Enda O’Doherty writes: Our memories of earliest childhood tend for the most part to be fragmentary – in my own case it is mostly just a faint view of the street outside our front door and a largish car parked outside our neighbour’s house, a common model at the time that I was soon able to identify as an Austin A40. Apart from that, there is just a vague awareness of the presence on summer days of some neighbours, girls who were more the age of my elder brothers: I have a reproduction of an old snap showing such a small group: two girls on the left, perhaps very slightly older than the older of my two brothers: there is whispering; confidences are perhaps being exchanged. Then, standing a little apart, the middle brother, curly-haired and handsome, and finally, on the right of the frame, me, in a heavy pram from which I look as if I’m struggling to escape.
That was Letterkenny. In 1954, when I was three, the family moved to Derry and that’s where clearer and more extensive memories begin, a pleasant semi-detached house on a road in a new estate built in the middle of countryside (a mile outside the city) with a lawn in front and a large, sloping vegetable garden reached by some concrete steps from the back yard. I think of my childhood as being happy and a lot of this has certainly to do with the location, the extensive woods that began not far from the end of the back garden, the cornfields, the disused quarry – no health and safety then ‑ the “houses” we built in summer with sods and branches in the clearings, birds’ nests and eggs, red squirrels aplenty and my companions in running about – Shona Pearson, Wendy Sharp, Joanie Philips, all girls: there were no boys of my age on the road. All very idyllic, but of course there were also falls, cut knees, legs gashed on barbed wire and tears; even more tears – hysteria even ‑ when my part in small household breakages was ceremonially repaid with the then normal maternal sanction, the wooden spoon.
If I had had an early childhood experience like that of Elias Canetti (1905-1994), I think I would have remembered it, or else have had to have it painstakingly and expensively recovered for me many years later in some Viennese psychoanalyst’s consulting rooms. In The Tongue Set Free (Die gerettete Zunge, 1977), the first of three volumes of memoir of Canetti’s early life, we find the following:
My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: “Show me your tongue.” I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue. He says: “Now we’ll cut off his tongue.” I don’t dare pull back my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: “Not today, tomorrow.” He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket.
It was some ten years later that Canetti was able, with the help of his mother, to reconstruct the circumstances of this chilling memory. The red floor and staircase belonged to a guesthouse in which the family was spending its holidays in the fashionable spa resort of Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary in the western Czech Republic) in the summer of 1907, where Elias was being taken care of by a young Bulgarian nanny who had accompanied them from their home town of Ruse on the Danube. The menacing man with the knife was the nanny’s beau, who happened to occupy a room across the corridor from the family, to which the young girl made secret visits, unavoidably accompanied by her infant charge. The message conveyed by the knife was of course: do not breathe a word about any of this. It worked, in so far as the child did not tell, though the “affair” was discovered anyway and the nanny quickly sent home to avoid the possibility of scandal.
It was well that the young Canetti kept his tongue. In the rapidly changing circumstances of his family in the years after the Carlsbad sojourn he was to be called on to make use of it again and again, in ways more demanding than most children face.
The wealthy merchant community into which Canetti was born in Ruse (Ruschuk in Turkish), a then thriving cosmopolitan port on the Danube about 200 kilometres from the Black Sea, was a Sephardic Jewish one, that is one which originated in Spain or Portugal, from which the Jews had been expelled in the late fifteenth century. Many Sephardic exiles found a home in Italy, particularly in the port of Livorno, others in Amsterdam (the philosopher Baruch Spinoza was of Portuguese Sephardic origin) and many more in various cities of the Ottoman empire, particularly Istanbul and Salonica (today in Greece). The surnames of Canetti’s father’s and mother’s family (Arditti) suggest a possible Italian stopover on the way to the Danube.
The Sephardim, Canetti writes, considered themselves a special, and superior, type of Jew, particularly because of their Spanish origin and the high social status many of them had once enjoyed in that country. They certainly wished to distinguish themselves from members of the other branch of the Jewish diaspora, the Ashkenazim, who had been driven into central and eastern Europe from their settlements along the Rhine in the late medieval period but still spoke a dialect that, while it was written with the Hebrew alphabet, was very recognisably German: Yiddish.
With naive arrogance, the Sephardim looked down on other Jews; a word always charged with scorn was Todesco, meaning a German or Ashkenazi Jew. It would have been unthinkable to marry a Todesca, a Jewish woman of that background, and among the many families that I heard about or knew as a child in Ruschuk, I cannot recall a single case of such a mixed marriage. I wasn’t even six years old when my grandfather warned me against such a misalliance in the future.
