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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.