Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2018

A month shy of this blog’s anniversary and it strikes me how subtly but incessantly my reading tastes have morphed over these nine years. It is both a strength and weakness of relatively long-term blogging that one’s earlier inclinations and opinions are maintained for public viewing. As WordPress’ statistics show, readers frequently access earlier posts that now make me wince. Opinions, perceptions, comparisons are perpetually recast. They are also metamorphic. That is not to say today’s impressions are more discerning or refined, but there is little guarantee that the ‘this is’ of today will not change to the ‘this is not’ of next month.

Since starting the blog, I’ve unsystematically read hundreds of books. I am selfish about what I read, driven by serendipity. Where the books lead, I follow. Without checking the lists I keep, I’ve forgotten more of the books that I’ve read than I could recall, but they are nevertheless connected in some vast storehouse of memory, each book connected with the one preceding it and the one that followed. A book read nine years ago may spark a decision today to pull another book off my shelf today.

Next year, my reading will take a different tack. This might last for months. It might take all year, but I plan only to read one book for quite a long time. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” My inclination has always been towards Dante, but unlike Shakespeare (arguably), to read The Divine Comedy slowly, attentively and patiently, one needs to be willing for submersion in what is outside the text. So, one book but requiring one to read around, behind and between Dante’s strange poem.

This isn’t my first time making this journey. I’ve read Inferno several times, Purgatorio twice, but have yet to make my way to Paradiso. Dozens of other texts, stories and histories are alluded to within those 100 cantos. Many more were influenced by Dante’s sublime poem. I don’t know how long this project will last. Until I get bored or, more likely, get led down another rabbit hole.

Aside from several translations of Dante, my initial guides will be Virgil (naturally), Prue Shaw, Dorothy Sayers, Erich Auerbach, Graham Harman and Peter Hawkins.

I do intend to come up for air from time to time, with other plans to read more Jan Zwicky, Dorothy Richardson and Peter Handke during the year.

NB: Long term readers of this blog will know how fickle are my reading intentions.

Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life

The Greeks called it Avernus, the Birdless Place, the entrance to the underworld, where according to Virgil ‘no winged creatures could ever wing their way’. Virgil sees no birds until he returns above ground, nor does Molloy on his own metaphorical journey to the underworld saying ‘I had not heard a bird for a long time. How was it I had not heard any in the forest? Nor seen any.’

The conspicuous absence of birds is one of Jorge Sepmrún’s recurring memories of his journey through death in Buchenwald, written about in his staggeringly moving and insightful Literature or Life. ‘No birds left. They say the smoke from the crematory drove them away. Never any birds in this forest . . .’ With these words Semprún greets four soldiers about to enter Buchenwald on the first morning of its liberation.

David Morris, writing on the Freudian uncanny, writes that it [unheimlich] ‘derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but–on the contrary–from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it’. Semprún for many years is unable to write directly of his experience, ‘I start to doubt the possibility of telling the story. Not that what we lived through is indescribable. It was unbearable, which is something else entirely (that won’t be hard to understand), something that doesn’t concern the form of a possible account but its substance. Not its articulation, but its density.’

Semprún chooses a ‘long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia’ despite the dangers of suppression, until the suicide of Primo Levi unlocks a need to represent his journey into, and out the other side of death. These memoirs ask the question, how to write of these unimaginable terrors in a way people can hear, can understand? Semprún shows that there needn’t be a disjunction between literature and life, that it is possible to write poetically about barbaric events. Perhaps he demonstrates quite the opposite, that literature (poetry) is precisely the response needed for terrors like Buchenwald.

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.]

Admitted: Four Authors Only

In Alberto Manguel’s superb The Library at Night, he writes of one aristocrat’s solution to the recurring challenge of housing a growing collection of books:

In a manuscript kept in the Vatican Library (and as yet unpublished), the Milanese humanist Angelo Decembrio describes a drastic culling system by which the young fifteenth-century prince Leonello d’Este furnished his library in Ferrara under the supervision of his teacher, Guarino da Verona. Leonello’s system was one of exclusion, rejecting everything except the most precious examples of the literary world. Banished from the princely shelves were monastic encyclopedic works (“oceans of story, as they are called, huge burdens for donkeys,”) French and Italian translations of classic texts (but not the originals), and even Dante’s Commedia, “which may be read on winter nights, by the fire, with the wife and the children, but which does not merit being placed in a scholarly library.” Only four classical authors were admitted: Livy, Virgil, Sallust and Cicero.