I know where your house lives, but sometimes the front door’s a struggle

Featuring Abel and Marguerite Chevalley and their Concise Oxford French Dictionary.

From Abel and Marguerite Chevalley’s intro to the 1934 Concise Oxford French Dictionary:

It is not sufficient to be a Frenchman, even highly educated, if you want to succeed as a French-English lexicographer. Nor can an Englishman, even with first-class honours in French, be guaranteed to find the best English equivalents for French words or idioms. Every living language gets stratified as it grows. Very few people are at home in its different strata. Mrs. Malaprop’s language was probably free of malapropisms when she spoke to her cook, and the most purist précieuse would perpetrate malapropisms of another sort if she had to deal with the butcher and the grocer. Languages are like houses: they must be lived in—from attic to basement—before they can be called ours. The number of people who have become familiar, in this intimate manner, not only with one but with several houses is, of course, limited.

Culture and knowledge are not sufficient. A taste for words as words; an instinct of divination leading in abstracto to the ‘mot juste’, and an insight into the risks and difficulties of others, less gifted; the sporting spirit that sustains, year in year out, a lifelong word-hunt; an acute sense of the correspondences and discrepancies between words of apparently the same sort and sound in two languages that are now frères ennemis and then “heavenly twins’, these are also not enough. A great thing, perhaps the greatest, is to have lived both French and English, meeting on their own ground all conditions of men, and transacting with them all kinds of business; to have travelled, under the sting of necessity, up and down the social order, always in a spirit of comprehensive sympathy but with that touch of amusement that goes to the making of humour. You must have run a hundred times, half angry, half smiling, from loft to cellar before you can flatter yourself that you know every turning, nook, and corner in your own house; and even then you knock your shins against unsuspected obstacles. What if the house were a double affair, more than half built in the air, of metaphors, shadows and shades, and visions, ever changing, ever moving, without perhaps one single exact counterpart in the two enchanted fabrics? I am not sure that the King’s English does in this sense belong to the King rather than to the bricklayer, and the French of France to the Académie rather than to the nearest pub. But I am sure that the lexicographer who has frequented both is also the best prepared for the task. These conditions must be sadly missing in the world of dictionaries.

I’ve been on holiday too long, but that’s still how I feel about borderline Dutch and Low German, and older houses in places like Hamburg and Strasbourg flash me back to ramshackle dwellings in the diseased swamp and blighted heath that separates the bishops of Utrecht and Münster. With other languages the feeling varies from residence through squatting to Airbnb (sorry, I broke the toilet). The Great House of Russian, on the other hand, is often as strange to me as the 60s West End of London to the anthropomartians above. How different the world might have been had Peter the Great spent some of his tobacco revenues on a translation of Erasmus’ proverbs.

The Chevalleys are interesting. Marguerite translated “from the American, English [sic] and Norwegian into French”, and it sounds as if her lexicography echoed the popular Protestant theology of her father, Auguste Sabatier. Abel has a German, but not a French, Wikipedia page because he represented the French state in the exclavation of East Prussia after the Treaty of Versailles. He wrote that “the English novel owes its existence and power to the authors of the 18th century and its prestige to Walter Scott”, and authored a study of Queen Victoria and a Ripper-type novel loosely based on the Beast of Gévaudan. Son Claude was a better mathematician than diplomat, applying from within the Great Satan for a job at the Sorbonne while simultaneously being rude about the artist then known as French science.

Where did Petersburg’s organ-grinders go in winter?

I fear only some of them migrated with the swallows. Featuring Boris Sadovskoy, Yuri Norstein, Aleksey Batalov, Rolan Bykov and Gogol.

Two films Friday night: Tralala Land, a preppy ramble contra elevator music, set to elevator music (Slate/Observer/Vice); then Aleksey Batalov and Rolan Bykov’s extraordinary 1959 version of “The Greatcoat” (in which story Gogol showed Russians how to write) – similar percentage of jazz, but with proper dancing (staggering), a professional score, drinking, smoking, crime, heartfelt singing… No organ grinders, though:


English: click the subtitle icon and select from the gear icon.

Grigorovich touches on the fate of the Petersburg organ-grinders during winter, which was marginally better than that of the livestock left to freeze to death in Haymarket Square in order to save on their pre-sale bed & breakfast. The following anecdote hints at what must have been a dreadful experience (translation corrections welcome). It’s from the the recollections of Boris Sadovskoy, one of the most curious literary figures in the run-up to the October Revolution, which is saying quite something, and posh but not preppy:

Many organ-grinders roamed Lower [Petersburg], 1 playing Italian arias and the inevitable Kamarinskaya. 2 During the winter of 1897, a couple of organ-grinders strayed into the shared courtyard. One turned the handle of the box while the other beat the tambourine dashingly and whistled like a nightingale. The latter was a cheerful, tough lad in a fashionable, fur jacket. In spring they played again, haggard, grim, in rags. The boy somehow whistled Kamarinskaya and stretched out to my window a ragged cap with a pitiful, pleading smile. He could barely stand from weakness. They visited the courtyard along with a classic Petrushka. From behind the screen, to the sounds of the barrel organ, jumped in turn his bride, the soldier, the apothecary, and the devil.

По Нижнему бродило много шарманщиков. Игрались итальянские арии и неизбежный камаринский. Зимой 1897 г. два шарманщика зашли на удельный двор. Один вертел ручку ящика, другой лихо бил в бубен и свистал как соловей. Это был веселый крепкий парень в щегольском полушубке. Весной они играли опять, испитые, угрюмые, в лохмотьях. Парень кое-как просвистал камаринского, протянул к моему окну рваный картуз с жалкой умоляющей улыбкой. Он еле стоял от слабости. Заходил к нам на двор и классический Петрушка. Из-за ширм, под звуки шарманки, выскакивали поочередно невеста, солдат, аптекарь и черт.

“The Overcoat” the world has been awaiting for the last 40 years is Yuri Norstein’s:

I’m confident there won’t be any barrel organs in that either. But, as you know, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Stuff

  1. Nieder-/Ober-? Can’t find anyone else who classifies Petersburg geography this way. Class – lowlife? Then why the capitalisation?
  2. Early and quickly ubiquitous nationalist ditty-dance by Glinka – a kind of Russian Birdie Song. The least dull version features Donald Byrne and Bobby Fischer:

Donald for Dalai Lama, or Pope, or Caliph, or something

A Trump Taj Mahal Casino multitrack jukebox, to help make religion rather better than it has been, again.

The most profound spiritual experience I’ve ever had was when, on my first visit to Atlantic City, I entered Trump’s Taj Mahal casino. 1 Louis C.K. recently recalled the devotional nature of some of the great man’s following – all great poissons have groupies:

“I saw this thing happening where buses were showing up from all over the country but with little old ladies from places like Ohio and Tennessee to Atlantic City … and they filed in to the Trump casino. They take what little they have. They have nothing! They take that nothing, the little tiny scraps, and they turn it into chips and they pour buckets of money into his machines. Then [Trump] showed up and he just walks around,” C.K. said, making a face like Trump surveying the scene. “And it wasn’t like, ‘Hi, folks, thanks for coming.’ It wasn’t like that at all. That’s not what he represented. That was what was fascinating to me. He didn’t say, ‘Thank you’ to anyone. He just walked around miserable-looking. And when I was in the elevator with him, I looked at his face and he just looked miserable. And everyone’s like ‘Donald!’ So excited to see him. And they’re giving him everything, and he has everything, right? And they’re leaving on the same bus with nothing, just ruining their lives. I saw this as a reverse charity, like a weird kind of charity. These old women, they don’t need anything. … They live in a shitty place and they have two dollars, and they’re like, ‘Eh, I don’t need it — it’s OK, he needs it!’ If he looks in the mirror, and he has 10 dollars, he’s going to kill himself. He has a $10 billion deficit in his heart. So if he doesn’t have that much money, he’s nothing. So they were like, ‘Donald, you take this!’ They come from miles around to give to him because they’re invested in his happiness. It’s so big, this desperate hole that people come from all over [to fill it].”

Louis misses what is perhaps the crucial element in this popular American Buddhist ritual: the wall of sound, ever changing, never changing. Friends, can up your ears, play simultaneously the following slot-machine videos, shifting volumes up and down to simulate the full walk-around experience, and you may then inkle something of the day my brain changed for ever:

The aural bath I’ve had that comes closest to the all-embracing profundity of the world’s megacasinos is Stravinsky’s portrayal of the Petersburg Shrovetide Fair in Petrushka, inspired in part by Grigorovich’s 1843 essay, here in my version for barrel organ:

Steve Reich tried to achieve a similar effect, but it’s Jesus’ temple post merchants, moneychangers and dove-traders: po-faced and predictable, and there’s no (implicit) bar:

Grigorovich on the Petersburg organ-grinders:

The Italian’s passion for his noble art often goes so far that he will spend entire months improving the barrel-organ; he plasters it with assorted vignettes and ornaments, to its sides he attaches a triangle, sleigh bells, cymbals, and a Turkish drum, he hangs on a larger bell, and, setting everything in motion with a cord tied to his leg, he looks smugly at his brethren, imagining himself owner of the eighth wonder of the world.

[
Страсть к благородному искусству часто простирается до того, что итальянец проводит целые месяцы на улучшение шарманки; он облепливает ее разными фигурками, украшениями, прикрепляет к сторонам ее треугольник, бубенчики, тарелки, турецкий барабан, навешивает колокольчики и, приведя все в движение веревочкою, привязанною к ноге, самодовольно посматривает на своих собратий, воображая себя обладателем восьмого чуда в мире.
]

Donald used to say that his Taj Mahal was the eighth wonder of the world, and maybe he was right, so we’re having duck tomorrow.

