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The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues
"Michaels argues that 'meaning has less to do with language than with music, a sensuous flow that becomes language only by default, so to speak, and by degrees. In great fiction and poetry, meaning is obviously close to music'. If that is the case, art, like love, has the capacity to undo the depredations of the Fall, or at least gives us a hint, in our busy lives, of a wholeness for which we have never ceased to long. This fine collection continually raises such fundamental questions." Gabriel Josipovici, Times Literary Supplement (read the entire Times Literary Supplement review)
Synopses & Reviews
Bharati Mukherjee describes how her family was driven out of her Bengal hometown by the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1946, and how the experience made the Bangla language all the more important to them, ultimately leaving its mark on her English-language storytelling style. Amy Tan tells of her frustration with simplistic cultural comparisons between English and Chinese. Josef Skvorecky writes about his decision, as a boy in his native Czechoslovakia, to learn English so he could write a love letter to Judy Garland. Insight into the genius of other languages abounds. For Ariel Dorfman, one of the great pleasures of Spanish is its fluid sense of time. Luc Sante writes about the "silken chains of prepositional phrases" and "incantatory power" of French. For Leonard Michaels, paradox is everywhere in Yiddish and may explain the Jewish love of jokes. Wendy Lesser — a celebrated essayist in her own right — has put together a rich and often surprising work, a book brimming with pleasures for lovers of literature, travel, memoir, and, above all, language.
"The 15 writers gathered in this often delightful collection consider the impact their bilingualism has had on the development of their craft: they would all agree with Luc Sante, who writes of his inexorable 'internal foreignness.' All the writers argue that, in some sense, it was precisely that feeling of displacement, of not quite fitting into the surrounding environment, that made them writers at all. For Sante, as for others, foreignness is both a curse and a blessing, and French — his mother tongue — becomes both the barrier to his perfect assimilation into his new American surroundings and a treasured secret, a sanctuary of words. The experience of exile from linguistic security simultaneously allowed the contributors the freedom of unencumbered expression. In a book that asks its contributors — among them Amy Tan, Josef Skvorecký and Ariel Dorfman — to look back at their formative years, it becomes almost inevitable that the essays will indulge in more than a little nostalgia, even when the youth depicted would not seem to provide fodder for fond remembrance. The essays often follow a narrative long familiar to Americans: from the linguistic and cultural security of the family to the attempt at assimilation into the (mostly) American environment through the rejection of the older tongue, to a belated appreciation for the traditions and expressions of old. Despite the somewhat predictable plot line, these writers, gathered by the founding editor of Threepenny Review, vividly recount the process that anyone who loves words goes through: the process of falling under the spell of language's seemingly infinite potential. (July 27)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
Wendy Lesser is the founding editor of The Threepenny Review and the author of six books of nonfiction. Her reviews and essays appear in periodicals and newspapers around the country. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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