Archives for April 2017

Wharf Quay Pier Jetty.

I found this diagram posted on Facebook; it’s a simple 2X2 according to which a wharf is built on piles and parallel to the shore, a quay is built on fill and ditto, a pier is built on piles and extending out from the shore, and a jetty is built on fill and ditto. Does that correspond to your understanding? I confess that my understanding of these words has been very vague, although I probably could have provided a similar definition of a pier.

Chekhov–Saunders Humanity Kit.

The Chekhov–Saunders Humanity Kit (assembled by Maria Bustillos) is a remarkable thing, a website representing George Saunders’s MFA classes at Syracuse, and specifically the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – “usually the best class of the year.” The linked page is the intro:

I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.

In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.

To navigate it you click on the tabs under the images of Chekhov and Saunders: “How to Use,” “Syllabus,” and so on. I still haven’t read everything in it, but I find it fascinating and thought-provoking, and maybe some of my readers will too. The Coda quotes Chekhov’s famous letter to Pleshcheyev — “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves” — and Saunders says that he agrees:

I understand this idea to mean: We are our best (most complex, generous, ambiguity- and contradiction-friendly) when we are writing or reading – in that very particular mode. I also understand it to mean that a human being’s highest state is one of non-judgement. It doesn’t have to (maybe can’t) last forever but we learn so much in that mode, when we are just openly accepting data, even if that data contradicts our existing view.

Words to live by.

With Interjected Finger.

My wife, after reading me numerous bits from Ford Madox Ford’s memoir Memories and Impressions: A Study in Atmospheres, told me I had to read it myself, and so I am doing, with immense pleasure (reading her in turn numerous bits, sometimes the same bits she had previously read to me). The following passage, from the end of the chapter on Pre-Raphaelite poets, is not only LH material in and of itself, it is very relevant to the discussion now going on in this thread:

But they took themselves with such extreme seriousness — these Pre-Raphaelite poets — and nevertheless I have always fancied that to my mind they are responsible for the death of English poetry. My father once wrote of Rossetti that he put down the thoughts of Dante in the language of Shakespeare, and the words seem to me to be extremely true and extremely damning. For what is wanted of a poet is that he should express his own thoughts in the language of his own time. This the Pre-Raphaelite poets never thought of, with perhaps the solitary exception of Christina Rossetti.

I remember once hearing Stephen Crane — the author of The Red Badge of Courage and of The Open Boat, which is the finest volume of true short stories in the English language — I remember hearing him, with his wonderful eyes flashing and his extreme vigor of intonation, commenting upon a sentence of Robert Louis Stevenson that he was reading. The sentence was, “With interjected finger he delayed the motion of the timepiece.” “By God, poor dear!” Crane exclaimed. “That man put back the clock of English fiction fifty years.” I do not know that this is exactly what Stevenson did. I should say myself that the art of writing in English received the numbing blow of a sandbag when Rossetti wrote at the age of eighteen The Blessed Damozel. From that time forward and until to day — and for many years to come! — the idea has been inherent in the mind of the English writer that writing was a matter of digging for obsolete words with which to express ideas forever dead and gone. Stevenson did this, of course, as carefully as any Pre-Raphaelite, though instead of going to medieval books he ransacked the seventeenth century, But this tendency is unfortunately not limited to authors misusing our very excellent tongue; for the other day I was listening to an excellent Italian conferencier who assured an impressed audience that Signor d’Annuncio is the greatest Italian stylist there has ever been, since in his last book he has used over 2,017 obsolete words which cannot be understood by a modern Italian without the help of a medieval glossary.

Which chimes with this passage from Pound’s obit of Ford:

And he felt the errors of contemporary style to the point of rolling (physically, and if you look at it as a mere superficial snob, ridiculously) on the floor of his temporary quarters in Giessen, when my third volume displayed me trapped, fly-papered, gummed and strapped down in a jejune provincial effort to learn, mehercule, the stilted language that then passed for “good English” in the arthritic milieu that held control of the respected British critical circles, Newbolt, the backwash of Lionel Johnson, Fred Manning, the Quarterlies and the rest of ’em.

And that roll saved me at least two years, perhaps more. It sent me back to my own proper effort, namely toward using the living tongue (with younger men after me), though none of us has found a more natural language than Ford did.

The Last Bridge.

Working my way through Tsvetaeva’s collected poems, I’ve gotten to 1924 and the astonishing sequence Поэма конца [Poem of the end] she wrote for Konstantin Rodzevich, an unremarkable young man “with strikingly pink cheeks” (according to a fellow émigré). They had three passion-filled months together, then she broke it off — according to her biographer, Viktoria Schweitzer, “so as not to allow love to become debased, so as not to allow the mountain to be transformed into a suburb.” She wrote to her former lover and involuntary confidant Alexandr Bakhrakh:

Dear friend, I am very unhappy. I have parted with him, still loving and still beloved, at the height of love; no, I haven’t parted from him, I’ve torn myself away from him! . . . With him I would have been happy . . . I should have liked a son from him . . .

