Collected Fictions

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

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.

Reviewing 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.”

I 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

Ask a Book Question: The 36th in a Series (Beyond Eco, Way Beyond Da Vinci)

John writes in with this question:Anyway, I have a question about a book: As an Umberto Eco fan, and having read Foucault’s Pendulum and loved it, I am skittish about becoming physically ill if I read The Da Vinci Code. Should I be worried? Did Eco already write the book and Brown stupidize it? That’s the impression I get.I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, but I suspect that you would find it entertaining but not, shall we say, satisfying. Read it, or don’t. But how about some other books that you might enjoy which are more substantial and pleasurably complex (and much of this is just speculation because I haven’t read all of these books): First, I’d like to recommend two childrens’ series that – though they are written for kids – are loaded with allegory that make them rich reading, or rereading, for adults. They are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and CS Lewis’ classic the The Chronicles of Narnia. I know, Narnia, it sounds ridiculous, but I reread the series as an adult and found the books to be full of intricacies to be mined. From the grown-up side of things, I’m told that Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon might fit the bill, as will his more recent, and enormous, Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, & The System of the World). If you don’t mind a bit of a tropical lilt to your complex, fantastical fiction, I highly recommend trying out some magical realism. The The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis is a terrific, meandering tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is similarly enjoyable, and you can’t go wrong with the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. I may be getting a bit far afield here… anyone else want to chime in?

Staying Sane: A Year in Reading (Part 9)

I was in search of something light after Libra and turned to Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. Miller wrote this piece for spare money after his return from Paris by submitting 5-10 pages at a time. He got paid $1 for each page and submitted them to a Mr. xxxx who ran a bookstore in LA. One day he dropped off 10 pages and let Mr. xxxx know that this was it, the novel was complete. The catch is that Mr. xxxx also carried nude pictures and pornographic literature at the back of his store. I don’t know if you already guessed but Miller was writing for the illicit part of the store, hence Under The Roofs of Paris is pure pornography, and well, it is sick. I enjoyed the book immensely, mostly because it left me gaping at the obscenity Miller put into words: incest relationships, black masses at the French countryside, tricking prudent American women into orgies, and teenager whores are just the beginning in this 126 page book. There is a very loose plot that revolves around sex and I would suggest that you do not approach Under The Roofs of Paris unless you are already perverted or have a desire to be.To snap out of the ludicrous state of mind Miller put me in, I turned to Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, which I had been meaning to read for a second time since November ’03. [Emre’s piece on Maqroll previously appeared here.]After Maqroll I could not bring myself to start a new novel and turned to Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions. I had kept my brother John Leahy’s present at my bedside table for most of the year but the period immediately after Maqroll is when I turned my full attention to Borges’ labyrinths and tried to decipher them. I must admit that I feel very illiterate while reading Borges and have quite a difficult time connecting certain dots in his stories, mostly because of all the literary references that I cannot catch. Still, I enjoy Borges’ stories a lot and value his old-school language, use of fairy/folk tale language, and matter-of-fact style. He drops gems such as “One man’s dream is part of all men’s memory” in each story, which I believe Maqroll would value greatly and inscribe on the walls of the restroom corridor at The Snow of the Admiral. Collected Fictions is best read in a coffee shop, Lucy’s, or in bed, accompanied by black coffee, vodka, or water.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

More Magical Libraries

My friend Brian read yesterdays musings on libraries and wrote in with a couple of addenda…two things:1) you need to include tam tam books in your links… not only b/c it’s tosh [a co-worker and the founder of Tam Tam Books], but b/c it’s a very idiosyncratic, interesting, eccentric, and different site (much like the man himself…)2) loved the piece about “library angels and book fairies”, and very happy to see mention of borges (one of my all-time favorties), but you must make specific mention of his story “The Library of Babel” which is, without a doubt, the greatest story about a library ever written — the library… as a/the universe. a magical story that when i first read on the NYC subway, on my way downtown from hunter college, caused me to miss many a stop… i found myself in brooklyn, and so caught up in a borgesian daze and full of inspiration was i, that i chose not to go back the other way, but exited the subway in a strange part of town and explored, got myself dinner at a greek restaurant, chatted up a one-eyed drunk, then hopped back on the train and went home late that night, all hopped up on borges… (oh, how i miss the whirlwind that is nyc life!) – anyway, if you haven’t read this story, it’s short and ESSENTIAL. enjoy! [see page 112 of Borges’ Collected Fictions]Heard on the RadioToday while I was running errands, I was pleasantly surprised by some decent mid-day public radio that mentioned a couple of books that sound pretty interesting. First, I caught the end of a show that airs twice a month on KCRW called DnA. It’s devoted to design and architecture issues. Today’s guest was design writer Michael Webb who talked about his new book Brave New Houses: Adventures in Southern California Living. According to Webb, over the course of the last century, cutting edge architects have used the single-family home as a kind of laboratory in which they could try out some of their more avant-garde ideas on a smaller, less risky scale. Since, in comparison to most cities, Los Angeles is a very new place, it is home to many of these houses. RM Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Frank Gehry all built single family homes in L. A., and Webb’s book is a photographic record of this adventurous ground-breaking architecture.After spending a considerable amount of time in the post office, I got back in my car in the middle of an interview with compilers of another interesting-sounding book (I think the show was The World, by the way). Embedded: The Media At War in Iraq is an oral history of the journalistic experience of the war in Iraq. During and after the war, the two writers, Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson wandered from Kuwait City to Baghdad to Amman, and interviewed every journalist they crossed paths with. As they tell it, the resulting book inculudes many tales of both danger and poignency, which, taken as a whole, represent a singular record of the journalistic experience on the front lines.

