September 5, 2010

Chronicles of a Sedentary Foreign Correspondant

There are days when I feel like a foreign correspondent in my own city. Not because the people around me are strange, but because for about two years now, I've been writing in my second language, that is, in English.
Despite my very Scottish last name, I've been raised in a completely francophone household. My interest in English writing started with an Ontarian high school teacher who had us read Shakespeare, Cohen and William Blake, bringing us to the park to make us read poems at the top of our lungs in our accented English, looking and sounding quite ridiculous I'm sure. I loved it. I started reading in English. Not that it's unusual. Lots of French-speakers do it. Albeit, in my case, at least at the beginning, with a nagging feeling that I was somehow betraying my heritage (I almost said my country, but I don't want to open the eternal Canadian Pandora's box).
A friend recently pointed out that at Renaud-Bray, the big Montreal French bookstore, the English books are right next to the erotica, in a corner of the store. I laughed and said that it's probably so that both erotica and English readers could indulge in their guilty pleasure more discreetly.
Not that anybody has ever judged me for reading in English. If anything, it mostly attracts positive comments. It's more that I myself sometimes have this nagging feeling that I should make an effort to read more in French. And I do. But the thing is, I have this huge chip on my shoulder about French literature. It's a mostly irrational chip, but I find that a lot of French writers feel like they have to do more than tell a story. They have to delve deeper, to look for some humanistico-philosophical truth. The results are, to me, occasionally brilliant but mostly powerfully annoying.
It requires me to take reading seriously, and I don't want to. Reading is about fun, about thrills, laughter and imagination. These are powerful enough human truths for me. And depth does flow from a good story without need for all those discursive devices that make me feel like the author is trying to teach me instead of just being with me for the length of a book (not that English writers cannot be powerfully annoying too, but I feel like the culture in the Anglo-Saxon writing community is closer to the story). There are also some notably excellent ("Powerfully annoying", "notably excellent". Hm. I sound like a movie critic all of a sudden) exceptions in French literature, Alexandre Dumas Senior, Fred Vargas, Daniel Pennac and Tonino Benacquista being a few of those, but I'm talking about the dominant writing culture here.
Anyway, it felt only logical that the next step would be for me to write in English. Which I've now been doing for two years, and loving it, even though it's wreaking havoc on my abilities in both of Canada's official languages. That havoc and other states of identity confusion I will try to describe in a next post. In the meantime, be good, read and write good stories, and try to be more notably excellent than powerfully annoying.

Vincent Mackay

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