23 February 2008

Shadows of the plain truth

Having finished reading and jotting down my notes on Kirstin Allio's Garner yesterday, I've begun reading the relevant thread at The Litblog Co-op. (Litblog archives in general are so much buried treasure. I always have to remind myself to not let the immediacy of the Internet get in the way of all the wonderful stuff that's already been written.) Although I have a clear idea of the ending (after reading it twice), others didn't, which made me reexamine my own conclusions. (I'm tempted to specifically discuss it here, but refuse to spoil anything for those who haven't read it.) Yet I would agree with the general consensus that it's the beauty of the language that makes this such a memorable novel.

The electricity went out yesterday at school, so in between classes, I sat in the heat (windows wide open for the occasional breeze), and lost myself in its pages--a vague drowsiness blurring the boundaries of the outside world while I read, as if in a dream. Kassia Krozser describes this very well,
Quiet voices demand your full attention. You turn off the stereo, maybe head to a corner of a your backyard, away from the everyday life sounds. You don't want to miss a moment of the voice. This is reading at its best. You become one with the book.
I found the feeling the novel gave me evoked in Ed's use of "mesmerized" (and even "warm bath"!), as well as Heather Birrell's sense of being "enthralled in a near-hallucinogenic manner by Allio’s prose."

Dan Wickett does a good job of reviewing it. I just wanted to add some observations that I haven't already seen discussed elsewhere.

Much is obvious about the stoicism and repression in the lives of Garner's citizens. What isn't so apparent is the understated way in which Allio reveals their darker aspects. For example, I was well into the novel before I realized (with a slow shock) that Willard Heald reads much of the mail he delivers (when he decides it worthy of being delivered at all). I supposed that since he's the town's self-appointed historian, he believes his activities justified and has no qualms.

The other surprise was the revelation of who it was who actually burnt down Franklin Abbott's home--and the subsequent realization of the motive (p. 181). It's a passing mention that Willard writes to himself in tiny, offset, parenthetical prose--but what is equally shocking is the townspeople's (seemingly) calm acceptance of the fact. Is the event perceived as "normal"? Or is it more a matter of everyone's unwillingness to admit to the insanity of the act? (I tend to think the latter because it harmonizes with the horribly casual conversation that ensues at the end as Buck Herman "shoulders the weight of the girl"--just as he would a sack of the potatoes he's so nonchalantly discussing.)

Heald's participation (or should I say intentional non-participation?) in the various questionable circumstances of Frances, Abbott, Bickley, and even Asa Robinson amount to a chilling complicity with outright evil.

But as Kirstin Allio points out,
Ambiguity provokes tension. Ultimately, I think the story is more powerful if it remains less delineated. I hope the tension in Garner is compounded by Willard Heald’s voice bleeding into the text – he is that dangerous person who tries to speak for all. Where does Heald stop and Garner begin? Where does he read the town, read the mail, write the town, love the girl?

That being said, there are clues everywhere [...], and I hoped very much to elicit close readings. Words are shifty characters.
The text on the book's cover is about Heald, for starters. But as much as he writes and admits to himself, there are also things to which he is blind. At first I didn't believe that he knows what actually happened to Frances because his ability to consider another's perspective is completely subsumed by his own ("weak, unwise owl eyes"). In other words, he thinks he understands everyone else, but to him, other people are just mirrors that reflect his own propensities. This is why he doesn't think twice about the god-like decisions he makes. But as I reread the beginning, I found it on page 11. He knows. Of course, whether or not he believes himself to be at fault is another matter entirely.

Yet as far as ambiguity goes, I was much more perplexed by the fate of Hal Bickley than that of Frances Giddens. What had Abbott actually done? Was it merely a perceived threat, or something much more final? Again, Heald is there to lend a frightening cruelty to the scene:
So she loved her husband. Well he would fling such love from a brutal height so that nothing of its body would reach the earth.
If indeed it is a murder that has occurred, it precedes Frances' own death. But again, the town's reaction is not given. Is this yet one more example of the complicity of their silence? This event takes place in "Part Four: Abbott's Return." Is there a more sinister reason for the title? Does he, in fact, "return" to another violent act?

The various mentions of the lithium water found in the streams of Garner caught my attention as well and made me immediately think of bipolar disorder. In searching for more information, I read that lithium can be found in granite and found a page that discussed lithium's presence in water. It doesn't seem like it would affect anyone who drinks it, but the very mention of it was interesting.

Another aspect of this novel I love are the meditations on womanhood and the characters of Frances and Mrs. Heald. As tragedy nears, Frances begins to voice her own quiet resignation:
Became a woman, she forced herself to say it under her breath, and in her voice it sounded poor and defeated. She began to watch the boarders with envy.
Flipping through the book as I was writing my notes, I accidentally read this last sentence as, "She began to watch the borders with envy." Not only are her own boundaries being crossed, but elsewhere, Allio states, "Willard's voice insinuates, so that the man of the borders violates the borders." I didn't catch the interplay between "boarders" and "borders" until after I'd finished the book, and seeing how violation inverts the natural order, I also understood how the "boarders" served various purposes of misdirection as well.

Allio conveys volumes in slight passages of piercingly subtle words:
Dozens of first pregnancies were lost for modesty. The corset too tight, the housework exhausting, the appetite weakened so that the man bellowed about the waste in his house and the woman simply stopped preparing her own portion.
Beauty shifts its weight, thought Mrs. Heald, to lean harder upon new places, to bruise the places it uses as footholds, to leave tracks across hips and behind the knees.
Secrets, Frances put down despite her pledge to quit the diary, are the shadows of the plain truth between us.
Allio also succeeds in creating a wood nymph of a girl that is at the same time fully flesh and blood. She conveys her love of nature in a poignant manner that made me think of A Girl of the Limberlost or even L.M. Montgomery's beloved novels (on Anne, Emily, Pat, Jane, Valancy, Marigold, the Story Girl, Kilmeny, etc.). It was amazing to see how little sentimentality Allio uses while infusing Frances with life--a life that endures beyond her death.

