Why you can bet that a good read will be truly bad
Epic poetry can be racist, European novels sexist and sadistic. If it’s politically correct, it’s probably not great literature
We were walking out of a classic “good bad movie”, as my friend Jonathan and I call the films we often go to see. Taken stars Liam Neeson as a former CIA agent who has to dispatch an assortment of Albanians, Arabs and French in the course of rescuing his virgin daughter from the clutches of evil white slavers in Paris.
Jonathan was dubious: “It’s just stoking up American paranoia about cheese-eating surrender monkeys and everyone else.” Jonathan is a nice guy, who thinks well of people.
“Tell me one politically correct movie that is any good,” I said. He thought about it. He couldn’t.
By a strange coincidence I have been reading An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley, which recalls the plot of the Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic in which a beautiful young woman is kidnapped by some villains and the hero has to kill a lot of them to get her back. Although revered as quasi-sacred by millions of Hindus, this story is no more politically correct than Taken. In it, a bunch of taller, paler-skinned people from the north crush smaller darker-skinned people in the south, a narrative that, even now, is tangled up in the Sri Lankan civil war. The Tamils are fighting the plot of the Ramayana. The greatest work of Indian literature appears, from some points of view, racist.
This shouldn’t surprise readers in Europe. All our great foundational works turn out, on close inspection, to have a Rambo-style movie at their core. Just as there are good bad movies, there are plenty of bad good books. Martin Amis likes to remind us how the Koran recommends smiting down the infidel. But to be fair, the Bible started all this stuff about us over here and you lot (Philistines, Midianites etc) over there where God can come and give you a damn good hiding. I know the New Testament tries to tone it down a bit, but you can see how the “Good News” can be interpreted, à la Andy McNab*, to mean war between believers and unbelievers.
The pagans were no less paranoid. The Greeks feared non-Greek speakers (barbaroi). Strangely, that Liam Neeson plot seems to crop up again in Homer. Beautiful white woman taken by dodgy foreigners. Strategy: shock and awe, invade and annihilate. The Nazis didn’t invent genocide. It’s there from the beginning of Western culture.
Fast forward to Virgil’s Aeneid (which picks up where the Iliad left off). What do those few Trojans who escape the Greek holocaust get up to? They sail away, have sex, invade another country and set up another empire bigger and meaner than the Greeks could come up with.
And don’t imagine the British are iambic pentameter-loving peaceniks either. Some time ago I went to see the Benjamin Britten opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Call me sensitive, but I was appalled by the pivotal scene, which appears to consist of kidnapping a woman, drugging and then raping her, while the fairies dance around singing.
Most of the great French writers of the 19th century dreamt of being another Napoleon, as Balzac admitted. Stendhal has a character with Napoleonic delusions dress up as a priest while seducing married women and shooting one who spurns him in a church.
In Madame Bovary Flaubert turns a naive provincial woman into a serial adulterer and tortures her to death with poison. No surprise that Flaubert’s favourite writer was the Marquis de Sade.
Realising how sick literature was, Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the only solution was to hate everyone in an even-handed, fair-minded sort of way: “Hell is other people.”
That might provide an epigraph to any number of dark Russian novels. Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s brooding axe-murderer, makes a sympathetic hero. I still don’t know after several hundred pages if any (or all) of the Karamazov brothers killed their father, but I know he was asking for it. Moby-Dick is cruel to whales, Death in the Afternoon to bulls and Lord of the Flies to fat boys. William Golding’s novel, recklessly distributed to generations of schoolchildren as somehow “improving”, may well be an allegory of how impossible it is for a writer to say anything edifying or uplifting. You mean well, you make a good start and before you know where you are, you’ve descended into a spiral of ritual bloodletting, savagery and Satanism, and it’s back to the plot of In Cold Blood all over again.
We tend to blame our genes for just about everything wrong with us. But culture has a lot to answer for. Even when we naked apes try really hard not to behave badly, the whole Western canon is stacked heavily against us.
The critic Roland Barthes said that “all language is fascist”. In practical terms, writers have something of the sadist and the psycho. But clearly readers also have a taste for everything that is bad – we prefer Inferno to Paradiso (at least while we’re alive).
