Thursday, February 25, 2010

See You Later: Writing in Two Languages

Some time in 1958 or 59, my parents moved into their first American home, an immaculate ranch in a suburb of Boston. The neighbors who came to greet them no doubt noticed my father’s excellent English and his strong Greek accent. My mother’s accent was harder to place, thanks to her mother who had thrown her own French Swiss into the Greek mix. What would have been crystal clear was that my parents were foreign. Not from here.

You can hardly blame the unsuspecting American neighbors for finishing their visit with a casual “See you later.” How were they to know that my parents would take this literally? That my parents would sit in their living room, dressed nicely, all the rest of the day, waiting for the promised return of their new friends?

I grew up with the story of “The See You Later.” It became not so much a phrase as a concept: seeyoulater. Or, with a Greek accent: σηγιουλεïτερ. For my parents, it began as a story of embarrassment, of a weakness unveiled despite their steady progress into American life. But when they retold it to me years later, The See You Later had already become a story of success. This, too, they had learned. They had faced this weird linguistic obstacle and they had triumphed. They would tell the story with a bit of a gleam in their eye. You can’t fool us, they said. We understand American idioms.

But the truth is that they never did understand English idioms. And neither did I. The cat that swallowed the pyjamas? Yup. Out of the clear? (In the clear, out of the blue, who’s to say?) Open my appetite? (Not if I’ve swallowed the pyjamas, I guess.)

Which brings me to my ongoing predicament as a writer—a predicament I’d like to think I share with other writers out there who make their creative way in a language that is not fundamentally their own. Writers who are Not From Here.

There are plenty of examples of bi-lingual or self-translating success. Nabokov and the Czech-born Tom Stoppard come immediately to mind. But I suspect most of us are a lot more bumbling than these two. Most of us have to constantly rescue our odd-sounding English with a last-minute realization that the syntax we used is borrowed from another tongue. Usually it’s during the exercise of reading a manuscript aloud when we catch the alien sound in time to correct it. But if we don’t hear it then, woe be to the readers and editors who have to deal (or choose not to) with the convoluted prose.

It took me a long time before I realized that I was frequently writing sentences in my head in Greek and then translating them into English. (My documented insistence on the past imperfect turns out to be me using Greek syntax in English.) Now that I know this is going on, the question is how can I and other bilingual writers make it an advantage?

1. A Built-in Thesaurus

If you can’t think of the right word in English, go to the foreign one and see if that sends you back to a more useful spot in English. The second language adds another layer of subtlety, a new dimension, and sometimes helps you find the better word.

2. An Editing Tool

If you know you have a tendency to write strange syntax, you can teach yourself how to look for those extra words—and you can learn to eliminate all extras, whether they come from self-translation or not. The end result is leaner, more efficient prose.

3. Attention to Diction

For those of us who don’t have English as our first language, it’s always going to be a tool rather than something instinctive. That makes us very aware of what we’re doing to screw it up, of course. But it can also, I hope, heighten our awareness of what a gift language is. Use it properly and it’s a powerful, wondrous thing.

Striving to Get it Right according to an English orthodoxy is just one way to handle the fact of bilingualism. It’s what worked for me, the kid who for a time was so desperate to blend in that she refused to speak English in Greece and Greek in America. (I still find it annoying when my mother throws the occasional English word into her Greek when a Greek one is readily available.)

For others, there is power in doing exactly the opposite of what I’ve described here.

If you’re a bilingual writer, what works for you? How have you drawn on the power of your other language? And what limitations have you found, as you try to formulate your literary style?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Greek Fiction: Is it European?

As often happens when I go into a bookstore, I emerge with more books than I planned to buy. Or with entirely different books than I planned to buy. Frequently, I go into a bookstore vowing that I will only scan the titles—the way you might take in familiar paintings in a museum—and not buy any more books until the pile on my nightstand, desk, dresser, windowseat (you get the picture) is read. I invariably fail.

Just last week, I went into my local independent to buy Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. I had read an essay by Hemon, or an article about him, several months ago and had been interested to find out more about his Balkan viewpoint. I ended up ordering a copy of The Lazarus Project, but did leave with another Hemon creation: his edition of Best European Fiction 2010, published by Dalkey Archive Press and with a preface by Zadie Smith. The boldly designed cover and the feel of the book in my hand were compelling enough. The content was, I felt confident, sure to intrigue.

I have yet to verify that assumption. But I do have a question. The table of contents is organized by country, beginning with Albania and ending with the United Kingdom. As a testament to the multiplicity of Europe’s nations—and perhaps a reminder that that whole Euro Zone thing might have been an idea against the cultural trend?—there are double entries from Spain, Ireland, and Belgium, covering the main languages spoken in those countries. There are three entries from the UK, recognizing the distinct literary aesthetics of England, Scotland, and Wales. The volume brings together between its yellow and black covers former foes and former countrymen, from within the former Yugoslavia and beyond. Interestingly, the cover manages to evade allusion to any national color scheme. Yellow and black evoke road signs more than anyone’s flag.

As for that question: Where is Greece? (Or the Czech Republic, for that matter, to balance out Slovakia?) Sure, we now know that Greece fudged the numbers to get into the Euro Zone, but I doubt Hemon was onto this information back when the book went to press. And even if you feel like kicking Greece out of the Union now, you have to admit that its geography puts it this side of Europe’s eastern edge.

I ask about Greece’s literary absence only in small part out of ethnic loyalty (as a first-generation Greek/American). I recognize that being the cradle of western civilization doesn’t give a country a lifetime pass on further achievements. If Greece wants to be included in a collection of European fiction in 2010, they should earn that spot.

So what was it that kept them from the roster? Was it a lack of good short work in 2009, leading up to publication? Or was it—as I almost suspect—something to do with the Greek narrative aesthetic and what I’ve found to be its reliance on broad melodrama?

Greeks whose taste in painting, design, architecture, and music I trust often recommend this novel or that as a book I must read in order to appreciate the merits of contemporary Greek literature. And I invariably find these books overwritten and obvious. They can’t hold a candle, in my view, to such writers as Venezis, Hatzis, Mirivillis, or Kazantzakis. These older writers—especially the first two—wrote with a surprising economy, finding their power in the inherently evocative nature of the Greek language. There was no need for over-writing, because they understood the strength of the tool they were using.

I confess to wondering if Hemon wasn’t right to leave Greece out at least for now. I cringe a bit at the thought that today’s Greek writers couldn’t make the cut, and I wonder if that's true.

If you're Greek, what's your thought on contemporary Greek fiction? Greek or not: is there such a thing as a national literary aesthetic?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Movie Review: Percy Jackson

It may be the only good idea director Chris Columbus ever had, but at least in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, he finds a use for Greek currency: give it to Charon and he’ll take you across the river Styx into the Underworld. Too bad the drachma doesn’t exist anymore in the real world. And too bad (for the Euro) Greece’s current economic situation is taking the Euro down with it. It’s a sad state of affairs indeed when a country’s ancient currency is reduced to a bit part in a Chris Columbus movie.

There are many sad things in this movie, none of them intentional. The camerawork—which seems to consist of switching the camera on and off. The screenplay—which reduces Catherine Keener to wooden declarations of single-mom platitudes. The quirks, shall we say, of the story—which involves the quickest meet-cute trajectory ever recorded on film.

It’s not all a disaster, though. When Charon does take you to the Underworld, you get to see the brilliant comedian Steve Coogan playing Hades as a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and a biker dude. He is one of the few in a roster of fairly well-known actors who seems not only to be slumming but also sincerely depicting a character. (If you don’t know Coogan, rent Michael Winterbottom’s take on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story.)

The same can’t be said for Uma Thurman, who makes no attempt at sincerity and simply has a blast. Her Medusa is almost worth the trip to the movie. Wearing a black leather coat with a collar to die for (or turn to stone for), and channels a spa denizen gone to the dark side. And even a head-full of snakes doesn’t overshadow her performance.

Percy Jackson and The Olympians will never, ever be on anybody’s list (except the Razzies?) of top movies. But it does leave us with an abiding mystery. Why, of all the Greek gods depicted on screen, including Melina Kanakaredes as Athena, is Rosario Dawson’s Persephone the only one who speaks Greek? “Go away,” she says, to the Hell Hounds in Hades. Would that we could do the same.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Poems for Valentine's Day

It takes a skilled reader-aloud to do justice to poetry. Someone like Ian McKellen, or Judi Dench, or Patrick Stewart. Fortunately, these are just some of the readers you can listen to courtesy of The Poetry Archive and The London Times Online. If you're in the UK, you can even select one of the recorded poems and send it to someone--for Valentine's Day.