There is only one thing that bothered me--the line on the back cover that reads, "When Frances's body is found in rain-swollen Blood Brook, the town begins to unravel"--as if her death is a catalyst rather than a result (or symptom). The entire novel is concerned with events before her death (including the possible violent death of another character), and in the case of Malin Nillsen's section (years after the fact), she doesn't even know Frances has died.

20 February 2008

Van Gogh and the movies

People who say that all of the great books have already been written are just not paying attention. I picked up Steve Erickson's Zeroville having never read anything of his before and with very little idea of what it was about. The Josef von Sternberg line that serves as the epigraph ("I believe that cinema was here from the beginning of the world") isn't merely some cute quotation, but an encapsulation of one of the novel's (many) themes and something the reader should seriously consider after finishing the book.

I'll leave the real reviews of this engaging and complex work to the real reviewers and instead focus on one element that caught my attention. Vikar is an ex-divinity student who wound up studying architecture. The presentation of his final project doesn't go as well as hoped:
In fact the committee chairman's fury had nothing to do with the lion or axe but with the fact that the small model church had no door. "There's no way in!" the chairman thundered, and even as the years passed, by the time Vikar got to Los Angeles he couldn't be sure whether leaving out the door had been inadvertent: "I believe," Vikar had answered in all innocence, "it's more that there's no way out."
The allusion to Van Gogh and his doorless Church at Auvers (painted in the last year of his life) is striking. His letters to Theo help explain his intent (as I sheepishly quote this):
The foreground of The Church at Auvers is brightly lit by the sun, but the church itself sits in its own shadow, and "neither reflects nor emanates any light of its own." After Van Gogh had been dismissed from the evangelical career he had hoped to continue in the Borinage, he wrote to his brother Theo from Cuesmes in July 1880, and quoted Shakespeare's image from Henry IV, Part 1 ("And I have not forgotten what the inside of a church is made of, I am a peppercorn, a brewer’s horse: the inside of a church!" — Act 3, Scene iii) of the dark emptiness inside a church to symbolize "empty and unenlightened preaching": "Their God is like the God of Shakespeare's drunken Falstaff, 'the inside of a church.'"
(It's interesting that this Wikipedia entry uses Kathleen Powers Erickson's book, At Eternity's Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh as a source. She's probably no relation...but it's interesting.)

I found it especially telling that Soledad (which means "loneliness" or "solitude" in Spanish) smashes the structure by hurling it against a hotel wall, also destroying the certain object Vikar had placed inside (at the altar).

At the point where Erickson writes, "Vikar doesn't know it, but everything now has been reset to zero", we begin to go backwards. The previous section gives him "visions of smashing Soledad in the face with a Coke bottle" and his perceptions have now been inverted. He has come full circle, and his views of Solitude and the movies will no longer be the same.

By the time I reached the ending (a type of this event also occurs in Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but with much more impact here), I could do nothing but breathlessly close the book and sit thinking...and thinking...

Dissertations could be written about this novel.

Much more (and better) information can be found in Bookslut's interview with Steve Erickson, as well as his recent appearance on The Bat Segundo Show. There are also many more links to other articles and interviews on his site.

19 February 2008

Venuti elaborates

Lawrence Venuti responds to questions regarding his recent article (which I mentioned here), elaborating further on what publishers can do to enlarge the context in which works of translation can be received:
To be clear about my argument, I don’t recommend that a publisher choose texts that can be seen as “representative” of a foreign culture. My point is rather that the publishing must be done strategically, so that a foreign work in translation can achieve a level of intelligibility in terms that are specific to the foreign culture, not merely to the receiving one. How can our reading of foreign works approximate the forms of reading that they receive in their own cultures? Those forms of reading are bound by multiple contexts, linguistic and literary, cultural and social, contexts that gave rise to the works in the first place, but that may also shift with different readerships who bring divergent kinds of knowledge to their reading. [...]

More than one publisher needs to take an interest in the writing of a particular foreign culture at the same moment. Publishers shouldn’t look at their colleagues as competitors but as contributors to the construction of cultural patterns from which they themselves as well as their readers can benefit. Patterns of selecting foreign works for translation tend to harden into canons, producing valued yet highly selective representations of foreign literatures. This is one reason why we often see a publisher translate the same foreign writers or the same kinds of foreign writing. The choice of material becomes familiar, and readers who are challenged by the differences of foreign writing in translation might gravitate toward familiarity. Publishers as well as translators need to be vigilant about these possible effects of their decisions because for every foreign work that is admitted many, many others are excluded and the resulting image of a foreign culture can only ever be partial—both incomplete and biased toward the reigning tastes of the translating culture. Any notion of a “representative” selection of foreign works needs to be rigorously examined and resisted. [...]

Just think of all those reading groups that publishers now try to cultivate for their books. As a reading group moves from one book to the next, its choices are usually motivated by the members’ personal tastes or interests along with what they’ve heard in the media about a book. What if the group had a program of exploring a set of books from a foreign literary tradition? Could current publishing trends in the US support that program? If so, for how many languages and cultures? [...]

I’d want to avoid anything that suggests building a context is simply another scholarly activity. Readers who read for pleasure get part of that pleasure from automatically comparing what they’re reading to previous reading experiences. Those experiences always come into play, even if selectively, depending on the current read. We build up reading experiences that shape later ones. Yet anglophone readers can’t do this much with foreign literatures because of the dearth of translations (and the relatively small number that remain in print or accessible).

