For fiction, this past year I noted an initiative in Spain, where Zenda and XLSemanal asked their readers which books should make a perfect library. The final list of 101 book, la biblioteca perfecta, can be consulted here. There were several books in that perfect library I have not heard of, so I took note.
This coming year, however, I plan not only to follow the reading recommendations and read what everyone else is reading, but diversify my reading habits.
I first heard the notion of diversified reading from a young colleague of mine, a prolific reader. She keeps tracks of the books she reads and sets herself reading targets, including diversity. For example, she tries to read as many books by male authors as by female, to respect a balance between European and non-European authors, to read both in French and in English, etc.
We are living in the era of powerful recommender systems and optimised search engines, which result in echo chambers and rabbit holes. That is why this year, I would deliberately seek to diversify my reading, and encourage you to do the same.
Obviously, for language freaks like myself, reading in different languages is one of the ways to go.
Last year, my focus was on Italian. Accordingly, one quarter of the fiction I read was in this language, with balanced distribution across centuries: Dante and Bocaccio, Italo Calvino and Luigi Pirandelli, Elena Ferrante and Antonia Arslan.
This year, I will focus on books in German, in particular, on contemporary fiction, as I know next to nothing about this period’s writers.
Unlike in 2019, when I had not planned my language learning ahead, in 2020, prompted by the first lock-down, I actually sat down and thought deeply about my language focus for the rest of the year.
I decided that three priorities would be more than enough: improving English, improving Italian, and learning Estonian.
These three languages were in focus in 2020, although I used more throughout the year. In fact, every day I use at least three languages, but the average is five.
So, how well did I do in 2020? Let’s look first at my three priorities.
I set myself tree goals: to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve these goals, I intended to learn idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs, to do pronunciation exercises, and to shadow native English speakers.
I managed to work only on the vocabulary, focusing in idioms, and learned plenty: colour idioms, food idioms, nature idioms, you name it. Although I still feel that improving my English is an uphill battle, sometime in September I caught myself using in professional setting the idiomatic expressions that I had learned. For example, I would write that a proposal was not ‘set in stone’, that two partners were working ‘hand in glove’, or that we needed to ‘keep the show on the road’. I was pleased like a cat that ate the cream.
Lesson learned from this experience: have fewer goals for English. In fact, with English, one goal at a time would be enough.
Estonian was the second focus of 2020, and I am pleased with my progress. I finished my 1980s Estonian manual, followed all 30 episodes of the first series of a radio programmeКак это по-эстонски? (‘How do you say it in Estonian?’), writing down all grammar rules and examples, and finished 13 out of 16 lessons of the free online course Keeleklikk for beginners. I have followed some Estonians on Twitter, managing to understand some tweets about current Estonian politics, and learned some useful words, such as valitsus ‘government’.
Back in June, I decided that 2020 would be an Italian year, and set myself three lofty goals.
First, learning Italian poems by heart. Total failure: I learned only one poem in the whole year, albeit a wonderful one, Meriggiare by Eugenio Montale.
Second, covering my gaps in grammar and vocabulary. 50/50: I learned quite a few idioms and wrote down expressions and idioms from the books I was reading.
Third, reading in Italian for pleasure. Bravissima: I read 12 Italian books, including BoccaccioDecameron, DanteInferno, Italo CalvinoI nostri antenati, and all four volumes of Amica geniale (Neapolitan novels) by ElenaFerrante.
I had a plan to revise some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar over summer, but did not do it. My spoken Italian is grammatically sound, hence, given traveling to Italy was out of question this year, I decided I would rather read books than revise subjunctive.
This year, I read my way through books 4 to 6 of Plato Republic. I read several sections each Saturday morning from January through June, then took a summer break, and resumed my reading in November, reading both on Saturdays and on Sundays. I finished the last chapters of book 6 by reading every day over the Christmas break.
In spring, I read one of the earliest accounts of an epidemic, namely chapters 2.47–2.54 of ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian Warwhere he described the Plague of Athens, which devastated the city in the 5th century BC.
