Friday, 30 July 2021

Looking back

It is two years since I left Cambridge. At the time, it wasn't meant to be a definitive farewell. I planned to return to Cambridge in December for Guest Night at college and for my swearing-in as an Emeritus Fellow, and when that didn't happen for a number of reasons, I planned to go to Cambridge in March (2020) for the Charter Dinner, and we know why that didn't happen. Here I am, two years later, and no prospect of going to Cambridge in a foreseeable future. 

Do I miss Cambridge? Yes and no. I miss the community, my friends and colleagues, my students, seminars, college lunches and dinners... and I have to remind myself that none of this has happened in the past year and a half. So what I miss is in the past, not what I am missing now by not being in Cambridge. I know it sounds awful, but, to put it cynically, I haven't missed much. What I valued most in Cambridge has been severely reduced. To put it even more cynically, I am glad I left Cambridge when I did. 

In the first year, I still had some ties with Cambridge, supervising a few PhDs for a miserable remuneration. Online supervisions that were extraordinary in the beginning soon became routine for everyone so I didn't even feel I was particularly isolated. I stayed in touch with some colleagues, but eventually what is going on in my precious baby, my Research Centre, is no longer my concern. I don't know the new cohorts of graduate students, and they don't know me. They are likely to know of me and are probably assigned some of my work, but I am not a person anymore, just a name. And my former students have moved on, have jobs and families, and I see them occasionally on Facebook. Every now and then, Facebook sends me a "memory" of a doctoral defence or a graduation ceremony.

I have been allowed to keep my university email address, and I am still getting messages from various committees that have forgotten to take me off records, and I am getting lovely messages from my college supporting its members in these difficult times. I have participated in a couple of zoominars, but that, too, feels less and less relevant. 

The main reason Cambridge has become a ghost is my firm decision to withdraw from academic life altogether. If I had been still active as a researcher I would have participated in more events, made myself available for supervisions and assessments and at the very least kept track of what is going on in my field in general and in my former research environment in particular. As it is, I have moved on so far away that sometimes I am not even sure that Cambridge has really happened to me, because the person I have become in these two years wouldn't find academic life attractive. I do remember of course that the person I used to be valued her academic career and enjoyed academic life with all its horrors and rewards. But that person is no more. 

Therefore I don't miss Cambridge. 

A Russian emigree was once asked whether they were planning to visit Moscow. The answer was: "I have already been to Moscow". I have already been to Cambridge.  

Homerton college on a rare occasion of snow

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Reflections on learning a language

 If you have followed my blog you know that one of my post-retirement projects was to learn a new language. Believe me or not, I have been so busy in my first eighteen months of retirement that I never got round to language learning and hadn’t even decided which language to learn. I wanted a language that was different from all languages I know so it would be a real challenge, but still manageable. I didn’t want to learn a language to be able to travel and speak it – I just wanted brain gymnastics. The languages I considered were Hebrew, Japanese and Welsh, each with a challenge of its own and each with a special significance and attraction.

I won’t claim that embarking on language studies was a new year resolution, but it felt a good starting point. After further deliberations I chose Welsh, which was perhaps too convenient a choice since at least it uses Latin alphabet (although with several weird digraphs to convey weird sounds). I had previously looked at various learning platforms, assessing their suitability for my purposes. I don’t want live online sessions in a group, and I want to practice when and where I please. I want to keep my own pace. I don’t want to compete with fellow learners, and I don’t want tests and assessments. Somehow, Duolingo popped up in my searches, and I decided to give it a go. After four weeks I am still happy with it. I have read reviews describing Duolingo as a gaming platform, and it is true that you get jewels, crowns and other rewards, and that after each completed lesson a green owl gives you praise for your progress. I ignore these aspects, and they don’t bother me. I have even got used to comments such as “Awesome!” and “Amazing!” after every correct answer.

On the other hand, I have read complaints that the neverending practice of “I don’t want to buy the seven goats and the five ducks” wasn’t useful for an everyday conversation, which is only partially true, because through such practice you will eventually be able to say whatever you want or don’t want to buy, in whatever quantities, at your travel destination. I guess it all depends on your expectations. I don’t intend to become a fluent speaker; as I said, all I want it keep my brain in trim. For this objective, counting goats and ducks is perfect.

What does bother me about my fellow learners, on the rare occasions I visit the discussion forum, is their casual attitude. You can see from forum participants’ profiles what languages they are learning and how far they have proceeded, and I am puzzled to see that lots of people are learning fifteen languages. I know there are linguistic geniuses, but is it indeed just a game: they sign up for a language, do ten lessons and claim that they have mastered another language? Well, it’s their problem.

My problem is not to be tempted by Duolingo’s rewards and stay on the same lesson and practice, practice, practice, until I feel confident and the exercise begins to feel repetitive. Of course as my vocabulary grows and grammar becomes more complicated, I need more and more practice. The algorithm works fine, making me go back and repeat and revise. It keeps track of my previous mistakes and makes me practice correct answers. I am loving it.

So what have I learned in four weeks?

I think the course design is great. It has been a long time since I learned a language from scratch, but I don’t think I had to memorise so many words in each lesson. Yet memorising words isn’t enough, you need to practice using them in grammatically and syntactically correct phrases, and Welsh grammar and syntax is mind-boggling. And the words are mostly unrecognisable, except for obvious borrowings. Eliffant or dolffin or even teigr are easy, but what about buwch, blaidd, cwningen, hwyaden and llygoden? None of the languages I know are of any help. Similarly, while you probably are safe with Ionawr, Ebrill and even Awst, you get lost with Gorffennaf or Rhagfyr.

Pronunciation is deceptive because many letters are pronounced in unpredictable ways, and yes, those digraphs! Although I have realised that the sound learners find the most difficult is similar to my native Russian’s щ, which English and Swedish speakers find completely impossible. And I have no problems rolling my rs.

And yet I probably could make a simple conversation now, introducing myself by saying that I am not a farmer or an electrician, but a female (!) teacher; that I don’t wear winter clothes in summer; that I don’t like ironing, but enjoy walking; that I want carrot/potato/leek/pea soup for lunch, but I don’t eat meat, and I don’t eat sausage either (those small words!); that I like cats and I like dogs too; that I like learning Welsh; that I am tired, good night.

Duolingo uses a computer-generated voice which is wise, but I also listen to other recorded voices to get used to the sounds. I have found a site with children’s audio-books to which I listen, and every now and then I recognise a word. I have learned to sing Old Macdonald had a farm in Welsh. Very good when you are practising animals. I have bought a book titled Teach Your Cat Welsh. How could I resist it? It offers a slightly different vocabulary from Duolingo. I don’t think I would have reached “Don’t scratch” in the near future. I have tried to read a real picturebook, but it felt a bit too advanced so far. But I understand sentence structure and basic grammar even when I don’t know the words. Sometimes it is hard to find a word in a dictionary because consonants mutate in certain positions: un ci, dau gi, tri chi.

Again, I have no memory of when a language I was learning started making sense. One strategy that my Swedish teacher insisted on is starting writing from start. Even if it is just a very short text, like: “Good morning, I am making breakfast, I want bread and cheese and honey, orange juice, coffee and milk. I enjoy walking, and I am wearing a coat, a hat, a scarf and gloves”. I write such silly journal entries every day, trying to use as many words and phrases as possible. I write with ink in a pretty notebook, creating links between brain, eye and hand. Likewise, I talk to myself in Welsh, name objects around me, make small reflections. “I like chocolate, I am eating chocolate”. 

I have learned 230 words most of which I actually remember and can use. I spend about an hour a day practising, including weekends, although I only signed up for 15 minutes. I have no idea how far it will take me. When I one day get to the end of Duolingo’s course I will consider what I want next. Maybe I can sign up for an advanced course. Or maybe I can switch to learning Hebrew.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Re-reading Lord of the Flies


This will be the last book in my 2020 re-reading challenge, and I believe it was the greatest positive surprise. I first read it when I was 20-ish and had never re-read it. A fellow student lent me her paperback that someone else had probably lent her. Remember that in Russia of my youth all foreign books that crossed the Iron Curtain were random. We didn’t know anything about the book or its author. By that time I had heard of, if not read The Lord of the Rings and was struck by the similarity of titles.