But I am now completing a project that tries to compensate for the virtual lack of any translated context in which to read the work: a book by a contemporary Catalan poet, Ernest Farrés, in which each poem is based on a painting by Edward Hopper. [...] So I’m banking on what the anglophone reader will bring to my translation, a familiarity with Hopper’s mythic images, perhaps some sense of the English-language poems that have been written about Hopper (by noted American poets like John Hollander, Edward Hirsch, Stephen Dunn—the Hopper authority Gail Levin has compiled a little anthology of these poems). Against this backdrop Ernest Farrés’s book is absolutely stunning in its ambitiousness, its wit, and the depth of its interpretations of the visual images. (Or so I think).

It would help this project greatly if a body of Catalan poetry, past and present, were available for anglophone readers of poetry. But I’m trying to work around that absence in various ways—including the language I use in the translations: an American vernacular that draws on words and phrases which Hopper and his wife, the painter Jo Nivison, actually used in their speech and writing, but that at the same time matches the Catalan poet’s penchant for colloquialisms, among various other forms of the language (e.g. the standard dialect, jargon from the social and natural sciences, foreign borrowings). I am also compensating for the lack of context by creating a section of endnotes that identify allusions in the Catalan poems and quote comments that Hopper and Nivison made on the paintings and their circumstances. These notes will point up the continuities and disjunctions between the poems and the paintings, highlighting the biographical slant that Farrés himself has taken in his book, his ventriloquism of Hopper. Finding a publisher who will be interested in printing a small number of color reproductions, just some to go along with the poems that can most benefit from the images, is another strategy. It is a rich and complicated project, experimental in a unique sort of way, fitted to the contingencies (notably the lack of Catalan poetry in translation) and relying on the continuing interest in Hopper’s work.
(via The Literary Saloon)

18 February 2008

On Robbe-Grillet

Alain Robbe-Grillet has died. I expect that many more tributes and analyses of his work will surface in the coming days. His unique perspective on the nature of reality can be found in his demanding but very necessary work. I have only read one of his books so far, but it was a heady experience that I look forward to repeating. As I once noted, Roland Barthes (in "Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet") describes his style very well:
For Robbe-Grillet, the function of language is not a raid on the absolute, a violation of the abyss, but a progression of names over a surface, a patient unfolding that will gradually "paint" the object, caress it, and along its whole extent deposit a patina of tentative identifications, no single term of which could stand by itself for the presented object. [...]

Robbe-Grillet is important because he has attacked the last bastion of the traditional art of writing: the organization of literary space.
I love how Jealousy calls for such scrupulous close reading--a "detective" novel that leaves the reader noting clues on the nature of existence rather than on a mere (questionable) crime, due to the systematic erasure of subjectivity achieved.

It is sad to know that no more words will flow from his pen, but it is hoped that his books will be read with even greater attention.

(via ReadySteadyBlog)

Tapping out the messages that signify communion

Raymond and Hannah take no photographs. In three days, it won't be as though it never happened, but close enough. Species and languages die out every day. The whole world is clamouring with lost things, and every day an army of mourners—editors, lecturers, curators, writers, archivists—rush to preserve the frailest relics of everything we love that vanishes. The vanishing makes us all want to burst into song and to burn something and to blow up. Every library is an incomplete encyclopedia of the vanishing's spread. The stuff we call the material world is leaves that go green to turn red and fall off, and stones ground to smooth pebbles to become dust, and our own bodies and the bodies of those we love.
She is to leave for Jerusalem to study Torah at an Orthodox yeshiva for nine months. Her last week in Toronto, she meets Raymond, who is struggling to complete his doctoral dissertation on Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The inevitable happens, leaving them at opposite ends of the world with only words and memories to connect them...
Abelard and Eloise turned absence into the substance of their fever, and grew old in the expectation of no reward.

Raymond and Hannah poured themselves into light signals fluttering in the space over the Atlantic. They sit at desks taking notes and are lovers.
In Raymond + Hannah, Stephen Marche structures the emails and events of the couple in ways that resemble poetry with the practice of placing brief summaries in the margins of each "stanza," rather than numbered lines. We follow their separate preoccupations with their studies in between the messages they're able to send to each other across the sea.

Hannah, on the authority of Torah:
Another curious Jew, Eliezer, called the walls to witness that he was right in his dispute with Joshua, an argument concerning the purity of ovens. A river ran backwards for him. A tree uprooted itself, and finally a voice from heaven called out that Eliezer had judged properly. The walls leaned, but did not collapse. Joshua pointed out that miracles should never decide questions of real importance, such as the meaning of the Torah. God had already had his say. Because Eliezer was right, but proven only by means of heaven, he was declared anathema.
Raymond, on The Anatomy of Melancholy's dictum, "Be not solitary, be not idle":
Reading requires two conditions: solitude and idleness. It takes gall to end a thousand-page book with instruction that could fit on the back of a matchbook and rule out the two conditions necessary for reading in the first place. Like ending a global encyclopedia of cookery with the advice: Best to eat potatoes only. And of course you must take the advice, because you are done reading. Your solitude and idleness are over, and you must go do something, you putz, Raymond.
The emails themselves are typical enough, although the lack of epistolary conflict seems a bit unrealistic (even though something horrible does happen). But after all, Marche appears to be more concerned with the lovely form and language of this work than the plot, which is completely fine with me. It's one of the more aesthetically fulfilling reading experiences I've had in the past few months.

14 February 2008

The future of languages

(Photo of David Crystal by Daniel Mordzinski at the Cartagena Hay Festival 2008 blog.)