For 2021, my plan is to finish the remaining four books of the Republic, and move on to my beloved and difficult Thucydides after that.
My interest for German spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis rather well and German epidemiologists were a good source of reliable information. I followed some of them on Twitter, listened to several Angela Merkel speeches, and read some articles. I also decided that improving German would be my priority in 2021.
I use French at work daily, and read some work-related stuff. I also followed French news and learned a couple of useful idiomatic expressions from my French colleagues.
I have not read a single book, but I followed the news, and spoke weekly with friends and acquaintances. This year, some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I had were in Latvian.
I read some twenty books by the 19th, 20th, and 21st century writers, ranging from Lev Tolstoi and Mikhail Lermontov to Dina Rubina and Narine Abgaryan.
I read one book in Spanish at the beginning of the year, and many articles. After that, I followed some Spanish speakers on Twitter, and read an occasional article. I made several trips to Spain before the pandemics, when I managed to speak in Spanish in professional context.
Throughout the year, I followed with delight all news related to a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo, whose book El infinito en el junco (‘Infinity in a reed’), about the invention of books in the ancient world, has been voted the Spanish book of the year 2020. Published in September 2019, the book is a bestseller: 26 editions, over 150 000 copies sold, multiple national awards, raving reviews, and translations rights to some 30 languages. I am a fan, and cannot wait to see how the world discovers this thoughtful and delicate writer.
In Spain, the book has been considered an antidote to the pandemics, as many readers reported the book gave them consolation in the times of darkness.
This year, I read fifty books in total, in English, Russian, Italian, Ancient Greek, and Spanish, and for me, too, reading was a star of light in the dark.
I have always enjoyed reading long books, especially long novels. In my youth, my favourite novel was War and Peace, which I reread in Russian at least three times. Last year, the book I liked most was a 1575 pages novel in German. This year, a tetralogy in Italian.
Some of these books are difficult to read, either because of a complex subject matter, or of the language I do not master, or an older variety of a familiar language. Plato in Ancient Greek. Don Quixote in Spanish. Dante in Italian.
Still, if I want to read them, I plough on. Over the years, I developed a method of reading long and linguistically complicated texts, based on three principles.
First, as they say it in Latin, nulla dies sine linea, ‘not a day without a line’. To keep the momentum going yet not to get overwhelmed, I read a portion of text, be it a page, a chapter, or a section, every day, often, at a dedicated time in the day.
The daily lesson can vary in length, but it should be short enough not to tire me out.
Thus, I read Boccaccio’s Decameron over three months this summer, every morning going through three or four stories. Now, I am reading Dante’s Inferno, one canto every evening.
Second, I read every daily portion at least twice.
I first learned this principle many years ago, from a book on language learning by Kató Lomb, an accomplished Hungarian polyglot of the 20th century, who relied on reading as her main language learning method.
I adopted this principle of reading every passage multiple times, and have been using it ever since.
First time, I read to get the gist of what is going on. It is often surprising how much one can gather, guess, and deduce from the context. Second time, I read to understand what I have not understood the first time, sometimes looking up words in a dictionary or pieces of grammar in a manual. I might reread some passages the third time, if I did not get a critical aspect, or if I like a particular turn of phrase and would like to learn it.
Third, I do not really bother about unfamiliar words. At first, I skip them, and look them up only if I miss the meaning. Only when a word pops up repeatedly, and its precise understanding is critical, I will learn it by heart.
For example, in Decameron, I could easily guess the meaning of ‘cagione’ (an archaic variation of ‘occasione’), but really needed to know the precise meaning of ‘vago’ (the women are often referred to as ‘vaghe donne’), as the word has multiple interpretations.
I borrowed this approach from a report I read somewhere, on Anna Akhmatova, a famous Russian poet, learning English in mature age to read Shakespeare in the original. Allegedly, every time she consulted an unfamiliar word in a dictionary, she would put a dot next to it. Once a word had more than seven dots, she would learn it by heart.
I do not remember when I read this report neither whether it is authentic. Still, this vocabulary learning method works well for me.
