I would like to return to a topic I wrote about many moons ago, and that reared its ugsome head once again as I was reading Umberto Eco’s book Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (Phoenix, 2003). The book is a series of essays on various aspects of translation, material which he had presented at the Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford in 2002. On the whole it is quite useful as an introduction to many of the questions literary translators will face. A few sections of the book struck me as dull but this is perhaps to be expected… In the introduction he states his conviction that “in addition to having made an intensive study of translations […] translation scholars should have had at least one of the following experiences during their life: translating, checking and editing translations, or being translated and working in close co-operation with their translators” (1). As someone who has been in all three of these positions, he has a somewhat unique perspective on matters of translation.
What I want to focus on are just a couple pages in the book that gobsmacked me, in particular a single line translated by the late, celebrated Italian-to-English translator William Weaver.
Discussing the problems of translating “profanities or vulgar expressions” into different languages, Eco states,
There are languages (and cultures) in which it is customary frequently to name God, the Virgin and all the saints by associating their name with vulgar expressions (usually this happens in Catholic countries like Italy and Spain); others that are pretty indulgent with curses related to sexual and scatological affairs; and others that are definitely more demure or at least extremely thrifty in mentioning Our Lord and His saints. Thus an exclamation that in Italian can sound acceptable (at most very rude but not unusual) in German would sound intolerably blasphemous. (39)
To illustrate this, he looks at how his various translators have dealt with a line from his novel Baudolino. Eco describes the scene in which the line occurs, before giving us the blasphemous line and its six different translations:
In the second chapter […] Baudolino, on his horse, enters the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople, and to express his indignation for the simoniac behaviour of the crusaders who are pillaging the altar cloths and holy vessels, shouts some horrible profanities. The effect, at least in Italian is intended to be grotesque because Baudolino, in order to charge the crusaders with blasphemy, utters words that Our Lord would not approve of. But to an Italian reader Baudolino appears as a scandalised (albeit excited) good Christian, and not as a follower of the Antichrist. (39-40)
Here is the line Baudolino delivers, followed by the various published translations:
Ventrediddio, madonna lupa, mortediddio, schifosi bestemmiatori, maiali simoniaci, è questo il modo di trattare le cose di nostrosignore?
Ventredieu, viergelouve, mordiou, rèpugnante sacrilèges, porcs de simoniaques, c’est la manière de traiter les choses de nostreseigneur? (French, trans. Schifano)
Ventrediós, virgenloba, muertediós, asquerosos blasfemadores, cerdos simoníacos, es ésta la manera de tratar las cosa de nuestroseñor? (Spanish, trans. Lozano)
Ventre de deus, mäe de deus, morete de deus, nojentos blasfemadores, porcos simoníacos, é este o modo de tratar las coisas de Nosso Senhor? (Portuguese/Brazilian, trans. Lucchesi)
Pelventre dedéu, maredédeudellsops, perlamortededèu, blasfemadores fastigosos, porcos simoníacs, aquesta és manera de tractar les coses de nostre Senyor? (Catalan, trans. Arenas Noguera)
Gottverfluchte Saubande, Lumpenpack, Hurenböcke, Himmelsakra, ist das die Art, wie man mit den Dingen unseres Herrn umgeht? (German, trans. Kroeber)
God’s belly! By the Virgin! ‘sdeath! Filthy blasphemers, simonist pigs! Is this any way to treat the things of our lord? (English, trans. William Weaver)
Eco’s point in collating these translations is that the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan translators faced no problem at all — they could for the most part rely on cognates and did not have to worry about a tonal or truly blasphemic shift in meaning that would occur. Weaver, Eco says, “tried to be as blasphemous as an English speaker can be” (40), and as we can see he mitigated the effect a truly literal translation from the Italian would have had. The German translator has avoided any perception of blasphemy altogether, in line with the tendencies of the German language and culture, and his strongest curse is Himmelsakra, “Heavens and Sacrament” (not so strong, Eco tells us). “This is another case in which the translator must accept a definitive loss,” Eco concludes.
Curiously, Eco passes over Weaver’s use of four exclamation points, where there were none in the original, and none in the various translations, without so much as a mention of them. I have not read Eco’s Baudolino but to me those exclamation points are quite jarring and they suggest another register altogether than the one Eco intended — one of ridiculous puppetry and farce. Is Baudolino like that? I can’t say. But my rule of thumb when it comes to translation is to observe the punctuation tendencies of the original as much as possible. Not only has Weaver added exclamation marks and changed the tone of the passage, he has also broken up a single, sentence-like unit of words into five choppy ejaculations.
One might object that Weaver did the best he could under the circumstances and that the exclamation points were a necessary negotiation. Perhaps, perhaps. What I see is an attempt to do the reader’s work for him/her — the original lets the reader sense the exclamatory nature of the remarks from their content, whereas the English translator red-flags it. Moreover, since the text is a pseudo-historical one, I would think it is relevant whether or not exclamation points here are historically verisimilar — I would say it is extremely rare if not impossible for exclamation points to occur in any usage from the time period Baudolino draws on, that of the 12th century. It would appear rather that the exclamation mark “was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century” (if we are to believe the encyclopedia I have nearest to hand). What is most surprising to me about all this is that Eco didn’t find Weaver’s deviation from the punctuation of the original worthy of remark.
Punctuation, or lack thereof, is an aspect of written language, and any theory or methodology of translation must account for it.
So much for my intrepidness. I still haven’t finished several of the books listed on January’s reading log. The Secret History of Lord Musashi (1935) by Tanizaki, for instance, nor Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat?, nor Baron von Munchausen. This month’s books were a breeze to read however. I really enjoyed Thomas Dolby’s memoir. Towards the end of the book he makes a claim that his Beatnik software synth, which ran on phones like Nokia’s, was the most widely heard synthesizer in history. I enjoyed the memoir very much.
Somewhat relatedly, last Sunday, I set up another blog where I’ll be posting occasionally on issues related to sound, music, and hearing: hyperaudiosensitive. Over the past year or two as I have been learning to play piano and also a bit about circuit-bending, I’ve been tempted to post thoughts on music and sound here but have mostly refrained. My reasoning is that most people who visit here do so because they are interested in books and literature, not music, sound, or audition considered as subjects in themselves.
Now, it seems a little ill-advised to begin a second blog when 1) there has always been frequent and strong overlap between my readings and my explorations of sound/music; and 2) my updates here are rather infrequent. (There’s a good chance now I’ll have not one but two rarely updated blogs!) Yet I couldn’t help but draw that imaginary line…
The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology (2016) – Thomas Dolby
Music by the Numbers: From Pythagoras to Schoenberg (2018) – Eli Maor
I finally got back into the swing of things this month. For many months past I have been a disaffected and frustrated reader. I’m doing much better now, though still veeery scattered and far from where I want to be. A few of the books below I am still reading, one I skimmed, one I will not finish.
Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785) – Rudolf Erich Raspé (trans. ?)
The Secret History of Lord of Musashi (1935) – (trans. Anthony Chambers)
Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981) – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (trans. Gregory Rabassa, 1982)
Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (2003) – Umberto Eco
Days and Nights in W12 (2011) – Charles Boyle/Jack Robinson
John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship (2014) – Andy Kesson
Kubrick Red (2014) – Simon Roy (trans. Jacob Homel, 2018)
Chameleo: A Strange but True of Invisible Spies, Heroin Addiction, and Homeland Security (2015) – Robert Guffey
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction (2017) – Grady Hendrix
Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe (2018) – Simon Sellars
La Revue des lettres modernes recently published an issue of critical articles and writings devoted to the discussion of Pierre Senges’s work; I know that it may be of interest to some of you who share my enthusiasm for this nonpareil author. I look forward to reading it myself, sooner or later. It is edited by scholars Audrey Camus and Laurent Demanze. See the Table of contents here.
While I’m at it I might as well mention a few other critical resources on the same author, published not too long ago.
Check out issue #5 of the UK literary review Hotel.
It has new work by Joshua Cohen, Iain Sinclair, Agustín Fernández Mallo, Thomas Bunstead, Sophie Lewis, and Noémi Lefebvre — a few familiar names there. My contribution is a translation of a prose piece by Hélène Frédérick, a Quebecois author now living in France. Her piece was originally titled “A bras le corps: une histoire de crédit,” which became in my translation “Tooth and Nail: A Credit History.”
Hotel #5 will be published shortly.
My translation of Géométrie dans la poussière by Pierre Senges (Verticales/Le Seuil, 2004) will be published in three months. April, 2019, that is. The publisher is Inside the Castle. The translated edition will reproduce the 26 eye-popping illustrations by Killoffer that feature in the original. I announced this on twitter but I don’t think I have announced it here.
It is a book about cities. Around 100 pages.
I consider Inside the Castle to be very much at the vanguard of publishing in the USA right now. I first became aware of this press a few years ago when I had a translation published in Vestiges_02. John Trefry (founding editor, designer, etc) also had a piece in that volume. Before sending my manuscript to Inside the Castle I sent it around quite a lot and it accumulated many rejections. So it is very gratifying to see this work going into the world. I think a good cross-section of the readers and writers who have been following the releases of Inside the Castle will appreciate it. Their audience, as imaginary as it is real, I like to think of as a cult, and it is a cult to which I am happy to belong.
If you would like a review copy of the book when it comes out, drop me a line.
Since Marguerite collects angels, Be an angel and come, You may shed your wings if you wish …
… from seven o’clock into eternity …
I suppose it’s been a long time since my blog posted any new or useful content here. I’m not certain these remarks will be useful to anyone — I hope that they will — but it’s time I said a few words about Marguerite Young (1908-1995).
I’m no expert on Young or her work, but I have acquired a number of her (somewhat rare) books and I have read around in them a fair amount. From my very partial reading of just one of her books, I became convinced she was a genius, and I admire to no end her ability to write beautifully in the florid idioms and rhetoric of the English Renaissance and Baroque eras. People say that she is obscure, forgotten, unknown, unread. The Paris Review published a piece not long ago that reinforces this cant. It is sloppy work indeed to borrow (or adapt) your headline from a throwaway phrase appearing in Young’s New York Times obituary: “The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed” (by Meghan O’Gieblyn, Paris Review Blog, Sep 19 2018). To me this rankles because from the outset Young is framed as a little read author. Now, supposing your publication’s readers are interested in literary excellence, what does the size of an excellent author’s readership matter to begin with? Furthermore, to gauge the size of a readership is no pat task. Who can say who’s picking up her books in old shops and taking them home? I think of that Rilke line: “you whose course is wrongly entered on every chart” (Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, p. 74). Now as for that book everyone is talking about just this moment, whether Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries or that new Houllebecq about to be published… I don’t give one hoot.
Every writer who is not a household name is obscure until one “discovers” them, as simple as that. Is S.J. Perelman obscure? Nathanael West? Heinrich von Kleist? Nathalie Sarraute? Madame de Lafayette? You tell me. They’re all among my favorite writers… I have known about Marguerite Young for five or six years I think. She was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. If you read her, or even if you don’t, now that you have heard of her, she will no longer be obscure to you. Her books are there waiting, stored on the shelves of libraries and shops, entirely out of print, not always exorbitant. She is not obscure, she is lucid. Moreover, her work is available freely on the Internet in the form of a series of radio adaptations produced by Charles Ruas. There is a truly epic amount of audio available there, including Young in interview — you can hear her speak.
Without being a critic of her work, I have been an advocate of her work on twitter for some time. I have even helped a few readers discover her work. One of them read the entirety of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling! It’s a very strange feeling as a reader to know that you encouraged another reader to embark on a journey of 1,200 pages, and that they made the journey intact.
But the book which has fascinated me to no end, with many interruptions, is not Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, but Young’s Angel in the Forest: An Epic of Two Utopias – A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America (1945). Judging from the title, this work might be a rather dull work of local history, a work of social and religious import, an entry in the utopian catalogue. It is all of these things, I have found it dull at times, though stupefying and wondrous in almost the same instant. Young’s greatest achievement here is to have captured something of the anarchic character of the American interior before it was organized by modernity but to have done so using a phraseology that puts one in mind of the (baroque) elegance of the King James Bible and of John Lyly. (Marguerite Young’s MA thesis was written on the latter, in fact.) I fear it is an inexhaustible work and that even by reading it over many times it will continue to surpass me. Gobsmacked I am by it. Here are two exemplary (and representative) passages from Angel:
Frederick walked in a larger maze than any he had planned, the wilderness, both actual and political. He was a traveling salesman, purely mundane. In that capacity, he had run into all kinds and conditions of men—desperadoes, carpenters, anchorites, botanists, Indian chieftains without tribes, counterfeiters, ragged tailors, preachers without congregations, blacksmiths, prostitutes who looked like fallen angels and smelled like skunks, giants, dwarfs, a mannish bearded lady in a Kentucky tavern, men whose canes concealed swords, false millenniasts, robber barons quoting the work of John Wesley, pregnant women, Shakers, a Punch-and-Judy show, coffinmakers, teamsters, human imagination gone hog-wild. (54)
What was the variety of nature—but a construct of the imagination, a public fantasy, a veering, Athena with the face of Mary, Mary with the face of a woman who squatted on the road, as the pod of her body opened? The erection of a conclusive system would probably be forever beyond man’s powers, Frederick thought. There could be nothing simply and absolutely so—but many possibilities, alluring as bypaths, many visions, deformities, grandeurs, scandals, soldier kingdoms, overladen horses, warped glories, holy cities. The external world, on its entrance to the mind at Harmony, had been ferried from reality to the most fearful unreality—as if the kingdom of God cometh not with observation of nature. Suppose the gulf between the finite and infinite to be itself infinite, however? It would be better to accept the tangible reports of the sensations, wherever possible—parasitic tufts on the maple, a bird in the bush, hooked seeds, the zebra stripes of sunlight on dark grasses, orange trumpet flower, a woman’s breasts. Better to have been a nomadic pioneer, wanderer like nature herself, who leaves her footprints in the marshes. Better to have slept all night in an Indian village, among cripples, babies, and old, flea-bitten dogs. Better to have taken a chance with the worst of men, even the gambler, if he gambled for the love of gambling and not for the false love of a false God. For then men would at least be undeceived. (57)
As I said, her work is out of print. I am lucky to have a lot of it before me, I appreciate it greatly. As a resource for her future and present readers I am taking the liberty of posting some photos of her books and a few very brief excerpts. “Fair use” in copyright being always subject to interpretation, I feel only slightly trepidatious sharing these materials. (If you can prove that you are a copyright holder and you are opposed to the sharing of these brief materials, drop me a line and I would be more than happy to cease and desist.) I think that the Tables of Contents of the two rather ancillary volumes may prove useful to some readers and researchers in locating relevant texts. Lastly, I know that the material aspects of the books may be of interest to some readers.
