Poring over De aanslag for the last few weeks, I’ve been forced to consider how different and strange reading in another language is. It’s very slow (for me anyway) and jerky, for a start, skipping between text and dictionary. Sometimes I have to look up the meanings of a whole row of Dutch words and then, because the syntax is one I don’t know, I arrange and re-arrange the meanings in my mind until they fall into a pattern which makes sense in English. Sometimes, especially with hay-fever medication, I feel lazy and gaze vacantly out of the bus window instead. I am finding that there’s a tension between my desire to find out what happens next and to ‘untangle’ the Dutch, and my laziness. I enjoy the intellectual exercise of reading the Dutch – and those passages for which I don’t need the dictionary, I don’t need to consciously think about what the words mean, they just fly into my brain, those are moments of magic! – but at the same time I resent how it slows me down and puts something between me and the book. This is an ambivalence I haven’t really experienced reading English novels. I am still regarding this exercise as a novel-reading exercise rather than a language-improving one.
And then there’s the question of style. I read a word; this is what it means. It has no nuance for me, because nuance is acquired from lots of associations and I don’t have them yet. I can’t ‘read against the grain’. Subtle ironies, unacknowledged quotations, phrases which are consciously arcane or stilted – all these pass me by. The colours I read in are stark colours. And all those little words – ‘nog’ and ‘al’ and ‘pas’, for instance – which have so many different meanings depending on context – I am never really sure of them, the treacherous little things. But then, because I am reading so slowly and often looking up the same term several times before I learn to remember it, I notice when words recur a lot. In one chapter, there were a lot of diagonals – sloping ceilings, characters standing diagonally across from one another. In the chapter I’m reading currently, Mulisch has suddenly started using a word, ‘blijkbaar’ (‘apparent’) quite frequently, and it’s a word which he hasn’t really used before (I’d say he hasn’t used it at all but I can’t be sure of that). I don’t think that these things are significant but observing them give me a small pleasure. I feel as if Mulisch, writing, and I, reading, are travelling at a comparable pace; normally I know I’m reading much faster than the author could write. (Don’t write and tell me that of course Mulisch didn’t write as fast as even I read! I know that really! It’s just my comfortable little delusion.)
Then, when I wrote about how painful I found the separation of Anton from his parents two posts ago, litlove responded in the comments:
I wonder whether the meaning wrested from a book in a second language (particularly when it has to be struggled out of the words, and I speak from much experience here!) feels that bit more intense. You can’t stand back from the words and skim them, as you can in your own language. You have to be right up close.
And Iris added:
I think litlove’s observation rings true. I can’t help but imagine me reading these same chapters in Dutch and not seeing as much detail at all. Perhaps once you feel at home with a certain language you start to pay less attention, in a way?
I think these are both absolutely true. De aanslag is a short book but I feel that I have lived in it for a long time now, crawling through it. Actually, I think I know it in the way that I knew my GCSE and A-level texts at school. I have deconstructed and examined each sentence and put it back together, clumsily and roughly it is true, now I am thinking of Picasso’s The Snail (which is neither clumsy nor rough of course!) beside a Dutch still-life, although that’s rather off the point; anyway, I have paid very close attention to everything which Mulisch wrote, despite my limitations, and I think that I am seeing the structure of the novel more clearly than I would with a novel in English. Litlove is right, I can’t slide over the bits I find boring (not that I have found any) or upsetting, so they are as much in my face as the rest of the book. But I had not thought of it from the other perspective, as Iris put it, that in your native language you get a bit lazy. For me, nothing in Dutch has hardened into cliché yet. Furthermore, I’m wondering if reading in a second language will alter how I read in English: will it make me more attentive? Those of you who read in more than one language, have you found this to affect how you read in your native tongue?