Piano Nobile.

I enjoyed Irina Mashinski’s Facebook post about her love for Nabokov, which began while she was still living in the Soviet Union (“Вообще мой список такой: Лужин, Пнин, Дар, Лолита, Машенька, Подвиг, несколько рассказов из Чорба и вся Весна в Фиальте. И Другие берега. Началось, конечно, с Дара […]”), and one of her commenters, Yefim Somin, linked to his own post about his visit to the Vladimir Nabokov Museum, on what is now once again Bolshaya Morskaya (“Big Maritime”) Street:

I entered the mansion. The museum occupied only part of the first floor raised over the street level, the piano nobile of Nabokov’s memories. Not much remained from the hereditary owners: mostly carved oak doors, and amazingly, oak ceilings to match. Elsewhere, predictable images on the walls and in glass-covered display cases: old floor plans, Lolita, butterflies. The last room in the enfilade was reserved for education. A few old women sitting in chairs scattered over a large hall were intently watching a video of another old woman talking about the house. Nabokov’s sister had returned in the 1950’s, 40 years after fleeing, to see the house and the city, unlike her brother who never did. I stood in the corner, holding back an urge to scream: “Turn around and look at me, I am back too! Not quite 40 years but longer than Ulysses and Rip Van Winkle. Ask me, if you want to know what it feels like!” A fancy of a Rip Van Winkle return apparently gripped Nabokov, too. He described such a time traveler in The Gift. This character left St. Petersburg in 1836 and sailed to Boston, of all places. After years of adventures in the New World he came back to the old one in 1858. Thanks to the absence of the Internet as an information source, this fellow was amply taken advantage of by his friends and relatives. For instance, when asked about Pushkin, they assured him that Pushkin’s new poem had just come out the other day, and indeed, pointed out the great poet to him at a theater performance. Needless to say, the real Pushkin was killed in a duel in 1837. My own images of return for the first ten years after departure came invariably in the form of a nightmare: I am back and cannot leave again for some unclear Kafkaesque reason. Maybe I am late for the plane, maybe something is wrong with my papers, maybe I just forgot the way to the airport, or even worse: I can go, but my son has to stay, and it’s impossible to wrest him away from his keepers. I was apparently not alone: Mikhail Baryshnikov’s film White Nights is his version of just such a dream. There is a World Wide Web now, but even that won’t make you fully prepared for a real-life comeback.

I was pleased at the reference to one of my favorite bits in The Gift (see the first paragraph of this 2012 post), but what prompts me to post is the phrase piano nobile, which I’ve run across now and then and never been sure of. Happily, the OED revised its entry in 2006:
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A Homage to Harmsworth.

The start of Jonathan Parry’s very enlightening LRB review of The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe by Andrew Roberts (1 December 2022; archived):

‘Do dogs commit suicide?’ ‘Can monkeys smoke?’ ‘An electrical flying machine?’ Those who were intrigued by such matters in 1888 sought enlightenment from a new weekly magazine, Answers to Correspondents, which also explained ‘How to Cure Freckles’, ‘Terrors of Top Hats’, and ‘The Destiny of Lost Luggage’. The magazine’s title wasn’t quite accurate, since the answers were rarely definitive and most of the questions actually derived from the fertile brain of the editor, the 22-year-old Alfred Harmsworth. He quickly realised how to generate ‘talking points’ that would boost the paper’s circulation. The third issue addressed the mystery ‘Do Jews ride bicycles?’ with an assurance that the editor, a keen cyclist for many years, had never met a fellow enthusiast ‘of the Hebrew persuasion’. Within weeks he had been refuted by Alfred Cohen, a cycling club treasurer, among other genuine correspondents who produced lists of medal-winning Jewish riders. The paper itself was now a ‘talking point’. Eight years later, Harmsworth imported this technique into his most significant creation, the Daily Mail. In 2012, the journalist John Rentoul produced a satirical essay on the art of the newspaper headline called Questions to Which the Answer Is ‘No!’ It was a homage to Harmsworth, the Mail and their many imitators.

Cf. Betteridge’s law of headlines, which apparently has only been so called since 2009, “although the principle is much older.”

