Monday, September 16, 2019

French literature in "selfish dictionary" form

I present another beautiful literary artifact I brought back from France, a non-mint condition second-hand paperback of Charles Dantzig’s Dictionnaire égoïste de la littérature française (2005), his Selfish Dictionary of French Literature:

Or perhaps not Selfish but Egotistical.  Definitely not Personal, which is to warm and inviting for these 1,132 pages of jokes, aphorism, jabs, and criticism, although it all is truly personal in the sense that they are just his opinions.  The book is a paper brick of opinions.

Dantzig is a pure French literary professional, a poet, translator, critic, essayist, radio producer, and editor at the publisher that publishes his books.  He is right in the middle of things.  I have seen him described as iconoclastic, but I have doubts, and do not care.  I am interested in this book exactly because it comes out of the heart of the French literary world.  I know how American critics and American magazines jabber about books – the rise and fall of writers and issues and fashions – and I want to learn something about how things looked in France, from someone with a point of view.

Dantzig is wrapping up a seven-page entry on Jean-Paul Sartre:

During the 1970s, he was a god to adore, and I suffered a lot from him in high school.  Sartre here, Sartre there, interpreting “existence precedes essence.”  Sartre bis, Sartre ter, Sartre again, you make me do three rounds of Sartre, Sartre, Sartre!  Hell, it was Sartre.  He remained sacred for a long time: in 1991, I published an essay that contained a joke about him, not two, not three, one, very accessory to the rest and accompanied by another on the ignorant people who hated him, two lines out of two hundred pages, and the critic in Le Monde reproached me for them.

That one is more on the personal side.  Dantzig does not have such personal feelings about Maupassant or Molière.  He has insights, though.  In the entry on “Adjectives, Adverbs,” which he defends against so-called good-writing rules, he argues that “French, is one can take a shortcut, is a language of verbs” (11), an idea he explores throughout the book, for example in the entry on “Verbs”: “In effect, rather than a qualifier it is better to choose a verb that includes it” (1079).  I may return to this idea as I write about French literature.  Within my linguistic limits, I have become convinced Dantzig is right.  I have no idea whether this is an original idea or a commonplace.

Much of the Dictionary, of which I have read fifteen, maybe even twenty, percent, remains incomprehensible to me – awfully “inside,” awfully French – but that is much of what makes it so interesting.

The bulk of the entries in the Dictionary are for writers, and the essays are substantial, often six or seven pages.  But there are entries for books and techniques and concepts: Ideas; Idiosyncrasies; Ignorance; Images; Imagination; Impostors, just to pick some cognates from the letter I.  It is a little bit – it is more than a little bit – like Dantzig has taken his book blog and put it in a no-less-arbitrary alphabetical order.  Not to give anyone ideas.  You yourself have written 1,100 pages, haven’t you?  Or far more.  Oh yes, I would eagerly buy the book of your alphabetized blog, as soon as I found a used or perhaps remaindered copy.

Many non-French writers are pulled into the book in various ways, but it is still French literature bis, ter, and again.  But look, just now, for the rentrée littéraire, Dantzig has published a 1,248-page Selfish Dictionary of World Literature.  Follow him on Twitter to see which prizes the book has already won.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

More brand new French novels, first chapters only - metaphors, slaughtered hogs, and a new New Novel

More from the fascinating Best Extracts before the Fact, Jack!, the little collection of the beginning of forthcoming French novels.  No, in July, when I bought the book, they were forthcoming; since then they have forthcome.

There is plenty of plain-style prose in today’s French novel, just like in American and English fiction.  I mentioned the most extreme example yesterday, but most of the extracts are flat, unadorned, and not too difficult.  It was a relief to read a chapter by a writer who wrote complex sentences.  It was a relief to read figurative language.  I was a little shocked to read excerpt after excerpt with no figurative language at all, aside from that inherent in French, I mean.  Nothing is ever like anything else.  Everything is merely what it is.

Figurative language is fundamental to my idea of literary writing.  It is the way to hack through the gluey tangle of language.  If language is inadequate to say what something is, a writer can say what it is like, which is often more precise, not less.

Many of the novels are about somber, difficult subjects.  Yann Moix’s Orléans is about child abuse; Jean-Paul Dubois’s Not Everyone Lives in the World in the Same Way and Nathacha Appanah’s The Sky above the Roof (Le Ciel par-dessus le toit, there must be a zippier translation) have characters in prison; Sorj Chalandon’s A Ferocious Joy has a bookstore owner with cancer – an understated style likely suits these subjects more than baroque play with language, fine.  But metaphors should be part of how a novelist thinks.

A Badminton Game by Olivier Adam is about a novelist whose last novel did not get reviewed or sell well.  For this, there is no excuse.  Why are people still writing these?  The introduction says that “the defense of a refugee agency” is also part of the novel, and that Adam “sculpts a work mixing realism, politics, and sociology” (35).  So dump the novelist character.

