August: Contemporary English Language Books

Magnolias, the whetted irony of postmodern narrative, Socrates, and the pellucid veil of translated literature. Of all these I suffer from ambivalence.

I surround myself with books, about which I am also ambivalent. Sometimes I would like to own fewer books, but I keep buying and collecting books. What I like is the literature that happens to be contained in the books in the form of fiction, but also poetry, essays, religious and philosophical writing, and critical writing about art and literature.

According to the graphs and charts on LibraryThing, where I catalogue my books, almost sixty percent of the books in what I call my library is what Kate Briggs in This Little Art terms twice-written: translated literature.

I read a lot of literature in translation as I have a little French, but no German, or Norwegian, or Portuguese, or Romanian, no Spanish or Ancient Greek, and just a little Latin. Briggs writes: “When it comes to writing and reading translations the question of what is wholly normal or truly plausible, of what was really said or written gets suspended, slightly”. I allow translated literature to seduce me because I agree with Jon Fosse’s contention that, “uniquely literary qualities can often be translated . . . because literature is more linked to the sentence, both to the single sentence and to the text, the poetry collection, the novel, as a kind of mega-sentence, than to the word, and therefore more linked to rhythm than to sound”.

Recently, my ambivalence resurfaced. Should I make more effort to read literature with, as Virginia Woolf put it in her broadcast on Craftsmanship, the right words in the right order? Certain words and lines of Aeschylus, of Paul Celan and Friederike Mayröcker, have a definite hypnotic effect on me, but, of necessity, these are mediated by the labour of a translator? What about the contemporary? Instead of dwelling in murky, hundred-times explored worlds, what of the black squiggles of today?

August found me plunged deeply into books recently published in the English language. I read books by Deborah Levy, David Keenan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, Susanna Clarke, Sam Riviere, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, Damon Galgut, and Claire-Louise Bennett. Some of these were good books, with memorable atmospheres, and lines that set off interesting thought-trains. Some just passed the time, most were uninteresting to me. Only one, I would argue, contained literature, that is, held life within it, sufficient life to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul.

Which one contains literature, you ask? I have little to say about it because, finally, what can I possibly say that can express a text to you? This book operates on multiple levels simultaneously, blurring distinctions, crossing boundaries. It is self-conscious, introspective and demonstrates an extreme awareness of the imperfection and power of words. If it can be said to be about anything, perhaps it is about privilege, or lack of it, and control, or the lack of it. Checkout 19 opens, “Later on we often had a book with us”. Between those words and its closing pages, a small bit of the writer’s relationship, conveyed in writing, to the enigmatic nature of life (and death) is revealed.

Thoughts on Reading Kate Briggs’ This Little Art

In an essay on Stendhal, Roland Barthes wrote, translated by Adam Thirlwell, of the marked difference between Stendhal’s journals and the richness of his novels: ‘What happened between the Travel Journal and The Charterhouse of Parma, is writing.’ Kate Briggs, in This Little Art asks a similar question about the idea of the art of translation and whether it would be more appropriate to consider the translator as a craftsperson or artisan, rather than an artist. Helen Lowe-Porter, after all, ‘didn’t write [The Magic Mountain], as [she] would no doubt have also been very ready to concede.’ Briggs quotes Lowe-Porter: ‘You see, the job is to some extent an artist job,’ adding ‘she refused to send a translation to the publisher until she felt as though she had written the book herself.’

My first reading of Mann’s The Magic Mountain was twelve years ago. I was late to Mann, overly influenced by Nabokov’s disdain, who considered Mann one of those ‘puffed-up writers’ that traded ‘in great ideas’. I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation over a couple of weeks, too quickly for I was skipping over some of the extended philosophical debates between Settembrini and Naphta. After this somewhat fierce first reading, unable to part company with the author’s voice, I immediately read the book again, taking more time to unpick not only the face offs between the liberal and the Marxist, but also the context for the rival revolutionary forces the two intellectuals represented. After following several rabbit holes, I had spent quarter of the year with Mann’s book and its related reading.

In my secondary reading around The Magic Mountain, I came across Timothy Buck’s virulent article in the TLS, in which he meticulously takes apart Lowe-Porter’s translation as ‘a pseudo-Mann’. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs reviews the debate that followed Buck’s critical evaluation. It’s worth pointing out that Buck does not advocate the later translation by John Woods, considering both debased versions of Mann’s German. Briggs approaches the debate about this, and to a lesser extent around the translation of André Gide’s novels, with less sanguine gloom, exploring the divergent conceptions of what translation should be and can be as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

As a primarily anglophone reader—my limited French will not stretch to Proust— I require a translator to meditate with The Magic Mountain and work in many other languages. Briggs quotes Barthes: ‘Of course I can read the great foreign novels translated into French, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Don Quixote, etc,’ and adds: ‘All those novels? Yes, read them. I’ve read them. I have. Let me insist that I have read them.’

What I enjoyed most of This Little Art is the speculative voice. It gives space for me to pause in my reading and wonder if I could insist that I’ve read those books or just English translations of those books. I won’t truly be able to confidently insist that I’ve read Proust until I can read it in the French, nor The Magic Mountain in German, but if I waited to acquire those languages I’d be more like a friend who refuses to read translations, considering them to be lesser adaptions of the great novels. I am grateful to those that practise this little art for the compromises we must make to read life-changing foreign works of art.