“In my youthful days, I never entered a great library, suppose of one hundred thousand volumes, but my predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of mind, — not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes, on viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect to the books, the same effect would be brought about by my own death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the worst of them capable of giving me some pleasure and instruction; and before I can have had time to extract the honey from one-twentieth of this hive, in all likelihood I shall be summoned away. This thought, I am sure, must have often occurred to yourself; and you may judge how much it was aggravated when I found that, subtracting all merely professional books—books of reference, as dictionaries, &c. &c. &c. — from the universal library of Europe, there would still remain a total of not less than twelve hundred thousand books over and above what the presses of Europe are still disemboguing into the ocean of literature, many of them immense folios or quartos. Now, I had been told by an eminent English author, that, with respect to one single work, namely, the History of Thuanus, a calculation had been made by a Portuguese monk, which showed that barely to read over the words (and allowing no time for reflection) would require three years’ labour, at the rate of (I think) three hours a day. Further, I had myself ascertained that to read a duodecimo volume, in prose, of four hundred pages — all skipping being barred, and the rapid reading which belongs to the vulgar interest of a novel — was a very sufficient work for one day. Consequently, three hundred and sixty-five per annum — that is (with a very small allowance for the claims of life on one’s own account and that of one’s friends), one thousand for every triennium; that is, ten thousand for thirty years — will be as much as a man who lives for that only can hope to accomplish. From the age of twenty to eighty, therefore — if a man were so unhappy as to live to eighty — the utmost he could hope to travel through would be twenty thousand volumes,— a number not, perhaps, above five per cent, of what the mere current literature of Europe would accumulate in that period of years. Now, from this amount of twenty thousand make a deduction on account of books of larger size, books to be studied and books to be read slowly and many times over (as all works in which the composition is a principal part of their pretensions), — allow a fair discount for such deductions, and the twenty thousand will perhaps shrink to eight or five thousand. All this arithmetical statement you must not conceive to relate to any fanciful case of misery. No; I protest to you that I speak of as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed. And it soon increased; for the same panic seized upon me with respect to the works of art. I found that I had no chance of hearing the twenty-five thousandth part of the music that had been produced. And so of other arts. Nor was this all; for, happening to say to myself, one night as I entered a long street, “I shall never see the one thousandth part of the people who are living in this single street,” it occurred to me that every man and woman was a most interesting book, if one knew how to read them. Here opened upon me a new world of misery; for, if books and works of art existed by millions, men existed by hundreds of millions. Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, my madness took yet a higher flight; for I considered that I stood on a little isthmus of time, which connected the two great worlds, the past and the future. I stood in equal relation to both; I asked for admittance to one as much as to the other. Even if a necromancer could have brought up the great men of the seventeenth century, I should have said, “What good does all this do me? Where are those of the twentieth century? —and so onward! In short, I never turned my thoughts this way but I fell into a downright midsummer madness. I could not enjoy what I had, — craving for that which I had not, and could not have; was thirsty, like Tantalus, in the midst of waters; even when using my present wealth, thought only of its perishableness; and “wept to have what I so feared to lose.”
Thomas De Quincey. “Letters to a young man whose education has been neglected; and other papers.” Pages 82-85.
This year my reading is tending towards several niche areas, to the exclusion of almost all contemporary writing. Soon, though, I hope to pick up a few authors’ books that I’ve been hearing a lot about — Per Petterson’s, for one. Meanwhile, I wanted to write a post on some of this season’s books that have my curiosity and interest.
First, a couple of reprints of note: Coffee House Press, who has previously issued the entirety of Paul Metcalf’s work in a three-volume collected works, has published one of Metcalf’s earliest works, Genoa, in paperback with an introduction by Rick Moody. I first read this after I discovered it through Larry McCaffrey’s megabooklist, called “The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: 100 English-Language Books of Fiction.” McCaffrey’s entry reads:
Genoa, Paul Metcalf, 1965 : Metcalf invents a narrative structure–part mosaic, part history, part genealogy, part invention–which appropriates generous selections of materials drawn from the Christopher Columbus myth, Moby Dick, a myriad other sources to develop a narrative that reveals a whole host of connections between the greed and blood-lust of our founding fathers and contemporary Americans.
All of Metcalf is so sublime, I would suggest if your curiosity is piqued that you consider acquiring a volume or 2 or 3 of Metcalf’s Collected Works, because they sell for peanuts after being remaindered by publishers and booksellers, or deaccessioned from the libraries that used to house them (alas, you pay for shipping). You won’t regret it.
