Archives for October 2016

Bottom’s Dream.

Edwin Turner writes:

Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Bottom’s Dream is finally available in English translation by John E. Woods. The book has been published by the Dalkey Archive.

It is enormous. […]

Look, I know that dwelling on a book’s size probably has nothing to do with literary criticism, but Bottom’s Dream poses something of a special case. As an article on Bottom’s Dream at The Wall Street Journal points out, Schmidt’s opus is 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. […]

The obvious easy reference point here is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which indeed Schmidt was actively following, both in form and style: competing columns, a fragmentary and elusive/allusive style, collage-like metacommentary, an etymological explosion—words as paint, text as meaning. Etc.

Turner has screenshots which will give you an idea of what the book is like, both externally (it’s enormous!) and on the inside. As I wrote on MetaFilter (where I learned about it):

Sounds really interesting, in the way that the Wake is interesting, but I still haven’t gotten very far into the Wake after decades of off-and-on trying, so I’m not about to tackle a book based on it that’s 1,496 pages long, contains over 1.3 million words, and weighs 13 pounds. But much respect to the translator, and to readers younger and gutsier than I who plunge into it!

Gilliver on Lexicography.

OUPBlog has an interview with OED editor Peter Gilliver that is short but enjoyable; here’s his answer to “How did you become interested in lexicography?”:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in language. Both my parents were language teachers, and the family was always discussing English words and usages. And I remember being fascinated by the first dictionary I ever looked at: it was a dictionary for schoolchildren, but it must have been an unusual one in that it was full of strange and intriguing words that a schoolboy was hardly likely to come across in his reading (chalazion is one that sticks in my mind). Later my interest in words found other outlets, like Scrabble and The Times crossword.

But these things are a long way from lexicography as such; and in fact it was only in 1987, when a friend — knowing that I ‘liked words’— drew my attention to an ad for a job on the OED, that I seriously thought about it as an occupation. And that was when I realized that I couldn’t think of a more interesting job. I still can’t, 29 years later.

(Why couldn’t I have seen such an ad?) The first word he worked on at Oxford was fish, and his favorite word (or the one he names “rather than give the rather uninteresting answer ‘I don’t have one’”) is twiffler, which we discussed back in 2010.

Update. Part 2 is up.

Another Large Pearl.

The other day I posted about Tsvetaeva’s poem «Отмыкала ларец железный…» [I unlocked the iron casket]; I’ve just come to one she wrote a couple of months later, «На крыльцо выхожу — слушаю…», that uses so much of the same imagery I can’t resist posting a rough translation so anyone interested can compare and contrast:

I go out onto the porch — I listen,
I tell fortunes on lead — I weep.
The nights: stifling,
Lights in the distance, a Cossack village.

And it’s bad at noon too — the suburb:
The droshky rattles along the road,
A pauper begs a penny,
And children chase a cat,
And grasshoppers in the grass — hop.

In a black shawl, with a large rose
On my breast, — as the evening falls,
With a red-curled, rosy,
Very merry trickster
I’ll have very — sweet — speech.

Don’t load me with gifts of silver,
With large maternal pearls,
A little ring from a little finger.
I want a costlier present:
Over the village — a glow!

The porch, the cat, the big pearl, the little ring… there’s something going on here, but damned if I know what it is. (As for “And grasshoppers in the grass — hop,” the Russian word for ‘grasshopper’ has nothing to do with grass or hopping, but that’s what the original says — ‘the grasshoppers in the grass — leap/spring/bound’ — so how could I resist? I think Tsvetaeva would have liked it.) And of course if I’ve misunderstood any of the Russian, please let me know.

A Corfiot Complaint.

