26 April 2011

Spiral gears

Translating 'late' from English to French is a trap. The temptation is to translate 'I was late for work' as 'je suis arrivé tard au travail', which doesn't mean the same. You have to say 'je suis arrivé trop tard' - making it explicit that you were too late.

I've lately started watching Spiral, the English version of the French police serial Engrenages (which literally means gears). I don't know if I'm trop tard or merely tard; probably both. Despite the fact that French is my strongest foreign language, I know I wouldn't be able to follow the programme without the English subtitles: it's too fast and slangy. But, inevitably, those subtitles are sometimes a cause of annoyance.

I have sympathy for the translators. The French criminal legal system is so different from the English that you'd need footnotes to explain the role of the character Roban, a juge d'instruction. He's not quite police, not quite prosecutor, and certainly doesn't act as a judge as we know it. But surely we could cope with the fact that the leading detective is called Capitaine Berthaud. Why does she need to become a Chief Inspector in the subtitles? The most egregious act of domestication though occured when the flics needed to know the registered owner of a certain vehicle. The subtitle said the DVLA had provided the information. Again, you can understand the stress on the translator, needing to find a quick equivalent, but I can't help thinking a less specific, less Swansea-based term could have been found ('the vehicle register'?). That seemed to me to cross the line, where the next step is to change the name of the locale of the crimes from Belleville to, say, Hackney, to ease the viewer's understanding that it's a poor area with a large immigrant community.

Nevertheless, I am enjoying the programme. Capitaine Berthaud is one of the worst investigators you'll ever see, leaping to a conclusion of who the murderer is, and then focussing on any evidence that supports that view, and ignoring everything else. Which is probably just what most police detectives do, just not as blatantly.

15 April 2011


and, talking of odd books, I've reread, or at least I think I have, Austerlitz by W G Sebald. The weird thing is that I could remember very little of it, and I seriously am uncertain if I did read it before. Which is appropriate, because one of the things the book is about is memory and forgetting.

You know you're in a strange world when a book begins like this:
In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks.
That mystery - here on the part of the narrator - is very much part of Austerlitz's story: he is compelled into action by forces he doesn't understand.

Austerlitz, the central character of the book, was a Jewish Czech boy, sent to Britain by his parents before the second world war to escape the coming holocaust. Over a period of around thirty years he tells his story to the narrator, once from ignorance and then from knowledge of his own background. Simplistically you could see the story as representative of Europe's coming to terms with what happened under Hitler, or more specifically with Germany's self-awareness (a theme that's present in Sebald's Natural History of Destruction), where the narrator - largely invisible - has to be mapped on Sebald himself and by extension onto Germany (though the narrator's nationality isn't mentioned, the fact that it was written in German is important).

So, let's step back a moment into translation theory. The fact that Sebald wrote in German is significant. The German language had baggage in the second half of the twentieth century. Isn't that lost in translation? Sebald's narrator didn't have to say "I (the narrator) am German", his language did that for him. Similarly, a Spanish book would mean something different if it was written in Basque or Catalan. How does translation capture that?

Let's leave that aside for now. Austerlitz is a moving, because understated, portrayal of the effects of destruction of history, personal and racial. One day, maybe, I'll look at the way it works, at, for example, the way the photos illustrate and at the same time undermine the reality of what's told. But I'll just end this post with a sadness. On the front cover an unnamed reviewer in The Times says "Sebald is the Joyce of the 21st century". He died in December 2001.

13 April 2011

Your Face Tomorrow

Because I'm a man, I have to name someone as my favourite living novelist, a successor to Jose Saramago. It might just be Javier Marías, or this might be because I've just finished the 1500 page novel in three volumes, Your Face Tomorrow, and feel it deserves some kind of recognition.

It's a very odd book, unbelievably slow-paced for the most part. In part 2, the main character's boss, Tupra, tells him to go and find someone, without delay. Twenty pages later, after a lot of reflection on what "without delay" might mean, connote, imply, involve, require, or feel like, what memories it provokes, what memories it will bequeath to the future, on how the concept of delay may be different in Spanish and in English, and on previous occasions where the leading character, Deza, using the different versions of his first name - Jacobo, Iago, Jaime - as the situation seemed to require or demand, according to whether he was dealing with his wife, Luisa, still in Madrid, from whom the separation is a cause of grief and unresolved longing, or with his colleague, young Perex Nuix, half-Spanish, whose request for a favour we are still waiting to understand, Deza goes in search of the missing woman.

