Does Speaking English Rot Your Teeth?: On Wanting to Be Mavis Gallant

July 17, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 1 7 min read

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The room where we meet is on the fourth floor of an apartment house in Paris, in a district perhaps better left unnamed. It holds a matrimonial bed, a big old wardrobe, and, on a desk, a carafe of tap water and a hinged mirror glazed with spittle. Also present, waving a felt-tip pen like a baton, is a little man with a comb-over the color of boot black on his brow — my French diction teacher. In the early evening and sometimes of a morning, he receives me in the foyer and shakes my hand and I follow him into this bedroom at the rear of the flat, singing out, “Bonjour Madame!” to the guardian wife at the bedroom door who never returns my greeting.

Why a diction teacher? Because delicate French nerves are choqués — shocked! — by the erratic phrasing, intonation, and just plain wrong sounds that émigrés are prone to. An aspiring novelist from New York, I am not an émigré, not yet; but I’m preparing to become one by modeling myself after my literary hero, the Anglo-Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, who arrived in Paris more than 60 years ago already speaking exquisite French. The problem is, I see myself ending up like the unfortunate displaced people who inhabit her fiction: adrift, irrelevant, subject to ridicule, alone. Unless, of course, I can finally shed what’s left of my foreign accent.

coverReviewing Jorge Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions for The New York Times in 1998, Ms. Gallant deplored the multitude of writers who fancied themselves disciples of the Argentine master: ‘To write like Borges would require reading the same books in early childhood (in his case, everything), seeing the same films in early youth…It would need wide erudition and an imagination set free.’

I knew, of course, that I’d never write as well as Mavis Gallant, not even if I read the same books and saw the same films and drank the same water and took the same vitamins. Would never write a story as wise and sly as “An Alien Flower” or as wise and sly and heartbreaking as “Potter” or even a minor comic delight like “The Assembly,” presented as the minutes of a general meeting — an assembly, they call it — of the apartment owners of a Paris building, convened after the adult niece of one of their number was “intimately molested” by a stranger on a landing. (So perfectly does Mavis Gallant render, in standard English, the pompous double-edged formality of haute bourgeois speech, you feel as though you are reading an account of the characters’ observations in French.) This being the case, I felt I should start modestly and emulate her in some fundamental way. Surely elocution lessons would give me the confidence I needed to follow in her formidable shadow?

According to his promotional materials, Monsieur is the inventor of a form of phonetic notation, a sequence of morphological signs representing the tongue and mouth. Students achieving proficiency in his methods are said to progress from poor articulators to respect-worthy producers of aspirates, uvulars, nasal vowels, and other French phonemes we foreigners tend to mangle. With persistent training, he insists, one can learn to speak without any accent at all!

Ch-a-a—a-r-me. In a high reedy tenor that carries through the open casement and over the noonday clatter of plates and silverware from the apartments across the courtyard, the phonetician stretches the word out like a death gasp. On a sheet of paper, he draws a crocodile. The width of its miniature jaws, he says, represents just how wide the average Parisian opens his mouth every time he articulates a word with the letter “a.” The average American feels ridiculous, affected, trying to do the same, and I understand better why the mirror on the table is slimed with spittle. Nonetheless, we proceed with this exercise until the end of the hour when Monsieur sees me out, conducting me past that wife or whoever she may be, still policing the bedroom door. Could she be a Pole? (As Mavis Gallant explains in “Potter”, “Polish women had always just been or were about to be deserted by their men. At the first rumor of rejection…they gave way at once, stopped combing their hair, stopped making their beds.”) To my cheery farewell, Madame responds with a glare that seems to say, What are you doing here? What the hell are you up to? By now, I’m asking myself the same thing.

It didn’t seem like a fantastical proposition, not at the start, especially since an heiress I was helping with a book project was eager to dispatch me to Paris to meet with her contacts. There, I’d heard, lived a genius phonetician. This man claimed that achieving native-like speech was a matter of mere mechanics, after which, were I to be invited to appear on a talk show like La Grande Librarie to discuss all the novels I have in mind, viewers would say to themselves, “Dis donc! A young Mavis Gallant! What a pleasant change from that English poet they had on last week, setting us on edge with every half-vowel and slack e-aigu.

On my next visit, Monsieur ushered me in to the flat and scurried ahead, as if to guarantee safe passage. Crossing the sitting room to the bedroom where he awaited me, I offered Madame my gentlest “Good day.” She remained silent.

Installed at his desk, Monsieur said, “Alors, Mademoiselle, have you noticed how we French, unlike our Anglo-Saxon friends, use all the muscles in our face and mouth when speaking? Raise your upper lip toward your nose. When performed correctly, this action will cause the nostrils to flare. Now tip your neck back — a bit more, that’s it — and without slackening the tension, articulate a pure clear U-sound, thinking of a bird gliding up to a high branch.”

In the mirror, I could barely recognize my flaring nostrils and contorted mouth. The diction teacher bounded out of his chair, poured himself a glass of water from the carafe and drained it, then flung back his neck, thrust out his lower jaw and chanted “U, u, u. U u. U. See how it’s done?”

Hèlas, I did not.

