NABOKOV ALOUD.

Frequent commenter Jim Salant sent me a link a while back to a reading by Mary Gaitskill of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Symbols and Signs” (as they call it) and a discussion with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman (pronounced TREECE-man). Here‘s a direct link to the mp3 file, in case you want to download it rather than playing it from the linked page, and here‘s the story itself, one of the best Nabokov (or anyone) ever wrote (if you don’t mind a little metaphysical mystery in your fiction). You will notice that the story is called “Signs and Symbols” at that last link, as it is in all available collections and in The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov (a superb collection of essays discussing every aspect of his writing); I was all set to be grumpy about the sloppy mistitling, but then in the discussion after the reading Treisman explains that Katherine White, who edited it for The New Yorker, insisted on changing the title over Nabokov’s objections, so that it appeared in the magazine as “Symbols and Signs.” I find it odd that they keep that title now, but I guess it’s one of those New Yorker quirks.
At any rate, Gaitskell reads well, barring a couple of mispronunciations that momentarily bothered me: Bori-SOV-na for Bo-RIS-ovna (daughter of Boris, feminine equivalent of Borisovich) is understandable, but the spelling pronunciation of “victuals” makes me unreasonably annoyed (it’s vittles, dammit!). And in the discussion they point out some interesting things, for instance that “beech plum” (as Nabokov writes it) is actually “beach” (OED cite: 1877 BARTLETT Dict. Amer. 550 Sand-Plum,.. a beach-plum. A plum growing on plum-trees whose habitat is sandy beaches)—although I find the suggestion that this has something to do with Buchenwald implausible (and that goes double for the suggestion that the “picture in a book” the son is afraid of is Breughel’s “Triumph of Death“—one look at it makes it impossible to imagine its being called “an idyllic landscape”).
While we’re on the subject of Nabokov: as I’ve mentioned before, I’m rereading Evgenii Onegin and following along in his commentary, and concerning V:XVI:4 he writes “big funeral: Perhaps a recollection of the burial of Onegin’s uncle… The allusion is to the noisy arval, the feast following the actual interment.” I wrote Anatoly, to whom I frequently turn for help with Russian (and who has temporarily taken down his Live Journal, which I keep clicking on in hopes it’s returned), “I can’t find arval (I also tried orval) in any of my dictionaries, even Dahl, so I’m assuming it’s a misprint, but I can’t think for what. I know the word trizna for funeral feast, but that’s not even close.” Anatoly didn’t know any Russian words that seemed relevant, but suggested I check my Webster’s Third New International, saying “N. got a lot of his more obscure words out of his trusty M-W 2nd edition.” It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be English, but sure enough, there it was:
arval also arvel n. [ME arvell, of Scand. origin; akin to ON. erfiöl, fr. erfi inheritance, funeral feast + öl ale, drinking bout, banquet; akin to ON. arfi inheritance] dial. Brit: a funeral feast
As I said in my response, “Damn that guy and his terminally obscure terms!”

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    Did I hear the name “Pushkin”?
    However, the poisoning tradition has produced one authentic masterpiece, Pushkin’s short dramatic dialogue Mozart and Salieri, conceived in 1826, only one year after Salieri’s death, when the rumors of his confession were still in the air, and completed in 1830. In the Pushkin play (later set by Rimsky-Korsakov as an opera), Salieri poisons Mozart both because Mozart’s superior gifts have made Salieri’s lifelong devotion to music meaningless and because Mozart has introduced Salieri’s soul to the bitterness of envy. Unlike many of Mozart’s later admirers, Pushkin does not depict Salieri as a mediocre hack but rather as a dedicated musician who was intent on the perfection of his craft and was able to appreciate innovative genius (as in the case of his master, Gluck) and to assimilate it into his own development.
    However, Salieri refers to himself as a “priest” of music to whom his art is holy and serious. He is enraged by Mozart’s free, creative spirit and by what he sees as Mozart’s light-hearted, almost negligent, relation to the products of his genius. Salieri’s assessment of his rival is confirmed for him by the joy Mozart takes in a dreadful performance of an air from Figaro by a blind fiddler.
    As was true in their real lives, both Salieri and Mozart in Pushkin’s pages inhabit a world where poisoning is assumed to be a possible event even in the lives of famous and civilized men. Mozart refers to the rumor that “Beaumarchais once poisoned someone,” and Salieri alludes to a tradition that Michelangelo murdered to provide a dead model for a Crucifixion. In Pushkin’s version the murder of Mozart provides no relief for Salieri’s torment, but only furnishes final proof of his inferiority. At the close of the play Salieri is haunted by Mozart’s observation immediately before being poisoned that “genius and crime are two incompatible things.” Link
    Rimsky-Korsakoff made Pushkin’s piece into an opera. It is said that he saw himself as Salieri and Musorgski as Mozart.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    In Glenn Gould’s opinion, Mozart didn’t die too young but on the contrary outlived his best years and was declining into mediocrity when Providence, or Salieri, removed him from the scene. (I am very far from agreeing with this view–think of the Clarinet Concerto–and suspect Gould was just being perverse.)