The sad truth is that not only do the Horror and Crime genres sell, but there isn’t even a book stack labelled Good Deeds or Altruism. You can bet that when a chainsaw or drill pops up on screen it isn’t there for DIY. When the film called Legal and Nice comes out, I can’t see even Jonathan going. All good works of art are bad.
* “Give somebody the good news” = kill him.
Andy Martin is a lecturer in French at Cambridge University. His new book Beware Invisible Cows: My Search for the Source of the Universe is published by Simon and Schuster next year
Ten good bad books
The Bible The “Good Book” is the first really bad book, giving tribal, religious and sexual discrimination the divine seal of approval
Oedipus Rex (Sophocles) Without the Oedipus complex, fathers (and mothers) would sleep more peacefully in their beds at night
The Republic (Plato) Strongly totalitarian, with its dreams of “philosopher-kings” and eugenically bred guardian warriors
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) Covertly imperialist, overtly encourages unhealthy obsession with finding Mr Right
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe), Initiated suicide cult. Napoleon banned it
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) Isn’t it sexist to call all men sexist?
In Search of Lost Time (Marcel Proust) Discriminates against anyone not artistic, beautiful or rich. And with a bad memory or intolerance for long sentences
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne) Captain Nemo is a terrorist
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) Xenophobic and misogynistic
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) Romanticises a shady bootlegger
Through a Glass, Not So Darkly
The European Extremely Large Telescope will dwarf all other telescopes. In 1609 Galileo’s ‘Old Discoverer’ could boast a lens an inch in diameter. Now the Keck Observatory on top of a mountain in Hawaii has two mirrors each of them 10 metres across, but so smooth and so perfect that even if they were stretched out to the width of the world their irregularities would still only be inches high. The Extremely Large Telescope – its name so deliberately prosaic that it becomes almost poetic – will, providing it is completed by 2018, be the width of five double decker buses placed end to end and will be able to see (rather than infer) Earth-like planets revolving around distant stars.
We could, in effect, be looking at ourselves (or at least our alter egos) through the looking glass. The Extremely Large Telescope will probably be located in the Canary Islands, but you really can try something like this at home and at no extra cost. Look at yourself in the mirror. What do you see? Look very carefully. Obviously your left eye is where your right eye ought to be, but there is more than that, something practically impossible to notice and yet fundamental to making sense of the universe. Your reflection is no longer you. The difference between you as you are right now, and you as the mirror represents you, is measurable. This is what you used to look like, a short time ago. And when I say ‘short’, I mean: very short indeed – a matter of a few nanoseconds. But if the speed of light is finite – something that Galileo realized – then everything you see is history. To see the more distant past it is only necessary to hold the mirror further away from the object. Assuming instantaneous matter transportation and an XXL telescope, if we want to finally work out who really killed Kennedy, all we need to do is nip over to a planet some 46 light years from here and we should be able to inspect the grassy knoll at our leisure. Similarly, the Battle of Waterloo, the birth of Christ or the building of the Pyramids – we just need to go the extra few million miles. Or take my old friend Sidney, whose funeral I went to a while ago. On yet another planet I can still see him on his bike visiting his patients, looking surprisingly fit and healthy, having assumed the form of light.
If every day we are seeing the sun as it used to be eight minutes ago, then, by extension, there should really be no difficulty about seeing what was going on some 13.7 billion years ago and bearing witness to the birth of the universe. As one quantum physicist friend of mine once put it, ‘You can see God’. Genesis now or, in the words of the English Prayer Book, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. The Extremely Large Telescope is reaching out towards the sublime.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to look through the Keck, the highest observatory in the world, and saw a star (well, it looked more like a red dot to be exact) 13 billion light years away, therefore one of the first stars, from the kindergarten phase of the universe. This is getting close to seeing the absolute origin of time and space. If we can see that far – and that far back – it ought to be possible, you would think, to go all the way. But there’s a small hitch. Unlikely though this may seem, we just run out of photons to look at. Beyond a certain point, it’s just plasma, pre-light, a very interesting cocktail but, sadly, inaccessible to YouTube. So the Extremely Large Telescope will get us, if not all the way back to the Genesis moment, ‘in the beginning,’ at least to a very short time after the beginning, the ‘Let there be light’ period of stellar formation. Any time before that and it looks like cosmic censorship has been applied and a veil has been thrown over what we most devoutly wish to know.
