August 12, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Running Alongside It

I spent some months in Paris recently, and I found myself frustrated at not being able to be angry in French, although I know the language well. This might seem silly: feelings are feelings and should translate. But they don’t, if you don’t have the words for them. In French, I never felt there was enough time to fully articulate my anger between verb tenses and choosing interjections. I feel as if I’m always “running alongside” my foreign-language anger, without ever being fully able to catch up to it.

This sensation of “running alongside” and growing-ever-closer is the similar to our frustrations as writers. We chase after our interior feelings, trying to commit details to paper, trying to translate an experience for a different audience. Many times, it just doesn’t get close enough.

When I was a student in Paris, I was having a picnic on the Seine with some girlfriends when a young man passing by stepped over me when my back was to him and moved his pelvis in a vulgar way. My friends stared at him, agape at this buffoon standing over me, while I smiled on, oblivious. When they signaled to me, wide-eyed and mute, I stood up quickly and turned to him, but the man strode along the cobblestones away from us, laughing. What I would have given for a quick way to express how angry I was, to thrust some expletive at him that I hadn’t prepared quick enough. I was mute and mad, and the man was gone. The Seine flowed on.

Flirtation, I have found, is another way of I have seen myself running alongside my intentions in a foreign language. In the fall of 2006, I lived in Paris as an intern for le Printemps des po??tes, a French poetry organization.

Before starting a series of interviews and recordings with Ludovic Janvier, a French poet and novelist, I had been prepared by my coworkers: “C’est un drageur, Julia.” They rolled their eyes. A drageur is a male flirt. This term was appropriate for Ludovic, who was known around the office to indeed drag the victims of his charm through puddle after puddle of raised eyebrows and flirtatious suggestions. In English-language situations, I am always equipped with wry and joking commentary. I had none of this when I arrived at his door.

After crossing the courtyard of his apartment building in Montparnasse, I knocked and waited. Ludovic opened the door. I smiled immediately, and was nervously carried away by the North American impulse to privilege pleasantry before personal relationship. “Ah! Mais voil? enfin, je l’ai retrouv??!” he said. Ah, here at last I have found it! “Pardon?” I said, holding my bag of recording equipment and a list of poems.
“Yorrh smeye-yulle!” he announced in battered English. He watched me, self-congratulatory, as I only laughed, shuffling my feet. Silence.

Oh, that awkward conversational silence to fill when pressed for repart??e. Then, the self-humiliation that comes when the words fail; the linguistic flailing and the giving up.

When I was able to overcome this silence once or twice with a small quip that was (I think) both grammatically correct and funny, I was elated. I felt as though I had won the beaming pride of a PTA parent, or the back-slapping congratulations of a little league coach (these characters are, by the way, both alien to French culture). I did it. But these times were rare. Mostly, I ran alongside efforts to make and understand jokes, and efforts to succeed at being angry.

Isn’t this just like writing? Maybe this is a scene you know well: you are sitting at the keyboard, happy tapping fingers getting out precisely in language what you want to convey. This is it, you think, I’m nailing it down. You’ve committed your current of thought to paper: I’ve got you, you think.

I have felt this same rush with the French language. Late one night on a crowded Paris street, a man nearby was verbally harassing transvestites waiting at a corner. This is it, I thought. I’ve got just the words for you, jackass. I felt the same hunter-like energy we get when we are writing.

I pulled forth my French words like a long, brilliant scarf from my pockets: here is my comeback, served in your own language. I was fiercely proud of these words that were completely not my own. Back off, I said, these people are human beings, not trash. I saw the man stop walking, and I let them sink in. I felt a smug rush, the whoosh of that long language scarf, because I knew he had heard them. Like those flying fingers typing away at a keyboard. I’ve got you.

In writing, you may have experienced that when you go back to reread your words, you realize you have been less than precise, that your language does not capture image you’ve been writing so desperately after.

Back on the street in Paris, that man turned, and said over his shoulder: “des ??tres humains, pas des ??tres humaines.” The word for human beings is masculine, not feminine. He had corrected my grammar. My red sash of linguistic courage wilted to the ground.

I was very close, yet there was still something in the way.

While writing, we get a rush of hunter-like power, and still our writing sometimes fails. He reread my target language words, and they failed. Does the glory of writing, then, exist in the no-space, in that moment before rereading it, in the inertia that propels us forward, makes us take those risks of language?

Some say that the editing process, the rereading, is the hardest part of writing. It was hard, too, for me to be revised by my offender. It is turning back over our shoulders of our writing, when we revise, that we see the perfection missing from our pages. It’s the tragic backwards glance that tore Eurydice away from Orpheus. It ruins everything. Or does it?

The man who corrected me in Paris made me even angrier, but also made me even more prepared to go back for the jugular next time. I’ve vowed to let my feelings surpass language, to say it anyway, to get it down, however imperfect it may be. Over time practicing my French insults on the streets, they will get better. If I am angry enough, I will get ever-closer to the elusive expression of my anger. My comebacks will get better, and they will hit harder.

If we write hard, then, we will get ever-closer. If we make a commitment to run perpetually along side that thing we are trying to pin down on paper, to run perpetually alongside our anger in a foreign language, we are still working, still training, still writing. We are getting ever-closer.