At Home in the Russian Kasbah.

I’m finally getting around to reading a book that a kind Hatter got me almost a decade ago (thanks, Andrei!), Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival by Owen Matthews, and am enjoying it greatly; the first chapter has material of clear LH interest:

I spoke Russian before I spoke English. Until I was sent to an English prep school, dressed up in a cap, blazer and shorts, I saw the world in Russian. If languages have a colour, Russian was the hot pink of my mother’s seventies dresses, the warm red of an old Uzbek teapot she had brought with her from Moscow, the kitschy black and gold of the painted Russian wooden spoons which hung on the wall in the kitchen. English, which I spoke with my father, was the muted green of his study carpet, the faded brown of his tweed jackets. Russian was an intimate language, a private code I would speak to my mother, warm and carnal and coarse, the language of the kitchen and the bedroom, and its smell was warm bed-fug and steaming mashed potatoes. English was the language of formality, adulthood, learning, reading Janet and John on my father’s lap, and its smell was Gauloises and coffee and the engine oil on his collection of model steam engines.

My mother would read me Pushkin stories like the extraordinary folk epic ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila’. The supernatural world of dark Russian forests, of brooding evil and bright, shining heroes conjured on winter evenings in a small London drawing room and punctuated by the distant squeal of trains coming into Victoria station, was infinitely more vivid to my childhood self than anything my father could summon. ‘There is the Russian spirit, it smells of Russia there,’ wrote Pushkin, of a mysterious land by the sea where a great green oak stood; round the oak was twined a golden chain, and on the chain a black cat paced, and in its tangled branches a mermaid swam. […]

[My mother] is also ferociously witty and intelligent, though I usually only see this side of her when she is in company. At the dinner table with guests her voice is clear and emphatic, pronouncing her opinions with unfashionable certainty in roundly enunciated English.

‘Everything is relative,’ she will say archly. ‘One hair in a bowl of soup is too much, one hair on your head is not enough.’ Or she will declare: ‘Russian has so many reflexive verbs because Russians are pathologically irresponsible! In English you say, “I want”, “I need”. In Russian it’s “want has arisen”, “need has arisen”. Grammar reflects psychology! The psychology of an infantile society!’

When she speaks she slips effortlessly from Nureyev to Dostoyevsky to Karamzin and Blok, her snorts of derision and dismissive hand-waves interspersed with gasps of admiration and hands rapturously clapped to the chest as she swerves on to a new subject like a racing driver taking a corner. ‘Huh, Nabokov!’ she will say with pursed lips and a raised eyebrow, letting all present know that she finds him an incorrigible show-off and a cold, heartless and artificial individual. ‘Ah, Kharms,’ she says, raising a palm to the sky, signalling that here is a man with a true understanding of Russia’s absurdity, its pathos and everyday tragedy. Like many Russian intellectuals of her generation, she is utterly at home in the dense kasbah of her country’s literature, navigating its alleys like a native daughter. I have always admired my mother, but at these moments, when she holds a table in awe, I am intensely proud of her.

Janet and John sounds dreadful — no wonder he preferred Pushkin. And much as I love Nabokov, I know exactly why his mother finds him “an incorrigible show-off” and “cold, heartless and artificial.” (For Ruslan and Lyudmila, with its green oak, golden chain, and tomcat, see this post, itself almost a decade old.)


  1. Heh! Janet and John taught a whole generation of Brits to read. They went on to Enid Blyton and Athur Ransome, and Biggles. Not everybody turned out to be middle-class prigs. And some even took in proper literature and the Russian masters in their teenage years.

    OTOH the wiki talks about ” Facsimiles of two of the original volumes were reprinted in 2007 to cater for the nostalgia market.” Mine went straight to the bin.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Janet and John is dreadful. At least, I think so. Even at four years old I demanded other reading matter, so I may have missed some nuances that I would have picked up on had I had a maturer taste in fiction at that point. I’ve never really gone for that unsparing realism stuff. Don’t like Gissing either.

    Biggles, now …

    I have fond memories of a reading primer called I can Tell a Story, which did just what it says on the tin. It had a picture of a mouse on the front, always a plus. It is a mystery why so few publishers have realised this.

  3. John Cowan says

    Our Janet and John were Dick and Jane (and Spot the dog), though Janet and John were actually derived from a different set of U.S. kids from a competing publisher. All of them are from the 1930s, and all are based on simplistic behaviorist psychology, and they got into schools in the teeth of every other kind of psychologist and every conceivable kind of linguist.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    A pretext for recounting yet again my second-favourite Morgenbesserism:

    S. Morgenbesser (to B. Skinner):

    So you feel we shouldn’t anthropomorphise … people?

  5. Actually, shurely shome mishtake: that’s a false dichotomy. You’re too old for the one or too young for the other or both. (I finished with J&J by age 7. Is that the age to read Pushkin?)

    I spoke Russian before I spoke English. There’s you answer: he learnt English as a 2L; and presumably at the time there were no learn-to-read materials for adults/older kids; so he got treated as a 4-year-old.

    Having J&J inflicted on you at the wrong age and getting “sent to an English prep school” at the same time would be devastating for anybody.

    Yous other two commenters: kids are wiser and more resilient and less influencable than adults give them credit for. Yous are sounding suspiciously PC-priggish, so whatever you grew up reading didn’t do you any better good.

    After J&J I read almost anything voraciously and utterly without discrimination — those I listed were the ones I remember. Which means I acquired discrimination. If I had some adult supervising my ingestion, I’d have ended up resenting it; resenting reading in general; and have turned out a wrong ‘un.

    Indeed many of my peers by age ~11 had stopped reading altogether, apart from school work that was forced on them. As for ‘stories’ — yeugh!

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Prig, nothing. Janet and John is boring. Boring, boring, BORING. End of. Thankyew.

  7. Is that the age to read Pushkin?

    A bit young for Pushkin, but he didn’t read it, his mom read it to him. And she probably read only the Prologue to “R and L”. After that comes some seriously adult material.

    Just because I feel a need to write something. The problem with Russian agentless sentences is not reflexive verbs. Sure, some reflexive verbs can be used without clear subject producing a sort of vagueness that gives such a bad name to English passive, like считается (“it is thought”, but instead of passive Russian uses reflexive verb). But the same agentless vagueness can and is produced with a completely unremarkable 3 person plural form. In Russian grammars they are called Indefinite-person sentences. Subjectless sentences with reflexive verbs are in a slightly different category called “Impersonal sentences”, but if there is a problem with this class (there is, sometimes) reflexiveness is not it.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes indeed; and I don’t think that one can reasonably attribute the multitude of reflexive Russian verbs to the pathological irresponsibility of the speakers. (Not without attributing pathological irresponsibility to Frenchmen, Scandinavians, Greeks and Fulɓe, at any rate, and the Fulɓe are certainly not pathologically irresponsible. You don’t wage a wildly successful Jihad and conquer all your neighbours without showing some self-discipline.)

  9. John Cowan says

    Well, it’s true that I could read before I got to kindergarten at age 4 (a year early), so Dick and Jane was never going to hold my interest:

    Look, Jane. Look, look. See Dick.
    See, see. Oh see. See Dick.
    “See Spot run,” said Jane.
    “See Spot run to the new house.”
    “Come home, Spot”, said Dick.
    “Come, Spot, come.”
    “Come home.”

    One and only one new word per page. Every third page repeats the new words from the last two pages. On most pages, the new words are repeated several times. No story has more than six new words. And this is being fed to kids who already know thousands of words orally, in hopes that they manage to infer — or not — the orthographic rules of English. Which they got no instruction in at all.

    So how did it go in practice? We all sat in “reading circles” in which everyone had the same book and everyone read a single word from it consecutively. Until someone couldn’t read their word and just sat there in silence, until a classmate explained, “So-and-so wasn’t here when we had that word.” And the next person in the circle would read the word.

    When I was in first grade, the teacher figured out that I could read and had me sit in with the third-grade class during reading circle. And it went exactly the same way, except with more words in the books.

    But how anyone of any age can think that could be interesting is beyond me.

    If that is political correctness, make the most of it.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    pathological irresponsibility of the speakers

    In fact this seems to be little more than a lightly Russianised version of the cod-linguistic journalistic moaning about “passive voice” that Geoffrey Pullum liked to mock, though it makes even less sense, as – as D.O. points out – the subject is not even suppressed. Presumably, she actually meant “impersonal” rather than “reflexive.” Nevertheless, moaning about middle voice is undoubtedly more sophisticated than moaning about passive voice.

    The Romans were very fond of impersonal verbs. Pathologically irresponsible, I calls it. Me thinks.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Grammar reflects psychology!

    The core misunderstanding (by “grammar” she evidently just means clause-level morphosyntax.)

    All together now:
    Oh, no it doesn’t!
    Oh, yes it does!
    Oh, no, it doesn’t!
    (Look behind, you, Noam!)

  12. I have two daughters, 8 and 6 yo.

    The elder had memorized many of the books we read to her, though we had dozens, and began to recite them as we read. We taught her the alphabet and talked a bit about their sounds, but for the most part, she began to recognize words in books where she’d memorized the text, learned to read more or less independent of instruction, the way one learns to talk, by the time she was four. My childhood experience was similar, and so was JC’s it sounds like.

    My youngest has spent more time listening to the much wider range of things her sister is now interested in, far too much, at too high a level, with little repetition. There was no chance of her simply advancing on her own. And I think part of her resents her sister coming to the breakfast table with books instead of conversation, while her parents are off getting ready for work.

    So she’s had to be taught reading in kindergarten, and it’s been a revelation to me. They do in fact read books where most pages differ by one word from the previous page. They call it “pattern power”. The core of the sentence is mostly “snap words” that they’ve memorized.

    It works. They’ve dragged my daughter into the world of literacy kicking and screaming. Real fluency has come in recent weeks under the coronavirus homeschool. I wish I could say it was because I was reading more interesting books with her and asking her to read some sentences here and there. That no doubt contributed.

    But the breakthrough came when she realized she could earn points that in turn allowed her to buy outfits and pets for her computer avatar in the school’s e-learning program, by reading glorified Dick and Jane texts written with pattern power in mind, and then answering questions.

    I’m not sure those who learn to read at 3 or 4 are really in a position to scoff at the effectiveness of early reading primers that they didn’t need. The point isn’t to engage a kid’s imagination, which can be actively detrimental at this stage. My daughter easily gets lost in tangents when we’re reading things she is into. During one small group session in Zoom with her teacher, the text was about cakes, and while other kids were reading when prompted, she kept getting hung up on the fascinating frosting decorations and had to be redirected to look at the words. The point is to keep her focused on the relationship between letters and words. For that, an overly simplistic text combined with positive reinforcement has been more effective.

  13. Thank you @Ryan, fascinating.

    Yews other lot: mastering a skill just is boring. Get over it. Endless scales and arpeggios. For each of the twelve notes. In Minor and Major keys. Over all 6~7 octaves. You’re never going to play Beethoven sonatas without mind-numbing hours of tedious practice.

    Latin conjugations and declensions. For all the classes of verbs. And nouns. And adjectives. And genders. And all the irregulars. Mind-numbing repetition.

    Particularly for writing English: there’s more irregulars than regulars. There’s endless homophones/homographs. Count yourself lucky it’s not Chinese.

    Or of course you never get to play Beethoven/understand music from the inside; or understand Latin/any other language; or be suspicious of Google translate; or manage to spell/be in a position to countermand a spell-checker. By the age you get to be a citizen/make life choices, it’s too late to acquire those reflexes.

