Tag Archives: translation

Proust Progress Report 2: The end of Swann’s Way

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913, text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Du côté de chez Swann, deuxième partie, ‘Un amour de Swann’, et troisième partie, ‘Noms de pays: le nom’

So, keeping up with my quota of five pages a day, I’ve now read the whole the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way, in almost exactly two months.

‘Un amour de Swann’ takes off in a completely new direction from the first partie of the novel. It turns out to be the story of events that took place before those in the first part. The unnamed narrator isn’t born yet, and M Swann, the charming neighbour whose evening visits meant the narrator’s mother didn’t come to kiss narrator goodnight, and beside whose property the family most often walked on their way home from church, takes centre stage in a waspish comedy of manners (at least that’s the tone as I read it), in which he falls in love with the vulgar and manipulative (and, as we come to discover, free with her sexual favours) Odette de Crécy on the basis, not so much of her person as of her similarity in appearance to Jethro’s daughter Zipporah as painted by Sandro Botticelli and because he associates her with a particularly beautiful musical phrase, only to be tormented by jealousy as years pass until at last (spoiler alert!) he is miraculously freed from her spell and realises, to the reader’s great relief, that she wasn’t even his type. That sentence was my attempt to approach Proust’s structural complexity. If you got a little bit lost in the middle of it, then found your way again, you have some inkling of what I’ve been doing for an average of five pages a day for the last month.

In the third and final section, ‘Noms de pays: le nom’ (‘Country names: the name’), the narrator is back. The section begins with a long essay on how as a child he imbued the names of towns he had never visited with certain qualities, and as a result when he did actually visit the town there was always a disappointment – the town in the real world and the town in his imagination were both real, but existed in different dimensions. (That’s a crude summary of many beautifully written pages.) Then he remembers playing with a group of children in the Champs Elisées in wintertimes, when he was somewhat older than the child of the first section: here he fell in love with Gilberte Swann, glimpsed in Swann’s garden holding a hoe in the first section. On days when Gilberte won’t be coming to the place where they play, he persuades Françoise (the maid of his great-aunt in the first section, now working for the narrator’s immediate family) to take him to teh Bois de Boulogne. There he sees a vision of loveliness, Gilberte’s mother, Mme Swann. we know from the first section that the narrator’s parents disapprove of Mme Swann, and refuse to have anything to do with her. And, this is a real spoiler, we discover that Swann had married Odette after all.

Reading this book with rusty French feels pretty much ideal. I’m slowed down. At times I grow inpatient at the lack of incident, but there’s always the wrestle with syntax and vocabulary to keep me engaged. I can’t always tell the tone, and there are jokes that I just don’t get, like a scene where a couple of salon-goers make what I can tell is nasty wordplay on someone’s name. I get what’s happening, but have no idea of the particulars. Likewise the detailed accounts of gardens and clothing ensembles: I wouldn’t know a paletot de loutre from an ampilopsis merveilleux. Something glorious is being described, and that’s enough. Mostly I don’t look things up, but am happy to live in ignorance.

I laughed a lot – though maybe I wasn’t meant to. I gasped once or twice – and I’m pretty sure Proust meant me to. And even though I’m often not sure of exactly how a sentence works, I’m constantly on awe of the mastery of the prose. For example, here’s a sentence where the narrator is reflecting on how he sees the Bois de Boulogne differently from when he was a child. It lacks the magic it had back then. The women’s clothes aren’t as spectacular, and the men go (you can feel him shudder) bare-headed. As a child he believed in the Bois, whereas now it has no charm or importance:

Mais quand disparaît une croyance, il lui survit – et de plus en plus vivace pour masquer le manque de la puissance que nous avons perdue de donner de la réalité à des choses nouvelles – un attachement fétichiste aux anciennes qu’elle avait animées, comme si c’était en elles et non en nous que le divin résidait et si notre incrédulité actuelle avait une cause contingente, la mort des Dieux.

(page 341)

Here’s my translation, with help from C K Scott Moncrieff’s (from here), but presuming to differ from it:

But when a belief vanishes, it is survived – more and more stubbornly, so as to disguise the absence of the power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new things – by an fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief had once animated, as if it was in those things and not in us that the divine spark resided, and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause: the death of the Gods.

That’s a lot more awkward in English than in French. The English needs you to repeat the words ‘things’ and ‘belief’ and so becomes more cluttered than the French, where simple pronouns – elles and elle respectively – do the job. The English feels cluttered and clunky, whereas the French flows smoothly towards that final phrase – which made me go back and reread the sentence, and the one before it, because I was suddenly made to realise that the narrator wasn’t just talking about hats and dresses, but something reasonably profound about the difference between the creative way children see the world and jaded adult ways of seeing.

In short, then, I’m enjoying this project so far. Five pages a day is fine, but it works best if I do it in two instalments. Someone has probably written a novel called ‘In search of Time to Read Proust’.

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father

Édouard Louis, Who Killed My Father (2018, translated from French by Lorin Stein, New Directions 2019)

It was purely fortuitous that I read this book immediately after Susan Hill’s Black Sheep, but they make a beautiful pair. Arthur, one of the sons of the mining family in Black Sheep, disappears overnight, and only we and his youngest brother Ted know that he has escaped rather than met with disaster. Édouard Louis is a young Gay man who has escaped from the working-class conditions that have destroyed his father’s life. It’s as if it calls out to that book: ‘This is what it’s like inside your story!’

The opening sentences of Who Killed My Father – notice the absence of a question mark, also a feature of the French title Qui a tué mon père – says a lot:

When asked what the word racism means to her, the American scholar Ruth Gilmore has said that racism is the exposure of certain populations to premature death.

The same definition holds with regard to male privilege, to hatred of homosexuality or trans people, to domination by class – to social and political oppression of all kinds.

This is not an agony memoir, a whining portrait of a father who made his Gay son’s life a misery. Along with a certain amount of intellectual heft (Ruth Gilmores is not the only scholar to illuminate the narrative),

In all but the first couple of pages, Édouard Louis speaks to his father, who is still alive at the time of writing, presenting him (and, of course, us) with a mosaic of memories from which emerges a picture of how the father’s ‘male privilege’ and ‘hatred of homosexuality’ affected the son, but also the constricting and distorting effect they have had on the father:

Masculinity – don’t act like a girl, don’t be a faggot – meant that you dropped out as fast as you could to show everyone you were strong, as soon as you could to show you were rebellious, and so, as far as I can tell, constructing your masculinity meant depriving yourself of any other life, any other future, any other prospect that school might have opened up. Your manhood condemned you to poverty, to lack of money. Hatred of homosexuality = poverty.

(page 35)

It’s a passionate, painful, complex monologue, full of rage and frustration, reaching a kind of climax when the teenaged son deliberately provokes a near-murderous family row, and in the end it’s a love letter.

There’s a turn about 20 pages from the end. The father is critically injured in an industrial accident. Though he sufferers severe pain from the injury, policies brought in by the governments of Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron ensure that he doesn’t receive the help he needs but must continue in demeaning and damaging work. ‘Why do we never name these names?’ the words just about scream from the page.

The Wikipedia entry on Édouard Louis describes this book (on 9 October 2019) as a novel. I think that’s just plain wrong. I’d be astonished if the author’s father doesn’t read it and recognise every word as real – and find in it a difficult joy.

Proust Progress Report 1: Getting started

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1913, text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Du côté de chez Swann, première partie, ‘Combray’

Someone on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source podcast recently was talking about À la recherche du temps perdu aka In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past. It was one conversation too many: I decided I had to bite the bullet and read the bloody thing. (My late friend Will Owen almost pushed me over the line in 2014 by writing – here – about his experience with it over several decades. The pressure to read it has been building.)

So I bought a copy of the Gallimard quarto edition, all seven novels in one huge, heavy volume, small print and thin paper, 2401 pages, a bargain at just under $90. If I read 200 pages a month I could get through the whole thing in less than two years. So that’s what I decided to do. Rather than review the books as I finish them, I’ll aim to give a monthly update.

I read the opening words – Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure – about a month ago, and was immediately glad of my decision to read the books in French and not to labour over translation. It’s hard to pin down the meaning of that sentence, and I imagine even harder to reproduce that un-pin-down-ability in English. The commonest version – ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’ – is clear enough, but the verb’s tense is all wrong: if Proust had meant ‘I used to go to bed’ he would have written ‘je me couchais’. But the more or less literal translation, ‘A long time ago I have gone to bed early’, sounds odd. Maybe it does in the original French, and maybe the translators know that if they write something odd in English the readers will grow suspicious of them … Anyhow, if I even notice such fine points as I read I’m not labouring over them. Nor am I looking up unfamiliar words – and mercifully my years of studying French forty years ago seem to have left me with a fairly adequate passive vocabulary. I do need to reread many of Proust’s famously convoluted sentences, and that, it turns out, is one of the pleasures – to sort out how the parts of what at first looks impossibly complex fit together as in a well-constructed machine.

So I’ve now read ‘Combray’, the first of three parts of the first of the seven novels, Du côté de chez Swann / Swann’s Way. I feel like leaving at that, not because it’s been hard going, but because these 150 or so pages turn out to have been, well, fabulous, and I don’t feel any need to continue. (I will, though.)

After 30 pages in which the narrator (so far we don’t have a name for him) remembers going to bed early as a child and suffering terrible anguish because his mother doesn’t come to give him a goodnight kiss despite a number of ploys to trick her into doing it, he is overwhelmed with memories of his childhood triggered by the smell of a shell-like biscuit dunked in herbal tea. The memories are centred on the summers he and his family spent with an invalid aunt in the village of Combray (A fictional village when he wrote about it, but the village of Illiers, believed to be its model, recently changed its name to Illiers-Combray), and are structured according to the two paths that lead from the aunt’s house to the village church.

That’s it.

And it’s fascinating. A friend told me she’d given up on reading Proust because he’s such a wanker; I said, ‘Yes, but in the original French he’s such an over-the-top wanker that it’s brilliant.’

At least twice I laughed out loud. The first was at a description of asparagus. For me, having to work for each word, there’s a wonderful process of struggling through a thicket of extravagant language describing the extraordinarily subtle colours and imagining the asparagus spears as delightful creatures who had metamorphosed into vegetables to come at the end of the sentence to a relatively plainspoken reference to how asparagus affects bodily functions: ‘changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum‘ / ‘change my chamber pot into a perfumed vase’. (You can read a translation here, though it tones down the early extravagance and then misses the joke by continuing with the elevated language – ‘transforming’ for ‘changer’ and ‘bower of aromatic perfume’ for ‘vase fe parfum’ – until the very end.)

