Archives for August 2013


Thanks to Irina Mashinski’s Facebook page, I am able to pass on to you this ten-minute radio interview (in Russian) about the discovery of recordings of Pasternak reciting his verse (very impressively, in that good old-fashioned way that doesn’t try to pretend poetry is the same as prose). If you just want to hear the poet’s voice, here‘s a clip of him reading Август (August; link has original and translation en face), one of the Zhivago poems.
Also, a public service announcement for foreign learners of Russian: the e in Pasternak is pronounced like э (i.e., the preceding t is not palatalized). It was years before I learned this, so I figure it may come as news to others. (And the source of the name, пастернак ‘parsnip,’ is from Latin pastinaca, as of course is parsnip.)


I was listening to the beginning of Hector Berlioz’s supernally beautiful song “Le spectre de la rose” when a mad thought occurred to me: Berlioz was the Veltman of music, and Veltman was the Berlioz of literature. (See this old post for a similarly crazed insight about Emily Dickinson and George Herriman.) Start with their dates: Berlioz 1803–1869, Veltman 1800–1870. Meaningless coincidence in and of itself, of course, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Berlioz’s work and its reception: “Between 1830 and 1840, Berlioz wrote many of his most popular and enduring works…. After the 1830s, Berlioz found it increasingly difficult to achieve recognition for his music in France.” The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Veltman, and the dates of his most successful novels, Strannik (1831–32) and Koshchei the immortal (1833), correspond quite closely to those of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830) and Harold en Italie (1834), still the most often played of his works (and there was a time when I wished never to hear Symphonie fantastique again).
But all of that is trivia. Here’s the reason the comparison occurred to me: as W. J. Turner wrote in his pioneering Berlioz: The Man and His Work, “Berlioz never studied and could not play the pianoforte, so that from the beginning he thought in vocal and orchestral tone.” (Berlioz himself, in his wonderful memoirs, explained: “My father did not wish me to study the piano. Otherwise it is probable I should have become a redoubtable pianist like forty thousand others.”) This is why his orchestration is so brilliant and unique, and why it was so hard for critics of the day to understand his music. He simply was unlike everyone else. The same is true of Veltman—again, mutatis mutandis; he had no interest in Social Questions (the pianoforte of Russian literature), and a deep and abiding interest in all manner of ancient tribes, chronicles, and traditions and the obscure names and words that went along with them, which he scattered liberally throughout his works to the irritation and confusion of many readers and critics. And his manner of telling a story was sui generis: he would plunge into the middle of some odd situation, then jump to something else before you quite had your bearings, and you just had to try to hang on and trust that it would all come together eventually. If you gave him that trust, you were rewarded with the unique pleasures of works that weren’t nearly as difficult as they were cracked up to be, and the same is true of Berlioz. When I think of how long the great Les Troyens had to wait for a full performance, and of how its composer never got to hear it…
Of course, Berlioz’s reputation has recovered much better than Veltman’s, and there are two basic reasons: Berlioz was the greater artist, but more importantly, music, while not as universal a language as used to be claimed, is a hell of a lot more universal than Russian.


