Sometimes, of course, the idea of the “mother tongue” is crucial. In Lettres parisiennes, Nancy Huston remarks, I can make books and children only in an un-mother tongue” [Les livres, les enfants, je ne peux les faire que dans une langue non-maternelle]. See my discussion of Marina Tsvetaeva in Chapter 5; and consider the case of Elias Canetti, who writes in German. German is Canetti’s fourth language, as English was Conrad’s fourth language, but Canetti’s situation is much more complicated than that of Conrad. Canetti’s first languages were Ladino, Bulgarian (soon more or less forgotten), and English. German was a secret language between his mother and father which he was not allowed to learn: “Among the many intense wishes of this period, the most intense was my desire to understand their secret language. I cannot explain why I didn’t really hold it against my father. I did nurture a deep resentment toward my mother, and it vanished only years later, after his death, when she herself began teaching me German” (The Tongue Set Free [New York, Seabury Press, 1979], 24). The actual lessons seem to have been anguishing: “It was only later that I realized that it hadn’t just been for my sake when she instructed me in German with derision and torment. She herself had a profound need to use German with me, it was the language of her intimacy. . . . So, in a very short time, she forced me to achieve something beyond the strength of any child, and the fact that she succeeded determined the deeper nature of my German; it was a belated mother tongue, implanted in true pain. The pain was not all, it was promptly followed by a period of happiness, and that tied me indissolubly to that language” (p. 70).
I’ll have to read The Tongue Set Free one of these years; of course, I’ve had Crowds and Power sitting around for over a decade, so I may be some time. (My previous Canetti post has also been sitting around for over a decade with no attention paid, poor thing.)