Wednesday, June 1, 2011

MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY?

I just read about the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Serbian ethnic cleanser, and my thoughts went back to Yugoslavia, the lost country of my childhood. Of course, everyone’s childhood is a sort of lost country, but Yugoslavia literally is: it no longer exists. Serbia, however, exists, as does its and the former Yugoslavia’s capital, Belgrade, where I was growing up. But Serbia was never truly my country, because my father was a Hungarian who came to it to make his fortune (he did), and my mother, though technically Serbian, belonged to the Hungarian minority, and never even leaned to speak Serbo-Croat properly.

Emotionally, I felt intensely Yugoslav, and proud of my Serbo-Croat literacy. I had published, at fifteen, a poem in the country’s leading literary magazine, The Serbian Literary Courier, which no other boy my age could boast of. To be sure, it was only a rhymed rendering of “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, whom I took to be a woman—Joyce—but it was a pretty good translation, if I say so myself.

So now I would be a man without a country if it weren’t for the United States, to which my family emigrated to our everlasting gratitude, and in whose Air Force I served during World War Two. Never, though, near either front, European or Asian. Still, being in the service, expedited my American citizenship. I was 16 ½ when I came to this country and speak with a slight accent some people find charming, though I’d be happier without it.

Here is how I might have lost it. At age 13, I went to public school in England—the Leys School, Cambridge, to be exact—where I hoped to go on to the famed university. But war broke out, England was being bombed, and my father recalled me to Yugoslavia the following year, before I could shed my accent. I recall that in the military, a fellow soldier (from Brooklyn, I believe) asked me where I hailed from originally. When I told him, he opined that it accounted for my “broken lingo.”

It was nowhere near broken. By that time I had been a junior at Harvard, whence I was drafted, and to which I returned upon my discharge. But it was too late for me to acquire a Boston, Hahvad, or any other kind of American accent. It amused me, however, that I had landed in my second Cambridge, where I took my sweet time earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. I enjoyed being a Cantabrigian, and would have gladly settled in Cambridge, had not the gods wanted it otherwise.

Certainly I sounded foreign enough to Lorne Michaels when I appeared on Saturday Night Live. It was a skit about a good critic played by Jon Lovitz, and a dishonest critic played by me. Chatting backstage, Lorne asked whose army I was referring to when I spoke of my military service. “Ours, of course,” I replied, feeling at that moment very patriotic. “How else do you think we could have won the war?”

It had been a funny year as an English schoolboy, trying unsuccessfully to learn cricket from an odious little brat named Burtsall. He was the only one willing to give me cricket lessons in the Leys School basement, but he was such a pest that I had a powerful urge to slap him. Artful dodger that he was, though, it was only in the common room that he dropped his guard. There was a shilling’s fine for rowdiness there, which protected him. So I went up to the prefect, deposited my shilling in advance, and slapped the hell out of Burtsall. But because this was considered a sneaky, unsportsmanlike attack, the fine was redoubled. Thereafter, even without mastering a perfect English accent, I at least learned British fair play.

I have had my quarrels with both my beloved countries, the United States and Britain; with the English language, properly used, never. (See my book Paradigms Lost.) French, which I know well, may be more delicate, more elegant, more melodious, but English has the richest vocabulary, offers the writer wider horizons. At how many intersections of synonyms or near-synonyms have I pondered which to choose: heavenly or celestial, feverish or febrile, fury or rage? Even from the same etymon, did I want instinctive or instinctual? For the sake of rhythm or euphony, should I pick doctor or physician? And so on endlessly—or ad infinitum.

Language is, in a sense, my country. But Country (capital C) matters to me only during World Cup soccer or grand slam tennis. Even there, I find myself rooting more often for foreign teams and players. Country, otherwise, matters mostly abroad, where some nations are respected, others reprehended. Time was when being American, even by adoption, was hugely prestigious; today there are probably fewer envied Yankees than ugly Americans. I myself do not fancy the thought of being taken hostage or, indeed, getting killed as a mere naturalized American, whose ancestors were never slave owners or warmongers.

Well then, how much does Country matter? In the old days, an American consul could do wonders for you in a foreign country. Being American opened doors when you sought favors, closed them when you needed security. Nowadays I wonder whether an Albanian passport doesn’t provide more protection than an American one.

It might well be a better world in which nationality or ethnicity of any kind did not matter. In my younger days, when I was writing the language column in Esquire magazine that turned into the book Paradigms Lost, I was vastly amused when visiting Yugoslavs gloated about what they called one of theirs teaching the Americans English; next week, some visiting Hungarians relished what they called one of their own doing the same thing. There even exists a book about Hungarians who made it big in America, in which I am one of the chapters, although I never considered myself Hungarian for all the pleasure I derived from reading the very great poets of Hungary in their own language. Translations of lyric poetry always lose a good deal; the great exceptions—and even those of verse drama—are Richard Wilbur’s superb translations of Moliere and Racine.

Then there are the people who, based on my accent, assume I was born in Austria. The truth of the matter is that my smart parents had the good idea of having me learn a foreign language as it were in the cradle by means of a trusted German nanny. So my first language was German. Hungarian I learned from my parents, who spoke it at home., and during a summer in a Budapest kindergarten. Serbian I could then pick up from everyone else, at school or in the streets. I even attended a German-Serbian elementary school. So, for a bit, Germany or Austria was my second country. French came quite a bit later in private lessons from a delightful Frenchwoman.

My country? On occasional visits to Stockholm and meetings with Ingmar Bergman and other Swedish film and literary people—not forgetting a theater date with Bibi Anderson—made me wish Sweden were my country. And when, as a 13-year-old English schoolboy I traveled back to Belgrade on vacation, the Swiss were wonderful to me. A wretched French hotel concierge directed me to the wrong train, and all kinds of trouble ensued.. In Basel, I chose to change trains, and a nice porter who carried my baggage absolutely refused to take money from a boy with an English public school cap.

At the little Swiss border town, where I had to wait to catch the next day the  train I should have taken in Paris that morning, the station personnel were perfectly charming. They turned me into some sort of mascot, and taught me all kinds of things about each train that was passing through. At night, they wouldn’t let me pay for a hotel, but made me as comfortable as possible on a waiting-room bench, and sent me rested and cheerful off on the proper train. That I spoke good German may have helped, but I truly felt that Switzerland was my country.

I have had pleasant experiences also with the Dutch and the Italians, including their police, the carabinieri. Only about the French do I have reservations. Not about the upper classes, which, though somewhat cold, are erudite and witty. And certainly not about the lower classes, which I found good-humored and warm-hearted. Only about the middle class, which, in my admittedly limited experience, struck me as penny-pinching, standoffish, and xenophobic, and aptly called petit—or petty—bourgeois.

Take, for example, the couple from whom I rented a room for most of my Fulbright year in Paris: an engineer and his wife. She would drop in on me repeatedly to admire the books I bought with my allowance—mostly Pleiade editions of the classics—praise me for my French, and boast of having gone to school with the great French actress Edwige Feulliere, whom I revered. But always she informed me that I was by no means to expect her to help me meet the star. Not once did this good woman invite me to have a cup of tea or glass of wine with her and her husband in their living room, or even let me set foot in the rest of their apartment.

On the other hand, the lower-class couple, from whom a fellow Fulbright scholar rented his room, could not have been more delightful even to me, and, because I frequently and lengthily phoned their tenant, proclaimed me jovially le roi du telephone. Just as friendly were the flics (cops) at the prefecture, where I had to report for my carte de sejour. Because they liked my French and my humor, they amiably offered to get me a joint French citizenship, which I equally amiably turned down. Only partly because I did not want to become canon fodder in the then raging Algerian War, and partly because, despite their insistence that it had to be otherwise, I could claim not a single French ancestor.

I remain an admirer of everything about France except the French bourgeoisie. And since that is the class I would have been born into were I French, I never imagined France to be my country. Actually, I would like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, if only the world would offer me joint citizenship with the United States. World-United, what a good thing that would be!

11 comments:

  1. I'm heartened to see Mr. Simon write about things Serbian (I only learned a few years ago of his Serbian provenance).

    I recall, when I was still a rather dim-witted teenager, happening by accident to chance upon a paperback novel called The Bridge on the Drina by the Serbian novelist Ivo Andric. At the time, it seemed to be simply a fantasy or fairy tale about an exotic time and place where evil “Turks” were besieging some people. Only in the last few years have I graduated along the “Learning Curve” to know the grimly real and relentless history (and ongoing present) behind that tale.

    I hope Mr. Simon is aware of the work of journalist Julia Gorin who has been reporting on the jihad against the Serbs which simply continues what Muslims have been doing to that particular area of what for centuries was part of the Dar-al-Islam (the "Realm of Islam" (by brutal conquest, of course)) -- but now, like Spain, India, Israel, the Philippines, et al., has, through the spectacular rise to global superiority of the West in the past three centuries or so, reverted to the Dar-al-Harb (the "Realm of War" -- i.e., the realm of Infidels taking back what was brutally taken from them and brutally occupied).

    At any rate, a place as good as any to start with Gorin's writing on the subject is one of her latest, on Mladic:

    http://www.juliagorin.com/wordpress/?p=2640

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  2. P.S.: I confess that I wrote the above before actually reading Mr. Simon's piece; and now, after having read it, I hope my sixth sense is not jumping the gun to pun that "Denial ain't just a river under the Bridge over the Drina"...

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  3. Mr. Simon ends:

    "Actually, I would like to think of myself as a citizen of the world, if only the world would offer me joint citizenship with the United States. World-United, what a good thing that would be!"

