Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Science fiction

January 9, 2017

Being a scientist, I have long been bothered by the use of “science fiction” to denote, in literature and film, improbable fantasies with no connection to science. If detective fiction (I dislike the term “mystery”) is about detective work, spy fiction is about espionage, historical fiction is about historical characters, why shouldn’t science fiction be about science — scientists and their work?

I have just finished reading a novel that’s a perfect example of what I mean, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder (about which I posted a bit of ling-crit the other day). Most of the principal characters are scientists, and their work — in this case pharmacology and ethnobotany — is at the heart of the action. It’s fiction, of course — the drug that serves as the story’s MacGuffin is fictitious, as is the tribe in whose habitat it’s found — but it’s all plausible, with a fair amount of biomedical detail. While Ann Patchett did not study biology at university (as did, say, Diana Gabaldon and Barbara Kingsolver), she is married to a physician, a fact that I’m sure helped with the details.

If I come across another example of science fiction as I have redefined it here, I’ll write about it.

Patchett’s patchy Portuguese

January 6, 2017

It’s only in the last few years that I have expanded my reading of contemporary fiction beyond detective novels (and the occasional New Yorker  short story), thanks to a wonderful institution a few blocks from my house: the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, and specifically its Exchange Zone, where thousands of used books can be found free for the taking. It was there that I discovered Barbara Kingsolver, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen and their ilk — writers whose names I had heard of or read about, but not actually delved into. My latest such discovery is Ann Patchett, whose State of Wonder (2011) I am currently reading.

Despite the lovely writing – in free indirect style, entirely representing the protagonist, Marina Singh – I did not become absorbed in the book until Marina got to Manaus, in the Amazon region of Brazil. But then I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the city’s air – beginning with “the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning” at the airport —  and people.

And those of the people who are local and speak with one another do so in Portuguese. That’s where things get patchy, and I have to don my ling-crit mantle. The first sentence is, Negócio é negócio,.”  “business is business.” The second is, “Dr. Singh conhece o Dr. Swenson,” “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson.”

I have long believed that writers should not use abbreviations, symbols or numerals in dialogue, only words as they are spoken. Initialisms or acronyms are okay,  if they are said as such, but the author needs to make it clear how they are said. I can make allowances for “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, because there is really only one way of saying them, but “Dr.” is read differently in different languages; in Portuguese it happns to be doutor.

But doutor, or o doutor with the definite article required when “doctor” is used as a title, is strictly masculine. And both Dr. Singh (the aforementioned Marina) and Dr. Swenson are women, so that of course they would be (a) doutora, or, if abbreviated, (a) Dra.

What seems to have happened is that Patchett used some kind of translation resource (electronic, written or personal) to translate “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson” while neglecting to specify gender.

The rest of the Portuguese dialogue I have read so far seems similarly patched together.

Another linguistic weakness is one that Patchett seems to share with the late Ruth Rendell (I discussed it here) is the apparent belief that Indians necessarily speak Hindi. Marina, whose father is Indian, is reported to have, as a child, visited him in Calcutta, where she found herself swallowed up by a Hindi-speaking crowd. Hindi is in fact spoken in West Bengal — by about 7% of the population — but it’s hard to imagine a crowd in Calcutta speaking anything but Bengali.


December 25, 2016

About a decade ago I went on a binge of novel-writing, completing six books between 2005 and 2011. I did it for the sheer joy of challenging my creative imagination and experimenting with genres, and did not make any serious attempt at getting them published in the conventional way, since I didn’t relish the idea of having to deal with agents and editors. And so, when Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing became available, I jumped on it, especially enjoying the freedom that this platform gives me to revise my work at will. I have not done any promotion, and my sales have been less than modest, but, in all honesty, I didn’t do it for the money.

Of my six novels, three are free-standing. One is a historical novel about Manuel Godoy, inspired in part by the memoirs of the 19th-century Spanish writer Mesonero Romanos, Memrorias de un setentón (Memoirs of a his seventies), since I began writing the book as I was about to enter my seventies. The other two are more contemporary but also historical in the sense that they are set at a definite period in time, one in mid-eighties Hollywood and the other  (the only one written in the first person) in mid-twenty-oughts San Francisco.

