Archives for category: In Translation

Emily M Keeler , Bookside Table, The Paris Review

Clarice Lispector’s “A Story of Great Love,” translated here from Portuguese by Rachel Klein, is about a young girl who loves chickens. It’s about love as an obsessive and one-sided thing.

This very short story describes the relationship that a young girl develops with two hens, how they sustain her and give meaning to her life, how she smells beneath their wings to see if they are sick, and how her love for the birds is bigger than what she can possibly know about them: “The girl did not yet understand that it’s impossible to cure humans of being humans and hens of being hens, insofar as a human, like a hen, has miseries and splendors (the hen’s consist of laying a perfectly shaped white egg) inherent to its species.” It’s a lonely thing, this early and deluded love, and when it comes time for her family to eat one of these chickens the girl rages at her father for liking the taste of chicken flesh. Her mother makes it a little better by telling her how eating the hen is a way for humans to show respect, even love, for the animal. By making it a part of your body, you elevate the loved one, you commune with it when you take it inside you.

That this piece of advice comes toward the end of the story, and as something handed down from mother to daughter makes strange the power of feminine love. The hens are incapable of loving the girl, of loving in any human manner, and so the feeling can only ever rest with the girl; the ability to literally incorporate the body of her loved one into her own, to love with a bodily and an emotional interiority constitutes the height of this early suffering, this early love. The point Lispector may be grinding here is the loneliness, the solipsism and consumption, of that feeling that occasionally destroys us. Love.

***

This story is one of two that appeared in this Winter’s Paris Review. The other one, “One Hundred Years of Forgiveness” is available online.

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The Lover book cover, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

The Lover is a small book composed of what initially appear to be almost fragmentary recollections and miniature story scenes, but the overall effect results in a dazzling love story. In this translation, ably provided by Barbara Bray, Marguerite Duras weaves together a variety of tenses, voices,  and points of view to piece together a shifty portrait of the way that memory creates distance just as it recreates intimacies.

The story seems to begin with a simple enough narrative goal: an old woman addresses the reader and begins to describe an important event in her life, her first love. At first, Duras interweaves changes in voice, tempo and tense with a deft, barely noticeable subtlety, but by the middle of the novel, the height of the reverie, these changes are rapid and wildly intense, mirroring the trauma and overwhelming delight of her adolescent love affair with a much older man. The story is set in Saigon (Vietnam), during the French occupation. The nameless heroine, reportedly modeled on Duras herself, is a poor fifteen year old French girl stranded with her mother and two brothers after her family makes a bad investment in the wake of her father’s death.  The lover is a man of nearly thirty, a Chinese millionaire who is overwhelmed by the forbidden desire he feels for the young woman. Their relations are, of course, complex, and often incredibly steamy. They celebrate each other, bodies coming together in private, and their secret pleasures become wrapped up in the violence of the time and of the young woman’s heartbreaking home life. Of course, there is for each of them no small measure of shame: she is so young, he’s from another, wealthier world, and miscegenation was, of course, extremely out of fashion at the time. And yet. And yet Duras pokes holes in her own memories, recalls and recoils from a painful past, destabilizes the experience,  and allows that first love to continue to grow even well past its functional end.

Kornél Esti Book Cover, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

Dezsö Kosztolányi wrote Kornél Esti in 1933, very near the end of his life. I can’t help but imagine that there is some special significance in this fact, that a novel that begins with the words “I had passed the midpoint of my life…” and that implies in its opening chapter that its unknown and unknowable narrator is none other than Dezsö Kosztolányi himself, would speak to the chasm between the now and then, would bring some golden kernel of insight into the function of memory, of nostalgia, of experience, of life recollected, of life itself.

And it does, even when it doesn’t. At first, I was comfortably wrapped up in the premise, in the promise of plot, and in the lyrical and philosophical writing. In the first chapter, an unnamed writer rekindles a warm friendship with a friend from his childhood, Kornél Esti. As boys, the men were just as different from each other as they were the same, with identical birthdays, down to the hour, and similar physical features. To each the other offered a mirror, every cruel whim and longing of Esti’s matched by the purity and contemplation of the narrator. After a decade spent apart, they come together again and decide to write a book together, presumably the one that the reader so fortunately holds in her hands. The next chapter describes Esti’s first day at school, a young boy without his mother and confident of his own unsurpassable excellence. The one after that recounts two rites of passage, his first time traveling alone and his first kiss.

