Sunday 23 November 2003

Vicissitudes

Thanks to Natsuko I learned some new words yesterday, including:

  • haggler (huckster, cadger)
  • wold (formerly-wooded hilly tracts in certain regions of England)
  • lath (a thin flat strip of wood)
  • black-pot (a beer mug, a toper; though I suspect, in this context, a kind of food, perhaps leftovers; no, as Language Hat explains in his comment, it’s black pudding i.e. congealed pig’s blood in a length of intestine)
  • chitterling (fried smaller intestines of a pig)
  • vamp (to make one’s way on foot; to tramp or trudge).

Natusko comes to my place for breakfast most Saturday mornings, then borrows the car for the rest of the day. It was her idea that we should help each other with our reading—hers in English, mine in Japanese—after I asked her last week to explain a sentence construction in an Akutagawa story called Hana (Nose). I had known Akutagawa only as the author of the stories upon which Kurosawa’s film Rashomon was based. But Natsuko was, of course, familiar with Akutagawa’s story of a priest with an excessively long nose, who is delighted to have it shortened only to be then disappointed by the negative response to his good fortune.

We’d agreed to start with English, which is how, once I’d cleared away the breakfast dishes, I came to be sitting at the living room table with my own copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles as Natsuko, comfortably ensconced on the sofa, read from hers.

“Then what might your meaning be in calling me ‘Sir John’ these different times, when I be plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler.” Natsuko paused. “What’s haggler?”

“It’s normally a customer who argues to get the price of something reduced but that doesn’t make sense here.” I went to my study and came back with the dictionary, which revealed that an older meaning is ‘huckster’ or ‘cadger’.

“What’s huckster and cadger?” Natsuko asked.

I flipped through the “H” section, from ‘haggler’ to ‘huckster’, thankful that twenty-five years ago I’d bought a copy of the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

“A huckster can mean someone who bargains or haggles but it can also mean a small trader… now, this is better. A cadger is a carrier who travels between town and country with butter, eggs, and shop-wares or someone who sells things in the street. That makes sense because Jack Durbeyfield is carrying an empty egg basket when he meets the parson.”

Natsuko continued reading. I explained the meanings of “whim”, “antiquary”, “direct lineal representative”, “Knights Hospitallers”, and “baronetcy”.

Cover of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles“I’m wondering why you chose this book,” I told her, as I was looking up “wold”.

“Well, you know I’m trying to save money,” she replied. “I already had a copy on my shelf and classics are cheaper than contemporary books because there’s no royalty to pay the author. The one I bought for you was only $7.95 at Kinokuniya but a modern book would cost about $20. Why do you ask that?”

“To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it until we struck all these words I’d never heard of. I suppose I was thinking that a more modern book might be easier to start with.”

(Although my ambition is to read Kafū and Tanizaki in Japanese, at the rate my Japanese reading skills are improving I’ll be thrilled if I can finish the Japanese translation of an Agatha Christie novel.)

“But I like this author,” she said. “When I was living in Seattle, I read Far from the Madding Crowd and it made me cry. Reading Thomas Hardy gives me the same feelings I used to have when I read Yamamoto Shūgorō as a teenager.”

Natsuko wasn’t surprised that I’d never heard of Yamamoto Shūgorō.

“You only know about literary writers,” she said, a trace impatiently, “like Kawabata and Tanizaki and Enchi Fumiko. Yamamoto Shūgorō was a taishū writer. He wrote all kinds of books—frequently about the common people but also detective and samurai stories as well as jidai-mono.”

Taishū (大衆) means “general public” and taishū bungaku is popular literature (though I imagine that Yamamoto Shūgorō is a cut or two above Agatha Christie). Jidai-mono are historical novels.

“In any case,” Natsuko added, “I think it’s better to read a classic novel. If you can understand the classics, then you can understand contemporary books. But not the other way round.”

She was right, of course. You won’t encounter too many “lath-like striplings” in a John Grisham novel. Natsuko started reading again.

“The clergyman explained that, as far as he was aware, it had quite died out of knowledge, and could hardly be said to be known at all. His own investigations had begun on a day in the preceding spring when, having been engaged in tracing the vicissitudes of the D’Urberville family, he had observed Durbeyfield’s name on his waggon, and had thereupon been led to make inquiries, till he had no doubt on the subject.”

I’d expected her to stumble over “vicissitudes” as she had over a number of other uncommon words; but, to my delight, she pronounced it perfectly.

“What is this ‘vicissitudes’?” she asked.

“It means that someone’s situation changes,” I explained, “often in an unexpected or unpleasant way. They might be doing well and then things turn bad… people often talk about ‘life’s vicissitudes’, meaning life’s ups and downs.”

Natsuko thought for a while, then said: “Like ‘the vicissitudes of George Bush’? He barely won the election, then after September the 11th he became very popular but now, with the problems in Iraq, his popularity is falling.”

“That’s pretty much it.”

“I like this word, ‘vicissitudes’,” she said. “If I use words like this, people will think I’m educated.”

“People can already tell you are educated,” I told her, “whether or not you use words like ‘vicissitudes’.”

How strange, I thought to myself, that I’d read almost all of the eighteenth and nineteenth century classic English novels but nothing by Thomas Hardy. I haven’t even seen Polanski’s movie, Tess.

