Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.

I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.

The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.

For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.

Logue’s Homer

Robert Fagle’s Iliad is bright and powerful. Without sacrificing Homeric style, Fagles brings a modern voice to the Iliad. I also love Alice Oswald’s Memorial, an idiosyncratic and gorgeous account of the Iliad that puts force at the centre of the poem, without any of what Simone Weil calls “moments of grace,” those rare glimpses of love and friendship that serve to contrast the force and violence. I’ve eyed George Chapman’s translation, by all accounts pyrotechnic in parts. Instead I turned to the late Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad.

Logue breaks the rules. He is unable to read a word of Ancient Greek, relying rather on existing translations. He ignores Homeric style, introducing contemporary poetic techniques, and as if that isn’t sufficiently iconoclastic he creates new episodes and fashions a narrative of his own. Logue’s Homer has been dribbled out incrementally since 1959 and he still hadn’t finished when he died in 2011. It shouldn’t work but the sublime of Homer in the hands of Logue becomes exquisite and exalted. This edition brings all of Logue’s Homer into one book, including various unplaceable fragments.

Homer’s resonance rings out over millennia. His story is both ancient and modern. In the following passage it is possible to see how Logue helps us to see the Iliad through fresh eyes:

They passed so close that hub skinned hub.
Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then,
And as gracefully as men in oilskins cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip, his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men detach
A sardine from an open tin.

Oilskins? “Braked a shade”? And that licentious “later men”? Logue’s Homer, in a single edition, is a work of utter brilliance.

Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.

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Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Troilus and Cressida and The Iliad

Mark, an occasional but always valued commenter here, exasperated that Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without suggest that Antony and Cleopatra merits greater affection than Hamlet quoted a beautiful line from Troilus and Cressida: “I cannot fight upon this argument;/It is too starved a subject for my sword.” With a free morning available I chose to read Shakespeare’s tragedy, a mature work written towards the end of his run of comedies.

Troilus and Cressida isn’t performed often and though I was vaguely aware it was derived primarily from Homer had little understanding of its power. The opening paragraph from the play’s introduction in my RSC Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, describes it perfectly accurately:

Troilus and Cressida perhaps reveals more of Shakespeare’s mature mind at work than any of the other plays. It is highly intelligent, rich in rhetorical complexity and linguistic invention, mentally rigorous, morally sceptical, sexually charged, full of dangerous intellectual and political energy, markedly unpleasant.

Unpleasant it is, which is why I imagine it is infrequently performed. That Troilus and Cressida was written over four hundred years ago is extraordinary as its grim anti-heroic dramatisation of war, inference of sexual assault and demythologising of Homeric heroes feels very contemporary.

Amongst a cast of vivid characters are two commentators, Trojan Pandarus and Greek Thersites, both vile, voyeuristic and overwhelmingly cynical and I imagine a great deal of fun to perform. Thersites carries the best lines, sewer-mouthed and acting as a sort of Greek chorus, nasty but sharp as he summarises the venalities of the Trojan and Greek heroes.

Although I’ve read a small number of Shakespeare’s tragedies several times, I’ve not spent enough time with his work to realise he was producing plays with this much intellectual depth. This goes deeper and darker than Hamlet or King Lear.

The RSC Complete Works suggest that Shakespeare’s Trojan War is notably derived from George Chapman’s 1598 translation, overlaid of course with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The latter came highly recommended in the comments to a previous post about Homer, so definitely a translation I’ll be reading soon. I also understand that Charles Williams wrote incisively about Troilus and Cressida in his English Poetic Mind, which I intend picking up when next at Cecil Court.

Thanks Mark for the inspiration for these flights. I discovered a great many other beautiful lines in Troilus and Cressida of which today’s favourite is: I have, as when the sun doth light a-scorn/Buries this sigh in wrinkle of a smile.

Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

We Are Singing

  1. Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself writes, “[W]e must recognise that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance–to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”
  2. Giorgio Agamben writes in The Coming Community: “This fascination of not uttering something absolutely.”
  3. What has always fascinated me about the Sirens, whether written of by Euripides, Homer, Ovid or Hesiod, is that no one writes about the Sirens’ song. Žižek, in Cogito and the Unconscious reveals Tzvetan Todorov’s thesis, that the Sirens said to Odysseus just one thing: We are singing. Blanchot wrote, “Yes, they really sang, but not in a very satisfactory way. Their song merely suggested the direction from which the perfect song might come.”
  4. In Isak Dinesen’s The Dreamers a young soprano by the name of Pellegrina Leoni loses her singing voice after an accident happens whilst she is singing Donna Anna’s beautiful aria from Don Giovanni. As the greatest soprano of her day, without  her enchanting voice,Pellegrinaisthoughtto be dead, giving her the freedom to travel the world under an assumed identity, living many intense adventures. No muteness is as tragic as a Sirens’ silence.

