It’s, like, the ripest old age

The relative frequency of the word даже is something translators from Russian to English figure out at some point, and Dostoevsky’s palaverers present a classic case. Gogol’s are right up there as well, and I seem to recall that one of the most astute passages of Eikhenbaum’s “How Gogol’s Overcoat is Made” delves into the repetition of the word for comic effect. Dostoevsky’s usage strikes me as less funny or deliberate and often seems more of a tick than a device. One of the best ways to deal with it is to drop the “even” from the English. The same, it seems to me, is true of the word ведь. Here again, “even” is a possibility, but the connection is (even) more tenuous, and the word might in fact be more like an oral speech marker sometimes, indicating in effect that someone is speaking aloud, or pretending to, a little like someone might say, “you know” or “right” in English speech.

These variations occur to me as I look at this line: “Мне теперь сорок лет, а ведь сорок лет—это вся жизнь; ведь это самая глубокая старость.” To get at it requires a little more context obviously. The paragraph is where the U-man introduces the idea of the modern (19th-century) person’s—which means in this case his own—inability to become (another great construction: сделаться + instrumental) anything definite. Intelligent people can’t become, only fools can. This is his forty-year old conviction, and then we get the line in question.

The fact that this is a verbal performance has often been noted. In this it reminds me a lot of Nabokov’s Lolita, a performance that conjures a persona powerfully and with lasting effect. The basic characteristics of this voice have been generalized over time through the many fine translations that exist and are regularly read and taught. A translation today is not likely to change its basic contours, its dripping irony, biting, embittered tonal variations, self-congratulation, anger, indignation, and invective. Whether he “really” feels any of this is another question, which means I should add self-conscious to the list of its attributes. Indeed, who would want to change such a fantastic creation?

But I wonder about this dramatic quality in today’s English and whether he should continue to sound like a 19th-century functionary. And so I wonder about the use of a word like “like.” This is not my idiom. I have probably avoided it actively ever since living in southern California, where it was a powerful evocation of the Valley Girl persona. But since then it has become accepted and now appears (even) among groups who have never heard a Valley Girl speak.

Could a word like this work for the U-man?

The line in question could then be something like this: “This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age.”

And the slightly longer passage, using the same principle, would be something like this:

This is my forty-year-old conviction. I’m forty now, and forty is, like, a whole life. It’s, like, the ripest old age. Living more than forty years is improper, disgusting, immoral! Who lives beyond forty? Answer me truthfully. Be honest. I’ll tell you who: bastards and fools.

 

More on Nature Writing

I found another, quite different, book that has added to my writing options, Where the Sea Breaks its Back, by Corey Ford. This is a much older book (first published in 1966), and though the prose has a somewhat dated quality at times, it uses some techniques that I am attracted to. The subtitle, “The Epic Story of a Pioneer Naturalist and the Discovery of Alaska,” gives the basic premise, but I would say this is just where it begins.

Instead, I would call it an ostensible premise, and while it is something like a biography of Georg Steller, who was indeed remarkable and deserving of a biography, this book isn’t really that. Instead, it uses Steller to explore with him and document, partially through his eyes, Bering’s second journey to discover whether Eurasia and North America were linked or not. But even here it is much more about natural history than the history of the voyage itself, though one gets both. The human ordeal is told well, mostly on the basis of Steller’s notes and those of Lieutenant Sven Waxell, who took over command of the party after Bering’s death on the island that bears his name.

The writing is quite effective. It is not a scholarly book, and there are no footnotes to the many quotations. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to get away with quite so little in terms of references.

The remarkable thing is that the book has something of a narrative arc that is different from the story of Bering’s voyage or Steller’s life. Somewhere around page 140 out of a little over 200, the sea otter makes its appearance through Steller’s observations. After that, it never really leaves the book, and Steller almost seems to take a second place to it. In fact I found myself beginning to be more interested in the fate of the sea otter as a species, which was almost completely wiped out over the next 150 years of plunder, than I was in Steller, whose role grows less important as he departs the scene and becomes weaker in spirit, until he finally fades out in a blur of alcohol.

But the otter endures, and the book’s final pages are devoted to it, a strong move on the part of the author, it seems to me, moving from the naturalist to nature.

Memoir, Nature Writing, Biology

I have found in the past that reading widely and apparently outside the field I’m thinking about has helped me write my own books, so I’ve been exploring a bit as I imagine Sea of Intimacy.

I read a review of this book…25002982

in The NY Review of Books a few years ago, and thought I should have a look. It turned out to be much richer and deeper than I anticipated. The fact that I found it in the university’s biology library might have something to do with why it is not better known: people probably don’t quite know how to categorize it. To me it could as easily be a memoir as a book about the natural world.

There are very strong ideas in it–too many to enumerate–and also a beauty of expression that matches the subject matter quite skillfully all the way through. One recurring idea that does not have an index entry but should is the notion of the “fifty thousand generations” during which homo sapiens lived on the planet as hunter-gatherers, in close communion with the natural world. McCarthy returns to it as something of a leitmotif (e.g., “the bond of fifty thousand generations with the natural world,” “the legacy of the fifty thousand generations of the Pleistocene”). Another reminds me of the great chain of being notion (though not religiously inflected in this case) of the wondrous astonishment at what the world can contain.

The author’s many joyful encounters with the natural world are carefully interlaced with personal memories, life encounters, and stories of the dedication and shared wonder with others, including his relationship with his mother (a strong indicator of memoir). The attention to detail in nature even amid the human-made world reminds me of a book I translated, The Other Venice, by Predrag Matvejević, but Matvejević is tonally subdued by contrast to McCarthy, who does not mind at all waxing lyrical, quoting poetry, and finding moments of intense emotion even amid apparently humdrum non-resplendent environments, as when he feels he has discovered a secret in suburbia, namely, “that in the chorale of birdsong silvering the silence, the stillness and the great bursting dawn overhead, for a brief half-hour even the land of the lawnmower can approach perfection” (203).

A major reason the book might very well be mis-categorized in the biology library is that one of McCarthy’s principle propositions, which he borrows from Joseph Conrad, is that “the influence of the artist is more enduring and goes deeper than the work of the scientist” (217), a notion that frames the book–it is first offered up on pp. 27-28)–and provides the main rationale for its manner of exposition, which is beautiful and joyous and definitely worth spending time with, whether one is imagining one’s own book through its prism or not.

 

Publishing Kin

It looks like Archipelago Books will publish Kin in the first half of 2021. In the meantime, we are working together on some first serial publication excerpts. I have taken three and contacted two editors I know at lit mags to start, while the folks at Archipelago are working on a handful of others. This ability to excerpt is probably a major publishing virtue of the book, and indeed Miljenko Jergović published many short segments in a variety of venues in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, leading up to the book’s full publication in Croatia in 2013.

If those two editors pass on the excerpts I’ve got, I’ll go to two others, and so on. Depending on how well Jill Schoolman and her people do with theirs, I might take more to send out. All this really ought to happen in the first half of this year since the better lit mags generally are a good year out in terms of the publication schedule (though you can sometimes squeeze something in later if they have space and are interested).

Revisiting excerpts also allows me to revise again, which can of course go on forever until you’re just removing and replacing commas. When I’m at that point, I’ll be very happy.

Happy 2020!

Mare Superum and St. Paul’s Shipwreck

The Strait of Otranto is today the generally accepted dividing line between the Adriatic Sea and its neighbor to the south, the Ionian, but discovering exactly where the strait stops and starts, like many a water boundary, depends on who you ask and when. This southern boundary, moreover, is relatively recent. In a certain sense the fuzziness of its southern confines is understandable when one considers the Adriatic in a historical context that might come as a surprise to the inhabitants of, say, Scandinavia: it was long considered a northern sea. This quality in fact was what first-century Romans thought most noteworthy when they occasionally named it the Mare Superum or “Upper Sea” instead of any of its other names. “Adriatic” in turn appears to have derived from an old Etruscan city, Atria, which was located in the far north near the mouth of the Po River.