Stuff

  1. Disclaimer: My spiritual experience was slightly different when someone explained to me the funding arrangements and the fact that TTM was set up to compete with his smaller casinos there.

A sensational 1810 Parisian fire scene on top of an 1840s Russian barrel organ

But who are the three noseless Austrian ladies?

Before Christmas a kind person sent me Heinrich Riggenbach’s German translation of Dmitri Grigorovich’s 1843 anthropological essay, The Organ-Grinders of St. Petersburg (Петербургские шарманщики), produced for the Zurich publishing house Sanssouci, whose founder, Peter Schifferli, was a notorious barrel-organ enthusiast. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but some questions remained unanswered, such as the function of the automata of Napoleon and three noseless, foil-clad Austrian ladies, observed by Grigorovich on top of a small organ:

Napoleon mit blauem Rock und Dreispitz dreht sich um Damen ohne Nase, die von Kopf bis Fuss mit Folien beklebt sind. Ist der Besitzer dieser Kostbarkeit ein Italiener, dann wird er bestimmt ein Gespräch mit euch anknüpfen und es nicht unterlassen, tüchtig auf Napoleon zu schimpfen, und weiss Gott warum, auf die österreichischen Damen, die sich mit ihm drehen, wenn er die Bedeutung der Puppen der Reihe nach erklärt.

Riggenbach makes no comment, so I got hold of the Russian original:

Наполеона в синем фраке и треугольной шляпе, вертящегося вокруг безносых дам, с ног до головы облепленных фольгою. Если владелец этого сокровища итальянец, то он непременно вступит с вами в разговор и, объясняя значение каждой куклы порознь, не утерпит, чтоб не выбранить хорошенько Наполеона и бог весть почему кружащихся с ним австрийских дам.

… discovered a series of minor elisions during the entire course of Riggenbach’s translation, and foolishly thought I’d translate the whole thing into English & elucidate during festive downtime. I got to the Austrian ladies, still had no idea what they represented, and googled around. First find was Arkadiy Haimovich Goldenberg’s 2009 article about a dilettante organ-grinder and wastrel in Gogol’s Dead Souls, “What is Nozdryov singing with the barrel organ?” (“О чем поет шарманка Ноздрева?”), which suggests that the ladies might be images of death accompanying an early 18th century French song set during the War of the Spanish Succession, Malbrook s’en va-t-en guerre, which had become popular in various (updated and/or localised) forms across Europe.

Second up was a Thomas G. Marullo‘s translation – hitherto unknown to me – of Grigorovich’s piece and the rest of the 1844 Nekrasov anthology, Petersburg: The Physiology of a City:

a figurine of Napoleon, dressed in a blue coat and a three-cornered hat, twirling about the figures of ladies who are without noses and who are covered from head to foot with shiny foil. If the owner of this treasure is Italian, he will invariably engage you in conversation. He will explain to you the significance of each and every puppet, and for your benefit, he will not restrain from scolding Napoleon and the Austrian ladies who twirl about him. (God knows why.)

His explanation:

In 1810 Napoleon divorced the childless Josephine and married Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I. As a result, the Austrian court had little choice bur to submit fully to Napoleon’s many prescriptions and demands.

Immediately more convincing, but I doubted whether Russian peasants would really appreciate such elderly geopolitical metaphor, so I googled again, and came up with a third idea which I believe fits the bill.

Napoleon’s wedding in 1810 was celebrated with a great ball organised by the Austrian Ambassador to Paris, Karl Philipp von Schwarzenberg. The hall caught fire, killing a dozen or so, predominantly women because their clothing was more flammable. This created a European sensation, mostly for the manner of death of the most celebrated victim. Karl Philipp’s sister-in-law, Pauline, “was discovered under the remains of the burnt timber of the ball-room. She had succeeded in extricating herself, but had returned in search of her children, not having seen them effect their escape.” 1

If Pauline is the first Austrian portrayed on the organ-top, the second is probably Maria Pauline, her daughter, who was severely burned and died aged 23 in 1821. 2

As to the third, Rovigo lists three other female victims, amongst whom you may wish to choose: Sophia Theresia Walpurgis, Countess von der Leyen, Rhineland nobility; the wife of the Russian consul-general; and the wife of a French artillery officer, Touzard.

I don’t really know whether to finish the translation. On the one hand, translating something far beyond one’s capabilities is, along with pillow dictionaries and the composition of doggerel, a crucial step in learning a language; I can certainly contribute from a musical perspective; and selling little books is proving a nice little sideline. On the other, life is short and busy, and Marullo is obviously rather good anyway.

Animated Napoleonic scenes are quite common on top of Germanic barrel organs, but I don’t know of an illustration of this particular example. Tips welcome!