And then, without much warning or announcement, the book changes shape like a country cloud, becoming a series of short stories, anecdotal explorations of surprising scenarios. One in particular, which takes place in a city where self deprecation and even loathing are the standards of advertising and even the means by which the citizenry expresses its spirit, reads like a refined Vonnegut. Others bring to mind Camus, Borges, Poe, and Beckett. The stories are ostensibly the remembered experiences of the title character, but the real link between them has more to do with a longing for connection, and for meaning.

Many of the chapters involve translation and there are many peripheral characters that are linguists or poets or translators themselves. Language here is a game of hide and seek, or a stage designed for gifted actors, a tool equally suited to the tasks of clarification and obfuscation. Here again I can only imagine the potential of the personally significant: I wonder how Bernard Adams, who skilfully translated Kornél Esti from Hungarian, how he must have felt as he handled each word of each chapter, felt its weight even as the shape of the work as a whole pokes gently at the idea that it is ever possible to understand anything through language.

And perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t. In the end, it’s an unthinkable question, a paradox that is best used as a prompt for play rather than puzzlement. I know this, though: I liked this book too much to put it down, and I am looking forward to taking Kosztolányi up on the invitation to play forever with this paradox, to edge myself bit by bit, to the feeling of having, at least for a moment, understood.

Scandal,  Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

Have you read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy? There’s something so earnest and formal about it, and I couldn’t help but recall my experience reading it when I was between the covers of Shusako Endo’s Scandal. Maybe it has to do with the situation of literature in the 1980s, but there’s a sense of tautness, of an almost oppressive seriousness in this work. It’s not an exceptionally difficult book to read, but it’s not exactly fun either.

Endo writes with a specific psychological end in mind: he wants to get to the very bottom, to unearth some of the ugliest aspects of human being, and discover in that darkness how close they can come to the light. Scandal appears to be modeled on The Divine Comedy, taking the reader deeper into the abyss of the main character, Sugaro, through nine chapters that progressively get tighter, tenser, darker and darker, until the ending line. It’s a very anxious work, and almost all of the characters live in estrangement from others, and often from their own desire.

Translated from Japanese by Van C. Gessel, the language employed in Scandal is sort of hard-boiled, and there is definitely a sense that detective fiction and film noir have been major influences in the way that Endo has crafted this story. There are a few characters that seem to emerge right out of these related genres, and the plotting builds tension just like a classic whodunit. But then again, there is also thematic content that morphs these generic tropes into  a vehicle for carrying the burden of some much grander ideas.

Sugaro is a novelist, and in the description of his oeuvre seems to have been working through many of the themes that Endo has tackled in his previous work; the tensions between sin and redemption, East and West, Christianity and Japan. The book follows sixty-five year old Sugaro throughout the streets of Tokyo’s Yoyogi district. As Sugaro stares down his imminent death, he pits his faith in Christ against his writerly fascination with sin, nay–evil. As the battle unfolds, it becomes apparent that the only possible outcome is his own defeat. The plot revolves around Sugaro’s attempts to outrun a scandal that threatens to break, and while I wont spoil anything, the final two chapters are definitely the most rewarding.

I think that this gesture of laying the work out as a metafictional account of Endo’s own trials was only partially successful in bringing the story to its own life. While it offered a surprisingly bleak description of the cowardly hunger that a man in need of stories might face, and a moving exploration of the myriad risks that an author negotiates in working with the variable qualities of humanity, readers, and the book industry, it also made manifest a character who is perhaps too desperate to preemptively direct the readers attention. This may not be a flaw in the work. It may have something to do with my own distaste for the character that Endo has created.