Tracing the Ancient references makes it clear that the boundaries of this sea, while obvious where the land met the water in the north, tended to be quite variable and sometimes contentious to the south, extending with Roman colonial expansion first to the Gargano Peninsula and then onward to Otranto, Roman Hydruntum. As Rome’s colonial expansion did not stop there, however, but kept growing, so too did the sea’s supposed dominion, infiltrating the Gulf of Taranto and overtaking both the Sicilian and Ionian Seas. For Procopius of Caesarea, writing in the sixth century, the Adriatic’s southern reaches appear to have extended far into the wider Mediterranean while the sea’s defining geographical trait mentioned in his History of the Wars is not a north-south boundary but an east-west one, with the island of Malta as the defining line between what he calls the Adriatic Sea, which appears to encompass the central Mediterranean, and what he calls the Tuscan, which reaches around the Italian Peninsula up to Tuscany.[1] [I am considering adding a roughly sketched map here]

It is in this context that the geography of the disciple Paul’s experience recounted in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles 27:39 to 28:11 has often been explained: upon leaving Crete, the vessel in which he traveled was said to have encountered a storm on the Adriatic that drove it towards the Maltese coast. But here ancient conceptions of time and space have tended to confound as often as clarify. The Biblical account does not say how long they had sailed before they met the storm, only how long it drove the ship to and fro after they met it (fourteen days). If they had hugged the coast, as ancient navigators were wont to do, perhaps it skirted up and around rather than headed out to open waters, making landfall, after this storm, not on Malta, as is believed by some, but on Mljet, off the coast of Dalmatia, as others have claimed. The ancient coast lines were likely quite different than what we see today, and there is evidence to suggest that much of what is land in modern memory was then water.[2] It turns out, moreover, that the two islands are referenced in both Greek and Roman sources by the same name—Melita—and each island has a harbor named after St. Paul, along with local attestations to his stay there after a storm and a shipwreck. Both regional and international scholarly opinion has come to the aid of such claims over the centuries, swaying this way and that with the region’s geo-political tempests. And so when the Spaniards controlled Malta, English opinion placed the great saint’s landing on Mljet, but when England controlled Malta, new research proved he had landed on Malta after all.[3]

[1] Book III, Chapter 14 (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_the_Wars/Book_III#XIV)

[2] See Wilkes, The Illyrians, 1992, on the ancient coast and changes since.

[3] Ignjat Durdevic’s 1730 Venetian monograph places St. Paul’s shipwreck on Mljet. Ignjat Đurđević: Sveti Pavao apostol brodlomac (St Paul the Apostle Castaway), Miho Demović (ed.), Dubrovačke knjižnice, 2008.

Glagolitic Reflections

The so-called “Glagolitic Path,” or, as the locals name it, the Aleja glagljaša, runs for a little more than four miles through the idyllic countryside of Istria’s Mirna Valley Basin between the villages of Roč and Hum. Nowhere near so well-traveled as the coastal towns just to the west, it is no less picturesque. Hilltop villages speckle the landscape, which has a fairy-tale quality that has often induced in me the anxious sensation that some unexpected, stunning surprise lies waiting just over the next incline. It often does.

In this wide, relatively open, sunny expanse the waters of the Mirna (or “peaceful”) River gather together before making their way down to empty, also quite humbly, into the Adriatic some twenty-five miles to the southwest near the town of Novigrad. Local legends suggest that the river was named after the wife of the giant Dragonja, who, when out tilling his fields one day, dug an especially deep trench all the way from the heights of the Ćićarija plateau to the sea. It is unclear from the stories whether Dragonja was happy or frustrated that the water that filled in his furrow moved slowly and steadily, for which quality he gave it his wife’s name.

The Path, which is probably best understood as a public art project or perhaps a modest ethnopark, was created between 1977 and 1983 to commemorate the heritage of Glagolitic writing, which featured prominently in the religious and cultural history of Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, and Dalmatia. As I note this, using words like “commemorate” and “heritage” and “featured,” it occurs to me that some might be inclined relegate the script, with its exotic sounding name and, to them at least, obscure history, to the category of bygone curiosities, artifacts of material culture significant primarily for their developmental value. It is a common way of thinking and categorizing among scholars of cultural history. We read and consider every artifact along historical timelines, it is true, and the categorizing and interpreting impulses tend to make everything of equal interest, a little like the underwater archeological prism I have noted elsewhere. But then some things catch our attention by jumping out of line, as it were, suggesting in fact that they might be of interest somehow outside history, not just because they are part of a chronology and lead to some subsequent stage but for other reasons that seem to speak to us directly, outside the context of our search for items of “developmental significance.” On this basis we sometimes switch our approach completely, seeing wonders and masterpieces in these exceptional cases, thinking that because they speak so to us they must also speak to others in the same way and not just in our own time. Perhaps, we think, they are of some intrinsically human interest.

