Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chris Andrews

An interview with Chris Andrews, the wonderful translator of Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolano:
WH Do you think that you have improved, if not as a writer, then as a translator? You have worked on writings of two authors quite extensively, Aira and Bolaño. Has your understanding of their work grown with each book? Might it ever get to the point where you would want to revise a previous translation?
CA In a way, that’s something I try not to think about too much because I know that if the early translations of Bolaño that I’ve done had been put in a drawer, and were now being pulled out, and I had the chance to revise them, there would be things I would change. Even when I’m looking at those translations to write a critical article, I will sometimes do what critics do, which is to say, “translation modified.” It’s a process that doesn’t stop. Wanting to make changes doesn’t mean that I’ve necessarily become a better translator; it might just be the effect of passing time, and as time passes, some problems that I couldn’t see clearly before are bound to come into focus. Which is why I try not to think about it too much!
WH At the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, you said that when you are preparing to work on a translation you often read what you consider to be an example of very fine prose in English. Can you explain that process? And who are the writers that best prepare you to translate Aira and Bolaño?
CA I usually don’t do it so much in the preparation phase, or even during the first draft phase, because at that stage I’m working on getting a literal translation down. What I like to do when I’m revising and getting towards a final version is take a little break and read some English prose that I like as an example of style. It doesn’t have to be something that is stylistically very close to the author I’m translating. In fact, I actually prefer it to be not too close because the function of the breaks I take is not to find a specific solution to a problem that I’ve got with a translation, or to be influenced, but in a way just to forget the problem. I read a couple of paragraphs or a page. And when I put the refresher book down, it’s as if I’m starting again, but now coming at the problem from a background of well-constructed sentences. It’s hard to explain precisely. I remember using John Banville like this because I liked reading one sentence of his after another. But it could be Denton Welch for the same reason, or Penelope Fitzgerald.
WH Returning to the same Melbourne Writers Festival session, Eliot Weinberger called you something very flattering along the lines of—and I hope I’m not misquoting here—“the first Australian translator of major international significance.” You mentioned dialect earlier in reference to Bolaño. What does it mean to be an Australian, involuntarily equipped with our dialect, yet translating for an international Anglophone audience?
CA It depends where the commissioning is done, and what’s happened with Bolaño has been a little strange because the commissioning shifted from the UK to the US after the first three books. When it has been for an English publisher, I have written, for example, “flat” rather than “apartment.” I’ve never really used many “Australianisms” though. I’ve tried to smuggle a few in here and there, but it’s tricky, and it’s hard to get away with! It would be different if you were working for an Australian publisher, publishing for an Australian market. It has occasionally been tempting to use an “Australianism” to translate an expression from Chilean Spanish, but the risk is that it would be merely confusing, even for an Australian reader.
WH Well, according to David Bellos, there is a kind of English called “English minus,” or a neutralised English stripped of all its local particularities, which is often employed in translation. Have you found that to be the case?
CA I think one advantage of being an Australian translator is that you’re less likely to assume that your own dialect is or should be the standard. I don’t think that a translation has to end up being insipid because it has had some of its dialect markers removed in the editing. With Bolaño, for example, I think that the prose still has a strong flavor, and that’s partially because of all the place names and the proper names, and, occasionally, words that have been left in Spanish, which is something that both Natasha Wimmer and I have done. For example, in The Savage Dectectives she leaves mano and mana—the abbreviated forms of hermano and hermana, brother and sister—in Spanish.
Head to BOMB for the rest of the interview.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gabriel Josipovici

From page seventy of What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici:
I walk down the road, he says, my life is open before me. I do not know what will happen to me, and if my life so far is anything to go by, nothing will. Even if something dramatic happens, if a car, say, runs me over and kills me, that will not have conferred meaning on a meaningless life, only brought it to an end. But if I open a novel and read in its first pages that the hero is walking down a deserted road I know that this is the beginning of an adventure, of love perhaps, or espionage, it does not matter, it is an adventure. I feel the comforting thickness of the remainder of the novel between the thumb and index finger of my right hand and I settle back with satisfaction. This, after all, is why I am reading the novel in the first place. Not, as the banal view has it, in order to entertain myself, but to give myself the feeling that meaning exists in the world, even if I have not yet found it. That is the secret power of novels: the look like mirrors held up to the world, but what they are is machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world and so muddy the waters of genuine understanding of the human condition.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

