Veltman’s Misfortune.

I’ve finished Alexander Veltman’s last novel, Счастье несчастье [Good luck is bad luck/Fortune is misfortune] (1863), and once again I’m disappointed (see this post) — as a novel, it has virtually no interest. It’s basically an anecdote: Mikhailo Ivanovich, trained as a clerk, wants nothing more than to return to Bessarabia and live with his beloved Lenkutsa in a small house with a garden, but is promoted by a remorseless Fortune to ever-higher positions, acquiring all sorts of things he doesn’t want while remaining unable (because of his weak sense of self and hypertrophied sense of duty) to chuck it all and lead the life he longs for. It’s not a bad anecdote, and would have made a nice jeu d’esprit like Tynyanov’s “Подпоручик Киже” [Second Lieutenant Kizhe], but stretching it out to fill a 700-page novel is ridiculous; it’s full of repetitious activities by characters no one cares about, even the author. The one good character is the drunken but faithful ex-soldier Larin, and in the course of researching that unusual surname, known to me only from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, I discovered this passage from Nabokov’s commentary on Onegin:

The name Larin exists. Sometime in the 1840’s, in Moscow, the writer Aleksandr Veltman (Weldmann [sic]; 1800-60 [sic; should be 1870]) ran into an old acquaintance of his, Ilya Larin. He was “a character,” a crackpot and a bum who had roamed all over Russia and, a quarter of a century before, in Kishinev, had amused Pushkin with his antics and drinking parties — incidentally presenting the poet with a name for his squire (perhaps a subliminal link may be distinguished here connecting Larin, Pushkin’s court fool, and the Yorick of the next lines). In the course of the conversation, Larin asked Veltman, “Do you remember Pushkin? He was a good soul. Where is he, do you know?” “Long dead,” answered Veltman. “Really? Poor fellow. And what about Vladimir Petrovich” (whoever that was), “what is he doing?”

Now, that’s an excellent anecdote, and the real Larin is just the same as in Veltman’s novel.

Here are a couple of passages of linguistic interest; the first, on lexical distinctions:

Aleksei Alekseevich [the governor, and Mikhailo’s boss], threw on a greatcoat, which he liked to wear instead of a dressing gown, donned a service cap, and set off on his unexpected descent upon the municipal hospital [bol’nitsa], alias gospital’ [‘military hospital’]. The names might seem to be identical, but careful philological consideration will show them to be completely different. A military gospital’ cannot possibly be called a military bol’nitsa; a municipal bol’nitsa cannot possibly be called a municipal gospital’. A gospital’ can go on campaign, but a bol’nitsa can’t. And herein lies a subtlety of the enrichment of language. The medical facility of the provincial capital never went on campaign, and so we will call it a bol’nitsa.

Между тѣмъ Алексѣй Алексѣевичь, снарядясь, накинулъ на себя шинельку, которую любилъ иногда носить вмѣсто халата, надѣлъ фуражку, и отправился совершать непредвидѣнное нашествіе на городскую больницу, она же и госпиталь. Казалось бы названія тожественны; но при внимательномъ филологическомъ воззрѣніи совершенно различны. Военнаго госпиталя никакъ нельзя назвать военной больницей; городской больницы никакъ нельзя назвать городскимъ госпиталемъ. Госпиталю можно быть походнымъ; но больница въ походъ не ходитъ. И въ этомъ заключается тонкость обогащенія языка. Врачебное зданіе губернскаго города, никогда въ походъ не ходило, и потому мы будемъ называть его больницей.

And the second, on women’s education:

They [Lizochka and her friends] considered themselves in the forefront of the highest provincial circle; they could distinguish the enlightened European languages, except for Greek, from the Asiatic, they knew that the climate of Russia is worse than any other, that church services in Russia are carried on in some unintelligible Slavic language, and that the ne plus ultra of a girl’s education is being able to understand French novels.

Онѣ считали себя въ высшемъ губернскомъ кругу на первомъ планѣ, умѣли отличать просвѣщенные европейскіе языки, кромѣ греческаго, отъ азіатскихъ, знали, что климатъ Россіи хуже всѣхъ, что церковная служба въ Россіи идетъ на непонятномъ славянскомъ языкѣ, и что nес рlus ultrа дѣвственнаго образованія есть пониманіе французскихъ романовъ.

