Archive for the 'language' Category

On practical criticism

August 10, 2017

Some recent posts about poetry by a fellow-blogger have reminded how much I miss teaching practical criticism. Back in the old days, before the exam boards started messing about with A level English Literature, at the end of the two-year course one of the papers students had to sit was an unseen paper in which they were faced by two texts, one poetry and the other either prose or drama; an analytical essay on each was required; usually there were some prompts in the questions and a few contextual details to get students started. And that was it… obviously too difficult by the time we reached the 1990s and so the tinkering began.

Preparing students for such a paper was quite a challenge, but an enjoyable one. There were, of course, books of carefully selected extracts (often dull as ditchwater) designed to support the teacher in imparting the necessary training, skills and practice. Or, you could devise your own course, as many teachers I knew did. This was the tricky bit but once you had amassed sufficient and varied selections of prose, poetry and drama, you were good to go.

Two years was a decent length of time; no messing about at the end of the lower sixth with revision, study leave and AS exams breaking up the flow and continuity. Over time, I gradually developed what I came to call the ‘staircase‘ approach: bottom step: what is the writer saying? next step: how is s/he saying it? third step: how effective is s/he in saying it? Progressive in level of difficulty therefore, but ensuring that my students considered techniques, and were led to some kind of personal response.

Prose was relatively straightforward, I thought: a selection from novels beginning with Defoe – for me the first novelist – and gradually working towards the twentieth century, taking in both English and American authors. Using these it was possible to show students how the novel had developed, both in terms of subject-matter and style; they could see how the language, sentence length, syntax as well as use and presentation of dialogue had changed over time, and as the course worked towards its end, were usually able to identify roughly when a text had been written, after several careful reads. They became adept at reading between the lines, too: speculating thoughtfully, and making judgements which they could justify and evidence, even though their surmises might not have always been spot-on. Confidence built over time, and it was possible to lead them to express and clarify their opinions and reactions too.

Work on extracts from plays could follow a similar pattern: one could compare the use of verse and prose, and how dramatists sought increasing control over interpretation of their work through ever more complex stage directions.

Poetry was a lot more demanding and also a lot more fun, with so many different forms and styles, never mind subjects, and that was before you got on to the huge range of poetic techniques. Because – I oversimplify, obviously – poems tended to be shorter and self-contained, you were analysing an entire work. There was the (often) added difficulty of working out what on earth a poet was actually going on about. Over two years, it was possible to get students to slow down, and read multiple times and carefully before beginning to commit their thoughts to paper. And again, there was time and space for them to develop and articulate a thoughtful personal response. They could learn how to react logically and sensibly to the feeling of being completely flummoxed. Although there was the famous year when the examiners chose a poem about a ringed plover, and if students hadn’t managed to divine that it was actually a bird, then they got themselves into some pretty awful scrapes…

There’s a lot of really exciting and good poetry and prose to play with, obviously, in four centuries of literature; there’s also stuff that is deadly dull, and you had to introduce students to that, too, and to coping with it; increasingly examiners tended to play safe and avoid anything too difficult or out of the way, as well as anything too political or religious; I can see why, in the end, they decided to ditch the openness of the paper and go for something more circumscribed, which they thought would be more manageable for students and teachers… and took a lot of the pleasure away.

I really loved teaching this course. There were golden moments: a self-written course is quite personal in a way, and to find students occasionally enthusing about a text that I really liked was very heartening and satisfying. One year, one of the texts was not unseen to quite a few of my students, as the examiners chose a short story which I had studied with them previously at GCSE. And I eventually came round to using William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster as the final poem in the course. Watching the students’ faces as they tried – often disbelievingly – to parse it as a work of poetry and literature, was wonderful, and my joy was complete when one year, after letting them wrestle in silence with it for ten minutes or more, a student put up his hand and said, rather tentatively, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’ Then, of course, the ice well-broken, we began to examine exactly why it was crap…

On Jane Austen

July 18, 2017

It’s two hundred years today – 18 July – since she died. I’ve visited the house she lived in at Chawton, places in Bath where she lived and stayed and went to balls, I’ve stood outside the house where she died in Winchester and stood by her memorial in the cathedral and mused. What is is about her that is so attractive, and so important?

I managed to avoid her at school – but then, at a boys’ boarding school, that wasn’t hard. No-one ever suggested reading her. So my first encounter with a writer that I had vague notions of being romantic and dull came in my first year at university, where we were faced with Mansfield Park. Not the easiest start… and yet, I really liked it. Perhaps because it’s more complex, with a wider range of characters and locations, a heroine who’s a prig, political issues: I don’t know, but it was a good one to begin with: I went on to read all the other novels, and have been coming back to them regularly, ever since. And once I was drawn into the many subtleties of her written style, I began to realise just how clever she was.

Looked at baldly, there’s not a lot there: a few families in a village or small town. Intrigues which lead up to the heroine getting Mr Right. Happy ever after. Things that seem quite bizarre to a twenty-first century reader: Emma Woodhouse marrying the man who played with her on his knee when she was a baby? Fanny Price marrying the man she has grown up with for over ten years? Marianne Dashwood ending up with Colonel Brandon, who is twice her age? And then there’s what’s not said – slavery, warfare, enclosures…

My two favourite novels are Persuasion and Mansfield Park, so I’ll concentrate on them, and try and explain why Austen is so brilliant, at least to me…

Mansfield Park has a wonderful range of characters. There’s the vile Mrs Norris, who makes Fanny’s life hell, penny-pinches, and who bears some responsibility for Maria’s final disaster; the wonderfully laid-back and air-headed Lady Bertram who is so horizontal she even manages to forget her lap-dog’s gender; the ridiculously rich and brain-dead Mr Rushworth; the exciting and attractive – almost Satanic – Crawford pair, and the wonderful Portsmouth family that Fanny is eventually so toe-curlingly ashamed of. Issues are raised: the Bertram family money comes from plantations in the West Indies; the changing English countryside with its many ‘improvements’ reflects the enclosures of the time and the gradual and inevitable move from an agricultural to an industrial society, and Fanny is wistful about what is being lost; the Portsmouth scenes are set in the nation’s largest naval port against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Austen knew what was going on, but she wasn’t writing War and Peace, or Middlemarch

The Napoleonic Wars are even more obvious in Persuasion: they’re the whole background to Wentworth’s success and the reason he’s a suitable match for Anne Elliot eight years after their first parting; there is poverty in Mrs Smith, Anne’s friend, her background and where she lives: Sir Walter is horrified by Westgate Buildings as an address…

Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, as a woman and of her times. Never in her novels do men converse apart from women: she had no idea what they might speak of. But she knew, and her life story shows, that a woman’s position depended on finding a (suitable) man, and early enough, to ensure her future security. The novels are full of women who have found men and suffer for it; Charlotte Lucas’ sad tale exemplifies that sort of an ending. Austen leads her heroines along difficult paths before they eventually end up with men who love them – a relative novelty in those days – and who therefore do have a chance of living happily ever after. And in none of her novels is the denouement as powerful as at the end of Persuasion, where the love and desire is evident and the heroine acts – in so far as she is able – to secure her happiness.

Just because the novels are not realistic – and I’ve written often about the slipperiness of that word – does not mean that real questions are not confronted and explored in the novels. And there’s fantasy and wish-fulfilment, too. Readers who have revisited the novels repeatedly (and there are many of you out there, I’m sure) will recognise Austen’s amazing command of, and facility with the English language, as well as her wit, her irony, her ability to make you stop short at an opinion or idea to wonder and re-read ‘who’s speaking there?’ Ah, the shifting sands of authorial (un)reliability…

Like Shakespeare, for me Jane Austen is a writer for all time: she observes closely and sharply, yet creates a cosy world which we perhaps unconsciously aspire to, and she places striving for love and personal happiness at the heart of the world, with which we cannot disagree.

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?


I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?


I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

How I write

March 9, 2017

This post was prompted by a fellow blogger on matters literary, who reflected on whether it was better to research and read around a book before coming to read it, and the impact that others’ judgements might have on how one then read and enjoyed that book. He got me thinking in more depth about what goes on as I write these posts.

I write my blog because I enjoy it; it has become a discipline of sorts, over the years. I don’t have a vast number of readers, but I hope that they do get something from what I have to say.

My reading is very undisciplined. By this, I mean that I don’t have an agenda or programme or a list of books that I intend to read in a particular order. True, I do intend to read that enormous pile that is only shrinking very slowly in my study, but whether I will ever finish it or not is determined by factors beyond my control: one book suggests another and what I intended to pick up next may never actually find its way into my hand…

Equally, I have periods where I read avidly, and others where, surprisingly, I don’t feel much like reading, or where I read magazines rather than books. And there will be times when I’m thinking about various aspects of literature more generally and produce a different kind of post for a while.

But, when I pick up a book, it’s almost always to begin reading straight away. I’ll ignore the introduction, if there is one – I may decide to read it after I’ve finished the book, or, if the book is very challenging or vexing I may interrupt my reading to take in the introduction, to see if it helps. As I read, I think, reflect, and occasionally jot down notes on a small pad which is usually at hand. I like to have my iPad close by too, to look up words or places or details that may occur to me as I’m reading. So by the time I’m at the end of a book, I usually have enough notes from which to construct my blog post. If I’m writing a more general post, like this one for instance, I will usually make some notes and devise a general plan first. As a student of literature for many years, I have acquired tools and skills which encourage me to trust my own judgement, at least initially, before turning to what others have said and thought. I don’t feel I approach things this way out of arrogance, and after I have read and reached what I think are my conclusions, I frequently then look at what other have thought and said…

I’ve left longhand drafts behind long ago: what’s the point of new technology if you don’t take advantage of what it has to offer? So I type directly into Libre Office. When I have a complete draft, I’ll re-read, edit and correct (I’m a dreadful typist), taking care over language and nuance: although I know some of my readers, most of them I don’t, and need to be really careful to get my meaning over clearly and accurately, hopefully leaving no room for misunderstanding. And there are many readers from other lands whose first language will not be English.

Often I will leave what I’ve written to mature for a couple of days before I come back to it and give it a final check before actually publishing; after some time has passed I will have a clearer sense of whether what I’ve written says what I want to say, the way I want to say it.

Note to my former students who read my blog: this may well not be the way I taught you to write essays, but hopefully you will remember that I also said you should find out what works for you and then stick with it. Which I have done.

Gaston Dorren: Lingo

February 12, 2017

41worvkgq7l-_ac_us218_This was a very welcome birthday present and it didn’t take me long to devour it: I’ve always been fascinated by languages, the connections between them, the curiosities of grammar and etymology, and this book gave me lots of new things to think about. The author is Dutch: his nation is renowned for its multilingualism – as a Dutchman who gave me a lift in my hitch-hiking days said to me, ‘Who on earth learns Dutch?’

It’s certainly not an academic work and doesn’t purport to be; it’s a very useful piece of vulgarisation, in the sense of prodding the reader to take their interest in language further. It’s arranged in short chapters, some of which focus on a single language, and many more, whilst focusing on one particular language, demonstrate all sorts of connections and similarities with others. He ranges widely, with a focus on Europe overall, though he spreads that net quite wide, taking in Armenian as well as some minority languages spoken by very few people, as well as a couple of dead languages. So the poor schoolchildren of Monaco who have to spend seven years learning Monegasque are probably the only people in the principality who actually speak it, and then only at school. I was surprised to learn that there are languages with even more complex grammar than Polish, and that a dictionary is not particularly helpful in Welsh as the initial letters of words can change according to their grammatical purpose…

I really enjoyed the book, and will go back to it and look up examples of some of the languages, to take my exploration a bit further. I was happy because I came to see even more connections between languages and countries, and I was saddened to be reminded what a nation of insular monoglots we are here in the UK, and what a large number of people have decided to leave behind.

Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale

February 1, 2017

51-njcrlnl-_ac_us218_I only once had the chance to teach The Winter’s Tale, sadly; it was a bit of a challenge, though, with the sixteen-year time-lapse between Acts 3 and 4, and that very strange interlude which is Act 4 itself. But I’d have liked another opportunity.

So my main approach to it has always been as a comparison to and contrast with Othello as a play about sexual jealousy, and to a lesser extent, a comparison with The Tempest as a play about forgiveness and reconciliation, as part of that curious grouping often labelled ‘Shakespeare’s Last Plays’ and categorised as a ‘romance’, whatever that may mean. In terms of genre, it is hard to classify: beginning tragically, it ends quite happily, yet doesn’t seem to merit being called either a comedy or a tragicomedy…

The sexual jealousy in Othello is fomented by an outsider – Iago – while that in The Winter’s Tale comes from within the unsteady mind of Leontes himself; both are triggered by a tiny incident, very few words, Iago’s semi-aside ‘I like not that’ and Leontes’ observation ‘Too hot, too hot’. Both fits of jealousy can initially appear incredible before we think about the nature of that emotion. Othello is never left alone long enough to come to his senses and ask the right questions; Leontes goes as far as to ask the oracle at Delphi about Hermione‘s adultery, and then rejects its judgement when it flies in the face of his own obsession.

There are many close parallels in the language of the two plays: ‘call her (Hermione) back’ and call him (Cassio) back’ were immediately striking, and then there was the idea of the hero’s mind being ‘abused by some putter-on’; in both plays, as jealousy reaches its peak, the language becomes very tortured and convoluted, but is especially so in The Winter’s Tale, and it’s not just Leontes’ language, either.

Where the plays differ, obviously, is in their resolutions. Othello is reduced to the depths, destroys the thing he loves most, and sentences himself to eternal torment for his crime; the perpetrator goes unpunished. Leontes suffers for sixteen years, having lost his heir and his wife, he thinks, but the curious fourth act allows romance to develop between his and Polixenes‘ heirs, as well as laying the groundwork for the reconciliation between the alientated friends. This is then effected in the final act, along with the miraculous coming to life of the statue of Hermione.

This all does stretch our credulity immensely. We have to remind ourselves, firstly, that Shakespeare never worked in our so-called ‘realist’ mode, and then to accept that he is exploring the possibility for, and the nature of, both forgiveness and reconciliation: he has moved on from tragedy, having exhausted its possibilities earlier on in his career as a dramatist. And though he is very different here, I have come to find the conclusions of these final plays – The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Cymbeline and Pericles – as powerful and moving as those of the greatest tragedies, because they offer hope, and faith in ultimate human goodness.

On 1984 and alternative truth…

January 27, 2017

51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_51vs8inu1tl-_ac_us174_51he12tg6ml-_ac_us174_Suddenly, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is back in fashion, and particularly for its focus on the abuse and manipulation of language. But before we get into all that, a few reminders are also timely: it’s not a book about the dangers of communism, as many think. Orwell was writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and his target was totalitarianism of all colours, states where there was no rule of law, and where all information was under tight government control, where the lives of citizens were strictly regimented in the service of the state.

One thing which eludes many of today’s commentators on Orwell is the obvious fact that 1984 has been and gone, and its nightmare world has not come to pass. At one level, I’m stating the blindingly obvious, but you had to be alive and a reader of the novel before 1984 to know and understand its full prophetic power all those years ago. And in those days, there were totalitarian states aplenty, both in Eastern Europe, but not forgetting Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal and Pinochet’s Chile. A good deal of the novel’s power to scare has been lost in the thirty-three years since that ominous year.

The dangers facing our world are rather different more than seventy years later, and social stratification, consumption and hedonism as ways of controlling people, as portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are rather more likely to be realised. Certainly the genetic manipulation necessary to produce the different social castes of the novel are well within the capacities of today’s scientists, as Michel Houellebecq noted in his novel Atomised, which tangentially considers some aspects of Huxley’s masterpiece.

It seems to me that Orwell on language, truth and manipulation is much more relevant. And let’s not get misled by the ‘alternative truth’ offered by Trump’s idiot advisor. Orwell doesn’t show us any alternative, which implies different versions between which a choice is possible. In the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith is in the business of creating replacement truth, with then becomes the only truth through the eradication of every vestige of the previous truth. And memory has nothing to do with truth; memory is deadly dangerous. This replacing of one truth by another is carried out whenever necessary: truth becomes fiction and one’s compass is lost.

The danger to us today lies in our media, which is not narrow and state-controlled, but rather so wide, so amorphous and so focussed on triviality that it swamps truth and the search for it, blurring the boundaries between news and entertainment so that everyone – or enough people, anyway – are so totally disoriented they haven’t a clue about important issues, how to vote, or the consequences of their vote… A good deal of the manipulation is deliberate: the media are controlled by big business who increasingly render governments powerless because business is transnational.

Language has always been abused, and Orwell is good on this in his essays, which are often overlooked. Governments and politicians of all types, democratic and authoritarian alike, twist words and give them new meanings – collateral damage = killing innocent civilians, friendly fire = killing your own troops by mistake – examples abound. I think that the advertising industry has a great deal to answer for here: they have led the way in abusing the language in order to sell stuff and make money, and politicians were quick to follow suit.

As Chernyshevsky (and Lenin) said, What is to be done? Demand media accountability – only in the UK, as far as I’m aware, do we allow our media to be controlled by non-Brits. Mistrust or avoid all advertising as far as possible. Use an adblocker, avoid Google. Ask questions. Challenge politicians. Challenge anyone who repeats lies and disinformation, whenever and wherever. Seek reliable media wherever you can, and keep yourself informed…

My travels: L for languages

January 23, 2017

Not a place, I know, but an integral part of my travelling. I’m prompted to write this post after a real shock today. I’m part of a French conversation group which meets fortnightly to chat in French, as a way of keeping up our fluency with the language as well as to share stories and knowledge of that country’s culture. And from a visitor, we learned that a local secondary school with a very good reputation and the largest associated sixth form in the country – some 1200 students – has just three dozen, across two years, studying a modern foreign language. Five of these are boys, apparently. I was horrified.

I’ve written before about my encounters with different languages from my earliest days, and my fascination with them, of my good fortune in having an excellent French teacher at school and the moment of epiphany when I realised I could communicate in that language, with it native speakers.

One of the reasons my travels are relatively limited, compared with those of many other people I meet, I have realised, that it’s important to me to be able to communicate while I travel, rather than remain in a tourist bubble, hoping someone will be able to speak English. I know that’s not a very helpful approach in that it cuts a lot of the world out; I don’t rule out going to countries whose language I don’t speak, and I also know that people in other countries are often very keen to practise their English. And yet it seems natural, or useful to be able to ask for directions or other information of a passer-by, or in a tourist office, to be able to join up with a guided tour at a place I happen to be visiting, to chat at the till in a shop or supermarket. And when out walking, casual or chance encounters can develop into an hour to two’s companionship…

I’ve also realised that as a Brit who has the steering wheel on the wrong side of his car, and has to drive on the wrong side of the road while in Europe, that the ability to understand the roadside furniture is one of the things that helps with the slight strangeness of driving there: I’m in France so I do French and that includes driving French-style, if you see what I mean.

Clearly I can manage in France, and that means Belgium, too (once a Flemish-speaker realises you are a foreigner rather than a francophone Belgian being rude, you are OK, though I can just about get by in Flemish), and parts of Luxembourg and Switzerland. French also helped me in Morocco many years ago. I’m okay, if a little rusty and ungrammatical, in German, and that does for the rest of Luxembourg, Austria and some other bits of Switzerland. I used to be able to get by in Italian. I have a project for a tour of Spain, and am very much enjoying the challenge of learning Spanish at the moment. I’m seriously lacking confidence in that terribly complicated language which is Polish, and have relied on people there speaking English or translating for me. I don’t like this; I can understand quite a lot of the language, but constructing sentences of my own is very hard indeed.

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When a teacher offering career advice to students, I would always point out the advantages to be gained by pursuing study of a language to degree level, and the spectacular opportunities that could offer themselves to those who had two foreign languages and English as their mother-tongue; some students took my advice and I don’t know of any who regretted it. Sadly, of course, the goalposts have recently been moved, and on reflection I now think that if I were able to rewind the clock, I would move abroad…

It is hard to put into words – even for a former English teacher – the fun and the pleasure that my engagement with languages has given me over the years, and how much it has enhanced my enjoyment of my travels: a dish or a drink recommended here, a place to go and visit suggested there, extra help or advice from a tourist office or a guide, a friendly conversation that rounds off a pleasant day. It’s hard living on an island.


Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

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