Language Barrier II.

My wife and I are almost finished with Rachel Cusk’s Outline (our latest bedtime reading), and we’ve just gotten to the passage Stan Carey quoted recently at Sentence first (a woman is describing her feelings about being hired to teach English in Athens):

She wasn’t quite sure how the language barrier was going to work: it was a funny idea, writing in a language not your own. It almost makes you feel guilty, she said, the way people feel forced to use English, how much of themselves must get left behind in that transition, like people being told to leave their homes and take only a few essential items with them. Yet there was also a purity to that image that attracted her, filled as it was with possibilities for self-reinvention. To be freed from clutter, both mental and verbal, was in some ways an appealing prospect; until you remembered something you needed that you had had to leave behind. She, for instance, found herself unable to make jokes when she spoke in another language: in English she was by and large a humorous person, but in Spanish for instance – which at one time she had spoken quite well – she was not. So it was not, she imagined, a question of translation so much as one of adaptation. The personality was forced to adapt to its new linguistic circumstances, to create itself anew: it was an interesting thought. There was a poem, she said, by Beckett that he had written twice, once in French and once in English, as if to prove that his bilinguality made him two people and that the barrier of language was, ultimately, impassable.

Stan says “Some of this rings true for me,” and it does for me as well; as I said here (and I think elsewhere, but I can’t find any specific posts), “Like many people capable of such interactions, I feel very different when speaking different languages.”

As for the novel — which made quite a splash when it came out — we’re enjoying it but probably won’t feel impelled to read the follow-ups (it’s the first of a trilogy); the structure (a series of interactions in which interlocutors and their experiences are carefully described but the narrator is left mostly a blank) is interesting, but not so interesting that we can’t tear ourselves away, and none of the characters have distinctive voices — they all sound like the narrator. I imagine we’ll return to the wonderful Tessa Hadley.

And if you’re wondering why this is Language Barrier II, I used the title for a 2004 post about a poem by Valerie Bloom.


  1. Longtime reader, first-time commenter. I love the Outline trilogy and wanted to offer a different perspective on your point that “none of the characters have distinctive voices — they all sound like the narrator”. I agree with this description and I can certainly see how one might take the view that this homogeneity makes Outline less compelling than it would be if the characters all had distinctive voices, but I think that the homogeneity is key to what Cusk is trying to achieve with the trilogy. My sense of what she is trying to do (it goes without saying that I could well be mistaken) is to suggest things about her narrator’s thoughts, feelings, interests, etc in an indirect way, by having the interlocutor’s accounts filtered through the narrator. If I recall correctly, Cusk’s usual method is to begin each interlocutor’s account with direct speech and then gradually let the narrator’s paraphrase take over. Of course, even if I am right about Cusk’s aims, it doesn’t mean that one has to adore the product!

  2. I think you’re absolutely right, and intellectually I can see the usefulness and even attractiveness of the concept, but (perhaps because I’m so steeped in Russian literature, with its emphasis on a lively narrative voice and on dialogue that makes use of the full range of conversational Russian) I just find it anodyne. I can see why she made a splash, and why people like her; I’m just not of that parish. Thanks for commenting on this lonely post!

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    I have been thinking about this and maybe variation in characterisation and/or plot can overcome the homogenisation of spoken dialogue. Recently I have been enjoying watching “the Gilmore Girls” which has a mix of
    (1) 2 3-d characters
    (2) about a dozen 2-d “stereotype” characters with sizable speeches
    (3) bit players
    Substantial parts of the speech of (1), (3) are homogenised (witty remarks or speeches involving wordplay, irony and paradox).

  4. Sure, plot can compensate for a lot. But there’s essentially no plot in Cusk, just a bunch of conversations. And when the people conversing all sound alike…

  5. John Cowan says

    It’s a pity that drama-to-be-read has been lost as a literary form. The only exception I know of is Le Guin’s unproduced original screenplay King Dog.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Karl May novels (19th century) had whole pages of dialog where it was impossible not to lose track of who was saying what.

  7. John Cowan says

    Well, that’s why dramas have speaker attributions.’

    My own first novel (unpublishable for its subject matter) was criticized for the same fault, though I swear I always knew who was talking.

  8. Some real-time conversations are like that too.

    Especially in corporate meetings with more than ten participants, it’s easy to lose track of who’s saying what and to whom.

  9. My own first novel (unpublishable for its subject matter)

    We are intrigued.

