Eighteen Years of Languagehat.

You know, this blog has always been a comfort to me, first when I was working for Hideous Soulless Corporation and then when I had left the familiar environs of New York City and was trying to establish myself as a freelancer, but in these pestiferous times it’s more important to me than ever. I hardly see anyone but my wife from week to week, but I have all you good folks to keep me company and carry on lively conversations (many of which I can only understand scraps of, but that’s good for me). It no longer seems quite so amazing LH is still around — one does get accustomed to things — but it’s even harder to imagine giving it up. My deepest appreciation to all of you; thanks for hanging around and chatting so companionably!

A quick update on my literary adventures: I had been reading Tessa Hadley novels to my wife at night (I particularly recommend The Past), but we’re taking a break to read something both of us, George Eliot fans that we are, have been wanting to try, Daniel Deronda. So far it’s a delight (and reminds me of Russian novels set in German spas where gamblers congregate). In Russian, I read a bunch of Andrei Bitov stories (recommended: «Большой шар” [The big balloon], about a little girl who falls in love with a big red balloon, and «Инфантьев» [Infantyev], about a guy mourning his wife); then I went back to the 19th century and read Chekhov’s famous «Палата № 6» (“Ward No. 6”), which is very good indeed, and Leskov’s 1893 «Загон» (The cattle pen), which is frustrating in the same way so much Leskov is frustrating: the writing is excellent, the individual anecdotes are often hilarious, but the thing doesn’t hang together. Leskov had no sense of form — it starts with stories of Russian peasants refusing to accept Western improvements in farming and ends with stories about thievery, fakery, and Baltic churches, all supposed to be somehow connected with the idea of Russia as a cattle pen walled off from the world. Now I’m going to return to the 20th century and read my first Trifonov, the 1969 «Обмен» [The Exchange].

Here’s a passage from towards the end of the second Bitov story that I greatly enjoyed. Infantyev is having a talk with a woman he meets at his wife’s grave; she says his grandfather must have been a priest, and he denies it:

“Sure he was! This is so interesting!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s those provincial priests who thought up such strange family names in Russia. When the basic churchly names had been used up — Preobrazhensky, Voskresensky, Uspensky, Bogoyavlensky — then they started to dream up new ones, and it didn’t matter if they were obscure as long as they sounded good. For example, I’m friends with a priest by the name of Fenomenov, and now here you are: Infantyev.”

“Mm-hm…” Infantyev muttered without knowing how to respond. Then he found something to say: “Like in the circus.”

The woman was overjoyed: “Exactly! Artistic names too. What an acute observation! In the circus they’re often Italian, but there’s also the Almazovs, the Izumrudovs. I never thought about that. Here’s something interesting: there’s a family of actors named Monakhov, and they’re from priests. Must be the same thing: the father’s a priest, the son an actor. Get it? Drama, conflict?”

The Russian:

— А как же, а как же! Это так интересно!.. — восклицала женщина. — Это как раз провинциальные священники такие странные фамилии на Руси напридумывали. Когда основные церковные фамилии были уже все разобраны — Преображенский, Воскресенский, Успенский, Богоявленский… то и стали выдумывать понепонятней, лишь бы красиво: я, например, дружу с батюшкой по фамилии Феноменов… вот и вы — Инфантьев.

— М-да, — ничего не сказал Инфантьев. Потом все-таки нашелся: — Как в цирке.

— Именно, именно! Артистические фамилии тоже… — обрадовалась женщина. — Какое тонкое наблюдение! В цирке чаще итальянские, но и Алмазовы, Изумрудовы. Очень. Я никогда так не думала. Вот интересно: Монахов — такая актерская фамилия, а ведь из священников. Наверное, тоже: отец — священник, сын — актер. Представляете, драма? конфликт?

The piquant thing here is that Monakhov is the name of Bitov’s later autobiographical protagonist (a story sequence from the 1970s is called Улетающий Монахов [Monakhov flying away]).

Comments

  1. Stu Clayton says:

    How about toning down the valedictory harmonics ? There are people here who are older than you. They are susceptible to that kind of thing, it only promotes self-pity. Silence and cunning are the ticket to immortality – or, failing those, a blog.

  2. PlasticPaddy says:

    Re flying monk: I was reminded of the film Vy. Or is this a common Russian image? Sorry also Tarkovsky Andrei Rublev. But was that after the book?

  3. How about toning down the valedictory harmonics ?

    I have absolutely no idea what prompted that. I’ve been doing these posts annually since 2003 (and semiannually before that); hadn’t you noticed?

  4. Michelle says:

    Hello and congrats on 18 years.

  5. Thanks!

  6. I think it’s a common problem for short story writers who want to author a book-length collection that is based around just a theme (or motif), with all the stories having their own separate plots, characters, and settings. It doesn’t always happen this way, obviously, but frequently the author will run out of ways of tying things into the central theme, and the later (written) stories may seem increasingly unrelated to what was supposed to be that unifying element.

  7. Just today we were asked, an umpteenth time, about the surname Levitsky and “is it Jewish” (with a few exceptions, not). The “seminary surnames” are a huge source of false impressions in genealogy. I suspect that Bitov got his onomastics wrong and Almazov was also a “seminarist surname” BTW. As for Monakhov … if the stem is Greek then it’s a given that it’s an Orthodox Christian priestly name (even Monosov can be found among them). Latin stems can be present in Poland among the Roman Catholics as well as in Eastern European priestly lineages.

    Congrats LH! BTW did you get my email with a dialectlogy XXI c. link?

  8. I think it’s a common problem for short story writers who want to author a book-length collection that is based around just a theme (or motif), with all the stories having their own separate plots, characters, and settings.

    Yes, but this isn’t that. It’s not a book but a longish essay, a sort of “Life in These Russias” thumbsucker with ambitions to convince people to bash holes in the wall surrounding the country and let the enlightenment in. Unfortunately, it was ignored by everyone but Tolstoy (who liked it).

  9. BTW did you get my email with a dialectlogy XXI c. link?

    Yes, but I haven’t investigated it yet — thanks for sending it!

  10. AJP Crown says:

    Stu is indeed older than us in dog years. Congratulations Language, and I’m sort of mirroring you, marooned on the other side of the Atlantic. These days I do see my daughter once a day around dinner time as well as my wife, the dogs & the next door cows, but LH is an important link to the outside world for me too.

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    Stu only mentions two-thirds of the traditional trilogy of “silence, exile and cunning” but maybe given his own expatriated-from-El-Paso self the middle one seemed too obvious to mention?

  12. OED citations:
    c1571 E. Campion Two Bks. Hist. Ireland i. ix. 33 The Barbarians hyghlie honored him for his cunninge in all languages.
    a1718 W. Penn Maxims in Wks. I. 828 Cunning borders very near upon Knavery.

  13. David L says:

    Cunning borders very near upon Knavery

    Oh, I agree. A charmless pair of villages, ill-kept and populated by sullen, suspicious inhabitants.

    I can’t remember when I first came across the Hattery, but I always enjoy my visits, even when I have when I have nothing of value to add to the conversation, and add it anyway.

  14. Congratulations Hat! Loving your blog since the takedown of DFW…

  15. Trond Engen says:

    I always thought “valedictory” meant something like “congratulatory”, only a little more smug. I finally looked it up, and I’m happy to see I was wrong.

    Well, you would have had all reason in the world to congratulate yourself smugly. 18 years! Has anyone else done anything like it?

  16. Bathrobe says:

    18 years is long enough for a wailing brat to develop into a delinquent, drunken teenager.

    Luckily were are beyond that stage of life; this 18 years has been long period of stable, mellow fruitfulness.

    Contratulations to Hat for providing such an amazing opportunity for a meeting of minds.

  17. Congratulations Hat and wishing you many more!

  18. I remember my younger brother, at about age six, hearing the word “cunning” on a record we were listening to (The Time Machine) and mistaking it for “cutting.” I don’t know what he thought it meant though, since the content of his comment about the the Eloi’s “cutting” involved a misremembering of the plot of the story and would have made no sense even if he had known the correct word.

  19. John Cowan says:

    Well, now you can take a stab at understanding this poem by G. K. Chesterton:

    In the city set upon slime and loam
    They cry in their parliament ‘Who goes home?’
    And there comes no answer in arch or dome,
    For none in the city of graves goes home.
    Yet these shall perish and understand,
    For God has pity on this great land.

    Men that are men again; who goes home?
    Tocsin and trumpeter! Who goes home?
    For there’s blood on the field and blood on the foam
    And blood on the body when Man goes home.
    And a voice valedictory . . . Who is for Victory?
    Who is for Liberty? Who goes home?

    (The doorkeepers of the House of Commons cry “Who goes home?” at the end of a daily session, which usually happens far into the night. This probably reflects members who formerly went home in groups, either to find a ferryman or to protect themselves from bandits lurking in the fields between Westminster and London.)

  20. I don’t know how you do it. Well, I kind of do. I’m glad that you’re here to show that it can be done. Thank you!

    I’ve lost track at some point. Weren’t you going to systematically read trough the corpus of 19th century Russian fiction? Did you step off that at Dostoyevsky?

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    万歳!

  22. Weren’t you going to systematically read trough the corpus of 19th century Russian fiction?

    Yup.

    Did you step off that at Dostoyevsky?

    Yup. Now I go back and forth between the 1890s and the 1960s.

  23. Лет до ста расти вам без старости!

  24. >many of which I can only understand scraps of, but that’s good for me

    Even more true for many of us. Thanks and congrats.

