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Sunday 30 June 2013

The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet

The word is now a virus. The flu virus may have once been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. – William Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded

I knew three things about this book before I sat down to read it: it was called The Flame Alphabet, it had a cool cover and it was some kind of post-apocalyptic novel where language becomes toxic. And that was it. I didn't know the author's name or at least it didn't mean anything to me and I forgot it as soon as I'd seen it. I had no idea what his writing credentials were but I liked the idea of the book and I wanted to see if he could pull it off.

Do you know why I enjoy Star Trek? Or to be more precise: Do you know what I don't do to stop myself enjoying Star Trek (and this really applies to all science fiction and what little fantasy I watch): I don't question things. In 'Encounter at Farpoint', Wesley Crusher falls into a holographic stream, but is still dripping wet after exiting the holodeck. I never batted an eye when that happened. I never throw up my hands when they sit down at an alien computer, clatter away at the suspiciously-QWERTY-looking keyboard and access whatever they need in five seconds or less. My disbelief can be flicked on and off as easily as Commander Data's emotion chip. If you can't do that then you might want to learn how before you settle down to read The Flame Alphabet because things happen in it that are implausible at best and are never satisfactorily explained. And I'm sure it's deliberate.

I'm a writer. Language fascinates me. What fascinates me the most about it is its inadequacy. I think that the fact that any two human beings can stand face to face and exchange thoughts and ideas is incredible—or as one of the author’s students said to him, "Hello is a fucking miracle"—not that either of them really, really knows for sure that what they think the other person meant is what that person thinks he's communicated to you. And it never is but it's close enough for government work. My wife says she loves me and I tell her I love her back and we're both sensible enough to leave it at that. Language isn't perfect but it's all we've got.

In 2005 Ben Marcus created a bit of a stooshie when he published an article in Harpers Magazine entitled: Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A correction. In it he states the case for writing that aims to make its readers think and not just feel:

In the left temporal lobe of the brain, below the central sulcus of Ronaldo, but above and tucked behind both Broca's area and Heschl's gyri, sits Wernicke's area, a tufted bundle of flesh responsible for language comprehension. It gets its name from Carl Wernicke, a German neurologist who discovered in 1874 that damage to this region could cause an impairment of language comprehension. Think of Wernicke's area as the reader's muscle, without which all written language is an impossible tangle of codes, a scribbled bit of abstract art that can't be deciphered. Here is where what we read is turned into meaning, intangible strings of language animated into legible shapes. [...]

In the literary world, it's not politic to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading, or that our reading faculties might actually be improved. Mentions of the brain imply effort, and effort is the last thing we are supposed to request of a reader. Language is supposed to flow pre-digested, like liquid down a feeding tube. Instead of the brain, it's the heart that writers are told they must reach in order to move readers, to stir in them the deepest, most intense feelings.


My ideal reader would cough up a thimble of fine grey powder at the end of the reading session, and she could use this mineral-rich substance to compost her garden. (italics mine – see below)

It's a long article but I see in it the groundwork for The Flame Alphabet. It's a book that certainly made me think. Not that I wasn’t moved by it to but many of the feelings it generated were cultivated by the thinking process; thinking and feeling are connected and we should never forget that. pi

If I were to compare The Flame Alphabet to a film, the one that jumps to my mind is Darren Aronofsky's Pi. I've just read a review of it which says, in part:

Make no mistake, this movie is weird and requires a thoughtful mind from the viewer.

I could say much the same about The Flame Alphabet: Make no mistake, this book is weird and requires a thoughtful mind from the reader. Pi is all about numbers. The Flame Alphabet is all about words. The common ground is, oddly enough, Judaism.

In Pi the protagonist Max believes that the universe can be explained in numerical terms. He's a scientist but not the only person who sees the bigger picture. He is approached by a very specific cult of Hasidic Jews who believe that there are 216 numbers (the Shemhamphorasch) which, when properly pronounced, will reveal the true name of God; they believe the number can be used to bring about the Messianic Age.

In the beginning, the Bible says, was the Word, however, not the number. In The Flame Alphabet our protagonist is Sam, a "forest Jew" as they are known colloquially; he refers to himself as a Reconstructionist Jew. The Reconstructionists are real enough—they are a progressive offshoot of American Conservative Judaism opposed to religious orthodoxy but emphasizing traditionalist practices—but this is something new and extreme. There is nothing to say when the book is set. One reviewer assumed that what we're looking at is an alternate reality but it could just as easily be set in an imagined future. Certainly the biomechanics they use in their worship only exist in the films of Cronenberg (I'm thinking particularly of the organic virtual reality game consoles known as "game pods" that we see in his film eXistenZ).

As Reconstructionist Jews following a program modified by Mordecai Kaplan, indebted to Ira Eisenstein’s idea of private religious observation, an entirely covert method of devotion, Claire and I held synagogue inside a small hut in the woods that received radio transmissions through underground cabling.

The practice derived from Schachter-Shalomi’s notion of basements linked between homes, passageways connecting entire neighbourhoods. But our sunken network existed solely as a radio system, feeding Rabbi Burke’s services to his dispersed, silent community. Tunnels throughout the Northeast, stretching as far as Denver, surfacing in hundreds of discrete sites. Mostly holes covered by huts like ours, where two members of the faith—the smallest possible chavurah, highly motivated to worship without the pollutions of comprehension of a community—could privately gather to receive a broadcast.


The rules of the hut were few but they were final. Claire and I were only to go together. We could neither of us attend this synagogue alone. The experience would not be rendered in speech, you could not repeat what you heard, or even that you heard anything. Bauman was firm on this, said our access would be revoked if we breached. You would not know who else received worship in this manner, neighbours or otherwise. Children were not allowed access to the hut. Their relation to you alone did not automatically qualify them. They must be approached separately, assigned their own coordinates

The device they use to listen to the broadcasts (which appear to be on some kind of constant loop emanating from some possibly numinous source) is generally referred to as a "listener":

The technology of the hut was a glowbug setup. The hut covered a hole and the hole was stuffed with wire. From our own hole came bright orange ropes of cabling, the whole mess of it reeking of sewage, of something dead beneath the earth. This wiring was grappled to the listener, and the listener, called a Moses Mouth by Bauman, even while we were instructed to never refer to it, was draped over the radio module. I’m understating the complexity of this. But on a good day, it just worked.

The listener is clearly at least semi-organic:

Sitting there as the day grew dark, the listener perspired on me, and one part of it, a fin canting from its rear that seemed encased by a soft wood, was so hot that I felt sick when I touched it.

One interesting thing about the Reconstructionists is that they reject the classical view of God. God is redefined as the sum of natural powers or processes that allows mankind to gain self-fulfilment and moral improvement.

When I read this book I hurried through this section but having finished it I now realise that it deserved more attention because when things go wrong at least one person in apparent charge of finding a solution is open to a more mystical approach, particularly since conventional science proves to be a washout.

The book opens some weeks into the action but at a critical juncture:

We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us. In my personal bag, packed when my wife, Claire, had finally collapsed in sleep against the double-bolted bedroom door as it was getting light out, I stashed field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults. On top of these I crammed a raw stash of anti-comprehension pills, a child’s radio retrofitted as a toxicity screen, an unopened bit of gear called a Dräger Aerotest breathing kit, and my symptom charts.

This was the obvious equipment, medical gear I could use on the fly, from the car, at night. That is, if I even got the chance.

I did not bring LeBov’s needle. I had tried the needle and the needle did not work.

My secondary supplies consisted of medical salts and a portable burner, a copper powder for phonic salting, plus some rubber bulbs and a bootful of felt. Eye masks and earplugs and the throat box that was functioning as the white noisery, to spew a barrier of hissing sound over me.

Tucked into the outside pouch, for quick access, I placed a personal noise dosimeter, hacked to measure children’s speech. I wanted to be able to hear them coming.

Something has happened to the children. Sam and Claire have a fourteen-year-old daughter, Esther, and whenever Esther talks she makes her parents sick, physically ill. And it's not just Sam and his family:

Claire and I weren’t the only parents to ditch our houses and, in some cases, other items of value. The command went out in early December, issued in a final radio report before the stations went mute, and everyone was leaving. 

It's a plague of biblical proportions.

AlcatrazUnlike this blog the book begins in medias res and then jumps back and fills in the necessary exposition. It's a common ploy with scriptwriters in fact I can think of at least two TV shows I watched only last week (an episode of Castle and one of Alcatraz) where they did precisely that and then those tell-tale words appear on our screen: 36 hours earlier. But that's fine. Our interest is piqued and so we don't mind a bit of a wait till be get back to where we came in.

The book is written in the first person by Sam but this is a Sam some years in the future, a predominately silent future. He forgets to—or isn't especially interested in—answering all the questions I would have liked to see answered and in that respect he's not an especially reliable narrator. He talks about his wife, his daughter and that is about it. Only the delusive (and quite possibly deluded) Murphy muscles his way into the narrative as he does into Sam's life. If Murphy's even his name. Sam meets Murphy by what seems to be an accident—he just appears like another man out for a walk to escape his own kids—but Murphy has an agenda:

He was already canvassing Jewish families, probably had been for months, or even longer. Canvassing might not be the word for what he was doing. Cornering, manipulating, extracting. There is no precise word for this work. There can’t be. In the end our language is no match for what this man did.

He tells Sam that he believes the speech-delivered illness is related to "the flame alphabet," which is "the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold." If it is forbidden for Jews to speak the name of God; the logical extension of this is that all words are derived from the name of God and thus will be equally destructive if spoken or read. Why now? Perhaps it's a cumulative thing. It's only a guess.

Like Sam, Murphy has been medicating himself and testing appliances:

Murphy and I walked together and I lost track of our direction. He boasted of the insulation he’d installed in his home. The soundproof barriers with R-values above twenty, the speech-blocking baffles, some sediment collectors that were yielding a not uninteresting powder, even if the use of this powder was still beyond him.

For some reason it kept falsely testing as salt.

This mysterious powder appears later in the book although we never learn what exactly it is. It forms the basis of not a cure but rather a potion that provides some short-term alleviation of the symptoms: a palliative then.

Things go from bad to worse. The first children whose speech becomes toxic appear to be those of Jews, then all children are affected, then adults; finally it's not only speech that's potentially lethal but all forms of communication, written or even gestural. This is where people start to realise that they've maybe got things backwards and the problem is with comprehension and not communication. Oddly thinking about words does no harm which is why I say that it's probably not a good idea to start drilling down into the science presented herein. Accept it as allegory, parody, metafiction, a grotesque fairy tale or an act of God. Go with the flow.

I struggled a bit with the character of Esther. People, especially kids, can be slow on the uptake and deny what's in front of their eyes but I kept thinking what I'd be like if I was a fourteen-year-old—and I had as many issues with my parents at that age as anyone else—and I can't honestly see me hurting them the way she does. She's not all bad and there are times when she either keeps her distance or keeps quiet but she felt a little too alien for my tastes. Disasters tend to bring families together rather than driving a wedge between them. In an interview this is what Marcus had to say:

In The Flame Alphabet, the daughter, Esther, is in some ways a typical teen-ager, but her aggression escalates when her language itself is poisonous to her parents. As if teen-agers needed any more power. I wanted to test the love of a father, to see just what it would take for someone to abandon his family.

The notion of language as a virus is not new. William Burroughs (of whom Marcus is a fan) talks about it in The Ticket That Exploded. In a short essay Burroughs explains:

My basis theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host…

Viruses, of course, somewhat paradoxically ultimately destroy the cells they need to survive:

Is the virus then simply a time bomb left on this planet to be activated by remote control? An extermination program in fact? In its path from full virulence to its ultimate goal of symbiosis will any human creature survive?

PontypoolposterThe concept has also been explored in Tony Burgess's novel Pontypool Changes Everything where somehow a virus has found its way into human language, infecting certain words, and only certain words infect certain people. Once these infected words are said and understood, the virus takes hold of the host.

In his book Marcus never gets to the stage of ever properly explaining what triggers the crisis but obviously finding a cure when you're unable to communicate with another living soul is going to be problematic and yet somehow a group of scientists for want of a better word manage to organise themselves in a place called Forsythe Labs where Sam ends up alone having been forcibly separated from his wife at the time of the exodus. There he finds himself isolated in a lab free to experiment with written languages. No one explains to him or even shows him what to do but he susses out what's required of him and sets to. How he was earmarked for this task is never properly explained nor are his qualifications clear (certainly in interview Marcus suggests that he's nothing more than an amateur) but little by little he gets a feel for how things run there without ever communicating directly with anyone. Of course he cannot work on large sections of text

A drafting desk stood at the window, and in its drawers I found paper and the makings of a lettering kit. Rubber stamps, ink pads in different colours, and a set of baby sawtooth knives. Alongside these were a clutch of chrome pens, bottles of ink, an engraver’s kit, a set of reference books labelled with a poison symbol, and, most interestingly, a scroll of self-disguising paper—paper with small windows factored in that could be enlarged with a dial—that allowed you to see only the script character you were presently reading, and nothing else, not even the word it belonged to. It broke the act of reading into its littlest parts, keeping understanding at bay.

but over the weeks he's there he tests a whole variety of ever weirder methods of non-verbal communication. By 'tests' I mean experiments on men and women he thinks of as "Volunteer, test subject, language martyr … I would never learn what they called them, since naming of this sort had no application anymore, and anyway could not be shared." How could this not call to mind the human experimentation carried out by Joseph Mengele?

After a time he is set upon—"medically ambushed" he calls it—injected with a unknown serum and brought to see the man (or one of a body of men) who appeared to be in charge: LeBov; in time he comes to talk about this group collectively as "the LeBovs". (I do use the word 'appear' a lot but for the most part that's all that's left—appearances.) The particular LeBov he meets—and, for a short time at least is able to converse with (as I've said the drug was not a cure)—believes that all Sam's experiments with written modes of communication will bear no fruit. He's more interested in exploring a more mystical solution. Within the laboratory they have a Jew hole and nine other forest Jews along with their listeners; Sam and his listener (which had been stolen from his hut) would make ten, a conventional minyan:

Someone had been doing his reading, a little elementary Jewish procedure, put abroad into the world by our clever elders only to mislead the curious. It astonished me that people expected us to share our holy text, our rules and rituals, with just anyone, or even with each other. Sharing. What a tragic mistake. While the other religions begged for joiners, humping against the resisters until they yielded and swore themselves forever to their principles, we set about repelling them, erecting barriers to belief. It was how I preferred it. And LeBov had taken the bait. The so-called quorum of ten Jews required to ignite proper worship. This rule was one of our better decoys. I marvelled at how off track he was. Whoever was running Forsythe thought a Jewish tradition, invented in the first place, was going to assist their decipherment of the transmission, a rigorously difficult act not tied to mystical belief whatsoever.

They don't know exactly what they're searching for in the Jew hole, an ur-language perhaps that they could return to. We never get to find out. Sam escapes and returns home through the network of underground tunnels or at least to the general area; he settles in his hut in the woods and it's from there that he writes this memoir. To be able to do so he needs to obtain a steady supply of the serum. By now we've learned the unpleasant way that its core ingredient is produced. And that is where the book ends. With us wondering just what kind of future the next generation would be brought up in but then so many post-apocalyptic books and films end on a question mark like that. Why would he want to flee though? Would it not be worthwhile to at least try to see what might happen? His answer is really encapsulated in the last quote.

The core of this book has been done time and time again: following a disaster the hero gets separated from his family and despite the fact the world has gone to hell in a hand basket he's going to do whatever it takes to be reunited with his loved ones, e.g. The Day After Tomorrow where Jack and his team set out for Manhattan to find his son whose freezing to death in the New York Public Library. Sam is nowhere near as heroic but then, like the rest of us, he's just an ordinary bloke. What would an ordinary bloke do?

Perhaps because the protagonist is call Sam and the antagonist Murphy, Beckett was never far from my mind reading this text whether it be the figure crawling through the mud in How It Is or the desiccated bodies attempting to couple dismally in an ill-lit rotunda as described in The Lost Ones. And, of course, Beckett had his own issues with language. It came as no surprise when I found a list of Ben Marcus's top ten books to find Beckett's Stories and Texts for Nothing there which he describes as follows:

These thirteen non-narrative prose pieces are fatalistic outcries uttered by moribund outcasts awaiting oblivion: the resigned, the dying, and the dead —all saved from meaninglessness by the grave, eloquent music of a measured style that redeems, even as it snatches away, their humanity.

Needless to say Kafka also makes the cut.

Reviews of the book are across the board as you can see from this chart from Goodreads:

Goodread Chart

I've seen the book called "jaw-droppingly great", "a worthy addition to the speculative fiction canon" and a clear fan who read the book on a plane from El Paso to Providence said, "I wanted to find a microphone and read it to everyone sitting there, complacent and bored. I wanted to give them a glimpse of what literature can do: transport, unnerve, sate." It's also been called "too clever for its own good", an "uninteresting slog" and "the ramblings of an utterly bored mind." I liked it. I could've liked it more. Everyone—I don't care who they are—wants all the answers. We might be willing to make do with what the author doles out but we really want to know. That what kept people watching Lost, the need to know, but by the time we did we'd exhausted ourselves trying to add up all the pieces and no ending was ever going to truly satisfy us. The Prisoner (the original series I mean) has people guessing right down to this day because (and I know this was partly an act of perversity on McGoohan's part) it doesn't explain everything away. Well The Flame Alphabet is like that and that will really annoy a lot of people. If you're the kind of person who needs answers then maybe avoid this one. In an interview he goes some way to explain his book's paucity of facts:

Your writing is filled with references to tools and people who are left partially understood by the reader, with only small chunks of information available. For you, are these details also partially understood? Do you know information the reader does not?

Hm, no. I’m not playing any kind of game where I try to leave the reader out of the master plan. But if a detail doesn’t add dramatic energy then I see no reason to spoil the writing with it. I guess I prefer one or two sharp details, rather than a laundry list of “facts” about a character, since this frustrates me when I read, being asked to collect data that may not matter.

Of course when you label someone an "experimental" writer that's obviously another thing that's going to put people off. As far as I'm concerned every time I sit down to write it's an experiment that can, and often does, go badly wrong. Marcus writes:

This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me.  I can’t figure out the actual content of the problem.  I’ve never tried to write anything experimental, because I don’t even know what that would be.  I’ve just written what most compels me at the time, what I’d most want to read myself.  Does anyone self-identify as experimental?  Anyone?

The Flame Alphabet is actually a fairly straightforward narrative. It has a plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a good guy and a bad-guy-come-mad-scientist. It's actually more of a page-turner than you might imagine. Marcus will probably never shake the "experimental" label but to my mind he's just a regular writer like the rest of us struggling to find ways to extract something worthwhile from all the clutter in his head. In an interview where he's asked about the Harper's article he says:

I think the basic question is how to write substantive books that you want to write without alienating people. I don’t feel that readers need to be forced to read anything, and if something feels didactic to them, they shouldn’t read it. In the end I think the challenge and problem and responsibility comes back to the writer, and the writer needs to accept how much they care about something. The artistic challenge is whether they can find a delivery system for their material that is engaging vital and entertaining without forfeiting the issues that started their novel off.

You can read an excerpt from the book here and a second one here. There are several interviews online, some of which I've quoted from and linked to, but here is a particularly long one I enjoyed. Finally here are two wee videos to wind up, the first is an interview with Marcus; the second is a short animation based on The Flame Alphabet by Erin Cosgrove, a sort of trailer.


Marcus_01_bodyBen Marcus is the author of four books of fiction, Notable American Women, The Father Costume, The Age of Wire and String and The Flame Alphabet. His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Believer, The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney's, and Tin House. He is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. Marcus is a 2009 recipient of a grant for Innovative Literature from the Creative Capital Foundation. He has also received a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, and three Pushcart Prizes. Marcus is an associate professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara


“Cry me a river,” Dennis said through his teeth.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Cry me a river, it’s an expression. Basically it means all you guys can go fuck yourselves.”
“Oh. Well. That’s awfully sentimental of you.”
– Ben Fountain, ‘The Lion’s Mouth’

Stories—stories of all lengths from hundred word long flash fictions to epic novels—tend to fall into one of two camps: the action-driven narrative or the character study. The ideal one might suppose is a story where the plot and characters don't interfere with each other and instead work in-concert to create something truly memorable. It can be done but it’s not easy and there’s a danger you could end up pleasing no one. I think Ben Fountain might just have managed to get the balance right with this short story collection. The blurb describes the book as follows:

With masterful pacing and a robust sense of the absurd, each story in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara is a self-contained adventure, steeped in the heady mix of tragedy and danger, excitement and hope, that characterizes countries in transition.

The Boston Globe echoes this when it says:

In this first collection the author brings the virtuosity of Greene and le Carré to tales of foreign adventures.

It’s the word ‘adventure’ that I’ve a problem with. Most of these stories take place on foreign soil but there’s not a great deal of action in them. I mean people go places and come back from them so, yes, technically there is action but, for me, what holds these stories together are the protagonists. Not one of them is a cardboard cut-out waiting to have his head blown off although, to be fair, most of them are in locations where the chance of their head being blown off is quite high. Let me illustrate. There are only eight stories in this collection, all a little on the long side. In ‘Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera’ a young ornithologist is being held hostage in the Colombian rain forest:

[A]t last they led him into the main office, Comandante Alberto’s first words were:

“You don’t look like a spy.”

A number of Blair’s possessions lay on the desk: binoculars, camera, maps and compass, the notebooks with their microscopic Blairian scribble. Seven or eight subcomandantes were seated along the wall, while Alberto, the comandante máximo, studied Blair with the calm of someone blowing smoke rings. He resembled a late-period Jerry Garcia in fatigues, a heavy man with steel-rim glasses, double bags under his eyes, and a dense brillo bush of graying hair.

“I’m not a spy,” Blair answered in his wired, earnest way. “I’m an ornithologist. I study birds.”

“However,” Alberto continued, “if they wanted to send a spy, they wouldn’t send somebody who looked like a spy. So the fact that you don’t look like a spy makes me think you’re a spy.”

Blair considered. “And what if I did look like a spy?”

“Then I’d think you were a spy.”

Really they don’t care too much one way or the other if he’s a spy. Probably better if he’s not actually. If someone’s willing to pay a ransom for him then he’s valuable. It seems unlikely but if you don’t ask…

They scanned his passport photo instead, then posted it on their Web site with a five-million-dollar ransom demand, which even the hardcore insurgents knew was a stretch. “Sixth Front gets the Exxon guys,” Subcomandante Lauro muttered, “and we get the scientist with the holes in his boots.”

The rest of the story consists really of Blair trying to get on with his business. He came to the forest to look at birds and, well, there were birds everywhere so why not look at them here; here’s as good as anywhere else. As the soldiers get more comfortable with him and less concerned that he might be any kind of threat he manages to earn a few privileges, the return of his binoculars and his own guide/guard. Time goes by—days, weeks, months eventually—and his research begins to come together but at the same time he also starts to see that there’s more going on here than he first realised. When the American businessmen arrive the scales fall from his eyes. Yes, the story has a plot and once we readers have put two and two together a fairly predictable ending but I didn’t mind that so much because I got caught up in the character of John Blair. Or Joan Blair as the natives insist on calling him. You can read the whole story online here.

OAS_LogoThe second story in the collection, ‘Rêve Haitien’, has a similar vibe. This time the protagonist is Mason, an observer with the O.A.S. (Organization of American States) assigned to Haiti. So he’s not a prisoner but he is very much a stranger in a strange land trying to get on with the locals as best he can:

In the evenings, after he finished his rounds, Mason would often carry his chessboard down to the Champ de Mars and wait for a match on one of the concrete benches. As a gesture of solidarity he lived in Pacot, the scruffy middle-class neighbourhood in the heart of Port-au-Prince, while most of his fellow O.A.S. observers had taken houses in the fashionable suburb of Pétionville. Out of sympathy for the people Mason insisted on Pacot, but as it turned out he grew to like the place, the jungly yards and wild creep of urban undergrowth, the crumbling gingerbread houses and cobbled streets. And it had strategic position as well, which was important to Mason, who took his job as an observer seriously. From his house he could track the nightly gunfire, its volume and heft, the level of intent—whether it was a drizzle meant mainly for suggestive effect or something heavier, a message of a more direct nature. In the mornings he always knew where to look for bodies. And when war had erupted between two army gangs he’d been the first observer to know, lying in bed while what sounded like the long-rumoured invasion raged nearby. Most of his colleagues had been clueless until the morning after, when they met the roadblocks on their way to work.


Mason rarely won; that was the whole point. With the overthrow and exile of their cherished president, the methodical hell of the army regime, and now the embargo that threatened to crush them all, he believed that the popular ego needed a boost. It did them good to see a Haitian whip a blan at chess; it was a reason to laugh, to be proud at his expense, and there were evenings when he looked on these thrown games as the most constructive thing he’d done all day.

Most are content to beat him and enjoy their small victories without asking too many questions but then he encounters a doctor “a mulatto, a young Haitian with bronze skin, an impressive hawk nose, and a black mass of hair that grazed his shoulders” who doesn’t need any help to beat him. The doctor realises right away what Mason is all about and sees too that this might be a man who can be trusted and might prove useful. And so again, as in the first story, we get to see under the skin. Like Blair, Mason also gets an opportunity to do some good but, also like Blair, things don’t pan out the way he might have expected and his experiences completely change his world view. You can read part of the story here (or the whole thing if you have a subscription to Harpers Magazine).

The third story is a little different in that it’s set in the US. In ‘The Good Ones Are Already Taken,’ a Special Forces officer returns home on leave but tells his wife that he can’t sleep with her:

“We can’t do this tonight,” he told her. One of his arms held her shoulders, sympathetic yet sterile, exuding a brotherly tenderness that scared the daylights out of her. “Tomorrow’s fine, we can do it all day tomorrow and frankly there’s nothing I’d rather do. But tonight I can’t.” He paused. “I can’t make love on Saturdays.”

Her lungs collapsed—there was no air, nothing inside to form a response. She found a reserve at the very tip of her mouth. “What are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is—look, it’s sort of complicated. But there’s one thing I wanna make clear right now, I’m still your husband who loves you more than anything.”

Although this story takes place in the States the situation is exactly the same: how to get on with a stranger. In this case the stranger is the woman’s husband who has taken an interest in Haitian voodoo. It was part of his mission:

[A] standard hearts-and-minds tactic of the Special Forces [was to] contact and co-opt the local power structure. In Haiti this meant befriending the village voodoo priest, who turned out to be one Moïse Dieuseul in the remote coastal town where the team was based. Dirk’s near-coherent French made him the team’s point man for local liaison, and from their very first meeting Moïse showed a special affinity for the young American.

erzulieDirk proves very susceptible to Moïse’s teachings and very quickly begins a journey into Haitian voodoo which ends up with him married to Erzulie, a god, a lwa, the voodoo goddess of love.

Okay nuns ‘marry’ Christ in the sense that they’re not going to take husbands on the physical earth and they have given their bodies over to spiritual matters but, as his wife is quick to point out, Dirk is already married and he had made certain promises to her, vows no less, so how’s this all going to pan out? You can read the whole story online here.

‘Asian Tiger’, the fourth story, is set in Myanmar, Burma as used to be, home of The Myanmar Peace and Enlightened Leadership Cup which is “a bush league tournament by any standard, not even regular Asian Tour but a satellite, the dead-end fringe of professional golf.” This description is understandable once you know a bit about Myanmar:

Not the most politically correct place you’ll ever see, they were on everybody’s shit list for human rights and most of the world’s heroin was grown there. It was your classic Third World basket case, complete with drug mafias, warlords, mind-bending poverty, and a regime that made the Chinese look carefree, plus a genuine martyr-saint they kept under house arrest, that sexy lady who won the Nobel Peace Prize—whatshername? On the other hand the generals who ran the country were nuts for golf. After thirty years of incoherent isolation they were building resorts and courses by the dozen, leveraging the sport into hard foreign exchange. Now they were holding a tournament to boost the off-brand national image, but there was a problem: who in their right mind wanted to come? American pros of a certain stature were offered all expenses paid, plus a ten-thousand-dollar guarantee, plus a shot at the sixty-thousand-dollar first prize against what promised to be enticingly tepid competition.

Needless to say no one with any pulling power—Nicklaus, Watson, Norman, Woods—is interested in having their name associated with the place. So step up Sonny Grous. He thinks he’s there for two weeks and then General Hla makes his pitch:

[T]hey wanted Sonny to become Myanmar’s ambassador of golf, their consultant on matters of tourism and sport and their host to visiting dignitaries and businessmen. As compensation he would be provided a car, a house, reasonable expense money, and a salary of twenty-five thousand dollars a month.


“Gentlemen,” Sonny said, laying on his corniest Texas charm, “I would consider it an honour to be your golf ambassador. Just show me where to sign.”

Now what has he gone and gotten himself into? Once again we have a fish out of water. He may not be a prisoner but he has signed a contract. And in some ways that’s worse. Maybe not quite as bad as coming home married to a pagan goddess but still pretty bad. You can read part of the story here.

You starting to get the idea? When I reviewed his novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which he wrote after these stories but was published first here in the UK) my only real criticism as far as that book was that the author makes his point most convincingly within the first few dozen pages; he then he keeps finding new and interesting and then not quite so interesting ways to make it again and again. The short story collection isn’t as bad but there’s a strong theme of alienation running from start to finish; it never goes away. Take for example the last story in the book, ‘Fantasy for Eleven Fingers’ (great title), which is a bit of an oddity because it’s set in Europe at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. As the story is in two halves there are two people who are the strangers as both have the same deformity: in the first part of the story it’s the pianist Anton Visser, who has six fingers on his left hand, and in the second part it’s the young Anna Kuhl who has six fingers on her right hand; she is also a gifted pianist but when we meet her she’s only a child of four and we get to see her grow up and come to terms with fame and its consequences. They are both Jewish, too, and although there’s never been a particularly good time to be a Jew in Europe things are definitely changing for the worse. You can read part of the story here (unless you happen to have a subscription to Southwest Review).

Anna Griffith has written quite a nice wee analysis of the story here. What I like about it is that it made me realise that despite the facts these stories are easy reads—and they are, there’re no huge sentences, he doesn’t use big words and he keeps his character set to a minimum—there’s more going on here; the stories have interesting subtexts and clearly weren’t just scribbled off in an afternoon.

This is illustrated quite well when Fountain talks about writing ‘Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera’:

“I struggled with that story. I always try to do too much. I mean, I probably wrote five hundred pages of it in various incarnations. – Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Late Bloomers’, The New Yorker, 20 October 2008

The same goes for the stories based in Colombia, Sierra Leone and Myanmar:

It's better to go. It would have been better if I had gone to Colombia, it would have been better if I had gone to Sierra Leone. You never know what you're missing. You never know what you don't know until you go. But you can't always go. You don't have unlimited time and unlimited money. And so you do the next best thing—you try to imagine yourself into these places. The way I did it was to read everything I could get my hands on and to talk to other people who might have information. If there were helpful movies or documentaries, I sought those out. I was just trying to soak it all up and imagine my way into it using that basic research and my own experience in similar places or similar situations. People write historical novels all the time, and in those the writer has to imagine himself or herself into a different era. I think it's just as valid an exercise to try to do that with space, with the caveat that it's always better to go if you can. But if you can't, I think with diligence and a lot of work we can get close to it. – Ben George, ‘A Conversation with Ben Fountain’, Ecotone 9

Every story is this book is well thought out, thoroughly researched, well-written and carefully edited. Two of the stories won a Pushcart Prize, and a third won an O. Henry Prize and, of course, the book itself went on to win both the PEN/Hemingway Award—for the best debut book of fiction—and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. The best thing about this collection is the fact that it works as a body of work, always a hard thing to do with a collection of pieces that were never intended to be part of a group. My only reservation there is, as I’ve said, the last story because it’s set in Europe and not in the present but it’s a damn good story, possibly my favourite, and so let’s not be petty.

Looking at some of the reviews on Amazon—most of which give the book four or five stars—I can see the book isn’t going to please everyone. The two things most people will have problems with are that, firstly, the stories don’t have neat punch line endings or morals and most leave you with a feeling of unease—like the wife whose husband has come home married to a goddess (we never really find out how that resolves itself) and the same goes for Mason who returns to Haiti but can’t find the 329266doctor again; he’s left just standing there—plus, secondly, the stories are a little on the long side considering the payload they’re carrying; Fountain could have made his points in half the words. These are fair points but this is the guy’s style. Do you want to enjoy a large cappuccino or toss back an espresso? Do you want to take the scenic route or the motorway?

One thing I do have to say is that Harper’s cover is so much more eye-catching than Canongate’s. Didn’t like it one bit which is a shame because they’ve had a few decent covers recently. Thankfully most of us know better than to judge a book by its cover.


Ben Fountain earned a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980, and a law degree from the Duke University School of Law in 1983. After a brief stint practicing real estate law at Akin Gump in Dallas, Fountain in 1988 quit the law to become a full-time fiction writer.

Fountain's first published novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, was released in early May 2012. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire, Simon Beaufoy, is adapting the novel into a screenplay a new Film4 project in collaboration with The Ink Factory, a U.S. production company. As yet, no director is attached to the project.

He is the fiction editor of Southwest Review and lives with his wife and their two children in Dallas, Texas.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Homogenised Tongues


“Look!” he said. “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” – Genesis 11:9


Looking ahead

Where will it all end? Well, at the end of The Forever War Joe Haldeman envisioned an Earth where mankind has been distilled down to its essence: Man, a single version of humanity who reproduces by means of cloning. This is how Haldeman describes these future humans:

After the air cycled and we'd popped our suits, a beautiful young woman came in with a cartload of tunics and told us, in perfectly-accented English, to get dressed and go to the lecture hall at the end of the corridor to our left.


We sat for a minute and a man, clothed in the same kind of unadorned tunic the woman and we were wearing, walked across the stage with a stack of thick notebooks under each arm.


The man riffled through one of the notebooks and cleared his throat. "These books are for your convenience," he said, also with perfect accent, "and you don't have to read them if you don't want to. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, because you're free men and women. The war is over."

When I read this book the first time many years ago I was too engrossed in the story to pick up on the fact that these two spoke with perfect English accents. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Now it jumps out at me. The collective known as Man are of one mind as one might expect since they speak one tongue because language and thought are inextricably connected.

In another vision of the future of language, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government sets about to restrict human thought and its chosen weapon against inappropriate thought is language, Newspeak, their aim being groupthink. The word isn’t used in the book—it was coined in 1952 and the nod to Orwell is obvious—but the mentality is endorsed as explained by O’Brien:

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like "freedom is slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

In an essay 'The Future of Language', poet Saul Williams notes that “a Latin transcription of the word 'person' is 'being of sound'.” Even when I’m not talking out loud I can still ‘hear’ words in my head and often I can’t get to sleep because of them. Words are hugely important to me as a writer but I suspect that they’re also far more important to most people than they probably appreciate. Because they’re around us and within us all the time it’s too easy to take them for granted. There is a scene in the film Lenny (a biopic of the comedian Lenny Bruce) where, after the cops have taken away his cabaret card and the high cost of lawyers has driven Lenny into bankruptcy, he disastrously represented himself in court. In one scene, he pitifully begs the judge, “Don’t take away my words. Please don’t take away my words!” The words he was referring to were swearwords (often called, rather sweetly, ‘colourful language’) because, as the real Bruce himself this time put it: “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government’.”

Language these days feels a lot safer than it used to be unless you live in a country with odd ideas about freedom of speech. New words are created every year and others fall into disuse—language is, and always will be, a fluid thing—and I can’t imagine even in the dim and distant future new things not needing names but I wonder about how colourful those names will be. Brannon Braga, one of the producer/writers behind Star Trek on television, said in 2001 as they wrapped up Star Trek: Voyager, "I don't think I could have written another line of Datadialogue for Voyager. I really had just about had it with the 24th Century." Why? Because the language was so controlled. Data says, “Shit,” once in Star Trek: Generations but I think that was about it as far as colourful language goes.

No doubt, like me, sometime during your childhood you got sat down with a tin of paints and left to entertain yourself. At first you use the colours one at a time taking care to clean the brush before moving onto another colour. Later perhaps it dawns on you to mix two or three colours in the tin’s lid but the more colours you mix the less interesting the result is until all you have is a pool of sludge. Why that should come as a surprise I don’t get because that’s always the colour of the water when we’re done.

In films and television shows when they want to distinguish between the past and the present they often switch between black and white and colour. It’s an effective technique and I’ve got nothing against it other than the fact that, in some respects, they’ve got it back to front; the past should be in colour and the present in black and Amazin Rasin Barwhite. Perhaps it was simply me being a kid but the older I get the blander the world seems. Walk down the chocolate and sweets aisle in Tesco and ask yourself where are all the packs of Old English Spangles have gone, the Cabanas, the Treets, the Aztec Bars, the Pacers, the Bar Sixes (and the Bar Noirs), the Nutty Bars, Secrets, Golden Cups, Five Boys, Mint Cracknells or the Amazin Raisin Bars… No, it’s just the same old ones, the Mars Bars, the Flakes, the Dairy Milks. Dull, dull, dull.


Looking back

Which brings me to my new book which I’m hoping very few people will think is dull, dull, dull. It’s called Making Sense and consists of nineteen thematically-linked stories, four of which I want to talk about today. ‘Zeitgeist’, ‘Disintegration’, ‘Funny Strange’ and ‘Monsters’ are all written in dialect: two—‘Zeitgeist’ and ‘Disintegration’—are in Glaswegian, ‘Funny Strange’ is in Cockney and ‘Monsters’ is in New Yorkese.

[W]hat is the difference between a dialect and a language? Perhaps the most obvious categorisation is size. Dialects are viewed as smaller subcategories of larger languages. So, Italian is made up of the standard version, along with Lombard, Bergamasque, Ennese, Messinese etc. Of course not all of these dialects meet the criteria to be considered a language but when a dialect varies so much from the language to which it is linked, should it not be given a language status? Dialects in many countries bear no resemblance to the language they supposedly stem from, whilst in others it is clear that there are only minor differences.

Take Lombard for example, it is considered by official standards to be an Italian dialect but in the Ethnologue publication it is listed as a language. It is the same for the majority of dialects in Italy, despite the fact that many of them are not immediately recognisable as being related to Italian – ‘The difference between a dialect and a language’, Veritas

I like the Yiddish expression: A language is a dialect with an army and navy. Hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it?

Ethnologue defines Scots as a language but to be honest most of the people I know speak a version of Scottish English and the simple fact is that nowadays in Scotland it’s not so much the words people use—their dialect—that identifies where they’re from but the way they pronounce them—i.e. their accents. Compare in your head Billy Connolly and Sean Connery and you get a pretty good impression of the east/west divide; there’s a north/middle/south divide too.

A rare video featuring both men

There are still some hangers-on—in Glasgow children are still being called ‘weans’ and I imagine in Edinburgh they’re still being called ‘bairns’—but little by little many of the expressions I was familiar with as a child are dying out; the occasional Scotticism creeps into my writing and I generally let it stand not so much out of a sense of nostalgia but because these are good words and they deserve to be preserved. So when I started writing my story ‘Zeitgeist’ which is about a man out of time it felt only right to give him a strong regional accent. Here’s how the story opens:

Ma wife sez Ah’m too serious.

“Whit d’ye mean, wumman, too serious?”

“Ah dunno, Ben, jist too serious.”

“World’s a serious place, hen.”

“Don’t Ah know it, but do yoo need tae be so serious?”

“Listen, hen, Ah’m ower forty noo. Ah ’hink it’s time Ah goat a wee bit serious noo an’ again.”

“Suit yersel’. Jist don’t come mopin’ t’ me aboot the meanin’ o’ life. Ah’m too busy gettin’ oan wi’ mine t’ worry aboot yoors.”

She had a point, Ah’ll gie her that but Ah doubt we wis keepin’ score that night.

Regular readers of my blog will have seen this kind of thing before in my occasional ‘Aggie and Shuggie’ posts which I used as a way of telling people about new reviews. I know a few people struggled with them at first and it’s perfectly understandable. It looks like I’ve forgotten how to spell. The simple fact is that a great amount of care and attention went into the writing of these four stories to ensure that a line was drawn between accuracy and intelligibility. The first thing I had to do was set down some rules for myself. Let’s look at one: the treatment of the digraph ‘th’ which consists of two different phonemes: the voiced dental fricative (as in this) and the voiceless dental fricative (thing). Let me introduce you to three expressions:

  • th-debuccalisation (‘’hing’ instead of ‘thing’) – Glasgow
  • th-fronting (‘fing’ instead of ‘thing’, ‘bruvva’ instead of ‘brother’, ‘troof’ instead of ‘truth’) – London
  • th-stopping (‘dis’ instead of ‘this’, ‘ting’ instead of ‘thing’) – New York

Of course a Jamaican and an Irishman would say ‘dis ting’ too but with completely different accents and it’s impossible to find adequate spellings to convey the subtleties between one city (or even parts of one city) and another; there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet which is why dictionaries include all those funny symbols to tell you how to pronounce things. If you’re not careful what you end up writing becomes unintelligible. Take a simple term like ‘The Beatles’. In many British dialects we have something called t-glottalisation. This would mean that ‘Beatles’ would get pronounced as ‘Bee-uls’ with the tiniest of pauses inserted where the ‘t’ should be and when you think of how many t’s there are in words you start to see just how messy this all could get.

Another thing you have to bear in mind is grammar. In English you would say, “I was going, we were going” but a Glaswegian would say, “We wis goin’” whereas a Yorkshireman would say, “Ah were goin’.”

Of course I use the term ‘Glaswegian’ as if there is such a thing. The fact is that it’s a composite term just as ‘English’ covers a broad range of dialects and accents; they speak English in Birmingham, England and Wellington, New Zealand but the difference is striking. (I knew a Kiwi briefly—she was a temp in our office—and I said to her one day, “Seriously, do you have to try and use every vowel in every word?”) When I set down the rules for Ben, what I was deciding was how he spoke, not how all Scots should speak. The fact is his accent was based originally on a man from Kilmarnock, not Glasgow, but as I’ve not lived out west for many years I decided to stick with what I was more comfortable with. The differences aren’t huge but you’d never catch a Glaswegian saying, “Ah dinnae ken.”

32315062Cockney—or really more Estuary English these days since strictly the term ‘Cockney’ refers to anyone born within "the sound of Bow bells"—is an accent I’m familiar with only from watching TV; it’s the one Americans usually use as their default in sitcoms, the one that sounds like Dick Van Dyke’s ridiculous accent in Mary Poppins. Odd that with a whole country to pick from they’d jump at an area the size of a few city blocks. The Beatles are known the world over but I’ve yet to hear anyone rush to try to replicate the Liverpool accent. When you think of an east end of London accent probably the first person to jump to mind would be Michael Caine, although, and he admits this himself, his accent has been watered down over the years; compare how he speaks to, say, Ray Winstone and you’ll see the difference. Here’s a paragraph from ‘Funny Strange’:

Y’know wot’s wrong wiv the country? Plenty. There’s plenty wrong wiv the country but there’s one fing especially: it’s lost its sense of ’umour. We went frew two world wars an’ we could still laugh at ourselves but not anymore. Oh, I know there’re still stand-up comics out there, people callin’ ’emselves comedians at any rate—fird-rate jokemongers oo should still be workin’ the clubs—but they’re not funny, not proper like. They fink they’re a riot ’cos people laugh at ’em but that ain’t the same. I listen to ’em an’ I pity their audiences ’cos they’re anyfing but. They’re laughin’ at nuffin ’cos there’s nuffin to laugh at. They’ve all forgotten wot funny is.

The thing that distinguished this accent is h-dropping which is why ‘humour’ becomes ‘’umour’ but the fact is that it’d be pronounced more like ‘yoomah’. There are comics up and down the country and this text would’ve worked perfectly with a northern accent (north, as in the north of England) or a Scottish one but when I started writing it I saw him as an east end comic (someone like Tommy Trinder or Sid James (although he was actually born and raised in South Africa)) and so I stuck with it even though the character was based on Tony Hancock who was a Brummie by birth.

The narrator in ‘Monsters’ is something else entirely. In this story I decided to let the omniscient narrator get involved in the storytelling process and to ensure my readers didn’t assume when I used ‘I’ I wasn’t talking about myself I decided to give him a personality and a rather bolshie one too. I imagined him as a New York mobster circa 1930. That, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the story; it’s not set in the past and there are no mobsters but it made sense to me and, remember, that’s the title of this collection and its central theme.

Now, I’ve never been to New York and even if I had things are very different these days accent-wise. Some of it is due to the natural evolution of language—there’s a fascinating article here about that—but others are seemingly going out of their way to deliberately change how they speak:

The online Yellow Pages includes more than a dozen listings for “New York accent reduction” specialists, and searching “New York accent” and reduction or elimination on Google generates about 4,000 hits. The process typically takes at least several months, with as many as three sessions a week, and can cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. – Sam Roberts, ‘Unlearning to Tawk Like a New Yorker’, The New York Times, 19 November 2010

This isn’t a problem. I’ve seen a lot of films and television programs featuring New Yorkers with profound accents. The accent I had in mind, although I’d never heard him speak when I wrote the story, was Steve Van Zandt’s, at least the one he uses in The Sopranos. I met him in a wonderful little show called Lilyhammer in which he plays much the same character as he did in The Sopranos only this time with a lighter touch. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Monsters’:

Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let’s you and me get a few tings straight: I’m yer narratah; my name’s nonna yer goddamn business, but whad I say goes. We ain’t friends. Capeesh? I don’t do dialogue unless I’m in da mood—which, frankly, is rare—and if der’s a plot, well whoopee-fuckin’-do! (And if yer lookin’ faw a subplot... fuggedaboutit.) And as fah as conflict goes… I’ll give ya conflict. I calls it like I sees it. Bein’ da omniscient kinda narratah I’m da only one dat getsta see da bigga picture so if I’m in da moodta share just tank yer lucky stars and pay attention; sit on yer ass, keep schtum and read.

ParliamoNew Yorkese and Glaswegian in particular share something in common. They both contain a high percentage of Slurvian expressions. When the comedian Stanley Baxter recorded his Parliamo Glasgow! sketches in the seventies he regularly used ‘words’ like ‘noohossferra’ or ‘cudgiegoa’ as in ‘now who is for a’ and ‘could you go a’. It was all done for fun but the fact is that Glaswegians do slur their words and so do New Yorkers which is why the text above contains the expression ‘fuggedaboutit’ because it’s become a word in its own right meaning fat chance.

Writing in a dialect is hard. Of all the stories I’ve ever written these four have been redrafted the most. Essentially you’re creating an eye dialect for the page since there is no such thing as a Standard Cockney, Glaswegian or New Yorkese Dictionary to look up. Plenty of writers have had a crack at writing in dialect before me and some are more extreme than others. Here’s a poem by Tom Leonard who I’ve written about before, here.

Good Style

helluva hard tay read theez init
if yi canny unnirston thim jiss clear aff then
get tay fuck ootma road
ahmaz goodiz thi lota yiz so ah um
ah no whit ahm dayn
jiss try enny a yir fly patir wi me
stick thi bootnyi good style
so ah wull

I have to admit that the first time I read him, which was in my teens, I wondered what on earth he was on about. He’s reduced language to sounds—there’s hardly a Standard English word in the poem—and yet, if you’re willing to persist it’s actually quite a profound wee piece. The key line is “ahmaz goodiz thi lota yiz so ah um” (I’m as good as the lot of you so I am). “Humans speak Language, and all are equal in that fact. The rest is status,” so says Leonard in his review of Language and Power. It’s true. The three dialects I’ve chosen to use are all the vernacular of the common people: Alf Garnett was from the East End of London, his American counterpart Archie Bunker from Queens and I suppose the Scottish equivalent—he’s certainly opinionated enough—would be Rab C Nesbitt from Govan.

No accent is intrinsically good or bad, but it has to be recognized that the way we perceive accents does play a role in our attitude to others. Different people have differing perceptions. So there are significant numbers of young people who see Estuary English as modern, up-front, high on 'street cred' and ideal for image-conscious trendsetters. Others regard it as projecting an approachable, informal and flexible image. Whereas RP, Queen's English, Oxford English and Sloane Ranger English are all increasingly perceived as exclusive and formal. —Paul Coggle, Do you speak Estuary?

These days writing in dialects has gone out of fashion. Readers find it distracting; it slows them down; they frequently have to reread stuff. Often they’ll pack it in and move onto something easier. Books written in dialect can and do sell. Case in point? The Help by Kathryn Stockett in which a Southern-born white author attempts to render black maids’ voices in thick, dated dialect. Reviews were mixed and her decision to attempt to write in dialogue questioned but I suspect that was more to do with the fact she was white and she was leaving herself wide open to claims of racism at worst and stereotyping at best.

Here are a few others:

  • How late it was, how late by James Kelman: written from the point of view of Sammy, a shoplifting ex-convict in a Glaswegian vernacular stream of consciousness.
  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle: the story is filtered through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy employing the vocabulary and syntax of a child as well as a local dialectical register.
  • Londonstani by Gautam Malkani: its narration consisted in a total absorption of a particular kind of street slang that mixed Punjabi with English and Americanisms from MTV and hip hop. The first chapter is called 'Paki' and began with the words: "Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck'd, shudn't be callin me a Paki, innit."
  • Foxy-T by Tony White: written in a hybrid mix of Cockney-Carribean-South Asian patios.
  • Brixton Rock by Alex Wheatle: written in South London vernacular or 'black English'.
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: narrated by a violent young gang leader, Alex, in an invented teenage slang which Burgess called Nadsat, and which Alex's doctor described as "odd bits of old rhyming slang … A bit of gypsy talk too. But most of the roots are Slav."
  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh: written in Edinburgh dialect in short chapters and narrated both by an omniscient narrator and in first-person inner monologues by various heroin users living on the city's inhospitable outer fringes.

I’m not sure anyone’s going to be stalking me for taking the mickey out of New York mobsters and the simple fact is I was aiming at not only a stereotypical accent but a slightly caricatured one; he’s not real. Ben, on the other hand, in ‘Zeitgeist’ and the nameless woman in ‘Disintegration’ are very real and I think their accents humanise them, for me at least. In other stories it could be me talking, there’s so little of the character on the page; these other stories balance that out.

Irvine Welsh, who wrote Trainspotting, said

The classic assumption of such fiction holds true: working-class people speak funny so are in fiction only for the purposes of humour. They do not have an internal life, therefore you traditionally do not have a Renton or a Begbie or a Spud expressing themselves in the narrative of a book.” –   Gerard Seenan, ‘Welsh accuses the middle classes of cultural bias’, The Herald, 30th March 1996

None of my characters are there for comic relief, not even the comedian. There’s humour in every story but there’s humour in every one of these nineteen stories; I like humour. Yes, they may be a bit of a challenge but here’s some advice from a student called Délaissé. She’s talking about how to read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

I read the words, and that's a start. I read them out loud in my best Irish accent, and there is one thing I can tell you with certainty: if you want to get into it, do that. Really.

I know some people have tried that with my ‘Aggie and Shuggies’ and it’s helped and the guy who helped me edit ‘Monsters’ (he’s from New York) did that. Reading should be fun. It can be challenging too and, for me, the fun is in meeting the challenge. I see reading a text in an unfamiliar dialect as no different to sitting down and eating a meal in a strange restaurant. The first time I tried Indian and Chinese food it was unusual but now I’m used to them and enjoy them and I would hope readers of my stories come to enjoy them too.

One last Tom Leonard poem to finish with:

. in the beginning was the word .

in thi beginning was thi wurd
in thi beginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin was thi wurd
in thi biginnin wuz thi wurd
n thi biginnin wuz thiwurd
nthi biginnin wuzthiwurd
nthibiginnin wuzthiwurd

. in the beginning was the sound .

Here’s a nice wee video where Leonard reads this poem and also talks about high- and low-status languages. He also reads and talks about his famous poem ‘Unrelated Incidents - No.3’, better known as ‘The Six O’clock News’.

Making Sense is available as a paperback from the Fandango Virtual website. An ebook will appear in due course. You can read ‘Zeitgeist’ online here.

Sunday 9 June 2013

You say tomato, I say tomahto. You say stranger, I say outsider.

The Outsider

Beyond a certain point one cannot reconcile the demands of translation and of poetry, and one must opt for one or the other – A.C. Graham, introduction to Poems of the Late T’ang

A while ago I reviewed The Jaguar’s Dream which is a collection of, to put it simply, translations into English of poems from a variety of eras and languages. The poems were translated by the Australian poet John Kinsella who is not a professional translator but tackled the job purely for the pleasure of doing so. In several of his poems I found things I would have done differently. A simple example is his decision in his version of Supervielle’s ‘La Mer Secrète’ to translate ‘Elle est ce que nous sommes’ as ‘It is what we become’. It is not wrong since French has no neuter; something which has always bothered me. Who decided that the sea was female? I wrote about it five years ago in my post French computer sex and have yet to find an answer to the question. Of course in prose I would have been perfectly fine with Kinsella translating elle as ‘it’ but poetry is another ballgame completely. My take on the poem is that Supervielle is using personification here and treating the sea as if she were a woman, which is perfectly feasible, but how would we ever know?

I only studied French for two years at school (and Latin for one). I would have quite liked to have continued my studies but I wanted an O-Level in Music far more. Besides all that was forty years ago. So I am a long way away from what little I did learn but some of it stuck enough to know when the subtitles are wrong on TV. On the whole though I’ve never given the subject of translation much thought over the years. I’ve read books in translation and assumed that as the men and women who were getting paid to do the job they knew what they were doing. Always been a bit naïve me. Since I’ve started doing book reviews though and noticing how some translations get praised over others it has made me curious.

The title of this post refers to the song by George and Ira Gershwin and the novel by Albert Camus. When I read The Outsider in my late teens I assumed that that was the book’s title and it came as a great surprise to me to learn that my American cousins call the selfsame book, The Stranger. The title in French is, of course, L’Étranger which, admittedly, looks like ‘stranger’ but I’m told that there isn’t a equivalent expression in English and that étranger means something between ‘stranger’ and ‘outsider’ whatever that may be. Why, I wonder, did English not simply absorb the word as it has done with so many foreign expressions like vis-à-vis, tête-à-tête and mano-a-mano?

I enjoyed doing research to support my review of The Jaguar’s Dream and thought it might not be such a bad idea to have a crack at translating myself so I typed ‘poésie française moderne’ into Google and picked the first poem that wasn’t too long. It turned out to be an extract from ‘Art poétique’ by Eugène Guillevic of whom I knew nothing. I cut and pasted the poem into a Word document and began. Here is the original and what Google Translate made of it:

Art poétique (extract)

Si je fais couler du sable
De ma main gauche à ma paume droite,

C'est bien sûr pour le plaisir
De toucher la pierre devenue poudre,

Mais c'est aussi et davantage
Pour donner du corps au temps,

Pour ainsi sentir le temps
Couler, s'écouler

Et aussi le faire
Revenir en arrière, se renier.

En faisant glisser du sable,
J'écris un poème contre le temps.

Poetic Art

If I pour sand
Of my left hand to my right palm,

This course is for fun
Touching the stone became dust,

But that is also and more
To give the body time,

So feel time
Flow, flow

And also do
Go back, denying oneself.

By dragging the sand,
I write a poem against time .

Okay we all know that Google Translate is going to mangle the text but for the purpose of a cursory read it does okay; you get the gist. We had a guy pouring sand from one hand into the palm of his other hand. It’s a pleasurable experience and a metaphorical one from all accounts but even just having a quick glance it’s obvious that there is a lot missing here.

The title was the easy bit. Ars Poetica is a Latin term meaning “The Art of Poetry” or “On the Nature of Poetry”.

The first problem I had was determining what the sentences were. On the surface it looks like the first five stanzas make up one long sentence leaving only a short sentence in the final stanza. I suspected that whoever had transcribed the poem had made mistakes. They hadn’t. This is how that opening sentence is translated by Google once all the line breaks are removed:

If I pour sand in my left hand to my right palm, it is of course for the pleasure of touching the stone became dust, but also and more to give body to the time, so feel time flowing , drain and also do go back, denying oneself.

sands-of-timeWhat’s obvious here is that Google Translate treats every line as a sentence and that affects the translation more than one might expect. We see this in line four where the line is translated ‘the course’ whereas the sentence opts for the idiom ‘of course’ which makes all the difference. The same goes for line eight where Couler, s'écouler is translated as ‘Flow, flow’ rather than ‘flowing, drain’. Couler means ‘flow’ or ‘run’ or ‘cast’ or ‘roll’, even ‘smear’. Écouler means ‘sell’ or ‘dispose of’ so ‘drain’ wouldn’t be such a bad translation.

Line six was the first one I struggled with:







For / to


of / the


at the / to the


Du is a contraction of the words “of” and “the”. Au is a contraction of the words “at” or “to” and “the”. So is it ‘to give the body time’ or ‘to give [the] body to the time’. That annoying little preposition makes all the difference. In the first instance we’re simple allowing the body time to experience the flow of the sand but in the other suggests a dedication of the body especially since donner can mean ‘donate’. People given themselves to God or they give of themselves to others. It’s the difference between listening to music and giving oneself to the music. Or do we have a situation here like we have with L’Étranger? is Guillevic covering all his bases here, the physical and the, for want of a better word, the spiritual?

