“Zhizn zhizn” goes a Russian saying: Life is life. Experience ultimately defeats the most elevated attempts to make sense of it. Art, science, ideas (not to mention debates over realism versus modernism), all go down before the onslaught of time and sensation. An unmediated clarity—the illusion of actual experience unfolding through actual time—characterizes Chekhov’s fiction, and also his plays, which revolutionized the theater in the way they stripped the stage of theatricality. Indeed, when the people in Chekhov’s plays dream of transforming themselves through devotion to a plan for the betterment of humankind, or through love or travel, they are yearning for the type of dramatic twist that you find in a well-constructed plot. In Chekhov’s plays, the promise and salvation of the theater are always waiting, unattainably, just offstage. The honest core of Chekhov’s art is the acknowledgment that even art is helpless in the face of life.
I just wish Siegel had expanded on the statement that the collection is “sometimes maladroitly translated.”
Incidentally, I was very happy to run across this page (from J.M. Martinez‘s Waxwing site) on the Nabokov resonances in Siegel’s novel Love in a Dead Language, including its references to the Zemblan language:
“My heart lubdubbed itself into a gyroscopic spin. Oh, her use of the precious present participle, ‘fucking,’ from the Indo-European peik, cognate with the Latin pungere, related to the Germanic ficken, purloined from the Middle Dutch fokken, associated with the Zemblan fogun, universalized in the Esperanto fuga.”
“The Kamasutra was translated into Zemblan verse by the poet Romulus Armor (1914-58), who had retired to an ashram in Rishikesh during World War II. He also translated the Bhagavadgita from Sanskrit (1943), as well as Ovid’s Ars amatoria from Latin (1925). The graphic images on screen five represent one of the semantic curiosities and wonders of Zemblan. When a woman says ‘I love you’ in that language, the mouth replicates the actions of the vagina in orgasm from the excitement phase (I/jo) through the plateau phase (love/leva) to the resolution phase (you/zua); so too, when a man says ‘I love you’ in Zemblan, his tongue imitates the movement of the penis from flaccid (I/ya [should this be ja? -LH) to the erect stage (love/lev) and back down again (you/vi). The breath is different too. This is in part a result of the fact that, in Zemblan, all personal pronouns (not simply the third-person singular as in English, nor only the third-person singular and plural ones as in French and Sanskrit) are gendered. The word for ‘I’ or ‘me’ is different for a man than for a woman; so too the gender of ‘you’ is always indicated, whether male, female, or both. Zemblan is an intensely carnal language, giving verbal expression to anatomical, physiological, and glandular activity. It is ejaculatory parlance. To say ‘I love you’ is to make love. To hold those words back, restraining premature articulation, intensifies the final release. In Zembla, being unable to speak of love is considered a kind of linguistic impotence or frigidity. ‘I (jo/ja)’ brings a drop of mucous to the lips; ‘you (zua/vi)’ causes contractions of the larynx; and ‘love (leva/lev)’ requires a high level of cortical activity. Zemblan, like many Sanskritic languages, is well suited to charades, hence Roth’s interest. The great Conmal termed Zemblan ‘the forked tongue of tongues.’”
Some Asian languages (eg, Japanese and Thai) have gender-specific first-person pronouns; does anybody know of other languages with this feature?