short fiction from lydia davis by way of homage to beckett

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none. Whither once whence no return. No. No place but the one. None but the one where none. Whence never once in. Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.

—from Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho

Sun in eyes, faces east, waits for van bound for south meeting plane from west. Carries book, Worstward Ho.

In van, heading south, sits on right or west side, sun in through windows from east. Highway crosses and recrosses meandering stream passing now northeast and now northwest under. Reads Worstward Ho: On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

Road turning and van turning east and then north of east, sun in eyes, stops reading Worstward Ho.

Road turning and van turning east again and south, shadow on page, reads: As now by way of somehow on where in the nowhere all together?

Road and van turning briefly north, sun at right shoulder, light not in eyes but flickering on page of Worstward Ho, reads: What when words gone? None for what then.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van pointing east motionless in station, in shadow of tree, reads: But say by way of somehow on somehow with sight to do.

Van pointing south and moving, reads: So leastness on.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van pointing east then north of east motionless, in treeless station not in shadow, sun in face, does not read.

Van turning, sun ahead, sun around and in opposite window, shadow on page, van pointing south and moving, reads: Longing the so-said mind long lost to longing. Dint of long longing lost to longing. Said is missaid. Whenever said said said missaid.

Van turning off highway, sun behind, sun around and in window and onto page, does not read.

Van turning last time back onto highway, sun ahead, sun around and in opposite window, shadow on page, reads: No once. No once in pastless now.

Van turning last time off highway, sun ahead, sun around and in window, does not read.

Van farthest south motionless in shadow, pointing north, reads last words: Said nohow on.

 

beckett on writing poetry

Beckett held the idea of the ‘professional’ poet in abhorrence. To him it was virtually a contradiction in terms. Craft, structure, rhythm, linguistic energy were assumed prerequisites, but poetry was a calling, not a profession, not something you could decide to do at a certain moment. He meant what Keats meant, whose work he knew so well, when he wrote that ‘if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’. He certainly did not mean that poets should not earn money – he himself had taught for a while (was miserable during that time), had translated prolifically, written essays and reviews — but that the poem itself should not be academic or intentional, that the library shelves must not crush the furze. Beckett was a poet down to his teguments, ligaments, cells; standing or sitting, poetry’s presence in his presence was as pervasive as oxygen.


—from Anne Atik, How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett. Faber & Faber, 2001.

beckett and the old questions

(from a 2009 production of Endgame at The American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA)

Hamm:                    Do you remember when you came here?

 

Clov:                      No, Too small, you told me.

 

Hamm:                    Do you remember your father.

 

Clov (wearily):         Same answer.

 

                             You’ve asked me these questions millions of times.

 

Hamm:                    I love the old questions

 

(With fervour.)         All the old questions, the old answers, 
                             there’s nothing like them!

 

(Pause.)                  It was I was a father to you.

 

Clov:                      Yes.

 

(He looks at Hamm fixedly):

 

         This was that for me.

 

— Samuel Beckett, Endgame. Grove Press, 1958, p. 38

samuel beckett’s molloy on his (true?) love

She had a somewhat hairy face, or am I imagining it, in theinterests of the narrative? The poor woman, I saw her so little, so little looked at her. And was not her voice suspiciously deep? So she appears to me today. Don’t be tormenting yourself, Molloy, man or woman, what does it matter? But I cannot help asking myself the following question. Could a woman have stopped me as I swept towards mother? Probably. Better still, was such an encounter possible, I mean between me and a woman? Now men, I have rubbed up against a few men in my time, but women? Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against one. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this. But another who might have been my mother, and even I think my grandmother, if chance had not willed otherwise. Listen to him now talking about chance. It was she made me acquainted with love. She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith. She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all?

 

—from Molloy, pp. 75-76

“may we not speak of the old days?” [silence]—samuel beckett’s come and go

samuel beckett’s very short dramatic piece come and go is best understood through its title, its structure, and the overt allusion to macbeth at its outset.  most tellingly, at the play’s conclusion, the three figures link hands “in the old way”, turning the whole piece—for me, at least—into a carefully wound möbius strip of drama about life and the ever-present effects of temporality.

