This love story, which won the 2011 SLS first prize for short fiction, has been published in the top Canadian literary magazine, The Walrus, as well as the US publication Black Warrior Review, and the European Literary Journal Literatura ir Menas. The prize allowed me to take an all-expenses paid trip to several-weeks of literary seminars and public readings in Lithuania in August of 2011.
When Felix Bronislav met Helen Ferapont in 1937, she was already an expert in Pānini’s sutras on Sanskrit grammar. She was working on her dissertation under Nikolai Trubetzkoy in Prague, and her Ph.D. thesis was to be a discussion of the deification of speech found in Hindu Scripture.
Felix was writing his own dissertation on the behavioralist implications of Leonard Bloomfield’s analyses of the Algonquin language family. He had recently arrived from Chicago to attend a seminar by Roman Jakobson critiquing the dogmas of contemporary neogrammarian theory.
Helen was a 26-year-old Bavarian of Scandinavian extraction who knew German, Norwegian, Czech, Sanskrit and French. Felix was a 25-year-old Mexican Jew with Slavic roots who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Cree and English.
They had very little in common.
Dr. Jakobson’s seminar was masterfully delivered, and after it was over, the lecturer granted a private question and answer session to the two eager students. Helen spoke in Czech, while Felix posed his queries in a wobbly version of the doctor’s native Russian. The amiable professor translated back and forth between them, and was impressed by the knowledge they both possessed of their respective fields.
When the questions of the two bright-eyed language enthusiasts had finally run dry, he invited them both to a faculty party that was to be held that night. Everyone knew that the famous soirées of the Prague Linguistic Circle were not to be missed, so both students readily accepted the offer.
That night they were treated to a grand spectacle, as Dr. Trubetzkoy got thoroughly poleaxed and stood up on a chair in the middle of the bar, giving his best spit-flinging imitation of Hitler (“Wir wollen nur ein biβchen Lebensraum im Osten!”), gesticulations and all, while literary critic Jan Mukařovský walked circles around him, reverently pistoning a fascist salute with one hand and wrapping the venerable old scholar in a roll of toilet paper with the other. Then Dr. Jakobson tottered up with his pipe and ceremoniously lit the paper on fire, igniting the old linguist like a phoenix and sending him screaming into the loo. After a few laughter-filled minutes, the legendary developer of morphophonemics emerged vengefully from the toilet with a garden hose he had somehow found in the bathroom closet and started blasting away at everyone in the place. Two men playing chess in a corner of the room soon had their board washed away by a high-pressure jet of water, and were then themselves plastered against the wall and soaked to the skin. Jan charged wet-bearded into the fray with two spritzer bottles he had swiped from behind the bar and started shooting back, dousing everyone within range with a furious mixture of seltzer and Czech invective.
Felix covered Helen with his jacket while they ran laughing out of the bar, provokingly wet and exceedingly drunk. Neither one wanted to go home alone, so they headed into a nearby café. In the course of the evening they had discovered that although they had no common spoken language, they both knew enough Classical Latin and Koine Greek to be able to communicate with a blunt pencil and soggy pad of paper.
Helen laboriously explained her research, discussing in permitted detail how the word vāk (“speech”) was deified in the oldest extant Sanskrit texts, and briefly summarized Max Mueller’s intriguing investigation of how the ancient Hindus had even acknowledged the interrogative particle, ka, as a god.
Felix was fascinated (by her voluptuous Teutonic body), and did not miss the opportunity to mention the esoteric Kabbalistic doctrine that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the building blocks from which the world is created, and how the text of the “Sefer Yetzirah” treats the Jewish script as if it were a kind of periodic table. Properly arranged and joined, he explained, the letters could theoretically be used to construct living beings or even whole universes. He wrote down some examples to illustrate the point: chapter one, verse one of the King James Version of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and the original Hebrew of Psalms 33:6:
Helen hurriedly finished her coffee and invited him to her apartment.
He sat her down on a couch and discussed Plato’s Cratylus, tracing Greek letters on her bare knees with a lascivious finger. But when his hand drifted more than halfway up her thigh to spell the sinuous eleventh letter of the name Aristophanes, she protested with unmistakable feminine gestures that she was not that kind of a girl.
So he wrote on the pad to ask her if she ever considered the fact that the Latin alphabet comes from a code used to permit the traffic of Mediterranean contraband by the Phoenicians. Therefore they were already conversing in what was effectively a criminals’ cant, and any pretentions of saintliness were inappropriate.
The sun was rising and the logic was infallible.
When they had finished, she complemented him on his performance in Latin: “Felix,” she said, glowing, “bene futuis!”
“Nam fuit ante Helenam cunnus,” he panted back, “taeterrima belli causa!”
Felix delayed his return to the States and stayed with Helen, studying her German while she studied his English, as the Wehrmacht tanks rolled into the city and the jackboots began to march incessantly outside their window. In time, as the war loomed larger and more inevitable every day, they started to argue over politics.
