Reading in Tongues

July 22, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 4 7 min read

coverWhen many years ago I first read Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu in the Scott-Moncrieff translation published in seven very elegant paperback volumes by the London house of Chatto & Windus—an effort that took just about six months—I was so affected by this work that I was determined to read it all over again in the original.

My French up until then consisted of three years in junior high and high school, and a year of it in college; I retained none of it. As we were living in England at the time my wife and I (and eventually our infant daughter who, at three months, cried so incessantly one night in the Hôtel Aviatic on the Rue de Vaugirard that the poor Frenchman on the floor above us could only pace and pace until suddenly he fell silent, leaving us to imagine in all its vivid detail that he had done himself in, pauvre type, his body fished out of the Seine late the next afternoon, a note stuffed in his watery pocket, Adieu, monde cruel!) occasionally took cheap trips to Paris, which consisted of multiple train journeys to Dover, a hovercraft nightmare to Boulogne, and an interminable railway stop-and-go in ancient rolling stock through World War I battlefields to the Gare du Nord. Once, at Dover, our hovercraft gasbagged into life only to deflate when, as we watched through the porthole, the Queen Mother stood beneath an umbrella in her usual pale blue hat and dress and took bows from the wardens of the Cinque Ports before being driven off for her nightly ration of gin-and-it.

My spoken French was pathetic (my wife’s far better), though having l’enfant along made everyone like us immensely. I may be one of the few Americans who has not actually encountered a rude French person, and I ascribe this to the presence of a babe in arms. One thing we discovered is that the English love children as long as the children in question are grown-up—childhood tolerated only as nostalgia, a memory of the land of lost content, as A.E. Houseman would put it; Americans want to be children forever, and many as they negotiate the minefield of middle-age dress as though they are; while the French go all gooey over them and indulge them with expensive gourmet baby food and clothes that look as if they were actually thought up by someone. This may have changed, but it worked for us from the moment we stepped onto the beachhead at Boulogne-sur-Mer.

coverI began to learn French with a few grammar books bought at Heffer’s Booksellers in Cambridge, and after several months began to read some simple stories, graduating to Candide and Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet, and then moving on to more contemporary writers. I started with Patrick Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’étoile. All I knew of Modiano was that he wrote about his past and that of his parents, which was intricately bound up with the years of the German Occupation of France, a topic I was about to introduce into my own fiction. Modiano’s true subject, I discovered, is the nature of identity and memory as it’s distilled through the past—in itself a Proustian conceit—and what I find fascinating about him is that his many novels, which take up a good portion of a bookshelf, in a way are like individual chapters of one book. His theme is unchanging; his style, “la petite musique,” as the French say, is virtually the same from book to book. There is nothing “big” about his work, and readers have grown accustomed to considering each succeeding volume as an added chapter to an ongoing literary project. His twenty-five published novels rarely are longer than 200 pages, and in them his characters, who seem to drift, under different names, into first this novel, then another, wander the streets of Paris looking for a familiar place, a remembered face, some link to their elusive past, some ghost from a half-remembered encounter that might shed some light on one’s history. Phone numbers and addresses are dredged up from the past, only to bring more cryptic clues and, if not dead ends, then the kind of silence that hides a deeper and more painful truth.

You open the latest Modiano and you know exactly where you are. The writer is artistically all of a piece. It’s his obsession with memory and the haunted lives of his protagonists which truly caught my attention, and especially how he returns time and again to mine this subject. As someone with a very broken chronology, with a memory of childhood that is in many ways unreliable (how much has been planted there? How much of it is real? What’s been removed by doubt or by someone else’s will?), I saw in Modiano how the capriciousness of memory can in itself become the subject of a novel. And because back then I found plot a troublesome thing to handle in my fiction, the idea of creating a narrator in search of a story became the basis for my first novel. I sent Modiano a copy of it when it was published and, not surprisingly, heard nothing back.

