Archives for posts with tag: Translation

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.

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I’m almost there. Three quarters of the way to having read and written about 50 books this year. Where did the time go?

Instead of updating the top 5, like I have for previous milestones, I decided to acquiesce to my pal Janice‘s request that I list the books I’m most looking forward to re-reading, once this project is through. As you know, ranking books is not my strong suit. Like the liberal arts narcissist I went to university to become, I always want to reflect backwards from the text itself, and give primacy to my experiences reading the book. After all, that’s what I know the most about. But because this is a reflexive practice, reconstituted by remembering and rereading and rewriting, my thoughts about each of the books listed below are subject to change.

In no particular order, the 5 books I’m really looking forward to re-reading:

5. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

I got a lot out of this one the first time around, but something about it tore me up. Even as I was reading it I was doing that childish thing where I was fantasizing about having already read through it once, so that I could spend more energy on really seeing the prose rather than desperately trying to make the events described cohere into something solid enough to hold on to. I want to go back and get to know Jenny and The Doctor a lot better in particular. From what I remember, there was a lot of strange beauty in the images that Barnes used to evoke her characters, but Jenny and the Doctor were so slippery, never quite settling into their similes, dodging metaphors left and right. I’m really looking forward to going back into Nightwood to try to parse them out.

4. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

I really fell in love with Nanapush, one of the novel’s narrators. I want to visit him again. Erdrich’s use of language is stunningly effective, though never ostentatious,  and I feel like I need to have her voice in my head. I think this will be the first one I re-read, actually, because it’s a wonderful winter book, so full of small rooms and snow.

3. Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a re-read, as I’m planning to read a different translation. The Lydia Davis translation made for a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see what Elenore Marx can do for the text. The thing about Flaubert in general, or so I’ve read, is that he was apparently obsessive over his use of the French language in his writing, and he himself thought that to read in translation was pointless, that the loss of value was far too great. I obviously do not hold this view. Literature requires the cross pollination that translation allows for. That said, it is probably my secret hope that by reading and comparing the different translations of this book I’ll be able to make a mental composite, to average the readings, into some kernel of authentic Flaubert. Turns out  I believe many contradictory things about literature.

2. The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Obituary is a story that braids many different threads together. There are different perspectives, different histories, continuously displacing one another, and I’d like to go back into it and see what new strands I can pick out. Also, Gail Scott’s playful and experimental use of language is just really exciting! She uses sound and allusion and strange little tricks with letters, and there is a lot of formal innovation going on. I think that Scott and  César Aira are two of the most exhilarating writers I’ve read, and not just this year.  I want to keep being exhilarated.

1. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields.

There’s something about David Shields. Even if you’re not all about his collage manifesto, the man is really really good at what he does. The Thing About Life, which came out before his much discussed Reality Hunger, is partially a collage work, using textbook biology and the many ruminations on mortality that float in the historical ether. But what’s so strange about his method is this: Shields himself is a brilliant sentence maker! Using other peoples words, even advocating free play with plagiarism, okay sure, I see how that’s transformative and just plain cool. But the man can lay it down on his own!  Some anecdotal evidence: My partner and I sometimes play this game where we grab a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence or paragraph out loud. Sometimes we get each other to guess if it’s an ending line, or who the author is. He grabbed Enough About You and read a single sentence of maybe 25 words. Not only did I know it was Shields immediately, but the sentence itself was a tight little story all on it’s own. In fact, Shields may be too polished, too damn good, to read only once. His little book machines are so well constructed that they seem magical, and I think you need to keep coming back to really see just how much is going on underneath the hood.

Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table, The Seamstress and the Wind book cover

New Directions, one of my favourite publishing houses, celebrated its 75th year last week. And  this past Saturday was my birthday, so it made sense that I would pick up César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind to celebrate both events.  I’m so glad I did.

Earlier this year I was dumbfounded by Aira’s marvelous Ghosts, a novel about literature and the unbuilt architecture of human life. This time around, I was a bit more prepared for arrhythmic plotting and peculiar digressions that form the base of Aria’s prose. But I was still, if you’ll pardon the pun, blown away by The Seamstress and the Wind.

The plot moves along like an uncanny nightmare, where the terror and despair that the characters feel develops out of the sheer senselessness of their circumstances. Aira inserts himself into the novel, as a character and as the authour, and actually devotes space within the text to wondering about and struggling with the story he is telling. Aira suddenly remembers to pick up dropped threads and leaves all of the seams of the novel showing, every hem unfinished and raw.

The miraculous thing is that rather than having this rawness be a flaw, Aira manages to make it a great virtue. His use of imagery is often dazzling, thanks to Rosalie Knecht’s translation, and he levels off the cheeky acrobatics with a generous helping of humour. It’s like Aira is pulling a Pen and Teller on his reader. He’s  playfully pulling back the curtain, showing the ways in which a story can manufacture despair and delight. The story itself, about a woman who gets lost in the desert of Patagonia, or “the end of the world,” looking for her missing child, is clearly an allegory for creative work.

The Seamstress and the Wind is joyous like a dream, and leaves you shaking when you’re eventually forced to wake up and put the book down.

Madam Bovary Book Cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

I couldn’t help it. It was so beautiful. I already have a copy of Madame Bovary. And I loved the Lydia Davis translation. And this isn’t even the Paul De Man translation that most people will have read. But it was just too lovely. How could I resist?

Madam Bovary Title Page, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

Even though I know that a good reader should be able to divorce the author’s, or in this case translator’s, biography from a work of literature, I can’t help but feel a vaguely histrionic urge to marry the fate that Eleanore Marx met  to her decision to spend significant time wrestling with this story of an unhappy woman in a man’s world. My own relationship with Davis’ Emma Bovary was, as I have already described, complicated. Actually,  I should say is complicated, because in fact I’m still thinking about her. I can’t help but imagine the influence that Flaubert’s Emma might have had over the way that Marx lived, and ended, her own life.

I’m excited to compare the translations. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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.

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.

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.