Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Letters to/from a young writer (3/4)


Dear George,

I suppose anything you can do I can do better, eh?  But in all seriousness, my apologies for the two month delay. I've been waiting for the nature of a few circumstances to sort themselves out before I respond (one of those being a story I ended up stalling on long enough to move onto something else). 

For instance (additionally), my adviser in the Economics department has finally convinced me looking at the ebook industry at this point is akin to getting trigger happy in a game of charades; something's happening alright, but a study will give the exact same information as just waiting a little bit. As far as that project is concerned now, it seems I'll be looking at the socioeconomic impacts of charter schools.

I would like to thank you for the articles though. The Amazon discussion has been a fascinating story (said with just a tint of cynicism), and we briefly covered it in my Industrial Organization class starting with their suing of Apple for predatory actions and then turning around to do the same with collecting authors. Sigh, Multi-Million Dollar Corporations these days, am I right?

The Environmental Economics project was a bit more cut and dry. An abstract of sorts: The Slabside Pearlymussel, a breed of mussel only found in the Cumberland region (just west of the Great Smokey Mountains) in Tennessee, has disappeared from 80% of the rivers it once occupied, mostly due to pollutants from coal plants and other factories along the waterways. The question: Economically speaking, should it be on the endangered species list? Would the value society gets from saving this species outweigh the cost to the factories changing their practices?

There are three monetary values assigned to the mussel in this case: a biodiversity value (the more species that remain in an ecosystem, the more stable it is, in theory), a replacement value (this breed isn't harvested, but a cousin is to make pearl seeds out of its shell, and should the cousin go extinct, this kind could be used for the same purpose; this number turns out to be minuscule as the cousin is not in any danger), and an indicator-species value (the pollutants causing its population to decline are heavy metals also harmful to humans, so the population acts as a running litmus test).

Additionally, these pollutants are being dumped despite Tennessee laws preventing this given amount of said pollutants, but the government has not actively reprimanded the companies. Making this mussel endangered would give organizations like the Sierra Club and other activist organizations leverage to rope them in, as anyone could sue on behalf of the newly endangered species. ..... That's all a very long way of saying we should protect this species and get the factories to stop polluting.
On to things less science.

Back to the discussion of realism, I guess my confusion essentially stems from differentiating litfic and literature. I suppose in my head, the differentiation is: Literature is a tested 'classic,' a book still receiving considerable demand after its initial stint in the limelight, whenever that might be; literary fiction I find to be the blank slate, the unmarked norm, the Private to Literature's Lieutenant Colonel, and devoid of qualities giving it a discernible category, as one of the genre fiction genres, or postmodern, (an entirely different question I've had of late: if something is written in the literary style of modernism, but is written in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) age, where does it fall? I read through the first few chapters of Zadie Smith's NW while waiting for a friend at a bookstore, and to me it seems distinctly modern in style), or avant-garde, surreal, etc.

Because of this mental filing system, I have to ask "Can literature really push out any qualities?" If it is to push out genre fiction categories then Orwell and Huxley must be removed from the canon immediately, and to push out qualities of Literary Fiction is to pull its foundations out from under it. 
It can, I think, reorganize itself, and that's why I'm inclined to agree with Smith (all critiquing her definition of avant-garde aside, which, by the way, I completely agree with after reading that article and taking a second look).

Once in the confines of capital "L" literature, there is a group of works that contain little other signifiers.  You have the capital "R" Realists, the Utopian/Dystopian fiction, the Romantics and Gothic, but there's a whole slew of works that only fall under period names: the Modernists, the Beats, even some Victorian authors. This is where I feel the concept of lyrical Realism becomes useful rather than a panicky push for market share.

Madame Bovary is considered realist literature, but The Beautiful and the Damned is Modernist, but after reading both this past semester, I couldn't help but feeling: had they been published in the same period, they would be categorized together. They both share the same stylistic qualities, the chief of these being the "lilting musicality" you mentioned (a term I've found apropos on a number of occasions).

