29 June 2007

Out on a limb

Inexplicably, I've been waking up at 3.00am every morning--mind buzzing and disappointingly alert. So I reach for The Maytrees and lose myself in the wee smas until the sky lightens over the sea, satisfied. (And only then can I rest.)

I have many things to do that are not getting done, but I suspect it's due to the current lack of structure of these few vacation days. So (deep breath) I'm toying with the idea of reading Against the Day (my dusty sage version), finally. I figure that having a goal of about 70 pages per day should carry me through the next couple of weeks, and I could post any random thoughts bullet-style. Yes, it's been done before by better bloggers...but I think it will go a long way towards giving these jelly days a spine. (And this sort of plan has helped me before: the week after graduating college, I took up The Brothers Karamozov at 100 pages a day. A week with Dostoevsky did me incalculable good...especially in the loose-cannon days after college and the beginning of my job search.)

Because aside from a couple personal projects I should be working on, there are also some drafted posts that have been drafts for a little too long. Such as,
  • a book-to-film comparision of Mario Mendoza's Satanás (yes, I actually took feverish notes in the theatre--y sí, creo que voy a escribirla en español)
  • my little stack of remaining post-it notes to the glorious Cloud Atlas
  • mini-reviews to books read this past term (including the break)
  • thoughts on Auster's The Book of Illusions
Meanwhile, Over the Rhine is nearing the release of a new album. I stumbled on a serendipitous link to the gleefully naughty "Trouble" and the warm country vibe of "If A Song Could Be President" today. (This music + a Peroni + dusk gathering over the ocean under the balcony helped inspire this post.) I owe this band quite a lot (not the least of which includes my introduction to Dillard during my 18th year).

from The Seventh Elegy

It is breathtaking simply to be here. Girls, even you
knew, who seemed so deprived, so reduced, who became
sewers yourselves, festering in the awful alleys of the city.
For each of you had an hour, perhaps a bit less,
at worst a scarcely measurable span between while and while,
when you wholly were. Had all. Were bursting with Being.
But we easily forget what our laughing neighbor
neither confirms nor envies. We want to show it off,
yet the most apparent joy reveals itself only after
it has been transformed, when it rises within us.
    My love, the world exists nowhere but within us.
Withinwarding is everything. The outer world
dwindles, and day fades from day. Where once
a solid house was, soon some invented structure
perversely suggests itself, as at ease among ideas
as if it still stood in the brain.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
translated by William Gass

27 June 2007

Cosmic realism

Marilynne Robinson reviews The Maytrees (and completely, marvelously gets it):
Annie Dillard's books are like comets, like celestial events that remind us that the reality we inhabit is itself a celestial event, the business of eons and galaxies, however persistently we mistake its local manifestations for mere dust, mere sea, mere self, mere thought. The beauty and obsession of her work are always the integration of being, at the grandest scales of our knowledge of it, with the intimate and momentary sense of life lived.

The Maytrees
is about wonder -- in the terms of this novel, life's one truth. It is wonder indeed that is invoked here, vast and elusive and inexhaustible and intimate and timeless. There is a resolute this-worldliness that startles the reader again and again with recognition. How much we overlook! What a world this is, after all, and how profound on its own terms.
My copy actually arrived on Saturday (!), and my friend (visiting from Jamaica) was able to read it before she left. I am starting it today, but don't want it to be over. I own every book she's written. They've been read and reread and then reread some more... When I've reached the last page, I'll turn back to the first and begin again. (This is my consolation.)

According to New York Magazine, Annie Dillard's done with writing. The statement is basically the same as what's up on her website, but I did smile at this last touch:
She did mention one, possibly tongue-in-cheek idea for further work: “To take all my never-used metaphors and just throw them up in the air for other writers to use.” Grab Bag, by Annie Dillard? “I like the title Free-for-All,” she says.
I'm all for her getting away from the hoopla surrounding book releases to sequester herself with her reading. And given that her works are indeed "celestial events," who knows when the next one will shoot across our sky?

