My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, “Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing.” His book is called Well, and every review I’ve found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the “yes pile.” You can find an excerpt on the official page.
Like many American youths, I spent a number of years toiling pallidly in middle and high school French, the end result of which was being able to identify the opening strains of “La Marseillaise,” being aware of the mnemonic device “Dr. & Mrs. Vandertramp,” being able to inaccurately recite a poem by Jacques Prevert, and being able to conduct one halting conversation with a man in a bar, the highlight of which occurred when I boldly spoke of jus d’orange. I also remember vividly the mid-century expression for peeing the bed, courtesy of the oft-viewed classroom film Au Revoir les Enfants.
I could probably struggle through a French article about cats, written for children, but it would not occur to me to say that I am a French speaker. The decisive moment never came when I chose to say to myself and the world: “I speak French,” and by thus saying willed it so. You must make your linguistic statement of faith and mean it.
Through a series of happy accidents, I began learning Turkish when I was 21, first haphazardly, then in earnest, then not at all, then all the time, and now once a week for a prescribed number of hours.
Please don’t misunderstand me–I cannot speak Turkish the way that millions of people from around the world speak uncannily beautiful and idiomatic English. But I made my statement of faith and I’m sticking to it. I ride to school and whisper words like “threshold,” “doomsday,” and “willow tree.” I stop in the middle of sentences and turn red and start again.
Like many people who begin learning a language in the country where it is spoken, until lately I was in the position of knowing many breathtaking and largely unsayable obscenities, but could not read a book or newspaper.
Reading is not like speaking. You cannot look at a page and will yourself to understand, the way you can open your mouth and say nonsense and hope that someone kindly will do the work of comprehension. Illiteracy is terrifying; semi-literacy is agonizing. I knew Turkish words and grammar (which, viewed from English, is approximately backwards), but not how they went together on the page. I would start a paragraph and soon, my eyes would begin skipping across the paragraph at their accustomed speedy clip, apprehending nothing.
I bought Orhan Pamuk’s novel Kar (Snow) four years ago, when I had just left Turkey and felt myself, in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, a competent speaker. Confidence is important. A good way to feel optimistic is to acquire what Benjamin Franklin, the randy goat, called a sleeping dictionary. In Turkish there is an expression which communicates the same thing, an arch pun on dil, which means both “language” and “tongue.”
Unfortunately, most flings in foreign lands do not equip the besotted with the skills required for reading Nobel novels. As I have said before, I reached page 16 of Kar, which is actually page 8, by performing a very painful and ill-advised word-for-word transcription on the book’s actual pages, thereby ensuring that I would never be able to return to and read the opening chapter, or, for that matter, my own inaccurate translation. The pages, thus defaced, resemble something out of Paul Auster, or Pamuk at his most post-modern.
During my summer reunion with this elegant language, I took a class with a very patient professor who slowly coaxed us through excerpts of early republican stories, poems, and a Vikipedi article on jaguars (beneklerle kaplıdır–“they are covered with spots”).
Setting aside the dictionary I bought in my first week in Turkey, a tiny yellow Langenscheidt, the inside of which is coated with an archaeological film of loose tobacco, I obtained a big-league dictionary. A grown-up, non-smoking dictionary, which weighs 10 pounds and has words I don’t know in English, like “eryngo” (çakırdiken), and “schreinerize” (ipek efekti vermek), and “helve” (sap). It also includes a fair selection of unsayable things, which are important to know. I feel very secure with this dictionary, although I keep the yellow one in my purse, for the train.
When the summer class drew to a close, I returned to Kar, page 16, with my adult dictionary and a sense of purpose. For a moment, I saw the old chaos before me. But I forced myself to go one word at a time. Before long, rather than feeling as though I had been strapped blind to some infernal machine, I opened my eyes to find that I was actually riding a bicycle very slowly, peddling haltingly but definitively forward down an unfamiliar street. At first, the effort of keeping my momentum and balance prevented me apprehending the architectural features of this new territory:
The Kars Police Headquarters was a long three-story building that was an old building that was made from stone that was used for many government buildings that were arranged on Faikbey Street that stayed from the rich Russians and Armenians.
It took me a week of train commutes with the small dictionary to progress four pages, and to perceive what I was reading in a way that seemed distinctly literary. I am not a translator; I don’t begin to understand the alchemy of translation. But on page 26, for the first time ever, I felt moved by something I read in a language not my own:
In the empty lot next to the Yusuf Pasha District’s park, with its unhinged swings and broken slide, in the light of the streetlamps which illuminated the adjacent coal warehouse, he watched high school-aged youths playing football. Listening to their exchanged shouts and curses, which were swiftly muffled by the snow, he felt so strongly the distance and unbelievable loneliness of this corner of the world, under the faded yellow lamplight and the falling snow, that he felt the idea of God inside him.
In my head, this was beautiful.
At page 85, I continue to creep along.
I think I can, I think I can.
Davy Rothbart has taken the Powell’s blog by storm. He’s putting together the next FOUND magazine book (a sequel to the first one), and he’s taken to posting late at night, occasionally whilst drunk. He’s discussed “found” stuff, Scrabble and writing to inmates as well as a number of other topics.
I’m guessing that Oprah’s latest choice for her book club was timed to coincide with BEA (the big book expo) going on in New York right now. Despite recent pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, Oprah has decided to stick with the classics. The latest pick is notable in that it’s not just one book, it’s three. Vintage Books has combined three novels by William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August – into one Oprah-branded set called The Summer of Faulkner which retails for close to 30 bucks. To my mind, the selection is also notable in that these novels are probably the most challenging books that Oprah has ever recommended. I’ve said before that I don’t think that Oprah’s focus on classic books is a bad thing, but I have to wonder if this latest pick won’t provoke a backlash. Among the literary types there is already much consternation over Oprah co-opting classic novels for use on her TV show, and this latest pick, which repackages three of the greatest American novels into a “summer of” set, might be enough to stir critics into a frenzy. From the standpoint of the regular Oprah Book Club readers, Oprah may lose some fans who find Faulkner tough going and resent the 30 dollar price tag that got slapped on this pick. On the other hand, if this really does turn out to be the “Summer of Faulkner” and hundreds of thousands of Americans read his novels, I’ll be hard-pressed to say that this was a bad choice.See also: All of Oprah’s classic picks.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Last night Derek and I went to a party at a squat on Western in a no-man’s-land area of LA. Apparently, the kids who were squatting there are about to be kicked out, so this was one last bash. We went because the Sharp Ease were playing. Several other bands were playing as well, and throughout the show people were sporadically destroying the place, a set of abandoned apartments above a non-descript furniture store. The place was already very trashed from months of parties. The doors to many of the rooms had been ripped off the hinges and the graffiti-covered walls were pockmarked with holes and dents. The Sharp Ease played their usual, drunken, high-energy set, and the crowd got pretty rowdy. By the time they finished singing, people were tearing down the walls and launching things – cans of paint, small appliances, cinder blocks – through the windows and leaving a litter of glass and debris all over Western Ave. Derek and I, sensing that it would get worse before it got better, drunkenly headed back to our homes.