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.

Comments

  1. Des Fontaines, probably. A French Huguenot family whose members moved out of France to various Protestant countries, from South Africa to Sweden. The Russian Des Fontaines apparently arrived from the Netherlands and settled in Arkhangelsk.

  2. Des Fontaines, probably.

    Well, yes, of course, and that should be Дефонтен in Russian. What is weird is how someone at some point treated it as “Dess Fontain-ess.”

  3. My guess is this change in pronunciation happened before they moved to Russia, possibly in the Netherlands.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Alex: Good point. The family’s migration from France to the Netherlands to Russia may have taken several generations. Dutch people would have pronounced the name from their interpretation of the written version, while Russians would have written the name from hearing it said by the now Dutchified descendants.

  5. That makes sense.

  6. From the given names evident when I search, I wonder were they in Russia via England, like Donald Swann’s family? Edmund Edmundovich(!) is, well, not a name I would expect to find in anyone without a link to England.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    A woman in the family must have married an Englishman, whether in England or elsewhere.

  8. Or indeed an American or more far-flung anglophone, though I agree that England is a priori more likely.

    I love the (GT-translated) title of one of Edmund Edmundovich’s awards: “‘Order of the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles and Grand Prince Vladimir of the 4th degree with swords and a bow -?” I am not sure if the trailing “?” is intended to cast doubt on the historical reality of this award, or what; several of his other military honors are likewise marked with “?”.

  9. @Aidan Kehoe: “Edmund Edmundovich(!) is, well, not a name I would expect to find in anyone without a link to England.”

    The name Edmund was not unusual among Poles and Russian Germans before 1917. The best-known Edmundovich in Russia’s history is Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose father came from an old Polish noble family (or call it Lithuanian – their hereditary estate was in present-day Belarus, 40 miles southwest of Minsk). Edmund Dzerzhinsky taught mathematics at gymnasiums in Kherson and, later, Taganrog, where Chekhov was one of his students. In the 1870s, the schoolmaster there was Edmund (von) Reutlinger (as spelled by Donald Rayfield in Anton Chekhov: A Life).

    Outside of Russia, let’s not forget Edmund Husserl, born in 1859 into a German-speaking Jewish family in Moravia. Also, Edmund Reitlinger, an Austrian physicist (1830-1882).

    @John Cowan: exactly as you say, “the trailing “?” is intended to cast doubt on the historical reality of this award.” Most likely, the order conferring the award has not been found. The bow refers to a ribbon tied in a bow, not to the weapon.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    Edmund is obviously of English origin, seeing as the German cognate of Ed- is Ot-, but the names of saints travel. (Not to mention Otto the Great marrying an Edith from England.) Eduard and Balduin evidently reached German through French, explaining why they have -u- (for a total of three syllables each).

    Ot- has not been productive; I can only think of Otfri(e)d and Ot(h)mar.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    *facepalm* Edmund Stoiber, former god-emperor of Bavaria, still alive.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    Otto and the Ottifant.

  13. Probably too Northern and the wrong generation for DM. 😉

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Otto, yes, but that’s originally a nickname for anything with Ot-.

    I have superficially encountered the Ottifant, named for the rather cringeworthy Otto Waalkes, aka Otto der Außerfriesische (“the Extrafrisian” as in “extraterrestrial”).

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    Giving a variant of the name to girls (i.e. “Edmonde”) appears to be a Francophone thing. Not sure how the cultus of St. Edmund the Martyr may have fared in those bits of Europe over the centuries?

  16. marie-lucie says:

    David M: Eduard and Balduin evidently reached German through French, explaining why they have -u- (for a total of three syllables each).

    The German names may be pronounced in three syllables, but the corresponding French names only have two each: E-douard, Bau-douin, like the English ones (French ou before a vowel is [w]).

    JWB: Giving a variant of the name to girls (i.e. “Edmonde”) appears to be a Francophone thing

    This must be a Romance usage, continuing the Latin one where the males in a family typically had names ending in -us (as in Julius) and the females corresponding names in -a (hence Julia).