But despite that it's compelling writing. Marías handles really long sentences much better than my clumsy parody suggests. And the translation is by the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa, so she too keeps them intelligible and enjoyable. Through the third volume, it occured to me that the impression the translation gives is that the book was written to be translated into English: English is where it belongs. Marías is fluent in English, and his character, Deza, is superficially similar to himself, a Spanish exile in London, and so there is a lot of explicit reflection on the way words slip their meanings in translation. I'd be interested to see how many separate words there are in the book - how big its lexicon is. It seemed huge.

I'm not going to recommend the book. Some people, probably most, will hate it because of the pace. If you want to try a book by Marías, try Tomorrow in the battle think on me.

26 February 2011

Love poems

One of the things Don Paterson got right in his lamentable article about Shakespeare's Sonnets was that they're almost useless as love poems. Shakespeare is just too ambiguous, too complex, for simple declarations of love. (Last time I was in love, some years ago, sadly, I had to write my own sonnets. Well, I had to, once I realised my truelove's name was fourteen letters long. Don't worry, I'm not going to share the three acrostic sonnets I wrote. Not out of shame, but because they would of course reveal my truelove's name.)

The Casa Fernando Pessoa is currently running a series of 'Poemas de amor' and today's poema is by Pessoa himself (I think in his own name). Here it is:


Como te amo? Não sei de quantos modos vários
Eu te adoro mulher de olhos azuis e castos;
Amo-te co’o fervor dos meus sentidos gastos;
Amo-te co’o fervor dos meus preitos diários.

É puro o meu amor, como os puros sacrários;
É nobre o meu amor, como os mais nobres fastos;
É grande como os mar’s altíssonos e vastos
É suave como o odor de lírios solitários.

Amor que rompe enfim os laços crus do ser;
Um tão singelo amor, que aumenta na ventura;
Um amor tão leal que aumenta no sofrer;

Amor de tal feição que se na vida escura
É tão grande e nas mais vis ânsias de viver,
Muito maior será na paz da sepultura!

A sonnet, obviously, and I didn't at first realise it's a version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (obviously I recognised the first line, but thought it was a homage):

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And, realising that this is from her Sonnets from the Portuguese, I wonder how far back we can go. EBB's sonnets were not translations, but referred to Camoes.

All of which obscures the point I first set out to make: that Pessoa's poem is just as useless a love poem as any of Shakespeare's. In his version, trust me, non-lusophones, the love is more sterile and cold. EBB contemplates God choosing a separation in death; Pessoa's poem seems to actively wish for death, so that the love may be perfected.

I have to say, I think EBB's version is much better than Pessoa's and not just because of this. There seems to me to be more variety and belief in it. The latinate construction of Pessoa's last tercet, for example, is too clever. Pessoa's pretending to be in love, while EBB seems to be the real thing, AND intriguingly contrasts the human love of now with the love of "lost saints". But even in EBB you (finally) hit the problem: is it really romantic to suggest that you'll love someone even better when you're dead than you do now? Well, it works with Wuthering Heights... But the power of EBB is that she's writing about her own situation; we don't share it. Pessoa is attempting to generalise, but the poem is contaminated with a sense that marble is the best flesh.

01 February 2011

J H Prynne

Well, at least there's an excuse for reading this slowly.
Anyone who turns is more than
the same, being in desire the pivot
of what he would most want: or
in point of fact, they say,
driving through the
early morning, to go to it.

Those are the opening lines of "How It's Done", one of the earliest poems in this huge doorstep of a book. What the hell's going on? I don't know and if I were to type out the rest of the poem (21 more lines) it wouldn't help you or me.

But I'm not in despair. And the best entrance into this poetry is (inevitably) the language. That tone of voice, I can already tell, is characteristic of Prynne: the rhythm suggests a kind of scientific discourse, but detached from any obvious referent. Actually, there is one obvious referent, which is language itself. Scraps of the text seem to challenge their own construction: in the above, for example, the second three lines might be enjoying the fact that the words normally are so easy to understand, and questioning what sort of understanding that is.

