonberry” but “Vaccinium vitis-idaea,” and it opens with this remarkable list of alternatives: “often called lingonberry also called cowberry, foxberry, mountain cranberry, csejka berry, red whortleberry, lowbush cranberry, mountain bilberry, partridgeberry (in Newfoundland and Cape Breton), and redberry (in Labrador).” And the OED qualifies “lingonberry” as Canadian, which seems odd since none of us who use it here in my extended family (in the States) think of it as Canadian. (Incidentally, the OED’s first cite for the word is 1960 J. J. ROWLANDS Spindrift 156 “In Sweden the cranberry is known as the lingonberry,” and the most recent is 1971 D. NABOKOV tr. Nabokov’s Glory (1972) vi. 24 “Supper at the station (hazel hen with lingonberry sauce).”)
So I have two questions for you all. If you are familiar with this tasty little berry, what name do you know it by? And if you call it “lingonberry,” do you think of that word as Canadian?


I’ve written about Karl Kraus here and here; Adam Kirsch’s NYRB review of The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, by Paul Reitter, discusses Kraus’s more wild-eyed ideas (he apparently seriously thought journalists were more responsible for war than anyone else, and he said things about Jews and Jewish influence that have kept the label “self-hating Jew” attached to him for a century now), but leads into the more distressing stuff by talking about his more likable (if still wild-eyed) fixation on language. He attributed to misprints the same sort of significance that his nemesis Freud gave to slips of the tongue:

In 1912, for instance, he published an item titled “I Believe in the Printer’s Gremlin,” which reproduced a provincial newspaper’s announcement of a performance of “King Lehar, a tragedy in five acts by W. Shakespeare.”
To Kraus, who revered Shakespeare, the conflation of Lear with Franz Lehar, the operetta composer he regarded as the acme of kitsch, was “no laughing matter. It’s horrible,” he wrote in his gloss on the item. As with a Freudian slip, precisely the fact that the mistake was accidental is what makes it significant: “The printer was not trying to make a joke. The word that he was not supposed to set, the association that got into his work, is the measure of our time. By their misprints shall ye know them.” No wonder Kraus proofread each page of Die Fackel [the magazine he wrote and published from 1899 until his death ini 1936] up to a dozen times, not just insisting on correct spelling but making sure that every comma appeared exactly halfway between the adjoining letters.

I laugh, but I’m also glad I don’t have to set type for this blog, because I’d probably be almost as obsessive about the commas.


This is old news, and anyone who’s plugged in to the world of contemporary poetry doubtless knows about it, but it was new to me when the Growler told me about it, and I’m sure it will be new (and hopefully amusing) to many of you: at the start of October there was an announcement of a new online publication, Issue 1, “edited by Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter. Now available here as a 3,785-page PDF (3.9 MB). This issue features new poems by Nada Gordon, Evelyn Reilly, Julianna Mundim … [hundreds of names elided] … and Snezana Zabic.” The thing is, the poems aren’t actually by those people, and as word spread (more or less instantaneously, as is the wont of the internet age), many of them left outraged comments at the announcement site (as you’ll see if you scroll down). There’s a good discussion in a Nation article by Barry Schwabsky, one of the poets “represented”:

What first caught my eye was that I couldn’t recall ever having submitted my work to its editors. And when—thank goodness for that “find” function—I saw page 2,039, I knew why: “my” poem was one I’d never written. Neither had any of the other thousands of authors written theirs. The anthology’s “editors,” Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter, using a computer program of Carpenter’s devising, were responsible for its entire contents—and thereby for the most provocative hoax to hit the poetry world since the Araki Yasusada scandal in the early ’90s. …
I rather liked “my” poem, not as a poem in my own style, naturally, because it isn’t, but as an example of one particular present-day period style. But neither I nor anyone else has read the whole book, so none of us can come to grips with the totality of the oeuvre. Random dips into it also turn up some pretty boring pages—still in the same style—but then the same is sure to be true of any fairly prolific poet. …
…That a computer can generate better poetry than some poets can write should not be shocking. Remember Kleist’s great essay on the marionette theater, where his interlocutor proves to him that a puppet has the potential to be made to dance more gracefully than any human, because “grace will be most purely present in the human frame that has either no consciousness or an infinite amount of it, which is to say either in a marionette or in a god.” There’s a glimmer in Issue 1 of what poetry written without consciousness might be—but just a glimmer, luckily, because were it entirely so, we flesh-and-blood poets might not stand a chance any more than the chess players do. For now, it’s a good reminder that we really ought to try and write better than a computer, while we still can.

And some of the other “victims” had what I consider healthy reactions; F. James Hartnell wrote: “A splendid spoof. Well done indeed. Can’t believe that some people actually got annoyed. I was so honoured to read my own perfect gibberish.”


Roger Shuy at the Log has a post about the legal use of inure, which the OED defines as “To come into operation; to operate; to be operative; to take or have effect,” used in the context of something being for someone’s benefit:
1651 G. W. tr. Cowel’s Inst. 137 This Legacy shall inure not only to A. but to B. and his Heires also.
1879 PARKMAN La Salle 92 The results.. were to inure, not to the profit of the producers, but to the building of churches.
Shuy’s example is from the Montana Department of Revenue: “No part of the net income of a Montana tax-exempt organization can inure to the benefit of any private stockholder or individual.” As he points out, this is confusing to non-lawyers, since everybody else is familiar with it only in the context of getting used to something bad:
1781 COWPER Hope 7 The poor, inured to drudgery and distress.
Shuy says:

I challenged the use of inure in this letter, but the lawyers in the tax department strongly objected. I argued that these tax letters are replacing a word with one meaning that lay people know with a word that has another meaning known only to lawyers (probably) and accountants (possibly). But the lawyers informed me that inure is one of those magical words that is absolutely necessary for legal reasons.

The other usage that caught me by surprise recently is an odd use of the verb trespass. You might not think it’s a transitive verb, and if you accept that it could be used transitively you might think only laws and the like could be trespassed, but these days it’s said of people; the best explanation I’ve found is in Charles A. Sennewald’s Shoplifters Vs. Retailers (New Century Press, 2000):

Some stores will “trespass” a person caught shoplifting. … To be “trespassed” simply means the customer has become a “persona non grata,” a person not wanted.

I can’t say I care for it, but the English language doesn’t seek my approval before moving on. I’m not sure if this is used by lawyers or only by security personnel, and I also don’t know how far back it goes. It doesn’t seem to have reached the dictionaries yet.