I’m reading my third Veltman novel (see previous posts on Strannik and Koshchei the Immortal), Svyatoslavich vrazhii pitomets: Diva vremyon krasnogo solntsa Vladimira [Svyatoslavich, the devil’s nurseling: Diva in the time of the red sun Vladimir], and he continues to be unlike any other novelist I’ve read: you never have any idea what he’s up to or where he’s going until he gets there. This one is set in the late tenth century and starts off with Svyatoslav going around convincing various peoples to pay tribute to him rather than to the Khazars (whose royalty and aristocracy had converted to Judaism in the 8th century); the Vyatichi agree enthusiastically, saying “We don’t want to pay the Jews по шлягу с рала [po shlyagu s rala]!” The phrase (in italics, presumably quoted from a chronicle) means ‘one шляг per рало,’ but since neither noun was familiar to me, this didn’t help me much. The second was looked up without difficulty, but it had an interesting etymology; ralo turns out to be an archaic word for ‘plow’ (replaced by плуг [plug], borrowed from Germanic) from a Proto-Slavic *ordlo, related to Greek άροτρον [arotron], Latin aratrum, Old Irish arathar, and Lithuanian arklas, among other words, all meaning ‘plow’ and all derived from the Proto-Indo-European verb *H2érH3ye- ‘to plow.’
The other noun was more of a struggle to track down; it turns out to be an older form of the word Vasmer lists under ше́ляг ше́лег [shelyag, sheleg], defined as ‘old coin worth 1/8 of a brass kopeck’ and borrowed (via Polish szeląg) from Middle High German schillinc ‘shilling.’ Vasmer’s forms are via Polish, that is; Veltman’s is an earlier borrowing that took the form шьлѧгъ, with a “soft yer,” a “reduced” i that disappeared when unstressed, giving шляг [shlyag]. It gave me a thrill when I figured it out.


I’m most of the way through Dennis Showalter’s Tannenberg: Clash of Empires 1914, one of those military history books that are way too detailed unless you happen to have an endless appetite for details on the topic, as I do. Furthermore, I’m familiar with the campaign entirely from the Russian point of view (first in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914), so it’s good to get the view from the other side of the front line. As I wrote jamessal, who gave me the book (thanks, Jim!), “he does a superb job of showing what it was like to be a front-line soldier at the start of the war and the many ways in which actual combat surprised men who had been well trained in peacetime; it reminds me of Keegan’s magnificent The Face of Battle.” But there is no perfection in this world, and on p. 284 Showalter irritated me with the following coy sentence: “Time and again the familiar Hamburg rallying cry, ‘Hummel, Hummel,’ and the equally familiar obscene response, served as password and countersign for men blinded by smoke and sweat.” Fortunately, the internet came to my rescue; according to this page, the reply is “Mors, Mors!”—”an abbreviation of either ‘klei di an’n mors!’ (go scratch your a**e! or ‘Klei mi an’n Mors’ (Kiss my a**e! ) (there appears to be some dispute over the exact phrase).” Anybody know anything about this (presumably dialect) word Mors?


Daniel Krieger has a wonderful piece at about Madeline Kripke, who has 20,000 books in her West Village apartment, most of them dictionaries:

Kripke, who is sixty-nine, grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi. As a child, she was solitary, and often retreated into her room where she would lose herself in books rather than play with her brother, who was always absorbed in thought (and later became a philosopher).
“I read and read and read and read and read,” she says. In fifth grade, her parents gave her a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and that changed everything. “It unlocked the world for me because I could read at any vocabulary level I wanted,” she says, and went on to negotiate more sophisticated titles, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and The Frogs by Aristophanes. She was diligent about learning words, and would enter all the new ones she came across daily in a notebook. Then she would review them, trying to commit them to memory.

The story of how she got into collecting (after years of copyediting and proofreading), and the amazing things she owns (she has a dozen “unrecorded” books, meaning there aren’t any other known copies), make this a fascinating read. Too bad there’s a typo at the very end (presumably it wasn’t Krieger who spelled jactitate “jacktitate”).


One of the many Latin tags floating around the Western world is Feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes: “I have done what I could; let those who can do more.” It seems to have been well known in Russia a century and more ago; Michael Shapiro of Language Lore has a post on it, citing Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Stanislavsky’s My Life in Art and going on to this interesting observation:

This interpolation of Latin material in an otherwise straightforward Russian discourse is clearly a cultural feature of Russian speech. It mimics and continues the pan-European practice of quoting Latin locutions in order to give one’s utterances a special punch, not necessarily connected with the aim of parading one’s erudition. In this respect, modern Russian resembles older forms of English learned discourse that have largely become extinct. There can even be an interesting interplay in Russian between Latin and Church Slavonic (the liturgical language of Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy), for example with reference to the Latin phrase vox clamantis in deserto ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, which derives from Isaiah 40.3 (“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”) via John 1:23 (“He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”). The Church Slavonic version is glas vopiiuscshego v pustyne (глас вопиющего в пустыне). The latter is much more frequent today, but someone speaking Russian can also recur to the Latin for extra paroemic force.

