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.
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.
“They killed the President today so they let us out of school early. They shot him while he was going from a building to his car. I didn’t like him but he was the President so I should feel said they said at school but I don’t really. The new President is the guy everybody always makes fun of.”
from Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1993) by Jack Womack, p. 66
The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.
The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.
The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…
It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.
Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.
The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it in the bath. Read it for fun.
A third sign of his decaying faculties was, that he now lost all accurate measure of time. One minute, nay, without exaggeration, a much less space of time, stretched out in his apprehension of things to a wearisome duration. Of this I can give one rather amusing instance, which was of constant recurrence. At the beginning of the last year of his life, he fell into a custom of taking immediately after dinner a cup of coffee, especially on those days when it happened that I was of his party. And such was the importance he attached to this little pleasure, that he would even make a memorandum beforehand, in the blank-paper book I had given him, that on the next day I was to dine with him, and consequently that there was to be coffee. Sometimes it would happen, that the interest of conversation carried him past the time at which he felt the craving for it; and this I was not sorry to observe, as I feared that coffee, which he had never been accustomed to, might disturb his rest at night. But, if this did not happen, then commenced a scene of some interest. Coffee must be brought ‘upon the spot,’ (a word he had constantly in his mouth during his latter days,) ‘in a moment.’ And the expressions of his impatience, though from old habit still gentle, were so lively, and had so much of infantine naïveté about them, that none of us could forbear smiling. Knowing what would happen, I had taken care that all the preparations should be made beforehand; the coffee was ground; the water was boiling; and the very moment the word was given, his servant shot in like an arrow, and plunged the coffee into the water. All that remained, therefore, was to give it time to boil up. But this trifling delay seemed unendurable to Kant. All consolations were thrown away upon him: vary the formula as we might, he was never at a loss for a reply. If it was said—‘Dear Professor, the coffee will be brought up in a moment.’—’Will be!’ he would say, ‘but there’s the rub, that it only will be:
Man never is, but always to be blest.’
If another cried out—‘The coffee is coming immediately.’—‘Yes,’ he would retort, ‘and so is the next hour: and, by the way, it’s about that length of time that I have waited for it.’ Then he would collect himself with a stoical air, and say—‘Well, one can die after all: it is but dying; and in the next world, thank God! there is no drinking of coffee, and consequently no—waiting for it.’ Sometimes he would rise from his chair, open the door, and cry out with a feeble querulousness—‘Coffee! coffee!’ And when at length he heard the servant’s step upon the stairs, he would turn round to us, and, as joyfully as ever sailor from the mast-head, he would call out—‘Land, land! my dear friends, I see land.’
– Thomas De Quincey, “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant”, 1827
(Bravo to Adelaide University for their wonderful collection of public domain eBooks, including a rich De Quincey treasure-store. This reader finds it appalling that so much of Thomas De Quincey’s writing, among the finest in the English language, has remained long out of print. Certain of his more well-known texts like Confessions of an English Opium Eater and The English Mail Coach and The Vision of Sudden Death remain ever in print, but what’s lurking beneath? Alas, we dig on still, spurning this vulgar age.)
Fly on over to Quebec Reads for a short translation from Julie Mazzieri’s Le discours sur la tombe de l’idiot that I did. It’s a bizarre and unsettling book, that’s for sure. Thanks to Peter McCambridge at Quebec Reads for publishing it and to Editions José Corti and the author, Julie Mazzieri, for granting permission to do so.
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.
We are now in a little town in Ohio. Here and there among the houses, which are certainly comical in their structure, all towered and pillared and trellised, like a child’s drawing of a hous, we saw strange, shell-like cellars extending deep into the earth. Our inquiries brought the information that these were originally designed as roasting pits for the preparation of human flesh. Upon consulting a history book, I learned that cannibalism was prevalent in the Middle West as late as 1924. These pits are now the scene of dog-baiting and cock-fighting. This region is up-to-date in the extreme: it is not at all unusual to see other sights in these diggings — women cohabiting with sheep, pigs, and dogs; men masturbating stallions with greased inner-tubes; surgeons performing cancer operations; local election rallies featuring the castrating and lynching of Negroes — all this is done to acquaint the public with a new cosmetic or tooth powder, or to open a new movie palace or church. I do not wonder that this state ranks second in the number of sons it has contributed to the White House.
– from Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight (New Directions, 1941)
Of the nouveau roman authors, I think of Michel Butor as being one of the most fascinating. Without really going into why (perhaps for another post, or who knows, maybe an eventual essay), I’d like to share some pics of the books of his I have in my library.
Not all of Butor’s books are entirely successful, they can be frustrating and strange to read, but I think they are all bold in their trying to do something that has probably never been done before. In other words, Butor is a very original writer. He never used the same method twice.
Here we see:
L’emploi du temps (1956) (translated into English as Passing Time)
La modification (1957)
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967) (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape)
Let me say first of all that I have not read La modification or L’emploi du temps, though I have begun them and skimmed around a little.
Along with the steeple chase to insanity that is Degrees, Mobile is perhaps the book of Butor’s for which I have the most affection. The typographic splay and wild heterogeneity of the material incorporated into the text makes for a truly exhilarating, discombulating ride. If I’m not mistaken, the book was the product of Butor’s stay in America, during which time he toured the country extensively.
The tendency to collate disparate material, suggesting an impression of simultaneity or of parallel or tandem reading, is also present in Portrait of the Author as a Young Ape. (Before I looked at a dated bibliography, I mistakenly thought that this book predated some of the others in this collection. Not so.)
For now I also have Inventory, a collection of essays variously taken from the first 3 vols. of Répertoire, the 5-volume set of essays published by Editions de Minuit.
More on Michel Butor in another post, perhaps. Life calls.
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).
Newly out and available for purchase: Sonofabook Magazine #2, published in Britain by CB editions! Four chapters from my translation of Pierre Senges’ Geometry in the Dust were selected for publication by Sophie Lewis, who guest edited the issue. Together we selected a good sequence of chapters that captures what the book is about. Alongside the translation a handful of Killoffer’s drawings are printed too; that’s good, because those drawings form an integral part of the book.
The issue also features work by Salim Barakat, Luke Carman, Julián Herbert, Adriana Lisboa, Emmanuelle Pagano, Taras Prokhasko, Pierre Reverdy, and Gabrielle Wittkop.
Why haven’t there been any sequels to Moby-Dick? It’s a question Paul Metcalf asked at the end of his life two decades ago:
In April 2015 it was announced that the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai was writing a novel about Melville in the aftermath of his writing Moby Dick.
A few months later in August Pierre Senges‘s latest book came out: a six hundred pager, giving us the sequels to Ahab: Achab (séquelles). Ahab (Sequels). It tracks Ahab as he makes his way back on land in New York, working small jobs and trying to sell his story of the whale to Broadway and then Hollywood.
After all these years…
In The Collagist this month is published my latest translation, “Anything Goes.” Go ahead, read it, because in this piece of writing, Pierre Senges ghostwrites for Cole Porter, some 75 years after the fact. The fun thing is that means I got to ghostwrite as Cole Porter in translating the text. The result is magnificent.
Let Cole’s sublime melody into your ears, he’s irresistible, the tune is coy and charming, it’s catchy, it’s…
The song is now finished: I could still go on talking to you about its lurching melody, folded back in upon itself, suggesting (with a little luck) the absurdity of the latest trends, but also the eternal return of stupidity, always the same; I want to tell you how this three-beat motif in a four-beat measure, gradually falling out of sync, falls back into time like Lady Mendl landing on her feet (I leave it up to you if you want to interpret these fantasies as an allegory for a period of initial liberation before a return to the fold). Time is all I lack, and it’s better to send you the lyrics: there you’ll find Puritans, mediocre novelists, cars barreling along, sudden fortunes and unjust failures, the best vintages in our glasses, patricians and female dancers, nabobs, gigolos, sex parties, fake connoisseurs, second-rate actors, and a great many hypocrites—and floating high up above this fine company, my voice installed on the highest perch (I swore a vow to irony when I gave up on my career as a crooner).
Links to many other of Senges’s short writings in English are collected at this blog’s Publications page. More coming soon. Thanks for reading.
Kenneth Cook’s short novel Wake in Fright (1961) is, according to its publisher, the “original and greatest outback horror story.” J.M. Coetzee acknowledges it as a “a true dark classic of Australian literature.” So, naturally, I was interested and sought it out.
I found it horrifying and suspenseful, but also humorous at times. For the book’s entirety, the protagonist, a young schoolteacher, finds himself stranded in a tiny outpost town of New South Wales, near what Cook ominously calls “the Dead Heart,” that is, the uninhabited interior of Australia. On his way home to Sydney, he spends a night in a mining town called Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba,” as the locals call it; apparently modeled on Broken Hill, where Cook had jobs as a journalist in his twenties). The schoolteacher goes on a little spree that depletes his savings, leaving him broke, without any way to get home or anywhere to stay for the six long weeks ahead of the Christmas break. Thus, he finds himself dependent on the hospitality of the locals of The Yabba, who ply him with beer after beer, and take him on a ultra-violent nocturnal kangaroo hunting trip. (Dare I tell you that a film adaptation, directed by Ted Kotcheff, can be viewed on YouTube?)
