The 13th-Century Revolution.

Eric Weiskott describes “the 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possible” — namely, the change from alliterative verse (“the form of poetry used in Beowulf, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”) to the accentual-syllabic meters that underlie what we think of as traditional English verse, which began around the end of the 12th century. Weiskott gives as an example “the opening lines of the Ormulum, a very long religious tract composed by a monk named Orm”:

Thiss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum
forrthi þatt Orrm itt wrohhte
(‘This book is called Ormulum because Orm wrote it.’)

(Gotta love both the spelling and the impeccable reasoning.) I liked the apposite Pound quote (“To break the pentameter, that was the first heave”) and this interesting paragraph:

So if alliterative metre doesn’t measure stresses, syllables or even alliteration, what does it measure? Scholars have been debating the answer to this question since the 18th century. Current thinking is that alliterative metre measures a more abstract unit termed metrical position. A metrical position might contain one syllable, or it might contain more than one. Specifically, any number of adjacent unstressed syllables count together as a single metrical position. So, for example, the run of three unstressed syllables in the second half of the line from Piers Plowman, –e was the, is formally equivalent to the run of two unstressed syllables at the beginning of the line, in a. That’s right: a metre in which 1 + 1 = 3. In Beowulf, the rule is fairly simple: four metrical positions make a verse. By the time of Piers Plowman, the arrangement of positions had got more complicated.

Thanks, Jack!

Stubbornly Multilingual.

Josephine Stefani, who identifies herself as “Stubbornly multilingual,” responds to the Quora question “What are some good novels that don’t have an English language version?” I love this sort of thing, and you’ve got to be impressed with her wide range of literatures. She starts off with Ana María Matute (who “is someone in the Spanish-speaking community”), Ahmadou Kourouma (“considered a classic in the Ivory Coast” — I actually have his Monnew, though I haven’t read it yet), and Moussa Ould Ebnou (“Considered one of Mauritania’s greatest novelists”); here are her Russian picks:

Evgeniy Vodolazkin (who is, unfortunately, listed as “Volodazkin”) — I love the casual “You may, however, be able to locate some of these books in Romanian or Lithuanian.”

Lidia Charskaya:

Her books about boarding schools (Zapiski Institutki) and Sibirochka: Knyazhna Dzavakha are among her most famous, but they have not seen the kind of popularity they should have had in English because children’s books don’t appear to be a priority for foreign language translation. I mean, where’s the serfdom, the Russian revolution?

I have her Gazavat but (sigh) haven’t read it.

Maks Fray (Svetlana Martynchik and Igor’ Styopin), “a huge name when it comes to contemporary Russian language literature. They’re not very critically-acclaimed, however, aside from a few secondary literary prizes here and there, given the fact that their material isn’t usually considered ‘serious literature’.”

Dina Rubina: “The Russian-Israeli author is not a new name to anyone keeping up with modern Russian literature, but her latest book, Babiy Veter, published just early this year, has not yet been translated.”

Lyudmila Ulitskaya: “One of my new favourite authors, Lyudmila Ulitskaya is well known for her intergenerational family sagas in the backdrop of political turmoil.”

There’s lots more there; check it out. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

The Split.

Linguist Matthew Scarborough reports on a conference at the University of Copenhagen called The Split: Reconstructing Early Indo-European Language and Culture. He has a paragraph on most of the presentations, and they tempt me to wish I’d stayed in the field: “The Hittite verbal system and the Indo-Hittite Hypothesis,” “The Old Hittite ‘ninth case’ in areal and genetic perspective,” the etymology of Hitt. ḫišša– ‘thill, shaft (of a cart)’ and the feminine gender in Indo-European, “Did the Indo-Europeans have a word for ‘wheat’? Hittite šeppit(t)- revisited and the rise of Post-PIE cereal technology”… this sort of thing gets my blood moving faster. The third and final day of the conference consisted of archaeological papers, and he concludes his discussion with this excited paragraph:

For me, the final paper of the conference with the rather lengthy title After migration: how culture, genetics and language were reshaped by local processes of social integration: The case of Yamnaya and Corded Ware by Kristian Kristiansen was perhaps the most eye-opening contribution. To give some background, from my work with the MPI in Jena I have come to realise that the field of archaeogenetics has exploded in the last few years as the new techniques for extracting and analysing Ancient DNA (aDNA) have improved dramatically. What I hadn’t known is exactly how dramatically they have improved. The impression that I get is that it is a revolution to the field of prehistoric archaeology comparable to that of the introduction of Carbon-14 dating in the 1950s. Rather than butchering the very eloquent and well argued talk through a short summary, I would greatly encourage people check out the project that he has been investigating entitled The Rise: Travels, transmissions and transformations in temperate northern Europe during the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC: the rise of Bronze Age societies. I get the impression that we will see quite a few very paradigm-shattering results for the question of Indo-European origins and the Indo-Europeanisation of Europe based on archaeological syntheses of aDNA evidence very soon within the next few years. Very exciting times lie ahead in the near future, and I wonder if the question of when and where PIE was spoken – something that I previously thought to be an impossible question – might soon be able to get some sort of a concrete answer.

