Two New Authors.

New to me, that is; Victor Pelevin published his first story in 1989, became famous almost thirty years ago, and has been one of Russia’s most important authors ever since, while Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky died before I was born (though he only became known when the bulk of his fiction was published at the end of the 1980s). But both are writers I’ve been interested in for a long time, and now that I’ve gotten up to 1990 in my long march, I’ve read my first works by each: Pelevin’s Затворник и Шестипалый (translated by Andrew Bromfield as Hermit and Six-Toes) and Krzhizhanovsky’s Клуб убийц букв (written around 1926 and translated by Joanne Turnbull as The Letter Killers Club). They’re different in many ways, but they have something in common that caused me to think about what it is I value in works of fiction, so I’m going to discuss them both here, starting with the Krzhizhanovsky.

The Letter Killers Club is a set of stories linked in a frame, in a fashion popular in Europe in the early 19th century; in Russia it was famously used by Pushkin and Lermontov, as mentioned in my 2014 review of Odoevsky’s Russian Nights. In Odoevsky, to quote my review, “a group of poorly differentiated young people visit their wise friend Faust (a stand-in for the author) and argue about life, history, and everything”; in Krzhizhanovsky, the narrator is brought by an acquaintance to the home of a writer who has stopped writing (hence “killing” the letters he would have written down). I’ll quote Lizok’s excellent review:

Krzhizhanovsky frames five stories, setting them up by describing an apartment and the host of a club where members, each known by a monosyllabic nickname, recite stories from memory. I don’t want to spill many details but I’ll say that the leader, a writer, composed his books after having to sell all his books; he imagined his books and the letters on the pages, rearranging them to occupy emptiness. He says writers are “professional word tamers” (“профессиональные дрессировщики слов”). […]

I think my biggest difficulty with The Letter Killers Club is that I, a bit like the narrator, who’s an invited guest at the meetings, was more interested in buttonholing club members for a chat than in listening to their stories. More frustrating, the first tale, a playlet with characters from Hamlet and the eternal question and implications of “to be or not to be,” interested me far more than the remaining four, despite the appearance of my beloved carnival themes and an interesting science fiction take on mind control. Some of the stories just felt too long.

Lizok has a convenient set of links to reviews by Daniel Kalder, Joe Gallagher, Matt McGregor, and others; I think it’s fair to say that in general they feel the stories are uneven. They tend to prefer either the first, like Lizok, or the third, the “mind control” one, a terrifying vision of a society based on the ultimate slavery, in which the vast bulk of the population have their actions controlled by “exes” (reminiscent of the towers in the Strugatskys’ Обитаемый остров, translated as Prisoners of Power) and live in a completely regimented society like that of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s История одного города (The History of a Town — see my review). I’ll quote some passages from reviews I agree with; Matt McGregor at The Rumpus:
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Whale Talk.

Randyn Bartholomew has a LiveScience story “Will humans ever learn to speak whale?“:

Sperm whales are among the loudest living animals on the planet, producing creaking, knocking and staccato clicking sounds to communicate with other whales that are a few feet to even a few hundred miles away. This symphony of patterned clicks, known as codas, might be sophisticated enough to qualify as a full-fledged language. But will humans ever understand what these cetaceans are saying?

The answer is maybe, but first researchers have to collect and analyze an unprecedented number of sperm whale communications, researchers told Live Science. With brains six times larger than ours, sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) have intricate social structures and spend much of their time socializing and exchanging codas. These messages can be as brief as 10 seconds, or last over half an hour. In fact, “The complexity and duration of whale vocalizations suggest that they are at least in principle capable of exhibiting a more complex grammar” than other nonhuman animals, according to an April 2021 paper about sperm whales posted to the preprint server

This paper, by a cross-disciplinary project known as CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), outlines a plan to decode sperm whale vocalizations, first by collecting recordings of sperm whales, and then by using machine learning to try to decode the sequences of clicks these fellow mammals use to communicate. CETI chose to study sperm whales over other whales because their clicks have an almost Morse code-like structure, which artificial intelligence (AI) might have an easier time analyzing. […]

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Proto-Semitic Genitive Ending.

Benjamin Suchard of Leiden University has a new paper “The Reconstruction of the Proto-Semitic Genitive Ending and a Suggestion on its Origin” (Studia Orientalia Electronica Vol. 9 No. 1); the abstract:

The Proto-Semitic genitive ending on triptotic nouns is commonly reconstructed as *-im (unbound state)/*-i (bound state). In Akkadian, however, this case ending is long -ī- before pronominal suffixes. Since the length of this vowel is unexplained, I argue that it is original and that the Akkadian bound state ending -i should also be reconstructed as long *, explaining its retention in word-final position. This form seems more original than Proto-West-Semitic *-i. Hence, the Proto-Semitic bound state genitive ending should also be reconstructed as *. Through internal reconstruction supported by the parallel of kinship terms like *ʔab-um ‘father’, I arrive at a pre-Proto-Semitic reconstruction of the genitive ending as *-ī-m (unbound), * (bound). This paper then explores a hypothetical scenario where the genitive ending * is derived from the adjectivizing ‘nisbe’ suffix through reanalysis of adjectival constructions like *bayt-u śarr-ī ‘the/a royal house’ as construct chains with meanings like ‘the/a king’s house’; with the addition of mimation and the resultant vowel shortening, this yielded the Proto-Semitic construction with a genitive, *bayt-u śarr-im. The genitive case failed to develop with diptotic nouns because they did not take mimation and in the dual and plural because the nisbe adjective was derived from the uninflected (singular) noun stem; hence, these categories all retain the more original contrast between the nominative and and an undifferentiated oblique case.

I’m curious what people who know more about Semitic than I do think of this.

Hosenscheiser and Heularsch.

From Thomas Mann, “Goethe’s Faust,” on Goethe’s unfinished farce “Hans Wurst’s Wedding” (courtesy of Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti):

He will hear nothing of the preparations for the celebration of the nuptials; nor of the guests, among whom are “all the great names of the German world.” No, what he wants is just to be off with his Ursel to the hayloft. But what sort of “great names” are these? They are simply a list of the vulgarest folk-epithets in the language, with which Goethe displays an astonishing, well-nigh exhaustive conversance. I will not attempt to translate these for you. The list includes not only such common terms as Vetter Schuft, Herr Schurk, and Hans Hasenfuss, but other such gems as Schnuckfozgen, Peter Sauschwanz, Scheismaz, Schweinpelz, Lauszippel, Rotzloffel, Jungfer Rabenas, Herren Hosenscheiser and Heularsch — and so on and on, in endless number.

Er will nichts wissen von den Hochzeitsumständlichkeiten, zu denen alles ins Haus kommt, »was die deutsche Welt an großen Namen nur enthält«, sondern will einfach mit seiner Ursel auf den Heuboden. Was sind das übrigens für große Namen? Es sind lauter deutsch-herkömmliche Schimpf- und Ekelnamen der derbsten Art, von denen Goethe sich zum Gebrauch eine erstaunlich kundige und erschöpfende Liste angelegt, auf welcher nicht nur so Gewöhnliches figuriert wie Vetter Schuft, Herr Schurk und Hans Hasenfuß, sondern auch solche Perlen wie Schnuckfözgen, Peter Sauschwanz, Scheismaz, Schweinpelz, Lauszippel, Rotzlöffel, Jgfr. Rabenas, die Herren Hosenscheißer und Heularsch und so in unendlicher Reihe fort.

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I was looking at Martin Seymour-Smith’s discussion of Nietzsche in his (superb and superbly opinionated) Guide to Modern World Literature — I have the 1973 first edition — when I came across this: “Nietzsche could be strident, even horrisonous; but he is a key figure.” Horrisonous! This is why it’s good to have poets writing about literature. OED:

horrisonous, adj.

Etymology: < Latin horrisonus (< stem of horrēre + -sonus sounding) + -ous suffix.
Previous versions of the OED give the stress as: hoˈrrisonous.

= horrisonant adj.