After the enchanted summer parenthesis, which included September and October and when I read, saw friends, and swam in the sea, it is time to face the reality. The second corona wave, tragic events in many countries, and twilight of democracy all over, with a feeling that digital technology not only does not help us to combat the virus and protect the most vulnerable, but often serves the opposite goal, helping to exacerbate inequalities and foster division and violence.
I have been reading the volume of short sotires Tutte le cosmicosmiche (“Cosmicosmics”) by Italo Calvino, written in the 1960s. It assembles his modern cosmogonies, some funny, others dystopian.
In one of them, the protagonist Qfwfq and his female friend are kidnapped by a bandit Bm Bn amidst a major cosmic change, which will destroy most of their world.
Suddenly, in the last moment of calm before the storm, a scientist enters the scene. He introduces himself as an Inspector of High and Low Tides and explains that, according to his calculations, only their islet is going to survive. The protagonist wants to share this piece of information with everybody else, but is brutally interrupted by the bandit, who wants to be the only one to profit.
When Qfwfq seeks solidarity from the Inspector, the Inspector replies that he is ‘a technician’ and hence would put his knowledge at the disposal of whoever is ‘in command’.
Io sono un tecnico. Se qui, come mi pare d’aver capito, è il signore ad avere il commando, – e fece un cenno di capo verso Bm Bn, – è alla sua attenzione che vorrei sottoporre i risultati dei miei calcoli.
Dangerous words, dangerous attitude, alas also typical for our own times.
Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.
For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.
Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.
So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.
Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.
I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.
Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.
Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.
Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.
I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!
Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.
El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.
This May has been a busy month at work. In particular, it involved lots of writing: proposals, technical reports, and similar soulless documents.
Writing in English did not come easily to me, but after years of toiling and moiling, I began to enjoy it. I am not the smoothest writer, neither the most creative, nor the one with a flawless English prose. But I have developed some shortcuts that serve me well.
At work, when something needs to be written, I can sit down, focus, and just write it, claiming proudly better done than perfect. The expression big fish in a small pond truly applies to my English writing abilities, although I prefer a colourful Russian saying на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘when there is no fish, a crayfish would do’), roughly equivalent to better a small fish than an empty dish.
This is to say that after writing for a whole day at work, I did not have any bandwidth to write anything else after work, hence this hiatus.
Now I am back. Given that the focus of the month was English, I share three English-related discoveries I made recently.
The second is also related to English etymology. It’s a website called World Wide Words, dedicated to ‘peculiarities and evolution of English language’. The website is not being updated any longer, but nearly 3000 published articles will keep the reader busy for a while!
The third discovery is an article on Farnam Street blog, about the difference between two words often treated as synonyms, although they differ in meaning, to convince and to persuade: the first applies to reason, the second to emotions.
This one will be helpful next time I have to write something where I both would need to convince and persuade.
I have written before about one of my favourite Latvian poets, Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a poet of the city, of whimsical metaphors, and exuberant imagination.
When I was looking for English translations of Čaks to introduce his poetry to my friends, I came across a slim volume published in 1979, translated by a certain Ruth Speirs. Her translations were so wonderful, so faithful to the original yet enjoyable in their own right, that I wanted to find more about the translator.
I did some research then, and have resumed my search now. Now as then, not much information was available.
A page at the Latvian literature portals gives several spellings of her name (in Latvian, foreign names are phoneticized) – Ruth Speirs, aka Ruta Spīrsa, Ruta Speire, born Ruta Tīfentāle. She was born in 1913 or 1916 in Jelgava, a town in Latvia. The portal mentions she had studied English at the English Language Institute in Riga, married an English professor, and left with him for Cairo in 1939.
she … married the medieval historian John Speirs, spent the Second World War in Cairo – where she knew Bernard Spencer, Lawrence Durrell and other writers associated with the journal Personal Landscape, in which her Rilke translations first began to appear – and died in Highgate in 2000. Her papers were left to the University of Reading.
The University of Reading archive mentions Ruth Speirs Collection, and gives some additional biographical details:
After the war John Speirs returned to England with his wife to live in London and work in the University of Exeter. Ruth continued to publish translations of poetry from both German and Latvian. After John died in 1979 she had some financial difficulties but continued to find enough work to live on. Ruth Speirs died in 2000.
