It’s been an age since I last picked up a book in French and at the beginning of the week I found I was hankering after one. I dug around a bit and found the book I’d abandoned halfway through, all about a magician’s conference in deepest Tibet where the skeptical son of the greatest of all magicians has gone to receive a tribute to his father. This man – the main protagonist – is a writer and believes that our human desire for illusion, the way we cherish our gullibility, is at the heart of any magical trick. But the magicians are trying to convince him that there is scientific proof of travel between parallel worlds, reincarnation and so on. It’s a fun book full of ideas, but it’s also written in this lovely, smooth French that’s a pleasure to read. As a non-native speaker it’s notable how small differences in style can make for big differences in understanding. If the French is slangy and idiomatic or uses a local dialect I can get very lost. I also get fed up if the writer draws from some huge vocabulary full of esoteric or exotic words. There’s only so much looking up in the dictionary you can take before the sense of a passage goes to pieces in your mind. But generally speaking, after all these years of reading French, I can get through most books without worrying about the problems of the language and just enjoy the completely different music that another tongue makes.
I read my first French novel when I was about 16 – it was an Agatha Christie that I also had in English and I read the two side by side. At that stage of learning a language it’s just too tedious to keep puzzling and puzzling over what things mean, and maintaining the impetus to keep going means taking the easy solution of a published translation. By the time I got to university I was reading the French books on their own, but it was still a slow and sometimes painful process. Nothing is so frustratingly opaque as a sentence in a foreign language that you just cannot make head nor tail of. It’s a strange but undeniable truth that modern language students are some of the flakiest in the average year’s intake; they seem more prone to worry and anxiety than the career-focused lawyers and the laid back natural scientists. The only groups who match them for trips to see their tutors are the English students and the mathematicians, who are absolutely spectacular in their embrace of personal difficulties when they decide to go for it. It’s only a half-baked personal theory, but I do think that trying to work with three different language networks at once is a surefire way to mess with your head. There’s something about the attempt to prise meaning and significance out of complex arrangements of symbols (and what else is maths after all?) that uproots everything familiar, dependable and safe in the mind. By the time I was sitting my finals I was timing myself. I could do 50 pages an hour in English, 40 or so in French, but I was lucky to manage 20 an hour in German.
Anyone who’s ever read any German will understand what the problem is. German is a logical and precise language, but in its adherence to the rules it tends to go faintly internally bonkers. In German the auxiliary verb comes in second place in a sentence, but all the other verbs then line up in a row at the end (I have to the shops been, etc). This means that you can’t ever work out a sentence until you’ve reached the end of it and reshuffled all the verbs to put them in their correct places. It’s tricky when reading, and it makes listening comprehension a complete nightmare. If you’ve ever read a sentence of Kleist in the original, with its strings of sub clauses and its manically intense syntax, you could quite understand why he chose to end his life with the most hyper-organised suicide pact the Western world has ever seen. To my mind the German language shows you exactly why the culture is so frighteningly good at logistics, so absurdly organized. If you grew up from birth learning to make complex mental rearrangements of every sentence you ever heard, I figure you’d be pretty good at creating a timetable. I’m sure that languages do shape a culture’s mentality. Years ago at a party I met a Serbian lawyer who came from a small town called Grk. He said he was convinced that his people would be less aggressive if only their language had more vowels.
Anyhow, I digress. But reading a whole book in another language teaches you that no two languages think the same way. Explaining something to someone in a different language is an incredibly hard thing to do because somehow the steps of logic are all altered. The French person just wouldn’t begin in the same place as the English person, wouldn’t appeal to the same causality, wouldn’t find the same steps of reasoning to be convincing. That’s why reading literature in a different language is so very interesting, because the networks of my English brain get placed on top of the world of the French writer and all kinds of questions rise to the surface. That’s how I learnt to be a literary critic, matching English cultural expectations, even at the level of the sentence, against the French and German ones in the stories I was reading. Trust me – it makes the processes of criticism so much more obvious.
But I’d recommend it to anyone to have a go at a book in a foreign language. You have to allow for a bit of a struggle with the first twenty pages while you work out what’s going on (what we are happy to tolerate as enigmatic in English makes you feel very uncertain whether you haven’t just misunderstood in another language), and get used to the vocabulary of an author. I find I have to look up a lot of words in that first section, and then very few after that, as I’ve grown accustomed to the personal lexicon of the writer. And if you can get that far, and keep going, it won’t be long before the sheer beauty of another language is released from the words that once looked so resistant, and it’s an experience that’s well worth the effort.