Tag Archives: New Directions

The Ballad of Peckham Rye: My First Experience with Muriel Spark

This is my first Muriel Spark book (thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for giving me the nudge to try her) and I knew from these opening sentences that I would enjoy her writing very much:

‘Get away from here, you dirty swine,’ she said.

‘There’s a dirty swine in every man,’ he said.

‘Showing your face round here again,’ she said.

The “he” is Humphrey, who has recently jilted his bride-to-be, Dixie, at the altar and the “she” is Dixie’s mother.  Spark’s narrative is full of surprises, the first, and most obvious of which, is that the author begins her story at the end.  My impression after reading the first page was poor Dixie, what an awful thing to happen to her.  But over the course of the next 140 pages Spark convinces me that Humphrey probably made the right decision.  Men might have something of the dirty swine in them, but the ladies don’t fair much better in this humorous and strange book.

Dougal Douglas, the new guy in town, is blamed not only for the failed wedding, but also for the other mayhem that has recently broken out in town—fighting, absenteeism at the local textile factory, and even murder.  He keeps showing everyone that he used to have two horns on his head that were surgically removed and so many people believe that he is, physically and mentally, a devil.  Although Dougal is shrewd and quirky, his intentions are not really evil.  And, unlike everyone else in Peckham, he is rather forthcoming about his greatest weakness—he can’t stand any type of sickness.  At the first sign of a disease he will flee as fast as he possibly can.

The two subplots in the text that entertained and intrigued me the most were those that involved Mr. Druce, a manager at the local factory and Dixie’s thirteen year-old brother, Leslie.  Mr. Druce is in a rather unhappy marriage of twenty years and is having a an affair with the head of the typing pool.  When Dougal questions Druce about his reasons for staying in the marriage, it seems that the wife has some sort of secret that she is holding over her husband.  And what is even more interesting is that the pair having spoken in a few years, only communicating through notes.  Mr. Druce and his odd behavior keep the tension building in this bizarre narrative right up to the final page.

Leslie, at first, seems like a typical, sulky teenager who is withdrawn from his family.  But as the story goes on we learn that this boy has a much more sinister side and is involved with gangs, blackmail and roughing up old ladies.  His parents argue over his upbringing, or lack thereof; his father thinks that since he works all day that the responsibility of childrearing falls on the maternal parent and his mother thinks that his father ought to take more of an interest in his son’s life.  So the result of this parental stalemate is a wild boy who tortures his sister and his neighbors and never suffers any consequences for his bad behavior.

This was just the perfect book to enjoy poolside on a hot Sunday afternoon.  I look forward to reading more of Spark over my summer holidays.  I have Open to the Public, The Mandelbaum Gate and Memento Mori sitting on my TBR piles.  Please let me know what other books of hers you would also recommend.

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The Tongues of Eros: More Thoughts on George Steiner

There are some intriguing and surprising personal stories and anecdotes that George Steiner weaves into the essays in My Unwritten Books.  In his essay on his political and religious beliefs, for instance, he admits that he has never once in his life voted in any election, local or national.  He is an avid dog lover and the emotion he shows towards his pets, he admits in the essay “On Man and Beasts,”  sometimes runs deeper than that which he feels for his family.  And, perhaps the most intriguing statement in the book, comes in his writing about Eros: “I have been privileged to speak and make love in four languages.  Also in the interstices, sometimes inhibiting, sometimes playful, between them.”

Steiner begins with a general discussion of his thoughts on language and moves on to describe how Eros is a unique language in and of itself that has not been studied in any methodical way.

We have no systematic poetic or rhetoric of eros, of how the making of love is a making of words and syntax.  No Aristotle, no Saussure has taken up this pivotal challenge.  More specifically, we have, so far as I am aware, no study, even summary, of how sex is experienced, of how love is made in different languages and different language-sets (ethnic, economic, social, local).  Per se, the polyglot condition at varying levels of immediacy and proficiency is not all that rare.  It features in numerous communities, such as Sweden, Switzerland, Malaysia.  A multitude of men and women dispose of more than one “native” tongue, from very earliest childhood.  Yet we seem to have no valid account, no introspective or socialized record of what must be their metamorphic erotic lives.  How does lovemaking in Basque or Russian differ from that in Flemish or Korean?  What privileges or inhibitions arise between lovers with different first languages? Is coitus also, perhaps fundamentally, translation?

