Babel No More

I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I’ve studied Old and Middle English – and many years ago I learned enough Russian to read a Chekhov short story, though I doubt I could recognize half the characters in the Russian alphabet anymore.

I still think of myself as monolingual, however, because my capacity for carrying on a conversation in any language except English is practically nil. In Spanish, for instance, my pronunciation is good (honed by years watching Noticiero Univision), my vocabulary is adequate, and I can often think of a single thing to say, if given about half an hour to prepare. But the thought of somebody saying something back to me makes me extremely reluctant to use Spanish in my everyday life. Or rather: it’s not so much that they might answer with something I didn’t understand – I could perhaps stumble forward from there, despite my shyness, and the fact that it would take me another half an hour to think of the second thing I wanted to say – but the probability that they would immediately switch to English. Everybody’s English is better than my everybody else’s language.

However, since I can read six modern languages (with proficiency varying from high to struggling), and have a few “surge” languages in reserve that I might be able to swot up given a spare month or two, I verge in some ways on the category that Michael Erard calls “hyperpolyglot.” His fascinating book Babel No More tries to do many things: to define “hyperpolyglots” (which includes defining what it means to know or use a language); to locate living hyperpolyglots; to look at the history of hyperpolyglottery; to speculate on the neurological and social contexts for the speaking of many languages; and to travel the world while writing a voice-driven book about eccentric people.

I am deeply in sympathy with all the aims except the last; as readers of lection know, voice-driven nonfiction is one of my pet peeves. Erard, however, keeps the ratio of exposition to chatter substantially high. Once in a while he lapses. Erard flies to Düsseldorf to get some background on neurolinguistics, and tells us that

As any good expedition begins with a meal, Loraine and I considered hyperpolyglots over sushi. Tomorrow we’d be visiting the brain institute, and we had much to discuss. (166)

That’s fine, but who cares.

My peeves aside, though, Babel No More is relentlessly provocative. Erard is constantly caught between the desire that there should be linguistic prodigies in the world, and the rueful awareness that claims on behalf of such prodigies always need discounting by (at least) half. “If you read or hear that a certain person ‘can speak’ (or ’speaks’) a large number of languages (for instance twenty or more) you should always be a little skeptical,” said the late Swedish polyglot Erik Gunnermark (226). Gunnermark himself claimed to speak six languages well and seven others passably, but some who knew him in turn doubted Gunnermark’s claims: one colleague says, “I don’t think [he] could speak very many languages very well—but he could read them” (226). Gunnermark claimed to be able to read forty-seven languages (92).

Two principles are at work in the example of Erik Gunnermark. One is that the definition of “knowing” a language is far more nuanced than common wisdom would have it. I “know” Italian well enough to read contemporary novels without a dictionary, and to have read the entire Divina Commedia in the original at one point in my life. But people will come into my office and ask me the most basic words in Italian, and I haven’t the nebbiosissimo. When I was in Rome nine years ago, I was reduced to pointing and gesticulating in order to demonstrate my most basic needs. (Fortunately espresso is one of them.)

The other principle is that the languages known by any polyglot form a steeply descending curve of such competence, and can be arranged in graph form (as Erard does on 221-22). There are native bilingual and trilingual people who are completely at home in each of these languages, and they often learn a fourth or fifth language well enough to be able to converse unhesitatingly. A sixth, a seventh . . . these are within the range of accomplishment, but the conversations that a polyglot holds in those languages will be more basic. S/he might get by in rudimentary conversations in shops or airports in half a dozen other languages, and know the most phrasebook-like versions of a few others, and be able to read a few others without a dictionary, and a few others with. And then there are a bunch of languages where one knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and whatever-it-is you say when you bump into somebody in the market. (Συγγνώμη! Bocsánat! Undskyld!)

Nobody can be near-native in more than four or five languages. (But I know people who are highly fluent in that many, mainly from crossroads-of-Europe places like the Benelux countries and the Baltic.) Partly the constraint is one of time. It takes time to learn them and time to keep them current. A few years ago, struck by the sense that I ought to practice reading the eight languages I could nominally read, I devised a plan of reading one Bible chapter in each of them, on an eight-day rotation. One chapter a day does not sound like much; the material was familiar and the translations (or in the case of Greek, the koine of the original New Testament) fairly basic. But let me tell you, reading the Bible in eight different languages at the rate of one language per day is a shortcut to madness. You can’t keep it up unless you have nothing else to do. (Two features of many of the hyperpolyglots Erard studies are extremely good time management and near-compulsive study skills.)

“The enemy of the language-learner is forgetting,” says one of Erard’s informants. “You can only prevent this by regularly studying” (134). Sir Richard Burton (the world traveler, not the movie star) learned over two dozen languages, but never all at once; he spoke them “in blocks or spurts” (47), and time away from any of his languages had to be redeemed with time spent studying again before he could return to it. The example of such hard work, Erard says, is the basis for one theory of superlearners.

One view says: what matters is a person’s sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don’t need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. (163)

But clearly there’s a sense in which at least some hyperpolyglots are just gifted with verbal ability.

The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can’t explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation. (164)

Indeed, some language “accumulators” are of low intelligence, or hampered by social anxieties; they are savant-like in their ability to memorize gigantic vocabulary lists. They work hard, but they also do things that normal hard-working people can’t (and fail at things that the mentally normal handle easily). Great language learning can be a gift in the same way as great musical ability or great chess talent. There is probably more than one pathway there, and sometimes people take several at once (just as there is more than one kind of polyglottery).

Erard lists several talents to cultivate if you want to use a lot of different languages: mimicry, openness to experience, metamemory (remembering what you know and what you don’t), and the less-definable Sprachegefühl [sic] (“feel for language,” 263). I think I understand Sprachgefühl, though I may not possess it to any great degree. It is partly what the poet Keats called “negative capability.” In any language, there are various ways to pronounce words, various idioms that don’t make logical sense, lots of synonyms, multiple registers, and above all tons of irregularities that don’t apply in every other (sometimes any other) languages. If you have a feel for language, you roll with it.

You cannot learn languages, or in a real sense even learn much about your own language, if you are unable to yield to uncertainty. In this, language is utterly different from math or chemistry. If you ask someone who is competent in two languages, but lacks Sprachgefühl, to translate something, they will give you a rote dictionary equivalent. If you ask a multilingual with Sprachgefühl to translate something, they will tell you three ways to say it in writing, one way to say it to your grandkids and and one way to say it to a cop, plus an interesting way they say it in Kentucky. As Ron Washington says of baseball, that’s the way language go.

Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2012.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 28th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Bad Books

Recently The American Book Review released an article titled “Top 40 Bad Books,” in which a host of literary critics were invited to identify “bad books.”

Some of the contributors went with the obvious: Bonnie Wheeler (SMU) listed Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – which seems just a little bit too easy. Marc Bousquet (Santa Clara) listed David Horowitz’s right-wing screed, One Party Classroom, and Liedeke Plate (Radboud Universiteit) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – and, again, the reader wonders whether it is even worth the ink to identify these works as bad?

Other choices appeared to deliberately court controversy: Christine Granados (Texas A&M) named Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses; Kim Herzinger (U Houston-Victoria) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Tom LeClair (U Cincinnati) called Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby the “worst novel in American literature.” Shocking stuff.

(If you are wondering why there are so many professors from Texas represented on the list – I was too.)

As a scholar whose stock-in-trade are authors and books that have traditionally been deemed “bad” – as most early American women writers and their writings were – and conscious of the fact that literary “goodness” and “badness” are historically contingent categories usually employed to keep marginalized individuals, voices, and opinions on the margins, ABR’s entire project struck me as suspect. Most of the scholars and writers who participated in the experiment were as suspicious as I am – and many of them speak to precisely these issues: several celebrate the “bad book” as a culturally meaningful artifact and a great object of study in the classroom; others call into question whether “good” and “bad” even have any meaning in our pluralistic society. The article is worth reading because it offers such a wide range of responses to the issue of literary “badness.”

