Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Seta (Silk): A Short, Easy Italian Novel

Seta (2008, 108 pages) is a quick, easy read: ideal for someone's first attempt to read an Italian novel.

Hervé Joncour, a young man in 19th century France, tries to save his town's silk industry by smuggling silkworm eggs out of Japan. Although he's happily married to Hélèn, he becomes obsessed with a girl he meets in Japan. But Japan, newly opened to the world, is sliding into civil war.

The Worm Turns

The silkworm spins a cocoon from a single, kilometer-long thread. From such threads hangs the prosperity of the little town of Lavilledieu, which specializes in silk making. When a silkworm blight starts killing European silk worms, the citizens have to send someone to find replacements. Every year, Hervé Joncour has to travel across the world to buy millions of eggs and get them back to France before they hatch. Each trip takes months, while the world around him keeps changing.

And even when he's back in France, he can't stop thinking about a mysterious girl he met in Japan. One who makes him eager for each return visit, even as they grow more and more dangerous.

You can too!

This is an excellent first novel for someone ready to make the leap to reading Italian. Other than a limited amount of silkworm terminology, Seta doesn't demand a lot from the reader in terms of vocabulary. Like any Italian novel, the narration makes heavy use of the passato remoto, but the only forms you have to learn are the 3rd-person singular and plural. The 108 pages are divided into about 65 little chapters, many of which fit on a single Kindle screen. This gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment when you're reading it because you can knock the chapters off in rapid succession.

One chapter is very sexually explicit. Very. That may be a problem for some readers. Others, having read this warning, may be disappointed that that chapter is quite out of character with the rest of the novel and very near the end as well.

The ending may present a different problem; I noticed that some reviewers complained that it left loose ends. Seta is literature, not action-adventure (although there's a fair amount of action and adventure in it), so it's really about Hervé Joncour's own issues and contradictions, and it's over when those are resolved. In that sense, there are no loose ends. It really is one long thread.

Feel free to review my list of foreign novels I recommend reading as well as reference books I use for learning how to read foreign languages.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

La forma dell'acqua: Why I Abandoned it

I decided to abandon the popular Italian novel La forma dell'acqua (first novel in the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri) because it is too far from standard Italian to read comfortably, and because there is no value to a non-native speaker in learning the non-standard words.

How I Chose it

About a month ago, following my usual process for choosing a foreign novel to read, I made a list of Italian novels to consider. About a week ago, I asked my Italian teacher for some suggestions for novels suitable for a strong intermediate reader. He sent links to a few web sites that listed books that are popular in Italy at the moment. Camilleri was the only name to turn up on both lists.

I really like crime stories, and the Inspector Montalbano series sounded interesting. If any of the reviews complained about the unusual language in the books, I missed that entirely.

What happened when I tried to read it

From the very first page, I found myself looking up way too many words that didn't exist in the dictionary. This slowed me down a lot because I'd try switching dictionaries, then checking Wikipedia, and finally highlighting the word for later. Sometimes there would be two or three unknown words in a single sentence. Given the setting, I had expected to encounter a few Sicilian terms in the dialogue, but not in the narration. Regardless, I forged on to the end of the first chapter.

Even with all that trouble, I did get the gist of the story. A couple of garbage men doing their morning rounds and complaining about their bosses find the dead body of someone they know. They report it to the local police, commanded by Salvo Montalbano. In retrospect, I'm amazed I got that much out of it.

It's not just that it took a couple of hours to do this--it was painful. Still, figuring that perhaps there were only a few words I'd need to know for the rest of the book, I went back to the start and looked up the mystery words online. Or at least I tried to.

The first unknown term, cummigliava probably meant "accumulated," but Wordreference didn't have it, Linguee didn't have it. I consulted an online Sicilian-Italian dictionary, and that didn't have it either. Finally I did a Google search for it, and I found this article:

‘I am Montalbano/Montalbano sono’: Fluency and Cultural Difference in Translating Andrea Camilleri’s Fiction, by Saverio Tomaiuolo

There I learned that I'm not the only one who has trouble reading this author's work.