After the Hay Festival Anne Enright event on Saturday (26 January), we were fortunate enough to attend a lecture by prolific author and linguist David Crystal on “The Future of Languages.” It was a fascinating talk, especially for those relatively new to the issue. I'm very interested in reading some of his work (particularly The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left). Here are the notes I could decipher from my Moleskine pages (any and all factual errors are mine).

He began his talk by saying that this last decade has been the most exciting time in history since 10,000 years ago when writing began. Developments include the supreme significance of the Internet, the recognition of English as a global language (the first books began appearing on the subject ca. 1997-1998), and the discovery of endangered languages.

There are between 6,000 and 7,000 languages in the world. Half will die in the 21st century. One language dies every two weeks. He quietly added, “One died last Saturday.” The last woman to speak Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, had died in Alaska the week before.

Most languages exist along the equator, but they are dying out all over the world. Of these, 60 languages have only one speaker left. He asked us to "imagine being the last speaker of a language.” What would that be like? He described the huge responsibility they feel and the immense pressure weighing on their shoulders. They want it documented before they die and are desperate to give as much information as possible, because there is always the hope that another generation will want it back.

Languages can be brought back from the dead if they are written or recorded. It happened with Hebrew, as well as an aboriginal language in Australia in the 1890’s. This last one had been recorded, and now children are learning it today.

It is crucial for languages to be written down. One third of languages in the world have never been written down (about 2,000). And if a language completely disappears, it’s as if it never existed. A culture leaves evidence behind, but when a language dies, it leaves nothing.

Why should we care? Some think it’s all for the best and want only one world language. But monolingualism does not guarantee peace (as exhibited by Vietnam, Rwanda, and Cambodia). On the contrary—multilingual countries (such as Canada, India, and Belgium) tend to be more peaceful.

Why should we care? Because language expresses identity. We not only use it to communicate, but to express individual identity. (The former deals with the head, but the latter, the heart.)

He mentioned how more people care about the issue these days. 21 February is International Mother Language Day. 26 September is the European Day of Languages. The U.N. has declared 2008 to be the Year of World Languages.

Multilingualism is a basic human good. More people are multilingual than monolingual in the world. Countries with colonial histories tend to be monolingual and try to control the language use of the rest. Multilingualism is an index of diversity (also a basic human good), as well as a demonstration of intellectual adaptability.

Every language has its own vision of the world (e.g., such as with untranslatable words). Only 6,000 visions of the world exist…and half are dying out.

Rescuing these languages is not an economic imperative but a cultural one (an expression of what it means to be human). Can a dying language be saved? In some cases, yes. What is needed is:
  • A bottom-up attitude. The people themselves must want to save it.
  • Top-down support. All aspects of government must want it, from local to national (this includes UNESCO initiatives).
  • Money.
To promote multilingualism, there must be the financial means in order to have everything written and recorded. Training teachers, publishing books, etc.

It could actually be done with $200,000 a year for five years. That means a total of $600 million for all of the languages that are endangered. What is $600 million? Less than 1 day's profit for OPEC. It's also the amount Bill Gates makes in half a day.

The difficulty is in getting the public’s attention. This is why the Internet is so magical. Obviously, the people would need a terminal and electricity in order to have access, but it’s possible. Nowadays it’s easy to give an endangered language a public presence.

In the 1970’s they began reviving Welsh; the Internet guaranteed its future. But the future of a language is only as secure as the interest of its teenagers. Being online has helped to encourage this. For example, the Navajo now talk online in their own language.

The Internet is now multilingual. In 1995, 90% of it was in English. In 2000, 75% was in English. By 2003, there were more hosts in languages other than English. This is just the beginning. Most of China and Africa are not online (only about 5% of the population of each country). Only 12-15% of South America is online. The balance of languages online will soon reflect the balance of languages in the real world.

The future of language is the future of society. The dominant language is the dominant culture. In the future, it could be Chinese or Arabic or Spanish (which is presently the world’s fastest-growing language). But one must be careful in this line of thinking: there is no close link between the arrival of a global language (such as English) and the death of others. In the United States and Australia, yes this is the case. But English hasn’t taken over Latin America. Political suppression does exist, though (the Chinese have suppressed speakers of other language; in Africa, Arabic and Swahili have had an aggressively dominant role).

Languages have always died. Why is this happening at such a faster rate now?
  • Natural disasters kill and fragment the population, causing displacement (a language really dies when the second-to-last person dies and there is no one left to talk to).
  • Political reasons (genocide or strategy)
  • Globalization (no isolated place)
We will be better able to understand this phenomena once there is a better understanding of the impact of the Internet.

In the Q&A, the first question dealt with entities that officiate the “standards” of a language (such as the Real Academia Española) and whether these organizations have positive or negative effects on a language. Professor Crystal responded that 30 of these exist worldwide and were mainly founded for political reasons (entities where language and politics are intertwined). Control is a form of power and can be expressed in the restriction of a language, creating an “elite” vs. “common” dichotomy. He cautioned that an academy that doesn’t understand the real developments of a language will eventually lose touch with what is actually happening to that language. He said that if Britain had had a royal academy of language, everyone else would be “wrong” and differences would be stifled—yet it’s the diversity of English that has strengthened it. Spanish is diversifying rapidly (just as English did). All varieties of a language must be respected. Language changes whether an academy exists or not.

The next question was the (inevitable) question as to whether or not the Internet is “degrading” language. He responded that there is no anarchy on the Internet—people have to be able to write well enough in order to make themselves understood. Rather, people are exploiting and exploring changes to language. The Internet allows us to be informal and it’s the novelty of it that has helped create those alterations (such as with texting and instant messaging). He said that it’s not a disaster, but an exploration of possibilities; it’s not erasing language, but adding variety and increasing expressive richness. But, of course, it must be managed. Children must be taught the various styles of writing and learn not to mix them up. This is why we have teachers.