The remaining three form a trilogy, with all the titles being single nouns ending in -ion, but they are quite different in form and style. The first tells a story of a man of my age whom I named Miki Wilner, like me a Polish Jew who was liberated at Bergen-Belsen, but otherwise having no resemblance to me; it is told, in alternating sections, over a twenty-day period in August of 1970 and a twenty-year period from 1950 to 1970 (a format I stole from the novel Blue by my friend Rosa Regàs). The other two are about his son and his daughter respectively. The latter is, essentially, a Bronx murder mystery, with a couple of NYPD detectives working with Betty Wilner. The former is a bildungsroman with a twist.

The twist is that Daniel Wilner, Miki’s Montreal-born son, goes on a quest to learn as much as he can about his father (who died when Daniel was two), and in the process finds out that his father was not who he had thought he was.

The coincidence alluded to in the title is that I recently saw two movies in which the protagonists undertake a search to find their fathers, and in each case learn that the father is not who they had thought. One was Incendies (2011), by the well-known Denis Villeneuve, who has lately become a big-time Hollywood director. The other was L’Origine des espèces (2016), by the first-timer Dominic Goyer. And both films are about French Canadians based in Montreal!

Of course, I saw both of them on an Air Canada flight to Montreal. But still…

Franzen’s “hacelo”

November 29, 2016

Jonathan Franzen writes long novels. At least some of their length is due to his deep delving into the minutiae of his characters’ occupations, be they business, politics, sports, music, cooking or whatever. This depth seems to be a result of meticulous ad hoc research, since in his appearances on Jeopardy! Franzen did not impress as a man with a breadth of knowledge at his fingertips. But the writing, as technical as it may get, is never didactic, it flows smoothly and is a pleasure to read.

When it comes to things German, as displayed in Purity, Franzen’s knowledge appears to be echt, since he studied German as an undergraduate and spent several years in Germany. What little German is actually quoted is impeccable, though the dialogue that is supposedly in German but written in English does not read as if it were translated from German. (In my novels in which dialogue written in English is meant to be spoken in another language, I made a point of thinking it first in Spanish, Hebrew or German before writing it down, but then I am not a professional writer.) There is, moreover, a tour de force in the form of a bilingual English-German poem, with the English part carrying a scandalous German acrostic that lands its author, a German named Andreas Wolf, in trouble. Franzen leaves it up to the reader to figure out that the acrostic reads something like “To your socialism I dedicate a splendid ejaculation.”

I have, in the last few years, developed a hobby (described here) of reviewing English-language novelists for their language lapses, especially relating to Spanish. Spanish appears only sporadically in Franzen’s writing, but I am pleased to report that when it does, it is invariably flawlessly idiomatic. (I have seen nothing in his biography indicating any profound exposure to Spanish.) One instance deserves special attention.

In Purity,  when a character is told (in Spanish) that someone is there to see him, he replies, Hacelo pasar,” meaning ‘let him in’ or, literally, ‘make him pass.’ Hacelo does, in fact, mean ‘make him,’ but not in standard Spanish; there it would be hazlo (with ) or hágalo (with usted) (or, in Spain, possibly hazle or hágale). The setting here, though, is eastern Bolivia, which happens to belong to that portion of Hispanic America where vos is used instead of , and hacelo is the form consistent with vos. Franzen’s familiarity with this form — which is almost never taught to Spanish-learners — is impressive.

But there is a problem. The person making the utterance is the aforementioned German, Andreas Wolf. We are not told how or where he learned Spanish. In Bolivia he lives at Los Volcanes, an isolated compound where English, not Spanish, is the prevailing language. In my case, I learned the vos forms when I lived in Costa Rica, because my friends and colleagues there used them with me. At Los Volcanes, the only local is the driver Pedro, and it’s in response to his announcement of a caller that Wolf says Hacelo pasarNow, what Pedro says is, “Hay un señor en la puerta que dice que es su amigo”  (‘There is a man at the door who says he’s your friend.’)   Su amigo, not tu amigo, indicating that Pedro addresses Wolf with usted. It’s a double mystery, then, that Wolf comes to use vos in return: first, it isn’t clear how he learned it; and, second, it seems out of character for him to be in a master-servant kind of asymmetric address relationship.

Perhaps Franzen’s meticulous research — this time into language use — carried him a bit too far.

Charisma on the left

November 11, 2016

Let me quote from an article, purportedly written by a German journalist after John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech in 1963.

[T]here is another term with which American journalists describe John F. Kennedy, and his speech justified the description. The term is charismatic.

We are used to thinking of charisma in Max Weber’s terms: as “an individual’s quality regarded as beyond the everyday (originally… as magically induced), by virtue of which he or she is treated as someone with powers or qualities that are supernatural or superhuman, or at least beyond the everyday and not accessible to just anyone, or as God-sent or as exemplary, and therefore as a ‘leader.’”

In politics, this is the form of charisma that we have seen in dictators. But we see a reflex of it in certain democratically elected leaders as well, leaders whom the people treat with a trust and a deference bordering on awe: Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Adenauer. Note that these leaders were all in their sixties when they first attained their positions of power. Their charisma is that of what Freud called a “father figure.” Note also that all these figures are all, politically, on the right.

John F. Kennedy’s charisma is different; Freud might have called it that of a “brother figure.” It power resides in making the people believe that he is one of them, not above them à la Weber. And Kennedy’s German phrase, with the emphasis – perhaps unintentional – on ein, embodies that power.

I posit that it is this kind of charisma, which is already coming to be known as Kennedyesque (the President is said to share it with his younger brother, the Justice Minister Robert F. Kennedy), that is necessary for political victory by a leader on the left.

In a democratic state, a vote is an act that is directed toward the future, and the way one votes expresses the way one feels about the future.

And what are our feelings about the future? Typically, a mixture of fear and hope. If the predominant feeling is fear, then one’s vote represents a desire for the fear to be quelled, and it will go to the party that promises security and stability. That, normally, is a party of the right, whether it calls itself conservative, Christian, or a people’s party.

But if the predominant feeling is hope, then the vote will go to whoever can kindle hope with a promise of progress, and such a vote will typically go to the left. In the United States, this is the role of the Democratic Party, as typified by the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The difference is this: for the promise of stability, charisma is not necessary, except perhaps at times of crisis; an appearance of competence is normally sufficient. But to kindle hope one needs that special something that I call charisma on the left. It was possessed by Roosevelt and by Louis St. Laurent (whom the press called ‘Uncle Louis’), and it is what we find in John F. Kennedy, the embodiment of hope in present-day politics.

And who among us has, on the left, the ability to kindle hope? The man with the greatest potential, despite his loss two years ago (though with greatly improved results for his party), is still Willy Brandt, Kennedy’s friend, who stood with him in front of the Schöneberg City Hall during the speech. Those who wish the SPD well can only hope that it stays with Brandt until such time as hope wins out over fear in the hearts of West Germans.

But as a Hamburger – a relatively new one, but one baptized by last year’s storm tide – I would like to add that our own Helmut Schmidt is another man with the potential of inspiring hope, as he demonstrated by the way he led us out of that disaster.

The reason I wrote “purportedly” is that the German journalist is actually a fictional character in a novel of mine, written in 2009.  It was of course written in hindsight, with the knowledge that Brandt, and Schmidt after him, would be elected (and in Schmidt’s case reelected) as Chancellor. And now I can extend the list of politically successful left-of-center leaders who possessed that kind of charisma: Olof Palme; François Mitterrand; Felipe González; Tony Blair; Bill Clinton; Lula da Silva; Trudeau père (and potentially fils as well); Barack Obama.

The statement I put in boldface has to be qualified by recognizing that occasionally non-charismatic leaders on the left of center do make it to the top, but it’s almost always due to peculiar circumstances, as in the cases of Lyndon B. Johnson (the Kennedy assassination), Jimmy Carter (the scandals of the Nixon administration), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (the Madrid bombings), Gordon Brown (Blair’s resignation), and most recently François Hollande (the unpopularity of Sarkozy). Johnson and Zapatero, somehow, managed to get reelected because of genuine accomplishments, but not Carter and Brown, and probably not Hollande.