But all is not lost, in fact, nothing is lost. We just need to transcend light. If we cannot quite see everything, perhaps it is possible to hear it. Gravitational waves are the solution. They pass right through matter, refreshing the parts that photons cannot reach. Every event generates vibrations, pulses, like ripples in a pond. The whole universe is forever sending out signals about itself, it’s just a question of picking them up.
Which is how I came to go to LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory in Washington State. It is like an immense divining rod, with a couple of tubes 4 kilometres long at right angles to one another, with laser beams bouncing through them designed to catch the gravitational wave. I stuck my head inside one of the tubes (having taken the precaution of switching the lasers off first): it was like looking down the barrel of infinity. There is another (extremely) small hitch with gravitational waves though. The waves are so small – about a thousandth the width of a proton – no one has managed to detect one yet.
Extremely Large Telescopes and Laser Interferometers provide the kind of visionary experiments, at the intersection of science and fantasy, that encapsulate our dreams. If we cannot get to the stars, we can at least get the stars to come to us. We are made out of stardust, ex-stars, stuff that didn’t quite fit in anywhere else. It is only natural that we should wish to look out – and listen out – for word about where we came from in the first place. This is a narrative that is built into cosmology and theology alike.
Scientists look forward to launching LISA (the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), which would be the greatest equilateral triangle ever built, with sides made out of light and 5 million miles long. Or to hooking up all the giant telescopes on earth so that our planet will be turned into a single omniscient eye, peering into space, capable of seeing everything there is to see.
Galileo, Copernicus, Bruno (who was executed for his sins) helped us to see and conceive of other worlds. The Extremely Large Telescope will enable us to scrutinize them closely. Shakespeare may well have been registering the impact of the first telescopes when he wrote, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. But what if we really could see the point at which there are no more things? To infinity and beyond, all the way back to before the beginning? I am tempted to call this the ‘holy grail’ of science and philosophy and religion alike and represent it as a noble and impossible quest. But in fact it seems to me a perfectly reasonable goal and, given enough time and space, not only attainable but inevitable. Peter Cook once joked that he was a specialist in ‘the universe and all that surrounds it.’ The Ultra Large Telescope or space based Interferometer of the future or some other device might well equip us to go beyond a joke and glimpse the all that surrounds it. Just as we used to think this world was the world and we were at the centre of everything, but eventually broadened our horizons, so, by the same token, we have come to understand that there is no reason why this universe should be the one. Welcome to the multiverse, where everything moves in mysterious ways.
In one world, Elvis is slim and making another comeback. In another President Kennedy married Marilyn Monroe and their best man was Lee Harvey Oswald. In this world I am married with two kids; in another I am a lonely bachelor; or I do not exist. If the ‘many worlds’ thesis turns outs to be true, then fiction becomes impossible. Odysseus, Oedipus and Madame Bovary must be out there somewhere. Or, as the poet Walt Whitman put it over a hundred years ago, and is still putting it: ‘Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.’
To E or not to E
A work of fiction translation, banning an important, if not vital, part of our communication apparatus, is slowly approaching fruition. Andy Martin avoids asking its author if it was for Adair
I was having tea in the Savoy with a man suffering from an unusual phobia: the way other people are afraid of spiders or mice, he has an unnatural aversion to the letter “e”. His name is Gilbert Adair, but he prefers for the time being to be known simply as “Adair”.
He had suggested we meet in a hotel in London. It had to be either the Savoy or the Ritz; the Grosvenor and the Dorchester were taboo. A waitress approached to take our order. “Tea or coffee?” she asked.
To any other ears the question was inoffensive enough, but of the three words two touched off small explosions in Adair’s head. He winced and looked at her as if she should go and wash her mouth out with soap and water. “Lapsang Souchong,” he replied.
“Sandwiches – cheese, eggs, cucumber .. ?”
“Salmon,” he said.
Stray wisps of other conversations floated our way. “I have it on good authority … “ Adair automatically edited out the solecism:
“I had it on good authority …”
Adair regards the fifth and most commonly used letter of the alphabet with distaste, bu~ is not afflicted – as Roman Jakobson, the great theoretician of language, might have said – with “paradigmatic aphasia. His vocalic embargo is no mere faddish eccentricity: it is an unforgiving artistic imperative. Like an obsessive method actor who adheres ruthlessly to an off-screen code of omerta to achieve authenticity in the role of tight-lipped mafioso, Adair is enacting his work in progress: a translation of Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a 300-page novel written entirely without e’s and omitting the fifth of its 26 chapters. Adair calls the English version A Void.
Perec, who died in 1982 at the age of 45, was probably the greatest virtuoso of the French language this century. He wrote a 5,000 word palindrome, but is best known in this country for his last compendious novel, Life – A User’s Manual, which traces the lives of all the occupants of an apartment block in Paris. The architecture of the book mirrors the layout of the building and the narrative structure is determined by the solution to the problem of how to move a knight around a 100-square chessboard without landing on any one square twice.
Inspired by the experiments of the Oulipo Group (“Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle” – “Workshop of potential literature”) and the example of its mentor, Raymond Queneau, La Disparition belongs to the ancient and noble tradition of the “Iipogram” (from the Greek, leipo, meaning to leave behind or desert), which draws on an aesthetic of omission, prohibiting a letter or letters from the linguistic repertoire.
Examples of the genre come down to us from Nestor of Laranda, who rewrote the Iliad, excluding alpha from the first canto, beta from the second, and so on, and Tryphodorus of Sicily, who did something similar with the Odyssey. As Perec pointed out in his essay, “A History of the Lipogram”, all of us speak in lipograms nearly all the time. Unless I happen to say, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, (a “pangram”, which contains all the letters of the alphabet), I’m necessarily uttering a lipogram every time I open my mouth. So his novel can be seen as simply a methodical extension of the natural order of things.
When David Bellos, the translator of Life – A User’s Manual, first approached Adair with the idea of translating La Disparition, Adair rejected it as “impossible”. He was still using e’s at the time. He considered all the rather useful words and phrases he would have to abandon: “the”, “he”, “she”, “we”, “they”, “there”, “one day”, “once upon a time”. At least Perec could let loose with “la” and “il” if not “le” and “elle”. What with “beginning”, “middle” and “end” all having to go, there didn’t seem to be much left. It was the ultimate challenge to the translator’s art, will and nerve.
But the idea had been planted, and Adair tried out the first few sentences, then the first few pages, and found himself seduced. He took on the job, though, only on the firm understanding that there would be no deadline. “If I had to rush, I might go mad,” he said. He tackles the book for four or five days at a stretch and then allows himself short breaks in which he goes on alphabetical holiday and lets out joyous cries of “wheeeeee” and “yippeeeeee” to get all the accumulated e’s out of his system. He started two years ago, and is two-thirds of the way through.
There is a legend that somewhere in the original text lurks an elusive and persistent “e” that Perec, who would wake up nights u sweating at the idea, never succeeded in eradicating. In this respect at least it is easier for Adair. “GP had to do without a PC. All I do is push a button and in a flash my Mac says: ‘Not found’.”
Adair once wrote his own obituary for The Sunday Correspondent. But it died before he did. His early years are the missing “e” of his life, which only really began in when he arrived in Paris in May1968 at the age of 23. Two weeks later the Evénements began with rioting on the barricades. “I had such a utopian, radical vision of Paris.” he says. “I thought, ‘What a took so long?’”
He stayed for 11 years and went native, establishing himself in the Hotel Voltaire where Baudelaire wrote some of Les Fleurs du Mal. Every spring he would wait for another revolution to bloom, and so it did, intellectually at least, in the writings of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan. Adair met Barthes once or twice: he would see the great semiotician walking the boulevards of Paris, usually accompanied by adoring disciples, and he would follow him about, “trying to work out what signs Roland was looking at”.
Adair taught English, wrote film criticism, appeared briefly in two films and scripted another in which the hero, Gilbert, is cannibalised (a part eventually prayed by John Paul Getty III). He returned to England to write at the end of the 1970s but all his books are in one way or another an echo that time and those texts. The Holy Innocent, his first novel, a reworking of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, was based on his own experiences in Paris. Adair doesn’t like it now, perhaps because it is overloaded with e’s. The novel he has just completed is called The Death of the Author, borrowing its title from Barthes’s famous essay but turning it into a metaphysical thriller. Trying to compensate for frittering away his twenties, Adair is a self-confessed workaholic: “Iris Murdoch claims to finish a book and start on a follow-up in half an hour. With my books it’s only half that.” He is on the wagon now.
Adair is a writer who is as resistant to conventional mimetic (he calls it “illusionistic”) narrative as many readers are to post-modernistic language games and tricks. He sees all his writing as rewriting, an interpretation and critique of another’s work. Love and Death on Long Island, his most recently published fiction, is a transposition of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. He has also written sexually explicit sequels to the Alice books and Peter Pan. He can become so possessed by a writer that when he parodied Pope in a poem about castration. The Rape of the Cock, he found himself speaking in iambic pentameters.
So he was a natural for the unnatural job of translating La Disparition. In the centre of the book is a series of classic French poems rewritten without “e’s”: thus Baudelaire’s Correspondances becomes Accords by “Un fils adoptif du Commandant Aupick”. Of these, Adair has retained only Rimbaud’s sonnet “Vocalisations” (previously known as “Voyelles”), and has substituted revised versions of “Ozymandias”, ‘The Raven” (now “A Black Bird”) and Hamlet’s entire “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Milton’s “On His Blindness” becomes “On His Glaucoma”.
Adair is keen to emphasise, however, that A Void is not just a futile tour de foree, and contrasts it favourably with its only real competitor in the field of the lipogram, the 1930s novel Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter E by Ernest Vincent Wright. Perec not only demonstrated that less can be more by enriching rather than impoverishing the language, but also turned the prohibition on e into a compelling narrative. The hero, Anton Voyl, is obsessed by the sense that something – but what? – is missing; then he himself goes missing. The missing “e”, the great Unnameable of the text, is a curse hanging over all the characters, who one by one die or disappear as they seek in vain the explanation of their fate. “It’s a symbolic Holocaust story,” Adair suggests, “a stylistic dramatisation of loss.” His hypothesis is all the more plausible as “e”, in French, is phonologically equivalent to “eux”, so omitting the “e” is like getting rid of “them”.
As if to make up for the rigours of La Disparition, Perec later wrote a sequel called Les Revenentes, in which the “e” made a resounding return, but he vanquished all the other vowels. It is a work in the Roman noir tradition, freely mixing sex and violence, the Marquis de Sade, Proust and the Dictionnaire Robert (the French equivalent of the OED), but leaving out “a”, “i”, “o” and “u”.
Right now, Adair is the least qualified man in the world to translate it. But in due course the challenge may become irresistible. Hence, when next we meet we’ll enter Bert’s beery Greek Street den, defend Perec, yell “Cheers!”, chew beef stew, three veg, red peppers ‘n’ eggs. Dessert? Yes – green jelly, sweet crepes, the best French cheese.
* La Disparition by Georges Perec is published by Denoel. A Void, translated by Gilbert Adair, is to be published by HarperCollins. The author is lecturer in French at the University of Cambridge, and is at work on a book, Napoleon the Novelist.
