Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Many Distant Cites

A long sundry on many matters, reading matter first, highly migratory (but I've been flying so far under the radar I'm showing up on sonar—hey maybe I can ascribe the decreasing frequency of posts to that), best of which were Selimović and Naipaul:

Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (about to be reissued with a new preface by Anita Desai): Having read Gora, I wanted to find out more about Tagore: this is the book (thx Indranil!). His life resists summary, his talents (and accomplishments, though some efforts came to little) many, but his influence remains diffuse. This biography seeks to go beyond the arts & letters, though with a fair sample of poetry in translation; some things just don't translate. Among his many associations outside India, the most surprising to me was that with Victoria Ocampo (as she was becoming central to Argentine arts & letters), and with romantic overtones at that.

William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain: Great men encounter great continent, latter prevails til the end of this bildungsroman: A corrective to then ('25) prevalent historical narratives, spanning from Erik the Red to Lincoln. WCW's prefactory comment: In these studies I have sought to re-name the things seen, now lost in chaos of borrowed titles, many of them inappropriate, under which the true character lies hid. In letters, in journals, reports of happenings I have recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted. Thus, where I have found noteworthy stuff, bits of writing have been copied into the book for the taste of it. Everywhere I have tried to separate out of the original records some flavor of an actual peculiarity the character denoting shape which the unique force has given. Now it will be the configuration of a man like Washington, and now a report of the witchcraft trials verbatim, a story of a battle at sea—for the odd note there is in it, a letter by Franklin to prospective emigrants; it has been my wish to draw from every source one thing, the strange phosphorus of the life, nameless under an old misappellation. The most extended piece, an appreciation of Poe, I found the most interesting, perhaps for what it says of Williams.

Lydie Salvayre, The Power of Flies (trans Jane Kuntz): Disappointing. A one-sided conversation engaging Pascal's Pensées; but the execution does not live up to the conceit (unlike, say, Queneau). Not up to what else of hers I've read, but YMMV: cf compleat-revue, 1/4ly conversation (and Dalkey's internal linkage broken [as are redirects from], there's also Motte reading Salvayre).

Meša Selimović, Death and the Dervish (trans Bogdan Radić & Stephen M. Dickey): While thinking highly of Andrić, I think this book puts Drina in the shade. (C-R also puts it among the best.) Set in 18thC Ottoman Bosnia (in a town much like Sarajevo), it bridges the chiasmus of the ambivalence of betrayal. An iconic excerpt can say it much better than I:

Once he showed me the cripple Jemail, who was pulled by his children from place to place in a cart and who would hobble into his tailor's shop on two canes, dragging his lame, withered legs. When he was seated he astonished everyone wih his beauty and strength, his masculine face, the warmth of his smile, his wide shoulders, strong arms, and wrestler's build. But as soon as he stood up all of his beauty dissapeared, and he would hobble toward his cart, a cripple whom it was impossible to watch without pity. It was he who had crippled himself. While drunk, he had stabbed himself in the thighs with a sharp knife until he severed all of the tendons and muscles; and even now, when he drank he would drive the knife into the withered stumps of his legs, not allowing anyone to approach him. No one could restrain him, either; his arms were still incredibly strong. "Jemail is the true image of Bosnia," Hassan said. "Strength on mutilated legs. His own executioner. Abundance with no direction or meaning."
"So what are we then? Lunatics? Wretches?"
"The most complicated people on the face of the earth. Not on anyone else has history played the kind of joke it's played on us. Until yesterday we were what we want to forget today. But we haven't become anything else. We've stopped halfway on the path, dumbfounded. We have nowhere to go any more. We've been torn away from our roots, but haven't become part of anything else. Like a tributary whose course has been diverted from its river by a flood, and no longer has a mouth or a current; it's too small to be a lake, too large to be absorbed by the earth. With a vague sense of shame because of our origins, and guilt becaus of our apostasy, we don't want to look back, and have nowhere to look ahead of us. Therefore we try to hold back time, afraid of any outcome at all. We are despised both by our kinsmen and by newcomers, and we defend ourselves with pride and hatred. We wanted to save ourselves, but we're so completely lost we don't even know who we are anymore. And the tragedy is that we've come to love our stagnant tributary, and don't want to leave it. But everything has a price, even this love of ours. Is it a coincidence that we're so overly softhearted and overly cruel, so sentimental and hard-hearted, joyful and melancholy, always ready to surprise others and even ourselves? Is it a coincidence that we hide behind love, the only certainty in this indefiniteness? Are we letting life pass by us for no reason, are we destroying ourselves for no reason, differently than Jemail, but just as certainly? Why are we doing it? Because we're not indifferent. And if we're not indifferent, that means we're honest. And if we're honest, let's hear it for our madness!

Hear, hear!

Sir V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: Titled after Chirico (actually Apollonaire enigmatically arrived at the titles), how could I resist? Actually I did for too long, having been lukewarm about Mr. Biswas, but a nudge (thx Rick!) helped resolve any doubts, though that's not what it's about, it's more of a walkabout, a memoirish novel (Sebald seems to derive from this). (That Patrick French's biography of Naipaul is just out added impetus, not that I have any interest, not that he cares. Hey, it is what it is. [Tractatus 1.]) What it is is retropoco, a reversion. Empathy with those one hardly knows. Displacements. Remembering, writing, living. (Strangely, publication of EofA roughly coincided with An Unfinished Journey by his younger brother Shiva, published posthumously [nyrb credits to VS]. Strangely, the finale of EofA deals with their sister's passing.) Much has been written about all this, I won't add any more, except to recommend highly.

Gyula Krúdy, Sunflower (trans John Bátki): Exuberant melancholia (it's a Hungarian thing, you wouldn't understand, so says John Lukacs in the intro, a profile piece pulled from the New Yorker, prone to exaggeration of importance, I think, but it's a Hungarian thing ...). Character sketching along strong lines and serial imagistic epigrammatic metaphor (e.g. daughters of the bourgeoisie ... listening to the music of distant accordians, their hearts overflowing like a stone trough whose water drips from a little-used faucet) carry the story.

Nagai Kafu, During the Rains & Flowers in the Shade (trans Lane Dunlop): The seamy side of the second 20thC Tokyo, between the earthquake and the war. After Selimović and Naipaul, the best of the bunch. From the translator's preface:
Edward Seidensticker, in his authoritative Kafu the Scribbler (1965), cires a comment by Tanizaki as the most perceptive yet made. I quote from his translation:
"The old-fashioned is fairly conspicuous in Kafu's recent
During the Rains. Indeed in its style and the shifting of its scenes, it might be called the oldest of his novels yet. There are chance meetings scattered all through the book, which are used to further the plot, in a manner common enough in plays and novels of another era. The oldest of this form stands in subtle contrast to the modern colors of the material."
And Donald Keene, in his monumental study of modern Japanese fiction
Dawn to the West, has this to say:
During the Rains ... ranks as one of Kafu's finest achievements ... The exceptional praise [...] won from discriminating critics was occasioned chiefly by the novelistic interest. The detached analysis of a group of people makes the story read like a work of French Naturalism, though a few passages [...] evoke the beauty of place and season in the typical Kafu manner."
Flowers in the Shade might almost be called a continuation ...

These last two I've used to interspersed Arno Schmidt novellas. Along with other odds'n'sods (selected Mallarmé, Thom Nash[e]). What newly awaits on the shelf (trans in parens):
Venedikt Erofeev, Moscow to the End of the Line (H William Tjalsma)
Dubravka Ugresic, The Ministry of Pain (Michael Henry Heim)
Imre Kertész, Liquidation (Tim Wilkinson)
Joseph Roth, The Emperor's Tomb (John Hoare)
Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz (Alfred Mac Adam)
Anita Desai, Baumgartner's Bombay
Witold Gombrowicz, Trans-Atlantyk (Carolyn French & Nina Karsov)
Stephane Mallarmé, Divagations (Barbara Johnson)
Arno Schmidt, Collected Novellas and Collected Stories (John E. Woods)


Elsewhere, a World Lit bookchat has been set up by a Glaswegian litblogger (discussion threads seeded with prior postings, serves as index thereto)—I enjoy the forum form, the back-and-forth without it being somebody's territory, but it needs many voices to succeed. I hope this will achieve critical mass, since literature in translation is a strong interest of mine, and I'm already mining the site for new reading. (A translator from Estonian has piqued my interest in Toomas Vint's A Never-Ending Landscape. But I'll have to wait.) Meanwhile, I'll pull over some thoughts on translation that haven't yet sparked discussion over there (over here isn't much for discussion, it's just the way it is, but I'll save ya da click):

The Art of Translation

Translation is widely considered to be an inferior art: its product is subordinate to the original, in a way reminiscent of the ancient philosophical distinction between the written and the spoken word. Exact replication is an unachievable goal, as refraction into a different linguistic and cultural matrix distorts the nuances and allusions upon which literary character depends. Faithful reproduction is perforce an interpretation, trying to capture what's essential in the original (a matter of opinion) and to elaborate upon it in a changed context while preserving what of the original context can be transferred: translation is a derivative, highly constrained craft.

And the translator is the most self-effacing of craftsmen. The translator (unlike the critic or scholar) tries to be a version of the author, a stand-in drawing attention away from himself. Commercial and academic rewards are scant. Still, many authors (particularly poets: odd, or perhaps not, in that poetry is the most difficult to translate) devote time and effort to translating the work of others.

And so the reading of translations is similarly looked upon as debased. Not that the acquisition of non-native language is seen as much better: it remains blind to unacknowledged natural linguistic resources and to a cultural framework investing much of the meaning. For many of us, translation is as much a window on this framework as on the work itself.

An analogy I find apt is to musical transcription. It is rare for the adapter to be more recognized (though it happens: Rimsky-Korsakov Ravel is more commonly identified with "Pictures at an Exhibition" than Mussorgsky). I think of English as the pianoforte of languages, adaptable to a broad range of orchestration. But just try to render, say, Indian melody and harmony with it. Anyway, in the same way that appreciating music is at some basic level about anticipating the notes that are to follow, I view literary reading as being in large part an exercise in reconstructing meaning in expression. Translation makes this more problematic. But also more interesting.