Lydia Davis — Essays Two

Il m’aura fallu longtemps pour comprendre que le français n’est pas ma langue maternelle — c’est ma langue paternelle, celle baragouinée par les paysans berrichons qui se raccrochent aux branches d’un arbre généalogique presque millénaire, celle apprise par les descendants d’esclaves qui préfèrent taire leur sombre histoire. Non, ma langue maternelle, c’est l’espagnol.

Ce n’est pas la langue de ma mère, mais celle de ses parents, qui furent souvent les miens. C’était la langue de la télévision, la langue du café de la place de Barcelone, la langue de la gastronomie, la langue des souvenirs et de la nostalgie. Les engueulades, toujours dantesques, parfois violentes, se tenaient plutôt en galicien.

C’était la langue que je parlais, ce qui a justifié, entre autres choses que nous n’avons compris qu’après, mon exclusion de l’école maternelle. Je me souviens de l’ennui, de l’apprentissage des échecs, des camarades de classe que je n’ai pas connus, de la bibliothèque verte. Et de l’effacement de ma langue maternelle derrière ma langue paternelle.

Il faut que je traverse la frontière pour que l’espagnol remonte à la surface. Je déplore chaque année un peu plus l’affaiblissement de mon vocabulaire, je m’étonne chaque année un peu plus de la facilité de mon accent. Mes gestes, ma posture, mes idées même changent en changeant de langue. Après quelques jours, je me mets à rêver en espagnol, et c’est toujours une déchirure quand le français revient à la charge.

Et puis la traductrice Lydia Davis dit :

My method of studying Spanish is to read Las aventuras de Tom Sawyer without looking up any words in the dictionary. […] I did not really “pick” Tom Sawyer to read. I don’t have many books in Spanish in the house, since up to now I knew so little Spanish, and this book has sat on the bookshelf alongside several other books by Mark Twain for years. It’s an old paperback. The cheap paper is brown with age and the type is uneven, but it is a nice size and shape, and pretty well bound. It has crude black-and-white line drawings at the start of each chapter and a color illustration on the cover of two boys in a rowboat. […] I had decided right away not to look up any words in the dictionary, and again I am not quite sure why. Stopping constantly—every few words—would certainly have taken most of the fun out of the reading; but also, this way of reading soon turned into a challenge to myself, and then into an exercise in learning words purely from their contexts, which is of course how children learn their native language; and it has been interesting to see how that works.

Je gagne ma croute en écrivant le français, je parle anglais comme le moindre Londonien venu d’ailleurs, j’ai sacrifié quinze ans à l’amitié franco-allemande, mais je ressens un besoin presque vital de retrouver ma langue maternelle. Je regarde parfois La 1, j’écoute quelques podcasts hispaniques, je lis régulièrement El País, mais je n’avais jamais eu l’idée de me plonger — très littéralement — dans cette littérature qui me reste étrangère.

C’est une idée intrigante, comme de nombreux passages de cette collection inégale d’essais, qui décrivent des sujets aussi variés que les difficultés de la traduction de Proust et la morphologie des ruelles arlésiennes. C’est une idée libératrice, aussi, comme celle-ci :

I have finished it now. I don’t often read very long books. In fact, I don’t often finish even a much shorter book, even in English. I usually put it aside, however good it may be, after, sometimes, eighty or a hundred pages, or less, having in some sense not only absorbed its nature but saturated myself with it. But I have read this one right through to the end. What made me go on? Certainly a kind of suspense, but hardly one that involved the “plot” of the novel, if it can be called that—it was a complex, or multifaceted, kind of suspense involving not only the stories within the book, but also the suspense of the author’s investigation, curiosity about how the book would evolve, and, probably most of all, the suspense of learning a language I did not know before.

Rendez-vous compte, une traductrice qui ne lit pas ! Voilà qui devrait rassurer les lecteurs, et peut-être terrifier les auteurs. Mais c’est un antidote : si le livre n’est plus un objet sacré, il devient possible d’être « saturé » par son esprit, indissociable du génie de la langue, qui produit sa propre intrigue.

