Archives for December 2012


I was thinking of posting one of my favorite winter poems, Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” (since it’s finally snowy and wintry around here), but you probably all know it already (and if you don’t, you can read it at the always readworthy wood s lot, where you will also find Klee’s “Angelus Novus” and Walter Benjamin’s famous meditation on it). Instead, I’m posting a poem by perhaps my favorite living poet, Richard Wilbur (from his 2000 collection Mayflies), which I found at the always readworthy Avva (Anatoly Vorobey’s blog, in Russian):

Crow’s Nests
That lofty stand of trees beyond the field,
Which in the storms of summer stood revealed
As a great fleet of galleons bound our way
Across a moiled expanse of tossing hay,
Full-rigged and swift, and to the topmost sail
Taking their fill and pleasure of the gale,
Now, in this leafless time, are ships no more,
Though it would not be hard to take them for
A roadstead full of naked mast and spar
In which we see now where the crow’s nests are.

(Also from Avva: a video of Wilbur reading the title poem from the book.)
And a happy new year to all.


Paul Postal, a former disciple of Noam Chomsky’s who used to go around viciously attacking non-Chomskyites, famously apostasized and now turns his rhetorical guns on the Master in an invigorating style not unlike that with which Trotsky assailed his former comrade in arms Lenin [er, either change “former” to “future” or “Lenin” to “Stalin”]. I give you his “Two Case Studies of Chomsky’s Play Acting at Linguistics“:

In his famous review of Skinner, Chomsky introduced the phrase ‘play acting at science’. This work, focusing on his talk of The A-over-A Principle and Recoverability argues in detail that that term precisely characterizes much of Chomsky’s own work in linguistics.

Even if you don’t care about the ins and outs of theoretical linguistics, it’s worth downloading the pdf available at that link in order to enjoy his vinegary blasts of character assassination. If, of course, you like that sort of thing.


Sam Taylor (translator of Laurent Binet’s HHhH) has a piece in the Financial Times that has some interesting if not terribly original things to say about translation; I want to reproduce one paragraph that I find odd:

Although translators often say they enjoy the inter­action with authors – as I enjoyed my email exchanges with Laurent Binet – I am ambivalent about the idea of authors being involved in the translation process. Perhaps this is because I have been on the other side of the equation. When I told my French editor I would like to read the translation of my second novel, The Amnesiac, at an early stage, she told me I ought simply to trust in her and the translator’s judgement. I think she was right. No matter how good their understanding of the target language, the author is generally too subjective – too focused on the idea of seeing their exact phrases reproduced in another language – to be able to judge the effect of the translation.

I’m sorry, but I can’t help but think a translator who doesn’t want to deal with the author is motivated more by fear of reproach than high-minded scruples.
Taylor goes on to say “There is also something else slightly troubling about the relationship between authors and translators. It can, I suppose, be reduced almost to a hierarchical relationship: the author is primary, the translator secondary.” Well, yeah. Why is that troubling? If you want to be primary, write a book.


I’ve started Moscow, 1937 by Karl Schlögel, a book I’m enjoying every bit as much as I’d anticipated—it’s just the kind of blend of literary, cultural, and political history, with constant references to geography (and a nice annotated map of Moscow on the endpapers), that I love. It opens with a bird’s-eye conspectus of the city in a chapter called “Navigation: Margarita’s Flight” (from the novel I posted about here), which leads to a discussion of “Bulgakov’s Moscow,” in the course of which Schlögel mentions “N. Piashnin’s apartment in Savelevskii pereulok 12, the meeting place of the literary Moscow of the end of the 1920s.” Well, I’m extremely interested in the literary Moscow of the 1920s, so of course I wanted to know who this N. Piashnin was. Unfortunately, Google could find no trace of any Piashnin or Pyashnin, and I didn’t have any better luck with Пяшнин. Fortunately, it occurred to me that this “sh” might be a Germanized version of Russian ж, normally rendered in English by “zh” (see this cri de coeur from the very first week of LH), and with a little detective work I turned up this page on Bulgakov from Москва энциклопедия (clearly Schlögel’s source), which says “на квартире Н.Н. Пяжнина (так называемые пяжнинские чтения, куда съезжалась вся литературная Москва 20—30-х гг.; Савельевский переулок, 12)” [in the apartment of N. N. Pyazhnin (the so-called Pyazhnin readings, which all literary Moscow of the ’20s-’30s attended; Savelevsky pereulok, 12)]. But there is no other record of this “N. N. Pyazhnin”! In fact, if you google the surname you get “Your search – Пяжнин – did not match any documents.” So I turn to the Varied Reader: does anybody happen to know what literary figure is being referred to here? Or is this a Russian Mountweazel?
Update. OK, I think I’ve solved part of the puzzle. It turns out that Bulgakov’s close friend N. N. Lyamin (Булгаковская Энциклопедия entry for Лямин Николай Николаевич) lived at Savelevskii pereulok 12 with his wife Natalia Ushakova. The nonexistent name “Pyazhnin” is clearly a distortion of Lyamin. But how and why did the distortion creep in? At any rate, it just goes to show you can’t trust any information without double-checking it.
Addendum. Just came across another name so badly mangled I feel I should note it here for the benefit of other readers of the book: on page 148, the nonexistent “Nina Neshkina” is actually Militsa Nechkina, a historian prominent enough to have her own Wikipedia page.
Update. The excellent Arthénice posted about this, and the discussion is well worth reading; commenter labas writes that although Lyamin existed, “ни понятия ‘ляминские чтения’ (одно упоминание в книге 1993 г.), ни съезда на них ‘всей литературной Москвы’, насколько я могу судить, не существовало” [there don’t seem to have been any “Lyamin readings” (there’s one mention in a 1993 book) nor did “all literary Moscow” go to them, as far as I can judge], and crivelli links to this interesting article about Lyamin’s widow and her memories of Bulgakov (in Russian, of course).


