10 March 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last weekend, over 14,000 writers, publishers, agents, translators, reviewers, professors, and readers swarmed the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle for the annual Associated Writing Programs conference—four days of heavy drinking, pot-chocolate (it’s legal in Washington!), endless craft panels, a bustling exhibition hall, and the most awesomely awkward dance parties ever.

Put a huge number of book people in any one place and shit is bound to get weird. And when a huge percentage of these book people are young, struggling writers? Weird plus neurotic. Good thing Bubble Man was at the entrance to greet everyone with some love.

Over the past decade, AWP has grown to be one of the largest and most important book events of the year. No longer just a place where mediocre poetry is belted out to the accompaniment of crushing depression and a strummed guitar, AWP is a crucial sales outlet for a lot of presses. (Especially poetry presses, who, due to the decline of other outlets and the increase in AWP attendance will sell $3,000+ worth of books over the weekend.)

Personally, I think this was the best AWP I’ve ever attended. We broke all our sales records—thanks to a few superfans who bought books and brought friends over to buy all the rest of the books—had a great time with local friends George Carroll, Jay Weaver, Don Mee Choi, and Owen Rowe, enjoyed all the Elliot Bay Book Company experiences, danced a lot too much, and threw an epic (and soon to be annual) Open Letter Happy Hour.

That said, this blog isn’t really about happiness and stability . . . So, here are a few observations and jokes to give you a better sense of AWP and to lead into this month’s translation highlights.

1) Someone really needs to do a book entitled The Hats and Beards of AWP. AWP is like Williamsburg on steroids. There can never be enough beard and skinny jeans! Also, George Carroll’s lovely wife kept referring to AWP—usually pronounced as three distinct letters, “a,” “w,” “p”—as a single word: “Awwwp.” Which is a way cooler way to say its name, and which led to the conference-long game of trying to identify the “Wizard of AWP.”

2) What the hell is this, and what is it advertising?

3) Please stop with the endless poetry readings. I know everyone that’s part of an MFA program wants a chance to read their work out loud, but some of the events are 4+ hours long. That’s just insane and mind-numbing. Especially given the fact that more than half of the poets read with the same annoying cadence. I went to one poetry reading, and left after texting this imitation to a few friends:

And then. I read.
Read a poem.
Poem of poem.
I believe. AWP is. Is. Is.
A place. Pleasant place.
AWP IS. It is.
It is a place of performance.
Performance place.
We. We perform.
AWP. AWP performs.
Me. Me. Writing.
Me. Poetry
AWP. Me.

4) Why does everyone come home from AWP with a wicked, neverending cold? Are writers inherently dirty and germ filled? CLEAN YOURSELVES NEXT YEAR. My sinuses can’t take this shit.

5) Every night from 10-midnight, there is an AWP dance party. And yes, it is filled with as much awkward as you’re envisioning. Thankfully, there is free beer and wine for the first hour, and the DJ specializes in playing Rap for White Girls (e.g., Nelly’s “Ride with Me”), so by around 11, there’s a lot of normally self-conscious people on the dance floor moving in ways that sort of resembles dancing. In other words, it’s totally awesome. (Somewhere there exists a video of me and Scott Esposito dancing to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”) It’s non-judgmental—because, well, look around—truly all-ages, and a pretty fun release after 10 hours of bad poetry and the worst indoor lighting imaginable.

But this year, the Saturday night dance party was a bit of a train wreck. It all started off with one douchebag lonely hipster doing a methodical hip thrust in the middle of the dance floor. Wearing only a wife beater and more hair grease than Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not sure if he thought he was being ironic, or simply performing some sort of desperate mating call, but he managed to piss off most everyone there. And then, because “hipsters” of this sort just can’t embarrass themselves enough, he actually got on stage, had a friend join him, and even lost the wife beater . . . before someone official threw him off—an unsavory 45 minutes later. We spend most of the night hoping, for his sake, that he was tripping balls—even though that wouldn’t change the fact that he was the worst person there ever. And because this image is scarred on my brain forever, I figured I’d share it with all of you. You’re welcome!

OK, now on to this month’s interesting translations!

Trans-Atlantyk: An Alternate Translation by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt (Yale University Press)

I love Gombrowicz, but have never gotten around to reading this book about a penniless Polish writer who escapes the Nazis and moves to Argentina—much like Gombrowicz himself. When I was in Argentina a few years back though, we were taken on a literary walking tour and if memory serves, we went by the bar where Witold used to hang out and rant about how much Borges sucked. Apparently he had a thing against JLB, and liked to tell EVERYONE about it.

One evening, a friend challenged him on this by asking what Borges stories Gombrowicz had read. His very Polish response: “None! Why would I ever waste my time reading that crap?”

God I love Polish writers.

Killing the Second Dog by Marek Hlasko, translated from the Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz (New Vessel)

Sticking with that same theme, I would read anything written by this guy who, according to the New Vessel website, was considered to be the “Polish James Dean.”

Add to that picture the fact that this book is about two Polish con men trying to swindle an American widow, and I’m completely sold.

Stone Tablets by Wojciech Zukrowski, translated from the Polish by Stephanie Kraft (Paul Dry Books)

A few months back, I found out that basically all of my ancestors on both sides of my family are from the area surrounding Gdańsk/Danzig. More specifically, my dad’s side is made up of Pomeranians and my mom’s is all Kashubians. This is one reason why I got into The Tin Drum right from the start—one of the main characters in the opening section is a Kashubian arsonist. Fire AND Poland! (Actually, taking this character as representative for larger Kashubian characteristics explains a lot about my personality.) Anyway, later on in the novel, there’s a great speech by Oskar’s Kashubian grandmother:

“That’s Kashubes for you, little Oskar. Always getting hit on the head. But you are going where things are better now, and leaving old Granny behind. Because Kahsubes don’t move around a lot, they always stay put, and hold their head still for others to whack, because we ain’t really Polish and we ain’t really German, and Kashubes ain’t good enough for Germans or Pollacks. They want everything cut and dried.”

Also, Stone Tablets is about a Hungarian diplomat in India during the Hungarian Uprising. But let’s be honest—I’m mostly including it here because the author is Polish.

Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by David Short (Karolinum Press)

Sticking with Eastern Europe . . . There are two Bohumil Hrabal books coming out this spring: Rambling On this month, and Harlequin’s Millions in May. If you haven’t read Hrabal, you absolutely must. Too Loud a Solitude, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced of Age, I Served the King of England, these are all fantastic novels that embody Hrabal’s idiosyncratic style that is joyful, conversational, and instantly engaging. Here’s Adam Thirlwell’s description of it from his wonderful The Delighted States:

In Czech, there is a word for Hrabal’s style. This word is Hrabalovština. Hrabalovština is a comic display of vocabulary, of headlong words and invented syntax—it is a system which is forever trying to put off its own demise. But Hrabal’s own word for his style was palavering, and palavering is a much more useful and precise concept for this style, this new invention in the art of the novel. Palavering is an art, and it is committed to deferral, to a comic refusal to be polite, and stop talking. It is, according to Hrabal, “my defense against politics, my policy in fact.” And this word policy is important. It shows how considered and meditated was Hrabal’s apparently natural style. Because the truest poetry is also the most feigning. Against the direction and drive of ideas, Hrabal offer the more vulgar luxuries of digression, and of free association.

Hopefully this collection of short stories and Harlequin’s Millions—and other celebrations and articles related to the centennial of Hrabal’s birth—will help spawn a new group of Hrabal fans . . .

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (Minotaur)

Here’s a bit from the opening of the review of this novel in the Independent:

Leaving aside the literary merits of I Remember You, residents of Iceland were thoroughly terrified by the book—but, ironically, for its jacket, featuring a pair of intensely staring eyes that (for some reason) deeply disturbed—and even obsessed—many Icelanders, and occasioned a slew of complaints.

Why didn’t Minotaur use this cover instead of that crap up there? And why can’t I find an image of this? I want to know how intensely these eyes are staring!

Speaking of Iceland, I really wish I could go to the Secret Solstice Music Festival in June. Scratch that. I wish I could just move to Iceland and spend the rest of my days tending bar and floating in the Blue Lagoon.

Also, one other random thing: Unless I’m missing something, there are only three books by women coming out in translation this month. That’s embarrassing.

A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, translated from the French by Polly McLean (Other Press)

This novel—the fourth to be made available in English from Afghani writer Rahimi—sounds really fun:

Rassoul remembers reading Crime and Punishment as a student of Russian literature in Leningrad, so when, with axe in hand, he kills the wealthy old lady who prostitutes his beloved Sophia, he thinks twice before taking her money or killing the woman whose voice he hears from another room. He wishes only to expiate his crime and be rightfully punished. Out of principle, he gives himself up to the police. But his country, after years of civil war, has fallen into chaos. In Kabul there is only violence, absurdity, and deafness, and Rassoul’s desperate attempt to be heard turns into a farce.

Given how Other Press has been killing it lately, I won’t be surprised if we’re talking about this next year as a potential BTBA 2015 longlist title . . .

Decoded Olivia by Mai Jia, translated from the Chinese by Olivia Milburn (FSG)

We never seem to receive galleys for the “fun” books in translation that presses bring out. A tragic, complicated novel about World War II survivors? Perfect for Post. A thriller about code-breaking and an autistic math genius? Seems more Flavorwire that Three Percent. Shit! I want code breaking! I like math!

But seriously, although I’m sure this isn’t as interesting as the jacket copy makes it out be, it does sound like a good escape from the “heavier” stuff that I feel like I’ve been reading this year. Actually, right now, to balance the more traditionally “literary” stuff I’ve been reading (and will be reading after the BTBA longlist announcement), I’ve been reading Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. I’m not quite halfway done, but I’m really enjoying it . . . It’s very entertaining, and although I’ve never seen the movie Stalker or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games, both of these things make sense. I also have things to say about the “meaningfulness” of “entertaining” books, but I think I’ll save that for next month.

On Leave by Daniel Anselme, translated from the French by David Bellos (Faber and Faber)

By contrast, On Leave is a bit more serious . . . One of the few novels about the French-Algerian War, On Leave is a book about three soldiers who, on a 10-day break from the fighting, realize that they don’t really fit into society anymore. It was published during the conflict (in 1957; the war ended in 1962), and was read by almost no one. This truly is a lost classic, and kudos to David Bellos for translated it and Faber and Faber for publishing it.

Also, extra-thanks to the Faber publicity department for using a blurb from Paul Doyle’s Three Percent review on the press release. I’ll never forget the first time Grove pulled a blurb from one of my reviews, and I still get giddy when Three Percent pops up in places like this.

Falling Out of Time by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)

Of all Grossman’s books, this is the one that sounds the most intriguing to me, mostly for it’s genre-bending nature:

In Falling Out of Time, David Grossman has created a genre-defying drama––part play, part prose, pure poetry––to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children. It begins in a small village, in a kitchen, where a man announces to his wife that he is leaving, embarking on a journey in search of their dead son. The man––called simply Walking Man––paces in ever-widening circles around the town. One after another, all manner of townsfolk fall into step with him (the Net-Mender, the Midwife, the Elderly Math Teacher, even the Duke), each enduring his or her own loss. The walkers raise questions of grief and bereavement: Can death be overcome by an intensity of speech or memory? Is it possible, even for a fleeting moment, to call to the dead and free them from their death? Grossman’s answer to such questions is a hymn to these characters, who ultimately find solace and hope in their communal act of breaching death’s hermetic separateness. For the reader, the solace is in their clamorous vitality, and in the gift of Grossman’s storytelling––a realm where loss is not merely an absence but a life force of its own.

That’s all for this month. Check back in on Tuesday, March 11th to find out which books made the longlist for the 2014 BTBA in Fiction. And April is LOADED with great translations, including one of the best Open Letter books of 2014 . . .

22 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Way back at the start of the year, I promised that this year’s ALTA would be “THE GREATEST CONFERENCE IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE OF CONFERENCES.” Now, I’m not sure that was the case—although it was the most interesting ALTA I’ve ever attended—but it was awesome enough to get mentioned in the New York Times.

[A]mong the polyglots who convened this month in Rochester for the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association — where the topic was “The Translation of Humor, or, the Humor of Translation” — there is a sense of cautious optimism. At least some measure of levity, these dedicated professionals believe, must be able to migrate between languages. The French, after all, seem to appreciate Woody Allen.

“It takes a bit of creativity and a bit of luck,” said David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton, who, as he prepared his keynote speech for this year’s conference, confessed to finding a disconcerting shortage of jokes beginning: “A pair of translators walk into a bar.”

(During the conference, Alex Zucker actually came up with a joke using that opening: “A pair of translators walk into a bar . . . (It was better in the original.)”)

The humor panels we had at the conference were pretty spectacular, especially one moderated by Open Letter editor (and U of R translation grad) Kaija Straumanis and featuring Emily Davis (fellow U of R translation grad), Matt Rowe, and Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich, translators of The Golden Calf. One of the reasons this panel worked so well was because of Kaija’s introduction, which centered around the different ways George Saunders’s “Pastoralia” is funny in English and in the German translation.