My wife and I recently watched the first episode of the new PBS Masterpiece series The Durrells in Corfu and thoroughly enjoyed it; it is, as this review says, delightful, and it makes a very pleasant and undemanding way to finish an evening. But I do have one complaint I have to get off my chest. They distort historical fact in a number of ways (e.g., the writing son Lawrence was actually married when the family relocated to Corfu), but I can accept such distortions in the name of enjoyable television. What I can’t accept is that when daughter Margo is chided for wearing a two-piece bathing suit, it is called a “bikini.” Look, I’m not a fanatic for period usage in historical drama; I recognize there are more important things than making sure every word and phrase in the script is attested for the period (though I do enjoy it when they make the effort). But come on, I thought every schoolchild knew that, to quote Wikipedia, the bikini was so named in 1946, “from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb was happening.” It was so jarring to have the word used by people supposedly living in 1935 it threw me right out of the story for a while. (If anyone’s interested in the geographical name Bikini itself, we discussed it back in 2005; the thread is worth a visit.)

Primordial Myths?

Julien d’Huy has a Scientific American piece about “how stories change in the retelling down through the generations sheds light on the history of human migration going as far back as the Paleolithic period”:

The Greek version of a familiar myth starts with Artemis, goddess of the hunt and fierce protectress of innocent young women. Artemis demands that Callisto, “the most beautiful,” and her other handmaidens take a vow of chastity. Zeus tricks Callisto into giving up her virginity, and she gives birth to a son, Arcas. Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, turns Callisto into a bear and banishes her to the mountains. Meanwhile Arcas grows up to become a hunter and one day happens on a bear that greets him with outstretched arms. Not recognizing his mother, he takes aim with his spear, but Zeus comes to the rescue. He transforms Callisto into the constellation Ursa Major, or “great bear,” and places Arcas nearby as Ursa Minor, the “little bear.”

As the Iroquois of the northeastern U.S. tell it, three hunters pursue a bear; the blood of the wounded animal colors the leaves of the autumnal forest. The bear then climbs a mountain and leaps into the sky. The hunters and the animal become the constellation Ursa Major. Among the Chukchi, a Siberian people, the constellation Orion is a hunter who pursues a reindeer, Cassiopeia. Among the Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia, the pursued animal is an elk and takes the form of Ursa Major.

Although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not. These sagas all belong to a family of myths known as the Cosmic Hunt that spread far and wide in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas among people who lived more than 15,000 years ago. Every version of the Cosmic Hunt shares a core story line—a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals, and the creatures are changed into constellations.

Folklorists, anthropologists, ethnologists and linguists have long puzzled over why complex mythical stories that surface in cultures widely separated in space and time are strikingly similar. In recent years a promising scientific approach to comparative mythology has emerged in which researchers apply conceptual tools that biologists use to decipher the evolution of living species. In the hands of those who analyze myths, the method, known as phylogenetic analysis, consists of connecting successive versions of a mythical story and constructing a family tree that traces the evolution of the myth over time.

While I enjoy seeing the similar myths set side by side and speculating about why there might be such similarities, I’m deeply suspicious of this “phylogenetic analysis”; I simply don’t believe you can historically trace the evolution of myths as you can that of languages. On the other hand, I know myself to be a fuddy-duddy and am aware I may limit my own horizons by my recalcitrance. So I’m curious to know any of you have thoughts about the plausibility of this approach.

Writers and Anonymity.

A good LRB essay by John Lanchester:

Most writers of fiction are interested in anonymity. If they aren’t tickled by the thought when they sit down to write their first books, they get to that point after the first couple have come out. Writing is solitary, private, inward, and involves something close to complete control; even when there are losses of control or agency, they’re of the sort that a writer has, most of the time, chosen for herself. A story escapes the creator’s intention, or conks out, and although it might not be what the writer wanted, it’s still up to her to make the final call about what to do, or not to do.

The publication process, everything that happens around the business of getting a book into print and out into the world, is close to the opposite of that. It’s full of accidents and misprisions and external demands; it was like that twenty years ago, and has got much worse. […] I often wonder what it would be like not to have to do any of the publishing part, to hand over the text and walk away. It’s a fantasy not so much of anonymity as of refusing the publishing process.

There are writers who do that. The first great refuser in contemporary literary culture was J.D. Salinger. […] Salinger’s self-banishment wasn’t a preference or a whim, it was an existentially critical act of self-protection. I came to think that, like and admire Hamilton though I did, he shouldn’t have written that book: that if someone needs privacy that badly, and hasn’t done anything wrong, we, collectively and individually, should let them have their space.