Yes, Modernism focuses internally while Realism focuses externally on society, but you can argue the source of Madame Bovary's plight comes from either way, and do the same for Anthony Patch's.  Furthermore, Flaubert works with more flamboyant descriptions than other Realists, say Tolstoy, and some of Fitzgerald's work, along with other Modernists like D.H. Lawrence, don't contain quite the economy or style innovation attributed to other Modernists like Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, etc. 

That's where I think this idea of lyrical Realism could aid literary discussions, as well as give a point of reference in discussing authors like Jefferey Eugenides or Marilynne Robinson (who's doing an open forum at my Uni in March on Gilead, followed by Banville, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aleksander Hemon, and then Nicole Krauss) other than the broad, null, and relatively all-inclusive "Literary Fiction."

Of course, I realize most of this is subjective and nit-picky.  As "Thomas Pynchon" put it (in a spot-on parody piece, hence the quotes around the name [the original post since vanished - GT]: the academic/critical circle jerk, and category dissection means little when getting down to actual writing and actual reading, but as long as the radio's playing I might as well sing a harmony. And you can always let me know when I'm off-key.

Again, I understand there's a lot here, and that you're doing a lot there, and I certain took my sweet time with this, so no rush to response and only address what you feel needs addressing, and I appreciate anything along with your time.

Ryan Celley



Dear Ryan,

Well, looks like the margin is shrinking. I'm supposed to be making my PhD chapter 1 notes intelligible, which seems the perfect opportunity to catch up on the more rewarding store of unreplied-to emails.

Your supervisor is absolutely right about the ebook issue. It's developing so rapidly that it's a little bit redundant to make any claims at this stage. There's a wider debate emerging over copyright, intellectual property, enclosures and so on - Lewis Hyde's Common as Air which I still haven't read.

Saw a crazy story just this morning about a company called DEFCAD, which is being media-tagged as 'Pirate Bay for 3D weapons printing'. The owner, Cody Wilson, uses a combination of very scary survivalist/pro-gun lobby rhetoric with a wider pro-Marxist/socialist rhetoric of decentring 3D blueprinting intellectual property out of corporate hands. Like, WTF?

The mussel abstract sounds fantastic. I'm very much enamoured of Jason W. Moore's theory of world ecology=world economy right now and what you've said speaks straight to that. Problems inherent in only thinking of the economic value of the mussel - even in the environmentalist ambition to sue the fuck out of the corporations ('scuse me French, as they say on Blackadder).

Not sure if I've already mentioned the Millennium Assessment Group's Ecosystems Services report? Again, trying to position the ecological within an economic framework, thinking of biodiversity indicators as part of the 'services' which enable the resource services of food, oil, water, etc. that power structures around agriculture traditionally thinks of as important in land use.

What about the food chain sustained by the mussels? The value in cleaning/filtering, or the threat of absorption of heavy metals and magnification in mammalian and bird predators, which climbs into human diet? Don't get me wrong, it's not about substituting economic frameworks for ecological ones, but that they're one and the same thing.

You should check out things like 'Wall Street is a Way of Organizing Nature' - an interview on Moore's website. He's heavily technical in his language, but also inspirational in how he applies this new methodology to give fresh insight into historical, geographical, colonial and (although he's less good on it) cultural developments.

The litfic/literary debate is a good line of inquiry, at least for writers. The main risk when it goes beyond creative thinking is that it falls too easily in to the trap of marketing. And what you say about literature 'standing the test of time' is an interesting one: much of the stuff we read today as 'classic' sold next to nothing when first published. Kafka (most notably), Eliot, Pound, etc.

Rarely do you get immediate popularity with this stuff. Dickens, arguably, used particular dissemination techniques to reach wide audiences - Shakespeare also. But the cult comes after, primarily. Other writers, like John Clare, come and go in fashion, popular at first, then abandoned for having been popular, then rediscovered much later in a new context.