The other laugh-out-loud moment had a similar sense of coming out into the light after struggling through a thicket. The narrator remembers his fascination as a child with water plants swinging back and forth in a current. He likens them to people who wake up each morning resolved to change their lives but always revert to their established self-defeating habits. He ups the ante, invoking Dante’s fascination with the sufferings of the damned, saying that Dante would have liked to have gone on at greater length about those sufferings if Virgil, striding ahead, hadn’t made him catch up, comme moi mes parents / ‘As my parents did me’.

Both these are examples of how fabulously the writing works at a sentence level. I didn’t really worry that it seemed to be going nowhere. I dread to think what a film adaptation would look like. I guess it would have to play up the chaste lesbian frolic the boy accidentally eavesdrops on one evening, or his visit to a beloved uncle and innocently reporting back to his parents about the nice lady who seemed to be living with him, or the comedy about his antisemitic grandfather. But those elements aren’t central. In the last couple of pages of this section he brings it all together. What he has been showing us is a place, and the people in it, that are deeply embedded in his mind, even formed his mind (sans le savoir / ‘without knowing it’), so that he responds to people or places now because, whether he’s aware of it or not, they stir some yearning for that place. ‘The flowers that I am shown for the first time nowadays don’t seem real flowers to me.’

And suddenly it’s profoundly moving. His narrator talks about a future when the paths he describes will be overgrown and the people he saw there will have died, when all that will remain of them will be what he has remembered of what that child saw, and smelled, and thought. I find myself thinking how, of the billions of humans who have ever lived or are living now, every one of them has had their individual rich deep connection to the earth, awarely or otherwise. Few people could articulate it as fully as Proust, even if they wanted to, even if they had the time, but he’s bringing to the foreground something that’s inevitably there for everyone. And then I think about climate change and how, optimistically, we’ve got 12 years to make big changes if the earth, the air and the water are to keep sustaining us. Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

Added later: I can’t believe I didn’t talk about all the very funny stuff about his family: his aunt who never leaves her room, and won’t let anyone visit her who tries to jolly her into going out, but likewise bans anyone who believes that she is very sick; the maid; M Swann, the neighbour who made an unfortunate match; Swann’s daughter Gilberte, whom the narrator glimpses just once as a vision of loveliness who gives him a vulgar signal, etc. I expect there will be more of that in the coming sections (though probably not of the aunt, whose death has come as a shock because I had come to believe that absolutely nothing was going to happen).

Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water with the Book Group

Kenzaburō Ōe, Death by Water ( 2009, translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm 2015)

Before the meeting: In flagrant disregard for established practice, our current Designated Chooser nominated two titles, to be read for successive meetings. The first, Edward Said’s On Late Style, was not exactly a triumph (the link is to my blog post), though it has been working away in the back of my mind ever since I read it. This is his second pick.

Kogito Choko is a writer in his eighties who revisits his childhood home with the intention of writing a novel about his father’s death by drowning when he was a child. What he thinks of as ‘the drowning novel’ had been one of his earliest projects, which he had laid aside because his mother wouldn’t give him access to the red trunk that his father had with him on the fateful night. Now, ten years after his mother’s death, the chest is released to him. An experimental theatre group who are passionately interested in his work are developing a project that will involve a dramatisation of his complete works, and hope to incorporate the process of writing the long awaited drowning novel. The theatre group has a signature audience-participation process featuring soft toy dogs and vigorous disagreements.

That’s the set-up. Nothing goes to plan. At one stage a character describes Mr Choko’s recent novels as ‘serial slices of thinly veiled memoir’, and that isn’t a bad description of some aspects of this one.

Kanzburō Ōe has a lot in common with his protagonist: same age, same childhood locality, same artistic medium (though Mr Choko doesn’t seem to have won a Nobel Prize as Ōe has), several novels in his back-catalogue with the same names. According to Wikipedia, Death by Water is Ōe’s sixth novel featuring Kogito Choko and his brain-damaged son Hikari (Ōe’s own brain-damaged son is named Akari). The novel’s imagined reader probably knows all this: I’m coming in very late, so shouldn’t complain if I feel disoriented at times. Which I do.

The novel progresses in an apparently haphazard way. The drowning novel is abandoned (a development it took me many pages to accept) and Mr Choko is persuaded to help write the script for the theatre group’s new project. A different theatre production is described in great detail. His wife is hospitalised and pretty much disappears from the book. He has a terrible falling out with Hikari and the problem of how to provide for Hikari’s needs remains on the agenda until the end. Key characters turn up well after the midpoint of the novel. The final movement deals with historical and remembered rape, incest and abortion – issues that have hardly even been hinted at earlier. It feels like one damned thing after another.

We learn about much of the action by way of letters to Mr Choko or conversations with him. Many words are spent describing theatrical performances and interpreting dreams and poems, though some of the dreams, we’re told, may actually be memories even though they involve a flying boy. Other characters tend to talk at Mr Choko, often offering him unflattering analyses of his personality or work, and they keep on talking in the absence of any verbal response, even one meant only for the reader. Mr Choko is asleep during the dramatic climax, and when his sister tells him (and us) what has happened she can only infer the action from what she has heard and overheard. The very final moments are Mr Choko’s imaginings of what might be going to happen.

At times it was like watching one of those Japanese movies that you can’t take your eyes off but which leaves your Western mind floundering.

