Books in the time of pandemic

Venezia, Venedig, Venice

The world is fighting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and Europe has become its epicentre.

Intellectually, to make sense of how the disease has been spreading, one needs to understand the mathematical principle of exponential growth.

Psychologically, to cope with this uncertainty, one can read about previous disease epidemics.

Diseases, such as plague and cholera, have been striking humanity since time immemorial, and  are used as background and inspiration of many great books.

Here are my favourites:

El amor en los tiempos del cólera (“Love in the Time of Cholera”) by Gabriel García Márquez, 1985

La Peste (“The Plague”) by Albert Camus, 1947

Пир во время чумы (“A Feast in Time of Plague”) by Alexander Pushkin, 1830

You can read it in Russian here.

The play was written during the first Russian cholera epidemic of 1830. The plot is based on a play “The City of Plague” by a Scottish poet John Wilson, which was inspired by the Great Plague of London (1665 – 1666).

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, 5th century BCE

Chapters 2.47–2.54 describe the Plague of Athens, a severe epidemic that devastated the city in 430 BCE, reemerging twice. This text is one of the earliest accounts of a disease epidemic.

Der Tod in Venedig (“Death in Venice”) by Thomas Mann, 1912

Here is an excerpt from chapter 5, describing the arrival of cholera in the city. The rumours, the denial by the authorities, then first visible signs, and suddenly it is everywhere.

Seit mehreren Jahren schon hatte die indische Cholera eine verstärkte Neigung zur Ausbreitung und Wanderung an den Tag gelegt. Erzeugt aus den warmen Morästen des Ganges-Deltas, aufgestiegen mit dem mephitischen Odem jener üppig-untauglichen, von Menschen gemiedenen Urwelt-und Inselwildnis, in deren Bambusdickichten der Tiger kauert, hatte die Seuche in ganz Hindustan andauernd und ungewöhnlich heftig gewütet, hatte östlich nach China, westlich nach Afghanistan und Persien übergegriffen und, den Hauptstraßen des Karawanenverkehrs folgend, ihre Schrecken bis Astrachan, ja selbst bis Moskau getragen.

Aber während Europa zitterte, das Gespenst möchte von dort aus und zu Lande seinen Einzug halten, war es, von syrischen Kauffahrern übers Meer verschleppt, fast gleichzeitig in mehreren Mittelmeerhäfen aufgetaucht, hatte in Toulon und Malaga sein Haupt erhoben, in Palermo und Neapel mehrfach seine Maske gezeigt und schien aus ganz Calabrien und Apulien nicht mehr weichen zu wollen.

Der Norden der Halbinsel war verschont geblieben. Jedoch Mitte Mai dieses Jahres fand man zu Venedig an ein und demselben Tage die furchtbaren Vibrionen in den ausgemergelten, schwärzlichen Leichnamen eines Schifferknechtes und einer Grünwarenhändlerin. Die Fälle wurden verheimlicht. Aber nach einer Woche waren es deren zehn, waren es zwanzig, dreißig und zwar in verschiedenen Quartieren.

Ein Mann aus der österreichischen Provinz, der sich zu seinem Vergnügen einige Tage in Venedig aufgehalten, starb, in sein Heimatstädtchen zurückgekehrt, unter unzweideutigen Anzeichen, und so kam es, daß die ersten Gerüchte von der Heimsuchung der Lagunenstadt in deutsche Tagesblätter gelangten.

Venedigs Obrigkeit ließ antworten, daß die Gesundheitsverhältnisse der Stadt nie besser gewesen seien und traf die notwendigsten Maßregeln zur Bekämpfung.

You can read the book in German on the Project Gutenberg website.

There is also a great film  Morte a Venezia by Luchino Visconti, made in 1971, which captures admirably well the atmosphere when everything still seems normal yet is no longer.

Ferrantomania and language

Latin, Italian

Ferrantomania, or Ferrante fever. After several years wondering what was this fuss about, I have at last caught the Ferrantomania bug.

I picked the first volume on a business trip to Brussels last November. Going back to the train station, I entered a bookshop to get something to read on my way back, and was delighted to discover a foreign language section.

L’amica geniale was there, and I bought it thinking that at least I should give it a try. But I did not read it until this January, when I decided to brush up my Italian in anticipation of two trips to Italy.

