Was I a Spy?
I read Sheila Fitzpatrick’s article on her time in Moscow with interest, having been on the British Council 20/20 exchange the previous year, 1965-66 (LRB, 2 December). At that time I was in the second year of my PhD in the Department of Metallurgy at Liverpool University, working on the strength of steel, a topic on which the Soviets had been doing outstanding research for several decades. A place was arranged for me at the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute. The only advice I remember receiving from the British Council was that the best Armenian brandy could be bought with pounds sterling at the Astoria Hotel.
My first roommate was Russian, from the Kuban, and a Party member, which may not have been coincidental. We got on well. In the lab where I worked there were PhD students from various parts of the Soviet Union; the lecturers continually passed through, final year students were doing their projects; the technicians were very helpful, and also told me a great deal about their lives in the Second World War, particularly during the Siege of Leningrad. When I first went to the basement where the heavy work, like swaging, was done, the technicians naturally asked me where I was from: when I told them Liverpool, their eyes lit up: they had been sailors, and not only had they been to Liverpool, they had been to Anfield and followed English football.
The hostel in which I lived was quite close to the institute: there were students from all over the Soviet Union and the East European countries, many African countries, English and French, the Middle East, Cuba and Vietnam; no Chinese in 1965. The office which dealt with foreign students was always very polite and helpful. The director was a tennis player of some repute, and liked to talk about sport, particularly as the World Cup approached. When I requested permission to travel I was always given it without any delay or bother: a day trip to Novgorod; to Moscow for Christmas and New Year at the invitation of the Embassy; a visit to Tallinn to stay with an Estonian student; a three-week trip by rail round the Caucasus.
In the municipal library on the Nevsky, there was a display of the books of Patrick White. Leningrad was very different from Moscow, much freer, with no Kremlin hanging over it: the theatre, art and music were the things that seemed important.
Charles Coutinho coyly suggests that ‘Richard J. Evans’s less than entirely positive review of Timothy Snyder’s book may or may not have been influenced by Snyder’s own less than positive review of Evans’s latest book in the New York Review of Books’ (Letters, 2 December). Evans gallantly concedes the point. But surely the real issue is quite distinct: a matter of generations. Politically there is not much distance between Evans (left or new left as the case may be) and Snyder (transatlantic centre-left). There is, though, an enormous generational difference: Evans belongs to the British New Left generation, he grew up under the shadow of E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and later of the German Sonderweg debate. Snyder grew up instead under the shadow of the Historikerstreit, the end of Communism and the fallout of post-Communism. This explains much of the animosity of the discussion.
Università del Piemonte Orientale, Alessandria, Italy
Incontrovertibly one or the other
Charles Nicholl quotes a passage from Theobald’s Double Falsehood which he thinks that ‘even the doughtiest sceptic has to confess sounds incontrovertibly Shakespearean’ (LRB, 2 December):
What you can say is most unseasonable; what sing,
Most absonant and harsh. Nay, your perfume,
Which I smell hither, cheers not my sense
Like our field-violet’s breath.
Nicholl notes the echo of The Winter’s Tale in ‘our field-violet’ (from Perdita’s description of ‘our carnations and streak’d gillyvors’), and comments on ‘the lilting rhythm running on through the line-breaks’. Quite so, but that effect imitates a passage some 50 lines later in the same scene, in Florizel’s admiring words to her:
What you do,
Still betters what is done. When you speake (Sweet)
I’ld have you do it ever: when you sing,
I’ld have you buy, and sell so: so give Almes,
Pray so: and for the ord’ring your Affayres,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’th’Sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that: move still, still so:
And owne no other Function.
Shakespeare, having created the lilt, sustains it far better than Theobald did.
As for Theobald’s ‘absonant’, which Nicholl hails for ‘its hard neologistic consonants’, the OED records several 16th and 17th-century instances of it and its variant ‘absonous’ (and even ‘absonism’ in Nashe). It’s just the kind of word that someone seeking to give a patina of age to a modern pastiche would seek out. I’m afraid that claims for Shakespeare’s hand being visible anywhere in Theobald’s concoction are as unlikely as ever.
Note to Will Self: ‘brodie’ is not James Ellroy’s coinage (LRB, 2 December). Everyone in 1950s Southern California car culture knew the term. My 1939 Dodge had a ‘brodie knob’ on the steering wheel so that you could spin the car with the left hand, while your right hand was, you hoped, around the shoulder of your date, sitting close by in the era before bucket seats.