It’s a long sequence; I liked section 8 so much I thought I’d try a translation, which I present below (followed by the Russian). You can compare a translation by Elaine Feinstein here (scroll down); I think it’s awful, but Feinstein is well regarded, and tastes differ.

It’s the last bridge
(I won’t give my hand, or pull it back!)
It’s the last bridge,
the bridge’s last plank.

Water and earth.
I lay out the coins.
Money for death,
for Lethe: Charon’s pay.

The shadow of a coin
in a shadowy hand. Soundless
these coins. So,
into a hand of shadow —

the shadow of a coin.
With no reflection, no ring.
The coins — to them.
Poppies suffice for the dead.


The original:

По – следний мост.
(Руки не отдам, не выну!)
Последний мост,
Последняя мостовина.

Во – да и твердь.
Выкладываю монеты.
День – га за смерть,
Харонова мзда за Лету.

Мо – неты тень.
В руке теневой. Без звука
Мо – неты те.
Итак, в теневую руку

Мо – неты тень.
Без отсвета и без звяка.
Мо – неты — тем.
С умерших довольно маков.


(Tsvetaeva uses dashes as liberally as but differently from Emily Dickinson, frequently putting them between the syllables of a word, as here.)

Reinventing the Canon for Free.

The newly published book Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry: Reinventing the Canon, edited by Katharine Hodgson, Joanne Shelton and Alexandra Smith, is an interesting-looking collection of essays available in paperback for £25.95, in hardback for £36.95, and as a pdf download for free! Just go to the Open Book Publishers book page and click the appropriate link (there’s also a description of the book if you scroll down). I approve of this sort of thing!

Everybody Loses.

James Somers has an infuriating article in the Atlantic describing the collapse of a great dream:

You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.

It’s a long, depressing tale in which there are no villains, just people variously overambitious, naive, and trying to get a decent deal, but it’s well worth the read. Here are a couple of paragraphs to whet your appetite:

The irony is that so many people opposed the settlement in ways that suggested they fundamentally believed in what Google was trying to do. One of Pamela Samuelson’s main objections was that Google was going to be able to sell books like hers, whereas she thought they should be made available for free. (The fact that she, like any author under the terms of the settlement, could set her own books’ price to zero was not consolation enough, because “orphan works” with un-findable authors would still be sold for a price.) In hindsight, it looks like the classic case of perfect being the enemy of the good: surely having the books made available at all would be better than keeping them locked up—even if the price for doing so was to offer orphan works for sale. In her paper concluding that the settlement went too far, Samuelson herself even wrote, “It would be a tragedy not to try to bring this vision to fruition, now that it is so evident that the vision is realizable.”
[ . . . ]
“The greatest tragedy is we are still exactly where we were on the orphan works question. That stuff is just sitting out there gathering dust and decaying in physical libraries, and with very limited exceptions,” Mtima said, “nobody can use them. So everybody has lost and no one has won.”

Via Helen DeWitt at paperpools.

The Curse of the Diaeresis.

As I said here, Mary Norris of the New Yorker “has consistently irritated me with her stubborn insistence on every bit of peevery that has encrusted the magazine over the years,” but I admit I enjoyed her (now five years old) squib on the magazine’s famous diaeresis (“those two dots, often mistaken for an umlaut”). I particularly liked the last couple of paragraphs:

We do change our style from time to time. My predecessor (and the former keeper of the comma shaker) told me that she used to pester the style editor, Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. She found it fussy. She said that once, in the elevator, he told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.

This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since.

(Sadly, we’ve had to let our subscription lapse after many years of enjoying it because they haven’t offered it at less than a hundred bucks, which we are not willing to spend for a magazine, no matter how good. WTF, New Yorker? Do you care only about the one-percenters now?)

Marcia Lynx Qualey on Arabic Literature.

Henry Ace Knight interviews Marcia Lynx Qualey, “a household name among students and aficionados of Arabic and Middle Eastern literature, many of whom avidly read her blog” There’s lots of interesting stuff there, for instance:

You wrote about the false claim of the emerging Arabic novel, and the distinction of “first Arabic novel” given to Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab, in a recent post for Arab Lit. Could you talk a little more about that? Why is Zaynab frequently considered the first Arabic novel, and why is that problematic?

The idea of the “emergence of the Arabic novel” irks me, as if Arabs started writing in a meaningful way when they started writing European-style novels. Instead, I like to view aspects of the European novel as being folded—incorporated, absorbed—into a very long Arabic narrative tradition. I find the “first-novelling” [of Zaynab] problematic because this—like other “first” tropes—is posited as a point of arrival (“first woman —,” “first Black —”). In this case, it’s as though in order to be real modernites, Arabs have to write in a form pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Except DeFoe was probably influenced by Ibn Tufail (twelfth century). So. Also descriptively, I just think it works better to view the Arabic literary tradition not as having a death and rebirth-as-novel, but as having a continuous tradition wherein elements of the European novel are enthusiastically incorporated, toyed with, reimagined.

