Amadeus / Peter Shaffer

(London: Penguin, reprinted 2007, revised edition originally published 1985)

Peter Shaffer’s well-known dramatization of jealousy and how it utterly consumes the sufferer. I usually prefer reading plays to watching them, but for this play I think being able to watch it on the stage with the actors in costume and in motion, and to hear the dialog and music that is so necessary to the story, would have been more satisfying. Perhaps I should try to find the movie on DVD, even though it’s substantially revised from the stage version.

General thought: With corrupted protagonists we are usually invited to empathize with them at the beginning. At some point we are supposed to be jarred from empathy by the shock of realization: how could he do that?! What is scary about Shaffer’s Salieri is that he keeps pulling you back into his own shock, when his intuitive appreciation of Mozart’s musical genius is followed quickly by the bitterly cold recalling that he could never have such gifts for himself. This happens the first time he hears Mozart’s music, and is still painfully jarring to him each subsequent time, even when Mozart is close to death after his long, grim plotting. And each of these shocks is an invitation for us to empathize even as he alienates us and his own conscience with his actions. Jealousy is like that, isn’t it? It itself always remains raw, even as it numbs one’s good sense and goodwill.


Look at the Harlequins! / Vladimir Nabokov

(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975)

A fictional memoir in the voice of an emigre Russian novelist, who was born to a noble family, fled to Western Europe, studied at Cambridge, and made his name as a writer first in Russian on the Continent then in English in the United States. Nabokov presents this fictionalized, distorted version of his own life story in several parts, most of which correspond to the several wives of the narrator. The narrator uses his own novels as signposts to his own tale, and these novels have a funhouse-mirror correspondence to Nabokov’s own books. There’s a thinly-veiled Lolita (“A Kingdom by the Sea”), a Pale Fire (“See under Real”), even a Speak, Memory (“Ardis”)…. Reading this book after Nabokov’s real autobiography, Speak, Memory, the parallels and the distortions are all the clearer. It seems that he took the happy episodes and circumstances of his life — his privileged childhood, his loyal wife and son, his lepidoptery — and imagined what it would have been like for them to be as deeply unhappy as possible.

The usual obsessions make their appearance: butterflies, chess, life in exile, nymphets. Unfortunately they feel over-familiar to me, because it makes the book self-referential to the point of
self-indulgence. Perhaps that was the point, to recount a bad dream about a possible life that mercifully did not unfold. At least that’s how I read it at the moment. I’ve been a bit down lately and I feel better after reading this book!

The Emergence of Modern Turkey / Bernard Lewis

(Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1968)

Lewis notes the difference between the old written Turkish language, used in literature and in the chancery, which was elaborate, long-winded, and full of borrowings from Arabic and Persian, and the modern Turkish language, in part the product of conscious reform. He says that the average Turkish youth, learning the language at home and in school at the time of the book’s publication, would be helpless with the archaic written language of the late Ottoman period. As an illustration he cites the first Turkish constitution, which despite its revolutionary content and context is still in the old language. Modern students need footnotes and glosses to understand the foundational document of modern Turkey!

This trend for written language to be closer to the spoken language is also evident in Chinese, where it was also the product of change championed by reform-minded writers and scholars. Chao Yuen-Ren (YR Chao), a linguist who participated in China’s fermentive period of change after the collapse of the imperial system and who eventually taught at Harvard and Berkeley, repeatedly expressed his amusement at the fact that Hu Shih’s 1917 essay calling for writers to write in the colloquial rather than classical language was in fact written in the classical language, because “he wasn’t used to writing in the colloquial”! (in an interview from 1974, now available online).

Some degree of disjunction is always evident between written and spoken language, even for fairly egalitarian languages like modern English. But since spoken language came first, whence this divergence? I can toss out a few hypotheses, though I’m sure that a serious study of this subject must have been done somewhere:

  • For most of human history, writing was a comparatively rare skill. Those who possessed the craft and privilege of writing would prefer that it remain opaque to the unenlightened, so that their skill would be more special and mysterious.
  • Most writing was (or is!) for bureaucratic purposes,
    record-keeping, or for ritual purposes. Bureaucracy naturally breeds opacity, and ritual or court language is usually more elaborate than common language, even in speech, because deference and politeness are often signaled through circumlocution.
  • The manner in which a language adopted writing could also play a role. If a language is first written down in a foreign script, foreign vocabulary and idiom could be incorporated into the written language but not the spoken one. Perhaps that was the case with Akkadian, which borrowed Sumerian cuneiform signs, and certainly with Turkish, which used the Arabic script. All the more if the borrowed script belonged to a prestige language.