Come and Go opens with three similar figures of indeterminable age—Flo, Vi, and Ru— childhood friends who once attended “Miss Wade’s” together. They are sitting side-by-side on a narrow bench-like seat, something they used to do in the playground as children, and are wearing colourful full-length coats, somewhat dulled by time, In effect, they three faded flowers. “Drab nondescript hats … shade [their] faces.”

The play’s structure is circular or ring-like, and is divided into three equal segments of seven lines during which a character exits and enters after completing her circuit, and takes a seat different from the one she previously occupied. In this sense the characters also move around their seats in a ring shape. Hence the typical interpretation of the play as being about time, terminality and infinity. The play’s first line, with its deliberate echoes of Macbeth, seem to confirm that interpretation that Shakespeare’s meditation on time is an informing principle:

 

Macbeth
Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton
The queen, my lord, is dead.

Macbeth
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

 

Come and Go

A dramaticule


For John Calder

 

Written in English early in 1965. First published in French by Editions de Minuit, Paris, in 1966. First published in English by Calder and Boyars, London, in 1967. First produced as Kommen und Gehen, translated by Elmar Tophoven, at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt, Berlin, on 14 January 1966. First performed in English at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on 28 February 1968 and subsequently at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 9 December 1968.


CHARACTERS :

FLO

VI

RU

(Age undeterminable)

 

Sitting centre side by side stage right to left FLO, VI and RU. Very erect, facing front, hands clasped in laps.

Silence
.


VI : When did we three last meet?


RU : Let us not speak.
     [Silence.
     Exit VI right.
     Silence.]


FLO : Ru.


RU : Yes.


FLO : What do you think of Vi?


RU : I see little change. [FLO moves to centre seat, whispers in
       
RU’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each other. FLO
       puts her finger to her lips,] Does she not realize?


FLO : God grant not.
        [Enter VI. FLO and RU turn back front, resume pose. VI
        sits right.
        Silence.]
        Just sit together as we used to, in the playground at Miss 
        Wade’s.

RU : On the log.
      [Silence.
      Exit  FLO left.
      Silence.]
      Vi.


VI : Yes.


RU: How do you find FLO?


VI : She seems much the same. [RU moves to centre seat,
      whispers in
VI’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each 
      other
. RU puts her finger to her lips.] Has she not been 
      told?


RU : God forbid.
       [Enter FLO. RU and VI turn back front, resume pose. FLO
       sits left.]
       Holding hands . . . that way.


FLO : Dreaming of . . . love.
        [Silence.
        Exit RU right.
        Silence
.]


VI : Flo.


FLO : Yes.


VI : How do you think Ru is looking?


FLO : One sees little in this light. [VI moves centre seat, 
        whispers in
FLO’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at 
        each other
. VI puts her finger to her lips.] Does she not 
        know?


VI : Please God not.
      [Enter RU. VI and FLO turn back front, resume pose. RU
      sits right.
      Silence
.]

      May we not speak of the old days? [Silence.] Of what
      came after? [Silence.] Shall we hold hands in the old
      way?

     
      [After a moment they join hands as follows : VI’s right
      hand with
RU’s right hand. VI’s left hand with FLO’s left
      hand
, FLO’s right hand with RU’s left hand, VI’s arms
      being above
RU’s left arm and FLO’s right arm. The three
      pairs of clasped hands rest on the three laps.
      Silence
.]


FLO: I can feel the rings.
       [Silence.]


CURTAIN

 

 

 

NOTES

 

                                  

Successive positions

 

 

 

1

FLO

VI

RU

2

FLO

 

RU

 

 

FLO

RU

3

VI

FLO

RU

4

VI

 

RU

 

VI

RU

 

5

VI

RU

FLO

6

VI

 

FLO

 

 

VI

VLO

7

RU

VI

FLO

Hands

 

 

 

 

RU

VI

FLO

 

RU         VI        FLO

 

 

    

Lighting
Soft, from above only and concentrated on playing area.
Rest of stage as dark as possible.


Costume

Full-length coats, buttoned high, dull violet (RU), dull red (Vi),
dull yellow (Flo). Drab nondescript hats with enough brim to
shade faces. Apart from colour differentiation three figures as
alike as possible. Light shoes with rubber soles. Hands made up
to be as visible as possible. No rings apparent.


