Favourite Quotes

"When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window." - The Sound of Music

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Feeling Poetic

So, following on from my last post about World Book Night, one of the unexpected side effects was that I had the urge to get out my copy of Selected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy, which was one of my A level set texts. I remembered that there were some poems from The World's Wife (which was one of the World Book Night books), and I fancied re-reading them. In the end, I read the whole book.

It was interesting. I didn't really 'get' Carol Ann Duffy at Sixth Form. I found the poems vaguely disturbing, and over my head. This time round, I found some gems - poems which actually spoke to me. This one, in particular, made sense in a way I could never have imagined 13 years ago.


Imagine living in a strange, dark city for twenty years
There are some dismal dwellings on the east side
and one of them is yours. On the landing, you hear
your foreign accent echo down the stairs. You think
in a language of your own and talk in theirs.

Then you are writing home. The voice in your head
recites the letter in a local dialect; behind that
is the sound of your mother singing to you,
all that time ago, and now you do not know
why your eyes are watering and what's the word for

You use the public transport. Work. Sleep. Imagine one
you saw a name for yourself sprayed red
against a brick wall. A hate name. Red like blood.
It is snowing on the streets, under the neon lights,
as if this place were coming to bits before your eyes.

And in the delicatessen, from time to time, the coins
in your palm will not translate. Inarticulate,
because this is not home, you point at fruit. Imagine
that one of you says Me not know what these people mean.
It like they only go to bed and dream. Imagine that.

Thankfully, I don't have to worry about the hate names here (the SVP posters, maybe, but no hate names), and at least the Swiss French like the English accent... but this struck a chord. The struggle of trying to convey your thoughts in another language. The frustration when you just don't know the right word for something in the shops - or in my case, the embarrassment of carefully demanding 'un petit truc pour prendre la température' only to be told that the word I want is 'thermomètre'.

But it is odd, to be a foreigner. Today I discovered (when talking to a friend) that one of the other outpatients at ergothérapie is also English. I hadn't even noticed her English accent, and presumably she didn't notice mine. We are both so accustomed to being foreigners we don't recognise a fellow countryman when we hear them.

Sometimes I feel like I am loosing my English as my mind fills up with French. I quite often pause, in the middle of a sentence, groping for a word - and these days, I am just as likely to do that in one language as another. I talk in English about people 'supporting' pain when I mean 'cope with', because the French is 'supporter'. I asked my social worker if I was 'intitué' to benefits when I should have said 'avoir droit de', because 'intitulé' means 'entitled' too... but only in the sense of the name of a book. And sometimes, I come out with words which make sense in neither tongue, words which no-one can understand - even me.

Monday, 14 March 2011

What book would you give away for free?

I caught part of the television coverage of World Book Night last week. I must admit I was rather jealous at first - the idea of being able to get a new book to read for free is even more enticing when you live abroad. Since I've been in Switzerland, most of my new reading matter has come from the biannual book sales organised by the Library in English in Geneva, which tends to yield varied rewards (I'm still mourning the lost opportunity of Love Over Scotland Street, by Alexander McCall Smith, which I saw at the Autumn book sale and passed over, mistakenly thinking I owned a copy, only to discover upon my return that I do not...). There are also the books from my reading group, which have proved to be a mixed bunch. Some of them I'll gladly read again (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer), while some of them only retain their place on my bookshelf because I purchased a new book case recently and it isn't full yet (The Lone-Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie).

So, to get back to World Book Night, having watched the footage I was intrigued enough, when I got home, to investigate the twenty-five titles that the reading public of England considered good enough to share with complete strangers. An interesting selection. I'd read three and a half, heard of 6 more. The rest meant nothing to me. And of those I've read... well Northern Lights (Philip Pullman) is one of the 3 most disturbing books I've ever read (the other 2 being the sequels). Some Christians talk as if Harry Potter was the worst thing ever to happen to children's literature... they obviously haven't read His Dark Materials. Dangerous, disturbing and mesmerisingly well written - I've never before had the experience of knowing what I was reading was evil and wrong, but at the same time being unable to put the book down because I was so involved in the story. So, so far, not very impressed. Beloved (Toni Morrison)... I read it about a decade ago, I know it's a good book but I can't say it left a lasting impression on me. Then there was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon), the only book of the twenty-five I own. It's a powerful story, and it brings to life an important issue (autism), but I wouldn't say it was a 'must read' for me. Not what I would have voted for.

In fact, the whole list was a bit of a disappointment. Looking at it, one would have to assume that nothing worth reading had been written before 1929, at the very earliest, and that there had then been a 30 year drought before more good books started to be written in the 1960s. And things didn't really get going until the new millennium (fourteen of the books were published within the last decade). Is this really the cream of English writing? Or is this the literary equivalent of a church that decides that if a song wasn't written after 1980, it isn't worth singing? What about the books that have stood the test of time? No Jane Austen? Nothing by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters? (Not that I like Dickens, but it's the principle of the thing). No Thomas Hardy or George Eliott? Haven't people heard of a bloke called Shakespeare?

So, I'm just wondering - am I alone in feeling that this list was narrow and modernistic?

And what would I have chosen? Well, that's a tricky question. If I were to chose a novel, it would probably be Mansfield Park. Victims of bullying, adultery, the place of religion in modern society, choosing between sexual attraction and comparability of value systems in your life partner... aren't those all issues we face today? For poetry, I'd probably go for George Herbert. Yes, his poems may be about religion, but I carry them around with me in my handbag and find something applicable when I open the book at random. As for a play... it would have to be Much Ado About Nothing - surely the original romantic comedy.

Right, I must go and check my mail. I ordered To Miss With Love and the new Jasper Fforde the other week and they haven't come yet...