He ends up with Elena Ferrante, about whom he makes useful points.

Tsvetaeva’s Aspro Stil Nuovo.

Reading my collected Tsvetaeva along with her biography hasn’t provided the immediate rewards Pasternak’s did; with him I was blown away from the beginning, but with her the early verse was well made, sometimes vigorous, but not thrilling. But that all changed with the end of the year 1915 and the collapse of her mad romance with the poet Sophia Parnok; the first poem in her next book, «Вёрсты» [Mileposts, 1922], written in January 1916, plunges the reader at once into a drastically new style, condensed, full of savagery and mystery, ripped out of the light-filled drawing rooms of the earlier books and thrown in rags onto the dark, storm-tossed heath, like mad Lear. There’s no equivalent in English for the folk-lament style of this poem, «Отмыкала ларец железный…», and there’s no way I can convey the black magic of it, but I’ll do my best to provide some sort of Englishing so you can get an idea of what she’s up to:

I unlocked the iron casket
and took out the tearful gift —
a little ring with a large pearl,
a large pearl.

I stole out onto the porch like a cat,
and exposed my face to the wind.
The winds blew, the birds flew,
swans to the left, to the right ravens…
Our roads go in different directions.

You’ll depart with the first storm-clouds;
your path will lie through dense woods,
through burning sands.

You’ll shout out your soul,
you’ll cry out your eyes.

But over me shall the owl call,
but over me shall the grass hiss.

I’m suddenly excited about the hundreds of pages of poems that lie before me.

Reviving Myaamia.

I’ve had fond feelings for PRI’s The World ever since they interviewed me back in 2008; it seems like every time I listen to the show there’s something interesting, and today it was very much of LH relevance: How the Miami Tribe got its language back, reported by Carol Zall. You can listen to the show at that link, or read the transcript; here’s a snippet:

“I remember very specifically stumbling across these language materials, several pages of what I believed to be was Myaamia language,” Baldwin tells our podcast, The World in Words.

The pages had belonged to his late grandfather, and while Baldwin had no idea where they’d come from, he was intrigued. He wanted to find out more about his ancestral language, but there was a lot happening in his life at the time: After 10 years working in construction, Baldwin had gone back to school to get a college degree. And he and his wife Karen were expecting their first child.

Despite all that, Baldwin made time to travel to Indiana and Oklahoma to see if there were any remaining speakers of the Myaamia language. He couldn’t find anyone, but his curiosity had been piqued, and he decided to try to learn the language anyway.

Baldwin embarked on the challenge together with his wife, Karen. There was no dictionary or “Teach Yourself Myaamia” book, and there weren’t even sound recordings of the language. But somehow, they made a start.

They began with words — household items, animals, the names of birds — taped to their walls and kitchen counters, or carried on pieces of paper in their pockets to be consulted throughout the day.

The Baldwins’ efforts might have stalled without outside help, but in the early 1990s, Daryl Baldwin crossed paths with a graduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, who was doing research on Myaamia. The student, David Costa, was delving into archives and had uncovered a vast store of documents about the language, including dictionaries compiled by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to Costa’s research, linguists had believed that there weren’t many records of the language.

After his unexpected finds in the archives, Costa went looking for native speakers.

Needless to say, I love that stuff. Thanks go to Bonnie for calling me in to listen!

Fiction Versus Nonfiction.

Richard Lea has a piece for the Guardian exploring how different cultures deal with a distinction that seems natural to the English-speaking world:

[…] But according to the writer Aleksandar Hemon, this strange chasm doesn’t even exist in the language of his birth. In Bosnian, says Hemon, “there are no words for fiction and nonfiction, or the distinction thereof”.

“This is not to say that there is no truth or untruth,” he continues. “It’s just that a literary text is not defined by its relation to truth or imagination.” When Bosnian speakers try to articulate this distinction they have to reach for awkward constructions or terms from other languages, he explains. “Some literary people have bastardised fiction into ‘fikcija’, which makes me cringe, while ‘ne-fikcija’ is even more atrocious. I would never use those words. Your average taxi driver would not understand them.”