And now, on to Leskov and (bracing myself in advance) Chernyshevsky!

Corpus Avesticum Berolinense.

The Freie Universität Berlin’s Institut für Iranistik has exciting news:

We are happy to announce that we have got today the confirmation that the German Research Foundation (DFG) has decided to fund our new project Corpus Avesticum Berolinense (CAB) for the next 12 years at the Institute of Iranian Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. This gives us the opportunity to undertake the expected new edition of all Zoroastrian rituals attested in the Avestan manuscripts. Two post-docs, some PhD candidates and student assistants will work together for twelve years beginning in 2018 in order to achieve this huge task.

In the last thirty years, a complete renovation of our understanding of the Avestan texts has been produced. Whereas they have usually understood as fragments from a longer long collection of books, today we believe that most of these texts were composed for the function in which they are still used today: their recitation in the different rituals performed in the Zoroastrian community. In fact, most of very numerous manuscripts containing these texts are complete descriptions of the rituals, including not only the Avestan texts, but also ritual instructions in different languages (depending the manuscript place of production).

Any edition of these texts would be expected to reflect their function and transmission; but, for several and very different reasons (the late antique transmission of the texts; the modern scholarly perspective on the Avesta), none of them does. As a result, the liturgical character of the Avestan texts passed on to us is not taken into account by any of the modern Avesta editions. The scholars edited the texts deprived of their ritual and performative contexts, many of them were even arranged in a different order as they are used in the performances and many variants and combinations were not edited at all, since they were considered just secondary ritual re-arrangements.

The new edition bears the consequences of the new insights and tendencies in the Avestan studies since the 1950ies. It will be the first edition which presents all texts belonging to the Avesta in its concrete shape, i.e., as ritual texts and strictly according to the manuscripts. […]

The proposed edition builds on the previous work of the Avestan Digital Archive, led by Alberto Cantera at the University of Salamanca between 2008 and 2016 and since May 2016 at the FU Berlin. Beside the finding of almost 300 hundred manuscripts, its most important achievement has been the discovery of a new branch of the transmission: the Iranian one, whereas all previous editions rely basically on Indian manuscripts. The Iranian manuscripts has brought to light that the Avestan transmission is a dynamic, fluid transmission deeply influenced by the ritual performance. Under these circumstances, the reconstruction of an ahistorical archetype seems no longer reasonable. We intend instead the presentation of the rituals as they were historically performed. The space-temporal we have chosen is the Safavid period in the region of Yazd-Kerman.

It’s wonderful that projects like this are still being funded; I enjoyed studying Avestan over forty years ago, and I envy the students who will be able to work with this material. Thanks, Trevor!

The Last Speaker of Taushiro.

Nicholas Casey writes for the NY Times about Amadeo García García, the last speaker of Taushiro (also known as Pinche or Pinchi), and how he and his language got to this point:

The waters of the Peruvian Amazon were once a vast linguistic repository, a place where every turn of the river could yield another dialect, often completely unintelligible to people living just a few miles away. But in the last century, at least 37 languages have disappeared in Peru alone, lost in the steady clash and churn of national expansion, migration, urbanization and the pursuit of natural resources. Forty-seven languages remain here in Peru, scholars estimate, and nearly half are at risk of disappearing.

I came to the river outpost of Intuto, 10 hours by speedboat from the nearest city, to figure out how the Taushiro, like so many other cultures, had been brought to this kind of end. The journey began in forgotten linguistic papers and historical sketches. It even led me to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, where a retired Christian missionary rummaged through the last existing pictures of the Taushiro, nearly coming to tears as she looked through them for the first time in years.

And it brought me here, to the banks of a silty brown river, where the cumulative experience of the Taushiro people swung alone in a hammock: A man around 70 whose memory was fading and whose grasp of the language was slipping away because he had no one to speak it with. […]

Now Amadeo lives alone in a clapboard house behind the town’s water tower, spending many of his final days drinking. Desperate to speak and hear whatever Taushiro he can, he sits alone on his porch in the morning, reciting the only literature ever written in the language — verses of the Bible translated into Taushiro by missionaries who sought to convert the tribe years ago.