The Reading collection includes her letters, lists of her translations, and books with her work.
As she translated from both German and Latvian, I would assume that Latvian was her mother tongue. She was probably familiar with German from early days, as it was often the case in the early 20th century Latvia. What surprises me is her mastery of English, the language she learned relatively late yet in which she spent most of her life, first in Egypt, then in Britain. English is the target language of her translations, which have been praised “of the most supple, patient, responsive and exact versions” of the original.
Finding out more about this extraordinary person is the project I would like to embark upon once we can travel again.
Meanwhile, enjoy one of the Čaks’ poems in Ruth Speirs’ English translation, and in the Latvian original.
I published a beautiful book
and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
Did I plunge into grief?
I published another,
written with fervour –
helping one’s neighbour,
the grandeur of culture,
and the future of man.
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop’s windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
When I entered the shop
and asked for my book
which I wrote with such fervour,
the salesgirl, fragrant
like a noble cigar
and with gentle madonna-like features,
“Mister, this isn’t a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals.”
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
pulled off my boots and threw them out of the window,
and sold my coat to the landlady
in lieu of rent for my room,
and sat down
started to write:
for men who rob the exchequer,
couples living in sin,
students who fail their exams,
drivers of cars,
and people awkward at dancing.”
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.
And when it was published
proclaimed its title
to all the nation.
Side by side
with world-famous Dunlop tyres,
exciting Houbigant powder
and Chlorodont toothpaste,
in every corner and hoarding,
in every showcase,
there loomed before you
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.
The publisher’s agents
promoting my book
Seeing my picture,
idlers and schoolboys
wondered: “Is he a yogi,
has he broken all hunger-strike records,
is he wanted for murder,
or is he a boxer, a Japanese
who’ll be fighting Jack Dempsey?”
While all the girls sighed:
“He is the saviour, ah, of our souls!”
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name. Trīs grāmatas
bet visi veikali
no manas grāmatas.
Bet vai es noskumu?
Izdevu otru es
un viņas kultūras cēlumu.
es meklēju viņu
starp romāniem brīnišķos sējumos,
un kinoskaistulēm liesām,
Un, kad es,
savu grāmatu kvēlo,
kā pirmšķirīgs cigārs
ar maigu madonnas sejiņu
— Kungs, te nav patversme
vai kustoņu glābšanas biedrība. —
šinī miglainā rudeņa vakarā,
kad zem liepām uz bulvāriem
smaršoja tikai vairs
un auto drāzās no tumsas
ar divām kaistošām saulēm sev priekšā,
norāvu zābakus, izsviezdams viņus pa logu,
pārdevu saimniecei mēteli
par savu istabu,
valsts kases apzadzējiem,
auto šoferiem un
Divdesmit grāmatu magnāti
kāvās ap viņu
kā ap valsts pabalstu.
Un, kad šī grāmata iznāca,
manas grāmatas vārdu.
slavenām Dunlopa riepām,
un Hubigan brīnišķiem pūderiem
no visiem stūriem,
stabiem un vitrīnām
jums mana seja,
šaura un liesa
pēc bezmiega naktīm
un pusdienām, ēstām tik sapņos.
pieņemtie aģenti — kliedzēji
— Lai dzīvo! —
Klaidoņi, skolnieki prātoja,
skatoties ģīmetnē svešā:
— Vai tas kāds jogs,
jauna badošanās ilguma rekordists,
varbūt bokseris japānis,
nākošais Dempseja pretinieks,
vai arī nenoķerts slepkava? —
— Ak, mūsu dvēseļu glābējs! —
no visu sliktākās tabakas
ar manu vārdu
savus labākos cigārus.
In the early 2000s, I participated in the International Poetry Club. We would meet every couple of months in someone’s house, share food, and recite poetry in different languages. Each session had a topic, and each of us would present a poem related to that topic, in the original and in English translation.
Several times I presented poems by Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950), a famous Latvian poet.