I also notice that David Gates’s Jernigan (1990) has been re-issued by Serpent’s Tail. I read this last year after I came across a recommendation somewhere. (Online excerpt.) This is a novel about a self-pitying, sophisticated alcoholic and his decline, told with acid wit and self-pitying humor. The pacing and voice are unforgettable. Gates has a new short story collection out too, by the way.
Pierre Senges’s latest book to be published in French, Achab (séquelles), is out from Éditions Verticales in the middle of this month. It imagines the afterlives of Captain Ahab and the white whale from Melville’s Moby-Dick subsequent to their mutual pursuit. You can listen to him read its beginning pages at France Culture (20 mins.). This book is a whopper, over 600 pages including a robust table of contents — not unlike Fragments de Lichtenberg (2007). That one is forthcoming in English (trans. Gregory Flanders, Dalkey Archive, 2016), and was reviewed recently by M.A. Orthofer of The Complete Review. This book has been pushed back and pushed back, and last I heard it will be available from Dalkey for sale in January 2016. I had the privilege of reading it in the advance reading copy earlier this summer, and it is stunning.
What else? In my reading queue are Dispraise of the Courtier’s Life by Antonio de Guevara, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, and (eventually) Per Petterson.
But maybe what I really ought to be doing is rereading. I recently read A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) by George Saintsbury, and I shall return to it. I’ve long wanted to reread Michael Kohlhaas by Kleist and Hind’s Kidnap by Joseph McElroy, but I don’t know how easy it will be to ignore my appetite for novelty. Soon, perhaps. But first, this translation I am working on, this roofing website, and these books…
“A Farewell to Essay-writing” (1828) – William Hazlitt
Letters to Lou (1914-1915) – Guillaume Apollinaire (as read aloud by Guillaume Gallienne)
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” – Jorge Luis Borges (re-read)
The Book of Nightmares – Galway Kinnell (re-read)
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) – Danilo Kis (re-read; superbly translated by Duska Mikic-Mitchell, 1978)
Earth and Embers: Selections from L’homme rapaillé – Gaston Miron (trans. Plourde & D.G. Jones, 1984)
Veuves au maquillage (2000) – Pierre Senges (in progress)
An Honest Ghost (2013) – Rick Whitaker
In George Saintsbury’s History of English Prose Rhythm, the following excerpt from Hazlitt’s “Farewell to Essay-Writing”:
… In this hope, while “fields are dank and ways are mire,” I follow the same direction to a neighbouring wood, where, having gained the dry, level greensward, I can see my way for a mile before me, closed in on each side by copse-wood, and ending in a point of light more or less brilliant, as the day is bright or cloudy. What a walk is this to me! I have no need of book or companion—the days, the hours, the thoughts of my youth are at my side, and blend with the air that fans my cheek. Here I can saunter for hours, bending my eye forward, stopping and turning to look back, thinking to strike off into some less trodden path, yet hesitating to quit the one I am in, afraid to snap the brittle threads of memory. I remark the shining trunks and slender branches of the birch-trees, waving in the idle breeze; or a pheasant springs up on whirring wing; or I recall the spot where I once found a wood-pigeon at the foot of a tree, weltering in its gore, and think how many seasons have flown since “it left its little life in air.” Dates, names, faces come back—to what purpose? Or why think of them now? Or rather, why not think of them oftener? We walk through life, as through a narrow path, with a thin curtain drawn around it; behind are ranged rich portraits, airy harps are strung—yet we will not stretch forth our hands and lift aside the veil, to catch glimpses of the one, or sweep the chords of the other. As in a theatre, when the old-fashioned green curtain drew up, groups of figures, fantastic dresses, laughing faces, rich banquets, stately columns, gleaming vistas appeared beyond; so we have only at any time to “peep through the blanket of the past,” to possess ourselves at once of all that has regaled our senses, that is stored up in our memory, that has struck our fancy, that has pierced our hearts:—yet to all this we are indifferent, insensible, and seem intent only on the present vexation, the future disappointment.