Finally, after a horrible screaming match in half a dozen dead and tortured tongues, they separated. A week later Helen received a note in her mailbox that read:
She used the letterhead to track down his hotel and, after verifying which room was his, passed her own note under his door:
That night all arguments were forgotten in a rapture of sweat-soaked reconciliation. The Realpolitik of their relationship had become indisputable.
Felix decided to study a semester under Dr. Jakobson and postpone his thesis. Helen finished her paper on Hindu language deification and started wearing more revealing clothing. Meanwhile the telegraph wires burned with scalding floods of information. Stalin purged. Fascists took Spain. Kristallnacht raged in Berlin.
Then in June of 1938, Dr. Trubetzkoy, mentor and inspiration to both, was arrested for being an opposition sympathizer and died of a heart attack while under Nazi interrogation. The Prague institute almost immediately fell apart, and Helen’s last tenuous allegiance to the Reich finally died. They decided it was time to leave, so they took a train to Lisbon just before Germany invaded Poland.
In the four weeks it took to cross the Atlantic, as a way of forgetting the friendships and chaos that they were leaving behind, they discussed the works of Ferdinand de Saussure, and how he had determined that the relationship between the form of a word and the thing it signifies is completely arbitrary. They experimented with this idea, and by the time they had arrived in the U.S., they had created a whole new vocabulary understandable only to themselves. For example, the word bed became “railroad,” candle became “Jesus,” massage became “Alexanderplatz,” kiss became “leopard skin,” and loneliness was symbolized by the number “27.”
America when they arrived seemed like a blessed island of peace in a world on fire. They moved into a flat together and reinitiated their linguistic pursuits at the University of Chicago, soon becoming professors of Structural Linguistics and Modern Languages.
Meanwhile the League of Nations collapsed. Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico. Bombs rained on London. One and a half million people died at Stalingrad.
Eventually their love-life came to revolve around code-breaking. “Ake-may ove-lay u-tay e-may…” she would whisper to him in a crowded room in Pig-Latin. At university parties, as everyone sat around discussing the theories of Von Neumann, McLuhan, Derrida, Greenberg, and Lacan, he would be tapping out Morse code on her knee, expressing his deepest desires…
“·· / ·-· · ·- ·-·· ·-·· -·– / -· · · -·· / ·- / -··· ·-·· — ·– ·— — -··· ”
After the war finally ended, Alfred Korzybski’s intriguing theory came out that human beings’ knowledge is limited by the structure of their languages and nervous systems, and Bill Burroughs began hypothesizing that language was actually a biological virus specifically designed to restrict our ability to understand the world. Around the same time, a new literary genre was being born, and a plethora of artificial languages were being manufactured by its authors: Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange was written in Nadsat, Frank Herbert’s Dune characters conversed in Chakobsa, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s elves spoke Sindarin. Meanwhile, Dr. James Cooke Brown claimed to have created the “perfect language,” Loglan, and Lázaro Zamenhof was trying to proselytize the planet to the possible world peace benefits of his Esperanto.
So Helen and Felix, who by now were both well-established professors and working together at Cambridge, decided that they would try to develop their own ideal language, made up of the most appropriate words chosen from various languages around the world to more fully express their emotions. A tossed salad of Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian vocabulary was determined to be the most appropriate for romantic interludes, while apologetic and humble formulations were absorbed from East Asia, confidence and certainty expressions were taken from a Southern States dialect of American English, and swear words were borrowed from the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. After a few weeks of experimentation, they soon found they preferred Côte-d’Azur French when they made love, and Berliner Hochdeutsch when they argued.
They also decided to create their own special terminology to express certain complicated concepts, like majimb, “the feeling of insecurity that arises when around someone much more attractive (or charismatic) than oneself,” kwillol, “the moment when you realize what you should have said or done moments before,” and shlaklez, “the electric shiver specific to Helen when a certain area of her neck was touched.” They also developed a lexicon for subtle semantic differences otherwise incommunicable, like tyawol, “the apathetic sense that is equated with pessimism,” and djileen, “the apathetic sense that is equated with realism.”
Over time, djileen became one of the most ubiquitous words used in the couple’s daily conversation, as they witnessed the bloody birth of Israel, the creation of the hydrogen bomb, and the death of a million and a half people in Korea.
They did their best to try to forget the horrors of the world around them, and immersed themselves in books and study. Poetry had always been the couple’s shared passion, and when Noam Chomsky published his revolutionary Syntactic Structures in 1957, in which he developed the idea that the applications of human languages are distinct from those of mechanized computer languages due to the potentially infinite use of finite means, the two lovers never tired of passing each other bizarre love letters to test the limits of infinity.