The Novel as Battering Ram.

I’ve been a fan of Veniamin Kaverin since reading his 1971 novel Перед зеркалом [Before the mirror] (LH post); I also enjoyed his early Скандалист [The troublemaker] (LH post), and I’m now reading his 1931 novel Художник неизвестен [The artist is unknown, tr. by P. Ross, whoever that is, in 1947 as The Unknown Artist] and savoring it slowly. I haven’t gotten very far and haven’t come to any conclusions yet, but I thought I’d share this bit from near the start, a rant by one of the main characters, Aleksei Arkhimedov:

— Мне тяжело смотреть на этот щит, — сказал он наконец. — Он безобразен. Скульптору, который слепил его, следует вынести общественное порицание. И не только за то, что он плохо исполнил свою работу, смешав гербы ремесла с эмблемами власти, но за то, что он не понимает связи между личным достоинством и ответственностью за труд. Ты скажешь — романтика! Я не отменяю этого слова. У него есть свои заслуги. Когда-то русские называли романом подвешенное на цепях окопанное бревно, которым били по городским укреплениям. Роман был тогда тараном. Потом он опустился. Он стал книгой. А теперь пора вернуть ему первоначальное значение. Романтика! Поверь мне, что это стенобойное орудие еще может пригодиться для борьбы с падением чести, лицемерием, подлостью и скукой.

Ross’s translation:

“It pains me to look at that coat of arms”, he said at last. “It’s ugly. […] The sculptor who carved it should be publicly rebuked. Not merely because he performed his work badly, mingling the arms of professions with the emblems of power, but because he has failed to understand the connection between self-respect and the responsibilities of labour. You’ll call it romanticism! I won’t reject the word. It has its uses. Once upon a time we Russians used to call a log of wood hanging from chains and bound by hoops, used in city fortifications, romanticism. Romanticism in those days was a battering ram. Then it lost caste. It became а book. Now it’s time we gave it back its original meaning. Romanticism! Believe me, this ramming weapon can still be of use in the fight with —— against honour, with hypocrisy, baseness and boredom.”

(I have omitted a sentence that is not in my Russian text.) You’re probably wondering about that “Romanticism in those days was a battering ram”; it makes no sense because the Russian actually says this:

Once upon a time Russians used to call a dug-around [?] log of wood hanging from chains, with which they beat at city fortifications, a roman. A roman in those days was a battering ram. Then it lowered itself. It became а book. Now it’s time to give it back its original meaning.

This is classic formalist fun; the point is that besides the word roman which in modern Russian means ‘novel’ (as well as ‘romance,’ but that seems irrelevant here), there used to be a homonym meaning ‘battering ram,’ and how could a novelist trained as a critic and scholar of literature resist the pun? The odd thing is that the ‘ram’ word, though it is in Dahl (“барс, таран, баран”), is — most unusually — not in Vasmer’s etymological dictionary, which uses Dahl as its basic source of words to be explained. Does anybody know of any work that’s been done on this mysterious lexeme, or have any theories?

Pigs in Blankets.

I have long been familiar with a dish called “pigs in a blanket,” which refers to hot dogs in croissant dough, and am not surprised that it is a US thing (hot dogs, n’est-ce pas?), but I am quite surprised to learn that Brits have a dish of sausage wrapped in bacon called “pigs in blankets” (as well as “kilted sausages” or “kilted soldiers”); furthermore, “it is a seasonal item, seldom offered commercially outside the Christmas season. […] Tesco in 2019 reported that a majority of shoppers they surveyed planned to serve the dish at Christmas dinner and that more planned to serve pigs in blankets than any other side dish, including Yorkshire pudding, another traditional Christmas dish.” Talk about two countries divided by a common language! The US version “can be traced back to at least 1940”; as for the UK one, tobotic on Reddit says “Delia Smith made them popular about 30 years ago. I’m sure plenty of people had the idea to wrap sausages in bacon before that, but she popularized the term for them and the idea that they should be included in a Christmas dinner.” For what that’s worth.

Turkic Emphatic Reduplication.

