Posts Tagged ‘literature in translation’

Things are quiet round here because I am reading War and Peace and not much else this month. It is, of course, wondrous and absorbing in the best way; I will be lucky this year if I read another book as good as this one. April is the cruelest month, a month full of difficult anniversaries, but Tolstoy is a fine antidote. Bakhtin hated Tolstoy for being monolithic, and while the thinly-veiled Tolstoys-by-another-name that populate his books are a little obvious it’s never stopped me from loving them (Levin!). Actually, the monolithic surety of Tolstoy’s worldview is part of what I love about reading him. Everything feels concrete, fully-realized, nourishing. It seems a slight to describe anyone as a mere character–they feel like people. In just a few sentences Tolstoy can capture something essential about a person, as in this very early description of Prince Vassily and salon hostess Anna Pavlovna:

Prince Vassily always spoke lazily, the way an actor speaks a role in an old play. Anna Pavlovna Scherer, on the contrary, despite her forty years, was brimming with animation and impulses.

Being an enthusiast had become her social position, and she sometimes became enthusiastic even when she had no wish to, so as not to deceive the expectations of people who knew her. The restrained smile that constantly played on Anna Pavlovna’s face, though it did not suit her outworn features, expressed, as it does in spoiled children, a constant awareness of her dear shortcoming, which she did not wish, could not, and found no need to correct.

I’ve known people just like this! I just didn’t realize it, would never have thought to understand them in this way, until I met Anna Pavlovna.

He’s wonderful at the more sprawling character introductions, too. I am enamoured with Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky (with all of the Bolkonskys, really), who, the footnotes inform me, is modeled on Tolstoy’s own grandfather:

He used to say that there were only two sources of human vice:  idleness and superstition; and that there were only two virtues:  activity and intelligence. He occupied himself personally with his daughter’s upbringing, and to develop the two chief virtues in her, gave her lessons in algebra and geometry and portioned out her whole life among constant studies. He himself was constantly occupied, now with writing his memoirs, now with higher mathematical calculations, now with turning snuff boxes on a lathe, now with working in the garden and supervising the construction work that never ceased on his estate. As the main condition for activity was order, so the order in his way of life was brought to the utmost degree of precision. His coming to the table was performed under the same invariable conditions, and not only at the same hour, but at the same minute. With the people around him, from his daughter to the servants, the prince was brusque and invariably demanding and thus, without being cruel, inspired a fear and respect for himself such as the cruelest of men would not find it easy to obtain. Though he was retired and now had no importance in state affairs, every governor of the province in which the prince’s estate lay considered it his duty to call on him and, like the architect, the gardener, or Princess Marya, to wait at the appointed hour for the prince to come out to the high-ceilinged waiting room. And each person in the waiting room experienced the same feeling of respect and even fear at the moment when the immensely high door to the study opened and revealed the small figure of the old man, in a powdered wig, with small dry hands and gray beetling brows, which sometimes, when he frowned, hid the brightness of his intelligent and youthfully bright eyes.

Perhaps–beyond just plain delightful cadence–what makes these descriptions seem so good to me is the constant presence of social context. Prince Bolkonsky is eccentric but not unbelievable; he is the opposite of so many modern characters who are little more than a bundle of quirks vibrating neurotically in a void, disconnected from everyone. How a person interacts with and exists within their environment–physical and social–is bound up in a first description off them. Look, the book says, here is the world. And here is a person within that world. And here is the web that connects this person to all other people. Sometimes, as with poor Anna Pavlovna, the interpersonal world enacts distortions upon a personality; sometimes, as with Prince Nikolai, it’s the opposite. But it is always there, intertwined throughout everything.