Seat

Narrow benchlike seat, without back, just long enough to
accommodate three figures almost touching. As little visible as
possible. It should not be clear what they are sitting on.


Exits

The figures are not seen to go off stage. They should disappear a
few steps from lit area. If dark not sufficient to allow this,
recourse should be had to screens or drapes as little visible
as possible. Exits and entrances slow, without sound of feet.


Obs

Three very different sounds.


Voices

As low as compatible with audibility. Colourless except for
three ‘ohs’ and two lines following.
 


Watch an adaptation of Come and Go on
YouTube.


céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 

  

. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 

  

Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 

  

—just then—

 

FEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOO
¡WHOP!

 

—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 

 

—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”

 

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/roaring-up-from-the-depths/

Cover Image

 

Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…

 

read more from Normance:

adam thirlwell’s favourite books & authors populate a novel set of narratives

Buy Miss Herbert 

 

Mind your language

By A.S. Byatt

 

November 24 2007

Miss Herbert (The Delighted States in the U.S.)
By Adam Thirlwell

Miss Herbert is a thoughtful, and frequently hilarious, study of the nature of literary translation. It is also a work of art, a new form. Juliet Herbert was the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. She wrote a translation of Madame Bovary, which Flaubert approved, and which has disappeared, unread. This ghost is a central character in a tale of conversations between writers, languages and forms.

 

Flaubert’s carefully wrought style, his “mania for sentences”, makes him in one sense untranslatable. The same could be argued of James Joyce’s layered wordplay, local detail and complicated rhythms. Novelist Adam Thirlwell, the author of Politics, discusses the tension between literal translation of words and attempts to translate a “style”. He argues that — always with some slippage or accidents — styles can be translated and transmitted. He has a cosmopolitan taste in novels, and describes his own canon, ranging from Cervantes to Machado de Assis, from Italo Svevo who was taught English by Joyce, to Witold Gombrowicz and Bohumil Hrabal.

 

A good example of the way he proceeds is his discussion of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, in an intricate rhyming stanzaic form. Pushkin read Tristram Shandy in a less-than-adequate French translation. Thirlwell remarks: “The first great Russian novel was a rewrite of a French travesty of an English avant-garde novel.” Later he discusses Nabokov’s ideas of translation. Nabokov came to the conclusion that a verse translation of Pushkin’s novel was theoretically impossible. He published his own literal word-by-word translation in four volumes with notes and commentary. Thirlwell decides he prefers the idea behind Nabokov’s earlier translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which changed names and references freely into Russian ones.

 

What does Thirlwell think makes a style, and what does he admire? A style must convey “real life”, a phrase that is constantly defined and redefined in this book. He quotes Diderot on the necessity for detail — a pox-mark on a perfect face — and gives splendid examples of precise recording, from Chekhov to Nabokov. He says: “Good novelists (or maybe more honestly the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are morally avant-garde as well. They are disrespectful (for one definition of cosmopolitan after all is the refusal to know one’s place).” I like this definition, partly at least because it does not use that meaningless word “subversive”. “Disrespectful” is a good word. Thirlwell also does not praise “authenticity”, sticking to more solid words such as “real” and “true”. The novelists he admires are, he says, “libertines” using that word to mean writers who record awkward or complicated truths. They are all, apart from Gertrude Stein, male and ironic. Thirlwell says somewhere that reality is ironic. I’m not sure of the meaning of that.

 

John Hawkes wrote that the enemies of the novel were “plot, character, setting and theme”. The novelists who are the “characters” of this novel about novels seem to believe that the true enemies are sentimentality, Romanticism, lazy derivativeness and high-mindedness. There is also a tendency to be hostile to plot as a form of unreality. Thirlwell quotes Gogol, Flaubert, Austen and Nabokov in one paragraph, which appears to end with the assertion that “life itself is plotless”. This is as untrue as it is true. Life, in my experience, is full of plots. But further down the same page Thirlwell produces another epigram: “The art of the novel centres not on authenticity but truth. And truth is a fabrication.” It is novelists, precisely, who understand that – and in a world where truth is a fabrication, there is room for plots and stories.

