In Defense of English

  • By Joye Shepperd
  • June 10, 2016

Taking exception to a critic’s harsh assessment

In Defense of English

Book critic Michael Hofmann has a lot to say about English, in English. In an article in the London Review of Books, he described Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North as “ingratiating, gassy and lacking the basic dignity of prose.”

On Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest, he wrote, “I read straight through twice from beginning to end and it feels like I’ve read nothing at all.”

And of Gunter Grass’ Peeling the Onion: “Two pages of failed writing that should be put in a textbook and quarried for their multiple instances of bad faith.”

Stefan Zweig he calls the “Pepsi of Austrian writing.” I’m guessing that everyone else prefers Coke.

I’m quoting Hofmann so much because I love his sort of criticism, the kind that makes you laugh, think, and wonder, too, if he means what you think he means. I also love the fact that he takes exception with the regular crowd and does indeed sound like someone we are all a little fond of — the “farty pants.” Do you picture him: small body, big head, mouth curved upward in a knowing smile, moving slowly, bow-legged because of the sagging diaper?

Hofmann was born in Germany, which makes his literary criticism, his poetry (which he writes in English), and his translations from German to English all the more interesting because English is a second language for him. I like him further for declaring that “nothing else really counted or existed but books.”     

His use of anachronisms, neologisms, or British expressions when translating into American English is just fine with me. Isn’t the point, really, that the reader understand what she’s reading? Frankly, I’ve always been fond of translators who take liberties when shifting from archaic language to vernacular — within reason. 

I’ll even grant that Hofmann picked up a little childhood angst — good fodder for his acerbic writerly currency — from his own challenging father.

Still, I take exception with his description of the English language: “You always have to sound as if you are making an effort. English is basically a trap: class trap, dialect trap, feeling trap. It’s almost a language for spies, for people to find out what people are really thinking. Operating in German, which doesn’t have these heffalump traps, would be lovely.”

What? In any language, aren’t you supposed to make an effort? Never mind when you are writing it — what about when you open your mouth to speak it? The beauty of language is in the way it is used; it can be a battering ram of invective, a tickle, or a gossamer awakening.

I remember once having an argument with close friends whose English was a second language. I was always envious — as an American with bad French — that I couldn’t retreat as they could into another language. They had an additional house of their own, like a turtle with an extra shell.

They used to brag about how there were so many more words in their language than English that they could speak for hours without saying anything. But I begged to differ. I was sure they didn’t have as many words; theirs just sounded better (especially to their own ears). Yes, it’s true, we’ve all churned through the rhythms of our own “farty-pantsdom.”

Language, and I’m betting every language, has to get over the conceit of its user. Still, if you finds yourself trapped, truly trapped, in a language, it may be because you have taken its words and knotted them around yourself. 

Joye Shepperd is a reader and senior features editor for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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