The danger with talking about what literature can be is that it falls into fixed patterns - look at Bloom's mad attempts at it, which amounts to isolating himself in an ivory tower (population: 1), and opening himself up to all manner of discrediting, counter examples, etc.

Alternatively, I stumbled across an interesting project at a conference recently, about Natsume Soseki's theory of literature. Applying a principle of early psychological study - using rational scientific discourse to understanding the irrationality of storytelling - is a fruitful one, although just one perspective. But he has some kind of formula: f(F), which denotes the smaller idea of intellectual endeavour delivered with the greater idea of emotional impact, as a requisite of literature's quality. All very complex, and probably I didn't understand it fully, but he said something great about something being "like washing blood with blood", which makes me think he knew what he was talking about.

I think you're right with your example of Flaubert/Fitzgerald: the idea of qualifying Literature beyond its most abstract definition (as Soseki attempts), has to be historically contingent. Which is why the study of literature isn't going to disappear any time soon, despite an instrumentalised governmental agenda, or increasing global corporatism.

Sure, you can parody the fruitlessness of that, but isn't that perspective (and the Salon's parody) simply contingent in its own way to the economic rationality of our current society? And isn't literature a way of deconstructing these habits and working out what a better society might look like, even if the best ideas will always be hijacked to speak for power, rather than truth to power?

Creative writing is, for me, a utopian endeavour, couched in the problems Jameson points out, but still, we need optimism more than ever these days. At least writing poetry keeps you from refreshing your share prices on the stock market pages every five minutes, right?

But at heart, if you hadn't guessed it, I'm an imagination-fundamentalist, which in itself has been enabled by the current economic rationalism. Or something. Problems within problems within problems, but unlike capitalism, there's an infinity of imaginative frontiers to exploit, but only limited commodity frontiers before the world eats itself.

More thinking out loud - have you finished that story draft yet?


Final part tomorrow.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Letters from/to a young writer (2/4)


Dear George,

My sincerest apologies for the delay.  Now that I have another four years away from the bumbling back and forth of politics, I'm finally finding some free time.

Thank you again for the response amidst the warzone of a semester it sounds like you're having, though I bet that barn would have eventually needed an interesting design choice or two; I hear even the pearly gates have some graffiti.

I definitely sympathize; college life in the States is a bit different from The Social Network: a little less free time and a little more backstabbing. For the mildly ambitious, that is. The collegiate system is entirely accommodating if the life-goal is just a piece of paper and a few keggers; I on the other hand have set myself up in a situation requiring the production of two in-depth research studies (one for Linguistics and one for Environmental Economics), along with a whole slew of essays and final examinations.  This on top of a weekly op-ed I do for the school paper, my newly appointed position as poetry editor for the university's recently rebooted literary review, and a 15 hour part-time job filling out Excel spreadsheets. I say all this only to show my sympathy though, not to attract any.  I can only imagine how much of a laugh a PhD candidate must get from this sort of to-do list.

While I have made sure to leave time to read, the last few books left on your list (Eugenides, McGregor, and Pamuk) are being used by other classes (most disappointingly Pamuk, after watching the interview you attached), so I am not permitted to check them out of the library until next semester. Rest assured, they will most likely be digested come late Spring.

In the meantime, I've taken to my "Books I've always wanted to read but never had the time for" list, and am currently between The Sound the Fury and On the Road (I completely agree with your misanthrope-caution, so I figured these two would balance quite well). I've also made sure to wread (sometimes I find it nearly impossible not to read something), and I've tried to write down what comes out of it. I, at least, always seem to take for granted the dynamic force a simple act of "writing it down" has on the thought process, understanding, feeling, etc.  It also makes good fodder to throw onto my anonymous stream-of-consciousness-like-blog.