André Breton

"Need I add how differently I regard Huysmans from all those empiricists of the novel who claim to give us characters separate from themselves, to define them physically, morally - in their fashion! - in the service of some cause we should prefer to disregard! Out of one real character about whom they suppose they know something they make two characters in their story; out of two, they make one. And we even bother to argue! Someone suggested to an author I know, in connection with a work of his about to be published and whose heroine might be too readily recognized, that he change at least the color of her hair. As a blonde, apparently, she might have avoided betraying a brunette. I do not regard such a thing as childish, I regard it as monstrous. I insist on knowing the names, on being interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys. Happily the days of psychological literature, with all its fictitious plots, are numbered." Nadja, 1928.
From 1907, Le scarabée d'or:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

James Joyce

For each of the quotes below, the subject is Ulysses.

He is a millionaire of words and styles. Aside from the prodigious funds of voices that constitute the English language, his commerce spreads wherever the Irish clover grows, form Castilian doubloons and Judas's shekels to Roman denarii and other ancient coinage. His prolific pen exercises all the rhetorical figures. Each episode exalts yet another poetic strategy, another private lexicon. One is written in syllogisms, another in questions and answers, another in narrative sequence. [...] Joyce is as bold as the prow of a ship, and as universal as a mariner's compass.
In using myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigation. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility of and anarchy which is contemporary history.
If you have ever tried to stand and bend your head so as to look back between your knees, with your face turned upside down, you will see the world in a totally different light. Try it on the beach: it is very funny to see people walking when you look at them upside down. They seem to be, with each step, disengaging their feet from the glue of gravitation, without losing their dignity. Well, this trick of changing vista, of changing the prism and the viewpoint, can be compared to Joyce’s new literary technique, to the kind of new twist through which you see a greener grass, a fresher world.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fernando Pessoa

From The Book of Disquiet [link], by Fernando Pessoa:
I have to choose what I detest – either dreaming, which my intelligence hates, or action, which my sensibility loathes; either action, for which I wasn’t born, or dreaming, for which no one was born.

Detesting both, I choose neither; but since I must on occasion either dream or act, I mix the two things together.

George Steiner describes The Book of Disquiet [link] with style:
[...] The fragmentary, the incomplete is of the essence of Pessoa's spirit. The very kaleidoscope of voices within him, the breadth of his culture, the catholicity of his ironic sympathies - wonderfully echoed in Saramago's great novel about Ricardo Reis - inhibited the monumentalities, the self-satisfaction of completion. Hence the vast torso of Pessoa's Faust on which he laboured much of his life. Hence the fragmentary condition of The Book of Disquiet which contains material that predates 1913 and which Pessoa left open-ended at his death. As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.  
It was to Bernardo Soares that Pessoa ascribed his Book of Disquiet, first made available in English in a briefer version by Richard Zenith in 1991. The translation is at once penetrating and delicately observant of Pessoa's astute melancholy. What is this Livro do Desassossego ? Neither 'commonplace book', nor 'sketchbook', nor 'florilegium' will do. Imagine a fusion of Coleridge's notebooks and marginalia, of Valery's philosophic diary and of Robert Musil's voluminous journal. Yet even such a hybrid does not correspond to the singularity of Pessoa's chronicle. Nor do we know what parts thereof, if any, he ever intended for publication in some revised format. 
What we have is a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory and criticism and maxims. 'A Letter not to Post', an 'Aesthetics of Indifference', 'A Factless Autobiography' and manual of welcomed failure (only a writer wholly innocent of success and public acclaim invites serious examination).
If there is a common thread, it is that of unsparing introspection. Over and over, Pessoa asks of himself and of the living mirrors which he has created, 'Who am I?', 'What makes me write?', 'To whom shall I turn?' The metaphysical sharpness, the wealth of self-scrutiny are, in modern literature, matched only by Valery or Musil or, in a register often uncannily similar, by Wittgenstein. 'Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other's presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.' This very scrutiny, moreover, is fraught with danger: 'To understand, I destroyed myself. To understand is to forget about loving.' These findings arise out of a uniquely spectral yet memorable landscape: 'A firefly flashes forward at regular intervals. Around me the dark countryside is a huge lack of sound that almost smells pleasant.'[...]

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa

Sixteen years ago, the NYRB ran an article called The Bitter Education of Vargas Llosa [link], by Alma Guillermoprieto, which was both a book review, of A Fish in the Water [link], Llosa's account of running for President in Peru, and a loose précis of the political situation in Peru at the time. And, even though the facts of the matter have dated, the article is still, I think, an informative one:
[...]Perhaps saying that I love my country is not true. I often loathe it,” Vargas Llosa states in his memoir. And, “Although I was born in Peru, my vocation is that of a cosmopolitan and an expatriate who has always detested nationalism.” This, in the course of explaining how he happened to decide to run for president. Can such a man triumph in politics? Should he?
[...] Barnstorming the country, addressing Amazonian Indians in Iquitos, Quechua-speakers in the Andes, mulattoes and mestizos on the coast, everywhere braving crowds he had no appetite for (“I had to accomplish miracles to conceal my dislike for that sort of semihysterical pushing and pulling, kissing, pinching and pawing”), Vargas Llosa eschewed facile promises in his speeches and campaigned instead holding aloft the banner of reason. He might have known better, but, after all, rationalism, and cordura—level-headedness—had been the ropes he had used to pull himself out of his own Peruvian chasm: although A Fish in the Water skips over the author’s middle years, we know that by the time he gets into politics the disorder of his earlier life has been replaced by an orderly contemplative existence in which reading and discussion have their scheduled places. Why now should he not offer the same salvation generously to his compatriots? In the early part of the memoir he describes his extended flirtation with Marxism and the world of clandestine conspiracy so beloved of the Latin American left, but rationally, over the years, he had concluded that Marxist movements were doomed. He had evolved into a neoliberal who admired Mrs. Thatcher, and it was as a Thatcherite neoliberal that he campaigned in Peru.
[...] One hardly knows whether to wince or laugh at his description of some of his rallies. Addressing the country’s largest labor confederation toward the end of his campaign, he instructs his listeners on the evils of job security, which make it impossible for Peru “to attract investment and stimulate the creation of new businesses and the growth of ones that already existed.” The workers who benefit from job security are a tiny minority, he points out gently to his audience—to those very beneficiaries, that is, of job security, men and women clinging with their nails to the last raft in the economic shipwreck. “It was not a happenstance that the countries with the best job opportunities in the world, such as Switzerland or Hong Kong or Taiwan, had the most flexible labor laws,” he tells them. And then he adds, describing this scene, “I don’t know if we convinced anyone.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guy Davenport

Another extract from a fascinating interview I found in the Paris Review archives, this time with Guy Davenport [link]:


Is it the application of the theory that you take issue with?


No, I think what upsets me is that I know good and well that these academics are sheep following the sheep in front of them, and I doubt if the people who throw around the names Bakhtin and Foucault have really read more than four or five pages of either or understand what's going on. The French adore ideas. They've been playing with them since Thomas Aquinas. They sit in their cafés, and the more outrageous, the more clever you can be (like Derrida or whoever else at the moment), the more you are loved. But they don't really take these things seriously. The young French student at the Sorbonne, excited by Lacan and Bakhtin and whatnot, his whole idea is to outdo these people, you know, in two or three years to publish his own book, explaining that everything we think is rightside up is actually upside down. Americans don't possess this sense of play.



Let's move on to your own books. You have experimented quite a bit with formal design—the stanzaic paragraph, for instance. I think for one of your books you actually inked in rows of identical black rectangles on sheets of paper and wrote only what would fit inside them. Can you talk about what draws you to these arbitrary constraints?


Not unless I talk for the rest of the day. About abstraction as scaffolding in any work of art, about the Dogon concept of toy (the ideal shape of a house, or village, of which the actual house, or village, is an approximation). The Shaker “love to lay a good foundation in the line of outward things.” When Albert Barnes was showing his collection of paintings to Horace Pippin, Pippin said, “That Matisse, he put the red in the wrong place.” At a showing of Clouzot's film about Picasso at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, a child's voice could be heard in the audience: “Mama! He's ruining it!” Such sound criticism is hard to come by, and has absolute authority. So there are all sorts of comments about works of art. Maurice Leenhardt said that the intelligible is first of all beautiful. I would say interesting or attractive. I doubt that there are more than two people who can read the first page of Ulysses; that is, give an account as to what's going on, who's doing what, yet it's a beautiful, magical page with as much on it as Rimbaud could pack into a poem. No illustrator could paint it, nor a film depict it. It is a new way of writing, approached afterwards only by Eudora Welty. For all Pound's saying that Joyce's technique was une affaire de cuisine, it's ultimately the technique that's making it all beautiful. Getting the red in the right place.



