Anastasia Marchenko.

As I wrote here, I’ve been reading Anastasia Marchenko’s 1847 collection Путевые заметки (“Travel notes”); having finished the two stories in that first edition, Три варьяции на старую тему (“Three variations on an old [in the 1853 edition, одну 'one'] theme”) and Гувернантка (“The governess”), I’m ready to add her to the ranks of the unjustly forgotten. I am glad to see that Belinsky, who calls it (in his last article, a review of Russian literature for 1847) the most remarkable literary book published separately that year, agrees with me that the first is the prize of the pair. The narrator is a woman recalling the great adventure of her life, an on-again-off-again sort-of-romance with a man whom she met when she was twenty and he fifteen; the first chapter is called “Lyolya” (the diminutive by which he was then known), the second “Alexis” (the Frenchified form he used as a cocky young man with a European education), and the third “Aleksei Petrovich,” his official name (to match his by then official personality), and it’s told with a winning brio that promises well for the author’s career — it’s astonishing that she was a teenager when she wrote and published it (in Odessa). It brought to my mind Lermontov’s lines “Герой известен, и не нов предмет;/ Тем лучше: устарело все, что́ ново!” (“The hero’s known, the subject isn’t new; so much the better — all that’s new’s grown old!” from a poem she quotes several times for chapter epigraphs, along with Pushkin and — God save the mark! — Bulwer-Lytton). The other story, while decently written (if overlong), is basically just another society tale of the sort that had been so popular in the 1830s, full of balls and card tables, confessions and renunciations, flaming cheeks and rosy lips; the novelty was that the narrator was a governess (a profession the author tried briefly). Either would make a good entry in an anthology of women’s writing from tsarist Russia, but it’s the first that makes me want to read more of her. Olga Demidova says of her in Dictionary of Russian Women Writers:

Her main themes were love and marriage. In all of her writings, Marchenko propagated George Sand’s message that a woman should be free to love whomever she chooses and that the first freedom was to be found in an equal relationship and marriage. Thus, Marchenko was addressing the “woman question” as early as the 1840s although, as was later noted, “her experience gave her a broader perspective on work and on the necessity of enjoying life than that expressed by strict followers of the theory of emancipation” [...]

Many of Marchenko’s stories are in the then popular form of a woman’s diary (zapiski), with the narrator-observer always present. As was typical of women’s literature of the period, Marchenko has constant recourse to lyrical digressions, pouring out the complaints, dissatisfactions, and emotions flooding her soul. Consequently, not all of her writings are of equal quality: among her numerous stories and novels “Around and About” (Vokrug da okolo, 1855), “Hills” (Gory, 1856), “The Salamander” (Salamandra, 1859), and Soap Bubbles (Myl’nye puzyri, 1858) are considered her best. [...]

Marchenko remained one of the most popular women writers from 1847 through the mid-1850s, when she married a man named Kiriakov and followed him first to St. Petersburg and then to Kherson, interrupting her literary career.

A man, of course, didn’t have to interrupt his literary career when he got married.


A while back I quoted this passage from MacDiarmid’s On a Raised Beach:

I try them with the old Norn words – hraun,
Duss, rønis, queedaruns, kollyarum;
They hvarf from me in all directions
Over the hurdifell – klett, millya hellya, hellyina bretta,
Hellyina wheeda, hellyina grø, bakka, ayre, –
    And lay my world in kolgref.

If anyone wondered what Norn might be, it’s “an extinct North Germanic language that was spoken in the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) off the north coast of mainland Scotland and in Caithness in the far north of the Scottish mainland,” and you can find all existing texts in the language as well as material on its grammar and pronunciation at this fine site. Thanks, Trond!

Carissa and Karanda.

I was looking up something else in Alan Davidson’s Penguin Companion to Food (see this post) when my eye was caught by an entry “Carissa and Karanda.” Both exotic-sounding words were unknown to me; the entry began:

two closely related fruits of which the former is indigenous to S. Africa and the latter to S. Asia. Carissa is a botanical as well as a common name, referring to the genus of thorny, fruiting shrubs to which both fruits belong.