Also, to this blog’s loyal readers, the many thousands, the happy few — Happy New Year!
Young’s first book, a collection of poems, Prismatic Ground (1937), and “Spring” therefrom.
Young’s second (or third book?), Moderate Fable and Other Poems (1944), and two poems therefrom. Angel in the Forest would be published the following year.
The above edition of Angel in the Forest (with its Table of contents after) is not the original 1945 edition, but a beautiful 1966 reprint by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Note that the jacket text added to the title – An Epic of Two Utopias — A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America — is not a true subtitle as it doesn’t appear on the title page or in most bibliographic information. It’s a very nice paratext though, all the more for it being ambiguous in that way. The first edition seems to have had the subtitle A fairy tale of two utopias. I have never seen a first edition of Angel.
Inviting the Muses (1994) was edited by Steven Moore (with input from scholars of Young’s work, including Miriam Fuchs and Martha Sattler) during his time at Dalkey Archive Press, and it contains stories, essays, and book reviews Marguerite Young wrote over the decades. Curiously, Marguerite Young reviewed a lot of books in 1945. The other book reviews are chronologically very few and far between.
A very useful chronology of Young’s life, by Martha J. Sattler:
Marguerite Young, Our Darling (ed. Miriam Fuchs, Dalkey Archive, 1994), contains a wealth of ancillary materials, including about ten photographs of Young (see below), the invitation card to the release party of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965) up at the top of this post, the above chronology by Martha Sattler, and so on.
And for good measure I’ll leave you with one of the many thousands of striking passages in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling — from page 265 in the Dalkey reissue. Let’s hope that the French translator Claro manages, as he has been trying I know, to convince a French publisher to take on this book and pay him to translate it.
P.S. Many before me have made guideposts to Marguerite Young’s work, and I would be remiss if I didn’t provide at least a few links, so here goes. They are all themselves full of links, so much to explore:
– Literature –
McTeague (1899) – Frank Norris
Beneath the Underdog (1971) – Charles Mingus
Travesty (1976), Whistlejacket (1988) – John Hawkes
U & I (1991), The Anthologist (2009), Travelling Sprinkler (2013) – Nicholson Baker
Robinson (2016) – Jack Robinson
Belfie Hell (2018) – Shane Jesse Christmass
Les artistes (2017) – Clément de Gaulejac
– Music and Sound –
Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments (2005) – Reed Ghazala
Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (2007) – Carl Wilson (in the Continuum 33 ⅓ series)
Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking, 2nd edition (2009) – Nicolas Collins
The Science of Musical Sound (1983) – John R. Pierce
Incidentally, all the books on the list are (I think) written by men. I know I’m forgetting some books. My Teacher Fried My Brains. Last night my ten-year-old devoured A Christmas Story. I must be doing something right. In the category of “literature” above it looks like I’ve been reading mostly American authors. As you can see I got interested in circuit-bending and I bent many things. More about that later perhaps, I have toyed with the idea of starting a different blog to document some of my adventures in circuit-bending. I am supposed to be writing a review of Belfie Hell but my notes have vexed me. What a troublesome, annoying book. I think Belfie Hell is, like its main typeface, calculated to read “like shit.” The scenic repetitions of the book’s first 100 pages are maddening. The scenic repetitions of the book’s second 100 pages are maddening. The scenic repetitions of the book’s third 100 pages are maddening. Invariably it is Shia LeBoeuef taking some drug or other, passed out on the floor or at the window in extremis while the “pig cops” run back and forth in the street, or “the underage guy James Franco fucked” does some inane task. Mia Goth appears in every almost scene as a sort of amoral demigod, a tabloid queen. Mia Goth does some pretty fucked up shit in Belfie Hell — just off the top of my head I think she kills some people, maybe a decapitation, also is a trafficker of LSD. If I hadn’t promised to review Belfie Hell I do not think I would have read to the end, it is so challenging. I will have a little more to say about Belfie Hell after this.
You finish a long article, revise it, submit it, respond to the fact-checker, revise it further, and resubmit it. Then you wait a year. One day you will receive a fat tome in the mail, one that will be sold for $320 USD to a few dozen research libraries across the USA and maybe Canada. And this is your first “scholarly” publication, properly speaking. (Maybe.) At any rate, I find the situation absurd. Consider the price of the book: $320 USD. (That’s to pay me and the fact-checker and the editor, I suppose.) Then there are the size and the heft of the thing, which are almost too much. I can find no proper link to the table of contents or the list of contributors. Presumably university students and profs whose institutions have a subscription to the right consortium will be able to access my essay on Paul Metcalf in PDF form, though I can’t verify that right now.
Earlier this spring I was in the process of preparing an article on the work and life of Edward Dahlberg to feature in the same series, when I received notice that the series was definitively cancelled. What a pain in the ass. I was already at work on the article. I have racked my brains for an alternative publication outlet that would be interested.
Anyways, I touched a lock of Metcalf’s hair in New York City. To my surprise, it was more auburn than brown. I saw other things in the archive, including a photo of Metcalf in a wetsuit hamming it up in his New England kitchen with his wife Nancy. A picture of Charles Mingus, annotated by Nancy — “Paul’s favorite picture of Mingus.” A medical note about Paul’s dizziness in the months before his heartattack in 1999. A certificate of “excellence in safety” that he received one of the years that he was a schoolbus driver on the outskirts of Asheville, NC. Photos of him in a firefighter’s jumpsuit, also from the Asheville years. His elementary school composition notebook. Much else. The remnants of a lifetime.