(both links via Ed)

22 June 2007


William Gass has written one of the greatest definitions of poetry I've ever read:
The poem is thus a paradox. It is made of air. It vanishes as the things it speaks about vanish. It is made of music, like us, "the most fleeting of all" yet it is also made of meaning that's as immortal as immortal gets on our mortal earth; because the poem will return, will begin again, as spring returns: it can be said again, sung again, is our only answered prayer; the poem can be carried about more easily than a purse, and I don't have to wait, when I want it, for a violinist to get in key, it can come immediately to mind--to my mind because it is my poem as much as it is yours--because, like a song, it can be sung in many places at once--and danced as well, because the poem becomes a condition of the body, it enlivens our bones, and they dance the orange, they dance the Hardy, the Hopkins, the Valéry, the Yeats; because the poem is a state of the soul, too (the soul we once had), and these states change as all else does, and these states mingle and conflict and grow weak or strong, and even if these verbalized moments of consciousness suggest things which are unjust or untrue when mistaken for statements, when rightly written they are real; they themselves are as absolutely as we achieve the Real in this unrealized life--are--are with a vengeance; because, oddly enough, though what has been celebrated is over, and one's own life, the life of the celebrant, may be over, the celebration is not over. The celebration goes on.

20 June 2007

Greater than logic

Am thoroughly enjoying William Gass' discussion and translation of Rilke. Such rich work to sink my teeth into.
Not all properties of the conceptual systems we use to describe experience are characteristics of experience itself. Obviously we can use the German language to talk about the world, to say Die Welt ist alles was der Fall ist, or employ arithmetic to measure a room, or use a thermometer to take the temperature of the roast. But Nature does not speak German, the space of the room is not infinite just because between any of the numbers used to measure it there are an infinite amount more, and 20°C is not twice as hot as 10°C to the leg of lamb. Logical connections do not exist in Nature, only in Logic. And poetry is merely...merely poetry.
This is the first of Gass' work that I've read, and I'm thrilled (yet again) by how my expectations are being exceeded. I hope to write (quote) more soon, but his blow-by-blow account of his word choices in translating Rilke--in the face of 14 other translations of the same work--is revelatory. (And his unfailing sense of humor keeps everything in perspective.)

I've long thought that poetry transcends logic--that although it is a contruct (being a "created" thing), it makes much more than "sense." I'm reminded of Walker Percy's "Metaphor as Mistake" and the mystery of how literal "lies" (a living heart cannot actually be made of ice) come closer to truth than "factual" renderings. It's a favorite line of thinking that I'm finding traces of in what Gass is exploring in Rilke.

Another goldmine.

17 June 2007


As Dan Green mentioned,
[B]eware the inevitable obituaries and other discussions of Rorty's contributions to philosophy that will bemoan his malign influence as a "relativist." Its all bs.
Scott McLemee's provides additional insight:
“My sense of the holy,” wrote Rorty, “insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.”
Rorty admits he has “no idea of how such a society could come about. It is, one might say, a mystery. This mystery, like that of the Incarnation, concerns the coming into existence of a love that is kind, patient, and endures all things.” As McLemee concludes,
I’m not sure whether that counts as a religious vision, by most standards. But it certainly qualifies as something that requires a lot of faith.

12 June 2007

More translation goodness

Scott Esposito has a couple more translator interviews over at his place, with more on the way. Even before "Reading the World" (and the emphasis placed on such work this month), there's always been a lively interest in translated literature in the litblogosphere. It's wonderfully encouraging.

Katherine Silver, translator of Jorge Franco's Paradise Travel:
Paradise Travel is narrated by the main character, whose subtly idiosyncratic voice—part idiot savant, part idiotic innocent—gives the novel unity and depth. Finding and maintaining that voice in English was perhaps the most overarching challenge. I also enjoyed working through the linguistic dilemmas arising from the interpenetration of cultures/languages (Spanish here, English there, Spanglish everywhere) and among dialects in Spanish (Colombians trying to understand Mexican Spanish, for instance).
Karen S. Kingsbury, translator of Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City:
The cinematic analogy works because literary texts are usually loaded with visual and aural imagery: we can think of this material as existing “inside” the text. The musical analogy works because even a silent reader voices a text internally, and thus hears some set of phonic qualities, which usually have a considerable, though subtle influence on whether or not the literary experience is “good” or not. This phonic experience is largely, though not entirely “outside” the text. Thus, a literary translator has to go “inside” the original text, grab all those images and ideas and whatnot, then come back out and set up another “external” linguistic structure that that can contain and convey that material while still sounding good. And the goal, of course, is to not only “sound good,” but to sound somehow similar to, or at least analogous to, the original.

