Category Archives: Cahier Series

Review: Nay Rather by Anne Carson

I have been on an Anne Carson reading binge lately and have also been slowly making my way through the Cahiers Series so I was thrilled when I discovered that Carson wrote Cahier #21.  Her essay in this Cahier, entitled “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,”  includes her thoughts on the issues of resistance in translation, the untranslatable, and  the mistranslated.  Silence, which is oftentimes a problem with ancient manuscripts, is her starting point: “Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation.”  Carson points out that silence can be both physical and metaphysical;  physical silence, for example, happens when a manuscript of Sappho has been torn in half and there is empty space. This part of her discussion particularly resonated with me because it is one of the issues with ancient texts that my students have the most difficulty.  As I am translating Catullus this semester with my university level class, it bothers them to the point of argument, distraction and frustration when a piece of a text has been reconstructed with several possibilities from different editors.   They want to know exactly which word Catullus wrote in the original transcript and they don’t want to hear from me that such literary puzzles can be “fun” to figure out.

Metaphysical silence happens when it is impossible to translate a word directly from one language to another.  Carson’s example of this is taken from the word molu which appears in Homer’s Odyssey.  Molu is a plant that is sacred to the gods and Hermes gives this plant to Odysseus in order to protect himself from the magic of Circe.  Carson says about Homer’s use of this word and the intentional silence it engenders: “He wants this word to fall silent.  Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.  You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or google it and find out where to buy some  The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to the gods, the word stops itself.”  When one encounters such words in teaching an ancient author it is difficult to convey to the students that translation is not an exact science.  It has been my experience, however, that my students enjoy the metaphysical silences much more so than the physical silences because they are able to have a debate over the metaphysical by using their previous knowledge of an author’s body of work, as well as their mythological and historical backgrounds.

Also included in this Cahier is a poem that Carson has composed about the Cycladic culture entitled “By Chance the Cycladic People.”  The order in which the lines appear in the text were determined by the author through a random number generator.  This unique strategy of mixing up her poem is a way in which Carson provides us with her own example of a poem that resists translation.  We can put her poem back into the correct order.  But should we?  Are the lines really meant to be put back into the original order or can we get a deeper understanding of her verses by seeing them in this random order?  I chose not to put them back in order but instead I noticed patterns of images and themes that reoccur throughout the verses: the sea, pots and pans, boats, mirrors, etc.   I wonder how others have chosen to deal with this poem?

At the end of this Cahier, Carson provides seven different versions of a translation from a fragment of the Ancient Greek poet Ibykos.  Her first translation is a traditional, straightforward translation of the Ancient Greek text.  But with the other six translations she limits herself to a series of specific words.  One translation is rendered using only words taken from John Donne’s “Woman’s Constancy, another translation is rendered using only words from stops and signs found in the London Underground.  My favorite is the translation of Ibykos she does using only words from p. 47 of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.  Carson’s brilliance as far as translation and the nuances of this craft come into full play through her seven translations and we also see that she has a fantastic sense of humor.

 

Finally, the art work in this cahier is a series of drawings and gouaches by Sicilian artist Lanfranco Quadrio who was inspired by his reading of Carson’s text.  A piece of his work appears on every other page in the Cahier with verses from Carson’s Cycladic poem.  There is a primitive nature to them but they are also very colorful which reminded me of Cycladic and Minoan art.

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Filed under Anne Carson, Cahier Series, Chapbook, Nonfiction

Review: Going Bush by Kirsty Gunn

My Review:
going-bushKirsty Gunn’s contribution to the Cahier Series is a meditation on the bush of New Zealand and her childhood memories of this dark and mysterious place.  The book begins as a memoir with Gunn describing the park in her neighborhood with swings, slides, games and a swimming pool.  But lingering at the edges of this childhood playground was the bush, “a dark presence waiting at the end of all the brightness and play.”

Gunn describes and defines the bush in various ways; it looms over the playground, thick and dark, so to children it seems like a scary, unknown place.  It never has a specific season but instead parts of it bloom while other parts die all year round.  “It was dark and wet-smelling,” she says, “half the things in it were rotting and the other half in bud.”  The bush was also a place that the men liked to disappear for several days while hunting and living wildly.  When they came back they would smell of wet and earth but feeling relaxed and free.  There was an expression that the men used, “Going Bush” which meant that a person would go into this tangled and difficult terrain and allow himself to be changed by the experience.  “Only men went in there, into the Tarawheras, or the Ureweras or the Kaimanawa Ranges.  They came home, sun-blackened and with beards or stubble on their faces, laughing and smelling of earth and drink and something else—seeds or mould or blood.”

The author herself, as a young girl going through the bewilderment and confusion of puberty, describes the bush as something that provides a solace for her.  The writing switches to narrative form that depicts the summer in the author’s adolescence during which she meets her father’s family for a picnic.  She has just started menstruating that very day and her mother has made her feel embarrassed about her changing body.  Her cousins are cruel to the girl who is already self-conscious of her growing body which she covers up with baggy clothes and sweaters.  As the picnic progresses, she can’t take her cousins’ insulting remarks any longer so she slips into the bush.  The bush becomes for her a hideaway, a refuge where she can shed her layers of clothing and swim unencumbered in the cool river.  Gunn personifies the bush as it calls to the girl and soothes her: “‘Use me,’ the riverbank had told her then. It had said the same again as she had stood there like a mighty tree, dark and silent, while the terrible cousins ran straight on past her—and she had let them go.”

