The Gambler.

I’ve finished Dostoevsky’s Игрок [The Gambler], and it’s pretty much what I would have expected from a novel written in a single month under the gun of a deadline that, if missed, would have meant all the author’s copyrights would have gone to the vile Stellovsky — that is, it’s barely a novel at all, and while well worth reading (it is, after all, Dostoevsky) is not worth a great deal of attention. (In fact, William J. Leatherbarrow, in his excellent little Twayne book Fedor Dostoevsky, has no more to say about it than this: “The short novel The Gambler is an interesting product of Dostoevsky’s unhealthy preoccupation with roulette.”) But it’s worth as much attention as I give it here.

In the first place, Dostoevsky was right to want to call it Ruletenburg (Stellovsky insisted on a “more Russian” name) — it’s clearly intended as a group portrait of the people assembled in the German resort town given that alias (probably Baden) as well as a study of compulsive gambling, and the title it ended up with places too much emphasis on the latter. The problem with the group portrait is that there’s only one actual character in the entire book — the rich, aged, wheelchair-bound Muscovite Antonida Tarasevicheva, whose death (and consequent inheritance) has been anxiously awaited by most of the characters for their varied reasons and whose sudden appearance at the end of chapter 8 is a magnificent coup de théâtre. She is beautifully thought-out and realized; you would know her immediately if you ran into her, and she is as vivid in my mind as Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, and Porfiry Petrovich in the last novel of his I read or as the various Karamazovs, who have stayed with me since I encountered them in college almost a half-century ago. The rest are pure cardboard, including the narrator, and I can’t help but think that one of the problems with the novel is the choice of first-person narration; Dostoevsky originally planned to write Crime and Punishment that way, but eventually settled on the brilliant third-person approach that allowed him to open the story up and give it depth. But that was a lot of work, and he didn’t have time for it with The Gambler.

So what do people talk about when they talk about The Gambler? For one thing, they call it autobiographical, but that’s nonsense. Yes, Dostoevsky himself was a compulsive gambler and drew on the experience when writing the novel, but otherwise Alexei (the narrator) is nothing like him. Another thing they talk about is this (I quote Joseph Frank):

The Gambler may be seen as Dostoevsky’s brilliantly ambivalent commentary, inspired by his own misadventures in the casino, on the Russian national character. Disorderly and “unseemly” though the Russian character may be, it still has human potentialities closed to the narrow, inhuman, and Philistine penny-pinching of the Germans; the worldly, elegant, and totally perfidious patina of the French, and even the solidly helpful but unattractively stodgy virtues of the English.

Come on now. That sort of guff is great for “three guys walk into a bar” jokes, it can be useful as characterization when put into a character’s mouth, but it is not literary material as such, and here it’s basically recycled from his essay Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. “We X people are not like those silly Y people and those nasty Z people!” is nationalistic prejudice, pure and simple. (Of course, the worst form is anti-Semitism, with which Dostoevsky was badly infected and which must be confronted by any lover of the novels; Gary Saul Morson has an excellent discussion of this in “Dostoevsky’s Anti-Semitism and the Critics,” available on JSTOR.) And that’s much of what is going on in this novel; the Russians are fools for love (Alexei is in love with Praskovya/Polina, who is in love with Des Grieux, and the doddering general is in love with Mlle. Blanche), while the French are cynics out to take them for all they can get and the Germans are soulless money-grubbers. (The exception is the Englishman Astley, who is also in love with Polina and who is unfailingly decent and generous.) It all adds up to anecdote and melodrama, but it does have a memorable female character, his first since Netochka Nezvanova if you don’t count the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold Sonya in Crime and Punishment, which I don’t. Oh, and there’s only one episode of tears falling like hail. On to Turgenev’s Дым [Smoke], by pleasing coincidence also set in Baden!


I’ve finally gotten around to reading Tom McCarthy’s odd but absorbing novel Remainder, which Studiolum gave me a couple of years ago, and I was stopped by the sentence “The road was cambered, like most roads.” I didn’t think I knew the word, but my impression that it meant ‘arched’ was confirmed when I looked it up (AHD: camber “A slightly arched surface, as of a road, a ship’s deck, an airfoil, or a ski”), so I must have absorbed it from somewhere. (I asked my wife, who was familiar with it from skis.) It also has a specifically UK sense “a tilt built into a road at a bend or curve, enabling vehicles to maintain speed” (reflected in this Wikipedia article), but even though McCarthy is English I don’t think that meaning can be intended here, since it’s not true of “most roads.” I’m curious if this is a word most people are familiar with and I just haven’t run into much, or if it’s a fairly specialized term.

