Friday, May 29, 2015

I don't want you to think you've overlooked anything: translating a Kafka story

Before the Law

a short story by Franz Kafka (translated by S. Bailey)

Before the law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and begs admittance to the law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant entry now. The man thinks this over and then asks if this means he'll be allowed to enter later. "It's possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not now." The gateway to the law stands open and the doorkeeper stands to one side of it. The man from the country bends over and looks through the gateway to see what lies within. As the doorkeeper notices this, he laughs and says, "If you're so tempted, go ahead and try to get in despite my prohibition. But take note: I'm powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. In one chamber after another there are doorkeepers, each more powerful than the last. I can no longer even bear the sight of the third doorkeeper." The man from the country has not expected such difficulties; the law, he thought, should be open and accessible to everyone. But he now looks over the doorkeeper more closely, taking in his fur overcoat, his large pointed nose, his long sparse black beard like a Tatar, and he decides he'd rather wait until he has received permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives the man a footstool and allows him to seat himself to one side of the door. There he sits, for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, tiring the doorkeeper with his requests. Often the doorkeeper conducts brief examinations of the man, asking about his home and many other things, but the questions are asked in the disinterested manner of powerful men, and in the end he only says once again that the man from the country cannot yet enter. The man from the country has equipped himself with many useful things on his journey, and no matter how valuable these things are, he offers them to the doorkeeper as bribes. To be sure, the doorkeeper takes all these things, but he always then says, "I'm only taking it because I don't want you to think you've overlooked anything." The man observes the doorkeeper without interruption as the years pass. He forgets about the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the only impediment to his admittance to the law. In the first years he curses his bad luck in a loud and thoughtless way, but when he is old he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childlike, and during the long years spent in study of the doorkeeper he gets to know even the fleas in the doorkeeper's fur overcoat, and he begs the fleas to help him change the doorkeeper's mind. In the end his eyesight weakens and he doesn't know if it is really getting dark around him, or if his eyes deceive him. Probably now he can only see, in all the darkness, a radiance that shines eternally through the door to the law. He will not live much longer now. Before his death, everything he's experienced during the time there by the door gathers together in his head to form a question, one he's not thought to ask the doorkeeper before. He waves at the doorkeeper, no longer able to move his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend over very low, as the difference in size between him and the man from the country have become very great. "What do you want to know?" the doorkeeper asks. "You are insatiable." "Everyone strives toward the law," the man says, "so why is it that in all these years no one else has ever come to demand admittance?" The doorkeeper sees that the man is coming to his end, and in order to overcome the man's diminished hearing, he roars his answer: "No one else can come here for admittance, because this entrance was intended for you alone. Now I can go and close it."
I translated this very short story into English during my lunch break. Why? Because I am interested in the process of translation, especially from German into English. I have an idea, you see, for a novel about a translator who will be hired to produce an English version of a German philosophy text. She will have to meet and interview the author, who speaks no English, in order to understand the philosophical terminology. Hijinks will ensue. Anyway, it seems to me that one good way to approach writing a translator character is to try my hand at translating texts. Hence this business. What interests me most is the way something can be perfectly clear in the original language, but one may still struggle to express it in English, because concepts are not grammar+syntax. The languages encapsulate concepts in different ways. I have noticed this with Russian and (as I dimly recall from my youth) Latin as well. When I get to it, my translator book will be interesting to write. I am sure I've made some errors in the Kafka translation. Some of my paraphrases may be less exact than some people might like, which was another quite interesting discovery.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"this conjugal repugnance" in Alberto Moravia's Contempt.

The thing you should know first about Contempt is that it's a comic novel, and I am reminded of the tone of Fellini's films from the 1950s (particularly Le notti di Cabiria). An insecure young married man who thinks he is better than what life gives him reads the world through his own self-doubt and secret knowledge that he's actually not much like his imaginary perfect self. He tries to convince himself that the world is contemptible because he is certain that the world holds him in contempt. Blind to his own unpleasant character, he rubs everyone the wrong way and blames them for the friction. That's Moltoni, the protagonist.

