What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin

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What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Fran Smith
Reviewed by Fran Smith
Summary: A vivid exploration of identity through the eyes of an emigre writer whose life takes her through at least five languages and even more countries.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2017
Publisher: Virago
ISBN: 978-1844085781

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Speaking many languages fluently seems close to a superpower to most of us. Elena Lappin's memoir is about how she came to be at home in five or more languages, and what effect this has on her identity. Her family's history and the emigrations that led to her learning so many languages are caught up with European events. As a child she moved from Russia to Czechoslovakia and from there to Germany. Elena was encouraged by exchange holidays abroad to learn French and English too. Then she chose university in Israel and learnt Hebrew. So just as the rest of us might pick up bits of furniture or books from our various homes, Elena picked up a language every time. A clever member of an intellectual household, with parents who were translators and writers, there never seems to have been great effort involved in acquiring languages, it just happened.

But where does your identity reside, if you can function in such a range of languages and seem to belong to no one nation? A brush with anti-semitism in Germany taught her how others saw her when the shop assistants she worked with in her Saturday job made snide remarks about her race. This was so new and so shocking to Elena that she could hardly believe what she was hearing and what it meant about her neighbours. It put her off the German language. She had command of it, but she chose not to live and work as a writer in that language as a result, her younger brother did stay and is a distinguished German journalist, but Elena felt she had to move on. In Israel I felt neither foreign nor exotic. My cultural trajectory was no more complicated than anyone else's. But she was surprised that her professors of linguistics often spoke no more than one language themselves.

Finding the language she could best express herself in creatively presented another difficulty. She loved Czech and spoke it instinctively with her baby son, but it was in English that she finally found her fiction-writing home. It was a long apprenticeship: Writing in a foreign language feels like walking in someone else's ill-fitting shoes, but she loved the deceptively effortless simplicity of the English language, carried by gentle waves of idiom.

The consequences to a family of constant moving and changing languages are fascinating too. Different generations share no common language. One generation might have Hebrew or Yiddish, the next Russian or Czech, the next German or English. Grandparents talk to their grandchildren in a shared second language. Parents speak one language to each other and another to their children. But Elena Lappin has another problem of identity: the man she had always thought of as her father was not her real father at all. This thread runs through the memoir too, another part of her identity that shifts and takes a long time to settle. But this is not a memoir of stern self-analysis, it is vivid and energetic and reflects Lappin's joyful exploration of the world. It turns out that a lot of what anchors us to places or languages or people is illusory, unnecessary and limiting. Lappin writes with wit and enthusiasm; she is a learned woman, but expresses this in cheerfully elegant, unselfconscious prose. The answer to the question she poses in the title is interesting, too.

Another compelling memoir from a similar era is Everybody's Daughter, Nobody's Child by Jane Lapotaire.

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Buy What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy What Language Do I Dream In? by Elena Lappin at Amazon.com.


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