Oulipo

My Gregg shorthand book consists mostly of passages for reading and dictation; that is, it’s mostly squiggles. The system is introduced gradually, meaning certain sounds are excluded till you reach the relevant chapter. Inevitably, the early texts have a somewhat stilted character; that clashes with the learning process, which depends on cues from context. There’s one about Cinderella, which went down a treat. You know there must be a slipper and it is a glass one, which might trip up … someone from Mars. But “the past is a foreign country”. I was particularly frustrated recently by the sorry tale of Bob and Archie, two boys on the baseball team. There is a suggestion, which really doesn’t make sense, that Bob owes his captain’s feathers to his prowess at schoolwork. Dark looks are exchanged. Honour requires that Bob sit the match out, but then Archie takes a tumble, and he is called onto the field. Consider that this is a course designed for secretaries. It feels to me as though the culture of English public schools a century ago has somehow been grafted onto the American context, which I have always imagined as rather more rough-and-tumble and pragmatic, with less fuss about fine feelings. Here is the grand conclusion:

At the end of the game the honour went to Archie and Bob for making the scores and it was with a glad heart that he could feel that everyone liked him better for not making the mere desire for playing get the better of his former habits of telling the truth and not being a cheater in work or play.

Gregg Shorthand: Functional Method, Louis A. Leslie, vol 1 p. 234

What a hothouse! I leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out which sounds have yet to come. Notice also the preponderance of words ending in ‘r’, or more exactly, vowels preceding an ‘r’; you don’t actually write the ‘r’, but the vowel is turned round the other way.

I presume that, at least in Leslie’s intent, this tosh made more sense at the time, even allowing for a little Oulipian muddle. We still have the idea that it’s not decent to be a swot, which is a bit of a contortion in what is supposed to be an educational environment, but nonetheless a feeling I can get behind. I wonder if it is still the same, forty years later, in these more utilitarian times? You would have to ask a schoolboy.

I am reading a novel by Sándor Márai, the Hungarian whose active writing life straddled WWII. That puts him in the generation after Thomas Mann, but he could easily be his contemporary. His characters breathe a language of the heart and soul that has quite passed out of contemporary usage. They are fastidious, passionate, and high-minded. They are jealous, not manipulative, steadfast, not stubborn, honourable, not narcissistic. I am not characterising the difference of tone as precisely as I would, under the rubric of literary analysis, since my point is simply to note the gulf that has opened up. Hungary is in any case not part of the main current of European fiction, simply because those eddies flowed out of sight, allowing a different style to flourish, which one perhaps only begins to feel more acutely at those points where the translation falters. Wikipedia tells me he made an early decision to write in his native language rather than German.

Noting this gulf pulls in two directions. One is to wonder whether such a discourse of feeling, the ways of apprehending human relationships and interiority that it permits, is a better or more generous fit for our actual lives than today’s sparer, mid-Atlantic style. The other is to consider that it in its time was just as much “superstructure” as the received ideas of our own, like the perverse torments of Archie and Bob. Taking these thoughts together, we might conclude that generosity is more important than tight fit: the world of the arts opens a reflexive space that gives us room to breathe. The vocabulary of that inner geography can be mean, prescriptive, narrow, and hectoring, or it can lend us wings.

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