Inch Forward To A Metric Language

In Tom Sharpe’s grotesque yet hilarious novel The Throwback, the protagonist Lockhart must find his natural father and, in order to fully meet the terms of his grandfather’s will, flog the man to within an inch of his life. With a suspect at hand and gagged, the officiators of the will begin to debate the practical meaning of the will’s instructions.

‘An inch of life,’ said Dr Magrew, ‘leaves us in fact two inches to play with, one before death and one after.’

After much humorous discussion, the solution is reached, and a crime scene outline is drawn on the wall around the soon-to-be victim, at the precise distance of one inch from the body.

‘Lockhart, my boy, you may go ahead and flog the wall up to the pencil line and you will have flogged the man to within an inch of his life.’

An inch of his life. Don’t give an inch. To inch our way forward. Inch by inch. In these metric times, though time itself is not yet that, perhaps these Imperial nouns and verbs should give way to their modern, metric descendants.

Lockhart must thrash the man to within a centimetre of his life, never giving a centimetre. A centimetre is shorter than an inch, we have short-changed our language, diminished the story, perhaps we should have used an exact conversion. We 2.54-centimetre our way forward to a solution, 2.54-centimetres by 2.54-centimetres. Taking the definition of a metre from the 17th General Conference on Weights and Measures, we can even say that Lockhart must flog his father to within 0.0254 of the distance travelled by light in a vacuum during the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Completely modern and scientific language. Progress. On second thoughts, maybe not.

Don’t Only Think, Feel Too

What is the hardest thing to write about? Or to be seen to be writing about, if such a statement makes any sense?

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, the late, great author David Foster Wallace (DFW) argued that, in his experience as college professor, it was sentiment that his students had the most difficulty producing in their work. To express weird, twisted and abnormal thoughts was nothing but the norm to them. Sentiment, however, was to be avoided at all costs, lest the student risk being perceived as naive, corny or soppy. I’m sure a desire to appear clever was another key motivation.

These observations of DFW were brought back to me by a recent conversation I had, in which a friend, commenting on my blog, said that they wanted to know what something made me feel and not only what it made me think. I accept the criticism gratefully.

First, let’s acknowledge that it is hard to write and talk about these things. Certainly in today’s postmodern world, where knowing-parody and the ironic are staples of our cultural diet, the straightforward emotion is often viewed as simplistic and unsophisticated, and displaying it almost impolite to the point of offence.

Further, a society that values the intellect and wealth perhaps sees a diminished role for emotion, except in the cynical exploitation of it that organisational behaviourists refer to as emotional labour. You’ve all experienced it, take the last time you bought a cup of coffee for instance – the forced-smile greeting and the exhortation to have a great day as you leave. Occasionally genuinely felt I’m sure, but that would just be a happy coincidence. This misuse of false emotion must surely colour our impressions of the genuine article, a Pavlovian training to be wary of it, lest that person harbour ulterior motives.

Perhaps it’s difficult to write about because the felt-emotion can be fleeting and difficult to reproduce, whereas the thought seems longer term, more permanent. The emotion only persists for about as long as we read the book, in the best cases perhaps a little longer. But its intangible nature makes it harder to record and to analyse, and so we don’t bestow upon it the same permanence.

A few days ago I watched the film 50/50, a loosely-autobiographical dark comedy-drama about Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who develops a rare form of cancer. The film charts his struggle, and those of his friends and family, to come to terms with the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of his condition. Certain elements of the film appear to be on the verge of becoming corny, but the writing and classy acting help it veer away from this, and the end result is a very good film. Although it is sad in parts, it isn’t unremittingly so, and even the sad moments are generally handled through humour, that is, apart from a scene near the end, which was played straight, and was enough to leave me weeping for several minutes.

That this happened, and the intensity of it, took me quite by surprise, and I’m not exactly certain why it affected me so strongly. The risk of what I think of as “narrative self-delusion” – the way we fool ourselves by telling neat Just So stories to explain our behaviour – is ever present here, but it’s reasonable to suspect the following factors: one of my relatives is unfortunately currently in hospital; the very similar ages of myself and the protagonist, and the sense of tragedy that accompanies his young age; finally, the brilliantly-subtle acting of Adam’s father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, as he looks on confused, not quite understanding but still somehow touched, when his son tells him he loves him. Even remembering and writing about it now isn’t very easy, as sure a sign as any that it is necessary.

Maybe one explanation for our unwillingness to write about these things, is that they either seem too simple – base states of happy, sad or angry – to be worth the bother of writing about, or they are too complex – the reasons for feeling how we do, and the concurrent, paradoxical feelings we seem able to hold in a single moment – mean that it’s simply easier to talk about abstract thoughts, which can be logically connected and analysed.

Then consider that it’s possible, even probable, that the scene won’t have the same hold over me the next time I see it. The perfect storm of circumstance might no longer be present and, this time prepared for it, I’ll be able to watch it more calmly. This is another problem of putting emotional content in art; it’s difficult to control the response of the reader or viewer, there are too many variables at work.

The rejection of this, by a cynical culture, is a defence mechanism. A sign of our unwillingness to face pain because, by talking about what we feel we can induce in others similar sensations, we are at risk of a kind emotional infection. In everyday life, this might be an unwelcome imposition, but in art, in literature, surely it is what we desire. And if not desire it, we probably need it. In fact, we need both new, original thinking and strong feelings.

I had been previously persuaded by DFW’s interview that it was necessary and right to inject sentiment into writing, and wanted to do so, but in the main I suspect I had failed. The recent conversation, and watching the film 50/50, has reconfirmed this suspicion, and I am encouraged to try again.

That said, looking back over this piece it seems I’ve only partially succeeded in trying to talk about how I felt; inevitably a whole lot of thinking resulted. Still, it’s a better ratio than before, and no matter my level of success, I shouldn’t stop trying. And if I do, then readers, feel free to call me on it.

New Finnish Motivation

For a while now I’ve been preoccupied by thoughts of language, the preservation of language, and identity, sure that the kernel of an idea that I had for a novel could be made to work. But I worried that it would be an idea that only I would find interesting. Even though advice is given to not write for a specific audience and to write only for oneself, for a project that might be 100,000 words long and occupy several years, it becomes hard to put these worries from your mind completely.

And so I was very grateful to receive for Christmas New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (translated from the Italian by Judith Landry), which in many ways was a gift of more than just a book, it was a gift of inspiration, of reassurance and motivation.

New Finnish Grammar became somewhat popular in the UK eighteen months ago, when, after an 11 year exile, it was finally published in English. It was a particular favourite of Nicholas Lezard, whose excellent review of it can be found in the Guardian, and was in fact quoted on the cover.

Set during the Second World War it tells the story of Sampo Karjalainen, a soldier who is found unconscious in the street, apparently the victim of a vicious assault. His head injuries are so severe that an almost total amnesia has overcome him, including the loss of his language. With the few clues about him pointing to a Finnish identity, the neurologist caring for him encourages Sampo to work hard at relearning his Finnish, with the eventual aim of him returning to Helsinki. The doctor believes that both his Finnish language and identity will re-emerge once he’s embedded in a familiar environment.

The central mystery of Sampo’s true identity, and the foreboding introduced in the prologue, provides the narrative foundation to the novel, allowing Marani to build atop it a discussion of the Finnish language and its inherent relationship to the Finnish book of epic mythic poetry, The Kalevala. The experiences of Sampo mirror the struggle of Finland to determine its own national identity and language, an issue that was forced by the Kalevala. In fact, so compelling is the novel’s narrative drive, that I had to actively slow down so as not to miss all the details. I’m sure I was unsuccessful, but at least it gives me an excuse to read this fascinating book a second time.

After having spent some time relearning Finnish Sampo is asked to name his favourite Finnish word or phrase, and replies that it’s the abessive case, and after reading his reasons perhaps you might be inclined to agree.

Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have.

This reference to absence could be applied to many things in the book, to all the things for which Sampo is searching. The key hypothesis of the neurologist is that both the Finnish experience and the recovery of his language would help Sampo in this search for his old personality and memories, and that developing each would reinforce the others. A pastor who instructs Sampo in the Kalevala seems to agree:

When you can read the Kalevala you will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us!

With words like these, and similar from rest of the book, from all the persuasion and instruction that is delivered to Sampo, and that could equally well be being delivered to the reader,

So the shortest words are also the oldest, the most worn away by time. In Finnish, the word for war is sota, and these two syllables are eloquent pointers to how many we have indeed waged.

you might find yourself wanting to learn Finnish! The author certainly seems to possess a fondness for it, a language which is almost without relatives, Estonian and Hungarian being the only two.

However, the intellectual, linguistic side of the novel slowly gives way to sadness, when Sampo, despite his efforts to regain his identity, and no matter how much his Finnish improves, never really regains a feeling of inner peace. And I will leave things at that for fear of revealing too much. To find out more, I recommend that you read the book!

And yet, perhaps a little selfishly, as sad as I felt for Sampo, at the end of the novel I was heartened and encouraged. If a novel like this, which is rooted so heavily in the topics around language, can be so interesting and likeable, then perhaps there is hope yet. I can tackle once more my own idea, not with expectation, but at least with a little confidence. That said, the final lesson to take from the novel is cautionary, as, just like Sampo, I shouldn’t count on any certainties; there can be no guarantees that anyone will like my novel when it is finished, myself included.