Recollections of the Polyglot Gathering Berlin 2014

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed a distinct lack of posts in the past month or so. This wasn’t due to laziness on my part, but rather that I was  extremely busy with, first helping to organise the Polyglot Gathering Berlin (I produced the booklet), and then actually attending the event. It’s one week since it finished and what better way to end my blog-writing hiatus than with some thoughts and impressions from Berlin.

PolyglotBerlinHeader

Background

First some background. Richard Simcott and Luca Lampariello, two well-known internet language enthusiasts, organised the inaugural Polyglot Conference 2013 in beautiful Budapest. Though I didn’t attend that event, it was by all accounts a huge success, and so inspired, Judith Meyer (herself an accomplished polyglot) decided to organise a companion event for 2014, and so the Polyglot Gathering Berlin was conceived.

Presentations

I attended so many truly excellent presentations that they are in fact too numerous to list here. Here’s a sample:

Dr. Michele Gazzola – surely a polyglot gathering is one of the few places that you could have a speaker scheduled to talk about language & politics unfortunately pull out at short notice, only to find that another such expert is in the room and with a presentation virtually ready to go? To everyone’s immense gratitude, Dr. Michele Gazzola delivered a very persuasive and data-driven talk on the necessity of the EU continuing its full multilingual policy for official documents. This narrow topic broadened into a full discussion of what it means for political bodies to represent their citizen members, a core part of democracy.

Emiel Visser – there were a number of excellent overview courses of different languages at the Gathering. I very much enjoyed Emiel Visser’s systematic and thorough overview of the Japanese language, including the writing system, pronunciation, basic syntax and information on various learning resources. I knew the writing system was difficult, but had not appreciated just how multifaceted it actually is. I’m intimidated and intrigued in equal measure. However, as I enjoy writing haikus, not to mention Japanese cinema, I feel that someday it might be nice to learn to read the original versions of these wonderful poems, or at least begin to appreciate how they function in the original Japanese. It could be a long road.

Simon Ager who runs the impressively comprehensive omniglot.com, an online encyclopaedia of writing systems & languages, gave a talk that in my mind was a useful companion piece to Michele Gazzola’s presentation. In his talk he gave some shocking examples of the poor treatment of speakers of minority languages by speakers of the majority language, as well as an insightful exploration of the various tensions and conflicts that can prevent a minority language speaker passing on their language. These human examples lend emotional weight to the more pragmatic considerations of Dr. Gazzola. As Simon explained, some languages, such as Hebrew, have managed to rise again, though it’s far from a straightforward process and can give rise to disagreements about just what the language is when it is revived, as has happened in the case of Cornish. Sadly, from the statistics he presented, it’s clear that many minority languages will disappear without trace.

Alex Rawlings, who to his credit gave two talks at the Gathering, provided his audience with some useful ways to approach higher-level language learning using literature. One tip is to only look up a word when it has appeared four or five times in relatively quick succession. I was particularly drawn to this talk because of the focus on literature, which, as I’ve written before, was what drew me back into language learning after so many years away from it. It didn’t hurt that he gave a short reading in German of another of my favourite authors, in this case the opening from Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Prof. Bernard Comrie gave a fascinating talk covering his career in linguistics, including a rundown of all the various ways that languages represent numbers & counting. Having ten fingers seems to suggest that base 10 is the one obvious and logical choice for counting, but I realised that’s just a lack of imagination on my part. Why not count fingers and then your wrist, elbow, shoulder, chest, and back down the other side?

Richard Simcott who, aside from his impressive achievements in language learning (see this video from the conference for an example), is also a genuinely all-round nice guy, gave an insight into his daily routine and how he manages “to sneak” multiple languages in there everyday. To top it all, he’s still learning new ones, including what possibly became the conference’s favourite and most talked about conlang, Toki Pona.

The best thing though, is that the majority of the talks were recorded and will be uploaded onto YouTube in due course. I’m looking forward to catching up on the sessions I missed and rewatching my favourites.

