An Occupational Hazard

One doesn’t normally think of translating and editing as a dangerous profession, but my experience of working in this field for the last fifty years has had a deleterious effect on me, leaving me seriously incapacitated. Reading literature of any kind, and especially if it has been translated into or from any of the language pairs between which I work, becomes a major problem, impeding any pleasure I might otherwise have obtained from reading. I generally do what I can, to the best of my ability, not to read books in translation, and so get a certain satisfaction from reading books in the original.

For example, I decided to buy the Hebrew version of David Grossman’s latest book, ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar,’ the English translation of which has been awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. Almost immediately, however, in the first few paragraphs, I found myself wondering how the translator, Jessica Cohen in this instance, had translated a particular term. The whole book gets off to a rather slow start in which the reader is part of the audience at a stand-up performance, and is drawn into the story of the rather unfunny ‘comedian.’ This gives the reader time and opportunity to think about the way the terms have been translated.

I have never been to a performance of a stand-up comedian myself, though I have seen one or two such events on TV, and have, I suppose, a general idea of how these things work. But that isn’t the point here, as Grossman uses the so-called comedian’s patter and interaction with the audience to display his character, history and psychology. One thought that occurred to me while reading the book was to wonder whether Grossman earns a little extra on the side from writing jokes for stand-up comedians. I’m sure he could do quite well in this field if he put his mind to it. Anyhow, I’m still in the middle of reading the book, so I don’t yet know what the denouement is, if there is one at all. The pace of the narrative is rather slow, there’s little plot or tension, at least to begin with, and it is the language the ‘comedian’ uses which reveals who and what he is.

And there’s the rub. Initially he comes across as a somewhat unpleasant character, someone who picks on individual members of the audience and mocks them for the name they bear, their own or their wife’s physical appearance or their occupation. I guess that’s a standard ploy of stand-up comedians, but it certainly is not one that endears him to this particular reader. The language he uses varies between colloquial modern Hebrew, Yiddish expressions and obscure literary references. At each incident of verbal pyrotechnics my brain stops short and asks ‘how did Jessica Cohen translate this?’ or, worse still, ‘how would I translate this?’

As you can imagine, this does not make for an easy read. On the contrary, it makes the reading experience extremely difficult and troubling, and it is only by dint of a conscious effort that I persuade myself to pick the book up again and read a few more pages. I’ve already made up my mind to buy the English version and compare the two, an exercise which I know in advance will cause me anguish and distress.

From conversations with colleagues in the field, I know that I’m not alone in experiencing what can be called ‘Translator’s Syndrome,’ which is also very much akin to ‘Editor’s Syndrome’ and ‘Proofreader’s Syndrome.’ Are those of us engaged in these professions destined never to enjoy ‘a good read’ or be carried away by the need to find out ‘what happens next,’ as we did in our childhood, before we entered this dangerous field of activity, when we could read a book and thrill to the intensity of the experience?

In conclusion, I feel it is incumbent upon me to issue a warning to anyone contemplating a career in translation (or editing or proofreading). Beware! You are embarking upon a journey that will forever prevent you from enjoying another book! Enter at your peril!

 

Their Finest Hour

 

Since the reviews of the above film were positive on the whole, we decided to make a supreme effort to see it, squeezing it in between two evenings of other cultural activities. The subject was particularly interesting for me because it was set in London during the Second World War, in the period known as the Blitz, when Nazi Germany rained bombs down on the city.

I grew up in London, and lived there until I moved to Israel after completing my university degree. The film is set in 1940, just near the beginning of the war. I wasn’t born yet then, but my parents were living there as a newly-married couple, both of them refugees, and lived through the events described in the film.

And sure enough, the opening scenes showed familiar scenes and sights of war-torn London, buses unable to proceed to their destination because of bomb damage, people huddled in underground stations, which served as bomb shelters, and houses that had been turned in an instant into a heap of rubble, often with people trapped or killed underneath.

The idea is to show how, in a combination of slapdash improvisation and professional expertise, a film depicting the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk served to raise the spirits of the nation as well as to save thousands of lives of servicemen. We hear the call that went out over the radio for anyone with a boat of any kind or size to make their way to the French coastal town of Dunkirk in order to bring the trapped men safely home.

Britain is an island and the British are a sea-faring nation, as has been proved in the past on more than one occasion. Just think of Sir Francis Drake ‘singeing the Spanish King’s beard’ when he led the fleet against the Spanish Armada, or the East India Trading Company, which established the British presence in India and elsewhere to eventually create British colonial rule that extended across most of the known world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I grew up reading Arthur Ransome’s books, ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ and of course there are also the unforgettable characters created by Kenneth Grahame in his book ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ Thus is a nation’s sea-going heritage preserved and handed down to each new generation of children.

The story of the film within the film focuses on the ‘human element’ aspect of what might otherwise have been a humdrum, albeit heroic, military operation. This takes the form of two sisters, Lily and Rose, who defy their drunken bully of a father to take his small, rickety fishing boat out to sea in order to take part in the rescue.

The facts of the event are not as heroic as they are portrayed in the script of the film on which our characters are working, and a fair amount of tweaking of actual developments and characters are required in order to meet the demands of the actors, producers and politicians, all of whom have agendas of their own to fulfill and objectives to achieve.

Amongst other things, one such demand gives rise to the inclusion of an American pilot in the film that is being made. Apart from being a handsome young man, the pilot has absolutely no acting experience or talent, and naturally this causes considerable difficulty until somehow a solution is found. This and other developments are generally a source of merriment and mirth for the audience in the real world, while the audience in the film that is eventually produced and shown in cinemas during the war arouses the desired patriotic emotions and sense of identification.

Of course, without some love interest, in both the real and the unreal films, no story can be complete, and so it is that alongside the ‘genuine’ emotional attachments that develop between the individuals working on the film, they ‘manufacture’ a romantic connection between the characters they have created.

As the film ends we find ourselves identifying with the characters whose faults and foibles have been portrayed with humour and compassion. For me personally it was inspiring to see how a narrative thread is manufactured out of thin air, facts are manipulated and how the courage and determination of the Britain of seventy years ago once saved the world.

On Writing by Stephen King

Not being a fan of the horror/fantasy genre of novels, I must confess at the outset that I have not read any of Stephen King’s other books. I do know, however, that he is a very successful and prolific author in his particular genre, and that several films have been made of his books.

I decided to download and read this book after seeing several recommendations for it in writing groups I belong to, and it certainly is an interesting read. The man can write, and I breezed through the book in eager anticipation of finding the holy grail of how to get published and attain bestsellerdom that every writer seeks.

The first half of the book is taken up by what the author calls his C.V. It is in fact pure autobiography, and is in itself an interesting story. Growing up in a single-parent, lower-middle-class household in middle America is not the best start in life for anyone, let alone an aspiring writer. Still, it would seem that young Stephen showed aptitude for writing from an early age, and his initial attempts to produce a newsletter or journal provide considerable entertainment for the contemporary reader who knows what happens later.

I’m going on the assumption that Stephen King’s account of his initial failures, abundant rejection letters and repeated disappointments are true. He has a good memory, or perhaps has kept a record (or both), but it gives one heart to see how long it took and how many failures he experienced before he actually managed to get into print (a short story in a magazine). This pattern seems to have continued throughout his teenage years and even into young adulthood, marriage and his early career as a schoolteacher. The initial pages of his first bestselling novel, Carrie, were rescued from the trash-can by his wife, who convinced him to continue with the manuscript. It is also interesting to read how the idea for the book came to him, on the basis of his own experience at school and his work as a high-school teacher of English.

When it comes to telling the reader/ what it takes to produce a good book, Stephen King has some helpful albeit platitudinous advice. Read a lot, write a lot, avoid adjectives and ‘kill your darlings’ are among the prime paradigms on which he has expanded extravagantly, contravening his own admonition to cut wherever and whenever possible. He stresses the need to adhere closely to the rules of grammar, which seems to be stating the obvious, and advocates sticking to the apostrophe s to indicate apposition, even when a word or name ends in the letter s, even though in many cases this is superfluous.

