8 May 2019

Doing Time

Edith Bone, Seven Years Solitary (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957), p. 106:
I recalled something I had read in a posthumously published story by Tolstoi, in which a man is kept in solitary confinement for, as it happened, exactly seven years, just as I was later to be confined. Tolstoi describes how this man occupied his mind, among other things, by taking imaginary walks in the cities which he had known. I was very fortunate in this because I had been to most of the great cities of Europe. So I tried going for walks — in London, in Paris, in Rome, in Florence and Milan, in various Swiss cities, in Berlin and Heidelberg, in Vienna and St. Petersburg, and I found it very diverting. Most of these cities I had known very well. I had travelled a great deal, but never as a tourist. I had lived in eight European countries and had spent at least months and, in many cases, years in foreign cities, earning my livelihood there and living as the natives lived; hence I recalled their streets and rivers, their buildings, their monuments and the rest, quite accurately.
Id., pp. 110-111:
In the same Tolstoi story about a prisoner which I have already mentioned, the hero passes the time by taking an inventory of his knowledge on all sorts of subjects.

I had already tried something like this, before I thought of an abacus. What I had tried to do was to take an inventory of my vocabulary in the six languages I speak fluently. But I failed because I always lost count so long as I had only my fingers to reckon on. Now, with my fine six-row abacus [which she made from old bread and straw], I did better. Here, too, there were, of course, problems to be solved. How to avoid repetitions? The answer was: strict alphabetical order. This brought a fresh problem: what to do with the words I remembered after passing their proper place in the alphabetical order. There was no answer to this one, except to leave them out and later to start afresh from A. This I did three times and found in the end that I had enumerated twenty-seven thousand three hundred and sixty-nine English words. That satisfied me, and I went on to German, French and the rest.

There were many more inventories one could make in addition to these general ones of vocabulary. How many birds could I name? How many trees? How many flowers? How many makes of cars? How many breeds of dogs? How many English publishers? How many wines? How many characters in Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoi, Stendhal, Dostoyevski, Thackeray, and many others? I found, by the way, that Dickens, of whom I had read less than I had of several other authors, must be the greatest creator of characters, because I could remember more than four hundred, even before I had pencil and paper to help me, although I counted only those of whom I could also remember in which novel they appeared and what they were like.

All this time, that is for almost three years, I was deprived of books and writing materials. But I had continued to make up doggerels, which I repeated carefully three times a day, so as not to forget menu. They were growing so numerous, however, that repeating them daily began to take up too much time.

Mykola Yaroshenko, The Prisoner (1878)