– William Hazlitt, 1828
Rick Whitaker’s An Honest Ghost (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013) is a novel built from sentences culled from other books, taking them out of context, and fitting them together into a new mosaic form. The result is surprisingly successful: as I was reading, the book felt less like a coy conceptualist experiment, carried out for the purposes of achieving something that hadn’t been done before according to the given constraint, and more like an exciting stylistic excursion. If this is so, it’s no doubt because the works which have been sampled from share some common ground. The narrative is told in 46 short chapters, running to 129 pages, and followed by the source key, matching sentences to the books and authors whence they originate. (That list runs to 73 pages.) For an amateur of bibliographies like myself, there’s a most particular pleasure to be had here.
The dominant tonal thread in the narrative seems to be established by culling from works by twentieth-century writers in the ‘camp’ or queer style. Certainly not all, as that generalization won’t hold true for all the writers I’m about to mention. Some — like Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch, Gore Vidal, John Waters, Alfred Chester, Edmund White, Glenway Wescott, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and John Ashbery — were familiar to me, if only their names, a book or two I’ve read of theirs, or some biographical fact or other; while the borrowed sentences of others, a few of whom Whitaker borrows from more than liberally, intrigued me, despite my complete or partial ignorance of their life or work: Lydie Salvayres (Portrait of the Author as a Domesticated Animal); Adam Philips (On Balance); Doug Crase (Both); Jean-Christophe Valtat (03); David McConnell (The Firebrat); Fritz Zorn (Mars); Guy Hocquenghem (Screwball Asses); and André Tellier (Twilight Men).
I have yet to begin googling, but I will, and I’m pretty sure there’s some treasure-hunting to be done here. I might add, before I move on, that lots of other more well-known authors enter into the mix in frequent doses, among them: W.G. Sebald, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Thomas Bernhard, Michael Cunningham, Jean Echenoz.
The composite style is a thing of wonder to behold. I situate it somewhere in the environs of what Susan Sontag endeavored to describe in her essay “Where the Stress Falls”: a style sharing affinities with Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and many of the aforementioned queer and/or campish writers. Extraordinary; exquisite.
Postscript: I notice that Jaded Ibis Press has published the book simultaneously in two different editions — one with full-color illustrations by Debra Di Blasi, the other black-and-white, without. I read the latter.
At present I’m pretty overwhelmed with revising a book-length translation and some commercial copywriting. I thus find an inordinate amount of solace in paying visits to my neighbors in the backyard, much to the chagrin, I suppose, of mother sparrow. I think she knows we’re gentle giants, though.
Just yesterday they were wee little things, and before a fortnight they’ll be leaving home. Tempus fugit, yes — so, the little things.
The Discourse of Lorenzo Valla on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine (1443) – Lorenzo Valla (trans. Christopher B. Coleman, 1922)
Utopia (1516) – Sir Thomas More (trans. Ralph Robinson, 1556)
A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury (in progress)
The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932) – Carl L. Becker
“The Aleph” – Jorge Luis Borges (trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni)
The Mahé Circle (1946) – Georges Simenon (trans. Siân Reynolds, 2015)
Le crime paie, mais ce n’est pas évident – Giorgio Manganelli (trans. Dominique Férault, 2003; in progress)
Agalmamemnon (1984) – Christine Brooke-Rose (in progress)
The Rise of Pseudo-Historical Fiction: Fray Antonio de Guevara’s Novelizations (2004) – Horacio Chiong Rivero
Fragments of Lichtenberg (2008), “Des ébauches prises sur le fait” (2014) – Pierre Senges (trans. Gregory Flanders, 2016)
Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants (2010) – Mathias Enard
Since my last post on the Katchadjian-Borges copyright case, I’ve discovered this — Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s account of his experiences with the Borges literary estate in the years after Borges’s death.
Di Giovanni translated much of Borges’s work in close consultation with him, but was shunned and aggressively pursued for bullshit reasons by Maria Kodama, who is the heir to Borges’s literary estate, and the plaintiff, of course, in the current Katchadjian case. A translator’s nightmare. Well worth the read. It’s said that di Giovanni’s translations are superior to those which are currently in print in the Collection Fictions anthology. I haven’t compared them, but you can access the di Giovanni translations of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius, Tertius” and “The Aleph” if you know how to google. (Recommended.)
It’s not uncommon these days to hear that copyright is an obsolete concept, or at least no longer a tenable one. People download images and songs willy-nilly off the web and repost them on their blogs or social media accounts with little regard for that antique if not by now quaint notion of intellectual property. So what? Usually no one cares, or the practice is so pandemic that resistance is assumed futile.
I’m spurred towards this crotchety line of thinking by the recent example of an author, Pablo Katchadjian, who wrote and had published a short (very short) book that incorporated and expanded on the Borges story “The Aleph,” and who now faces serious consequences from an Argentinian criminal court. See Fernando Sdrigotti’s article at The Guardian, “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, not a crime.”
While I admit that the charges and possible penalty are entirely out of proportion to the alleged crime, I do lack sympathy for someone who purports to be professionally engaged in literature and who has the gall to appropriate another author’s work — not yet in the public domain — for their own project with nary a thought to permissions or rights agreements. Sdrigotti cites the other Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” but doesn’t bother to mention that it’s there a question of a centuries-old work long in the public domain being appropriated. If I recall, Menard doesn’t even publish his plagiarized text, does he? Correct me if I’m wrong. He only reproduces a passage of a certain length — less even, I think, than the 4,000-word length of “The Aleph” in question here.
The article’s title suggests some of the confusion — yes, Katchadjian’s Fattened Aleph may be a “legitimate experiment,” a remix as it’s so popular to say in this day and age; it may even be quite brilliant; but is it legal to publish it? “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, but without rights in order it ought not to be published.”
I’m not in favor of draconian punishments for copyright violators — nothing is more repugnant to me — but artists above all should see that copyright and intellectual property law serve a vital function, not least protecting the livelihood of artists.
This post follows the previous day’s post “The Princess Collated (1 of 2).” Now, to compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves in its various translations…
Pictured: My copy of the Mitford translation and The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles, alongside the modern Flammarion edition of La Princesse de Clèves.
La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second.
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. (Buss, 1992)
The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. (Mitford, 1950)
Note how Mitford reverses the sentence structure to improve it, and how she opts for an active verb structure (years | saw | object), whereas Buss uses a weak, passive one (… were displayed). The superlative structure jamais… avec tant d’éclat que becomes through Mitford such as has never been equalled. Compared to the slight awkwardness of Buss’s “At no time in…”, beginning on a negative (which, to my ear, sounds like a trial lawyer pleading a defendant’s innocence), Mitford’s phrase has a pleasant cadence and an appropriate elegance. Instead of magnificence and gallantry, which would be literal translations, from Mitford we get opulence and gallantry — a definite improvement. Buss’s translation has splendour and refinement, losing gallantry altogether.
(Yet anyone who had a historical understanding of French chivalric or even English chevalerie would be better off with gallantry I think — centuries of tradition and connotation reside therein! Knights wooing maidens, fighting Saracens, bearing heraldry, performing feats of valour to no end. Think of Buss’s poor, unsuspecting readers who don’t know what they’re missing !)
Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.
The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite. (Buss, 1992)
The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling. (Mitford, 1950)
… This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it. (anonymous)
As with the first sentence, Mitford takes the liberty of freely altering the theme of the phrase, reordering clauses and building a totally new sentence. It’s an astonishing liberty she takes, and astonishingly successful. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux becomes The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. (Did Mitford even working from the same text as Buss?! It seems doubtful for a moment. Perhaps not; there’s no mention of Henri’s dad, François I, in the original. The sentence becomes periodic, with three modifying clauses interceding — almost four — before we learn we are dealing with a great lover of women. Yes!
Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation… (Buss, 1992)
He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them… (Perry, 1891)
He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it… (Mitford, 1950)
Note the lean, functional terseness of the Mitford — no comma even. But also note how Buss’s beginning with the word since (i.e., because? I can’t help but read it any other way) ineptly alters the sense of the phrase. It is absent from the original, but the addition subtly suggests a prince who only partakes of exercise since he’s not good at much else — we go from une de ses plus grandes occupations to the fatal his main occupation, how very boring this sounds in English!; and what an ungallant king who hardly does anything but play sports, because it’s the one thing he’s capable of doing well !; whereas Mitford easily paraphrases, much of his time was given up to it, not sounding dull, but relating information.
Nancy Mitford, ladies and gentleman. An amazing mind and an amazing body of work. Spend some time.
It’s hard to know why Penguin, who once published the Mitford translation in 1963 — and who knows what other years, go figure, at WorldCat — went on to publish what appears, judging from the first one or two paragraphs, to be an inelegant and somewhat sloppy, if not flawed and inferior, translation.
Mitford’s translation is currently published by New Directions, as are four other of her books in the NYRB Classics series.
This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.
Today an article at Steve Donoghue’s blog led me to whip out my New Directions edition of La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette, translated by Nancy Mitford, and to compare its first lines to those of the Penguin Classics translation, by translator Robin Buss (who has, apparently, done a good two handfuls of French translations for Penguin Classics). This is an extraordinary book, not only because it’s a seventeenth-century novel, written by a woman, beautifully told, and very entertaining. Some context from Wikipedia:
La Princesse de Clèves is a French novel which was published anonymously in March 1678. It is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel. […] The action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary record.
Alright! If you haven’t read it, it has my highest recommendation. It clocks in at a short 150 pages, so there’s some incentive — you won’t get stuck at page 220.
Now, let’s do a little comparison of the original with the various English translations I’ve tracked down. For some I’m sure, nothing could be more tedious or sleep-inducing, but not for this guy…
Here’s the original French-language opening (and here is the novel’s full French text, with modernised spelling):
La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.
Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements ; les couleurs et les chiffres de madame de Valentinois paraissaient partout, et elle paraissait elle-même avec tous les ajustements que pouvait avoir mademoiselle de La Marck, sa petite-fille, qui était alors à marier.
And here are the first lines of the Robin Buss translation (Penguin Classics, 1992):
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite.
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.
Here’s the first lines from an anonymous translation hosted at Project Gutenberg:
Grandeur and gallantry never appeared with more lustre in France, than in the last years of Henry the Second’s reign. This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it.
As he was happily turned to excel in bodily exercises, he took a particular delight in them, such as hunting, tennis, running at the ring, and the like diversions. Madam de Valentinois gave spirit to all entertainments of this sort, and appeared at them with grace and beauty equal to that of her grand-daughter, Madam de la Marke, who was then unmarried; the Queen’s presence seemed to authorise hers.
And here is Thomas Sergeant Perry’s version, (Little Brown, 1891):
There never was in France so brilliant a display of magnificence and gallantry as during the last years of the reign of Henri II. This monarch was gallant, handsome, and susceptible; although his love for Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had lasted twenty years, its ardor had not diminished, as his conduct testified.
He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them; every day was filled with hunting and tennis, dancing, running at the ring, and sports of that kind. The favorite colors and the initials of Madame de Valentinois were to be seen everywhere, and she herself used to appear dressed as richly as Mademoiselle de la Marck, her granddaughter, who was then about to be married.
Lastly, we have Nancy Mitford’s translation:
The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling.
He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it; every day there was tilting at the ring, hunting, tennis, ballets and the like. Madame de Valentinois’s colors and cyphers were very much in evidence, and so was she herself, dressed in a style which would have been more suitable for Mlle. de la Marck, her own grand-daughter, who was then just growing up.
This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.
I was thinking about reading The City of God by St. Augustine, but I got bogged down by the question of what edition to procure: I ended up at Goodreads looking at the various editions and user reviews, and, although I am normally most stringent about attribution and intellectual property matters, I’m going to make an exception and indulge myself in a little game Edwin Turner of Biblioklept likes to call “selections from [ ] reviews of [ ].” (If you’re one of the authors of the selection I’ve quoted from this page & you object to this use of your review without proper attribution, kindly notify me & I’ll act accordingly.)
* * * * * *
Selections from reviews of St. Augustine’s The City of God
4 stars just for style alone.
I stumbled across Augustine when I was teenager and I remember this being much more profound.
He’s too tough on sex. Even marriage sex is shameful?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I began this book. It sometimes felt like it would never end, but it was a great experience.
His arguments are piss-poor and he cherry picks evidence in a manner which comes across as being childish and willful. It definitely gave me a better understanding of why Christianity is such a fragmented belief system. Any religion which claims unfocused crap like this as being “foundational” is going to have huge problems down the road.
I found myself getting annoyed by the superfluous wording and repetition of a thought.
I wanted to read this book for several reasons: obviously it is classic and also I enjoy reading Augustine, but at the same time I am sometimes puzzled why we so earnestly labor to prove that America was the new Israel? I think that this book would be helpful to American christians, as I see parallels in our “expression” of Christianity in America with the decline of morality within our society as well.
The City of God is a work of almost infinite tedium. Augustine indulges every half-baked whim of biblical exegesis, shoddy philosophy, selective reasoning, and fanciful speculation that pops into his head. Many readers have mistaken this random mishmash for depth of thought.
It’s so perfectly organized and clear, despite the convoluted subject matter, and sometimes so charmingly snarky, it just made me want to go back in time and hug him. His theology is a little disappointing, though.