David Marjanović dumps cold water on him in the comments (“o.O We already did, back in 2013 mostly”), but Matthew says “as a pure historical linguist with only a passing knowledge of these things (and mind you, keeping my head down and trying to finish a Ph.D. in the intervening time), this is the first time I’d actually realised how groundbreaking the latest aDNA stuff was,” and I’m with him — it’s pretty exciting! Anyway, if you have any interest in this stuff, check out his post.

Getting the Knife.

Wyatt Mason’s NYRB review of a number of translations of Pierre Michon (an author with whom I was unfamiliar) is an interesting read (as is pretty much everything Mason writes); Michon doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I love the anecdote that introduces the review. Mason begins: “When I was twenty and studying French literature in Paris, I signed up for an independent project in translation. My adviser’s only stipulation was that I translate something that hadn’t made its way into English.” He asks around and is told repeatedly that Pierre Michon is “one of our greatest living writers”:

In 1989, this was very much a minority opinion. Michon’s complete works amounted to three slender books, as I discovered in a bookstore near my school. The earliest, Vies minuscules (1984), ran to two hundred pages; Vie de Joseph Roulin (1988) was fifty-nine pages; and a third, L’empereur d’Occident (1989), was forty-nine pages. And while it would speak well of me to claim that I devoted the remainder of the afternoon to reading all three until the store closed, wringing my hands as I weighed the merits of each while hesitating over which to choose, I spent all of thirty seconds deliberating. The slimmest, the pages of which were printed in uncut signatures—to read them, I would need a knife—was unapproachable. The longest, which wasn’t long, seemed by comparison huge. So I chose the middle one, because it was short, and because I didn’t have a knife.

I got the knife thirteen years later. I was sitting with Michon and his wife in a restaurant down the street from their townhouse in Nantes. Across the intervening years, I’d translated four of Michon’s books into English and found them a small US publisher. [He met with the author each time.] These meetings had always been productive. Michon, who speaks little English, was generous with his time and clear in his responses, able to illuminate the many thorny passages in his work that his translator couldn’t unpack and dictionaries didn’t help decipher.

The 2003 meetings in Nantes were different. Michon was curt, dismissive. In the past, my incomprehension was met with patience, instruction; now my perplexities displeased him. […] And yet despite that morning’s agon, Michon proposed lunch out. In a booth, across from his wife, he sat between me and the wall. Confit de canard was ordered and served, accompanied by large serrated knives. I attempted conversation; conversation did not form. Plates were cleared. Michon held on to his knife. As he turned toward me in the booth for the first time, a tap of the tip of the knife he’d retained, now pointed at me, punctuated each word he spoke.

“So,” he began, “you’re an acceptable translator. Actually, no. You’re fine. But Vies minuscules is an exceptional text. It needs an exceptional translator. Understand?”

Michon’s face was gray, grim. I made a few sounds that attempted to communicate that I didn’t understand; that we had worked together for years; that I wasn’t clear what had changed; that I’d done the same work I’d done in the past and arrived with, I thought, the same kinds of questions but—

“But you haven’t even deciphered the text,” Michon said, loudly, pounding the table now with the fist that held the knife. The voices of the lunchtime crowd dimmed as the restaurant registered the disturbance. “You haven’t even deciphered it.”

With a terminal clack, Michon released the knife to the table.

“Let me out!” Michon shouted, pushing past me. “Let me out!”

Ouch! Many thanks to Trevor Joyce for the link.


I’m reading Veltman’s Воспитанница Сара [The ward Sara], about which I will have much to say when I’ve read further, but I’ve hit a passage whose final word puzzles me, and I thought I’d canvass the assembled multitudes — those, at any rate, familiar with 19th-century Russian. He’s describing a scene outside a Moscow theater on a cold night in the late 1840s or early 1850s (“before the invention of crinoline”); the coachmen and servants are trying to keep warm while the masters are inside:

Около экипажей тѣ же nляски въ одиночку, то же хлопанье руковицами; а ужь если можно оставить лошадей и на надежныя руки своей братьи, или незябкихъ мальчишекъ-форейторовъ, такъ компанія идетъ куда-нибудь по сосѣдству, гдѣ и чай горячій, и горячіе наnитки, и всякая провизія и пріятное преnровожденіе времени, и даже машина.