I can't thank you enough for the detailed explanation in response to my inquiry. The counter-article definitely puts Smith's into perspective, and the follow up adds a real-world narrative I was unaware of. Like any good explanation, it triggered at least a dozen spin-off questions, and when I began composing them in this message, I realized most were due to being uninformed rather than being confused, and your workload would probably appreciate it if I found sources elsewhere and rehash them. I would like to start a dialogue around this when you get some free time though, if you don't mind.

I would also ask about some brief future-tense guidance regarding a project I'm looking at next semester. I have to participate in a "senior economics seminar" - essentially a class dedicated to a thesis for my Economics major. I was considering either comparing and contrasting the publishing industry and the recording industry in their respective switches to the digital medium, or the implications of the recent suit over ebook pricing (behind paywall), but I was unsure of either's relevance, present state in discourses, etc.

As mentioned, you don't have to return an articulate and in-depth response at the present (especially given the vagueness of what I just proposed), but I was wondering if you could help point me in the right direction when that time comes.

All the best, as always,
Ryan Celley



Dear Ryan,

First of all, apologies for the month-long delay in replying. I could say get used to it, but hey, it's not personal, it's a lifestyle choice. Also, by the sound of your own workload, I'd be better off welcoming you to the club. As long as the endeavours are spiritually fulfilling, who can blame you?

Dialogue away about lyrical realism, realisms in general! And if you only hear hollow echoes in the digital cavern, remind me and I'll come back to you quicker than if I'm left to my own devices in the shadows. But this isn't part of a coherent discourse, as far as I'm aware - the ideas in discussion have only been around seriously for a decade or so, at least in public presentation. Someone may well be joining the dots, but that hasn't filtered through to me except in the kind of broad and insufficient sweeps by Smith and others.

I'm more interested in your Environmental Economics thing than the ebook thing, by the way. Because they are fundamentally connected, right? Since you wrote, I assume you've heard the big stories about Penguin/Random House. Google things like 'Amazon is trying to kill us' and you'll get some alternative perspectives. But what's the bottom line? Metabolism and commodity production, intangible enclosures acts, intellectual property and the assertion of power structures in digital contexts...

Yeah, man, they're onto us, which is why it's safer to go undercover as a conspiracy theorist, until we can blow the lid on the whole caboodle, but in the meantime, some more reading:

Robert Spencer, Ecocritism in the Colonial Present (free online PDF, possibly)


Lewis Hyde's Common as Air

Vive la [something or other]!



Part 3 tomorrow.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Letters from/to a young writer (1/4)


Hey George,

I hope this semester is finding you well. I'll refrain from sprinkling the introduction with too many colloquial necessities that attempt solidarity, as I would be forced to humorously embellish them to assert both my masculine identity and want of not appearing bothersome (but inadvertently revealing personal insecurities). However, I would like to say in a truly truthful and honestly honest fashion that I now, more than ever, appreciate all that you and the other instructors did for us this summer.

I do miss it dearly, from the pure literary immersion, to the unabashed sense of camaraderie, and even an afternoon sitting on the sunny back porch of the Dirty Duck while bashing 50 Shades of Grey. (I had a graduate friend recently try to explain to me that it's art. I hope I don't sound too pretentious if I call him a "poor bastard").

I suppose if that winding sentence is replacing the traditional "How are you?" in a letter, this part would be the "I am fine." Although it was very small, I submitted my first piece: a five hundred word short for NPR's Three Minute Fiction contest. Consequently, I got my first rejection note. Now I can start putting "Writer" on my résumé and touting it at blind dates, right? That's how I assumed it worked (I kid, of course).

It was probably best this be my first rejection, as the prompt was lackluster, and I wasn't incredibly fond of Brad Meltzer (afterward, I went back and re-edited a negative review I did of The Millionaires back in High School, just to show him who's boss). I haven't had enough time to write anything I feel comfortable submitting otherwise, but I have found a very small writing group in their first year on campus, and I have thus realized just how spoiled I was at Warwick. I have also begun volunteering with an after-school program affiliated with the Midlands Center for Expressive Arts to help middle school children write creatively.

I would also like to follow up on a less personal and more academic point. I am currently enrolled in a class on Realism literature, and one day after class I asked my professor about lyrical Realism, to which she responded as having never heard the term. Having only the Zadie Smith article you gave us and a very vague memory of your mentioning it, I was quite useless when she asked what I meant by it.

So I guess my question is simply, what is lyrical Realism? Smith places postmodern authors in opposition to lyrical Realism, but postmodernists are typically seen as opposing modernists, who are in turn seen as opposing realists. Where does lyrical Realism fall, or is it more of a Venn-diagram relationship? Is it a movement, or just a categorization of novels devoid of the self-awareness in post-modernism?

Speaking of post-modernism, I finished Gravity's Rainbow (which I absolutely loved, though getting lunch with one of my favorite professors immediately afterward, David Cowart, probably gave the experience an unfair advantage since he just published another book-length analysis of Pynchon in January of this year), and after doing so I started knocking out titles on your recommended reading list. Right now I'm on American Pastoral, and I can't tell you how helpful and enjoyable the recommendations are so far. Roth and Camus are proving to be good palate cleansers after such a winding puzzle of a novel.

I'm not counting the required reading for my realism class at the moment because, well, I've never really been a fan of Madame Bovary to be honest. I've also been alternating between David Foster Wallace's short stories and Fitzgerald's shorts (the DFW is mostly to hold my own when talking with Professor Cowart about his newest project: the relationship between the Thomas Pynchon/Don Delillo generation and the David Foster Wallace/Chuck Palahniuk generation), and I'm finding the regiment quite pleasing. I've always been a fan of balance. I will say that your list in itself (so far) gives a wide enough spectrum without going into unenjoyable territory. A perfect balance of expansion and familiarity. I can't imagine how coveted a mixtape of yours must be.

I apologize for the tangents, self-deprecation, and continual praise, which must be getting tedious by now. At the very least, I appreciate you getting through my lengthy and impromptu burst of communication.

Forgetfully Yours,
Ryan Celley



Hey Ryan,

Firstly, term/semester: they both suck. I had just about recovered from too many (very enjoyable) commitments over summer, and got back into reading and writing on the PhD, when term started and shot holes into my plans spelling out a big 'fuck you, George' in the barn walls.

That said, I'm not not-writing, I'm merely not putting in as much energy to it as I feel like I want to. This is an endless kind of worry and panic and niggle, but shouldn't be ignored, as it's better to feel like you want to be writing more, than writing lots and feeling like you want to lie on a sofa at home in a dressing gown.

As to being a writer now, yes. Collect those rejections. I don't know if there's a milestone to reach, but one prof who just started teaching with us this year collected 60 and took about 12 years to place his first fiction book. In Turkey however, you only really join the club when you get your first death threat. Go figure - and set your own standards. Personally, I don't call myself a poet (David Morley's on there too, along with many other interesting poets) and for tax reasons call myself an editor, not a writer. Keep reading, then start wreading. (Go on, google it.)

Yes, Zadie Smith's "lyrical Realism". Here, read this first: Garth Risk Hallberg on whether it's really all that exciting. Ostensibly this is a self-professed avant gardist trying to police the boundaries of avant gardism; in other words, it's a lorra ole balox. On the other hand, the aside in the early parts about lyrical Realism points to something else happening subtly in the book media, which in brief:

1. Corporatisation of the trade means an increase in retail, publishing and taxonomies of book markets.

2.  'Literature' (aka wtf?) gets hemmed in and panics and starts pushing out the qualities of 'literary fiction' (as distinct from literature as chalk from cheese) without acknowledging centre/periphery debates, or ideas of taste, preference and the intrusion of the markets into this traditional approach to book publishing.