Steiner describes his sexual experiences with a German, Italian and French woman and gives specific details about how making love in each of these three languages was a unique experience.  Sex with a German woman he calls Ch. is described as an encounter in which the interplay of sex and sadism is prominent.  He concludes, “To make love in German can be taxing.”  It was an Italian woman, named A.M., he says that “instructed me in the litany of seduction.”  And he debunks the myth that the French culture is more amorous than any other.  He learns by having sex with a French woman that French erotic exchanges happen with formal language: “Gloriously astride me, my first teacher in the arts of orgasm, praise God, an older woman burnished by irony and compassion, bade me ‘come, come now and deep.’ But did so using the formal vous.”

I have to admit that I was disappointed that Steiner did not give equal time to describing his sexual experiences in English.  He argues that his own observations would not be able to capture any universal experiences because of the global pervasiveness of the English language: “How can any one person register more than an insignificant fraction of a sexual lexicon and grammar which stretch from the syncopations of Afro-Carribean pidgeons to the delicate love lyrics of Anglo-Bengalis, which comprise the creole of English hybrids in Southeast Asia and the worn passwords of the multinational dealer summoning his escort service to an anonymous hotel room in Istanbul or Valparaiso?” I think that at least some general statements about his lovemaking in English versus his experiences with other languages would have made the essay seem more complete.

Steiner’s concluding remarks in the essay, I suspect, are a better explanation for his omission of English sexual encounters: “Perhaps shared orgasm is an act of simultaneous translation.  I sense that I could have made a contribution, even pioneering.  But the hurt is would have done to that which is most precious and indispensable in my private life (this chapter comports risk) made this impossible.  Indiscretion much have its limits.”  Steiner’s wife, Zara, is the American-born, British historian…

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Filed under British Literature, Essay, Nonfiction

Investigations of a Dog and Other Creatures: More thoughts on Kafka

What more can really be said about Kafka’s writing?  I feel almost embarrassed to share my thoughts about this new volume of translations by Michael Hofmann; there will be nothing new or earthshattering here, but I am hoping that fellow Kafka lovers will at least be happy to stumble across another devotee.  Please go easy on me as I offer my humble observations on this collection!

One of the descriptions about Kafka that I have found most fascinating is that of his writing schedule.  Since he was an office worker at an insurance agency for most of his adult life, he was limited to writing at night and, as a result, got very little sleep.  It seems he truly suffered and sacrificed in order to do the one task in the world that he loved.  In a letter to Felice dated November 1, 1912, Kafka describes his daily routine which includes work, exercise, walks with his friend Max, and writing from 10:30 p.m. until 1, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.   How can one not have the utmost admiration for the work ethic of such a man?  Unfortunately for Felice, however, nothing and no one in his life would ever be as important as Kafka’s writing. In the introduction to his new translations of Kafka’s short prose, Hofmann writes about the author’s daily habits: “He devised for himself a life that was largely disagreeable, inflexible, and inescapable, and tried to make it productive.”

Many of the stories in this collection feel as if Kafka wrote for as long as could into the early hours of the morning and due to tiredness or further lack of inspiration he stopped working and never returned to finish them.  Although Kafka’s short prose included in this volume are likely beginnings of stories or parts of what would have been longer pieces, the writing is creative, profound and philosophical. A few of the stories were particularly dark and melancholy and left me desperately wanting more.  For instance, in “Blumfeld The Elderly Bachelor,” the story starts simply and humorously with a man returning to his flat after work, alone and wishing he had some kind of companion.  He contemplates getting a dog to keep him company, but quickly decides that the fleas, dirt and other messes involved would disrupt his orderly lifestyle.  The rigidity of Blumfeld’s daily routine felt as inflexible as Kafka’s description of his own bachelor lifestyle.

One evening, as Blumfeld is arriving home he hears a strange noise and upon entering his apartment he finds two bouncing balls.  The balls follow him around the apartment, incessantly moving and making noise and he is uneasy to find that he suddenly has two constant, annoying companions.  He comes up with a brilliant idea to give the balls away to his charwoman’s ten-year-old son, so he entrusts the boy with the keys to his apartment and requests that the child fetch them while Blumfeld is at work.

When Blumfeld feels that he has a successful plan to get rid of the balls, the scene and topics of the story change abruptly.  Blumfeld forgets about the balls and arrives at work in a linen factory where he is viewed as an obstinate, crabby man who does not work well with others.  He is condescending to his two interns and he doesn’t trust them to do even the most menial tasks.  The story ends with Blumfeld’s intern trying to wrestle a broom from a janitor so that he can avoid doing any work for Blumfled.  Kafka’s story is an interesting and sad commentary on the monotony of working in an office factory.  But what about the balls from Blumfeld’s apartment?  Did the boy ever successfully extract them?  Or were they able to entertain Blumfeld and offer some interest and companionship to his dull, lonely life?

