On Borrowed Words

by Ilan Stavans

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1881

Although the subtitle of Ilan Stavans’s book promises a linguistic theme, much of the early emphasis falls rather on his family and his travels. A Mexican-born professor of Latin American culture, he is also a writer who has discovered that he is most at home in New York City (to which New England, in his mind, serves as a sort of extended suburb) and most creative in the English language. To arrive at this geographic and linguistic destination, Stavans had to come to terms not only with his Jewish heritage but with the four languages which his ethnicity, his homeland, and his present nation imposed upon him. The ingredients of this book include a candid analysis of three family members, a description of several years of nomadic drifting in early adulthood, and an account of his happy assimilation into the cultural life of New York.

The attention he gives to family might lead the reader to expect an early encounter with an archetypal Jewish mother. Stavans has a Jewish mother, but she is an educated woman, a psychology professor whose significance for him, it must be said, does not equal that of three other family members. He was gifted with an especially influential Jewish grandmother, Bela Stavchansky—Bobbe Bela to her grandchildren. Born in 1909 in a Warsaw suburb, she emigrated to Mexico in 1929 and married a Ukrainian immigrant. In the New World she relinquished both Russian and Polish, in which she was fluent, in favor of the Spanish of her adopted nation and Yiddish, always her language of everyday need. Nevertheless, she wrote and consigned to her grandson Ilan a thirty-seven-page memoir of her life composed in imperfect Spanish, thus raising two puzzles of great importance to him.

One has to do with memory and with the form of autobiography that relies on it most heavily. A memoir, Stavans wryly observes, is “driven by our desire to improve our prospects in human memory,” and he found Bobbe Bela’s diario, as she called it, no exception. Her memory having warred unsuccessfully with her desire to leave the family a flattering account of herself, her children and grandchildren easily enough recognized her fabrications. She consigned the memoir to Ilan, he judges, to inspire him to write his own life. In this book he has striven for an authenticity which Bobbe Bela’s effort lacked.

Stavans’s attitude toward memory is an ambivalent one. Despite the tricks memory can play, and despite the temptation to bend it in the service of the self that one wants to project, it is the faculty that rescues past experience from oblivion. The author has good reason to dread oblivion. Several of his relatives failed to escape the Holocaust, and one great-uncle, who had emigrated to Argentina from Poland, returned to Warsaw as a widower with his children in time to perish with them at Auschwitz. Another great-uncle lost his memory, was institutionalized, and the family ultimately lost track of him. Better an imperfect record of a life than its erasure. Stavans is struck by the title his friend Richard Rodriguez gave to one of his own books: Hunger of Memory. Obviously, for Stavans also, memory is food for the soul.

Stavans’s own memory, he says, is capacious. Certainly his telling use of detail in his remembrances of times past and his facility at quoting from “somewhere” in this or that writer lends support to his claim. (Nevertheless, he manages to include at least one amusing instance of misremembering in asserting that his Mexican passport lists his height as 1.58 meters and his weight as 170 kilograms. These figures convert to five feet, two inches and 375 pounds, dimensions easily belied by the photograph on the dust jacket of On Borrowed Words.) More important than the capacity of Stavans’s memory or its lapses, however, is his conviction that memory is a creative faculty capable of conferring significance on “disjointed” and “incongruous” scraps of apparently meaningless life experience.

The other puzzle which his grandmother’s memoir posed for him is a problem for polyglots only: to what language should one’s most heartfelt experiences be committed? Stavans’s choice of language for his most personal writing (he also produces criticism and other essays in Spanish), while less surprising than his grandmother’s, is one earned through a process of seemingly aimless drifting about most of the continents of the world and reflecting on the merits of the available tongues.

For a third-generation Mexican from a family interested in maintaining its Jewish traditions, the process actually began much earlier. Unlike most of his classmates at the Jewish school he attended for fifteen years in Mexico, he enjoyed the intensive study of Yiddish. He came to realize how central it had been to Jewish communal life, but he also recognized its limitations as a literary vehicle. Expressive as this spoken language of Central and Eastern European Jews is, its present audience is relatively small and inevitably diminishing. For the sake of one possible alternative, the “classical” Jewish language of Hebrew, the twenty-year-old Stavans journeyed to Israel. Although no Zionist, he was “enchanted” by Hebrew, absorbed it readily, and learned to relish poems by Shlomo Ibn Gabirol and Yehuda Halevi. Not surprisingly, however, he found that the language had less of a hold on him after his sojourn of several months in the Holy Land had ended.

