Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Re-Constructing the Self in Language and Narrative in Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language and Anais Nin's Early Diaries

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Re-Constructing the Self in Language and Narrative in Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language and Anais Nin's Early Diaries

Article excerpt

Emigration can be a traumatic experience, especially when it is involuntary. An exile loses home, friends, home culture and frequently an opportunity to express oneself in the mother tongue. When one loses a language, one, in a way, loses the self. Alfred Kazin remarks that "to speak a foreign language is to depart from yourself' (1951: 127). Language is central to the formation of our identity as it is the means through which we create narratives about ourselves and our lives. The way we talk about ourselves determines to a great extent who we are and various languages, together with cultures in which they are embedded, allow us to construct our identity in different ways. The relationship between the self, language and narrative is investigated here in the life accounts of two European women, Anais Nin and Eva Hoffman, who emigrated to North America in the twentieth century. The analysis of Nin's early Diaries and Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989) seeks to comprehend whether the estrangement from their homeland and their mother tongue entailed the departure from themselves, how their sense of self was affected by their existence in a new language, and what was the role of narrative in shaping their identity.

Anais Nin was born in France in 1903; Hoffman was born in Poland in 1945. Nin is best known for her erotic stories and a multivolume diary whose various instalments (sixteen to date) have been gradually published since the 1960s. Eva Hoffman is the author of several novels and a number of autobiographical/historical writings out of which Lost in Translation is the most popular. Both writers share some commonalities of experience. They both emigrated to North America from Europe when they were teenagers. Nin was eleven years old when her mother took her and her two younger brothers to the United States in 1914, a year after Nin's father abandoned the family; Hoffman was thirteen when she emigrated with her parents and her younger sister to Canada in 1959. Neither Nin nor Hoffman knew English before they arrived in their respective host countries, but both of them eventually adopted English as the language of their literary composition. Another thing they have in common is their interest in psychoanalysis. Both writers were psychoanalysed, and both consider the talking cure as a great way of getting to know oneself.

Most of Hoffman's and Nin's writings are of an autobiographical nature. Both Lost in Translation and the first volume of Nin's early Diary begin with a story of a sea voyage which constitutes a powerful image of a transition from one continent, country, and culture to another. The journey symbolizes in-betweenness, the state of belonging neither here nor there which both writers knew well. Although the similarities between these two women writers and their narratives end here, it is the differences between them that can yield stimulating insights into the subject of identity and its links to language, narrative, culture and exile as we deal here with two diverse genres--the diary and autobiography, and two authors who approached their existence in a foreign language differently.

Most contemporary theories regard identity as a construct that bridges the personal, the social and the historical. Identity is not something we possess; it is not a state of being but a dynamic process of becoming. It is not fixed and unified but rather fragmentary and fluid. Despite the fact that our identities are fragmented, we like to think of ourselves as being a coherent self. The urge to present our life as a consistent narrative is thus explained by the cultural studies critic Stuart Hall: "Within us are contradictory identities, pulling in different directions, so that our identifications are continually being shifted around. If we feel that we have a unified identity from birth to death, it is only because we construct a comforting story or 'narrative of the self' about ourselves" (1992: 227). …

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