Personal note

Of course, this gathering wasn’t only about sitting in lecture rooms listening to presentations. It was supposed to be fun, not work, and there was plenty of time available for mingling with language learners from around the world, everybody sharing life stories, language tips and aspects of their own culture. Again there are too many moments to mention, but a few highlights include meeting Andrew Williams who has lived his life assiduously following his father’s advice to study one new language every year. He’s somewhere around language number 60 now, and yet ever so humble. Meeting people like that really does alter your perspective on just what is possible if you apply sufficient time and dedication to a pursuit. His personal encouragement has meant that I’m finally starting to learn Farsi (and making rash promises about it too. Is it possible to be too inspired? That’s a story for another time).

Another highlight was getting to meet Olly Richards of I Will Teach You a Language. Olly and I have corresponded a little regarding blogging and when I was putting together the conference booklet, and I even recently contributed to an article of his about difficulties in language learning. As the cliche has it, it was good to put a face to a name. Even though we’re able now to meet people through the internet, sometimes becoming very good friends, there’s still nothing quite like that eventual meeting in person.

On that theme, I find it incredibly uplifting that a conference this long, varied and successful, was organised by a team of people who’ve assembled through the internet. In my case the first time I actually met my co-organisers was when I arrived at the A & O Hostel on Saturday 14th June. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their hard work, I can say without hesitation that it was worth it! I just hope they have had a good rest because…

…in news to warm the hearts of language lovers everywhere, Judith has just announced that there will be a Polyglot Gathering 2015. I can hardly wait! Now where did I put that Farsi textbook?

In my next post I’ll be writing about a small publishing house that I am certain will be of interest to anyone who loves both literature and languages.

 

Review: The Ring by Roberto Saviano

In Gomorrah, a book for which Roberto Saviano received both awards and death threats, Saviano’s target was the Camorra (a mafia-like organisation). While that book stood proudly in plain sight on bookshop shelves, the words within unfortunately sent him into hiding. Uncowed, in this slender but powerful book, The Ring, two short stories, told in two distinctive voices, see Saviano once again sets his sights on the mafia, but they are not the only target.

The Ring - Roberto Saviano

The Ring by Roberto Saviano

Opening with a quote from French writer Boris Vian, “If you must have blood, then give of your own, if it so amuses you.”, the thematic tone of the book is set and one can hear it throughout – a subtextual refrain, delivered in a wearied anger. The first story, The Ring, tells of a mafia revenge tragedy, recounted by a friend of the victims. Deft touches reveal cultural traditions without fuss, while the narrator tries to make the reader and an old female friend understand the truth of his situation. His frustration is clear, as she presumes his friends to have been mafioso. The mafia saw them as guilty by association and had them killed, she sees them guilty of being mafioso because the mafia killed them. They’re guilty either way, no matter what, condemned for being alive.

This Catholic idea of original sin runs throughout The Ring, apparently the mafia have found it to be just as useful a tool of social control as the church has. Extending the religious parallel presents the town as a kind of purgatory, the inhabitants of which are eager to leave if only they could find the opportunity. But there are none, there never are. By his repeated emphasis of this point, the author surely intends an implied criticism of the Church. Where are they in all of this tragedy?

In the second story, The Opposite of Death, a young girl is widowed before she can even reach the altar, her husband-to-be killed whilst serving in Afghanistan. The narrative unpicks the negotiation of the aftermath of his death, which death too is put at the feet of both the government and mafia. The young deceased enlisted in the army to escape the clutches of organised crime. Violence seems inescapable. Only the state-sanctioned version has the veneer of respectability, yet it’s clear, through the enumeration into blurred forgetfulness of “the latest war”, that Saviano takes a dim view of his government. For in both organisations, power and reward flow equally to the top, leaving those at the bottom to suffer, and how.

If it is the young men who suffer most directly, their women and families left behind are shattered, destroyed in a different way and able only to mourn and to reach some reconciliation with their fate. It’s not clear that they ever will. Throughout the book, the ring of the title is a recurring motif and an appropriate symbol of the apparent eternal state in which his country and its citizens are destined to reside. Wedded, too – a marriage of convenience to organised crime, with no prospect of a divorce.

Altogether the book runs to an economical 75 pages, but the one thing Saviano refuses to be economical with is the truth. On the front of the dustcover there is a quote from Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago:

I feel humble, almost insignificant, faced with the dignity and the courage of the writer and journalist Roberto Saviano.

I’m with you, Saramago; literary heroes, I’ve discovered, are transitive.

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,
It’s commonly said, more or less, and attributed to many (in more than one language), that “if I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter”, and this could be true here too. So too the reverse, it could become a thesis. I have form. Though it would be a brave student indeed who began his dissertation so cheekily with the words “Dear Examiner, I hope this thesis finds you well.” Not to be outdone nor forget my manners, dear reader, I hope this letter (please, play along) finds you well.

The letter is truly a stalwart, not just of literature, but of life – both of our individual and collective lives. Dear John letters. Letters sent home from soldiers in the trenches. Letters that constitute the epistolary novel. The collected letters of the famous writer or artist. Clearly even the highbrow of society engage in the voyeuristic eavesdropping of others’ lives.

And now a rejuvenation of the form is underway at The Letters Page, a new literary journal run by the good people of the School of English at the University of Nottingham. The past issues are available free to download from the website here and they’re well worth a read. To return to the beginning, but altered for the experience, in the first letter of Issue One the author declares that regrettably he has no time to write a letter. I sincerely hope that you are never forced to write the same.

Until we meet again,
The Author

To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

An Incisive Remark About Samuel Beckett

He believes in the cadence, the comma, the bite of word on reality, whatever else he believes; and his devotion to them, he  makes clear, is a sufficient focus for the reader’s attention. In the modern history of literature he is a unique moral figure, not a dreamer of rose-gardens but a cultivator of what will grow in the waste land…

The critic Hugh Kenner on Samuel Beckett (quoted on the cover of Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works).

“The bite of word on reality”. Is there a more incisive or lucid piece of criticism than that? And one so neatly expressed at that. It evokes a certain vitality of words, which possess a visceral danger when let loose to describe our world.

Cover of The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett

Biting.

The word association it provokes is insightful too. Bite. Teeth. Incisors. Incision. Cut. With words, he cuts open the world, peeling back the layers, to reveal both the glorious complexity and terrifying gore.

But most of all, contained within this quote is the suggestion that the world, that reality, will show the bite marks and forever bear the scars of its mediation through Beckett. Read him, and things won’t ever seem quite the same again.

Review: The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Some authors seem to have a few principal obsessions, which they repeatedly examine in their novels. In the case of Diego Marani, author of New Finnish Grammar, these obsessions are language and identity. Luckily there are readers who share these obsessions, and I count myself in their number. In his enjoyable new novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani once again explores the relationship between the Finnish language and the national identity of the Finnish people. Given this thematic similarity, it only seems natural, if not unavoidable, to review Vostyachs by making some reference to New Finnish Grammar.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (Dedalus)

If the underlying theme in the two books is the same, the presentation is certainly different; Vostyachs is in many ways a straightforward crime novel. Ivan, a mute, is the last of the Vostyachs and hence the last remaining (potential) speaker of his language. He is encouraged to speak once again by the academic Olga Pavlovna, who has discovered that in Ivan’s language lies a host of treasures. Contacting her old colleague and previous collaborator, Prof. Jarmo Aurtova, she reveals her exciting discovery, and in a classic set-up delivers her linguistic charge to the care of this villain.

Aurtova, it is revealed, is an adulterer, a serial womaniser and a ruthlessly-ambitious personality, which are perhaps not the best characteristics for someone taking sole care of a bewildered man unused to the city and the ways of its people. For Ivan constitutes evidence of a link between the Finnic and Eskimo-Aleut languages, possibly even those spoken by Native Americans, all of which sits in direct contradiction to Aurtova’s painstakingly-constructed theory of Finnish linguistic development. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that the obliteration of his thesis is untenable to Aurtova and, no matter what the cost, even murder, he will not allow his work, his obsession, to be disrupted. Whether or not he is successful in his quest for self-glorification I leave for you to discover.

