Punctuation Identification.

Alexandra N. M. Darmon, Marya Bazzi, Sam D. Howison, and Mason Porter have written a paper on “textual analysis via punctuation sequences”:

Punctuation is a largely overlooked stylistic feature in “stylometry”, the quantitative analysis of written text. In this paper, we examine punctuation sequences in a corpus of literary documents and ask the following questions: Are the properties of such sequences a distinctive feature of different authors? Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences? Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time? Are we on to something interesting in trying to do stylometry without words, or are we full of sound and fury (signifying nothing)?

I confess the cutesy style of that last sentence irritates me, but so do the giggly styles of today’s newscasters and interviewers — I’m an old fossil used to solemnity in public utterances. But never mind that; they’ve created a web app that will compare the punctuation style of any writing sample to the authors in its database, and of course it’s fun to put in samples and get results. The problem is that the results are essentially meaningless. To quote verstegan at MetaFilter (where I got the link):

It doesn’t inspire confidence in the authors’ methodology that they analyse Shakespeare’s punctuation without, apparently, being aware that this varies enormously from edition to edition. Ever since the time of Samuel Johnson, editors have freely repunctuated the text of Shakespeare. The claim that (to take one example) ‘Shakespeare appears to use more exclamation marks and question marks than H.G. Wells’ is thus completely meaningless.

The same goes for most of the earlier texts in their sample, as they are using public domain texts from Project Gutenberg, many of which will have been repunctuated. In other words, their text corpus is totally contaminated and their claims about ‘the evolution of punctuation marks over time’ are completely untenable. (And that’s even before we get into the question of whether the punctuation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century books reflects authors’ preferences or printers’ house styles ..) I’m afraid this is what happens when four mathematicians write a paper without bothering to consult any literary scholars, textual editors or bibliographers.

Sigh. But enjoy the game, as long as you realize it doesn’t mean anything!

A False Jump.

I’m on part 3 of Anna Karenina, and I’ve just gotten to the part where Anna has gone to visit Princess Betsy in the hopes of finding Vronsky there, only to have Betsy open a note from him in her presence: “Алексей сделал нам ложный прыжок, — сказала она по-французски, — он пишет, что не может быть.” [“Alexei has made us a false jump,” she said in French — “he writes that he can’t come.”] At first I was trying to figure out if there was an idiom “ложный прыжок” in Russian (there isn’t), but then I paid attention to the “in French” part and quickly discovered there’s a colloquial phrase faire faux bond which Wiktionary defines as “To let someone down, to leave in the lurch, stand someone up.” What struck me about this is that Tolstoy assumes his readers will know enough French to recognize it; as I said last month with reference to Dostoevsky, I’m surprised that French was still so prevalent among (educated) Russians in the 1870s.

In general, there’s a surprising amount of not only French but English in the novel. Tolstoy uses phrases like grande dame and les sept merveilles du monde in narrative passages, and he’s constantly referring to people’s use of the languages: when Lyovin visited the Shcherbatskys as a young man he was befuddled and enchanted by the girls’ habit of speaking French and English on alternate days (I:6), Ivan Ivanovich’s French is amusing (I:23), Karenin is reading the Duc de Lille’s Poésie des enfers (I:33; author and book are invented), Betsy can’t stand a “sneering” tone (II:7), Petritsky sings “Il était un roi de Thulé” (II:20: “Он вышел в дверь перегородки, поднял руки и запел по-французски: «Был король в Ту-у-ле»”; the French is, of course, a translation of Goethe’s “Der König in Thule”), Karenin suggests to his wife in French that they leave together (II:29), little Lily says to a priest while taking communion “Please, some more” (III:8), later in that chapter Dolly asks her daughter Tanya in French why she’s come in (and when she answers in Russian tells her she should respond in French — Lyovin, who’s come to visit, wonders irritatedly why she’s always speaking French to the children, which in his irritation he finds unnatural and false), and Betsy says to Anna “we’ll have a cosy chat” (III:17). Then there are these parallel passages, in which first Vronsky and then her husband address Anna in French for the same reason:

“Forgive me for coming here, but I couldn’t spend the day without seeing you,” he [Vronsky] continued in French, as he always did in speaking, to avoid the Russian vy, impossibly cold between them, and the dangerous ty.

– Простите меня, что я приехал, но я не мог провести дня, не видав вас, – продолжал он по-французски, как он всегда говорил, избегая невозможно-холодного между ними вы и опасного ты по-русски.


He [Karenin] wrote to her without a salutation and in French, using the pronoun vous, which doesn’t have the cold character that vy has in Russian.

Он писал без обращения к ней и по-французски, употребляя местоимение “вы”, не имеющее того характера холодности, который оно имеет на русском языке.

Nothing to do with French or English, but in III:17 Anna notices that Vronsky’s manservant (who brings the note I referred to at the start of the post) not only looks like a Kammerjunker but pronounces the letter r like a Kammerjunker; I guess in 1870s Russia people would know how a Kammerjunker pronounced r. Also, I noticed that in III:12 Lyovin looks up at the clouds in the night sky and thinks “И когда успела образоваться эта раковина?” [And when did that shell appear?] I was amused by this perfectly ordinary use of the perfectly ordinary verb образоваться ‘arise, appear, come into being,’ which caused so much turmoil by its unnatural translation as “shapify” in a different context.

American from Boone to Crockett.

Rosemarie Ostler has a piece at HistoryNet about the effect of the western frontier on American English:

The English language started to become American as soon as the first English-speaking colonists landed. Unfamiliar landscapes, plants, and animals and ways of living called for new terms, and Americans soon were amassing a fresh vocabulary. Colonists borrowed from natives—raccoon, barbecue—inventively combined existing words—backcountry, pine barrens—and coined terms—demoralize, belittle. However, American speech was about more than words. Early Americans distilled vivid metaphors from everyday life. They blazed trails. They played possum. They found themselves sitting on the fence. They barked up the wrong tree. They improvised outlandish fabrications like scrumptious and blusteration.

From the beginning, certain facets of American life especially encouraged fresh, colorful language. Among these were the boisterous world of politics, source of caucus and gerrymander; the striking landscape, with its buttes, prairies, and swamps; the press, so fond of slang like fizzle out; and especially the Western frontier.

In 1775, Daniel Boone, a hunter and trapper born in western Pennsylvania, led a party of about 30 men across the Appalachian Mountains through the Cumberland Gap into the Kentucky Territory, blazing what became known as the Wilderness Road. After the Revolutionary War, England ceded to the United States of America all territory running west to the Mississippi River. The first rush of words from that region came courtesy of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose Corps of Discovery was to map the Louisiana Territory, which Napoleon had just sold to the United States for $15 million, or 3 cents an acre, and of which Americans knew little. […] Their journals brimmed with careful descriptions. Even as they were crossing the northern plains, portaging around falls, struggling through mountains, and canoeing western rivers, Clark and Lewis each wrote his journal nearly every day, meticulously recording every notable feature. As necessary, the explorers created language to do justice to what they were seeing. Many terms they repurposed, invented, or borrowed entered the American lexicon […] Crossing the plains of what is now South Dakota on September 17, 1804, Clark records in his journal that one of the men has killed “a curious kind of deer (Mule Deer).” He makes clear why he’s giving the animal that name—“the ears large & long.” The tail’s tip is “a tuft of black hair,” so Clark sometimes refers to “black-tailed deer” before concluding that the creature’s long ears make mule deer much more appropriate. […]

Lewis and Clark borrowed from native languages, though the difficulty of fitting these terms into English kept most from being adopted. There were exceptions: the Nez Percé camas referred to a plant with an edible bulb, the Ojibwe kinnikinnick identified a tobacco substitute, and the Cree pemmican, meaning a cake of dried meat, fat, and crushed berries.

I just recently learned the word camas, in the form of its genus name Camassia, when my wife asked the good people at the Hadley Garden Center to identify a beautiful flower we’d found growing near our house; the word is variable in spelling, AHD giving camas, camass, and quamash (and informing us that it’s from Nez Perce qém’es, qém’eš) and the OED adding camash to the mix. Here are some of its citations:
[Read more…]

The Meeting of the Waters.

If I had been aware of the phrase “the meeting of the waters,” it was only very vaguely; I’d probably seen it but couldn’t have told you its history or what it referred to. Now that I’ve read John Barrell’s 7,576-word essay about it in the LRB (27 July 2017, pp. 23-28), I know much more about it than I ever expected to; by next year — hell, by next month — I will probably have forgotten it all, but it was an enjoyable ride, from the Vale of Avoca (about which Thomas Moore wrote the poem so titled, first published in 1808 and destined to become fantastically popular as a song) to the Erie Canal (into which two bottles of water were poured, “the one taken from the depths of the Indian ocean, and the other from the Atlantic,” to symbolize the meeting of all the waters of the world with the Great Lakes”: “The whole occasion was known as ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, and at the dinner that evening Moore’s song was played by the band of the Academy at West Point”). I will quote one paragraph for the sake of its Joycean conclusion:

Following the song’s publication, its title phrase develops a rich history, as a general term for the confluence of two rivers, as an informal place name applied to such confluences, and as a metaphor for comings together of almost every imaginable kind. It can be difficult to tell whether the phrase is being used simply to mean ‘confluence’, rather than as a place name, and in collecting my examples I have tried to distinguish between these uses by regarding the phrase as a place name only when it is marked by initial capitals, italics, or inverted commas, or when it appears as the title of a picture of a specific place. Thus, in Ireland, the phrase seems to have functioned as a place name in the Vale of Avoca, of course, and at Killarney, and elsewhere as an adjunct to a previously established place name: at Macroom between Cork and Killarney; at Navan in County Meath; at Glenariff, County Antrim; at Glengariff, County Cork; and at places in Counties Mayo, Sligo, Louth, Down, Tyrone, two more in Wicklow, three in Waterford. My criteria do not allow me to include the statue of Moore placed over Dublin’s largest public urinal and described in 1900 as ‘a vile misshapen monstrous pewter image erected in memory of the National poet’. They did right, Joyce tells us in Ulysses, ‘to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters’.

Completely irrelevant but equally irresistible, from the Wikipedia article on Fath-Ali Shah Qajar (who ruled Persia when Griboyedov was killed, as detailed in the Tynyanov novel I reviewed here):

In 1797, Fath Ali was given a complete set of the Britannica‘s 3rd edition, which he read completely; after this feat, he extended his royal title to include “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica.”

Latin in the News.

For someone who’s never been much of a Latinist, I’ve posted a lot about the language, from 2004 (“Latin Today”) and 2008 (Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum) to 2016 (a passing poke at a dumb video that somehow got 244 comments) and 2017 (on the best way to learn the language), inter alia. Herewith two more links:

1) A.Z. Foreman’s Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: The Real Issue With Mary Beard’s Latin. It starts off thus:

Not long ago, Mary Beard graced us with a bit of honorable honesty in the Times Literary Supplement, in which she confessed to what is a bit of an open secret among most classicists. She can’t sight-read a complex Latin text all that well. Most classicists can’t. This admission — from someone like Beard — is good to have out there.

What irritates me is that — again like most classicists — she treats this as a self-evident fact to be just accepted rather than a problem to be dealt with, as if nobody could hope to actually read Cicero with ease. It always strikes me as bizarre and a bit embarrassing to see classicists insisting that it is impossible to acquire fluid or fluent command of Latin or Greek, that “we” can never do this. It’s not just that this assumption would be news to people like Galileo, Kepler or Descartes. It’s that people do actually acquire this kind of competence. Today. Anyone who pokes around at, say, the Paideia Institute, will find proficient Latin-speakers as readily as Zeus finds incestuous booty-calls.

What follows is a detailed and convincing analysis of why “nobody could hope to actually read Cicero with ease” is a dumb idea, and I’m surprised Beard (who I deeply respect, as does Foreman) would subscribe to it. Of course, it’s partly a matter of specialization; as he points out:

People whose scholarly work depends on dealing with medieval or Renaissance Latin texts have to have a better command of Latin than the kind Mary Beard describes. I don’t just mean reading the pared down language of the Res Gesta Francorum or even Jerome’s Bible. I mean reading Cicero’s letters, alongside Petrarch’s ciceronian response to them. I mean reading Virgil alongside Walter of Châtillon. I am talking about the kind of reading proficiency that allows one to skim hundreds of pages of text in order to find material relevant to one’s research. If Peter Godman couldn’t read new, unfamiliar and often abstruse Latin texts, he could not do the research he does. Medievalists and Renaissance scholars — even those taught by painfully ineffective traditional methods — get practice dealing with texts on their own in a way that classicists almost never do.