I have no doubt that this novel, at some point after the self-pitying first chapter, is terrific.  That all of these novels, after the first chapter, are outstanding.

Cécile Coulon writes good French prose and uses metaphorical language in A Beast in Paradise.  “When she moved among the farmhands, her complexion pink and fresh, smiling at one and all like a Madonna distributing her blessings, the overseer had a bad feeling” (81).  The woman here, is the farm’s teenage heiress; she and her boyfriend have just had sex for the first time, scheduling the event during the farm’s hog slaughtering, when they knew everyone else would be occupied.  Some kind of irony there.  The name of the farm is Paradise, which is also irony, the kind known as “laying it on thick.”  There have always been Starkadders in Paradise.  The author is twenty-nine years-old and this is her seventh novel.  Her first was published when she was seventeen.  This book has already won a big prize from Le Monde, despite, or because of, the ridiculousness of its first chapter.

The first chapter that most tempted me to read the rest of the novel was Guillaume Lavenant’s The Nanny Protocol, where the text is a set of branching instructions for a job applicant.  As the absurd detail grows, so does the comedy.  Whether the instructions are written by a neurotic employer or an anxious applicant, I have no idea.

She will invite you to sit down.  Do it.  She will explain to you that her husband etc…  And then she will pass a hand through her hair, look at the wall clock, rub her nails against her palm, sniff, raise her eyebrows, etc…  You will drink something?  Yes, a Schweppes, for example. (86)

Italics and etceteras all mine, the point being that it goes on and on at this level of detail.  If you have thought, that New Novel thing the French did, Alain Robbe-Grillet and so on, that all died off in the 1970s, right?  Oh no, here is a brand new example, a new New Novel.

The great thing for the French language-learner is that The Nanny Protocol, or at least this bit, is a literary text where almost every verb is in the imperative, conditional, or future tense.  So useful to see these textbook creatures in the wild, so to speak.  So educational.  My fear is that the plot of the novel, if it has one, turns into some kind of dumb thriller.  Robbe-Grillet’s novels turned into thrillers, too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It's flat - Returning to literature with some brand new French books!

I’m beginning my promenade through my last two years of reading in French.  There are many bad ideas built into this project.  I am going to ramble through books I read as long as two years ago, with who knows what memory or comprehension – surely with many outright errors in comprehension.  That is what I want to find out, I guess.  All translations, unless otherwise noted, will be mine.  This will be another fascinating source of error.

Let’s start with this beauty, the July 2019 issue of Lire:, which I would translate as Read!, stretching out that semi-colon, and more importantly the little book that was packaged with it, The Return to Literature 2019: The Best Extracts Before the Fact!  In September, everyone in France is returning from vacation to – everything – to school and literature and arts seasons and neighborhood clubs.  For some reason it seems like a good idea to publish a large fraction of the year’s novels at the same time.  This year there are 524 novels, “the fewest in twenty years” Michael Orthofer notes, in the rentrée littéraire.  That still seems like a lot to me, all at once.

For a couples of months, the attention paid to the rentrée littéraire is enormous, even more than the high French baseline.

So, fifteen first chapters of books that back in July had not even been published.  Now they are all out and have presumably all been longlisted for some prize or another.  What an opportunity to quickly “catch up” on the French novel of today!

The first book is from Baroness Amélie Nothomb, who has contributed a book a year to the rentrée littéraire since The Hygiene of the Assassin in 1992, among the very silliest books I have ever read.  Her new book is Soif (Thirst) and it is, of all things, a comic novel from the point of view of Jesus Christ.  People are still writing these things?  “Who else, in the rentrée littéraire, would have the ambition to write a fifth gospel?” asks the anonymous introducer (each extract has a helpful introduction).

Here is some of the humor.  The recipients of Christ’s miracles are testifying against him, “airing their dirty laundry.”  The couple who got married at Cana are now upset that Christ turned water into wine.

Because of him, we served the better wine after the worse.  We have become the laughing-stock of the town. (6)

Not a funny joke, surely not even original, but quite French.  The most interesting thing to me is the voice of the novel is so audibly that of the only other Nothomb I have read, that debut from twenty-seven years ago.

Here’s the worst extract: Marie Darrieussecq’s La Mer a l’envers (The Upside-Down Sea or maybe The Backwards Sea).  A French woman with a case of ennui is on an Italian cruise; the ship rescues some African migrants in distress; the woman’s life becomes entangled with one of the migrants which presumably gives her new meaning etc. etc. there is no way this can be good, is there?  I mean, if you want to write about current issues in immigration, you could write about the migrants themselves, yes?

How is the prose?  This is the beginning:

It was her mother who convinced her to take the cruise.  A way of getting some distance.  To reflect on her marriage, her job, on her upcoming move.  To be alone without the kids.  A change of air.  A change of water.  The Mediterranean.  For a girl from the Atlantic.  It’s flat.  A little sea. (28)

An entire novel written like this would drive me bonkers.  I checked an earlier Darrieussecq novel; this is her signature style.  Not every line.  Not every page. But many lines, many pages.  “It’s flat.”  Is it ever.  Odds are that an English-language translator would toss in some commas and hide some of the fragmentation, maybe a lot of it.

More extracts tomorrow.  I will not write about all fifteen books, but just those that, like these, have some unusual, or possibly all-too-common, feature.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The ethics of the anti-smooth translation - to do right abroad, this translation practice must do wrong at home

The multiple translations of Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Hārabārta fall along a continuum of the domesticated and foreignized translation.  What makes both of these cases so interesting is that the same translator has created translations at different points on the continuum, which cannot be too common.

Joe at roughghosts, who pointed me to the Bhattacharya novel, notes that the practice or something like it in fact is common in translation from Afrikaans.  Here we see Leon de Kock, the translator of Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf (1994), describe what happened to them:

We’d been counting on a South African publisher only, so we were making a mixed language polyglot translation, and suddenly Marlene’s agent in London came up with a contract with Little, Brown, a major trans-national publisher. She phoned me up and said, “We have a big problem here. We can’t go on with this mixed, bastardized publication. We have to render it in straight English.”

The translator actually moved in with the author.  Together they squashed the “Afrikaans-isms” and “South African-isms.”  The result was two translations, one for the South African market and one for everyone else.  De Kock thinks that maybe today this would not be so necessary.  “[P]eople have begun to realize that it’s OK that not everything be in proper English anymore.”

He might be right.  The newer versions of The Foundation Pit and Hārabārta suggest he is.  Even with a more domesticated Harbart from New Directions and a wilder Herbert from Seagull, both are more linguistically out-there than previous translations.

I thought I would remind myself about what I meant by “domesticated” and “foreignized,” so I took a look at Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (2nd ed., 2008).  I was surprised to see that the distinction was so old, going back at least to Friedrich Schleiermacher:

In an 1813 lecture on the different “methods” of translation, Schleiermacher argued that “there are only two.  Either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him” (Lefevere 1977:74)*.  (p. 15 of Venuti)

The translator chooses, Venuti paraphrases, between domestication, “an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to receiving cultural values, bringing the author back home,” and foreignizing, “register[ing] the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad” (p. 15).

Schleiermacher and Venuti make an ethical case for the foreignized translation.  You should want more messiness and obscure references and endnotes explaining it all.  The last thing you should praise is the “smoothness” of the translation.  “Fluency” is the word Venuti finds in professional review.  We have been lectured that we should say something about the translation, so professionals say it is “fluent” and amateurs say it is “smooth.”  The hell with that, argues Venuti: “to do right abroad, this translation practice must do wrong at home, deviating enough from native norms to stage an alien reading experience” (16)

I don’t know.  On the one hand, yeah!  That’s what I like.  That’s what Joe argues for: “If you read literature from foreign cultures, don’t you want your equilibrium challenged a little along the way?”  But he is not quite willing to make an ethical argument, and – this is the other hand –  I am not either.  It is more an argument about taste.  It is too much like telling people what to read.  If you want smooth, read smooth; there is plenty of that.   But it is great to see translators and publishers who recognize that there is also an audience for foreignness.

* André Lefevere’s Translating Literature: The German Tradition from Luther to Rosenweig (1977) is Venuti’s source for the quotation.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Harbart - Bengali innovation becomes a translation theory case study

A review-like bit first.  The book at hand is Nabarun Bhattacharya’s short, crazy 1994 (or 1993?) Bengali novel Hārabārta in the New Directions edition, translated by Sunandini Banerjee.  Harbart is what they’re titling it.  Harbart is the hero.  He kills himself five pages into the time-scrambled first chapter.  The rest of the book is more conventionally structured: childhood, adolescence, a surprising career as a “Conversations with the Dead” mystic.  Suicide, eventually.  There are real ghosts, although his medium business is a con; there’s a blue fairy, like in Pinocchio; there are some other unusual things.

Harbart has some resemblance in tone and attitude to the novelinos of César Aira which I enjoy so much, so the book is a good fit at New Directions.  Aira would love the ending.

Bhattacharya’s conceptual purpose has nothing in common with Aira’s.  Bhattacharya was political, a left radical.  He was blowing up Bengali literature.  I get the idea that one of his innovations, one reason Hārabārta became a cult novel, is that it is full of swears.  He introduced the street’s everyday crudity and idiom” – full of swears, I think that means.  That 2013 Shamik Bag article goes through the politics in much more detail than the novel itself.