This Judaeo-Spanish (sometimes called Ladino), which was the everyday language of the Ruse Sephardim, would have been one of three tongues that the infant Elias would have heard regularly spoken in his household – many others, Turkish, Romanian, Greek and Armenian among them, might be heard on the street. The domestic tasks in the Canetti household were carried out by the household “maids” – in reality a gaggle of very young peasant girls whose Bulgarian parents were glad to offload them in the city in the houses of the wealthy where they would be reasonably well-fed and might learn something useful. These youngsters, Elias’s earliest companions, used to gather in the evening, sitting on the divans that ran around the walls of the large living room, and there, as it grew dark, huddle together for warmth and comfort and tell stories of werewolves and vampires. The stories were told in Bulgarian, the only language the servant girls knew. Years later, Canetti finds he can remember them in great detail, but the memory is in German, a language he only began to learn a few years later. As an infant he was merely bilingual, in Judaeo-Spanish and Bulgarian, though his Bulgarian was to quickly evaporate after his family left Ruse.
German was indeed the other language the young Elias would have heard spoken in his household but he was not then encouraged to understand it: quite the opposite. German was the private language of his parents, their language of culture and the one which was imprinted on their courtship after they met while studying in Vienna. It was now preserved for intimate talk between father and mother and any gossip or discussion that it was best for a child not to hear.
In 1911, the Canettis moved – much against the wishes of the domineering family patriarch, after whom the young Elias was named – to Manchester, to set up in partnership with one of the mother’s Arditti brothers, who had already established a prosperous business there in the export of textiles. A new place, a new school and a new language. And new books.
The books were a series for children, all in the same square format. They differed only in the colorful picture on the cover. The letters were the same size in all the volumes, it was like reading the same book on and on. But what a series that was … After The Arabian Nights came Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tales from Shakespeare, Don Quijote, Dante, William Tell …
I spoke about each book to my father after reading it. Sometimes I was so excited that he had to calm me down. But he never told me, as adults will, that fairy tales are untrue; I am particularly grateful to him for that, perhaps I still consider them true today.
Canetti’s voracious reading – all of these children’s classics he read and reread until he almost knew them by heart – combined with his attendance at school and interaction with English children must have meant that he attained fluency in his new language very quickly. English was also a new language for his father and they often read together and then discussed what they had read: “Sometimes I heard him pronounce and repeat single sentences. He uttered them slowly, like something very beautiful, they gave him pleasure and he uttered them again.” Canetti’s mother, however, felt it would be desirable if her eldest son (there were now three) should have another language to “balance” English. And so a French tutor was hired to come to the house and give lessons. “She was dark and thin and there was something invidious about her” and she does not seem to have made much of an effort with the child: all the young Elias was left with was the ability to reel off a story which began “Paul était seul à la maison” and which related the misadventures of a hungry child in an empty house. “I recited the story as dramatically as possible – my parents seemed very amused, before long they were laughing their heads off.” Indeed the story of the hungry Paul was such a success that the child was frequently called upon to perform it for guests at parties hosted at home by the family.
I began “Paul était seul à la maison,” and all faces were already twisting in mirth. But I wanted to show them and I stuck to my guns, I told the story to its end. By then, they were rolling in the aisles … Even the ladies, who were usually tender to me and liked kissing me on my head, laughed with gaping mouths as though about to devour me. It was a wild company, I got scared, and eventually, I started crying.
After the sudden death of his father, aged only thirty, Elias’s mother decided she wished to resettle her young family in Vienna. On the way there they stopped for some months in Lausanne in Switzerland, and it was there that Elias first heard French spoken as it should be and realised why his enthusiastic performances in Manchester had provoked such cruel hilarity in the onlookers.
The teacher hadn’t made the slightest effort to teach me a proper French accent. She was satisfied if I retained her sentences and repeated them in an English way. The guests, all from Ruschuk, had learned French with a perfect accent at home in the school of the Alliance Française, and now, having trouble with their English, they found it irresistibly comical to hear this British French, and, a shameless mob, they enjoyed the reversal of their own problem in a child that was just going on seven.
The chief reason for the long stay in Lausanne on the way to Vienna was so that Elias could be taught German.
I was eight years old, I was to attend school in Vienna, and my age would put me in the third grade of elementary school there. My mother could not bear the thought of my perhaps not being accepted into this grade because of my ignorance of the language, and she was resolved to teach me German in a jiffy.