Might some funny bits actually get funnier in translation? In the title story of George Saunders’s “Pastoralia,” a character is paid to impersonate a cave man at a theme park, his employers providing a freshly-killed goat to roast daily, until one morning he goes to the usual spot and finds it “goatless.” Among the many possible renderings of this made-up word, Saunders’s German translator chose ziegenleer, a lofty-sounding melding of “goat” and “void” with no exact equivalent in English.

“The German translation is accurate, but the word combination tickles some kind of orthographical, sound-receptive funny bone,” explained the Latvian translator Kaija Straumanis, the editorial director for Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester’s literature in translation press and one of the conference organizers. “The more high-minded you make it sound in your head, the funnier it gets, implying a rusted-out box into which this man is staring and seeing a severe and disconcerting lack of goat.”

The whole article is worth reading—and thanks to Jascha Hoffman for writing such an informative piece about such an interesting topic.

9 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In this week’s podcast we learn the following: Chad is working through the five stages of grief about Albert Pujols and MSU (he is filled with ANGER); Tom doesn’t read a ton of nonfiction, but when he does, it tends to focus on all things violent (see a theme?); faux-karaoke singers on the subway might suck, but Karaoke Culture is awesome; and book people like to totally flip out at most every opportunity (we are an unstable people).

Read More...

9 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

One of my favorite podcasts (aside from the Three Percent podcast, of course) is PRI’s The World in Words, which is hosted by Patrick Cox and covers a ton of really interesting topics related to language, translation, etc.

It’s worth checking out every week, but especially this week, since the main focus is on translation. Starting with a bit about Google Translate (and the word “antidisestablishment”), the podcast also includes a conversation with the head of the American Translators Association, one about Madeline Miller’s new novel, The Song of Achilles and what it owes to Homer’s The Iliad, and a great talk with David Bellos:

And some people even translate books. David Bellos does that. He has translated, among other novels, Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi “Life: A User’s Manual”), a book once considered untranslatable. Bellos is also the author of the recently published Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything.

Bellos’ book has been a hit with reviewers. No wonder. With all those reasons (global marketing, espionage, immigration) why translators are needed now more than ever, it follows that we should question more closely what translation is, what it does, and what it misses. I don’t know if translations of novels and poems have improved over time, each translator shaving his or her own microsecond off some previous world record, but in one small way it’s a shame: it may discourage us from reading books in their original languages. But that’s a minor worry, certainly not an argument against good translations.

It’s a great episode, and another great opportunity to encourage everyone to buy Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Or at least, you should read this sample.

And to listen to the full World in Words podcast, just click here or you can click here to listen to it in iTunes.

2 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review had a few interesting pieces, including Adam Thirlwell’s review of David Bellos’s new book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which is, by far, one of the best reviews I’ve read about this title.

That’s not all that surprising, since Thirlwell is such an excellent writer and translation enthusiast. (His The Delighted States is definitely worth reading.) And this book is right in his wheelhouse (so to speak).

I’m just going to quote at length, since Adam gets so many things right about Is That a Fish in Your Ear?:

David Bellos’s new book on translation at first sidesteps this philosophy. He describes the dragomans of Ottoman Turkey, the invention of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg trials, news wires, the speech bubbles of Astérix, Bergman subtitles. . . . He offers an anthropology of translation acts. But through this anthropology a much grander project emerges. The old theories were elegiac, stately; they were very much severe. Bellos is practical, and sprightly. He is unseduced by elegy. And this is because he is on to something new.

Bellos is a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, and also the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication there (at which, I should add, I once spoke). But to me he’s more interesting as the translator of two peculiarly great and problematic novelists: the Frenchman Georges Perec, whose work is characterized by a manic concern for form, and the Albanian Ismail Kadare, whose work Bellos translates not from the original Albanian, but from French translations supervised by Kadare. Bellos’s twin experience with these novelists is, I think, at the root of his new book, for these experiences with translation prove two things: It’s still possible to find adequate equivalents for even manically formal prose; and it’s also possible to find such equivalents via a language that is not a work’s original. Whereas according to the sad and orthodox theories of translation, neither of these truths should be true. [. . .]

We’re used to thinking that each person speaks an individual language — his mother tongue — and that this mother tongue is a discrete entity, with a vocabulary manipulated by a fixed grammar. But this picture, Bellos argues, doesn’t match the everyday shifts of our multiple languages, nor the mess of our language use. Bellos’s deep philosophical enemy is what he calls “nomenclaturism,” “the notion that words are essentially names” — a notion that has been magnified in our modern era of writing: a conspiracy of lexicographers. It annoys him because this misconception is often used to support the idea that translation is impossible, since all languages largely consist of words with no single comprehensive equivalent in other languages. But, Bellos writes: “A simple term such as ‘head,’ for example, can’t be counted as the ‘name’ of any particular thing. It figures in all kinds of expressions.” And while no single word in French, say, will cover all the connotations of the word “head,” its meaning “in any particular usage can easily be represented in another language.”

The misconception, however, has a very long history. Ever since St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, discussion of translation has dissolved into the ineffable — the famous idea that each language creates an essentially different mental world, and so all translations are doomed to philosophical inadequacy. In Bellos’s new proposal, translation instead “presupposes . . . the irrelevance of the ineffable to acts of communication.” Zigzagging through case studies of missionary Bibles or cold war language machines, Bellos calmly removes this old idea of the ineffable, and its unfortunate effects.

Like the book itself, this review makes me really happy. It’s so positive and honest and uplifting and pragmatic—traits that aren’t always present in discussions about literary translation. (As Bellos said in an article we referenced earlier in the week, “bellyaching is part of the community.”)

Anyway, you must read this book. It’s brilliant and fun and incredibly informative. If you want a taste, we featured this at Read This Next, so you can read an excerpt by clicking here. And be sure to check out this piece that Bellos wrote about the origins of the book, etc.

7 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Last week we featured David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? on our Read This Next, website and after reading the sample we made available (along with the interview and full review), I’m sure that everyone in the greater NYC area will want to go see Bellos talk about his book as part of The Bridge Series.

To be more specific, David will be talking at McNally Jackson (52 Prince Street, between Lafayette & Mulberry) on Thursday, October 13th at 7pm.

Here’s some info from The Bridge website:

“Forget the fish—it’s David Bellos you want in your ear when the talk is about translation. Bellos dispels many of the gloomy truisms of the trade and reminds us what an infinitely flexible instrument the English language (or any language) is. Sparkling, independent-minded analysis of everything from Nabokov’s insecurities to Google Translate’s felicities fuels a tender—even romantic—account of our relationship with words.”
—Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives and 2666

“In the guise of a book about translation this is a richly original cultural history . . . A book for anyone interested in words, language and cultural anthropology. Mr Bellos’s fascination with his subject is itself endlessly fascinating.”
—The Economist

Funny and surprising on every page, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? offers readers new insight into the mystery of how we come to know what someone else means—whether we wish to understand Astérix cartoons or a foreign head of state. Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices of Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Cameron’s Avatar. Is That a Fish in Your Ear? ranges across human experience to describe why translation sits deep within us all, and why we need it in so many situations, from the spread of religion to our appreciation of literature; indeed, Bellos claims that all writers are by definition translators. Written with joie de vivre, reveling both in misunderstanding and communication, littered with wonderful asides, it promises any reader new eyes through which to understand the world.