It’s possible I am willfully transferring that dislike onto Endo and Scandal as a whole. Even if that is the case, I think that Endo’s treatment of basic psychoanalytic principles, both as implied and explicitly addressed, anticipate and perhaps encourage this reading experience. There is a sense of argumentation that runs through this work, and it’s formal structure and literary allusions achieve perhaps too exactly the mood of isolation that affects the characters on the page. Its ugly parts are not  quite ugly enough, and I never felt that the darkness in the story had much depth, because there was very little in the way of light.  In my reading, Scandal, while a good enough book, doesn’t quite make a virtue of the terror it appears to be engaging, and so manages to overshoot in the dark, just missing the mark.

The Pure and the Impure book cover, Emily M KeelerThe Pure and the Impure can be dark at times, even oppressively so, and Colette’s voluptuous prose feels suffocating and liberating in equal measure.  Herma Briffault’s translation yields a work that scans with varied yet consistently gorgeous cadences, and I actually found myself reading at least half of The Pure and the Impure out loud  into the night.

The book is a set of linked remembrances, a lucid investigation into the ways that our being is molded always by desire, by love, and sometimes, if we’re especially unlucky, by both at once. Colette chronicles her adventures in places where the light is low, where bodies lie entwined and the air is thick with the smells of incense, blond tobacco, opium and spirits. She transcribes some of the conversations she has had, and is not afraid to make herself look bad. Her stories, and her friends stories, show the ways in which desire can make a person callous, can be the exact point of their vulnerability, and, in my reading, can make you misremember as you shape the world of what was to  suit the needs of the terrific hunger within.

I really wish that I had read this before I read Nightwood, because I think it would’ve made a fabulous primer for that unmappable terrain.

I had a bit of trouble with some ideas in this book, as beautifully as they were expressed. Every word in the book bears the burden of truth, in a novelistic sense, and there are so many staggeringly strong lines up for the challenge. Yet, at its weakest, The Pure and the Impure reads as a catty and gossipy tell all from the days when a tell all was called a roman a clef. But at it’s best, the book is a clear evocation of the myriad forms that desire may take, a treatise on sensual pleasure, and an exploration of the divide between men and women, and between  masculine and feminine. Perhaps many of the problems I felt with relation to Colette’s sense of this difference are a function of time, of me being here rather than there, or vice versa. Nonetheless, it pained me to see her deride women who love women for being either childish or deluded, especially as she herself describes experiencing her own Sapphic desire. I also thought that there were one or two stray ideas or comments that alluded to a deeply anti-trans* position, though I may have misconstrued their intent. This last observation is not excusable through historically situating the novel, given that Collette was writing at the tail end of the Dada movement in Europe, where gender was fluidly understood and expressed in many circles, and certainly even within some of the ones in which Collette found herself. Despite that, there are parts of this book that I liked so immensely that I will undoubtedly find myself caressing these dog-eared pages for the rest of my life.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores book cover, Bedside Table, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

After failing to rise to the challenge of Nightwood, I wanted to ease my soul with something sweet and familiar. Having read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work before, I figured that Memories of My Melancholy Whores would be the perfect story to soothe my ravaged nerves.  Which is not to say that this is a lesser book, by any means. In fact, it’s great. Edith Grossman’s translation renders highly readable prose that’s simple tone allows for the power of its content to accrue word by word until the very end, which is actually by and large yet another beginning.

Set in a small and nameless Colombian town, the modernization of which threatens to render the 90 year old narrator obsolete, or worse, a living artifact imbued with a sick-sweet nostalgia, this story unfolds in hot back rooms and sun soaked libraries. The basic plot is that a really old and broke but kind of famous writer/scholar falls in love with a sleeping child, a fourteen year old virgin that breathes quietly in a drugged, perspirant slumber.

It’s pretty gross. And very disturbing.

But the language is so smooth and fine that you can sort of be persuaded that something beautiful is going on. It’s kind of like Lolita, that way, where the main guy is actually a monster, but because it’s his story it’s relatively easy to miss this crucial point through the hypnotic retelling of a powerful but ultimately horrifying ‘love.’ A pleasure to read these words, to feel the torment of a man made young through love even as he stands on death’s narrow door step. But it’s certainly unpleasant to reflect on what this so-called love really is, on how the narrator admits to loving this child more as a memory than as a real person, with her own needs and desires in waking life.

This dissonance is the root of the magic of Marquez, I think. The eloquence and clarity with which this story is told make you really feel for this old man, with his body failing him and the condescension of flirtatious young women thinking that he’s harmless and impotent, and his burning asshole assailing him in pain when the moon is full, and living on in spite of death. And this same sense of empathy makes you almost ready to accept his abuse of power, this denial of love, as evidence of the great thing itself.  So it seems that language is a means of creating a dream, a story is a delusion and it can be beautiful, like love, or terrifying, like death. But in the end, all we have are stories. Memories.

Ghosts Book Cover, Woman Reading, Bedside Table

I have no idea what this book is. I think it’s a simple fable, but I also think maybe it’s a meditation on the role of literature in the age of mass media. Then again, I kind of think it’s just a beautiful story about a family. But it’s also a complexly clear perversion, a post modernization,  of a typical coming of age tale. And a work of architectural criticism. And a phenomenological study, a la To The Lighthouse, of what thinking actually feels like. César Aira’s Ghosts defies generic categorization.

There are no chapter breaks; you don’t come up for air. The story unfolds around a Chilean family living in a half finished apartment building in Buenos Aires, and the building’s skeleton is a frame for their experience as outsiders. They share the space with it’s own contracted  future, and naked and powdery ghosts that wander between the unfinished floors.

Elisa, the matriarch of the family and wife of the best man in the world, by her own estimation, has a problem with belief. Her fifteen year old daughter Patri is a serious dreamer, and though thoughts happen upon her like sweat in the intense and befuddling heat, her frivolous sensibilities prevail. They watch soap operas during siesta time.

And the language! I’ve never read anything like this ever before. Imagine Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie and Jorge Louis Borges were getting high as kites in Argentina, and playing a literary game of exquisite corpse.  Chris Andrew’s translation of this work is amazing; there are some subtle internal rhythms, and lots of complicated word play and serious puns that feel authentic and beautiful.

So good. So so good. Haunting and sensual and playful. If you’re gonna read it, and I hope you will, do it at the dog-end of summer, when the heat is shimmering and hallucinatory, and there’s construction all around you.

Lydia Davis Translation, Madame Bovary, Book Cover, 2010

I totally cried.

Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was beautiful, clear, and her ability to perfectly translate the tone of the work is astounding. For a taste of what she can do, The Paris Review published a handful of Davis’ short stories that were modeled on Flaubert, and you can read them here.

Because this is a well known story that has permeated literary culture, I already knew what was going to happen.  And honestly, I decided to read this version because I like Lydia Davis’ writing; if she specifically hadn’t translated Flaubert, I may never have read this book. I mean, everyone knows the story anyway: A stupid but good looking woman marries without love, and then seeks passion elsewhere, and tragedy ensues. I was so prepared to hate the heroine in this book, so ready to be dismayed by another old story about a woman torn by the choice between two men, so anxious to feel the sting of a character built from the sexist archetype of beauty without brains.

Yet when I was actually reading this book I was really surprised by how much I liked Emma, how I recognized in her the anxieties and fits of naivete I have seen in myself and other people I know. And she wasn’t so dumb, really. She was callous, selfish, brutally unkind at times, and a wretched mother and careless wife. But somehow I felt for her, y’know? It seemed like the little fictional village in Normandy that Flaubert sets this drama in was built up of insidious illusions and untruths, that there were lies in the newspapers, and that the shop keepers and notaries were disingenuous at best. In that light, Emma isn’t a sexist archetype, just a player in a larger game. Her ideas about passion and love and being head over heels and having cosmically and improbably hot monkey sex are still ideas that circulate in the cultural landscape of right now. The lurid romance novels and poems that turn Emma on to impossible love are old time versions of pop songs and rom coms. We’re still looking for that spark, that special person that breathes fire and incinerates the desire for everything but love.

Sometimes, when I’m going to a party, I stand outside for a really long time. Like, a realllly long time, and I just listen in. Then my mind starts going, and I think about all of the possible interactions and outcomes; I write the party, I mentally rehearse the party; bare shoulders and bold thumb prints on the bowls of wine glasses, condensation on beer bottles, exclamations and padding around the kitchen, always the kitchen, in stocking feet.