Though I needed (and still do need) a dictionary beside me, I continued to read in French with a greater fluency and quickly saw how my own work was being both enlarged and influenced by it. Living in Britain had its risks: my writing could begin to adopt some of the market-driven demands to write about being a writer in Hampstead (a subject so effectively cornered by Margaret Drabble and others) or to delve into agitprop (quite common back then in both theatre and television drama) or even historical fiction, but it was reading French that pulled me into doing something different, into introducing characters from other cultures, bridging genres, and bringing in some of my Russian grandparents’ émigré experience, if not in fact then as a kind of mist that lay over the landscape of my fiction.

They had almost moved to Paris in 1911 and only at the last minute decided to come to New York. My grandfather had heard that Frenchmen would stand on the railway platform as Jews from Eastern Europe would step off their trains and scream “Juif! Juif!”, a remnant of the days of the Dreyfus Affair, and one that was mined until 1940 and after. Had my grandfather and namesake moved there with his family, I wouldn’t be writing this today, and the lot of them would be dust in the grounds of a concentration camp in Poland.

coverSomewhat serendipitously I discovered what’s come to be known as the nouveau roman noir. Nominally detective novels, these took the basic elements of the genre and added to them various elements of postmodernism and of film, and led the genre to a whole new place. Possibly Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (The Erasers), a recasting of “Oedipus Rex” as a murder mystery, was the first. But having read an article about the more well-known practitioners of the genre, writers of a whole other generation than Robbe-Grillet’s, I was introduced to the Lyon trilogy of René BellettoLe Revenant, Sur la Terre comme au ciel, l’Enfer—and was immediately impressed both with his dark humor and how he introduced myth, musical structure (Belletto is both an excellent musician and composer, as well as something of an expert on J.S. Bach), and an encyclopedic knowledge of American B-films, into novels that straddle the genres of literary fiction and crime. Though I also read, and still read, Jean Echenoz, Thierry Jonquet, and, beyond the genre, Jean-Patrick Toussaint and Georges Perec, it was Belletto who influenced me perhaps more than the others. I wrote him, as well, and for twenty years we’ve been friends.

When I eventually did make the leap to read Proust in the original I was surprised to discover that he really wasn’t a difficult writer, per se: his vocabulary was hardly erudite, he expressed himself simply (though still in sentences whose length the idea being expressed required), and the writing possessed, as he himself hoped it would, the naturalness of breathing, even that of an asthmatic, which he was. All of a sudden he was a very different kind of writer from that in Scott-Moncrieff’s translation. Where that translator emphasized, or rather extracted and highlighted, the poetic and romantic side of Proust, reading him in French showed just how muscular, how sinewy, Proust’s prose truly is.  In reality there is a stylistic and narrative confidence in these more than three thousand pages that, in the first English translation, comes off as tentative and somewhat precious, as though he had bought into the contemporary view of Proust as being not much more than a gossip and a social butterfly. What we miss in Scott-Moncrieff’s version is the edginess of Proust, especially his extraordinary humor—and I contend that Proust was one of the truly great comic novelists—and the dark and, at that time, forbidden sexuality of what has now properly come to be known as In Search of Lost Time.

This is also something of a tale of espionage and detection: the narrator (allusively called Marcel, though this is far from being a reliably autobiographical novel) is a man separate from the world, an outsider cloaked within his own secrets and private memories who comes to perceive the world as something mutable, unreliable, cruel and dismissive, and seeks that elusive knowledge that will allow him to become the creator of the very people we’re reading about—people who also have many things to hide at a time when the cloak was far more useful than the megaphone. Knowing that Proust was homosexual, we can see where this sense of being a fugitive observer comes from and which leads him to become a kind of scientist (Proust’s father and brother were physicians) of human behavior. I know you, he seems to be saying, but you will never entirely know me. Six months, eight months, a year later, and once you’ve finished the entire novel you see the world differently from when you first read the opening sentences. That is but one, to me important, measure of what art can achieve: to make you comprehend things in a whole new way.

Adopting French as a second reading language gave me two worlds through which my own work could be filtered. As a novelist (far less so as a screenwriter), I find that reading in two languages has a way of enriching one’s own work. When reading in French I’m really stepping beyond myself and my world, and it’s this tiptoeing into another culture and another way of viewing things, that allows me to look back over my shoulder and find perhaps a whole new way of telling my own story.

’s seventh novel, The Drowning, a psychological thriller, will be published in January, 2019. Further information can be found at