Hillary Clinton, for all her virtues, is not charismatic. The 2016 US presidential election seemed to have provided one of those peculiar circumstances  — the candidacy of Donald Trump — that might have allowed her to win anyway. But Trump, apparently, projected enough of  that “appearance of competence” to enough people to give him the usual fear-driven right-wing victory.

For the Democratic Party to win in 2020, one of two things is necessary: a disastrous Trump administration, or a candidate endowed with charisma, Kennedyesque or otherwise (such as that shown by Bernie Sanders). Otherwise the party is doomed yet again.


More on respelling

October 1, 2016

This is a continuation of a previous post, in which I discussed how writers of English respelled the Latin word for ‘black’ (niger) by adding a second g so that the word would be pronounced with a “short i” as in Latin, and how Italians modified (1) their word for ‘foundry’ (getto) by adding an h so as to give it the German pronunciation with which the Jews of Venice called their district, and (2) their word for ‘brothel’ (casino) by putting a grave accent on the o in order to give it the French pronunciation designating a gambling establishment. I also cited one example of a proper name, Picasso, being an Italian respelling of the Spanish Picazo.

Another such example is Borgia, an Italian respelling of the Spanish Borja (as it would have been pronounced in 15th-century Spanish and still is in Catalan). But unlike Picasso, the Borgias (sons of Pope Alexander VI, and their offspring) who moved “back” to Spain used the Spanish spelling there. Thus the Catholic saint known in English as Francis Borgia is known as Francisco de Borja in Spanish and Francesc de Borja in Catalan.

The converse — a Spanish respelling of an Italian surname — is rare. The only one that comes to mind is that of the Marquis of Squillace, who became Esquilache in Spain.

In fact, Italian surnames are usually kept intact wherever their bearers may move to. As I recently pointed out, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly, so that even almost illiterate people  would know how their names are written. What this means is that, outside Italy, such names are liable to mispronunciation, especially with respect to syllabic accent, and with such letter combination as sci, ggi, chi and so on. A prominent news story in the US featured someone surnamed Schiavo, which was not pronounced /’skjavo/ as in Italian but /’ʃajvoʊ/. And the name Podestà is usually written Podesta and pronounced /poʊ’dɛstɐ/, while Lepore is pronounced /lə’poʊr/, not /’lepore/.

Enter William Shakespeare.

The Bard was fond of Italian names. A good many of his plays take place in various places in Italy, and while not all the characters in them have Italian names (Tybalt, Shylock, Katherine), you can find such names in non-Italian settings (Angelo, Claudio, Lucio and Vincentio in Vienna; Malvolio and Orsino in Illyria).

I don’t know if Shakespeare knew Italian. (There is, of course, the theory that he was actually Italian; and he may have been friends with John Florio.) But we do know (1) that before the 18th century writers of English didn’t care much about “correct” spelling, and (2) that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read by English actors, so that he would write foreign names so as to be English-reader-friendly. He wrote the name of the actual artist Giulio Romano, in Winter’s Tale, as Julio; and in The Taming of the Shrew he wrote the Italian name Petruccio (-uccio is a common diminutive suffix) as Petruchio — in both cases, obviously, so as not to confuse English readers with funny Italian letter combinations like gi or cci.

But now enter sophisticated Shakespeareans who, showing off their knowledge of Italian, insist on pronouncing Petruchio as though it were an actual Italian name, and say ‘Petrukio’!



Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.


July 26, 2016

I seem to have appointed myself as a linguistic critic of English-language novels, an activity that I have decided to call ling-crit.

It started with a discussion of what I called yanking, the Americanization of the vocabulary of British mystery novelists. It went on to pointing out inadvertent Americanisms in the set-in-Britain novels of Elizabeth George (which in general are meant to use British vocabulary and spelling). From there it went to examining the peculiar difficulties that English-language writers have with rendering Hispanic culture (the Spanish language itself, naming customs, and so on) realistically, starting (once again) with Elizabeth George and going on to others.