Around the carriages the same solitary dances, the same beating of mittens; but those who were able to leave their horses in the reliable hands of their own kind, or of young postillions who weren’t so sensitive to the cold, went somewhere nearby, where there were hot tea and other hot beverages, and all sorts of provisions and pleasant ways to pass the time, and even a mashina.

(The italics are Veltman’s.) That word машина, literally ‘machine,’ can mean a great many things in the 19th century (Dahl mentions, among other possibilities, flints, cigar guillotines, billiard stands, locomotives, and “anything huge or cumbersome”), and I have no idea what it might mean here. I asked Sashura, and he suggested it might be a mechanical music machine, like a carillon or an orchestrion (he provided this charming YouTube clip as an illustration). Any other ideas?

Update. It turns out (unsurprisingly) that Sashura’s guess was correct; he asked the question on Facebook and got a number of answers along those lines. For example, here’s Natalia Sokolovskaya quoting a specialist from Pushkin House:

Здесь – какой-то музыкальный аппарат. Ср. у того же Вельтмана: “Заняв номер в пять рублей в сутки, он вышел в общую залу обедать и слушать, как машина музыку играет” (“Приключения, почерпнутые из моря житейского. Саломея”, 1848).

Here it means some sort of musical apparatus. Compare this, in Veltman’s 1848 novel Salomea: “Having rented a room for five rubles a day, he went into the common room to dine and listen to the mashina playing music.”

Thanks, Sashura and all his FB readers!

Talking Gibberish.

Gaston Dorren asks a very good question in Aeon: Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots? He describes the various attempts to pin down mankind’s original language (“German was a popular candidate, but the 17th-century Swedish scholar Olof Rudbeck favoured his own mother tongue, for a reason that was nothing if not creative: Sweden, he argued, was Atlantis, and thus the cradle of human civilisation”), citing LH’s own founding father, the Flemish author Johannes Goropius Becanus:

He claimed that the Dutch language, and the Flemish dialect of Antwerp in particular, was the direct descendant of the original language and the source of all others. His evidence was of an etymological nature. The name Adam, for instance, was derived from haat-dam (‘hate dam, dam against hate’), while Diets or Dutch was synonymous with d’oudste (‘th’oldest’). In the Low Countries, Goropius would enjoy some support for centuries to come; abroad, his name literally became a byword for fanciful etymologising: the eminent German scholar Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz called the activity ‘goropising’. Even today, the hypothesis of Dutch as the oldest language is kept alive by at least one linguist and one poet, both of whom seem to be embarrassingly serious about it.

He then talks about William Jones’s famous 1784 lecture in which he proposed the Indo-European language family, and continues:

Given the extensive body of historical knowledge they’ve collected since, especially about Europe and Asia, one would expect that claims of Goropian and Rudbeckian absurdity would be a thing of the past. They aren’t, however. To this day, dissidents seriously assert that mainstream linguistics has it spectacularly wrong. Science is not above errors, of course, some of them collective and persistent – think phrenology, think behaviourism – and linguistics is no exception.

He proceeds to Lemuria, the Sun-language theory, Saharan (“a close relative of Basque”), climate theory, and Marrism; he concludes:

The tricky thing about history is that so much has happened; about languages, that there are so many of them. […] The fantasists and dilettantes trawl through source after source in the hope of pulling aboard what seem to be relations and other connections. But in fact, the more documents they sift through, the more likely they are to find chance similarities and connections and draw spurious conclusions. And if established scholars disagree with them, they will typically respond in a petulant manner, rather than take their criticism seriously. […]

If you enjoy crackpottery, click the link; you’ll have a good time. (Thanks, Bathrobe!)

Khalatov’s Hat.

