I think in a a tongue entirely unfamiliar to me

Perhaps I ought to get serious about reading Hofmannsthal (otherwise famous for being the librettist of Frau Ohne Schatten).  Here is a line from his first publication ever, an imagined Letter of Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon ca. 1603:

I shall never write another book again, neither in English, nor in Latin, because the language in which I have been fated to write and think is neither Latin, nor English, nor Italian, nor Spanish; it is a tongue entirely unfamiliar to me, of which I understand not a word, a language in which mute objects speak to me, and in which, in my tomb, I will perhaps one day have to answer an unknown judge.

That it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all

I remember Antoni Słonimski. During my formative days he was an icon in my country. No longer to be read anywhere in the official media – having displeased the communists he had been banned from publishing – he was widely and eagerly read in samizdat. Read and admired.

As I read his works now I realize my admiration for him is entirely Voltairean: the man deserved to be loved for his infallible political and moral compass – an unshakeable belief in human rights and absolute need for liberal principles in government (liberal in the European sense, meaning that the state must be lenient); and his courageous public stand on these issues, damn the cost to his professional career and personal danger. But I admire him as a writer as I admire Voltaire: not at all.


The similarity between both writers goes deeper than political stand. They were both brilliant polemicists, aggressive, biting, and witty. They excelled – and thrived – in the heat of the moment, of the tit-for-tat, in public displays of the flashy quickness of their minds. They excelled in it, and they lived for it. The most revealing moment in Słonimski’s life, to my mind, is his trip to Brazil, during which he was bored, was not at all interested to learn anything about the country, and missed badly Warsaw cafe life – exactly as Voltaire missed Parisian salons when banned to the countryside. They lived to shine in society.

If you think about it in this light, the political principles of the two appear not a little self-serving: confident that they will shine in public and prevail in debate, of course they preferred free speech in the same way in which a heavy-weight boxer might prefer a no-holds-barred free-for-all.

But as brilliant as their style is – fluid, flashy, entertaining – it is also a bit like the Great Sahel Barbecue: all smoke and fire and very little flesh – only a few charred bits of desert locust. If, like me, you read in search of deep reflection, of new insight into the nature of the universe and the individual’s place in it, of profound introspection, you will find neither. It is almost as if the men lacked internal life. Significantly, neither has ever kept a journal intime: it is as if left alone by themselves, they ceased to exist. They were like those people with walk-on parts in your life, who, at the end of their scene, say “bye-bye” and go out the door and just outside freeze in temporary suspension until called on stage again. As he departed Paris, Voltaire felt himself dying: the further he was, the more dead he was. Cirey was a surprising discovery for Voltaire: that life outside of Paris salons was possible; that one could spend a day all by himself, without showing off or impressing a single person, and be contented. I am not sure that Słonimski ever made that discovery.

In my previous incarnation as a blogger I came upon countless Słonimski-Voltaires: people who ran their blogs for the traffic; and who engaged in comments only on busy blogs, in order to shine. If, attracted by an interesting comment, I ever tried to follow up in personal correspondence, I got next to nothing: the target, it turned out, was not interested in the topic, or in discussing the topic (which is not quite the same thing), but – in public shining. Private correspondence, being private, did not interest them.

And thus my reading of Słonimski, and reflection on him, has led me to formulate a thesis: that it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all. For such people it comes naturally to believe that all mind or all consciousness are a function of language; and that all reality is somehow linguistic.  (Die Grenze meiner Schprache sind die Grenze meiner Welt).

Joseph Conrad: A case of love foretold

My Polish friends, by and large, don’t like Conrad.

Partly, the reason is translation.  Although Almayer and Lord Jim contain some of the most beautiful passages of English prose ever written (I am thinking of the cruise of Patna, or the view of Georgetown harbor from Strawberry Hill in Lord Jim, or the river covered with red fallen flowers in the elopement scene in Almayer) 1; and I have not checked whether these specific passages read well in Polish translation; I am pretty sure they do not.  I am pretty sure because I remember clearly having had great difficulty working my way through Conrad in Polish, and switching, in frustration, to read him in my then very poor English, because that went better, however slowly. Why, some passages in the Polish translation of The Personal Record for instance — such as the bit about letting the cat out of the bag — were actually incomprehensible — yet, once I switched to the English, they proved clarity itself.

