Archive for December, 2009

UTA English Obituary: Simone Turbeville

Simone Turbeville, who died on 27 December 2009, was a long-time Associate Professor in the English Department at UTA – though it’s a measure both of the ephemerality of life and the huge turnover here in the past decade that few reading this obituary will remember her. It’s important to mark such passings – maybe more important to mark them than those of academics who get awards or professorships or buildings named after them.

Simone Turbeville taught at UTA for over 40 years. It doesn’t violate the principle of nil nisi bonum to say that Simone was a difficult colleague. In fact, if I were to write that her tenure here was one of sweetness and light, she would read that, raise her eyes to the ceiling, and say “Hmnph!” or words to that effect. No, Simone was a difficult colleague. She feuded endlessly with everybody over the most minor issues, leading one of our colleagues to muse that academic disputes are so very bitter because there is so very little at stake. Simone complained incessantly about her working conditions (something I of course would never do). She was easily and monumentally offended, and her character note was how little the world appreciated her. When she won the Gertrude Golladay Award for teaching in 1999, she remarked, “Too little, too late.”

Still, though she spent about ten of our 13 years as colleagues not speaking to me for one reason or another, it was impossible to stay mad at Simone forever. You always had the sense that if she took everything too bitterly, she chose the right things to be bitter about. Simone had a formidable education. She earned a PhD from Bocconi University in her native Milan in 1951 (a date that doesn’t square with her being born in the 1930s, as her obituary claims; much about her will remain mysterious). Upon arriving in the United States, she was told by somebody that a “foreign” doctorate wouldn’t cut it in America. So she set about earning a second doctorate, from Indiana University. Simone was thus one of the few people I’ve ever met to have two earned PhDs – real PhDs from major research universities, not a European summer school where you direct your own dissertation, or the On-Line University of Nowhere, or something like that.

Simone’s field was comparative literature of the Renaissance. She helped edit the journal Allegorica for much of its existence. She taught the high canon from Dante to Thomas Mann. She was fanatically opposed to literary theory of any description. (It was one of Simone’s students who, upon starting one of my theory courses, announced to the class “I don’t want theory. I just want facts.”) If you picture her as a bristling reactionary, you are of course half right. But Simone could surprise you. Her courses in literature and opera were in an interdisciplinary mode that became fashionable again just at the end of her career. She read feverishly, always adding contemporary authors to her syllabuses: when I met her in the late 1980s, she was into Umberto Eco, and made his work the centerpiece of her regular 20th-century comparative literature courses. When I started reading the Sicilian novelist Lara Cardella, who was half my age and a third of Simone’s, Simone sent agents into the bookstores of Europe to bring back the newest Cardella for us both to read. And almost as much as Puccini, she loved Robocop.

While she was intermittently talking to me, Simone always added energy to my day. When I arrived at UTA in 1988, I was given an office across from Simone on the 6th floor of Carlisle Hall. I would be minding my own business when Simone would strut in in a cloud of cigarette smoke and proclaim: “They have just determined the language family that Etruscan belongs to! Do you know what it is?” Beats me, Simone. “FINNO-UGARIC!” And she would pivot on one heel and depart as smokily as she’d arrived.

Simone loved animals, despite her legendary allergies: birds of all kinds, and Scottie dogs, in particular. She was a magnificent Italian cook. She loved students, especially those who loved her, and was savagely devoted to her favorites – and I do not say that as a bad thing; she loved people who loved the art, music, and books that she loved, and at heart there’s nothing wrong with that.

Simone witnessed a swath of Italian history. Her father was persecuted by Mussolini, and Simone would later see Il Duce hanging dead in a Milan plaza. On a lighter note, she once saw the Nobel Literature prize-winner Salvatore Quasimodo in his underwear. The story goes that the great man had become enamored of one of Simone’s schoolfriends. Upon bustling into her friend’s flat one afternoon, she encountered Quasimodo in his BVDs. There are only a few degrees of separation between any of us and unclad Nobel Laureates.

Simone, you were often impossible to get along with, but as I said when you retired in 2001, “ti vogliamo bene” – and now, “ti avremmo voluto bene.” Rest well.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on December 31st, 2009 |12 Comments »

Linguistic Sesquicentenary: L.L. Zamenhof


Ludwig Zamenhof, inventor of the language Esperanto, was born on 15 December 1859, which means that Tuesday is his sesquicentenary.

(Incidentally, “sesquicentenary” deserves to be a Word of the Day one of these Days. OED tells me that it derives from the prefix “semi-” and the suffix “-que”: IOW “half-and,” or “half again as much.” The things I never knew . . . I always assumed that “sesqui-” things, like centennials and pedalians, were vaguely related to seqouias or Sasquatches or other large items. Serves me right for making stuff up instead of checking the dictionary to start with.)