1631 J. Mabbe tr. F. de Rojas Spanish Bawd vii. 84  Words of most horrisonous roaring.
1901 Daily Chron. 31 Dec. 5/1  Sophie oft wakes on my snorting horrisonous.
1962 L. Deighton Ipcress File xv. 91  I listened to the ululating wail and horrisonous mewl.

They should add the Seymour-Smith quote to the citations. And if you’re wondering about horrisonant, it’s “< stem of Latin horrēre (see horripilation n.) + sonānt-em sounding” and means “Sounding horribly; of terrible sound.” The citations:
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Edo and Portuguese Creole.

Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu writes for Quartz Africa about the influence of the Edo language on the creoles of the Gulf of Guinea:

Gulf of Guinea creoles are the main Portuguese creole languages still spoken today. There are a few other portuguese creoles spoken by a few thousand people in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, and Indonesia. Several studies have shown though that the Edo language is the major African component that constitutes the foundation of the creoles of the Gulf of Guinea.

At least one variety of these creoles is spoken in Sao tome and Principe and Equatorial Guinea, with diaspora speakers mainly in Angola and Portugal, according to the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures (APiCS), a linguistic atlas that provides expert-based information on 130 grammatical and lexical features of 76 pidgin and creole languages from around the world.

The creoles of the Gulf of Guinea were derived from the combination of the Portuguese language, Edo language (including closely related Edoid languages in the Niger delta), and Bantu languages (mainly Kikongo and Kimbundu), according to linguists. The creoles emerged from a first-contact language or pidgin resulting from the contact between the Portuguese colonizers and the slaves from the kingdom of Benin in Sao Tome. The Bantu languages came in contact with the newly formed Portuguese-Edo language in the island some decades later. […]

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Tendryakov’s Alternate History.

I’ve spent the week reading Vladimir Tendryakov’s Покушение на миражи [Trying to kill mirages, or Assassinating mirages] and wondering why Tendryakov isn’t better known. Like Yuri Trifonov and Arkady Strugatsky, he was part of the generation just old enough to have fought in WWII, and like them he was obsessed with the demands of morality and with the gulf between the generation that fought the war and their flighty offspring who aped Western fashions, cared more about love than duty, and didn’t understand the need to subordinate one’s personal preferences to the good of society. (Larisa Shepitko’s Wings is a brilliant movie on that theme, with a bitter female protagonist.) But Trifonov and Strugatsky were, in some sense, predictable; when you opened one of their books, you knew the kind of thing you were getting. Tendryakov kept trying different things and going in new directions, so he didn’t establish the same kind of brand, and people didn’t have as clear an image when they thought of him; furthermore, he never had the kind of blockbuster hit that keeps your name alive. But everything I’ve read by him has gripped me and made me think.

This book (published posthumously in 1987) could be called a novel of ideas; the primary plot line is about physicist Georgy Grebin trying to find the laws of historical development by using a computer to reconstruct how history would have turned out without Jesus, and there are inserted сказания [legends, tales, Bible stories] that illustrate aspects of that history. But there is an actual plot involving the characters’ lives, a slow-burning one that doesn’t burst into the open until the final pages, which are a real coup de théâtre. I won’t spoil that one, but I will tell you about the opening shock, the first сказание, which occurs after only a couple of pages of reflections on the river of time. There’s a boat on the Sea of Galilee with ten or so fishers from Capernaum and a puny fellow sitting at the prow who turns out to be a prophet born in Nazareth and calling himself the Son of Man. Several episodes from the New Testament are described (“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”; “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”), so it is evident we are dealing with Jesus. The boat goes ashore at Bethsaida, where a rigid stickler for God’s rules named Sadok awaits with his brutal gang of followers. They advance menacingly, Jesus tells his own followers to go back to the boat (which they reluctantly do), and he has a debate with Sadok in which he seems to be getting the upper hand (“You said you were sent by God!” “We are all sent here by God.”). But then Sadok gets impatient, there is a general cry of outrage among his thugs, and… Jesus is stoned to death, three years before he is scheduled to die on the cross. I was very taken aback!

