This post was first published back in May 2015, but since some of my translations have appeared, I’ve revised the introductory section and also revised the post publication date. – JS
Somewhere in the ballpark of Borges, Calvino, Manganelli, and Szentkuthy, Pierre Senges writes texts that are stylistically acrobatic, audacious in their conception, and in constant conversation with countless literary-historical precursors. I was first introduced to some of his books in 2008, and I have since returned to them as a translator, starting in 2014. That blend of erudition and comedy that is so singularly present in his writings deserves a wider audience, I think. (And, hey, I’m an opportunist too: why not try to make a little name for myself as his translator.)
As of yet, only a slim fraction of his work is available or known to anglophone readers. Though some years ago it was announced that there would be an English translation of Fragments de Lichtenberg (2007) from Dalkey Archive, translated by Gregory Flanders. That’s a big book (about 600 pps.), and awaited by many adventurous readers. M.A. Orthofer thought highly of the translation (full review) and I did too, but we both read advance reading copies — the book’s publication, alas, is floating in limbo because of a grant stipulation that has not yet been fulfilled by the publisher.
And it’s a little-known fact, I suppose, that technically speaking Senges’s writing has been available to read in English in book form since 2009. The Adventures of Percival: A Phylogenetic Tale was published in two separate editions (French and English) with illustrations by Nicolas de Crécy. But I don’t think very many readers outside France know that book.
As we wait to see more of Senges’s books brought into English, I have been publishing some of his work in various periodicals (with the necessary permissions, of course); excerpts from The Major Refutation and Geometry in the Dust have appeared in Hyperion and The Brooklyn Rail, respectively, and a number of short texts (ranging from 2,500-4,500 words) are up or forthcoming at Gorse Journal, Numéro Cinq Magazine, Hyperion, The Collagist, and 3:AM Magazine (links here). I also wrote an annotated bibliography of Senges’s books for curious English readers like yourself: “A Library of Imposture; or, a Short Annotated Bibliography of Pierre Senges’s Books.” You can access it through Contra Mundum Press’s Hyperion page. (Download the PDF of Vol. 9, Issue 1, or use the browser reader.)
As for proper book-length publications, we’ll have to wait until next year — rights acquisitions, grants, contracts, all that is slowly falling into place. Otherwise, for now, I’ll leave you with this old ‘miscellany’ I whipped together from existing sources. I think it presents a strong case for Senges’s work’s originality and why I find it so enjoyable and fascinating. Maybe you will too.
“Ironic and rigorously autodictactic, Pierre Senges blazes a fairy-tale-like trail through the forest of erudition. A great admirer of Borges, he finds in the Great Library the sources for a multiform, savant, and joyous inspiration. He’s prolific, too: thirteen books in as many years, not to mention his numerous plays for radio, broadcast by France Culture and France Inter, in which he plays happily on the possibilities of radio.” (publisher’s bio)
“From 1994 onwards, Senges trades in his musician’s scales for those of the writer, developing paragraphs on paper, perfecting them, inventorying them, numbering them—not publishing for six years: “Technique in literature is not a bad word for me. It allows one to offer to others what would be, without technique, only obsession or madness.” […] He lived in Grenoble for many years. As for formal study, there was little to none. He was registered as a sociology student, but never set foot on campus: one of the most erudite French writers of his generation, one of the most talented in terms of composition and phrasing, is an autodidact. Maybe that’s why his encyclopedism isn’t at all pedantic: each book is an adventure that allows him to conquer all books, like a child, or a doe running through a forest.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)
“I admit the word ‘Baroque,’ if by that you intend its broad, most common meaning: that which lets everything in, which prefers a curved line to a straight line, detour to destination, irony to distraught naïveté, and a certain inelegance in the multiplication of digressions.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)
On Miklos Szentkuthy and the truly endless possibilities opened up through digression : “If I could imitate anyone, it would be Szentkuthy. He takes up literature in a casual, complex-free way. The writer is a satrap who is allowed to do anything, whom no one can reproach because he is a satrap and because he is doing his job.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)
Eric Loret: By questioning fiction, you obviously question the real. Is your intention to address a certain kind of contemporary mental confusion, a schizophrenia of appearances?
Arno Bertina: I don’t think that’s specific to our time. To be contemporary means to be confronted with confusion.
Pierre Senges: Yes, as with Calderón’s Life Is a Dream. It quickly became “life is a film” or “life is a video game,” but ultimately our intelligence for this problem has hardly evolved. It’s one of literature’s fundamental interrogations. And the society of the spectacle wasn’t invented yesterday either. There’s more to be learned from Saint-Simon than from Debord concerning the agony of appearances. An injunction is often set before the writer: “Tell us about the contemporary world.” But supposedly realist novels that speak of ‘our’ time are books that tell more of a ‘here and now’ that’s commonly accepted at a given moment. An execrable consensus, with its basis only in reality’s most ostentatious signs. You could just as well say “the world is 70% water and two billion Chinese people, so write about Chinese sailors.” Art should promulgate realities. (“Figures implosées,” Libération, 2006)
On the occasion of the publication his first book, Veuves au maquillage (2000): “What I set out to do is not description or narration, but rather a commentary on that description or narration; in other words, to approach it from the outset in the second degree.” (Chronic’art)
“I sometimes have the impression that my love of stories leads me into territories that are further and further away from what stories usually look like—and, along with that, the impression that I am telling stories of stories, instead of stories of people.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
“Literature as commentary might be one of our great, new-found pleasures (what richness!): there’s Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova to be savored, the monomaniacal commentary of the king-in-exile Kinbote in Pale Fire, the Parallel Book of Manganelli which is parasitical to Pinocchio, and more recently the Glossary of Greek Birds of D’Arcy Thompson, accompanied by the (I quote) amateurish commentaries of Dominque Meens. But parasitism or commensalism are hardly new, and literary experts know that better than anyone.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
“The interpretation of source texts can become a novelistic genre unto itself.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
“I especially like the idea of a literature of hypotheses: there are very strong resemblances between scientific hypothesis and comedic scenario: in both cases, one must start with a postulate, then deduce the consequences and sort out those which are viable from those which are not. That Let us suppose forms the initial point of departure for both scientific argument and the work of the librettist—scientific literature has borrowed a great deal from works of poetic and narrative literature, and poetry and the novel have for a long time been nourished by scientific literature, namely because science, through its qualitative vulgarization, necessarily has recourse to metaphor. In a Carrollian way, our modern imagination (there’s modernity again) is inhabited by Einstein twins of different ages, Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously both dead and alive, and the dactylographic chimpanzee invented by Émile Borel.