(Thus, it could be said, perhaps, that I owe my English fluency to the poverty of the existing Polish translations of Conrad).

I do not mean that Conrad is somehow untranslatable, but merely that the current translations are quite bad; as there seems to be afoot a kind of universal movement to re-translate, sooner or later these will be re-translated; perhaps then Conrad will sail more smoothly up the Vistula.

A more serious problem is Conrad’s… Englishness. Most of Conrad’s sea books are about man’s men who talk the way English man’s men do: sarcasm, understatement, elision, brevity, black and acerbic humor, and standoffish refusal to engage in touchy-feelies are all (Laconically) elevated to the status of virtues. Conrad’s heroes do not explain anything, ever: in court, Jim testifies about the moment of horror on a sinking ship — the horror which made him lose his mind and act foolishly — in two word: he says “I jumped”. He refuses to explain precisely when he absolutely must.

This is emphatically not the Polish way.  Indeed, I have lost Polish friends because I have become too English, too Conradian. My sense of humor is too biting, my interpretation of human character too uncharitable; I tend to wish people to “break a leg” instead of “good luck”.  And, perhaps constitutionally not unlike Jim (was he not “one of us”?) I, too, refuse to explain.

But mainly, perhaps, it is because of Conrad’s topics. Lord Jim is a novel about shame, for Chrissake; who ever feels ashamed of anything? In The Island of Day Before the (aristocratic, i.e. exceptional, i.e. old-fashioned) old de la Grieve makes a speech to his (ordinary, with-it yob) peons, whom he is ordering to go out and fight (I paraphrase): “We have always been loyal to our lord and we will be loyal now because to be loyal in good times and disloyal in hard times is to be a pig. Now, if any of you scum don’t like it, better tell me now while I have this convenient tree to hand on which to hang you”. In other words, the connoisseur of men’s hearts that he is, he does not expect his peons to be moved by fancy feelings like loyalty. Perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect people to be moved by a novel about shame.

And what to make of a novel like The Shadow Line? It has no romantic interest. They haven’t killed him and he hasn’t run away. There are no screeching tires or ticking time-bombs. On its surface, it is a novel about a man’s first… independent job.

In the author’s note Conrad explains that he meant it to be, more broadly, a novel about one’s passage into manhood.  Why?  Perhaps even he felt his readers were liable not to get it (by and large they did not:  invariably, Conrad sold poorly); so he went out and did something no man’s man ever should: he explained.  Predictably, it didn’t work:  critics still insist it is a novel about ghosts.

It didn’t work because, being one of us, he explained badly: The Shadow Line is not a novel about passage into adulthood; it is a novel about a man’s love for the sea:

A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed
through my veins, gave me such a sense of the in-
tensity of existence as I have never felt before or
since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was,
in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically–a
man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only
world that counted, and the ships, the test of man-
liness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity–
and of love.

Sell that in a (historically) land-locked country.


To me Conrad is –destiny:  he went to sea inspired by books; I went to Asia inspired by Conrad.  He lived a life of action before he ever entertained the idea of writing; I dropped the idea of letters and took up life of adventure instead.  He wrote with profound respect and sympathy for Asians — particularly Malays — whom he saw as noble and proud;  a lot of who I am has come about precisely because I too have adopted his attitude.  On the other side of the ledger:  Conrad evolved a peculiar ethos, one which combined chimeric romanticism and proud stoicism; unhappily, perhaps, it is an ethos I understand — and find easy to embrace.

But above all, Conrad is for me a case of a love foretold:  long before I ever laid my eyes upon them, I knew, from reading him, that I would love intensely and madly the stifling heat of the jungle, the massive muddy fast flowing rivers, the screeching birds and howling monkeys, the intensely colored flowers and the madly scented fruit, the deliciously powerful trade-wind blowing onshore, the flavor of the foods, the patterns of the skirts, the curvature of the weapons, the otherworldly clang of the gamelan.