    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

A Life With the Greeks

My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.

Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:

I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.

To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.

Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.

I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).

Grossman: Why Translation Matters

All art, literary or otherwise, undergoes a process of translation between thought and language. I found in my notebook an old quotation from Daniel Herwitz:

Art becomes philosophy proper when the philosopher brings out its inner voice (which is the voice of the thinker) through a process of clarification/translation.

In her penetrating book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman, writes:

If writing literature is a transfer or transcription of internal experience and imaginative states into the external world, then even when authors and readers who speak the same language, writers are obliged to translate, to engage in the immense, utopian effort to transform the images and ideas flowing through their most intimate spaces into material, legible terms to which readers have access. And if this is so, the doubts and paradoxical questions that pursue translators must also arise for authors. Is their 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?

Grossman argues that the act of translating a book from one language to a second is comparable to the original process of creation. Translators are the unrecognised heroes of the literary world. Why Translation Matters is Grossman’s passionate polemic against publishers and critics disdain for translators.

I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves-forgive me, I mean ourselves-as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.

. . . .

And as Ralph Manheim, the great translator from German, so famously said, translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English. . . Whatever else it may be, transaltion in Manheim’s formulation is a kind of interpretive performance, bearing the same relationship to the original text as an actor’s work does to the script, the performing musician’s to the composition.

I like that analogy.

Chapters one and two present the core of Grossman’s proposition, including a fascinating account of her experience of translating Don Quixote. The final chapter looks at the decisions which must be made when translating poetry.

Grossman makes her case convincingly. As Thomas Bernhard has said about literary 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. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

Ultimately, this position is indefensible, as Grossman argues:

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. Depending on your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers s practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it. Then try to imagine never experiencing any literature written in the countless other languages you  may not know: in my case, these would include Polish, Czech, German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Russian, and all the myriad languages of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The mere idea creates a prospect that is intolerably, inconceivably bleak.

So, in preparing to read Don Quixote, am I to read Grossman or Cervantes?

[Thanks to Francis for the discovery of this book.]

The First Poems in English

Reading The First Poems in English is preparation for Beowulf, which I plan to read soon. This Penguin Classics edition is made thoroughly engaging by the commentary and translation of Michael Alexander. His enthusiasm for ‘Old English’ is contagious. He is also not remotely afraid to allow his personality to come across on the page:

A number of books have been published with the title The Triumph of English, one of them adding the dates ‘1350-1400’, 1400 being memorable to those who know a little literary history as the year of Chaucer’s death. Those less acquainted with literary history perhaps think of English literature as beginning with Shakespeare.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Literary history, generally speaking, does not simply progress. Greek literature has not improved on Homer. Italian literature has not improved on Dante. European drama has not improved on Shakespeare.

Quite aside from the enjoyable translations, the book is a succinct introduction to the history of the English language, at least until the Norman conquest.

After 1066, however, English was no longer the language of the rulers. It remained the speech of the people, but local dialects diverged more and more from each other.

My favourite of the selection of poems is The Seafarer (link to a translation by Ezra Pound. I prefer Michael Alexander’s). The emotion of exile is apparent in the opening lines:

Sitting day-long
at an oar’s end clenched against clinging sorrow,
breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too.
I have coursed my keel through care-halls without end
over furled foam, I forward in the bows
through the narrowing night, numb, watching
for the cliffs we beat along.
Cold then
nailed my feet, frost shrank on
its chill clamps, cares sighed
hot about heart, hunger fed
on a mere-wearied mind.
No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters; the wanderer’s beat,
cut off from kind. . . .

The preceding poem, The Wanderer, defines the man:

Wherefore no man grows wise without he have
his share of winters. A wise man holds out;
he is not too hot-hearted, nor too hasty in speech,
nor too weak a warrior, not wanting in fore-thought,
nor too greedy of goods, nor too glad, nor too mild,
nor evert too eager to boast, ere he knows all.
A man should forbear boastmaking
until his fierce mind fully knows
which way his spleen shall expend itself