    Another three Obama terms (FDR-style), and you might get your wish (and we all know the caveat about getting what one wishes for). It's all well and good to wax cosmopolitan (and I don't refer to Brazilian waxes...), as long as the waxing isn't so indiscriminately warm as to spill over from a melting-pot of dross grosser than my mixing of metaphors.

    And then again, Mr. Simon, haven't you already, more or less, enjoyed a long life of "World United" anyway -- compliments of a relatively stable, secure and healthy West? No need for de jure, when de facto works; no?

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  4. Anyone know what season and what episode of "Saturday Night Live" Mr. Simon appeared on?

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  5. "I myself do not fancy the thought of being taken hostage or, indeed, getting killed as a mere naturalized American, whose ancestors were never slave owners or warmongers."

    The huns--the ancestors of Hungarians--were both slavers and warmongers.

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  6. "It might well be a better world in which nationality or ethnicity of any kind did not matter."

    The world is getting worse because natioanlis/ethnicism is mattering less. As a result, hordes of Muslims are pouring in Europe. AIPAC uses America as its war-whore. SW is being taken over by Mexicans and being turned into Greater Mexico.
    The whole Yugoslavian mess happened because nationalism had been suppressed for so long. WWII wasn't the result of nationalism but imperialism--disrespect of the nationalisms of other peoples by conquering and trampling on their national rights. We needed clearer borders and we need to respect the nationalisms of others and preserve our own nationalism.

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  7. "Only about the French do I have reservations. Not about the upper classes, which, though somewhat cold, are erudite and witty. And certainly not about the lower classes, which I found good-humored and warm-hearted. Only about the middle class, which, in my admittedly limited experience, struck me as penny-pinching, standoffish, and xenophobic, and aptly called petit—or petty—bourgeois."

    In other words, you can't handle the truth. Rich Frenchmen can live in a world of fancy manners and high ideals because they can afford to. In other words, they say all the high-minded politically correct things but use their doughy to live apart from social problems caused by excessive immigration and crime. Same here in the US. The likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, David Rockefeller, and all those fancy liberal Jewish millionaires act holier-than-thou and speak in lofty terms, but then, they can afford to live in their gated communities, mansions, or penthouses. They don't have to practice what they preach.

    As for the lower classes, their whole idea of life is living hand-to-mouth; they seem happy to wallow in their slobbishness and pig out on junk food and junk culture. This can make them seem childlike and charming, but only from a certain distance.

    The middle classes, on the other hand, want to improve themselves AND have to deal with reality. They are not rich enough to remove themselves entirely from crime and other problems. Middle class people in America have to confront black crime, illegal invasion from Mexico, etc.
    Same in France. The rich can live in their own fancy bubble world and put on highfaultin manners. The poor can dance to rap music and pig out on welfare. But the middle class have to work to get buy and they do want to better themselves. What you call 'xenophobic' and 'petty' are actually realism, but you just can't handle reality.
    Why not? You hang around the fancy-pantsy crowd, you lived your whole life around pompous Ivy League types with their neo-aristocratic noblesse oblige airs, ooh lala.

    Or, maybe you're projecting your own self-loathing onto the French middle class. People have said 'Simon is too conservative, too bourgeois, too stuffy, too anal, too racist, too homophobic, too rigid, too strict, too much of an asshole'--the sort of stuff you say about the French Middle Class. But you wanna impress others that you're some 'citizen of the world' while projecting your self-loathing neurosis on the 'petty' and 'xenophobic' French middle class.

    Well, if France is to be saved, don't place your hopes on the French lower classes listening to rap or on the French upper classes living in their bubble world while preaching globalist crap. It will be if the 'petty' and 'xenophobic' French middle class rise up and fight for their nation. I say they are passionate and proud, and I praise the French middle class for giving the bratty, pesty, nasty, and pretentious youngboy Simon a hard time.

    Btw, maybe the lower-class French guy treated you well cuz he saw you as a kind of social superior to impress. Do you think he would have been as nice if you were poorer than he? The world isn't your oyster, Simon. Pull your head out of your ass.

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  8. Apropos of the French "petty bourgeois", I found Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle nicely skewered them while it depicted the warm, albeit rather Mediterraneanly hyper, lower classes with affection.

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  9. "The huns--the ancestors of Hungarians--were both slavers and warmongers."

    Perhaps; but they became fairly well civilized -- unlike Mohammedans. But what can one expect from a people who revere a barbarian as the "best model of conduct" for all time?

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  10. Ratko's ethnic cleansing and Simon's grammatical cleansing are both manifestations of the same mentality. Utopianism. To be human, we must accept imperfections as part of reality.

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  11. And you, Iswas, are manifestly imperfect, though your relation to reality is tangential at best. Begone! Slither back under that rock.

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