For inexplicable reasons this novel has been on school syllabi in many countries for years and years. Inexplicable because although the existential message is transparent, it is, I would claim, of little relevance for young readers, now as much as then. The adventurous plot is slow, and a significant portion of the book is exquisite nature descriptions that, as research shows, young readers skip. I am sure I did, even if at that time I regarded myself a sophisticated reader. If the novel had been subjected to the same kind of adaptation as Robinson Crusoe there wouldn’t be much left. (What most people remember or know by hearsay in Robinson is his encounter with Friday which is a minor episode toward the very end of the book).

I remembered most of the plot, although misremembered some details. For instance in my memory (spoiler!) Piggy was brutally murdered, while it was in fact Simon. I had forgotten the paratrooper. Knowing the plot, what I enjoyed most was the language, these beautiful, poetic, vivid descriptions of the island, the sea, the sky. For their sake, I will probably re-read the book again. And if you decide to re-read it (or read it for the first time – it’s one of those so called classics that people have heard of but never actually read unless they were forced to in school), take your time. You know what happens, but make sure you notice how it happens, how the tiny change in tone is rendered, and of course the elaborate setting that brings you right in the middle of this terrifying paradise.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Re-reading The Pickwick Papers


I chose The Pickwick Papers because I had re-read most other Dickens’s novels in the past fifty years, some quite recently, and Dickens was an important author back then, one that everybody read, even my snobbish mother. Bleak House was my favourite when I was twelve. The Pickwick Papers was supposed to be funny, and as I re-read it now, which was painful, I kept asking myself what we possibly could consider funny. Was it simply exotic and incomprehensibly British? I am thinking about Three Men in a Boat, that is very British and hilarious, then as now (I re-read it just a few years ago with great pleasure). Pickwick has a vague plot, mostly sketches of upper-class life full of ways and habits totally alien to me – I wonder how today’s British readers view it. There are no characters to like or dislike, and their concerns don’t engage me. A few phrases were witty, but mostly the language was flat. Perhaps when the book was first published, in instalments as was the practice, readers were kept in suspense about some minor quirks of the plot. Definitely there was more for them to recognise, and yes, I understand that it is all satire. But it was lost on me. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with more details.  

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Re-reading The Power and the Glory

Yet another book that I was sure I had read, but as it turned out didn’t remember a word of. I think I remember the cover of the paperback I borrowed from a friend of my mother, but I could not find it on the web. Could it be that I started reading it, age 16, and gave up? There isn’t much of interest in the novel for a sixteen-year-old without any religious background. Extremely dense text, no action, scarce dialogue, no romance, alien setting, totally incomprehensible historical circumstances. Of Greene’s novels, two were translated and published in Russia in the 1960s, Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American, apparently because they depicted “the decay of capitalism”, which was the standard wording in Russian literary criticism of the time. The Power and the Glory could not be translated because of its theme. Religion was banned in Russia, and priests had been persecuted and shot, just as in Greene’s novel, but the author’s sympathy is not on Red Shirts’ side, and even a skilful foreword writer wouldn’t be able to explain it to the Soviet reader. 

I didn’t know anything about Mexico’s history then, as it wasn’t part of our history curriculum, and I must admit that I had to look it up now as well. Parallels to Soviet history are striking. But there is, as far as I know, no Russian novel portraying a persecuted Russian priest, at least not in the same poignant way. Greene’s protagonist is not a helpless and innocent victim; he is not particularly likable, and yet I kept falling into the unforgivable reader fallacy of yelling at him: Don’t do this, can’t you see it’s a trap? Which I think is the intention.

The Power and the Glory is perhaps the strongest impression of my 2020 re-reading challenge. Several books proved better on re-reading, but this is superior by far. I will read it again in a couple of years or maybe even sooner.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Re-reading Homo Faber

Max Frisch’s novel was not on my re-reading list, and I cannot remember why and how I decided to re-read it, but I know that it was an important book when I was young so it should have been on the list.

Once again, I know it was important, but I had rather vague memories of it. The strongest memory was of the final call at the airport, which, in my memory, was the final scene in the novel, while it actually happens right in the beginning. I remembered it contained incest, which was disturbing and fascinating. I remembered a particular reflection on human reproductive act that I could have sworn came from the girl, while it actually is Faber’s. That’s it. A general theme and two details, both wrong.

I did not remember at all the Conradesque adventure in the jungle. I did not remember Faber’s betrayal of his girlfriend, and I didn’t remember that he meets her again under dramatic circumstances. I winced at a casual remark by the narrator early in the novel, “if… then Sabeth would be alive”. I did not remember that she dies, still less how she dies, which right now strikes me as implausible, something from a TV thriller rather than a highbrow novel. When I was young I probably thought it was romantic. I didn’t reflect on why male authors always need to sacrifice female characters to redeem their male protagonists.

I don’t think I had read Lolita before I read Homo Faber, but now I see similarities, although Sabeth is twenty and not a minor. The similarity is in the narrator who is trying hard to exculpate himself, repeating again and again that he didn’t know, that he couldn’t resist, that it was Sabeth who seduced him, that it wasn’t his fault at all that he abandoned Sabeth’s mother, that they had agreed that she would get an abortion… and so on, over and over again.  And he is confident that he is objective - the novel's subtitle is "Report". I am sure I didn’t understand this fifty years ago, any more than I understood that Humbert Humbert was trying to acquit himself. But today I find such unreliable, self-delusive narrators one of the most interesting features of contemporary fiction. (I keep saying “contemporary” about books published seventy years ago because they were contemporary back then. By now, they are vintage if not classics).

Another thing that I enjoyed about Homo Faber is that it didn’t feel as translation. I am sure I could have read it in German, but I didn’t, and not once did I stop to consider that I was reading a translated book, which otherwise is for me a good reason to put a book aside. Fifty years ago I read it in Russian, and apparently that was a good translation too.

I strongly recommend this book if you haven’t read it – or if you have, but like me have forgotten.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Re-reading Margaret Drabble

Similar to Muriel Spark, I had a Margaret Drabble period when I read everything I could get hold of, which wasn’t easy behind the Iron Curtain – it wasn’t just the matter of popping into the nearest book shop. I had The Summer Bird-Cage on my 2020 re-reading list, but it wasn’t available on Kindle, so I chose The Millstone instead although I am not sure I read it back then. I know I read The Garrick Year and Needle’s Eye. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because The Summer Bird-Cage and The Millstone are thematically similar, and since both are Drabble’s early novels I would guess they are similar in other ways too. And I only have a vague memory of the former.

I can see what was attractive to me in Drabble’s novels then. They are set in a time almost contemporary with mine, in a place I was curious about. They have female characters of a background similar to mine: educated, intellectual, high aspiring women. At the time I read them, I was a single mother, but I never experienced the shaming Rosamund in The Millstone went through. She and I shared some human – female – experience, but otherwise lived on different planets. And I think mine was nicer.

I finished the book because it was part of the challenge, but otherwise I would have stopped early. I guess it wouldn’t be labeled chic lit because it is Great Literature, but then I am not well read in chic lit. I found Rosamund repulsive, which perhaps was intentional, but if so why would the novel be praised as feminist? When she finds herself pregnant after her first and only casual sexual experience – isn’t it one of the most banal plots in literature? - she first tries to get rid of the baby, and failing spectacularly with the totally inefficient method of hard liquor and a hot bath (another literary cliché) decides that she will keep the baby and love it beyond measure. I think the narrator is trying to convey her emotions, but it is mostly external events of a most trivial kind. Which in itself can be interesting as documentation of its time, but I was mainly irritated. The ending is pathetic, but I believe it is exactly a tear-jerker that I would have liked fifty years ago.

I will definitely not re-read any of Drabble’s early novels that I enjoyed then, but I may try one of her latest to see whether she has become more to my current taste.