Mystery Guesy Book Cover, Presents

Of course, if you’re partying at Sophie Calle‘s house, chances are pretty good that you’ll find yourself drinking from champagne flutes and wearing your shoes. Then again, Sophie Calle lives in France, where a house party means something else entirely. And for Grégoire Bouillier in particular, this party takes on such psycho-symbolic significance, that it becomes in and of itself a sort of cosmic event in the small universe of his life.

The Mystery Guest is an involuted party. The pre-party preening is a whorling cortex of pain and the pathetic, wrapped around the peculiar French take on spurned love. Because Bouillier’s relationship with a woman who remains unnamed was of the type that ‘died suddenly at home,’ Bouillier spends about a third of the book attaching meanings almost ad hoc to the objects that are in his orbit; turtleneck shirts, light bulbs, bottles of wine, cut roses in a vase.

In other parts of the book, Bouillier manages to gracefully connect his own prismatic and kaleidoscopic  interiority to another famous party; he traces the outline of Mrs. Dalloway onto the remembered flesh of his former lover, and in so doing reveals anew the circuitry of the mind.

I enjoyed this book immensely! Not having anything like fluency in French, I can’t say if Paris Review editor Lorin Stein’s translation was faithful, but I can tell you that it was beautiful. Great stuff!

Pinochio Book Cover, New York Review of Books

 

What an absolute joy!

I’d never read the original, which is to say Carlo Collodi’s, version of  Pinocchio before, and though I was looking forward to it I was expecting something completely different. Rather than flowery ‘Olde Thyme-y’ language, I was delighted to be wrapped up completely in Collodi’s clear and playful prose, beautifully translated by Geoffery Brock.*

He’s like the Grampa you’ve always wanted.

I honestly never really liked the Disney movie, even as a kid, because I was more into elephants, as a matter of principle. I remember it, though, with the Jiminy Cricket character and his gentle Yankee ways. And the terrifying (and, as Rebecca West notes, uncomfortably racist) puppet master. And the drunken bubbles scene. Oh wait, that was Dumbo. I really did like elephants. Anyhow.

The Pinocchio that traipses around Collodi’s story is a real brat. Not only does he lie and skip school and take things that aren’t his, but he’s finicky and whiny and a picky eater to boot. He’s basically already a real boy, before some kind of scary fairy makes it so. And it’s not like I was officially rooting for him throughout the story. Well, not for all of it anyway.

The point is that even though he’s a horrible little bugger, there’s something sweet about him, even before he ‘turns good.’ He’s a kid, and he’s gross and sticky and does dumb things, and even if he doesn’t make long term commitments, even if he doesn’t consider love a responsibility to care, when I overhear him thinking about his in the moment love for Geppetto or for the girl with the blue hair,  yeah, I’m rooting for him.

I really liked how cold the blue haired fairy was, and the way that Geppetto was so deeply poor that his character was coarsened by the continual friction of need. The first half of Pinocchio is dark, and in the end of the first book Pinocchio is hanged to death. In the second half he is resuscitated by the girl with the blue hair, and she becomes some strange sort of regulatory sister/mother/lover who simultaneously nurtures and tortures the wooden puppet.

The story was magical in the good way, where the prose was simple and I could choose to either read it flat, like a kid, or read it deep in light of what little I know about the extremely poor living conditions of day to day Tuscany in the 1800s.  Not to get too  off base, but in parts I was reminded of the knobby kneed child villain in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which happens, by the by, to be one of my all time faves. There’s something about kids being these Hobbesian creatures, these selfish little savages that rings true to life, or at least true to the way I pleasantly recall my own wild childhood. Collodi’s little wooden puppet is a beautiful example of this wilderness, and in reading the tale also offers both a moral and emotional redemption from the savageness of childhood; even before he is good, he is lovable. And like an adult, Pinocchio comes to understand that to love and be loved is to agree, implicitly and always, to be good.

 

*This sentence was edited from it’s original published form, which did not name Geoffrey Brock as the translator.