25 February 2008

Mark Abley - Spoken Here

This book is subtitled Travels among threatened languages and is part travelogue and part linguistic study. Abley travels around the world - to Australia, America, Canada, Venezuela, the Isle of Man and Wales, to examine several of the hundreds of minority languages that will die out this century, and some that might not.

Abley is a Canadian journalist, and early on he apologises to academics for his lack of linguistic training, and inability to analyse languages. He only speaks English and French, although given the languages he's studying, it would have been little help if he knew ten more - few of them are related to the Indo-European family group with which English-speakers are most familiar. He has the virtues of a journalist over an academic - an empathy for the human stories behind the dry facts, and that means that he can bring out the sociological implications of the loss of these languages.

He starts in Australia, where perhaps one third of the world's endangered languages are. Partly this is because of the sparse and diverse communities of the indigenous aborigines - there are pockets of maybe a few hundred native speakers of some languages. Those that have not been urbanised are generally the old, and they find it hard to encourage their children to speak their ancestral tongue. This is a story heard around the world, it's similar amongst the native Indians of America and Canada that Abley visits.

The consequences of this loss of language are not trivial, according to Abley. A culture is identified by what separates it from other cultures, and few characteristics are more distinguishing than a language. As a language disappears, by oppression, assimilation, or domination by an external language, so does the identity of the culture. To that extent it's a political issue, and has been vociferously used as such even where the culture is thriving, such as Wales.

Abley treats all his subjects with equal dignity, although one is likely to have more sympathy for the desperate situation of Aborigines than the Welsh or Manx featured. Some of the worst abuses against the indigenous population in Australia are within living memory - the forced adoption for white education of aboriginal children, for example - and the gap in economic and social status between aboriginal and white populations is larger than almost anywhere else in the world. This makes the language debate even more complex in this situation. Economic progress for the young generation of aborigines cannot be achieved without English, and there's no incentive for them to maintain their ancestral languages. Furthermore, the elders are often timid to pass on the language to unwilling children, and they children unenthusiastic about learning it.

Abley doesn't try to impose strong themes in the book, they arise out of his travels. Language is a necessary component of political identity, economic success, cultural pride, but also of differentiation. Abley discusses throughout how different languages can express ideas and concepts that are inexpressible in other languages. There's dispute as to how much the use of language defines how the user thinks - if one language has different ways of articulating concepts of time and distance, does that mean that the speaker conceives of time and distance differently, or are this elemental concepts independent of the language used?

I went to an interesting lecture a few weeks after reading this, which was about the concept of numbers in humans. There's a scientific definition of 'numerosity', which is number sense (distinct from 'numeracy' which is an ability to count and manipulate numbers) Someone with basic numerosity can, for example, look at a group of three items and identify them as 'three' without counting them. They can also recognise four as being bigger than three, and match the same numbers of different items. This is independent of the language used, or any language at all. This is shown in cultures which are limited in the words they have for numbers. Many people are aware of tribes in Papua, or the Amazon, which have words for 'one', 'two', and then 'more than two'. Despite these limitations in vocabulary, these tribes can exhibit numerosity, which is fairly crucial as the allocation of resources depends upon it, so they know that if they have eight children they need eight meal servings, even if they don't have a word for 'eight'.

This suggests that some basic concepts are fundamental to human thought and are independent of language, but this surely doesn't apply to more sophisticated concepts, such as our relationship to the environment, or to each other. Abley is very persuasive about this value of minority languages, although it's harder to justify their preservation on that basis rather than the more essential one of tribal identity.

This is a fascinating and well-written book. Abley's early apology was unnecessary - his research is admirably presented, and pertinent throughout, and he has a good grasp of the academic background to his subject, as well as the wider political import.


VS Pritchett - Balzac

Honore de Balzac's life was nearly as extraordinary as one of his tales, and he has been almost as popular a subject for biographers as his early idol, Byron. I have four, three of them by notable writers - Andre Maurois, Stefan Zweig and VS Pritchett - and one by a professional biographer of French writers, Graham Robb. The Pritchett is the slimmest of the four, under 200 pages, so I started with that.

He gives credit to his predecessors, Zweig and Maurois, and has plainly leaned heavily on a few sources, but this is a good primer to Balzac. The material is rich and full - in addition to his numerous novels, Balzac wrote many letters. In fact, there seems to have been little time when he wasn't writing - he would get up at 3am and write for 12 hours, then eat, and sleep for only about four hours a night. He was addicted to working, and needed to be to keep up with his excessive expenditure.

