Posts Tagged ‘English’
You never stop learning a language, which is why I buy two unabridged English novels from Audible every month and listen to them with as much concentration as I can muster. Style is very important. I don’t like to listen to bad style. So I choose very carefully what I listen to. Those books become like voices in my head. I absorb every cadence. I internalise, verbalise and repeat.
Finally I have found time for Alan Hollinghurst. He’s been on my list for a long time because everybody in the literary establishment says what a fine style he has.
I agree. He has a very fine English style. He also has a delicate sensibility. He has a beautiful sense of irony. He is mischievous, cheeky and arch, while at the same time having a coy vulnerability.
Let’s listen in on the secret thoughts of his narrator, William Beckwith, as he goes back to the hotel of his latest pick-up, an athletic young boy called Phil:
I was so lucky in general, so blessed, that my pick-ups were virtually instantaneous: the man I fancied took in my body, my cock, my blue eyes at a glance. Misunderstandings were almost unknown. Any uncertainty in a boy I wanted was usually overcome by the simple insistence of my look. But with Phil I had let something dangerous happen, a roundabout, slow insinuation into my feelings. Though I very much wanted to fuck his big, muscly bum – and several times dropped behind a step or two to see it working as he walked – my stronger feeling was more protective and caressing. It was growing so strong that it allowed doubts not entertained in the brief certainties of casual sex. If I had got it all wrong, if going back to his place meant a drink in the bar, a game of chess, a handshake – ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow’ – the evening would be agony. Already I dreamt up headaches, queazy tums, excuses for dullness and an early escape; and I was so tense that as I did so I even began to feel the symptoms.
I wish I could quote more but already there is a lot going on. Hollinghurst takes a cliché of romantic fiction and gives it several ironic twists. The cliché in this case is that of the serial philanderer who meets our heroine and is reformed by love. Here the philanderer is a gay man. This is a beautiful twist. But he is also the narrator, which is another twist. We are asked to identify with the philanderer. To make it even more piquant, the philanderer is an aristocratic English gentleman who has been brought up in the finest English traditions – the traditions of queazy tums and other feeble excuses.
Hollinghurst’s ironies are best enjoyed in longer passages than this. But his ironies would be empty without the delicious observational details –
I very much wanted to fuck his big, muscly bum – and several times dropped behind a step or two to see it working as he walked
which make listening or reading to him such a joy.
Excellent English style is not just about vocabulary, word order and syntax. It is about something that is very hard to teach. It is something that perhaps you are born with, I don’t know, or that you have to absorb and acquire in the nursery. It’s about sensibility.
I’m hoping that having this voice in my head will help me acquire a refined English sensibility.
My only worry is that this particularly wicked, arch and mischievous voice will corrupt me and have me thinking about cocks and bums far more than is good for me.
I asked my boyfriend if he had ever been physically aroused by a work of fiction while reading on a bus or train.
“Oh, many a time,” he said.
“Really? Did you get an erection?”
“Yes, of course. Isn’t that what you meant? It doesn’t happen so much now,” he said.
“Because you are cynical and you’ve seen it all before?”
“Partly that,” he concurred. “But also because my blood is more sluggish and I have lost the vigour of youth.”
“When was the last time you got an erection while reading in a public place?” I asked eagerly.
“When reading your last email to me,” he said without hesitation. He’s a pretty quick-witted guy, actually. That’s why he’s my boyfriend.
“What about the first time?” I asked. “How old were you?”
“Oh, I didn’t need books when I was in the first flush of puberty,” he said. “I used to get an erection on the bus just looking at all the pretty schoolgirls going up and down the stairs.”
“You’re a pervert,” I said.
“But the first book that made me miss my stop because I was unable to leave my seat due to the large bulge in my trousers was Cider With Rosie.”
“By Laurie Lee?”
“Indeed. That old English classic. It’s a rural idyll. And you can’t have a rural idyll without a romp in the hay so why they give it to pubescent boys as a set text at school I’ll never know. It’s like putting a stick of dynamite down their pants.”
“Well, you know what I mean. I looked like I had a stick of dynamite down my pants when I got off that bus anyway. And then we had to write our own memoir in a similar vein. The teacher even gave us the title. The First Bite Of The Cherry. And you call me a pervert.”
“That’s a public school English education for you,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “It’s astonishing I turned out normal.”
“If you were normal you wouldn’t be able to satisfy me,” I said.
But that’s another story altogether.
My boyfriend (who is English and reads the Guardian) gave me this book. My flatmate (who is Chinese and reads Grazia) borrowed it without asking. That’s the trouble with talking to your flatmate about books. This week she’s gone off to Austria with my copy of Candy (by Mian Mian) because I made the mistake of telling her how much I was enjoying it.
Back to this one by Xiaolu Guo. I avoided it for a while because it’s written in bad English. My boyfriend found this cute but it’s not good for me. I am very imitative and when I read bad English I start writing it. When I did start reading it, I read a chapter aloud to my flatmate and we were both in hysterics. When I looked for it next it was gone.
In my flatmate’s absence, I raided her room and retrieved it so now I have finished it and can write a review.
It’s about a Chinese woman (called Z) who comes to England and has a romance with an English man (who reads the Guardian). As their relationship develops, her English improves, she learns how to be naked, have sex all day, use a condom, and, most importantly, because of the nature of an English man’s love, to masturbate. She also learns that love means different things in Chinese and English, which is true. English people say they love each other when they mean they are fond of each other. Chinese people would rather not say it but instead demonstrate it through a lifetime of devotion.
The narrative is a bit disjointed but original. It takes the form of a notebook containing entries on words Z is learning. The bad English (which improves) is not always quite how we Chinese write English but it is often close. Some of the notes on language are very insightful. I disagreed with some of them and sometimes Z’s innocence struck a false note, becoming merely a rhetorical device.
The ending is moving. Maybe it will make you cry.