Anyway, read the whole thing, and I hope Beard takes it to heart.

2) The Local (an Italian site) informs the world New Italian TV show to tell story of Rome’s birth… in Latin:

Work has begun on Romulus, a new TV drama that will tell the story of Rome’s legendary founder – in an early form of Latin. The series, which is being produced by the same studio responsible for modern-day Italian hits Gomorrah and Suburra, will air on Sky Italia with an international release likely to follow. It will be directed by Matteo Rovere, an Italian film director who has already told the Romulus story once before in his movie epic The First King, which was also scripted in archaic Latin.

I am impressed, amused, and mind-boggled; I have no idea how he thinks a script can be written in archaic Latin, or why anybody is willing to fund such a project, but I’d be mildly curious to see at least some of the result. (There’s a minute-long video clip, but it includes no Latin.) Thanks, Trevor!

Addendum. In the comments, Bathrobe linked to Tom Keeline’s Is “Reading” Latin Impossible? at Latinitium, which is very relevant to the Foreman/Beard controversy; here is the conclusion:

You wouldn’t try to read Dante today without first learning modern Italian, or Shakespeare without first learning contemporary English. Latin literature is our equivalent of Dante and Shakespeare, and Active Latin is the closest thing we’ve got to “learning Italian” or “learning English.” But the ancient Latin texts that we read are not, by and large, “level appropriate”; we’ve got nothing except the ancient equivalents of Dante and Shakespeare. We’ve got texts that were written at the highest level of sophistication for an elite audience of supremely well-educated contemporary native speakers. They weren’t written for us. Do I think these texts are eminently worth reading? Of course—I’m a classicist! But we shouldn’t delude ourselves or our students: the gap between us and those ancient native speakers is never going to be fully bridgeable by waving any magic wand, whether it’s labeled “Active Latin” or anything else.

If the final destination of this journey is to “read” ancient Latin the way we read our native language, we may never get there. I’m certainly nowhere close. Should we just give up then? Well, I don’t think so. As with geometry, there is no royal road to Latin, but I think I’ve made a lot more progress by embracing Active Latin than I would have otherwise. I’ve definitely had a lot more fun. If reading ancient Latin the way I read English remains an elusive goal for me, getting meaning from Latin texts with ever-increasing ease and pleasure is a completely reasonable goal that I make progress towards every day—well, let’s say “most days”! If we begin with such a goal in mind, then we can constantly strive for a perhaps unattainable perfection while still enjoying every step of the journey. And this, I think, is the realistic promise of Active Latin.

Makes sense to me.

The Odylic Octochamps.

I don’t normally cover the Scripps National Spelling Bee, even though I participated in spelling bees as a wee lad (I still remember the humiliation of misspelling Christmas — I knew it, I swear, it was just a brain glitch!), but occasionally it brings up a word of particular interest which leads to a LH post. In 2016, for instance, one of the words was chremslach, the plural of chremsel, which led to a lively discussion (we never did decide on the etymology). This year there has been a lot of excited coverage of the remarkable eight-way tie, with much use of the term “octochamps”; here, for example, is the Atlantic piece by LH fave Ben Zimmer, which begins:

The sight of eight co-champions hoisting the ceramic trophy at the Scripps National Spelling Bee last night was a remarkable ending to a competition that the ESPN announcers kept referring to as “historic” and “unprecedented.” This year’s Bee was certainly one for the history books: There had never been more than two spellers sharing the top honor before this. Those elite eight—quickly dubbed the “Octochamps”—will be remembered for irrevocably altering the competition. A recent documentary on competitive spelling (particularly focusing on the dominance of Indian American kids in recent years) is titled Breaking the Bee. The Octochamps actually broke it this time.

Zimmer commendably gives all eight winning words, with definitions:

Rishik Gandhasri of San Jose, California, spelled auslaut (the final sound in a word or syllable). Erin Howard of Huntsville, Alabama, spelled erysipelas (an acute skin infection). Saketh Sundar of Clarksville, Maryland, spelled bougainvillea (a tropical woody vine with brilliant flowers). Shruthika Padhy of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, spelled aiguillette (a military shoulder cord). Sohum Sukhatankar of Dallas spelled pendeloque (a pear-shaped glass pendant). Abhijay Kodali of Flower Mound, Texas, spelled palama (webbing on the feet of aquatic birds). Christopher Serrao of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, spelled cernuous (drooping, as a flower). And Rohan Raja of Irving, Texas, spelled odylic (relating to a hypothetical life force conceived in the 19th century). Cue the confetti.

I’m a little surprised that erysipelas and bougainvillea are considered difficult and/or obscure enough to be final tie-breakers — I think of them as fairly ordinary words — but palama (initial stress, from Greek palamē ‘palm’) certainly is (it’s not in the OED, though of course it’s in M-W, the official dictionary of the bee), as is odylic, which is the reason I’m posting today: you won’t find it in many places, but you know if it you were reading LH in 2002!


From Google AI Blog comes news of a striking development in translation, posted by Ye Jia and Ron Weiss:

In “Direct speech-to-speech translation with a sequence-to-sequence model”, we propose an experimental new system that is based on a single attentive sequence-to-sequence model for direct speech-to-speech translation without relying on intermediate text representation. Dubbed Translatotron, this system avoids dividing the task into separate stages, providing a few advantages over cascaded systems, including faster inference speed, naturally avoiding compounding errors between recognition and translation, making it straightforward to retain the voice of the original speaker after translation, and better handling of words that do not need to be translated (e.g., names and proper nouns). […]

Translatotron is based on a sequence-to-sequence network which takes source spectrograms as input and generates spectrograms of the translated content in the target language. It also makes use of two other separately trained components: a neural vocoder that converts output spectrograms to time-domain waveforms, and, optionally, a speaker encoder that can be used to maintain the character of the source speaker’s voice in the synthesized translated speech. During training, the sequence-to-sequence model uses a multitask objective to predict source and target transcripts at the same time as generating target spectrograms. However, no transcripts or other intermediate text representations are used during inference. […]

By incorporating a speaker encoder network, Translatotron is also able to retain the original speaker’s vocal characteristics in the translated speech, which makes the translated speech sound more natural and less jarring. This feature leverages previous Google research on speaker verification and speaker adaptation for TTS. The speaker encoder is pretrained on the speaker verification task, learning to encode speaker characteristics from a short example utterance. Conditioning the spectrogram decoder on this encoding makes it possible to synthesize speech with similar speaker characteristics, even though the content is in a different language. […]

To the best of our knowledge, Translatotron is the first end-to-end model that can directly translate speech from one language into speech in another language. It is also able to retain the source speaker’s voice in the translated speech. We hope that this work can serve as a starting point for future research on end-to-end speech-to-speech translation systems.

Impressive, if it works as advertised; the audio samples they provide are short but sound good.

Heat and Noise.

Christina Xu’s article for Logic about a feature of East Asian videos is interesting in its own right:

Bullet comments, or 弹幕 (“danmu”), are text-based user reactions superimposed onto online videos: a visual commentary track to which anyone can contribute. When a beloved character dies in a web series, a river of grieving kaomoji (╥﹏╥)—a kind of emoticon first popularized in Japan—washes over whatever happens next. A child’s overly honest response to a TV anchor’s question triggers a blizzard of different ways to signify laughter (2333, 哈哈哈哈). When the (Chinese) good guy punches out the (American) bad guy in 2017’s blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2, jingoistic cries of “Long live China!” erupt across the screen. Each comment is synchronized to an exact moment in the video, and will fly across the screen on cue on every subsequent replay. On particularly popular videos, they pile up so thick that they can cover the original entirely. The result is a viscerally social experience, like an opening night crowd at a movie theater that you can summon anytime. […]

When a Japanese site called Niconico invented the idea of writing comments directly on top of YouTube videos in 2006, it took less than a year for a clone of the platform to appear in China. In Japanese, the system was named 弹幕 (danmaku), or “bullet curtain,” after a subgenre of hardcore shoot-em-up games in which enemies fly in formation across the screen, like the famous arcade game Galaga on steroids. Both kinds of danmaku—the games and the comments—required their audience to process an overwhelming amount of visual stimulation at high speeds. In China, several sites seeking to clone the Niconico experience copied the feature, as well as the Japanese characters for the name, which are pronounced “danmu” in Chinese. Today, the most successful of these clones by far is Bilibili, a social video site that has become an entertainment staple for young people in China. […]

On top of trading witticisms, bullet commenters also play informal, emergent games with each other and with the content. Commenters will synchronize their comments to create a wall of text that shields future viewers from gruesome or scary shots, or create 五毛特效 (“fifty-cent special effects”) like populating a night sky full of ASCII stars. Other commenters spontaneously collaborate to generate subtitles in various languages—both earnest and facetious—as “the Eight-Nation Alliance Caption Club,” a wry reference to the international military coalition that invaded China following the Boxer Rebellion. If a character in a show holds up a sudoku puzzle for even a second, a bullet commenter will probably try to solve it.

