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America First?

Literary translators tend to divide into what one could call originalists and activists. The former honor the original text’s quiddities, and strive to reproduce them as accurately as possible…; the latter are less concerned with literal accuracy than with the transposed musical appeal of the new work. Any decent translator must be a bit of both….

Not only is this too generic a remark to give us a sense of what sort of criticism Grossman would like to see, but it actually rehearses the false dichotomy that plagues so many discussions of translation. Grossman herself brilliantly describes a translator’s task as first one of deep reading:

To hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate.

After which, the translator seeks to

re-create…within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work…. And we do this by analogy—that is, by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities in the second language.

There is no question here of being “a bit of an originalist” and “a bit of an activist,” as if in some gentleman’s compromise between competing ideologies. It is rather, as Grossman herself suggests, that the more profoundly the work is heard and understood the more actively and radically it can be recreated in a way that recovers both semantic content and style. Renderings that tend to the awkwardly literal on the one hand or the fluently inaccurate on the other are simply different manifestations of inadequacy and inevitably result in an unraveling of that tight relationship between style and content that lies at the heart of all literary achievement.

What can I say then, if I wish to comment on the thirty-one translations in Best European Fiction 2010, twenty-two of them from languages I do not know? That on the whole the reader gets a strong impression of a cohesion of style and content that can only be the result of extremely attentive reading, followed by respectful and imaginative rewriting. This cohesion is the hallmark of good translation and the only thing a reviewer with no knowledge of the original can sensibly comment on and elucidate. In each case it would be futile to seek to establish how much we should be praising the author and how much the translator: the author wrote a fine story, which inspired the translator to make a fine translation. Of my own translations, I should say that I was always happy when the author got the praise and I escaped mention; it’s self-evident that only a good translation makes it possible for the reviewer to praise the author.

Perhaps with the world now so intimately and immediately connected, the only real exoticism we are likely to find is in the past. Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, Beginnings to 1600 is another case of a work turning its gaze elsewhere to pursue a quarrel at home. Moore, an independent scholar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opens with a scathing attack on critics who would like the novel to remain an expression of nineteenth-century realism, naming as his primary enemies B.R. Myers, Dale Peck, and Jonathan Franzen, all guilty of hostility toward narrative experimentalism; in contrast, Moore believes that the best writers are always more concerned with their performance than their subject matter, literature distinguishing itself from entertainment insofar as its “story is primarily a vehicle for a linguistic display of the writer’s rhetorical abilities.” Content is hardly important since “most plots are just variations on one masterplot” that invariably takes its characters from innocence to experience. The only thing that matters is style, and the more elaborate the better: “the novel is essentially a delivery system for aesthetic bliss.”

Since “MPF” (as he dismissively abbreviates his enemies) insist that stylistic experimentation is an aberration that undermines the novel’s historic function, Moore is determined to prove that the opposite is the case, launching into a 650-page history of prose narrative to show that the novel has been with us from the earliest times and has always been “experimental.”

Nothing could be more detrimental to an ambitious work of history than to frame it in the crabbed terms of a contemporary spat. For the first hundred pages Moore seems more eager to convince us that the fascinating if fragmented texts he is talking about are experimental novels written by gifted individuals not unlike William Gaddis and Donald Barthelme than he is to offer the kind of cultural or literary setting that would help us make sense of them. The notion that at bottom there is only one masterplot, and that content is thus unimportant, is immediately felt to be wrong as we read through summaries of tales far stranger than anything to be found in Best European Fiction 2010, and hence fascinating precisely for their content, beside which any stylistic vagaries (which we are given little chance of savoring) must pale in comparison.

While reading these summaries is a pleasure, Moore contrives to spoil it by adopting the gung ho tone of the schoolteacher anxious that his pupils will be bored by the museum they are visiting. Here he is talking about early Egyptian fiction:

When fiction-writing resumed during the Ramesside period (c. 1292–1070 BCE, the setting for Norman Mailer’s huge novel Ancient Evenings), Egyptian writers invented a few more genres, like the war story, the ghost story, and the fairy tale, but mostly pushed magic realism to bizarre lengths. In “The Tale of Two Brothers,” for example, an upright young man named Bata lives with his older brother Anubis, a landowner. (These are also the names of Egyptians gods, but they’re introduced as average citizens.) One day, Anubis’s wife makes a pass at Bata but is rebuffed. As in the later Hebrew story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, the scorned woman tells her husband that Bata tried to assault her. Anubis then hides himself behind the stable door to kill his brother when he returns from the fields, but a talking cow warns Bata of Anubis’s plan. He runs off but is pursued by his brother, so he prays to the sun-god for protection, who obliges by creating a wall of water between the two brothers, infested with crocodiles.

Then things really get weird. To demonstrate his innocence, Bata cuts off his phallus and throws it into the water (where a catfish swallows it), which convinces his brother that his wife lied to him. Then Bata goes off to live alone in the Valley of the Cedar, where he cuts out his heart and puts it on top of a cedar tree for safekeeping. The gods pity him and so create a beautiful woman for him (even though the catfish still has his ankh); one day the sea surges up to try to drown her but misses, and so instructs the cedar tree to grab her—and it just gets stranger after that. (Like a god in Ovid, Bata later metamorphoses into a bull, then a Persea tree, a splinter from which enters the mouth of the pharaoh’s wife, who then gives birth to…Bata! who eventually becomes king of Egypt.) It’s a remarkable testament to the colorful imagination of one Egyptian fantasist.

