The only English words my friend Michael Radelescu knew when he left Romania were the ones spoken in Arthur Miller’s play The Incident at Vichy. When he was in Romania, planning his exile in America, his brother had sent him the following two language learning aids: Miller’s play in English, together with a recording of himself, speaking the same lines, translated into Romanian. When Michael got as far as Heathrow, he went to the bar and waited to be served. No one came, no one came. Eventually, wild with frustration, he remembered a line from the play that he could use. “What am I supposed to do, sit here like a dumb beast?” he growled at the barman. He knew enough words after all.
When Michael reached America, he fell in love. When someone spoke to him in English, and he didn’t understand what they said, his lover (literary agent Marly Rusoff, now his wife) would translate the words for him and he would immediately grasp their meaning. But she didn’t translate them into Romanian: no, she simply repeated the same English words, but in her own voice, the voice that sounded sweet to him. Only when Michael heard the words spoken by Marly, could he understand them. Same words, fresh meaning. The significance of language rests in who is speaking, who is listening; who is writing, who is reading.
Many years later, Michael now cares for his elderly mother-in-law, a woman he delights daily with the words: “Good morning, you delinquent, you troublemaker!” She doesn’t know where she is when she wakes up. “Where am I?” she wonders, every day. “I will always find you,” he replies, simply. Sometimes he tries to pre-empt her as she emerges from her room: “Where did you come from?” he demands, mock-surprised. “From here!” she answers, triumphant, confident for once that she knows best. They use only simple words but they are words which bear a heavy weight of love and care lightly.
I heard these three stories about language in one night and they struck me hard enough for me to write them down. So many aspiring authors use overly complicated language to little effect, when often more can be achieved with relatively little. Each familiar word can come to represent many different things, depending on how you use it, in what context, and to whom it is said. You just need to choose your simple words with great care.
But then, the more language we have in our command, the more significance we might find through our writing: the more words we have, the better we can gesture to what we see and what we feel and know. Recently someone told me about saudade, an emotion only the Portuguese and latterly the Spanish can know, because only they have this word: and how fortunate they are, to be able to describe an acute melancholic longing for something or someone lost, or which might one day be lost, and the joy they once brought to you – all in one word?
Saudade holds within itself such complex contradictary ideas and feelings, it is a beautiful story in one word. For the writers trying to unpack the story – to tell it long, to share it so that others can experience it too – it is probably necessary to return to the oldest, most familiar words and to rely on their versatility, their resilience. I love you; I loved you; I miss you; I will miss you: these are all phrases which bear use and re-use. Saudade is a word crammed full to the brim with meaning. Writers also need words which have been emptied through constant use: words like thing, and that and have and lost and here – words they can re-fill with their own specific resonance and re-shape to their own purpose.
Start with a feeling, not with a word. Start with a feeling, then find some words and fill them with meaning. Use all the most exquisite words you can find. But rely most on the first words you learned and the last words you will forget. And in this way are beautiful palaces skilfully built with basic materials. What better response to saudade, than “I will always find you”?