In the December 18, 2003 issue of the NYRB (yes, I’m way behind), I’ve run across two sad reminders of the Decline of Standards. In Robert Gottlieb’s “Duse Plays the Palace” (reviewing Eleonora Duse by Helen Sheehy), he says of the performance that won Duse her first acclaim, playing Juliet in Verona at the age of fourteen, “Among Duse’s biographers, only William Weaver is dog-in-the-mangerish enough to suggest that the Giulietta e Romeo in which Eleonora found grace that day may not have been Shakespeare’s but a version by a Veronese…” (emphasis added). Now, if Weaver had withheld a document he wasn’t planning to use himself from other biographers, he would have been a dog in the manger; as it is, you can call him unromantic or clear-eyed, but you can’t call him “dog-in-the-mangerish.”

Then in John Bayley’s “Chameleon Genius” (reviewing Pushkin: A Biography by T.J. Binyon) Bayley explains the name Gannibal (taken by Pushkin’s African great-grandfather) thus: “‘G’ substitutes for a nonexistent preliminary Russian ‘H’—Russians during the war referred to the German dictator as ‘Gitler.'” One can excuse the irrelevant “preliminary” by reflecting that there’s no reason for NYRB editors to know there simply is no h in Russian, but really, couldn’t someone have asked the question “How did Russians refer to Hitler before and after the war?”


  1. By the way, contrary to what Bayley or Binyon says, Pushkin was one of the very few Russians of his time who could actually read Byron in English. He made his first stab at it while in involuntary seclusion in Mikhailovskoye. Later, when Pushkin actually tried to speak English at one of those dinners, someone who actually knew the language (I thought it was Tolstoy the American but it turns out Zakhar Chernyshov) ridiculed Pushkin’s pronunciation and taught him the proper way.
    My feeling is that Pushkin knew English Romantics rather well — including Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey. For instance, Pushkin took two English lines, which he attributed to Coleridge, for an epigraph for Anchar (although it is normally published epigraphless). For a while, it was thought Pushkin either borrowed the lines from some lesser-known poet or composed them himself (a trick he often used in Russian) — until somewhen spotted that fragment in Coleridge’s Remorse.

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