Pasternak’s Heavenly Arson.

In early 1947, Pasternak wrote one of his best poems, Рождественская звезда [Star of the Nativity]. Here’s a bit of what Dmitry Bykov says about it in his great biography of Pasternak (which has been translated into French but not, so far, into English):

There was another reason he didn’t choose to take these events [the persecutions of writers in that year] seriously. In February 1947 “Star of the Nativity” was written, and a person who has written such verses no longer has anything to worry about.

[…] when “Star” appeared, everyone was stunned: both those who worshiped Pasternak […] and those who didn’t accept his work at all. Pasternak didn’t see these verses published in his own country: they were printed only in foreign editions of Doctor Zhivago […]. “Star of the Nativity” circulated in handwritten copies. […]

Maria Yudina wrote Pasternak that even if he’d never created anything besides “Star of the Nativity,” his immortality would be assured on earth and in heaven.

[Read more…]

No Sweeter Thing.

From the Vologda chapter of Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History (an exhilarating mix of cities, history, and literature, just the kind of book I love), a passage on Varlam Shalamov (who was from Vologda):

Shalamov and his father came into conflict over books. Unlike his unruly brother (who caused Tikhon Shalamov another kind of paternal agony), Varlam was a prodigious reader. The speed of his reading unnerved his father, who kept the keys to the family bookcase, a massive glass-fronted piece of furniture with a deep bottom section in which nothing could be seen. Shalamov remembers with precision, as bookish children do, the sequence of books on the shelves: the gospels; the poetry of Heinrich Heine without a binding; Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg; works of contemporary Russian religious philosophy (some of the same writers that Molotov read in Vologda); and the journals Family and School and Nature and People. Marx stood on the shelves beside Tolstoy. There was nothing, though, that Shalamov considered real treasure: no Shakespeare, no Dostoevsky. His father wanted him to read German philosophy by the light of the kerosene lamp, but Shalamov preferred adventure fiction: Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It was only in the house of a schoolfriend, one of the illustrious Veselovsky family (in which, Shalamov remarked, there was a distinct literary-critical gene), that he encountered a real library: ‘endless bookshelves, boxes, parcels of books, a kingdom of books that I could touch’. Throughout his childhood, his father’s cry resonated: ‘Stop reading!’ ‘Put down that book!’ ‘Turn out the light!’ After decades of absolute hunger for books in the Gulag, he perceived the hunger for books as the condition of his childhood, the condition of his whole life. His primal hunger was such that no number of books could ever slake it. There is no sweeter thing, he said, than the sight of an unread book.

I suspect many Hatters will be able to identify with that feeling. (I can still remember how the shelves were arranged in decades’ worth of bookstores and libraries, many of them long vanished from the face of the earth.)

Shalamov’s father, by the way, after parting ways with the official church (he had been, among other things, a missionary in Alaska), had gotten hired by “an anarchist millionairess named Baroness Des-Fonteines” who had been exiled to Vologda; I tried to look her up assuming her name in Russian would be Дефонтен, but eventually I discovered it was Дес-Фонтейнес. Very odd.


My brother sent me this fascinating article about remnants of “a long-lost planet as large as Mars — a 4.5 billion-year-old relic that was destroyed during the earliest days of the solar system,” and I was gobbling it up until I came to this sentence and was pulled up short: “Almahata Sitta belongs to a class of rocks known as ureilites.” It didn’t bother me that the word was unfamiliar to me; the meaning was clear enough from the context. No, it bothered me that I had no idea how to pronounce it: you-RAIL-ite? YOU-ree-il-ite? So I looked it up and it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries — too specialized, I guess, because it’s not a new word; Wikipedia says “This dark grey or brownish meteorite type is named after the village Novy Urey (Cyrillic: Новый Урей), Mordovia Republic of Russia, where a meteorite of this type fell on 4 September 1886.” But that just adds to the confusion, since now there’s also the possibility of oo-RAIL-ite, or even OO-railite. I can’t even find out how the Russian word Урей is pronounced — the Russian Wikipedia articles Урей 3-й and Урей don’t indicate stress (and the word isn’t in any of my Russian reference books either). So: if you happen to know how the English word is said by the people who deal with the thing itself, please share, and the same goes for anyone who might know the Russian stress (though that’s probably much less likely).