Also, the etymology is interesting; AHD says “From Middle English caumber, curved, from Old North French dialectal caumbre, from Latin camur, perhaps from Greek kamara, vault,” but “perhaps” should be taken with considerable salt according to J. Peter Maher in “‘Stone,’ ‘Hammer,’ and ‘Heaven’ in Indo-European Languages and Cosmology,” published in Approaches to Language: Anthropological Issues, edited by William C. McCormack and Stephen A. Wurm (Walter de Gruyter, 1978):

Benveniste compared a dubious Gk. word (kamára) with a highly ambiguous Iranian form, itself actually borrowed into Gk.: cf. Gk. kamára ‘(soldier’s) belt’. […] If this were not messy enough, Benveniste also brings in an extremely problematical Latin word from Vergil and Isidore of Seville, camur(us), referring to ‘inward curving’ (of cow’s horns). The comparative method of linguistics is damaged by such dubious comparisons.

I don’t know where the truth lies, but I always enjoy that kind of scholarly spleen.

Update. Having finished the book, I regret to report that I didn’t like it. It set up an intriguing situation that I thought could be resolved in either of two interesting ways, but it ended up in over-the-top melodrama possibly brought on by having seen too many movies (perhaps at the Ritzy, a local landmark mentioned more than once in the novel). That’s just my opinion, of course; Antoine Wilson and Liesl Schillinger loved it, and the wonderful Zadie Smith called it “one of the great English novels of the past ten years” (which is what impelled me to want to read it in the first place). But me, I didn’t like it. I may have been spoiled by too much Dostoevsky. Read the reviews and judge for yourself.

United Air Line.

Jonathan Morse posts about the surprising early history of airline, which began as two words:

The noun air line (“chiefly U.S.,” says the OED) originally referred to the shortest distance between two points: a straight line, as might be drawn on a map. During the nineteenth century the term became a selling point that American railroads incorporated into their names. […]

The more famous of the two twentieth-century American magazines named Life was a mid-century weekly that specialized in photojournalism, but the earlier Life was less an illustrated history of its time than a word game played for eternal stakes. It was a humor magazine, and on January 6, 1910, it put the words air line into play and began doodling some thoughts on paper about what they were actually saying, not what they were merely meaning. […]

On December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers had made their first powered takeoff, and six years and a few days later it’s obvious that the cartoonist still hasn’t actually seen a wing. But he always has known the language of air. He came to crying life on the day it began filling his lungs, and now the play with the mooring ropes has spun off a name. There it is, written across what in 1910 is still probably called a pier: United Air Line. It has no plural ending because it actually is united. It is a single line segment with a beginning and an end: an air line, extending (say the other words on the pier) all the way to London.

You have to go to Jon’s post to see the amazing illustration referred to; trust me, ça vaut le détour.

Is “Y’all” in Trouble?

Allan Metcalf reports for Lingua Franca on a distressing new development:

For some time, “y’all” has been assaulted by “you guys” aiming to replace it as the go-to second-person-plural pronoun in the South. […] In the Dictionary of American Regional English, the usage note for “you guys” says “orig. chiefly North; now widespread; esp freq. among younger speakers.” It backs this up with two citations that indicate the invasion has been on its way at least since the recent turn of the century:

2000 American Speech 75.417: Meanwhile, just as y’all seems to be spreading outside the South, you-guys is moving into the South, especially among younger speakers. […]

Now, I am not in any sense a Southerner, though my father’s side of the family is from the Ozarks and I have some remnants of that accent (UM-brella, IN-surance); I don’t use “y’all” in my normal speech. But I think it’s a wonderful bit of English, and I am appalled at the thought that it could get replaced by the nondescript “you guys.” So y’all get out there and preserve your linguistic heritage!

Anderson on Powell and Proust.