@Harold Davis

It's not all roses and rainbows at the Times, though. They interestingly offer Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (read by Romola Garai), a poem tinged with anxiety over the coming of a modern and faithless age, in which "ignorant armies clash by night". "Ah, love, let us be true to one another," Arnold says. But it's not easy. For this new world "Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain." Would you like a chocolate strawberry with that?

And Rosamund Pike is assigned as dark a pair of love poems as anyone could choose: Rupert Brooke's "Oh! Death Will Find Me" and Christina Rossetti's "Remember"--both works trying to assert love's permanence in the face of the inevitable.

Of course that's how it is with the best love poetry. It never loses sight of the inherent folly of romance.

Take a tour through what The Poetry Archive has to offer--and go to their website, where more recordings are available. For contemporary American poetry, visit Poetry Speaks.

What's your favorite Valentine's Day poem? And is it satirical or sincere?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Children's Books

“Oi, get off our train!”

It’s a great line. Subtly British with its “oy”, collegial (it’s “our” train), and just feisty enough to signal that something exciting is about to happen. The book of that title sits somewhere on a shelf in my basement (I hope), set aside in a small pile of favorite volumes I read to my son and daughter when they were small. The son turned twenty-one in the wee hours of today, so I find myself thinking back to the stories—and specifically the phrases—that have become a part of our family language over the last two decades.

For me, besides the “oy” of John Burningham’s book, there’s A.A. Milne’s “Bisy Backson”, the cryptic phrase that so puzzled Pooh when, unknown to him, Christopher Robin headed off to school each day. Who was this Backson, Pooh needed to know? And why was he keeping Christopher Robin so busy? It’s a handy phrase, when you want to tell someone you’re going out to do errands but you’ll be home in time to get to the soccer game, or the office. Busy Backson. Speaks volumes.

Bendamalina. I can remember nothing from that book except the cadence in which I used to read its comic formula aloud. “Bendamalina, Bendamalina, go home and tell your sisters to put the soup on to heat.” And Bendamalina, because she was wearing a pot on her head (of course), would hear it all wrong. A perfect analogy to a child’s occasional bewilderment in the world of grownup language—and to my own, as a non-native English speaker occasionally foiled by idioms.

And finally: “Ooh, said all the little crocodiles.” Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile. Not exactly a classic, but somehow ever-present in my family vocabulary. When the twenty-one-year-old son shows me his diploma in a couple of years, I’m likely to exclaim “ooh”—and to follow it with a reference to those crocodiles.

Writers and readers are always being asked about their favorite book. What about your favorite children’s book? Which books stuck in your head? What were the stories from your childhood or your children’s childhood whose language became part of your very own?

Happy Birthday, Eoin!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Movie Review: Up in the Air

The sight of George Clooney’s dapper form is almost enough to distract viewers of Up in the Air from its essentially conservative outlook. The movie has all the trappings of the Exploration of the Modern Predicament: the rootless man and the rootless woman, the detached career, the alienating urban environment, the even more alienating space of airport terminals and hotel rooms, the sex without commitment.

But the real tone of the movie is signaled right from the start by the chicly retro credit sequence. We’re in the twenty-first century—by way of the fifties.

Everything in Up in the Air tends towards marriage. That’s the movie’s prime law of physics: all bodies in motion tend to hope for married life. Some of that we expect. We expect that Anna Kendrick’s young trainee will voice the earnest rebuttal to Clooney’s soulless philosophy. We expect that Clooney’s life will be shown up for its emptiness. We expect him to have A Revelation that he wants more out of life. We even expect that there will be a twist involving his relationship with Vera Farmiga’s equally rootless and commitment-free Alex.

What we don’t expect (stop reading here if you don’t want to know) is that the surprise is not that the woman is just as much a player as the man. Jason Reitman is not going for a gender commentary here. Instead, he’s going for an affirmation that marriage is the correct state in which people should live. That’s what Kendrick’s Natalie wants, that’s what Alex has (it’s not another man in her bed, but the even more scandalous husband in the kitchen that provides the movie’s final frisson), and that’s what Clooney’s stranded Ryan Bingham wants.

In the end, though, Up in the Air is cleverly just what its title says. In the final sequence, we see Clooney standing in front of a giant departures board. We know from an earlier scene between him and Farmiga that the board is where you go when you can choose to go anywhere in the world. You just take your frequent flier miles and pick a city. Now Clooney stands with the names of cities behind him and an exit sign directly above his head. Off he goes. But it’s a Sartrian huis clos. There’s really no way out.