In front of me as I write is a tiny green book that I acquired in 1971, a book that has somehow survived every upheaval in my life since I started high school. It is The ‘Edinburgh’ Esperanto Pocket Dictionary. The introduction, written in 1933, informs me that the dictionary is “suggestive—not exhaustive. It must, therefore, be used with intelligence.” In fact, Esperantists often associate themselves with intelligence, like MENSA members or baseball statheads. Nor is this an outmoded rhetoric. Esperanto’s official American website still prints a paragraph I got in a little flyer (since lost) with my dictionary back in ‘71. In the Esperanto analogue to “F U CN RD THS U CN BCM A SCY N GT A GD JB,” Esperanto-USA informs us that:

Inteligenta persono lernas la lingvon Esperanto rapide kaj facile. Esperanto estas la moderna, kultura lingvo por la tuta mondo. Simpla, fleksebla, belsona, ĝi estas la praktika solvo de la problemo de universala interkompreno. Esperanto meritas vian seriozan konsideron. Lernu la internacian lingvon Esperanto.

There’s no indication of how “rapide” or “facile” a “stulta persono” can learn Esperanto. But the implication is that enlightened individuals would naturally want to learn an artificial language that enables them to speak with . . . well, with any other enlightened person who has learned it too.

Quaint as Dr Zamenhof’s invention seems today, it had a lot more urgency in the 19th century. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, came of age in a period when vast multilingual empires spanned Eastern Europe, and contact between different cultures was frequently lethal. Peter Forster, in The Esperanto Movement (The Hague: Mouton, 1982) tells us that

He was impressed by the Bible story of the Tower of Babel, and at the age of ten wrote a five-act tragedy on this theme, with the scene set in Bialystok. (50)

Zamenhof was fluent in Russian, Polish, and German. He studied French, English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and though he was not a native speaker of Yiddish, he certainly could understand that great lingua franca of Jewish Eastern Europe as well. With what Yiddish speakers would call “chutzpah,” he devised Esperanto at the age of 19 from a mix of Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and other Indo-European roots, and set about a life’s work promoting international use of the language.

Esperanto was never supposed to become the mother tongue of the whole world. In fact, Zamenhof and other Esperantists distrusted linguistic imperialism. They simply wanted Esperanto to become everybody’s second language. Cultural diversity would be preserved; but by sharing a medium of communication, the world’s diverse cultures would stop killing one another. Zamenhof wrote, in 1904:

Homaron Vi kreis perfekte kaj bele,
Sed ĝi sin dividis batale;
Popolo popolon atakas kruele,
Frat’ fraton atakas šakale.

Thou didst create humanity in perfect beauty,
But it divided itself in battle;
People attack people cruelly,
Brother attacks brother like a jackal. (Forster 85-86)

As a teenager, I studied my little Esperanto dictionary eagerly. (Linguistic geekdom FTW, as a later generation might remark.) I knew that Esperantists wore green star badges in their lapels to signify their membership in the brotherhood, but I never saw any such badge. And I never acquired any other books in Esperanto, limiting my Esperantist efforts to word-by-word translation of a few English sentences, breaking my brain in an attempt to figure out how the ubiquitous “j” after vowels was supposed to be pronounced. (I still can’t say for sure, though I suppose it makes vowels into diphthongs.)

Somewhere, there must have been better-organized budding Esperantists than I, because the language seems to be alive and well. The Web is crawling with Esperanto materials. Not least is the Esperanto Wikipedia, where you can look up such subjects as Okulo, the eye (Zamenhof’s day job was as an ophthalmologist), and in fact Zamenhof himself.

Zamenhof died in 1917, in the midst of a war that seemed a cruel mockery of his hopes for world peace. 150 years after his birth, his vision of a universal second language has more-or-less come to pass, though not as he dreamt. Today, when two speakers of disparate languages meet, they immediately try to converse not in Esperanto but in English. As often as not, they succeed. We live in a world governed less by the Pax Americana than by the Pax Coca-Cola, perhaps. But having an international language of first resort has made the world a smaller, and arguably a much safer, place than Zamenhof knew.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on December 11th, 2009 |No Comments »

Oh, Christmas!

Here’s a poem by a former professor of mine.  He used to read it to us at the end of every fall semester, on the last day of class, as a final send-off before the Christmas break.  I’ve always loved this poem for the way that it so perfectly explores the mixed blessings the American holiday season bestows upon us.

By: Scott Cairns (from Figures For The Ghost)

Well, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas—everywhere,
children eyeing the bright lights and colorful goods, traffic a good
deal worse than usual, and most adults in view looking a little
puzzled, blinking their eyes against the assault of stammering
bulbs and public displays of goodwill. We were all embarrassed,
frankly, the haves and the have-nots—all of us aware something
had gone far wrong with an entire season, something had eluded
us. And, well, it was strenuous, trying to recall what it was that
had charmed us so, back when we were much smaller and more
oblivious than not concerning the weather, mass marketing, the
insufficiently hidden faces behind those white beards and other
jolly gear. And there was something else: a general diminishment
whose symptoms included the Xs in Xmas, shortened tempers,
and the aggressive abandon with which most celebrants seemed
to push their shiny cars about. All of this seemed to accumulate
like wet snow, or like the fog with which our habitual inversion
tried to choke us, or to blank us out altogether, so that, of a given
night, all that appeared over the mess we had made of the season
was what might be described as a nearly obscured radiance, just
visible through the gauze, either the moon disguised by a winter
veil, or some lost star—isolated, distant, sadly dismissing of us,
and of all our expertly managed scene.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on December 6th, 2009 |No Comments »

Proof that novels about clergymen and spinsters can be good

rdMuch as I hate to plaster my post over Tim’s diverting discussion of academic bureaucracy, it is time for me to report back on another “Neglected Classic,” which this time is F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter. I had never heard of F.M. Mayor. Not that this necessarily means much, since twentieth-century literature was a blind spot of my undergraduate degree in English. In 1991, which is when I started the degree, literature published earlier that same century apparently just seemed far too new to form part of the permanent curriculum (the jury was still out on American literature also, by the way).

F.M. proved to be, when I received the book, Flora Macdonald, one of twin girls born in 1872 to, oddly enough, a clergyman. Even the little information about her life circumstances that is provided in the brief introduction to the novel makes its autobiographical underpinnings obvious. Its central character, Mary Jocelyn, is the thirty-something spinster daughter of the rector of Dedmayne parish, an unappealing village with nothing to recommend it but the damp. Canon Jocelyn, eighty two at the novel’s opening, is a stately figure. Of his daughter Mary’s physical appearance, Mayor makes it clear that it is a case of “nice eyes, shame about everything else”:

Mary was a decline. Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue .. She was dowdily dressed (7).

Reading this, it might be thought that Mayor has an unsympathetic attitude toward her protagonist, but this proves to be far from the case.

The novel charts the trajectory of an on-again, off-again romantic attachment between Mary and Mr. Herbert, recently appointed vicar of the neighboring village of Lanchester. Having fallen hard for Mary, Mr. Herbert leaves for a brief trip to compose his thoughts before proposing. When he returns, he is married to and rapturously in love with the young, beautiful, and moneyed Kathy Hollings. After only one year, Mr. Herbert realizes the intellectual and class gulf separating him from his wife, and comes once more to appreciate his bond with Mary. During a separation, while she is partying it up on the Continent with the fickle and fashionable, Kathy’s mouth is deformed in a bungled surgical operation, ultimately leading to a warm rapprochement with her husband back in England.

Although things often seem about to turn in Mary’s favor—the plot continually suggesting avenues by which Kathy might die off or leave—this is not to be that kind of novel. But neither is it, as it might sound from my description, a depressing tale of a hopeless love affair between two middle-aged people stunted by the emotional constipation of their times. Mary’s emotional clarity, in fact, is what makes her character so appealing. Surrounded by characters who either smother their feelings, like her father, or simply don’t have any deep emotions in the first place, like her friend Dora, Mary’s emotional intensity is the more refreshing and unusual. All the characters, though, are so finely-drawn as to make them utterly compelling, with the relationship between Mary and Canon Jocelyn a particularly understated tour-de-force of the novel.

What I like best about The Rector’s Daughter, though, is that Mayor is as witty as Jane Austen even while her plot is less predictable than Austen’s and her characters more well-rounded and less pretty. Mayor has a way of nailing people right on the foible—take this passage about Mary’s father:

Canon Jocelyn disliked Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army on account of their wildness and extravagance. When Mary was thirteen she had said, “I simply detest Henry IV. of France because he did not persecute any one.”

“That is a foolish way of talking,” Canon Jocelyn answered, “and I dislike your slang use of the word ‘simply.’” She had only meant Henry IV. was not in earnest, but there was a strangeness in the speech, which made Canon Jocelyn feel she might get into the hands of the Roman Catholics.

Or this of life with her Aunt Lottie:

a trickle of chatter…; making and unmakings of the mind up twenty times a day; putting on one’s things and instantly taking them off; a tracking down of the wind, the rain, the damp, the dust, the glare, the dark, the draught, the fog, the crowds, the motors (314).

Perhaps you are familiar with Mayor’s work—if so, let us know what you think. If you don’t, I can carry on thinking I am the only person in the Department to have read it. If you would like to dim the smug glow that this causes me, I can lend you the book. It’s worth a read.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on December 1st, 2009 |No Comments »