Gunn’s exploration of the bush and it’s various meanings brings this experience of New Zealand alive for us in this cahier; many view this dark, tangled place as inhospitable but its wilderness protects her during a vulnerable moment in her early years.  The blending of different genres—memoir, narrative, diary and even poetry— are each a fitting way to present different and multilayered perspectives of the bush.

Kirsty Gunn’s sister, Merran Gunn, has done the mixed media art work to go along with this cahier.  I enjoy looking at the images in the cahier series as much as I enjoy the writing.  My plan is to read every book in the series.  I have started with the latest publications, number 29 and 27 and will work my way up to the earliest cahiers.

About the Author:
kirsty-gunnKirsty Gunn was born in 1960 in New Zealand and educated at Queen Margaret College and Victoria University, Wellington, and at Oxford, where she completed an M.Phil. After moving to London she worked as a freelance journalist.

Her fiction includes the acclaimed Rain (1994), the story of an adolescent girl and the break-up of her family, for which she won a London Arts Board Literature Award; The Keepsake (1997), the fragmented narrative of a young woman recalling painful memories; and Featherstone (2002), a story concerned with love in all its variety. Her short stories have been included in many anthologies including The Junky’s Christmas and Other Yuletide Stories (1994) and The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood (1997).

She is also author of This Place You Return To Is Home (1999), a collection of short stories, and in 2001 she was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Writer’s Bursary. Her latest books are The Boy and the Sea (2006), winner of the 2007 Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award; and 44 Things (2007), a book of personal reflections over the course of one year.

Kirsty Gunn lives in Edinburgh, Scotland

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Review: The Story Smuggler by Georgi Gospodinov

the-story-smugglerWhen I first read Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow I was completely captivated by his poetic language, insightful metaphors and riveting storyline.  Despite its brevity, Gospodinov’s writing in The Story Smuggler, #29 in the Cahiers Series, is as equally lyrical and absorbing as his longer novel.  He begins his narrative with a discussion of the Bulgarian word тъга which is usually translated as “sorrow, melancholy.”  But he explains that it is really a word that means much more than “sorrow” or “melancholy” because this noun also encompasses a “longing, something unrealized, a dream of what has been lost forever or of what has never been achieved.”  Finally, he adds that this feminine noun doesn’t overwhelm us immediately, but instead creeps up on us as, “her waters are placid, her poison is slow, enfeebling.”

Gospodinov uses this Bulgarian word as a starting off point from which to reflect on all of the freedoms that he and other Bulgarians weren’t allowed to experience under a totalitarian regime.  There is a melancholic beauty to Gospodinov’s language as he describes his childhood filled with repressed and hidden sorrows:

Some smuggle cigarettes, others alcohol,—or weapons.  Our contraband, being invisible, is more dangerous.  Our contraband is undetectable by scanners.  The excess baggage that we conceal is stories, our own and those of others.  I come from a place where people are accustomed to holding their peace, or to recounting their stories in secret.  A place of unarticulated тъга—vast, hidden fields of it.

Gospodinov gives numerous examples of a longing for things that are forbidden during his boyhood in Bulgaria: cakes, chocolate, trips abroad, jeans, and pop music.  Each school child, he tells us, had an “illicit secret” notebook called a lexicon which was wrapped in colorful paper and written in with a multitude of colorful pens.  All school books were wrapped in the same white color and all notebooks were written with the same blue ink, so the decorating of their lexicons was a kind of rebellion in itself.  They would also leaving drawings, quotations, or the highly coveted images cut out from Western magazines in one another’s books.

The children would have questions listed in their lexicons and secretly pass around and answer each other’s questions.  The questions might seem rather mundane or unimportant to those of us who grew up in the West but these were all topics that Bulgarian teenagers living under Communism were not able to discuss openly: What country would you like to live in?  Do you listen to rock music? What is your favorite movie/actor/actress?  Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?  These lexicons were the primary means of teenagers attempting to smuggle their own stories among one another:

The lexicon was a place of escape, a refuge, a territory of not fully conscious teenage resistance and struggle for an identity of one’s own, for a profile different from the one imposed by the system.  A small personal niche, a private chamber, a secret enclave where you could see yourself wearing jeans, illegally smuggled by some long-distance lorry-driver; where you could flip through a contraband copy of Rolling Stone; where you could be a world traveler and a happy visitor of beloved Italy, France or Japan.

There is a sense that Gospondinov spends the rest of his life traveling around the world and writing in an attempt to make up for the sorrow, the  тъга, from his early years.  In the 25 short yet description chapters of The Story Smuggler he writes about trips to Germany, Iceland and England.  And he writes about his urge to write—poetry, fiction, diary entries— from a very early age. But there is a underlying feeling that he can never really recover the simple pleasures and freedoms that were denied to him throughout his formative years.

This volume was translated from the Bulgarian by Kristina Kovacheva and Dan Gunn.  The illustrations, which are also quite intriguing, are done by the Bulgarian graphic artist Theodore Ushev.

This is the first selection I have read from the Cahiers Series and I am was so impressed with the quality of writing and art work in this slim book that I ordered six more publications from the series.  I would love to know what other Cahiers that readers have enjoyed.  I would like to make my way through the entire series if all of the volumes are all as well-written as this one.

story-smuggler

A sample illustration by Theodore Uskev from The Story Smuggler

 

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Filed under Cahier Series, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction