Language Jingoism

VerneIt’s a tired old observation I often make to the unthinking princes (and princesses) of literature, especially those Americans who judge all literature outside of America and England as being somehow inferior and easily dismissed.

Now I run across a passage in The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert) that makes me question the author’s credentials (for writing, not for extinctions). She has been discussing the animals that have gone extinct in recent years and when focusing on the Great Auk, she recounts a visit to the last known home  of the Auks, a small island off Iceland:

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Marguerite Duras

It’s no secret that Marguerite Duras is one of my favorite contemporary authors. As with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Duras was influential in bringing a new vitality to the novel form. Look at her bibliography (from Wikipedia):

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Translations, Slang and Other Groovy Things

The subject comes up so often I have to apologize in advance if you’ve heard all my views on this subject before. Even so, it’s good to revisit old opinions with new brain cells.

The subject came up in an online reading group which specializes in reading French literature in translation, that a novel using slang or street speech cannot be read in translation without changing the essence of the novel from being French to being British or American or name-your-country. It was furthermore suggested that the era in which the translation was done might result in an inadvertent silliness when read today (highly dependent on the number of times the author writes “groovy”).

I contend that both suppositions are not well thought out. First the question of the argot being the essence of a country’s language and therefore vital to maintaining the, in this case, French-ness of the literary work and not transforming it into an American novel with French locales.

I agree that the slang expressions in any language are often very unique to that language and important to fully understand the specific culture of that country. However, this is becoming less and less important:  many of the slang expressions are just localized versions of the same expressions developed in other countries. But even more significant, there is really no codification of street-speak even in a single country. Take a break-dancer from The Bronx and send him to a rodeo down in Texas. I suspect that Paris has a whole different set of slang expressions than exists in a small Provençal village. Besides, some of the best slang is quick to expire and terms like “faire la nique” or “going to third base at the submarine races” become dated and silly whether they are in English, American, French, or German.

The problem with much of literature is that it takes a snapshot of the culture of a country and doesn’t change. Remember that old photo of Aunt Minnie with the curly hair, and the seam up the back of her stockings? Look at Minnie today:  only the teeth look new. So should we replace the picture of Minnie in the album every few years to keep it up-to-date or should we just enjoy the nostalgia of a time-gone-by? If we insist that idioms and slang should be acceptable to a current reader, why don’t we also insist on updating other things:  the surrey with the fringe on top gets changed into a Chevy with Tuck & Roll (or is that too dated also?). But they didn’t fight at Agincourt using drones and rapid-fire cannons, nor did they consider “friendly fire” or “collateral damage.” I am comfortable reading about longbows, varlets, chastity … all those obscure things from the past.

I took Cervantes at the university from Walter Starkie and his lecture on Don Quixote started out discussing the dilemma whether he should accurately translate a 16th century idiomatic expression or whether it would be best to substitute a well-known modern idiom which is used in English to give the same sense. He chose the English, or in his case probably Irish, expression. The irony is that whether the original Spanish “rashers and eggs” or the more modern English “tripe and trouble” expression was used, how many readers understand the idiom today? Think of it:  it fifty or sixty years, or maybe even centuries, students will stop to read the gloss in their copy of Gravity’s Rainbow to help them identify and relate to some obscure event called World War II … in fact, there is current evidence that this era is fading from memory as we speak (although the War of Northern Aggression is still keenly remembered here in South Carolina).

Here I pause to consider the changes to language thrust at us by the internet. Did you ever say “Laughing out loud and rolling of the floor” in your life under any circumstances? Well, now you find LOLAROTF being an acceptable response to almost anything that even mildly smacks of humor. Imagine when publishing moves totally onto the digital platform and novels use this ephemeral short-form language to conserve download time and conform to the six-second attention span of the reader … I recommend burying a few real books in the backyard so future generations will dig them up a have a groovy experience reading them.

XFX: The Possibility of an Island

This wasn’t the selection at Experimental Fiction but it definitely could have been. Actually, it was nominated over at the French Literature group on Yahoo but was withdrawn from the reading list at the last moment. Wouldn’t you know that I had just bought and received the book and pretty much was committed to reading it. That isn’t too much of a problem:  the French group already read an earlier novel by Michel Houellebecq (Atomized) and I had read a couple of others so I knew what to expect from the author.

We talked about Houellebecq in an earlier post, the infant terrible of modern French literature, so this is just about the novel (The Possibility of an Island is the novel Iggie Pop was excited about).

Two stoners are exploring an island and begin to imagine a supreme life-form that came down to earth and created life as we know it. Furthermore, they posit that this life-form will return and transform the chosen humans into a new phase of neo-humans. Does this sound somewhat familiar? You have to accept, though, that the narrative is not as straightforward or understandable as this. The way to immortality is through cloning, or a reasonable facsimile of cloning. The narrative appears to be a history of a human before before he was replaced with a neo-human created by cloning to carry on the human’s life. This history is being written by what we surmise to be clone #24 (#1 was the human, the next 23 or more are the clones) and the narratives of the current clone and the original human are woven together to maximize confusion (actually, the chapter headings make things clear).

So when the story starts, the human race has disappeared—died out—and the clones have taken over the planet in the name of their god (who originated in a bag of cannibus). This is a clue that the sect’s scientific experimenting into cloning might have been successful. To keep things straight and to avoid the possibility of life being created outside of the chemistry lab, the clones are not allowed to fraternize and can only communicate with each other using an advanced version of AOL Instant Messenger. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine all communication requiring some digital device (we’re half-way there already).

There is an excellent novel by Joseph McElroy called Plus which involves what you eventually understand is an unmanned space probe that slowly gains knowledge and self-awareness until it begins to function as a new life-form. Perhaps these two books should be read together?

Houellebecq  is a well-known misanthrope and this novel is no different from the others. Just look at the big picture:  a religion started by a couple of horn-dog stoners and later solidified by mendacity, illusion, drugs, and even murder. And then the weak, trusting humans go to their deaths gladly because they have been promised eternal life by a non-existent superior race up in the sky (speaking through the chosen ones on earth, of course). Doesn’t that make you want to sing something from Annie?

I don’t want to compare myself to Iggie Pop (he’s younger … a little) but I can see why this novel made such an impression on him. Remember too that Iggy has published his commentary on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, so he may look wild but he still can think for himself). Houellebecq, like always, is a bit hard to take unless you enjoy overcast days and roadkill, but when you look under the armadillo, there’s a lot to consider. Many of readers don’t like Houellebecq; but France does; Europe does; Iggy does; and I do.

Certainly worth a try.