Literature and Australia

There is no Australian literature, no Russian literature, no French literature; there is only literature. But over at the Age, Michael Hayward reveals, despite working in publishing, how parochial and uncritical he is:

In 2011, in not a single course in the whole country were students asked to read Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. This is the equivalent of not one Russian university teaching Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary going untaught in France.

The real shame is that in literature departments, where people supposedly have a love of literature and have developed the ability to critically appraise it, they do not read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Hamlet and Don Quixote and The Leopard and American Pastoral and Love in the Time of Cholera as the basis for all courses. The real shame is that anyone could suppose that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony touches Anna Karenina and that they are both equally deserving of study in a literature department.

Perhaps to prove my point, the very next sentence in Michael Hayward’s piece is this:

It is a rampageous scandal, to borrow a coinage from HHR  herself.

Rampageous scandal is hardly a bon mot worth quoting, and one only hopes it’s not the most felicitous turn of phrase in Henry Handel Richardson’s oeuvre.

A Link Between Unphonetic Orthography and Homophony?

Considering the number of languages in the world, I really don’t have much to go on, but my impression is that the more homophonous a language’s lexicon, the more unphonetic its writing system.

Here are some languages that I have some acquintance with that I’ve grouped according to their relative homophony and orthographic phoneticism, from the least homophonous and most phonetic to the most homophonous and least phonetic:

Group 1: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Russian and Finnish.
Group 2: English and French.
Group 3: Languages using the Chinese writing system and Japanese.

This grouping I freely admit is purely impressionistic: I have no hard data on the amount of homophones in each language, although the relative phoneticism of the writing systems I can say with confidence is about right.

The link that I’ve conjectured, if it does indeed exist, would seem to make sense. Written and spoken languages are different — you don’t often say what you write and vice versa — partly (mostly?) to take advantage of the particular properties of pages and eyes, voices and ears; so it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that homophones need further elucidation on the page and a move away from pure phoneticism becomes desirable.

I think Korean would be one language to go against the presumed trend — its writing system, Hangul, is deeply phonetic while having to deal with a number of homophones that come from Chinese loanwords.

I also suppose that Korean illustrates another linguistic trend: the later a writing system’s invention or adaptation for a specific language, the more phonetic it is designed to be from the outset, and the less time has passed for the spoken language to have drifted from how it’s written down.

Of course, take this with a large, unsubstantiated grain of salt: it’s all speculation based on the private musings of a very amateur linguist, none of which is supported even by a Wikipedia page written by a prankster.

Sade @ Rod Laver Arena, 2nd December, 2011

Countless people would have looked twice at Sade’s name and assume it a prank when she first came to prominence in the mid-eighties. No one need look twice these days: Sade is pronounced her way first, the marquis be damned.

Thirty years since the heady days of Smooth Operator and Sade still pulls a sizeable crowd, and a much cherished one at that: the kind that still pays full-price for music. Although Sade is an understated performer and her between-song patter is mostly rehearsed, the theatrical elements of her show — video projections, choreography, costume changes, stage effects — combined with an overlong absence from these antipodean shores make for an entertaining evening.

The night begins with Soldier of Love. The song incorporates a mechanised, industrial feel that is a slight departure from her usual fare, and the whole production plays on it: the performers emerge from the depths of the stage on the beat; the band synchronise their movements in lock step; Sade coolly hams it up; the lights accent the snare drum pounding on the two and four.

These theatrical elements are generally a clever touch the whole night through; a nonsensical video providing the back story to Smooth Operator while affording time for an obligatory costume change, however, is not. Regrettably, neither is the song’s rendition a great success — Smooth Operator feels limp and rushed. But no matter: soon after, an atmospheric rendition of Is It A Crime elicits the greatest response of the night, the slow burn of the verses that build to the chorus that goes somewhere close to emotional a welcome change from the general restraint of Sade’s material.

The relaxed funk of Paradise has a handful of the audience on their feet, and when the song breaks down into a sanitised, adult-oriented hip hop section, everyone gets on up. Sade wisely leaves the stage to her two back-up singers who have the crowd responding to their cliched calls. It’s lightweight and ridiculous; nonetheless, it’s fun.

We’ve been told we’re loved, we’ve heard the hits; while she never commands the stage, Sade is a gracious performer, and, smartly, she doesn’t rely on her intimate, understated music alone to entertain in a venue as vast as Rod Laver Arena. Her urbane exotica and the show’s production are all well done and — dare I say it — a smooth operation indeed.

Bioy Casares and Borges

Bioy Casares kept a record of the very many encounters and meetings he had with firm friend Borges in Buenos Aires. These records were edited and published in a 1600-page behemoth simply titled Borges, a title which does not definitively alert the unsuspecting Amazon shopper that its contents are in Spanish.

Although I read Spanish well enough, and although I feel the need to complain about previous translations of both Borges’ and Bioy Casares’ works, I would have much preferred the book in English translation for a non-Argentinean audience, where footnotes on literary and political figures I’d never heard of would have been abundant and the strain of reading such a long work in Spanish could be avoided. Unfortunately, no such English translation appears to be available.

Nevertheless, I do occasionally dip into Borges, and for the most part I end up agreeing with David Gallagher’s sentiments regarding the book — too long, too desultory, not really all that revealing. Nevertheless, there are still a number of amusing moments, and so I thought I’d share a few I’ve discovered recently:

Sunday, 28th of September, 1969

Hablo por teléfono con Borges. Me dice: Mi sobrino Luis se casa pasado mañana. Está en cama, muy resfriado. ¿Será una estratagema para no casarse? Sin embargo, no está obligado… Qué raro, elegir la inmovilidad como una forma de fuga.

I speak with Borges on the phone. He tells me: My cousin Luis is getting married the day after tomorrow. He’s in bed with a severe cold. Could it be a way to avoid getting married? Still, no one’s forcing him… How odd to choose immobility as a form of running away.


Monday, 14th of August, 1961

BORGES: <<Me faltan veinte días para irme a Texas. ¿Cómo detener el tiempo? Madre está muy divertida con el viaje. Ojalá que me dejen hablar de otros temas, además de literatura argentina. Esa idea de que todo hombre es un commis voyageur de su país es una porquería, es la negación de la cultura, de la literatura, de todo.

BORGES: I leave for Texas in twenty days. How does one stop time? Mother is very amused about the trip. Hopefully they let me speak on topics other than Argentinian literature. This idea that everybody is a commis voyageur of one’s own country is crap; it’s the negation of culture, of literature, of everything.


Sunday, 18th of March, 1962

Le hablo de mi cuento <<El calamar opta por su tinta>>. BORGES: <<Está bien. El verbo optar supone una inteligencia que los calamares probablamente no tienen>>. Comentado los primeros resultados de las elecciones y el posible triunfo peronista: <<Recuerdo un dicho parecido: ¨El perro vuelve a su vómito¨. Aunque más adecuado sería, por estos días; ¨El argentino vuelve a su Perón¨>>.

I tell him about my story, The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink. BORGES: “It’s good. The verb choose presupposes an intelligence that squid probably don’t have.” Commenting on the preliminary election results and the possible Peronista triumph: “I remember a similar saying: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit’. Although something more apt would be, for these times: ‘The Argentinian returns to his own Peron'”.

Note: Borges’ apter saying has an added kick in Spanish because perro, the word for dog, is very similar to Perón.


Monday, 19th of March, 1962

A unos metodistas que se oponían a la pena capital, les dijo: <<Cristo la sancionó. Murió en la cruz; no elogió — era Dios y podía hacerlo — la reclusión en la cárcel>>. <<No los convencí>>, agrega. Yo le recuerdo que, para John Donne, Cristo era suicida.

He said to some Methodists opposed to the death penalty: “Christ sanctioned it. He died on the cross; he did not choose — he was God and was able to do so — imprisonment in jail.” “I did not convince them”, he added. I remind him that, according to John Donne, Christ committed suicide.