So what is a style? It is more than the sum of its parts — the choice of words, the speed of telling, the angle of vision. One of the pleasures of this elegantly produced book is a series of squiggles — many of them from Tristram Shandy, including Trim’s flourish with his stick which Balzac reproduced in La Peau de Chagrin — but also Hogarth’s “line of beauty”, and some twirls by Paul Klee. These flourishes, handed on from writer to writer and changed, are like musical notation. At the end of the book’s third part Thirlwell writes: “A style is not just a prose style. Sometimes it is not even a form of composition. Style is a quality of vision; a soul. This word soul is not my favourite word, it is not one I would use if I could help it, but I am not sure I have any choice.” And that kind of seriousness is very much Thirlwell’s own style.

 

 

The Delighted States

By Adam Thirwell

 

Chapter 1

 

Normandy, 1852: Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert About Style

 

This all begins in private, with Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence.

 

On 24 April 1852, Gustave Flaubert — an unpublished novelist, who had abandoned one novel, and recently begun another — wrote a hopeful letter to his mistress, Louise Colet.

 

‘I’ve imagined a style for myself,’ he told her, ‘a beautiful style that someone will write some day, in ten years’ time maybe, or in ten centuries. It will be as rhythmical as verse and as precise as science, with the booming rise and fall of a cello and plumes of fire’. And five years later, on 12 December 1857, after his first novel, Madame Bovary, had finally been published, Flaubert was writing to a fan, whose name was Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, and still saying roughly the same thing: ‘You say that I pay too much attention to form. Alas! it is like body and soul: form and content to me are one; I don’t know what either is without the other.’

Ever since Gustave Flaubert finally published his first novel, some novels have been explicitly as well written as poetry; they have shown the same care as poetry for style, and form. Every word in these novels has the same weight and poise as a word in a poem. And this is not without its problems.

 

The novel is an international art form. As soon as a novel becomes as well written as poetry, therefore, as soon as style is everything, then the translation of a novel becomes not a peripheral problem, but a central one. Or, as Milan Kundera wrote in the introduction to the fourth, but still only penultimate, English-language translation of his first novel, The Joke: ‘Once prose makes such a claim, the translation of a novel becomes a true art.’

 

This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel.It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.

 


Chapter 2

 

Warsaw, 1937: Witold Gombrowicz Writes a Review

 

In 1937, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz wrote a piece for a Warsaw magazine — Kurier Poranny — on the French translation of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Sorrowfully, he did not think that Ulysses was really translatable. Meditating wistfully on the happier position of the English-speaking reader, he offered his own paradoxical and contrasting position, that while the ‘perfection and power of this complex style’ made it obvious how good — even in translation — Ulysses was, the dual language gap still prevented ‘more intimate contact’. And Gombrowicz ended his piece with an irritable flourish: ‘It is annoying to know that somewhere over there, abroad, a previously unknown method of feeling, of thinking and of writing has been born whose existence renders our methods completely anachronistic, and to tell oneself that only purely technical obstacles prevent us from having a deep knowledge of so many new inventions.’

 

Ulysses had made Polish novelists outdated: Gombrowicz could see that: but in French, his second language, he could not precisely see how. The technical details, he argued, escaped him.

 

But I am not sure that this is true. If style were purely a matter of technique — if form and content, as Flaubert sometimes thought, were the same thing — then perhaps Gombrowicz might be right. But style is not purely a matter of technique, which is why translation is still possible.

 

That is the subject of this book.

 

Often, I wonder if the idea of the untranslatable is really hiding a secret wish for translation to be a perfect fit, and this wish conceals a corresponding wish for style to be absolute. Whereas there are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles. Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.

Like the example of Witold Gombrowicz himself.

 

About ten years later, Gombrowicz would be in exile — from the Nazis, and then the Communists — in Buenos Aires. In 1945, his friend Cecilia Benedit de Benedetti gave him an allowance to translate his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish. Ferdydurke, which had come out in 1937, the same year as his essay on Ulysses, had made him famous in Poland. This translation eventually became the preserve of a dedicated group, led by the Cuban novelist Virgilio Piñera and the Cuban writer Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu, as well as Gombrowicz, over eighteen months. The translation took place during sessions in the chess room on the second floor of the Café Rex, Gombrowicz’s favourite café in Buenos Aires. According to one of his early collaborators, Adolfo de Obieta, the translation was therefore inherently amusing: it was charmingly amateur — ‘transposing from Polish into Spanish the book of a Polish author who barely knew Spanish, assisted by five or six Latino-Americans who scarcely knew two words of Polish’.