Definitely go check this out—I can guarantee that it will be fascinating, fun, and interesting.

29 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, which is coming out in late October from Faber and Faber.

As I mentioned on a couple of our Three Percent podcasts, this is one of the fall books that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. And now that I’ve had a chance to read it in full, I feel confident in saying that this is a perfect book for anyone involved or interested in translation. It’s wide-ranging, very readable, filled with fascinating anecdotes, and very thought-provoking. You can read my full review by clicking here.

Over at Read This Next you can read three chapters from the book: “Global Flows: Center and Periphery in the Translation of Books,” “Match Me If You Can: Translating Humor,” and “Style and Translation.”

In addition, you can read this piece about how Bellos came to write this book.

But when in June 2009 a plump, pink-faced person offhandedly remarked at some academic party that “a translation is obviously no substitute for the original”, I pedaled straight home, sat down at my desk and dashed off a squib against that thoughtless cliché.

It struck me that other translation clichés deserved similar treatment. I sketched out short essays against “making it sound like the original,” “traitor, translator,” and “les belles infidèles.” It was good to get them off my chest.

A few weeks later my son came to visit, and I showed him my pages. “Dad,” he said, “if you could stop writing like an academic, you could make a living out of this.”

There’s also a really great interview with David over at the Foyles website.

How would someone keen to work in the field of translation be best able to develop the required skills?

Go to university. Read lots of books. Write. Then read some more. Live in the country. Get married, have children and learn their nursery rhymes. Watch television. Read some more. Write. Then try your hand at translating. Best to start with a book you feel passionately interested in. But actually, there is no ‘main’ or ‘direct’ route into a career as a translator into English. Most of my colleagues in the field got into it by happenstance. Just don’t expect it will ever pay your rent.

And if you want a different sort of intro to the book, watch this video:

29 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It makes a strange sort of sense that the man who translated Life A User’s Manual would subtitle his new book “Translation and the Meaning of Everything.” Clearly, David Bellos isn’t lacking in ambition, and without giving away too much too soon, that’s for the best. Maybe it’s because of the concept of the “invisible translator,” or the simple fact that they’re not praised nearly as often as the authors they work with, but translators tend to be a modest bunch.

As a result, a lot of theoretical and critical writings from translators tend to be either deferential or to fall into the trap of preaching to the choir. And more strident pieces, ones that proclaim the seemingly obvious importance of literature in translation, can oftentimes come off as whiny. Bellos, manages to avoid all of these traps while crafting a book that’s interesting to everyone—those involved with translation, as well as those who aren’t—a book that’s pragmatic, evenhanded, filled with fascinating historical anecdotes, and, for those of us who are involved in the field, life-affirming.

Chapter Four—“Things People Say about Translation”—is a perfect example of all of these qualities. It starts simply enough:

It’s a well-known fact that a translation is no substitute for the original.

It’s also perfectly obvious that this is wrong. Translations are substitutes for original texts. You use them in the place of a work written in a language you cannot read with ease.

This is straightforward enough, and a rather common sort of rebuttal to an age-old complaint—one that translators can all relate to and get behind. But Bellos takes this further, grouping this cliche with other oft-repeated, and not exactly true cliches.

The claim that a translation is no substitute for an original is not the only piece of folk wisdom that isn’t true. We happily utter sayings like “crime doesn’t pay,” or “it never rains but it pours,” or “the truth will out” that fly in the face of the evidence—Russian mafiosi basking on the French Riviera, British drizzle, and family secrets that never get out. [. . .]

People who declare translations to be no substitute for the original imply that they possess the means to recognize and appreciate the real thing, that is to say, original composition as opposed to a translation. Without this ability they could not possibly make the claim they do.

Again, this is a sort of refrain among translators—especially in relation to book reviews by monolingual reviewers—but here’s where Bellos makes his special mark. After discounting the “translation is no substitute for the original” sentiment, he goes on to spell out a series of “translation hoaxes”: Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, which wasn’t written by Ossian and translated from Gaelic, but rather was written by English poet James Macpherson; Horace Walpole initially claimed The Castle of Otranto was translated from the Italian; Andrei Makine’s first few books were presented in French as having been translated from Russian by the non-existent Francoise Bour; and the in the opposite direction, Romain Gary wrote three books that were believed to have been written in French, but had actually been composed in English and secretly translated by Gary’s editor. Point being, if it’s so obvious that a translation is no substitute for the original, than these games really wouldn’t have worked . . .

In addition to the practical, cooly rational, life-affirming sort of investigations into rather large issues (e.g., translating humor, the history of simultaneous interpretation, how Google translate works, the “global flows” of translation), Bellos includes some great anecdotes of translation obstacles he faced, which really puts a fine point on his arguments and further demonstrates his brilliance. (A particular favorite involves one of the games found in Perec’s 53 Days, and the phrase “Bellos Dunnit,” which will make sense when you read this book.)

It’s hard to write a review of this book, since it is so big, and so erudite, and so well put together. Instead, you should just trust me—Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is brilliant, and well worth the price of admission.

26 August 11 | Chad W. Post |

I’m about halfway through David Bellos’s forthcoming Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, and absolutely love it. I think we’ll be promoting this in Read This Next in late-September, and I’ll definitely be using it in my translation class next spring.

I’ll also write up a long review about it in the near future . . .

The book officially comes out in October, but in the meantime, here’s a trailer:

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Book Reviews section is a piece by Stephen Weiner (who runs the Suspicious Humanist newsletter) about Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s Hocus Bogus, translated from the French by David Bellos and published by Yale University Press.

Hocus Bogus was one of my favorite books from the 2011 BTBA shortlist, a delightful surprise based around a fascinating, strange hoax. Stephen lays this out in the review, so I won’t rehash it here . . .

But I will say that one of the fall books that I’m most excited about is David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Doesn’t look like Macmillan/Faber and Faber have a page up for this yet, but here’s a clip from the jacket copy:

Using translation as his lens, David Bellos shows how much we can learn about ourselves by exploring the ways we use translation, from the historical roots of written language to the stylistic choices fo Ingmar Bergman, from the United Nations General Assembly to the significance of James Cameron’s Avatar.

More on that as soon as we get a galley . . .

