Saturday, July 01, 2006

Another Tongue

Like most Americans I am shamefully monolingual. I studied Latin and German but was a lazy, distracted student. My brain is a magpie's nest of hundreds of words from other languages (reading Finnegans Wake was an intensive tutorial) but virtually no grammar, a jumble of pieces from a dozen jigsaw puzzles. I enviously admire I.F. Stone's resolve to learn Greek in his seventies. The product of that effort was The Trial of Socrates.

As a sort of parlor game in my head, I often consider which language I would choose to study today if I had the time and commitment. For practical reasons, Spanish is an obvious choice. My wife was born in Peru, and she and her parents are fluent. We live in Houston and hear Spanish spoken and see signs, newspapers and books in that language every day. But the bookish part of me rebels. Whose work in Spanish offers enough incentive for me to work that hard? Only Borges. He is dear to me in a way Cervantes well never be. When younger I was caught up in the English-speaking world's enthusiasm for El Boom -- the explosion of Latin American writing in the fifties and sixties associated with Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez and others. They have not aged well, though I still admire Juan Carlos Onetti and Ernesto Sabato.

Ancient Greek is appealing -- to read Homer in the original is a worthy ambition. Today, however, I would probably pick Italian, simply for the number of writers whose work in that language is important to me, starting with Dante, of course. Then Leopardi, Verga, Montale, Lampedusa, Morante, Calvino, Levi, Sciascia, Buzzi and Natalia Ginzburg. I can't think of another language -- except for English, of course -- that boasts so many writers essential to me, though Russian comes to mind. Here's Buzzi, in an essay titled "Notes on Gastronomy":

"The writer who never mentions eating, or appetite, or hunger, or food, or cooks, or meals inspires me with distrust, as if he were lacking something essential."

In "A Self-Interview" (also from A Weakness for Almost Everything) he writes:

"There are the Muses, and without their help it is useless to try to write, nothing good will come out. Comforts, conveniences, even a beautiful view keep the Muses away. When Goethe was writing he deliberately sat in an uncomfortable chair, as he explained to Eckermann."

Ginzburg, in her essay about a favorite novelist of mine, Ivy Compton-Burnett, writes:

"I could never grasp where, in such novels, the poetry might reside, and yet I felt it must be somewhere if, dry and airless as they were, one could breathe and drink in them in, and feel, in their midst, a profound, comforting and redeeming happiness. Then I understood that poetry was present the way nature was present: the poetry, totally invisible, totally unwilled, neither offered nor intended for anyone, was there in the same way as the dull, limitless sky that stretched behind those malicious, isolated strokes. And so a diligently constructed mechanism was miraculously transformed into something in which any casual observer could recognize his own face and his own fate."

Each language, I suspect, possesses its own peculiar genius. In English, we are freely given the gift of Shakespeare, Pope, Keats and Beckett. It's probably an idle pipe dream but sometimes I think I would like to possess another shelf of gifts, another way of enjoying the world.

1 comment:

Rob Mackenzie said...

Patrick, I lived in Italy for 5 years and have decent functional Italian, but reading the literature is another matter. Natalia Ginzburg writes with great clarity and is very easy to read in Italian, but Eugenio Montale isn't. I confess I often had a hard time working out what made a poem tick in Italian, even when an English translation took my breath away (such as Montale's The Eel, translated by Paul Muldoon).

More recently I've tried to translate poems by Pavese and Ungaretti, which I enjoyed very much and have started on a contemporary poet, Davide Rondoni. I'm beginning to enjoy the challenges of translation, although I feel frustrated by my own linguistic limitations.

Italian is a great language though, and can win you a lot of friends if you visit Italy, besides opening up some great literature, including stuff that hasn't yet been widely translated.