Having stated that I think the categories are vexed, the terms virtually meaningless, and the exercise contradictory to the work I do in my classes and writing … I’m plunging in …

Here’s my nomination for a really bad book – a book I couldn’t stand – a book about which I can talk extensively, detailing all the reasons I think it stinks: Geraldine Brooks’ March.

Is this the only bad book I could name? No.

Is this the worst book ever? Not even close.

Is there something about passionately disliking a book, that makes a reader wed to it in a way that is not unlike the relationship a reader develops with a really good book? Absolutely.

So, go ahead: name a bad book. You know you want to.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on March 29th, 2010 |5 Comments »

Proof that novels about clergymen and spinsters can be good

rdMuch as I hate to plaster my post over Tim’s diverting discussion of academic bureaucracy, it is time for me to report back on another “Neglected Classic,” which this time is F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter. I had never heard of F.M. Mayor. Not that this necessarily means much, since twentieth-century literature was a blind spot of my undergraduate degree in English. In 1991, which is when I started the degree, literature published earlier that same century apparently just seemed far too new to form part of the permanent curriculum (the jury was still out on American literature also, by the way).

F.M. proved to be, when I received the book, Flora Macdonald, one of twin girls born in 1872 to, oddly enough, a clergyman. Even the little information about her life circumstances that is provided in the brief introduction to the novel makes its autobiographical underpinnings obvious. Its central character, Mary Jocelyn, is the thirty-something spinster daughter of the rector of Dedmayne parish, an unappealing village with nothing to recommend it but the damp. Canon Jocelyn, eighty two at the novel’s opening, is a stately figure. Of his daughter Mary’s physical appearance, Mayor makes it clear that it is a case of “nice eyes, shame about everything else”:

Mary was a decline. Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue .. She was dowdily dressed (7).

Reading this, it might be thought that Mayor has an unsympathetic attitude toward her protagonist, but this proves to be far from the case.

The novel charts the trajectory of an on-again, off-again romantic attachment between Mary and Mr. Herbert, recently appointed vicar of the neighboring village of Lanchester. Having fallen hard for Mary, Mr. Herbert leaves for a brief trip to compose his thoughts before proposing. When he returns, he is married to and rapturously in love with the young, beautiful, and moneyed Kathy Hollings. After only one year, Mr. Herbert realizes the intellectual and class gulf separating him from his wife, and comes once more to appreciate his bond with Mary. During a separation, while she is partying it up on the Continent with the fickle and fashionable, Kathy’s mouth is deformed in a bungled surgical operation, ultimately leading to a warm rapprochement with her husband back in England.

Although things often seem about to turn in Mary’s favor—the plot continually suggesting avenues by which Kathy might die off or leave—this is not to be that kind of novel. But neither is it, as it might sound from my description, a depressing tale of a hopeless love affair between two middle-aged people stunted by the emotional constipation of their times. Mary’s emotional clarity, in fact, is what makes her character so appealing. Surrounded by characters who either smother their feelings, like her father, or simply don’t have any deep emotions in the first place, like her friend Dora, Mary’s emotional intensity is the more refreshing and unusual. All the characters, though, are so finely-drawn as to make them utterly compelling, with the relationship between Mary and Canon Jocelyn a particularly understated tour-de-force of the novel.

What I like best about The Rector’s Daughter, though, is that Mayor is as witty as Jane Austen even while her plot is less predictable than Austen’s and her characters more well-rounded and less pretty. Mayor has a way of nailing people right on the foible—take this passage about Mary’s father:

Canon Jocelyn disliked Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army on account of their wildness and extravagance. When Mary was thirteen she had said, “I simply detest Henry IV. of France because he did not persecute any one.”