Right at the end of the book we find ourselves once again embroiled in an excessively detailed account of how he was run over and seriously hurt as he was out taking a stroll one day. His injuries, which he describes in considerable medical detail, were undoubtedly horrific and life-threatening, requiring a long and painful recovery process/ Relief came only two months later, when be was able to sit down and start writing again.

I’m not sorry that I made the effort to buy and read this book, though I’ve read too many similar texts to be able to find anything revolutionary and new in this one, at least as a guide to the aspiring writer. It does provide some insight into the mind and workings of someone who has proved himself to be a successful writer, and that in itself is important. At the end of the book is a list of the books Stephen King has read and found helpful, and it is certainly long and wide-ranging. I must admit that I have read only a few of them, and I’m disappointed that not a single book by Virginia Woolf is to be found there. But then, what did I expect?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

P.S. I will be speaking about my latest book, “Chasing Dreams and Flies; A Tragicomedy of Life in France” at the AACI, Talpiot, Jerusalem at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, June 14. All welcome.

An Embarrass de Richesse

A recital devoted to three of Schubert’s last sonatas (D 845, 850 and 890) was too good to miss, so we cancelled our subscription tickets to the symphonic concert that happened to fall on the same date and bought tickets for that evening instead. Sometimes life or fate or the Jerusalem concert programme offers more than the individual can absorb at once, and it is not always easy to make one’s choice. It is at times like these that the rather apt adage about not being able to dance at two weddings comes to mind. True, we would have been happier still had Schubert’s posthumous sonata D. 960 been included in the programme, but hopefully that will come some other time.

The young soloist, Shai Wosner, sat alone at the Steinway grand piano on the stage of the quaint auditorium of Jerusalem’s YMCA communing with Schubert and his music as we, the audience, listened in rapt attention to his phenomenal and sensitive playing. Schubert’s last six sonatas constitute the summation of his approach to music and the world, expressing raw emotion and deep philosophical thinking, as well as intimacy and far-sightedness, and all this enclosed in tuneful melodies that take the listener to heights of rapture and depths of sorrow.

Gramophone, one of the world’s leading music journals, has described Wosner as “a Schubertian of unfaltering authority and character,” while Wosner himself has described Schubert’s last six sonatas as “six thick novels, rich with insight about the human condition” (taken from the programme notes).

Schubert was a great admirer of Beethoven, and was even a pall-bearer at his funeral in Vienna in 1827. He sought to emulate his hero in the sphere of the piano sonata, but his work bears all the hallmarks of his own unique talent, and conveys a very different message to Beethoven’s.

From the very first notes of the first sonata Wosner held the audience captive with his wide range and expressive musicality, bringing the music to life and setting it before us like a delectable feast. Alone with the piano, playing from memory, he took us into a world where nothing existed but the piano keys and his fingers as they skipped and danced over them to produce exquisite sounds. For me personally, it seems that anyone who can play complex music without having to look at the notes in front of him or her must be some kind of genius, and this must certainly be the case with Shai Wosner.

So here we have two geniuses (genii?) working together – one who composed the music a few hundred years ago and another who can produce it for our delight in the concert hall without appearing to make any effort, as if he was born to sit at the piano and produce divine music.

With the magical sounds still ringing in our ears, we returned to the mundane world at the end of the evening, still in thrall to Schubert and Wosner and eternally grateful for the divine world of music.

Fifty Years

I was in the ninth month of my first pregnancy when the Six Day War broke out, fifty years ago. I have written in some detail about this point in my life in my first novel, ‘The Balancing Game,’ so if you have read it I apologise for being repetitive.

The way that, together with some scared neighbours from upstairs, we hunkered down in our ground-floor apartment, with sandbags at the door and sticky tape pasted on the windows, still remains fresh in my memory. In my ‘delicate’ condition I refused to go to the public air-raid shelter, not wanting to find myself surrounded by people, both adults and children, in a place which I assumed would be neither comfortable nor clean. I may have been wrong in my assumption, but I was not to be budged. We were living at the time in one of the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that was not very near the then border with Jordan, so perhaps that gave me a sense of security.