Another question dealt with the fear that if English is introduced into a culture, it would cause a deterioration of that culture’s language. Professor Crystal frankly stated that he doesn’t see this happening. The use of English as a functional language doesn’t affect a culture. One’s ideology or culture does not change; one’s identity does not change simply because a second language is learned. It’s a theoretical rather than a practical argument.

Someone else asked about how the meaning of untranslatable words can be recorded if their meaning is untranslatable. He said that recordings are made and many discussions take place between the native speakers and the linguists in an attempt to capture a word’s meaning. Sometimes the native speaker will try to explain it to the linguists in the latters' own tongue.

The last question asked if artificial languages, such as Esperanto, are useful. He replied, “Yes, of course! Languages only exist if they’re useful.” He explained that although the reasons for it have changed (the politics of it, etc.), it still has its role.

I discovered Professor Crystal's own blog while I was looking up the links to this post. I was delighed to read what he wrote about his exprience in Colombia:
Before we went, our friends and colleagues expressed the hope that we would not be kidnapped. That is the bad image which Colombia still has, even though it's largely based on events that took place years ago. Problems there still are, of course, down in the south, and there are still some no-go areas in the cities. But these are city problems, not Colombia problems, applicable as much to London and Liverpool as to anywhere else. Be sensible, follow local advice, and you'll be fine - as indeed we were.

More than fine. We had a great time, Hilary and I. Colombia is a truly beautiful country. Bogotá, at 10,000 feet, nestles at the foot of a swathe of hills covered with luxuriant vegetation. From the top of one of these, you can see the whole city below you - a rare sight, in my experience. This was Monserrate, a pilgrimage church which we reached by a funicular railway. Thousands of people make a visit, especially on a Sunday, and - as pretty distinctive-looking tourists - we were noticed and warmly welcomed. I received a new identity there too (see below). Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, is a walled city - the largest former military emplacement in the Americas, the guidebooks say. It's a splendid location for a Hay-type festival, with several fine large old buildings acting as venues for talks and gatherings. Enthusiastic audiences, as always at Hay. And the massive walls give the place an intimacy not too far removed from that which you get at the festival site in Wales. It's slightly warmer than the average Welsh day, though, it has to be said - around 30 degrees, more or less.

12 February 2008

On the Mabinogion

A post of Imani's reminded me of something else that I've been meaning to mention--Oxford University Press has published a new translation of The Mabinogion. Translator Sioned Davies explains:
Certainly, poets were acquainted with traditional stories, as reflected in the many allusions scattered throughout their work; yet it would seem from the surviving evidence that verse itself was not used for extended narrative in medieval Wales––the preferred medium, unlike most Indo-European countries, was prose. The situation, therefore, was not only a complex, but surely a dynamic one: despite the hierarchical legal structure, one could expect a certain degree of interaction between the various professional ‘performers’ as they entertained at feasts and gatherings. Moreover, there are examples within the Mabinogion themselves of personal narratives arising out of informal conversation at table, as in the Second Branch when Matholwch, king of Ireland, tells his table companion Bendigeidfran the history of the Cauldron of Rebirth. It would appear, therefore, that storytelling was the domain of both the professional and the amateur, while the numerous words for ‘story’, as reflected in the tales themselves, point to a wide range of forms within the narrative genre.

In order to fully appreciate the Mabinogion, we have to understand the effect that this oral milieu had on the written tales. Oral and performance features are an integral part of their fabric, partly because the authors inherited pre-literary modes of narrating, but also because the written tales were composed for oral delivery, so that their reception and dissemination continued to have an influence on both style and structure. Indeed, one of the overriding concerns of this new translation has been the attempt to communicate to readers the exhilarating power of performance.
I must also add that it was through reading The Mabinogion and work by Lloyd Alexander and Stephen Lawhead that gave me a deep affection for Welsh mythology that sometimes verges on prejudice when I think of the French and their silly love triangles.

11 February 2008


The Blog of Disquiet is a brilliant idea of Matthew Tiffany's: a place for various people to post their thoughts on Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, creating "a blog from inside the text." My first contribution went up over the weekend.

There's also another interesting project afoot. Marcelo Ballvé of Sancho's Panza is translating the anonymous 19th century Uruguayan text, The Book of Disengagements on a blog of the same name.

09 February 2008

An antidote for dehumanization

In an essay in the print version of January's Arcadia, columnist Margarita Valencia discusses W.H. Auden, beginning with one of his essays on Shakespeare:
Auden asegura que lo que Yago hace con Otelo es un experimento científico, uno que culmina exitosamente en la medida en que logra convertir a Otelo en un objeto. "Conocer en el sentido científico significa, en últimas, tener poder sobre lo que se conoce. [...]", añade Auden. "Siempre es posible reducir a los seres humanos al estatus de cosas completamente conocibles desde el punto de vista científico y totalmente controlables". Esta fantasía de control total gracias a la ciencia, tan característica de la modernidad a la que Auden dio voz en su poesía, aun acompaña y sostiene las discusiones sobre el valor de las artes y de las humanidades, una de las manifestaciones más penosas de la insustancialidad cultural que pugnó por dominar el discurso en torno a la cultura en el siglo XX.
It's an insightful look at The Dyer's Hand and the increasing relevance of Auden's poetic philosophy in a climate of voluntary self-deception.

She concludes by affirming,
No puedo imaginar un mejor antídoto para la deshumanización que la poesía, cuyo único propósito, si es que ha de tenerlo, es desintoxicarnos y desencantarnos diciendo la verdad.