The Podlipnayans.

Russian literature is constantly surprising me. Sometimes I start a novel I’ve been looking forward to and give up in disgust after a hundred pages; sometimes I think I’ll just cast an eye at something because it was famous or controversial in its day and wind up getting hooked and reading the whole thing. Such is the case with Fyodor Reshetnikov‘s only well-known work, the 1864 Подлиповцы (The Podlipnayans). Reshetnikov was a provincial with a decidedly unliterary background: his father was a drunk who ran off shortly after his birth; his mother died shortly after taking him to Perm when he was less than a year old; he was left in the care of an uncle who worked for the post office and expected him to follow the same career, flogging him when he was playful or distracted and unable to concentrate on lessons; he went to a seminary where he was beaten so badly he almost died; he ran away, lived with workers and beggars, and began to read whatever materials he found lying around. He eventually found employment as a clerk in Perm and started trying to write; he got an article published in a local paper, moved to Petersburg, and wrote The Podlipnayans.

It’s one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. It’s said to be a realistic novel about barge-haulers (бурлаки), and that’s not untrue, but no barges are encountered until two-thirds of the way through and nobody hauls one until nearly the end (when the boats are going upstream from Perm). It’s actually a detailed and occasionally surrealistic account of the miserable lives of Pila and Sysoiko (the nicknames by which they are univerally known — at one point when they get arrested and the police ask their full names, they are unable to provide them). They are an inseparable pair of friends who have roles rather than personalities; they reminded me of of Vladimir and Estragon. The story begins in the tiny, wretched village Podlipnaya, north of Cherdyn in Perm province; it has half a dozen huts in a state of collapse, the soil can barely produce crops, the people and animals are constantly on the verge of starvation, and no one has any initiative or apparent desire to keep living except Pila. When he gets fed up with the misery and deaths he persuades his best friend Sysoiko to try life as bargemen, and off they go, joining a stream of similarly desperate villagers converging on the Chusovaya River, where they hear men are being hired.
[Read more…]

Evergreen Standards.

A TLS back-page roundup (from March 18, 2016) mentions Philip Furia and Laurie J. Patterson’s The American Song Book: The Tin Pan Alley Era and says:

“We call them ‘standards’”, say the American authors, while “the British, who love them as much as we do, call them ‘evergreens’”. Do they? We love them too, but never have we heard a standard called an evergreen.

Since there are a fair number of UK Hatters (or Hattics, as you prefer), I thought I’d check: do you?


I ran into a mention of the writer Geoffrey Kabaservice, and of course my first thought was “what kind of name is Kabaservice?” I did the requisite googling and came up empty (this site, for instance, says “We don’t have any information on the history of the Kabaservice name… We don’t have any information on the origins of the Kabaservice name…”). The only thing I can think of is that it could be an Anglicized form of some South Slavic name like Kojašević or Kovačević, but that’s not very convincing. As always, any nuggets of information, thoughts, or hypotheses are welcome.

The Rhodes Boysons Hour.

I was complaining bitterly about the hideous corporate-speak of an article I was editing, written by someone who had obviously had the rule of three pounded into them at an early age (and by “pounded” I mean “inculcated, instilled, and infused”), and a friend pointed me in the direction of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s brief skit “The Rhodes Boysons Hour“; it improved my lot (careful!), so I am passing it along in the hope that it will improve yours.

Sign Language Is a Superpower.

Coby McDonald writes about a new film by a deaf director, Emilio Insolera:

On April 13th, Insolera’s first feature film, Sign Gene, will make its United States debut at the Laemmle Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The plot centers on an international band of deaf people, who, thanks to a genetic mutation, can channel superpowers through their use of sign language. The independent film is a fast-paced, genre-bending romp, shot on three continents with a cast made up entirely of deaf actors and CODAs (meaning children of deaf adults). Insolera has created the movie for both deaf and hearing audiences, and says he hopes that hearing audiences will come away from it with a broadened understanding of the richness of deaf language and experience. […]

While in school, Insolera conceived of the idea of deaf superheroes who derived powers from sign language. The idea was rooted in research showing that sign language can actually boost certain mental functions, such as facial recognition and processing spatial information.