Perry Anderson writes long, long essays for the London Review of Books; they are always interesting, but I confess when their topics are not central to my life, I tend to skim long chunks of them. However, I read all of his very, very, very long piece in the latest issue; ostensibly a review of Hilary Spurling’s new biography of Anthony Powell, it is in fact a detailed comparison of Powell and Proust, frequently to the detriment of the latter. As one of the (probably lamentably few) readers who have made their way through both A la recherche du temps perdu and A Dance to the Music of Time (“1,240,000 words in Proust, 1,130,000 in Powell”), I gobbled it all up, and those who have read one or the other massive set of novels (or, if you prefer, massive novels divided into chunks for publication) may well want to read the relevant portions of the review. I confess I was originally going to post just the following bit, for the sake of the pun (pompe means both ‘pomp’ and ‘pump’):

[Proust’s] father was a friend of Félix Faure, president of the Third Republic in the last years of the 19th century, who expired in one of its most famous scandals, in the course – his pompe funèbre, as it was widely dubbed – of fellation by his mistress.

But as I read on I found he had such interesting things to say that I thought I’d reproduce a few paragraphs here:
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Boogie-woogie Tramps.

A passage from LIFE magazine of Sept. 14, 1953, courtesy Futility Closet:

Inspired officials of the East German Communist party, ever diligent in setting standards to which party members may conform, issued a list of the terms which are approved for use in vilifying the West. Henceforth Red speakers will know they are on safe ground if they choose any of the following synonyms for Americans: ‘Monkey killers, lice breeders, mass poisoners, chewing-gum spivs, boogie-woogie tramps, gas-chamber ideologists, leprous heroes, breeders of trichinosis, arsenic mixers, delirious lunatics, exploiters of epidemics.’ For the British a different set of terms must be used: ‘paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch cowards and collaborators, conceited dandies or playboy soldiers.’

One cannot, of course, count on the scholarly bona fides of LIFE magazine, and for all I know the whole thing was a Cold War invention, but it’s certainly lively reading. Thanks, JC!

Earliest Extract of Odyssey?

A frustratingly brief Guardian story (credited to AFP in Athens) reports on an exciting find:

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient tablet engraved with 13 verses of the Odyssey in the ancient city of Olympia, southern Greece, in what could be the earliest record of the epic poem, the Greek culture ministry said.

The clay slab is believed to date back to the 3rd century AD, during the Roman era.

“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said.

The extract, taken from book 14, describes the return of Ulysses to his home island of Ithaca. […]

It was found close to the remains of the Temple of Zeus at the site of the Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese.

In the first place, if it was close to the remains of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, how the devil has it not been discovered in the last couple of millennia? And in the second, what’s the text like?? Ah well, more will be revealed in good time, I’m sure. Thanks, Trevor!

Update. Turns out that press release is full of nonsense; see this link (from Daryl’s comment below).

The Missing Joyce Scholar.

Jack Hitt, in the NYT Magazine, tells the story of John Kidd, “once celebrated as the greatest James Joyce scholar alive”:

Kidd had been the director of the James Joyce Research Center, a suite of offices on the campus of Boston University dedicated to the study of “Ulysses,” arguably the greatest and definitely the most-obsessed-over novel of the 20th century. Armed with generous endowments and cutting-edge technology, he led a team dedicated to a single goal: producing a perfect edition of the text. […]

Among scholars and Joyce freaks, everyone knew “Ulysses” was an odyssey of errors. Over the decades, there were rumors that some great textual fanatic was about to take on the brute task of cleaning it up. In the 1960s, excitement centered on Jack Dalton’s work, but the task seemed to overwhelm him, and he died in 1981 without producing his edition. By the mid-1980s, European scholars took up the charge, culminating in the announcement of a coming version — “Ulysses: The Corrected Text” — that would set straight 5,000 mistakes and give the world “ ‘Ulysses’ as Joyce wrote it.”