But in terms of the Hocus Bogus review, here’s the opening:

Romain Gary was an immigrant from Russia, writer of the heroic Depression and World War II generation. He came to France with his mother in the 1930s. He attended law school in Provence and joined the Air Force in that decade. When the war broke out and France was occupied, he escaped and joined the free French army of Charles DeGaulle, flying many missions and being wounded. Immediately upon the end of the war he joined the foreign service and the diplomatic corps. Initially he was posted to South America.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gary served as the French consul in Los Angeles, marrying the American movie star Jean Seberg. He won the immensely prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, a humanist-themed novel focusing on the protection of elephants in the newly independent Africa. This was the first adult book I ever read in the early 1960s when I was 11 years old. The heroic presence of Morel, his protagonist who had survived the camps and protected the elephants by shooting the shooters, gripped me intensely. I was interested in part because my father was an early environmentalist where we lived in Northern California, founding an organization called “People for Open Space.”

Click here to read the entire piece.

20 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Romain Gary was an immigrant from Russia, writer of the heroic Depression and World War II generation. He came to France with his mother in the 1930s. He attended law school in Provence and joined the Air Force in that decade. When the war broke out and France was occupied, he escaped and joined the free French army of Charles DeGaulle, flying many missions and being wounded. Immediately upon the end of the war he joined the foreign service and the diplomatic corps. Initially he was posted to South America.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Gary served as the French consul in Los Angeles, marrying the American movie star Jean Seberg. He won the immensely prestigious Prix Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven, a humanist-themed novel focusing on the protection of elephants in the newly independent Africa. This was the first adult book I ever read in the early 1960s when I was 11 years old. The heroic presence of Morel, his protagonist who had survived the camps and protected the elephants by shooting the shooters, gripped me intensely. I was interested in part because my father was an early environmentalist where we lived in Northern California, founding an organization called “People for Open Space.”

More than other kids my age, I was aware of world events, especially the anti-colonial struggle sweeping the third world at the time. I vividly remember media reports of bombs going off in the French Algerian war. So it was that I was already tuned into the issues of the book. Gary took on themes that were to become of significant social importance in the future, including the environment and race relations. In Los Angeles he became a full-blown celebrity, writing articles for, among others, Life Magazine, and appearing often on television in both France and the U.S. As we shall see, this fame was exactly what he later sought to escape.

In 1945 Gary won the Prix de Critiques for his novel A European Education about anti-Nazi resistance movements. In 1974 his book Cuddles, a strange tale involving a python in a Paris apartment, was nominated for the Renaudot prize, awarded to a first novel by a new writer. It was only eligible because it was written under Gary’s secret pseudonym, Émile Ajar. He anonymously withdrew it from the contest in order not to deceive the judges. By the time he wrote Hocus Bogus in 1976, Gary had been intensely criticized by younger people who labeled him a Gaullist, part of the old, tired establishment. He was caught in the ironic dilemma of having taken a pseudonym to hide from the celebrity he had worked so hard to achieve.

Life Before Us became the best-selling French novel of the twentieth century and was also nominated for the Prix Goncourt, a prize that may not be awarded to an author more than once in his/her lifetime. Gary, of course, had already won for The Roots of Heaven. He was well aware that because of his deception, other nominees might be deprived of their chance to win. In an extremely convoluted series of events he threw the reporters, who were desperately searching for the author of this book, onto the track of his cousin Paul Pavlowitch. They had no choice but to believe that Pavlowitch, like the first person protagonist of Hocus Bogus, suffered from mental illness, which served to further confuse everyone. This was exactly what Gary had intended. The book did win the prize and was accepted by Pavlowitch. Even after the truth of its authorship was revealed, many reporters as well as academics refused to believe it, so convincing was the hoax.

Hocus Bogus is the false (but actually true) confession of Gary admitting to be Ajar, and an extremely clever critique of the literary critics. The ambiguous protagonist—Gary? Ajar? Pavlowitch?—believes he is a paranoid schizophrenic who confuses his personal paranoia with the world situations of the mid 1970s. This book is of particular interest to me because of my own schizophrenia. My whole life is involved in dealing with this debilitating condition, and yet, because I am intelligent enough to hide my disability, I am often put in the ironic dilemma of educating my friends and family as to its nature and severity. I also relate to Hocus Bogus in that I am often tortured by inner questions about my personal identity, feeling alternately that I am the only thing that exists, and that I do not exist at all.

To me, Romain Gary will remain a hero of humanist literature, not only because of what he wrote but also because of the life he lived.

18 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back when the Life A User’s Manual Big Read first started,1 I referenced this huge chart of constraints that served as Perec’s guide in constructing this novel.2 At the time, the only constraint I mentioned was the “Knight’s Move,” which determines the chapter order of the novel. But as you can see in that chart, there’s a lot more at work behind this novel . . .

If memory serves, the Oulipo Compendium has the best explanation of the constraints at work in this book, but since I’m moving tomorrow and Wednesday (perfect time to be reading a book on an apartment building, no?) my copy is currently buried within one of about 28 boxes of books. So, turning to the second most expert info source on the Internets, here’s how Wikipedia explains it all:

[Perec] created a complex system which would generate for each chapter a list of items, references or objects which that chapter should then contain or allude to. He described this system as a “machine for inspiring stories”.
There are 42 lists of 10 objects each, gathered into 10 groups of 4 with the last two lists a special “Couples” list. Some examples:

number of people involved
length of the chapter in pages
an activity
a position of the body
emotions
an animal
reading material
countries
2 lists of novelists, from whom a literary quotation is required
“Couples”, e.g. Pride and Prejudice, Laurel and Hardy.

The way in which these apply to each chapter is governed by an array called a Graeco-Latin square. The lists are considered in pairs, and each pair is governed by one cell of the array, which guarantees that every combination of elements is encountered. For instance, the items in the couples list are seen once with their natural partner (in which case Perec gives an explicit reference), and once with every other element (where he is free to be cryptic). In the 1780s, the great mathematician Leonhard Euler had conjectured that a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square could not exist and it was not until 1959 that one was actually constructed, refuting Euler.

Aside from these overarching combinatorial restraints, there are various moments of Oulipian fun and games to be found in Life, such as pages 259-265, which, as Scott pointed out features diagonal e’s, g’s, and o’s. (If you can’t see this, start at the far right side of line 1, which ends with “Pelage.” Drop to line 2, which ends “exiles.” Then 3, with “eye.” Slowly but surely, the e’s travel from far right all the way across to line 60—there are 60 characters in each line—which begins with “Embattled.”)

As someone mentioned in Scott’s question thread, in French, the crossing letters spell out “ame” (soul), for which, “ego” seems a satisfactory English equivalent.

But even better than simply finding a three-letter replacement for “ame” is translating all 179 lines3 into 60-character English statements that fit the pattern exactly. David Bellos deserves a MacArthur Genius Grant for this alone.

