Juan José Arreola’s Confabulario is a masterpiece of short experimental prose.
Tim Parks on his collection of essays Where I Am Reading From.
In a way, this book is an autobiography of someone brought up with a very particular relation to books, in a religious family, in an English literary tradition, who on becoming an adult, for private personal reasons, set himself literary goals that were gradually revealed as spurious. Also, it’s about a person from the literary center—English, London— who has spent more than thirty years in another country, Italy, that is out of the literary mainstream. And a writer who also, by chance, became a translator and went on to teach translation. My life has been a long process of awakening to the reality, the changing reality, of the contemporary book world, which is a million miles from the naïve vision I had when I started writing books at twenty-two. Since it is in the publishers’ interests, and indeed the University’s, to sustain a false picture of what the book world is like and what the contemporary experience of books amounts to, my articles were a response to this, and an attempt to get my own head straight about what I’m really doing and the environment I move in. One is seeking at last to be unblinkered about it all.
Ottilie Mulzet, a translator of Krasznahorkai, on Hungarian and English.
I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.
English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages.
Silvina Ocampo, translated by Jason Weiss
I am all the words that I adored on the lips,
in the books that I admired.
I am the greyhound that fled in the distance,
the solitary branch among the branches.
I am the happiness of a day,
the whisper of the flames.
I am the poverty of naked feet,
with children going silently away.
I am what they did not tell me and I knew.
Oh, I wanted everything to be mine!
I am everything I have already lost.
But everything’s elusive like the wind and the river,
like the golden summer flowers
that die in your hands.
I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine,
not the pain, nor the joy, nor the terror,
not even the words of my song.
Can Xue, translated, perhaps clunkily, by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.
The old cicada, whose body was both dark and bright, had sturdy wings, but seldom used them. He always stayed in the same place—the strong branch a little below the magpies’ nest. He was a loner, immersed in memories. He had stayed underground for a long time—precisely eight years, according to the magpie couple. Everyone knew he was very old. Still, his energy hadn’t diminished. But why was he so solitary? Was he was still living in his memories, sensing neither the fellows all around nor the vast blue sky? Cicadas seldom live underground for eight years. That time had completely shaped his character.
Ned Beauman made me laugh, uproariously, with his essay on the painter William Bouguereau.
Indeed, Bouguereau is often described as pornographic even by his defenders. But 40 naked women are not 40 times as arousing as one naked woman. Forty naked women are, on the contrary, less arousing than one naked woman. Like a word repeated too many times, nipples soon lose all meaning; this, surely, is the principle on which nude beaches are able to function. If Les Oréades was intended as erotic, it fails. Of course, with a few exceptions like Munch’s Madonna, important old paintings almost always strike the modern eye as failing in this respect. But at least it is possible to imagine that, say, a Cranach might have turned someone on back when standards of beauty were different. Even if you recast Les Oréades (aka Loin Helix aka Babe Flume) with 20 Megan Foxes and 20 Mila Kunises then it wouldn’t do the job, because there are just too many girls in the chorus line. I’m aware that this entire paragraph has been written in exactly the sort of patriarchal, heteronormative, scopophiliac idiom that Berger wants us to question, but that is a sleazy neighourhood I am visiting only in order to rescue Bouguereau from it, or at least that’s what I’ll say if I bump into anyone I know there. Both Berger’s and Dijkstra’s books tend to assume that their readers’ attitudes to gender are as effortlessly progressive as their own—this assumption may be a bit too generous in the case of, for instance, any former pupil of one of England’s medieval public schools who, even several years after leaving, is still running a Truth and Reconciliation Committee on the antique values bestowed upon him by his school. I mean, guys, come on, be honest, you’re can’t be telling me you’ve never even once had a discussion with a female friend that ended with you shrieking something like, “But I’m not a misogynist, I can’t be a misogynist, I don’t hate women, I just find them (as the art historian Bram Dijkstra put it) both fascinating and frightening!” Oh. Really? Nobody else?
Stathis Gourgouris on ghosts and nation states.
One of the crucial elements of the nation as a dream-form is that it presumes, on a basis that is entirely nonsensical (in terms of logic) but altogether sensical/sensuous (in terms of affect), that a given nation has existed since time immemorial and will continue to exist into the endless future. The lifting out of the nation — this profound historical form, this artifice of human creation — from the order of time creates indeed this powerful ghostly existence.
But the ghost requires actualization in real time and space in order to be substantiated: the daily affirmation of the ground of its existence, literally speaking, terra patria or motherland. It’s funny. Both genders are required here because the primal imaginary order of the nation is the family, a certain kind of natural ancestry, if I may put it this way. In any case, the ghostly presence requires a ground (land) and a body (the people) in real time (history). Recalling the dead, or bringing the dead back into the realm of the living, as you say, seems unavoidable in a situation that privileges memory over reality, the roots over the process (of growth and decay), and surely immortality over finitude. The tyranny of memorialization is rampant in the national imagination — Nietzsche explained this to us very well.
Michael Marder, kind and good, calls for a botany of words.
I wonder whether one day we could muster courage and creativity enough to pursue a “natural history of words” (not to be confused with Vico’s or Condillac’s “natural history of grammar”). As I imagine it, this discipline would study how semantic units germinate, undergo metamorphosis, grow, flourish, and decay within and between diverse cultures. Even better would be a botany of words that would finally descend to the literal roots of semantics, the theory of meaning that borrows its name from the Greek sema—“sign” or “seed”. And that is not even to mention the role of roots in grammar, among other botanically inflected terms! Vegetal processes would not play the role of metaphors for the words’ formation, cross-referencing, or falling out of use, but would be recognized for what they are: the first principles of growth and decay in all spheres of life, including the life of culture.