Balzac's life is a tragic tale. For all his literary success, he was never out of debt from his first efforts, when his parents funded him to spend two years writing rather than training to be a lawyer. He was feted by nobility, and aspired to a lifestyle to imitate his admirers, but was hopelessly addicted to frivolity - he had dozens of elaborate and expensive canes, for example, and collected works of art that were sold for next to nothing on his death.

His love life was no more successful than his finances. He was frequently in love with unattainable women - Madame de Castries is one of the more notable, whom he depicted in The Wild Ass's Skin - and his longest liaison was with a married Polish Countess who he rarely met during the 18 years they were involved with each other. This didn't stop him having occasional affairs, and lying about them to his amours.

Despite his almost pure coffee diet when writing, Balzac had a huge appetite, and became extremely corpulent in middle age. This was manna for the satirists, as were his occasional public stumbles, hurrying into carriages. His appetites were his ruin in the end - he died at the age of 50, in a desperate physical state.

Pritchett gives enough detail of Balzac's life for a reader of his works to determine how much of his fiction was drawn from life, but he doesn't spend much time analysing the works themselves. That's not a great concern - in such a slim volume he couldn't possibly do justice to the 90 novels and stories that Balzac wrote, about four a year in an abbreviated career. With his prodigious output and energy, he lived four lives; it seems appropriate that I should read four biographies.


14 February 2008

Guy de Maupassant - Notre Coeur

Notre Coeur is one of Maupassant's lesser known novels - of the six he wrote, three are perpetually in print in English, and three are hard to find. I got this one (as a present) via abebooks, in a 1946 edition.

It's a simple love story - André Mariolle becomes obsessed with a widow, Madame de Burne, a hostess of some beauty who cultivates exclusively male friends of some talent for drawing room soirées, each of whom becomes slightly obsessed with her, encouraged by her flirtation, but never succeeds. Mariolle does, with an assault of attention in person and by letter, and they start an affair.

Their input into the relationship is uneven, however - he is jealous and demanding, and despairing of her seeming casual attitude to him; she is flattered by his attention, and enjoys the physical relationship (delicately alluded to), but cannot love him in the same way, as he demands. Maupassant describes their developing emotions in typical analytical detail, with great sympathy, immersing the reader in the relationship and alternating between the protagonists. He shows an understanding of both sides of an obsession, and of how relationships with unequal passions arise and play out, probably described from experience.

The novel suffers from being just about the one affair - it's quite short, and in a narrow world, although this is typical of his stories and novels. It ends with a nice irony - on the rebound from Mme de Burne, André starts an affair with a maid who he hires, and treats her in the same way that he has been treated, receiving her adoration, having encouraged it, but not reciprocating it. The novel has a satisfactory circularity, and explains the title, 'Our Heart' - love is like this for all of us.


11 February 2008

Rory Stewart - Occupational Hazards

Rory Stewart's cv reads like the ultimate establishment man - Eton and Oxford, British Army and Foreign Office, a route that has supplied for centuries the administrators of the British representation overseas. But Stewart is more in the line of his compatriot Fitzroy Maclean, as an explorer and individual rather than a career diplomat. At the turn of the century he spent two years walking across Asia, from Iran to Nepal, learning the local languages and staying in villages.

In mid 2003, when this book opens, he arrived in Baghdad offering his services to the occupying forces. Although he doesn't speak Arabic, he has Persian and experience of living in Muslim countries, and the Coalition is desperate for capable hands. He's appointed provisional deputy governor of the eastern province of Maysan, bordering Iran, at the age of 30.

He enters a dangerous world, where his responsibility, until the (American) provisional governor arrives, and then a local governor is elected, is to oversee reconstruction and regeneration projects, create local political structures, and maintain security and order alongside the military forces, which are British in Maysan. There is, at least initially, plenty of funding - in fact more than they can spend, which fosters corruption.

Stewart has an awkward role in Maysan, being supposedly in authority, but not in a position to control the forces, who he nominally outranks, and undermined by his status as provisional, and merely British. When his successor arrives, the fact of her nationality as an American gives her borrowed authority. But Stewart's awareness of the limits of his influence is his strength. Most of his job is politics - negotiating power structures with the various leaders, which include the 'Prince of the Marshes' (the original title of the book), a regional tribal leader with a daunting record of resistance to Saddam, Islamists who'd spent decades in Iran, and Sadrists, the most threatening oppositional group across Iraq.

Stewart's assets are his knowledge of Islamic culture, down to how offence might be given or avoided when offering coffee at a meeting, his flexibility under pressure, and his ability to improvise solutions. He also shows acute judgement of character, and a boldness to assert his limited authority and establish the share of responsibility for the problems of the region.

He's also a very good writer. His previous book, on his travels across Asia, was very well received, as has this been, deservedly. He opens each chapter with an apt quote from Machiavelli, and you feel that Stewart is exploring the nature of leadership as he attempts to exercise it. He's well aware of the historical context - at one point, when trying to arrange for guards to protect the archaeological sites in his region, he notes that a 4,000 year old tablet recently discovered records a leader having similar problems to those he's facing. all the clichés about learning from history apply.

When Stewart is transferred to the neighbouring province of Nasiriyah, he finds conditions there very different. Few political contacts have been established, and he has to start from scratch what he'd already set up in Maysan. The military presence is provided by the Italians, who rarely leave their base and have a timidity encouraged by their Prime Minister, Berlusconi, wary of how casualties might be received in Italy. This leads to a crisis when the Coalition administration compound is besieged by Sadrists for several days, and the Italian 'Quick Reaction Force' is neither quick nor forceful. Stewart's military experience is critical - he's able to coordinate with the ex-soldier bodyguards who are the only force in the compound, and keep a clear head under mortar fire. This section is genuinely thrilling, as Stewart relates the adventure with wit and energy.

Stewart expresses no opinions on the morality of the war or occupation. This may be due to his respect and responsibilities to his erstwhile and possibly future employers, but his narrative is about the problems of being a foreign administrator in a chaotic environment, and his few complaints are aimed at the confused political messages from the Coalition.

There's a danger that a memoir, especially of recent high-profile activities, can be self-justifying, but this one appears to be honest. Stewart is candid about the mistakes he made - he recognises that his out of character brusqueness to one of many petitioners may have led to the riot that saw the governor's office ransacked, and defends the soldiers' unwillingness to intervene in this incident - should they risk their lives, or threaten those of the rioters, to protect an empty office building? But this incident led to a loss of respect for the Coalition, and increased boldness by the insurgents.

Stewart is currently working for a foundation in Kabul that is trying to restore the old commercial centre of the Afghan capital. He's plainly an administrator of uncommon ability, a good writer, and a man of independent mind, who wants to put his talents to the best humanitarian use. He'll have an interesting life, which no doubt we'll hear about.


6 February 2008

Honore de Balzac - The Wild Ass's Skin

This is a strange book. One of Balzac's Contes philosophiques, it supposedly contains elements of his rather opaque mystical beliefs, a mix of Swedenborg and Mesmerism and several other early 19th century theories. But those are subsumed beneath an odd tale about a magic talisman, that allows its owner unlimited fulfilment of his desires, at a price of reduced lifespan.

The book is in three parts. The first tells of how Raphael, the main character, intending to kill himself due to despair at a rejection, and at his gambling debts, is given the eponymous talisman by a strange ancient art shop owner on the banks of the Seine. He is told of the qualities of the skin, and the penalties, and immediately desires a huge banquet with his friends. Upon leaving the shop, he encounters his friends, who take him to a huge party, at which there are debates on recent politics - this was written, and is set, just after the 1830 July Revolution, and no doubt represents contemporary debates among Balzac's acquaintance.

The second part is a very long relation by Raphael of a doomed love affair, based in part upon Balzac's own failures with Madame de Castries. There are some good passages, and a notable scene in which Raphael hides in the lady's bedroom, about which many rumours arose, and denials by Balzac, of which woman in real life this incident was based on. But it is overlong and indulgent, which Balzac acknowledges in sardonic asides from the listeners in the book.

The third part is the tragic unravelling of the story - he continues to pursue Foedora, the woman from the second part, but becomes aware of her coldness, and also of the love of Pauline, his landlady's daughter, an archetypical Balzac heroine. This part has much of what Balzac became known for - fast-paced narrative, sharp dialogue and believable actors.

This was Balzac's second 'proper' novel, and his first critical success. It contains a lot of good writing, but is uneven, and doesn't compare to the careful plotting of Cousine Bette. There are typical touches of humour though - as Raphael is walking along the banks of the Seine considering suicide, he notices some booksellers, and is about to go and haggle for a book when he realises the pointlessness of it. All bibliophiles will recognise that with a chuckle. And the energy of Balzac's writing is infectious - supposedly he wrote as he spoke, irrepressibly. In this work you see the seeds of his later masterpieces, but I don't agree that this is included among them.