Anton Voyl n’arrivait pas à dormir. Il alluma. Son Jaz marquait minuit vingt. Il poussa un profond soupir, s’assit dans son lit, s’appuyant sur son polochon. II prit un roman, i1 l’ouvrit, il lut; mas il n’y saisissait qu’un imbroglio confus, iI butait à tout instant sur un mot dont iI ignorait la signification. II abandonna son roman sur son lit. II alla à son lavabo; iI mouilla un gant qu’il passa sur son front, sur son cou. Son pouls battait trop fort. II avait chaud. II ouvrit son vasistas, scruta la nuit. Il faisait doux. Un bruit indistint montait du faubourg. Un carillon, plus lourd qu’un glas, plus sourd qu’un tocsin, plus profond qu’un bourdon, non loin, sonna trois coups. Du canal Saint Martin, un clapotis plaintif signalait un chaland qui passait.
Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light. According to his watch it’s only 12.20. With a loud and langorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draws his quilt up to his chin, picks up his whodunit and idly scans a paragraph or two; but, judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary too whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, hurls it from him in disgust. Padding into his bathroom, Vowl dabs at his brow and throat with a damp cloth. It’s a soft, warm night and his blood is racing through his body. An indistinct murmur wafts up to his third-floor flat. Far away, a church clock starts chiming – a chiming as mournful as a last post, as an air raid alarm, as an SOS signal from a sinking ship. And, in his own vicinity, a faint lapping sound informs him that a small craft is at that instant navigating a narrow canal.
In the Ministry of Purity
The French language has ended its affair with amants, but obsolète is not, quite, obsolete
For seven days in May it had been officially la Semaine de la langue française (the Week of the French Language). People all over Paris were speaking French constantly in a spontaneous collective celebration of their native tongue. There were posters and flysheets carrying this imperative message: “Le français, parlons-en!”. Around the country spelling championships were being fought out. There was even a prize for the best love letter. Catherine Tasca, Ministre de la Francophonie (the Minister for Francophonia – ie, for French-speaking, or French-speaking peoples), had appeared on television and radio to exalt ‘I’amour de la langue’.
On a Sunday night I was sitting outside the Cafe du Louvre in the 1er arrondissement. As midnight approached I pointed out to the garçon that it was nearly the end of the Semaine de la langue française. “C’est triste, ça,” he said dolefully. “What are we supposed to speak next week?”
The answer to that question is not self-evident. There is a theory in France that future French children will look back on the age of the Francophones with the same incredulity and astonishment that they now reserve for dinosaurs. The apocalyptic school of thought which maintains that French is on the verge of extinction, swamped by an influx of Hollywoodisms, pop lyrics, and Silicon valley-speak, has led to the emergence of such patriotic pressure groups as la Société pour la défense de la langue française. But it also reflects a widespread popular pessimism.
Strict Anglophones need not gather for the funeral just yet. This 1000-year-old language is still alive and i kicking, not just in France but in 47 countries and communities around the the world. Probably the nearest equivalent Britain has to la ‘la Francophonie’ – in the multinational, political form consecrated by M. Mitterrand in 1986 – is the Commonwealth. But while our institution explicitly bases its appeal on material things (wealth), its French counterpart assumes the pre-eminence of language.
The Académie Française, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century to defend and define Ie bon usage, is the traditional guardian of the French language. Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, a novelist and for many years chef of the literary pages of Le Monde, is one of its 40 distinguished members. Beneath the cupole of the Palais Mazarin on the Quai Voltaire, he showed me around the hallowed chamber where the Académiciens meet on Thursday afternoons to debate and vote on words and definitions to go into the Dictionnaire de l’Académie.
The eighth edition of the Dictionnaire came out in 1936. The ninth is in preparation but they’re only up to “E”. There was a rumour that the word cul (arse) has already been expunged on the grounds of vulgarity. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to ask M Poirot-Delpech about cul, but a glance at one of the fascicules containing work in progress reassured me on this point. I did ask him whether the Académie would tolerate the word réaliser in the now commonplace but criticised English sense, rather than in the traditional sense of “to accomplish”. “R”, he said, “is for the next century, fortunately.”
M Poirot-Delpech, born in 1929, was until recently the youngest Académicien and linguistically is a pragmatic reformist. He backed recent proposed changes in orthography but backtracked in the face of a public outcry on behalf of endangered circumflexes and traits d’union. “For so long we have been denounced as reactionaries. Now we are denounced as adventurers.” He believes the Dictionnaire should be ready not just to welcome certain new words into the fold, but should be actively looking for them and making them up where they cannot be found.
Some 30 new words will be officially admitted into the French language in September. When the 1993 edition of the Petit Larousse lIlustré makes its appearance. I went to see Claude Kannas, the editorial director at the Larousse offices in the Rue du Montparnasse, in the hope of getting a sneak preview. But the nouveaux mots are guarded as jealously as the crown jewels, sealed in an envelope which is not to be opened until August – and then only by seIected members of the press. It was only the unscheduled intrusion of one of her colleagues, tearing her hair out over a definition, that enabled me to scoop the entire French press corps: I can reveaI that one of the words of the year is tag (anglicism for hieroglyphic graffito).
Mme Kannas employs a linguist to go about recording the slang of the banlieue (suburbs), but only considers neologisms for inclusion when they have seeped into the written form, and only then if she feels they have any kind of long-term future. She has a folder full of rejects, the words that never made it (eg. agressologie).
Mme Kannas is not just a linguistic mid-wife bringing lexical babes into the world, she is also a reluctant executioner.
She called up the file on her computer marked “VX” (vieux) which listed all the words that were potentially up for the chop. She loved these words and didn’t like to see them die. Some, seemingly terminal cases, would make a miraculous recovery – for example, désamour, formerly “the end of an affair”, now “disenchantment”. Even obsolète had, thanks to the Larousse Dictionnaire de l’obsolète, made something of a comeback
Seeing the word amant flash up on the screen marked “vx” gave me a sudden frisson. “Are there no more amants in France?” I gasped. Mme Kannas explained that it was the definition that was outmoded, not the word or the thing itself. In the age of Cyrano de Bergerac and the great platonic relationships, she said, she might have taken me home and safely introduced me to her husband as her amant. She regretted this was no longer possible.
If the treasures of the 1993 Larousse were largely beyond reach, there was at least one dictionary available in Paris which specialized in nothing but new words. This was the Dictionnaire des termes officiels, also known as the Dictionnaire des termes francophones recommandés, the new French words invented to stem the tide of unreconstructed anglicismes flooding into the country from show-business, sports and science.
Some notable successes have been in the realm of computer science, where “software” was replaced by logiciel and “hardware” by matériel (terms dreamt up one Thursday aftemoon at the Académie). “Computer” is now never heard in France, only ordinateur, although the anachronistic form “PC” lingers on. Laws have been passed making the use of such francophone terms compulsory by civil servants. Nobody has yet been arrested for saying “un one-man-show”. But perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, especially in the case of the abominable pin’s (the non-genitival apostrophe s in both singular and plural), meaning “badge”, which can now he mercifully replaced with épinglette.
During the current French Open (one of the four Grand Chelem events) at Roland Garros you will hear the arbitres saying not “tie-break”, but “jeu décisif” and the net judge cryng out “filer’ instead of “let”. You won’t he able to watch “tennismen” playing, but only joueurs de tennis, who will not have “sponsors” but rather parrains.
Such innovations are the fruit of some 25 government-appointed agencies, operating in various spheres and overseen by the Délégation générale de la langue française. The Délégué général and head of the Service de terminologie is Bernard Cerquiglini, a young professor from the Sorbonne. He describes his work as “facing up to the challenge of modernity”, and sees it as part of a great tradition, stretching back to the Renaissance and beyond, of borrowing and shaping words to fill the holes opened up by the expansion of knowIedge. “My dream”, he told me, “is a transnational commission, embracing ail the Romance countries”, which would single-handedly create new words appropriate not just to France, but – mutatis mutandis – Spain, Italy, and Portugal too.
M Cerquiglini so won me over that I now feel that mere réaction is not enough – they should be running ahead of fashion and coming up with the francophone terms first. And why wait for showbusiness or sport to throw up the phenomena. La Commission des mots pour les choses qui n’existent pas would shape the future by inventing words for things we would like to exist but that have yet to be discovered in the reaI worid. It already has at least three blockbusters to its credit: liberté, égalité, fraternité.