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin accounted for this phenomenon by suggesting that some cultural inventions incorporate not just content but “potential” inside them, such that they can live on beyond the time in which they were created and continue to grow, as future generations open them up and find new things that past generations might not have seen, all while continuing to recognize that the things earlier generations saw must also be “in there.” It is a brilliant solution to the generations-old question of how multiple interpretations of one and the same cultural artifact can be equally valid.

I suppose from a certain perspective, Glagolitic must appear as what Jan Morris, in her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere calls “another kind of arcanum” (155) whose presence “so close to the city center of Trieste” is “like an unsuspected spell or exorcism, left in the attic.” It is thus mysterious and exotic, a remnant of a dark past that lingers in unknown places, hidden amid the dust of forgotten documents, and then creeps out to dazzle us with its unexpected shapes and squiggles when we are busy looking for something else. Or perhaps we must travel far to find it, venturing down into peripheral or interstitial territories about which we have only heard stories. Thus Glagolitic is “like no other European writing” and “for centuries… defied the intrusion of the Latin alphabet” (Ibid., 156). This is basically true. It is also thick with perspective, partly Morris’s (whose subject is Trieste, after all, not Istria, let alone the eastern Adriatic), partly that of the members of the Istrian émigré community who made their home in Trieste following their departure from Istria after World War II. I have felt the thickness of this perspective, its palpability, which is based on real and hard-lived experience, and so I cannot say that it is wrong. But it is certainly limited and incomplete.

While many outsiders know about the use of two writing systems in the Balkans, Latinate and Cyrillic, fewer are aware of Glagolitic, which is in fact older than the latter though not so old as was once believed. For hundreds of years Glagolitic was thought to have been invented in the fourth century by St. Jerome, whose now legendary birthplace somewhere on the border between Dalmatia and the Pannonian plain combined effectively with his spiritual authority as the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, on the one hand, and the most learned of the Church Fathers, on the other, to shore up support for the alphabet’s continued use over the centuries, particularly as part of the liturgical language. In addition to “Illyrian” and “Slovenish,” the script is thus often referred to in medieval manuscripts as “Hieronymian,” after Jerome’s Latin name, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus. Jerome’s skill with numerous languages and the fact that the letters of Glagolitic appear to derive from a variety of ancient scripts, including Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Samaritan, and Coptic, helped to keep the story alive, and it is easy to sense the power of the tradition behind doing so, as the clerics told themselves and others that they were continuing along the path forged a thousand and more years before, preserving the great Jerome’s legacy in its purest form, the system of writing down the sounds of their language that he had created. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.

Bastards All

Mixture has turned out to provide an especially fruitful path of inquiry in researching this book, while its relationship to intimacy has furnished one of my central themes.

I am aware that there is another sense to the term in question, but let us begin with this.

A Baster is a member of a racially mixed group of frontier people who live in Namibia and North West South Africa. The name appears to come from the Afrikaans baster, meaning “half-breed.” They were once also called Bastaards—a spelling that, I suppose, means the a is long as in father—and are believed to be descendants of eighteenth-century Dutch and French fathers and Khoi-Khoi (Hottentot) mothers. They speak a dialect of Dutch but have some knowledge of Khoi-Khoi. They long lived in autonomous hybrid communities founded in the nineteenth century, which blended a variety of traditions and practices of their parent cultures. The early Basters were proud of their White ancestry, which they would emphasize to justify claims of superiority over their aboriginal neighbors.

This is a way of seeing one’s own skin color that most white people never experience, an instrumental and objectivized approach to some part of yourself, a little like being proud of having a car that’s better than your neighbor’s, only it’s not a car you drive, it’s one you wear, or better one that’s attached to your body as a kind of automotive appendage that you see every time you look in the mirror, from ever since you were aware of yourself as a distinct person, a constituent self-object inherited from your mother, or your father, or some distant, great great Bastaard relative.

“Bastard toadflax” refers to small annual or perennial herbs of the sandalwood family. They have narrow leaves like true toadflax, but they are not true toadflax. In the same way, “bastard saffron” is not true saffron, “bastard pimpernel” not true pimpernel, and “bastard balm” not true balm. It might seem on the surface that these names all refer to, and so in a sense benefit from, the association with the true. But in effect their names all define them fundamentally by their difference from something else, the absence of something in them, their impurity, falseness, inauthenticity. They resemble but are not some other thing, something other and better because it is called what it is and it is that, not something other and worse because it is not that.

This puts them together in a surprisingly productive category of things defined by what they resemble but are not, as for instance most things termed faux—faux leather, faux pearls, faux fur, though faux is not always the same as bastard. Faux bois is not real bois, it’s imitation, like all the other imposters. We can put a faux memoir, which is not to be confused with a false memory—why does everything change so much when you translate it into French?—in this category as well. But a faux pas really is a pas, it’s just a really bad one. In some ways a faux pas might be a more distinctive pas than a non-faux pas. We perform a thousand non-faux pas every day, and no one ever notices. They are the mundane details of life, rather boring and forgettable. But a faux pas is unique, memorable, the stuff of stories, though not of the heroic sort. The faux pas finds its place in the salon rather than on the field of battle. Nevertheless, it has a bold authenticity that a mere pas can never hope to achieve.

A “flat bastard” is a type of metal file specific to the North American system of pattern coarseness. It refers to the tooth spacing, or number of teeth per inch, on a file, usually a metal one but wood is also possible. This file renders a “bastard cut,” which is the result of having the fewest number of teeth per inch. The more teeth there are on the file, the smoother the finish after filing. Which means that the obverse is also true: the fewer the teeth, the rougher the finish.

This usage is analogous to the bastarda script that was used for less formal, vernacular texts in France and Germany during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bastarda being synonymous with less refined, less polished, less sophisticated. Presumably a liturgical text (in Latin) would not have been printed in such a bastard script, just as a fine wood would not be subjected to a course bastard file, flat or otherwise. Both these uses reassure in their democratic implications, their roughness marking a natural authenticity, an absence of elitism, exclusion, or snobbery. Applying the word faux to your flat bastard or claiming that your flat bastard was better than someone else’s flat bastard because it had, say, even fewer teeth than his—distorts the very idea of the bastard in all its purity.

Bastard appears numerous times in the King James Bible. In Zechariah 9:6, “And a bastard shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of the Philistines”; in Hebrews 12:8, “But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons”; and in Deuteronomy 23:2, “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter in to the congregation of the Lord.” The usage is rather inconsistent from one Bible translation to another, where “mongrel,” “mixed” might be preferred, while in several more recent translations, instead of “bastard,” terms like “foreigner,” “half-breed,” and phrases like “born of a forbidden marriage” appear. The confusion appears to center around the Hebrew concept mamzer. According to rabbinic law, this name refers to offspring of individuals unable to contract a legal marriage, especially if it would be incestuous. The child of parents genealogically free to marry is never understood as a mamzer, regardless of how few teeth it might have.

The Venetian galea bastarda, or “bastard galley,” was a cross between the galea sottile and the galea grossa. It was characterized by its relatively fuller hull and stronger built, which allowed it to accommodate a fourth, and later a fifth, rower per bench. Some of these rowers would eventually be captured Turks, others enslaved Morlachs from Dalmatia, but the Venetians held out against the practice of slave rowers on their military vessels for as long as they could, preserving, it seems, the practice of citizen rowers from the Ancient World. The increased size and strength of the bastard galley made it especially suitable for use as a flagship in both military and commercial expeditions. A bastard sail is also known as a lateen mainsail, that revolutionary design that allowed sailors to maneuver both upwind and down and was especially popular among the islands of the eastern Adriatic, where even today there are special “lateen” regattas.

The English word bastard appears to derive from the Medieval Latin word bastum, meaning a pack saddle used by muleteers traveling from inn to inn. Calling someone a “fils de bast,” or “son of the bastum,” was a euphemistic manner of suggesting a child not born of marriage bed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that bantum is related to “bantling,” a corruption of the German “bänkling,” from bank, or bench, suggesting a child begotten on a bench rather than a bed. These words thus at some earlier point in their histories carried subtle allusive qualities that the contemporary usage of bastard makes rather ironic, bastard having been coarsened over time. Bastard, in fact, was once a relatively common name. Its bearers include a minor French composer of the sixteenth century, a Devon family established at Kitley near Yealmpton in the late seventeenth century, and a geographical district of Canada, in the Province of Ontario. With the term’s descent into abuse, many former bearers of course changed their names, leaving most descendants ignorant of their true origins.