Thoughts on Reading Kate Briggs’ This Little Art

In an essay on Stendhal, Roland Barthes wrote, translated by Adam Thirlwell, of the marked difference between Stendhal’s journals and the richness of his novels: ‘What happened between the Travel Journal and The Charterhouse of Parma, is writing.’ Kate Briggs, in This Little Art asks a similar question about the idea of the art of translation and whether it would be more appropriate to consider the translator as a craftsperson or artisan, rather than an artist. Helen Lowe-Porter, after all, ‘didn’t write [The Magic Mountain], as [she] would no doubt have also been very ready to concede.’ Briggs quotes Lowe-Porter: ‘You see, the job is to some extent an artist job,’ adding ‘she refused to send a translation to the publisher until she felt as though she had written the book herself.’

My first reading of Mann’s The Magic Mountain was twelve years ago. I was late to Mann, overly influenced by Nabokov’s disdain, who considered Mann one of those ‘puffed-up writers’ that traded ‘in great ideas’. I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation over a couple of weeks, too quickly for I was skipping over some of the extended philosophical debates between Settembrini and Naphta. After this somewhat fierce first reading, unable to part company with the author’s voice, I immediately read the book again, taking more time to unpick not only the face offs between the liberal and the Marxist, but also the context for the rival revolutionary forces the two intellectuals represented. After following several rabbit holes, I had spent quarter of the year with Mann’s book and its related reading.

In my secondary reading around The Magic Mountain, I came across Timothy Buck’s virulent article in the TLS, in which he meticulously takes apart Lowe-Porter’s translation as ‘a pseudo-Mann’. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs reviews the debate that followed Buck’s critical evaluation. It’s worth pointing out that Buck does not advocate the later translation by John Woods, considering both debased versions of Mann’s German. Briggs approaches the debate about this, and to a lesser extent around the translation of André Gide’s novels, with less sanguine gloom, exploring the divergent conceptions of what translation should be and can be as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

As a primarily anglophone reader—my limited French will not stretch to Proust— I require a translator to meditate with The Magic Mountain and work in many other languages. Briggs quotes Barthes: ‘Of course I can read the great foreign novels translated into French, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Don Quixote, etc,’ and adds: ‘All those novels? Yes, read them. I’ve read them. I have. Let me insist that I have read them.’

What I enjoyed most of This Little Art is the speculative voice. It gives space for me to pause in my reading and wonder if I could insist that I’ve read those books or just English translations of those books. I won’t truly be able to confidently insist that I’ve read Proust until I can read it in the French, nor The Magic Mountain in German, but if I waited to acquire those languages I’d be more like a friend who refuses to read translations, considering them to be lesser adaptions of the great novels. I am grateful to those that practise this little art for the compromises we must make to read life-changing foreign works of art.

Seeing to the Bottom of the Vessel

“How . . . how can I speak from my core; there is nil. I have turned thirty-six and shall never have children. I am a shrivelled person, I have sucked myself dry; I am a figure of fun; an object for curiosity; an old maid; or I shall be, old; don’t suppose I don’t mind. I do mind.”

Rosalind Belben’s decidedly original novel contemplates the distance between aloneness and loneliness. Published in 1979 it offers a more conscious version of that sub-genre of the early twentieth century, the spinster novel, a rendering that is wholly interior and includes an extended exploration of sexual frustration.

In her diary, Virginia Woolf writes, “I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat; of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel.” I know of no other novel that offers the reader a glimpse of the bottom of the vessel with such lucidness as Belben’s Dreaming of Dead People. It is wrapped in a particular atmosphere that conveys a sense of the existential aridity of isolation and loneliness, perhaps too familiar for some during this last terrible year.

It is a struggle to write through what Ilse Aichinger describes as the “undergrowth of banality” when thinking of such a stunningly alive yet deeply sad novel. Better perhaps to judge Belben’s nuances and pitch from an extended passage:

“I would laugh because I had come near enough to grasp that when all’s said and done – it isn’t said and done – you are beyond the point of caring about your books, or seeing the world first, or spending the rest of your money, or altering your will, or making a list of your treasures, or finding a beautiful landscape to die in, or fussing over your body and the redemption of your soul: you are flopped full length on your sofa, in your own room, gazing your last on the blur of your bookshelves – for the innocent reason that it happens to be the way you are facing; you are gone beyond the physical life; you are too near the fathomless bottom, dear nothing and nothing dear; you are not murmuring, even, howl, howl, howl, howl, howl, though you may be conscious of what is dead and what is alive. You may just write a letter to someone, sounding cheerful. No, that’s not true. Nothingness. And numbness. And blank, without either desolation or will.”

