Beginning with the articles eventually subsumed in The Self-Begetting Novel (1980), Steven G. Kellman has distinguished himself in the field of comparative literature as historian, critic, and scholar of what has often been seen as “experimental” fiction. In The Translingual Imagination, Kellman privileges the experimental nature of all creative writing, memoir as well as fiction, by focusing upon writers whose expression embraces more than one language, or, at the very least, occurs in an acquired, as opposed to native, idiom. Revisiting certain works and authors already considered in The Self-Begetting Novel, Kellman both broadens and deepens his inquiry, moving on to explore the work of authors unpublished (or undiscovered) at the time of the earlier studies.
As Kellman points out from the start, the phenomenon here described as translingualism is as old as writing itself: Relatively few of the authors who rose to prominence under the Roman Empire were native speakers of Latin; for most, it was an idiom acquired in adolescence or maturity, through education and effort. During the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, writers and thinkers throughout Europe learned and perfected Latin in order to reach a wide audience of their peers; more recently, writers from northern and eastern Europe likewise chose English, French, or German to achieve wider dissemination of their work. It was during the twentieth century, however, that translingualism developed in the form that Kellman has chosen as the object of his study, a phenomenon owing at least in part to developments in history and politics.
Early in his exposition, Kellman takes care to distinguish between “ambilinguals,” those who write with equal facility (and eventual literary merit) in more than one language, and “monolingual translinguals” whose written expression is confined to an acquired idiom. To be sure, Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov emerge as the best known and among the most able ambilinguals of their generation (and perhaps of all time); as Kellman points out, Nabokov would rank as a major Russian writer had he never written a word in English, and Beckett’s literary fortunes have relatively little to do with his mature decision to write originally in his acquired French. Among the more notable monolingual translinguals cited by Kellman are Eugène Ionesco, whose plays written in French call attention to the strangeness (and frequent uselessness) of all language, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Senegalese poet and statesman who chose French as the vehicle of his postcolonial assertions. For each well-known figure cited, however, there are dozens of lesser-known ones whose work Kellman seeks to discover for his readers.
In his third chapter, “Translingual Africa,” Kellman explores in breadth and some depth the experience of both white and black authors writing from and about Africa during the twentieth century. Among the former are Karen Blixen, a Danish colonist who reinvented herself as Isak Dinesen to write tales in English, and Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese reared in South Africa, whose poetry spans both Portuguese and English in a variety of auctorial voices. Among the latter, Kellman foregrounds the case of the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o who, after completing a distinguished body of work in English as James Ngugi, returned to his native Gikuyu in order to write plays that would reach an audience whose members might or might not be able to read. Kellman’s subsequent chapter deals with the career of J. M. Coetzee, born in South Africa in 1940 to an Afrikaner and his British wife. Although his family spoke Afrikaans in the home and his English was learned mainly in school, Coetzee chose English for his professional writing, both creative and expository, and in time pursued the Ph.D. at the University of Texas, Austin, completing it with a dissertation on the fiction of Samuel Beckett. For Kellman, Coetzee’s affinity for Beckett was no accident. “Translinguals are not only a large and important category of authors. As acutely conscious of their links to others as to the problematics of language, they constitute a tradition, not an arbitrary assemblage.”
As Kellman points out, Coetzee’s early creative writing responds to Beckett, “reading” Beckett in the very act of writing, and for at least a decade after completing his Ph.D., the South African continued to publish articles and essays on Beckett’s work. The critic has also published on Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), a novel that figures prominently in Steven Kellman’s The Self-Begetting Novel, together with Beckett’s trilogy originally written in French: Malloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone muert (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable,...
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