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.
On the one hand, it has been somewhat discouraging to see how little notice The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges has received from the anglophone press. A book this inventive, this daring, this original in its conception comes along but rarely, but rarely. I spent many months translating the book, and it was finally published last December, 2016. (The time of year when online outlets are vaunting their impeccable taste by amassing lists of the year’s most brilliant books – no coincidence there!) Being a naïve fool, I had high expectations for the book, the hope of securing a wide readership for it through some positive reviews. Well, in the ten months that have since elapsed, every outlet claiming to have its pulse on the world of translated literature, or of contemporary literature writ large – from World Literature Today to Words Without Borders to Asymptote to Lithub, or what have you – has failed to notice The Major Refutation. (Ditto for another extraordinary work by the same author, Fragments of Lichtenberg, translated by Gregory Flanders and published by Dalkey Archive a month after The Refutation‘s appearance. A conspiracy of silence? What has effectively happened is that a major contemporary author has made his debut in English while escaping the notice of every official outlet. This situation is more of a commonplace than I used to think.)
BUT…. on the other hand, the critical assessments for The Major Refutation have been astute and discerning. I am grateful to the book’s readers and reviewers, a few of whom I solicited. And so to allay my chagrin, and to incite my readers to seek this extraordinary book out, I would compile some of their praise and descriptions here.
* * * * *
“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.
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.
Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)
“Early charters conveying land in England were originally not even dated, probably for a variety of reasons. Clanchy suggests that the most profound reason was probably that ‘dating required the scribe to express an opinion about his place in time,’ which demanded that he choose a point of reference. What point? Was he to locate this document by reference to the creation of the world? To the Crucifixion? To the birth of Christ? Popes dated documents this way, from Christ’s birth, but was it presumptuous to date a secular document as popes dated theirs? In high technology cultures today, everyone lives each day in a frame of abstract computed time enforced by millions of printed calendars, clocks, and watches. In twelfth-century England there were no clocks or watches or wall or desk calendars.”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 96
“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 14
While working through successive drafts of my first book-length translation, I went back and forth at times about how to treat punctuation. There were some very long sentences containing commas, and at times I wanted to make them into semicolons. After discussing the matter with the author of the text I was translating and the publisher of my translation, I decided it was probably best to respect the original punctuation as much as possible.
It may be slightly more common in French than in English to string together independent clauses using a comma. That said, many native writers of English favor the comma over the semicolon, never or hardly ever using the latter, and also have no qualms about so-called run-on sentences. And conversely, many native writers of French make ample use of the semicolon. So, while there are some generalizations that can be made about the way native speakers of French and English use punctuation, I think nevertheless that the usage is not radically different. Individual authors may use punctuation idiosyncratically, and I think as a rule efforts should be made to respect original punctuation.
A case study: after checking out Go Figure by Réjean Ducharme (trans. Will Browning, Talonbooks, 2003) from the library today, I compared the first paragraph to that of the original.
Tu l’as dit Mamie, la vie il n’y a pas d’avenir là-dedans, il faut investir ailleurs. On le savait mais ça ne mordait pas. On avait le compteur trop enflé, les roues dentées ne s’engrenaient pas. On planait : c’est un état où on a beau n’avoir pas d’ailes on ne sent pas son poids d’enclume. On tenait à un fil. On ne tiendra plus à rien, c’est promis. Blottis dans le trou qu’on a creusé en s’écrasant, on a compris. On est plus doués pour s’ancrer. On ne risque rien à s’enfoncer un peu mieux en se serrant plus fort dans le lit du courant. Ça peut toujours s’emballer, en crue, en débâcle, on ne se fera pas avoir, ça ne nous en fera pas accroire.
You said it, Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it, but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing; the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings, we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore — that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle; we won’t let ourselves be duped; they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
The original uses no semicolons, whereas the English has three (each of them replacing a comma). He also converts a comma into an em dash, and adds in two new commas. (Actually, if you count the first sentence — “You said it, Mammie” — three.)
Right now I’m trying to gauge whether these changes are improvements for the reader. One thing is clear, which is that they weren’t necessary changes; the text would still be as comprehensible if the original punctuation had been respected.
Browning’s translation, if it followed the original punctuation to a T, would look like this:
You said it Mammy, there’s just no future in life, we’ve got to invest elsewhere. We knew it but it didn’t sink in. The engine was racing, the gearwheels wouldn’t engage. We had our head in the clouds: it’s a state in which it makes no difference that we have no wings we don’t feel the anvil of our own weight. We were hanging by a thread. We won’t hang on to anything anymore, that’s a promise. Hunkered down in the hole that we hollowed out when we crashed, we’ve got it figured out. We have more talent for taking root. We risk nothing by sinking in a bit deeper while snuggling up closer to each other in the river bed. The waters may break, in a flash flood, in a debacle, we won’t let ourselves be duped, they won’t pull the wool over our eyes.
My point in writing this post isn’t to call out a noble translator, Will Browning (who has translated and continues to translate much of Ducharme’s work) for what I see as some egregious error. I don’t see the modification of the original punctuation so clearly as all that.