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

Lars Norén, Diaries and Stories

When you love the work of a great writer, chances are high that you’ll be moved by his or her notebooks and journals. How about when a writer is described as “Sweden’s greatest living writer”, which you read on the same day that his death is announced? You then read an article about said writer, watch an interview on YouTube, and arrive at the thought that this writer may very likely join the small pantheon of writers of particular importance to you.

Something tells me though that Lars Norén’s diaries are unlikely candidates for translation into English. The last published recently is a breeze-block of an edition with 1500 unnumbered pages. There are, I think, two previous diaries published in Sweden of similar length. How whimsical a reader I must be to dream about reading four to five thousand pages of a writer’s diary when, to date, I’ve read nothing of his work. I am however assured by a reader of impeccable taste that Norén’s plays are ‘delicious punches to the heart and [his] intellect carried by sharp, sharp language.’

Virginia Woolf’s diaries are rare and perfect blooms, equally—but differently—divine, whether savoured in extracted form, or in all five volumes. As much as I love each of her novels, the minor and the major, it is the diaries, both funny and ravishingly sad, that I would preserve given one of those difficult and thankfully hypothetical choices.

Nor could I part with Ricardo Piglia’s trilogy of diaries that follow his alter ego, Emilio Renzi, a recent discovery that precedes my reading of any of his novels. Kafka’s diaries and notebooks are every part as essential as his stories, and we owe a debt to his friend for not consigning them to flames as Kafka purportedly wished. Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year experiments are beautiful, sad, and taciturn, as are, but with little else in common, Denton Welch’s exuberant Journals. How much richer their oeuvre if we had Beckett’s, Lispector’s or Murnane’s diaries?

With Lars Norén, it was this comment that provided the fiendish spark:

“I hate stories. I can’t even read stories any more. Whenever I see a story is developing, I stop and go back. What fascinates me is the material, and stories get in the way of that. I want to look at this point, like in music, when you can feel the material coming alive so that it brings with it a way of seeing. I’m interested in individual moments, pictures or fragments, which suddenly bring something into view.”

To Norén’s manifest of interests I would add atmosphere, though I suppose his comment is at least partly mischievous and more, as it is for me, a question of form, and an attraction toward forms of narrative that somehow destabilise the reader. My patience for the dominant narrative discourse, changed only a little since the nineteenth century, is mostly exhausted and only to be indulged when exploring works from that specific time. Maria Gabriela Llansol, in her Geography of Rebels trilogy shows just how far a writer can stretch the form, with no narrative structure, no psychology, just figures and glimpses into what she describes as “inner earthquakes”. Although Llansol’s work is singular, her ambition is not new, in fact rather old.

Talismanic Identifications and Ghostly Demarcations

There was a time when I drifted between reading books of poetry and fiction without a thought for the writer; choosing what to read next— there was no enduringly impatient stack—was a function of where the endlessly reflective waves induced by the last book led me, or more prosaically, whatever caught my attention when browsing in my nearest bookshop.

Around my early twenties, a different whole seemed to fall into shape and I begun to pay attention to certain writers and, setting a pattern that has followed throughout my reading life, to read them to completion, seeing the inevitable minor works as a pathway to answering the thousand questions that arose around the major books.

Once I drew up a list of best books, what I termed a personal canon, but this would prove a shot-silk, a slippery list that refused stability. What, after all, is best? The Canon? Or those books that once read refused to be forgotten, crystal-carbon in memory? What of those evanescent books thought of as favourites, where little lingers beyond perhaps an atmosphere, or a single character?

Instead, in what I optimistically term my maturity, I choose writers over specific books, and my choices embody what Anthony Rudolf in Silent Conversations terms: “magical thinking, talismanic identifications and ghostly demarcations”. There is a distinction between those I read that will probably always be read whilst there are literate readers to be found, say Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Charles Baudelaire.

There are those I read closely because I am, for reasons not always fully understand, intrigued by the way they think or observe the world, for example Peter Handke, Gerald Murnane, Dorothy Richardson, George Oppen, Clarice Lispector, Christa Wolf, Mircea Cărtărescu and Enrique Vila-Matas. Time and the quick sands of taste will decide whether each find a home in posterity.

There is a far stranger category of writers I have only sampled, yet fascinate me deeply: Maurice Blanchot, Ricardo Piglia, Marguerite Duras, Hans Blumenberg, Laura Riding, Arno Schmidt are all examples, but I could name a dozen others. These interest me as much for the lived life as the work, though I always plan to explore the latter more deeply.

Reading books becomes a way to find the writer, or at least to see a glimpse of that writer’s mind. In doing so, I find that I am a part of all that I have read, that reading is a process to becoming. The more I contemplate the act of reading and of what I read, the stranger it seems. I understand less than I did when I began. Where once writing seemed certain and assured, as I moved toward the depthless prose of the writers that I came to consider part of my pantheon, the more I felt strangely included in that writer’s thought process.