Occasionally I feel guilty about neglecting what is, after all, part of this blog’s name, but now I have an occasion to remedy that failing. I’m reading Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (a very generous gift from an LH reader); it’s over a thousand pages long, because it combines several strands of narration into one book, and one of those strands is a collective biography of some of the people who wound up living in what has become known as the House on the Embankment since Yuri Trifonov’s novel of that name (published in 1976). One of those people was Artemy Khalatov (Russian Wikipedia article), described thus on pp. 383-4:

One of Koltsov’s closest collaborators and head of the Association of State Book and Magazine Publishers (OGIZ), moved into a large, six-room apartment on the seventh floor of Entryway 12 (four floors below Rozengolts). […] Khalatov (thirty-five at the time of the move) was famous among the Bolsheviks for his long curly hair, full beard, and Astrakhan hat, which he rarely took off. Before being put in charge of nationalizing and centralizing the publishing industry, he supervised rationing in War Communism Moscow, chaired the Commission for the Improvement of Scholars’ Living Conditions, founded the State Puppet Theater, and, as head of People’s Nutrition (“Down with kitchen slavery! Long live communal food consumption!”), inspired Yuri Olesha’s Envy.

(I wrote about Envy here.) And then, on pp. 457-8, Slezkine quotes this passage from the memoirs of Ivan Gronsky, editor of Izvestia (and another resident of the House), about a Politburo meeting on August 5, 1931:

On the agenda was the work of OGIZ. The presenter was Khalatov. He entered the room and stood, not where he was supposed to, but at the other end of the table, closer to Stalin. Just as Khalatov was about to begin, Stalin suddenly asked:

“Why are you wearing a hat?”

Khalatov looked lost.

“But you know I always wear this hat.”

“It shows a lack of respect for the Politburo! Take off your hat!”

“But, Iosif Vissarionovich, why?”

I had never seen Stalin in such a state. Usually he was polite and spoke softly, but now he was absolutely furious. Khalatov still did not remove his ill-fated hat. Stalin jumped up and ran out of the room. We all began to reason with Khalatov in semi-facetious terms: “Artem, don’t be silly. . .” Khalatov relented, and began his report. Stalin came back, sat down, and raised his hand. Molotov, as usual, said: “Comrade Stalin has the floor.”

The General Secretary’s brief intervention can be summarized as follows: “The political situation in the country has changed, but we have not drawn the appropriate conclusions. It seems to me that OGIZ should be split up. I propose taking five publishing houses out of OGIZ.”

The proposal was accepted. Khalatov left the meeting as a nobody.

Wearing hats indoors can be dangerous! And note that in 1931 it was still possible to think you could get away with arguing with Iosif Vissarionovich. (If you’re curious, here’s an image of Khalatov in his hat.) But he did not in fact leave the meeting as a nobody; Slezkine concludes the passage by saying “He continued to live in the House of Government and to wear his hat.”


The AHD defines terroir as “1. The aggregate characteristics of the environment in which a food or wine is produced, including regional and local climate, soil, and topography. 2. The flavor imparted to a food or wine by such characteristics” (it’s from Vulgar Latin *terratōrium, alteration of Latin territōrium, territory); it’s pretty much a foodie term, but a useful one, and I’ve been familiar with it for many years. I was thus interested to learn from William Doyle’s TLS review of Thomas Parker’s Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea that “the regional variety of wine and food produced in France was clearly recognized as long ago as the sixteenth century, and positively celebrated in the earthy writings of Rabelais” (I pause to note the appositeness in this context of “earthy”); Olivier de Serres‘s “instantly popular” Le Théâtre de l’agriculture (1600) used the term frequently. But “in the seventeenth century it ceased to be anything to celebrate”:

Dictionaries of the time began to define the term as an undesirable taint, something disagreeable to good taste and polite society. In a kingdom whose values were increasingly dictated by metropolitan and courtly high society, the idea of terroir signified all that was uncouth and provincial. The best food and wine should have no hint of strong regional character, any more than the best people sounded or behaved like provincials.

The term was revived by Rousseau and was looked at askance by the rationalizing, centralizing Revolution; “What everybody agreed on was the superiority of French terroir to anywhere else.”

The review ends with a question as to whether the concept is in fact distinctively French: “Was the term terroir (which has no precise English equivalent) uniquely French, or could some similar notion be found in the culture of other European countries?” I’m sure the answer is “yes and no,” just as with hygge and sisu and all the other supposedly untranslatable terms.