Notes

Une attitude d’autant plus saine que les grammaires procèdent des usages :

This still seems to me one good way to approach a language: practice using it, and then, later, look up the “rules” behind what you have been trying to do.

De l’appartement de Proust :

There was something of a personal discovery in visiting the apartment this way, as though you really came to do business at the bank and then found within the bank not only the apartment but the very bedroom of a writer you greatly admired. Paradoxically, all this made the presence of Proust’s own living quarters all the stronger, perhaps because of the effort one made to visualize the apartment within the bank premises; perhaps because any discovery of one’s own is more exciting than an effect arranged by someone else; perhaps because the contrast was so striking that the original apartment sprang back into one’s mental picture: it was so much not-there that it kept returning, whereas if it had been reproduced in a simulacrum it would be there, but only through impersonation—and only statically, not dynamically.

L’intelligence enfantine :

Another observation, a recurring one: that we forget so much more than we remember. We forget most of what we read, and we forget most of what we experience. I come from a long line of thrifty women and men, so this bothers me: If we forget most of our experience, then how can we make good use of it? One answer, anyway, must be that it serves to change us, develop us. In the case of children, the most powerful imaginative literature must, even more forcefully, develop their imagination, their capacity for emotion, their empathy, and maybe also their intelligence, their courage, their resilience, and their sense of right and wrong.

La langue passée comme langue étrangère :

Some of Ollivant’s vocabulary is distinctly that of an earlier time—he was, after all, born in 1874, nearly 150 years ago.

Une approche surprenante, mais passionnante, de la traduction :

I have almost always approached any translation I undertake without reading the text beforehand. There are several reasons for this, but a primary one is to keep my own interest stimulated and thus my prose more alive. I do not know what is ahead on the next page.

La fiction comme mode d’emploi de la réalité :

Perhaps I thought of this because we in the humanities seem, now, to be asked to justify our existence within a culture increasingly prone to adopt a business model, a culture that challenges us to answer: What is the use of reading or studying fiction? One answer is that in reading fiction we can endure tragedy—loss, death, disability—at a safe remove, and then return to our own life, intact, but more experienced emotionally. Another is that the reading of fiction may teach, or encourage, empathy. But then, of course, we may be asked, further, to justify the practical advantages of empathy in the business world.

Tourner la page pour oublier la page :

I became acutely conscious, at certain moments in the plot, that on the other side of this page, when I turned it, I would find out what happened. Reading became very physical: my action of turning the page, made of paper, made of wood pulp, and resting my eyes on the indented black type at the top of the next page, would give me the answer to the question in my mind; I was hanging on it. I had forgotten, for the moment, that this story never took place, that it was invented, and by someone very young.

Apprendre une langue comme un enfant :

Another reason I did not want to use a dictionary or ask anyone for the answer was that, almost right away, this experiment interested me qua experiment, and I wanted to keep it quite pure. I was trying to learn a language the way we learn our own native language from babyhood on up. Words are repeated in certain contexts, some contexts the same and some different, and eventually, over time, with much repetition, we learn what the words mean.

De l’importance de la relecture :

I also discovered how important rereading was. It was a rule from the very beginning that I couldn’t simply skip over a sentence and go on, but had to work on it until I either understood or saw that I could not. So, unless I did understand it right away, which happened more often as I continued to read the book, I would have to reread the sentence. The first reading of a word or sentence might reveal nothing at all, and leave me mystified. But with just the small increase in familiarity that came from reading it a second time, the words would begin to suggest themselves. I wondered what happened in the brain, between the first and the second reading.

Nous lisons comme nous l’entendons :

It also occurred to me, as I bent over my thin pencil scratches on the handsome pages of the book, that we read selfishly—and we read in whatever way we choose. The author has no say in how we approach the book and what we do with it. He controls his creation while he creates it, but then, when it is published, he must abandon control of it. In this case, for example, Solstad might object to my reading it without understanding all of it. He might also object to my marking every page with my own discoveries and ideas. He might object to my being just as interested in learning the language as I am in the book itself and how he has conceived and written it. He might object to my telling some of the most dramatic stories here in this essay, out of context.