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  

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 the Dewey Decimal System

Jeanette Winterson, in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (which is, in some ways, a retelling of her 1990 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) remembers a librarian she was fond of while coming of age in the south of the north of England in the 1970s:

The librarian was explaining the benefits of the Dewey decimal system to her junior – benefits that extended to every area of life. It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.

“Whenever I am troubled,” said the librarian, “I think about the Dewey decimal system.”

“Then what happens?” asked the junior, rather overawed.

“Then I understand that trouble is just something that has been filed in the wrong place.”

And later:

“Who was Gertrude Stein?”

“A modernist. She wrote without regard to meaning.”

“Is that why she is under Humour, like Spike Milligan?”

“Within the Dewey decimal system there is a certain amount of discretion.”

From Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (published 2011).

Published in: on April 8, 2013 at 8:51 am  Comments (1)  
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No Trust

Norman Levine, describing Sundays at a Northern Ontario mining camp in the 1950s:

Sunday was just another day. Those who didn’t work on the day shift had chicken for lunch. There was little talk. No hypocrisy. And there was no trust. Everyone locked his door.

From Canada Made Me, by Norman Levine (published 1958)

Published in: on October 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

On the Ruination of Friendships

Writing about Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and how it’s the little things that ruin a friendship.

Whenever I would think of these two men who had been my friends, I would find myself growing fascinated at the way little details, little vanities, little slights, shape all our relationships. It is these little things, not clashes over great principles, that turn people against each other.

From That Summer in Paris, by Moreley Callaghan (published 1963).

Published in: on November 6, 2010 at 11:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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