My ignorance of Japanese history is part of the problem. Two historical uprisings feature strongly. The theatre group’s project is a stage play based on a film about an uprising during the Meiji Restoration, led by weeping children and warrior women. And Mr Choko’s father was involved in an ultra-nationalist plot to kill the emperor after the end of World War One. The incest-rape-abortion theme is linked to the first of these, and has a definite, though unclear to me, political meaning.

There’s also something about the tone of the writing that doesn’t travel well. For example, Masao, the artistic director of the theatre group, asks Mr Choko to reply to a questionnaire to help with the theatre project. What follows is several pages in which Masao delivers a series of monologues expounding on Mr Choko’s creative intentions and mental states at various points of his career. At the end of each monologue Mr Choko replies briefly to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct,’ ‘That’s exactly right,’ ‘You may very well be right about that, too,’ and so on. In a movie, no matter how deadpan the performance, this would be comic. But it’s just not funny on the page. Something isn’t translating.

But I’m not blaming the translator. I was disconcerted by a number of US-isms: a mention of a character’s ‘trail of tears’, for example, had me wondering why Ōe was referring to that terrible event from US history, until I realised he probably wasn’t. But other unsettling language is most likely just as unsettling in the original. I had to return my copy to the library so can’t give examples, sorry.

Mr Choko plans to write a book in a ‘catastrophic late style’ à la Edward Said (who was a friend of his), and perhaps this is Ōe’s version of the same. Perhaps this is Ōe’s ‘drowning novel’.

Having written a first draft of this blog post, I re-read the last ten pages of the book before returning it to the library, and realised that for all the book’s opacity and apparent incoherence, it does hang together. It comes back again and again to the main image of Choko’s last contact with his father, just before the father drowned. The boy’s unresolved feelings about that moment are the novel’s engine, echoed by a young woman’s need for resolution about her experience of rape and incest: it’s a tortuous, and tortured, path for both of them, but in very different ways they each find some sort of resolution.

After the meeting: There was a terrifying moment when it seemed out host, who was also the Designated Chooser, wouldn’t be able to come to the meeting because of a family crisis. Happily – both in terms of the crisis and for the good of the group – he did turn up, and was able to deal with our general bafflement with lucidity and grace.

But first: my bafflement was generally shared. One man said that he had never experience so strongly a sense that he and a book were travelling along separate, parallel lines. His partner got exasperated with his moaning and told him to abandon it and read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles instead – advice he was happy to follow. He wasn’t the only one to jump ship.

Our host agreed that some elements of the book were mystifying, but they didn’t determine his response. For him it worked as a comedy – the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, who thinks of himself as a distinguished novelist, perhaps a national treasure, but is in fact pretty much a has-been: the theatre group, which he thinks of a celebrating his legacy, is actually using his work as a springboard for something very different – devoted though they may be. He is managed by the women in his life – his mother, his sister and his wife; is useless at dealing with his son’s difficulties. And alongside this comic aspect, our host was enthralled by the way the images of forest and water are woven through the book, so that he was thrilled by the final moments (which I felt were clumsy and arbitrary).

I don’t know that he persuaded any of us to go back and reread the book, but it was a wonderful to have someone lay out a very different response to a book. One of us would say, ‘But what do you make of [blah blah]’. ‘Oh that,’ he’d say, ‘that’s something from Japanese culture.’ It’s no good argung about taste, as my Latin teacher used to say (but in Latin, De gustibus non est disputandum), but you can definitely learn a lot from talking about where different tastes take you.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year 2001–2011 (2013, translation by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2017)

In 1960 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia invited a number of writers, including East German Christa Wolf, to describe one day in their lives, 27 September that year, as precisely as possible. Christa Wolf accepted the invitation and found the project so interesting that she did the same for that date every year for the rest of her life.

She didn’t necessarily intend this writing for publication, but at the turn of the century she decided to compile the 41 pieces into a book, saying in her preface (reprinted at the start of this book):

I see it as a kind of professional obligation to publish them. Our most recent history seems to be at risk of being reduced, even now, to easily manageable formulae. Perhaps messages like these can play a part in keeping opinions on what has happened in flux, re-examining prejudices, dismantling hardened views, recognising our own experiences and gaining more trust in them, allowing unfamiliar circumstances a little closer to ourselves.

That book is a compendium of detailed accounts of a single day for each year, coming very close to the primary classroom concept of a ‘recount’ as opposed to a shaped ‘narrative’, beginning in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was built, ending long after the unification of Germany, and traversing on the way the massive social and political changes of the 1960s to 90s, as well as huge changes in Wolf’s personal life.

The book I’ve just read is not so much a sequel as an addendum. The German original, titled Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert (literally One Day a Year in the New Century) was published in 2013, nearly two years after Wolf’s death in December 2011. The changes it charts are not as momentous, at least not on the world stage – at the personal level these pages are overwhelmingly aware of the approach of death – but nor is it as dauntingly huge.

I found the book fascinating. Each day is full of detail: the dream from which Wolf wakens, a list of newspaper headlines, the meals her husband prepares, crime shows on television, her current reading, her current writing project, gossip, calls on her to appear in the media, invitations to gallery openings (most of which go straight to the bin), news from her family (one of her daughters has a birthday on 28 September, so family always looms large), reflections on the big events of the day (German elections seem to happen in September), correspondence. It’s not that all these things are presented as of equal value: Wolf knows that her reflections on, say, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, will be more interesting to her possible readers (including her future self) than what she had for lunch. But there’s a wonderful sense of the broad sweep of history enmeshed in the minutiae of life as each entry ‘interrogates the bejesus’ out of its day (the phrase is from Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year that Everything Changed, which did for the year 2001 what Wolf does for her days – the link is to my blog post).

I imagine that every reader will find her or his own personal points of connection. Here are some of mine.

On 9/11, the perspective of a former East Berliner stands as something of a challenge these days to those who urge the primacy of ‘western civilisation’:

Why did it seem to me – precisely sixteen days ago it was – as though those two towers were crashing directly into the empty centre of our civilisation, the alleged target of the attack? Everyone appeared to know what our civilisation is. […] So it’s Greek philosophy, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment’s belief in reason … And what if they had all lost their effectualness in the Occident under the ‘terror of the economy’ and lived on only as a chimera inside us? And have not more and more people sensed that this civilisation of ours is hollowed out and empty?

(page 11)

(Incidentally, that ‘the Occident’ makes me wish I could read German so I’d know if it was Wolf or the translator Katy Derbyshire who decided to use it rather than the more usual ‘the West’. Given the general ease of the English elsewhere, I’m assuming it was Wolf: she tends to use ‘the West’ to mean West Germany, and Katy Derbyshire has honoured her usage.)

In the period covered by this book, Wolf completed the only other book by her that I’ve read: City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud. That book deals in part with a moment in 1985 when it was revealed that she had been an informant for the Stasi – something she had completely forgotten. There are some interesting footnotes to that book – she mentions in passing the difficulty of writing it, of dealing with editorial changes and then, in 2010, readers’ responses. This passage makes me resolve to tell writers when their work means something to me:

Then a quite long, intense letter from a woman from Berlin, prompted by City of Angels, which she calls a ‘captivating and liberating’ text. My books, she writes, have accompanied her for more than half her life (people often tell me that now). She goes on to thank me for staying ‘in this part of the country’ […] I could cite more of this letter, which is typical of a large number of letters I’ve received since City of Angels. More from the East – but not only from there – more women than men, more older than very young people. Testaments of personal concern, which push aside my doubts over whether I ought to have published the book in this form.

(page 145)

The book is probably an example of ‘late style’, as discussed in Edward Said’s On Late Style, a book that failed to impress me much when I read it last year, but which seems to be relevant to almost everything I’ve read since. Like Said’s book, this one was published posthumously. Unlike his, it’s explicit about the writer’s physical condition. This moment from 2007 strikes a chord with me, though the pain in my joints is a trivial shadow of hers:

From the living room window I see a young blonde woman walking past, in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

I console myself – when I was her age I could do that too.

(page 110)

The final entry – just two pages of notes she managed to scribble two months before she died – is an extraordinary testimony to her dedication to the life of the mind, and to this task in particular: among the notations about the struggle to find a position for sleeping that won’t be in pain, her medication, difficulties with eating and going to the toilet, she mentions her reading:

I read a few pages of [Estela Canto’s] relationship to Borges, which Ellen sent me. Didn’t know B. was infertile – for mental reasons, not least due to his domineering mother.

(p 149)

In the middle of it all, there’s always something new to learn.

I don’t suppose this book is everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes me glad to belong to species that has included such an individual.

Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives

Erich Kästner and Walter Trier (illustrator), Emil and the Detectives (1929; translation by Eileen Hall 1959; Puffin 1984)

My virtual To-Be-Read pile includes innumerable children’s literature classics. Emil and the Detectives is one of them. I have somehow come to own a copy of it, and it seemed like the perfect read after the rigours of Edward Said’s On Late Style. I knew almost nothing about it. And of course, not being a children’s literature scholar, I still don’t know what its historical claim to fame is, but I did enjoy it, and had a complex enough response that I felt compelled to do a little background reading 

First published in Germany in 1929, it evidently broke new ground by telling a tale set in recognisable current reality, mainly in Berlin, with a mainly realistic story. Emil, who lives with his mother in the tiny village of Neustadt, sets out by train to visit his grandmother and aunt and family in Berlin. His mother gives him the enormous sum of seven pounds (in Eileen Hall’s 1959 translation the money is British), one pound for spending money, the rest to help Grandma out. The money is stolen, and Emil has to catch the thief and retrieve the money. He is helped by an ever expanding gang of Berlin boys, and one girl. It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that they are successful.

The book was a delight to this 71 year old, and the note on my yellowing copy’s opening page is almost certainly accurate:

It is a book everyone reads with pleasure. Forward readers of eight could tackle it, while those in their early teens still enjoy it without wanting to disguise the fact.

The squabbling among the boys, their awe in the presence of the only girl, the presence of a kindly journalist named Mr Kästner, the acknowledgement to the smallest boy whose undramatic contribution to the project was nonetheless heroic, the attention paid throughout to tiny practical details, the evocation of the city of Berlin – nostalgic now but no doubt fresh and new then: so much to love.

The thing that sent me to Wikipedia was this: I became uneasy in the climactic scenes leading up to the villain’s capture. Some of this is described from his point of view:

Mr Grundeis found himself completely surrounded. He looked about in amazement, Boys swarmed round him, all laughing and talking among themselves, jostling each other, yet somehow always keeping up with him, Some of them stared at him so hard that he hardly knew where to look.

Then – whizz – a ball flew past his head. He did not like that, and tried to move more quickly; so did the boys, and he remained surrounded. Then he tried to take them by surprise by turning abruptly to go down a side street, but he could not get through the mass of children which seemed to stream across his path whichever way he turned.

And it goes on. Mr Grundeis threatens to call the police, but the boys call his bluff. And so on, until there’s a violent confrontation in a bank, and the boys convince the tellers and police (who do eventually turn up) that the man is indeed a thief. I can’t be the only one to be made uneasy by this scene of a cheerful mob of adolescent boys harassing a solitary man, especially in late 1920s Berlin. It’s possible that Mr Grundeis has some of the cultural markers for ‘Jew’. He is certainly described in more detail than any other character. He wears a bowler hat, and has ‘a long face, with a small black moustache and a lot of wrinkles around his mouth’. In addition, ‘His ears were thin and stuck out from his head.’

So I was uneasy. I did go to Wikipedia, where I learned that this is the only pre-1945 book by Kästner that wasn’t censored by the Nazis, so I’m reasonably assured that this isn’t deliberate anti-semitism. But I’m putting it out there as a question to people who know more about the history of this book than I do. Does this lovely book about youthful solidarity and power contain a coded version of the antisemitism that Hitler and the Nazis built on? Is it possible for the same story to make one think of the recent school students’ demonstrations for the environment, and in the same moment to remember that boy in Cabaret singing so sweetly, ‘The future belongs to me’? Or am I being hyper-vigilant in this age of assertive identity politics.

David Malouf’s An Open Book

David Malouf, An Open Book (UQP 2018)

Speaking a couple of years ago at a seminar on Poetry and the Sacred at the Catholic University, David Malouf offered a definition of prayer as paying close attention. If one accepts that definition, then An Open Book is full of prayer: attention to the environment, to relationships, to small children playing, to tiny moments, to his own fleeting thoughts and feelings. There’s also close attention to language, in particular the kind of attention that translation demands.

This means that for the reader the book offers many things that make you go hmmm, or ah, and sometimes oof! 

The title, An Open Book, could look like a publisher’s little joke: that is, it’s a kind of label – ‘This is a book.’ But there’s more to it: it makes you think  the sentence, ‘My life is an open book,’ and the book does follow the trajectory of a life’. It pretty much begins with a series entitled ‘Kinderszenen’, German for ‘Scenes from childhood’, and ends with a number of poems about old age and the anticipation of death. It follows in the poet’s footsteps from the Brisbane of his childhood, to London, the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany, Myrtle Street in Chippendale, and back to Brisbane.

One of the childhood poems, ‘The Open Book’, suggests pretty strongly that while the book may be in some way autobiographical, it’s not offering us a writer stripped bare:

My mother could read me, or so she claimed,
like a book.  Fair warning! But I
too was a reader and knew that books

like houses have their secrets. Under the words
even of plain speakers,
echo and pre-echo.

There’s plenty of echo and pre-echo under the mostly plain words of these poems.

I mostly want to talk about translation, but first, just because I love them, I have to quote these lines from one of the ‘death’ poems, ‘Before or After’:

At something more
than fourscore, till the big

surprise kicks in and leaves me
breathless, most
surprises, though not unwelcome,

are small. It is the small,
the muted inconsequential,
at this point that comes closest
to real.

About translation. Malouf’s first collection, Bicycle and other poems (UQP 1970) included a number of translations. I can’t quote from memory, but I remember the pleasure I found in the freshness of  his versions of Horace: one of them mentions the early light glinting off milk churns put out beside a country road, and to me it felt that rural Queensland was being linked to classical Rome; and his translation of ‘carpe diem’ is a small miracle: 

Today's a rose.
Let it blaze in your lapel.

There’s a Horace translation in this book, and a Dante, and the one I want to talk about, ‘La Belle Hélène’, after ‘Sonnet pour Hélène’ by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. This is not exactly an obscure poem: I found a website that gives the original French and at least ten translations (here, if you’re interested).

A basic question about any translation is: why? Why this poem? Why include it in a collection of your own poems? Is it a technical exercise? is the translated poem one you love and simply want your readers to know about? Or does it provide a medium for you to express something of your own?

The first thing to say is that ‘La Belle Hélène’ is actually a translation – in contrast to W B Yeats’s also-lovely ‘When You Are Old‘, which takes the original poem as a starting point for a slightly different argument addressed to his own love.

Look at the first lines.

The original:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.

Very close literal translation):

When you will be well old, in the evening, by the candle,
Sitting near the fire, dividing and spinning
You will say, singing my verses, being filled with wonder:
Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful

David Malouf:

Long years from now, in the fireside hush of midnight,
as you muse by candlelight, you'll pause at your needle
-work and say, 'Years back, when I was a girl,
an impossible sweet sixteen, Ronsard, the poet

you know, once sang my praises, called me 'belle'.

Malouf doesn’t stay close to the words of the original, or use full rhymes, but nor does he hijack the poem for his own purposes. There is evidence everywhere that he has paid close, loving, deeply respectful attention to the original. All the elements are there: the projection well into the future, the fire, the candle, the work, the rhyme scheme (though modernised away from full rhymes). Instead of singing the poet’s verses, the future person drops his name, a rough equivalent in these days when no one sits around a fire singing poetry. Malouf moves the hour of the imagined future scene from the evening to midnight, and introduces the idea of a hush, but the effect is to intensify what’s in the original rather than change it. Interestingly, he does specify the girl’s age, ‘sweet sixteen’, which has a decidedly 20th century feel, and can be seen as part of the project of rescuing the poem from a museum existence.

But she’s not just ‘sweet sixteen’, she’s ‘an impossible sweet sixteen’. And that sounds a note not in the original: one feels that Ronsard is about the same age as the woman he addresses, but this ‘impossible’ comes from a much older person. It seems to be asking how anyone could ever be that young?

And it turns out that the poet as an older person has been subtly woven into the texture of the poem. Where Ronsard’s speaker refers to his future self abstractly as a boneless ghost (fantôme sans os), Malouf’s is more specifically imagined – ‘innocuous’ and ‘esteemed’. It’s slight, but enough to be the difference between a young person and an old one imagining themselves as no longer alive. So the ground has been prepared for when he calls her ‘child’ in the second last line. And that word does a lot of work.

Ronsard’s original is unambiguously a poem of seduction. Malouf’s is something else. Ronsard says the older woman will be ‘regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain‘ (‘regretting my love and your proud disdain’). There is no reference to Malouf’s speaker’s love:

You'll regret at last what youth 
and youthful pride disdained.

Ronsard’s final injunction – ‘n’attendez à demain; /Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie‘ (‘don’t wait until tomorrow; / Gather today the roses of life’) – is a lover pressing his case. In Malouf’s version, having diverged incrementally from the original, it becomes something else, a warning from age to youth:

child, relent, choose life! Today is a rose
that withers. Pluck it now, and boldly. Beware tomorrow.

Only the single word, ‘relent’, carries a hint that seduction might be on the agenda. Which would be just a bit creepy. But having now read the poem a number of times, I find that element recedes into the shadows, and the poem becomes an impassioned, generous, considered cry to the young not to waste their youth.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and the Book Group

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights (©2007, Translated Jennifer Crofts 2017, Text Publishing 2017)

flights.jpgBefore the meeting: If I hadn’t been reading this for the Book Group, I would have stopped reading at about page 80. As it won the Man Booker International Prize for 2018, it seems that wiser heads see it differently, but to my mind it consisted of fragments of story interspersed with short, mostly banal reflections on aspects of travel. It was like reading excerpts from a notebook, some of them expanded to a degree.

I did keep going, from a sense of duty to the Group and in the hope that some of the fragmentary narratives might be continued later.

On page 83, it turns out, the narrator is in an airport and encounters a lecture being given on Travel Psychology. A quick Duck-Duck-Go search shows that travel psychology is a real thing, but the discipline by that name in this lecture seems to be Olga Tokarczuk’s invention, and the lecture has every appearance of telling the reader how the book works, that is to say, the lecturer is the character some film critics would call Basil Exposition. The foundational idea of travel psychology, he says, is constellationality:

in life […] it is impossible to build a consistent cause-and-effect course of argument or a narrative with events that succeed each other casuistically and follow from each other. … Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth. […] Human life is comprised of situations. There is, of course, a certain inclination towards the repetition of behaviours. This repetition does not, however, mean that we should succumb in our imaginations to the appearance of any sort of consistent whole.

That is, abandon hope of finding a consistent whole, all ye who enter here.

Some of the stories that follow do allow for development and even resolution, particularly one about seventeenth century anatomists, and another about a woman who steps out of her life to become homeless in Moscow for a time. The most frustratingly curtailed story from early in the book does continue to a resolved state in the last section. But in general, though there’s a salient theme to do with the preservation of human bodies for display purposes, the book fulfils that warning not to expect ‘the appearance of any sort of consistent whole’. I’ve got nothing against constellations or constellationality, but I guess I do like a bit of a consistent whole. I did enjoy some moments, but over all, I’m a long way from being a fan of this book. Sorry!

[A pedantic note: As a lazy blogger, I looked online to see if someone else had quoted from that Travel Psychology lecture, planning to cut and paste. As a recovering proofreader I was interested to see how what I found in the Chicago Review of Books differs from the text in my copy of the book, which is what I’ve quoted from above: the review follows US spelling conventions, omits the word ‘Human’, and has ‘made up of’ rather than the incorrect ‘comprised of’. It looks as if the US editors were more rigorous than the ones responsible for the Text Publishing edition. If I was even more obsessive than I am, I’d hunt out a US edition to see if, for instance, it too misspells ‘minuscule’ or if its translation of ‘quaestio oritur‘ [‘the question arises’]  sticks to the correct literal translation or gives the common but erroneous ‘begs the question’ as in my copy.]

After the meeting: We had a good conversation over spaghetti bolognese, just seven of us. Mostly people enjoyed the book more than I did, but I think I’m right in saying that no one absolutely loved it – I had been hoping it would find an unabashed champion who would make me see what I had missed, but it was not to be. One man in particular found a thematic glue to do with the unpredictability of life, but mostly there was a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. What did emerge in the course of the conversation was the range of stories: none of us could remember one of the episodes singled out for mention on the back cover, but we reminded each other of many moments we had enjoyed.

Given that in one way or another, most of the reflections and narratives in Flights are to do with travel, it was appropriate that the conversation moved on to our own travellers’ tales: two of us had independently visited the bogs of Estonia and a festival in Riga, one had seen wonders in Texas and California, and one had had a transformative experience in Arnhem Land.

Czesław Miłosz’s Captive Mind

Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, translated from the Polish by Jane Zielonko (1953, 1981, Penguin Modern Classics 2010)

milosz.jpgThis book was very popular among anti-Communists during the ColdWar, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a powerful critique of Stalinism. But it’s a long way from attacking Marxism or proclaiming the joys of capitalism.

It’s a classic of 20th century Polish literature, whose author went on to to a long and distinguished career as a poet, winning the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, described in the citation as one ‘who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts’.

I found the book riveting, not just as a product of its historical moment, though I have come away from it knowing a lot more about the history of Poland in the first half of the 20th century, but for the light it sheds on the way social conditions can inhibit, distort, compromise, undermine, confine, even determine the minds of even the most serious intellectuals. There’s an anatomy of the ways people can pay lip service while holding onto their own beliefs (a phenomenon he calls ‘Ketman’), which includes this:

Just as theologians in periods of strict orthodoxy expressed their views in the rigorous language of the Church, so the writers of the people’s democracies make use of an accepted special style, terminology and linguistic ritual. What is important is not what someone said but what he wanted to say, disguising his thought by removing a comma, inserting an ‘and’, establishing this rather than another sequence in the problems discussed. Unless one has lived there one cannot know how many titanic battles are being fought, how the heroes of Ketman are falling, what this warfare is being waged over. Obviously, people caught up in this daily struggle are rather contemptuous of their compatriot political émigrés. A surgeon cannot consider a butcher his equal in dexterity; just so a Pole, Czech or Hungarian practised in the art of dissimulation smiles when he learns that someone in the emigration has called him a traitor (or a swine) at the very moment when this traitor (or swine) is engaged in a match of philosophical chess on whose outcome the fate of fifteen laboratories or ateliers depends. They do not know how one pays – those abroad do not know. They do not know what one buys, and at what price.

The bulk of the book is taken up with four heartbreaking case studies of writers/ intellectuals and the prices they paid, either for trying to maintain their integrity within the system or by becoming its agents  – he calls them Alpha, Beta, Lambda and Delta, but Wikipedia identifies them as real people. Though he is sometimes scathing about their choices, he doesn’t see it as a matter of individual morality:

Whoever reads the pubic statements of [these four writers] might say that they sold themselves. The truth is, however, more involved. These men are, more or less consciously, victims of a historic situation. Consciousness does not help them to shed their bonds; on the contrary, it forges them. At the very best, it can offer them the delights of Ketman as a consolation. Never before has there been such enslavement through consciousness as in the twentieth century. Even my generation was still taught that reason frees men. … In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit.

I found it hard to read this book without deep unease, not just about totalitarianism or the admirable people I have known who were Stalinists back in the day. True, in Australia people aren’t generally sent to labour camps if they criticise the government or depart from the generally accepted mode of conversation. But I found myself thinking of our own government’s recent banning of Chelsea Manning, and of the constant barrage of propaganda for consumerism and individualism generated by our media, of the way there can be night after night of coverage of the terrible drought in New South Wales just now with never a mention of climate change.

Die Gedanken sind frei. Thinking is free, but not as free as we like to think.

Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947

Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017)

1947.jpg

I try to assemble the year 1947 into a splintered whole. This is lunacy, but time does not leave me alone.

I have a personal interest in the year 1947: it’s the year when I began. In my early 20s, before there was an Internet to make the task stupidly easy, I spent a little time drawing up a list of big events that happened in that year. I didn’t get much beyond the civil war in China, the new constitution in Japan, the establishment of the 40 hour week in Australia and a list of births and deaths.

Elisabeth Åsbrink’s project of assembling the year ‘into a splintered whole’ is much more ambitious than that, and has produced a hugely readable, enlightening and disturbing book. It progresses through the year, month by month, in tiny sub-chapters. From these splinters a number of narratives emerge. We see the beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood and a new significance for the term jihad, the rise of new white supremacist nationalism from the ashes of Nazism and Italian Fascism, the consolidation of Soviet domination of eastern Europe, the birth of the United Nations Genocide Convention, the role of the powerful western nations in setting up Israel to be a focus of conflict in its region, the cavalier and callous role of Britain in the partition of  India and Pakistan. A number of personal dramas play out: Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren begin their passionate relationship, and she starts work on The Second Sex; Eric Blair aka George Orwell drafts 1984; Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Thomas Mann, Nelly Sachs shine a literary light on the horrific recent past.

Between June and July is a chapter entitled ‘Days and Death’, 17 pages of the author’s family history, in which her personal connection to the events she narrates becomes clear. It’s a terrible story of loss at the hands of the Nazis and of mysterious, almost miraculous escapes, of resilience and heroism and devastation. 1947 doesn’t seem to play a pivotal role there, but this is where it becomes obvious that the book is much more than an extended and scholarly version of my youthful doodling. It’s not that Åsbrink has set the year 1947 as a structural constraint on her project. There are plenty of excursions into 1947’s past to make its present comprehensible, and into its future to spell out consequences that could not have been known at the time, such as the nakba and the conflict in Kasmir. So the excursion into 200 years of family history is simply – or complexly – another part of the overall attempt to make sense of the world of ‘now’.

Probably every reader will have something from their own private 1947 that didn’t make the cut. I missed the beginnings of the US/Vietnam War and developments in China and Japan, and accept stoically that Australia rates just two passing mentions (though who knew there was an Australian on the UN committee set up to make recommendations on Palestine). And it may be that another writer would have picked a different year to mark ‘when now began’ – 1968 or 1793 perhaps. But this is an extraordinary, accessible book that shines a brilliant light on our times.