Grossman and Shalamov.

Reviewing Nature’s Embrace the other day reminded me that two books sent by the publisher, the excellent New York Review Books, have been sitting around for months waiting for me to get around to them; for one reason and another, even though I’m excited about them and am looking forward to reading them, I haven’t yet and probably won’t get to them for some time, so guilt is forcing me to at least let you know that they exist and are worth having.

Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is the precursor to his great Life and Fate (which I wrote about here); it’s been translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and you can read the publisher’s blurb and quotes from rave reviews here.

Varlam Shalamov’s Sketches of the Criminal World, translated by Donald Rayfield, contains those Kolyma stories not included in the collection I raved about here; I’m sure everything I said there is applicable to this handsome volume, and it’s wonderful that these dense, sometimes unbearable masterpieces are available in full to the English-speaking reader.

My thanks go out as always to NYRB, which publishes great books and makes them available to a wide audience. Keep it up!


Another from the e-mail archives, Plautdietsch:

Welcome to this Plautdietsch Web Site. This site is intended to help preserve and promote the use of Plautdietsch as a spoken language. Most text in this web page will be in English but the audio/video resources available through this web site are primarily in the Plautdietsch language. It is hoped that people will be able to use these audio resources to listen to, and enjoy the sound of this ancient language being spoken.

There is much confusion between the meaning of Mennonite as a religion, and the association of the European origin Mennonites with the Plautdietsch language they evolved from the local Low Saxon language of the Vistula Valley in what was then Prussia, and the Pennsylvania Dutch that evolved in Switzerland and the closely surrounding areas of Germany. Many people are not aware that there are currently more non-European origin religious Mennonites around the world than there are the historical Mennonites that at one time or currently speak either Plautdietsch or Pennsylvania Dutch.

“Plautdietsch, or Mennonite Low German, was originally a Low Prussian variety of East Low Saxon (German), with Dutch influence, that developed in the 16th and 17th Century in the Vistula delta area of Royal Prussia, today Polish territory. The word is etymologically cognate with Plattdeutsch, or Low German. Plaut is the same word as German platt or Dutch plat, meaning ‘Low’, but the name Dietsch = Dutch Diets, meaning ‘ordinary language, language of the people’; whereas Deitsch can only refer to German Deutsch.

The language (or groups of dialects of Low German) is spoken in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Honduras, Belize, and Argentina by over 300,000 Mennonites. They are members of a religious group that originally fled from Holland and Belgium in the 1500s to escape persecution, and who eventually resettled in these areas. They introduced and developed their particular East Low German dialect, the so-called Weichselplatt, while they came to and lived in the Vistula delta area, beginning in the early-to-mid 1500s. These colonists from the Low Countries were especially welcome there because of their experience with and knowledge of land reclaiming and making polders. As Mennonites they kept their own (primarily Dutch and Low-German) identity, using their Dutch/Low German language. Their East Low German dialect is still to be classified as Low Prussian, or simply Prussian.

Again, the fact that it’s a seven-year-old link is regrettable in terms of my ability to keep up with correspondence, but that the site has lasted so long is a recommendation. Thanks, Al!

Lyfe (Pronounced “loif”).

Philip Ball writes for the Observer about the ever-popular question of extraterrestrial life, which is not an LH concern (for what it’s worth, my take is that I would be astonished if there were none, but surprised if we find any in the foreseeable future, and by “find” I mean find actual living beings, not “signs pointing unmistakably”). What is LH material is this odd linguistic suggestion:

[Stuart] Bartlett, working with astrobiologist Michael Wong of the University of Washington in Seattle, argues that we need to escape the straitjacket of Earth-based thinking about life. They propose introducing a broader category called “lyfe” (pronounced, in an oddly West Country fashion, as “loif”), of which life as we know it is just one variation. “Our proposal attempts to break free of some of the potential prejudices due to us being part of this one instantiation of lyfe,” says Bartlett.

