Jack Gladney’s German lessons

With a film adaptation out, and Airborne Toxic Events occurring in reality, it seemed a good time to revisit White Noise, Don DeLillo’s great seriocomic novel of the mid-1980s. Its protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a professor of Hitler Studies preoccupied by an upcoming conference, because he doesn’t speak German.

Gladney begins taking private German lessons, recounting the experience in his wry, anxious voice. Spoiler note: little of what follows has any real bearing on the plot, and it’s not a particularly plot-driven book, but you may prefer to back out if you haven’t read White Noise and might soon.

It was Howard Dunlop’s working rule that we sit facing each other during the full length of the lesson. He wanted me to study his tongue positions as he demonstrated the pronunciation of consonants, diphthongs, long and short vowels. He in turn would look closely into my mouth as I attempted to reproduce the unhappy sounds.

Picador book cover of White noise. If features a 4 by 8 grid of images shaped like TV screens. Their contents are lo-fi and sometimes hard to discern, but there is a loudspeaker, a clock, and perhaps a safety helmet among them, with a generally blue effect. Under the author's name is a blurb from Jayne Anne Phillips: 'One of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices to comment on life in present-day America.' Book title, author's name, and blurb text is white sans-serif capitals on black, taking up 6 'screens' of space near the top left.His was a mild and quiet face, an oval surface with no hint of distinctiveness until he started his vocal routines. Then the warping began. It was an eerie thing to see, shamefully fascinating, as a seizure might be if witnessed in a controlled environment. He tucked his head into his trunk, narrowed his eyes, made grimacing humanoid faces. When it was time for me to repeat the noises I did likewise, if only to please the teacher, twisting my mouth, shutting my eyes completely, conscious of an overarticulation so tortured it must have sounded like a sudden bending of the natural law, a stone or tree struggling to speak. When I opened my eyes he was only inches from my mouth, leaning in to peer. I used to wonder what he saw in there.

(The ‘warping’, incidentally, reminded me a little of the ríastrad/riastradh or ‘warp spasm’ of mythic Irish warrior hero Cú Chulainn.)

As the conference draws closer, Gladney’s German remains far from fluent, and he increases the lessons’ length and frequency:

We sat facing each other in the gloom. I did wonderfully well with vocabulary and rules of grammar. I could have passed a written test easily, made top grades. But I continued to have trouble pronouncing the words. Dunlop did not seem to mind. He enunciated for me over and over, scintillas of dry spit flying toward my face. . . .

He stared into my mouth as I did my exercises in pronunciation. Once he reached in with his right hand to adjust my tongue. It was a strange and terrible moment, an act of haunting intimacy. No one had ever handled my tongue before.

This awkwardness is heightened by Gladney’s growing disquiet about the teacher, who, per Gladney’s colleague, has ‘something eerie and terrible’ about him which troubles the professor intensely during his last visit. But he feels he will miss the lessons when they’re done.

At the conference, he reads from brief, disjointed notes, relying heavily on German words that are similar in English, having ‘spent days with the dictionary, compiling lists of such words’. He avoids the German visitors, feeling feeble around them, ‘listening to them produce their guttural sounds’ – that last adjective a rare and unbefitting cliché.

I found German pronunciation easy enough, once I grasped the basic rules. (The same went for French and Irish; I had some aptitude in this area.) But my German lecturer was often amused by my ‘Austrian accent’; I didn’t learn the language well enough to understand what she meant by this, and she couldn’t explain it when I asked her.

I haven’t seen Noah Baumbach’s recent film of White Noise yet, but it’s on my list. I’m curious to see in what respects it hews to DeLillo’s tone and vision, or not, and whether it includes the German lessons and that startling manual tongue manipulation. If you’ve seen it, don’t tell me. But feel free to share your own language-learning woes or thrills.


For more DeLillo, see my post on the elusive word wordable.

7 Responses to Jack Gladney’s German lessons

  1. chhanks says:

    I got his off the web:
    Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung (36) Officially recognized by the Duden – Germany’s pre-eminent dictionary – as the longest word in German, Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung is a 36-letter, tongue-tying way of describing a rather, mundane everyday concept: motor vehicle liability insurance.May 30, 2019

  2. ardj says:

    I wonder if @chhanks has come across this:
    Rindfleisch- etikettierungs- überwachungs -aufgaben- übertragungs- gesetz.
    It is all one word, though I have split it up for easier pronunciation by us unfortunates who do not have German as a mother tongue. (I admit I found the language as easy to speak as did Mr Carey.)

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänanwärter comes to my mind.
    Well, still shorter than Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantisiliogogogoch. ;-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: