Thursday, 31 March 2011

The amber lozenge

If you happened to be walking past Milburn House at 3am this morning and heard a loud laugh that was me reading Elif Batuman's The Possessed - adventures with Russian books and the people who read them. There is one episode, not lol, of particular interest to Moffat Book Event readers, because it concerns Persephone, as follows: the author is staying in Samarkand ostensibly to improve her spoken Uzbek - she is a first generation American of Turkish origin - with her partner. On their first night, Elif's partner falls ill and their host treats his fever with an infusion created by scraping at an amber lozenge and a pink rock in a box. Later, Elif recalls a fellow student of Russian literature coming to tell her that the key to the phrase by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam 'as I come to you from the rubble of Petersburg, take a little honey from the palms of my hand' and 'Psyche is slow to hand Charon the amber lozenge' - both items refer to the copper coin Psyche carried in her mouth to pay Charon the boatman who carried people across the Styx (river of death) when she went to Hades to look for Persephone. Mandelstam's phrase 'mednaya lepyoshka' is the same used, following the distinctive shape, for Samarkand bread. This book is an unmissable treat of observation, made more enjoyable if like me you have been there and done many of the things she so wittily and unforgettably describes. Also, this morning, a postcard from Nikolai Tolstoy with a picture of Merlin on it - he must have written another book as well as The Quest (set in Moffat). The illustration on the card is from The Coming of The King - the first book of Merlin published by Bantam Press. There is a chapter on a visit to Lev (War and Peace; Anna Karenina)Tolstoy's estate in the Batuman book.

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