    I daresay the same applies for sports skills, but not my schtick. How many hours did you spend learning to produce a curveball reliably? Or drop a basket? Were those hours anything other than boring?

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Boredom is the hobgoblin of little minds.

  15. AJP Crown says

    The bwbach, pl. bwbachod, is a Welsh domestic hobgoblin that will perform household chores in return for bowls of cream.

    I wonder if they’d like Norway.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Some might accept bowls of half-cream, seeing they would have all those fjords. No harm in asking. They could be accommodated in the goathouse, once you’ve shored it up.

  17. AJP Crown says

    They can live anywhere and have whipped cream, for all I care.

    English was the language of adulthood, reading Janet and John on my father’s lap, and its smell was Gauloises and coffee.

    Wow. Hard to know where to begin, really. Psycholinguistics, psychoanalysis or just plain Psycho.

  18. SFReader says

    The ages when people master certain skills are set arbitrarily.

    For example, technically a car can be driven by a ten months old baby. (electric cars for kids)

    It’s actually easier for them to learn than riding a bike or even plain walking.

    Why don’t we allow baby driven cars on the road is an interesting question. There are good and sound answers for this, but none of them is related to mastering driving skills.

    I suppose same considerations apply to the age of learning reading.

    Technically kids can learn to read at four or even three. But society makes them to wait until age of six or seven for reasons having nothing to do with child’s ability to master this skill.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    My maternal grandfather, a Baptist preacher, smoked cigars. I associate that smell with a book I got off him about the Virgin Mary. I think he wrote it, but I’m not sure what with all that cigar smoke in my memory. I also associate it with grits and fried brains for breakfast, which is a fine thing in Mississippi.

  20. AJP Crown says

    So do you also associate the virgin Mary with cigar smoke, grits & fried brains? I associate fried brains with graduate school and the English language with tea.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    No. My experiential associations are not transitive. I associate the book, not its subject, with cigar smoke. Free-assocation is another thing entirely, there the free monoid over the transitive closure is the order of the day. In everyday parlance: Don’t Stop Me Now.

  22. AJP Crown says

    Klar. I was only wondering about all that cigar smoke in your memory.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I expect that I do indeed have an unusually low tolerance for boredom, due to the ready availability here of bwbachod. They are very versatile, and can not only do household chores but also memorise Latin declensions and practice the piano for you as well.

    They’re a bit temperamental, though.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    My maternal grandfather, a Baptist preacher, smoked cigars. I associate that smell with a book I got off him about the Virgin Mary.

    For remarkably parallel reasons involving maternal grandfathers, I associate the Hebrew language with pipesmoke. (Also with psychoanalysis, but everyone associates psychoanalysis with pipesmoke.)

  25. Trond Engen says

    … or cigars

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    True. It’s a mystery.

  27. John Cowan says

    I’m not sure those who learn to read at 3 or 4 are really in a position to scoff at the effectiveness of early reading primers that they didn’t need.

    Quite right in general. But I am also married to a teacher of literacy for adults with L1 or strong L2 English. Most of her students can read a sentence or two well enough without hitting too many words they don’t know, but it’s excruciatingly hard for them and extremely tedious, even if the content itself is interesting. (It’s only in the last few decades that easy books for adults have been available at all.) Typically their strategy for an unknown word is to guess it and hope that my wife will correct them if they guess wrong. Instead she gives them a micro-lesson in the phonics of the word; that doesn’t always work either, because they have no context for understanding that what toe, touch, Tommy, tater tots have in common orally is in any way connected with their spelling.

    Gale was born in 1943 in a rather educationally backward part of the country (de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme), which in the one case of reading (and very much unlike math or science) actually seems to have worked well for her. Unlike me, her six-year-old self couldn’t read a word when she entered school, but as she was taught by letters, syllables, short words, etc. she could read fine two years later.

    Particularly for writing English: there’s more irregulars than regulars.

    Hardly. The English spelling-sound correspondences are complex, but only about 15% are truly unpredictable from the written form. Unfortunately, many of the irregulars are very common, though unusually this paragraph contains just one: English.

