Shuy @ language log

The latest development is that a number of courts in the US are now forbidding lawyers and witnesses to use certain words during trials. Words like “rape,” “victim,” “crime scene,” “killer,” “murder,” “drunk,” “homicide,” “embezzle,” “fraud,” and “robbery” are now not allowed in some courtrooms. Language engineering like this usually has a social or political basis. In this case it’s more a problem of trying to treat the accuser and the accused fairly. District Attorneys want to keep on using words like these as they prosecute alleged criminals, while some defense attorneys claim that using such words violates the presumption of innocence that has been held dear by the legal system. They call the forbidden words, “loaded terms.”

"A hard, dark gem": Some short remarks on Thomas Bernhard’s "Frost"

I am a great admirer of Mr. Bernhard’s work, all of it. It’s almost devoid of women, yet judging from his treatment of them when they appear, this may be a good thing. His work is still amazing, possibly because of all that bile stored in his pen.

My two favorite novels of his are his first and his last one. Bernhard is a bleak writer and his last novel, called Extinction (Auslöschung) is maybe his funniest novel, his most playful, and yet ful with all his marvellous bleakness.

His first novel though is hard as a rock. You can see the humor briefly before the frost grabs it, breaks its neck and laughs bitterly. It’s very well written, incredibly so for a debut novel. As in Bernhards other work there are many repetitions, many musings upon the rotten nature of the world, yet it is his bleakest novel and that is saying a lot. There are several critics who confessed to have capitulated on their first attempt to tackle this relentless lecture in pain. The plot isn’t important, the setting is rural Austria, and the characters are a painter who went there to die and a young student who is sent there to spy on the painter and compile reports on him. The novel, which is, on top of all that, one of his longer ones with the German pb clocking in at just under 400 pages, basically consists of walks taken by the writer accompagnied by the student who strikes up a friendship with the bitter old man.

The old man lectures him on the desolate state the world is in. There’s a solution shining through (art!) but its like seeing the sun miles away while you’re standing in the rain, pummeled by a cold wind and always in danger of being hit by lightning.

Bernhard is one of the best prose stylists in the German language post 1945, and as early as Frost, he’s almost at the top of his game. Whether its the descriptions of the hideous whore that is the landlady of the inn where both protagonists are staying or of the peasants who are all sick, inside and out, and of the Frost, who dominates the landscape and eats into the hearts of the citizens of the area.

This novel reads like a development of his poetry (he started as a poet, then turned to prose and drama), sharpening it, hardening it into the dark gem that it is. Much of what is developed here returns time and again in his work, but most noticeably in what is, beyond any doubt, his masterpiece: Extinction (Auslöschung). ISBN

"…said the repulsive old Jew"

Adam Roberts in the Guardian on old English translations of Jules Verne

But when I checked the 1877 translation against the original my heart sank. It was garbage. On almost every page the English translator, whoever he, or she, was (their name is not recorded), collapsed Verne’s actual dialogue into a condensed summary, missed out sentences or whole paragraphs. She or he messed up the technical aspects of the book. She or he was evidently much more anti-Semitic than Verne, and tended to translate what were in the original fairly neutral phrases such as “…said Isaac Hakkabut” with idioms such as “…said the repulsive old Jew.” And at one point in the novel she or he simply omitted an entire chapter (number 30) – quite a long one, too – presumably because she or he wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t be bothered to, turn it into English.

And here is a second article, same author, a few days later (for completists)

Harry Crews: A Feast of Snakes

A Feast of Snakes is suprising. Not in the way it all comes together at the end, because the reader expects that, somehow. It’s surprising how complex a 177 page novel can turn out to be that starts off as ferociously and genre-attuned as this one.

The book is steeped in poison, blood, sweat and brutality, laced with a big dose of humor. Love doesn’t have a place in Mystic, Georgia, the place where the novel’s events take place, a place that’s more about power than anything else. The power, at first glance, appears to be favoring white males, they call the shots and theirs is an authority no one cares to question publicly.

However, as is said of the main character: “His job was to be the nigger” and “as soon as he was not around a white man, he quit being a nigger.” Whiteness, as we have known for a while, is indicative more of power relations than of anything else, and the power wielded by the white ‘niggers’ such as the main character, Jon Lon, is a very restricted sort of power. People can be bullied by money and by complex arrangements of words and both of these things aren’t to be found in Mystic, Georgia.

This leads Mystic’s white men to use brutality extensively to legitimize the power structure in place in town. It is not necessary to enforce it, the brutality is more of a show of strength, like a Soviet arms parade.

The novel’s language is reduced and rich at the same time. Descriptions are written in a simple yet never simplistic style that is careful and elegant. The dialogue is almost completely in dialect. The difference between that dialect and the standard English of the descriptions and of the out of town visitors is very pronounced and, again, sheds light on the power relations in and around Mystic. Whereas the white men feel superior enough in their control of language to admonish blacks thusly: “Lottie Mae, try not to talk nigger talk to me.”, the difference to out-of-towners shows that their own language is ‘nigger talk’ as well.

It’s always easy to bully those in a position that those apparently in power perceive as weaker than their own, but it, and the accompagnying false feelings of superiority, blinds the seemingly powerful to his own role in other power structures. As easy as you bully someone, you are bullied, and a generous spirit can help you see this. Many people, though, don’t. Some of which live in Mystic, Georgia.

In the bigger picture, all these whites are ‘niggers’ and their refuge, Mystic, Georgia, is about to be swallowed by the modern world, the richer, smarter and more literate world around them. Theirs is a doomed archaic civilization, where everyone turns a blind eye on rapes, having your dick sucked after cornholing someone is the height of true love and murder is almost an accepted way of meting out justice. And Harry Crews is capable of finding the right words and images for all this, in 177 paltry pages. Diving deep into myth and other granaries of language and culture, he says only what needs to be said. He never overpowers the reader with his language, which he uses only to say something, every word, every image is put to work in the service of the story.

It seems that Mystic, Georgia is beyond the grasp of either government or modern society. It’s governed by its own laws and, at the moment that it faces destruction, its laws turn out to be more of a trap than a help against a foe that doesn’t attack the way the people of Mystic expect it to. They cannot deal with a foe who does not use corporeal violence to conquer them but that is all they have left to deal with the unknown.

Harry Crews’ novel Feast of Snakes is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys novels about the American south or good novels in general. It may seem slight, but it packs a wallop. Very much worth reading.

[if you made it to the end of this erratic, self-important crap I applaud you and apologize] ISBN