I would not say that every author should make Society as much a theme as Tolstoy does, but I do wish that a more acute awareness of its centrality to human existence were found in modern fiction. I wonder why it is so unusual–something about technology and the narcissism of postmodernism, perhaps? (It is only going to get worse.) I digress. Tonight, while trying half-seriously to convince a friend that she should pick up the book as medicine for her own April, I said that I need someone to gossip with about the characters. This is part a joke but also quite true in that my primary impulse at any plot point is to call someone up to tut-tut over a disastrous marriage or form pacts of vendetta against certain people. I get like this with long books sometimes, sure. But Tolstoy particularly invites this response; the careful social positioning of everyone invites it because it ensnares the reader as well. It’s easy to feel complicit in the dynamics of those St. Petersburg soirees. This is interesting, but perhaps a bit too easy–is this why Tolstoy can be a comfort read whereas Dostoevsky would never serve that purpose? It really is all so easy. One never forgets where the characters stand in relation to one another, where Tolstoy stands in relation to them, and where you, the reader, are meant to be positioned by the author’s firm hands.


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In December I received a postcard from my brilliant and well-read friend L. One-lined and cryptic, it read only, “When will Javier Marias win the Nobel Prize?”

Because I am merely a pallid striver in emulation of L.’s wideranged intellect, my immediate response was, “Who?” After google-educating myself–Marias is a Spanish novelist, translator, and lauded op-ed journalist; he counts among his admirers the illustrious Coetzee and Rushdie; Scott Esposito chose one of his books for his 2010 group read; he is in fact frequently bandied about as a strong candidate for the Nobel though less than half of his novels have been translated into English–I called her immediately to confess my deficit and request a recommendation on where to start. After lengthy rhapsodizing and extolling the quality of everything, she finally offered up a title:  A Heart So White.

Because I could not find any to buy locally and am disinclined to read difficult fiction in e-format, I turned to the library, which took its characteristically plodding time in procuring a copy; as a result, it was not til February that I held the book in my hands. Once in my possession, the book took a remarkably long time for me to read through, not because it was bad or dull or overly difficult, but because I kept getting caught in rereading loops that propelled me back to the beginning:  an unusual experience, for I am typically a plowingly linear reader on my first go through a book. Something about this one–a labrynthal quality of the prose, perhaps, or just half-terrified overidentification with the narrator–burrowed alarmingly into my brain and pulled me into its world. I loved it. This is the type of reading experience that doesn’t happen to me very often as an adult and any book that provides it is immediately propelled into an exalted category.

At its outset, A Heart So White seems, at first, to be a mystery of the sort that delves into the uncovering of sordid family secrets. It begins, hauntingly, with the unwanted image of a suicide:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra, and aimed her father’s gun at her heart …When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralysed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate

It’s a devastating opening, beautifully done, balanced tautly between the apathetic confusion of the servants, the polite horror of the luncheon’s guests, and the incomprehension of the no-longer-a-girl’s family. The death itself, the body, is described closely, but what remains strongest in my memory are the small details of the surrounding scene:  an ice-cream cake brought out by the maid who has not realized the occurrence of any tragedy; the father with his mouth still full of food, unable to swallow or spit, as he stands above his daughter’s body. It is all so utterly vivid and heartbreaking that I still am surprised that the whole episode is barely eight pages in my copy. These details are half a ploy, an aspect of the narrator’s stated desire not to know this tale, a conscious effort to slide the gaze away from the dead young woman.

I reread this opening chapter many times, as I’ve said; in part, I kept coming back to it as an anchor, a touchstone, to remind myself of what the novel might intend. I am glad that I did, that I ingrained this stark opening deeply into my mind; otherwise I might have been caught by the radically different narrative tone of the rest of the book and lost the thread of mystery that, despite many discursions, proved to be the frame of the book. On page nine the historical account ends and focus is turned the “I” of the first sentence:  Juan, the nephew of the dead young woman, is a thirty-four-year old interpreter fluent in four languages. He has just been married–a point of great surprise to every other character, who all consider him to be a natural life-long bachelor–and he is on his honeymoon. Though he believes that he loves his wife, Luisa, he is shadowed by an inexplicable sense of dread, a conviction that something in his marriage is fated to go terribly wrong. Ill omens lurk everywhere, a sense of dread and danger underlies actions and thoughts:  will young Luisa fall prey to these vague threats? will Juan? is Juan suffering under a family curse, or are the threats manifested from his own inability to commit to his wife? will their relationship survive, or are they caught in a spiral, doomed to repeat the tragic history of Juan’s parents?