The exciting thing in the novel is the language.  The Banerjee translation is the third English version – confusingly, also the fourth, but let’s save that idea.  I know nothing of the first version, but looked at the second (2011), by Arunava Sinha, on Indian Amazon.  Here he is, on the first page:

The mad old woman in rags was sitting there, her legs, splayed, splashing water.  Dogs with rotted flea-ridden skins were trembling in their sleep at the sound of screeching owls.  (Sinha)

Vivid, yes?  And here is Sunandini Banerjee, the new version:

A mumble-mad woman sitting there in rags, legs wide open, splashing the water.  Every now and then an owl letting out a screech and the skin-rotten dogs whimpering in their dreams. (Banerjee, 3)

The first page of the Banerjee also has “frothy-foaming light-dust,” “piss-cross games,” and “a Star-TV-signal-sucking satellite dish,” more compound neologisms.  The inventive compound words are a feature of the entire novel, a central device.  Great fun.  The novel is also full of languages – Hindi and English especially – which are translated or absorbed in the older translation but highlighted in Banerjee’s, the Hindi annotated and the English italicized.  This a noisy novel.

Looking back to that 2013 article, Sinha says that he “wants to retranslate Herbert (Sinha translated it as Harbart) in more creative ways.”  Banerjee has done it.

Harbart is now an outstanding case study in the domesticated (Sinha) versus foreignized (Banerjee) translation.  Better than I have suggested, even, because next week in England and elsewhere, yet another translation of Hārabārta will be published – also by Sunandini Banerjee!  Two translations appearing at roughly the same time by the same translator.  This cannot be common.  As Joe at roughghosts describes the books, the non-American version is even more foreignized, with more compound words and with Bengali in the translated text.  No reviewer of the American translation besides Joe has any idea that there are two versions.  I hope, once the texts are all available, that someone – ideally someone with Bengali – will knock the translations together and see what happens.

So interesting.  I want to pursue this idea tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Notes on The Foundation Pit's strangeness - thoughtfulness among the general tempo of labor

France, this summer, was pleasant, but I did not want to write about it.  I do want to write about some French books, lots of them really, so I am going to organize my French reading from the last couple of years and see if I can make anything of it.

But I will freely interrupt that project.  I will begin by interrupting it, first with a couple of books with bold translations.  Books with multiple translations, weird and less weird.

Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (written 1929-30) is a nightmare in prose about recent and ongoing events in the Soviet Union, famines and forced collectivization and the liquidation of the kulaks and so on.  The events of the novel are in a sense satirical or allegorical or satirical – I mean, one of the characters is a bear, who is also a blacksmith and is always hammering, when he is not liquidating kulaks.  That seems like it might be symbolic in some way.  But I am not sure that allegory or symbolism is the way to go.

Actual life, everything around Platonov, a civil engineer who had abandoned (public) literature, had become the equivalent of a nightmare.  What literary language is capable of representing the nightmare?  I think that is the problem Platonov was working on.

It is the problem the translators are working on.  I read the most recent translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson.  Robert Chandler had co-translated a previous version, too, but was dissatisfied.  It was not wrong enough.  He and his colleagues wanted this version to be as messed up as the original.  This is how I understand the problem.

I will stick to the first few pages.  Voshchev, the first character Platonov introduces, not a protagonist , exactly, is “removed from production” at the factory for “thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor” (1).  He wanders by “a large house where children with no family were being habituated to labor and use” (1) – an orphanage, I would call this, but not Platonov.   In the bar, he “listen[s] to various sad sounds, and feel[s] the torment of a heart surrounded by hard and stony bones” (2).  He and a creepy dude are watching a parade of Pioneer girls, and “he was glad that socialist children would always be beyond the reach of this freak of imperialism” (7).

There is something like this every few sentences, something odd, a slogan or awkwardness or peculiarity that in a more ordinary text would need to be fixed.

The Soviet regime has transformed, mutilated, and corrupted everything, including language, metaphor, and thought.  Even more than contemporary Soviet novels like We (1924) and Envy (1927), The Foundation Pit looks like a radical attempt to represent the destruction.  Or so these translators make it appear.  Maybe they are wrong.  How would I know.  I am convinced.  The apparatus in the NYRB edition, the notes and afterword and so on, are half as long as the novel and are superb.

The novel’s structure and characters are similarly broken.  But it is the language, and its problems for the translators, that really caught my attention.

The odd thing is that at my distance, in time, language, space, and trouble, the entire book becomes an exercise in “make it strange.”  Mere aesthetics.  But I know that is not the source of the strangeness, and my understanding is that for many post-Soviet authors Platonov looked like a way out, an escape from the Soviet novel.  His publication is complex, but for Russians he was effectively an author of the 1990s, his books appearing at just the right time.