Does it make sense to speak of this as “magic realism,” a genre that achieved its effects precisely insofar as it departed from the realism that twentieth-century readers had come to expect? How does it help to be reminded of Norman Mailer’s “huge novel”? Would the story’s first readers have found it “weird” that Bata cuts off his phallus and throws it into the water, or would they perhaps have been expecting precisely this gesture? In which case, rather than speaking of a colorful individual imagination, wouldn’t it be more useful to tell us something about the system of beliefs and traditions that no doubt underpins this story? For example, what is a Persea tree and does it have any special significance? The “god in Ovid” who transforms himself into a bull is of course Zeus, the story of whose rape of Europa predates the imaginative Ovid by at least eight centuries.

Moore of course is perfectly right that narrative is far older and infinitely more varied than the “realistic” novel, but his insistence on reading ancient texts as if they were created in a modern setting is unhelpful. Of miraculous events in the Old Testament, he remarks:

Only [the] inability or unwillingness to distinguish fact from fantasy has prevented ancient Hebrew authors from being accorded their rightful place in the development of literary fiction.

If we had understood, that is, that the Bible writers didn’t mean that God really intervened but were only using techniques later perfected by Gabriel García Márquez, not only would we have saved ourselves millennia of religious delirium, but we could also have added some new writers to our literary canon.

Arranged into large blocks of time—ancient Christian fiction, medieval Irish fiction, Renaissance French fiction, Indian fiction, Japanese fiction—Moore’s book has the great merit of listing and summarizing scores upon scores of stories. Readers whose teeth are not set on edge by the sound of grinding axes will enjoy it. The huge translation issue that conditions our reception of most of the texts discussed in the book is mentioned in passing.

Like Moore, David Shields in Reality Hunger is unhappy with Jonathan Franzen; however, the bone he picks is of a more interesting kind:

Still (very still), at the heart of “literary culture” is the big, blockbuster novel…. Amazingly, people continue to want to read that.

The Corrections, say: I couldn’t read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a “good” novel or it might be a “bad” novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.

For Shields, the novel is too labored and theatrical adequately to express an age as fragmented and frenetic as our own. Evidently contrived, it is inevitably “perceived as false.” It is also wasteful:

You have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set.

What to do? Reality Hunger puts together 618 numbered paragraphs that simultaneously seek to justify Shields’s conviction that the novel is no longer the form for our time and, more importantly, grope toward a form that would be adequate. It is not simply a question of rejecting artifice in exchange for fact-checked nonfiction: every account of the past is more or less fictional, since our urge to grasp reality is matched only by our instinct to shape it; indeed that shaping (falsifying?) instinct is itself part of reality.

The form Shields gravitates toward is the kind of memoir or essay that exposes the tension between revealing and shaping, reporting and creating, incorporating chunks of “reality”—literary quotations, newspaper reports, whatever—and transforming them through style and juxtaposition so that the reader is constantly aware of the distance traveled between world and word, experience and autobiography. Quoting a wide range of models—W.G. Sebald, Lorrie Moore—and including practitioners of the graphic novel and collage art of every kind, Reality Hunger becomes itself a witty demonstration of the form, as Shields draws on a wide range of reference, mixing historical reports, personal events, discussions of new media, and literary quotations (some verbatim, others rejigged), to construct a protean polemic that is also an account (whether accurate or not we can’t know) of his own mental life.

Controversially, these quotations and borrowings, at least one in every paragraph, come unannounced and with an invitation not to check the reference list on the end pages, thus challenging the proprieties of literary etiquette and suggesting the extent to which all utterances form a continuum that it makes no sense to divide by reminding ourselves who said what. In short, the new form he foresees would sever the tight relationship between individualism and literature that has been with us since the Renaissance: Shields’s new author no longer claims that the work is his own, nor does he accept that others “own” their work.

Most importantly, Shields knows how to provoke argument without needing to crush all opposition. Rather, the tussle between reader and writer over the nature of reality, the nature of the text we are reading, is itself the aesthetic experience he is after. So while sharing his ennui with a wide range of fiction and thoroughly enjoying his capacity to seduce and perplex, it’s hardly a criticism to say I’m not convinced that the novel can’t still play some exciting cards. Indeed, of all the stories in Best European Fiction 2010, my favorite was Igor Štiks’s traditionally told account of a young man and woman rummaging through items at a Sarajevo market in time of war; here the discovery of a pocketwatch with an inscription made during a previous war redefines and redirects the couple’s relationship in a way as anxious and uncertain as it is free from all melodrama.

On second thought, however, it may well be that this story—with its precise historical references and incorporation of “real” items from the bric-a-brac of besieged Bosnians—is a reworking of the author’s personal experience and not in the end so far from the sort of writing Shields proposes. Certainly we are made to feel that a great deal is at stake for the author in the transition from original experience to finished story, and likewise for the translator in the movement from original text to English version.

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