I have just read James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The House of the Rising Sun. Its main character is named Hackberry Holland, but, though Wikipedia lists the book in the Hackberry Holland series, he doesn’t seem to be the same character as in the other books in the series, but perhaps his grandfather or great-grandfather. This book’s action takes place between 1891 and around 1920, and Hackberry is not a young man even then.

There is a fair amount of Spanish dialogue, the action taking place mostly in Texas and Mexico, and all in all the Spanish is not bad; either Burke knows Spanish or a competent editor’s hand was involved.

What did strike me is the surprising number of linguistic anachronisms in English, surprising for a writer who is almost my age and who has taught creative writing. Here is a sampling:

  • A house in Mexico, observed in 1916, is called Victorian. Even an American observing such a house wouldn’t call it that at the time. According to Google Ngrams, “Victorian house” doesn’t show any use before 1927.
  • In 1916 there is a reference to Gauguin. The chances of a lifelong Texan being acquainted with the artist at the time are infinitesimal.
  • In 1891 we find normalcy. As is well known, the word was not used in American English until Warren Harding did so in 1920.
  • There is a reference to flak in 1915, a word that was coined (in German) in the 1930s.
  • Sometime around 1920 we find Malaysian, which of course should have been Malayan; Malaysia did not exist before 1963.

What has happened to the art — if it ever was there — of copy-editing?

No more yankin’ Rankin!

July 16, 2016

I have just read Ian Rankin’s latest novel featuring John Rebus and Malcolm Fox, Even the Wild Dogs, in its American edition (by Little Brown), and as far as I could tell it was indistinguishable from the British original. Not only was there no Americanization of the vocabulary — Briticisms like ‘pavement’ (for ‘sidewalk’) and ‘tannoyed’ (‘announced on the PA system’) and Scoticisms like ‘haar’ and  ‘bothy’ were left intact — but even the spelling and punctuation were not tampered with. It’s high time!

Now I wonder if William Morrow will treat the new Alan Banks novel by Peter Robinson, When the Music’s Over, with similar respect. Or will it turn out that Morrow yanks Banks?

No cure for… oops!

July 9, 2016

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am an enthusiastic follower of the Harry Bosch novels of Michael Connelly and the Banks novels of Peter Robinson. Both writers have new entries in the series coming out later this year, and I am awaiting them eagerly.

While waiting, I came across a recently republished non-Banks novel by Robinson, originally published (in Canada) in 1995 and titled No Cure for Love. The new edition features a foreword by Connelly, largely devoted to praise of the authenticity of Robinson’s writing. Coming from Connelly in reference to Los Angeles (where the novel’s action largely takes place) this is high praise indeed. (At this point I will charitably abstain from commenting on Connelly’s forays into Spanish.)

As I  began reading the book, I quickly came to a passage referring to an “article in TV Guide that mentioned she  [the novel’s non-detective protagonist, a Yorkshire lass turned Hollywood television star] lived in Malibu. Which wasn’t quite true. Strictly speaking, the house was in Pacific Palisades, close to the Los Angeles city limits…”

Wait a minute, I said to myself. Malibu is a good fifteen miles from Pacific Palisades, with Topanga Beach in between, and I can’t imagine that a journalist who is probably based in Los Angeles would ever confuse the two. And what does “close to the Los Angeles city limits” mean? Pacific Palisades is within the LA city limits. Of course,  the house could be within LA and near the city limits, but that would put in the Getty Villa area, where there are no private houses with beach access.

As I got into the book, the plot took over my attention and I stopped paying mind to geography. I focused on dialogue instead. Connelly, after all, attributed to Robinson “a snare-trap ear for dialogue.”

I have written before about Ian Rankin’s Briticisms creeping into the dialogue of Americans in one of his novels. But I expected Peter Robinson, who by 1995 had been living in Toronto for some twenty years, to have no trouble with North American English. And yet:

“Now she was…,” “Now she had…” (for ‘now that’).

“A rasher of bacon” (for ‘slice’).

“Carry on!” (for ‘go ahead’)

“Have done!” (for ‘I have‘)

All of these are spoken or thought by Americans.

Oh, well…