  3. These days we call it “gravøl” – ‘wake’.
    Vittles?! How odd. I’d have gone for the spelling pronunciation too, since we have the word (pronounced thus) in Danish too.

  4. John Emerson says:

    Glenn Gould may have been pulling someone’s leg. And as I understand, after Bach his musical tastes were somewhat erratic and apparently mostly pianistic.
    Gould was a Canadian averse to cold, and at one point believe that he himself was being poisoned.

  5. Glenn Gould? Perverse?? Unpossible!

  6. rootlesscosmo says:

    Erratic, certainly, but not entirely pianistic. He recorded both the Brahms and the Shostakovich Piano Quintets and longed to conduct Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyl.”
    If you overdo the vittles, your britches (spelled “breeches”) won’t fit you.

  7. I am happy to have just recently encountered the word “victuals” and to have now received the surprising knowledge that I would surely have mispronounced it had I uttered it prior to today. Thankfully, I haven’t done! And as a bonus, I know comprehend the origin of “vittles,” as used by Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies!

  8. John Emerson says:

    A pianistic sensibility is excusable in a pianist.
    I think that his relatively low opinion of Mozart was a result of his pianism. To me Mozart’s piano sonatas are not on a par with his concertos, symphonies, and quartets. For a eccentric and possibly slightly insane pianist, that would be a more serious problem than it is for me.
    I bet if you dredged Gould’s writings and interviews you’d find him saying that piano concertos are piano music adulterated with symphonic filler and encumbered with symphonic packaging.

  9. John Emerson says:

    And I authorize everyone in the world to quote that and ascribe it to Gould. If he didn’t say it, he should have.

  10. John Emerson says:

    And Nabokov could have said “wake”.

  11. the spelling pronunciation of “victuals” makes me unreasonably annoyed (it’s vittles, dammit!)
    No, no, no. Vittles implies a hillbilly or a cowboy is talking. You may as well pronounce “going to” as “gonna”. It’s not even the same word as far as I’m concerned. In 21st century American English there’s a clear semantic distinction between “vittles” and “vickchewals” which should be preserved, even if the difference did arise from middle-class overcompensation.

  12. No, no, no. Vittles implies a hillbilly or a cowboy is talking. You may as well pronounce “going to” as “gonna”. It’s not even the same word as far as I’m concerned. In 21st century American English there’s a clear semantic distinction between “vittles” and “vickchewals” which should be preserved, even if the difference did arise from middle-class overcompensation.
    That would make sense if “vickchewals” were in any way a regular pronunciation of victuals, but it’s not. I direct your attention to the latest edition of Merriam-Webster, where you will find only one pronunciation: \ˈvi-təl\. I assure you M-W is not a stuffy organization clinging to the past; if the other were regularly heard, they’d list it. It’s purely a spelling pronunciation by people not familiar with the word.

  13. It is, as rootlesscosmo points out, comparable to pronouncing breeches the way it’s spelled.

  14. John Emerson says:

    Harry Golden called “victuals” the ugliest word in the English language.
    [Harry Golden was a popular humorist of the 50s, sort of a Carolina Art Buchwald or Garrison Keillor. I haven't heard a word about him for decades. he had a kind of easy-going optimism that I guess couldn't survive the political meanness].

  15. John Emerson says:

    Harry Golden called “victuals” the ugliest word in the English language.
    [Harry Golden was a popular humorist of the 50s, sort of a Carolina Art Buchwald or Garrison Keillor. I haven't heard a word about him for decades. he had a kind of easy-going optimism that I guess couldn't survive the political meanness].

