What language shall you make love in? It can seem like an odd or impossible question, but it gets right to the heart, I’m realizing, of certain kinds of writing and reading experiences. Particularly fiction, or so it seems at first glance.
Someone who’s spent time in a dark room with a lover who thought and spoke in different languages will know what this means. I remember someone whispering Lakota phrases once and it was like falling through a trapdoor in the dark to a different time, different tastes and touches and smells and glowing embers in the middle of the bedroom/tipi floor and suddenly what birds appeared and what they thought might actually matter, not to mention that for a moment this was the most exotic exciting woman on earth. I know people who have fallen in love together as they struggled over English-Czech dictionaries to decide what they wanted for dinner. Cut below the actual words and you are in a different mental universe, one where “core” meanings, primitive feelings, vulnerability and longing and hunger are the main tongues spoken.
Further tangential data — that “click” thing that happens when you immerse yourself for a bit in some other language. We went to Spanish camp and by the end of the week the strangest moment came when I looked down a list of Spanish sentences and realized that I knew exactly what just about every sentence meant but that if I had to do it, word for word, I could not possibly translate into English half the words on the sheet. It was a crystal clear moment of insight into something in my own brain, or maybe “brains” — I actually had been “growing” (no metaphor) a section of my language brain that spoke Spanish, but it had not connected up (and maybe didn’t need to?) with the older part of my brain that speaks and reads and thinks English.
All of which bears on my realization (not new, novel, unique or even clever, but still…) that to write a novel is to have to invent a completely new dialect. Or else (mainly until you get the hang of it) to adopt someone else’s, which may range from the crude (most stories in “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine,” say) to the too-stylized by half (bad Hemingway) to amazing. The mental work involved in jumping into a new novelist — the little adjustments you feel yourself making when you go from Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” to Alan Furst to Hawthorne, is the shift in your head. Same applies when you write something — I have two novel projects going and each one has different characters, developmental ages, languages, really.
It’s like playing dress-up, but only in your head. How does this person think, speak, move? What worries her or him? What excites? What swear words do they use, if any? (And if none, probably means you have some real explainin’ to do, or else you’re not going to take them very deep or intense or important, and so why bother writing it at all?) Then you actually have to keep tweaking that person’s personality, character, style — are they too much like me? Is that bad or good? Are they boring, conventional, predictable, prone to playing it safe all the time (which is why psychologists, say, end up being both lousy writers and lousy characters. Like accountants, but in tweed.)
Yet each new character/dialect calls for something “real” inside you — whether the point of view is that of a young woman who cuts on herself but longs for justice, or an old, depressed widower. Neither works if something hungry for expression doesn’t come through. So it’s dress up, but on “come as one of your favorite or most intriguing characters” nite.
This has been a ramble because I started wanting to drift around the periphery of the experience of reading something on my new Kindle. So far, it’s odd. By the end of the day I’m picking up paper books again, but I also recognize that my “home base” in terms of reading nowadays is often a computer screen. Maybe the K is a bit too far away — the “language” isn’t just what’s on the page, but the whole phonetic and tactile and aesthetic experience. It’s a little chunk of plastic that moves slow.
Recently watched — painfully — “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” about a man who is paralyzed except that he can blink. In French. So pretty nurses and speech rehab people are up close to him all day, arousing him (which of course nobody notices or attends to — sick people lacking any sexuality, etc.); reciting the entire alphabet (in most-probable-letter sequences… in French) and he’s supposed to blink when she gets to the letter he means. Wrote a whole book like that, then died (I suspect of exhaustion.) And all the while I sat there thinking, first, they did this better in the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” which everybody read 25 or 30 years ago but not since — because the guy used Morse Code. And second, don’t the French know Morse Code? It would have been vastly more efficient for him to have learned that and then to have found some nurses who could learn it. Heck, a short blink and a long one for an “a” is hugely better than having to wait till she gets to the “a” midway through the list and blurts it, then having to catch her before she gets to the next letter.
So aesthetically speaking, I wasn’t moved by his plight, just annoyed at the whole painful production. The little coating of sentimentality (in French) didn’t make it any better or more moving — it’s almost scripted that we “should” feel moved by paralyzed guys in wheelchairs, but I was not sensing any real clear person under there, and having an automatic “Awwww…” response to people in wheelchairs merely insults and marginalizes them anyway, so that’s out; anyway, the whole production was too distracting.
Reading the Kindle novel still feels a bit like that. Like making love filtered not through dictionaries or sensing the feeling of the other and foregoing the words, but needing everything spelled out like in some odd college campuses. [“I propose now to put my hand on your belt buckle — please signify yes that is okay or no that is not and sign here…“] Click the page-turn button, have a flash of distracting blackout, and be so relieved the right next page comes up that you forget what the damned novel was about, or who was in peril, or about to score.