I know that the situation in which Israel found itself aroused the anxiety of Jews around the world, and all the more so of my immediate family, parents and sisters, who were then living in London. I had been advised by the British Embassy to leave the country, but the practicalities of leaving Israel seemed almost insurmountable then, and I somehow assumed that things would work out.

And work out they certainly did. After two or three days and nights during which we heard artillery falling around us, and planes flying above us, the announcement came over the radio that we could leave the shelters and our homes and emerge into the light of day. When I went outside I was astonished to find that all the houses were standing, unscathed, and nobody in the immediate vicinity seemed to have been hurt. This was all the more astonishing to me because as a child growing up in post-world-war London I had seen more than one house that had been destroyed during the Blitz, so that the remnants of those damaged buildings were a not uncommon sight.

And then there was the euphoria, the sense of relief at the news that not only had Israel not been obliterated, as the Arab leaders around us had promised, but that our forces had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in averting the threat to our existence and overcoming the armies that threatened us.

With hindsight it seems that our joy was premature because many years of anguish and tragic events were to follow, but at the time all this could not be imagined. The idea of being able to go to the Old City of Jerusalem, to Jericho and to many other places that until a few days previously had seemed to be as remote as the other side of the moon was intoxicating. And we did indeed go to those places. In Hebron there were expert glass-makers whose wares soon adorned our house, and in the Old City of Jerusalem we were entranced by the beautiful ceramic objects made by the Armenian craftsmen. Altogether, a new, exotic and enchanting country opened up before us, and the inhabitants seemed quite happy to interact with us and engage in commerce with us Israelis.

Much has changed since then, but it is still possible for the average inhabitant of Israel to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, enjoy its lively markets, take tourists to see its exotic places, and visit the Western Wall, where previously Jews were forbidden to go. Today, the places that are holy to any of the three major religions of the world are freely accessible to their respective adherents, a situation which did not exist before.

Fifty years have passed and much has changed, but it would be a tragedy if Jerusalem were to be divided again, preventing Jews, Moslems and Christians from whatever country from going freely about their business within it or worshipping openly at their own particular holy site.

In those fifty years I have grown older and, hopefully, just a little wiser, my children and grandchildren have been born here and almost all the members of my wider family now live (or lived) in Israel.

These have been fifty momentous years, both for me personally and for my country.

And now the baby that very considerately waited for another two weeks to be born has grown up to become a devoted wife, successful professional and treasured mother of three.

Happy birthday, Dana!

 

 

Israel and Africa

Last week I was invited to hear a talk by Sharon Bashevkin Perry, who has been involved for many years in early childhood education in a variety of positions in Israel, the US and Africa. The talk was entitled ‘From Israel to Ghana – Building Bridges and Friendships Through Early Childhood Education.’

In 1958 Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, visited Africa and was appalled by the poverty and privation she witnessed there. On her return to Israel she established a programme, known as Mashav, involving cooperation between Israel and African countries in the fields of education, health and agriculture. Her objective was twofold: to extend a helping hand to those countries and to foster good relations with them. Since then the programme, known as Mashav, has continued, under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Israeli educators and training teams in various areas of expertise spending periods of time in Africa. In addition, African educators, medical personnel and farmers are brought to Israel to participate in intensive training programmes. All these activities have helped to create a favourable attitude towards Israel in those countries, though over the years diplomatic relations with various African countries have had their ups and downs.

Together with my friends, I was treated to a fascinating talk, accompanied by a colourful Powerpoint presentation, about Sharon Bashevkin Perry’s experiences working in this programme in Ghana. We were able to hear about her encounters with local preschool and early school educators, share her own personal insights into the various aspects of Israel’s outreach activities and gain an understanding of the importance of training preschool and elementary school teachers in Ghana. We saw the various ways in which Sharon and her associates showed the local teachers how to take everyday items (e.g., bottle-tops, sticks, fabrics) and use them in making toys and educational aids in the pre-school and elementary school environment. Sharon stressed the positive and welcoming attitude towards Israel and Israelis shown by the people with whom she came into contact.