Maria Sereda has a Facebook post (in Russian) describing a phenomenon she’d learned about on a trip to Bishkek (Bishkek/Pishpek): in Kyrgyz, you can form an emphatic adjective by repeating the first syllable and adding -p-, and bilinguals do the same thing in Russian, creating, e.g., сипсиний [sipsinii] ‘very blue’ from синий [sinii] ‘(dark) blue.’ Commenters say the same is true of Azerbaijani, Kazakh, and “all of Central Asia,” and one says Turkish has the same phenomenon: sarı ‘yellow’ sapsarı, yeşil ‘green’ yemyeşil. As you can see, that last has -m- rather than -p-. I did some digging and found Andrew Wedel, “Turkish Emphatic Reduplication,” whose introduction begins “Emphatic variants of some Turkish adjectives are historically derived by prefixing a CVC syllable in which the initial CV are identical to the word-initial CV of the base of affixation, while the final C is taken from the set {p, s, m, r}.”

I also found Yılmaz Köylü, “Abstract knowledge of emphatic reduplication in Turkish” (Proceedings of the Workshop on Turkic and Languages in Contact with Turkic 5 [2020]: 86–96), whose abstract says:

This study investigated whether native speakers of Turkish have abstract knowledge regarding the principles guiding the selection of appropriate reduplicative forms in emphatic reduplication in Turkish. […] The participants were asked to reduplicate 48 non-words in 4 experimental conditions where the number of segments and the phonological features of the word forms were manipulated. […] The results indicated that the interpolated consonant in Turkish was taken from the set of {p, m, s}. Moreover, the interpolated consonant was sometimes identical to the second consonant of the base, but never to the first consonant. The most frequently produced interpolated consonant was {p}. […] The results demonstrate that Turkish native speakers were able to extend the reduplication strategies they employed in real words to non-words.

I find this an interesting phenomenon and am curious to see what the Hattery has to say.


Sorry, I know there’s been a glut of AI-related material here, but I was disturbed by this in a different way. Rachel Chason writes for the Washington Post (archived):

SAFO, Mali — Most of the students had never seen their native language in its written form until recently. Now, they were eagerly sounding out the words appearing on the ThinkPad laptops before them, sometimes stumbling as they read a story written entirely in Mali’s most popular language, Bambara.

The twist? The story on their screens had been generated, translated and illustrated using artificial intelligence.

As Mali’s relationship with French — the language of its former colonial ruler, France — has grown more fraught, an effort to use AI to create children’s books in Bambara and other local languages is gaining momentum. With political tensions high between the two countries, Mali’s military government last year replaced French as the country’s “official” language, instead elevating Bambara and 12 other native languages, though French will still be used in government settings and public schools.

That change has meant there is more political will behind efforts like that of RobotsMali, a start-up that has used artificial intelligence to create more than 140 books in Bambara since last year, said Séni Tognine, who works in Mali’s Education Ministry and has been helping RobotsMali create its books. Now, he said, both the government and the people “are engaged in wanting to learn and valorize local languages.” […]

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Teaching Nanai.

Dmitry Oparin interviews Vasily Kharitonov for the Russia Program:

Vasily Kharitonov is a linguist at the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2022, he went to the Nanai village of Dada in the Far East to teach children the Nanai language and study the local linguistic landscape. In a conversation with anthropologist Dmitry Oparin, the scholar talks about his methods of studying native speakers, the factors that influence the prestige of a language, and how the infrastructure in Russia works for those who communicate and read in more languages than just Russian. […]

You teach at a school in the village of Dada. Is this a Nanai village?

In Dada, all families are Nanai. That is, there are many non-Nanai here, but usually these are members of a Nanai family. There are almost no people like me who are not a part of some family.

How many Nanai are there in Dada and how many of them are native speakers?

For me, the question of being a native Nanai speaker isn’t binary — a simple “yes” or “no.” A person may have excellent comprehension, but may not speak a word. And there are those who both understand and speak, but usually understand better than they speak. This year, I came up with an entire language proficiency map. […]

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I’d almost be willing to post Claire Moses’ NY Times story (archived) just for the bare existence of the word Böögg, but I’ll use the proposed etymology in the last quoted paragraph as a hook:

Imagine if Punxsutawney Phil just didn’t show up one year. How would people know how much longer winter would last? People in Zurich found themselves in a similar state of limbo this week.