They suggest four criteria for lyfe:

1. It draws on energy sources in its environment that keep it from becoming uniform and unchanging.

2. It grows exponentially (for example by replication).

3. It can regulate itself to stay stable in a changing environment.

4. It learns and remembers information about that environment. Darwinian evolution is an example of such learning over very long timescales: genes preserve useful adaptations to particular circumstances.

The two researchers say there are “sublyfe” systems that only meet some of these criteria, and also perhaps “superlyfe” that meets additional ones: lyfe forms that have capabilities beyond ours and that might look on us as we do on complex but non-living processes such as crystal growth.

“Our hope is that this definition frees our imaginations enough to not miss lyfe that might be hiding in plain sight,” says Bartlett. He and Wong suggest that some lyving organisms might use energy sources untapped here on Earth, such as magnetic fields or kinetic energy, the energy of motion. “There is no known life form that directly harnesses kinetic energy into its metabolism,” says Bartlett.

I rarely try to predict the future, but I will make a prediction about this: it will not catch on. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Dialect Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Going through my old unread e-mail file, I found the Dialect Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador:

The online Dialect Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador was formally launched on October 23, 2013, to considerable media attention. More than a decade in the making, it documents regional differences in selected features of pronunciation, morphosyntax (grammar) and lexicon within the spoken English of the province. Its “structural” component – grounded in regional dialect data for traditional speakers in 69 coastal communities on the island of Newfoundland, assembled in the 1970s and 1980s by linguist Harold Paddock – expands the original project to include information on the geographical distribution of 31 features of pronunciation and 27 features of grammar. Its lexical (“words”) component documents responses to a 566-item questionnaire from 126 traditional speakers in twenty representative communities, in both the island and Labrador portions of the province. […]

One of the very few online dialect atlases in the English-speaking world, the Atlas is designed to appeal not simply to scholars, educators and students, but also to the public at large. An important component is the provision of thousands of illustrative audio clips for the Atlas’ pronunciation features, thereby enabling web users to hear the actual voices of Newfoundland speakers born as early as 1871. An “Activities” section provides site visitors with an opportunity to test their knowledge of – and increase their familiarity with – Newfoundland and Labrador English, in a dynamic and interactive environment. The Atlas also invites contributions and comments concerning current and observed usage of local features of English.

As Stan Carey, who sent it to me almost seven years ago, said: “This is a delight.” And it’s still there after all this time, so it’s no fly-by-night site. Belated thanks, Stan!

Table and Mirror.

I had occasion to consult the Russian Wikipedia page for Lake Imandra (the stress is on the first syllable), and I was confused by the first sentence, which said it was “14-е в России по площади водного зеркала” [14th in Russia by surface of the water mirror]. I figured водное зеркало, literally ‘water mirror,’ must mean something else, and sure enough Wikipedia says “Водное зеркало — водная поверхность поверхностных открытых водоёмов или подземных ненапорных вод” [Water mirror — the water surface of open bodies of surface water or underground waters not under pressure (? — I am not a hydrographer)], which makes sense, though I don’t know why they wouldn’t just say “14-е в России по поверхности.” But! My large Russian-English dictionary defines водное зеркало as “water table,” which is entirely different (Wikipedia: “The water table is the upper surface of the zone of saturation”). Furthermore, the translations in Reverso Context use “water table.” That’s presumably not valid for the Imandra sentence, but the murky situation makes me itchy, and if anyone can clear it up I’ll be grateful. (Is водное зеркало a phrase most Russians are familiar with?)

Nature’s Embrace.

Patrick Wang kindly offered to send me his new book, Nature’s Embrace: The Poetry of Ivan Bunin. I was thrilled by the very idea — I didn’t think anybody but me (and Russians, of course) appreciated Bunin’s poetry! — and said “sure,” and today the book arrived. It’s a very handsome blue paperback with over a hundred poems; I looked for one of my favorites, Спокойный взор, подобный взору лани, and there it was, pleasingly rendered as:

That peaceful gaze, the way a doe will gaze,
And all that I had loved in it so dearly,
I still had not forgotten in my grieving,
But nowadays your image is a haze.