    Technically kids can learn to read at four or even three. But society makes them to wait until age of six or seven for reasons having nothing to do with child’s ability to master this skill.

    To some extent. But those who introduced the whole-word method into the American reading and teaching had data proving that no normal child could learn to read until age seven, despite all the European evidence that starting at age six works fine, and the UK evidence that with a difficult language like English, starting at five makes more sense. Of course their data was crap, but Sesame Street was the really crushing counterevidence.

  28. many of the irregulars are very common, though unusually this paragraph contains just one: English

    How about many and one?

    I have no memory of learning to read, but I do remember pointing out to my mom that once you’d learned to read you could no longer look at a word and not read it. This seemed unfair — one ability coming at the cost of another. (I wonder now if one reason I’ve studied languages is to regain that Zen-like state of blank unknowing.)

  29. John Cowan says

    Oops. Okay, three. Make them Inglish, menny, wun and all is well.

  30. David Marjanović says

    in hopes that they manage to infer — or not — the orthographic rules of English

    No, as your next paragraph demonstrates: the hope was that people would never need to learn that there was such a thing as orthographic rules because they’d learn every written word like kunyomi, with no relation to its pronunciation

    mastering a skill just is boring

    That depends on the individual case. It can be great fun.

    the UK evidence that with a difficult language like English, starting at five makes more sense

    Meanwhile, my impression is that lots of Americans start to learn to read when they’re 3. I’ve attributed that to that exact reason. Over here, it’s still normal to arrive in school completely illiterate beyond, say, one’s name in all-caps at age 6. I was very unusual for having figured it out shortly before I turned 5 (and then reading everything available in kindergarten, which none of the other kids could).

    (And the reason I was able to figure it out was that I already knew all the letters, and all the traffic signs, and… very few car brands, actually. Soon I understood there’s no complete list of those and lost all interest in cars forever.)

    Hiragana is traditionally taught to 3-year-olds in Japan, AFAIK. But syllable signs are much less abstract than letters.

    (Consonant clusters make the abstraction harder still. I know a Stefanie who, at age 5 or so, plainly refused to believe there was a T in her name – and no, we don’t aspirate, this isn’t like a 3-year-old American spelling star as SDR. “Am I perhaps called Etanie or Titanie!?!”)

  31. Jewish boys, as I’ve heard, were started on reading Torah at age 3.

    TR, I don’t know how old you are, but with age you’ll find many negative abilities of the kind you think you’ve lost. Not always pleasant, I must say.

  32. I used to associate fried brains pleasantly with a Serbian restaurant. Yugoslavian, they said, but I was later told only Serbs ever believed in that. It wasn’t my war, though, and it didn’t diminish the memory.
    Then I learned to associate fried brains with the rapid decline and death of the father of a good friend, of Creutzfeld-Jakob.
    But a decade after, horrifically, his brother also died of CJD, and I learned it can be hereditary.
    I still couldn’t bring myself to eat fried brains again.

  33. Stu Clayton says

    In Mississippi, the brains fried for breakfast were from other species, not relatives or friends. BSE developed in part from feeding animals the ground remains of other animals of the same species. I see no good reason to shun fried beef liver (with sage) merely because a lot of people die from liver cirrhosis. However, I would draw the line at alcoholic cows.

  34. Kate Bunting says

    When I was six or seven, our elderly teacher used to make us read a book in turns, a sentence at a time, round the class. (This was something a bit more advanced than ‘Janet and John’). As I could already read, I found it quite impossible to sit and listen to my classmates struggling one word at a time; I would either read on in the book or start thinking about something else, with the result that when my turn came I never knew where we had got to, and the whole class would be punished by having to start again at the beginning. I don’t remember how long it took for the school to realise the truth of the situation.

  35. David Marjanović says

    of the same species

    That is not necessary. The prions are the same.