His poetry is a mixture of modernism, futurism, and absurdism, but above all, he is an urbanist. Whereas most of his contemporaries were singing the beauty of Latvian countryside, he was singing the hustle and bustle of a city. More precisely, the city, his Riga, where now a central street, always busy and at places seedy, bears his name.
Čaks is one of my favourite poets. I like his humour, his extravagant comparisons and unusual metaphors, unexpected, even absurd turns and twists.
This poem is entitled Slikti, meaning ‘Too bad’, a title rather appropriate for the current situation.
I, Latvian poet
What shall I sing about?
Is dry and thin
Like worn out leather
of an armchair.
Were I a black poet,
I would sing songs
Dark and warm,
Like nights in July,
Without stars and wind,
Would sing songs
About flesh of girls,
Brown and strong like the earth,
Would sing songs
About freedom far away,
Like clouds in the air,
Were I a black poet.
Now we have
who paint their tiny lips like cloth,
We walk on them
Quietly like cats,
And die quietly.
es, latviešu dzejnieks,–
par ko lai es dziedu?
sausa un plāna
kā izkopta āda
Būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks,
kas tumšas un siltas
kā jūlija naktis
bez zvaigznēm un vēja,
par jaunavu miesu —
brūno un stingro kā zemi,
par brīvību tālo,
kā mākoņi gaisos —
būtu es nēģeru dzejnieks.
kas lūpiņas krāso kā drēbi,
ar kurām mēs ejam
klusi kā kaķi,
un nomirstam klusi.
A new post under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.
This passage comes from a book Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, into the Portuguese-Jewish family that settled in the city fleeing the Inquisition. He received traditional Jewish schooling in Hebrew, but his interest in science and philosophy propelled him to learn Latin, in which he later wrote his major works.
Never mind how welcoming Amsterdam was, one cannot imagine Spinoza’s young life without the shadow of exile. The language was a daily reminder. Spinoza learned Dutch and Hebrew, and later Latin, but he spoke Portuguese at home, and either Portuguese or Castilian Spanish at school. His father always spoke Portuguese at work and home. All transactions were recorded in Portuguese, Dutch was used only to deal with Dutch customers. Spinoza’s mother never learned Dutch. Spinoza would lament that his mastery of Dutch and Latin never equalled that of Portuguese and Castilian. “I really wish I could write to you in the language in which I was brought up,” he wrote to one of his correspondents.
Operating in multiple languages, using different languages for different purposes, and working in a language that one knows well enough to appreciate its beauty and power but not well enough to achieve them — I can certainly relate to this.
Confinement, lockdown, quarantine, clausura, карантин, couvre-feu. Our everyday vocabulary has been filled with these forgotten, military words.
I have just finished my third week of confinement, with restricted freedom of movement and quite a few big and little inconveniences. Still, I believe that when confinement conditions are not dangerous nor inhuman, the difficulties of dealing with confinement are greatly exaggerated.
I was pondering the issue when reading La storia del nuovo cognome, the second volume of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.
Elena, now a student in Pisa, describes how she wrote her first book. One morning, she bought a grid notebook and began writing down what had happened to her the previous summer, and kept writing for twenty days, not seeing anyone, only going out to get something to eat:
Una mattina comprai un quaderno a quadretti e cominciai a scrivere in terza persona di ciò mi era successo ….
Impiegai venti giorni a scrivere quella storia, un lasso di tempo in cui non vidi nessuno, uscivo solo per andare a mangiare. Alla fine rilessi qualche pagina, non mi piacque e lasciai perdere.
Writers, scientists, and creatives have lived periods of self-imposed isolation, and so have monks, astronauts, and submarine crew, to name but a few. Whether voluntary or compulsory, people are able to live confined for extended periods of time, and often even profit from it.
I myself spent several weeks in splendid isolation during the final stages of my PhD thesis, and three months of going out only the strict minimum during the long, hot, and humid Japanese summer. Yes, it was inconvenient, but it was not particularly difficult.
Today’s situation is different.
The real difficulty is not confinement per se. The real difficulty is the uncertainty, the danger, and the battle against the virus.