Note From a Reader

I recieved this note from a reader the other day and I enjoyed it so much I thought I would provide it for public consumption. Enjoy: I came upon your blog this morning and I liked it. The meta of the blog is a noble idea and I wish you the best. Thought you might appreciate a little ditty I penned- SummapoetaSumma was a bookie, not the Vegas thing where 5 will get you 10, but a fairy thathung out around ink and parchment and leather bindings. Summa hung out around books.Sometimes bookies are call library angels, but Summa bristled at this nomenclature.She was always quick to point out that angels were entities that had been very bad,that were now trying to be good. Not so with fairies. Fairies had always favoredphun and play and giggle, wiggle, laughing. Why be bad when having phun was so muchbetter?Summa’s full moniker was Summapoeta. She favored the short sweetest of poems to thedrudgery of wading through the ramblings of fools and their novels. Yes, beauty toSumma was to say much with little. – And unto my beckoningit did comea perfect point of celestial splendorand with this light I now seethe beauty amongst the shadows.- to Summa this was a zillion times more beautiful than any novel.I have always liked the concept of library angels or book fairies, an invisible handthat seems to lead you to what you need.You can catch some of my other stuff on Hint -Some of the big ones hang out in the archives.Doing time on the ball,”d”I love libraries and I love the idea of “library angels and book fairies.” Libraries can be incredible, mystical places. Anyone who has been to the New York Central Library or the Los Angeles Central Library knows it… and anyone who has read the work of poet, writer, philosopher and blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, knows the power of the library as well… see his Collected Fictions for various magical library tales. My favorite fictional library? It would have to be the library in Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion. In this library, anyone can walk in and place their own handmade book on shelves that gather no dust, and the book will remain there for posterity, for anyone who wishes to see it.Bookfinding… Classic Literatures and my Broken Down CarI feel no particular affinity for my car. It is very average and there is nothing romantic about it. And yet, living in Los Angeles, I depend upon the car perhaps more than any of my possessions. Somehow though, this unassuming car of mine must be really tuned into my psyche, because it seems to collapse sympathetically when ever my life hits a rocky patch. During my various periods of full and gainful employment, my car has behaved admirably, quietly doing it’s job, asking and recieving no special notice from it’s owner… very unassuming. However, whenever I am scrimping and struggling, my car seems to feel my pain and its insides deteriorate and fail, seemingly reacting to the stresses felt by its owner. And so, naturally, with a rent check looming that may be beyond my means, I brought my car to a trusted mechanic for routine and necessary maintainance, and sure enough my trusted mechanic, after spending some time under the hood and under the car, quickly identified several areas where my car was teetering on the brink of total collapse. Having seen the decay with my own two eyes, and resigned to the fact that my car’s chronic desire to push me ever deeper into credit card debt, I set out on walk, not often done in Los Angeles, to kill time while my car was unde the knife.Along my way, I passed several bookstores peddling both new and used books, many of which I would like to have owned, none of which I could afford. So, I was much pleased to come upon a Goodwill store in the course of my travels, one with many shelves of dusty paperbacks going for 49 cents a piece. Many of the usual thrift store suspects were present, mounds and mounds of bestseller fodder from two decades ago, but I was able to lay my hands on three classic novels that I am very pleased to add to my growing library. First I found an old Signet Classic paperback copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Dickens has long been one of my favorites, and I am especially fond of Great Expectations and Hard Times. Many consider Bleak House to be his greatest work. I also found a copy of one the most important American novels ever written: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Finally, I came across a novel that I had not heard of before working at the bookstore. Somehow I went through life without any knowledge of Carson McCullers, who as a 23 year old wrote a Southern gothic masterpiece called The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But now I own the book, and I can’t wait to read it.

Surprise Me!