  36. Stu Clayton says

    Aha. No more fried contaminated brains for me. Prions are “organic toxins (poisons) with properties similar to those of viruses”.

    # Es handelt sich also nicht um Lebewesen, sondern um organische Toxine (Gifte) mit virusähnlichen Eigenschaften.

    Körpereigene Prionen kommen vermehrt im Hirngewebe vor, so dass pathologische Veränderungen schwerwiegende Folgen für den Organismus haben können. Die pathogenen Prionen sind mit großer Wahrscheinlichkeit für die Creutzfeldt-Jakob-Krankheit beim Menschen, BSE („Rinderwahn“) beim Rind oder Scrapie (Traberkrankheit) bei Schafen verantwortlich. Sie gelangen am wahrscheinlichsten durch kontaminierte Nahrung in den Körper (z. B. bei BSE, Chronic Wasting Disease oder Kuru) #

  37. >>of the same species

    >That is not necessary.

    Nor was it even a significant cause of BSE, which had a primary pathway of cattle being fed rendered brains and other less valuable portions of sheep, some of which had scrapie.

  38. John Cowan says

    Perhaps it was one sentence per student in my classes; it just seemed like one word per student because they read the sentence as a list of words.

  39. Lars Mathiesen says

    Also the BSE thing was enabled by Britain lowering the required temperature for rendering to where the prions did not denature. Or so I read. To let the owners save money. Thatcher. Which is why it happened when it happened, cows had been fed on dead sheep long before that.

    But once British cows had the prions they could potentially infect foreign stock as well, which is why the whole world had to take precautions for years.

  40. What temp, then? Are people who cook sheep and squirrel brains for themselves eating them rare?

  41. The temperature at which animal-derived feed was cooked may have made a difference, bit the feeding of bovine nerve tissue to beef cattle was important too. The prion proteins in different mammals are similar but not identical. They all share the domain that can mis-fold itself, and catalyze the mis-folding of other copies of the protein.* However, other parts of the prion proteins sequence are more species specific, which means they can often be degraded by another kind of animal’s immune system before doing damage. That is why the rate of variant CJD among eaters of British beef is so much lower than the rates of kuru among Fore endocannibals were; human-derived prions are much worse for humans. Scrapie from sheep is even less likely to cross to humans than BSE. So initially, British cattle were being exposed mostly to scrapie proteins, but when the BSE proteins entered their food chains, that was much more contagious.

    Heat is not great for denaturing or breaking down proteins. It works on some but leaves a lot relatively untouched. Without completely carbonizing a piece of prion-infected tissue, it is pretty impossible to render it incapable of producing further infection.

    * The weirdest thing about the spongiform encephalopathies, before prions were undersood, was that they had both contagious versions, like kuru, and inherited forms, like fatal familial insomnia.** Knowing the actually method of transmission and disease progression, it makes sense; the inherited types involve mutant version of the prion protein, where the mutation makes it much more likely to mis-fold. But before that, the general etiology of spongiform encephalopathy appeared to be counter to everything known about infectious disease.

    ** There is a book (which I got a copy of for free) The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery, by D. T. Max, that tells about the history of various prion diseases, including FFI. It has some interesting historical information, but it is hurt by the author clearly not understanding some of the science involved. There is a lot of talk about inbreeding among small, exported populations of Merino sheep, seemingly because the author (like plenty of other people, e.g. Jeffrey Eugenides) thinks that inbreeding automatically means increased risk from any genetic disease, even though that is not the case for dominant diseases.

  42. Lars Mathiesen says

    Eugenides — nominal determinism again?

    Thanks for the correction, Brett.

  43. John Cowan says

    Man brings a pair of pants to his tailor.

    Tailor: “Euripides?”

    Man: “Yah. Eumenides?”

  44. Stu Clayton says

    That’s immigrantist !

  45. John Cowan says

    Barbarian, in fact.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    Irrelevant! Hey, that’s the answer!

  47. John Cowan says

    In Alabama the Tuscaloosa.

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