    Especially in corporate meetings with more than ten participants, it’s easy to lose track of who’s saying what and to whom.

    Does it matter? A classic Jewish joke proposes that everyone speaks at the same time and thus no-one is left out of conversation.

  10. Yes, I realized long time ago that Tolstoy in War and Peace was describing reality adequately.

    Things are not getting done as management loved to say.

    They just happen.

    Nobody is really in control. Copper ore gets out of Gobi desert into smelters in China and finished products for consumers in the West not by design or by will of some great man, but by relentless historical forces beyond human understanding.

    These corporate meetings have as much relevance as Kutuzov’s military council at Fili.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    This is not a joke and may even be found elsewhere in the Levant. I have a reticent Irish friend J who has a rather less reticent iraqi-born friend D. J once complained to me that she found it frustrating never to get a word in when we were out with D. I said that I just spoke over D; she expected this and would just continue if nobody did.

  12. We are intrigued.


    Especially in corporate meetings with more than ten participants, it’s easy to lose track of who’s saying what and to whom.

    When I had the misfortune to take part in such meetings, it was all I could do to stay awake — I had less than zero interest in keeping track of the speakers.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I realized long time ago that Tolstoy in War and Peace was describing reality adequately.

    I have had a similar experience with Parkinson’s Law (the book, which contains much more than the eponymous Law.)

    In my youth I supposed that it was satirical.

    The chapter on committees is particularly valuable.

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    I still base my interpretation of the news and management at work entirely on the assumption that Cyril Northcote Parkinson saw through the skein of this mortal world and revealed its inner workings, true entirely and eternally. (I read it too young for my sarcasm detection lobe to have sprouted).

    But the committees especially.

    Also, after a few weeks of rereading the nLab page once a day I feel ready to say something maybe not entirely wrong about Kan extensions, but I mislaid the thread… (I should have kept the tab open).

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    It was here (illustrating Hat Thread Plasticity at its finest):

  16. Stu Clayton says

    In my youth I supposed that it was satirical.

    I thought it was satirical, but didn’t recognize the full scope of its applicability to the world we live in – how could I at age 14 ? The old lady who spends a day writing a postcard to her niece, since she had a day to spend – what an edifying example of dynamic procrastination!

    The formulation is immortal, I could never forget it: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

  17. I read it around the same age and remember the same sentence.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    My all time favourites from the book are the description of the traditional Chinese method of tax avoidance (stunning in its counterintuitive Zen elegance) and the account of how the British Foreign Office goes about recruiting an official Chinese translator.

    It would be wrong for me to attempt to summarise or paraphrase. I lack CNP’s literary gifts.

  19. David Marjanović says

    The formulation is immortal, I could never forget it: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

    Ah, that’s where that’s from! Does it include the comparison to an ideal gas, or is that a later addition?

  20. Lars Mathiesen says

    I’m afraid the Chinese Tax one has never struck me as something that might work here, and now with the overlordship of computers it’s probably right out. I did once have an issue (where, of course, I was in the right) delayed to the point where it was dropped because of a statute of limitation, but not by the timed submission of extra documentation — the tax people managed it all by themselves.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    timed submission of extra documentation

    That’s the British method. The Chinese method is entirely compatible with modern technology, and indeed I have successfully deployed similar techniques in other contexts when dealing with bureaucracy, though not over tax.

  22. Can you point me to an explanation of the storied Chinese method? I’ve long since lost my copy of the book, if I ever had one (I may have read my parents’), and it’s in the “No preview” bin at Google Books.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    In the words of the Master himself:

    According to this supposition, the Chinese millionaire does not wait for his assessment, but prefers to send the tax collector a cheque in advance for, say, $329.83. A covering note refers briefly to earlier correspondence and a previous sum paid in cash. The effect of this manoeuvre is to throw the whole tax-collecting machine out of gear. Disorganisation turns to chaos when a further letter arrives, apologising for the error and asking for twenty-three cents back. Officials are so perturbed and mystified that they produce no response of any kind for about eighteen months – and another cheque arrives before that period has elapsed, this time for $167.42. In this way … the millionaire pays virtually nothing and the inspector of taxes ends in a padded cell.

    Seems to work for Amazon.

  24. Brilliant.

  25. John Cowan says

    The storied American method when documentation is demanded (as in legal discovery) is to dump hundreds of thousands of pages on the person making the demand, leaving them to figure out what tiny fraction may be relevant.

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