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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, May 8th, 2005


The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues

by Wendy Lesser

The meaning is the music

A review by Gabriel Josipovici

In Shakespeare's Richard II, Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, hearing that he has been banished from England, says to the King: "Within my mouth you have enjailed my tongue", which is, he says, "so deep a maim". Wendy Lesser, the founding Editor of the Californian little magazine, the Threepenny Review, has had the good idea of inviting a variety of writers who have one thing in common: that they have left their native language behind (none, so far as I know, has been actually banished) in order to write in English (most of them have settled in the United States), to meditate on what this transition has meant to them. The authors range from the well-known to the relatively obscure, from novelists to doctors to professors of history; and the languages range from Bangla to Gikuyu, from Chinese to Scots, with most of the European languages, including Yiddish, represented. A few of the contributors are so filled with self-importance that little of interest emerges from their pieces, but by and large the essays are informative, and well-written, and several are moving.

The Korean writer Ha-Yun Jung recalls the physical effort of learning English, unconsciously echoing Mowbray: "The f, r, v, z and th sounds are all non existent in Korean and I would have to tighten my tummy, strain my throat, and purse my lips, trying to figure out exactly how to roll and twist and keep afloat my tongue. It felt like an extremely secretive, personal effort, all taking place inside of my mouth". The cultural historian Thomas Laqueur explains how, in his, as in so many cultured middle-class German families, Jewish or not, die Neunte, "The Ninth", without qualification, meant Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "In German, or at least my parents' German, one puts just a little more emphasis on the article die and lingers just an instant longer on the noun Neunte than one would in a phrase like . . . 'the ninth symphony of Mahler'." M. J. Fitzgerald, who is American but spent her childhood in Italy and is bilingual, makes an excellent point: "Many of the churches, much of the painting, and people's gesturing in Italy are baroque. But the language itself is severe: its beauty lies in elegant simplicity and the hypnotic power of its sound . . . . English has to work to be elegant and simple, because its sounds are rarely if ever as spellbinding as Italian".

Nevertheless, for Fitzgerald as for all the other contributors to this volume, that first language is irreplaceable, because it embodies their childhood. "French", says Luc Sante, "is my secret identity, inaccessible to my friends. Sometimes I feel as though I have it all to myself." James Campbell puts it most succinctly: Scots, he says, the language of Dunbar and Henryson, "finds the familiar in me". Leonard Michaels, the presiding spirit of this book (it is dedicated to his memory), quotes Benjamin Harshav, who makes the point that Yiddish contains many words that don't mean anything -nu, epes, tocheh, shoyn. "These", he says, "are fleeting interjections which don't 'mean' anything, rather like sighs." That is, of course, a characteristic of all languages, and only native speakers know instinctively how to employ them.

When we talk about a mother tongue we are talking about more than language, we are talking about our sense of ourselves at the deepest layers of our being. And this raises a question which is touched on but not really explored by a few of the contributors: that perhaps the notion of a mother tongue is a myth, the response to a desire for wholeness, and to the sense we all have of our adult lives as being incomplete, frustrated at some very deep level. "And I live on", writes Ha-Yun Jung, "not feeling whole in Korean or in English. For me, one language is complementary to the other, one always lacking a capacity that the other has. And I have a fear, constantly, of not being quite understood in just one language: Do you know what I am trying to say? Do you know who I am?".

That, perhaps, is what has led all these exiles to become writers. 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's most recent books are A Life, 2001, and Goldberg: Variations, 2002. His collection of essays, The Singer on the Shore, will be published in 2006.

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