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Month: January, 2017

‘tell my father to dig me a grave’: two bride songs

Two works, two languages, the same story.

The first is recorded by the Chuvash writer Sepritun Yantush, from his book Chuvash Weddings from 1852.  I found the excerpt in An Anthology of Chuvash Poetry, compiled by Gennady Aygi, who also translated the Chuvash works into Russian. The anthology was then translated into English by Peter France, so it’s come to me in a very roundabout way, but I don’t know how else I would have been exposed to Chuvash literature so it’s an absolute treasure.

Oh you, Yunga, place of my birth,

Where the cradle received me,

I shed tears as I bid you farewell!

A sad orphan have I become.


Farewell, land of my fathers,

Farewell, days of my youth!

I shall not stop loving you,

When I go off to foreign places.


My horse has not carried me all away:

Here I leave a part of my life,

Take it, take it for ever,

I make you a gift of my heart! 


When I read those words it reminded me right away of a Moroccan Jewish wedding song that I had heard performed by Mor Karbasi.  I discovered her music last year; this was the first song of hers I heard, and it’s still one of my favourites.  The song has a rich history and many different lyrics exist; there’s a fascinating post about it here.

Here is a translation of the words Karbasi sings, taken from the lyrics that come with the CD:

Comb, Comb the bride’s hair

For she is going to her new home today


Tell my father

Ask of him

To build my house next to his


Oh gracious father

Why have you not said

My little girl is too young to be wed?


Gracious father has abandoned me

Because he gave me away and did not come to get me.


Tell my father to dig me a grave

his shoes will step over me

his tears will fall over me

why have you abandoned me on the mountaintops?




I’ve been reading a bilingual anthology of poetry from the Siege of Leningrad, Written in the Dark (the book in which I found пир королей), and it’s reassuring how much of it I’ve been able to understand without referring to the English.  I’m always feeling so inadequate with my Russian, like I’m a fraud, and like people think I’m better at it that I actually am, but it’s a small piece of proof that perhaps can speak it, after all; only what a harrowing way to be reminded of it.

Пир королей (feast of kings)

Dmitri Sterligov (trans. Ainsley Morse)



a little late, but some bookish hope for the coming year:

  • continue reading all the Zweig I can get my hands on.  Though I came to his English-language revival so late, he was one of my best discoveries last year.  My preferred thing to do these days when I discover a writer is to read as much as I can to get a thorough understanding of them all at once, so I’d like to go on as I have been doing.
  • continue reading all the Russian lit I can get my hands on.  It’s been reassuring and exciting in the last year and a half to have felt like I’m making good progress in my adventures through The Canon™, though I don’t like thinking about literature in such terms; it makes a sense of duty out of something that to me should be ‘fun’ and without structure or obligation. And yet.  So many other facets of Russian culture are informed by this literature, and the more I read the more I feel my understanding of these other things is enriched, too; but it’s like an endless well I can keep drawing from and drawing from and never reach the bottom, so I must push on.
  • start reading Murakami again; he used to be one of my favourites but the last time I read something of his was the very beginning of 2012 (!), so though I still talk of him fondly it’s been a long long time and I wonder if my opinions of him will have changed.
  • ditto Jostein Gaarder. The summer before last I read Vita Brevis and it was the first time I’d read anything of his in something like five years; but I found that nothing had changed at all and it was like coming back to an old friend.
  • Love myself and stop reading Nabokov!! I can’t abide him but somehow I’ve still read five of his books (if you include Ada or Ardor, which I desperately wanted to like but couldn’t bring myself to finish).    I think it’s because everyone on Goodreads is so rabid about him, so that I’m half expecting one of these men (for they do always seem to be men – perhaps no surprise considering the lack of respect with which Nabokov writes his women) to somehow find me and lecture me in the comments like ‘#actually young lady, I read Pnin as an undergrad in nineteen-eighty-whenever, and though he is an acquired taste that only intellectuals like me can fully appreciate, I believe that work is the pièce de résistance of his oeuvre…’ and ‘his “disrespect” for the fair sex is a purposeful and brilliantly clever artistic choice and a mere facet of his characters’ nature, a sharp satire on…’ whatever, whatever – for that’s literally how they write, I assure you.  If you are here for that purpose, please save your time and mine and don’t do this. Anyway.  Perhaps because of this perpetual hope I’ll somehow come across a book of his I actually like I keep letting him back into my life, even though he and his overwrought prose bring me nothing but disappointment and annoyance.  I know myself and I know my tastes, so I should really know better. If my life were Friends, I am Chandler and he is Janice; I can’t stop grumbling about him, yet I also can’t escape him. Free me.
  • I realise that all these goals seem to be about men, which means they either give me more I have to purposefully think about or I really am neglecting women.  I just counted to see and of the 153 books I read last year, only about two-fifths were by women.  This surprised me, for I consider myself someone who tries to centre our own writing, but perhaps it’s like the oft-cited study about the perception of women dominating conversation when, in fact, they don’t; we aren’t the, I don’t know, the ‘norm’ of literature, so we as the ‘exception’ are made more visible.  And I certainly notice the benefits when I read our words – I can find understanding I so rarely see elsewhere – so I must try and make more of an effort still.

books read december 2016

New year, same questionable prioritization of reading over real life probably.

I did a lot of reading in the month just gone but there are a lot of books not included here because I haven’t finished them yet.  One of my worst habits is reading more books than I can realistically deal with at once – I usually have between five and twelve or so on the go at the same time – so it takes me a little while to finish things, usually, because I’m juggling them with so much else.   I had so many such books that I had out from the library this month and had to return when I came home for the holidays! I hope I can get back to them once I’m back in the city next week because there are some good ones.

Bloodhoof – Gerður Kristný

Got to the end of a class which used lots of A Documentary History of Russian Thought – ed. William J. Leatherbarrow & Derek Offord.

Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours – Erwin Mortier

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

Three Sisters Two – Reza de Wet

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Dylan Thomas

Three Dear Canada books – a series which I loved when I was younger that I’m fond of still – Not a Nickel to SpareNo Safe Harbour, A Christmas to Remember.  It’s been fun to come back to the series this month and God knows, with the year it’s been, we could all do with some more comfort reading in our lives.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman – Stefan Zweig

Madame de – Louise de Vilmorin

Christmas Stories – ed Diana Secker Tesdell