Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

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Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

Ivan and Prue both live for their careers, Ivan in philosophy and Prue as an ornithologist. For some time already, things have not run very smoothly between them, yet, it is not very clear why this is so. Maybe the fact that Prue is a lot more successful than Ivan and close to getting a tenure, or it is the arrival of one of Prue’s favourite authors who joins their circle of friends. When Prue is to give a public lecture which might finalise her post at the college, her father Frank joins them against his daughter’s wish. Frank has been struggling with his bipolar disorder and Prue fears the worst. Just a couple of days and nothing is like it was before anymore in their life.

Lindsay Stern’s debut novel leaves me a bit pondering. On the one hand, she addresses so many important topics that are worth mentioning and thinking about, on the other hand, when I finished it, I had to ask myself: and now? So what? It is a snap-shot of her characters’ life without a clear aim, I just didn’t get her intention for narrating this story.

As said before, there are interesting aspects such as the father’s way of coping with his mental issues, but also what the bipolar disorder does to him. I always find it worth writing and reading about these kinds of issues simply to raise awareness, but also to foster understanding and knowledge and I think literature can be a big help here. I also appreciated the way Stern shows the slight imbalances in the relationship between Ivan and Prue. They are professionals in different fields and certainly should not compete with each other, nevertheless, this is one of their main issues: how can a husband cope with a wife being more successful? In general, Ivan’s behaviour is worth taking a closer look at: he only starts to pay real attention to Prue when he becomes aware of other men’s attraction to her. The war they start is nasty, but I guess this is quite authentic in their situation.

There is a whole lot of theory about languages and especially bird communication. Even though I am a linguist, this did not really grab my attention since I already found the idea behind so strange that I didn’t want to go any deeper in this weird theory. Her style of writing though is quite promising and I surely would try another novel of the author.

Laurent Binet – The 7th Function of Language

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Laurent Binet – The 7th Function of Language

February 1980, after lunch with François Mitterrand, promising politician of the socialists and candidate for the 1981 presidential election, the literary theorist Roland Barthes is run over by a lorry and later dies in hospital. What first looks like an ordinary car accident, turns out to be malicious murder. But who would want to murder Barthes? Superintendent Jacques Bayard has to investigate and soon understands that he does not understand anything at all of what all these intellectuals talk about. He needs help and contacts Simon Herzog, a young lecturer on linguistics who not only has to translate the theoretical paraphernalia but also helps him to unravel the mystery of the 7th function of language.

Forming an opinion on Laurent Binet’s novel is not easy. Well, actually, I really enjoyed it, but I can easily understand people who just hate it and find it boring. So, what does it need for a reader to indulge in it?

  1. If you are a linguist – jackpot. The novel is full of linguistic theory. Having at least a slight notion of what structuralism, deconstruction, semiotics and of course the communicative functions of language are, helps a lot to enjoy the novel since you do not have to pay too much attention to the theoretical passages (which will certainly help if you do not know anything about it).
  2. An interest in French intellectuals, or intellectuals gathering in Paris at the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s. We meet Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, BHL, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Eco, Foucault – also PPDA plays a minor role – and also Derrida and Searle pop up. Seeing them interact is just hilarious. At least as long as you find them interesting.
  3. French politics: Giscard d’Estaing vs. Mitterrand. Two of the greatest politicians of the second half of the 20th century which could hardly differ more than they did.
  4. Secret Societies of scholars – Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, whatever.

Yes, it is a kind of crime novel centred around intellectuals. The crime aspect is not that relevant, there is some kind of suspense – you do want to know what is behind all this – but much more it is a brilliant way of integrating philosophy, linguistics, literary studies etc. into a fictional plot. Binet is a mastermind when it comes to presenting the theory and directly using it within the story, he plays with it and with the reader and if you are ready to play the game, you can have real fun. Apart from this, I really enjoyed his style of writing, it is full of irony, playfulness and spirit:

“25 February 1980 has not yet told us everything. That’s the virtue of a novel: it’s never too late.” (pos. 2236)

or

“We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?” (pos. 3450)

And the most amusing comment from poor Simon Herzog is:

“I think I’m trapped in a fucking novel.” (pos. 3899)

For me, just the perfect combination of entertainment (the characters are masterly drawn) and intellectually challenging.

 

Elif Batuman – The Idiot

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Elif Batuman – The Idiot

1995, Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, has just finished high school and can leave New Jersey behind to study in Harvard. She is unsure of what to study, where to begin to understand the miracles of life and the world. It is literature and linguistics that capture her attention first. She studies Russian and tries to understand the mechanism of how language works. She makes friends with Svetlana, a Serbian classmate, and Ivan from Hungary with whom she sits in the Russian classes. She falls in love with the charismatic mathematician who quite often shows strange behaviour. But in writing each other emails, they find a way of expressing their feelings. Selin seizes the chance to go to Ivan’s native country in summer with a programme to teach English in remote villages. This is where she really gets an impression of the world, much more than all her courses in Harvard could ever teach her.

Elif Batuman’s protagonist Selin is a very attention-grabbing character. On the one hand, she is quite intelligent and intellectual, on the other, she is completely incompetent when it comes to dealing with people and analysing her feelings. This makes it difficult for her to understand the relationships she has. At the beginning, she needs the simplistic Russian-for-beginners story about a young woman falling in love to parallel her own feelings, later, when she leaves her English-speaking environment, the misunderstandings due to lack of language knowledge somehow work as a cover for her. She is absolutely ignorant about who is she and who she wants to be. Literature is her way of learning about people.

The novel’s title has been borrowed from Dostoyevsky, yet there are no clear parallels to be found by me. The only one might be in the protagonists’ character, both Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel and Selin are open-hearted and innocent-naïve when they enter into contact with the real world.  They are somehow unique and do not have an easy start in adult life. Selin is always afraid that she is not intellectual enough for Harvard, she wants to say meaningful things and starts questioning even single words. Thus, she spirals down to appoint where there is no meaning anymore. From the bottom, she has to create meaning for herself anew.

Apart from the two very noteworthy and fascinating characters of Selin and Ivan, what I appreciated most was the style of writing. Batuman plays with the content, the psychology and philosophy of language is paralleled in her writing, it sometimes breaks down to very plain sentences and then they are full of double meanings. The author is especially strong in finding metaphors and comparisons, in particular with nature which brings the theoretical cogitation back down to earth.

It is not a very typical coming-of-age novel, it is much more intellectual and demanding, but nevertheless I also found it entertaining.