Peirce on doubt

Ovi Magazine's "Charles Sanders Peirce and the Presuppositions of Science":
One of his early discoveries was that, despite Descartes’ cogito, scientific intelligences do not begin their activities in and intellectual vacuum. There are presuppositions of science and scientific method and they basically fall into two large classes: religion and common sense. Peirce speculated that scientific activity is based upon religion, whether or not the scientific intelligence is aware of it or not, because the ideals of that method presuppose a search for the truth about a reality not yet known. This idea of faith or basic beliefs being the base of science can be found in both Aquinas [sic] Summa and in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Moreover, Peirce sees knowledge as a means of stabilizing our habitual behavior in response to doubt. [...]

Pierce rejects Descartes [sic] “paper doubt,” a doubt considered merely as an intellectual exercise, and sidesteps the whole issue of epistemological skepticism. His foundational, scientific metaphysics accordingly begins with phenomenology, the way things are presented to us in experience. He is particularly concerned with the difference between belief and doubt. Real doubt ensues when recalcitrant experience, which is not reflection, causes us to waver in our beliefs. A belief, as Peirce understands it, is not some kind of intellectual disposition to assent to a proposition, but a behavioral habit manifest in action. Therefore, when real doubt ensues it disrupts our usual behavioral patterns. Cartesian doubt, on the other hand, can make no difference to the way we act.
(Emphasis from original article...via Books, Inq.)

07 February 2008

In the quiet heart of concentration

Reading some of Bud's thoughts on Adam Zagajewski led me to find a starting point with Mysticism for Beginners (translated by Clare Cavanagh). I would read a few poems between the books I was able to find in my yearly trip to a North American library, and the spare simplicity of his lines were perfect for those winter days. Here are a few I scribbled down for myself.

From "Long Afternoons":
Oh, tell me how to cure myself of irony, the gaze
that sees but doesn't penetrate; tell me how to cure myself
of silence.
From "Three Angels":
But still, the second angel mumbled shyly,
there's always a little joy, and even beauty
lies close at hand, beneath the bark
of every hour, in the quiet heart of concentration,
and another person hides in each of us--
universal, strong, invincible.
Wild roses sometimes hold the scent
of childhood, and on holidays young girls
go out walking just as they always have,
and there's something timeless
in the way they wind their scarves.
Memory lives in the ocean, in galloping blood,
in black, burnt stones, in poems,
and in every quiet conversation.
The world is the same as it always was,
full of shadows and anticipation.
From "Houston, 6 p.m.":
Poetry calls us to a higher life,
but what's low is just as eloquent
Poetry summons us to life, to courage
in the face of the growing shadow.
Can you gaze calmly at the Earth
like the perfect astronaut?

06 February 2008

The literary allusions of Lemony Snicket

Favorite moments from The Hostile Hospital:

Page 35: Brett Helquist's wry little parody of Willie Guthrie's "This Machine Kills Fascists" guitar.

Page 76 (discussing "Ana Gram"):
"It could be the name of one of the white-faced women," Klaus said.

"Orlando!" Sunny said, which meant "Or the one who looks like neither a man nor a woman."
Page 140:
They visited Room 201 and sang to Jonah Mapple, who was suffering from seasickness, and they gave a heart-shaped balloon to Charley Anderson in Room 714, who had injured himself in an accident, and they visited Clarissa Dalloway, who did not seem to have anything wrong with her but was staring sadly out the window of Room 1308, but nowhere, in any of the rooms that the volunteers marched into, was Violet Baudelaire, who, Klaus and Sunny feared, was suffering more than any of the other patients.
Page 142:
"O.K.," a volunteer called, consulting the list. "The next patient is Emma Bovary in Room 2611. She has food poisoning, so she needs a particularly cheerful attitude."
Page 147 (Klaus to Sunny):
"Maybe [Count Olaf] made up a new name for Violet, so we couldn't rescue her. But which person is really Violet? She could be anyone from Mikhail Bulgakov to Haruki Murakami. What are we going to do?"

05 February 2008

Cartagena bookstores

All of the books we bought on this Hay Festival trip were purchased at the Librería Paideia. We discovered another great little place that sold books and music, Forum Discos y Libros (as we were leaving). But most of our time was spent at Ábaco Libros y Café for the following reasons...

Depersonalizing translation

Lawrence Venuti is required reading for the program I'll be embarking on later this year, so I was especially interested to read The Literary Saloon's discussion of Venuti's essay, "Translations on the Market," from the current issue of Words Without Borders. (He has also reviewed Venuti's The Scandals of Translation. Twelve pages of Eco's The Name of the Rose missing from the English translation?? How do these things happen?).

I was particularly intrigued by this part:
Focusing on a single foreign text or a single foreign author winds up exacerbating this process: it mystifies the loss or sheer destruction of the foreign linguistic and cultural contexts and therefore gives the false and misleading impression that any literary work can be understood on its own. This encourages an essentially romantic notion of original genius that militates against the contextualized reading, the implicit comparisons among texts, which informed readers always do. To enable English-language readers to understand and appreciate a translation, publishers must restore in English at least part of the context in which the foreign text was written. With individual publishers each pursuing their own single-minded focus, this context is unlikely to emerge. [...]

I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture. Translators too need to participate in these choices, since their expertise is invaluable in assessing the losses and gains in the translation process. But they must regard translation in more self-critical ways than is generally the rule today, when translators tend to take a belletristic approach to their work, making impressionistic comments which show that they, like publishers, find writing to be primarily personal, a form of self-expression or a testimony of their aesthetic kinship to the foreign author. Publishers and translators alike need to depersonalize translation and to become aware of the ethical responsibility involved in representing foreign texts and cultures. What a sad time it is for intercultural exchange when publishers and translators look abroad and see mainly opportunities to imprint their own values.
His solution is that
publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success. But in the long run chances are that it will pay off handsomely by laying the foundations for an informed readership that will not feel inadequate before translations from a particular foreign language and will actually be eager to sample new texts from it.
Why does such brilliant common sense sound so daunting to implement? Publishers must reconsider their approach to translated works and cooperate with each other to create a broader context in which these works can be more readily received. I look forward to reading further discussion on the matter.