It went on to say that carissa is also known as Natal plum and amantugula and is native to South Africa, while the karanda is cultivated in India and some parts of Southeast Asia and East Africa. Naturally, I wanted to know where the names came from; I wasn’t too surprised that neither was in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or American Heritage, but I was surprised they weren’t in the Concise Oxford and astonished they weren’t in the OED. Fortunately, both are in the Third New International (score one for Merriam-Webster!); the entry for karanda sends the reader to their main entry, s.v. caraunda, where we learn that it’s Hindi, from Sanskrit karamardaka. Unfortunately, the etymology for carissa simply says NL (New Latin), but Google Books found Umberto Quattrocchi’s CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names, where I found:

In Sanskrit kryshina means dark blue or black, because of the ripe fruits; the shrub is called krishnaphala; in Malayam it is called karimulla, possibly from kari “dark, black” and mullu “thorny, thorns,” referring to the fruits and thorns [...]

It’s not altogether clear what they’re suggesting about about the relation between the Sanskrit and Malayalam words or about how it came into English, but that’s all I’ve got.

Also, I regret to announce that the Forward‘s wonderful language columnist, Philologos, whom I’ve quoted more than once here, is calling it quits:

The person known as Philologos wished to remain anonymous to our readers, and through the years we have respected that request. Now we must respect another request — to retire from writing the column for the Forward.

So it is with sadness and a great deal of gratitude that we bid farewell to a valued member of the Forward family. The column that appears in this week’s edition will be the last. It’s been an epic run.

Pharewell, Phil (and thanks for the link, Paul)!

Old Chinese.

Another amazing gift of the internet: Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction, by William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart, costs over $60, but you can download its Old Chinese reconstructions for free here. Via Matt at No-sword, who quotes this entertaining footnote:

We adopt the term “Kra-Dai” proposed by Ostapirat (2000) in place of the traditional “Tai-Kadai,” since to Thai speakers, “Tai-Kadai” evidently sounds unintentionally funny, meaning something like “Tai, or whatever” (Montatip Krishnamra, p.c.)

He also mentions that it’s a crappy printing job, which is unforgivable in a book being sold for such a high price (I know, I know, many academic books are even pricier).


My wife and I just watched Satyajit Ray’s last film, Agantuk (The Stranger, 1991; my brother gave it to me as part of the Criterion Eclipse series, Late Ray — thanks, Eric!). It’s a superb movie that goes straight onto my list of Best Films I’ve Ever Seen, but that in itself wouldn’t warrant a LH post; what does is its focus on language. For one thing, there’s the constant presence of English in the dialogue (from dates like 1955 to adverbs, phrases, and entire sentences); it’s even more omnipresent than French in early-nineteenth-century Russian literature, and even though I knew English was omnipresent in India, I was still taken aback. And there is constant linguistic play: puns in English, misunderstandings between English and Bengali, discussions of the meanings of “prodigal” and the pronunciations of Wanderlust (German and anglicized), and poetry in both Bengali and English, not to mention bits of French and Spanish tossed into the mix by the much-traveled titular stranger. I heartily recommend it.

Incidentally, the Bengali pronunciation of Satyajit sounds like SHOT-toe-jit, as I learned from briefly dating a Bengali woman; you can hear it at this Wikipedia page. Bengali is a delightfully complex language that I hope to investigate more fully one day (needless to say, I have a Teach Yourself book and a couple of dictionaries).

Digitizing Old Russian Books.

Georgy Manaev reports on an admirable project:

In the mid-2000s, the Russian State Library (RSL) launched the National Electronic Library project with the aim of digitizing books published before 1831.

Many important texts have already been scanned; from the hand-written Archangel Gospel of 1092 – the fourth oldest known East Slavonic manuscript – to the Octoechos, a book of Orthodox Church psalms printed in 1491 in Krakow. It is one of the first books to use Cyrillic script and is worth several million dollars – although, of course, it belongs to the state and will not be sold. “These books only used to be released by special permission – and only then to prominent scholars,” explains Tatyana Garkushova from the library’s scanning department as she flicks between priceless ancient manuscripts on her computer screen. Now they are available to everyone at the RSL Digital Library page.

[...] “Books are digitized in order to make them accessible to all,” says Roman Kurbatov, the head of the scanning department. “Also, there are other factors to consider as well. In the 19th century, people wrote with zinc-based ink, which eventually starts ‘eating through’ the sheets of paper and coming out the other side. Over time, this makes the text incomprehensible on both sides of the paper.”

“Interestingly, the oldest and most expensive books are the best preserved,” Roman continues. “They were treated with great care from the very beginning: stored in special conditions, rarely opened. We have come across a contemporary French edition of Rabelais dating from about the 1530s. It is in no worse condition than mid-19th-century books.”

There are images and a video linked at the site. (Thanks, Paul!)

Marchenko and the Superfluous Man.