Now, according to Wikipedia the saying goes no farther back than Henry Baerlein’s 1908 translation of the Diwan of Abul ʿAla (page 7), but that (unsurprisingly) is far from true; Boswell quotes it on page 10 of his Account of Corsica (1768), calling it “a simple beautiful inscription on the front of Palazzo Tolomei at Siena” (and translating it “I’ve done my best; let abler men do more”). But what I found interesting is that Baerlein, in his dedication to E. J. Dillon, quotes it in connection with Russia:

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Remember Muireann Maguire’s Gothic anthology Red Spectres, which I reviewed back in April? Well, there’s an interview with her on the Voice of Russia radio program Russian BookWorld which I heartily recommend; their interviews are almost a half-hour long, which gives time to really explore a topic. Maguire knows her subject and has a gift for nifty summaries—she calls Gothic “a literature of transgression and distortion”—and Konstantin Boulich is a fine interviewer. Also, she mentions Lermontov’s story “Штосс” [Shtoss (the name of a card game)], which I’d never heard of and look forward to reading.
I should also mention that Russian BookWorld seems to be in trouble; the management of Voice of Russia is apparently thinking of shutting it down. That would be a shame. They’ve recently had shows on Tolstoy on War: Narrative Art and Historical Truth in War and Peace and Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov and An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman, and they’re currently doing a multipart series on New Russian Drama. Go to their website and check it out, and if you think it’s worth supporting, you could send an e-mail to the program editor Elena Rubinova ( ) and/or the host Konstantin Boulich ( ).


Adam Smyth’s LRB review of Mr Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age by Dror Wahrman starts with an excursus on the varied fates of printed matter:

Most printed texts lived very briefly, and then were gone for ever. About one in ten thousand 16th-century broadside ballads survives today. Where did printed pages go to die? Some were used for lining pie dishes; for lighting pipes; for wrapping vegetables at Bucklersbury Market, or drugs at the apothecary’s, or (according to Henry Fitzgeffrey) ‘to dry Tobacco in’. ‘Great Iulius Commentaries lies and rots,’ the poet and waterman John Taylor wrote, ‘as good for nothing but stoppe mustard pots.’ Sir William Cornwallis kept ‘pamphlets and lying-stories and two-penny poets’ in his privy, and many texts were ‘pressed into general service’, as Margaret Spufford put it in Small Books and Pleasant Histories (1981), as toilet paper. Books were pulled apart to serve in the binding and endpapers of later books, the pages of an unwanted Bible perhaps padding the spine of an unholy prose romance. A Booke of Common Prayer (1549) in Lambeth Palace Library has endpapers made from a broadside almanac of 1548; the Folger Shakespeare Library copy of The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng (1521), John Skelton’s great poem of drunkenness, survives only because it was used as waste paper for the binding of another book. To read an early modern book was to confront the broken, recycled material remains of former texts, and the effect is of a kind of memory or haunting: of a book remembering its origins. Thomas Nashe imagined his printed pages being used to wrap expensive slippers (‘velvet pantofles’), ‘so they be not … mangy at the toes, like an ape about the mouth’. As Leah Price showed recently in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, we can do many things to books other than read them.

This reminded me of the more pressing need for reuse during the terrible Petrograd winter of 1919; Viktor Shklovsky is writing (in his 1970 book of criticism and reminiscence Тетива [Bowstring]) about his friend and fellow literary theorist Boris Eikhenbaum:

Boris had two rooms. He lived in the small one, so he could be warmer; he would sit in front of the iron stove on the floor on top of a pile of books and read them, tearing pages out of them and pushing the rest into the stove. He was a very educated man with a superb knowledge of Russian poetry and periodicals. In those years he passed his library through fire.