One of the features that struck Sharon in her encounters with the local populace was the limited verbal interaction between mothers and small children. She witnessed many instances in which a child would be sitting with its mother, even in close contact, stroking and caressing her, but the mother would not speak to the child. This, of course, has repercussions for the child’s verbal and possibly even cognitive development, and Sharon and her associates sought to stress the importance of talking to children at as early a stage as possible.

Additional objectives of the programme in which Sharon participated are to foster leadership and interpersonal skills among the teaching personnel, to change cultural norms such as the use of corporal punishment in the classroom, and to show the teachers that the tools and aids for stimulating the minds of their young pupils are to be found in the environment and to use local and natural materials for this purpose.

It is hoped that both the adults and the youngsters who come into contact with Israel’s outreach programmes will benefit on an individual basis as well as being able to pass on their newly-acquired knowledge to their colleagues and others around them, thereby advancing their community as a whole.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

What exactly lies behind the closing of Israel’s Broadcasting Authority after its seven decades of serving the public is a subject for speculation. Politics, finances and greed are part of the picture for sure, although other reasons have been posited.

The radio, followed by television, has been the constant companion of daily life in Israel for the vast majority of its population. Initially there was only one radio channel, and during the day its various programmes of talk and music, both light and heavy, constituted the means whereby information was disseminated to the population.

The various languages spoken in the nascent State reflected its composition, which consisted to a large extent of immigrants from a wide range of countries. There were programmes in Yiddish for those originally from Eastern Europe, many of them Holocaust survivors. There were programmes in Arabic for the immigrants from the countries of the Maghreb, who were forced to leave their homes when Israel was established. Those programmes also served the indigenous Arab population. There were even programmes in French and English, consisting mainly of news, as well as programmes in simple Hebrew to help all immigrants. One important programme was devoted to the search for missing relatives, which often succeeded in reuniting family members who had lost touch with one another due to the events of WWII.

For someone like me, who grew up in the England of the 1950s and 1960s, when the BBC ruled the sound waves, our daily routine was accompanied by stalwarts like Music While You Work, Mrs. Dale’s Diary, Listen With Mother and Women’s Hour. At the weekends there was Educating Archie and the Billy Cotton Band Show, with the highlights of the week being Family Favourites and the Goon Show. All that is ancient history now, but the fact that those names come easily to my brain show that they evidently made a deep and lasting impression on me.

The same goes for the early days of radio and TV in Israel. I was not here when Israel was founded, but made my way here only in 1964, upon graduating from university in London. I brought a radio with me and very quickly came to know the daily routine, despite my very inadequate knowledge of Hebrew. The early morning programme would start with an energetic male voice instructing listeners in some elementary gymnastics – a subject I had always hated at school, and was not very enthusiastic about then either. This was followed by a gentleman speaking Hebrew with a strong American accent giving drivers some helpful hints about driving carefully and avoiding accidents. Light music and talks of various kinds generally followed. At the weekend there was the weekly music quiz, where one of the first Hebrew words I learned was the one for composer.

After my daughter was born and I found myself unable to continue in my job at the university I benefited greatly from the daily programme devoted to housewifely matters and hosted by Rivka Michaeli. It contained medical advice from children’s physician, Dr. Sherashevsky, cookery hints from Chef Nikolai, and many other useful items. I must confess that that, too, helped me to learn Hebrew.

Life changed for me when a programme was inaugurated devoted to music, primarily of the classical kind. And that improved even more when that programme was extended to twenty-four hours. I later learned that the programme from midnight to 6 a.m., which I encountered occasionally, was in fact produced by a computer, but that did not bother me as I continued to enjoy the music.

The TV programmes also played a major role in Israel’s communications scene, and I was even able to use texts from two TV news programmes as the basis for my M.A. thesis in Communications at the Hebrew University, comparing their respective uses of rhetorical devices.

But now all that has gone. No more talk programmes. No more phone-ins. No more news broadcasts. No more sports commentaries. My constant compantion, The Voice of Music, has been replaced by the computerized programme of music (which is not at all bad, I must admit). I don’t know how many people were once employed there, but it can’t be making them feel any better to know they’ve been replaced by a computer.

I wonder what would happen if the British government decided to scrap the BBC.

Violence Around Us

The sight of officials of United Airlines dragging a helpless passenger down the aisle of an airplane as other passengers scream in shock and protest is not one that I will easily forget. Physical violence of any kind is shocking, and any time the TV news shows a violent demonstration anywhere in the world or the violent repression of a peaceful demonstration my horrified attention is drawn once again to man’s inhumanity  to man (and woman).

The use of violence against unarmed individuals is something that has been prevalent throughout human history. In addition, the Bible and the annals of ancient peoples are full of accounts of battles waged in order to gain ascendancy over other nations, or to fend it off, and the massacres that ensued. The Ancient Romans were past-masters in the art of war and subjugation. In recent history the atrocities inflicted by Germans and other European nations on innocent victims, with attendant evil and sadistic acts of gratuitous violence, directed particularly at Jews, went ahead unabated until eventually  stopped only by the deployment of tremendous force by the Allies. The European Union was establishment primarily to put an end to conflicts between the nations of the region, and by and large it has been successful in this.

In this day and age, mainly because the prevalence of modern media enables us to witness the violence being perpetrated by the indigenous peoples of the Middle East against one another, the existence of barbarous acts is evident for all to see, though not enough is being done to put an end to it. Evidently, no world leader wants to risk his or her position by sending their military into dangerous situations in order to help stop the slaughter or enslavement of innocents in a distant land.

In an interview I saw recently on BBC (‘Hard Talk’), the son of Hans Frank, the Nazi Gauleiter of Poland (the General Government, as the Nazis called it), spoke of his contempt and shame when he thinks of his father, claiming he can never forgive him for destroying millions of lives and bringing tragedy to so many families. Hans Frank was hanged at the Nuremberg Trials for his crimes but his son, Niklas, who still lives in Germany, maintains that to this day he does not trust the German people. “At present they are enjoying economic prosperity, but if the situation were to deteriorate once more, as it did in the 1920s and 1930s, history could repeat itself,” he said.

The fact that the members of a nation that prides itself on being a bastion of culture and civilization could be whipped up into a frenzy of fanatical hatred and be able to inflict untold misery on other human beings is something that continues to mystify me. The psychology and sociology of mass hatred for others can’t be simply explained away as the actions of a group of psychopathic criminals. An entire nation countenanced and participated first in ostracism and persecution and eventually in mass murder. And it is common knowledge that not only Germans were involved in all the atrocities that constituted the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Every now and again there is an isolated incident or statement that can restore my faith in human nature, but over against it there are many more that undermine it. Sometimes I wonder how we can go on living in this world where there is so much misery and inhumanity.

But then I remind myself of the pleasant way in which I live and that every day I, my family, and most of the people around me have enough to eat, a roof over our heads, and the ability to go about our daily lives without being oppressed. That is a gift that should never be taken for granted. The dark days of the Holocaust are gone, hopefully never to return, and that should be our solace, constituting the yardstick by which we measure our current lives.

 

 

Vive la France!

I spend part of my summers in France, I have relatives and friends who live in France and I am a great admirer of France and (almost) all things French.

So it was with considerable interest and not a little trepidation that I followed the course of the first round of elections for the position of President of France. The vagaries of the French political system are something of a mystery to me, but it soon became clear that the unknown maverick, Emmanuel Macron, was a strong contender for the position. Several candidates representing a wide variety of political views were vying for election but only the top two would be able to go on to the next, and final, round.

The fact that Marine le Pen, the extreme right-wing candidate and daughter of the anti-Semitic founder of the National Front party, managed to attract a large number of supporters was very worrying. It was pretty certain that she would manage to get through to the second round, but the crucial question was: who would be standing against her? She claimed that she was not anti-Semitic, though she was definitely against immigration and, worse still, against the European Union. If she were to be elected and France was taken out of the EU that would spell the end of the Union and any number of complications would arise in consequence.

If the leader of the Republican Party, Francois Fillon, had got through to the second round that would have presented a dilemma for voters who tended to support the right wing. Fillon has been advocating views and policies that have not differed very greatly from those of Marine le Pen, and although his rhetoric was convincing his record was not very good. His misuse of public funds in order to pay his wife and children fat salaries for doing virtually nothing managed to reduce support for him, although the tide seemed to be turning in his favour just before the election.

Jean-Luc Melanchon, a socialist who was also against the European Union, had almost as much support, according to the polls, as Fillon. Here, too, if he had managed to get to the second round, probably to go head-to-head with Marine le Pen, the prospect of him winning would also be dismal. As the country went to vote it looked as if all four of the candidates mentioned had more or less similar chances of going to the next round. It was a time of great anxiety for anyone like myself who cares about Europe and is still reeling from the thought of England leaving the European Union.

As polling day drew near and the results predicted by the opinion polls seemed to indicate that anything could happen my nerves became increasingly frazzled. From posts put up on Facebook by expat British citizens living in France I could see that they were also extremely worried.

On the evening of election day, as I was watching the evening news on television, I was pleasantly surprised by the sight of M. Fillon giving his concession speech. That was the moment I had been waiting for! That meant that Emmanuel Macron was through to the second round, and would stand for the principles of the European Union and a sound economic policy that would bring France’s finances into a better state than they had been for the past ten years at least.

Now the run-off is between Macron and le Pen, but it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the former will win as not many people who voted for any of the other candidates will contemplate voting for the extreme right. Macron claims to be neither left nor right, but centrist, and in favour of improving France’s economic situation. Let’s hope he can pull it off. I can’t vote, so all I can do is keep my fingers crossed and hope that reason will prevail in what purports to be the most reasonable of countries.

Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks,

 

The author, who has written several books about various aspects of psychology, among them ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,’ and ‘Awakenings,’ has extensive experience of working with individuals who have developed illnesses akin to Alzheimers, or who have been born with some brain disorder causing what appears to be mental retardation or abnormality of any kind.

Whether by chance or intention, Oliver Sacks embarked on courses of treatment involving music of one kind or another. The book begins with a series of case studies describing individuals whose treatment for mental disability has involved  music or for whom music has become a significant aspect of their life. In between these individual instances Oliver Sacks mentions his own experience of music, whether his regret at being unable to sing in key or his affection for certain kinds of music. He is able to enjoy listening to music but is frustrated by being unable to join in when others sing.

But that is a minor irritation compared to the deeply-ingrained incapacity of some of the patients he describes to function on what we would call a ‘normal’ level, i.e., communicate with others via speech, attend to matters of daily toilet and routine, and so on. Yet somehow in many such cases these people are able to conduct themselves in an acceptable manner if they are singing or whistling or listening to music. He describes individuals suffering from brain damage of various kinds who are able to relate to the material world only if they are able to hear music.

Sacks hypothesizes that music, which is found throughout all human societies, may somehow be a more basic function of the brain than speech, and accompanies this with a detailed analysis of the parts of the brain involved in the various human functions. This concept is occasioned by the fact that singing, dancing, and listening to music seem to stimulate the mental faculties of people who have lost the ability to communicate normally through speech.

On the other hand, he points out, there are some highly musical individuals who are unable to listen to music as a background to work, as the music demands their full attention. Personally, I don’t fall in that category and in fact feel sorry for those individuals, as I know that I function better, whether I’m at the computer,  in the kitchen, driving or anywhere,  if I can listen to music at the same time. This has become something of an obsession with me, and every room in my house, including the smallest, must have a radio in it, and the radio must be tuned to the classical music programme. Luckily for me, my close family don’t seem to object to this, though their attachment to music is less intense than mine.

So in a way I’m somewhere on the spectrum of people who find that music helps them function on something near normality. In fact, I found it very consoling to read that patients with various forms of dementia are able to perform the tasks involved in conducting daily life if they hear music. Unfortunately, as soon as the music stops their mental state reverts to what it previously was. However, the concept of music therapy has been developed in recent years, and much is being done through this to help people in various stages of mental confusion. I only hope that if and when I find myself in that state someone will have the sense to let me listen to music.