Helen went through a phase where she ran all her words together, and eliminated all punctuation, leaving Felix poems like…
And he would write her back in boustrophedon…
“I watch her like
dlrow eht fo dne eht ot denrut noisivelet a
I want her like
taeh elgnuj a ni etanargemop a
I hear her like
“…sdrow fo gninaem eht gnirevocsid dlihc a
Then Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War made their appearance, like a murder of giant crows suddenly crashing through the couple’s bedroom window, and their enthusiasm for poetry quickly faded. The evil Viet Cong and the horrific dictator Ho Chi Minh skewered babies on bayonets, while the glorious American defenders of freedom charged gallantly to the rescue of a beleaguered and thankful Indochina.
As the conflict progressed, Felix and Helen became fascinated with the recently posited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism. Examples of the phenomenon were being cited by researchers all around the world. The Hopi Indians had no word (or concept) for “past” or “future!” An obscure nation of New Guinea had only two colours in their language and its people were similarly physiologically limited! The Inuit used seven different words for “snow!”
Books began extrapolating the political consequences. In the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984, the semantic concept of freedom had been eliminated. In Ayn Rand’s Anthem, a collectivist dystopia banned the use of the first person singular, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World had cultivated a whole nation of people who could speak only in slogans.
Felix watched the collateral damage, pacification, and enhanced interrogation technique cluttered evening news as he reread Orwell’s hypothesis that if humans could not form the words to express the ideas underlying “revolution,” then they could never be able to revolt. Helen sat with Kelemperer’s Notebook of a Philologist on her lap, considering how the Nazis had converted the minds of the German people to National-Socialism by the creation of ingenious neologisms like Sonderbehandlung (“special treatment,” i.e. “murder”) and Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s society,” i.e. “the Aryan race”). Both started to develop an eerie dread of media-customized language being used as a weapon of war.
So they decided to do their part for world peace and banned words like war, hate, enemy, us, and them from their daily vocabulary, replacing them with “lunacy,” “fear,” “misunderstood acquaintance,” and “we.”
But the wars never stopped and the hate raged on. Millions were massacred in Bangladesh. The Cultural Revolution plunged China into a decade of madness. The Ayatollah arose in Iran.
They passed their middle age travelling and conducting field work, often separating for months at a time to pursue diverging interests, as they researched obscure and dying languages in dusty corners of demographic maps.
Helen went to revolutionary China to study both Mandarin and the praying-mantis school of Tai-Chi in Shāndōng province, writing verbose and melancholy letters back to Felix, ending each epistle with luxurious postscripts in a calligraphy that dripped libidinously off the page:
Felix returned from working with the Bedouin and taught Helen how to communicate by glottal clicks without opening her mouth, and they spent weeks without saying a word around the house.
Meanwhile, Helen’s study of Japanese dialects used by American immigrants had led her to suggest the addition of polysemous verbs to their personal vocabulary. Felix was game, and the verbs tsuku and kakeru were soon being tossed around copiously by both. Tsuku in Japanese can mean “to stick to,” “to have,” “to attend,” “to follow,” “to side with,” “to cost,” “to hold (a position),” “to push,” “to be possessed (by a demon),” “to thrust,” “to tilt,” “to toll (as a bell),” “to come on (as a light),” “to burn,” “to enter (a profession),” “to arrive,” “to husk,” “to attach,” and “to be obsessed,” depending on the context it is in. Similarly, kakeru has the meanings “to lack, ” “to chip,” “to wane (the moon),” “to hang,” “to trap,” “to cover,” “to squirt/water,” “to span/bridge,” “to lock,” “to button,” “to offer,” “to encourage,” “to spend (time),” “to brake,” “to play (music),” “to start (an engine),” “to call (by phone),” “to bring,” “to submit,” “to multiply,” “to insure (a house),” “to pressure (someone),” “to suspect,” “to finish,” “to iron,” “to brush,” “to screen (applicants),” “ to be concerned about,” “to tax,” “to perch,” “to wish (on a star),” “to rest,” “to wear,” “to run,” and “to bet.”
Vocabulary was thereby greatly reduced, but it soon got monotonous saying the same words so often, and they decided to leave polysemes to the Japanese. The planet continued to burn around them as they rearranged their personal lexicon one more time. Millions starved in Ethiopia. AIDS appeared. Chernobyl exploded.
The world, however, continued to turn. Years passed and gently pushed the aged linguists into rocking chairs. Clocks span and calendars were hung up and replaced. Years and decades went by. Their car rusted and old friends died. Fashions and presidents changed. Finally, in 1988, after fifty years together, Felix was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
After three years, both excruciatingly long excruciatingly short, he was placed in palliative care to await his final passing. For a month, Helen never left his side, holding his hand, brushing her fingers through his hair, smiling into his eyes.
They both realized then that after all their little codes and games, their foreplays and teases, they had finally succeeded in achieving their ultimate goal. They had created the perfect language, absolutely minimalist and consummately expressive, consisting of only a single word—which never need be spoken.