I understand that the fidelity of the translator is often a fidelity to the self-consistency of the translation, not just the original alone. And I also know that editors can be a little, oh, anal about punctuation. And that a translation is never just a literal transcription of a text. But I also wonder what it means to respect and stay faithful to an original.
I’m going to continue to reflect on this and, who knows, if we’re lucky I may post again soon on a related vexatious punctuation-in-translation topic: the dubious, idiosyncratic French colon.
If anyone wants to chime in as to their feelings about punctuation, I am all ears.
It’s a fact that books by women are translated and published less than books by men.
In honor of this fact, I would like to call some attention to some previous bibliomanic posts and articles I’ve written for other publications, all on the topic of books by women, written in French.
On Nelly Arcan’s Hysteric.
On Marie NDiaye’s All My Friends and Self-Portrait in Green.
On Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves.
On Anne Garréta’s Liquid Skies (not yet available in English).
On Marguerite Duras’s Ecrire.
My translation of Géometrie dans la poussière (Editions Verticales, 2004) will find a publisher, it’s only a matter of time.
For now I would invite you to check out a chapter excerpt published a couple weeks ago at 3:AM Magazine.
I would not envy the critic whose job it is to convey or describe Senges’ humor; attempts to parse humor are so rarely humorous. If I thought it were within my abilities, maybe I would not be translating Senges’ work, I would be happy to just describe it. But alas, some things were not meant to be.
From the recently published excerpt:
The role of animals in the city is, believe me, just as delicate a question: it takes diplomacy to understand and manage it, you can’t just open the gates of the royal menagerie and let the wildcats out willy-nilly, let out the jackdaws and sparrowhawks, the apes, the parrots, the carps and the camels, the salukis and the thoroughbreds which will constitute your patrimony. Distinction and a sense of harmony are in every circumstance vital to the accomplishment of our urban project…
Joanna Walsh selected it for publication, and it is accompanied by a drawing by Sarabeth Dunton. Thanks to Joanna, and to Gallimard who granted permission to excerpt the work.
Also, if so inclined, you can find a couple other of chapter excerpts from the same book at the Brooklyn Rail: chapter 1, and chapter 3. Or in print: a selection of four chapters (2, 12, 13, 14) was recently published in Sonofabook #2 (CB Editions).
Following up on the preceding post, I would like to point out the excellent piece on Thoreau that Levi Asher of Litkicks has written. As I said before, I haven’t ever properly read Thoreau, but Levi’s article provides a lot of context for how we ought to read Thoreau. It seems like an important corrective to the Schulz. Read it.
— Brent Staples (@BrentNYT) October 13, 2015
May I recommend a damning critique of Thoreau (“Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?”), written by Kathryn Schulz?
Banish Thoreau from the canon, it urges; he was a rotten thinker and a hypocrite; a good nature writer, yes, but a fabricator of lies and a pontificator on society who cared none for his fellow man, a comfortable curmudgeon whose ability for self-deception knew no limits. I have no love for Thoreau, I haven’t read his work, except for in high school, but I found it interesting to feel myself through her essay, which I found myself agreeing with and disagreeing with in some different respects.
Near the beginning, it cites Thoreau’s writing in Cape Cod (1865) about the experience of seeing some shipwrecked Irish on the beach along with their dead. He feels only a sense of dull disappointment at the spectacle, no sense of empathy for the plight of the poor persons, nor a sense of wonder as he might feel “If [he] had found [only] one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place.” Schulz opens the essay with this moment in Thoreau’s thought as being exemplary of what a moral monster Thoreau must have been, and even seems to suggest an (implicit) parallel with the our present historical moment, as desperate Syrian refugees are landing on the shores of the Mediterranean probably as I write — but there is a severe lack of historical context in the way Schulz cites this moment. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for poets, writers, artists, and painters under Romanticism’s sway to seek out the picturesque sublime. The inhuman forces of nature were looked on as the source of sublimity, and for the picturesque effect to be just right, it was always important that the human element not intrude too much, or be absent altogether. It’s this valorization of the sublime that makes possible Thoreau’s indifference to the plight of the shipwrecked — and it’s not necessarily callousness I don’t think, unless we want to apply our standards of judgment and our language of moral description to someone living in a different historical era, in another culture.[caption id="attachment_3202" align="aligncenter" width="512"] Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818[/caption]
It certainly takes some seeing to imagine how relativistic our perceptions are, or what great cultural gap separates us from Thoreau, but taking some account of the powerful hold of the picturesque sublime on the 19th century imagination would go a long way to mitigate our perception of Thoreau standing on the beach of Cape Cod. (To pass definitive judgment on the souls and writings of men who have been dead for 150 years: what a way to spend one’s time.)
Another interesting question the essay raised in my mind was whether or not Thoreau (always) wrote in a way that always reflected his true thought and his character. May be; however, as I read through the quotes Schulz marshalls, I thought I perceived a lot of rhetorical shading, and some intentional ironies. I don’t want to be overgenerous to Thoreau; and again I think we get into a problem of historical perspective, a problem of incommensurability.
For example, one section begins, “Only by elastic measures can Walden be regarded as nonfiction.” Surely true, but, to Thoreau and his contemporaries the idea of a mutually exclusive classification of some books containing veridical truth, and other books of pure invention, would not have been as we know it today. (And today, that separation exists only as an idea, or an illusion.) So here we are treated to an inventory of the many gross liberties Thoreau took in distorting the “truth” (or, as Schulz has it, “the facts”).
At any rate, the great pleasure of this essay is how it shows Thoreau to be an idiot. Which is no small pleasure, because Thoreau appears to have been no small idiot. (I am using the term somewhat affectionately, thinking of the countless idiots Pierre Senges catalogued in L’idiot et les hommes de paroles, and which appear in his fictions. The idiot may be contemptible, but at least he’s relatively harmless! Moreover, like the clown, he is a source of laughter — tonic balm!) For instance:
At one moment, Thoreau fulminates against the railroad, “that devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town”; in the next, he claims that he is “refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.”
How human is it to contradict oneself !! – And ever so briefly, I also caught a passing glimpse of that townsquare idiot-curmodgeon Diogenes, dear Diogenes living in his tub:
“I used to see a large box by the railroad,” he wrote in Walden, “six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night”: drill a few airholes, he argued, and one of these would make a fine home.
Is there not a dose of irony here, or at least some rhetorical intent (as opposed to literal meaning, earnestness)? A touch of self-exaggeration, self-parody, yes — but is it a self-aware tendency, or an entirely unconscious one? I found myself curious to see what Schulz would make of how irony enters into Thoreau’s declarations, how humorous and delicious his contradictions can be. Was he so blind to them? What a motley mess of a man. I get the feeling that there’s been a missed chance to see Thoreau the comedian at work. (Thoreau the joker, the fool, the jester.) But no doubt I am bringing my own obsessions to bear on this old killjoy.
It’s terrific (and rare) to see bold, provocative long-form critiques of much-revered and little-read 19th century American writers in a mainstream publication like The New Yorker. Bravo!
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.
Since my last post on the Katchadjian-Borges copyright case, I’ve discovered this — Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s account of his experiences with the Borges literary estate in the years after Borges’s death.
Di Giovanni translated much of Borges’s work in close consultation with him, but was shunned and aggressively pursued for bullshit reasons by Maria Kodama, who is the heir to Borges’s literary estate, and the plaintiff, of course, in the current Katchadjian case. A translator’s nightmare. Well worth the read. It’s said that di Giovanni’s translations are superior to those which are currently in print in the Collection Fictions anthology. I haven’t compared them, but you can access the di Giovanni translations of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius, Tertius” and “The Aleph” if you know how to google. (Recommended.)
It’s not uncommon these days to hear that copyright is an obsolete concept, or at least no longer a tenable one. People download images and songs willy-nilly off the web and repost them on their blogs or social media accounts with little regard for that antique if not by now quaint notion of intellectual property. So what? Usually no one cares, or the practice is so pandemic that resistance is assumed futile.
I’m spurred towards this crotchety line of thinking by the recent example of an author, Pablo Katchadjian, who wrote and had published a short (very short) book that incorporated and expanded on the Borges story “The Aleph,” and who now faces serious consequences from an Argentinian criminal court. See Fernando Sdrigotti’s article at The Guardian, “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, not a crime.”
While I admit that the charges and possible penalty are entirely out of proportion to the alleged crime, I do lack sympathy for someone who purports to be professionally engaged in literature and who has the gall to appropriate another author’s work — not yet in the public domain — for their own project with nary a thought to permissions or rights agreements. Sdrigotti cites the other Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” but doesn’t bother to mention that it’s there a question of a centuries-old work long in the public domain being appropriated. If I recall, Menard doesn’t even publish his plagiarized text, does he? Correct me if I’m wrong. He only reproduces a passage of a certain length — less even, I think, than the 4,000-word length of “The Aleph” in question here.
The article’s title suggests some of the confusion — yes, Katchadjian’s Fattened Aleph may be a “legitimate experiment,” a remix as it’s so popular to say in this day and age; it may even be quite brilliant; but is it legal to publish it? “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, but without rights in order it ought not to be published.”
I’m not in favor of draconian punishments for copyright violators — nothing is more repugnant to me — but artists above all should see that copyright and intellectual property law serve a vital function, not least protecting the livelihood of artists.
This post follows the previous day’s post “The Princess Collated (1 of 2).” Now, to compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves in its various translations…
Pictured: My copy of the Mitford translation and The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles, alongside the modern Flammarion edition of La Princesse de Clèves.
La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second.
