On Russian Names

Alexsander Topolski was 16 years old and living in his native Poland when the war broke out in 1939. He quickly ended up in the Soviet penal system, where he spent three years. After the war he moved to Britain and later Canada, where he lived near Ottawa, working as an architect for Public Works Canada. In 2000 he published a memoir of his war years, called “Without Vodka” (from the Russian saying “Without vodka you can’t figure it out”).

As a Pole imprisoned in various Soviet work camps and other prisons, he faced a number of challenges and prejudices. Russians generally did not like Poles, and the language and cultural barriers made a bad thing worse. Among the many things he had to learn in order to survive were the intricacies of Russian names.

We were only beginning to learn the complexities and varieties of the diminutives of Russian names. Shura was a diminutive of Aleksandr (…), but to our amazement so were Sasha, Sashka, Sashenka, Shurka and Sania. All these nicknames could also apply to Aleksandra, the feminine form of Aleksandr. The polite form of address would be to use the first name Aleksandr and add to it the patronymic derived from his father’s first name. Shura’s father’s first name also happened to be Aleksandr, and his surname Aleksandrov (quite a common one). To add to our confusion, surnames came first. Thus, formally, Shura should have been addressed as Aleksandrov Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. It took a while to get used to it. It’s no wonder that for a long time, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, we Westerners referred to him simply as “that Russian prick.”

From Without Vodka, by Aleksander Topolski (published 2000).

Published in: on January 23, 2019 at 10:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Somewhat Luxury

Paul Bowles, while travelling in 1953, had trouble securing a decent hotel in Istanbul. He settled on a “de luxe” establishment, and reports the following benefits of his choice.

The hotel is considered by my guidebook to be a “de luxe” establishment—the highest category. Directly after the “de luxe” listings come the “first class” places, which it describes in its own mysterious rhetoric: “These hotels have somewhat luxury, but are still comfortable with every convenience.” Having seen the lobbies of several of the hostelries thus pigeonholed, complete with disemboweled divans and abandoned perambulators, I am very thankful to be here in my de-luxe suite, where the telephone is white so that I can see the cockroaches on the instrument before I lift it to my lips. At least the insects are discreet and die obligingly under a mild blast of DDT. It is fortunate I came here: my two insecticide bombs would never have lasted out a sojourn in a first-class hotel.

From Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, by Paul Bowles (published 1963).

Published in: on May 22, 2017 at 1:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

How’s That for an Opener?

Thus begins the second chapter of the short novel The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon, who is clearly a student of Orwell. It’s a different setting and point-of-view from the first chapter, so it’s a cold start. All we know is this is probably post-war England.

There were so many queer aspects to Sunday dinner at the Panicker table that Mr. Shane, the new arrival, aroused the suspicions of his fellow lodger Mr. Parkins merely by seeming to take no notice of any of them. He strode into the dining room, a grand, rubicund fellow who set the floorboards to creaking mightily when he trod them and who looked as if he keenly felt the lack of a pony between his legs. He wore his penny-red hair cropped close to the scalp and there was something indefinitely colonial, a nasal echo of cantonment or goldfields, in his speech. He nodded in turn to Parkins, to the refugee child, and to Reggie Panicker, and then flung himself into his chair like a boy settling onto the back of a school chum for a ride across the lawn. Immediately he struck up a conversation with the elder Panicker on the subject of American roses, a subject about which, he freely admitted, he knew nothing.

From The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon (published 2004).

Published in: on October 13, 2016 at 8:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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He’ll show them a thing or two…

Frau Nowak has a bad lung and a chaotic impoverished life. She and her family live in an attic flat in Berlin, in the early 1930s, where she spends her days meticulously cleaning after her lout of a husband, her grown children Otto and Grete, and the occasional boarder. She complains to anyone who will listen as well as those who won’t. Like many discontent Germans in the last days of the Weimar Republic, she’s inclined to shoot at the easy targets. Her convictions seem to lack depth but as history shows, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep rolling when the inertia is growing all around you. Christopher Isherwood, a temporary boarder in the Nowak household, is witness to this and reports on it in his semi-fictional, sort-of autobiography, The Berlin Stories.

Another regular visitor was the Jewish tailor and outfitter, who sold clothes of all kinds on the instalment plan. He was small and gentle and very persuasive. All day long he made his rounds of the tenements in the district, collecting fifty pfennings here, a mark there, scratching up his precarious livelihood, like a hen, from this apparently barren soil. He never pressed hard for money, preferring to urge his debtors to take more of his goods and embark upon a fresh series of payments. Two years ago Frau Nowak had bought a suit and an overcoat for Otto for three hundred marks. The suit and the overcoat had been worn out long ago, but the money was not nearly repaid. Shortly after my arrival Frau Nowak invested in clothes for Grete to the value of seventy five marks. The tailer made no objection at all.

The whole neighbourhood owed him money. Yet he was not unpopular: he enjoyed the status of a public character, whom people curse without real malice. “Perhaps Lothar’s right,” Frau Nowak would sometimes say: “When Hitler comes, he’ll show these Jews a thing or two. They won’t be so cheeky then.” But when I suggested that Hitler, if he got his own way, would remove the tailor altogether, then Frau Nowak would immediately change her tone: “Oh, I shouldn’t like that to happen. After all, he makes very good clothes. Besides, a Jew will always let you have time if you’re in difficulties. You wouldn’t catch a Christian giving credit like he does… You ask the people round here Herr Christoph: they’d never turn out the Jews.”

From The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood (published 1939).

Published in: on September 19, 2015 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Ragù

Bill Buford explores the intricacies of traditional Italian ragù:

Fundamentally, a ragù is an equation involving a solid (meat) and a liquid (broth or wine), plus a slow heat, until you reach a result that is neither solid nor liquid. The most famous ragù is Bolognese, although there is not one Bolognese but many. Gianni Valdiserri confessed to me when I was in Porretta that when he and Betta married – Betta pregnant, sixteen years old, and still in school – he was concerned that he hadn’t tasted her ragù. This ragù, which she’d learned from an aunt, had been passed down through many generations of her family and would be different from the ragù that Gianni had grown up eating, his mother’s, which was profound and complex and touched something deep in his soul. He also knew that he’d never be able to teach Betta to make someone else’s. A ragù, he said, was a very personal thing. So imagine his happiness when he first ate a ragù made by Betta and discovered that yes, it was different from his mother’s – and better.

From Heat, by Bill Buford (published 2006)

Published in: on December 20, 2014 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Heavy Efforts

Primo Levy referred to Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada, as “The greatest book ever written about the German resistance to the Nazis.”  Published in 1947, it is a grim carnival of fools with a black comedic sensibility. Fallada (real name Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) died a few weeks before publication, at age 53.

The scene: wartime Berlin. Detective Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo is charged with finding the source of a series of anti-Hitler postcards being dropped around town by persons unknown. He’s not a particularly fervent Nazi; he just wants to maintain law and order. But his superiors are bullies and they put constant pressure on him to resolve the case immediately.

Back at Prinz Albrecht Strasse, he had himself announced immediately to his direct supervisor, SS Obergruppenführer Prall. He had to wait almost an hour; not that Herr Prall was very busy, or rather, because he was particularly busy in a particular way. Escherich heard the tinkle of glasses, and the popping of corks, he heard laughter and shouting: one of the regular meetings of the higher echelons, then. Conviviality, booze, cheerful relaxation after the heavy effort of torturing and putting to death their fellow men.

From Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada (originally published 1947; English translation by Geoff Wilkes published 2009).

Published in: on November 7, 2014 at 11:23 am  Leave a Comment