Ine aconahive ite chi yi tua tieya ana na’que I’yo lo’, he read aloud one morning. It was the story of Lot from the Book of Genesis. Lot and his family become the sole survivors of their city when God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot loses his wife when she looks back at the destruction, against the instructions of God.

It’s a sad story, but well written and well worth reading. Thanks, Eric and ryan!

Xmas Loot 2017.

An enjoyable but tiring day, I’ll just list a few items of LH interest:

The Guy Davenport Reader (thanks, jamessal!)

The Russian Memoir: History and Literature, edited by Beth Holmgren

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips

I was also thrilled to get Irina Mashinski’s latest book of poetry, Делавер [Delaware] (thanks, Irina!); the title sequence is online here and my account of a 2014 reading at Mount Holyoke College is here.

I wish everyone the very best of holidays!

Smorgon Student.

Reading Veltman’s last novel, I got to the unintelligible phrase сморгонский студент ‘smorgonskii student.’ I guessed it was a student from someplace called “Smorgon” (or Smorgona?), and that turned out to be sort of true, except that the students involved were bears: the Lithuanian/Russian/Polish/Belarusian town of Smorgon (Сморгонь/Smurgainys/Smorgonie/סמאָרגאָן‎) once housed a school for training bears, and so in the nineteenth century “Smorgon student” was a clever way to refer to a mammal of the ursine persuasion (Dahl adds the parallel phrase сергачский барин ‘nobleman from Sergach,” which apparently also had such an academy). This is just one example of the sort of odd fact the internet is a great help in unearthing.

A Dialectal Squirrel.

I ran across a reference to Mandelstam’s 1922 essay Конец романа [The end of the novel] and wound up rereading it; it’s a short and fairly boring analysis of how the novel, which flourished in the 19th century with its focus on individual psychology, was now passé because individual psychology was no longer important. In the first place, that’s a silly way to look at literature; in the second place, most of the essay is written in a formulaic style barely recognizable as Mandelstam’s prose; and in the third place, the novel never died, so the whole idea is moot. (He says the swan song of the classic European novel was Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, which was wildly popular a century ago; anybody know if it’s still worth reading?) However, it comes alive at the very end:

Очевидно, силою вещей современный прозаик становится летописцем, и роман возвращается к своим истокам, к “Слову о полку Игореве”, к летописи, к агиографии, к “Четьи Минеи”. Снова мысль прозаика векшей растекается по древу истории, и не нам заманить эту векшу в ручную клетку.

Clearly, by the force of circumstance the contemporary prose writer has become a chronicler, and the novel is returning to its sources, to the Lay of Igor’s Campaign, to chronicles, to hagiography, to the Chet’i Minei. Once more the thought of the prose writer hastens like a squirrel over the tree of history, and it is not for us to lure this squirrel into a cage.

The last line refers to a very famous passage from the opening of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign:

Боянъ бо вѣщій, аще кому
хотяше пѣснь творити,
то растекашется мыслію по древу,
сѣрымъ волкомъ по земли,
шизымъ орломъ подъ облакы

For the vatic Boyan, when he wished to make a song for anyone, hastened in his thought over the trees, like a grey wolf over the earth, like a dusky eagle beneath the clouds.

We discussed this passage back in 2011, and there is much back-and-forth in the comment thread about a common but unfounded suggestion that мыслію ‘in thought’ is an error for мысью ‘like a squirrel,’ and Mandelstam is clearly working from that reading — except that he replaces мыс(л)ью with векшей, where векша [veksha] is a dialect word for ‘squirrel.’ He must have liked that word, because he also uses it in the last stanza of a 1937 poem:

И век бы падал векши легче,
И легче векши к мягкой речке —
Полнеба в валенках, в ногах…

The age could fall lighter than a squirrel,
lighter than a squirrel to the soft stream.
Half of the sky is wearing winter boots.
  (Translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane.)

