Archives for August 2010


I’ve been slowly reading the January 14, 2010 issue of NYRB (very slowly—I keep it in my shoulder bag for emergency reading), and I’ve just gotten to a review that angered me enough to vent publicly. At the end of last year I posted about Vladislav Zubok’s Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia; toward the end of the NYRB issue I found a review of Zubok’s book by Michael Scammell, and it’s a kind of review I particularly dislike, the kind that attacks a book for not being the kind of book the reviewer wishes had been written.

Now, Scammell is no dummy; he translated The Defense and most of The Gift by Nabokov, and has written well-received biographies of Solzhenitsyn and Koestler. But he apparently loves the cliché narrative of late Soviet times (in which brave dissidents Fight the Power) so much that he can hardly bear to read anything different, even when he recognizes how groundbreaking and well researched and written it is. He eventually gets around to admitting that “Zubok is a reliable and prodigiously well-informed guide to the opinions, attitudes, and changing fortunes of loyal Soviet intellectuals… Zubok tells his story with a density of detail and complexity of analysis that is truly remarkable… His book is scholarly but also highly readable and accessible, and is rich in anecdotal material that enlivens the sociological analysis.” But first he bats Zubok around for his alleged omissions, and afterwards he bats him around for his ideologically incorrect orientation, and in general he clearly regrets that Zubok chose to write about the people he did; apparently Scammell is so wedded to the familiar stories of Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel that he would rather have seen yet another retelling (and he takes up much of his review with yet another retelling). It is as if he were reviewing W. Bruce Lincoln’s In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia’s Enlightened Bureaucrats, 1825-1861, a magisterial work on the bureaucrats who beavered away in government offices in St. Petersburg and elsewhere, laying the groundwork for the Great Reforms of the 1860s while the infinitely more famous dissidents like Herzen were thundering anathemas at tsarism from abroad, and complained that Lincoln was writing about such people instead of penning yet another paean to Herzen & Co. As I wrote in this thread, foreigners love to focus “on writers who got actively suppressed and weren’t able to publish their great work (Bulgakov, Platonov) rather than on those who managed to publish fine work under existing conditions,” and this is another example of the same prejudice.

Scammell annoys me in other ways as well. In his first paragraph he writes “If the classic nineteenth-century authors of Russia marked the golden age of Russian literature, and the modernists of the early twentieth, its silver age, the writers of the latter half of the twentieth century constitute a kind of bronze age,” perpetuating the mindless “Silver Age” terminology I complained about here and topping it with an absurd extension to a “bronze age,” as if the tale of Russian literature were one of foreordained degeneration (I guess twenty-first-century Russia is doomed to experience an iron age of literature). On page 54 he takes a gratuitous swipe at ’60s poets by calling their readings at the statue of Mayakovsky in downtown Moscow “a pale imitation of Mayakovsky’s own public readings,” just as though he’d been there a century ago and could compare for himself. (But hey, it’s bronze versus silver, right? Bronze has to lose.) And on the last page he counters Zubok’s “one may suspect that Russia needed its critical intelligentsia and its high culture only as long as it suffered from tyranny, misery, and backwardness” by citing “the brilliance of the modernist movement in Russia, starting with Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely, and continuing with the generation of Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Akhmatova”—as though the tsarist Russia those writers lived in were not a place of “tyranny, misery, and backwardness”!

No, it won’t do. If you disagree with Zubok, by all means say so, but don’t blame him for not writing a different book (especially since that book would have been a rehashing of familiar material), and spare me your false teleologies.


A post on asks a reasonable question that had never occurred to me: why is hemophilia called by a name that means ‘blood-loving’? Apparently it was first used in Friedrich Hopff’s 1828 article “Über die Haemophilie oder die erbliche Anlage zu tödlichen Blutungen” (On haemophila or the hereditary predisposition to lethal bleeding). There is an article by KM Brinkhous, “A Short History of Hemophilia, with Some Comments on the Word ‘Hemophilia,’” in Handbook of Hemophilia, Vol. 1, edited by KM Brinkhous and HC Hemker (American Elsevier, New York, 1975), for which Google Books has only the damnable snippet view; if anyone has access to it, it might shed some light.
Update. In the Wordorigins thread, Dr. Techie has discovered that a footnote on this page of Legg’s 1872 A Treatise On Haemophilia has a discussion of the word and its history, ending “The word is so barbarous and senseless that it is not wonderful that no one should be proud of it.”


I’m in the middle of E. E. Cummings’s EIMI, a sometimes too poetickal and occasionally wellnigh incomprehensible but withal lively (or Alive with Is, as Comrade Kem-min-kz might say) and well worth reading account of the author’s month (May-June 1931) in the still relatively new Soviet Union, newly admired by the Depression-struck West. Cummings went with a wary but open mind; what he saw there turned him into a conservative for the rest of his life. (There’s a Frank Bures review, with a couple of quotes, here, and a very useful set of annotations here.) At the moment I am inspired to post by a couple of inspired euphemisms encountered on successive pages.

