Nancy Scott Hanway

On fiction and language: Reading The Confederacy of Dunces in Paris

Fiction and LanguageNancy Scott HanwayComment

For years I hated American English. It was silly: the result of a childhood spent watching British television,and from studying Spanish and French in college. I was convinced that everything across the Atlantic was better, more sophisticated, more ironic. In particular, I hated the sound of Americans, especially the voices of U.S. tourists when I traveled. When I lived in Paris, I was unkind. If tourists came up to me on the street to ask directions, I pretended I didn't speak English. (That still makes me cringe.) And then came July. Everyone I knew had gone to Provence, and I was stuck in the city with the tourists and the stifling heat. I hadn't spoken or read in English for months, it seemed, when I passed by Shakespeare & Co. and saw John Kennedy Toole's The Confederacy of Dunces on an outdoor display. I had never read the novel before, so I picked it up and brought it home.

I learned several things from reading The Confederacy of Dunces that summer. I learned that the harsh, jangly American accent I had despised for so long was really something I loved. It was the most jarring experience to be laughing at Ignatius P. Reilly in English one minute and then hear neighbors going past my door speaking in French: their sounds so elegant and precise. And I realized that I was homesick for the language of America, which suddenly seemed rich and full of possibilities I had never imagined.

Shakespeare & Co. - by John Hurd / Creative Commons