This description makes the book sound quite plotful; I assure you, it is not. These questions are present, yes, and they are addressed and resolved satisfactorily by the end, but they very quickly receded from my interest, replaced by the solipsistic, stream-of-conscious fretting that is Juan’s primary reaction to the various taut encounters that make up the book. Though the book takes its title from Macbeth, from a line Lady Macbeth says to her husband after helping him to conceal his crime — “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white,” a reference that was my first glimmer that guilt and complicity are two of Marias’ major themes — Juan reminds me of Hamlet in his indecision, his passivity, his propensity to react to every situation with a hasty retreat into soliloquies of paralyzed anxiety. Juan is obsessed with the transience of experience and, as a translator, seems compelled to hear and understand and remember; at the same time, he is tormented by the futility of this impulse, by the subjectivity of reality:

I have a tendency … to want to understand everything that people say and everything I hear, both at work and outside, even at a distance, even if it’s in one of the innumerable languages I don’t know, even if it’s an indistinguishable murmur or an imperceptible whisper, even if it would be better that I didn’t understand and what’s said is not intended for my ears, or is said precisely so that I won’t catch it. I can disconnect, but only in certain irresponsible states of mind or by making a great effort, and that’s why sometimes I’m glad that murmurs really are indistinguishable and whispers imperceptible and that there are so many languages that are strange and impenetrable to me, because then I can rest.

This is a book of eavesdropping and voyeurism, of conversations heard through walls, stray sly comments that may or may not be purposefully dropped, of correspondences consumed by characters other than their intended recipients. I kept thinking of Bakhtin, the literary theorist I spent the most time with in college, and his theories of dialogism:  if ever a book is highly dialogic this one is; it’s a book to make me long for academia. The mystery unfolds through these layers of dialogism with a sharp interpersonal violence; all information is unwelcome to our beleaguered Juan. Despite his self-description as pathologically eager to absorb every piece of information, Juan’s first sentence avowal that he does “not want to know” is a more apt description of his existence throughout the book; much of the tension comes from his unwillingness to say or do anything at all. I am reminded of Hamlet in Juan because his passivity is elevated beyond a mere character trait to a sort of frantic existential angst:  he is tormented by the dialectic between wanting to understand and the futility of communication; the desire to record and remember, to create a coherent narrative of a life, juxtaposed against the pointless repetition and subjectivity of existence; the inherent instability of both personality and reality:

Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing that happens happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, and even the most monotonous and routine of existences, by its apparent repetitiveness, gradually cancels itself out, negates itself, until nothing is anything and no one is anyone they were before, and the weak wheel of the world is pushed along by forgetful beings who hear and see and know what is not said, never happens, is unknowable and unverifiable. What takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told. We pour all our intelligence and our feelings and our enthusiasm into the task of discriminating between things that will all be made equal, if they haven’t already been, and that’s why we’re so full of regrets and lost opportunities, of confirmations and reaffirmations and opportunities grasped, when the truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost. Or perhaps there never was anything.

The above passage recurs throughout the book, elaborated each time with new–but always thematically coherent, linked through their relation to the larger Macbethian idea of action, inaction, and personal responsibility–questions and worries. I expect that some readers might find this repetition tiresome and annoying, but I loved it; it is a symphonic, polyphonic buildup, utterly accurate to my experience of this kind of ongoing obsessive anxiety. It is, to say the least, very intense, but luckily the book has some genuinely delightful episodes (my favourite: a wonderful scene–the first time that Juan and Luisa, also an interpreter and a highly respected one, meet while sharing a job–of willful misinterpretation between two political dignitaries) to add levity to the mixture of fretfulness and dark plot. Also–and luckily, because Juan really is a putz however much I might identify with his maunderings–there are some great side characters:  there is Ranz, Juan’s father, debonaire and firm in his withholding of information, cultured and charming despite his tragic past and his scurrilous business ties; Custardoy the Younger, an art forger, undesirable family friend, lecher and vulgarian and lifelong nemesis to Juan; Berta, Juan’s friend, former lover and fellow translator, a lonely expatriate adept at manipulating her hapless ex-lover into collusion. Even Luisa, the young wife, emerges as an interesting character, though this is almost accidental:  if there is an ebb point to my enthusiasm over this book it is in her characterization and that of their marriage, both of which are weak. I am inclined to think this an intentional choice, meant to illustrate something about Juan and his perhaps congenital inability to exist within a romantic relationship; even so, I do wish that there were more reasons given for their marriage beyond basic commonalities of both enjoying movies and cigarettes in bed:  the book puts forth an interesting, if cynical, theory on the structure of emotional obligation that underlies every relationship, and I would have liked more information to determine how Juan and Luisa fit into this rubric (particularly since it’s a system that Juan, at least, seems to accept as fundamentally valid).

