And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 21. januar 2018

First reads, or Excerpts from a personal history of reading

In the learning of languages there are certain milestones that remain indelibly in your memory as great achievements signalling that a threshold in the learning process has been overcome. For my mother tongue, Norwegian, I have vivid memories of reading aloud to myself a Donald Duck story written by Carl Barks when I must have been five years old. I remember the closing panel of the comic, the room where I had placed myself in solitude, stomach on the floor, to read in peace, and I remember the feeling of triumph that followed what was my first read, the proof that from now on I had a command of my language that would open up the world of texts for me.

I've had experiences like these in every language that I have made an effort to learn (I'm here not including Swedish and Danish, as these are sufficiently close to Norwegian and have been part of my upbringing in ways that have made it easy for me to internalise them). For English, this sensation of the first read came when I laboured through Alistair MacLean's suspense novel Bear Island,  which I by that time had already read twice in Norwegian and which remains one of my favourite novels. This was at the age of fourteen, I think, and I worked my way through MacLean's beautiful but complicated prose by having two editions side-by-side on the table, one in English, the other in Norwegian. Granted, I had read coherent texts in English before this in school, but this was the first time I aimed for a text that was beyond the expected level, and that I had chosen of my own volition.

Triumphs such as these have followed in the various languages I have attempted to learn. These triumphs do not indicate fluency or completely literacy in the language in question. Rather, as they mark the threshold that divides basic knowledge from literary coherence in the learning process, these triumphs come at an early stage in the learning process itself. Also, it should be emphasised that one language might hold several first reads, as each marks a different level of difficulty. I presume these first reads are common to anyone who engages consciously in the learning of languages, and they are absolutely wonderful thresholds to pass.

I recently had one such first read in my learning of Spanish. This is a language I started learning in senior high at the age of seventeen, and which I took up again three years ago in order to become a fluent speaker. My first read in Spanish was a comic book in the series of Mortadelo y Filemón by Francisco Ibañez, and this happened on a flight back from Spain in 2015. Since then I have read more albums of Mortadelo y Filemón, and I have consciously tried to become a more advanced reader. This happened last week, when I had sat down with a bilingual edition of the collected poems of Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate. I had borrowed this edition because I was not confident in my own ability to read Spanish poetry (previous experiences had taught me that Spanish poetry can be immensely difficult). However, I was delighted to find that the reading went very smoothly, and that I only occasionally cast a glance at the English translation in order to find the meaning of words that were new to me. Much of this owes to Octavio Paz' simple syntax and clearly flowing verses where sentences often consist solely of subject and verb, or subject and adjective. In not to long, therefore, I had finished reading his poetry collection Salamandra, which has become yet another first read for me in Spanish. In celebration of that, I am here sharing one poem from this collection with you.


Pensamientos en guerra
quieren romper mi frente

Por caminos de pájaros
avanza la escritura

La mano piensa en voz alta
una palabra llama a otra

En la hoja en que escribo
van y vienen los seres que beo

El libro y el cuaderno
repliegan las alas y reposan

Ya encendieron las lámparas
la hora se abre y cierra como un lecho

Con medias rojas y cara pálida
entran tú y la noche


Warring thoughts try
to split my skull

This writing moves
through streets of birds

My hand thinks out loud
a word calls to another

On this page where I write
I see beings that come and go

The book and the notebook
unfold their wings and rest

The lamps are lit the hour
opens and closes like a bed

With red stockings and a pale face
you and the night come it
- From Salamandra, translation published in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz 1957-1987, chiefly translated by Eliot Weinberger with additional translations by Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Lysander Kemp, Denise Levertov, John Frederick Nims, Mark Strand and Charles Tomlinson. Printed by New Directions Press, 1987.

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