Natsuko reached the end of the first chapter, put down the book, and picked up the photocopy I’d made of Akutagawa’s story—Kinokuniya hadn’t had any copies of Dondon yomeru: iro-iro na hanashi (Selected Stories for Steadily Improving Your Reading).

“Now it’s your turn,” she said.

“OK,” I replied, “Here we go… Ike-no-o no hitotachi wa, minna naigu no hana no koto o shitte ita. Sono hana wa, nagasa jū hachi senchi kurai de, sōsēji no yō na katachi o shite, kao no mannaka ni burasaggate ita.

(“Everyone in Ike-no-o knew about the distinguished priest’s nose. About eighteen centimeters long and shaped like a sausage, it dangled down the center of his face…”)

Natsuko interrupted, saying “Interesting that you chose this story, isn’t it? About the vicissitudes of a monk with a long nose.”

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Comments

Gogol's "The Nose"? The Chinese author Lu Hsun encountered Gogol in Japan, as I recall, and Gogol was important to him.

Posted by zizka on 23 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I saw the Languagehat beacon blazing in the heavens and flew to the rescue! Here's the black-pot you want (well, the word; you may not want the thing itself: "essentially congealed pig's blood in a length of intestine"):

2 A black pudding. (Cf. pot sb.1 8.) s.w. dial.
1825 Jennings Observ. Dial. W. Eng., Black-pot, black-pudding. 1880 Hardy Trumpet-Major xvi, Seventy rings of black-pot. 1891 Hardy Tess i. i, I should like for supper,--well, lamb's fry if they can get it; and if they can't, black-pot. 1895 Hardy Jude vi. viii, I shall have to make black-pot and sausages.

Interesting that three of the four citations are from Hardy; I wonder if he liked the stuff or just used it as a good reliable sign of Wessex.

The Mayhew citation in the last definition of "haggler" in the OED provides a nice clear description that suits the period: "1851 Mayhew Lond. Labour I. 79 A 'haggler' being.. the middle-man who attends in the fruit and vegetable-markets, and buys of the salesman to sell again to the retail dealer or costermonger."

Posted by language hat on 24 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I knew of black pudding -- and that it comprised mainly blood -- but it didn't occur to me that "black-pot" and "black pudding" were the same dish, although the association is obvious now that you've pointed it out.

It is interesting that three of the citations for "black pudding" are from Hardy. The full quotation from Tess reads:

"Tell 'em at home that I should like for supper,--well, lamb's fry if they can get it; and if they can't, black-pot; and if they can't get that, well, chitterlings will do."

I'm willing to each almost anything but I think I'd prefer a liberal serving of chitterlings to a single spoonful of black pudding.

Thanks for clarifying "haggler" too. I have no doubt that, as Natsuko and I proceed with "Tess", I'll have need to call on your services again.

Posted by Jonathon on 24 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"I'm willing to each almost anything but I think I'd prefer a liberal serving of chitterlings to a single spoonful of black pudding."

I've never had chitterlings, and of course I can't reasonable gauge your preferences, but black pudding is rather more appetizing than "congealed pig's blood in a length of intestine" makes it sound. The name black pudding is also misleading. In appearance and taste, it's basically a rich, dark sausage (ring-shaped when whole, hence the reference to "seventy rings of black-pot"). Cut into slices and fried, it's quite tasty.

Posted by Tim May on 24 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

To each his own, but I'm with Jonathon on this. Fries (testicles) are doubtless tasty too, but... well, call me an effete overrefined modern, but I just can't get past the thought of what's in it.

Posted by language hat on 25 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Well, that's fair. Really, I don't think I'm notably non-effete - I've never even eaten kidneys, to my recollection. And certainly, we all have such aversions, and there's little rationality in them. For example, I'd find it difficult to eat insects, while having no problem with their fellow arthropods, the crustaceans.

Still, it surprises me a little that a substance as prosaic as pig's blood should provoke such a response. Especially when it's in a basically unrecognizable, and orthodox, form. Whereas chitterlings, I would imagine, _look_ exotic, and probably feel novel in the mouth.

Posted by Tim May on 25 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I meant to add - thanks for the definition of fries, which I'd wondered at (I guessed it was something of the kind). Never eaten that either.

Posted by Tim May on 26 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

My copy of Akutagawa's "The Nose" is in Giles Murray's "Breaking Into Japanese Literature: Seven Modern Classics in Parallel Text". I'm just a beginner, so it's over my head. However, I like this little reader because the publisher has included sound files at http://www.speaking-japanese.com/lite_nose.html

Maybe someday, if I keep working at it, I'll understand it.

Posted by M Sinclair Stevens on 27 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Tim, I think it's the idea of blood that turned me off -- I'd be quite OK with fried testicles. But, out of interest, I might try to track down some black pudding and give it a try.

Sinclair, I have that book but haven't yet got round to reading it. Checking the table of contents, I see that it has Akutagawa's "In a Grove" and "Rashomon", two of the stories that Kurosawa reworked into his script for "Rashomon". Another good reading primer is "Read Real Japanese", also published by Kodansha. And thanks for the info about the sound files -- I've finished the story but I'll probably download and listen to them out of curiosity.

Posted by Jonathon on 27 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour