10 October 2006

Dear WG Sebald

Sarah and I got into a conversation yesterday about how language affects national character. The English have lots of words to fudge with, so we are drawn to politesse and euphemism and make good civil servants. The Dutch have fewer words and no word for "please" (at least, none comparable in usage) so they are direct, even appearing blunt. The Germans have a ferociously complicated set of rules regarding sentence construction, so their philosophers are as analytical and technocratic as their sense of humour is broad. In The Liar Stephen Fry postulates that the Germans have produced so many musical geniuses for the same reason: relatively little can be expressed in their language, so more must be squeezed into the music. Us Brits having a pretty much infinitely flexible lexicon, our compositional excellence is stunted by our ability to think about it too much. Yet in the modernist twentieth century, as music became an intellectual exercise as much as a means of expression, we suddenly started to punch above our weight.

I'm not sure how much of this I buy. But reading your Austerlitz, I'd love to talk with you about it. Given such a proportion of your work is concerned with the effects of suppressed national trauma on personal identity, I doubt you'd have much truck with a theory silly enough to rest on assumptions that definable national characters even exist. You'd be quite right to demur. A couple of years ago I went through a period of obsession with the notions of "Englishness" or "Britishness", both of which exist only at the level of cliche. What connects the football hooligan and the mandarin beyond mere coincidence of birth? And though both might understand the another, aren't there as many differences as similarities in the language they use?

Perhaps what we're really talking about is the character of the intellectual elite. But the intellectual elite across national boundaries have more in common with one another, I suspect, than they each have with the football louts of their respective nations. More importantly, as communications render the world affectively smaller (what many mean when they say the earth is becoming "flat"), national differences are eroding.

Bernard Henri-Levy, on yesterday's Start the Week, expostulated in his spectacular fashion on models of integration: the English and French models, resting to varying degrees on the firm-jawed retention of national identities, he said, have failed; while the American model, resting on the concept of the "melting pot", has succeeded. And if an article on last week's Channel Four news showing American muslims to be very much in love with their adoptive homeland is anything to go by, he's right. National differences are eroding.

All of this has relatively little to do with you, except that I thought you'd be interested. Maybe I'm conflating you with Austerlitz, who I'm sure would be. Either way, I wanted to leave you with this: this article links to a radio programme about language and music. It points out that speakers of tonal languages such as mandarin are, by a staggering proportion, far more likely to possess perfect pitch. But this gift has its downside in the west: their music and their language being much more similar, we understand neither.

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