Conrad the writer interests me less:  the sedentary life of struggling with writer’s block, agents, and publishers seems so much less than his life as a sailor.  How can experimentation in new forms of narrative match the excitement of a good storm at sea?  It is hard to believe that it was for this that he’d left the Otago.


1 The beauty of Conrad’s prose seems surprising in a man who, reportedly, spoke English with a heavy accent until his dying day. It isn’t English, wrote a critic, meaning that no Englishman could have ever written anything like it and that, to his mind, the greatness of the prose lay precisely in this fact: perhaps, he meant to suggest, it took a foreigner to realize the full potential of English prose, lying hidden, as it were in the native’s blind spots. Unlike Nabokov’s prose, which to my ears sounds like Englished Russian, Conrad’s prose is not Englished Polish — indeed, it translates badly into Polish. It is entirely — Conradian; entirely his own.

Devrik cümle, or sentence overturned

Maureen Freely on her work translating Pamuk’s Black Book:

[Devrik cümle] is a sentence — usually a very long sentence — in which words appear in an order different from that ordained by custom and practice, and cascading clauses create a series of expectations that are subverted by the verb at the very end.

Back engineering Turkish

The multilingual hero of a certain trashy action novel learns Basque in prison from a bilingual Basque-Spanish prayerbook. To do so he has to back-engineer the language’s grammar – tenses, cases, conjugations and articles.

Which is a nice way to make a 100 page book last a year.

This is – kind of – what I am doing this week, as I drive through Eastern Anatolya, reading signs: I am back-engineering Turkish; not from a prayer book, but from shop signs.

I have figured out some things already: -lik/lyk seems to be a kind of nounifying ending; -li/ly some kind of an adjectivialising suffix (egg-li sandwich, butter-li fish; spice-li salad) — perhaps meaning “with”; -ler/lar is the pluralizing suffix; -ci seems to indicate a seller and -cu a maker.  And so on.

But there is a suffix I see everywhere, and on everything, and it beats the bejeezus out of me. The phonetic rule appears to be this: the suffix takes the form -i when it follows a consonant and the last vowel before the suffix is an e, i, u or o umlaut; otherwise, it is -y; but if the last letter in the word to which it is attached is a vowel, and the vowel is an a, o, u or y, the suffix takes the form -sy; otherwise, it takes the form -si. It appears to make no difference in the meaning: üniversite, per dictionary, is university; so what on earth is üniversitesi? Likewise, banka is bank; so what on earth is a bankasy (as every bank proudly declares)?

A rather brilliant suggestion dawned on me on Tuesday: it is the definite article. The Sugar Bank, The Sinan University. But no: my phrase book insists that Turkish has no articles. Puzzled, I went behind the wheel again. On Wednesday, in front of the ATM’si, a brilliant idea struck me in the face: it’s the equivalent of Chinese suo/wu/ Japanese jyo/ya: “place/ institution/ office/ organization/ facility”. Banking facility. ATM location. Eating establishment.

Alas, that very evening I sat down to a meal in a restaurant, opened the menu and saw: Price List –

Fiyat Listesi

List-facility? List-location? List-establishment?


So much for that idea. But a definite article would suit the formula nicely: The Price List. Is it possible that my phrasebook is wrong?

I could of course just ask. But learning a language the easy way is – well, not really exciting, is it? Besides, it will be so much fun, when someone asks me in a couple years’ time, “Where did you learn your excellent Turkish?” to say: “Oh, I just — kind of — figured it out”.

Update:  The very next day I drove past an ev mantysy (home dumplings) and then, about 2 km on, a manty evi (house of dumplings), which allowed me to formulate a new theory:  it’s a suffix indicating the end of a compound noun-phrase.  I am encouraged in this interpretation by the fact that foreign loanwords do not appear to take on the suffix.  You know:  nothing so tries a rule as good exception.