Doing what doesn’t come naturally

John Sturrock

  • French Lessons: A Memoir by Alice Kaplan
    Chicago, 221 pp, £15.95, September 1993, ISBN 0 226 42418 9

Second languages don’t come naturally to us, they have to be learnt, formally in large part and deliberately. The language we are born into the midst of is not learnt but ‘acquired’, by the occult, labour-saving means of Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device, an innate predisposition in our neurons which, once we are attuned to the local syntax and prevailing vocabulary, ensures that we eventually ‘know’ our native tongue without having had to try, and empty of memories as to how we internalised it. If we happen to grow up in the midst of more than one language, we end up bi- or multilingual, but just as unable to be explicit about a process that has matured willy-nilly, which is studyable by others but opaque to ourselves. It’s only when we come to learn another language at a later date that we get an idea of what is involved, and of how easy it is to flounder when doing consciously what before we did so well without thinking.

Yet allowing that we can know something at least of how we learnt a foreign language, which of us is ready to say quite why we did so? By ‘learnt’ I mean really learnt, to the point where a foreign language becomes a true second language, an alternative to the one we are born into. To know another language this well is to get to love it, to go amorously beyond the smatterings that you need to pass exams, be a competent tourist or succeed in the export market. This renewable investment of our time and emotions is a luxury, surplus to all commonplace requirements, and deep biographical reasons need to be found if we are to explain why it is that a second language has mattered so greatly to us.

When I look a long way back, to disinter my child-self first becoming attached to French at the age of nine or ten, I fancy I find it becoming newly detached at the same time from English, as if first meeting up with a foreign language meant also coming to a more fastidious view of language as such: a great step, turning what before had been only an instrument into a source of conscious pleasure. Of such encounters are verbal dandies born. In its alien-ness French, I think I felt, could be a home from home, a language in which life might prove to be more to my liking and more exotic. In my neck of the Hampshire bourgeoisie it was the one foreign language going, the language I had heard grown-ups slipping briefly into when they wanted to sound distinguished or had things to say to each other which I for one was not meant to understand: this was the pas devant les enfants principle of those days. It was self-evidently a medium to show off as well as to bond in.

Which is also to say that it was a medium for a child to be more imposing and less vulnerable in. A second language is a verbal safe-house, an instant refuge for when a first language becomes for whatever reason a bad place to be. In a second language we have unfamiliar thoughts and can seem to escape the numbing hold of clichés; above all we can be set oddly free to say things we wouldn’t dream of saying in our first language – or rather, that we could only dream of saying in it. These liberties are the easier to take because they no longer seem to originate so uneasily close to home. They are an object lesson in that austere disjunction between our un-speakable selves and the impersonal signs we have to resort to to publicise them which Jacques Derrida has argued for so devastatingly. Those who have objected to Derrida on this ground should reflect on what we experience when we use a so-called foreign language and explain how that might differ in kind from the experience of using a native language. The sense of relief may be strong at moments of embarrassment, when exchanging a more for a less intimate medium in which to speak or write, but the fact is we are alienated in both, only more happily in the one language than in the other.

Second languages can do things for us, then; they are not the blandly practical extensions to our lives they may seem to be. They can be among the more disturbing means by which we create psychic space for ourselves. Alice Kaplan cites the case of Anna O., the legendary patient, first of Breuer and then of Freud, whose inhibitions were of such a kind that she chose to speak to her doctors in English and not her native German, and who coined the phrase about psychoanalysis being ‘the talking cure’ in English. Kaplan cites, too, the less well-known and rather darker case of Louis Wolfson, an American mental patient who admitted that he had learnt foreign languages in order to shut the mother that he lived without from his life and who wrote his account of this elaborate feat of ostracism not in English but in French. These are exceptional and suggestive cases, primary sources for any future psychopathology of second-language learning. I have a nasty feeling that there’s something of Anna O. and of the exclusive Louis Wolfson in many if not all of us who found a foreign language irresistible when we were children.

On behalf of this guilty class let me salute Alice Kaplan for what she has now done for us by publishing her very intelligent and unusual ‘memoir’. If there have been such accounts as this before, I’ve not come across them. Kaplan has set out to answer if she can the one question: how did the French language come over time to mean so much to her? She considers in turn the relationships she had with her own and other families, with boyfriends in America and later in Europe, and with fellow students and teachers in college, all in order to try and work out how far they may have helped to condition the biggest relationship of all, with what became her second language. French Lessons is Alice Kaplan’s particular story, with little in it by way of generalisation; but it may rank from now on as the paradigm of all such stories. Kaplan puts what, to anyone remotely curious about their own relationship to a second language, will seem the absolutely right, the leading questions: ‘Why have I chosen to live in not-quite-my-own language, in exile from myself, for so many years – why have I gone through school with a gag on, do I like not really being able to express myself?’

In the end she made French her living. She now teaches French literature at Duke University – and teaches it in French, American universities having recovered from what she all too justly calls the ‘pigheadedness picked up from the British’ that for long meant foreign literatures were taught in English (foreign languages too, in my day). French has paid off for her. There’s nothing extraordinary in the story of how it came to do so: French Lessons indeed is all the better for having such an ordinary tale to tell, of how a bright, captivated student becomes in turn a teacher. Kaplan was born into a Jewish family in Minneapolis, first-generation Americans but middle-class and well-off. Her parents were models of assimilation who spoke ‘American’: ‘I can’t reproduce this language, but I know exactly what I mean by it. It was American more for what we talked about than how it sounded, although it is amazing to think that in one generation, a language could become so native, so comfortable, so normal, with no sense whatever of its relative newness.’