Truth Is More Sacred: Exchanges on Modern Literature (1961) – Edward Dahlberg & Herbert Read
Reasons of the Heart: Maxims (1965) – Edward Dahlberg
The Edward Dahlberg Reader (1967)
The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg (1971)
The Wages of Expectation: The Biography of Edward Dahlberg (1979) – Charles Defanti
The Seventh Dragon: The Riddle of Equal Temperament (2nd ed, 2005) – Anita T. Sullivan
Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture (2008) – Thom Holmes
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) – Cal Newport
too scattered to keep my vague resolutions to blog, but also I choose silence. Silence is a choice.
* * *
How to Sing (1880something) – Lilli Lehmann (trans. ?)
Truth Is More Sacred: Critical Exchanges on Modern Literature – Edward Dahlberg and Herbert Read
The Olive of Minerva or the Comedy of a Cuckold (1976) – Edward Dahlberg
The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg (1971)
Find You in the Dark (2018) – Nathan Ripley/Naben Ruthnum
thinking about Harry Mathews & Edward Dahlberg
what else? lots
By a long shot, Analog Days and Mad Skills were the most engrossing for me. I really enjoyed Gamelife as well. I continue to be more scattered than I would wish. I’m reading The Solitary Twin right now; over the years I have read most of Harry Mathews’s books with great pleasure. I’m obsessed with sound. And about five years after my first crash course in it, I’m enjoying thinking/reading about the history of (music, sound) technology and media studies. I play the piano, the synthesizer, a latecomer to them after having been a drummer/percussionist previously. I’m thinking also about Ed’s recent post at Biblioklept on how he wishes to be more prolific, less rigorous, and more casual in posting on his blog. Me too. I don’t think I would want to post here daily, as he vows to do, but this month I might try to write here a little more often in a less focused or prepared way. Might not always be about books. : )
* * *
some stories of Patricia Highsmith in Nothing That Meets the Eye
Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (2002) – Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco
An Ideal for Living (2006) – Eugene Thacker
Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore “The Unabomber” Kaczynski (2010)
Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures (2013) – Mark Fisher
Gamelife: A Memoir (2015) – Michael J. Clune
The Unyielding (2017) – Gary J. Shipley
Le Plongeur (2017) – Stéphane Larue (in progress)
Calling a Wolf a Wolf (2017) – Kaveh Akbar
Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the Twentieth Century (2018) – Ryan Alexander Diduck
The Solitary Twin (2018) – Harry Mathews
Emilien Bernard: Aside from Antoine Volodine, whose work I know you appreciate, are there other contemporary French writers you’re passionate about?
Eric Chévillard: The list would be too long and I would have to cite some friends. But I was recently impressed by Fragments de Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges. A remarkable book, masterful from start to end and yet totally backwards, full of digressions and glissades. I’m afraid it didn’t receive the welcome it deserved, which says a lot about the state of criticism and the incuriosity of readers. Such a book illustrates, though, what literature can be when it is fully comprehended. It seems to me that such a high ambition would have sooner been recognized in former eras. But the enormous contemporary laziness before this ample and generous book will have once again only noted its weight and size.
— from a 2008 interview with Eric Chévillard (my translation)
I have no doubt also been remiss in failing to observe here the English-language publication of Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges, translated by Gregory Flanders. Here is a book teeming with intellectual farce and madcap encyclopedism that, in the year since its English-language publication in January 2017, has eluded the notice of every traditional outlet for bookish criticism.
Part of my own hesitation to herald the book’s publication was due to my expectation that said heralding would occur elsewhere. I imagined that, once Senges had effectively made his English-language debut with such an ambitious work, six hundred pages of zany erudition and irreverent jokes (and this just one month after the publication of my translation of Senges’s The Major Refutation) — well, I imagined that some publication or publications with a considerable readership would herald, yes, herald Senges as the next brilliant French writer in a long line of brilliant French writers. (In 2009, François Monti had insinuated that Senges was French literature’s “best-kept secret,” for instance.) But this has not come to pass. Neglect has been the fate of many brilliant writers, no doubt.
Only a few independent bloggers and a handful of adventurous readers seem to have noticed the book’s publication, either at their blogs or at GoodReads. Reviewing the book from galleys, the Complete Review called the book “dizzyingly entertaining, very funny […] the best sort of literary fantasy, and an entertaining satire of (so-called) literary scholarship.” Likewise, The Modern Novel appreciated and recommended the book, as “a brilliant pastiche of both literary researchers and of Lichtenberg himself. It is is thoroughly original, incredibly inventive, very learned and very funny.”
I was tempted at times to don my reviewer’s cap and proselytize for the book myself, but I demurred, and I still demur: having translated many of Senges’s words, and two of his books, I know that I’m far from impartial. Nor do I think myself capable in this instance of impassioned advocacy, perhaps veering into rant territory. Anyways, the season of the book’s publication — as well as of that of The Major Refutation‘s first appearance — has long passed.
And so I will leave the reader with just the following eyebrow-lifting passage from the book, one of my favorites. Perhaps it will incite some of you to track down this nonpareil tome.
P.S. In no way would I wish to downplay the power of blogs and bloggers to register and influence literary reception; but I do make a distinction between one-person venues (writer, editor, and publisher being the same individual) and venues where the indulgence and efforts of at least two people are required to publish an article. But why do I? I suppose I cling to the belief, or the hope, that the literary ‘establishment’ will take note of good work. Perhaps a little more cynicism is called for.
The audio of Pierre Senges discussing The Major Refutation at Shakespeare and Company is at Soundcloud. The event was in November. A few readers of this blog may be interested in that discussion, with Shakespeare & Co’s astute commentator.
The Major Refutation is a nonpareil book that I came to translate. It was published in late 2016 by Contra Mundum Press. It’s a fake Renaissance treatise arguing that the newly discovered Americas don’t exist. Pierre Senges is brilliant.
Should’ve posted this link a while back; I really wish that I could embed the file to display here tidily, but no dice, it plays havoc with the CSS layout.
It’s an amazing coincidence I guess, but a member of the audience seems to accuse Senges of being complicit in the mythologization of America at the very end of this recording. It’s like he stepped right out of the book, Guevara’s shadow.
►/1404er/ (Fri) 23:34:11 No.10006857698
What kind of stupid fucking question is this. Of course nobody here has killed anyone. /1404er/ consists of three types of people: fat neckbearded virgins, thin neckbearded virgins and 12 year old edgelords, none of whom have ever been in a real fight, let alone killed someone.
And if you’re curious, i’m in the fat neckbearded virgin category, only i can’t grow a beard as it ends up patchy. (Amygdalatropolis p. 53)
Publishing today at 3AM Magazine is my interview with B.R. Yeager, author of the one-of-a-kind novel Amygdalatropolis (2017).
I don’t read a whole lot of contemporary literature, but this one did capture my attention and make its way into my home and my heart. In my introduction, I venture that it may be the great social media novel, perhaps the great internet novel for our time.