Of course, it turns out that this is the setup for the computer experiment; remove Jesus from the equation, and how does history develop? There is a lot of discussion of the inevitability of slavery once humanity developed the ability to extract more food from the earth than necessary to feed oneself and one’s family, what sense it makes to talk about loving thy neighbor, and the impossibility of being a “good master”; Grebin and his little team (a scientist, a historian, and a computer expert — the computer uses punch cards, which I guess were still a thing around 1980) are trying to make sense of the data they’re getting, and Grebin is hoping his boss at the institute won’t make him an administrator since he seems to be wasting his time on a useless personal project. I imagine many readers would weary of the lack of action, but as an old-line sf reader I loved the whole thing (and was especially pleased to see Tendryakov name-check Ray Bradbury and have a character refer to the butterfly effect). Every night I lay in bed thinking about the day’s reading and how it fit with my own sense of history and Christianity. I just wish someone would translate it so I could recommend it to those who don’t read Russian. And I’m looking forward to reading more Tendryakov.
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A Quick Note of Apology.

Yesterday Songdog updated LH to WordPress 5 and migrated it to a new host (see this thread); the migration itself didn’t take long, but it took a while for everyone’s computers and phones to get pointed to the new site, and in the meantime a lot of people saw only an “Under maintenance” page (I had to wait overnight, which was frustrating). Sorry about that, and hopefully it will be a long time before poor LH has to pack everything up and move again!

All French is Good French.

Chelsea Brasted has a good NatGeo piece (archived) on Cajun (and other) French:

When Janice Prejean was growing up, if she wanted to speak with her grandparents, she had to do it in French. To crack the code of the private conversations and jokes that flew over the heads of children at family gatherings, she also needed to know the language. “My lifestyle as a child and a young adult was immersed in moving between the Cajun world and les Americains,” she says.

Prejean, who was raised in Ossun, a tiny, unincorporated community in southwest Louisiana, is 64 now. Her story is an echo of the thousands of people in the region with Francophone ancestry. What makes her version a little different, however, is that she learned the language. Many people her age never did. French was a source of shame—Cajuns were often labeled stupid and backward—and parents wanted to shield their children from prejudice.

That started to change during the latter half of the 20th century with the launch of efforts to improve the understanding of Cajun heritage—not to mention attract tourism. Programs popped up to turn the tide on the diminishing use of the French language, including establishing immersion programs in schools and flying in teachers from other Francophone nations.

Yet a generational divide remains. The dialect of aging grandparents and great-grandparents often doesn’t translate to the “standard” French that elementary- and high-school-age children are learning. To bridge that gap, locals established a new French language and literacy school for adults in the tiny town of Arnaudville, which sits at the intersection of two bayous and two Louisiana parishes and has become the unlikely hub for the French revival.

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Forgetting Cantonese.

Jenny Liao has a moving New Yorker piece (archived) about losing a language:

No one prepared me for the heartbreak of losing my first language. It doesn’t feel like the sudden, sharp pain of losing someone you love, but rather a dull ache that builds slowly until it becomes a part of you. My first language, Cantonese, is the only one I share with my parents, and, as it slips from my memory, I also lose my ability to communicate with them. When I tell people this, their eyes tend to grow wide with disbelief, as if it’s so absurd that I must be joking. “They can’t speak English?” they ask. “So how do you talk to your parents?” I never have a good answer. The truth is, I rely on translation apps and online dictionaries for most of our conversations.

It’s strange when I hear myself say that I have trouble talking to my parents, because I still don’t quite believe it myself. We speak on the phone once a week and the script is the same: “Have you eaten yet?” my father asks in Cantonese. Long pause. “No, not yet. You?” I reply. “Why not? It’s so late,” my mother cuts in. Long pause. “Remember to drink more water and wear a mask outside,” she continues. “O.K. You too.” Longest pause. “We’ll stop bothering you, then.” The conversation is shallow but familiar. Deviating from it puts us (or, if I’m being honest, just me) at risk of discomfort, which I try to avoid at all costs. […]

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