The image at the top of the linked page shows an example of those “subtitles in various languages.” But what drove me to post is this bit of cultural background:

热闹 (rè nào) is hard to concisely translate into English with its personality intact. Literally meaning “heat and noise,” it describes an atmosphere of bustling conviviality: a balance point between hygge and lit. A night market sizzling with smells and chatter is re nao, as is a table-slapping game of mahjong after a big family meal. Re nao is as central to the Chinese vision of the good life as freedom is to America’s; it’s deep-rooted in a way that defies rationality.

For young Chinese people, bullet comments are a dose of re nao that fits better into their lives than the karaoke, mahjong, and alcohol-fueled banquets preferred by their elders.

On the one hand, I’m always suspicious of such generalizations; on the other, the general idea fits with what I experienced in Taiwan. What do people familiar with China and its culture have to say about rè nào?


Back in 2008 I posted about hats, quoting from Diana Crane’s The Social Meanings of Hats and T-shirts, where we read that “The bowler was invented in England in 1850 as an occupational hat for gamekeepers and hunters but was rapidly adopted by the upper class for sports”; what Crane inexplicably doesn’t mention is the origin of the term, which Nabokov explains in his invaluable notes for Anna Karenin(a):

In 1850, there appeared a hard hat with a low crown designed by William Bowler, an English hatter, and this was the original model of the bowler, or derby—its American name stemming from the fact that the Earl of Derby wore a gray bowler with a black band to the English races. It was generally adopted in the seventies.

As irritated as I sometimes get with the imperious aristo VVN, I deeply admire his insistence on getting details right (the OED, in an unrevised entry from 1887, gives an erroneous alternative derivation from the noun bowl, “quasi bowl-hat” [see comments below]) and his eagerness to share them. Here’s his thorough description of the train car in which Anna returns from Moscow to St. Petersburg:

Roughly speaking, two notions of night-traveling comfort were dividing the world in the last third of the century: the Pullman system in America, which favored curtained sections and which rushed sleeping passengers feet foremost to their destination; and the Mann system in Europe, which had them speed sidewise in compartments; but in 1872, a first-class car (euphemistically called sleeping-car by Tolstoy) of the night express between Moscow and Petersburg was a very primitive affair still wavering between a vague Pullman tendency and Colonel Mann’s “boudoir” scheme. It had a lateral corridor, it had water closets, it had stoves burning wood; but it also had open-end platforms which Tolstoy calls “porches” (krylechki), the vestibule housing not having yet been invented. Hence the snow driving in through the end doors when conductors and stove-tenders passed from car to car. Night accommodations were draughty sections, semi-partitioned off from the passage, and it is evident from Tolstoy’s description that six passengers shared one section (instead of the four in sleeping compartments of a later day). The six ladies in the “sleeping” section reclined in fauteuils, three facing three, with just enough space between opposite fauteuils to permit the extension of footrests. As late as 1892, Karl Baedeker speaks of first-class cars on that particular line as having fauteuils which can be transformed into beds at night but he gives no details of the metamorphosis, and anyway, in 1872, the simulacrum of full-length repose did not include any bedding. To comprehend certain important aspects of Anna’s night journey, the reader should clearly visualize the following arrangement: Tolstoy indiscriminately calls the plush seats in the section either “little divans” or “fauteuils”; and both terms are right since, on each side of the section, the divan was divided into three armchairs. Anna sits facing north, in the right-hand (south-east) window corner, and she can see the left-hand windows, across the passage. On her left she has her maid Annushka (who this time travels with her in the same section, and not second-class, as she had on her journey to Moscow) and on the other side, further west, there is a stout lady, who being closest to the passage on the left-hand side of the section, experiences the greatest discomfort from heat and cold. Directly opposite Anna, an old invalid lady is making the best she can of the sleeping arrangements; there are two other ladies in the seats opposite to Anna, and with these she exchanges a few words (p. 118).

