Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Word Thief

In one of the books I’m reading at the moment, The Book Thief, the central character, a young German girl, Liesel Meminger, wakes up in the middle of the night—something she does a lot, usually after a bad dream—and wonders ‘at the height of her heart’. She notes that she learned the phrase from a book she was reading The Dream Carrier.

For me, this was a moment of recognition. I had only just been thinking about all of the phrases I had in my head from The Book Thief, that have slipped into my everyday existence. In my last post, I borrowed the expression ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ to express my incredulity at the thought of anyone who would deny the contributions of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, to ‘white European civilisations’ around the globe, in particular North America. (Actually, I’ve since done a bit of an internet investigation on this, and there are some very scary repudiations of the value of Freud’s influence, mostly on the point of his Jewish heritage). The other words I have adopted from The Book Thief are also expletives: ‘saumensch’ and ‘saukerl’. These words are the most prolific in Leisel’s foster mother’s vocabulary. They refer to pigs and are directed towards females and males respectively in order to ‘castigate, berate or plain humiliate’. Throughout the book, however, they become an awkward kind of endearment.

Clearly Liesel remembers far more poetic turns of phrase than I do. While thinking on this topic, I also recalled some of the everyday exclamations from my years of learning French that I often repeat in my thoughts. ‘Depêche toi!’ is useful when you’re trying to jaywalk and a slow moving car is affecting your timing. It means ‘hurry up!’ and I think I remember it because of the band Depêche Mode. But it’s also more satisfying to say: ‘toi!’ is a much more open sound to end such a directive with than the timidity of ‘up’. A question that I particularly like from my first year of French is ‘Qu’est-ce que tu prends, Mimi?’ It’s from a book called À Vous la France! and it comes from a conversation in a café, where one friend asks another what she will have from the menu. The pleasure of this question is all in the intonation and the name Mimi lets you do wonderful things in this respect. Somewhere towards the last years of my French language education I went and saw a film called La Hâine (Hate), about three young men, disenfranchised by French society. There’s one point in the film where one of the character’s explains his approach to life. He likens his life to falling off a building—it isn’t such a bad thing until you hit the pavement below. If I remember correctly, there’s a close up of the character’s face, rushing towards the camera, as he falls down the side of a building. In the voiceover, he intones ‘Jusqu’à ici, tout va bien’; so far, so good.

One of the most influential books on my thoughts and speech patterns at the time of reading was Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Because of Welsh’s mastery at conveying the nuances of accents and dialects, I spent a lot of time going around thinking and, I confess, occasionally saying, ‘I dinnae ken’. The truly spooky moment of my immersion in the Edinburgh author’s work, for those around me at the time, was at a poetry evening organised by a friend. The occasion is best summarised with a limerick I wrote for it:

There once was a young girl called Vicky,
Who asked all her friends to be tricky.
She said, ‘Lovey, write us a sonnet
And we’ll ponder upon it,
Then tell you if we think it’s icky’.

I didn’t have a collection of already written poetry to take along so I composed a few for the night on the day before and I think the quality of the writing attests to the short time frame. This is the Trainspotting effected poem. Again, I have to issue an expletive alert. Feel free to leave the room screaming when—perhaps before—you’ve read it:

‘Twas in the glare of this mornin’s light
Ah was thinkin’ about this event, ahright?

An’ because Ah’d been readin’ Train Spottin’, Ah thought O Shite!
Ah’ve gote t’ write a foockin’ brilliant poem before tonight.

[A stanza/rhyming couplet I simply can’t recall]

So, Ah’ve written a few; Ah’ve done me best,
But Ah dinnae think Ah’ll be appearin’ at the Edinburgh Fest

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