This updated edition was the product of years of fine-tooth-combing through manuscripts and copy-sheets, one letter at a time, all done according to a dense new textual theory that almost no one could understand. The entire project felt authoritative and dour, very German and all consuming, right down to the chief editor’s name, Hans Walter Gabler. Right away, Gabler was challenged by a New World scholar no one had ever heard of, his name right out of some early American morality play — John Kidd. It seemed as if the great watchmaker of the universe had handled the casting: German versus American, Old World versus New, credentialed versus self-taught. The face-off managed to draw an audience far outside academe. Try to imagine this today: For almost a year, textual criticism was happening, and red-hot copies of The New York Review of Books flew off the newsstands.

I vividly remember that NYRB piece and the subsequent exchanges of letters; Kidd was so brilliant and so obsessive about details it seemed clear he was going to produce the perfect edition. What a shame it’s apparently never going to happen! I leave you to discover the details at the link. (Thanks, Ran!)


In this post I gave the impression that the Russian word интеллигенция [intelligentsia] was a product of the 1860s; I discover from Gary Hamburg’s chapter on “Russian intelligentsias” in A History of Russian Thought, edited by William Leatherbarrow and Derek Offord (and once again I thank the unknown benefactor who gave it to me last year) that it goes much further back and has undergone considerable change:

The word intelligentsiia appeared in the Russian language in the early eighteenth century, carrying the meaning ‘alliance’, ‘compact’ or ‘agreement’. By the 1730s, however, the poet Trediakovsky had associated the word root with the Latin word intelligentia, a word he translated into Russian as razumnost’ (rationality). According to the linguist Viktor Vinogradov, Trediakovsky helped fix the basic semantic sense of the term intelligentsiia thereafter: that is, the word became associated with ‘reason’, ‘rationality’ and ‘education’. In the mid-eighteenth century the freemason Johann Georg Schwartz often used intelligentsiia to connote the ‘highest capacity of human beings as sentient creatures’. In the early nineteenth century the philosopher Galich incorporated it into his History of Philosophical Systems with the meaning ‘rational spirit’. In 1836 the term appeared in a diary entry by Zhukovsky, as a collective noun connoting members of Russia’s educated Europeanised elite. According to the historian Sigurd Shmidt, Zhukovsky’s concept of the intelligentsia connoted ‘not only belonging to a certain socio-cultural milieu and having a European education, but also a certain moral outlook and behaviour – that is, intelligentnost’ in the later meaning of the term’. Still, so far as we know, uses of intelligentsiia as a collective noun remained infrequent until the 1860s: the first edition of Dal’s comprehensive Russian dictionary (published 1863–8) contained no reference to the word.

In the 1860s the word intelligentsiia established itself firmly in the literary and political lexicon. The liberal novelist Boborykin used it as a synonym of ‘culture’ or ‘intelligence’ in an 1866 essay in The Russian Herald. [Footnote 5: … Boborykin subsequently claimed to have coined the term intelligentsiia, a claim supported by the Granat Entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ and Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia. His purported status as originator of the term caused considerable confusion among western scholars who took the claim at face value since it was legitimated by major Russian reference sources.] Tolstoy employed it as a collective noun in War and Peace (1865–9) to denote the educated, Europeanised portion of Russian high society. The instructional fictional context of his use of the term was the famous opening scene in Anna Scherer’s salon, wherein Pierre Bezukhov, recently returned from France, thrilled to the thought that ‘here was gathered the entire intelligentsia of Petersburg’. Tolstoy’s cultural authority reinforced the term’s currency, such that the second edition of Dal’s dictionary (1880–2) defined it, ‘used in the collective sense’, as ‘rational, educated, the intellectually developed portion of the populace’. Thenceforth, the collective noun intelligentsiia retained that meaning through the turn of the century: in 1902 Mikhelson repeated Dal’s 1881 definition verbatim.

Meanwhile, the word intelligentsiia acquired a political colouration. As Nathaniel Knight has shown, in 1864 the censor Nikitenko compared Polish insurgents to Russian nihilists: ‘Their intelligentsia is the same filth as ours – theirs is worse in fact, with its extra dose of Catholicism.’ In the 1870s the conservative journalist Katkov contrasted the simple, politically healthy Russian narod (people, nation) to the subversive, Europeanised intelligentsiia, a contrast that probably led him to assume in 1879, when the young Aleksandr Solovev tried to kill the tsar, that the assassin was ‘an intelligent in a foreign top hat’. In 1880, in his famous speech at the Pushkin monument in Moscow, Dostoevsky juxtaposed the common Russian narod, their intrinsic beauty and spirit, with the ‘rootless’ intelligentsiia, a purportedly alien and destructive element in national life. He accused the intelligentsia of ‘not believing in the native soil, or in its innate strength, in Russia or in itself’. As sometimes happens in politics when a certain group attaches a label to its opponents, Russian radicals did not initially use the word intelligentsiia as a self-description. Thus, the linguist Iury Sorokin has asserted that the words intelligentsiia and intelligent are not encountered in the works of Chernyshevsky, Dobroliubov and Pisarev. Only in the 1870s did leading Populists such as Mikhailovsky and Tkachev proudly declare their membership in the intelligentsiia.

In the twentieth century the term intelligentsiia continued to have the basic meaning of the educated or cultured part of the populace, but gradually the word was also associated with membership in the professions, with jobs that carried ‘white collar’ status. […] Between 1903 and 1940 the leadership of the Bolshevik party sought to define its relationship to the intelligentsia, with very uncertain results: on the one hand, party leaders happily embraced the intelligentsia to the degree that its members accepted Marxism and Soviet power; on the other hand, the party defined non-Bolshevik intelligenty as ‘enemies of the people’.

There’s considerably more, but that excerpt shows that the history is longer and more complicated than I thought. And the footnote mentioning the confusion caused by Boborykin’s claim being accepted by reference works shows how important it is for lexicographers to do their work diligently and honestly.

Addendum. Hamburg discusses the dispute over when the intelligentsia as a group came into existence, with some (mostly Russians) saying it was in the 18th century (with men like Novikov and Radishchev) and others (mostly Western) saying it was the 1840s or the 1860s; he writes “As Boris Kolonitsky has pointedly observed, ‘participants in the many discussions about the intelligentsia resemble a crowd engaged in a game where each player persists in playing according to his own rules,’ and continues with the following useful paragraph:
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Self-Translating Fairy Tales.

Another highly LH-relevant passage from Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (see this post); he’s been talking about the young Bulgarian peasant girls hired by his family as maids, and when his parents were out and it got dark, they all huddled together on a divan and the girls told what we now call campfire stories:

Of the fairy tales I heard, only the ones about werewolves and vampires have lodged in my memory. Perhaps no other kinds were told. I can’t pick up a book of Balkan fairy tales without instantly recognizing some of them. Every detail of them is present to my mind, but not in the language I heard them in. I heard them in Bulgarian, but I know them in German; this mysterious translation is perhaps the oddest thing that I have to tell about my youth, and since the language history of most children runs differently, perhaps I ought to say more about it.

To each other, my parents spoke German, which I was not allowed to understand. To us children and to all relatives and friends, they spoke Ladino. That was the true vernacular, albeit an ancient Spanish, I often heard it later on and I’ve never forgotten it. The peasant girls at home knew only Bulgarian, and I must have learned it with them. But since I never went to a Bulgarian school, leaving Ruschuk at six years of age, I very soon forgot Bulgarian completely. All events of those first few years were in Ladino or Bulgarian. It wasn’t until much later that most of them were rendered into German in me. Only especially dramatic events, murder and manslaughter so to speak, and the worst terrors have been retained by me in their Ladino wording, and very precisely and indestructibly at that. Everything else, that is, most things, and especially anything Bulgarian, like the fairy tales, I carry around in German.

I cannot say exactly how this happened. I don’t know at what point in time, on what occasion, this or that translated itself. I never probed into the matter; perhaps I was afraid to destroy my most precious memories with a methodical examination based on rigorous principles. I can say only one thing with certainty: The events of those years are present to my mind in all their strength and freshness (I’ve fed on them for over sixty years), but the vast majority are tied to words that I did not know at the time. It seems natural to me to write them down now, I don’t have the feeling that I am changing or warping anything. It is not like the literary translation of a book from one language to another, it is a translation that happened of its own accord in my unconscious, and since I ordinarily avoid this word like the plague, a word that has become meaningless from overuse, I apologize for employing it in this one and only case.

There must be similar cases, but I’m not aware of them; I wish I could retrieve the Japanese stories our ayahs must have told me in my first years, but they seem to be gone for good.