And this depressing passage was highlighted by Helen DeWitt at Paperpools, where I got the link; Qualey has been asked about “the movement towards writing in a regional dialect, rather than in Modern Standard Arabic”:

[Children’s literature] is a thorny issue. Some authors want to write picture books in spoken dialect—and some have, like Sonia Nimr—but publishers tend to be very opposed, as they want to be able to sell into multiple markets and submit to prizes. Unfortunately, this even goes for dialogue. I loved Rania Amin’s Screams Behind Doors, which won the Etisalat Prize for best YA novel last November, but it felt weird to have these girls speaking to each other in Modern Standard Arabic. Rania told me she’d written the dialogue in Egyptian, but the publisher “fixed” it, worried they couldn’t otherwise submit to prizes and suchlike. A bit galling.

Some Hebrew Links.

1) Balashon investigates the word charoset חרסת, “a condiment made of fruits and spices with wine and sugar, used to sweeten the bitter herbs eaten on Passover night.” He begins with the seemingly “obvious and convincing” etymology given by Klein, “Probably formed from חרס cheres (=clay), in allusion to its claylike color,” and comes up with some interesting material:

Ronnie Haffner, of the site Safa Ivrit, suggested to me that perhaps the suffix –et ת- at the end of some Hebrew words means “leftovers after production”, so pesolet פסולת – “chips, stone dust” is what is leftover after carving פסל, and nesoret נסורת – “sawdust” is what remains after sawing נסר. So if this pattern holds, charoset could be the potsherds, which are left after breaking pottery.

A parallel approach is mentioned by Jastrow, who in his entry for charoset suggests we also look at his definition of the Aramaic הרסנא harsana – “fish hash.” He quotes Jacob Levy, who in his dictionary, like Kohut, says that charoset is of Arabic origin. Harsana, according to this theory, derives from the Arabic root harasa – which Klein says is cognate with the Hebrew haras הרס (“throw down, tear down”) and means “he crushed, squashed, pounded.” This Arabic root is the source of the spice paste “harissa”, due to the crushing of the peppers in a mortar. This is an interesting theory, for if charoset is cognate with haras, then it has no connection with clay at all (since we saw that the Biblical Hebrew form of cheres is חרש, which is not connected to הרס.) Kohut’s theory, on the other hand, still maintains a connection between broken pottery and charoset.

2) Alan Millard responds to Douglas Petrovich’s claim that “some of the thirty or so inscriptions engraved on stone monuments around the Egyptian turquoise mines at Serâbîṭ el-Khâdim in western Sinai mention biblical figures” and that Hebrew is the language “behind the proto-consonantal script”; he concludes: “Petrovitch’s blog does not offer any grounds for accepting his ideas. Many scholars have written about the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, some examining the originals themselves, none agreeing completely on their decipherment, for anyone to present such astonishing claims for his research to the general public in a book as Petrovitch has done, seems irresponsible.” Ouch! (Thanks, Paul.)

3) Elon Gilad discusses the history of the word Jew; the subhead provides a nice summary: “The word ‘Jew’ originates with the ancient Israelite kingdom of Judah, but what its name means is a matter of great controversy. It could even mean ‘Thank God’.” (Thanks, Kobi.)

The Finer Points of Singular they.

This post at the Log makes me very happy (the narrator is Bean):

My eight-year-old daughter in conversation with me last night:

Scene: I am giving her a sock, which she had brought home, only to find she already had both of her socks. So it logically must belong to some other girl (it’s obviously a girl’s sock).

Me: So, bring this lost sock back to school, and put it in the lost and found. Do you remember who was wearing it? Well, anyway if the other girl is looking for it she can find it. I’m assuming it was a girl so I’m going with “she”.

Daughter [scornfully]: You mean “they”.

I think this clearly illustrates the way the kids use “they”. We know it’s a girl, but since we’re not sure which girl, it becomes “they”. And it was such a firm rule in her mind she felt the need to sneer at me. 🙂

The girls (and, I think, us parents) also use this consistently in their all-girls’ hockey league, and in Brownies – both all-female pursuits. For example, I heard something along the lines of: Q. “Is the other goalie any good?” A. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen them play before.” Whereas if we were talking about our goalie, whose name and face we know, it would have been along the lines of “I don’t know, she hasn’t played much lately.”

Peevers, you might as well give up the hopeless struggle; singular they is not only of ancient and unimpeachable lineage, it is developing its own fine points of grammatical usage that are being enforced not by the futile injunctions of schoolteachers but by the young wielders of the language. They know what they mean when they say “they”!