“Texts on the Hunter Gracchus Theme,” “Building the Great Wall of China” and “Investigations of a Dog” were my other favorite stories in this collection.  They all have themes of restriction, as each person or animal is caught in a situation he feels he cannot easily escape.  The Hunter Gracchus particularly stood out because the main character is caught in a state of limbo, neither fully dead nor alive.  Is that how Kafka viewed his life, his office job and his routine?

What are your favorites of Kafka’s short prose?

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Ave atque Vale: Nox by Ann Carson

Nox

nox, noctis, f.  noun. [cf. Skt. nak, Gk. νύξ , Eng. night]  The time between sunset and sunrise, night; noctis avis, an owl; in contexts implying nightfall;  personified as a god or goddess;  nocte, by night, at night;  diem noctemque, day and night, without cessation or pause;  in noctem, for use at night-time;  nox aeterna, perpetua, i.e. death; the conditions of night, nocturnal darkness, etc.; in a fig. context, as symbolizing concealment or mystery; also chaos, turmoil.

Nox is a fitting title for Ann Carson’s eulogy of her older brother Michael whom she hadn’t seen in many years.  Nox refers not only to his death, but his absence, the blackness, and mystery that surrounded his turbulent life.  Carson’s brother had gotten into trouble because of drugs and, in 1978, instead of going to jail he fled to Europe and her family rarely heard from him.  She writes that he phoned her “maybe five times in 22 years.”  Nox is an accordion style, color reproduction, of Carson’s memorial notebook that contains texts, photos, letters, and sketches.  The entire notebook is housed in a gray box which little tomb of sorts seems appropriate for such a project.

Ann Carson chooses Catullus Poem 101 as the starting point, the inspiration for this notebook and scrapbook she keeps about the troubled life and death of her brother.  Catullus’s brother is also older than him and died far away from Rome, in the Troad.  Catullus’s poem is meant to serve as a private eulogy delivered at his brother’s graveside, long after the formal burial and death rituals have taken place.  Similar to Catullus, Carson is not able to be at her brother’s funeral because his widow didn’t find his sister’s contact information until two weeks after the memorial service.  She writes about her experience with Catullus Poem 101:

7.1  I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101). Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is know of the brother except his death. Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave. Perhaps he recited the elegy there. I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy. No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind. I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I cam to think of translation as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

The very first page of Nox has a complete copy of Catullus poem 101.  From there Carson gives a lengthy definitions for every single word in the Catullus poem.  These definitions occupy the left-hand side of the notebook, while the right-hand side is dedicated to her own personal observations, photos, and mementoes of her brother.  Through the personal stories, anecdotes and observations about her brother and the few experience they shared together, Carson does successfully capture the sorrow and the “deep festivity” of a Catullus poem.  She talks, for instance, about his nickname for her when they were younger.  He calls her “pinhead” or “professor,” names that imply some sort of acknowledgement for her intellectual gifts.  And later on, in one of their few phone calls, he sounds melancholy except for a brief moment when he calls her “pinhead.”

It was such a great experience for me to translate Catullus poem 101 with my students this year and share Ann Carson’s book with them.  They commented that it made the Catullus elegy more meaningful and they were amazed at the uniqueness of the accordion folded book.  One of them remarked that the scrapbook style of Nox, with torn notes and letters, was fitting for the brother and sister’s scattered and disjointed relationship.

My favorite part of this Catullus poem has always been the very last line. Its emotion, its finality are so perfectly captured by Catullus’s simple words.  It is fitting that Carson ends her memorial with her own translation of this poem—the photocopy of it on the final page is faded and blurred like the memories of her sibling—so the last line of Catullus also serves at the ending of Nox.

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And into forever, brother, farwell and farewell.