Coffee-break post

Report cards are done, Thursday's the last day of school, and a dear friend arrives tomorrow from Jamaica for a visit. Hope to make more headway in some personal projects before classes start up again in July, and my end-of-term reading list should be up by the weekend. Here are some other things that made me happy this morning:

  • New York Magazine finally asks about other books that should be translated into English.
  • Carrie of Tingle Alley recommends what to pick up during the current McSweeney's and Soft Skull book sales.
  • Stephen Mitchelmore explains why it's not a cockroach: "Openness is everything."
  • fade theory falls in love with García Márquez again:
    After re-reading the final paragraph, I closed the book. I looked at it without seeing it, and, with my right hand holding my left, and my left hand holding the book, I held my cheek to the cover. For a brief moment, I wondered why they don’t make books edible. It seems that this book only taking up part of my mind isn’t enough.
  • 09 June 2007

    Laura Restrepo

    I dove back into Cloud Atlas yesterday after taking a break from it (to make it last) and finishing both Laura Restrepo's Delirio (because it was so wonderful) and Mario Mendoza's Satanás (because the movie came out last Friday). I spent an hour compiling my notes on Restrepo's novel, and couldn't stop smiling. It's a truly wonderful book.

    Delirio helpfully informs my reading of Cloud Atlas due to its style and narrative structure, which puts the reader in the place of piecing together its timeline. We get Aguilar's view of events, and then a passage of Agustina's from the past will help explain what he's seeing. The story literally unfolds. Memory triggers aspects of Agustina's madness so what occurred in the past affects the present, and then the present is explained via Agustina's own memories in the past.

    While I realize that comparing contemporary Latin American writers to modernist authors of yore has been done many (many) times, I couldn't help but think of Faulkner and Woolf as I read Restrepo. I was reminded of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and The Waves, not only because she shifts backwards and forwards in time, but because the first-person narration of four characters (and the third-person narration of a fifth) lack dialogue punctuation and switch voices and tenses continually--even in midsentence. Not only does the reader have to determine who is speaking and when, she also must figure out to whom. I found these little "mysteries" almost as engaging as the central mystery itself. Restrepo rewards readers willing to engage in such close reading and pay attention to the details of the narrative, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading it so much. She truly respects the reader's intelligence and this creates a unique sense of camraderie between the reader and her main characters. I found myself caring about what was happening to them--even the less-than-noble ones (which includes just about everyone). I will most certainly be reading this one again.

    Although the structure is rather intricate, it wasn't difficult to read. I was amazed by the effortles fluidity of the prose, the voices and images were so vibrant and immediate. Restrepo puts the music and rhythm of the language to powerful use. I particularly loved the scene where Agustina's mother, Eugenia, has a huge fight on the phone with Aguilar, while Agustina yells, "No quiero hablar con ella porque su voz me enferma" in the background over and over and over again:
    Oiga, señora, el problema es sumamente serio, Agustina está mal, está en un estado de agitación incontrolable y usted me viene con que pretende llevársela a hacer meditación zen, Y quién es usted, señor, para decirme a mí qué es lo que le conviene a mi hija, al menos tenga la cortesía de preguntarle a ella si quiere o no quiere, Agustina, pregunta tu madre si quieres ir con ella a unos baños de aguas termales en Virginia, escúchale usted misma, señora, Agustina está diciendo que lo único que quiere es que colguemos ya el teléfono.
    This goes on for two pages. Without exclamation marks or descriptive adjectives, Restrepo brings the frenetic urgency of the domestic conflict to life in the reader's mind. (The first few pages of Natasha Wimmer's translation are generously excerpted at Doubleday, for those interested.)

    There are so many facets to this novel: Agustina's younger brother, the family scapegoat...the abuse...Aguilar reads Saramago's Memorial del convento (in English as Baltasar and Blimunda) while he's away...her twisted relationship with her father...Agustina "parece sacada de las páginas de Jane Eyre"...her obsession with ceremony, water, and blood...the doorman who died in front of her child eyes, stabbed nine times...her only success as a psychic...she has no true self, no true insight--all is motivated by fear and dread...death and blood irrevocably tied to her developing womanhood...the bizarre love triangle (or square?) between her mother's parents and a young apprentice...her madness is far from simply genetic...Midas' devestatingly accurate take on Pablo Escobar...the bombs (like the one I experienced in Medellín in '92)...the literal "turn of the screw"...memory echoes forwards...how the family was destroyed on a Palm Sunday afternoon..."crónica de un fracaso anunciado"...the cream and avocado for the delicious ajiaco...the secret behind her mother's own particular insanity and repression...Agustina's way of speaking ("like the Pope") that augments her own dissociation, all in capital letters...her grandfather Nicolás' lost sister, like her brother Bichi...how Aguilar finally reveals why he's wound up selling dog food for a living...Kawabata invoked...Eugenia's devestating denials of reality...Nicolás' fascination with "la enigma de la sangre derramada"...the trigger that truly sent her over the edge, from Midas' disbelieving perspective...how his avalanche of words aggravates her state...how Aguilar finally understands how enough lies could drive one mad...and how laughter breaks the evil enchantment..."Que me perdone Voltaire pero esto es un milagro."

    Another great moment occurs when Agustina enters a cathedral to light a candle and pray to Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (the founder of Bogotá) for the restoration of her sanity, rather than to a saint. It's a nice tip of the hat to Cervantes, because of the theory that he based the character of Don Quixote on this traveling adventurer.

    Needless to say, I loved this novel and was not a little dismayed when I discovered David Ulin's review of Delirio for the LA Times (via SPLALit):
    Such a construct has potential, but difficulties arise from the outset, beginning with Restrepo's inability to bring Agustina to life. She is, or so the novel tells us, special, touched with psychic abilities — a kind of healer — but this seems contrived. Rather, she's most memorable as one of those people who drives others crazy: haughty, demanding, mercurial. Wealthy, with a powerful father and deep, if elusive, ties to Colombia's narco-underground, she drifts across the surface of existence, untouched by consequence. Even her madness seems self-indulgent, with no weight, no depth.
    I can't help but wonder if he missed the irony of Restrepo's epigraph--Gore Vidal's commendation of Henry James' advice that writers should never make a lunatic the central character of a narrative because since a lunatic cannot be made morally responsible, there can be no real tale to tell.

    Agustina is no true psychic or "healer," as the story makes clear. She is superstitious from childhood, believing that she has magical powers that can save her younger brother from their father's physical and verbal abuse. As a young woman, she tries to save the life of her unborn child by reading "messages" in the folds of her bedsheets. Any reading that takes her seriously as a clairvoyant will of course see it as "contrived" because it's the role that she's created for herself in order to forestall the pain of reality. Yes, she has one success in this role (which forged her "reputation" in this line), but her childhood belief that she trucks with the forces of the unseen spins a thread that ultimately binds her to the instability that characterizes her adulthood.

    And "untouched by consequence"? The violence she witnesses as a child (both inside and outside the home) only contribute to her condition. As a child, she overhears her mother's side of a telephone argument with her father, and becomes fascinated with the heated wire of her mother's hair dryer. She places her tongue inside. Her developing sexuality is warped by her mother's shame and horror on the day she begins mensturating (in a scene that permanently links sexuality to death and blood). As a teenager she learns that the only way she can provoke her father to notice her is by staying out late and having sexual encounters with one man after another. Her world is hermetically sealed by the isolation of privilege and the nearly fascist censure of her parents, and her existence marked by what happens to her younger brother during her 17th year. But it's ultimately the nature of familial betrayal that thwarts her identity and womanhood.
    When Restrepo tries to root the novel by invoking the most vehement realities — narco-terrorism, roads and cities rendered unsafe by insurgents, the terrifying presence of Escobar — she doesn't write as if she feels it, as if these are her concerns in any fundamental sense.
    Ulin speaks of her casualness in recounting these matters, but I would hazard to guess that he doesn't understand how mundane and normal these situations were in daily life. She recounts the dangers of the road to Sasaima in the same tone as someone from the States would discuss the annoyances of heavy traffic. These realities had been so embedded in the identity of the culture that its strangeness would never be remarked upon. As for Escobar, Midas' retelling of his encounters with the drug lord (and the one-liners that Escobar later became famous for) are related with deep sadness and a stunned shock at the inevitable result of such dealings. I don't see any of this as Restrepo trying "to root the novel by invoking the most vehement realities". The root of the novel is the devastating nature of family secrets and the lies on which we base our lives. The peripheral context is important, but not the main focus of the work.

    Ulin also complains,
    For Agustina and the other characters, life is oddly distanced; there is nothing here to make us care. "[T]he plain truths keep getting caught in the honeyed ambiguity that smoothes and civilizes everything until there's no substance left," leaving us to experience "Delirium" as if through a scrim of gauze.
    I find it particularly telling that Ulin would use a line that intends to decry this form of existence and turn it against the book itself. His views on the matter are clear, but I can't believe that this "gauze" is entirely the fault of the author. A reader is not merely a spectator as with television or film, but an active participant. If that sense of immediacy and clarity isn't there, the reader has to check his or her own limitations of understanding, especially when it comes to a work of translation.