He credits Moby Dick (1851), which he read in his mid-twenties after coming to New York, with opening up to him the possibilities of English. He took to copying and assiduously looking up the meanings of the unfamiliar words in Herman Melville’s text—a practice that deadened the impact of the novel as literature but vastly enlarged his English vocabulary and brought him to a realization of the possibilities of literary English. As he took to speculating about this discovery, the great Polish novelist Joseph Conrad’s account of his own discovery of English as a literary vehicle impressed Stavans profoundly. Conrad, in replying to critics and reviewers who wondered why he wrote neither in his native Polish nor in French, his second language and one familiar to him from an early age, explained that he had not chosen English as his literary vehicle. Rather, he was “adopted by the genius of the language.” Like Conrad, Stavans discovered in his maturity that in an alien tongue lurked his true language of self-expression. He regards English as a “precise, almost mathematical” language, an idiosyncratic notion surely. One thinks of Samuel Beckett, who discovered precision, more plausibly perhaps, in French and professed an inability to translate his work accurately into his native English. The extraordinarily large English word stock permits precise choices, but is not the precision in the writer rather than in the language? It is certainly possible to argue that the allusiveness, the connotativeness, of the English language militates against precision.

Results, however, matter most, and Stavans has achieved an English style particularly suited to the probing, questioning utterances so prevalent in On Borrowed Words. At the time Stavans realized his similar destiny to write in English, he professed discomfort at his “appalling accent,” a defect that apparently did not greatly trouble Conrad, who spoke with a thick Polish accent throughout his life. (Conrad, one suspects, might have faced a larger problem had he written in the current era of virtually mandatory promotional speaking tours.) Accent, however, falls away on the page, and very seldom does Stavans’s prose betray anything less than a firm command of idiomatic English.

The second great family influence on Stavans was Bela Stavchansky’s second son, Abremele, the author’s father. An actor of considerable talent, Abremele, like so many other Jewish performers with difficult Eastern Europe surnames, simplified his: thus, Stavans. His reluctant involvement in a family business limited Abremele’s theatrical prospects during his young and handsome years; consequently, he never reached the top rank of his profession and took to piecing out his later stage work with routine television fare, including commercials. The author stresses his closeness to his father, whose career and advice to his son both warned him that an artist’s life was liable to involve unwelcome compromises.

The author’s debt to his younger brother Darián is less clear. Some of his unpleasant disclosures about his brother’s life make sense only if one assumes that his main importance is as a reminder of the perils of destructive behavior. Darián also possessed talent, but not of the verbal sort enjoyed by his father and brother. A stutterer, he early displayed love for and promise in music. Although Stavans never explicitly connects his brother with his own early obsession for a pistol which his father kept (but for which he never bought ammunition), the reader is left to wonder whether his revelations of Darián’s suicidal and even murderous tendencies—fortunately not consummated—amounted to a self-check on his own strong passions.

As for the literary influences on Stavans, they are wide-ranging. Aside from Moby Dick, he refers familiarly to scores of other books, European and Latin American works predominating. He credits his eventual gravitation to New England with introducing him to other major nineteenth century American writers—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—but the present book exhibits few signs of their importance for him. Although now teaching at Amherst College, he does not mention that town’s greatest gift to literature, Emily Dickinson. The grand sweep of Whitman’s poetry appeals to him, and he pays homage to Jorge Luis Borges and other poets, but admits that he is not particularly a reader of poetry. He favors narrative prose in a stream from the great seventeenth century Spaniard, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, down to the present, and has absorbed the techniques of modern prose masters.

The organization of On Borrowed Words reflects his interest in the flexible manipulation of chronology in narrative—another Conradian legacy. He begins his book, for example, with an account of his arrival in New York City, artfully leading the reader to suppose that as a recent arrival from Mexico he has been overwhelmed by the Big Apple. Later, the reader learns that Stavans was no wide-eyed provincial when New York and Herman Melville exerted their sway. He had not only visited Israel but lived and worked variously in a number of European countries and had made stops in Africa and South America. The effect is to enhance New York as a particularly nourishing cultural apple.

Along the way, this book might well have focused more attention on the people, the tongues, and the experiences of his New York, less on family members (as distinct from his ethnic heritage, which is extremely important to his purpose). Nonetheless, it ends brilliantly with a poignant anecdote of a woman whom Stavans met in an airport on his way back to New York from Houston. Because she had lost her memory and thus her power of significant speech, his own and two kindly policemen’s attempts to help her proved fruitless. Reading On Borrowed Wordsconveys the full horror of such a condition.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (August, 2001): 2077.

Library Journal 126 (July, 2001): 92.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (September 16, 2001): 16.

Publishers Weekly 248 (July 2, 2001): 61.

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