 

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Review: Compass by Mathias Énard

The English version of Compass is translated by Charlotte Mandell and being published by New Directions in the U.S. and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K.  It won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

My Review:
Compass takes place over the course of one, long night during which Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, suffers from a terrible bout of insomnia.  The symptoms from his recently diagnosed illness, the memories of an unrequited love, and the dissatisfaction at his mediocre academic career all contribute to his sleepless night.  Instead of chapters, Énard uses time stamps to denote the hours that are slowly ticking away as Franz runs through years of memories.  Sarah, a French Academic with whom Franz has spent many years in love, sends him an article she has written from Sarawak, in Malaysia, which is her current place of residence.  It is unclear at the beginning what Franz and Sarah mean or have meant to each other, but Franz slowly unravels their complicated history throughout the course of his sleepless night.

As an academic musicologist, Franz has had a deep interest in the music of the Middle East, which studies have brought him into close contact with many orientalists, including Sarah.  Compass is a travelogue, an historical essay, a literary catalog and a music lesson on the Orient.  Franz takes us on his travels from Istanbul, to Palmyra, to Damascus, to Aleppo and to Tehran as he explores eastern music and his growing, emotional attachment to Sarah.  The Orient becomes just as beautiful, enchanting and elusive as his love for Sarah.   When Franz and Sarah are suddenly forced to end their travels together in Tehran, Franz nurses his wounds by going back home and retreating into himself and his academic career.  Sarah consoles herself by wandering father east where she ends up spending quite a bit of time in a Buddhist monastery.  But the objects in his apartment are a constant reminder of his travels with her in the east:

My glasses were under a pile of books and journals, obviously, I’m so absentminded.  At the same time, to contemplate the ruins of my bedroom (ruins of Istanbul, ruins of Damascus, ruins of Tehran, ruins of myself) I don’t need to see them, I know all these objects  by hear.  The faded photographs and yellowing Orientalist engravings.  The poetic works of Pessoa on a sculpted wooden book stand meant to house the Koran.  My tarboosh from Istanbul, my heavy wood indoor coat from the souk in Damascus, my lute from Aleppo bought with Nadim.

The disjointed and rambling narrative structure is fitting for a man whose mind cannot rest over the course of a sleepless night.  He jumps from one topic to the next: his illness, musicology, literature, archaeology and, of course, Sarah.  Some might find this stream-of-consciousness style frustrating but a more straightforward narrative would not have been as fitting or appropriate for Franz’s state-of-mind and circumstances.  One common thread that runs through his thoughts are the connections between East and West.  He has a joke compass that points east which is fitting for Franz since his thoughts are always pulled in that direction.  He discusses travelers, writers, musicians, academics and archaeologists who were fascinated by Orientalist travels and study.  One of my favorite examples Franz brings up is the Swiss author, journalist, traveler, and even occasional archaeologists,  Annmarie Schwarzenbach whose wanderlust brings her to different parts of the East.  Schwarzenbach flees the turmoil brewing in Europe in 1933-34 and travels to Syrian and the desert, where Franz and Sarah follow in the footsteps of this interesting woman’s Eastern journey.

More than any other book I have ever read, Compass made me want to travel to the Middle East, to the desert and to the ancient ruins of the Orient;  but the narrative also made me sad that such a journey isn’t feasible nowadays.  The Baron Hotel that Franz and Sarah stay at in Aleppo, and probably the entire neighborhood, has been reduced to a pile of rubble.  The descriptions of his travels in Palmyra were particularly striking to me.  Franz and Sarah, with a few other travel companions, sleep among the ruins of an ancient fort in Palmyra: “A night when the sky was so pure and the stars so numerous that they came down all the way to the ground, lower than you could see, in the summer, when the sea is calm and dark as the Syrian badiya.”

Finally, I have never read a book that has caused me to buy so many other books based on the literary observations contained within.  My “to-read” stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week as I made my way through Compass.  The amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this erudite book is astonishing.  Descriptions of  Pessoa, Magris, Schwarzenbach and Hedayat to name a few, have caused me to add all of these authors to my always-growing library.  Some of the writers Enard mentions are so esoteric that I was disappointed not to find them in English translation—the surrealist French poet Germain Nouveau, for example.   It is truly a great thing when one piece of literature gives one such a full list of further reading.  One could form an interesting book club to go through the volumes mentioned in Compass and spend many months exploring and discussing Franz’s syllabus.

What have others thought of Compass?  Will it make the shortlist?  How does it compare to his previous novel, Zone?

About the Author and Translator:
Mathias Énard is the award-winning author of Zone and Street of Thieves, and a translator from Persian and Arabic. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 for Compass.

Charlotte Mandell is a French literary translator who was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1968. She went to Boston Latin High School, the Université de Paris III, and Bard College, where she majored in French literature and film theory. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly.

 

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation