Simon Winder :“Remaining trapped in the roomy but over-familiar cage of English.”

    I come, though, with a tragic flaw. In the dystopic waiting room that is one's forties it is possible to be quite serene on the language issue. I am reconciled to being useless at languages in the same way that I am now reconciled to dying still unable to identify tree species or remember phone numbers. But for many years I charged at language after language in the manner of someone running up against some massively barred and studded fortress door: Italian, Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic (in a moment of lunatic lack of self-knowledge), German, Ancient Greek — a catalogue of complete pointlessness. On a conservative estimate I must have spent over a thousand hours of my childhood in Latin lessons — a magnificent grounding in that tongue and the sort of steady application that takes full advantage of the sponge-like absorbency of the young mind. In an adult spasm of masochism I recently bought Teach Yourself Latin which, to my total dismay, showed that eight years of Latin lessons had actually only got me about twenty-five pages into a three-hundred-page book. This hopelessness extended everywhere — Italian, Spanish and French were always doomed simply because they were taught at school. I have some vague memory of being castigated in a French lesson aged eleven or so for having spent much of the lesson trying to fill my pen cap with saliva. Spanish and Italian were exam subjects of which I now have no memory at all.

    Russian, Arabic and German were different because they were actively self-motivated. Trying to learn Russian was stupid — a humiliation but a short-lived one. Arabic was more serious. I had spent some time in the Middle East selling books and became completely enamoured of cultural Islam, souks and sand — but above all the shape of the letters and their artistic use. Given that I had a clear block on all language learning I'm not sure really what I was thinking. I was living in New York at the time and it is possible I had erroneously felt a sense of opportunity in the air. I trooped into my evening class at New York University and happy hours curling, looping and dotting followed. Many in the group were Lebanese-American men who, in their twenties, were suffering a legitimate pang of anxiety about their loss of family roots. It was curious to see the difficulties they immediately crashed into — the sense that they had some genetic relationship with Arabic which would allow it naturally to flow with a little work, a relationship which in practice did not exist at all. They had no more of a leg-up on this fiendish language than I did, with my head fizzing with images of hookahs, divans and minarets. In any event, after a perfect term learning the wonderful script there was an awful awakening — Arabic beyond the alphabet turned out to be even worse than French. My attention wandered — I may even have toyed with seeing how quickly I could fill my pen cap with saliva. So another language bit the dust and I was left with the (very briefly) amusing trick of showing friends what their names looked like in rough Arabic transcription.

    There was an unhappy sequel to this. I still vividly remember wandering around the abbey of St-Denis, north of Paris, where all the French kings were buried, and vowing to improve my knowledge of medieval monarchs. I had the sequence down from 1550 or so (everyone's called Louis, in order, with a handful of easily remembered, vivid exceptions) — but the huge accumulation of earlier people called Louis or Charles was a tangle. This was when I realized the limits of the human brain. I had always assumed I could indefinitely add stuff — battles, capital cities, dynasties. As I loaded up those Merovingian and Capetian kings I felt my brain, like some desperately rubbish, home-assembled bathroom shelf, lurch suddenly to one side, and all the Arabic alphabet fall off the other end. Shortly after that the whole thing came off the wall, taking the pointless Merovingians with it too.

    So I reeled into my adult life with a virtual language blank, beyond an ability to order beer or ask for train platform numbers. I can see in my mind all my teachers: stern, bland, desirable, desiccated, impatient, prim, fiery, resigned, bitter, bilious, despairing. It is an enjoyable exercise, in fact: faces, mannerisms, bodies all so clearly recalled by my brain's purring visual functions — a stark contrast to the crashed spaceship that is the bit dealing with languages.

    It was then that I encountered German. By this point in my adult life even at my most delusive I could see that I had a problem with languages. I was resigned to always flunk Tlingit, say, or Miao — but perhaps through sheer effort I could land one mainstream European language and not remain trapped in the roomy but over-familiar cage of English. Ever since that teenage visit to Strasbourg my enthusiasm for German history and literature had grown and grown. Thomas Bernhard, Joseph Roth and Gόnter Grass were my heroes, and it was time to be serious at last about engaging with their work and the real version of the words they had written.

    And so I embarked on the last great language adventure. Thinking about it now, intellectually it seemed to be the equivalent of one of those grizzled, independent-minded medieval German warlords who, pondering too long in his isolated castle, decides to go on one final raid, having already lost most of his best hounds, horses and sons on earlier outings, galloping down to the plains in a hopeless yet honourable bid to die, yet live on in story.

    Galloping into New York University again I remember being oddly buoyant and cheerful about the whole business: a new exercise book, a new language, nicely sharpened pencils. Quite quickly I ran into the usual problems — like not really understanding anything. The individual words were as sonorous and magnificent as I'd hoped and many hours were spent rolling them over my tongue and getting what I imagined to be a rather wonderful accent. However: they knocked on the door and they rang on the bell, but Mr Language was not at home. After a term the only real breakthrough was when there was a flurry at the door and Roland Gift, formerly of the Fine Young Cannibals, was ushered into the classroom through one door and then out the other — to avoid his fans: or, more plausibly by that point, to avoid imaginary fans. In any event, happy minutes were spent thinking, 'That really was Roland Gift,' while issues of sentence structure drifted along in the background.

    There followed a fruitless few months with four other students and a Latvian dancer who was gamely attempting to use language lessons to construct a financial rope bridge between her free-form-dance-explosion income and her Village rental outgoing. These lessons were as futile as the rest, but on the subway each morning and evening I would practise by reading Heine's poems, with a crib, and became absolutely obsessed with the German language and its beauties even as my brain continued to be wrongly structured for any absorptive work. I do not know now why I chose Heine — probably just as a random find in a bookstore, in an edition that did not appear threateningly long. My head filled with Moorish princes, ivy-clad castles, sea-ghosts and roses. I would plunge along each day on the N train, unable even to manage the simplest German idioms but, with a faltering confidence, articulate enough to say that my lance and shield were stolen and my love had bound me up with chains of flowers. Once I started my wanderings around Germany I kept crossing Heine's path and he has since always stood for everything attractive and thoughtful — but I really think that my making him my mentor was an accident, and my view of Germany could equally have been shaped by other more malign, grandiloquent or stuffy figures. In any event, Heine may walk by my side, but we are unable to talk to each other.

Simon Winder, Germania, A Personal History of  Germans Ancient and Modern, London, Picador 2010, pp.  9 – 12