Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard

Perhaps it’s me. Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction is well-crafted. I agreed with her assertions. It is just a little like the fashion for nouvelle cuisine that was all the rage when this book was published. It leaves you hungry for more. Even this Dillard excuses in the introduction explaining that despite her critical training and competence “as a careful textual critic, I have flung this sensible approach aside in favour of enthusiasm, free speculation, blind assertion, dumb joking, and diatribe.”

That I was to read Living by Fiction was inevitable after Amateur Reader (Tom) wrote, “Pale Fire and Ficciones, which she, like me [and me], simply assumes are essential and inescapable Tower of Babel-sized landmarks of 20th century literature, terrain-defining books.”

Dillard writes lovingly about Postmodern fiction, which she chooses to label contemporary modernist, meaning writers like Robert Coover, John Barth, Nabokov, Borges, Italo Calvino etc. After some time analysing technique and style, Dillard debates the value of art and worth of literary criticism, before proceeding to her main argument: “Does the World Have Meaning?’ Approaching this question by asking whether fiction has meaning because “it traffics in knowledge,” she concludes with uncertainty. As I do.

There are one or two terms that fail to translate from American English. The word she uses repeatedly is nonce, as in “for the nonce.” In American English this means “for the time being.” I’m glad I looked it up, much the clearer.

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee

In August I read J. M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings, a book of outstanding literary essays. The earlier collection of essays, Stranger Shores, is also brilliant, worthy to sit on the shelf beside Coetzee’s fiction. It includes superb essays on Joseph Brodsky, Robert Musil, Kafka, Borges and Doris Lessing, as well as a reflection on T. S. Eliot entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ There are twenty-six pieces in total, some less strong but none less than enjoyable.

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.

The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock

The temperature is just below zero, freezing fog outside since this morning. I’m drinking tea and selectively rereading Julien Gracq’s outstanding, personal meditation Reading Writing (En Lisant en écrivant).

Gracq, pictured above, calls into question Valéry’s complaint about the arbitrariness of fiction. When I was reminded of the argument in Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, in a chapter called “The Marquise Went out at Five,” my position was closer to Valéry. If the marquise goes out at five, I assume that the marquise is as critical to the story as his departure at five o’clock. Josipovici argues:

The problem, as always with the novel, is more complicated than either party quite realises. For when we talk about anecdotes, when we talk about what is arbitrary and what is necessary, we are not just talking about art, we are also talking about life. Kierkegaard and Sartre were right: we cannot hive off these problems as being merely problems of narrative. Narrative is so potent because telling stories is part of what being human is about.

Josipovici proceeds to argue, using Borges, that, “What Modernism does is to drive [these] contradictions out into the open.”

Valéry’s objection to “The marquise went out at five o’clock” is not only its arbitrariness, but also the “multiplicity of possible variation” and that it is “all fairly devoid of consequence.” Gracq responds:

What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.

Abominable Borges’ Translations

In Alberto Manguel’s Royal Society of Literature lecture, he comments that:

The English speaking reader has been most unfortunate. Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today. There is one exception, which I will come to in a minute, but all sort of abominations have been practised on the work of Borges.

Manguel criticises publishers’ decisions to divide Borges’ work into separate collections of poetry, non-fiction and fiction. Borges’ main intention, Manguel says, was to destroy the barriers of genre.

The Singer on the Shore by Gabriel Josipovici

… a book of this kind must inevitably be personal, but that does not mean that it should be merely subjective: I wish to persuade my reader, not simply air my opinions. Yet it is difficult to walk the thin line between didacticism and rant, and between giving too much information and too little.

This prefatory paragraph from Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? could apply equally to his collection of essays The Singer on the Shore. The latter contains nineteen delightful literary essays on the Bible, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Borges, Tristram Shandy and the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld.

What sets these essays apart is Josipovici’s authorial tone; authoritative but never sanctimonious. This Guardian review is spot on, “It is a distinguishing, and a distinguished, mark of Josipovici’s sensitivity to his subject and his audience that – and I can’t stress this too much – that you don’t have to be that familiar with his subjects to get something out of what he says about them.” But like all good literary essays, Josipovici’s will compel you to reread a favourite novel and dip into a new writer’s work.

Across the nineteen essays are coherent themes, of rootlessness, the nature of art and literature and Josipovici’s love of Proust, Eliot and Kafka. That Josipovici writes of writers I already read, and identifies nuances that are personally meaningful makes this collection important to me. That he writes beautifully, with humility and playfulness makes this book highly recommended for any reader.

Fondling Detail

Like gratin dauphinoise or silky foie gras Don Quixote has left me stuffed, unable to do more than graze. It is rare I start a second book while committed to a first, but I have begun the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, David Crystal’s The Stories of English and am still rereading Borge’s Ficciones. Each captures my attention for an hour or two but I soon am distracted by another voice.

To add anchovies to the dauphinoise (as you really must), I started leafing through Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. Nabby is just the professor to call attention to one’s inadequacies as a reader. His minute examination of Madame Bovary accentuate texture and detail I am barely aware of after rereading twice. I must surely reread again soon with the help of Nabokov’s gimlet eyes. “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” Here, he elucidates the difference between master artists and minor authors:

Time and space, the colours of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the interpretation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognise their own ideas in a pleasing disguise.

Detect that wonderfully icy disdain, rolling down from that ivory tower? When reading, Nabokov let no detail pass unquestioned. In works of genius, every detail had a purpose and was worthy of minute examination. “Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy’s attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy’s art the good reader must wish to visualise, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago.”

We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other brands of knowledge.