Nabokov

Dominique Bernier-Cormier

I’ve never had sex in French. I’ve never done drugs in French. On the other hand, I’ve never cracked a lobster or broken a bone in English. I recite the alphabet in French, but I swear in English. I can never tell which language I dream in. I live parts of my life in my mother tongue, and parts of it in my adopted one. When I write, though, I write in English.

I have a complicated relationship with my native French. My mother is Québécoise and my father Acadian. Both my parents were born and raised in French, in communities that built their cultural identities around that language. We only spoke French at home—a blend of my mother’s Catholic-school Québécois and my father’s fishing-town Acadian. The French I heard and spoke was a French-Canadian medley. When I was nine, our family moved from Quebec City to Moscow, where my parents placed me in the French Lycée. My teachers and classmates spoke Parisian French, which I learned to emulate quickly, though imperfectly, in order to fit in.

From that point on, I had an accent for school and an accent for home. Neither felt completely natural. They both felt like a performance. At school, my classmates commented on my Québécois accent, and back in Quebec, my cousins made fun of my new Parisian accent. My native tongue wasn’t native anywhere. It became artificial. I was left with no natural speech. The French language was supposed to be a cultural anchor in the midst of our expatriation, but the anchor dragged.

Vladimir Nabokov always said that abandoning his Russian prose for English was a personal tragedy. “I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English,” he wrote in his autobiography Speak, Memory. French, for me, is indeed rich and docile, but it is also a theatre dressing room. It is full of costumes, of fancy hats, of ball gowns and pea coats. It is elegant. When someone speaks to me in French, it’s as if they hand me a script. I read it, then go backstage and dress the part, come back swearing in Québécois or pontificating in Parisian. The costumes are not tailor-made. They do not fit comfortably. French is a corset; it’s a tight bow-tie. It’s rigid. It lives inside ballrooms and theatres. It doesn’t like to get dirty.

When I was 15, we moved to Beijing, just as I was starting to feel the pull of teenage debauchery and small rebellion. My parents decided to place me in an International School instead of the French Lycée. They thought it would be good for me to gain a proficiency in English. Their reasoning, I think, was pragmatic: university admissions, career paths, and ultimately, to widen the world in which I could comfortably move.

The first few months were hard. I remember rehearsing the words “What time is it?” and “Can I borrow a pen?” for half-an-hour before working up the courage to ask. As months went by, however, I started to feel more comfortable in my lack of proficiency. My best friend was Swedish and wasn’t fluent in English either. After what I assume was also a long period of rehearsal, he came up to me on the first day of school and asked, “Excuse me, but what’s the clock?” Most students in the school were speaking in a language that wasn’t native to them. My friends were Finnish, Korean, German, Czech. Even those whose first language was English all spoke it differently. Australian, South African, Cockney, Brooklyn. In an environment where no one was truly native, where everyone was foreign in one way or another, where everyone had an accent, I wasn’t afraid to get my English dirty. I could wear English like rain boots, drive it like a Land Rover.

Nabokov, comparing his native Russian to his adopted English, said, “an old Rolls-Royce is not always preferable to a plain Jeep.” I was starting to feel the same. But that plain Jeep, for me, needed fixing. I spent countless hours under the hood, learning the mechanics of English, memorizing its circuitry. I had never needed to get my hands greasy with French. I knew it instinctively. All I saw was the shiny exterior of a luxury car I couldn’t take anywhere. I drove from school to home, from Parisian to French Canadian, without ever changing route. I could only drive on the wide, clean boulevards between education and family. With English, I tightened some screws, fixed the transmission, and then I drove it places I had never driven the old Rolls-Royce. I smoked my first cigarette. I got drunk for the first time. I lost my virginity. I experienced those firsts in English, and so I gained an English vocabulary for them that I didn’t have in French. I used Australian slang, British pronunciation, and American idioms. My English didn’t fit within a single cultural identity. The road was bumpy and the car splattered with mud. I felt liberated.

I recently watched a Radio-Canada interview with Jack Kerouac, filmed a year before his death. His French was decidedly that of a native, fluent speaker. I was surprised by how vernacular it was. Kerouac always felt deeply French Canadian. In the introduction to an uncompleted French novel titled Les Travaux de Michel Bretagne, he confessed, “When I am angry, I often swear in French. When I dream, I often dream in French. When I cry, I always cry in French.” It seems that Kerouac also lived parts of his life in his mother tongue and parts of it in his adopted one. And yet, listening to that interview, I recognized in his voice the same stiffness I often find in mine when I haven’t spoken French in a long time. The same rust. Kerouac, towards the end of his life, was conflicted, even anguished, by his abandonment of his native tongue. In the English language, he seemed to have found a freer form of expression, a ’49 Hudson he could drive anywhere. French, for young Jack, was the language of his mother and his priest, a language that referred to sex only as péché, as sin. That language simply didn’t have the vocabulary for what he experienced on the road.

