I was in 10th grade French and on a daylong field trip to see The Phantom of the Opera when they shuffled us, winter-bundled, into that narrow storefront of the Librairie de France at Rockefeller Plaza, with its vestibule full of Madeleine and Babar for the children of the Upper East Side. Clown eyes peered from a gutter on an unusually lurid paperback where maculate red letters spelled out Stephen King’s Ça. I snickered with all my schoolboy heart: the one amused by F YOU on the library spines of novels by Young or Yourcenar. It seemed a certain menace had been lost in translation. The flowery French pronoun with its dainty cedilla, component of our interrogatives and idioms, could not hope to equal It in innominate loathing. All through middle school, the constant antecedents of the third person singular neuter pronoun were understood to be dirty. At no loss to salacious implication—driving it, in fact, deeper into perversion—King took that tiny, ordinary word and, by making it shirk the indescribable, restored its capacity to terrify. The anonymity of It left everything to the imagination, the way an empty circle of spotlight increases the density of the darkness all around. “Ça” was at most a designator of safe, frilly things, bordered as a flowerbed, or for that matter, a classroom.
This was the early 90s. In grade school, King’s novel had leered at me from supermarket spinner racks, among the flowery greeting cards. Now the miniseries was a recent memory, Tim Curry’s fanged face on TV Guide, and the punk band named after his evil clown was just starting to show up on skater tees.
Students of foreign languages often blame their shyness about speaking on a fear of embarrassment—but embarrassment at what? Mistakes, of course, but also, I would argue, imposture: to speak a language not your own is to play a part. Those unfamiliar words, when approximately mouthed, credit us with emotions to which we can only pretend. Romance languages are mocked for their relative demonstrativeness next to phlegmatic English (nevermind the things Asian speech has been likened to: birdsong, ground glass, expectoration, alley cats). A French speaker who says Oh là là! is expressing dismay or surprise; an English speaker who does so is putting on airs, or else at a nudie revue. (I myself opted, in public school, for an Anglicized pronunciation of my last name.) Those practiced phrases, drilled, droned, repeated… why would we, self-conscious teens keenly sensitive to the slightest flutter of pretension, ever say Ça alors! (unless ironically) when what we meant was Whoa or Jeez? French at every turn seemed breathier, more twittery, exhortatory, animated, full of sentiments we knew from being taught. We knew what they meant, but to feel what they meant would have been… foreign.
I went back to the Librairie de France only once: much later, when I lived in New York. I had recently returned from a college in Picardie, where for two years I had taught English to economics majors. Which meant I had drilled them in words I only dimly understood in my own tongue: debenture, arbitrage, zero-coupon. As with many stores in Manhattan, the cozy lobby did little to prepare you for the vast and chilly basement, where on low shelves huddled massive dictionaries, paperback classics, scholarly omnibuses limned in dust, collected works in ripped shrinkwrap. Under high ceilings where heat hovered, sundered cobwebs trailed between the hanging lamps. I was reading a great deal of French then, more even than I had while living in France: to keep the language alive, if only as a voice in my head. And I was just beginning to translate. In the years since, the Librairie has closed (though another French bookstore, through an initiative of the French Embassy, is about to open).
A language grows through use, like a katamari; it gloms, gobbles, ramifies, and sprawls, spreading tendrils and acquiring associations. The late Michael Henry Heim (whose translations, from eight languages, included Chekhov, Karel Čapek, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kiš, Gunter Grass, and Thomas Mann) was fond of saying that you know when you’re ready to begin translating when you can tell what the language is doing from what the author is doing with it. We must move beyond our delight at our own comprehension, however flattering; in fact, that is the very first step.
Strangely enough, with the years of reading French—of entering, ever deeper, the language like a wood—I had become aware of a change in my position, an alteration in the ground beneath my feet. Ça seemed to me now less narrow in its designations, less risible as a title. I thought at first this was because I knew more French. I knew, for instance, that ça was also the Freudian id—taking a cue from its Latin roots, where id quite directly meant “it.” Also, I was reading fantastical fiction in French. Although Belgian writer of the Weird Jean Ray makes no special use of the demonstrative pronoun, he had a rhetorical approach to horror like Lovecraft’s, favoring superlatives and balking at the unspeakable: the very strategy of King’s title.
But now I think, rather, that what really happened is ça came to mean only and simply itself. To mean “it” or “that,” and not “it” or “that” plus some unquantifiable Frenchness—or should I say, je ne sais quoi? Its cartoonishness had ceded to the contours of daily use, much as I had become comfortable in the language: as comfortable plodding about errands, buying a vacuum or a toaster or my daily bread, as I was declaiming Baudelaire. We make words to name things, to specify and clarify. And yet a great deal of the power in their use derives from a vagueness around the edges, from slipperiness and what linguist Arika Okrent calls “wiggle room… for the muddle within our minds.” Familiar with the ambiguity of it, I had settled into the ambiguity of ça.
Horror in the Weird is that ultimate, irreducible other: the other to which our attempts at comprehension are not only paltry, but irrelevant. But a sense of horror may be contingent on the sense of the everyday that it brutally violates, surging from cracks where it lurks. In the words of Michael Dirda (writing about Robert Aickman), a certain placidness, even banality, “highlights the horror by reminding us of the bland, ordinary life going on just outside the bloody chamber.” Even as ça has become more ordinary, it has come to mean more, or at least imply it. Which is to say, it has faded from view, but become surrounded by shadows.
All those years, for the most innocent of pronouns to acquire its full force. One wonders about other words.
(Covers for the three-volume J’ai Lu paperbacks of Stephen King’s Ça, courtesy Will Errickson at Too Much Horror Fiction.)