Her method was rather unorthodox. Mrs Canetti, it seems, went to a bookshop, asked for an English-German grammar, bought the first one she was shown and brought it home to begin instruction. The instruction took this form: the mother read out a sentence in German and made the child repeat it many times – as many as necessary ‑ until his pronunciation could be regarded as tolerable. He was then told what the sentence meant. Just once: this information would never be repeated; nor could he check it or refresh his memory in “the book”. And so on to the next sentence, and then the next. Failure to remember the sentences, piled one upon the other, and their meanings, provoked derision: “My son’s an idiot! I didn’t realize that my son’s an idiot!” Mrs Canetti had persuaded herself that books were bad for learning languages, but perhaps that was not the worst of her errors. “She didn’t notice that I ate little because of my distress. She regarded the terror I lived in as pedagogical.”
But someone did notice his misery and set out to relieve it, his English governess Miss Bray, who suggested to his mother that he would need to be able to read the German Gothic script when attending school in Vienna and perhaps it would be an idea to start on it now. And so “the book” was handed over. This was, for Elias, the key that could unlock the strange language. No longer would isolated sentences have to be snatched in the air and remembered purely from their sound. Now they could be tracked across paragraphs, spelled out, spoken out loud, gone back over again, said slowly, then more quickly, written symbols matched with sound and meaning. The sweet language of Goethe began to flow more and more smoothly and beautifully and Mrs Canetti smiled upon Elias: “You are my son, after all.” Bizarrely, he seems to have forgiven her.
The most gifted linguist in the Canetti family, at least by his own account, was the merchant patriarch Grandfather Elias, also known as Señor Padre, an indefatigable charmer (“there was no one in the world, no matter how small, whom he didn’t care to impress”).
He tried to speak to all people in their language, and since he had only learned those languages on the side, while traveling, his knowledge of them, except of the Balkan languages (which included his Ladino), was highly defective. He liked counting his languages off on his fingers, and the droll self-assurance in totting them up – God knows how, sometimes seventeen, sometimes nineteen languages – was irresistible to most people despite his comical accent. I was ashamed of these scenes when they took place in front of me, for his speech was so bristling with mistakes that he would even have been flunked by Herr Tegel in my elementary school, not to mention our home, where Mother corrected our least errors with ruthless derision. On the other hand, we restricted ourselves to four languages in our home, and when I asked Mother if it was possible to speak seventeen languages, she said, without mentioning Grandfather: “No, for then you know none at all.”
There is very little in The Tongue Set Free that makes me warm to Mathilde Canetti (her poor husband, Jacques, a gentle, doting father struck down so young, is another matter) but this is certainly a sensible comment. I have often felt that “fluent” is probably one of the most misused words in the English language, particularly when used in tandem with a numeral higher than, say, four or five. “Il parlait quinze langues couramment” is perhaps best translated as “He spoke scraps of a large number of languages.”
This is not to say that multilingualism does not exist. A young Belgian from a certain background may grow up knowing French and Flemish (Dutch), though this is far from inevitable: to a considerable degree these linguistic communities turn their backs on each other. Then at school she will begin to learn English at an early age. The chances are, given how omnipresent the language is in the international media, that she will attain a very high level of competence. Then there may be another school language, perhaps German. An Erasmus stage, or a spell working in another country, in Spain perhaps or Italy, will bring us to five. It’s far from uncommon. But if one pushes on further and further, I’m afraid the whole exercise becomes a little like the old music hall trick of spinning plates on the end of poles: one can’t be everywhere all the time and something has to give. In aspiring to speak seventeen languages you end up knowing none, or just the few you acquired early and indelibly and use every day.
But why bother in the first place? Doesn’t “everyone” now speak English? And do we not have instant translation, should we need it, “at the touch of a button”? Well, quite. But for me the point of the exercise, however humble and limited it may be, is discovery. I like to think, not of the cruel and stupid exercises that the young Elias Canetti was subjected to by his mother, or indeed the suspiciously identical tortures that such a high number of adults in the Republic of Ireland seem to have suffered at the hands of the Christian Brothers and the modh coinníalach, but of the wonder and aesthetic delight that Jacques Canetti experienced when he rolled around those newly discovered English phrases in his eastern European mouth: “He uttered them slowly, like something very beautiful, they gave him pleasure and he uttered them again.” To attempt to speak – even if just for ourselves ‑ the sounds of French or German or Italian or Irish, is to begin a journey into the realms of gold, a land which we know to be filled with many goodly states and kingdoms, even if we may never fully apprehend them. There are, after all, more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than can be supplied by Google Translate.