  16. jamessal says:

    Vittles implies a hillbilly or a cowboy is talking.
    Or — let’s not forget — a hobbit.
    “I believe that mad Baggins is off again. But why worry? He hasn’t taken the victuals with him.”
    From American Heritage:
    Usage Note: The modern pronunciation of victual, (vĭt’l), represents an Anglicized pronunciation of the Old French form vitaille, which was borrowed into English in the early 14th century. The modern English spelling reflects the fact that in both French and English the word was sometimes spelled with a c, and later also with a u, under the influence of its Late Latin ancestor victuālia, meaning “provisions.” The word is now occasionally spelled vittle rather than victual, but in either case the pronunciation is (vĭt’l).
    MW Usage Guide tells the same story. Nobody disputes the “vittle” pronunciation. (Though Garner, of course, does grouse about the spelling “vittles,” saying it should only be used colloquially.)

  17. The modern English spelling reflects the fact that in both French and English the word was sometimes spelled with a c, and later also with a u, under the influence of its Late Latin ancestor victuālia, meaning “provisions.”
    Those meddling archaizers and their show-off “I know Latin, I’m superior” spellings! And sometimes they got it wrong, giving us the completely unauthentic author instead of autor. (Of course, it could be worse—we could have been stuck with auctor.)

  18. John Emerson says:

    I think it’s the case that the word itself is characteristic of hillbillies and cowboys, rather than a pronunciation of the word. Same for breeches, which in Scots are breeks (according to Random Internet Source, at least).

  19. Arthur Crown says:

    Slightly off-topic, I’m wondering if any of you know the origin of the name Muscovado sugar. Is there a Russian connection? It’s just plain dark-brown sticky sugar. I had never heard of it until my daughter read the name in a Jamie Oliver recipe for a ginger-flavoured drink. My wife hadn’t heard it, but my 80 yr-old mother knew what it was. Wikipedia doesn’t mention the name’s origin.

  20. Well, it’s an archaism, perhaps surviving in the speech of hillbillies and cowboys. It was perfectly ordinary from Shakespeare through Macaulay. Every restaurant here in the Commonwealth must display a Common Victualler’s License.

  21. muscovado is Spanish mascabado or Portuguese mascavado < menoscabar < minuscapare ‘reduce’, referring to the refinement process, and so meaning just barely refined.

  22. Nabokov certainly didn’t consider it characteristic of hillbillies and cowboys.

  23. Arthur Crown says:

    Thank you, MMcM.

  24. Arthur Crown says:

    In England victuals is an old fashioned seafaring or pirate-type word for food supplies on board.
    ‘Island’ is another of those wrongly attributed to Latin words, not coming from insula at all.

  25. michael farris says:

    my intuitions (on American usage only, I don’t especially care about spelling conventions outside the US):
    vittles = vittles with the common sense pronunciation and spelling
    victuals is a museum spelling I would never use (apart from giving examples of awful museum spellings) and I don’t care how people pronounce it. If I were called upon to pronounce it myself, it would be in fact vikchewels.
    I don’t recognize the spelling breeches for britches either, anymore than I do ‘gaol’.

  26. Nabokov certainly didn’t consider it characteristic of hillbillies and cowboys.
    No, but he had a tin ear for colloquial English. Genius yes, but not a native English speaker, and it shows.

  27. michael farris says:

    “No, but he had a tin ear for colloquial English”
    I’m so glad it wasn’t me who wrote that (I’d add “tin eye” if he thought that ‘victuals’ meant anything to Americans that ‘vittles’ didn’t).
    Was his ear for colloquial Russian any better or was hyperpedanticism a cross linguistic phenomenon?

  28. Speaking of readings, here’s my favorite piece of Nabokov-related media (though James Mason in Lolita is pretty goddamn awesome too.) It’s Christopher Plummer, who I believe was actually a student of Nabokov’s at some point, performing Nabokov lecturing on Kafka. Wish I had had some professors like this one, or even just one that was half as good at the theater of teaching; might have finished that linguistics degree…
    Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boSFjzWJXcU
    Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erCizY4e-Tw

  29. And one more referent of possible interest: it so happens that Eugenii Onegin is a major topic of Douglas Hoftstader’s book on translation, Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language. LTbdM is probably my favorite book of Hofstader’s; if you’re interested in the ins and outs of language, which I assume most everyone reading this blog must be, it’s worth checking out even if you’ve previously been a DRH-hater (as many are, and not without reason, though I adore his stuff myself.)

  30. erp, a little googlestalking I should have done before posting reveals that our host at least was already acquainted with the Plummer video, and is perhaps not as enamored of it as I was…so it goes!

Speak Your Mind

*