“That is a foolish way of talking,” Canon Jocelyn answered, “and I dislike your slang use of the word ‘simply.’” She had only meant Henry IV. was not in earnest, but there was a strangeness in the speech, which made Canon Jocelyn feel she might get into the hands of the Roman Catholics.

Or this of life with her Aunt Lottie:

a trickle of chatter…; making and unmakings of the mind up twenty times a day; putting on one’s things and instantly taking them off; a tracking down of the wind, the rain, the damp, the dust, the glare, the dark, the draught, the fog, the crowds, the motors (314).

Perhaps you are familiar with Mayor’s work—if so, let us know what you think. If you don’t, I can carry on thinking I am the only person in the Department to have read it. If you would like to dim the smug glow that this causes me, I can lend you the book. It’s worth a read.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on December 1st, 2009 |No Comments »

In Praise of the American Short Story

Last year, in an article for the New York Times lamenting the lack of appreciation many American readers have for the short story, Stephen Millhauser said, “…here in America, size is power. The novel is the Wal-Mart, the Incredible Hulk, the jumbo jet of literature. The novel is insatiable — it wants to devour the world. What’s left for the poor short story to do? It can cultivate its garden, practice meditation, water the geraniums in the window box. It can take a course in creative nonfiction. It can do whatever it likes, so long as it doesn’t forget its place — so long as it keeps quiet and stays out of the way. ‘Hoo ha!’ cries the novel. ‘Here ah come!’ The short story is always ducking for cover. The novel buys up the land, cuts down the trees, puts up the condos. The short story scampers across a lawn, squeezes under a fence.” And I think it’s this squeezing under the fence bit that best sums up the quiet power of a really well-written short story–the best ones are able to sneak up on you, offer an emotional wallop, and are able to do so in the same small amount of time it would take you to watch a re-run of “Saved By the Bell.” These days, it seems that any writer showing up on an agent’s and editor’s doorstep, polished short story collection in hand, is met with pity. “Where’s the novel?” The agent will ask. “I can’t sell these!” The editor will wail. If this writer is lucky she’ll get a two-book deal, which involves a publishing house accepting her short story collection only along with a novel. And the novel will probably make its way to print, and eventually to the bookshelves of Borders. And the short story collection? No matter how craftily written, this poor manuscript will forever remain in “editing,” until the publisher releases the collection from contract (with pitying looks for the poor writer who has wasted everyone’s time). This seems to be a recent development, and it makes one wonder if a writer like, say, Raymond Carver (a writer known for brevity whose longest works are in the 12-page range) would even have a shot today in the publishing world. And there’s Cheever and Barth, both writers who are best known for their short stories. I think proof of this bias can be seen with Lorrie Moore (immediately buy Birds of America if it’s not already on your shelf), a master of the short story form, who, it seems, is forced to put out the occasional sub par novel (the problematic Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was originally a much-loved short story in The New Yorker called “Paris.”)

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the place of the short story in the American reading landscape. Publishers don’t want them because, well, they don’t sell. But there’s something beautiful in the way a short story invites you briefly into a world, lets you glimpse the grace of this world’s inhabitants (or perhaps the horror of their lives), and then releases you before you have a chance to even sit down and take your coat off.

Here’s a brief list of just a few of the stories that–no matter how many times I re-read them–punch me in the gut (almost all of these are contemporary, but since she’s my favorite short story writer, I had to slip in one by O’Connor):

“Hunters In the Snow” by Tobias Wolff. Not many writers can get away with a story that relies almost completely on dialogue and action (no exposition here, my friend). This story is chilling, and the ending is downright frightening.

“People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore. This story has the perfect narrative voice. It’s like one of your best friends is telling you about a really, really bad experience while you share a glass of wine with her. It’s heartbreaking.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. I know most Flannery-ites don’t think it’s her best, but I get chills every time the Misfit shows up. And, like Wolff’s story, the ending is tough.

“City of Boys” by Beth Nugent. The protagonist of this story is wise and smart and sad and hopeful all at the same time. And there’s that chilling refrain that occurs throughout the story, gaining menace as the narrative progresses (“rent control is not going to last forever in New York!”)