Having finished Goncharov’s first novel, Обыкновенная история (A Common Story; the “Background” section of that Wikipedia article, telling how the book was delayed for a year by Yazykov’s fecklessness, is worth reading, and the novel itself is excellent — you can see why it made Goncharov’s name), I decided to try Anastasia Marchenko’s 1847 story collection Путевые заметки (“Travel notes,” published under the pseudonym “T. Ch.”). Marchenko (1830-1880) has been thoroughly forgotten; she has no Wikipedia page and is not mentioned in either Mirsky‘s History of Russian Literature or The Cambridge History of Russian Literature. But she has a substantial entry in the invaluable Dictionary of Russian Women Writers, which introduces her as “among the first women fiction writers to portray provincial society and the first to introduce the governess as heroine” and says that Путевые заметки was “exceptionally well received by leading literary critics (Belinskii, Nekrasov, and Druzhinin),” so I thought I’d give it a try, since Google Books makes it available for download.

The first story is Тени прошлого (“Shades of the past”), and it begins by describing a man who is sad (грустный), although everybody thinks he has no right to be, and he himself finds it ridiculous — and yet he can’t stop feeling that way. The next paragraph begins “Какъ будто вокругъ него все лишнее” (‘It was as if everything around him was superfluous’) and describes the writing desk, table, gloves, and so on before concluding “и наконецъ самъ онъ, быть-можетъ, нѣчто лишнее на этомъ свѣтѣ” (‘and finally he himself, perhaps, was something superfluous in this world’). I was excited for a moment, thinking this predated Turgenev’s 1850 “Diary of a Superfluous Man,” which is said to have introduced the term лишний человек ‘superfluous man,’ but then I realized that this story was added for the 1853 expanded edition that Google digitized, so she was presumably picking up on the new meme. Still, an interesting early use.

Totally unrelated, but I have to pass on this delightful etymology I just ran across: the dialectal Russian word колдуны [kolduný] ‘small fried pirozhki with meat filling,’ which looks exactly like the plural of the word колдун ‘sorceror,’ is actually from either Polish kołdun or Middle High German kaldûne (the source of the Polish word), which in turn is from Late Latin caldūna ‘entrails, tripe,’ derived from cal(i)dus ‘hot.’

Russia’s Open Book.

I usually prefer to get my information in written form, but the PBS documentary Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin (website) is so good I was sorry when its 57 minutes were over. The host is Stephen Fry (sporting a pleasing late-tsarist beard-and-mustache combination), and the authors discussed and interviewed include Zakhar Prilepin, Dmitry Bykov, Mariam Petrosyan, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Anna Starobinets, and Vladimir Sorokin. You’ll hear lots of Russian, and Fry reads translated passages from the works discussed (accompanied by quite well done animated illustrations). I forget who sent me the link or recommended it to me, but I thank them!

Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages.

Matt at No-sword posts about a wonderful site:

The Charles Darwin University Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages is “a digital archive of endangered literature in Indigenous languages of the Northern Territory”. This site is amazing; I’m sure that pretty much everyone reading this will understand the appeal of a giant headline reading “Click on the map to start looking at books.”

You can also browse by language, author, or just title. For example, there are 69 books in Gupapuyŋu, a Dhuwal dialect of Yolŋu. [...] Or there are 101 books in Kriol, such as the truly great Bigibigi Ekting Ebriweya (“Pigs Acting (Like People) Everywhere”).

I wish a hundred sites like this would bloom! But in googling to make sure I hadn’t already posted this (a feat of forgetting that grows likelier every year), I found a decade-old post about the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America, so there’s that as well.

How The Strand Keeps Going.

Like most bookish New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers, I have a love-hate relationship with the Strand; I’ve spent a tremendous amount of money there, but I’ve also done a fair amount of cursing (at lousy layout, indifferent employees, derisory offers for books I tried to sell, etc.). Thus I was glad to read Christopher Bonanos’s piece in New York magazine, “The Strand’s Stand: How It Keeps Going in the Age of Amazon.” The store has clearly changed a lot since I frequented it (in those days nobody would ever have described it as “a warmer place for readers” than Barnes & Noble), and it’s interesting to learn how it’s thrived; even if I disapprove of most of the methods (“there’s a satellite Strand built into a Club Monaco. It’s spotless, selling mostly new books plus some expensive first editions”; “In the Hamptons, a wall of white books is a popular order, cheerfully fulfilled”; “Fifteen percent of the store’s revenue now comes from merch: T-shirts, postcards, notebooks, superhero action figures…”), hey, it’s keeping the store going, and I have a friend who works there. (Thanks for the link, Aude and Paul!)