Tongue and Cheek


Journeying from baby babble to Babel and back again, Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language grotesquely literalizes a linguistic idiom halfway through: A boy loses his tongue. Lost not in terms of breezy facility with certain circumflexed languages, but rather spat out, piece by “gangrenous” piece.

Though the fate of young, tongueless Pierre Durard of Poitou, the subject of a 1630 French case study, might seem bleak—hard to swallow, even—his story is miraculous, and not simply because of the gap in his gob. Expectoration purged the infected organ so completely that the surviving parts of his mouth adjusted accordingly, allowing Pierre to speak, taste, spit, swallow, and swear just like any garçon. As Heller-Roazen writes, “The tongue of the child thus profited, as it were, from the rigor with which it vanished: his mouth fully freed from the organ of speech . . . Pierre Durard could finally talk with ease.” Both vanished and present, the persistent, adaptive qualities demonstrated by Pierre’s “tongue” describe those too of language, stretching and surviving “beyond the body and the speaker,” an elusive, protean being “which outlasts itself.”

A professor of comparative literature at Princeton, Heller-Roazen rigorously ransacks literature, history, linguistics, theology, and psychoanalytic theory for examples, or echoes as it were, of language: its
birth, evolution, destruction, and eventual— and seemingly regenerative—forgetting. Some sources—like Italian writer Tommaso Landolfi’s short stories, and the correspondence between Syrian poet-critic Abu al-Ala al-Maarri and a cranky Aleppine contemporary—poetically elucidate the interplay of speech, writing, memory, and language. Others prove less fluent. Academic erudition often obscures his argument’s clear expression, and frustratingly so, since his premise—investigating the forms of linguistic forgetfulness—is indeed fascinating. Ironically, once freed from the bonds of baffling
diction, Heller-Roazen’s oft dizzying logic settles comfortably during his consideration of Babel.

Channeling Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay “The Task of the Translator” and Benjamin’s paradoxical concept of a forgettable “unforgettable,” he imagines Babel’s forced prattle as a colossal “loss of memory” rather than linguistic annihilation and discrete rebirths, suggesting that we remain in a state of perpetual forgetting, unconsciously aware of our once shared heritage and language.

The task of the translator is markedly different in Paul La Farge’s The Facts of Winter, as the author (and Voice contributor) Englishes the little-known, early-20th-century Parisian writer Paul Poissel.

Who is Paul Poissel? In the introduction to the reissue of the queasily captivating 1926 novel Moravagine, La Farge asked the same question about Blaise Cendrars’s titular character. Cendrars intentionally shrouded his own past in as much secrecy as Moravagine’s: “Cendrars” was a pseudonym for a one-armed conjurer of “fictive rogues,” Frédéric Sauser.

Borrowing from Sauser’s conceit (and thankfully eschewing
Moravagine‘s penchant for rape and murder), La Farge has conjured his own Cendrars in Poissel, an “exceedingly minor author,” and a complete work of fiction. La Farge’s book is a wispy reverie, and a collection of them too. An amnesiac’s dream, Facts is—to hear La Farge describe it—a “series of dreams, all dreamed by people in and around Paris during the winter of 1881, which is to say that it is a fictional account of the imaginary lives of people who may or may not be real.”

Delicate and direct (under 150 pages, French on the left, English translation on the right), it’s barely there when closed in your palm, but opened, it performs sly thievery, nicking childlike flights of fancy lost to the magical realm between memory and imagination. Conceptually Borgesian, sure, but La Farge’s projected Poisselian fantasies recall more the willfully enigmatic, irresistible musings of avant-garde composer Erik Satie (in
A Mammal’s Notebook and Memoirs of an Amnesic
); indeed they would have been contemporaries, had Poissel existed.

La Farge’s jonglerie is by turns amusing, melancholic, revelatory, startling, and nonsensical, but always flush with the journalistic, historical detail (a quality cleverly clarified in the afterword) that enlivens his fiction—as in
Haussmann, or the Distinction, also originally “penned” by Poissel.

Of Poissel, La Farge notes that writing Facts “marked the end of a difficult period” and “saved him as a person.” And of himself: “I grabbed hold of Poissel’s dreams as a way out of a bad situation.” This may be the closest La Farge comes to telling the truth about his relationship to Poissel—which is to say, not close at all—and we’re the better for it.

Depending on how rusty your French is—mine’s near rusted shut—you may figure out what the “facts of winter” are before La Farge’s Poissel scholar “P.L.” does in his coyly satisfying afterword. I won’t show how deep the rabbit hole of narratorial unreliability goes there (though I
will mention that a disgruntled, orchestral rabbit lurks in earlier pages), especially since La Farge so deftly suckers you down dummy paths, but the intricate linguistic thread tying these facts together would certainly delight Echolalias‘ author as well.