My Ferrante fever symptoms were the same as described by millions of readers worldwide: you buy this Ferrante book because you have heard that you should definitely read it. You read a couple of pages, and when you finally put the book down, it is after midnight, the book is over, and you desperately want to read the other three titles of the “Neapolitan Novels”.

When I started the first volume, I was not aware that language plays such a crucial role in the story. Much has been written about the use of Neapolitan dialect in the book, about sociolinguistic mechanisms, and about some enigmatic language-related metaphors, such as ‘il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade’ (‘Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad’).

Not only languages, but Classical languages specifically, play such a crucial role in the story. Thanks to private Latin lessons, Lena is able to continue her education; then, Latin and Greek (and their teachers) become her favourites, and eventually she goes on to study them at university.

A passage in the first volume struck me.

Elena is struggling with her Latin, and when she tells Lila (who has stopped the school because her parents could not afford it), Lila recommends the change of approach:

“Leggiti prima la frase in latino, poi va’ a vedere dov’è  il verbo. A seconda della persona del verbo capisci qual è il soggetto. Una volta che hai il soggetto ti cerchi i complementi: il complemento oggetto se il verbo è transitivo, o se no altri complementi. Prova così.”

Provai. Tradurre all’improvviso mi sembrò facile.

In language learning, we have moments when suddenly something clicks and we finally get it. I have experienced it myself multiple times, and now I am really looking forward to reading about Lena’s linguistic (and other) discoveries.

Last week, I went to the local library knowing that it held the entire trilogy, and indeed, volumes 1,3, and 4 were there. The volume 2, exactly the one I was eager to read, was on loan. I made a recall and am impatiently waiting for the book to become available.

Like a fish in water

happy as a fish in venice

Today’s post is inspired by a recent trip to Venice. A famous book Venezia è un pesce (‘Venice is a fish’) by Tiziano Scarpra compares the city to a fish, and recommends getting lost to fully enjoy it.

I did not manage to read the book before my trip, but I did manage to get lost immediately on arrival. Then, my phone kept shutting down, and a colleague mentioned he almost fell off to the water thanks to his phone recommendations. So, I ignored the phone and the map and walked, feeling, like in a French expression, comme un poisson dans l’eau, and thinking about its equivalents in different languages.

In English, an expression to be like a fish in water can be used, but its opposite, to be like a fish out of water, is more common.

In Italian, you can use both:  sentirsi come un pesce nell’acqua and its opposite come un pesce fuor d’acqua.

The same goes for Spanish: sentirse como pez en el agua and como pez fuera del agua.

In German, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser. You can also be jolly, fit, healthy, etc munter / fit / gesund sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser.  To express the opposite, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch auf dem Trockenen.

Back to French. One also uses an expression heureux comme un poisson dans l’eau, which is similar to the English happy as a clam (at high tide).

Although an expression comme un poisson hors de l’eau exists, it is not that common. One would rather say ne pas être dans son élément or ne pas être dans son assiette.

In Russian, one says быть /  чувствовать себя как рыба в воде, but to express the opposite, one uses an expression быть не в своей тарелке,  ‘not to be in one’s plate’, borrowed from the French ne pas être dans son assiette.

The history of the borrowing is funny. The French assiette, from the verb asseoir, ‘to sit’, used to have several meanings, including ‘position’, for example on a horse, and ‘place’, for example at the table. Somewhere and somehow, the two meanings got confused by translating into Russian.

Year in Languages 2019

languages remind me…

The name 19 languages reflects my desire to learn 19 languages, to various degrees of mastery.

These languages (4 of which I have not even begun to learn) fall into three groups, plus three special cases. Of the languages I have studied, group alpha includes English, French, German, Italian, Latvian, Spanish, and Russian; group beta includes Czech and Modern Greek; group gamma includes Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, and Japanese; the special cases are Ancient Greek, Latin, and the programming language python.

I did not do any formal planning for 2019. I had one clear priority — improving my Spanish, and followed three established traditions — listening to podcasts on commute, reading German during summer vacation, and reading Ancient Greek on weekends.

The biggest change that occurred this year was discovering excellent blogs about language learning, and reading extensively on language learning methodology — something that I had not done for years. I will write about my favourite resources this year.

