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(“I do not know what it means, that I am so sorrowful; I cannot get out of my head a tale of the most ancient of times.”) “This is roughly how I feel about things German in general,” writes Lacquer. “A fairy-tale built of projections and fantasies and memories that I cannot erase and that leave me melancholy.”
AUTHOR LUC SANTE, WHO came to the United States with his parents from Belgium as a child, writes in his delightful essay “French Without Tears” that his family attempted at first, as many immigrant families do, to create a language bubble for him. “When I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, the whole family would gather for Pepe le Pew, the Gallic skunk forever making romantic advances to horrified black and white cats: L’amour, toujours l’amour…”
While, during his first year of school in the United States, Sante’s mother drilled him in French for an hour when he got home every day, he recalls that the family’s efforts to remain francophone were ultimately in vain. “The family language was progressively mongrelized,” he writes. “While keeping the pronunciation and syntax of French it became franglais.”
His observations about the language itself are particularly astute, as exemplified by his explanation of why French is so susceptible to puns. “French does not necessarily have fewer sounds than English, but the protocols governing their order and frequency make their appearances predictable — hence the profusion of sound-alike phrases and sentences, which fueled Surrealism and ensure the ongoing appeal of Freudian and post-Freudian ideas in the French speaking world: Les dents, la bouche. Laid dans la bouche. Les dents la bouchent. L’aidant la bouche. Etc. These phrases, which sound exactly alike, respectively mean ‘the teeth, the mouth’; ‘ugly in the mouth’; ‘the teeth choke her’; ‘helping her chokes her.’ You don’t need to have been psychoanalyzed by Jacques Lacan to see from these examples how language can assist thought in swiftly tunneling from the mundane to the taboo.”
He then discusses his father’s love of reading and of the French language, particularly its precision. He recalls how the contents of his father’s bookshelf in America “He was a stickler for le mot juste, that very French , very positivistic idea that there is one, and only one, exact word capable of expressing a particular idea in a particular circumstance,” writes Sante. “Style for him was a matter of both precision and elegance, which were entwined in any case.”
Sante says his father also inculcated in him as “the very model of elegance” the conclusion of Cyrano. The dying hero announces to his friends that quelque chose que sans un pli, sans une tache/J’emporte malgré vous (“something spotless and unwrinkled, that despite you I’m taking with me”). He lifts his sword, proclaims et c’est; the sword drops from his hand and he falls into the arms of his companions. Roxane kisses his forehead and asks C’est? Cyrano opens his eyes, recognizes her and says, smiling, Mon panache. Curtain.
“Panache literally means the plume of a hat, as worn by a seventeenth-century gentleman,” writes Sante, “but it also means what it does in English, only more so. Thus we have the pun in the last breath of life, the expression of wit as an exemplary act of heroism, the manifestation of a principle in the very utterance of its name.”
Sante has similarly keen observations to offer on American English. In college, Sante found what he thought was the “authentic music of the American language, in the prose of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. ‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon,’ the opening sentence of The Postman Always Rings Twice, seemed to exemplify in nine words all the highest virtues of American prose. It was plain, unadorned demotic speech, resolutely laconic and flat, containing a while landscape of gas stations and bus depots and bars, of dollar bills and cigarette butts and spit, stuff I had encountered in daily life that seemed to stare down literature and dare it to cross the line in the dirt.”
WHILE MANY OF THE OTHER essays in The Genius of Language are considerably weaker than these two, there is some fine writing scattered throughout the collection. Gary Shteyngart, who was born in Russia and emigrated with his parents to the United States in the 1980s as a school-age child, writes that he found himself cut off from his peers by more than just the language barrier. He remembers himself as “doubly handicapped, living in a world where I speak neither the actual language, English, nor the second and almost just as important language — television. For most of my American childhood I have the wretched sensation that fin-de-siècle Yalta with its idle, beautiful women and conflicted, lecherous men lies somewhere between the Toys ‘R’ Us superstore and the multiplex.”
Leonard Michaels’ essay on Yiddish is also well worth reading, as is Amy Tan’s on Chinese. A few fall flat, such as Ariel Dorfman’s overwrought musings on Spanish and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s rather predictable diatribe on the African tribal language Gikuyu. Bharati Mukherjee’s essay on Bangla also lapses into knee-jerk anti-Colonialism at times, but she provides the collection with perhaps the most beautiful closing line — ironically indebted as it is to Western literature: “For a writer, the melting of a mother tongue is the Madeleine, the way back, and the way in, an early loss with the deepest memory, the mother of all plots.”
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Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
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