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Gogol’s “Вий,” one of the four stories in his 1835 collection Mirgorod, is a piece of misogynist tripe; Nabokov is actually being (uncharacteristically) kind to it when he calls it “a gooseflesh story, not particularly effective.” The opening section, describing Kiev seminary life, is pretty much taken straight from Narezhny’s novel Бурсак (The seminary student—see this post); it goes on to a bunch of ooga-booga nonsense involving the protagonist Khoma being terrified in a church late at night, ultimately by the titular Vii, some sort of Ukrainian hobgoblin. But there’s one sequence that’s pure essence of Gogol, and I will translate it here (Russian below the cut). The local yokels are telling the protagonist about the antics of the witch whose corpse he’s supposed to be performing memorial rites for (she was the beloved daughter of the local landowner), and one of them brings up the late huntsman Mikita:

“Stop! I’ll tell him about the huntsman Mikita,” said Dorosh.
“I’ll tell him about Mikita,” replied the herdsman, “because he was kin to me.”
“I’ll tell him about Mikita,” said Spirid.
“Yes, let Spirid tell him!” cried the crowd.
Spirid began:
“You, philosopher-student Khoma, didn’t know Mikita. What a rare man he was! He used to know every dog like his own father. Mikola, who’s the huntsman now—he’s sitting two back from me—can’t hold a candle to him. He may know his job, but next to Mikita he’s trash, slops.”
“You’re telling it well!” said Dorosh, nodding approvingly.
Spirid continued, “He’d see a hare quicker than you can wipe snuff off your nose. He used to whistle: ‘Come on, Robber! come on, Speedy!’ and off he’d go on his horse at full gallop, and you couldn’t say who’d outrun who, him or the dogs. He’d down a quart of raw vodka like nothing. A terrific huntsman! But not long ago he started staring at the landowner’s daughter, couldn’t take his eyes off her. Whether he was really stuck on her or she bewitched him, I couldn’t say, but the fellow was a goner, he turned completely into a woman; he became the devil knows what; pfuh! it’s indecent even to say.
“Good!” said Dorosh.

The irrelevant details, the pleasure taken in storytelling for its own sake, the joyous insults—this is the seed from which Gogol’s later masterpieces will grow. And now you’ve read all you need to of the story.
Addendum. I may have been too hard on this story, being a jaded sexagenarian; for a useful counterpoint, see my extended quote from the Gogol expert Donald Fanger in the comment thread below.

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I recently learned of the untimely passing of Cherie Woodworth, a historian who was an internet friend and occasional LH commenter. She first wrote me in July 2008 about Tolstoy’s use of French and Russian in War and Peace, and we were soon in regular correspondence; I believe her first LH comments were the typically learned and helpful ones in this thread. She was a big fan of LH (I was chuffed when she wrote me “I used your observations on Tolstoy’s French just yesterday in class”); more importantly, she was a fine scholar and delightful person. The last exchange we had was about a paper she was writing on the historical difference between “timber” and “wood” (the former was the material you got from the trunks of large trees and was used for large building projects, while “wood” used to refer to branches and poles, material too small to be used as beams or sawed into planks, but because the North American colonists did not follow the wood husbandry practices of England, American English lost the distinction); she sent me a passage from her presentation on the topic that I will quote here as a sample of her way with facts and words, stamped with her personal touch:

Woodworth is not my name; it is one that I acquired, and it was inherited from generations back, from Hezekiah Woodworth, Elisha, Ezekiel, and Abigail Woodworth of 17th c. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. The name is a corruption (or variant spelling) of “woodward”—the guardian of the wood.

There were “Woodwards” who preserved the name—not the profession—here in New Haven colony. Woodward Ave. is named after that family.

But the name could be mistaken because, in colonial southern New England, the term “woodward” no longer had an active meaning. The American colonists were already using the forest differently—not “warding” it, protecting it and cultivating it, as a limited, but renewable, resource.

I’m sorry I never got a chance to meet her. There’s a moving reminiscence of her here; for more in memoriam links, see her Facebook page. My sincerest condolences go to her family and to everyone who knew and loved her.