For much of the book there are thought-provoking exchanges between Olga and Jarmo, culminating in an amusing, but tense, scene of seduction and counter-seduction. In one such conversation, Olga, saddened by the thought of the loss of a language, tells Aurtova, “And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it.” Unmoved he replies that, “…the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all.” Somehow these deliberations are sharpened by the knowledge that we are reading a translated piece of literature, and indeed, one that has only been translated into a limited number of languages.

While there are many healthy ways to appreciate language, Aurtova is a fanatic, believing in the superiority of some languages over others. More than that, he is an unprincipled opportunist, who in the end has abandoned the scientific method once it no longer suits his interests. And so for all of the linguistics and talk of fricative laterals with a labiovelar appendix, Vostyachs is a thriller, full of narrative tension. Perhaps because of that the book somehow feels a little less profound or original than Grammar; where that book was mournful and subdued, Vostyachs is tense and unsettling, though there is much humour to be had too. The ending could not be described as an utterly happy one, but it is uplifting, spiritual even, and I can say that, without revealing anything of the plot, language (or the power of language) emerges the winner.

And we the reading public are winners too, as aside from the merits of Grammar and Vostyachs purely as stories, it is good that Marani keeps providing us with these entertaining opportunities to think about language, and all of the things that go with it. Grazie mille Diego!

The Book Collector and his Tools

In Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s fascinating novel The Dumas Club, the book collector Fargas sits among his treasured collection of antique books, which are now distributed as a secondary carpet atop many rugs, as if the long-ago pulped trees were trying to grow anew. Trapped by difficult financial circumstances he is forced to gradually plunder this rich forest and sell off his famous collection book by book, though mercifully not page by page.

The Dumas Club by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

A literary noir fiction, perfect for all true booklovers.

Faced with the alternatives of divesting a large quantity of books of low value, or a few volumes of great value, he chooses thus:

“I have to sell one book each time. And not just any one. The sacrifice has to ensure that the rest are safe for another six months… It’s my tribute to the Minotaur.”

But not just the most valuable in commercial terms, it is his favourites that must be sacrificed:

“My hands? What you mean is my soul burns in the torments of hell. I thought I’d explained… The book to be sacrificed can never be one to which I am indifferent. What meaning would this painful act have otherwise? A sordid transaction determined by market forces, several cheap ones instead of a single expensive one…”

Any bibliophile can surely understand his point of view, even if we might not agree. And then, even if we did agree in principle, acting in accordance might still not be possible.

However, with all his books spread out over large areas of floorspace, how was Fargas to know where each book could be found? A collector of his obsessiveness had surely constructed an intricate mental map, to be navigated at will and containing every salient fact and a few others besides, but what are the rest of us to do? Or how would we know the monetary value (literary value being something entirely other) of our entire collection, for example, if pressed to provide such an answer for insurance purposes?

We need not approach the task unequipped. A friend pointed me to the iOS app Book Crawler, from Chiisai App Solutions, which for only $1.99 will help you catalogue your literary treasures.

To add a new book to your inventory, the easiest method is to point your iPhone’s camera at the barcode/ISBN number and let Book Crawler retrieve the other information for you. The only thing that remains is to type in the price that you paid for the particular edition. After that, you can add additional tags and categories to further refine your organisation, if you so wish.

There are other features to the app such as sharing your collections with others and linking to Goodreads, though I personally don’t use them. For me, it’s all about the ease of cataloguing. However, as quick and easy as the app makes it, the initial documenting of all your books is still going to take a few hours (this is still orders-of-magnitude faster than doing things manually), and I don’t think there’s any escaping that fact. Once it’s out of the way though, every additional purchase is easily accommodated in a matter of seconds. For those with children, perhaps this is a perfect means of exchanging pocket money for odd-jobs, or, for all of us, why not treat this, not as a chore, but as an opportunity to revisit those half-forgotten books that surely languish on all of our bookshelves. Or stand for a few moments and allow yourself the pleasure of remembering the time and place that you first read a favourite book.

