October 31, 2011

Berlin Conversations, or, Why Make the Effort?

It was only after some minutes that I realized she wasn’t taking in anything I said. She evidently couldn’t understand my English, for I was talking much faster now, and not choosing my words. In spite of her tremendous devotional effort of concentration, I could see that she was noticing the way I parted my hair, and that my tie was worn shiny at the knot. She even flashed a furtive glance at my shoes. I pretended, however, not to be aware of all this [Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, 1939]
Minus the Nazis and the playful communists – though one can still find both, I am sure – Isherwood’s Berlin is very reminiscent of my own. Admittedly, I do not know any cabaret singers, prostitutes, or Jewish department-store owners. I do, however, encounter more than my fair share of middle-aged German ladies; a fair portion of young Germans – rich and effete as well as poor and intellectual – of various stylistic and sexual orientations; and the ubiquitous drudgery of trudging working-class existence. I have been poor here, and I have been better off. I have been in some sleazy holes, some shabby-chic Lokals, and to rather many refined establishments. I have gibbered through frozen cobble-stoned winters and baked in oppressive concrete summers. The Berlin stories hit home.

The above passage is perhaps the epitome of my affinity for Isherwood’s tales. British English is, now more than ever, a provincial dialect of the lingua franca that only a privileged few understand. There is another dialect – International English – that I am learning to speak, with some difficulty. It is, as any regular reader of my humble prose will admit, impossible for me to imagine a life without idiom, without metaphor. But International English is just that: a two-dimensional functional dirge, the linguistic equivalent of protein pills and vitamin supplements in lieu of nutrition by culinary means.

There are two aces up the sleeve of the colourful but misunderstood speaker. First, being English still goes a long way. For better or for worse, the English accent ratchets up one’s reputation a couple of notches in most of the Western world. Second, one can dress to reinforce this a priori impression. As per Isherwood’s example, the inattentive ear gives play to the wandering eye, and one must therefore make the effort to look the part. A top-hole accent matched to a refined appearance can make magisterial prose out of mere rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, and will leave your struggling interlocutor feeling like an intimate confidant.

In short, faced with a world that understands me not, I shall make the effort to look the part. Whatever I may say, I may then be confident that my befuddled companions at least have the right impression.

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