And there will come a day—when grief will lessen,
When all the reminiscing fades to blue,
Where there is neither happiness nor gloom,
And there will only be forgiving distance.

And here’s a lovely bit from “Lucifer” [Люцифер]:

Here’s Eden, Lebanon. The dawn burns crimson.
The snowy peaks — like silk. On slopes the herds
Flow through the caves.

I wish more people would take time off from being economists and movie directors to translate Russian poetry!

Nikolai Nikolaevich.

I just finished one of the two great samizdat hits of 1970, Yuz Aleshkovsky‘s Николай Николаевич [Nikolai Nikolaevich]. It was passed around and eagerly copied by people with typewriters, even memorized and endlessly quoted; finally, in 1980, after the author emigrated to the US, it was published by Ardis (which rescued so much Russian literature from official oblivion). I had previously revered Aleshkovsky for his immortal song about the Gulag “Товарищ Сталин, вы большой ученый” (“Comrade Stalin, you are a great scholar”; the text is here, and you can read Boris Dralyuk’s lively translation, as well as hear Aleshkovsky sing it, here); of course, I was immediately grabbed by the second line, “В языкознаньи знаете Вы толк” [you know linguistics well]. I had wanted to read his famous first novel for a long time, but it’s a good thing I didn’t try back in the pre-internet days, because I wouldn’t have been able to make my way through its astonishing prose, so dense with idiom, slang, and profanity that even now I have to google something in every paragraph that you won’t find in dictionaries. Andrei Bitov wrote about it here; he describes the new language that arose after the Revolution, used by writers like Zoshchenko and Dobychin but driven underground by Stalin, who separated literature from the living language. He says Aleshkovsky used this living language first in his songs and then in the novel: “советский язык прошел свое литературное развитие от песни до рыцарского романа, и советская литература наконец родилась!” [the Soviet language passed through its literary development from song to chivalric romance, and Soviet literature at last was born!].

So what’s it about? The titular Nikolai, a young pickpocket who has done time and is now working the tram and trolley lines of Moscow, is warned by his aunt that Beria is raising the penalties drastically, so he’d better take up some other line of work. She gets him a job in a biological institute, where after he refuses to push brooms around he is given work as a sperm donor, and once the researcher who hired him, Kimza, realizes the superhuman power of his sperm he starts living the good life (he naturally demands an increase in pay and regular vodka rations). He also falls in love with the lab assistant Vlada; unfortunately, Kimza is also in love with her, and she is married to a third man. Then the Lysenkoists stage a coup, firing the director and destroying the experiments as anti-Soviet (they are accused of “Morganism,” which Nikolai thinks involves necrophilia in a morgue), and things look pretty dicey, but they turn out well after Stalin dies. It’s short and delightful, and there’s an English translation by Duffield White (available in Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage: Two Novels) that the author was consulted on, so it should be reliable; if you have a TLS subscription or haven’t hit the paywall, you can read Dralyuk’s review here (“Joseph Brodsky once noted that Aleshkovsky had a Mozartian ear for the Russian language”).

A couple of random things I enjoyed: the международный урка [international hoodlum] who serves as a mentor to Nikolai is said to know “три языка […] и четыре ‘фени’: польский, немецкий и финляндский” [three languages and four criminal jargons: Polish, German, and Finnish], and at one point Nikolai masturbates while reading Далеко от Москвы (Far from Moscow), a well-known “production novel” from 1948 in which conflicts are artificial, “the most important technological ideas always occur to the various characters simultaneously,” and Gulag labor is presented as free workers’ heroic sacrifices for the building of communism. Also, I should warn the prospective reader that there is a new “upgrade” edition of the novel Aleshkovsky produced a few years ago that is apparently completely rewritten; I read the original, which is also the basis for the translation.