On page 206, our hero is staggering back to his temporary home from a drunken party with his host and hostess, the American journalist Charles Malamuth (pseudonym’d by EEC “the Turk”) and his wife Joan (“the Turkess”), daughter of Jack London; the chapter ends thus:

  (“the”)at(“engineers have shaggy”)random(“ears”)misquote, upholding the who’s me upholding 1
  (“and p-“)1 starewiselying meward essays(“pi-“)his big eyes laugh helplessly(“pis-“)
  “Charlie!” she admonished
  (“stolsintheirbreeches”)he succeeded.

In other words, Malamuth’s amused but disapproving wife thinks (as he intends) that he’s about to launch into a well-known (at the time) WWI song: “The engineers have hairy ears,/ They piss without their britches [or “through leather britches”],/ They bang their cocks against the rocks,/ Those hardy sons of bitches”; he switches smoothly into the harmless mutation “and pistols in their britches.” (The tune, or a tune, is notated here, as “The Mountaineers,” by Vance Randolph, who provides many textual variants.)

On the next page and the next morning, the lathered Turk suggests that his hungover guest might “feel like perhaps dropping any soiled object into yonder socalled laundrybag”:

  “I cannot” almost tearfully “impose…”
  “you” busily “New Englanders are a very curious” sopping “folk. Folk you” he,beaming,said.

I’m really astonished that “Folk you” could be printed in New York City in 1933, even by a small publisher like Covici Friede (who had also, to be sure, printed The Well of Loneliness, so they did not shun controversy).

Incidentally, Pascal Covici was born in Romania, where I assume his surname was pronounced /ko’vič/ (koh-VEECH), but I assume that in his adopted America, it became koh-VEE-chee; anybody know? [thanks, MMcM!].

Addendum. On page 306, I’ve run into an even more startling use of obscenity, barely disguised: “Okay… there’s uh reel beerjoint eye know,thih beer’s suwell… nize un sudzy un beeg un cool… yunno—nut like this fuggin peevoh [Russian beer]!”


I can’t really make use of it myself, since my Dutch is nonexistent, but I can’t resist passing it along for those who can: the Oud Nederlandsch Scheldwoorden Archief (Old Dutch profanity archive). Thanks, peacay!


An interesting piece by Olivier Razemon in Le Monde about the correct/local ways to pronounce various French place names (it’s Luberon avec e comme dans “beurrer,” pas comme dans “bébé,” and Wissant (Pas-de-Calais) is “Uissant”, et non “Vissant”, encore moins “Ouissant”). Thanks, Paul!


Schott’s Vocab has a post today linking to this OED entry (draft revision Mar. 2009):

pig’s whisper, n.
Brit. /pɩgz wɩspə/, U.S. /pɩgz (h)wɩspər/ Forms: 17- pig’s whisper, 18 pigs-whisper. [< the genitive of PIG n. + WHISPER n.]
1. A very short space of time, an instant.
1780 J. O’KEEFFE Tony Lumpkin in Town I. 4 I’ll be with them in a pig’s whisper. 1837 DICKENS Pickwick Papers xxxi. 333 You’ll find yourself in bed, in something less than a pig’s whisper. […] 1918 P. B. KYNE Valley of Giants xxv. 218 ‘Thanks so much for the invitation’, Ogilvy murmured gratefully. ‘I’ll be down in a pig’s whisper’. 1991 R. COOVER Pinocchio in Venice xxi. 229 ‘Back in a crack, direttore!’ ‘In a pig’s whisper, direttore!’
2. A whisper; a confidential tone of voice.
1846 Swell’s Night Guide 110/1 Pig’s Whisper.., a word ‘twixt you and me. 1866 M. BANIM Peter of Castle 5 The eulogist may.. in what they call a pig’s whisper (that is, in a confidential tone).. [relate] a few anecdotes of his prowess. 1922 J. JOYCE Ulysses II. 484 Virag (Prompts into his ear in a pig’s whisper). 2001 Hindu (Nexis) 21 Jan., I heard Ata informing Mummy, in a pig’s whisper, that plagiarism, too, was actionable.

I had not been familiar with this wonderful phrase; are you? (Thanks, Bonnie!)


