The State of my Wish List of Books

It struck me recently that there is a direct correlation, perhaps even an ideal relationship, between the state of my thumos and my wish list of books. At times it seems nothing I intend to read will cleave the frozen sea, so I cut and slash to its bare essentials. Fiction particularly slides, is intentionally forgotten, often as the voices of human affairs and their intertextual associations become too striking.

One must read something—where else can we escape ourselves—and this time it is D J Enright that lent me his axe, in the form of his genuinely witty and extremely intelligent The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony. It may sound a little like a dull undergraduate seminar, but is an oblique form of literary criticism masquerading as a study of irony as style in literature. It is a capricious amalgam that includes some illuminating writing on Proust and Freud, without getting bogged down in academic theorising. We are in safer hands with critics of Enright’s time as they were invariably better read and it is a joy to follow their untethered intellect as it capers back and forth across the literary ages. Somewhat comforted and revived by Enright, I tracked down his trilogy, memoir and commonplace books: Interplay, Play Resumed and Injury Time, and also a couple of the recent volumes of Auden’s Complete Works, prose from the 50s and 60s.

It is to Enright’s gently sardonic musings that I credit the expansion of my wish list of fiction, laying aside the aridness of combing news and social media for the latest play of politics in which each side understands neither the other or itself. As Winnie reflects in Happy Days, ‘One loses one’s classics’ so after breaking away reluctantly from another reading of Dante, I’ve turned to Luis de Góngora, “the Spanish Homer,” and his two-thousand line poem The Solitudes, translated by Edith Grossman. It is beautiful, quite difficult, and shall be my companion for some days to come.

Idées Fixes of the Week

“Intellectual nihilism becomes boring in the end because it just seems to be an expression of unresolved adolescence. Moreover, in practise it is tied to a substantive conservatism: all attempts at serious analytical explanation are derided, leaving force and established mores in possession.”

Stefan Collini’s essays on the literary and intellectual culture of Britain from, roughly, the early twentieth century to the present, from which the above fragment comes, are stimulating and thought provoking. I’ve been reading the essays in Common Reading and intend to read his latest Common Writing, before taking in his earlier Absent Minds.

Discovery of Collini’s work is timely as I have little appetite for fiction at present. I found David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? rewarding. Its humour is endurable; lurking beneath is a decent study of the art and ethics of translation along the lines of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.

Last night, on my way back from listening to Alexander Kniazev & Nikolai Lugansky perform at Wigmore Hall, I listened to a Craig Raine interview on Radio 4. I find Raine’s work puerile but he quoted a letter of Henrich Heine’s that I found both unusual and beautiful. The “macaroni” is a good touch.

“There is nothing new to tell you, my dear Robert, except that I am alive and still love you. The last will endure as long as the first, for the duration of my life is very uncertain. Beyond life I promise nothing. With the last breath all is done: joy, love, sorrow, macaroni, the normal theatre, lime-trees, raspberry drops, the power of human relations, gossip, the barking of dogs, champagne.”

Notes On Translation

My reading of Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, a thought provoking book, offered up this question:

Is [a] text an inevitable betrayal of the imagination and the creative impulse? Is what they do even possible? Can the written work ever be a perfect fit with that imaginative, creative original when two different languages, two realms of experience, can only approximate each other?

When reading a translated text, currently Walter Benjamin’s collection of essays Illuminations, and specifically his essay The Task of the Translator, this question is unavoidable.

Richard of The Existence Machine raised the same question recently to reply to an argument that, “… if you can’t read Handke in German don’t bother since Handke’s main interest is the language.” Thomas Bernhard made an analogous point:, “[Translation] doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it.”

Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator requires time to unpick. The essential substance of a work of literature is not its words or sentences, it is what is contained in addition to this information: the unfathomable, the ‘poetic’. The role of a (good) translator is to render this mysterious quality in a new translation. Rendering the unfathomable ‘perfectly’ in a new language is impossible, but the translator aspires towards  a ‘language of truth’, transcending the original and the translated language: “If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is – the true language’.

The task of the translator is finding and communicating the artist’s intention, a successful translation produces an echo of the original: “The transfer can never be total, but what reaches this region is that element in a translation which goes beyond the transmittal of subject matter’.

To strive for linguistic fidelity is almost always an error, truer the further away a translator is from the origin of a work: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully”.

Benjamin, like Pound, sees a translator as extending the life of a literary work, as each generation translates a static original: “For in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a translation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change”.

As Alberto Manguel has said, “Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today”. Yet what are we to do while Borges awaits the translator who is able to unlock his intention. Not reading Borges, even in a flawed translation is an unsatisfactory but acceptable compromise. To end with another quotation from Grossman.

Imagine how bereft we would be if only the fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable.

Don Quixote by Cervantes

The final thirty-eight pages of Don Quixote sustained me, deliberately, over a whole day. I did not want to leave the sadness and humour of this incredible world behind me. “Don Quixote is the only book that Dr. Johnson desired to be even longer than it already was.”

With the book read I turned to the introduction. Mostly I ignore introductions, or read them after the book is read. This time I wanted further excuse to inhabit the world of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Besides, the introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote is written by Harold Bloom. I have a soft spot for Bloom. His theme is familiar, drawing comparisons between Shakespeare and Cervantes, Don Quixote/Hamlet and Sancho Panza/Falstaff.

We are inside the vast book, privileged to hear the super conversations between the Knight and his squire, Sancho Panza. Sometimes we are fused with Cervantes, but more often we are invisible wanderers who accompany the sublime pair in their adventures and debacles.

Finishing this book is the end of a long but intensely worthwhile journey. I feel that I have been somewhere and met some delightful people that will stay with me for a long while. Like poor, sweet Don Quixote we are all driven more than a little mad by the stories we read.

Don Quixote’s Midpoint

Approaching the end of “The First Part” of Don Quixote; the reading of the two interpolated novels and real-time accumulation of characters at the inn has been more laboured than the preceding chapters. How many ever-more-beautiful-than-the last noble women are to show up, in mysterious circumstances? It is salutary to read The Modern Word’s review and know that in the “The Second Part” the book gets back to Don Quixote and Sancha Panza.