Anne Carson’s Antigonick

Antigonick is a strange book for Carson because, unlike Nox, or If Not, Winter, her translations of the complete fragments of Sappho, or Autobiography of Red, her luminous verse novel re-telling of the Greek myth of Geryon, to all of which Antigonick bears formal and thematic resemblances, it doesn’t fully open up the door to its source text for the reader. Instead, it demands prior knowledge of Antigone in order to really plumb the depths of the work. It’s not really a translation — it’s a re-imagining, what Carson’s Canadian contemporary Erin Moure calls a “transcreation,” with both text and images and the interplay between them transposing Sophocles’ language and themes. The problem is that the work comes alive in spectacular ways only when you put it next to a more traditional translation. (I used Robert Fagles’ with notes by Bernard Knox.) A classicist friend of mine commented that her undergraduates would find Antigonick a fascinating companion text to Sophocles’ play, and I bet that’s true, but I’m not sure it’s a strength. Antigonick strives to be a multi-dimensional artistic work, not a study of or a gloss on Antigone. This is the first book of Carson’s in which I feel her scholarly impulse barricades textual meanings. Usually it provides a generous way in.

Full Stop’s review of Anne Carson’s Antigonick precisely captures my sentiment.”Antigonick doesn’t ultimately work, but when you begin to give it the kind of scholarly reading it demands, you find it has moments of brilliance”.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Anne Carson’s Translation of An Oresteia

Absent Presence 2004, by Ken Currie

Traditionalists beware. An Oresteia is not a fusty, complex translation of Aiskhylos’s (Aeschylus to most of us, but I’ll run with Carson’s version for consistency) trilogy. On another plane, Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore can be heard thunderously grumbling.

Carson’s adaptation takes Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and matches it with Sophocle’s Elektra and Euripedes’s Orestes.  In doing so, she offers a very different reading of the trilogy that begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan war and ends, surprisingly happily, with Apollo’s intervention to prevent a continuation of the tragic cycle of events. In a brief notes section, Carson quotes the director that persuaded her of the merits of this perspective:

I always think of these three tragedians as being associated with different times of a metaphoric day. Aiskhylos is dawnlike, with iconic ideas, images, and action emerging into the light of consciousness. Euripides presents a twilight where everything is susceptible to tricks of a fading light, where tonalities are hard to grasp, where one moment is an azure sunset, the next a starless night. Between them, Sophokles, under the glare of a noon sun that leaves nothing exposed.

With a limited background of Greek tragedy, I am not certain whether presenting an Oresteia combining the work of three playwrights is a fresh perspective, but it is remarkably potent.

Dramatic events aside, it is not possible to ignore Carson’s translation. Her language mutations are almost Joycean (“blackmouthing bitch”). Just occasionally I thought the translation into modern idiom went too far: the slave talking of “real bad shit happening” (though Carson qualifies this as “another quaint barbarian idiom”). That aside, the language is exhilarating, showing the continued importance and brilliance of these tragedies.

Inevitably, translations of this exuberance send me not only to Carson’s other Greek translations ( Euripides in Grief Lessons), but also to other Greek plays, even if I will have to settle for Lattimore’s less newfangled translations.

I recommend Emily’s detailed review of this translation.

Folio Greek Tragedies

Though I have mixed feelings about Folio Society editions, these are tempting. All the Greek tragedies in five volumes:

In five volumes, the extant works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are gathered, with newly commissioned prefaces for each volume: Ruth Padel on Aeschylus, Simon Goldhill on Sophocles, and Peter Stothard, Lawrence Norfolk and Germaine Greer each introducing one of the Euripides volumes. The translations used, from the University of Chicago editions, have become the standard texts. A total of 33 great works of art are included, such as Pallas Athene attributed to Rembrandt and The Bacchae by Luca Giordano, with each plate tipped in, facing the title page of the play in question.

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.]

Critchley and Comedy/Tragedy

Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers is the book for my trains and planes this week. You can sense the enjoyment that Critchley found in writing and researching this book.

There is an engaging interview with Simon Critchley at the International Necronautical Society. I gather he is involved in some way with this nebulous organisation. Here is a flavour of the interview, which ranges widely including literature and comedy:

TMcC: Yes. Beckett is also incredibly funny. It’s not a separate thing: his deep ethical engagement with this whole problematic and his humour are completely bound together. I mean, how do you see comedy and death as fitting together?

SC: They’re in an intimate relationship. Comedy is much more tragic than tragedy, I always think, and much more about death. Tragedy is about making death meaningful – with some exceptions: you could say that in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus there’s a different relationship to death. But conventionally the tragic hero takes death into him- or herself and it becomes meaningful; we experience catharsis in relation to that and we all go away happily. Comedy is about the inability to achieve that catharsis. So either you can’t die in comedy, which is why Waiting for Godot’s a tragi-comedy: nobody can hang themselves and it’s funny. Or if they do die they pop back up to life, like in Tom and Jerry cartoons. Now what’s the more tragic thought: life coming to an end or life going on forever? The latter’s much more tragic. Swift explores this in Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels: there are the Immortals, the Struldbrugs, who are marked with a red circle in the middle of their foreheads, and lie around in corners having lost all interest in life and not even speaking the language they grew up with. They’re tragic figures. The worst thing would be not death but life carrying on forever, and comedy’s about that. It’s also linked to depression and all sorts of things like that.