    Ultimately, I find it curious that he neglects to mention any stylistic or structural elements at all. I found these to be the main reasons the novel was so engaging and worthwhile. Perhaps they served to distance rather than engage him? Some comment on these aspects of the work would've given this review more credibility.

    Related note: Laura Restrepo spoke at the PEN World Voices "Don Quixote at 400" tribute in 2005. She has some wonderful things to say about Quixote's context and the modern world's latent insanity.

    07 June 2007

    Annie Dillard excerpt and audio clip

    NPR's summer reading list comments on Annie Dillard's second novel, The Maytrees, and also provides both an excerpt from the novel and an audio clip of her reading a passage:
    Robert Louis Stevenson, he read in his Letters, called marriage "a sort of friendship recognized by the police." Charmed, Maytree bought a red-speckled notebook to dedicate to this vexed sphere — not to marriage, but to love. More red-speckled notebooks expanded, without clarifying, this theme. Sextus Propertius, of love: "Shun this hell." From some book he copied: "How does it happen that a never-absent picture has in it the power to make a fresh, overwhelming appearance every hour, wide-eyed, white-toothed, terrible as an army with banners?" She was outside his reach.
    Her website says, "NPR in June will air some tiny segments about THE MAYTREES taped long ago". So there will be more!

    This is the first book I've ordered directly from Amazon to be shipped internationally (worth every penny). It should be here the first week of July...hopefully.

    (via Counterbalance)

    06 June 2007

    Translation goodness

    Issue 8 of The Quarterly Conversation is up and I very happily read great interviews with three Spanish-to-English translators: C.M. Mayo, Natasha Wimmer, and Chris Andrews. Also, there's Javier Moreno's excellent essay on his Bolaño diagram (which I spent some time with earlier), Derik Badman's review of The Last Novel by David Markson, and many more good things. I've quoted some highlights below, but all of these interviews should be read thoroughly. Fascinating stuff.

    C.M. Mayo:
    The whole idea of Tameme is to make the literature accessible to someone who reads only English, and at the same time, accessible to someone who reads only Spanish. So writers are together whom, normally, would not be. For example, the first issue of Tameme featured Margaret Atwood and Jaimes Sabines. These are great names--yet many even very well read Mexicans have never heard of Margaret Atwood, while few English speaking readers have heard of Jaime Sabines. At the same time, having the text side-by-side makes the reading experience that much richer. Many people have told me they read Tameme to help them improve their Spanish. It's also an exercise for literary translators. Literary translation is an art; five literary translators would translate a given piece in five different ways. So, as a translator, one can engage with the text critically. I find the translator's notes the most interesting.
    (Thanks to this piece, I've added a couple items to my wishlist and have discovered the wonder that is Tameme. I look forward to the day when something similar exists for Colombia.)

    Natasha Wimmer:
    There are lots of things I try to avoid, but I mostly try not to slavishly adhere to general rules--translation is all about exceptions. Often, though, I try to avoid automatically using cognates when there might be a better translation of a particular word. I'm not generally too worried about putting too much of my own voice into the translation--I don't think there's really much space for that, except possibly in dialogue, which tends to require a freer translation than expository prose. When it comes to words and phrases in the original language, I certainly try to avoid the Spanglish effect, but I think a few carefully chosen expressions left in Spanish (and most place names, too) are inevitable and even desirable. [...]

    One of the main challenges of the translation was getting the rhythm of Bolaño's sentences right. He is never predictable and can be intentionally awkward, and sometimes it was hard to strike the right balance in English--I often felt an urge to smooth over ungainly constructions, but restrained myself, then realized in reading them over that they were perfectly calibrated. Ultimately, this was probably one of the most satisfying parts of working on the translation, too. Otherwise, I loved the humor. It's always more fun to translate something funny.
    Chris Andrews (on the translator "getting in the way"):
    I mean producing a translation that is unduly distracting, which I guess can happen if it isn't quite complete, so that the syntactic patterns of the source language creep into the target language a bit too much and make the translation more syntactically odd than the original, or if the translation goes over the top and becomes showy. But I don't much like pronouncing on this sort of thing because I'm no doubt guilty of under- and over-translating myself, and the whole business of translation studies can be a distraction from the works themselves, which are way more interesting in the end.
    I loved his recommendations. More authors to pick up... Now that I've finished reading novels by Laura Restrepo and Mario Mendoza, I'll keep an eye out for the writers he mentioned: Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Juan Villoro, Antonio José Ponte, and others. It helps me hope that it's only a matter of time before the advantages of being able to find and read these works in the original Spanish will outweigh the disadvantages of having limited access to English-language titles.