In conclusion:  a wonderful, affecting book, interestingly structured, darkly compelling. I am absolutely eager to read more Marias:  I have already taken steps to get copies of All Souls and The Dark Back of Time, which I intend to read consecutively. I will give it a few months before I pick him up again, though; if his others get into my head the way that this one did I might not be able to bear it.

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The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah

This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished. Contrary to what most reader reviews suggest–I am thinking mostly of goodreads, where most readers note dutifully the importance of being educated on a forgotten corner of World War 2 history–this is not a Holocaust novel; this is a novel about grief; about a small boy who has lost all of his brothers and who, through a series of tragedies, loses the stand-in brother, a friend who happens to be a Jewish refugee imprisoned in bureaucratic stasis on the island of Mauritius. It is indeed set in a forgotten pocket of the Holocaust narrative, but Appanah, I believe, makes a very conscious decision throughout most of the book to distance it from the genre. (I say most because the ending, the last few pages, disrupt this impression by making the historical context quite explicit. I hated the ending.) And thank goodness that she does. Holocaust in literature is a quandary best avoided except by minds of the highest order, writers of the finest talent and most unimpeachable integrity.* Appanah sidesteps the problem by employing the well-used trope of “adult narrator looking back on and retelling childhood events,” a narrative frame that is common enough to raise skepticism in this reader, but which may well have saved the book for me. It provided the very necessary perspective of memory and adulthood that saved it from falling into that most sentimentally precarious of genres, that of the Holocaust novel:  through the aged eyes of adult Raj, his childhood friend David is an enigma, a total Other; language barriers and the oblivion of childhood prevented young Raj from ever seeing his friend or knowing his suffering–and grown Raj realizes this and is repeatedly, physically tormented by his failure to ever know this most precious of friends, this surrogate brother. I took Raj’s retrospective realization as to how little he understood David’s situation as signifying the ineffable horror of the Holocaust, how it is impossible for anyone who has not directly experienced it to come close to understanding what it is like; that Appanah wove the acknowledgement of this impossibility into the plot is a mark in its favor. This strategy–an old man wracked by guilt over his failure to understand, and by understanding save, a young Jewish refugee–could have been heavy-handed, but it worked for me.

Rather, it worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me:  the last few pages have a  stilted summary of historical events, unnecessarily shoehorned in, followed by a pat avowal to remember and pass on the story to future generations. This jerked the whole text back into the territory of bad Holocaust novels and the cliches they trade in. I would have preferred an ending more in line with the fraught guilt and sense of lifelong grief that characterizes the rest of the novel–the one it has quite undermines any emotional force that the book had until its close. So long as I can willfully pretend not to have read the last few pages I can appreciate this book.

*I draw a line of distinction between Holocaust fiction and true accounts, of course–everyone should read Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel–but my unease about fiction in this subgenre is due in part to the proliferation of false accounts which do great harm to historical truth, obviously by giving ammunition to deniers, but also simply by blurring the lines between fiction and reality in every mind. I cannot go so far as to agree with Adorno’s famous moratorium against creating art after the Holocaust; I am too much a romantic believer in the necessity of literature to go that far. But it is a difficult area, and books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offend me, and are primarily what I am thinking of when I say how glad I am that The Last Brother is not of their ilk. I won’t continue in this digression–it’s awfully complicated to express well–but I refer anyone interested to the always-eloquent  Cynthia Ozick:  her essays “Who Owns Anne Frank?” and “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” both found in the collection Quarrel & Quandary, have informed my thoughts on this matter; I don’t fully agree with her–she takes an extreme stance–but the bones of the argument have always struck me as sound and I look upon the subgenre with eyes tinted by suspicion.

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