So my question for Russian-speakers is: how does the word векша sound to you (if it’s familiar at all)? Is it rustic, amusing, quaint, what? And my question for English-speakers is: are there any English dialect words for ‘squirrel’? You’d think there would be, but I haven’t turned up any. (We discussed the older word aquerne, from Old English acweorna, here.)


OK, this is just a silly little squib, but it amuses me and I’m sharing it:

“Oachkatzl” (Eichhörnchen=squirrel) and “Schwoaf” (Schweif=tail) are words that are used to test whether you qualify as a native speaker of Bavarian/Austrian dialect. They were a hugely popular way of testing and teasing the US occupation forces after the Second World War.

In Bavaria anyone failing the test, regardless of where they actually come from, is classified somewhat pityingly as a “Preiß” (Prussian).

Other catch phrases include: “Du múasst an bám gíassn sunst dadirdada” which means “you have to water a tree or it will wither away”.
Or even better: “Mit dem Bam då iss total wuascht wost’hn histeyst. Dådadirdada, dådadirdadaraa und dådadaraadadian” (It doesn’t matter where you plant your tree: It’ll wither here, it’ll wither there, wherever you plant it, it will still wither away).

(If anyone knows where the stress falls on “dadirdada,” and how it works morphologically, you have my complete attention.)

Translating Nabati Poetry.

Arabic Literature (in English) recently featured Marcel Kurpershoek on Translating 18th-century Nabati Poetry That Still ‘Smells Like Fresh Bread’ — M. Lynx Qualey interviews the editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd. I was holding off on posting it because at the end it says “Part two of this interview will appear next week, on December 13,” but it’s now a week later and I’m officially giving up on part two. Kurpershoek was a diplomat in Riyadh in the 1980s:

I got interested in this kind of poetry because I was looking for ways to reach beyond the normal diplomatic life, which is a bit superficial. You only have formal contacts with society, and most of the expats stick together. I was an Arabist, and I wanted to know more about the Bedouin and their life in the desert. I knew classical poetry, but not what they had there, and I didn’t understand it at all.

I saw some Nabati poems published in newspapers, and as an Arabist diplomat I had to read the newspapers for the embassy.

These poems were tantalizing. I felt I should be able to understand them, but I didn’t, not quite, and why not?

Many of the words, I discovered, are very old. You have to go back to pre-Islamic poetry and early Islamic poetry. There you find a lot of the vocabulary, and after that, you have to take Najdi seriously as a language. The meter and rhyme is very much like ancient poetry, but it works a bit differently.

He says Hmedan’s work is known “basically in the Najd, in Central Arabia,” and he got a chance to study it with Saad Sowayan, “who is the greatest authority on Nabati poetry, and with Abdalah al-Fawzan who had just published his PhD and an edition of Hmedan’s poetry: he is from the same town as Hmedan, al-Qasab. Of course I asked Fawzan a lot of questions about Hmedan’s diwan, but even he doesn’t know everything. You cannot rely on an authority like this alone. I had to rely on manuscripts, and go into the chronicles of that period.” He discusses the Library of Arabic Literature, which is publishing it:

LAL has so far only published works that are in classical Arabic, and not this kind of poetry—you cannot really say it’s dialect, but it’s a mixture of Najdi colloquial and very old Arabic. So let’s call it Nabati. They have not done any translations from that heritage. The idea came up that we should choose two poets to translate.

Hmedan was an obvious choice, because he’s always been regarded as one of the foremost, and the other one I’m preparing now, for executive review, is a nineteenth century poet, Ibn Sbayyil.

It’s a big step for the Library of Arabic Literature to move beyond the classical canon into this kind of field, and I think it pays off. It’s not only the first work published outside the literature in classical Arabic, but it’s also the only source we have for what people thought in that part of the world before the Wahhabi reform movement.

And he says “I sent it to some friends in Holland, who are interested in literature, and one of them told me, ‘It still smells like fresh bread.'” The description of the poetry, and Hmedan’s life, is fascinating; thanks, Trevor!

The Untranslated.