But however you choose to do it, and whether your collection of books is large or small, I hope that you are never faced with the same scenario as Fargas; may your books only leave your hands willingly.

Note: In the interests of disclosure, I have no connection to the developers of Book Crawler. The software is also available for the iPad and Mac OS X , but as I’ve only used the iPhone version, I can’t comment on their suitability or any differences that might exist between them and the iPhone manifestation. As ever, caveat emptor.

Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

A signal danger with reading or reviewing books from a long-time favourite author is the risk that it will disappoint, and in doing so colour our perception, slowly built yet ever fragile, of both the author and their previous work, both of which we had hitherto admired. And so it was with Javier Marías, and his latest work, The Infatuations. I needn’t have worried.

In this brilliant novel, María Dolz has her daily routine of gentle observation of a happily married couple thrown into disarray by the brutal murder of the husband. Drawn into their world, what follows is her discovery of the possible reality behind his gruesome death.

This is by no means the first of his novels to begin with a death, and yet the subsequent, original development shows us that the interesting story is not the event itself, but rather the effect it has on the people involved, and the efforts they make to accommodate this new and unwanted situation. This is accomplished through verbose, yet never prolix, characters, whose every sentence is a pleasure, and indeed constitute much of the point of a Marías novel. Their exquisitely detailed considerations and peregrinations, forensically examining each potential action, both past and future, reveal much about their own psychology, and that of the reader too. Wordplay suggests María, the first-person narrator, is really Marías, but in a sense, all the characters are him, or at least their opinions are his. For a less-gifted writer, or one possessed of lesser insight, that could be a flaw indeed, but not here.

As far as one can judge without the Spanish original, Margaret Jull Costa is in fine form yet again, handling with aplomb the page-long sentences of an author who inhabits a world of the future and conditional tenses, his moods those of the subjunctive. “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes”, by extension, possible future events might possess even greater power than the present, which might explain his fascination with the hypothetical. Or perhaps this is the salient quote, “What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us.”

If Marías’ humanistic streak isn’t immediately obvious from this grim fascination with death, then phrases such as, “What sense does it make that each person should have to experience more or less the same griefs and make more or less the same discoveries, and so on for eternity?”, draw it out. His novels, while never strident, attempt to show ourselves as we really are, and are perhaps his way of gently encouraging us to mend our ways. “That’s the worst thing about losing our old codes of conduct… We have to be guided by ourselves and then it’s very easy to make a blunder.” It’s not necessarily a pessimistic view of our inconstant natures, merely realistic, and one that’s consistently held throughout all his novels.

An admirer of Proust, in a recent interview with the Guardian, he declares, “He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.” It’s a tradition Marías fully embraces in his own work, but through all the deep exploration of our inner motivations, he never forgets his storytelling instinct, never lets the narrative drive disappear completely. In this there’s something not dissimilar to Kafka, both have a way of building tension through the lengthy and potentially hazardous calculations that their characters make. The basic considerations of his plots, of man as an animal – morality, love, death – is another thing they have in common. Here it is the things that we both do, and don’t do, for love, or because of love, and further, the things we can believe would be done in the name of love, which are the principal target.

As in many of his books, a quote from Macbeth – from which play came the title for his novel, A Heart So White – makes an early appearance. Macbeth, upon learning about the death of his wife and Queen, exclaims, “She should have died hereafter.” Once introduced, this phrase becomes something of a motif, to which the narrator repeatedly returns throughout the novel, each time re-examining its meaning in the light of new revelations. It can’t be mere coincidence that it’s a Shakespearean tragedy from which Marías continues to draw inspiration.

However, perhaps the most telling aspect of his literary philosophy is revealed near the end of the book, when the truth is normally on the verge of being revealed, but no, “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it. But in real life almost no one needs to find the truth or devote himself to investigating anything, that only happens in puerile novels.”

Marías has not written one of those, and even if in this book we never quite attain the truth of the story with complete certainty, this doesn’t stop us learning some truths about ourselves. And how very enjoyably unsettling it is.