Friday, December 2, 2011

The Savage Bolano

I have wanted to write a post on Roberto Bolano's great work, The Savage Detectives, for quite some time but I haven't known how to approach it.  A mere recounting of the novel's plot and major themes seemed insufficient, but I wasn't sure where else to start.  My previous post got me thinking about a new approach, which I'll attempt to undertake here, based on my subjective experience with the novel.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Translation

I can only read in the English language, despite living in a country with two official languages, French and English, and encountering the former on a daily basis.  While this certainly has a negative impact on several of my day to day encounters, I'm starting to feel that it doesn't have the same impact on my choice of reading that I had once thought.  Two recent books have caused me to question and ultimately modify my position: Milan Kundera's The Curtain and Roberto Bolano's In Parenthesis, which I read in close succession.

Bolano asks a pertinent question: how do we know if a work is a great work or not?  His answer: translate it.  If it finds admirers in translation it must possess something of that ineffable character that makes a work great.  Kundera isn't as direct but he traces the influence of writers of different nationalities on each other, with many of these works being encountered in translation.  In both cases they express no sense of loss by not reading in the original language.

This caused me to question something I had long felt true.  I had thought that I was missing something reading a work in translation.  This is despite the sheer impossibility of acquiring proficiency in all of the native languages I read in.  Through the rest of this post I'll use Rimbaud as an illustration because, more than any other writer I've encountered, I have owned and read no fewer than a dozen different translations of his works, with the single French copy of his collected works sitting lonely on the shelf.  Reading Rimbaud with my barely functional French was simply not an option.  To compensate for this I read numerous translations, trying to overcome my deficiency by reading him through as many different lenses as possible, hoping to thereby arrive at a closer vision of what he meant in the original.

What Bolano and Kundera brought forward was that I had been undermining my own subjective experience of the works I read in translation.  Was my experience lacking because I read Louise Varese's Rimbaud translation, or is it a sign of his "greatness" that this translation moved me, prompted countless re-readings, initiated my interest in Rimbaud's life, and ultimately fed my desire to read as much of him as possible, even though it is a limited literary output in different translations?  No matter how I try to separate it, my experience of Rimbaud will always be seen through the lenses of my first readings.  If I were to wake tomorrow with a full command of French my French reading of Rimbaud would inevitably have my previous experiences reflected in it.

Now this isn't to devalue the importance of competent, well meaning translators.  It is not to comment on their art, which I feel translation is.  It doesn't overcome obstacles to a scholarly approach to a work that only original sources would satisfy.  It does however reflect that a direct translation is rarely considered possible, and from the countless "translator introductions" I've read it's often considered a problematic approach.  The act of translation modifies the work, but to look at only what may be lost from the original without taking into account what a good translator brings to it is one sided.  In the end, it is the subjective experience of reading that matters. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Murch with Ondaatje

Over a decade ago I purchased a copy of Koestler's The Act of Creation.  The shifting interests of the day have led me to continually skip this book whenever I choose something new to read, and to this day it remains unread.  Beyond the brief blurb on the back of the book I could not adequately describe what the book is about.  However, I can clearly remember what I hoped to find it in when I made that initial purchase.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered an exploration of the act of creation in what presents itself ostensibly as a film book: The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje.  While the book is in fact a series of transcribed conversations, it is so much more than the subtitle indicates.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte on the City

Before I discuss books in this post, a backstory is necessary to explain how my interest was spurred in this subject.  About four years ago I moved from the downtown core of a moderately sized city with a population of just over one million residents into a new suburban development.  This was prompted by the impending birth of my son, who we thought would have a better start to life away from the hustle and bustle of downtown.  However, the experience turned out to be much different than I expected.  The first sign that something was amiss came the day after we moved in when we decided to take a long walk and explore our neighbourhood.  This took place on a beautiful sunny day on Labour Day weekend.  During this hour long walk I was immediately shocked that we encountered no other people.  Another example is that during my family's walks we often go down a bike/walking path close to our home.  Whenever we make it half way between two intersecting roads I always take a moment to look behind me and what I invariably find is that we are alone on this path.  Ongoing exposure to the suburbs has prompted a burgeoning interest in city planning, social space and what makes cities successful.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Philip Roth's Good Girl

Convictions are greater enemies of truth than lies.
                                                                      - Nietzsche

I have had the pleasure of reading two works by Philip Roth, both very different in tone and demonstrating a wide range of his abilities as a writer.  Portnoy's Complaint turned out to be one of the funniest, most neurotic novels I've read and was the hook that convinced me that more Roth would make worthwhile reading.  My second foray, When She Was Good, the subject of this post, has similarities in that it is a character study but there it ends.  It is a much darker, more somber novel and it is about a character that I felt little sympathy for by the end of the reading.  However, the set up of the novel where the reader is told the central character is dead was the element that made me want to continue as I had to know why and how.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dos Passos's U.S.A.

I have been lax at updating this blog, mostly due to limited time, but also because the last major work of fiction I read was a behemoth.  John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, made up of The 49th Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money clock in at well over 1000 pages and, I feel, makes a strong case for the War and Peace of North America.  Dos Passos released these three novels over the course of several years but, following the original plan that he laid out, I read them as a single whole and in retrospect feel that this is truly how it was intended to be read.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ross on Rimbaud

I can't begin writing about Kristin Ross's The Emergence of Social Space without saying how exciting I found it.  No dry literary and cultural criticism, Ross lets the dynamism of her subjects come through in her writing, presenting unique insights along the way.  Ross writes of two events, linked by time, that transform the notion of space: the Paris commune and Arthur Rimbaud's poetic life.  I say linked by time and not by direct participation because rather than try to present her own take on the debate over Rimbaud's presence at the Paris commune, she eschews this question altogether by focusing on the similarities between the commune and Rimbaud in terms of changing attitudes toward society.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Reminder from a Neocon

There is a human tendency (I'm loathe to ever think of things in terms of human nature which, by implication, is unchangeable) that causes people to utter pronouncements on subjects they know nothing about and refuse to subject these beliefs to the test.  There seems to be an element of pride that prevents people from appearing ignorant on a topic of which they truly know little.  This causes individuals to look ridiculous in the face to reality at the best of times and can lead to disaster when formulated into policy on a state level.  The list of problems caused by the latter kind is long as the earliest age of the historical record.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fromkin's Middle East

David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace presents one of the most detailed and thorough portraits of the creation of the Modern Middle east out of the dissolution of the Ottoman empire.  It also presents a harrowing picture of modern diplomacy that, as the recent wikileaks communications show, is still prevalent.  Both aspects are relevant today as the tug-of-war of politics is played out.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Transgressive Pierre Guyotat

In 1965 Pierre Goyotat's Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers was published.  It is extraordinarily transgressive, disturbing and violent.  However, it was received well enough to garner a following among the French intellectual community so that when his next novel was faced with restrictive sales regulations public figures such as Sartre, Genet, Blanchot, de Beauvoir, among many others, came to Goyotat's defence.  After my own reading of Tomb I cannot but feel that the praise reflects an idiosyncratic trend in mid-twentieth century French thought rather than a more lasting contribution to thought and literature.