I have mentioned Marat Akchurin’s wonderful Red Odyssey: A Journey Through the Soviet Republics before, and I thought I’d quote this passage from his visit to Tajikistan in 1990, as the whole Soviet mess was in the process of falling apart; it resonates with the material I’ve been posting from Terry Martin’s book:

We tried to pay the counterman for the green tea that we had drunk, but he refused to take money, saying that he considered us to be his guests.
“If you had an opportunity to address Americans, what would you tell them?” I asked him.
“Americans?” he asked again in surprise. “Let them learn Tadzhik. It’s a very simple and beautiful language. Maybe they will make use of it one day!”
Safar and I went out and decided to go to the bookstore and then walk to my hotel.
“Is Tadzhik very different from Farsi?” I asked Safar. “Are they just dialects of one language?”
“Tadzhik is Persian-Farsi transliterated with Russian letters,” Safar replied. “But nothing good ever came of it. They took away the old alphabet and thus cut the Tadzhik people off from their ancient history and culture. This monstrously sly Bolshevik act did terrible damage to the national culture of the Tadzhik people. Why? Because letters are culture-producing for a Tadzhik. Can you imagine Pushkin writing in Russian but with Arabic ligatures? That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? But this nightmarish experiment was conducted in the U.S.S.R. on many peoples, Tadzhiks among them. I believe that it was a cunning policy.”

[Read more…]


James Somers has a good analysis of “it turns out,” beginning by saying that Paul Graham knows how to use the phrase: “He works it, gets mileage out of it, in a way that other writers don’t. That probably sounds like a compliment. But it turns out that ‘it turns out’ does the sort of work, for a writer, that a writer should be doing himself.” He goes on to explain convincingly what he’s talking about, concluding:

In other words, because “it turns out” is the sort of phrase you would use to convey, for example, something unexpected about a phenomenon you’ve studied extensively—as in the scientist saying “…but the E. coli turned out to be totally resistant”—or some buried fact that you have recently discovered on behalf of your readers—as when the Malcolm Gladwells of the world say “…and it turns out all these experts have something in common: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice”—readers are trained, slowly but surely, to be disarmed by it. They learn to trust the writers who use the phrase, in large part because they come to associate it with that feeling of the author’s own dispassionate surprise: “I, too, once believed X,” the author says, “but whaddya know, X turns out to be false.”
Readers are simply more willing to tolerate a lightspeed jump from belief X to belief Y if the writer himself (a) seems taken aback by it and (b) acts as if they had no say in the matter—as though the situation simply unfolded that way.

It turns out, though, that (as pointed out by a couple of commenters) Douglas Adams expressed the same thought in The Salmon of Doubt:

[Read more…]


Angus Trumble has a nice post at Paris Review Daily about the ombrellai (umbrella makers) of Piedmont, who spoke a jargon called Tarùsc:

According to local folklore, il Tarùsc was a very shy, small bad-tempered gnome who lived on the slopes of Mottarone and Motta Rossa. He was surly, difficult, and misanthropic. Nevertheless from him the ombrellai learned the art of making the shapeliest, lightest, most lissome and elegant umbrellas in all the world. And in the process Tarùsc taught the ombrellai how to speak his own strange tongue. […]

That was of course the unofficial story. In fact, the language called Tarùsc was documented in the seventies by the ethnographer P. E. Manni da Massino, just in the nick of time, before the last old men who still spoke it died out. His view was that Tarùsc drew upon five distinct sources: (1) Italian, that is to say the reasonably stable dialects of Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, and the southern cantons of Switzerland, and was therefore built, in turn, upon the ancient bedrock of (2) Latin; (3) German, that form of it that seeped across the Dolomites from southern Austria, and across the Swiss Alps from Bavaria; (4) French, thanks to the traditional alliances that regularly formed and re-formed in the same period between France and Savoy, and (5) Spanish, because of Philip II’s sixteenth-century annexation of the Duchy of Milan. […]

Manni never got as far as plotting any plausible grammar of Tarùsc. He made some progress with his old men, but they were inclined to be grumpy, suspicious, and maddeningly reluctant to share any expressions that related directly to the craft of umbrella-making, because obviously their commitment to trade secrecy outweighed any desire to preserve the language they must have known was on the verge of extinction.

All we have is a few stray words, a list of numbers, some cooking terminology, and names for a handful of farm animals and plants.

The post concludes with a list of such words, and G.L. at Johnson (whence I got the story) ends his own post with:

But as someone who has learned all the supposed source languages of Tarùsc except Italian, there are many words that seem to me to come from something else altogether. A doctor is sbrugnabäcâgn. Shoes are sciärbëtul. A priest is t’zurla. Wander over, read the article, and take a look at the list. Does anyone recognise where these are from? Does Tarùsc look similar to the other dialects of the region?

Good questions, and I too would welcome answers and suggestions.


Lisa Hayden Espenschade has provided a very useful resource at her blog Lizok’s Bookshelf: a list of a couple of dozen Russian-language sources of book reviews, including both individual bloggers and institutional sites. The second one on the list, В топку.ру (“Into the fire”), provides scathingly negative reviews of books that have often been critically praised, like Alexei Ivanov’s Золото бунта and Vladimir Sorokin’s День опричника; the first was favorably reviewed by the esteemed slawkenbergius, so I suspect the топку.ру reviewer of excessive bile, but I don’t really care, since the trashing is so enjoyable to read. (Apparently that site is exclusively for pans; the normal book discussions are at