What to say of the newly-weds
The ‘arrow-shower’ of married couples in Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (‘Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain’) comes as a bit of a feudal surprise in that poem, but does feel at home next to ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which closes the collection and describes the portrayal of love on the sepulchre of a medieval earl and countess. In these poems love and marriage are hidden over horizons of space and time, not from everyone but certainly from the poet. Malcolm Andrews’s idea that the ‘arrow shower’ represents a ‘failure of aims’ – ‘the guided impetus of the wedding moments, launching the happy couples, loses direction and purpose, becomes diaspora, and slowly disappears’ – seems wide of the mark (Letters, 18 November). Arrows don’t lose much direction and purpose in flight, and they don’t slowly disappear. Cupid’s missiles may have struck: the point is that Larkin can’t see whether they have or not; it is the couples who are being ‘loosed with all the power/ That being changed can give.’
Exonerated for once
David Bromwich suggests that in his speeches Obama uses the word ‘I’ a little too often (LRB, 18 November). This common charge has been disproved by several careful studies showing that Obama uses ‘I’ no more than most presidents, and markedly less often than his immediate predecessor. The point is in any case dubious; Theodore Roosevelt, who got through his entire Inaugural Address without resorting to the first person singular, was hardly one of our more self-effacing presidents.
It is a pity that Julian Barnes in his piece on the new Penguin edition of Madame Bovary doesn’t mention the excellent translation by Margaret Mauldon (LRB, 18 November). One of its many virtues is that it corrects the misprint all the translations he does mention fail to notice. The first edition of Madame Bovary, published by Lévy, was copied out before publication by a certain Dubois. Anyone who has seen the brouillons in the Bibliothèque Municipale in Rouen knows how hard a job he had. All the same, the first edition, whatever inaccuracies it may have contained, didn’t have the misprint in Part 2, Chapter 14 that crept into later editions and has been preserved in most translations. Emma is at the height of her nervous crisis after the end of the affair with Rodolphe. She calls for communion. She feels something overcoming her. Then comes the misprint. Marx Aveling renders it: ‘Her body, relieved, no longer thought.’ Steegmuller goes for: ‘Her flesh had been relieved of its burdens, even the burden of thought.’ Russell and Wall get it wrong too. In French the misprint reads: ‘Sa chair allégée ne pensait plus.’ A simple error given Flaubert’s atrocious handwriting. It should read: ‘Sa chair allégée ne pesait plus.’ ‘Her lightened flesh no longer had any weight.’ This was pointed out to me as a student in 1979. Lydia Davis, like Mauldon, is one of the few who get it right.
Comanche from Germany
I regret that there was no acknowledgment of Diane Stevenson in my piece on the Western (LRB, 18 November). Diane is my wife, but her ideas about The Searchers weren’t tossed at me in marital conversation: they were presented in research papers at academic conferences. I had never heard of Quanah Parker, the historical Comanche chief of mixed race who was, as she established, the inspiration for the fictional Scar; I’ve never read the captivity narratives she looked into; it was she who made me see the significance of Scar’s blue eyes and the centrality to the whole movie of the theme of miscegenation.
Edward Buscombe writes as if to correct me (Letters, 2 December). Yet what he says lends support to the point that Scar’s blue eyes are intended to signal mixed race. Henry Brandon, as Buscombe mentions, plays Quanah Parker in another Ford Western – which only confirms the link between Quanah Parker and Scar.
Sarah Lawrence College, New York
Another Girl, Another Planet
‘The sick cow lay on the wet grass,’ Matthew Sweeney writes in his poem ‘The Sick Cow’, ‘mooing and mooing, her belly/as big as the smallest moon of Venus’ (LRB, 2 December). Except, Venus has no moon at all. The planets that do have more than two moons are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (which used to be a planet).
The Real Pirates
It’s incorrect to state, as Julie Peters does, that the Pirate Bay was ‘streaming its media’ three days after being shut down (LRB, 4 November). As with all peer-to-peer tracker sites, the Pirate Bay does not host any content itself for downloading or streaming, but merely acts as a nexus for co-ordinating file sharers, allowing users to locate other users who are sharing the files they’re looking for. This is a crucial aspect of the internet piracy issue, as the Pirate Bay (unlike RapidShare, Hotfile, and other hosting sites) doesn’t touch infringing media itself, but only facilitates the sharing of such media. The lightweight nature of these trackers is one of the reasons media companies have felt compelled to seek legal and technical recourse against users themselves, as every user acts as a potential redistribution point for the media. Indeed, even a central tracker such as the Pirate Bay is not necessary for file sharing. The ‘offenders’ are not the websites but the distributed networks of users themselves.
I recently told the following joke to a rather unreceptive audience and was advised that it was ‘more of a London Review of Books sort of joke’. So I humbly offer it to you.
Q: What do you call Santa’s little helpers?
A: Subordinate clauses.