The Untranslated has been around since 2013; how am I just learning about it now? The About page says “The purpose of this blog is to bring to a wider attention significant literary works not yet translated into English,” and that’s so far up my alley it might as well be living in my house. Muireann Maguire linked, on Facebook, to the recent post The Virtuosi: Five Translators Whose Names are Hallmarks of Quality, which of course intrigued me, and I was stunned by the opening passage:

I have to confess that I don’t read works in English translation that often. The main reason is neither my language purism nor snobbishness but the prosaic lack of time: in order to maintain seven reading languages besides my native Russian and near-native English, I have to devote the bulk of my reading time to works of literature written in or translated into those languages, which is often a logistical, managerial and mental torment. The very nature of my blog presupposes a tangential role for English-language translators: they are rather the intended audience of The Untranslated, than its subject matter. Ideally, I would love them to read a review of some humongous, linguistically dazzling, arcana-laden novel (and there are quite a few reviewed here) and say: “Yes, I wanna do it!” Of course, you might wonder skeptically:”Is there still anyone left who can pull it off?” Are there human beings capable of translating such bemusing behemoths as Los Sorias and El Troiacord? such a paragon of untranslatable wordsmithery as Remember Famagusta? such unjustly underappreciated, uncomfortable, mesmerising masterworks as The Absolute Marshal and Corporal? The answer is yes.

And then when I clicked on the Remember Famagusta link I discovered there was an important Russian writer I’d never even heard of:

The English-speaking audience might have heard first the name of Alexander Goldstein from one of the most important contemporary Russian writers Mikhail Shishkin. During his talk at the Harriman Institute, Columbia, he actually said the following:

For me now the top of Russian literature is Alexander Goldstein. […] I’m sure in fifty years here at Columbia University and other American universities all professors will consider our time, our epoch, the epoch of Alexander Goldstein. And we, writers, will be just contemporaries of Alexander Goldstein. We just shared with him the epoch. […] And if you asked me, “What Russian writers are important and genius nowadays?” I would say: “Read Alexander Goldstein”.

[…] I’m not sure that Goldstein is really the genius Shishkin would like him to be, but upon reading his first novel Remember Famagusta, I was totally sold on the idea that there had not been a better stylist writing in Russian in the past century, except maybe Andrei Bely, Vladimir Nabokov and Sasha Sokolov.

Wow! I now want to read Goldstein (or Goldshtein, to better represent the Russian Гольдштейн), and of course I’m subscribing to the blog’s RSS feed. The five translators The Virtuosi focuses on are Adrian Nathan West, Charlotte Mandell, Brendan Riley, Isabel Fargo Cole, and Oliver Ready; see the post for extended samples of the work of each. And don’t miss the section on The Great Untranslated.

Barn Burner.

I’ve always liked the phrase barn burner, which I probably first heard from sports announcers as a kid: “Boy, that was a real barn burner!” Merriam-Webster has a good explanation of the history behind it:

Today barn burner is often used to describe a sporting event or some other contest, such as a political race, which occasions a good deal of excitement.

But before this 20th century use, barn burner had a very specific meaning in US politics. The Barnburners were one of two competing factions in the New York State Democratic Party in the middle of the 19th century. John Russell Bartlett, in his 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, provided a lengthy quote from the New York Tribune, which explained that the name was “in allusion to the story of an old Dutchman who relieved himself of rats by burning his barns which they infested.” In this case, the Barnburners were so determined to get rid of systemic abuses that they were willing to destroy the system itself.

The Barnburners were the more radical of the two political groups; the more conservative party was referred to as the Hunkers (possibly on the grounds that they were interested in a hunk of the political spoils, or because they hankered after elective office). […] It has long been thought that the New York Barnburners were the originators of that term (aside from the occasional person who literally burned down a barn), but recent findings have indicated that the term began its life describing radicals in a neighboring state, Pennsylvania, slightly earlier.

Also, totally unrelated, but anyone interested in Indic languages will be as glad as I was to know that Language of the Snakes: Prakrit, Sanskrit, and the Language Order of Premodern India by Andrew Ollett, thirty bucks in paperback, is currently available free for Kindle at Amazon — hearty thanks go to bulbul for the tip!