Saturday, December 8, 2007

there's no place like kansas

My stepmother used to share an e-mail address with my father. Then she set up her own e-mail address and he would tell her when people wrote to her and what they had said. I thought she should set up another e-mail address. She said she had no secrets from my father.

I realised that I did not really want to write in English any more. I would feel safer writing in German. I would feel safer still writing in Hungarian.

When bad things happen, the sentences that bring them about are written or spoken in English by people who describe themselves as close personal friends. Unfortunately there is no separate set of articles, pronouns, prepositions, modal verbs and common vocabulary in which people doing ugly things express themselves; they use everyday language, and after a while the words are poisoned. It's stressful to hear people speaking English, which my family naturally do. It's pleasant to read French or German, it's pleasant to hear French or German or Spanish or some other language, one rinsed of bad associations. It's pleasant to be exposed to a language where one is for the most part an eavesdropper, a bystander, anything but a participant.

My parents learned Spanish and Portuguese through the course developed by the Foreign Language Institute. The course permitted no discussion of grammar, the student was required to memorise a series of dialogues and then practice endless variations in phrasing, the idea being that the various structures would become second nature and one would never stop to think about the correct form. As one progressed through the books one achieved a level of fluency which would permit one not only to question a visa applicant but even to utter polite veiled threats, as well as, of course, to give cocktail parties and charm businessmen, politicians and journalists. (The courses are available gratis at , so if there's a language in which you would like to utter suave veiled threats you know where to go.) My stepmother, who is Brazilian, has not had the benefit of this sort of programme; she has lived in America for 17 years without achieving the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove level of proficiency. My father and stepmother speak English in the home; my brother, who's twelve, doesn't speak Portuguese. There's a point, though you might not think so.

It seems to me that one is often drawn to a language that offers an escape from what one knows. One resists languages that seem to drag one back. So David hated Yiddish, loved American literature, especially Faulkner and Melville, was drawn to Latin, Greek, German, Old Norse. Hassan says his parents tried to force him to learn Ghanaian languages but he escaped into English. I loved French when I was a child because it had no conceivable use in any of the places I happened to be; this was also part of the appeal of Latin, Greek, Italian. My mother disapproved of the sort of person who learns a lot of different languages instead of leaning one extremely well; when I was 18 I decided to learn German, which I knew was simply inadmissible on top of all the others, so when I bought a dictionary I pretended I was buying it for a friend.

I came across that dictionary - a very bad one - while I was going through my storage unit in London. When I bought it I thought that all serious intellectuals read foreign literature in the original language; one day I would meet these people and it would be embarrassing to have grown up in places where that was not the norm. When I was in high school I thought everyone in college would be like that; the people at Smith were not like that, but I then imagined that people at Oxford would be like that. Years later I was talking to my Oxford tutor about Proust, whom I had naturally read in French under the impression that this was something all serious people did, and he said, 'Oh, you have time to read novels in French.' By this time I had read so many novels in French it took no more time to read one in French than in English. How long ago that seems.

It surprises me when someone like Doris Lessing, an expat like me, complains about the Internet. If you grow up in the provinces, where it's hard to get books, you never get over the early sense of scarcity, of being in a place where a single paperback by Simenon might be the only French book. It's hard to get used to the wealth of books which can either be read online or ordered. You can read Ibsen in Norwegian online. You can read the Norse sagas. You can read a facsimile of the first edition of Montaigne. You can read most of Greek and Latin literature and click through to the lexical entries. You can read the Hebrew Bible. When people complain it's as if it never occurred to them in the first place that one might want to do any of these things.

It's late. I'm not sure that my German is up to an argument with LottoTeam.

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