The latest post at Slawkenbergius’ Tales is a thoughtful take on John Cheever that sent me back to his 1962 story “A Vision of the World”; I’ll let slawk handle Cheever’s worldview while I focus on a linguistically interesting element of the story he doesn’t mention. As the story draws to its end, the narrator has a dream in which a priest or bishop, walking on the beach, raises his hand and calls to the narrator at his window: “Porpozec ciebie nie prosze dorzanin albo zyolpocz ciwego.” This mysterious sentence recurs twice more in the final page of the story, once in a dream and once in the reality of the story. My question is: how did he come up with it? It looks very much like Polish, so I mentally pronounce it as if it were Polish (“por-PO-zets TSYEH-byeh…”), but it’s not even close to being actual Polish; did he ask a Polish speaker he knew to come up with a nonsense sentence he could use? Surely he didn’t actually dream it…

Something I learned when googling is that Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán reused it in his 2003 novel Jardines de Kensington (Kensington Gardens): on page 110 of the translated version, there is the sentence “I saw all the bishops jumping with wind parachutes, floating in the airy landscape, bestowing blessings in a new or a very ancient language — Porpozec ciebie nie prosze dorzanin albo zyolpocz ciwego, their speaking staffs repeated over and over again, vibrating like tuning forks — as the control towers were toppled by lightning, like the tower in my favorite deck of tarot cards.” I know nothing else about the novel, but I like that bit.


  1. Gratłamy po ośpitaltać. Nostry pardycznik nie dziczewa nów, kód włyje sie miastrzytydzień plice piedalej en łu pazie. Nostra wizyta jora nów mółt jukęda, uta stawiecz dźwiemy rur o dom, prostokód jądź owiemy mółt rzejar pędruzar o łowórz. Łu jora ideja miej fiemnie, prokód wnier jec o wakaceń!

  2. I don’t know if I should be ashamed or proud of this, but when I saw the post title in my feed reader, my first thought was that it must have something to do with Mad Magazine.
    The sad part, I suppose, is that my knowledge of both Mad Magazine and John Cheever is slim enough for me to make that mistake.

  3. Well, according to JSTOR, “These apparent nonsense syllables are actually broken Polish and other Slavic derivatives from which relevant meaning can be extrapolated: “there are many good things in life; you should not search for the things that do not exist in life.””
    Wish I could see the whole article, but I can’t.

  4. Well, according to JSTOR, “These apparent nonsense syllables are actually broken Polish and other Slavic derivatives from which relevant meaning can be extrapolated: “there are many good things in life; you should not search for the things that do not exist in life.””

  5. HP, you’re not alone. Well, I didn’t actually think it was about Mad, but “potrzebie” was the first thing I thought of.

  6. John Emerson says


  7. As far as I can tell, the phrase is just another one of Cheever’s non-sequiturs. It’s a favorite technique of his, and one of the reasons I like him so much.

  8. Well, yes, but even non sequiturs come from somewhere. (Bely’s enfranshish, which plays a similar role in Peterburg, apparently comes from the phrase en franchise.)

  9. Kári Tulinius says

    I’ve desperately been trying to remember the name of Rodrigo Fresán for days now! Thanks! I came across a mention of Kensington Gardens and another novel Mantra, which both seemed interesting but I completely forgot the names of the novels and of Fresán. I have now requested Kensington Gardens from my local library.

  10. In his introduction to the big red book Cheever apologizes for his early stories, saying something about watching young writers struggle to get an education in economics and love. The apology is warranted — at least when you compare the older stories to his mature work. “The Swimmer” is timeless, “The Giant Radio” dated and clumsy. Or at least that was my impression that last time I dipped into his collected. I’d be happy to be persuaded otherwise.

  11. Do you mean The Enormous Radio? I love John Cheever’s short stories, all of them.

  12. Yes, The ENORMOUS Radio. I was gonna say “Giant Radio (or something like that)” but was then suddenly struck by false confidence!
    I love John Cheever’s short stories, all of them.
    You and Richard Ford.

  13. A Cheever favorite of mine (of many; he’s a wonderful writer) that illuminates in a beautifully written way what translates between linguistic worlds – and what doesn’t – is The Golden Age.

  14. Thanks for that, Jim. Wonderful. I listened to the Cheever story first and their discussion of it, and you think yes, they’re right, it’s so compact and yet it includes everything that’s needed. Then I read the Ford one, and you think how could he do this? by comparison it’s got way too much information, so many characters are being talked about. But by the time he gets to the end it’s equally valuable, I thought; it’s just a different style and he was certainly aware of the contrast. A 1000-word short story would be an interesting thing to try, I guess.
    Don’t forget Language first met Mrs Hat in the concourse at Grand Central. It’s true, anything can happen there.

  15. MH, I have JSTOR access, so if you post a link then I can email you the article.

  16. R,
    Thank you so much!

  17. Let us know what you learn!

  18. What, nobody comments on my comment above? It’s not, after all, nonsense!

  19. So what does it mean?

  20. Very interesting
    I am now translating cheever’s short stories into Persian – my mother tongue. When I found this nonsense sentence i didnt know how to deal with it. Then my editor, just based on what he found in the story, suggested that the phrase should have something to do with the last words of the story: All good features he mentions one by one. Well. i guess the above JSTOR niterpretatino goes well with the theme. But i should read the article first.

  21. The purported translation is in Clinton S. Burhans, Jr., “John Cheever and the Grave of Social Coherence”, Twentieth Century Literature, 14(4): 187-198 (1969). [http://www.jstor.org/stable/440595]

    His dreams are largely of past events or people and traditional figures; and in each dream, someone speaks the words, “porpozec ciebie nie prosze dorzanin albo zyolpocz ciwego.” These apparent nonsense syllables are actually broken Polish and other Slavic derivatives from which relevant meaning can be extrapolated: “there are many good things in life; you should not search for the things that do not exist in life,” or perhaps, “you have a good and pleasing life and should not cry for things you do not need.” The relevance of these strange words becomes clear in the narrator’s last dream:

    I dream that I see a pretty woman kneeling in a field of wheat. […snip…]

    She begins to speak the mysterious eight words, and he suddenly awakes to the sound of rain. Sitting up, he too speaks eight words: ” ‘Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!’ The words seem to have the colors of the earth, and as I recite them I feel my hopefulness mount until I am contented and at peace with the night” (BGW, 222). The strange unfocussed words have become sharp and clear; they are “the virtues of conservatism,” the “good things in life,” the traditional values the narrator wants to make legitimate “in so incoherent a world.”

    Unless the alternative wording helps you, there’s not much there to clarify or justify the claim about the “broken Polish and other Slavic derivatives”. If our host can’t trace those derivatives, who can?

  22. Yeah, that doesn’t convince me one bit. Thanks for the quote!

  23. Hat:
    What it means isn’t that significant, just a couple of marginally coherent sentences put together from a tourist phrasebook, and meaning:
    “Thank you for your hospitality. Our guide did not tell us that there was a football championship going on in this country. We enjoyed our visit very much, but now we must be going home because we have many important things to do there. It was my wife’s idea to come here for vacation!”
    The question is, what is it? How do those words come to mean that? You can figure it out (“You are linguist; listen, and try to understand!”), or you can of course cheat by googling for them.

  24. Well, “fiemnie” suggests it’s Polish sound changes and spelling imposed on a Romance base.

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