Six is the perfect number?
He thought he found a giant’s tooth. Probably a dinosaur?
He does have some awesome insights though, so it was definitely worth reading. Also, all that Dark Ages pessimism and lack of scientific knowledge–it was expected (obviously), but still really sad. Made me want to go back in time (again), pat him on the back, and explain to him how a magnet works.
Needless to say, my lack of faith remained unshaken in the end.
He assumes a 6000 year old earth
In summary, Augustine gets a hug and a pat on the back, because despite being more than a thousand years old, his work has more personality than most things written today.
Two recent online articles draw attention to the situation of Québecois literature in translation. These two articles have a lot of overlap, and they both share the position that Québecois and/or Francophone Canadian literature are too often ignored, due to either the language/culture barrier, lack of interest from publishers and readers, and/or the resulting paucity of English translations. I’m glad these articles are out there and bringing attention to the issue, but if an outsider reads them, one might, I think, get the wrong impression.
Let’s start with the article which was published first, “Too Different and Too Familiar: The Challenge of French-Canadian Literature” by Pasha Malla, in The New Yorker. It is partly a review of Raymond Bock’s Atavisms, translated by Pablo Strauss for Dalkey Archive Press. This is a book that, when it was published in 2010, earned its author a reputation for being one of the most promising young authors in Quebec literature.
Malla remarks that, “Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America […] is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French.”
I’m not sure what few Canadians is meant to imply here, but the overall numbers are considerable. For example, according to Statistics Canada, in 2011, about 1.1 million people outside Quebec in Canada reported French as their mother tongue in Canada. And nearly 2.6 million people reported being fluent enough to conduct a conversation in French — 11% of Canada’s population outside Quebec (source). Furthermore, 2011 at least 81,085 Albertans speak French as their first language, giving Alberta the fourth largest francophone population in Canada (source). One should also note that the French language appears to be slowly rising in Alberta and British Columbia (source).
If I’m touchy about this, it’s because Malla does a disservice to French-Canadians, and I would even say to francophones in Canada generally — including me, whose first language is not French. He appears to be ignorant of Canada’s formidable Franco-Albertan demographic. (Nor am I Franco-Albertan.)
Let’s move on to “Why the Book I’m About to Publish Will Be Ignored” by Carmine Starnino, an accomplished poet and editor. This is a good article, discussing the state of Quebec poetry in translation in particular; but it seems either to demand that the reader of the article be fluent in French, or to insist on the principle of untranslatability. Why else would you cite French verses without interpreting them for an audience that, by default, one must assume reads only English?
[Pierre Nepveu] is a master of the perfect opening, of lines that seem electric and inevitable (“rien ne tient lieu de retour, / tout est étrange comme si c’était hier”). Craft aside, an almost primal awe for mortality holds together his most memorable passages (“Les verbes majeurs nous obsèdent,” he writes, “naître, grandir, aimer, / penser, croire, mourir”). At his best, he belongs in the company of masters like Gaston Miron. And he’s as good as anyone English Canada has produced.
For an article about French literature in translation, why not at least tell us what’s at stake? Again:
What impressed me most was how their poems never seemed static, tidy, or vapid. Saint-Denys Garneau’s line has always stayed with me: “Je ne suis pas bien du tout assis sur cette chaise.” He loathed being stuck in one place. […] His hope was to find “l’équilibre impondérable entre les deux” because “C’est là sans appui que je me repose.”
I’m certainly glad that attention is being brought to the literature of Québec by these two essayists, but my gripes stand. Who wants to fight? Just kidding.
The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1542; trans. R. Adorno & P.C. Pautz, 2003)
‘The Opening of the Will’ (c. 1800) – Jean-Paul Richter (audio at Librivox)
‘To Build a Fire’ (1908) – Jack London (recommended: audio at Librivox)
‘The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind’ (1933) – Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hoffman)
Goethe and One of His Admirers (1956) – Arno Schmidt (John E. Woods, 1990)
Acquaintance with Grief (1966) – Carlo Emilio Gadda (trans. William Weaver, 1969)
‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved’ (1970) – Hunter S. Thompson
Fragments of Lichtenberg, ‘Shylock dans le miroir,’ ‘Entreprise et renoncement’ (2006 – 2011) – Pierre Senges
‘Court of Last Opinion’ (2015) – Joseph McElroy