Monday, January 31, 2011

The pressure of other languages

I see one of Stanley Fish's all-time favorite sentences is by Nabokov. As much as one may want to argue with Fish--just because--it's pretty hard to argue with Nabokov as a sentence god.

It's hard to say exactly what makes this and many, many other Nabokov sentences so richly beautiful. But years ago, I heard a talk by Doris Sommer on bilingualism and literature, and she suggested that the pressure of Nabokov's native Russian behind his English has something to do with it. This is also perhaps one reason why so many non-native speakers of English end up expressing themselves far more eloquently that those of us who grew up taking it for granted. In Nabokov's case, there are often masked definitions of words in Russian behind those in English, which give a subtle twist to the English meanings. Moreover, there are different sounds, rhythms, syntaxes (sin taxes?), etc., that Nabokov's ear hears, and then sort of suppresses, as he writes. You could say there's a Russian harmony, or harmonics, to the English main melody.

Interesting that the sentence Fish selected is actually about the pressure of the past welling up into the present--and all the different forms that pressure can take. It mutates, and won't be denied.

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