Next I’ll be reading the other great samizdat hit of 1970, a true classic of Russian literature, Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki. I first read it over two decades ago, and it bowled me over (as it does everyone); there was a lot that zipped right by me then, and I’m looking forward to re-experiencing it now that I have a lot more Russian and Russian literature under my belt (it’s full of literary allusions). The two books have a good bit in common, featuring a young man on the fringes of society madly in love and drinking heavily, but Aleshkovsky’s book is a comedy and Erofeev’s a tragedy (furthermore, as best I can remember, it doesn’t have any actual curse words in it, though a lot of cursing is implied). I plan to read it in tandem with the acclaimed new critical biography Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The outsider; see this post of Lizok’s), and I expect I will report on it when I’m done.

A Middle English Vocabulary.

Again going through my unread-mail file, I discovered that years ago longtime LH commenter Paul Treuthardt sent me a link to A Middle English Vocabulary, Designed for use with Sisam’s Fourteenth Century by J. R. R. Tolkien, adding “This is the opening of his introductury Note (admirable, I think)”:

This glossary does not aim at completeness, and it is not primarily a glossary of rare or ‘hard’ words. A good working knowledge of Middle English depends less on the possession of an abstruse vocabulary than on familiarity with the ordinary machinery of expression — with the precise forms and meanings that common words may assume; with the uses of such innocent-looking little words as the prepositions of and for; with idiomatic phrases, some fresh-minted and some worn thin, but all likely to recur again and again in an age whose authors took no pains to avoid usual or hackneyed turns of expression. These are the features of the older language which an English reader is predisposed to pass over, satisfied with a half-recognition: and space seldom permits of their adequate treatment in a compendious general dictionary or the word-list to a single text. So in making a glossary for use with a book itself designed to be a preparation for the reading of complete texts, I have given exceptionally full treatment to what may rightly be called the backbone of the language.

Admirable indeed; alas, I have just discovered that Paul died in 2017. Hard to believe I’m just finding out; I miss him already.


A very kind LH reader sent me a copy of John Burnside’s The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century (thanks, Michael!), and I’m slowly making my way through it — each chapter discusses one or two poets, and I enjoy taking a break after each to digest the poems and Burnside’s thoughts. At the moment I’m reading the chapter called “A Very Young Policeman Exploding,” about Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas (you can perhaps see it at Google Books; the title is from Thomas’s description of Crane’s his own early poems, “with their vehement beat-pounding black and green rhythms like those of a very young policeman exploding”). Crane is the first of the poets Burnside covers who is essentially alien to me; as a young man I tried to make my way into his work but gave it up on grounds of incomprehensibility, as I did with Jacques Derrida. Burnside makes an impassioned case for him that convinces me he was up to something real, but my little Doubleday Anchor Complete Poems may well go another decade or two without being opened again (I must have had it for half a century now). At any rate, the poem he focuses on is “The Wine Menagerie,” set in a bar (necessarily, in 1926, a speakeasy, as Burnside points out), and it begins:

Invariably when wine redeems the sight,
Narrowing the mustard scansions of the eyes,
A leopard ranging always in the brow
Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze.

Then glozening decanters that reflect the street
Wear me in crescents on their bellies. Slow
Applause flows into liquid cynosures:
— I am conscripted to their shadows’ glow.

(Burnside says “‘Mustard scansions’? Did that mean something? Anything? In literal terms, I didn’t think so…”) Leaving the general phantasmagoria aside, what strikes me is the word, or alleged word, “glozening”; it appears to exist only here in the entire corpus of the English language. It seems to be Crane’s extension of the verb gloze “To minimize or underplay” or “To use flattery or cajolery,” originally the same word as gloss “brief explanatory note or translation” (from Greek glōssa ‘tongue, language’), but why? If your poetic vision insists on your using a phrase like “mustard scansions,” fine — at least we can try to make our own sense out of those violently juxtaposed concepts — but what’s the point of making up a word that just (as far as I can see) adds to the general sloppiness? Is it to suggest the drunk’s creative language use? All I can say is, it doesn’t work for me.