(It’s also fun that many of these 179 statements reference Life itself, such as “The puzzlemaker’s backgammon game giving him his bad tempers” or “The technician trying a new experiment, and losing 3 fingers.”)

In relation to these intricate—and near overwhelming—constraints, Christopher Beha included a bit of a warning about this in his 2006 article about an Oulipo conference that ran in The Believer:

On Saturday morning, the weekend’s final panel, “La Contrainte et après?: A debate on the achievements, ambitions, and future of writing without ease,” got off to a kind of false start before Frischer arrived with coffee for the panelists. Then there was much talk about whether a constrained work should announce itself as such. Mathews expressed the opinion that Perec’s work is too often reduced to its formulae, rather than read for its true pleasures. It’s an obvious temptation to think that learning the elaborate conceits of La Vie mode d’emploi might stand in for actually reading the book. And yet this is a bad mistake, for when one actually experiences the novel, the constraints that gave rise to it become rather beside the point—in that same way that Joyce’s Homeric parallels mean a bit less with each rereading of Ulysses; in the same way that neither the Big Bang nor the expulsion from Eden is foremost in our minds when we step outside on a beautiful morning.

Warren Motte commented on this tangentially in a “discussion with Martin Riker”: that appeared in Words Without Borders:

Whereas while that’s going on in the New Novel, there seems to be, in the last 20 years or so, a return to certain kinds of storytelling that had not been massively apparent in progressive writing in France for a long time. And I think Perec had a lot to do with that. You know he said about Life, a User’s Manual that you could read it in a number of ways, but one of the ways he wanted you to be able to read it was flat on your back on your sofa.

And it’s absolutely true . . . One can dig into the various constraints and other games, but in the end, Perec’s book is a masterwork because it’s so much more than these constraints—it’s a long series of moments that are best read “flat on your back.” And speaking of flat and backs, here’s the last two paragraphs of “Servants’ Quarters, 10”:

Today the room is occupied by a man of about thirty: he is on his bed, stark naked, prone, amidst five inflatable dolls, lying full length on top of one of them and cuddling two others in his arms, apparently experiencing an unparalleled orgasm on these precarious simulacra.

The rest of the room is more bare: blank walls, a sea-green lino on the floor, strewn with odd pieces of clothing. A chair, a table with an oilcloth covering, the signs of a meal—a can, shrimps in a saucer—and an evening newspaper lying open at a monster crossword puzzle.

To me, that’s what Life really is: an “unparalleled orgasm” and a “monster crossword puzzle.”

Also from this section, I highly recommend “Cinoc, 1,” which includes a long bit about how no one—including Cinoc himself—knows how to properly pronounce his name, and a bit about how over ten years he has gathered more than 8,000 rare words that he’s decided to save. Words like:

PISTEUR (masc. nn.) Hotel employee with the task of attracting customers.

So behind the math and the lists, there’s a great deal of fun in Life . . . (Sorry—it’s hard to resist creating non sequiturs with the title of this book. “Life is filled with sex and puzzles.” Yep, here all week.)
Read more: http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/work-and-play-a-conversation-with-warren-motte/#ixzz1JuOTRyAM

1 You can read the post on Part 1 by clicking here, and can find the one on Part 2 right here.

2 I assume most everyone reading this blog knows about the Oulipo, but in case you don’t, Wikipedia has a nice overview page. In short, Oulipians use constraints in writing. The most obvious—and in some ways relevant—example is the “Lipogram,” which requires the writer to avoid using particular letter(s). Perec’s A Void was written entirely without the letter ‘E’.

3 Clinamen?

15 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

A few weeks back, I posted about the first section of Life A User’s Manual (TRANSLATED BY DAVID BELLOS), which is the Spring Big Read over at Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading blog. As mentioned, I love Life, haven’t read it in years, and had every intention of keeping up with this reading group and posting weekly comments.

Well, of course that didn’t happen.

I’m almost back on track though. Almost. But rather than abiding by Scott’s reading schedule I’m going to catch up by writing short(ish) posts about each “Part” of the novel. My last post covered Part I, so here goes with the second section of what is arguably Perec’s masterwork . . .

First off, I want to direct you to Scott’s first post about this section of the book. He does a great job of providing an entryway to this section, beginning with the wonderful con (or is it a double-con?) of Sherwood:

We’ve already been talking a great deal about things and descriptions, so now it’s time to talk about surfaces. I’m thinking specifically in terms of Sherwood’s Tale, in which our overly credulous Sherwood purchases what he believes to be the Holy Grail, but is in fact scammed by crooks [pp. 96 – 109].

It is one of those elaborate confidence scams where a person is shown one small piece of evidence after another to slowly build up trust in what is ultimately a big, unbelievable falsehood. As such, it is very much a story about surfaces, about essentially taking evidence at face value in a naive sort of way, which of course we all do as a simple part of life every day. If there is any one thing that has distinguished itself so far in Life A User’s Manual, it is that Perec is challenging us again and again to look beyond surface descriptions.

This particular version of that exhortation adds a special twist. In the lead-up to Sherwood’s Tale, Perec goes into the idea of collecting unica–objects like the Holy Grail for which only one example exists in the world. In his discussion of unica, Perec notes examples like “the octobass, a monstrous double-bass for two musicians,” or “animal species of which only one member is known to exist,” before finally giving us a small warning: “any object whatsoever can always be identified uniquely, and . . . in Japan there is a factory mass-producing Napoleon’s hat.” [95]

There are innumerable things about this book that draw me in—the self-referential bits, the descriptions of objects upon objects, the brilliant lists, the ambitious construction, the jigsaw puzzles and other games, etc.—but one of the strongest has to be the little mini-stories littered throughout the novel.

In Part Two, there are a number of really fascinating ones, which tend to revolve around quests for things, or for revenge . . .

There’s the aforementioned story of James Sherwood—collector of unica—and his attempt to buy the Holy Vase containing Christ’s blood. There’s Appenzzell’s pursuit of the Orang-Kubus, a Sumatra tribe living in the forest, moving and setting up new villages any time the outside world found them. There’s Ericsson’s quest to find the nanny responsible for the death of his son and suicide of his wife. There’s the conclusion of Bartlebooth’s life-quest to paint 500 seascapes, have them made into puzzles, complete the puzzles, then remove the watercolor and dip in into the sea.

Scott makes an interesting point about these quests in his second post related to Part Two of the novel:

At this point in our read, I would think that if the title “Life A User’s Manual” is to be taken as an unironic title we have to think it has something to do with these futile, ultimately life-constraining quests that have already proliferated so much in the book. We might consider what causes people to enter into these quests, what roles the quests serve in the lives of their owners, how and when they become traps, how they ultimately end, and whether and how they give a life meaning.

