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