3. A backlash occurs, mostly spearheaded by writers of what was recently know as 'slipstream' (China Miéville is probably shoulder to shoulder with Toby Litt in this, but also Scarlett Thomas, and any number of others mixing and remixing genre tropes with more serious 'grand', playful or experimental narrative techniques), suggesting that 'literary fiction' is in itself a kind of genre, or has within it trends and characteristics that suggest homogeneity.

When these things come from publishers, it means there's money to be made. When it comes from writers disinvested of direct financial gain, or academics (in this case, Zadie Smith is in the latter camp when she writes essays), then there's a point being made underneath the superficial whining of 'writers hard done by'. Slipstream, for example, got hijacked by publishing, got its own table in Waterstones, and the honourable thing to do (as done by Litt, Miéville, etc.) was to stop using the term and move on - China mentions this in interview somewhere.

(Cut out all the 'Two Paths...' stuff about McCarthy as avant garde - it's unfortunate rubbish; McCarthy's writing, especially Remainder, isn't a patch on Pynchon, Foster Wallace, or, going back a little ways, any of the French Oulipians, symbolists, existentialists et al who influenced him. In British terms, Smith does JG Ballard and Ann Quin and any number of very exciting genre writers - of SF, of fantasy, etc. - a disservice by positioning McCarthy in these terms. But you've read Hallberg's Millions article, or at least the intro, so I'll stop there.)

So, returning to this point about 'litfic', what are its dominant qualities?

A certain lilting musicality to the sentences, which drowns out the sense somewhat, substituting the substance of character, meaning and the whole form=content issue for a kind of narrative trance. Like pouring whiskey down someone's throat while you saw off their souls. This musicality is often called 'lyrical', or 'poetic'.

An approach to realism that, to put it in a blunt, neo-avant knee-jerky kind of way, "Forgets that Joyce's Ulysses ever happened". In this, a struggle arises which has been much documented in literary circles and diaries and interviews and stuff, to do with the subject of 'authenticity'. In fact, this issue of authenticity has become so problematic, you might say that's all Jonathan Frantzen ever writes about. (This is one of the cheekiest statements I've made in a long time.)

Your question sums up quite nicely: "Is it a movement, or just a categorization of novels devoid of the self-awareness in postmodernism?"

Or: It's a set of novels written with a void in them, desperately trying to cohere into a movement (read: guild, lobby group) to protect their pitiful share of the book market.

The issue Smith raises is to do with homogeneity in the industry, and her limited range of references, her 1+1=2 comparative approach, limits what she is saying. In a wider social context you could link this to the growing movement to decentralise ideas of national identity, dialect, etc. in Britain [OMG this statement is so dated now! - GT], which Smith is very much a product of. The BBC didn't allow accented broadcasters until about fifteen years ago, unless they learned 'received pronunciation'.

Anyway, you weren't asking for an essay, though it was an essay question, but hope this is a kind of guidance. Behind the reading list I gave you, you could insert this kind of contextual architecture, but you have to remember it's bullshit. I watched an interesting video interview with Orhan Pamuk recently and he gives a very brief answer to the question of what advice he'd give to aspiring novelists: don't listen to anyone else's advice. Learn to do it yourself. Everything here is just my version of reality/lyrical Realism, so you'll have to work it out yourself. You're reading enough exciting stuff, by the sound of things, that you can look forward to a career in editing at the very least, if you keep at it [Also dated - congrats on the job!]. But remember to keep writing too.

Also, a personal thing: be wary of reading too many alcoholic misogynists/misanthropes. Try and play off the Mailers and the Roths and the Celines and the Hemingways &c. &c. (there are so many of them!) with some antidotal stuff: Stein, Adorno, Ballard, Quin, etc. where the same kind of issues might occur, but handled far more intelligently and generously and humanely, even at their bleakest. Some say (and I understand this) that you learn as a writer to separate out the person from the product. I agree, but you can't separate the person's politics from the literature and moral breadth is as important as technical breadth.

A mixtape from me is nothing like a reading list from me. I have over-cultivated literary breadth at the expense of other art forms. When you're through the books, let me know if you want more - but focus on your studies also; that's important. I imagine all US college study is a bit like what happens in The Social Network, unfortunately, but hey, at least it gives you time to read and write. And wread.


Part 2 tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Cia Rinne

FS spotted an eclectic sound-installation poem by Cia Rinne, via this interview at Full Stop. FS adds:

Cia Rinne is multi:

multi-disciplinary (writer, philosopher, poet, artist of many media)
multi-cultural (of Finnish descent, born in Sweden, raised in Germany)
multi-lingual in her writing (and, it is safe to presume, her thinking).

Her research extends beyond the play with language to which many young writers see themselves confined with an 'everything has already been said' sort of shrug; she delves into the switch between languages, into acoustic experiments, sociological community studies, archival structures and philosophical games.

Cia Rinne represents an exciting reminder of what it can mean to be a writer today, in a world whose relationship with boxes and borders is again becoming difficult; someone who insists on, and finds her many voices in, fluidity.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Minutes of the Editorial Board Meeting (21/6/16)

21 June 2016
Present: RS, FS, GT, ST ('Bastards')
Apologies: Comrade Jésus

[In a fit of anarchist whimpering, the agenda was discarded. The self-appointed secretary randomly recorded fragments as they occurred.]

"Clean as a Swiss hotel."

"The Anonymous Scotsman must be thanked."

"A butt does look a bit like a Venn diagram."

"If I hear one more thing about hemp I'm going to kill myself."

"'Milk buttons' sounds like a euphemism for nipples."

"The hot jet of maternal sustenance shatters my cornea like a stained municipal window."

"... you are subconsciously excoriating the premise ... of a creative commons and how literature transmits itself."

"A broad shovel whacking--" / "At the testicles of illiterate society?"

"I don't think casual homophobia is necessarily the way to engage with an intellectual idea."

"The poo is all on me."

"'Four and twenty inches / hanging to his knees.' I only ever quote poetry accurately when it's obscene."

"Chickenbridge: a bridge made from chickens, for chickens."

"It will be a symphony in meow."

"And then, when she said, 'Adolescence is like being in a pool of yourself the whole time.'[*] I had a giggling fit and soemone had to talk me down."

"Get off my back!"

"Blee!" / "No, it's spelled, Bli."

"This means, 'Pedagogy as a practical mechanic.' I don't really want to think about [sic] that." / "Pedagogy of the Easily Impressed."

[*] Lavinia Greenlaw, 9 May 2001 (25:55, introducing 'The Long Day Closes')

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Rochelle Sibley - Adventures in Yiddish (1): On being unlettered

When I tell people that I’m learning Yiddish, the most common response is a perplexed “Why?”  I will admit that Yiddish is perhaps a less practical choice than Spanish, Mandarin or Russian, but, quite frankly, practicality can do one.  Admittedly, I’ve got form when it comes to eccentric linguistic choices: I spent four wonderful years learning Italian, which, as my Italian teacher loved to tell us, is the most geographically limited of the Romance languages. Then there was the summer I spent trying and failing to teach myself Ancient Greek after reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I even had a long-cherished and inexplicable childhood desire to learn Latin, but unfortunately my school was not exactly a bastion of classical virtues: we were taught just enough French to be able to discuss the weather, describe our pets and talk smack about each other’s mums, and that was it.