It must have taken a tremendous amount of work to extract all that information from the sources available to him in those pre-internet days, and it is invaluable when reading the chapter; furthermore, he supplemented it with a diagram, which you can see here (scroll down). And just before that extended note, there’s a brief one on the bell system which is a delightful example of his playful prose:

The three Russian station bells had already become in the seventies a national institution. The first bell, a quarter of an hour before departure, introduced the idea of a journey to the would-be passenger’s mind; the second, ten minutes later, suggested the project might be realized; immediately after the third, the train whistled and glided away (p. 118).

It’s a crying shame he never completed the annotated edition of the novel he was planning; as it is, we have notes for only the first of the eight parts.

Scène à faire.

I was looking at Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature (and the more I read him, the less I can stand his sneering, bullying tone when he’s discussing writers he doesn’t like — I’m glad I didn’t have him as a teacher, since he’s not interested in letting you develop your own view, he wants to imprint you with his own) when I came across this:

I want to stress again the fact that Dostoevski was more of a playwright than a novelist. What his novels represent is a succession of scenes, of dialogues, of scenes where all the people are brought together—and with all the tricks of the theatre, as with the scène à faire, the unexpected visitor, the comedy relief, etc.

I wasn’t clear on what “scène à faire” meant, so I started investigating, and I found two crucially different explanations. The OED (updated June 2015) says:

Etymology: < French scène à faire, lit. ‘scene for action’ (1714 or earlier) < scène scene n. + à to + faire do (see fact n.).
Not fully naturalized in English.

  A scene in a play, opera, etc., made inevitable and indispensable by the progress of the action; the most important scene of the play, often the climax, which fulfils the expectation created by the plot. Also figurative.

1884 R. L. Stevenson in Longman’s Mag. Dec. 145 Even in the heroine the working of the passion is suppressed; and the great struggle, the true tragedy, the scène-à-faire, passes unseen behind the panels of a locked door.
1893 Manch. Guardian 24 Oct. 8/3 The subject of the ‘Dame aux Camellias’..has often been essayed, and the scène à faire of her confrontation..with the inexorable reality of things has been often and sometimes admirably composed.
1924 Amer. Mercury Dec. 439/1 If Washington, Lincoln and Lee have an appeal, it has its source in their great scènes à faire, the moments when they made great decisions, rewrote history, changed the map of the world.
1969 Listener 13 Feb. 220/2 Robert Hoffman acts badly, and the scène à faire in a wobbling rowing boat..is a triumph of embarrassment.
2001 P. C. Castagno New Playwriting Strategies ix. 129 The arranged sequence builds towards a climatic scène à faire, the major confrontational or ‘obligatory’ scene.

But that last citation introduces a new element, that of obligatoriness, and this is the feature emphasized in the Wikipedia article (which for some reason has a plural title):

Scène à faire (French for “scene to be made” or “scene that must be done”; plural: scènes à faire) is a scene in a book or film which is almost obligatory for a genre of its type. In the U.S. it also refers to a principle in copyright law in which certain elements of a creative work are held to be not protected when they are mandated by or customary to the genre.

That is the sole sense given by M-W (“obligatory scene : a plot element that is standard for a particular genre”), and most of the google hits for the phrase are legal in nature (“Scenes à Faire Law and Legal Definition,” etc.). While I appreciate the usefulness of the phrase to lawyers, it seems a pity that it’s driven out the subtler sense conveyed by the OED definition (and doubtless used by Nabokov), which pins it to the particular work of art (“made inevitable and indispensable by the progress of the action”) rather than to the genre (Wikipedia: “For example, a spy novel is expected to contain elements such as numbered Swiss bank accounts, a femme fatale, and various spy gadgets hidden in wristwatches, belts, shoes, and other personal effects”). Ah well, it’s not a phrase you see much anyway (unless, I guess, you’re a copyright lawyer).

Incidentally, if you’re wondering, as I was, about the 1969 Listener citation, it would appear that the actor thus castigated is this Robert Hoffman, and I’m guessing the movie is Diary of a Telephone Operator (“Pietro’s friend has bought a boat in order to sail around the world with Pietro”).