Despite what you may read on the NYRB website, Contempt is not really a "diagnosis of a modern marriage in collapse." The author himself tells you this during the middle of the novel, where the married life of Homer's Ulysses is discussed. The protagonist's marriage is not in collapse so much as the protagonist has not developed the ability to see the world as it is. There's a splendid irony in all of these scenes where the meaning of "The Odyssey" is argued. Rheingold (more about that name in a minute), a German film director now working in Italy, is collaborating with our hero Moltoni to write a film script for a new version of "The Odyssey." Moltoni, who spends nearly every waking minute attempting to psychoanalyze his wife in order to find out why she no longer loves him, maintains that the strength and beauty of "The Odyssey" lies in the way Homer believed in the natural, real world, and how the story of Ulysses returning home to Penelope after ten years is told in an unironic, non-metaphorical manner. Ulysses says what he means, and is trying to get back to the wife he loves. Rheingold, who is blunt and all surface as a personality, reads Homer through the lens of Freud; he argues that Ulysses left Ithaca in the first place to get away from Penelope, that it took him ten years to get home because he did not want to get home, and the whole of "The Odyssey," the monsters and gods and storms at sea, are all imaginary, are the dreamlife of Ulysses as he works through his marital issues. Contempt, you see, is Rheingold's "Odyssey," with Moltoni as Ulysses. Sorry, spoilers.

Moravia's prose is elegant and mostly unadorned (with the important exception of his writing about the sea during the "Odyssey" sections, where Moravia gives us lush, poetic prose reminiscent of Homer), but that does not mean Contempt is a simple narrative. There is a lot going on here, and there are several levels of symbolism, though they all seem to point to the unmasking of Moltoni as an unreliable narrator. Take the name of the German film director as an example. "Das Rheingold" is of course the first part of Wagner's "Ring" opera cycle, and central to the plot of Wagner's "Rheingold" is a dwarf smith who loses all faith in love, steals the property of the gods and then goes on to enslave his fellow smiths. "Rheingold" as a character name points to this theme shared by "The Ring" and Contempt: the subhuman craftsman, unaware of his own ugliness, is rebuffed by women and turns against the world, etc. I pause to consider that some of Moravia's symbolism in the middle of the book might be a bit heavy-handed. Maybe.

I should also mention that Contempt is not a novella; by my calculations, it's about 85,000 words long, making it a good proper novel. In the NYRB edition it's printed on 250 pages in very small type; any other publisher would probably use a larger font and wider leading and the novel would be 350-400 pages long.

And yet, even being a full-length novel, Contempt is a quick read. The writing is straightforward and direct, and has a great deal of forward momentum. I found myself reading it in great long chunks of 75 pages or so. Moravia really pulls the reader along at a swift pace, through a story with few actual plot points. Which is to say, this is a page-turner that does not rely on plot at all. That's some trick.

I still have about 50 pages of the book to read. Tomorrow (hopefully, if there's time) I'll post the excerpts I've marked in my copy that diagram some of the cracks in Moltoni's self-contradictory narrative.

A curious reader should go here for more about Contempt.

Bonus trivia: The Italian title of the novel is Il disprezzo. "disprezzo" is related to "prezzo," Italian for "cost" and also for "damage," a subtlety of meaning not present in the English title.

Friday, May 22, 2015

cartwheeling and bouncing

I continue to read Chaucer. Yes, Geoffrey, I get it: men are violently jealous and women are unfaithful. Find another tune to sing, please. I have read four hundred pages of this, with almost another hundred remaining. I have Chaucer fatigue, possibly.

I'm also reading a partially dramatized account of Whymper's first ascent of the Matterhorn, of which 2015 is the 150th anniversary. 3,000 people climb the Matterhorn annually these days. There are apparently fixed ropes all the way to the summit. Four of the seven members of Whymper's team died on the descent, their roped-together bodies tumbling down the mountain, cartwheeling and bouncing off the immense flat rock faces. Horrible. The expedition created a mountaineering craze that endures to this day.

Other reading includes some German language short stories by Berthold Brecht and Stefan Zweig, good stuff. I surprise myself that I'm not reading anything Chekhov related right now. I am less surprised to discover that I'm not working on anything in the way of writing. I have a big revision waiting in the wings, but I want to finish reading a number of things before I start on that project.

Not related to reading or writing, I guess, is the discovery of the so-called "fear of missing out" phenomenon, FOMO as the kids call it. I do not suffer from this. I didn't watch any of the important television shows over the last decade, I haven't read any of the latest important novels or nonfiction books of the moment, and I don't know who any of the pop stars are right now. I am pretty sure that whatever I'm missing out on is not worth a pin, or a thimble's full of anxiety.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"It might be well to emphasize the difference between an expert and inexpert metaphysician" Reading Ezra Pound on reading

I stumbled across a copy of The ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound's 1934 literature "textbook," while I was looking for something else at a local used book shop. I bought the book because when I opened it at random, I found this passage, which I will quote at length:
When you start searching for 'pure elements' in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1. Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2. The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3. The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn't do the job quite as well.

4. Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is 'healthy.' For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante's time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare's time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.

5. Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn't really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn't be considered as 'great men' or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.

6. The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able 'to see the wood for the trees.' He may know what he 'likes.' He may be a 'compleat book-lover,' with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows or to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is 'breaking with convention' than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favorite bad writer.
It's that last sentence that sold the book, of course. I'd like to think that I'm a Number 3 writer, but I'm certain I'm a Number 4. No matter.

So The ABC of Reading is a primer about reading, mostly reading poetry, and Pound's primary objective is to get the reader to read a lot of poetry from many sources, and learn to compare the poems against one another, and to see how (European) poetry developed along several main branches. The first half of the book is made up of aphorisms and highly-personal opinion ("In Donne's best work we find again a real author saying something he means and not simply hunting for sentiments that will fit his vocabulary."); the second half of the book is a chronological exhibition of poetry excerpts, starting with Chaucer's translation of Virgil (in Middle English) and moving slowly through time to Robert Browning. Shakespeare and the big hitters are mostly ignored because Pound assumes you can find them easily anywhere you look.

After a brief discussion of Browning, Pound talks about more contemporary writers:
From an examination of Walt [Whitman] made twelve years ago the present writer carried away the impression that there are thirty well-written pages of Whitman; he is now unable to find them.
That's funny; I laughed out loud when I read that. It goes on in a kinder vein.

There is some good stuff, some practical and insightful advice to the reader of poetry, in Pound's book. He talks about poetry from the point of view of a man who knows how to write it as well as how to read it, and Pound's theories of historical development are not full of a lot of moonshine. He takes into account that poets are real people, not "poets," neither shining mythological figures nor subhuman spirits working in service of Poetry.
More writers fail from lack of character than from lack of intelligence.

Technical solidity is not attained without at least some persistence.

The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of banknotes.

The next cause is the desire men have to tell what they don't know, or to pass off an emptiness for a fullness. They are discontented with what they have to say and want to make a pint of compassion fill up a gallon of verbiage.
Anyway, highly recommended, even if at times clearly wrongheaded and crackpotted. Amusing and edifying; the best book about literature I've read in years.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

That is not what I meant, at all

On Friday and Saturday I read (and am now rereading) a short book of poetry, The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot. Everyone already knows who Eliot is, and knows all about him, I suppose. I have only known his work through mention of it in essays and articles, and I've read the stray line here and there, but I don't believe I've ever read one of his poems before now (I've been slowly making my way through an old Norton anthology of poetry but have got no farther than Wordsworth). I picked up this book on Friday because I had a couple of hours to kill downtown before meeting Mighty Reader for a(n excellent) performance of "Othello." There's a used book store not far from the theater so I sought out something interesting in a small pocket-sized edition. Yes, those were my criteria: interesting and pocket-sized. I knew I'd buy a book of poetry, but my intended target was EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese, of which I've been for some time looking for a decent pocket edition. No such book was on the shelf on Friday afternoon, so I considered some Ezra Pound (I'm reading his 1934 "textbook" The ABCs of Reading) but didn't like the selection, and then my eye was caught by the Eliot, and I bought it. Have I wasted enough time introducing this little post? I think I have.

So everyone is likely already familiar with Mr Eliot, and I'm late for this train as usual. I had no real idea what I'd find in his poetry, and was pleasantly surprised to discover the marks of Shakespeare, Yeats, scripture, and maybe even Modernist novelists like Woolf. The poetry, the prosody, maybe I mean, is just wonderful as you all know. Eliot wrote very smooth poems, at least those in this collection are quite smooth, rolling along with one luxurious surprise after another. In general, that is, this smooth rolling along (maybe in the vein of Robert Browning's Italian-influenced verse? though I don't know of course, not really knowing poetry so much as only knowing those few poets I've read) is the shape of Eliot's poems but there are strange interruptions, shifts I don't understand into a different mode, a new tone toward the end. An example, maybe, from three-quarters of the way through "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
    “That is not it at all,
    That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Why this sudden shift to "Hamlet?" Why is the narrator--who is clearly an older man passing through or thinking back upon a neighborhood he used to frequent to visit prostitutes--suddenly declaring himself to be an Osric (no: I see now it's Polonius) character? I don't know. The poem goes on to shift to sea images, to mermaids and crabs, and I don't for the life of me understand that shift either. I have read poems which function more or less the way many personal essays function, beginning in one vein with a particular image, and then moving in a surprising turn to a new vein, giving new meaning to the original image. See many of Johnson's essays, for example. See also the Elizabethan sonnet, by gosh. But I don't get what Eliot is doing here. It's a beautiful poem, but I don't understand the formal strategy, nor the ideas emphasized at the end. And a lot of the poems in this collection baffle me in the same way. But I'm reading them over again, because I quite like the writing and the bafflement is a pleasing sort of confusion.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Now wherewith should he ever make payment, except he used his blessed instrument?

I've been reading Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales are familiar to me from the bits and bobs I read in school lo those many years ago, but I've never read the complete tales so there are some surprising aspects to Mr Chaucer's work. For example, I had read The Wife of Bath's Tale but not The Wife of Bath's Prologue. The tale is a short moral fable about a knight who learns--more or less--that the quality of a person is based on the life they live and not on their ancestry and inherited property. The prologue, on the other hand, is a long declaration by the Wife in which she defends her many marriages (five at this point) and her philosophy that a woman must rule her husband by whatever means necessary, including dishonesty.
Now hearken how I bore me properly,
All you wise wives that well can understand.
Thus shall you speak and wrongfully demand;
For half so brazenfacedly can no man
Swear to his lying as a woman can.
I say not this to wives who may be wise,
Except when they themselves do misadvise.
A wise wife, if she knows what's for her good,
Will swear the crow is mad, and in this mood
Call up for witness to it her own maid;
Because I was only given selected excerpts from the Tales to read as a wee sprat, I've been carrying around in my head the idea that Chaucer had left us a collection of 14th-century character sketches rooted in a strict medieval Christian morality. I was not, that is to say, prepared for the outright bawdiness of many of the tales. Chaucer's stories have more in common with Gargantua and Pantagruel than they have with Pilgrim's Progress. There are jokes about drinking, about sex, about adultery, about flatulence, about the corruption of the clergy, about the corruption of secular government, about sex, about sex, about drinking, and about flatulence. Toward the end of his life, Chaucer wrote an apology for having penned the Tales. "God forgive me, but at the time I thought they were funny." Words to that effect. Good stuff, well worth reading.

Monday, May 4, 2015

supporting our locals

Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day, in case you didn't know. Mighty Reader and I spent the afternoon cycling around Seattle, buying books. I confess that I'm not sure if the remaining chain bookstores in our fair city even sell books these days; whenever I glance in the window of the downtown Barnes & Noble, all I see are cards and CDs and other non-book items. I digress. It was a lovely spring day, we rode our bicycles up and down many hills, and purchased these fine items:

photo credit: Mighty Reader

Chamber of Chills is a present for someone else, I swear.

In other news, I am still not reading a novel. I continue along with various non-fiction, with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with short stories in German. We continue to put off beginning our dual reading of The Count of Monte Cristo until our between-books moments sync up. I am also not working on any writing project of my own. Soon, though. Quite soon.