What about this interest in utopias, which is everywhere in your work?


I don't think it's there, in the abstract. My interest is in Fourier, who I think was one of the great analytical sociologists of all time. Practically everything Freud got hold of Fourier had already divined, and drawn different conclusions. So I became fascinated, and this percolated and percolated. Every once in a while, of an evening, I will take down one of the volumes and read around in it. You always find delightful things, such as parades of four-year-olds riding on German shepherds.

Fourier's great word was harmonie, and his perception was that we have made a mess of what we had absolutely no need to make a mess of, that we can live far more successfully in human relations. First of all we must decide on a unit in which to live. He said the family is a suffocating, murderous unit; a biological unit, he called it, for begetting and feeding children, which could be done much better by a “phalanx.” He approved of all the vices. Greed, for instance, could be a marvelous thing. He saw that religion was a childish myth. Yet the Harmony had a church in it, for those people who wanted a church. The church was facing a theater. He felt that somehow the church and the theater were answering the same need. The thing that made him so interesting to nineteenth-century Americans was work. Work should be play; work should be the supreme joy.

He's a very complex person, and of course he is not coherent. There is really no scholar who has sat down and tried to figure it all out. Tony Vidler, a professor at Cooper Union, came to visit once; we had a lovely time talking about Fourier's architecture, which Vidler says is the most revolutionary ever known. Vidler had been to the Bibliothèque nationale, and they'd shown him a room of cardboard boxes. In the boxes were manuscripts of Fourier's, unpublished, unread. They showed him a page that laid out which houseplants you were to put in your windows in the Harmony, 365 days a year. For each day he'd prescribed the appropriate plant.

The whole world, he said, is a correspondence. And everything comes in a chord. The chord contains eight items. The center of the chord is the pivot. At one end of the chord is the avant-garde, and at the other end is the arrière-garde. In a fruit chord, let's say, you have at one end the ripest golden pear, and at the other end is the quince, which never ripens. It remains as hard as a rock. And all of these corresponded with personalities (I've know plenty of quinces). Fourier felt that monogamy is simply one mode in the sexuality chord; I don't think it's even in the middle. At one end is what he calls the butterfly, the man who has to have a different woman every hour. And at the other end is chastity, which he correctly saw as not a denial of sexuality but another of its modes. For Fourier there were people who could live a life perfectly satisfied with a best friend, with whom they'd play checkers, and there was a place for this as there was for prostitution, which he considered a noble trade.

Fourier was constantly saying, “I do not want to change human nature,” while saying under his breath, “because it's impossible.” He simply wanted to accommodate it. Everybody has different desires. And in the Harmony, you have a society that is either tolerant or wise enough to allow for that. One of the really satisfying dimensions is his belief that all children are geniuses, and that in the world we live in we systematically stifle the little Beethovens and Einsteins. But in the Harmony their talents would be spotted, and the little Beethoven would be given a violin. Every Harmony is run by a twelve-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl, and they have to retire at thirteen. I think he was right that at twelve the mind is as bright and intelligent as it will ever be.

He was very, very lonely. There are people who say he had no sex life at all apart from masturbation. He lived with his plants and his cats, and was desperately poor. He worked as a clerk, like Bartleby, in Lyon. He died in Paris, where he had begun to collect disciples, including lots of young socialists. Both Marx and Lenin read Fourier.


The Paris Review interviews are always prefaced by a short, idiosyncratic biography written by the interviewer (I assume), which act as a introduction. Guy Davenport's profile is so good that I want to repost it here:
On first picking up a copy of Guy Davenport's Tatlin! (1970), his first of eight volumes of stories and the book that initiated the major (and ongoing) phase of his career, you find on the cover a lovely, rather conventional telescopic photograph of the moon, three-quarters full, its craters and mares starkly discernible. Yet when you flip the book over, before so much as cracking the spine, you read—beneath a photograph of the author seated at a Greek ruin, his face, like that of the moon, partly obscured by shadow—this note: “front jacket: The Face of the Moon, 'painted from nature' by John Russell, c. 1795. Birmingham, The City Museum and Art Gallery.”
You will have stumbled, unwittingly though not by accident, onto the author's method, for this is a writer who, in the classic modernist style, is incessantly sending us back, reminding us that what seems newest is old, if not beyond time, and that what appears, or is, most radical in art and culture often has for its source “the archaic,” as Davenport has said in a previous interview, “the dawn of things, before betrayals and downstream mud.”
Davenport has published forty-six books of fiction, essays, and poetry, not counting the many to which he has contributed chapters and introductions, and for fifty years he has supplied magazines and newspapers with articles and reviews. He has translated Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Anakreon, Poliziano's Stanze, the Mimes of Herondas, and in his fiction one can find translations of Rilke, Cocteau, and others. He is also an accomplished visual artist. Six years ago Erik Anderson-Reece's A Balance of Quinces, a study of Davenport's graphics and paintings (and one of the most useful and perceptive introductions to his writing), was published by New Directions.
Despite threats of giving up writing after his receipt of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1992, Davenport has continued during the past decade to generate, if less prolifically, short stories and essays. His books have never been widely read, by popular standards, but they tend to be deeply read by those lucky enough to find them; he is perhaps as close to being a cult writer as one can come while having been singled out for praise by George Steiner in The New Yorker, yet his work has none of the thinness of the cult writer. For all its strangeness, it seems destined to endure.
Born in South Carolina in 1927 and having lived the past thirty-nine years in Lexington, Kentucky, Davenport has spent most of his life in the American South, but it would be hard to imagine a writer for whom the regional tag embraced by, or forced upon, so many of his contemporaries is less appropriate. His milieu has always been the world, his period the span of time between the Aurignacian, when the first daubs of pigment were applied at Lascaux, and this morning; his characters come from wherever people have fought to assert feeling and intelligence against tyranny and “illiteracy,” a word that Davenport repeatedly uses in the somewhat specialized sense of cultural oblivion. These characters, with few exceptions, are artists and philosophers, but Davenport's heroes are most often the crushed, the silenced, the annihilated, those whose triumph consists solely in the survival of some fragment of their ideas or of their example.
A painterly perception is one of the constants in his writing. It is Davenport who notices that if you set any of James Joyce's books on its spine and let gravity open it to the center, you will find a verbal allusion to “The House that Jack Built” and thereby (as Davenport shows) to the Labyrinth. It's he who writes, in A Balthus Notebook (a short volume singled out by the painter himself as “an exception among the texts about him” for its sharp, non-moralistic eye), that “in all of Balthus I find no clocks.” He is a master of the idiomatic sentence that seems commonsensical until it is read with the concentration that went into shaping it, at which point it reveals its depths, as when he writes, in the postscript to his Twelve Stories, “Making things is so human that psychology and philosophy have gotten nowhere in trying to account for it.” Another recurrent Davenport theme: that what is most essential to humanity lies at the point furthest from conventional scrutiny, where it remains inaccessible to minds bent on categorizing and, in the end, controlling it—safe, and sacred, in its unknowability.
This interview took place over the telephone and during three evenings in front of the fireplace at Davenport's house in Lexington, throughout which he drank black coffee and smoked Marlboro Reds, “not inhaling.” His tomcat, Ejnar (the name reflecting Davenport's confessed “Danophilia, or -mania,” a regular feature of his work) spent the hours in Davenport's lap or weaving through his legs. The living room is well described by Erik Anderson-Reece as “a monument to high modernism.” Books and paintings go from floor to ceiling, and several times during our conversations Davenport suddenly popped up from his chair, pulling down a book from one of the shelves in order to illustrate a point. Off to the right, as one enters the door, is an open study containing a table built according to a Rietveld design, on which sits an electric typewriter. Also in the study is the color copier used by Davenport in making his illustrated letters, a custom he borrowed from his old correspondent, James Laughlin. (The first page of a letter from Davenport will typically have, in the place of letterhead, a photograph or drawing—either one of his own or an image from somewhere that has interested him—followed by a short caption expanding on or explaining it.) 
A politely but stubbornly private man, Davenport's reluctance to express himself publicly other than in his work could account for the relatively few published interviews with him. Frequently, when some question strayed too close to what he deemed personal, he would interrupt by saying, matter-of-factly, “I thought we were talking about my work,” a boundary that was respected throughout. “Live unknown” (Epicurus) is one of his mottoes. Suffice it to say that he is not married but has been sharing his life for the past thirty years with Bonnie Jean Cox, whose name pops up occasionally in the books. He maintains a vigorous and far-flung correspondence. Davenport's tone in conversation tends to be not pedantic but didactic, as befits a man who made his living lecturing to undergraduates. In spite of that, he does suffer fools, as demonstrated by his graciousness and cooperation during the months it took to complete this interview.