Those readers who have followed my writing may know that it’s been quite some time — 2 or 3 years? — since I donned my ‘book reviewer’s’ cap. And it’s been even longer since I did an interview with an author. (In fact, I have only done one interview previously, with Joseph McElroy.) Again, it was discovering this nonpareil book that spurred me to want to write about it, and, in fact, evangelize for it. (I had meant to write a review last year of Susan Howe’s Debths, but it never came to fruition: I choked on my mixed feelings for it. Maybe I will write something on it eventually and sort through those mixed feelings.)
To be more specific: it was the fact that Amygdalatropolis was published by a small press — you might even call it a micro-press — with no publicity campaign whatsoever, no pay-to-play review in Publisher’s Weekly, likely no official reviews at all, and in fact no social media presence as far as I can tell, etc. — that made me feel it deserved a fuller reckoning than just a single solitary reading. To some this might be obvious, but it can be very discouraging to see how stark the difference in awareness, publicity, and readership is between tiny independent presses and their larger, louder peers. I find this situation hugely depressing. The larger outlets tend to cover the same titles, usually from similar perspectives, and I start to find their voices and their online presence odious.
Hats off to small presses + the underdog.
February already. The New Year’s no longer so new. The two books in bold here blew me away. I’m preparing an interview with Yeager on Amygdalatropolis. All of these books are nonpareil and fantastic.
Beneath the Underdog (1971) – Charles Mingus
The Fifth Child (1988) – Doris Lessing
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) – Alex Ross (begun)
Deliverance: Writings on Postal Relations (2014) – Marc Fischer
The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (2017) – Damon Krukowski
Amygdalatropolis (2017) – B.R. Yeager
Just a few titles coming out in 2018 that I’m looking forward to. Feel free to chime in in the comments or on Twitter if you want to contribute or bring my attention to another title. I trust that these are not the books that will be showing up on other people’s “most anticipated” lists. If they were, well, it wouldn’t even be worth my time to type this up, now would it?
The Sacred Conspiracy: Internal Correspondence of Acéphale and Lectures to the College of Sociology – Georges Bataille (January 2018, Atlas Press)
Georges Bataille long ago ceased to interest me, but I trust a few readers of this blog might have more than a modicum of curiosity about this book.
Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World (January 2018) – Paul Shapiro (Gallery Books)
Lab-grown meat, animal-free meat, should be a topic of much interest to us nowadays. Who can tell what the future holds.
The Solitary Twin – Harry Mathews (March 27, 2018, New Directions)
Harry Mathews died just a year ago. I’ve read the bulk of his work with much pleasure. This is his last novel, described as “helical” in structure. Here’s the publisher’s description: John and Paul were also visitors to the town. They were twins, as identical as can be. They wore the same clothes, chino trousers and open-neck sweaters, in John’s case adorned with a faded maroon neckerchief. Both were addicted to the shellfish harvested year-round from the rocks and sands of the coast: little clams, winkles, cockles, crabs, and above all sea urchins–their dessert, as both said. They drank only McEwan’s India pale ale and smoked the same thin black Brazilian cigars… So begins the great writer Harry Mathews’s final novel, The Solitary Twin, a rollicking yet incredibly moving story of two young men who come to a picturesque beach town. Seen prismatically through the viewpoints of the town’s residents, they offer a variety of worldviews. Yet are they really twins or a single person?
Find You in the Dark – Nathan Ripley (March 2018, Simon & Schuster)
I went to grad school roughly around the same time Naben Ruthnum was there, and that’s how his work eventually became known to me. I always find his short fiction amazingly elliptical. For his first novel he’s using a nom de plume. Here’s the publisher’s description: “In this chilling debut thriller, in the vein of Dexter and The Talented Mr. Ripley, a family man obsessed with digging up the undiscovered remains of serial killer victims catches the attention of a murderer prowling the streets of Seattle. For years, he has been illegally buying police files on serial killers and studying them in depth, using them as guides to find missing bodies. He doesn’t take any souvenirs, just photos that he stores in an old laptop, and then he turns in the results to the police anonymously. Martin sees his work as a public service, a righting of wrongs that cops have continuously failed to do. Detective Sandra Whittal sees it differently. On a meteoric rise in police ranks due to her case-closing efficiency, Whittal is suspicious of the mysterious caller—the Finder, she names him—leading the police to the bodies. Even if the Finder isn’t the one leaving bodies behind, who’s to say that he won’t start soon?”
Questioning Minds: Volumes I and II: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner (edited by Edward Burns, July 2018, Counterpoint)
These two volumes are going to list at $125 USD. Not very encouraging to me, despite my immense enthusiasm for both Kenner & Davenport. Oh well. Here’s the publisher’s description: Hugh Kenner (1923-2003) and Guy Davenport (1927-2005) first met in September 1953 when each gave a paper on Ezra Pound at Columbia University. They met again in the fall of 1957, and their correspondence begins with Kenner’s letter of March 7, 1958. In the next forty-four years, they exchanged over one thousand letters. Their correspondence about shared enthusiasm is a quarry for those interested in unique perspectives on Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Beckett, Basil Bunting, Charles Tomlinson, R. Buckminster Fuller, Stan Brakhage, Jonathan Williams, and the American modernists, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Louis Zukofsky. The correspondence ends with Kenner’s letter of August 9, 2002 lamenting how they had drifted apart.
With his mentor, Marshall McLuhan, Kenner visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, in June 1948. Later he visited Pound in Venice and Rapallo. Davenport also was a visitor to St. Elizabeths, and, like Kenner, visited Pound in Italy. These letters record their fascination with Pound’s intellectual journey and explore how he translated the “brutality of fact” into The Cantos.
The extensive notes and cross-referencing of archival sources in Questioning Minds are a major contribution to the study of literary modernism. The letters contained within explore how new works were conceived and developed by both writers. They record faithfully, and with candor, the urgency that each brought to his intellectual and creative pursuits. Here is singular opportunity to follow the development of their unique fictions and essays.
Women and Men – Joseph McElroy (March 20 2018, dZanc)
McElroy’s futuristic, pun-filled masterpiece (1200 pages?!) will at last see a third edition. Contact dZanc in advance for a preorder if you want in; it’s going to be a limited pressing they say. Beautiful cover by McElroy’s spouse, artist Barbara Ellmann.
The Children’s Crusade – Marcel Schwob (March 2018, trans. Kit Schluter, Wakefield Press)
Thanks to translators Chris Clarke and Kit Schluter, Schwob’s work is seeing all new editions. I’ve more interest in this one and Imaginary Lives than Schwob’s other books for some reason. Can’t wait.
Three weeks back I tried to type up an end-of-the-year post as usual, summarizing my year in reading. No sooner had I written the essential of it, or at least drawn up the list of 7 or so titles, than I thought, what’s the use. I didn’t read very many extraordinary books this year. I will only mention three: Pope Joan (1866) by Emmanuel Royidis (trans. Lawrence Durrell), Amygdalatropolis (2017) by B.R. Yeager, and Angel in the Forest (1945) by Marguerite Young. I’ve written a little about all of them in various places. I trust curious readers can inform themselves whether or not those titles might suit their taste.
In 2017, not very much activity here at bibliomanic, as far as I can tell. I published 40 posts, 11 of which were monthly reading logs, 6 of which were just photos, while the rest were just tiny squibs, little jottings — nothing much of substance, then. A post with some basic information on Réjean Ducharme. And apart from translations and the introductions I’ve written introducing them, nothing much published elsewhere.
Here is the translation work, some with introductions:
Apart from this translation work, in early 2018, I have a recently completed 10,000-word article on the life and work of Paul Metcalf being published in the annual Scribners American Writers supplement series. I’m very happy about that, though plagued in mind by the usual misgivings as to language, quality, coherence, and so on. I think it’s a very strong piece of writing but I can’t tell. It’s done at least. I’m not yet sure how widely available or easy to access it will be to interested parties, but that’s really none of my business.
I intended to review one book this year, Debths by Susan Howe, but I decided I don’t actually want to review it for a handful of reasons. Vexed maybe. And I remained this year a Twitter junky, despite my very ample misgivings. Could be part of my problem, though it also keeps me in touch with a few dozen like-minded aesthetes scattered across the globe, which I think is wondrous.
In terms of visitors, bibliomanic remained more or less the place it’s always been. Some of the top posts were as follows: the squib Jefferson’s Swivel Chair from years ago got 287 unique pageviews, Joseph McElroy’s bookshelf got 174 views, and Adopting Paul Metcalf got about 100 views. On the Major Refutation got 124 views, and A Pierre Senges miscellany got 94 views.
I’m grateful for the friendships and acquaintances I’ve made here and on Twitter. The world would be a lonelier place without you. May the New Year hold more of the same. Best wishes to you and yours, and hope to see you here more in 2018.
Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) – Frances Trollope (Librivox free audiobook)
This is the great complement to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, likewise a panoramic account of life in America as observed by a foreigner. Only the foreigner in this instance is an upper-class English lady, fully prejudiced against the back country life she observes.
The Plains (1982) – Gerald Murnane
Couldn’t dig it, though I tried. Inland left me with a similar feeling of frustration, but that book had more fascinating imagery and the hint of drama.
Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking (2010) – Tan Lin
Until now I honestly thought Tan Lin and Tao Lin were the same author. I stand corrected.
Metamericana (2015) – Seth Abramson
Little bit disappointed by this.
Whereas (2017) – Long Soldier
I appreciate this. By now it’s been lauded in many of the more mainstream venues for criticism (NYT) and in award nominations, etc. Sure enough, that’s how it came onto my radar. As I saw someone tweet just now, “it’s amazing what an enormous PR budget can do for a book of poetry.” Many books of poetry of similar quality are doomed to obscurity, due to lack of publicity.
So I discovered this glorious book probably through The Major Refutation, which includes a section praising Pope Joan for her imposture. What’s that, you’ve never heard of a female pope, let alone the Pope Joan? Well, have I got a treat for you…
This is a story written by none other than Emmanuel Rhoides (who gets a pretty short entry at Wikipedia), based on an old legend about a woman who assumed the papal throne as an impostor in the ninth or tenth century.
Of course this translation is out of print and hard to obtain. (That’s the way of the world, isn’t it, the law of scarcity increasing the value of the commodity?) Earlier this summer I read all of it, Lawrence Durrell’s “translation and adaptation” of the 1866 original. I found it to be utterly compelling, beautiful, and devilishly funny, too.
Here’s one of the many passages that left me in awe, almost incredulous.
a few tales by Ambrose Bierce (circa 1880) & a few pieces by Max Beerbohm (circa 1910)
Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection () – Julie Kristeva (trans. )
Girty (1977) – Richard Taylor
The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (1979) – W.J. Rorabaugh
Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (2010) – Marjorie Perloff (begun)
Uncreative Writing (2010??) – Kenneth Goldsmith
The Guy Davenport Reader (2013) (begun)
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (2017) – Michael Eric Dydon
This Thursday, November 2, 7:00 pm, Pierre Senges will be at Shakespeare and Company (the famous Paris English-language bookshop) discussing and reading from The Major Refutation, English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara, 1480-1545.
Full details here. I believe the book’s publisher, Rainer Hanshe of Contra Mundum Press, will be attending & in conversation with Senges. Should be interesting. I, the book’s translator, would most certainly be going if not for the wee duck pond separating the New World from the Old.
A description of the book here, taken from the Shakespeare and Company website:
Written in the form of a long letter addressed to Antonio de Guevara on behalf of Charles V, under cover of anonymity, The Major Refutation refutes the existence of a new continent with arguments ranging from the most serious to the most extravagant. In a postface, the narrator raises doubts about the author of The Major Refutation. Is the letter from Amerigo Vespucci, Jeanne la Folle, or others? The text closes with a coda where various theses are evoked: for example, doubts about the sex of Homer, or about the true identity of the author of the plays signed Moliere. Infused with wit and irony, The Major Refutation reminds us of the passion of men for ignorance and the eternal opposition between dupes and non-dupes, or those who believe themselves such.
Pope Joan (1866) – Emmanuel Royilis (trans. Lawrence Durrell, 1954)
Cardinal Pölätüo (1961) – Stefan Themerson
Paul Metcalf again
Something Said: Essays (2001) – Gilbert Sorrentino
Neurotribes: Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (2015) – Steve Silberman
Dated Emcees (2016) – Chinaka Hodge
It’s a paradoxical kind of longing, but I miss the days when I was able to plow through fat novels with nary a second thought about whether something else might sooner merit my attention. (I know, a very modern problem.) These days I read very few novels, let alone big fat ones. Pardon this lament; it’s not that I don’t have a score of tomes on my shelves that I want to get to.
With this in mind, since I am always making such calculations, I thought I’d jot down a list of my so-called TBR pile. I know my reading is so undisciplined that I’m not likely to read more than perhaps max three or four of these before the year is up. But we shall see.
Likewise, I would be curious what you have been meaning to get to but haven’t been able to, whether from distraction, lack of discipline, or want of time. Comments are open. And if you want to advocate for or against any of the books in the below list, I am all ears, and very susceptible to influence. I remain a most fickle reader.
Hadrian the Seventh (1900) – Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo)
Parents & Children (1941) – Ivy Compton-Burnett (not all that thick, I might get to this before the year is up!)
Independent People (1946) – Halldor Laxness (trans. J.A. Thompson)
A Meditation (1969) – Juan Benet (trans. Gregory Rabassa)
The Death of the Detective (1974) – Mark Smith
Lookout Cartridge (1974) – Joseph McElroy (I’ve read this once before circa 2010, but I’ve got to get back!)
The Great Fire of London (1989) – Jacques Roubaud (trans. Dominic di Bernardi)
Mason & Dixon (1997) – Thomas Pynchon
Annals of the Former World (1998) – John McPhee (not a novel, albeit, but hefty nonetheless)
“With a stirring echo of florid baroque language, The Major Refutation calls in the prominent personages of the day, and implicates the state, merchant bankers, and the Church in the creation and perpetuation of the myth of the new world.” – (roughghosts)
“… a glorious book about dupes & dupers.” – (Joseph McElroy, email correspondence)
“… a book of fictional invention masquerading as historical artifact, further masquerading as scholarly treatise. It never flinches, it has not one single tell that it is anything but what it appears to be: a 16th century work…'” – (Ronald Morton)
“… more ingenious and creative than most books being published these days […] It reads like something William H. Gass or Alexander Theroux may have written […] I enjoyed the outlandish erudition on display.” – (Steven Moore, correspondence + etc)
“I assume that everyone wishes literature were just vituperative rants saturated in scholastic detail, but devoid of characters, plot, and description. Voilà: The Major Refutation… The project itself, the skeptical assault on events we know to have been real, is genuinely discomforting. Readers of texts like this tend to pride ourselves on our skepticism and our doubting; here, the skepticism is gloriously productive of insults and scorn, and the insults and scorn are often well-deserved, but ultimately we, the readers, know that the skepticism was misplaced. Is ours, too, misplaced?” – (Justin Evans)
“… brilliant… very learned…” – (The Modern Novel)
“Don’t miss it; it is one of the Major Novels of ’17 […] seriously folks, any list of Novels of ’17 which don’t feature [Fragments of Lichtenberg or The Major Refutation], you can just tell that List to fuck off. Right here, this is what novels look like.” – (Nathan N.R. Gaddis)
* * * * *
Also, here is the publisher page (Contra Mundum Press), with a link to a substantial chunk of the text, readable now online.
A great month in reading, even if fairly scattershot. Here’s the rundown.
McGuffey’s Eclectic Progressive Speller (original edition, 1838; a glorious mock facsimile of the original presentation, published by Mott Media, 1980)
What a find! It was waiting for me at the Value Village on Cyrville Road, also with an edition of the Eclectic Second Reader. I had not an inkling that McGuffey was an Oxford, Ohio resident and professor at Miami University, at the time of his commission by a Cincinnati publisher. How Gertrude Stein would have loved this; she was probably raised on it out there in, what, Idaho?
Is There A Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1980) – Stanley Fish
I skimmed this one. I find Fish’s argument (being, as I understand it, 1) that literary texts can have no meaning apart from the assumptions which readers bring to them, 2) texts acquire their literary meanings only through the consensus-making process of a more or less authoritative interpretive community — i.e., scholars, academia, etc.) refreshing and important. To others it will be old hat, this being a so-called classic of literary criticism, much anthologized and much cited. But I had never read this before. It reminds me quite a lot of the work of Walter Benn Michaels, which I have read, if only a little.
Little Casino (2002) – Gilbert Sorrentino
Most memorable read of the month, and my first Sorrentino. Funny and poignant, though never laugh-out-loud funny — there is a somewhat cruel, cynical intelligence behind every paragraph. Recommended by Joseph Michaels. More Sorrentino books in my future.
Hearing and Writing Music: Professional Training for Today’s Musician (2002) – Ron Gorow
Improving my understanding of sound. The electromagnetic spectrum (including X-rays, gamma rays, visible light, radio waves, etc.) spans some eighty-one octaves?! (Same as the number of keys on a standard piano keyboard?–get outta here!)
Cahokia (2009) – Timothy R. Pauketat
Goddammit, why can’t I read any of these books about prehistoric America in a linear fashion, cover to fucking cover.
How to Listen to Jazz (2015) – Ted Goia
The title is embarrassing — so much for my old pretensions. Neveretheless, it serves as an excellent primer on the roots days and much else I didn’t already know.
Epistrophies: Jazz & the Literary Imagination (2017) – Brent Hayes Edwards
I read a review of this, and would not have known of it otherwise. Some of it I am finding very interesting, especially about Louis Armstrong. Elsewhere, I feel I’m wasting my time. I might finish it, though. (On a related note, if you haven’t ever read the historical novel Coming through Slaughter, about the jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, it is highly recommended; it figures prominently in the introductory chapter here. I have been meaning to reread it for quite some time.)
Hopefully September will be just as strong — I’ve got an article on Paul Metcalf to finish & I might have time to sneak a few loose things in.
I have 7,000 words of translation in Hotel #3, just published. If that ain’t good, I don’t know what is. Now, if only I could sell a publisher another project…
Check out the introduction I wrote; I explain in what ways Pierre Senges is ‘Borgesian’ and offer up an elliptical view of his work. It’s pretty good.
And right here is where you can buy the issue, with the 7,000 word translation. Other contributors include Gordon Lish & Nick Cave…
Harry Mathews, Leonard Cohen, Bernard Hoepffner, Nicholas Mosley, all gone in the short space of a year. Today I learned of the death of Réjean Ducharme.
Ducharme’s work never has meant as much to me as that of Mathews, Mosley, or Cohen, and I would not normally be inclined to post upon learning of his recent death, except that this short article on Ducharme — which I wrote as the scantiest kind of introduction for the reader who has never heard of or read him — was never published, despite being *more or less* finished. It was solicited from me by an editor of an online publication and I sent it to him, then: silencio. (At the time, this rankled me but, alas, sundry more indignities have since accrued to cover that old rancor over, virtually burying it.) No, it’s not a tombstone, it’s not a eulogy; it’s just some lonely impertinent debris, for curious passersby here to pore over.
* * *
The work of Québecois playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Réjean Ducharme (b. 1941) will continue to elude anglophone readers, even the more adventurous among them. Ducharme’s influence in his native Québec has been strongest of all, but his work has also found admirers in France and other French-speaking countries. From 1966 onwards, the French publisher Gallimard has made his books widely available in stores: eight of his novels and a play were published by Gallimard, with a handful of other texts picked up by other publishers. To date, his books have been translated and published in Spanish (3), Swedish (1), Danish (1), German (1), and English (6).
Ducharme’s career got off to a strong start when Gallimard accepted the manuscript of L’avalée des avalés in the mid-1960s when Ducharme was only twenty-five. The book’s selection as a finalist for the Goncourt aroused the usual journalistic curiosity. When the book didn’t win, Ducharme reportedly told his sister: “People won’t hear about me anymore, I’m going to be happy… If I had known there would be such a brouhaha about me, I never would have published in the first place.” And accordingly, in the years since, Ducharme has developed a reputation for belonging, like Pynchon and Salinger, to that breed of authors who decline the rituals of fame and publicity and value privacy over candor. (From the start, in the face of such non-cooperation, enterprising journalists have specialized in making the most of Ducharme’s family and collaborators to get them to talk about the author. There exist, in the archives of Radio Canada, handfuls of interviews with singer Robert Charlebois, Claude Gallimard, and Ducharme’s family members giving accounts of their interactions with the man.)
What of Ducharme’s work? In it, the reader finds a sense of vast possibility (often coincident with the sense of childhood), a child-like refusal to engage with the “real world” on its terms, inventing an idiosyncratic language of refusal, a love of irreverent humor and absurdity, and farcical and picaresque plotlines (absurd travels, hilarity ensue). All this sounds like so much light entertainment, but when Ducharme is at his best, underlying it all, there is a palpable, melancholic seriousness beneath the coy verbal play and contradictions of logic, a feeling that the books are being earnestly lived. Lived not as plausible lives, but as anomalous possibilities.
Many who sing Ducharme’s praises will tell you about his word-play. He is notorious for it. Of course, word-play is hard if not impossible to translate between languages. Yet the translators try. Even in the titles of several of his books, Le nez qui voque for instance — literally, The Nose that Vokes — we see it. You won’t find voquer in any French dictionary though its basis is the same the root of evoke and convoke. When spoken, the phrase sounds identical to l’inéquivoque — literally, the unequivocal. The English title, as it appeared in 2011, is Miss Take, which certainly seems impoverished by comparison, but I suspect it corresponds to the early passage where the phrase le nez qui voque is first employed. Or see Les enfantômes: enfantômes being a portmanteau that collapses enfant (child) into fantôme (ghost, phantom, haunting memory). Note also the untranslatable titles L’océantume and Dévadé — these titles have not yet appeared in English, but I suspect Will Browning is already slaving away.
Word-play and puerile machinations, maybe with a touch of sincerity: it doesn’t sound like much. From what I have read of Ducharme — which is in fact, to this moment, very little, not more than sixty pages — what I admire most is his ability to quickly switch registers and convey a sense of relativism and philosophical depth. A review of The Daughter of Christopher Columbus refers to “allusions that can range, in a single sentence, from the poetry of St. John Perse to the names of laundry detergents.” It’s that kind of simultaneity and equivalence that leave me reeling when I read Ducharme.
He still lives in Montreal. The journalists stopped hounding him years ago. On August 12, 2016, he will turn 75 years old.
Happy birthday, Réjean Ducharme.
In print, translated by Will Browning
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (Guernica, 2000)
Go Figure (Talonbooks, 2003; original Va Savoir, 1994)
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; original Le nez qui voque, 1967)
Out of print, hard to find:
Strait Winter (Anansi, 1977); Wild to Mild (Heritage, 1980) — both English editions of a translation of Hiver de force by Robert Guy Scully)
The Swallower Swallowed (trans. Barbara Bray, 1968)
Ha! Ha! (trans. David Homel, Exile Editions, 1986)
Criticism on Réjean Ducharme in English
“Swallowed Whole” (on The Swallower Swallowed) at Tablet Mag, by Benjamin Nugent
Marci Denesiuk on Go Figure at Montreal Review of Books
“Sharing the Genius of Ducharme” (on The Daughter of Christopher Columbus) at The Globe and Mail, by Ray Conlogue
And in French, here’s a good one: “Réjean Ducharme: L’analyse d’un paradoxe,” by Caroline Montpetit
– A Few Synopses –
The Swallower Swallowed (almost impossible to find; translation of L’avalée des avalés, Gallimard, 1966):
Ducharme’s first published novel. Bérénice Einberg, a young girl in a Jewish-Quebécois family, finds her place in the world between overbearing parents and a brother she loves. Disgusted by the logic of the world and the strictures of family, she goes to New York with her brother. Later, her father, alarmed by his inability to control her, sends her off to boarding school in Israel.
Miss Take (Talonbooks, 2011; translation of Gallimard, Le nez qui voque, 1967; ):
Ducharme’s second-published novel. Sixteen-year-old Mille Milles (a name that in French would mean literally “one thousand miles”) has run away from his home, a town on the St. Lawrence River. He has brought with him a young girl, Chateaugué, a native Eskimo. They live in a tiny rented room in Old Montreal. Enthralled by the works of Émile Nelligan, Mille begins a journal, determined to free language from the constraints of convention, but finds he cannot write anything without immediately conjuring up its opposite. He struggles with his sexual desire for Chateaugué.
Go Figure (original, Gallimard, Va Savoir, 1994; Talonbooks, 2003):
A tale of a Montreal couple alienated from each other after suffering the miscarriage of twin girls. Mammy, the wife, has left Rémi Vavasseur. Not because she no longer loves him, but because she no longer loves herself. She is criss-crossing Europe and Africa in the company of Rémi’s former mistress, the dangerous and blonde Raïa. Rémi meanwhile is remodeling a ramshackle house in rural Québec, designed for Mammy if she ever comes back. The novel is the journal that he keeps during their parallel journeys.
The Daughter of Christopher Columbus (original, Gallimard, 1969; Will Browning translation, Guernica, 2000)
A novel in verse, told in rhyming quatrains (232 pp. in French, 192 in English). Plot description: A beautiful and naive Columbia Columbus wanders through the world in search of friendship upon the death of her famous father. She makes friends with an ever-growing number of animals. Some of the animals serve as bodyguards during her dramatic return to Montreal, in the year 2492, to celebrate the millennium of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.
I’m not sure exactly when or how, but my attitude towards Twitter & online culture more generally has gradually been shifting. Whereas I used to be very active on Twitter and read around on the web quite a lot, whether literary stuff or just news stories, I now can’t sift through my Twitter feed or the home page of (hardly any) websites without an overwhelming feeling of dejection. (Or take your pick: disengagement, disaffection, disgust, sadness, alienation, acedia, abulia… sloth.) So much the better, right? — this has been a long time in the making, now it will be so much easier to shuffle off those old habits, which have been destroying my focus & discipline for years now. The number of hours I wasted on the Internet, on Twitter… incalculable.
I don’t know what is happening with me, &, dear reader, I don’t know what kind of blog this is either. In the interest of consistency I’ve tried to refrain from posting much in the way of my personal life — I’m quite guarded about that – but why? is it to protect myself? my loved ones? — and I’ve tried to make this a blog almost exclusively about literature and reading. But this no longer feels tenable to me. It’s not necessarily that I have anything a priori to say, some kind of intimate confession to make, or any kind of deliberate message at all — I don’t. The truth is that I’m disgruntled, & tired of my long silence. And the great thing about blogs is that they make possible the communication, more or less direct, of individuals with other individuals, without the intermediary of publishers, bookstores, book distributors, mail carriers, etc.
I said that I was leaving Twitter. Good. It was a great place to share thoughts with several dozen like-minded aesthetes, scattered around the globe, and I’m a little sad to leave it for that reason. Oh well.
What’s next, I do not know. Only that I have to be a little less guarded — less renitent, less inclined to police my thoughts before I publish them, here or elsewhere. No longer worry so much about the way I might appear refracted through the medium. Here’s to what’s ahead.