“Of course the film is a bit fantastical,” Bauman says, “but sign language does have power in a very literal cognitive sense.” […]

Sign Gene is replete with coded references to a history and culture that most hearing people know nothing about. Q.I.A. stands for QuinPar Intelligence Agency, and QuinPar refers to the five phonological components in sign language linguistics that form signs: handshape, movement, location, orientation, and non-manual signals. Agent Tom Clerc shares the surname of a famous figure in deaf history, Laurent Clerc, a deaf educator who brought sign language to the U.S. And is a reference to the Second International Congress on Deaf Education, which took place in Milan, Italy, in 1880. It was there that educators codified their recommendation to eliminate sign language from deaf education.

Hearing viewers of Sign Gene are likely to feel like they’re being dropped into the deep end of the pool. But Insolera—who writes, directs, and stars in the film—is OK with that. He hopes the experience of auditory and visual disorientation will give hearing people a window into the deaf experience.

Sounds well worth seeing, and I’m glad it managed to get made. Thanks, Trevor!


For some reason this popped into my head as I was lying abed trying to get to sleep: what famous poets are also famous translators? The first examples that came to me were the obvious ones: Pound (Cathay, Homage To Sextus Propertius), Pasternak (Shakespeare), and Robert Lowell (Imitations). I thought of Basil Bunting (“Chomei at Toyama” and translations from Persian and Latin) and Hugh MacDiarmid (great Scots translations of Russian poems in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle — see this LH comment), but (sadly) they just don’t qualify as famous except among specialists. Famous translators who also wrote poetry of their own don’t count (I once had Robert Fitzgerald sign my copy of Spring Shade, and he was touchingly pleased that someone knew his original poetry), and neither do great poets who wrote translations that are not much read (Mandelstam would be an example). I’m sure there are others, but I’m feeling lazy, so rather than rack my brains I’ll toss the question out there to the assembled multitudes.

In Fir Tar Is.

I was leafing idly through the 1951 first edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes when my eye fell on #249:

In fir tar is,
In oak none is,
In mud ells are,
In clay none are.
Goat eat ivy;
Mare eat oats.

A catch which, when said quickly, appears to be in Latin. The joke may be traced back 500 years to a medical manuscript of Henry VI’s time,
‘Is thy pott enty, Colelent? Is gote eate yvy. Mare eate ootys. Is thy cocke lyke owrs?’
The last two lines of the catch form the basis of ‘Maizy Doats’, a swing song contagious in Britain and America in 1943, the words of which were claimed as original.

A number of things caught my attention here. Fake Latin? Hmm, I guess it sounds sort of like “Infertaris, in hoc nonis,” aut similia, but after that it doesn’t sound Latinate to me. The earlier one starts something like “Isti potenti,” but again I get lost. But what really got me was the claim about “Maizy Doats” (a non-rhotic mistake that got corrected to “Mairzy Doats” in later editions, though the snotty “claimed as original” is still there) — really?? Really, apparently; see this account by Dennis Livingston, son of one of the creators of the song:

The song was inspired by Milton Drake, one of my dad’s songwriting partners. Drake had long been familiar with the phrase “mares eat oats, does eat oats,” and so on, which many children learned as a nursery rhyme. These words can be traced back to centuries-old English ditties, one of which proclaimed: “In fir tar is, in oak none is, in mud eel is, in clay none is, goat eat ivy, mare eat oats.” Slide those first words together and you sound like you’re speaking pseudo-Latin!

Early in 1942, Drake suggested that he, my dad and Al Hoffman, the third member of the team, have a go at turning “mares eat oats” into an appropriately nutty song at one of the daily brainstorming sessions they held at the Brill Building in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. It took only a few days of tossing words back and forth, with time out for creative lunch breaks over blintzes and coffee at Lindy’s delicatessen, before they succeeded.

Whodathunkit! (If you’re not familiar with “Mairzy Doats,” here’s The Pied Pipers’ 1944 version; warning: earworm.)