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. (Buss, 1992)
The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. (Mitford, 1950)
Note how Mitford reverses the sentence structure to improve it, and how she opts for an active verb structure (years | saw | object), whereas Buss uses a weak, passive one (… were displayed). The superlative structure jamais… avec tant d’éclat que becomes through Mitford such as has never been equalled. Compared to the slight awkwardness of Buss’s “At no time in…”, beginning on a negative (which, to my ear, sounds like a trial lawyer pleading a defendant’s innocence), Mitford’s phrase has a pleasant cadence and an appropriate elegance. Instead of magnificence and gallantry, which would be literal translations, from Mitford we get opulence and gallantry — a definite improvement. Buss’s translation has splendour and refinement, losing gallantry altogether.
(Yet anyone who had a historical understanding of French chivalric or even English chevalerie would be better off with gallantry I think — centuries of tradition and connotation reside therein! Knights wooing maidens, fighting Saracens, bearing heraldry, performing feats of valour to no end. Think of Buss’s poor, unsuspecting readers who don’t know what they’re missing !)
Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.
The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite. (Buss, 1992)
The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling. (Mitford, 1950)
… This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it. (anonymous)
As with the first sentence, Mitford takes the liberty of freely altering the theme of the phrase, reordering clauses and building a totally new sentence. It’s an astonishing liberty she takes, and astonishingly successful. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux becomes The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. (Did Mitford even working from the same text as Buss?! It seems doubtful for a moment. Perhaps not; there’s no mention of Henri’s dad, François I, in the original. The sentence becomes periodic, with three modifying clauses interceding — almost four — before we learn we are dealing with a great lover of women. Yes!
Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation… (Buss, 1992)
He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them… (Perry, 1891)
He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it… (Mitford, 1950)
Note the lean, functional terseness of the Mitford — no comma even. But also note how Buss’s beginning with the word since (i.e., because? I can’t help but read it any other way) ineptly alters the sense of the phrase. It is absent from the original, but the addition subtly suggests a prince who only partakes of exercise since he’s not good at much else — we go from une de ses plus grandes occupations to the fatal his main occupation, how very boring this sounds in English!; and what an ungallant king who hardly does anything but play sports, because it’s the one thing he’s capable of doing well !; whereas Mitford easily paraphrases, much of his time was given up to it, not sounding dull, but relating information.
Nancy Mitford, ladies and gentleman. An amazing mind and an amazing body of work. Spend some time.
It’s hard to know why Penguin, who once published the Mitford translation in 1963 — and who knows what other years, go figure, at WorldCat — went on to publish what appears, judging from the first one or two paragraphs, to be an inelegant and somewhat sloppy, if not flawed and inferior, translation.
Mitford’s translation is currently published by New Directions, as are four other of her books in the NYRB Classics series.
This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.
Today an article at Steve Donoghue’s blog led me to whip out my New Directions edition of La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette, translated by Nancy Mitford, and to compare its first lines to those of the Penguin Classics translation, by translator Robin Buss (who has, apparently, done a good two handfuls of French translations for Penguin Classics). This is an extraordinary book, not only because it’s a seventeenth-century novel, written by a woman, beautifully told, and very entertaining. Some context from Wikipedia:
La Princesse de Clèves is a French novel which was published anonymously in March 1678. It is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel. […] The action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary record.
Alright! If you haven’t read it, it has my highest recommendation. It clocks in at a short 150 pages, so there’s some incentive — you won’t get stuck at page 220.
Now, let’s do a little comparison of the original with the various English translations I’ve tracked down. For some I’m sure, nothing could be more tedious or sleep-inducing, but not for this guy…
Here’s the original French-language opening (and here is the novel’s full French text, with modernised spelling):
La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.
Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements ; les couleurs et les chiffres de madame de Valentinois paraissaient partout, et elle paraissait elle-même avec tous les ajustements que pouvait avoir mademoiselle de La Marck, sa petite-fille, qui était alors à marier.
And here are the first lines of the Robin Buss translation (Penguin Classics, 1992):
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite.
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.
Here’s the first lines from an anonymous translation hosted at Project Gutenberg:
Grandeur and gallantry never appeared with more lustre in France, than in the last years of Henry the Second’s reign. This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it.
As he was happily turned to excel in bodily exercises, he took a particular delight in them, such as hunting, tennis, running at the ring, and the like diversions. Madam de Valentinois gave spirit to all entertainments of this sort, and appeared at them with grace and beauty equal to that of her grand-daughter, Madam de la Marke, who was then unmarried; the Queen’s presence seemed to authorise hers.
And here is Thomas Sergeant Perry’s version, (Little Brown, 1891):
There never was in France so brilliant a display of magnificence and gallantry as during the last years of the reign of Henri II. This monarch was gallant, handsome, and susceptible; although his love for Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had lasted twenty years, its ardor had not diminished, as his conduct testified.
He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them; every day was filled with hunting and tennis, dancing, running at the ring, and sports of that kind. The favorite colors and the initials of Madame de Valentinois were to be seen everywhere, and she herself used to appear dressed as richly as Mademoiselle de la Marck, her granddaughter, who was then about to be married.
Lastly, we have Nancy Mitford’s translation:
The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling.
He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it; every day there was tilting at the ring, hunting, tennis, ballets and the like. Madame de Valentinois’s colors and cyphers were very much in evidence, and so was she herself, dressed in a style which would have been more suitable for Mlle. de la Marck, her own grand-daughter, who was then just growing up.
This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.
Two recent online articles draw attention to the situation of Québecois literature in translation. These two articles have a lot of overlap, and they both share the position that Québecois and/or Francophone Canadian literature are too often ignored, due to either the language/culture barrier, lack of interest from publishers and readers, and/or the resulting paucity of English translations. I’m glad these articles are out there and bringing attention to the issue, but if an outsider reads them, one might, I think, get the wrong impression.
Let’s start with the article which was published first, “Too Different and Too Familiar: The Challenge of French-Canadian Literature” by Pasha Malla, in The New Yorker. It is partly a review of Raymond Bock’s Atavisms, translated by Pablo Strauss for Dalkey Archive Press. This is a book that, when it was published in 2010, earned its author a reputation for being one of the most promising young authors in Quebec literature.
Malla remarks that, “Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America […] is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French.”
I’m not sure what few Canadians is meant to imply here, but the overall numbers are considerable. For example, according to Statistics Canada, in 2011, about 1.1 million people outside Quebec in Canada reported French as their mother tongue in Canada. And nearly 2.6 million people reported being fluent enough to conduct a conversation in French — 11% of Canada’s population outside Quebec (source). Furthermore, 2011 at least 81,085 Albertans speak French as their first language, giving Alberta the fourth largest francophone population in Canada (source). One should also note that the French language appears to be slowly rising in Alberta and British Columbia (source).
If I’m touchy about this, it’s because Malla does a disservice to French-Canadians, and I would even say to francophones in Canada generally — including me, whose first language is not French. He appears to be ignorant of Canada’s formidable Franco-Albertan demographic. (Nor am I Franco-Albertan.)
Let’s move on to “Why the Book I’m About to Publish Will Be Ignored” by Carmine Starnino, an accomplished poet and editor. This is a good article, discussing the state of Quebec poetry in translation in particular; but it seems either to demand that the reader of the article be fluent in French, or to insist on the principle of untranslatability. Why else would you cite French verses without interpreting them for an audience that, by default, one must assume reads only English?
[Pierre Nepveu] is a master of the perfect opening, of lines that seem electric and inevitable (“rien ne tient lieu de retour, / tout est étrange comme si c’était hier”). Craft aside, an almost primal awe for mortality holds together his most memorable passages (“Les verbes majeurs nous obsèdent,” he writes, “naître, grandir, aimer, / penser, croire, mourir”). At his best, he belongs in the company of masters like Gaston Miron. And he’s as good as anyone English Canada has produced.
For an article about French literature in translation, why not at least tell us what’s at stake? Again:
What impressed me most was how their poems never seemed static, tidy, or vapid. Saint-Denys Garneau’s line has always stayed with me: “Je ne suis pas bien du tout assis sur cette chaise.” He loathed being stuck in one place. […] His hope was to find “l’équilibre impondérable entre les deux” because “C’est là sans appui que je me repose.”
I’m certainly glad that attention is being brought to the literature of Québec by these two essayists, but my gripes stand. Who wants to fight? Just kidding.
Two more of my translations of Pierre Senges’s work were published last week, along with an annotated bibliography of his 14 or so books (“A Library of Imposture; or, a Short Annotated Bibliography of Pierre Senges’s Books”). All this can be found in the latest issue of Hyperion, the biannually published journal of Contra Mundum Press. The two translations are
* “The Last Judgment (detail),” a short text on the subject of Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) and his commission to paint loincloths over numerous of Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel, after the Council of Trent deemed that nudity offensive.
* chapter 6 of La réfutation majeure (2004; The Major Refutation).
This is all quite noteworthy, it involved a lot of work on behalf of myself and the editors, and I’m very proud of these publications.
For the interested, another of my Senges translations is forthcoming in Gorse Journal #4 this September, a short story entitled “Making, Faking” (or rather, “Façons, Contrefaçons”); and there is also the excerpt of Geometry in the Dust that appeared earlier this month at The Brooklyn Rail; not to mention my previous article at this blog, “A Pierre Senges Miscellany.”
Also, Dalkey Archive has announced the publication date for Fragments of Lichtenberg: August 17, 2015. I just received a copy of it the other day in the mail…
All posts at this blog discussing Pierre Senges’s work are archived here.
Now a boar’s pissing in your stream?
What life were you trying to escape?
We’ve almost all heard of Virgil (70BC – 19BC), the Roman poet most famous for having been born in a ditch, written The Aeneid and having shown an Italian poet around Hell and Purgatory (in precisely that order), but I suspect that few of us have a first-hand — or second-hand, admitting the deficiency of our Latin — acquaintance with his work. Nate Klug’s translation of choice excerpts from The Eclogues, also known as The Bucolics, is most welcome then. Available from the Song Cave, it’s titled Rude Woods: Passages from Virgil’s Eclogues.