UPDATE: Chad Post at Three Percent weighs in.

New words for an old academy

A new edition of the Breve Diccionario de Colombianismos was recently completed by the Academia Colombiana de la Lengua and features many "new" words.

Some of the "colombianisms" to be added include:

* Abeja: Ser muy vivo, listo, aprovechado.
* Afrijolar: Endosar obligaciones o responsabilidades en forma indebida.
* Apartamentero: Ladrón experto en hurtar bienes de los apartamentos.
* ¡Aguanta!: Voz que los pasajeros dirigen al conductor de un vehículo para que se detenga. [As anyone who has nearly fallen off a bus knows very well!]
* Bacán: Referido a una persona estupenda, excelente.
* Bareto (vareto): Cigarrillo de marihuana.
* Biyuyo: Dinero.
* Camello: Empleo. Carga, fastidio.
* Chimba: Bueno, bonito.
* Descrestar: Engañar, producir admiración.
* Faltón: Dicho de las personas que no cumplen las obligaciones o compromisos.
* Gadejo: Ganas de joder.
* Gomelo: Joven de clase media o alta que se viste en forma llamativa y usa un lenguaje peculiar.
* Jincho: Borracho. Lleno de alimentos, de dinero, de piojos, etc.
* Neura: Mal humor.
* Parche: Sitio de reunión de jóvenes. Grupo de dichos jóvenes.
* Pico y placa: Limitación. Horario del tránsito vehicular urbano en ciertos días.
* Pichurria: Cosa insignificante, de poco valor.
* Pipiciego: Cegato, corto de vista.
* Rabón: Molesto por algo.
* Rumbearse: Tener trato incidencialmente erótico con una persona.
* Traga: Enamoramiento. Novio o novia.
* Tusa: Despecho por razones amorosas.
* Voleo: Ajetreo.

04 February 2008

Colombia soy yo

Millions of people from over 130 cities around the world took to the streets today to protest against the FARC and to plead for peace and the freedom of all hostages. Here are a few images from our demonstration today in Santa Marta:

Anne Enright in Cartagena

The second event we made it to at this year's Hay Festival (the first being a screening of Paraíso Travel and Q&A with author Jorge Franco and screenwriter Juan Rendón) was a conversation between Anne Enright and Arcadia director, Marianne Ponsford.

(This great photo is from the Cartagena Hay Festival 2008 blog, taken by photographer Daniel Mordzinski.)

Before the event, we received free copies of a lovely little publication by Arcadia and Juan Valdez: Primeras páginas: Los escritores de Bogotá 39 en sus propias palabras—the first pages of works by the Bogotá 39 from 17 Latin American countries (as The Literary Saloon has already mentioned). Here is the PDF and also the html version.

Among them was a page from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao translated into Spanish. (I eagerly look forward to its publication here as I would love to have more people read it.)

Marianne Ponsford began by asking Enright how old she was when she started reading. She replied that she began reading when she was very young. There were always many books in the house and she read everything she could get her hands on since the age of three (she would read her older sisters' books too). She didn’t worry about not understanding and even attempted Ulysses at age 14—she loved its musicality. But when it was discovered what she was reading, her parents took it away from her and put it up in the attic until she turned 18.

She confessed that like most adolescents, she read in order to discover information about sex. She read Lolita for the same reason, but when she came to the scene, she was very disappointed in its lack of specific technical information.

Ponsford commented that reading tends to be perceived as a solitary activity. Did she have a tendency to solitude when she was young?

She said that there were five children in her family and what reading provided you with was space—perhaps the only space that you had. But the family would also read together at the table...and she would also do her homework in front of the tv. People wonder how she’s able to write with small children in the house and she says that she now has absolutely no problem focusing with noise around.

After some discussion about the international school in Canada she attended at 16, she was asked about her breakdown. Enright declared that she is a "great believer" in breakdowns—"especially if you can have one while you’re young." She said that death is very enchanting to the young—that is, until they actually see it firsthand. Her breakdown came in her late 20’s and led to depression and thoughts of suicide. But she said that it’s very good for writers to have their personalities deconstructed in such a way. This is why she’s very patient with miserable (i.e., depressing) writers. There’s hope in their work and the possibility of resolution.

Ponsford then asked her about motherhood and made the comment that not very many heroines in novels are mothers. Enright replied that mothers don’t have stories—children do. A woman’s narrative stops as soon as she begins to have children. She said this was one of her challenges in writing The Gathering.

Ponsford commented that she finds her novels to be about the writing, the beauty of her language. And she has two children, so she’s been able to see language develop firsthand. She asked, "What have they taught you about language?"

She replied with her theory that all writers have "big mothers"—women with a very important, prominent place in their lives. When her daughter was learning how to speak, she would repeat what she heard and so speaking became an act of "feeding each other language." "All language takes place between ourselves and our mothers, which is why mothers can’t be written about."

She was then asked about a comment she once made about being uncomfortable in the presence of a nursing mother. Enright explained that in the act of nursing, there is too much love, too much need present. (Too much to bear looking at.) Ponsford asked if this could be used as an excuse to avoid feeling or sentimentality in her work. Enright replied, "Goodness is a great mystery" and she finds herself writing about "the emotions with which we are helpless." Men tend to write about killing, about the emotional incontinence in the act of ending the life of another human being. She, on the other hand, is interested in the emotional incontinence of loving someone. "It is a terrible thing… It is an absolute."

