So I thought I’d get away from the heavy-duty reading I’ve been doing lately and have some fun. I’ve been wanting for years to read Alan Furst, supposedly the heir to such great spy-thriller writers as Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John Le Carre, and checked out his first novel, Night Soldiers, from the library. I was especially interested because he writes about the period leading up to WWII, and I’ve been lately immersed therein (via Brandon and Klemperer). I opened it, saw a map of the Danube basin 1934-1945, and sighed with pleasure—maps are always a good sign. I plunged in and was rapidly drawn into the story of a young man forced to leave his home and finding terrifying shelter. The hero’s name was Stoianev, which I thought should probably be Stoianov, but what do I know from Bulgarian? I wondered a bit when a scene was set in a supposed Russian village called “Belov,” which is a family name rather than a place name (a village named for Belov would be Belovo, and there is in fact such a place), but I didn’t allow myself to be distracted; I don’t know everything about Russian toponymy, after all, and maybe the name could exist. I didn’t get seriously annoyed until I encountered a Russian character named Yadomir. I think I’m on fairly safe ground in asserting that Yadomir is not a Russian name, and I can’t stand it when novelists make up fake Russian names when it’s so easy to find real ones. And when I checked the street names in the Madrid section of the book, I found that two that were supposed to be contiguous were in fact far apart, and a third does not exist.
Dammit, one of the small pleasures in my life is following novelists in their dealings with the real world, seeing how smoothly they work their fictions into it. When they don’t even bother to try, it pisses me off. I don’t expect them to be perfect, mind you; they’re novelists, not scholars. I caught Pynchon misusing some Arabic in V.—but I could see exactly how he’d gone wrong, because I was following along in the very Baedeker he’d used to create his vision of Alexandria, Egypt, in 1898, and the phrases and translations given in the conversation section of the guidebook were run together in such a way it was easy to connect them wrongly. The main thing was that he’d done his homework: every walk was based on the actual map of the city, every building was where Baedeker said it was (I could even identify ones he didn’t name, like the “chemist’s shop” on p. 73 of the Bantam edition, according to Baedeker the German and English Dispensary), and that reliability allowed me to relax into the story. When the novelist simply makes up names and places, it’s playing tennis without a net (as Robert Frost famously said of free verse). I’m cutting Furst a little slack because it’s his first book and I’m enjoying the thriller aspects, but if he doesn’t shape up in his second, Dark Star, his name will be mud chez Languagehat.


  1. Although Yadomir does sound like a pretty unlikely name, it looks like you might be wrong. I agree on the rest, though. There’s nothing more frustrating than a writer who picks a millieu he or she is unfamiliar with simply for a change and doesn’t even go to the trouble of getting to know it.

  2. Erik Hetzner says

    Although I enjoyed reading Night Soldiers and the other Furst novels I’ve read (save Kingdom of Shadows, which is tedious), his portrayal of the political parties in the Spanish Civil War is shockingly inaccurate. Considering that a lot of his appeal hinges upon the historical aspect of his books, the fact that he can’t tell the difference between the Trotskyist POUM and the anarchists is appalling. It’s a fundamental aspect of one of the subjects of his novel, and he couldn’t be bothered to figure it out? When I read this, it completely destroyed any trust I’d had in his research. Your points just make it worse.

  3. Yadomir is a very unlikely name, of course — even Engels would have been a more plausible first name back in 1945. By the way, would you call Hamlet an Armenian name? “Hamlet Khachaturian” would not at all sound exotic in Armenia or Russia (although when Russified, the name actually becomes Gamlet, as you know).

  4. I don’t from Yadomir, but there’s something about the moniker LanguageHat which makes a Chez in front of it seem ungainly.

  5. Erik: Yeah, I forgot to mention that about the POUM and the anarchists — that pissed me off too. And it’s not just the Yadomir; there are Russians named Boretz and Vonets. (Does he imagine there’s some difference between “-tz” and “-ts”? Feh.)

  6. Pynchon seems to have been a detail freak. A biologist friend told me that, as far as my friend could tell, whenever Pynchon uses scientific terminology or metaphors he uses them knowledgably.
    I believe I knew Alan Furst as an undergraduate. He was a pleasant, unassuming guy, and his success is pleasing to me — in those days he seemed to be condescended to a lot for reasons unknown to me, by people who mostly have not had his success. But of course maybe they were aware of his carelessness about detail then, as I was not. Though I really doubt it.
    My favorite Spanish Civil War story is from Orwell’s book, in which he (or someone) interviews the leader of a small Royalist party/ militia and asks about their social program. The colonel is baffled, and then starts shuffling through some papers in one of his drawers: “Social program? Oh, yes, social program. We have that here in this drawer somewhere I think.”

  7. Alexei: or Venera Yamaletdinova (one of my classmates in 7th grade, the ugliest girl in the class – ah, her poor parents…). I think Il’f & Petrov had in their *Notebooks* another one, which never look entirely fictional to me: Medea Gorgonidze.
    LH, remember I told you to try (for all kinds of pleasure)S.Lem “Highcastle”? It is especially fun to read with Polish maps of the period open (since all streets are renamed now). Remind me to send you the link to the Historic Lvov Maps.

  8. Off-topic: One of my visitors tells me he received a virus warning following the grammar god link. Thought I’d pass it on, as we’re all going and linking there.

  9. Damn. Thanks for the warning; if anybody has any virus problems, please to leave a comment!

  10. Oh, can I post another comment – on Hamlet (sorry , it’s somewhat tangenial)?
    From Spike Milligan, “Milliganimals”
    …’Things could be worse’, said White Crow.”You could be a Hamlet pencil, 2B or not 2B…’
    Ok, OK, shutting up.

  11. You should try to read “The sky is falling down” by Sydney Sheldon. It might be interesting from a linguistic standpoint. He apparently had an idea that one can translate sentences by a simple word substitution. For instance he has something like “khoroshy vecherny” when he wants to translate “Good evening”. That book is full of such kind of nonsense.

  12. I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress on the recommendation of someone who said, “I know one word of Russian, ‘taansaf’ or something … I learned it from a book.” Of course tanstaafl is not Russian, but it is a fine book, and Heinlein has fun combining Russian and English in the dialect of his joint moon colony. The author has an easy out: if he makes a mistake it’s the fault of the American colonists.

  13. If you are looking for a modern heir to Ambler, Greene and Le Carre, you could do worse than try Joseph Kanon; his Prodigal Spy(1999) is partly set in Czechoslovakia circa 1970, and renders the local detail very nicely and (to me) convincingly; reminiscent of Lionel Davidson’s classic The Night of Wenceslas(1960) which is also set in Prague.
    But as one of my friends once said, apropos detective novels, “by the time you get to my age, dear, you’ve read them all”.

  14. Thanks, I’ll look for both — I love Prague.

  15. Milligan!
    maps are always a good sign
    Ah, yes.
    Not to disagree really or anything (it annoys me terrible when, say, movies are set in cities I know and the geography invariably is messed up) but I used to have access to some scholarly article which compared the descriptions of St. Petersburg in Dostoyevsky’s novels to the real street maps and apparently he was so far off it wasn’t even funny. Since I’m now starting to wonder if I have, in fact, made this up since I’ve never heard of it in years since, does it sound familiar to anyone else?
    John Nichols to his graduate student writing workshop (of which I was a member) re this very problem: “That’s why I make shit up. When you make shit up, all you have to worry about is where you said the street was.”

  16. Can’t say about the rest of it, but Raskolnikov’s house was and is most certainly there. His doorway’s right by an intersection from which if you stand in the middle all four directions look the same, whoah…
    I recall a map of Petersburg in the introduction to my Signet Classic edition, but I didn’t have that with me when I was there.

  17. Nabakov demanded that his students be exact about physical details — e.g. the layout of the Samsa apartment in the Metamorphosis, or the species of beetle (NOT cockroach) that Gregor turned into. This may account for his contempt for Dostoevsky; perhaps he was uncomfortable with not having a definite physical ground under the fiction. He also disliked Cervantes, who had so many obvious discrepancies in his books (sons, donkeys, and speakers randomly appearing and disappearing, long journey’s being done overnight, change of seasons overnight) that his second volume mentions several of them (ridiculing the critics).
    Joyce was fussy — I remember he wrote a letter back to Dublin asking how many trees there were in a certain park and how they were laid out.
    I’m with Cervantes on this.

  18. MoI, may be it wasn’t Dostoevsky or wasn’t St.Petersburg ? According to this: (sorry, can’t remember the ..a href…stuff now, so try the old copy-clip) Fedor Mikhailovich wasn’t all that sloppy.
    I gather you’ve read Milligan?

  19. Hunh, maybe I’m totally misremembering re Dostoyevsky. That would explain why I’ve been unable to find said supposed article over the decades. IIRC Joyce said if Dublin was ever destroyed it could be reconstructed from his books. Maybe exile sharpened his homeland’s memory, but I regularly get lost driving around the town I grew up in (and learned to drive in).
    I love Spike Milligan. Especially his poetry.

  20. Oh, but getting lost while driving is totally different matter, has to do with specifically women’ and men’ abilities to orient themselves. Something along the lines of orienting by general direction (2 right turns and 2 left, f.ex.) vs. “landmark” orienting (there was that blue sign on the drugstore across the park) I would think writer uses MAPS in addition to his/her memory recollections.

  21. Virus? Being on a Mac I didn’t think much of it until I read QoV’s comment. I noticed after arriving at (or leaving? — can’t remember) the site a SearchdtInst.exe file was downloading — without so much as a by your leave. Since a Mac isn’t going to do much with an .exe I ignored it – but it’s an executable for those on the Wintel platforms. Not nice, neighbourly behaviour at all.
    And it made me a “God” too! My take on the quiz would be that it’s not for the sort of person who delights in languagehat’s content. I have only the one dictionary in the house (I have only one language to my tongue alas), but to my great enjoyment the dictionary is the OED 2nd, dead tree version.

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