Far from the city, by the tinkling brook, under the rustling leaves, on the damp, cool earth, in the halcyon sunlight, away from the bustling marketplace, the shouting vendors and streaming crowds, you lie on the hillside, singing tunes, drowsing and chatting with your friends, shepherds you are perhaps, maybe drinking wine. That’s what the phrase pastoral means to me, and probably most of us — although it would be remiss not to mention here William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), where he posits that its constitutive feature is something else altogether.
But what this collection illuminates, and what I did not know before, is the extent to which the pastoral genre is staked less on the unitary, rustic ideal of country life, but rather on a dynamic tension between worldly cares and earthy joy, “a constant dialectic of fear and grief with joy and hope,” to quote W.R. Johnson. As Johnson underlines in the foreword to this volume, these poems were written during the last of Rome’s civil wars. (A link, perhaps to our bellicose, American contemporaneity — perpetual war, the chagrin ever upon our meddling nation like a laurel of leaves.) Accordingly are Virgil’s shepherds “torn between sorrow and hope. Some of them have lost their land and flocks, and those who have not have no reason to feel secure.”
It’s this subdued but dark undercurrent running through Rude Woods that surprised me when I read it, and that I now find most fecund and profound.
This pastoral life can’t cure my madness
or teach the god of Love softer manners.
Another joy is the directness and confidence of Klug’s translation. Shepherds speaking as intimates don’t demur, or hold back; they speak in colorful language, jibing one another. The language sounds natural, and modern.
If you’ve got any valentines for Phyllis,
or praise for Alcon, or shit to say to Codrus,
go right ahead and sing it, Mopsus;
Tityrus can watch your grazing kids.
Only in translations of Catullus’s poems, Virgil’s contemporary, do I remember hearing such a tone. There are other pleasures here, the bliss of grapes and sex and song, but it’s the unexpected ones which I savor the most.
Much thanks is due to the Song Cave for providing me with a copy of this book. And I would be remiss were I not to mention, in closing, that Klug’s own book of poetry, Anyone, was published last month by University of Chicago Press. It looks well worth a read, and perhaps informed by his work on ancient pastoral traditions.
Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard (c. 1898) is often referenced as if it were the mother of all neglected and obscure works. This may have been true in decades or centuries past, but in the 2010s it’s a claim that no longer holds water. Witness the following:
Mark Amerika’s CRAPSHOOT, which went live in 2015, a a generative, interactive hypertextual remix that mimics the form of Mallarmé’s poem.
Published in 2015 by Wave Books, Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno’s translation of the poem, supplemented by photographic images. They discuss their work on the translation and presentation here, at PoetrySociety.org. (At Amazon, a portion of the book is available for preview.)
My own 2015 translation of the poem and its preface, soon to be published in Vestiges, the print publication of Black Sun Lit.
At a Center for the Art of Translation event in 2012, Richard Howard read his translation of “Afternoon of a Fawn” and discussed why he declined — even for +$20,000 — to translate Un Coup de dés.
Lastly, though, if you really want to understand this work’s full significance, look to Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren (originally published by Fayard, 2011; brilliantly — and I don’t mean that lightly — translated by Robin Mackay, 2012, available from Urbanomic). Text from the publisher’s website:
Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page, the typographical play borrowed from the poster form, the multiplication of interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger, always resistant to full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be ‘unique’ and which ‘can be no other’.
The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game. All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but one sole condition: that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of that siren, emerging for a lightning-flash amongst the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.
Lastly, and somewhat unrelatedly, but why the hell not, an ocean of links to drown in (– shipwreck that –)
Earlier this year (2015, magic year, magic number), soprano Marisol Montalvo sang Pierre Boulez’s “Pli selon pli” live with L’Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher. (“Pli selon Pli” is a set of five songs based on poems by Stéphane Mallarmé.)
This review first appeared in an issue of Galleon Literary Journal. Galleon is now accepting submissions for its fourth issue.
Reviewed: Radio (a novel), by Tõnu Õnnepalu, 2002. Trans. Adam Cullen. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014. 650 pgs.
There is no literature anymore, there are just single books that arrive in bookstores, just as letters, newspapers, advertising pamphlets arrive in mailboxes. (…) World literature! That sounds just as hollow as ‘peace-keeping force.’ Some kind of world literature may still exist in the brain of some well-intentioned professor in Eastern Europe.
– Tõnu Õnnepalu, Border State, trans. Madli Puhvel, Northwestern UP, 2000, p. 88
Through prose ruminations, a diary of sorts, a middle-aged gay man tries to solve the puzzle of his former wife’s disappearance. The result is an alluring psychological portrait of the narrator, who is, among other things, a documentary film-maker from Estonia. That’s a summary outline of Radio (Raadio, 2002; trans. Adam Cullen, 2014), which follows Õnnepalu’s first novel, Border State (Piiririik, 1993) as the second of Õnnepalu’s books to be translated into English. The two books share a number of characteristics in common, mainly relating to the invention of similar narratorial personae suffering from similar types of emotional pain, romantic and otherwise. Both works were published under the pseudonym Emil Tode, and both are narrated by Estonian expatriates with ties to Paris.
Radio starts, oddly enough, with a discussion of the cost of a bus ticket from Tallinn to Tartu, the city to which the narrator is returning in 2002 after a decade living in Paris. This period roughly coincided, we learn, with his “marriage” to Liz Franz. Of necessity, everything we learn about Franz is colored by the narrator’s conflicted emotional state. Who is Franz really, independent of our only semi-reliable narrator? It’s an issue the text implicitly raises, although we cannot access her, anymore than the narrator can. Objectively, she is an Estonian-Russian singer who had a handful of radio hits in the seventies. To the narrator, she has all the prestige and grand theatricality of Maria Callas; though the peak of her glory has passed, in his eyes she remains a goddess. As a young boy, he fell in love with her voice and image. It’s recognisably a case of gay male diva worship that persists into the present, although it’s become intensely complicated.
Their “marriage,” which is not a legal union, but rather the narrator’s term for their difficult-to-categorize relationship¬, comes about after a series of initial trysts in the 1990s in Paris. The ambiguous romance (they’re both gay) rapidly cools, though with sexual favors exchanged and prolonged cohabitation. But Franz travels often, sometimes living with an international real-estate mogul. Her regular gifts of money to the narrator become a crucial element in the narrator’s psychology; the notion that he is a “housewife,” a kept man or gigolo to Liz Franz, vexes him. He can’t let go of it, it is the very core of his anxiety, and the reason he is so obsessed with Franz, from whom he’s been estranged on and off for years. “I’ve been working on the subject of Liz Franz for eleven years. Am I starting to get the hang of it?” he asks, painfully.
He is starting to get the hang of it, though. Õnnepalu’s uncanny ability to inhabit his first-person narrator is astounding, and the book stands as an excellent fusion of psychological realism and formal artifice. As a fully imagined character, the narrator also has the vague familiarness of a recognizable “type.” More than anything else, perhaps, his namelessness serves to underline this fact (and also to echo the condition of Proust’s narrator). Other traits (political apathy, religious indifference, coldness towards his family) reinforce the sense that the speaker is a representative of the so-called modern condition. The voice is confident, off-the-cuff, unwavering and immediate. But, due to a reluctance to confront the painful central topic outright, the forty-five chapters unfold by and large through a process of avoidance and deferral. From the start, digressions revolving around minor characters and motifs threaten to overwhelm and bury the Liz Franz question; but it inevitably presses into the narrative in a slow and steady time-release. Observations and analogies concerning biology, anthropology, economics, psychoanalysis, immunology and other miscellaneous disciplines forestall development, arising unannounced and passing with an effervescent lightness that makes them very digestible and stimulating, never heavy-handed. For instance, the quest for a sexual and romantic partner is analogized to the logic of economic markets. Or: “In the psychic aspect, the capacity to forget evidently plays the part of the immune system.” There’s also some excellent factual encapsulations of life, land, culture, and history in Estonia which make Radio a great introduction to the north Baltic region—what was once, we learn, Old Livonia, a kingdom partly in Latvia, partly in Estonia.
In fact, these strong historical and geopolitical registers make Radio very contemporary, and also seem to indicate that it was written with an international audience in mind. Like the opening scene that discusses the relative purchasing power of francs, Euros, and kroons, a number of features suggest a desire to go beyond the idea of the nation. A fascination for borders is made explicit in the title of an art film the narrator made about border-crossing points across Europe—it’s called “Les Frontières”—just as Border State also foregrounds political divisions. Given that Border State was widely translated in Europe and elsewhere, Õnnepalu certainly had reason to expect that Radio too would travel abroad to reach non-Estonian readers with the directness of an airborne radio transmission. The narrator’s verbal tic of parenthetically weaving French idioms into his speech similarly calls attention to the in-betweenness of identity and the condition of bilingualism.
The plot development and pacing are slow, but that’s exactly the point; the style and form are capacious, issuing from a monkish patience and discipline. (At the book’s middle chapter, the narrator imagines leading an ideal life as a Cistercian monk in a medieval Estonian monastery, living quietly alongside other reserved gay men.) And by the conclusion, Radio effects a full dramatic reversal and catharsis which validate and redeem the process leading there. If Radio succeeds through its nearly six hundred pages, as I believe it does, it’s in large part due to the delicate balance of self-pity and stoicism, of complaint and resignation, that its singular voice strikes. In its almost architectural organisation of material, Radio is a lucid and beautiful monument to solitude.
For 3AM magazine I reviewed Marie NDiaye’s latest two books to be translated into English, All My Friends (2013, orig. Tous mes amis, 2004) and Self-Portrait in Green (2014, orig. Autoportrait en vert, 2005). It was hard, and the review is lengthy, approaching 4000 words. I kind of wish I had been able to get my hands on some of the original French texts, but alas, it was not easy. It’s very hard to review a translation as a translation if you can’t consult the original text. A learning experience nonetheless.