When I was reading this section, I was struck by how many of these quests or pursuits were either futile or self-destructive.

For example, when students decipher Appenzzell’s notebook about the Kubus, they find this “cruel and obvious truth” about why the Kubus kept moving everytime Appenzzell started getting involved with their tribe:

However irksome are the discomfitures which a man who has given himself body and soul to the profession of ethnography may encounter in his attempt to grasp the deeper nature of Man in concrete terms—or, in other words, to apprehend the minimal sociality defining the human condition by conquering the heteroclite evidence of diverse cultures—and although an ethnographer may not aspire to more than the discovery of relative truths (since it is vain to hope to reach any final truth), the worst difficulty I have had to encounter was not at all of that kind: I wanted to go to the absolute limit of the primitive; had I not got all I wanted in these graceful Natives whom no one had seen before me, who would perhaps no be seen again after me? At the end of an exhilarating search, I had my savages, I asked for nothing more than to be one of them, to share their days, their pains, their rituals. Alas! they didn’t want to have me, they were not prepared to teach me their customs and beliefs! They had no use whatever for the gifts I laid beside them, no use at all for the help I thought I could give! It was because of me that they abandoned their villages and it was only to discourage me, to convince me there was no point in my persevering, that they chose increasingly inhospitable sites, imposting ever more terrible living conditions on themselves to show me they would rather face tigers and volcanos, swamps, suffocating fog, elephants, poisonous spiders, than men. I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is worst of all, to feel your soul dying . . .

And Bartlebooth’s 50-year plan is a perfect example of going from nothing to something to nothing, as he learns to paint, paints 500 ports, solves 500 puzzles, and then dips the 500 paintings in water, washing away the image and leaving only the experience . . . This is perfectly stated in the third reason for his lifelong plan:

The third was aesthetic: the plan would be useless, since gratuitousness was the sole guarantor of its rigour, and would destroy itself as it proceeded; its perfection would be circular: a series of events which when concatenated nullify each other: starting from nothing, passing through precise operations on finished objects, Bartlebooth would end up with nothing.

Perec’s relationship to “things” is a very fruitful line of inquiry, starting from his early work Things: A Story of the Sixties. More on that in a different post.

The other thing I wanted to mention was the thread of violence that runs through this Part. Not only is there the sordid story of Ericsson’s revenge, which results in a heap of dead bodies and a couple of suicides, but there’s this curious bit from “On the Stairs, 3” about the life of a flat and the building as a whole:

one day the young Marquiseaux girl will run off with the Reol boy, one day Madame Orlowska will leave again for no apparent reason, for no real reason either; one day Madame Altamont will fire a revolver at Monsieru Altamont and the blood will spurt onto the glazed hexagonal tiles of their octagonal dining room [. . .]

So, yes. If anyone has an comments/thoughts/opinions, post them below, or over at Conversational Reading.

Part III on Monday, Part IV next Friday, and then I’ll basically be caught up . . .

14 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As mentioned a couple of times already, Conversational Reading is currently hosting a Group Read of Life A User’s Manual. This project officially kicked off yesterday with the first Part (up to page 89), and since I’m actually on schedule with this (although with nothing else), I thought I’d participate by writing up my own notes on this as we go. If asked (or even if not), I frequently refer to this as one of my all-time favorite books, but to be honest, I haven’t read it in more than a decade, when I was much younger and less well-read. So, I think it will be interesting going through this section by section, both here, and on Conversational Reading.

When talking about Life, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about the contraints behind it. Perec was a member of the Oulipo, a French writing circle that applies certain restrictions when writing texts. (Most famous example: Perec’s A Void, a novel that doesn’t contain a single instance of the letter “e.”) The Oulipo has generated a number of great books and interesting experiments, with Life being probably the grandest and most ambitious. If you don’t believe me, check out this chart which lays it all out in all of its overwhelming complexity.

Personally, I mostly want to avoid talking about these constraints. If a novel is great, it’s great not just because of its underpinnings, but because of how it works as a whole.

The one contraint worth mentioning is the Knight’s Tour. For those not familiar with this book, it all takes place in an apartment building (11, rue Simon-Crubellier) that can be basically divided into a 10×10 grid. This is reprinted in the new edition on page 569, laying out all the apartments and who lives in them. This is helpful when reading, since each chapter focuses on one resident, and one of the 100 sections of this building. This sounds more complicated than it reads, but basically, characters who own large apartments (like Bartlebooth) have as many chapters as “squares” they own (in the case of Bartlebooth, he has 5 squares, so 5 sections).

With me so far? Now, in determining the order in which the chapters would be written, Perec employed the Knight’s Move to his 10×10 graph. The Knight’s Tour is a chess term, in which the Knight can move all over the board, landing on each square once and only once. If you want to see what this looks like when applied to Life then click here.

*

OK, now that the intimidating, crazy shit is out of the way, I want to try and convince you (if, that is, you need convincing) that the first part of this book is incredibly interesting, and fun to read even if you’re not a mathematician or an Oulipian junky. And I’ll try and do so by tying this into two of my favorite art works: Lost and Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Preamble and Part One lay out three main motifs that provide entrance ways to this work. First off, there’s the motif of “puzzle-making and puzzle-solving,” which is articulated in the Preamble. This section details the art of jigsaw puzzling—not those shoddy cardboard mechanically-created things, but real puzzles, the type made of wood, expertly designed, using various means of trickery to make things difficult for the puzzler. (For instance, cutting pieces that could fit in two places, using the same element in various places, etc.) But what’s most interesting is the interaction between the maker and the solver:

From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.

As can be seen on this earlier cover jigsaw puzzles play an important role in this book. In fact, the central story is really all about puzzles . . . The outline of Bartlebooth’s story is given in Rorschach’s second chapter and in Smautf’s chapter. Smautf is Bartlebooth’s long-time manservant who helped orchestrate the millionaire’s life-long project. From his chapter:

Bartlebooth’s, and therefore Smautf’s, travels lasted twenty years, from 1935 to 1954, and took them in a sometimes fanciful way all around the world. [. . .] Bartlebooth’s idea was to go and paint five hundred seascapes in five hundred different ports. The ports were chosen more or less at random by Bartlebooth, who thumbed through atlases, geography books, traveller’s tales, and tourist brochures and ticked off the places that appealed to him.

Bartlebooth allowed two weeks for each port, inclusive of travelling time, which usually gave him five or six days on site. [. . .] On the penultimate day he would paint his watercolour, usually towards the end of the morning [. . .] He painted extremely fast, and never corrected himself. Scarcely was the watercolour dry than he tore the sheet of Whatman paper from the pad and gave it to Smautf. [. . .] Smautf wrapped the seascape in tissue paper, slipped it into a stiffened envelope, and packed the parcel in kraft paper with string and sealing wax. That same evening, or at the latest next day, if there were no post office nearby, the parcel was dispatched to: Monsieur Gaspard Winckler.