So this book takes the form of an alcoholic nightmare, and it set me thinking of the other classic books in this vein. On Twitter I asked what other books people would consider classic novels/novellas of alcoholism, in addition to two that sprang readily to my mind: Appointment in Samarra and Under the Volcano.
So, for no other reason than the sheer pleasure of making lists, I compiled the answers. This list stakes no claim to exhaustivity, especially as it includes only a few works written in languages other than English, but I would be glad to include any suggestions readers might have. You can leave those in the comments, or on Twitter.
L’assommoir (1877) – Emile Zola – via @AmateurReader
The Sun Also Rises (1926) – Ernest Hemingway – – via @olivia8k
Tender is the Night (1934) – F. Scott Fitzgerald – via @olivia8k
‘A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle’ (poem) (1926) – Hugh MacDiarmid – via @issekinicho
Appointment in Samarra (1934) – John O’Hara
The Thin Man (1934) – Dashiell Hammett – via @levistahl
The Lost Weekend (1944) – Charles Jackson – via @noctambulate
The Iceman Cometh (1946) – Eugene O’Neill
Under the Volcano (1947) – Malcom Lowry
The Drinker (1950) – Hans Fallada – via @
Wake in Fright (1961) – Kenneth Cook
A Fan’s Notes (1968) – Frederick Exley – via @olivia8k
Post Office (1971) – Charles Bukowski – via @olivia8k
Moscow to the End of the Line (1973) – Venedikt Erofeev – via @theuntranslated
Disturbing the Peace (1975) – Richard Yates – via @
Ironweed (1983) – William Kennedy – via @noctambulate
Pushkin Hills (1983) – Sergei Dovlatov – via @issekinicho
Jernigan (1991) – David Gates
Gorse is a Dublin-based literary journal that first came to my attention sometime last year.
I really love the visual appearance of Gorse. The distinctive geometric pastel motifs of its cover are super evocative, though I can’t say of what. There’s a strong grain or texture to the motifs, a certain way that the ink bleeds onto the paper of the original design that is utterly unique. Niall McCormack is the artist responsible behind that.
Noticing that Gorse had published literature in translation before (in issue 3, some poems by Thomas Bernhard, Hölderlin, and Georg Trakl, translated by Will Stone), this February I sent in a translation of a short piece of writing, ‘Façons, Contrefaçons,’ by Pierre Senges, who is one of my favorite authors. I am most grateful to editor Susan Tomaselli for selecting it, and for mailing me two contributor copies of Gorse #4.
I translated and had this text published for the same reason that I have translated other of Senges’s texts — because upon reading it (in les écrits #132, where it was published in 2011), I thought it was brilliant, and I wanted to be able to read the text in English. My French is good, but for any extended reading of a literary text, I must open a dictionary if I want to understand everything, or nearly everything.
Contrefaçons means counterfeiting or forgery, and the text is none other than a counterfeiter’s soliloquy addressed to a silent stranger – the reader – who shows up at his door at midnight, who is admitted entrance, and is – truly – given a counterfeit bill before being sent on his (or her) way.
I like to think that the playing card (bookmark) that was included with the first 150 individually numbered copies is the counterfeit bill our host plies us with. Also, I would note that this playing card seems to suggest an eventual reunion of either the contributors to issue #4 — voilà:
— or any number of possible combinations of players holding cards to make a full deck.
And just now, belatedly, I’ve noticed the overlapping, beguiling presence of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs in McCormack’s motif, all at the same time, or in alternating focus. The loose idea of this adjoins with Tomaselli’s far-roving editorial essay, ‘Wonder is Really Nothing,’ discussing Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, and various tangential matters.
I will never know exactly how many people eventually read “Making, Faking,” but it is probably some of the best exposure my writings/translations have yet enjoyed. Gorse is sold in fine bookstores. Unless you live in Ireland, you can get a copy of it shipped to you anywhere in the world, whether you’re in Uruguay or Singapore or Key West, for about €25.
From a translated excerpt from Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges published last month at The Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation series, readable online:
The paradox is: one wants to get lost in the city, take a chance, blindfold oneself, imagine forests (how one behaves in a forest, the behavior of the forest itself), but the city does everything to ensure that no one gets lost, despite little snares and misunderstandings (to fail to find one’s way, to chase after the bus: that’s not really what it means to get lost); even if one were to ask the landscape designers to construct cul-de-sacs and diagonal passageways, these attempts would be of no avail in view of the immense arrows posted at each intersection and the numerous maps posted at eye level, maps on which everything is distinct, of a terrible precision (there is a mark of Cain there, which the traveler never can escape, wherever he may go: a red ring encircling the words: you are here).
