Tuesday, July 31, 2018

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About: Collected Nonfiction

When the author Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of 90, I was saddened and disappointed by the scant attention paid to his passing. Bellow was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His novels are still relevant, in a way that many of past generations are not. And his writing... his writing is simply astounding.

With this in mind, and my love of nonfiction, I looked forward to reading There Is Simply Too Much To Think About, a collection of Bellow's nonfiction. I assumed that Bellow's intelligence, insight, compassion, and precision command of language would make for some fascinating reading. I was right.

The essays, speeches, and literary criticism collected in this volume display a towering intellect, but not a cold one. Bellow's view of the world is always humane and compassionate. He observes keenly, he understands deeply, but he also feels deeply. His gift is the ability to convey that feeling in a way that feels completely novel, bringing the reader new insights into the human condition.

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About recalls, for me, my favourite nonfiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Both Bellow and Wallace are willing to play out a train of thought as far as it will take them, both broadly and deeply. Both were gifted observers who possessed an astounding command of language. But beyond all that (which is a lot), both observed with compassion, and with love.

At the time Wallace was writing the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, novels, film, and visual arts were stuck in the ironic mode. Everyone was jaded; everything was viewed with rolled eyes. Wallace wrote about the overuse of irony, and in his own work, he eschewed that orientation for something more meaningful, and more compassionate. (If you're not familiar with this, this piece in Salon may be useful, and if you want more, Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction".)

Bellow, of course, didn't grow up in a world of ironic observation, but he similarly comments on an orientation from his own eras -- the academy, and the theoretical approach to literature. In many of the essays in There Is Simply Too Much, Bellow discourses on his own methods as being free from theory. He digresses to tell us, in essence, that he writes from his heart and his mind -- and he hopes you will read with yours. Bellow wants us to stand in front of a work of art and gasp at its beauty, and be awed by the emotions that beauty stirs in us -- not read about that art in a guidebook, or worse, be told what it symbolizes.

The writing collected in There Is Simply Too Much, selected by Benjamin Taylor, is organized chronologically, but there's no reason to read it that way. For me this is a book to dip into, to read it bits and pieces, perhaps in between novels. The writing is extremely clear and precise, lively and not dense, but it's heady stuff, requiring time and thought. Reading it from start to finish could be a test of endurance, and there's no point turning such good writing into a drudgery.

These essays contain a huge number of references to people that readers may not be familiar with, both because their fame may not have made it to our era, and because Bellow must have been the most well-read man in the world. Some of the references I knew, others I was able to understand through context, and for a few, I employed Google. In the end notes, editor Benjamin Taylor explains:
Bellow's references are typically to well-known persons and phenomena and I have preferred not to impose on the reader with unnecessary footnotes. If certain of his allusions are less familiar, details about Viscount Bryce, Elbert Hubbard, Freud's Rat Man, Boob McNutt, Colonel Bertie McCormick, Billie Sol Estes and Oh! Calcutta! are nowadays at one's fingertips.
Given how many footnotes would have been needed -- how often the flow of Bellow's writing would have been interrupted -- I applaud Taylor's choice.

The book jacket blurb calls this book "a guided tour of the twentieth century...conducted by one of modern life's most inspiring minds". I'll go with Taylor's words, as he thanks Janis Freedman Bellow, Bellow's wife and partner: it is "a book of wonders". [This review was also posted on wmtc.]

Monday, July 23, 2018

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages

I enjoyed Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. In a little under three hundred pages Dorren profiled sixty European languages. That's not all the languages on the continent, of course, but he did cover some of my favourites. This book was originally published in Dutch and was translated by Alison Edwards. I saw the German translation when I was in Berlin last week. Some of the language chapters were written by other authors, and I wish Jenny Audring, who wrote the chapter on Finnish, had let a native speaker or Finnish linguist read it first. She made one error about Finnish vowel length. More to come about that.

I generally avoid books like this, because three to five pages about a language is not going to provide me with any knowledge I didn't already know. For an armchair linguist such as myself, I like to think I know a bit already about European languages, how they got there, which language family they are from and who speaks them. My own language studies have taken me into the world of severely endangered European languages as well, so I know a lot already about Romansch, Breton and the Sami idioms. I was thus glad to read that the object of this book wasn't just to tell a very concise history of each of these languages (and in many cases, he didn't do that at all). Instead, Dorren wrote about quirky moments from a language's history, or about a certain linguistic phenomenon, or how a language developed its written form, or about anything else that may have caught his fancy. He centred on one specific episode and made the reader laugh while reading about it.

Indeed, I took a liberal amount of notes over the course of my reading, both for further items of study as well as for citing in this review. Dorren asked the question: What does Greek think about non-Greeks inventing terms using Greek roots that would not, strictly speaking, form a legitimate Greek structure? How do foreign-built compounds fit into the modern Greek language? Do Greeks laugh at them or roll their eyes as they use new terms such as ontogenesis and android? These are, in effect, "loanwords in Greek, albeit ones of Greek origin". Turns out that the Greeks treat these words as if they were home-grown. I never would have thought that five pages on the Greek language would have included a discussion of this.

Audring had me laughing with her remark about the length of Finnish words. Words that are so long need a lot of paper to write them down on,

"But a nation with such an abundance of forests is hardly short of paper."

Where Audring erred is in her confusion regarding the meaning of vowel length. Finnish employs vowels that are pronounced longer (meaning that they are pronounced for a longer duration) than other vowels. This difference in length of pronunciation can affect the meaning of a word. For example, Toronton means "of Toronto; Toronto's" whereas if you lengthen the time you enunciate the final vowel, and write it accordingly with a double O, such as Torontoon, that means "to(wards) Toronto; in the direction of Toronto". The O-sound in the final syllable of Toronton is a short O. The O-sound in the final syllable of Torontoon is a long O. Audring confuses "long" and "short" with its grade-school English phonics class context, where she calls the vowel sounds in words such as foe and though as "long" yet the vowel sound in the word swap as "short". They are not comparable as they are totally different vowel sounds. The issue of vowel length in a Finnish context cannot be compared with the "cod/code" issue of vowel length (or shortness) in an English context.

English does have long vowels and short vowels as does Finnish, yet native English speakers don't even realize it. Take for example the two pairs coat and code and cot and cod. In the examples ending with the T-sound, the vowel sound is pronounced in a shorter duration than the vowel sound in the words ending with the D-sound. Say the two words in each pair over and over again and you will hear that you say the O-sound a little bit longer when it is followed by the voiced consonant, the D. That's how English works, or specifically, how English is spoken in my region of Canada: all vowels are lengthened before voiced consonants.

The chapter on Finnish (chapter 54) was followed by Faroese, which was chapter 55. So for the first fifty-three of sixty chapters I was okay. Dorren impressed me with his linguistic tidbits and he whet my appetite for conducting further research. However he ruined my otherwise faultless impression of his book (Audring's Finnish glitch notwithstanding) by his wholly dismissive and insulting opinion of the Faroese language and those who wish to study it. Why should one study Faroese anyway, when "you could chat to the locals in the somewhat more useful Danish language. All Faroese speak it and, to cap it off, with much clearer accents than the Danes." The nerve! I have just returned from a holiday in the Faroe Islands and whenever and wherever I travel, I always try to converse with the locals. My Faroese is quite limited, yet the smiles and looks of appreciation I received when I greeted people and thanked them in their own language! Not in English and definitely not in Danish. I spoke with them as a foreigner in their own language (or, admittedly, tried to) and they loved it. Dorren wrote admirably about the Faroese language's case system and the adoption of the written Faroese language, then dismissed all efforts to learn the language:

"Oh, whatever. Learn Sorbian or Basque instead. They'll be of more use to you."

Maybe I should just let this roll off my back but Faroese will be of use to you in the Faroe Islands. Sorbian will be of use to you in southeast Germany. Basque will be of use to you in Euskal Herria. But anyway, don't insult my beloved føroyskt. Maybe Dorren ought to read No Nation is an Island: Language, Culture, and National Identity in the Faroe Islands.

Dorren covered certain endangered languages and their varying degrees of success at revival. Irish, for example, seems to be on the right track and is gaining speakers who are motivated to use it outside of the classroom. Dorren writes:

"Of the 90,000 or so people for whom Irish is part of their daily lives, an increasing number are urban, highly educated second-language speakers, and their Irish is, well, just not quite the same as the old language. Some politely call it urban Irish. Others mock it as 'Gaelscoil' ('school'), 'broken' or even 'pidgin' Irish.
"The differences are quite significant. Linguist Brian Ó Broin observed a few years ago that urban second-language speakers had trouble understanding native speakers, whereas native, mostly rural speakers found the Irish of urbanites jarring on the ear."

In the end, though, Dorren wonders if urban Irish will supplant the purer rural Irish.

At the end of every chapter Dorren listed some words from each language that have been adopted into English. For French and Italian there are hundreds and hundreds of examples. For some languages, such as Monégasque, there are none. He also highlighted words that existed in each language that perhaps could find a use in English (lacunae). My favourite was the Hungarian example madárlátta, which means "food taken for an outing but brought back home uneaten".

In the acknowledgements I found it sad that Dorren credited a proofreader who obviously missed a very unmissable name. Robert de Kock is thanked by Dorren for providing help about the Basque language, yet in the following paragraph (on the same page) he is referred to as de Cock. Which is it?