So, how did I do in 2019?


Group alpha.

English. English is my de facto work and communication language. I read and write in English daily, and write out useful expressions periodically. I reached a plateau many years ago and know my weak spots (intonation, colloquial expressions, and verbal phrases). I thought extensively about my weaknesses, but did not find a suitable way to  address them, yet.

French. I live in France and work in a predominantly French environment, thus have plenty of contact with the language. I read (rather skimmed) only 1 book, and started the second, but found it boring and pretentious.

Spanish. Improving my active Spanish was my priority number one this year. I read 11 books and multiple articles, listened to podcasts on commute and while travelling, albeit not regularly, listened to TED talks, watched parts of a TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, have been following Real Academia Española and several Spanish writers on social media, wrote out vocabulary lists, and did grammar exercises. I also went to Spain five times in 2019.

My biggest issue is still not resolved, though. I do speak Spanish; when in Spain, I always speak Spanish in shops, hotels, restaurants, museums, and public transport. I have friends with whom I have always spoken exclusively in Spanish. Yet,  I find it hard to start speaking in Spanish in professional settings with people who speak excellent English.

German: I read 5 books, including one with 1275 pages. This book is called Das achte Leben (Für Brilka) (The Eighth Life, for Brilka) and is written by Nino Haratischwili, who lives in Germany and writes in German, but is originally from Georgia. It was this Georgian connection that attracted me to this epic tale in the first instance, and it took me 10 months to read it.

Russian: I read 2 books, and numerous magazines.

Italian: I spoke in Italian on numerous occasions with colleagues and acquaintances, and realised it was getting rusty, and was beginning to suffer from Spanish interference — an issue to address.

Latvian. I read many magazines and only one book, but what a book! It is a Latvian translation of a book by Kató Lomb, a 20th century Hungarian polyglot and my youth hero. The original Hungarian title is Nyelvekről jut eszembe, meaning “Languages remind me ..”; the Latvian translation is titled Par valodām man nāk prātā. The book is about language learning, what else.


Group beta.

The only two things I did with my Czech and Modern Greek (both of which I could read, speak, and understand in the past), is to look up several idiomatic expressions that I knew in all my group alpha languages, such as prince charming. Plenty of room for improvement for 2020.


Group gamma.

I did not do anything with my Japanese and Hungarian (both at beginners level, with lots of things entirely forgotten), but I started two new languages.

Estonian. I started learning Estonian in anticipation to my travel to Tallinn and Tartu, where I have not been since the 1990s, and really enjoyed the process. I did 7 lessons of an old manual from the 1980s, which I happen to have at home and which turned out to have excellent methodology, and followed several online lessons, to get the pronunciation right. I also found plenty of online resources.

Georgian. Partly motivated by 1275 my page-long German book, which recounts a story of a Georgian family, partly by my visit to Estonia, where I ate amazing Georgian food, I decided to learn Georgian.  I learned 1/3 of an alphabet and did 5 online lessons. I can now read and write some words, including lobio, Georgian black beans stew, which I also learned to cook.


Special cases.

Ancient Greek. I am pleased with my progress. This year, I read the first three books of Plato‘s Republic, thanks to three factors: Plato is easy to read; the content is topical; and I mostly stick to my reading schedule, as it is in my calendar.

Latin. Encouraged by my Ancient Greek readings, I decided to brush up my Latin. I chose Seneca, largely because his thinking had suddenly become influential, yet, I could not recall him as inspirational from the university. I managed to read some 17 letters before summer vacation, then stopped. Just like at university, I still find Seneca boring, repetitive, and moralistic. Since my Latin is rustier than my Ancient Greek, and I was putting a lot of efforts to this reading, the motivation to stay with Seneca was none. I have to find a text that I would enjoy, but which is easier to read than my beloved Tacitus.

Python. I tend to joke that compared to python, Plato is easy. I started an online course, stopped, resumed, finished it, took a break, started another course and am halfway through.

The main challenge with learning python is the same as with learning a new language versus maintaining a language you already know. Once you have reached a certain level, you can take breaks, do low key maintenance, and have zero contact with the language for long periods of time (my experience with Italian). But while you are learning a new language, regularity is key. You need to do something every day, lest you forget.

That’s it, my language year 2019 in review.