Sad, Articulate Pole

Such is the empathy elicited by Eva Hoffman’s intimate, exploratory prose that, reading Lost in Translation, I was filled with a powerful sense of tesknota – the Polish word for nostalgia which Hoffman uses, presumably because it conveys better than our word that sense of longing for something understood but unreachable. I wanted to share the raw intensity, the clarity of purpose, the sensuousness of struggle in the author’s early years and later her zealous, desperate, anguished, transcendent pursuit of a new culture through its language. I wished to cling to her skirts and be taken on the rigorous intellectual journey she has made. An outsider, nose against the window of Hoffman’s relentless mental gym, I wanted to experience the sweat of exhaustive effort, the delight of feeling the expansion and growth which follows.

This is a book about the quest for language as a tool for survival. Words, with their particular, precise meaning, their nuances, their imagery, are the mechanism by which we can truly know one another, by which we explore the intimate depths of each other, by which we convey our differences and similarities. It is language which enables the naked savage, the alien, the outsider to touch each other’s minds and hearts; without language we can get no further than communication about shared and well understood experiences.

I was much struck by this, travelling recently in Ethiopia. In a bleak, wind-blown region of desperate poverty where most people survived on a bowl or two of rice a day, an old man thrust a basket of eggs into my hands, insisting, by his gesture, that I take it as a gift and in that moment I was confronted by my inability to thank him in a way which would convey an understanding of how very much he was giving. The exaggerated smiles and head-nodding seemed hopelessly inadequate. What a lie are all those clichés about actions speaking louder than words. It was the lack of language to convey the intricacies of her meaning which Hoffman felt most acutely when she first arrived in Canada at the age of thirteen, which made her realise that if she was to survive and thrive she must above all possess the language of her new world. She writes of that time: ‘I’ve become obsessed with words. I gather them, put them away, like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body. I will not leave an image unworded, will not let anything cross my mind till I find the right phrase to pin the shadow down. The thought that there are parts of the language I’m missing can induce a small panic in me, as if such gaps were missing parts of the world or my mind’. And there is an acute awareness of what it means if those missing parts cannot be slotted in. ‘Linguistic dispossession is a sufficient motive for violence for it is close to the dispossession of one’s self.’

If this were simply the tale of Eva Hoffman, Polish emigrant, daughter of a family ‘located somewhere on the tenuous margins of middle class society’, whose musical talent offered the possibility of a professional career, whose academic abilities were applauded through American college and got her into Harvard, and who has achieved the intellectual status of a writer for the New York Review of Books, it would be a beautifully written book about a fairly exceptional person. But Hoffman takes her experience into the realms of universality, expressing herself in a way which has echoes and points of recognition for others who leave their history, their roots, their known identity and must try to recreate themselves in another culture. For example when, in her new school in Canada she and her sister have their names Anglicised so their classmates can comfortably say them, she observes: ‘The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us – but it’s a gap which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters.’ On the pain and difficulty of trying to join in youthful joking, of getting it wrong because she has not reached a sufficient finesse of language: ‘Perhaps the extra knot that strangles my voice is rage. I am enraged at the false person I’m being stuffed into, as into some clumsy and overblown astronaut suit.’

In due course the dilemma shifts from one of simply conquering language to one of crossing the gap between a view of the world learned as a child which holds a vital, poignant place in her being but which contrasts with what she experiences in her Western life, to the necessity of empathising with the values and attitudes of her new home: ‘It’s odd that these conflicts have become sharper just as I’ve gotten closer to the people around me. To remain outside common agreements is to remain outside reality itself – and if I’m not to risk a mild cultural schizophrenia, I have to make a shift in the innermost ways. I have to translate myself.’

But if Hoffman’s dazzling artistry with words, the way she lines up a brigade of them to elucidate with absolute precision what she wishes to explain, her juxtaposition of a particularly sombre deliberation with spivvish humour, are the triumph of this book, the narrative provides an engaging and absorbing vehicle. The effect is of photographs in an album offering a series of vivid moments, recording the main themes in a life, but, maddeningly, leaving questions one would so like answered. Through the pages we see the young Eva growing up in a Cracow impoverished and bowed by the impact of the war, living physically and emotionally near to her family and their close friends; we share her discovery of being Jewish, the answering of an unrealistic question: ‘The sense of being Jewish permeates our apartment like the heavy, sweet odour of the dough that rises in our kitchen in preparation for making hallah … the confirmation of Jewishness straightens things out. So being Jewish is something definite; it is something I am…’ Yet that Jewishness is the reason for going as anti-Semitism grows during the 1950s.

In their new country the family must begin again, grateful for any gesture of kindness or friendship. It is through school and college life that Hoffman becomes integrated, winning awards and scholarships for her literary skills and in due course talking herself into Harvard long after entry has closed ‘on the last blast of immigrant bravura’ convincing those with the power to change the apparently unchangeable that they should be supporting this outsider so fervently striving to become an insider. There is the curious paradox of being bang in the middle of the American counter-culture taking mind-expanding drugs and questioning the ‘norms’ its country has striven so hard to establish. Of this Hoffman says: ‘While my companions are trying to achieve some interesting metamorphosis I try to hold on to some ordinary points of reference. I’m having enough trouble remaining myself as it is.’

The love of Hoffman’s childhood, another Polish Jew named Marek is the man who, in the simplicity of her early expectations, is ear-marked as the man she would inevitably marry one day. His emigration to Israel and hers to Canada separate them so and Hoffman falls in love according to the things she admires most in her new life: ‘When I get married, I am seduced by language … It’s a tricky contract, and I get confused between my husband and his eloquence’. By contrast when Marek visits her in America she can allow herself the uncontrived spontaneity of earlier times: ‘We’re happiest when we’re off by ourselves, in my VW striking out for the open road. Then we fall into a sort of suspension in which we almost glide again through a magical seamlessness, that childhood wholeness in which there are no obstacles, no friction, no disunion.’

The tale takes us through a physical adaptation to the American way of life so that she slots comfortably into the life of a chic New York journalist wearing Geoffrey Beene coats, adding her ha’penny worth at ‘functions where conversation concerns itself with the quality of literature, brittle insightful observations of the latest breed of writers’. But it is through teaching literature to others that Hoffman makes the most vital breakthrough: ‘I crack that barrier between myself and the language – the barrier I sensed but couldn’t get through. My eye moves over these lines (Alfred J Prufrock) and … I hear their modulations and their quiet undertones … Suddenly I’m attuned through some mysterious faculty of the mental ear to their inner sense. Words become as they were in childhood, beautiful things … now cross hatched with a complexity of meaning, with the sonorities of felt, senuous thought.’ Yet it takes therapy to allow her to return to her Polish past to ‘wind my way back to my old, Polish melancholy. When I meet it, I reenter myself, fold myself again in my own skin.’

Words are the axis of this book and there is a certain irony in the fact that Hoffman the outsider has a command of language, vocabulary of dazzling breadth, the ability to whisk words into a startling confection of meaning, which far surpass that of many natives of the English tongue. For the gourmet of language this is an exquisite feast.

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