I’ve tried to write in French. I’ve tried hard. But it comes out as Baudelairean, it comes out as les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne and on and on. It comes out as predictable, classical, and derivative. Moreover, I lack a French audience. I started writing seriously at McGill, in an anglophone environment. The community I built around myself functioned in English. The bars I went to were filled with English chatter.

French is a corset; it’s a tight bow-tie.

The arguments I had with friends about literature were in English. I can’t pretend to write only for myself. I do not write in a vacuum. During those first chaotic years, I needed to show people my work, to anchor it to a community. I lived in English and therefore I wrote in English. It was as simple as that.

It is difficult to say whether the excitement I felt when I first started writing poetry in English came from that new stimulating environment, the discovery of poetic writing, or what Nabokov called “the verbal adventure” of the English language. Probably all three. English is a fun tool. It is much more malleable than French, especially for a non-native speaker. Lucien Carr, Kerouac’s friend at Columbia, wrote that they were both constantly “overawed by the versatility of the English language.” The poetic form and the English language allowed me to shed two rigidities: that of classical prose and that of French grammar. In English, verbs and nouns often have the same form (a race, to race; a treasure, to treasure). Conjugation is childishly simple: just add an S to the third person singular. The words retain their core while fulfilling many functions. The words are chameleons. They keep the same shape, but change colour. In French, the words have to accessorize instead, put on -er, -ais, -ette. They have to put on hats, pearl necklaces, the right capes or the right masks in order to switch roles. The language is much more dressed up. When I write in English, I feel stripped of the costumes.

Insecurity, I think, is fundamental to writing. Nabokov, despite his success, remained insecure about writing and speaking in English his entire life. In a letter to a friend, he described his surprise at hearing himself speak in English on the radio for the first time. He did not realize how Russian he sounded. Nabokov said he read and re-read every single sentence he wrote for fear that it wasn’t proper English. He understood the danger of complacency when writing in the native tongue, and understood the value of insecurity.

I remain extremely insecure, too, about writing and speaking in English. Realizing that I would never quite lose my French accent was difficult. I had always assumed that if I spoke English for long enough, I would one day sound like a native speaker. Not so. No matter how much I speak and write it, English will never be my native tongue. My speaking voice is, without doubt, accented. But what of my writing voice? Do I write with a French accent? More importantly, should I?

Chinua Achebe posed the same questions in his essay “The African Writer and the English Language”: “Is it right that a man should abandon his mother-tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.” Perhaps more than any other writer in recent literary history, he had to answer for his use of the English language, and he answered more eloquently and powerfully than most:

So my answer to the question Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not … He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.

Achebe chose to write in English because, for all its colonial ills, it remained the language through which he could reach the widest audience, but also the language through which his (post)colonial cultural experiences could best be described. Achebe not only accepted, but relished the fact that he wasn’t a native speaker.

My speaking voice is, without doubt, accented. But what of my writing voice? Do I write with a French accent? More importantly, should I?

Even more than Nabokov and Kerouac, he saw it as an opportunity. More than them, he understood the malleability of English and the author’s ability to shape it in his own peculiar, and culturally specific, way. Achebe, unlike Nabokov, unlike myself, was secure in his non-native status. He did not comb through his work for evidence of foreignness. He planted the clues on purpose, erected the road signs himself.

Do I write in French? No. Do I write with a French accent? Yes. Will I ever write like a native English speaker? I hope not. It’s an answer that’s taken me a long time to reach, but an answer that I’ve finally accepted. I cannot and do not want to be a native English writer. I do not feel like I’ve betrayed my native French. Writing in English is a choice, and it is inevitably a political one, but it is not a judgment of value. It is an assessment of practicality, of which language best expresses my current reality. It is not a choice that is made once and once only. It is a choice I have to make everyday, a choice I have to re-live, re-consider and re-assume every time I sit down to write. Maybe I’ll write in French one day. Maybe, like Kerouac and Nabokov, I’ll become nostalgic for the Rolls-Royce gathering dust in my father’s garage. But for now, I think I’ll take English out for a spin, see what kind of trouble I can get into.

Dominique Bernier-Cormier’s poetry has recently appeared in The Malahat Review and BookThug’s BAfterC, and is forthcoming in Poetry is Dead. He was a runner-up in CV2‘s Young Buck Poetry Prize in 2015, and was shortlisted for Frog Hollow‘s Chapbook Contest in 2016. His chapbook, Scheduled Mist, will be published in Spring 2017. 

3 Comments

Hannah Brown

This is one of the best personal essays I have ever read. Wow! Now to get BAfter C.

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Anne-Marie Detay

I am flabbergasted! This is writing at its best: to the bone of what says what and how it says it. With such brilliant panache and sharp literary skills. I loved every word, and concept, and metaphor, and smile, and colour of this extraordinary essay. Now I want to read EVERYTHING from you. 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽

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