 

No Polish-Spanish dictionary existed at the time. ‘It was an experimental translation in macaronic Spanish,’ recalled Tomeu. ‘At that time, he already knew some Spanish. Later, he spoke it well but always with a very strong accent. We therefore discussed each sentence under every one of its aspects: choice of words, their euphony, their cadence and their rhythm. Witold’s observations were always pertinent.’ The translation came out in April 1947, accompanied by a defensive note from Piñera, who worried that the unwarned Spanish reader might impute the language’s oddness to a lack of competence on the part of the translators. No no, he argued. It was all a matter of Gombrowicz’s new and different manner of envisaging language in the original Polish. (Which Piñera, of course, could not read.)

 

But he did not convince the public: Ferdydurke was not a success. It bemused its new Latin-American public.

 

The history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form — and also a history of errors, a history of waste.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Paris, 1930: James Joyce in Paul Léon’s Living Room

 

While Witold Gombrowicz, in Warsaw, was fretting at the French translation of Ulysses, James Joyce was making things even harder. In Paris, Joyce was completing the novel which was being serialised in the small magazine transition as Work in Progress, but which would finally be called Finnegans Wake. Famously, this novel is hardly even written in English: itself a description of a dream, Joyce wanted the English of his novel to mimic, in its language, the operations of a dream. Just as the images in dreams are dense with over-determination, so the language in Finnegans Wake, therefore, Joyce hoped, was unstable, impacted, polyglot. So that the reader of its first instalment would have been unpleasantly surprised to discover a style that made puns with more than one language, and had a sentence like this: ‘What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods!’

 

Maybe, with Finnegans Wake, Joyce had reached a point of stylistic density which could not survive any transition to another language – a realm of pure poetry, a nonsense style. Perhaps Gombrowicz was right. Maybe translation was finally impossible.

 

But maybe not.

 

In 1930, Joyce agreed to supervise a translation into French of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Work in Progress: the translation had been begun by Samuel Beckett and his French friend Alfred Péron. Beckett, however, had gone back to Ireland after completing a first version of the opening pages. His work was then revised by a group of Joyce’s friends: Eugene Jolas, the editor of transition; Ivan Goll, a poet; and Paul Léon.

 

Léon (whose wife, Lucie, was a family friend of Vladimir Nabokov) was a Russian émigré, who had left Russia in 1918: he had first gone to London, and then, in 1921, had arrived in Paris. He was a lawyer by training, and literary in his tastes. He soon became a kind of secretary to Joyce.

 

At the end of November 1930, after the first draft of the French translation had been completed, the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault was instructed to meet Joyce and Léon in Léon’s flat. At Léon’s round table, they would sit for three hours, starting at 2.30 every Thursday, and go through the translation.

 

(And I hope that the Léons kept this table for a while, because then it would be the same table at which, eight years later, in 1938, Nabokov would sit with Lucie — as she helped him with the English of his first novel written directly in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.)

 

Joyce smoked in an armchair; Léon read the English text and Soupault read the French, at the same time, breaking off to consider any problems. After fifteen of these meetings, they reached a final draft. This was sent to Jolas and Adrienne Monnier — Joyce’s friend, who had published the French translation of Ulysses — who suggested further changes. The finished translation of Anna Livia Plurabelle was published in the Nouvelle Revue Française on 1 May 1931.

 

There is no need to understand French to hear how talented this translation was. A lack of French is fine. Joyce shocked everyone with his care for sound over sense. In its new language, he was more concerned to preserve the form than the content.

 

Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep

 

Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Tellmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

 

Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep, this time in French

 

N’entend pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chance, trotinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n’est past rentré? Quel père André? N’entend pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de, Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombre faucons écoutent l’ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, Nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant riviérantes ondes de, courtecourantes ondes de. Nuit.

 

Occasionally, the sense, and its connotations, has to alter. But this is so that the rhythm of the words, the sentences’ musicality, can still remain. The style, even of this work in progress, is still there.

 

Yes, the history of the novel is a history of an elaborate but international art form.

 

—from Adam Thirwell, The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes