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.

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

A Virtuoso of Disguise

“. . . in each disguise I assumed I looked better and more natural than in the last. I might appear as a Roman flute-player, a wreath of roses twined in my curly locks; as an English page in a snug-fitting satin with lace collar and plumed hat; as a Spanish bullfighter in spangled jacket and broad-brimmed hat; as a youthful abbé at the time of powdered wigs . . . whatever the costume, the mirror assured me that I was born to wear it, and my audience declared that I looked to the life exactly the person whom I aimed to represent.”

A passage from Thomas Mann’s translation of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, translated by Denver Lindley. This reminds me to make time one day to reread Doctor Faustus and Death in Venice. Both versions I read were Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations, now generally seen as not only dubious but in the case of the latter substantively altered  out of puritanism. David Luke’s Death in Venice is considered more faithful, and we are fortunate to have John E Wood’s translations of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.