As a reminder, however, of how far, and how widely the family had travelled linguistically there was a Lithuanian grandmother. Alice Kaplan remembers her as an old woman in a home, senile and adrift among languages, mixing up English, the Russian she had been taught in Lithuania, the ritual Hebrew of the synagogue and the conversational Yiddish of home. Nanny Kaplan serves as a sad warning of how mental and linguistic alienation may be paired. Writing of her in the terminally confused state she had fallen into, Alice Kaplan finds herself using a French expression – ‘Il n’y avait pas de suite dans ses idées’; and, properly alerted by the intrusion of a gallicism into her English thought-stream, puzzles over the reason for it: ‘I wonder why I switch like that – why I suddenly need to think in French. It’s not like my grandmother’s switching, but it feels disturbed, like hers. French, for me, is not just an accomplishment. It’s a need.’ Why, indeed, do we find phrases from a second language coming at moments like these? Because they’re more expressive, as we’re given to claiming, and fill what seems to be an ineffable gap in our first language? Or because in truth they’re less expressive, and so cost us less to use when faced with something we find painful to describe? Such questions hang fascinatingly over certain episodes in French Lessons.

Kaplan tells us no more than serves her purpose, about either her family or herself; it all has to do one way or another with language. She recalls the English expressions her parents were fondest of using, in a home that is only the first of many settings where her ear is trained up in the seductive nuances of accent or of wording. Her very earliest memories go back to her own entry into language, when she was three years old and was getting new words from an older brother and sister. Not knowing at all what it meant she parroted the sentence, ‘Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening.’ An actual memory or a moment recorded in family folklore, and kept in circulation long after the event? Kaplan claims it for a memory, but it hardly matters; this for sure is how we all added to our word-stock, in sibling emulation and with the pleasing prospect of creating an impression. With her new words Alice Kaplan went off to amuse and impress her father, which is what she believes she was really doing later on by mastering French.

At the time of her eighth birthday her father died, suddenly, in the middle of the night, from a heart attack. He was a lawyer who had been part of the American prosecution team at the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945 and who in a desk drawer had kept photographs used in evidence there of the stacked corpses and the few skeletal survivors in the Nazi death camps. After he died, Kaplan took some of these terrible photographs to school, to show them to other children, either to shock them or else because she missed her father: ‘I was trying to do what he would do, be like him.’ His is the approval, actual while he was still alive, fantasmal thereafter, which she continues to look for. When she goes to sleep again after being woken up and told that he has died, she has a word-dream which makes her laugh, of leaving home for a place called Yew Nork. Kaplan doesn’t interpret this dream because that isn’t her way, but it fits eerily – or else artfully – well with what lies ahead of her in French Lessons, as a dream foretelling the pleasures of absence and the congenial alienation effects so simply achieved by swapping signifiers. Later, she finds a good substitute father, Mr D., the owner of a department store in Minneapolis and an art collector: ‘a Francophile in the grand manner’; good because by now she knows French better than he does and can impress him accordingly. Kaplan doesn’t harp on the father-theme, but it’s there all the way through her book, and towards the end, once she is in place as a tenured professor, she sums it up: ‘Learning French was connected to my father, because French made me absent the way he was absent, and it made me an expert the way he was an expert.’ That to many will sound facile, or under-determined. For my part, it put me joltingly in mind of a coincidence I had never before noticed, which is that my Francophilia must have taken root at just the time when my father died.

Kaplan’s love of language, her Jewishness and the shadow of her father the Nuremberg prosecutor come together in a complicated way in the latter part of her story. As a graduate student at Yale she decides to write her thesis on French Fascist intellectuals of the Thirties. This was a perverse topic to have picked in the radical Seventies, and doubly perverse for a Jewish student. Kaplan, however, had been carried away reading Céline, the unholy energy and richness of whose language opened her mind like that of no other French writer. Céline it was, she decides, that made her want to write, because he had made incomparable, musical prose out of his bitter sense of alienation from the world as it is. It was only unfortunate that he should have turned during the later Thirties into the most extravagantly anti-semitic of French writers, and remained after the war, as a consequence, a pariah. But Kaplan insisted on her topic and followed it up.

One of her teachers at Yale, it so happens, was Paul de Man, whose youthful fascist leanings and wartime lapse into anti-semitic journalism were yet to be revealed. To Kaplan, de Man was the coldly olympian professor, someone she found it impossible to please intellectually and whose deconstructive arguments he extended chillingly to undermine his own teaching, telling his classes: ‘Don’t confuse any of this literary theory with your lives.’ Of de Man’s private life or past Kaplan knew and enquired nothing. Only once he was dead, and known finally to have written for the collaborationist press in Brussels in 1941-2, did she realise what a lot he would have been able to tell her had she talked to him about the subject of her thesis. De Man had actually been a Fascist intellectual, and no one knew it. In his aloofness he had let her down, he was a father-figure who failed, unable to be impressed by her and unwilling to make the gift of his peculiar expertise.

Alice Kaplan has learnt literary theory and no doubt teaches it. But there is no telling that she has done so from the way in which French Lessons is written; this is an uncommonly forthright and concise piece of autobiography. She has done better than Paul de Man, and shown that university professors, too, can have a past worth the telling, that the subjects they teach may mean far more to them than any student could begin to guess. As if to demonstrate how much more in her case, Alice Kaplan has found a writing style as different as a style well could be from anything you might expect to come from a practising teacher of literature in an American university: all short, simple sentences, delivered at speed. This, she says, is a manner she learnt long ago from listening to her mother, who has always been against ‘waste in language’ and whose ‘sentences are short and blunt, yet ripe with innuendo and the promise that more is being said than meets the ear.’ To judge by which, Alice Kaplan has done her mother proud by writing French Lessons in the way she has. It may be a book about how she worked to gratify her absent father, but it is one assuredly written in her mother tongue.