Archives for October 2010


Alan Shaw sent me a link to this interview by Rebecca Gould with descendants of Titsian Tabidze, the great Georgian poet who fell victim to Stalin’s purges when he was only 42. That Wikipedia article and Gould’s introduction will give you a basic idea of the man’s life and fate; for a look at him in his prime, I’ll quote from Chukovsky’s Diary, 1901-1969, the entry for 27 August, 1933 (Chukovsky is visiting Yalta):

Tabidze, the tamada [toastmaster], sat at the head of the table; corpulent and lethargic, he was a born tamada. He immediately toasted Marya Borisovna [C’s wife] and me (and even mentioned my Shevchenko article and my book From Chekhov to Our Times).[…]
The tamada‘s toasts were very lofty in style: “Beauty has its obligations.” “Beauty will save the world.” “The holy family of Boris Pasternak, Boris Pilnyak, and Boris Bugaev” [the real name of Andrey Bely] (three writers who had visited Georgia).[…] Tabidze drank continually, and the toasts went on for three and a half hours. [. . .] Tabidze recited Blok, and the poems seemed to gain in beauty from his Georgian accent. Tabidze is a former symbolist in the Russo-Gallic vein, a vestige of that great poetic period, and his drunken poetic wails evoked the spirit of 1908-10. His face resembles Oscar Wilde’s when swollen with absinthe. For ten years now he’s been collecting material for a novel about Shamil.

My niggling linguistic question: why is his name ტიციან [titsian] in Georgian, and not ტიციანი [titsiani]? I thought final -i was pretty much de rigueur; the painter Titian is ტიციანი [titsiani], for example.


Stephen Crowe’s Wake In Progress is an ongoing project of illustrating Finnegans Wake. The style is deliberately varied (Mutt and Jute is, of course, a comic strip); I suggest you start at the start (i.e., bottom) and work your way up. He explains something about the project here and some more here, with entirely unnecessary self-deprecation—the guy’s good. I particularly love the prankquean, and this illustration of the allaphbed passage on page 18 could be a logo for Languagehat. I hope that his gorgeous illustrations will serve as an entry point for some readers into that endless (literally), maddening, all-encompassing, and joy(ce)ous text. (Via wood s lot.)


In this post I described the Brodsky symposium I attended earlier this month, and in a comment I particularly praised the contribution by Mikhail Gronas, an assistant professor in the Department of Russian Language and Literature at Dartmouth. Well, it turns out he’s a reader of LH, and he wrote me that for quite a while he had been meaning to send me a link to his article “Why Did Free Verse Catch on in the West, but not in Russia?” (pdf) in connection with this post. I’ve spent the last couple of days mostly reading the article instead of working, and I’m here to tell you that if you have any interest in either the titular question or the memorization of poetry (particularly in Russia), you should read it yourself. I’m going to provide some extended quotes from it below the cut, but first I’ll quote a comment from dale in the thread for that LH post that hits on Gronas’s main point:

If you’ve ever attempted to memorize long passages of genuinely free verse (with no regular metric rules, no syllable-counting, no rhyme schemes & no alliterative schemes to help bump your memory back on track) I think you’ll agree that memorization of poetry will tend to vary inversely (in a manner of speaking) with free verse.
Have Russians, I wonder, kept up the habit of memorization more than most of us have? When I have had American high school students memorize verse, it’s usually the first time they’ve ever been asked to do such a thing.

The answer to dale’s question is yes, yes they have, and Gronas goes into great detail about it. (I was also tickled to see that he cites an op-ed piece by Carol Muske-Dukes on the value of memorizing poetry that was the basis for this post from the early days of Languagehat.) And now to the quotes, which I hope will intrigue you enough to want to read more. First, a couple of passages that involve the central thesis:

When free verse started its triumphal progress through Europe, the leading Russian modernists did not lag far behind: Briusov, Blok, Kuzmin, and Khlebnikov tried their hand at it more or less simultaneously with comparable attempts in the West. Some of these attempts were undoubtedly successful. Thus, Mikhail Kuzmin’s free verse cycle Alexandrian Songs (1906) and Velemir Khlebnikov’s poem Zoo (1909) were among the most influential poetic texts of the period. The poems of Walt Whitman, frequently cited as one of the sources for French and European free verse, were translated and popularized in Russia by the most energetic, prolific, and widely read literary critic of the period, Korney Chukovsky — the best advocate Russian verslibrists could have hoped for. Thus, based on the close parallelism between Russian and European poetic histories and judging by the early successes of Russian free verse, one might well have expected that it would become the predominant mode of poetic diction in Russia, as it did in Europe and America.
* * *
Whereas the mnemonic use of poetry has been in continuous decline in the West, it was artificially propped up and sustained by the specific needs of both the totalitarian Soviet state itself and its population. Put simply, meters and rhymes and stanzas are mnemonic aids: when a society stops learning poetry by heart, phonic constraints are no longer needed, and that’s what happened in the West. In Soviet Russia, both the rulers and the ruled had reasons to continue memorizing, thus throwing a lifeline to rhymes and meters. I have intentionally formulated this idea to make it sound reductionist: and in fact I believe that the determining factors of cultural phenomena lie outside the culture itself, in the domain of the social uses of culture. In what follows I will try to flesh out and contextualize the causal connection between the mnemonic use of poetry and poetic form itself, and to sketch out some episodes in the history of poetry memorization in the West and in Russia.

But there is much more than a historical argument here. Gronas has an eye for a good story, as evidenced by this anecdote from footnote 7:

The importance of exact (verbatim) reproduction in the new mnemonic context, as opposed to the oral production that preceded it, may be illustrated by a novella about Dante included in Il Trecentonovelle, a collection of stories by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Franco Saccheti. In this (probably legendary) story, Dante encounters a smith who, while hammering on his anvil, sings to himself a poem of Dante’s as if he were performing a piece of folklore, “jumbling his [Dante’s] verses together, clipping them and adding to them.” The furious Dante, insulted by the lack of respect towards his text, rushes to the smith and throws his various tools into the street and then explains his behavior to the amazed victim of his fury: “‘You sing my book, but not as I have made it. I also have a trade, and you are spoiling it for me.’” Significantly, in the context of the present discussion, the story ends with the castigated smith taking up the singing of safer poems: “when he wished again to sing, he sang of Tristan and of Launcelot, but lef Dante alone” (quoted in Whitcomb 1903, 30). Tristan and Lancelot refer of course to popular romances with unstable texts, transmited through more traditional — and less stringent — oral channels.

And I find this passage quite moving:

Similarly, in the nonofficial culture, and especially under condition of forced mistrust and suspicion in the labor camps, knowing the same poems by heart could signal a cultural — and therefore social and psychological — affinity. Such a mnemonic recognition is described in Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoirs where she tells about meeting her son (future writer Vasily Aksyonov), from whom she had been separated since her arrest when he was a young child.

I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that very first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us. And I was so glad to be able to offer him an abundance of those things that he looked to me to supply.
“Now I understand what a mother is….you can recite your favorite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left off.”
        (Ginzburg 1981, 266—67)

What is described here is akin to Aristotelian anagnorisis — the recognition of long-lost relatives by secret signs.

One aspect of his argument is nicely summed up by the quote “the readers expect memorable poems, the poets expect (or hope) to be learned by heart.” And the article starts off with an epigraph by the wonderfully named Revolt Pimenov (1931-1990), a courageous mathematician and dissident who spent seven years in the Gulag, saying that he wants his writing “to be learned by heart, rather than read”; if you’re just going to be a leisured reader, “You might as well go and watch TV.”


The fascinating and appalling Confessions of a Used-Book Salesman, by Michael Savitz, tells what it’s like to “spend 80 hours a week trawling junk shops with a laser scanner”:

There is competition in the used book game because it is actually possible to make a living doing what I do. I see my adversaries packing their hauls into decent cars, sometimes with the help of family members. A good load of books found all of a sudden might be resalable for many hundreds of dollars. With diligence, someone working alone can make $1,000 per week; with a more insane commitment, or with the help of a wife or child, the business might yield more, especially once a sizable inventory has been built up.
If it’s possible to make a decent living selling books online, then why does it feel so shameful to do this work? I’m not the only one who feels this way; I see it in the mien of my fellow scanners as they whip out their PDAs next to the politely browsing normal customers. The sense that this is a dishonorable profession is confirmed by library book sales that tag their advertisements with “No electronic devices allowed,” though making this rule probably isn’t in the libraries’ financial interest. People scanning books sometimes get kicked out of thrift stores and retail shops as well, though this hasn’t happened to me yet.

On the one hand, to the extent these guys rescue books from the trash compactor and sell them to people who want to read them, they’re performing a valuable service. On the other, they’re incredibly annoying if you’re at the same sale; not only are they shoving you out of the way and keeping you from looking at books, they don’t even care about the books as such, just about whether they can make a buck off them. I don’t wish ill to befall them, but I’m glad they’re banned from some library sales. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


Simon Garfield has a nice piece in the Guardian Observer (extracted from his Just My Type: A Book about Fonts) on the history of typefaces and how they’re used; it starts with an appalling anecdote about a woman in New Zealand who was fired for sending an e-mail in ALL CAPS. (Spoiler: She appealed successfully for unfair dismissal.) If you like type, it’s a good read. Thanks for the link, AJP!


Victor Mair has a fascinating post at the Log about the Chinese character 和 (“harmony, peace”). It starts from the relatively uninteresting fact that it has been chosen “The Most ‘Chinese’ Chinese Character,” as the title of Josh Chin’s Wall Street Journal story has it, but Mair goes on to point out that it is used to write at least five other words or morphemes beyond the one in question, and that the Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese by Yuen Ren Chao and Lien Sheng Yang and the Gwoyeu Tsyrdean (Guoyu Cidian) give different sets of six pronunciations:

It is interesting that, on the Mainland, the language authorities have declared that the pronunciation hàn (“with, and”) no longer exists, and we cannot find it in even such unabridged dictionaries of record as Hanyu Da Zidian… and Hanyu Da Cidian…. Thus, on the Mainland, people do not understand me when I say the name of one of my favorite series in Taiwan, Shū hàn Rén 書和人 (Books and People), a set of books that I avidly devoured in Taiwan four decades ago, and can still today buy new volumes under the same title and with the same pronunciation.

Then he goes on to discuss the history of the character:

Even its graphic form is complicated by the fact that 和 is actually an early (probably more than a couple of thousand years old) simplified character. The original form — going all the way back to the oracle bone inscriptions 3,200 years ago — was 龢, with 22 strokes. On the left is a musical instrument, now called yuè, which depicts a mouth blowing over a row of windpipes — this is the semantophore, which conveys the notion of “harmony” or, perhaps more accurately, something like “consonance” (not of the verbal sort, but of the musical type), or just “having to do with a pleasant sound.” On the right was the phonophore, 禾 (“cereal crop, millet”), which functioned as the sound-bearing element. Later, people surely must have grown weary of writing all those strokes for the row of musical pipes and their openings at the top, and decided to dispense with them, leaving just the mouth that blew into the openings of the pipes. This (the mouth), somewhat surprisingly, got shifted to the right side of the character, hence the character was transformed from the cumbersome 龢 to the streamlined, but less explicit, 和. I say that the move of the mouth from the left to the right is rather unexpected, because usually characters with mouth radicals — of which there are roughly two thousand — have the mouth on the left side, where it began (top left) in the old form of 龢.

And for lagniappe he has an alternative candidate for the most “Chinese” Chinese character:

[Read more…]


My daughter-in-law very kindly told me about the sale held this week at the Clapp Memorial Library in Belchertown, a dozen or so miles southeast of here. For various reasons, today, the last day of the sale, was the first day it made sense for my wife and me to go, which seemed unfortunate at first (surely it would have been thoroughly combed over, and nothing would be left but junk), but when we got there we realized what a good thing it was that we’d waited, because it’s a huge sale, there were plenty of good things left (I could easily have spent several more hours there), and everything was half-price: a dollar for hardcovers, fifty cents for paperbacks. I spent the morning there and the afternoon entering my purchases into LibraryThing, and now I’m going to list them for those who might be interested; the whole lot cost me around $15 (my wife got a few things as well):
Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class by Michael Voslensky
Russian Syntax: Aspects of Modern Russian Syntax and Vocabulary by F. M. Borras (2nd ed. 1971)
Russian Composition and Conversation by C. R. Buxton
Grammaire comparée des langues slaves by Andre Vaillant (3 vols, 1950)
Geschichte der Sowjetliteratur by Gleb Struve
Geschichte der russischen Literatur by Adolf Stender-Petersen (2 vols, 1957)
Russkoe literaturnoe proiznoshenie by R. I. Avanesov (4th ed. 1968)
Izbrannye trudy [Selected works: essays on Russian language and literary style] by V. I. Chernyshev (2 vols, 1970)
Russkaya dialektologiya by Avanesov and Orlova (1964)
Na tikhom ozere [On a Quiet Lake: Stories] by Yuri Nagibin (1966)
Semeinaya khronika and Detskie gody Bagrova-vnuka by Sergei Aksakov
Vzmakh ruki: stikhi by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1962)
Versdichtung der russischen Symbolisten: Ein Lesebuch by Johannes Holthusen
Zhelezny potok by Alexander Serafimovich
Sochineniya [Works] by A. F. Pisemsky (3 vols)
I’m not crazy about Yevtushenko, but an early collection for a buck, why not? I think Sashura recommended the Serafimovich novel (The Iron Flood, a 1924 classic of proto-Socialist Realism), so I was glad to find a copy for fifty cents. I loved the Aksakov memoirs in translation (I wrote about him in this unpopular post) and was delighted to find his two best books in the original. Pisemsky was considered up there with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in his day, and D.S. Mirsky speaks very highly of him (“Pisemsky’s great narrative gift and exceptionally strong grip on reality make him one of the best Russian novelists”), so I was very pleased to find a three-volume Works. Nagibin is supposed to be a good writer. And of course I grabbed all those books on Slavic and Russian linguistics and literary history without hesitation.
Oddly, my alma mater also has a Clapp Library. I leave the collegiate jokes to your imagination.


A couple of years ago I posted about Edward Vajda’s discovery of the link between Ket (spoken in Siberia) and the Na-Dene languages of America. Now the Ottawa Citizen has a story on a new collection of articles by Vajda and other experts, describing one of Vajda’s insights:

Vajda, a linguistics professor at Western Washington University, told Canwest News Service in 2008 how years of research with the Ket culminated with a dramatic insight involving words associated with the canoe.
He found that the few remaining Ket speakers in Russia and the Dene, Gwich’in and other Athapaskan speakers in North America used almost identical words for canoe and such component parts as the prow and cross-piece.
“Finally, here was the beginning of a system that struck me as beyond the realm of chance,” Vajda wrote at the time. “At that moment, I think I realized how an archeologist must feel who peers inside a freshly opened Egyptian tomb and witnesses what no one has seen for thousands of years.”

It’s a good piece in general; as John Cowan, who sent it to me, says, “Big news! A language-based story in the [mass media] that gets all the facts right.”


Seven and a half years ago I posted about a remarkable literary magazine called Two Lines: “they present everything bilingually—completely in the case of poetry, usually only the first page in the original for prose.” I’m happy to say they’re still around, and the latest issue, Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, which the Center for the Art of Translation kindly sent me, is full of good things. Hands down the most exotic original language is Zapotec, represented by two Natalia Toledo poems, translated by Clare Sullivan not from Zapotec but from the author’s Spanish translations (also provided), “Cayache batee ladxidó’ guidxilayú” (Fire is reborn on the soil of the earth) and “Gurié xa’na’ ti ba’canda'” (Seated in the shadows). The highest-profile inclusion would be a tie between an excerpt from Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary and a brief piece by Roberto Bolaño, “La traducción es un yunque” (rendered by Natasha Wimmer, oddly, as “Translation Is a Testing Ground” rather than the literal and surely more evocative “Translation Is an Anvil”). There are two quirky tributes by one writer to another, Marcel Cohen‘s “Doxa” on Paul Celan (or rather Celan’s wristwatch) and an excerpt from Gennadi Aygi’s О да: свет Кафки (O Yes: Light of Kafka) on Kafka (or rather Kafka’s luminosity). Aygi (whom I wrote about here) is also represented by a poem, “Предзимний реквием” (Requiem Before Winter: In memory of Boris Pasternak), and “Несколько абзацев о поэзии” (A Few Notes on Poetry). The translation I most surprised myself by liking was Kurt Beals’ of Anja Utler’s “für daphne: geklagt” (for daphne: lamented); here are the first few lines in German, then English:

mir selbst: wie entstachelt! von ihm als: habe sich alles
gedreht bin: gewittert, gepirscht jetzt — ganz: der gehetzte
schweiß — schnell ich: durch äste, gestrüpp ihm entstürzen
die: fangen zu greifen an haken gepeitscht mir — schneller —
myself: as if dethorned! by him as: if it had all
turned now am: scented, am stalked — fully: quarry my
sweat — rush: through branches, through brushwood from him
they: light into grab hook whipping — swifter —

And there’s a whole section of Uyghur poetry (though the introduction is a bit over the top, and not everyone would agree that Mahmud al-Kashgari wrote in Uyghur), and more stuff from Russian (Andrey Dmitriev, Aleksandr Skidan, and Mikhail Shishkin), translations from Chinese, Spanish, Urdu, Persian… Well, you can see the list of authors, titles, and languages here. And the physical object is beautifully designed and typeset. I have my quibbles (the Soviet cigarettes in the Dmitriev story are Sever, not “Severok,” and why on earth are the Uyghur poems transliterated on pages 264 and 266 with every word capitalized [“Niz-wani-ta Turup Niz-wanika Yoklunmasar”]?), but they are only quibbles; this is a fine series, and I wish it every success.


I was recently flipping through a New Yorker when I was stopped in my tracks by an ad in Russian for a magazine called Snob, with a teaser in English: “Ask your Russian friends to read it to you.” I planned to investigate further but didn’t get around to it; I’m happy to say that Jamie Olson of The Flaxen Wave has posted about it, and here’s the nub of his report:

Well, according to its website, Snob is a magazine “for people who live in different countries, belong to different cultures, speak different languages, but think in Russian.” A couple of weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about the magazine with comments by Snob’s deputy editor in chief, Masha Gessen, who explained its global reach: “Russians living abroad have been rediscovering Russia … [They now feel] secure enough to go back to the culture that unites us.”
Its perceived Russian audience is cosmopolitan, and so are its competitors. Snob seeks to place itself on a par not with Russian newspapers or thick journals, but with “high-minded” Western magazines like Vanity Fair and—you guessed it—The New Yorker. With any luck, this means that some of the best Russian writing will find a new audience. Indeed, Snob hopes to provide readers with material that rewards them with “pleasure from the very process of reading.”

As I said in a comment at Jamie’s blog, “I’ve always liked Masha Gessen, and I hope the magazine does well.”