“Gryphon” by Charles Baxter. It’s difficult for me to bond with child narrators. But I find this story charming. Plus, it was made into a film by PBS.

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. The scene where the protagonist traces the cathedral with the Blind Man is gorgeous.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. Uh-oh, I’m starting to see a trend in my favorite stories (it seems I like the ones with the creepy predators).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. Those are just a few of mine. What are yours?

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on November 20th, 2009 |7 Comments »

Not the “Neglectedest” Classic


As promised in my last post, I am making my way (very slowly) through the nominations for “neglected classic” made by ten contemporary authors for the radio 4 program Open Book. This past two weeks I read The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico, and Samuel Johnson’s This History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia. I will only have room here to address The Snow Goose—it’s just that kind of book, and not in a good way.

Paul Gallico seems to be best known for penning The Poseidon Adventure, and is thus ultimately responsible for the excesses of the 1970s adventure movie featuring Gene Hackman et al upside down somewhere in the Atlantic. The Snow Goose, published in 1941, was his first novel, and apparently his most successful. It’s barely a novel, really, being more of a novella or a short story at only 58 small and rather sparsely lined pages. I should also mention that it’s a book for children (or I really hope that’s what he was going for).

Unlike truly great children’s literature, this book doesn’t address and satisfy multiple audiences, however. It’s that time-old story of hunchback meets girl, girl grows up, hunchback falls in love with girl, girl at first finds hunchback creepy but then too late realizes that she is in love with him. Oh, and there is a goose involved. In fact, the goose brings them together, as geese so often do (really, who needs when you have a goose?).

Clearly The Snow Goose was a product of its time, and is moderately interesting for that. Rhayader, the hunchback, dies at Dunkirk after rescuing hundreds of troops in his little sailboat, a testament to the many private vessels that assisted in the evacuation.

In most other ways, though, the characters of The Snow Goose occupy the timeless realm of fairy tale and the netherland of racial stereotype. In this latter element, The Snow Goose finds me a particularly unsympathetic reader, since it demonstrates the ways in which a little knowledge of Old English can do a whole lot of damage. Frith, whose name means peace and thus rather crudely ties to the whole war thingy, first approaches the hunchback with a wounded snow goose that she has found in the marshes. Frith is, “beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery. She was pure Saxon, large-boned, fair” (15). She lives in the “ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth,” a place that seems to have survived untouched since Anglo-Saxon times; she speaks in an annoyingly in-your-face regional accent full of ays, ‘ees, and idiosyncratic verb usage. “’She be’ent going’,” she says, of the snow goose, and, littering the Essex landscape with her dropped consonants (and vowels, for that matter), “’The Princess be goin’ t’ stay’.” Even more vexing is that Frith intuitively knows things, such as the fact that Rhayader is doomed when he sails off in his little boat to Dunkirk (duh!), “from the ancient powers of the blood that was in her” (54). Need I quote more?

In addition to all this yukky Germanicism, The Snow Goose is prone to flights of sentimentalism as soaring as the course of the snow goose itself. Witness this passage from the conclusion of the book, when the goose returns from Dunkirk, where it had faithfully followed the hunchback:

Wild spirit called to wild spirit, and she seemed to be flying with the great bird, soaring with it in the evening sky, and hearkening to Rhayader’s message.

Sky and earth were trembling with it and filled her beyond the bearing of it. “Frith! Fritha! Frith, my love. Good-by, my love.” The white pinions, black-tipped, were beating it out upon her heart, and her heart was answering: “Philip, I love ‘ee.”

My recommendation to ‘ee be’ent t’ read this book.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on November 18th, 2009 |3 Comments »

Who Would Have Thought It?


Who Would Have Thought It?, indeed. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel was published (anonymously) in 1872 to dismissive notices from the few reviewers who bothered to discuss it. In 2009, it has just been reissued as a Penguin Classic.