Scientists, who create the basis for part of what we know and our criteria for truth, would be well situated to write, fictionally perhaps even, a history of errors, deceptions, and ignorance. Not so much to give rise to a feeling of impotence, because the shortcomings of our knowledge don’t lead us fatally into the absurd, but—without lapsing into a dilettante-ish relativism—so that we might perceive how error and exactitude feed off of each other, how the false enriches the true, how we stand to benefit from received ideas and when it’s better to do away with them.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)
Pierre Senges: The imposture of realism in literature supports the imposture of liberalism, which tells us that the free market is reality and not an opinion about reality. Saying a writer must be a realist isn’t an answer, but a question.
Arno Bertina: But literature gladly comes along to pull out the rug from underneath the feet of these people, by showing that the definition of reality is not closed, that there is movement. The humor that is in our books takes into account, I think, the instability and the play inherent in representation. (“Figures implosées,” Libération, 2006)
“Generally speaking, a book is one of those rare objects that, if it succeeds, respects us. (…) Advertising doesn’t respect us, political speeches don’t respect us; sermons address us as imbeciles, literary manifestos address us as imbeciles, our neighbors might act as if we’re imbeciles. A bad book takes us for imbeciles. But a good book is one of the few places in the world where we find respect, whoever we might be.” (at remue.net)
All posts about my translations of Pierre Senges are collected here.
From a translated excerpt from Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges published last month at The Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation series, readable online:
The paradox is: one wants to get lost in the city, take a chance, blindfold oneself, imagine forests (how one behaves in a forest, the behavior of the forest itself), but the city does everything to ensure that no one gets lost, despite little snares and misunderstandings (to fail to find one’s way, to chase after the bus: that’s not really what it means to get lost); even if one were to ask the landscape designers to construct cul-de-sacs and diagonal passageways, these attempts would be of no avail in view of the immense arrows posted at each intersection and the numerous maps posted at eye level, maps on which everything is distinct, of a terrible precision (there is a mark of Cain there, which the traveler never can escape, wherever he may go: a red ring encircling the words: you are here).
This is the second excerpt from Géométrie dans la poussière to appear at The Brooklyn Rail. The first chapter can be read here. Another translated excerpt will be online at 3:AM Magazine in coming months, as well as short prose texts by Senges at two other publications.
I’m in the
middle of at the beginning of What Maisie Knew, and I can’t help but think that it’s awkwardly written. The way James uses adverbs seeming so stiff… (some sort of innuendo there? probable). I don’t think it’s so much a question of my winnowing attention span, although there is that to be taken into account, but I sure do go in for the short ones, & tend to bail on the long ones.
The Middle Passage and The Old Man and the Sea are the only books that awed me. Paul Metcalf’s work is a boon to humanity, and a treasure trove.
* * *
What Maisie Knew (1897) – Henry James
A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer (1920) – Pierre Mac Orlan (trans. Napoleon Jeffries, 2013)
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) – Ernest Hemingway
The Middle Passage: A Triptych of Commodities (1976) – Paul Metcalf
The Elements of Typographic Style, 3rd ed. (2004) – Robert Bringhurst (a weird mix of deathly boring, rarely beautiful, & historically interesting — good, but not a page-turner by any means)
Ravel (2006) – Jean Echenoz (trans. Linda Coverdale, 2010)
Landscape in Landscape – Gerald Murnane (failed to get past p. 30…)
A Looking Glasse for the Court: A dispraise of the life of the Courtier, and a commendacion of the life of the husbandman (1539) – Antonio de Guevara (trans. Sir Francis Bryant, 1548, 1575)
Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) – John Lyly (possibly abridged?)
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (c. 1612) – Thomas Middleton (abandoned)
Exercises for Holy Living, Exercises for Holy Dying (1650-51) – Jeremy Taylor (somewhat abridged)
The Story of the Barbary Corsairs (1885) – Stanley Lane-Poole (in slow progress)
Ladies Almanack (1928) – Djuna Barnes
The Best of S.J. Perelman (1920s-1950s) – S.J. Perelman (always dipping in & out, because it’s first-rate hilarity)
The Zoo Story (c. 1958), The American Dream (c. 1960) – Edward Albee
The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800 (1950s?)- Lucien Febvre & Henri-Jean Martin (trans. David Gerard, 1997)
Out Stealing Horses (2003) – Per Petterson (trans. Anna Borne, 2005)
Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (2007) – Clive James (begun)
“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.