  25. Joining the good wishes. This is the only place on the internets that I visit almost every day.

  26. Crawdad Tom says:

    Congratulations, and many thanks for all the interesting material and stimulating discussions.

  27. And you do know about the mystic significance of the number 18.

    https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/410390584791449586/

  28. Lá breithe sona duit! Hat go Brách!

    (hope I got that right)

  29. Long live the Hat! You have more friends and followers than you know!

  30. You are one of very few refuges in my mental life. Which of course is about the only life left me…

    Forza Borsalino ! Forza Hat !

  31. Congratulations! Happy to still read you.
    I had to skim again to see what congratulatory ‚harmonics‘ were, but found no clue.

  32. Michael Eochaidh says:

    Congratulations!

  33. In the past 18 years, your blog has compelled me to not just purchase a book in Russian, but to open it. Hopefully in the next 18 years it’ll convince me to start reading it, too! 😀

    Congrats, Hat!

  34. Languagehat and Wikipedia are the only sites on the Internet with wonderful variety, thanks to
    the Hatman!

  35. Congratulations! Though I rarely comment, I have had this site on my RSS feed since sometime 2006 (first Google Reader, then Feedly after the former was discontinued). I’ve read every single post since then, albeit some with greater attention than others. I can’t say that about any other blog or website.

  36. Denis Akhapkin says:

    Congratulations and thank you for this blog that prompted me so often to go beyond the standard university reading list of Russian literature

  37. Congratulations and thank you for this blog that prompted me so often to go beyond the standard university reading list of Russian literature

    You have warmed my heart; that is one of my secret ambitions.

  38. Congrats on a solid body of work.
    Here’s what I like about this blog:
    – I like learning new stuff
    – I like showing off what I know
    – I like arguing with intelligent people
    – I like being prompted to research something by an observation in a post or a random comment
    – I like being pointed to new books or reminded of old ones (I am now half-way through The Five, which I’d never heard of, and years ago a phrase in a post helped me remember the name of the novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead, which I thought I’d never find again)
    – I like the authorial voice, which is friendly, knowledgeable, and curious, and never pompous or hectoring or rude.
    I like escaping from politics.
    I look forward to many more years of reading and interacting with you and your other readers. Thanks again.

  39. Belated blog birthday greetings, Languagehat!

  40. Belated happy birthday, Mr. Hat!

  41. The blog thanks you, and says you needn’t call it Mr. — plain “Hat” or “LH” will do. It’s a hardy but unassuming blog.

  42. Happy anniversary, lh! I really enjoy those posts I can actually understand and the even fewer that I can add something to, so thanks from the other side of the Pond.

  43. Ben Tolley says:

    Congratulations!

    I first found my way here from Language Log’s blogroll about fifteen years ago. I regularly looked at probably a couple of dozen blogs on there on a regular basis, and I’ve watched most of them peter out or simply stop posting anything I find worthwhile (the Log itself, sadly, falling into the latter category) while you’ve kept going strong, and I’m hugely grateful for it. You might not have got me reading Russian literature, but you’ve sometimes made me seriously consider it, which is an achievement in itself. I’m not sure what valedictory harmonics are, but if there are any present, they don’t seem to be causing me any discomfort, so long may you continue in the same vein!

  44. That’s good to hear; I’ll try to stay out of the Bog of Nonworthwhileness.

  45. Stu Clayton says:

    So you finally clicked that I was joshing you for Bogging. How was I to know that “valedictory” is often understood as meaning “congratulatory” ?

  46. So you finally clicked that I was joshing you for Bogging. How was I to know that “valedictory” is often understood as meaning “congratulatory” ?

    I didn’t know that either, and I still have no idea what you were on about.

  47. Trond Engen says:

    Is it often understood that way by anyone else but me (until Friday)?

  48. I put Daniel Deronda on my Master’s orals list 30 years ago just because everyone else in my sub-field automatically put Middlemarch on. I also figured my committee was unlikely to actually ask me about it. I was wrong.

    High time for a reread, though, as I remember zip about it–other than that it’s Eliot’s “Jewish question” novel, of course. With its page-count, it would also dovetail nicely with most of my 2020 reading, which has focused on “extremely long works I’d probably never have gotten around to but for Covid-19 isolation” (e.g. Kristin Lavransdatter; The Dying Grass; Clarissa (the last of which I’ve yet to finish)).

  49. Hey, I should finally get around to Kristin Lavransdatter

  50. gwenllian says:

    Belated congratulations, Hat! I don’t usually have much to contribute so I rarely leave comments, but I read and enjoy the posts regularly, even when I have trouble following even scraps of them. Thank you for this wonderful blog and for so many years of interesting content!

  51. Martin Schwartz says:

    Re Bitov’s peronal names Almazov and Izumrudov, resp. based on ‘diamond’ and ’emerald’; the Russian bases have Perso-Arabic origins. Eng. diamond and emerald are etymologically connected with these!

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