The novel’s first reviewers, quoted in the Penguin introduction by Amelia María de la Luz Montes, opined that Who Would Have Thought It? “does not ask the most implicit belief from the reader” and showed a “perhaps too cynical habit of observation” and a “total disregard for the common denouement of novels” (xx-xxi). As so often, negative reviews are the most discerning in their description of a work. To put it less genteelly, Who Would Have Thought It? has plot holes you could march the Army of the Potomac through. Its story, borrowed from the Victorian stock of imperilled-orphan plotlines, eventually fizzles out in rhetoric.

But, as de la Luz Montes notes, “Ruiz de Burton’s works speak to our twenty-first-century world” (xvi). Literary scholars in 2009 are drawn to polemical, overtly rhetorical fiction, and the more cynical its “habit of observation,” the better. We read novels primarily as arguments, even as “projects” akin to scholarly books. Given such an “interpretive community,” Who Would Have Thought It? becomes an ideal candidate for scholarship.

The plot construction of Who Would Have Thought It? would have made Charles Dickens wince. A key to the orphan Lola Medina’s perils is a misdirected manuscript that falls into the hands of her guardian’s brother-in-law Isaac Sprig. Isaac, upon reading the manuscript, travels to Mexico to discover more about Lola – completely unsuspecting that his brother-in-law’s mysterious Mexican ward Lola might be the mysterious Mexican orphan Lola mentioned in the manuscript. “Slow on the uptake” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Enormous blind spots in novels may be forgiven, of course: the plot of Jane Eyre would go nowhere if Jane had investigated all that thumping in Rochester’s attic to begin with. But Who Would Have Thought It? has more grievous narrative sins on its conscience. It’s often dull. Long chapters are devoted to shuttling characters up and down the Eastern Seaboard so that their romantic entanglements can realign. The book ends not just without a denouement, but with its characters pointlessly chasing one another around in boats.

Now, this critique is far beside the point, I realize. Who Would Have Thought It? is valued today not for Ruiz de Burton’s story skills, but for its “intricate ethnic, gender, sexual, and racial relationships to power” (xv). I grant this point completely. In fact, from my own perspective as a desultory student of Civil War fiction, I found Who Would Have Thought It? interesting for its corrosive view of the Union war effort. The most loathsome opportunists, in Ruiz de Burton’s world, become the most decorated heroes. Three separate characters have their fortunes made, respectively, by (1) fleeing the first battle of Manassas in a stolen buggy, (2) spurring a horse the wrong way in an attempt to retreat that turns into an inadvertent charge, and (3) self-inflicting a gunshot wound in another scramble to the rear. The wartime administration is run from an undisclosed location by the sinister Edwin M. Stanton, for the benefit of “shoddy” profiteers who make Halliburton look like pikers. Even Abraham Lincoln comes across as a bloviating buckpasser.


All very interesting, I admit. But are these historical/rhetorical insights worth the effort of wading through a 305-page novel that is often either preposterous or provokingly tedious? There are good, energetic things in Who Would Have Thought It? – small set pieces like an old maid’s undermotivated chloroforming of her pet canaries, or a proleptic discussion of postwar “leg opera” on the New York stage – but they are embedded in a matrix of rather drossy narrative. Wouldn’t it be more profitable to study essays and letters from the period for their political opinions, than to slog through such a novel?

However, the very word “novel” is still magical. It connotes “literature,” with its guarantee of artistic merit, and its entrenched place in the curriculums and syllabuses of English departments, and publishers’ front- and backlists. Who Would Have Thought It? is of very minor interest in literary history. Even de la Luz Montes concedes as much implicitly, making no mention in her introduction of Ruiz de Burton’s career as a belle-lettrist. But the rhetoric of the novel is of considerable interest. And in a century where literature increasingly tends to reduce to rhetoric, such a text is a Classic indeed.

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It? 1872. New York: Penguin, 2009.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 30th, 2009 |No Comments »