Pausing to compose himself, he smiled, baring a set of crocodilian teeth. “Try this. Imagine I’m putting my hands around your throat and forcing you to produce…” To distract him, I fired a question about some obscure point of grammar, making my r’s and t’s especially violent and explosive. Like a dog swerving after a rabbit, he changed course, exclaiming, “Ah! That depends on Monsieur le Verbe,” and lectured me contentedly on that point for the rest of the hour.

On the way home, I stopped at a café and ordered a pot of tea in “proper” French, but my bizarre rictus only spooked the waiter, an old hippie with whom I’d previously enjoyed perfect communication. The incident put me in mind of a scene from a Gallant story “The Captive Niece” (1969), which takes place in a dingy Paris hotel room and has only two characters: an unnamed British newspaperman who, having walked out on his wife and children, is plagued with guilt, also lumbago; and Gitta, the self-absorbed and insecure ingénue who has been his lover since she was 17. When the girl returns to their lair in a state of high excitement after an audition with an influential French theater director, the man realizes she is about to make her next career move.

“Leget wants me,” she said. “I don’t mean for this film, but another next summer. He’s getting me a teacher for French, and another only for French diction. What do you think of that? He said it was a pity I had spoken English all my life, because it’s so bad for the teeth.”

coverI couldn’t help but wonder if this scrap of hearsay was true, in which case my pursuit might well be doomed. Mavis Gallant, the daughter of an American mother and an Anglo Scottish father, never had any such concerns, having been banished, aged four, to an austere French convent school in Quebec where she effortlessly absorbed French speech and sound patterns. To be consigned to such a place must not have been pleasant, but behold the results! No worrisome plosives or aspirates or nasal vowels, flawless elocution, and, to judge from the author photograph on the front cover of Going Ashore — a collection of mostly out-of-print stories and short satirical pieces — a magnificent set of teeth.

Back at my rented studio, I sped through my elocution exercises (which consisted of repeating, ad infinitum, formulas such as “We must reanimate Charles”) so that I could read more on how foreign languages are acquired. Thus I learned that for most of us, the end of childhood marks the beginning of phonological old age, prior to which it is possible, with enough exposure, to master any language, whether French or Pashto.

Most linguists agree that a person who takes up another language at, say, 18, probably won’t ever entirely succeed at replicating the new sound patterns. (A modern-day Eliza Doolittle, for example, might manage to pass herself off as an English duchess, but in French she would be a duchesse manquée.) “The Joseph Conrad phenomenon,” as this misfortune is known, was named after that novelist’s intractable accent.

And yet scattered throughout the literature are mentions of driven, freakishly gifted late learners — could I be one of them? — who, by dint of sheer will, longing, and countless hours of phonetics lessons, are taken for natives. To extrapolate from my research, the successful conversion of an English sound system into French is a simple matter of creating and storing new language files in long term memory, gaining control of the speech muscles, and abandoning a sense of self by forsaking one’s mother tongue. Voilà! — “deviant phonetic production” shall cease. Surely such an attainment would guarantee admittance to the lowest as well as the most elevated strata of Paris society, with all that might promise in the way of original material for my future novels.

First, however, I really must discipline my “r’s,” which my diction teacher has declared tolerable but too throaty. “To pronounce a nice pure ‘r’-sound, purse your lips and imagine you are a fish,” Monsieur instructed the last time I saw him. “Unless,” he cautioned, “that letter is followed by a vowel, in which case it’s pronounced like ‘e-aigu.’ Conversely, when there’s a consonant before an ‘e,’ the ‘e‘ is silent. But if that ‘e‘ is followed by a double consonant…” He stopped long enough to give me a pitying look.

I’ve forgotten what inspired this detour; all I knew was that once again my “r’s” had been found wanting. And as I listened to his stupefying peroration, it came to me that my efforts to improve myself were folly: if I continued with these lessons, I’d sound less like an almost-native than an outsider trying to scrape acquaintance with the locals through mimicry or arrant imposture. At worst I might become so self-conscious I’d stop speaking altogether. (Oddly enough, I experience a similar feeling of despair every time I re-read Mavis Gallant. If there is a point when admiration for another’s work leaches all the inspiration and energy from one’s own, I had passed that, too.)

Although I still cling to the dream of a golden tongue, there are plenty of other, more pertinent skills I should acquire if I am ever to metamorphose into Mavis Gallant (high literary talent, for example). What the hell was I up to? I even forgot to ask Monsieur if it was true that English rots the teeth. Were all those hours in which I parroted him no more than some misplaced longing to refashion myself in the image of Mavis Gallant? A natural corollary of literary admiration gone wrong? Or were they an attempt to learn how to listen, with her keen ear, to the undertone that thrums beneath every conversation, to the noise between words, to the strange harmonics of the world?

On the way out, I take my leave of Madame. Seated in her raincoat on her window bench, she could be waiting for a bus. She doesn’t reply to my last wave, but no matter, I’ve worked out who she is. She’s a failed student, bewildered into a stunned silence.

Image Credit: Moyan Brenn

is a writer and editor in Sag Harbor, New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer, The London Independent, Men’s Journal, and elsewhere. She will entertain any offer of honest work in Paris.