On Monday, high winds disrupted the city’s annual spring festival, a Swiss version of Groundhog Day that includes a parade and the ceremonial burning of a fake snowman — an effigy of winter — whose head is packed with fireworks.

The parades went off without a hitch. But when the time came for the festival’s grand finale, the burning and explosion of the snowman atop a pyre, high winds kicked up and the ceremony was scuttled for safety reasons.

The festival, Sechseläuten, takes place on the third Monday of April. Its name roughly translates to “the six o’clock ringing of the bells.” The snowman is called the Böögg, a term that likely has its roots in the English word boogeyman.

Böögg < boogeyman? Can that possibly be right?

Nabokov’s Feat.

I’ve finally finished Nabokov’s 1932 novel Подвиг [The feat], translated by Nabokov & Son as Glory; it took me a couple of weeks longer than it should have because I kept taking nibbles rather than making meals of it. I don’t really know why — it is, of course, well written — but the further I got the grumpier I became, and finally I had to force myself to gobble up the last 50 pages or so. And now I am going to grouse about it. Warning: there will be spoilers, especially because the ending is the only thing that makes it a novel rather than a series of biographical events (many of them taken from the author’s own life: exile from Russia, studies at Cambridge, life in Berlin, extreme estheticism); early reviews complained of its apparently pointless, meandering nature.

You can get a summary of the plot, such as it is, at the Wikipedia article I linked above; the executive summary is that Martin Edelweiss, a Russian émigré who falls in unrequited love with a fellow émigré named Sonya while studying at Cambridge, makes a secret plan to enter the Soviet Union from Latvia. Why does he do this? To impress her? To prove something to himself (as earlier he had forced himself to return to a narrow cliff ledge from which he had nearly fallen to his death)? Who knows? Such non-explanation as there is can be found in the last chapter, during a conversation with his old friend Darwin in Berlin in which he describes his plan before taking the train to Riga to carry it out:
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Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters.

Melina Moe has a new LARB article “There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters” that makes me like Morrison a great deal:

“I found it extremely honest, forthright, and moving in ways I had not expected it to be,” Toni Morrison wrote to an aspiring novelist in 1977, “but it is a shuddering book and one that offers no escape for any reader whatsoever.” Still, Morrison, then a senior editor at Random House, liked the manuscript so much that, before responding, she passed it around the office to drum up support. The verdict was “intelligent,” but also “very ‘down,’ depressing, spiritually abrasive.” Whatever the merits of the writing, Morrison’s colleagues predicted, the potent mix of dissatisfaction, anger, and mournfulness would limit the book’s commercial appeal—and Morrison reluctantly agreed. “You don’t want to escape and I don’t want to escape,” her letter concludes, “but perhaps the public does and perhaps we are in the business of helping them do that.”

During her 16 years at Random House, Morrison wrote hundreds of rejection letters. Usually typed on pink, yellow, or white carbonless copy paper, and occasionally bearing Random House’s old logo and letterhead, these are now filed among her correspondence in the Random House archives at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. While many of the letters were mailed to New York, Boston, and even Rome, others were sent to writers in more obscure places; some are addressed to “general delivery” in various small towns across the United States.

Regardless of destination, Morrison’s rejections tend to be long, generous in their suggestions, and direct in their criticism. The letters themselves—generally one, two at most, exchanged with a given writer—constitute an asymmetrical archive. On one end of each communiqué is the ghost of a submitted manuscript (absent from the archive after being returned to the sender, although in some cases survived by a cover letter). On the other is a rejection from Morrison, sometimes brusque yet typically offering something more than an expression of disinterest—notes on craft, character development, the need for more (or less) drama. But also: Autopsies of a changing, and in many ways diminishing, publishing industry; frustrations with the tastes of a reading public; and sympathies for poets, short story writers, and other authors drawn to commercially hopeless genres.

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