    At a time where baptismal names tended to be those of saints associated with the day of birth, names of male or female saints were often adjusted to the sex of the new baby, but the name of the original saint remained when he or she was mentioned. So, a baby girl born on the day of Saint Edmond might have been called Edmonde, but the saint himself was still referred to in the exact same way. Similarly, if a girl or boy receives a name reminiscent of an older family member, the name of the child may be an adaptation of that name – e.g. Roberta from Robert – but the name of the relative in question is not affected.

    It is true that, especially for some local saints largely unknown outside of their own region (and belonging to legend rather than history), a name of ambiguous gender may have caused the saint in question to be regendered, but this is a rare event).

  17. rather cringeworthy Otto Waalkes

    He looks remarkably like Gene Wilder to my eyes. On the other hand, he played the Eddie Murphy voice role of Mushu in the German dub of Mulan.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    The German names may be pronounced in three syllables, but the corresponding French names only have two each: E-douard, Bau-douin, like the English ones (French ou before a vowel is [w]).

    Sure, but it was borrowed into German as u /uː/ instead of w /v/, while /v/ would have been the native development, as indeed seen in the names Dankwart, Erwin and Winfried.

    (Dankwart and Winfried are probably extinct by now, the former perhaps due to the hilarious similarity to Tankwart “gas station attendant”. But now the latter profession is extinct itself, as all gas stations became self-service some 25 years ago, so who knows if the hipsters will revive Dankwart eventually. Erwin is rare, but I still had a classmate with that name.)

  19. Dankwart sounds pretty hilarious even without the gas-station connection.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Certainly looks hilarious in English…

  21. But not the way Agavnik sounds in Russian.

  22. rather cringeworthy Otto Waalkes
    Especially the films, which he started to make in the 80s and which are the point where he jumepd the shark. His life shows in the 70s / early 80s were more of a mixed bag – from really good laughs to absolutely cringeworthy; in any case, except for him and Loriot there wasn’t much good in German comedy at that time.

    He looks remarkably like Gene Wilder to my eyes. On the other hand, he played the Eddie Murphy voice role of Mushu in the German dub of Mulan.
    He has a very wide voice range and he used that to good effect in his life shows.

    Erwin
    I also know several Erwins, they all are at least in their 40s.

  23. If anyone else is curious about the cringeworthy Otto Waalkes, here‘s a brief skit with subtitles.

  24. Dankwart and Winfried are probably extinct by now…

    W.G. Sebald was Winfried Georg. Perhaps that’s why used the initials.

  25. Magic Johnson’s given name is “Earvin,” a spelling I have never encountered anywhere else. (When I was first told what Magic’s actual first name was, I thought it was the unrelated “Irving,” which sounds old-fashioned but not otherwise remarkable.). It’s probably not a coincidence that Magic was allowed by the NBA to go exclusively by his nickname professionally.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    The subtitles are a bit off; Mast means, well, “mast” or “flag pole”, not ever “tree trunk” to the best of my knowledge.

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    I knew someone in college whose father was named Dankwart. Turns out he’s prominent enough even though no longer alive to have a wikipedia page about him which says he was born in 1924, by which point maybe the Tankwart association had not yet reached crisis level?

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    Don’t know about Winfried, but the (presumably related?) female name Winifred was reasonably popular in early 20th century America before dropping out of the top 1000 after 1965. However, there were 146 girl babies named Winifred born in the U.S. 2016 (to the best of the Social Security Administration’s knowledge), which is actually more than were born in 1965 (110), because the lower percentage of girls receiving the most common 10 or 20 or 100 names somewhat paradoxically means the bar to make the top 1000 is more demanding than it used to be (because the decline after the top 100 is not so steep …).

  29. On reflection, Otto Waalkes looks even more like Eric Idle than like Gene Wilder. Is there an underlying grammar of comic actors’ faces?

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