While I’m on the topic of the Burnside book, I’ll mention a couple of errors that are unimportant but that amused me. In the introduction he writes:

[…] poetry is a way of ordering experience, of giving a meaningful order to lived time – and that that process of ordering could be summed up in a phrase from the Old Irish, a phrase that is first found in a tale of the Fianna-Finn, who, during a break from hunting, begin to debate what might constitute ‘the finest music in the world’. […] Finally, they turn to their chief, Fionn, and ask him what he would choose, to which he replies: ‘The music of what happens … that is the finest music in the world.’

A lovely sentiment, but as soon as I read it I thought “that can’t possibly be Old Irish,” and sure enough it seems to have been composed by James Stephens in 1920. And earlier in the introduction he discusses Lev Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, saying “Anna Akhmatova survived, but the regime punished her indirectly by persecuting her son with Gumilev, Lev Nikolayevich, who would spend the best part of eighteen years, off and on, in Stalin’s labour camps.” Understandably but hilariously, the index includes an entry “Nikolayevich, Lev, 3.”

How to Read Aloud.

Bathrobe sent me a link to How to Read Aloud, Irina Dumitrescu’s review (LRB, 10 September 2020) of Voices and Books in the English Renaissance: A New History of Reading by Jennifer Richards and Learning Languages in Early Modern England by John Gallagher (both Oxford 2019), with the comment “Very interesting! Touches on several LH issues, including multilingualism, foreign language learning, and the virtues of reading out loud.” It sure is, and I hope you haven’t used up your free-article quota for the month (it was my last freebie) so you can read the whole thing. I’ll quote some particularly juicy bits, but it’s all good:

In the British Isles as in the rest of Europe, most instruction in other subjects took place in Latin. From the early Middle Ages into the Renaissance, skill in Latin was a marker of elite status, as it still is, but it was also of practical use for international travel and communication. It was taught using many of the same techniques employed for modern foreign languages today: singing, lively dialogues, reciting poetry, taking dictation and giving speeches. Pupils learned the language orally, in other words, as well as through grammar and the translation of set phrases. […]

It is easy to overlook how loud premodern education was. Most of our evidence for more than a thousand years of teaching consists of books, and, to the modern way of thinking, books are objects used silently. That this was not the usual way of doing things for much of Western history is now better known, though still difficult fully to understand. In a famous anecdote in the Confessions, Augustine describes seeing Ambrose of Milan reading on his own without making a sound. Ambrose was not the first person in history to read silently, but his quiet, private reading was unusual enough to make an impression. Augustine wondered whether Ambrose did it to preserve his voice or because someone might overhear him reading a difficult passage and ask him to explain it. Scholars have, in turn, asked why Augustine found Ambrose’s silent reading noteworthy: was it simply his ability to do it, or the peculiarity of his solitude?

What’s clear is that reading was, for most people, a fundamentally social act. […] Jennifer Richards’s excellent Voices and Books in the English Renaissance challenges the view of early modern books as objects for quiet use. She begins by noting how much scholarly work on Renaissance books focuses on traces associated with silent reading, especially the annotations readers used to help them absorb the material, to note parallel passages, or to mark their reactions to certain passages. Oral performance leaves no obvious marks behind. […] She encourages us to see the history of books in the early modern period differently by acknowledging the importance vocal work still has in our reading. […]

As their education progressed, pupils had to learn how to read books out loud. Richards shows how the choices early modern printers made in typesetting and punctuating books helped readers to speak them. Early modern educators, like their modern counterparts, had to deal with the peculiar challenges posed by English: confusing homonyms, plentiful loan words, and irrational spelling conventions. Edmund Coote helped readers of The English Schoole-Maister (1596) navigate difficult vocabulary by printing a list of tricky words at the end of the book. Loan words from Latin and Greek appeared in Roman type, French words were rendered in italics, and words of English origin in blackletter. […]

[Read more…]