Why I abandoned it

The author has loaded it with words that he himself invented by merging words from the Sicilian dialect with standard Italian words. Apparently Italians find this entertaining--my Italian teacher told me that he's hugely popular over in Italy, and that you can figure out most of the words by doing Google searches on them because there are all sorts of web sites where people argue over what they're supposed to mean.

I actually considered that. After all, even time spent reading someone's Italian web page is time spent reading Italian, but what put me off the idea is the fact that I don't want to be memorizing a bunch of non-words. Not when there are so many real words I need to add to my Italian vocabulary.

So even though Italians love Camilleri's work, I think students of Italian need to stay away from it.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


Despite being 250 years old, Voltaire's book Candide ou l'optimisme was a delight to read, even at my level of French. It's a wild and crazy tale of a very young man's misadventures across half the world--adventures that retain their power to shock, horrify, and make you laugh. Sometimes all at the same time.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

Candide's teacher, Pangloss, teaches that logic proves that this is the best of all possible worlds and that all things work out for the best. Starting with chapter one, things don't seem to go that way for Candide though. He's kicked out of the castle, drafted into the army, almost flogged to death for trying to desert, almost killed in a battle, almost drowned at sea, almost killed in an earthquake, almost burned by the inquisition--and this is all in just the first six chapters (out of thirty). 

Much of the message of the novel is that the "this is the best of all possible worlds" philosophy is ridiculous, but to some degree the text contradicts this. Bad things have a way of happening to Candide, but worse things happen to the people who tangle with him. If he's driven out of a castle, you can expect a few chapters later to learn that he just escaped the castle's destruction. If he misses a boat with all his belongings on it, expect to learn later that the boat sank. It may not be the best possible world for Candide, but things work out a lot better for him than they seem to have any right to. This makes his misfortunes a lot easier to bear. He's a comic figure, not a tragic one.

Of course the message isn't the fun part of the book, and it's quite easy to just ignore it and enjoy the trip. And what a trip it is! The story takes you to Europe, Africa, South America, and just over the border into Asia.  Sometimes he's fleeing, sometimes he's pursuing, and sometimes he just goes with the flow.

Part of what makes it funny is that no matter what happens, no matter how strange, he always takes it in stride and cooks up some sort of explanation. And some really strange things happen.

When I was in high school, students in second-year French read Candide. Now I understand both how teenage students would be able to read such a book and why it would entertain them.

Issues Reading Candide on a Kindle

This was the second novel I ever read in French. Most of the notes I wrote about how I read Cinq semaines en ballon apply to Candide as well. In hindsight, Candide would have been the easier one for me to start with despite it being over 100 years older.

Because the book was so old, I went ahead and bought an English translation as well--if "bought" is the right word for free books. (Candide is free on in both French and English editions.) What I discovered, though, was that I really didn't need the English version at all. I consulted it at the end of each chapter, but I rarely found any translation mistakes worthy of note.

As with any novel in French, the reader has to be prepared to cope with the passé simple verb tenses in the narration. Unlike modern novels, you also have to deal with it in dialogue, which means you'll occasionally see forms beyond the third person ones. This turns out not to be a big problem because the Kindle's free monolingual French dictionary knows all the passé simple forms and always gets you to the infinitive. If you see a mysterious expression like  nous parlâmes, it's enough to know that the verb is parler and you can figure out that this means "we spoke".

One other thing that took some getting used to is that Voltaire often says point instead of pas to make negative statements. The free monolingual French dictionary does explain this, but, of course, it explains it in French. I think that's the only grammatical point that took me by surprise though.

The hardest vocabulary for me were the words involving Pangloss's philosophy. As it turns out, nothing Pangloss says is of the least importance, and even translated his comments are generally arrant nonsense. (I'd probably get those jokes better if I'd ever had to study philosophy in Latin.)

Supposedly Voltaire wrote the whole thing in just three or four days. I find that hard to believe, but almost as incredible is that I read the whole thing in three days. Of all the foreign-language books I've read so far, I think this one was the most fun. Highly recommended.