Even someone as skilled in matters of language as Hemon’s Bosnian translator, Irena Žlof, can find themselves stumped. When Žlof was working on the Bosnian edition of The Book of My Lives – Hemon’s “first book of nonfiction”, according to his US publisher – she “did not know” how to translate the terms fiction and nonfiction, Hemon recalls. Since they “only appeared in the acknowledgments, we just cut them. When I have to describe the pieces in my book, I call them ‘true stories’ or ‘personal essays’.” […]

The split between fiction and nonfiction is equally mysterious in languages as different from Bosnian as Arabic and Gĩkuyu. According to the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the “key word” in Gĩkuyu is rũgano – “story” or “narrative”. Rũgano is the nearest thing to fiction, Ngũgĩ explains, but it could also mean or suggest a historical narrative. “Kũgana rũgano – ‘to tell a story’ – can mean either of those, but specifically means retelling of well-known stories such as fables. The art is in the telling, not the fact of the story. The best storyteller is the one who recreates the anxiety of expectation and fulfils it.” […]

The division is just as blurred in Arabic, says the novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan, where fiction is either hekaya (الحكاية), kessah (قِصَّة) or sard (سَرْد).

“The first two words mean ‘story’.” Alwan says. “The third word, sard, means ‘storytelling’. However, I don’t think there is any consensus on an Arabic synonym of ‘nonfiction’. I salute the English language for its ability to create simple and definitive words just by adding ‘non-’. Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter followers if they could suggest a word. The suggestions were wake’y (وَاقِعيّ), which means ‘realistic’ and nathary (نَظري), which means ‘theoretical’. I am not satisfied with either one of those.” […]

According to the translator Nicky Harman, the English-speaking world is not entirely on its own, with the division between fiction and nonfiction mapping straightforwardly on to the Chinese xu gou (虚构) and fei [not or non-] xu gou (非虚构). But things become a little murkier as you move closer to home. German bestsellers are also divided into two categories, says the translator Katy Derbyshire, with Der Spiegel publishing lists split into Sachbücher (“fact-books”) and Belletristik – another borrowing of the French term belles lettres. But the boundary is drawn “in a different place than in the anglophone world”.

Alongside the novels listed under Belletristik, Derbyshire explains, you find autobiography, such as Joachim Meyerhoff’s Ach, diese Lücke, diese entsetzliche Lücke, or Anne Weber’s exploration of her family history, Ahnen. “There was some confusion over Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen it called a novel but the German publisher calls it an ‘erzählendes Sachbuch’ – a piece of narrative nonfiction. German Amazon lists it under zoology and memoir.”

In Germany “the difference is more in the style of writing,” she says. “If it’s literary it tends to be classed as belles lettres; if its purpose is primarily to convey information it’ll be called a factual book.”

There’s lots more at the link; good for the Graun for going into an interesting topic in a fair amount of depth, and in particular for using original-language forms, including Arabic script!

Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online.

John Cowan writes in a new comment to this 2010 thread:

The Internet works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform, and some news is good news.

After They Who Shall Not Be Named reneged on their promise to make GDoS searchable with a “We won’t do it: sue us if you dare”, Green was left with the digital database rights but nothing to do with them. Academia and industry alike turned him down with “What’s in it for me?” He tried hiring programmers, but the ask (“megabucks”) was beyond his means. Finally, David Kendall offered to do the work gratis, just because it needed to be done (dpk is a student of historical linguistics as well as a programmer) and today is online. Headword search, definitions, and etymologies are free; advanced search and supporting quotations are available to individuals by subscription at £49/year (currently about US$60). Institutional subscriptions are also possible: rates on request.

I have a subscription (it would be a solecism to assert that this has any connection with my occasional IRC conversations with dpk over the years) and will be pleased to look up anything that other Hattics can’t get for themselves.

This Is Good, as they say. Thanks, JC (and of course JG)!