In this context, learning Yiddish was an entirely appropriate choice.  I loved the idea of being able to understand the language of my great-grandparents, of stitching the scattered words I already knew (mainly swears and foods) into the cultural fabric of their everyday lives. Growing up in a less than diverse neighbourhood meant that Yiddish was a secret language that nobody outside my family knew. Calling the class bully a ממזר right in front of your teacher and getting away with it, obviously that was pure gold, but even the best insults can only get you so far. A page of real Yiddish, resonant with the echoes of lives I couldn’t live, was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

And yet learning a new alphabet is learning to read again. The mechanisms that we take for granted – how letters become words, words become sentences – slow, stutter and then stall.  You trip over the sounds; you confuse the letters with one another. Language disintegrates into a chaos of disconnected symbols whose meaning has slipped into an unreachable dimension of soundless space. This isn’t an experience unique to learning Yiddish, but Yiddish has some particular quirks that generate an optimum level of confusion, whilst offering vague glimmers of understanding.  Those brief moments where it all makes sense are exciting for many reasons, not least because they give me an insight into the point at which comprehension occurs; namely, when the little voice in my head sounds out the words on the page.  Without that internal reader, for me, the whole mechanism of language fails.

One of the first revelations is that Yiddish isn’t one language, it’s two. Mama-loshn is Yiddish Yiddish, the words drawn from Germanic, Slavic, and Romance languages; loshn-koydesh, meanwhile, is Hebrew Yiddish, words that a beginner has absolutely no hope of recognising, because they play by their own rules with their own letters and their own, rather idiosyncratic, rules of pronunciation.  So, a “V” sound is װ in mama-loshn but it’s in loshn-koydesh. “S” is ס but it’s also ת. “Kh” = כ = ח.  An aptitude for algebra seems helpful at such times.

Then, you have to find your own ways of distinguishing between individual letters and their diacritical marks.   (Pey) is Pacman; (Fey) is dead Pacman.  ײ makes an “ey” sound but makes an “aye” sound, because the line is fine.  י is “i” but, counterintuitively, is “y”.  It’s sometimes difficult to remember where the letters end and the punctuation begins.  Of course, some older Yiddish texts don’t always give you the diacritical marks, leading to further, glorious, ambiguity.  Such ambiguity means that a saucepan (פֿאַן) can become a flag (פֿאָן) can become a lord (פּאַן).  A girl (מאַד) transforms into a maggot (מאָד), then changes back into a מאַד again when you’re not looking.  The narratives pluralize as the words shift and flex, hovering between two possible meanings that are, in some instances, equally plausible but radically different.

Of course, this alone would be confusing enough, but several of the letters also have special forms if they are used at the end of a word. Some are easy to recognize, like ף (lange fey), the shepherd’s crook, but others resemble other letters to the point that you can only guess which is which.  ם (shlosmem) looks a lot like ס (samakh) and both are used to pluralize nouns.  Even ט (tet) and מ (mem) can look alike, especially in the over-inked print of twentieth century Yiddish novels.  Not being able to tell your מאַמע (mother) from your טאַטע (father) isn’t a good start.

I can remember a time in childhood where longer, complex words were a challenge, but I can’t remember a time before letters.  That sounding out of a word in my head, the pinning of it to a meaning, is a process I’ve long taken for granted. Much of the joy of learning a new language with a new alphabet is in the exploding of that mechanical routine, a routine so familiar that it no longer feels like an action on my part.  Without those instantaneous connections between letters, words and meanings, you become aware of the various acts of translation that reading requires in order for a series of discrete symbols to result in the communication of an idea.  Those curious moments of blankness when the bodiless reader inside my head can’t sound out the words I’m seeing made me realize that there is no truly silent reading, that all reading is the weaving of sound, even if I’m the only one who hears it.
That, it would seem, is the moment of comprehension, at least for me. Because the real beauty of Yiddish is that once you have navigated the alphabet, remembered the difference between ײ and , and worked out whether Pacman is dead or alive, the resulting chain of letters often produces a word that you recognise as soon as you can say it in your head.  A ראָז is a roz is a rose. A בוך  is a bukh is a book. יִידיש is Yiddish is יִידיש.  And if you don’t know what a ממזר is, I’m certainly not telling you.