Maybe - but I won't know until I've uncomprehendingly read a lot more. And it may be comforting to think of this view by Alain Robbe-Grillet:
... today, like yesterday, new works have no reason to exist unless they in their turn bring to the world new significations, still unknown to the authors themselves, significations which will only exist later, thanks to these works, and upon which society will establish new values, which in turn will be useless, or even harmful, when they are used to judge the literature then being made. (Robbe-Grillet 1961 p123)

I've left significations untranslated. I don't think it just means "meanings" - it's also the process of meaning, the way words mean something. I love the thought that new literature always has to be strange and modern: the writer always has to produce something that he or she can't explain. By the time we can explain it, it's superseded, in one sense.

But actually, is it comforting? To know we'll always lag behind the wave ... That's the pain of doing criticism, Robbe-Grillet says, while a "simple" reader only needs to know if the book is moving and involving.

Looking back a few entries to the discussion of Katherine Howard, though, you can see that a modern book gives the reviewer some of the difficulties Robbe-Grillet talks about, and that a non-modern book doesn't. Once the world is pretty much agreed on how a 19th century realist novel, or a 20th century historical novel, works, reviewing one is largely a matter of measuring the book against the template. Modern works don't have a template. That's their definition perhaps.

And this is why I don't accept the notion of post-modernism. Any modernism is doomed to be overtaken by the next one.

27 January 2011

Demons, at last

Concerned readers may be pleased or appalled to learn I have finally finished Demons. Dostoevsky may be a writer for young people - I remember the joy with which I first read The Idiot in my teens; recently I found it just about impossible.

Thinking about the book, I found myself wanting to say that at the end the central character finds comfort in the gospel ... but remembered that this character (Stepan Trofimovich) isn't usually considered the main character. In fact there are three principal characters, two of whom are father and son. Hmm.

It is possible to see this long book as a blasphemous parody of the Trinity. Dostoevsky blasphemous? Well, not entirely, because there is a fourth character, the narrator, who could therefore be considered an evangelist. I'll come back to this.

Very near the end of the book, though, Stepan Trofimovich finds comfort in the gospels, in particular in the parable of the demons and swine. It's significant, of course, because it ostensibly explains the title. In a post-Christian Russia, demons rush into the empty space where faith used to be. It's a notion we still hear today: once people have stopped believing in God, they'll believe in anything. When Stepan finds comfort in the Bible which he has for long ignored, we can read this as suggesting that Russia needs to return to its Christianity.

We could, but if that was all we needed to know, a lot of paper (700 pages) has been wasted. This reading is just too small. Even if we step outside the proper range of criticism and find that this is exactly what Dostoevsky (the man) would have said, it's not what the book says.

The role of the narrator is crucial. He's not particularly unreliable, but he is unrealistically knowledgable. There's occasional comment on the research he carried out in preparing to tell the story, but in general, he's presented as silently, invisibly present in every scene in the book. I think we can take this impossibility as a structural equivalent to the fact that the book is bigger than any summary can be. It's a way of saying that the book contains far more than Dostoevsky could have said. (But yet he did.)

14 January 2011


I'm almost ashamed that this post reveals how slowly I'm reading Demons, but here, on p 327, a young man has killed himself after wasting the family fortune, and the inquisitive ladies of the town have gone to see the body.
Generally, in every misfortune of one's neighbour there is always something that gladdens the observer's eye - and that even no matter who you are. Our ladies stared silently, their companions distinguished themselves by by sharpness of wit and a supreme presence of mind. One of them observed that this was the best solution and that the boy even could not have come up with anything smarter;

Two uses of the word "even" there, neither of which seems to fit. I suspect there's a word in the Russian that doesn't easily translate into English, like doch in German. It's a kind of modifier of the tone of the sentence, which in English would be rendered by inflection. P-V have translated it, but probably shouldn't have. They've produced awkward English sentences when - I bet - there's nothing awkward about the originals.

But while I'm here, let's note that Dostoevsky has no qualms about using fairly obvious plot structures. There's a duel, and we see the preliminaries with the narrator expressing sorrow that he has to recount what happened too quickly, but he then delays, to give a description of one of the duellers.

And there's also a strange, almost picaresque, structure, as in the scene I've quoted from. I feel fairly sure that the suicide has no importance in the plot, but it's a "state of the nation" vignette. It also, of course, delays the main plot movement, which, as I've realised, is what writing is all about.