The post-exotic project is, among others, to realize a literary object composed of forty-nine works (forty volumes have already appeared in French) in which the very last sentence is: “I remain silent.” I have heralded this numerous times. I hope to live long enough to lay down that last sentence on the post-exotic edifice, which will then be closed, complete.
– Antoine Volodine, in the “Interview with the Author” which serves as a preface to the advance uncorrected galley of Writers (Dalkey Archive, 2014)
I’m not inclined to believe this is anything but a bluff, but two facts:
* the title of his latest book, just out in France, is Terminus radieux ; Nov. 2014 – it has been awarded the Goncourt Prize, perhaps France’s most prestigious prize) ;
* the number of his published works, if you count the eight translations Volodine has done from the Russian, now totals 49 (or 41 without the translations).
This guy is a master of hype, full of interesting bluffs. That’s why I don’t think Volodine would give it up Philip Roth-style. If your curiosity is piqued read that essay of mine, “An Ism of One’s Own,” or one of the other two recent reviews of Writers (“After Revolution” and this one at FullStop).
Antoine Volodine first came onto my radar in 2008, when several of his books were assigned reading for a graduate course in French literature that I was taking. We read Bardo or Not Bardo (2004) and Le Post-Exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze (1998), and I also read a little of Des Anges mineurs. So when I saw that Volodine had another book forthcoming in English translation (Writers, trans. Katina Rogers, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014; originally Écrivains, Editions du Seuil, 2010), I jumped at the opportunity to review it for The Quarterly Conversation.
There’s something about the essay I didn’t get quite right, but it’s nevertheless informative and fairly broad about Volodine’s project (although he has written over 40 books in thirty years! who can cope with that!). I discuss paratexts, pseudonyms/heteronyms, and why I think Writers is not Volodine’s best work. As I was finishing the essay, I began to think that the style pioneered by the great Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis serves as a rough model for some of what Volodine is trying to do. In particular, Volodine and Kis both seem to approach their protagonists using a tone near to that of the encyclopedist or the biographer in order to describe individuals who struggle against a totalitarian state, often incarcerated, vehemently resisting to the bitter end.
It’s very hard to distinguish though, without doing some heavy comparative readings and research, to what extent Volodine’s style shares in common with Kis’s style a Soviet, totalitarian cultural milieu (you know, the kind of thing you get in Solzenhitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and the Granat Encyclopedia), and to what extent Volodine is really standing on Kis’s shoulders. For my part, I far prefer Kis’s The Encyclopedia of the Dead and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich to Volodine’s Writers. That, at least, is what I struggled to say in the essay.
And do be sure to check out the other articles in issue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation.
There’s a new interview with acclaimed American novelist Joseph McElroy in the latest issue of Golden Handcuffs Review: “In the Port of Possibility: Interview with Joseph McElroy,” by Jacob Siefring. There’s other good stuff in there, including a translation from Harry Mathews of Marie Chaix, essays on Walter Abish, work by David Antin, Toby Olson, Rae Armantrout, Steve Katz, Bernard Hoepffner and more. So maybe worth buying that one, or better yet subscribing to Golden Handcuffs Review.
For context, I would also point out the numerous other interviews with McElroy have appeared over the years (see especially that which Tom Leclair did in the late 1970s and that which Trey Strecker did for Rain Taxi in 2003 (unlike the LeClair, it is freely available online)).
It’s also worth pointing out that a previous issue of Golden Handcuffs Review was devoted to McElroy’s work (#14, Winter/Spring 2011), and that pretty much all the articles are available online — or almost all. Well worth the time as an introduction to McElroy’s work, if you’re not familiar with it. Not to mention McElroy’s stories which appeared at Golden Handcuffs in years past and which are available online: “The Last Disarmament But One”; “Character”; and “The Campaign Trail,” collected in Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive, 2011).
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
Regardless of authorial contexts (Murnane & Coetzee), this is a fascinating quote. It’s from the Anthony Uhlmann’s recent review of The Childhood of Jesus, in American Book Review (jan-feb ’14).
In his review of Murnane, Coetzee examines passages from Barley Patch (2009) in which the narrative voice contemplates the nature of fiction and the nature of the self. The self, Murnane’s narrator states, is made up of a “network of images.” Coetzee concludes:
The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences… In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of… As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist.
And then later on:
In a passage from Inland (1989) that Coetzee cites in his review, Murnane’s narrator reflects on a quote from Paul Eluard, a poet he claims to know nothing about and to have never read: There is another world but it is in this one. He continues:
The other world… is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books.
Uhlmann’s book, Thinking in Literature: Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov (2011), must be tremendous. A giant theme, and giant writers.
I’m quite proud of a long essay I wrote on Aimé Césaire’s poetry (specifically, the collection Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and the long poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939, 1947, 1956)).
The essay is featured in Issue 36 of The Quarterly Conversation, alongside writing by Laura Sims, Steve Donoghue, Scott Esposito, Daniel Green and several others. Check it out. Free as the breeze.