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Thursday: April 30, 2009

Bureaucratic Syntax?

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:46 PM UTC

It should be known that Akaky Akakievich expressed himself mostly with prepositions, adverbs, and finally, such particles as have decidedly no meaning. If the matter was very difficult, he even had the habit of not finishing the phrase at all, so that very often he would begin his speech with the words “That, really, is altogether sort of . . .” after which would come nothing, and he himself would forget it, thinking everything had been said.

A few pages later:

“So it’s that, that’s what it is,” he said to himself, “I really didn’t think it would come out sort of . . .” and then, after some silence, he added, “So that’s how it is! that’s what finally comes out! and I really never would have supposed it would be so.” Following that, a long silence again ensued, after which he said, “So that’s it! Such an, indeed, altogether unexpected, sort of . . . it’s altogether . . . such a circumstance!”

(Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat”, 1842)

I bought the very handsome Everyman Collected Tales, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, last Sunday at Daedalus Books in Maryland, and haven’t had time to read more than the one story. (Grades were due Tuesday, and I have an indexing job to finish by Monday, so I haven’t had much time for anything else.) Here are a few desultory notes, so my April archives won’t be quite so bare:

  1. I’m probably not the first to notice a superficial and (I assume) coincidental resemblance between the anti-hero of “The Overcoat” and Bartleby the Scrivener: they come to rather different ends, but spend their days copying documents and seem to have no other life.
  2. I wonder how many readers will feel compelled to look up the linguistic meaning of ‘particle’, which I have never run across except in scholarly treatments of ancient grammar such as Solodow’s The Latin Particle ‘Quidem’ or Denniston’s magisterial The Greek Particles. (I also sometimes wonder how many casual browsers have thought that the latter was a physics text.)
  3. None of the blogs I read have mentioned that April 1st was Gogol’s 200th birthday. Perhaps I need to read more literary blogs, particularly since politics and economics are none too cheery subjects these days.

Sunday: April 12, 2009

Life in a Small Town

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:15 PM UTC

Most depressing things I’ve seen or heard in the last two weeks:

1. The policeman who pulled me over for speeding last Tuesday asked me about my driving record and I told him, quite truthfully, that I’ve had four moving violations in nearly forty years of driving, the most recent a speeding ticket in another county last August. He said that not having had a ticket for eight whole months made me an excellent driver, and let me go with a warning. Apparently a significant percentage of local drivers get several tickets a year, which explains a lot about my insurance rates. I’ve had one ticket each in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, so I suppose I should be worried that the ’10s will arrive fairly soon.

2. The next evening, one of the actors at the play I was seeing (Comedy of Errors here) asked if that was me he’d seen pulled over by a police car. Thanks for noticing, funny man.

3. A week or so before, a fellow theater-goer asked me about the Loeb Classical Text I was reading at intermission and whether I teach Latin (yes) or Greek (if there’s any demand). We talked about teaching and learning for a good five minutes before realizing that if we were in the same grad department at the same time, we really should know each other. We knew each other’s names, but less than twenty years had changed both our faces beyond recognition.

4. My students sometimes offer unsolicited dating advice, which I can generally squelch by saying that I don’t really think dating advice from teenagers is very helpful to someone my age. Before I could do so last week, one of my 11th-graders offered to set me up on a date . . . with her grandmother. To make it worse, she seems to have been serious, and well-intentioned.