My loving and tolerant wife abetted my addiction by taking me to Grey Matter/Troubadour Books (note that their Fall Sale will be Sept. 28-Oct. 1, and everything in the store will be 35% off — I encourage everyone in the area to take advantage of it); I was thrilled to learn from their website that “Grey Matter is now the proud owner of the remains of that legendary fishing destination of the wise, Gotham Book Mart” (where I spent a substantial amount of time and money in the 1980s), and when I got there I headed straight for the tables devoted to material from Gotham. One of the items I grabbed (for a dollar!) was the Dec. 1936 issue of Contemporary Poetry and Prose, a short-lived periodical edited by Roger Roughton (who apparently committed suicide in 1941, and has left little trace online); it promised poems by St.-J. Perse and Paul Eluard, among others, and a short story by Isaac Babel. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the appropriate page and found “With Our Father Makhno/ An Episode of the Russian Civil War/ by ISAAC BABEL/ (Translated from the Russian by George Reavey)”… followed by a page and a half of blank space. Since among the Announcements (which are an enjoyable read in themselves: “The Notes on Contributors have already been discontinued for some time, as they were usually made up at the last moment and did not contain much information anyway”) was the severe “It is hoped that there will not again be the long list of mistakes which appears in this last year’s numbers,” I thought perhaps it was the mother of all typos, but when I got home Google Books found this editorial in the next issue, which cleared it all up:

                CENSORED !

On page 143 of CONTEMPORARY POETRY AND PROSE NO. 8 (Dec. 1936), there appeared, as announced, the heading of a short story, WITH OUR FATHER MAKHNO, by Isaac Babel, the famous soviet author. But alas, beneath the title and the translator’s name was an alarming, or ridiculous, blank. Two explanations, both somewhat unjust to the editor, were generally offered: one was simply that the text of the story was left out by mistake; the other was that it was just a 1920ish joke. Now there have been one or two rather odd mistakes in past numbers, due perhaps to the blue-eyed view of the paper taken by the stolid, peasant-like printers, but even they could not accept two blank pages without comment. As for the joke theory, Dadaism has never shown its anti-clockwise face in other numbers.

No, the text of Babel’s story had been quite consciously removed, not by order of the Lord Chamberlain or the editor, but by the printers. For perhaps many people do not know that most of the censorship in this country is carried out by the solicitors whom all large printers must keep; and this must be so, as long as the censorship laws are as violent, ignorant, unjust and immoral as they are now. Censorship is not a matter of commonsense; no layman can decide what is likely to meet with disfavour. In this case, after having previously ‘passed’ the story, the lawyer decided, when the whole edition was on the press and nearly due out, that WITH OUR FATHER MAKHNO was ‘doubtful’ and must be removed. There was no time to alter the cover announcement, the contents page or the index, and there was no suitable substitute piece of that length on hand. So the only thing to do was to leave the blank there, and hope that readers would recognise the innocence of the editor and the iniquity of the censorship laws — which very few did!

It goes on to give another example of infuriating censorship, and says “It is very doubtful whether moral censorship is defensible at all: although aimed against pornography, it seems to have had little success there, and otherwise the application of the law has been memorable chiefly for its abuse.” To which one can only heartily agree. It’s hard to remember in these loosey-goosey times what things were like for writers and publishers in the bad old days.


I don’t want to neglect to write about the recent death of John Ashbery (NY Times obit). I’ve posted his poems here a number of times (2009, 2005, 2004); here’s a recent (May 5, 2016) one from the LRB (which is temporarily making their entire archive of Ashbery poems available without a subscription):


It’s beautiful, and all that:
the corner student with the carpet tunnel
or you just don’t know
where to get one
which is all that matters.
I didn’t know but what
during our recent homecoming special
very good plastic muffins were featured,
(the cement trees yesterday),

and that probably wouldn’t be a surprise.
Turn the window off.
The stars, what happens next?
Replacement issues, timid leftovers
burning in reality.

Bear with me, bears.
The radar committee (woman in bathrobe, man
in bad mood) backed down. The chosen honorees arose
or are you going up? I don’t sit with smaller operations.

The ant farm, tossed on frozen seas –
didn’t they have an old pin-up of yours?
The hairnet (stay away) protects my great big head.
In your smart capacity summon the ambassador.
And the infection? It grew.
In 1951 I really, really am, little chum.
Sorry about the vegetables. Stones’ll be pretty with that.

What do you want, John? Informally, a
new body, and an assistant.
I’ll bet the place is swarming with printers.
I wrote them yesterday. Really reached out,
plugnutty. Like the noiseless farts of antiquity
squeamishness is best, yet still.

I laughed at “very good plastic muffins” and “Bear with me, bears,” and I plan to quote “In 1951 I really, really am, little chum” to my grandsons (that was the year I was born). And “plugnutty” appears to be old slang, short for “nutty from being plugged (hit with fists)”; compare these Google Books quotes: “manned by no plug-nutty, cauliflower-eared gangsters and gunmen” (1933), “he is failing in mental calibre, and boxing circles have designated the condition of the boxer by the term ‘plug-nutty’ and other similar names” (1938).