This is the second excerpt from Géométrie dans la poussière to appear at The Brooklyn Rail. The first chapter can be read here. Another translated excerpt will be online at 3:AM Magazine in coming months, as well as short prose texts by Senges at two other publications.
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.
Leading up to the release of their sixth issue, the editors of Music and Literature ran a series of three Volodine-related articles online last week: a review of the recently-published-in-English Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven; excerpts from Les Aigles Puent / The Eagles Reek; and an article by the musician and composer Denis Frajerman on his collaborations with Volodine over the years.
I mention this for two reasons: Volodine has occasionally been a subject of discussion at this blog before, and because I translated the latter of these articles from French. I recommend it as a good introduction to Frajerman’s (experimental) music, which I had the good fortune of discovering through the small translation assignment. You might enjoy it for similar (or different) reasons: there are a number of audio excerpts embedded in the article worth listening to.
In the newest issue of The Brooklyn Rail‘s InTranslation series, you’ll find a translation I did of the first chapter of Geometry in the Dust (Géométrie dans la poussière, Éditions Verticales, 2004), a remarkable short work of fiction written by Pierre Senges, illustrated by Killoffer.
From my introductory note to the excerpt:
How to describe a city to a person who has no concept of one? Very slowly and carefully, perhaps. The city takes on uncanny, conspiratorial hues: every trash can, every busker, and every alley cat appears, through a paranoid sort of logic, to be the result of a monumental effort of planning and coordination. Metaphysical ramifications and urban myths lurk in every manhole. The city’s jagged, broken geometries, its sewers and subways, doves and streetlamps, cul-de-sacs and dumpsters–all must be accounted for.
I’ve written about Senges at this blog previously (see “A Pierre Senges Miscellany,” which compiles a number of remarks he’s made in the course of various interviews), and am continuing to translate his work, and publish those translations. More to come later this month.
In the same issue, there are new translations of poetry by Apollinaire, Alain Suied, Haji Khavari, Petr Bezruc, Paco Urondo, and Liliane Atlan. The InTranslation series is really quite remarkable, as you’ll find there translations of work by Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé, Anne Garréta, Pierre Mac Orlan, Hans Christian Andersen, Jáchym Topol, Josef Winkler, Alfred Döblin, Julio Cortazar, and Lope de Vega. (As well as the work of many very accomplished translators, including Susan Bernofsky, Anthea Bell, Clayton Eshleman, Donald Nicholson-Smith, Alex Zucker, Edward Gauvin, Alyson Waters, Pierre Joris, Alex Cigale, Damion Searls, William Hutchins, and Harry Morales.)
That’s some company to be in. Hats off to the editors, Jen Zoble and Donald Breckenridge for letting me in.
All posts at this blog discussing Pierre Senges’s work are archived here.
On World Poetry Day 2015 (I’m skeptical), in certain coffeeshops it is said, poetry counted for currency. Yet in 1650 Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac posited that on the moon, poetry is the only money there is.
After the meal, we got ready to leave; and with a thousand grimaces, which the inhabitants of the Moon use when they want to show affection, the host took a paper from my Demon. I asked my Demon if it was an IOU. He replied that, no, he didn’t owe him anything, that it amounted to some verses.
— Verses, what do you mean? I answered back, the innkeepers on the Moon are curious about rhymes?
— It’s the country’s currency, he told me, and the total we just paid amounts to a sixain, that’s what I just gave him. I wasn’t worried that I’d come up short; because, while we feast here a week, we won’t ever have to pay a sonnet in a sitting; and I’ve got four of those on my person now, along with two epigrams, two odes, and an eclogue. (my translation)
Etc. It goes on. This book has been translated into English sporadically, time and time again, but it’s hard to find a copy, if not currently out of print. I have a peculiar relationship to the book, having read it at a most turbulent time in my life a decade ago, and again recently, but only in its censored form, which meant that the part I wanted to re-read most, and which had burned itself in my mind, was absent, leading me to refer to another edition, where I learned, yes, definitively, from the editors, of the book’s censorship, because Cyrano had died, the book was published posthumously, and he was, in literature at least, let’s say, a libertine, and he had a friend, a Max Brod-type, who was most in touch with moral matters, morality, etc.
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.