Ponsford asked about the lyrical quality of her writing and if she ever wrote poetry. She replied that poetry was too sacred to be embarked upon, but that she was capable of writing really good sentences and that’s good enough for her—because poets must go beyond that. She offered the work of Paul Muldoon and Anne Carson as examples—that with them, the "sentence goes somewhere very strange and very enjoyable."

She was then asked about writing being a painful process and she said that "the secret of writing is writing." She loves the creative process—getting in the flow of it and just writing unthinkingly. She mentioned meeting John Banville in an airport and asking him about the Booker. He said, "It’s terrible, terrible. The book is just terrible." He thought The Sea was the worst book ever. So she made the point that writers' emotions about their own writing is useless—that a work is what it is, independent of what the writer thinks of it. "Writing is about controlling your mood."

Ponsford brought up the idea that it’s taboo for women to be angry and asked her what she thought. Enright discussed her character Veronica and said she was very angry (at that stage of her grief). But she’s also angry at her world, at her family—the fact that her parents had children arbitrarily and never considered what it would take to truly care for each one. Veronica is angry—"but never at her children." And she only falls apart when they’re asleep.

Ponsford observed that book seemed to deal with the violence of male desire. Why male desire? Enright quipped that that would be her next book’s theme—the violence of female desire. But in this case she was interested in misogyny, in men hating women. She said that it was because she was in such a happy and settled place in her personal life that she could go over to the dark side and explore those things.

She was then asked if there were any advantages to being a woman writer. Enright said, "It’s wonderful." That it’s really a wonderful time to be a woman and a writer because in the past, some had to leave their children in order to write, but now she’s free to do both. "What a privilege."

Ponsford asked about The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch and how she could write it having never been to Paraguay. She said that her excuses for that are always 1) that she was pregnant and 2) that she couldn’t go in 1855. She said she was "just making it up." She didn’t want truth to get in the way of the story she had to tell—and she recommends writers to do the research after they write (to see how well they got it).

But Eliza Lynch was a historical figure. She read a 1950’s biography about her and she was interested in Irish women outside of the establishment.

Ponsford asked her if Gabriel García Márquez was an influence. She said that someone had told her that the only way to read him was in the original Spanish and so she read four pages of him a day with a Spanish dictionary on hand. She said his sentences are "like honey dripping off a spoon."

She was then asked about the butterflies she used in Eliza Lynch. Ponsford compared them to Rushdie’s in The Satanic Verses (the original inspiration obviously being Gabo’s Cien años de soledad). Enright explained that the butterflies in her novel came from the fact that butterflies tend to congregate in that way around "animal piss" and so it was a good image for her to use since Eliza was a beautiful woman who fed on human misery.

Ponsford asked her about something she once said about ideology being the end of art. Enright asserted that she believes this to be true. For example, with Marxism—"ideology ossifies." The stranglehold it exerts over a work must be broken for it to be of any use. Ideology is "awful for a writer" because writing is about stripping things down to their essence.

Ponsford asked if there were any other Latin American writers who influenced her and Enright mentioned Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. She went on to say that magical realism posed an interesting problem. That it is essentially "metaphor made flesh" and that it is "a very Catholic thing to do." She said that people who don’t like magical realism tend to be more at the center (perhaps more literal-minded). But she said that women must write more of it because sometimes it’s the only way to convey their experience. (I was reminded of Junot Díaz again and his thoughts on the immigrant experience and science fiction.) She went on to say that unmetaphorical books are written by people who know and own the world: "I can’t. It isn’t stable. I don’t possess it. Even in my own books, I don’t entirely know what’s going on."

She said she doesn’t know where she is going when she writes. She’s "used to the dark"—"not afraid of it anymore."

Ponsford then asked about her experience in winning the Booker. She confessed, "I have no filter" and that the strangest aspect to it all is the people who now read things she wrote ten years ago. She doesn’t remember some of the things she said and these things now get quoted back to her. It’s "very strange and very daunting." Prizes and all that come with them don’t matter creatively, but they do affect one’s persona.

Ponsford asked if her writing will be affected by it from now on. Enright quoted an old Irish song that says, "I know where I’m going, I know who’s going with me." She said, "I know how to sit at a desk"—which is one of the most important things for a writer. Emotions don’t count. She was reminded of a Lewis Carroll saying: "Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today." She said that’s how it is with the critical world—there is never jam today.

"All books are failures." She said they were enjoyable failures, but that there is always a creative shortfall in the written word. Written words solidify the work.

In closing, she said she loved meeting Marianne and that she was "honored to be in Colombia." During the Q&A, she was asked if it were true that one must "write what you know." She responded that "we know a lot" and many "unexpected things" as well. But the imagination is also very important and there must be a balance. Writing is also about developing self-knowledge. She says she agrees with what Dickinson says, "There are worlds in our heads."

Someone else asked about her writing about motherhood. She said that it’s "sacred ground" and that there’s a difference between the social idea of motherhood and one’s actual mother. There is the Catholic idea that motherhood is the epitome of "sublime suffering." She declared that religion is a mechanism for the oppression of women, but that they do it extraordinarily well. It’s the priest who is the one who says that she’s the most important person—and this is why she must do everything and sacrifice everything for her family.

A question came about her literary preferences. She replied that she’s a restless reader—that reading is work nowadays because she can’t help but think of what she could’ve done better. Also, "I don’t do hierarchies." She never places one writer above another as far as "importance" is concerned. She said she has "friends" like Alice Munro—the writers one reads who are like old friends. But she’s really just "impatient with all of them." And tastes change. She used to love Lolita, but not so much anymore. Perceptions change with time. Nabokov is not a "fallen idol," there is just a different perception now from when she was young. But she said she loves Joyce—that The Dubliners still makes her cry.

(I had said that I wouldn’t post these long quasi-transcriptions…but it was all so interesting!)