The Language of Romance Language
by Alan Elsner
I thought it might be interesting to explore the thought process that goes into creating a novel using as an example my latest book, Romance Language. The novel mostly takes place in Romania, partly in 1989 and partly in 2007. It tells the story of Elizabeth Graham, an American magazine writer assigned to write an exposé of the situation in Romania under Communism early in 1989. She falls in love with a dissident poet, Stefan Petrescu. Their history, climaxing with the revolution of December 1989, is interspersed with the adventures of Elizabeth’s 17-year-old daughter, Petra, who shows up in Bucharest hoping to find the father she has never known.
I use this story as a framework to explore two central themes – the power but also the limitations of love and language. The book portrays and contrasts many different varieties of love. They include: love at first sight; mature love and puppy love; sexual passion and casual sex; maternal and paternal love; love of country and love of an idea; love of religion and love of self. The second theme I wanted to explore had to do with language – hence the title, which itself is a play on words. (Romanian is known as a “romance language” – one of the family of languages descended from ancient Latin that also includes French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.) The book meditates on some of the uses and misuses of language. The main characters, who are both professional writers, live through language and believe in the power of words. But at crucial moments, they find that language fails them and they are forced to resort to other means of communication.
Free speech is a basic human life, but under Communism and other forms of tyranny, as George Orwell observed, language is perverted to become a tool of the regime. This happened in Romania and I explore some of the false slogans and lies employed by the state to oppress its citizens. I decided to include many different forms of language in the book. So I wrote some chapters using first person narrative and others employing third person narrative; there’s prose but also poetry (I wrote four poems for the book and I also have the characters discuss and analyze two Shakespeare sonnets); there are also letters and emails – and two entire chapters that consist only of dialogue.
Of course, one can read this book purely to enjoy the story without being concerned with, or even aware of, these themes. But I believe as an author that they add a level of complexity and interest that deepens the story and the characters. None of us, after all, lives in a vacuum. We all experience our personal stories against the background of the time and place in which we find ourselves. For me, as for my characters, love is important but so are ideas and so is language. To this extent, I believe Romance Language is a case of art imitating art.
Tomorrow: How "romance novels" take the romance out of romance!