I’ve written about “the whole nine yards” more than once as new evidence has emerged; the last time was back in 2009. Now a startling new development has thrown the number of yards into question and antedated the phrase by decades, to 1912. To quote Jennifer Schuessler’s NY Times story:

The recent discovery of several instances of “the whole six yards” in newspapers from the 1910s — four decades before the earliest known references to “the whole nine yards” — opens a new window onto “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” said Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who announced the findings in next month’s issue of The Yale Alumni Magazine.
Other language experts agree about the import of the discovery. “The phrase is interesting because it’s so mysterious,” said Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of Visual and, who has written previously on the search for its origin. “It’s been a kind of Holy Grail.”

See Schuessler’s story for details; I like very much the final quote from Shapiro: “People are drawn to colorful etymologies. But they are almost always wrong.”


I don’t know if there ever was such a thing as a “said book” listing innumerable substitutes for the simple and useful verb “said,” but that concept is the basis of the term “said-bookism,” known to most professional writers as something to avoid as a sure sign of amateurism. You can get examples and explanations many places, e.g. here and (in inimitable TV Tropes style) here; google the term for more. I’m posting about them because I’ve finally gotten irritated beyond endurance by an (otherwise excellent) book I’m reading, Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation by Donald J. Raleigh. Raleigh has interviewed a bunch of Russians who graduated from high school in 1967 (a year before me)—specifically, from the well-known Moscow School #20 (now 1239) and Saratov School #42, both elite institutions focused on teaching English and full of nomenklatura kids—and the information presented is riveting, to me at least; I’m getting a real sense of what it was like to grow up and go to school for my coevals in a country I’ve always been fascinated with.
But the writing! Raleigh has the expected academic sins of plodding prose enlivened by occasional attempts at slang or wit, but what really gets my goat are the said-bookisms; I’ve never seen so many collected in one place before, and they’re almost all wretchedly misused. I wouldn’t mind an occasional “exclaimed” or “complained,” but these are so awful you wonder whether he understands the meaning of the verbs. Let’s take “quipped”: “As Sofiya Vinogradova quipped, ‘Children with grandparents had a better childhood than those without.'” “Repeating a popular saying, Father Valentin quipped, ‘There are no atheists in the trenches.'” “The majority of members of the B class (BESHnik/beshniki), however, called attention to the distinction between the two groups [children of the Party elite and others]. As Irina Tsurkan quipped, ‘It’s probably the children of the Party officials who claim there was no difference.'” “‘It was never interesting there,’ quipped Tatyana Artyomova, ‘because the other kids were strangers.'” The mind boggles. Of course, there are normal, merely awkward and pointless said-bookisms like “‘If I see in a store evaporated milk made in Verkhovie, I buy it,’ stated Starik.” But the verb that infuriated me enough to post comes at the end of this paragraph:

But the elite schools did not prepare the interviewees for the oppressive politicization of college-level instruction that Anna Lyovina called “awful.” Going against the current [most students wanted to switch from night to day classes], she switched from the daytime to the evening division of Moscow’s IFL. “I did so after my freshman year. I thought I’d go out of my mind, because of the History of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union], History of the CPSU, and History of the CPSU. It was torture. I couldn’t stand it. Then there was Military Science. There was far less of it in the evening division,” she said. Yet even there, “they constantly tried to indoctrinate us, ‘You are translators on the ideological front. You will interact with foreigners and you have to be careful, you have to be grounded.’” An old Bolshevik who taught Party history regaled her charges about how she carried out collectivization. As a child, however, Lyovina had been exposed to a counternarrative: “My dear nanny would tell me that all of her relatives from Tambov province, hard-working peasants who fed Russia, were exiled to Siberia. I couldn’t happily reply, Hoorah! Collectivization!” rationalized Anna.

“Rationalized Anna”?! All I can say is: what


I’m pretty beat—we had the family over here this year, and what with two young boys and a dog (a very well-behaved dog, mind you) and gallons of Norwegian meatballs and potatoes and cabbages and beer (and a little Linie) and the opening of presents and playing of games, I’m about ready to pack it in, so I’ll just list the books I’ve received that may be of interest to LH readers:
Shamanic Worlds: Rituals and Lore of Siberia and Central Asia by Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer
The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes
Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts by David C. Engerman
Moscow, 1937 by Karl Schlögel
The Look of Russian Literature: Avant-Garde Visual Experiments, 1900-1930 by Gerald Janecek
Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation by Donald J. Raleigh
It’ll take me a while to work through them all, but I’m looking forward to it. The very best holiday wishes to all LH readers!


My brother sent me this Guardian link:

Authors choose their favourite short stories
For the next two weeks over the festive period we will be running a short story podcast each day. Our contributing authors introduce the stories they have chosen to read

From Zadie Smith on Giuseppe Pontiggia to Will Self on Jorge Luis Borges, the selections and descriptions are interesting even if you’re not a podcast person, and (as I told my brother) it’s worth it just for the chance to read “The Story of My Dovecote” by Isaac Babel (chosen by Nathan Englander; the Russian text is here, for those who read Russian). It’s not exactly cheery holiday fare—in fact, it’s grim as death—but boy, is it one hell of a story. And I look forward to checking out some of the others. Thanks, Eric!


Having enjoyed A Russian Gil Blas so much, I’m reading Narezhny’s other best-known work, Бурсак (Bursak, ‘the seminary student’; for more on bursa ‘seminary’—not ‘stock market’!—see this post). For the first half I wasn’t sure why it was one of the young Dostoevsky’s favorite novels, but now that the titular seminary student, Neon (virtually all Narezhny’s characters have what seem today ludicrous pseudo-classical names), has become a warrior in the service of the hetman, fighting for his native Ukraine and getting into complicated moral situations, I’m starting to get a sense of what attracted him. (One thing I don’t understand is when the action is supposed to be taking place; the only date that’s given suggests the end of the seventeenth century, as does the siting of the hetman’s capital at Baturin, but it is repeatedly stated that the Ukrainians are fighting to free themselves from the Poles and put themselves under the protective wing of Moscow, which implies the uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in midcentury. But I suppose one can’t expect historical accuracy from what is essentially a Boy’s Own adventure.)
At any rate, in Part Three, when Neon becomes a valued commander and begins to learn the secrets of his own origin, his father-in-law says that a nasty fellow named Varipsav (“Dog-cooker,” speaking of literary names) had been publicizing shameful things about his family, “и думаю, что если бы в городах наших, по примеру польских, устроены были книгопечатни, то стыд моего дома он распространил бы по всей Малороссии” [‘and I think that if printing presses had been built in our cities on the Polish example, he would have spread the shame of my household over all Ukraine’]. That’s one aspect of print technology that hadn’t occurred to me.


Once again, a publication that hides most of its material behind a paywall has kindly left accessible to one and all an article I want to share: in this case, Colin Burrow’s LRB review of Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature, by Alastair Fowler. Here’s the start:

James Bond was a well-known ornithologist. His Birds of the West Indies is an unusually rich source of names. According to Bond, the Sooty Tern is also known as the Egg Bird; Booby; Bubí; Hurricane Bird; Gaviota Oscura; Gaviota Monja; Oiseau Fou; Touaou. But when the keen birdwatcher Ian Fleming needed a name that sounded as ordinary as possible, he had to look no further than the title page of Bond’s great work. Why does the name of an actual ornithologist sound so right as the name of a fictional spy? Why couldn’t Fleming have used another pair of common monosyllables – John Clark, say? Bond is a solid, blue-chip, faith-giving kind of a name. Who wouldn’t prefer a government Bond under their mattress (we’re talking AAA British) to a petty clerk? Is your word your clerk? I don’t think so. Bond. It’s in the name.

And here’s a bit on Jane Austen:

Jane Austen favoured names which give almost nothing away about status or nature (Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse), but she could in some circumstances use names which suggest meaning: the wild Marianne Dashwood is an early example of a flighty heroine lost in a moral forest, and Mr Knightley, well, he’s not going to be a cad, is he? The fact that Austen called the knightly Knightley ‘Knightley’ suggests the way the choice of a name can follow from the particular nature of a specific work, and may also feed back into a larger literary design. The point of the one-off over-explicit name is that Knightley’s knightliness is utterly obvious to the reader every time his name is mentioned, but it passes Emma by. That was a strong enough reason for Austen to break one of her unwritten rules about naming.

How can you resist a reviewer who finds a way to work “knightly Knightley ‘Knightley’” into a review? The book sounds like an enjoyable (if dense) read itself, with the proviso that Fowler is one of those innumerate people easily led astray by coincidences, a folly which Burrow spends the last half of the review exploding—the particular species of folly in this case being an over-ready acceptance of the idea of hidden anagrams (compare Saussure’s similar succumbing to wacky ideas): “Fowler […] cites with approbation an article by Roy Winnick (‘now I cry ink’) which he says ‘startled the scholarly world’ by revealing anagrams which spell out the name WRIOTHESLEY buried throughout Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” I should add that my title is borrowed from Burrow: “I part company with Fowler when he gets on to anagrams and hidden names, perhaps because the best anagram of my own name is ‘I, lowborn cur’.”