I found the fifth stanza particularly troublesome:













do / be


in / to


to himself


I decided to have a look at some other translations:

nous avons souvent souhaité faire revenir le temps en arrière
we often want to return time back

revenir en arrière pour faire les choses différemment
go back and do things differently

The notion of turning back time is a common one whether we’re talking literally as in The Time Machine or metaphorically. Renier is a verb that means to deny, renounce, disown, repudiate or, more specifically if preceded by se, deny oneself. What is the narrator saying here? If we turn back time then we are denying ourselves what? We have time in the form of grains of sand trapped in our hand. We can metaphorically halt the flow of time whenever we want to.

The last line is easy. It’s practically a transliteration: J'écris un poème contre le temps – I write a poem against time. But the penultimate line made me hesitate again.











Faisant is the present participle of faire. Glisser—think glissando—means to slip, slide or even skid. Context dictates it won’t be ‘skid’ but I was curious why Google Translate threw up ‘dragging’ and I wondered whether or not the poet was suggesting we tighten our fist so that time drags, another common English idiom. In a computer manual they have the expression “Soit en faisant glisser l'appareil sur ce dernier”. Is 'faisant glisser' equivalent to the frictional-forceconcept of 'dragging' an item with the mouse? Probably. But do we really drag an icon? I’m thinking back to my Applied Mechanics days and the good old coefficient of friction. We slide things about the screen; we don’t drag them. Sand, however, would provide resistance. Sand has a friction coefficient of 0.60. Or am I getting carried away here? Perhaps.

This is what I settled on:

The Art of Poetry

If I pour sand from my left hand
into the palm of my right hand

the sensation is most pleasant.
Time has turned these stones into dust.

But there’s something else, something more,
which affords me the option to

experience time flow and run
out. Stop. Go back. Deny yourself.

Letting sand slip through my fingers
I write a poem against time.

I decided not to go for a literal translation for the most part but to get under the skin of the poem. At the same time I didn’t want to impose my own (possibly) narrow interpretation:

Every language, Guillevic tells us, is foreign. “Foreign, yes, because words are not made for the use they have in a poem. It’s the work of the poet … to make them say something different from what they would commonly say, by themselves.” – Carnac and Living in Poetry’, James Sallis, Boston Review, October / November 2000

The question begs to be asked: Is it possible to do justice to any author unless you are familiar with more than just the poem you have in front of you? On the Bloodaxe site it says this about Guillevic:

For Guillevic, the purpose of poetry is to arouse the sense of Being. In this poetry of description—where entire landscapes are built up from short, intense texts—language is reduced to its essentials, as words are placed on the page ‘like a dam against time’. When reading these poems, it is as if time is being stopped for man to find himself again.

That, for me, is a significant comment especially when examining a poem about the nature or art of poetry. Since I couldn’t find an English translation of the poem online (although I did run across a Russian one of all things) I decided to order a copy of Ars Poetica and while I was waiting on it arriving in the post did some research to see what I could find out about Guillevic.

Eugène Guillevic (Carnac, Morbihan, France, August 5, 1907, Carnac – March 19, 1997, Paris) was one of the better known French poets of the second half of the 20th century. Professionally, he went under just the single name "Guillevic". – Wikipedia

guillevicWikipedia lists 38 books. Predictably very little has ever been translated into English. I found four: Carnac (1961), Geometries (1967), The Sea & Other Poems (a compilation to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth), Selected Poems of Guillevic and, fortunately for me, Art Poétique (1985-86). Auster’s The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry does, however, include nine poems translated by Savory, John Montague, and Levertov. James Sallis, writing in The Boston Review, doesn’t find this deficiency surprising:

What is at the very heart of his work’s excellence—the simplicity of its diction, the unadorned language, its very modesty—renders it all but untranslatable. Even in French, Guillevic can be an elusive read. Slight, elliptical, gnomic, the poems vanish when looked at straight on. "Les mots / C’est pour savoir," he says. Words are for knowing. And by les mots he means, resolutely, French words. Because their mystery, their magic, is in the language itself, these poems do not easily give up their secrets, or travel well. They are their secrets. They crack open the dull rock of French and find crystal within. In English, all too often, only the dullness, the flatness, remains.

Wikipedia’s brief entry has only this to say about his actual writing:

His poetry is concise, straightforward as rock, rough and generous, but still suggestive. His poetry is also characterized by its rejection of metaphors, in that he prefers comparisons which he considered less misleading.

A poet who eschews metaphors. Interesting. His first book was Requiem which was published rather late, in 1938, by Tschann. He worked in the Ministry of Finance (rising to Inspecteur d'Economie Nationale). His obituary in The Independent says:

This career, with all its legal and administrative rigour, had a decisive effect upon his poetry, enabling him to discard all "poeticality" and "rigmarole rhyming". He became a firm disciple of the Object, and disdained the Surrealists' new-fangled obsession with the Image.

And Sallis again:

Alterity may be Guillevic’s obsessive theme. He is, of course, among the most outward-directed and least subjective of poets, so it’s only inevitable that soon he’d fetch up against the world’s blank face and lack of affect. However stubbornly we confront or make demands upon them, the world and its things remain unknowable. In a poem from his second collection, Exécutoire, he writes: "To see inside walls / Is not given us. / Break them as we will / Still they remain surface." Like the sea.

I said that Guillevic is a French poet and that is true but French was not his first language. In her introduction to Selected Poems of Guillevic the American poet Denise Levertov notes:

LeveretovIt is curious to note that, outside school, Guillevic did not hear French spoken around him, but, in early childhood, Breton, and in adolescence, Alsatian, until he was nearly twenty. Jean Tortel … speculates on the possible influence on his work of this early detachment from the language from which he writes; perhaps, he suggests, it helped to form “the consideration from which he approaches words, the space he leaves between them and himself. For him each vocable (plate, chair, nightingale) is not something to be taken for granted, something everyday.” One might say, indeed, that his relation to words is truly phenomenological…

Levertov is very honest as regards her own efforts:

I am not fully satisfied, by any means, with most of my versions of Guillevic; but A.C. Graham’s definition of the translator’s choices [quoted, in part, at the top of this article] does describe my intention, which has been to render these poems in such a way that they would seem, in English, to be written in the language of poetry and not Translationese.

and even in a tiny poem like this she need to qualify one of her choices:

The little trout
slim1 as a penknife

can’t find its rock
in the great brook.

     1 Literally, “the size of.” (D.L.)

The book arrived quicker than I expected so I’m going to leave this here. I think I may well do a full article on Guillevic at a later date. I was keen, nonetheless, to see what Maureen Smith had made of this extract. Smith lives in France where she was a professor of English and American Literature until she retired in 2002. She is trilingual and her specialism is contemporary poetry. She has written articles in English, French and Spanish on contemporary writers and painters.

Here is her translation of this excerpt:

If I pour some sand
From my left hand to my right palm,

It’s of course for the pleasure
Of touching powdered stone,

But it’s also and more so
To give a body to time,

So as to feel time
Trickling, passing by

And also to make it
Turn back, retract.

By making some sand slip by,
I’m writing a poem against time.

Is her translation right? I never thought of using ‘retract’ nor did I see that he was talking about making time turn back (although I did wonder about it above) but it’s quite obvious here. I’m not sure about her use of ‘some’ in the penultimate line but I see that she’s gone with giving ‘a body to time’ which I wasn’t sure about.

All in all I’m not displeased with my effort. I think I’ve done a little more than translate. I’ve also partly interpreted (i.e. imposed my interpretation) and that could be viewed as a weakness; I know I said above that I tried not to but I don’t think I tried hard enough. I do think Smith’s missed something by simply talking about sand as ‘powdered stone’ though. What is it has turned the stone into powder? Okay, it’s the sea, but it’s the sea over time. After having a think about it I decided to change one line and add in a couple of tweaks. Here is my final (for the moment) version:

If I pour sand from my left hand
into the palm of my right hand

the sensation is most pleasant.
Time has turned these stones into dust

but there’s something else, something more,
which affords me the option to

experience time flow and run
out or stop and turn back the clock.

Letting sand slip through my fingers
I write a poem against time.

KinsellaI’ve removed the title because now I have the book I can see that the whole book is really one long poem made up of tiny fragments like this.

This has been an enjoyable exercise and I may do it again. I’m certainly glad I discovered this poem and have John Kinsella to thank for that. So I’ll let him have the final say. Here is a link to his poem ‘I read Guillevic's Carnac’.

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