Crazy project, but it gets more interesting . . . When the watercolour arrived at Winckler’s (he also lives in 11, rue Simon-Crubellier, sixth floor right) he created a jigsaw puzzle out of the watercolour. Then, as sort of explained in “Rorschach, 2” and “Morellet,” Bartlebooth returned from his travels and started putting all these puzzles together, one-by-one. After he was finished, they went up to Morellet (floor eight, servant’s quarters) who used a special chemical process to reattach all of the pieces of the watercolour, allowing it to be removed from the wooden puzzle backing. (We’ll get to the final part of Bartlebooth’s project later.)

This brings up the second motif, which reminds me of Lost: the web of connections that bind these characters. As you read the first part, you start to notice all the overlaps among the residents of this building. And a good deal of them center around Bartlebooth, especially the aforementioned Smauft, Morellet, Winckler, and Rorschach. From there, the lines branch out, with Smauft connecting to the strange “cult of The Three Free Men,” who are holding an initiation ritual involving dice in the apartment at third floor right. Morellet is connected to the Plassaerts, etc., etc. (I believe these connections grow as the book progresses.)

Like Lost, one can get lost in the dizzying connections between the characters and their life histories—histories which intersect, nearly intersect, or parallel each other—and in trying to figure this all out. Which brings us back to the puzzling motif. In reading Part One, I felt like jigsaw puzzles were a sort of synecdoche for the book as a whole. That to “get” the novel, the reader has to puzzle out the connections, building a big mosaic of sorts represented by the apartment and the lives of the residents therein. And, as explained in the Preamble, the puzzle-maker is setting up traps, games, clues, etc. Again, feels a bit like Lost in that way . . .

In Winckler’s chapter, he points to the endlessness of connections when talking about organizing the postcards Smautf sent him from all over the world:

He wanted, so he said, to sort the labels into order, but it was very difficult: of course, there was chronological order, but he found it poor, even poorer than alphabetical order. He had tried by continents, then by country, but that didn’t satisfy him. What he would have liked would be to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else: for example, they could have some detail in common, a mountain or volcano, an illuminated bay, some particular flower, the same red and gold edging, the beaming face of a groom, or the same dimensions, or the same typeface, or similar slogans (“Pearl of the Ocean,” “Diamond of the Coast”), or a relationship based not on similarity but on opposition or a fragile, almost arbitrary association: a minute village by an Italian lake followed by the skyscrapter of Manhattan, skiers followed by swimmers, fireworks by candlelit dinner, railway by aeroplane, baccarat table by chemin de fer, etc. It’s not just hard, Winckler added, above all it’s useless: if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they’ll have at least three things in common.

One of the tricky things about reading a book like this—and here comes the Pynchon—is that it’s difficult to separate signal from noise. We know there are clues, but there’s also a surfeit of information, so picking out what to pay attention to is a bit tricky, a la Pynchon. Especially if you start seeing conspiracies everywhere . . .

For instance, let’s look at “Rorschach, 2.” In this chapter, the sort of unlucky fool introduced earlier is transformed into Bartlebooth’s nemesis. Rorschach (a Pynchonian name for sure, especially when you think about Rorschach tests, patterns, and puzzles) is connected to the TV and movie industry and wants to make a show based on Bartlebooth and his watercolour and puzzle project. Bartlebooth wants no part of this. Here’s the semi-sinister (re: Pynchon) ending of that chapter:

Without wishing to anticipate events, it might be useful to point out that Rorschach’s initiative had serious consequences for Bartlebooth. It was by hearing of these televisual misadventures that Beyssandre got wind, last year, of Bartlebooth’s story. And, oddly enough, it was to Rorschach that Bartlebooth came for the name of a director to film the final stage of his enterprise. However, that got him nowhere, except a step deeper into the web of contradictions which he’d known for many years would tie him inexorably tighter.

OK, fine. But what’s also interesting is that in describing what’s in Rorschach’s apartment, there’s a

silver statuette about ten inches high. It represents a naked, helmeted man on the back of an ox, holding a pyx in his left hand. [. . .] The statuette, a classical caricatural representation of the minor arcanum called the Knight of Cups, is supposed to have been unearthed during work on that “drama” entitled The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube which we have already had occasion to mention, and which does indeed deal with a murky tale of seeing into the future;

So, flip to the index to remind yourself of where The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube first appeared and in addition to finding a typo (this should refer to pages “15, 71, 72” not “15, 71, 42,” but we all make mistakes), you’ll be directed back to the chapter about “The Three Free Men” cult, which is having its initiation ceremony (which involves dice, remember?) in a vacant apartment:

Nobody lives on the third floor right. The owner is a certain Monsieur Foureau, who is said to live on an estate at Chavignolles, between Caen and Falaise, in a farm of thirty-eight hectares, a with a sort of manor house. Some years ago, a television drama was filmed there, under the title The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube; Remi Rorschach took part in the shooting but never met the owner.

Nobody ever seems to have seen him. There is no name on the door on the landing, nor on the list fixed on the glass pane of the concierge’s office door. The blinds are always drawn.

Does this mean anything? Is it a clue to something? And if so, what does it mean that this “drama” is only referenced in Part One? And speaking of dice, they are also alluded to in the story of Helene Gratiolet, who sells her inherited painting (foreshadowing next motif) to move to America with her husband to become professional gamblers participating in organized dice games. (Sort of seems odd to have dice—a symbol of chance—in a book so meticulously planned out.)

There’s also the thread maybe connecting Paul Winther’s The Mousetrap about a “dangerous psychopath wreaking murder in a Baltic port,” to Bartlebooth’s port obsession, to a clipping from a newspaper referring to The Worried Hulk by John Whitmer (awful similar to Paul Winther in cadence and number of letters.)

This kind of detail picking gets more complicated in relation to all the paintings described in this Part. Actually, painting is the third motif I wanted to point out. Not only are there are a proliferation of paintings described in Part One, but there are two painters who receive chapters (Hutting and Valene), and the whole Part (book?) is almost like a painting. A painting depicting everything that’s going on in the building (and in the inhabitants pasts) on a particular day in 1975, just before the Altamonts’ annual party.

This is already way too long, so I won’t get into the painting thing. But I hopefully will be back next Monday with notes on pages (93-173). And in the meantime, check out Scott’s post on Part One and please share your own reactions and comments below.

11 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Susan Bernofsky’s very interesting post about David Bellos’s very interesting comments about this very interesting sounding book is yet one more reason to rush out and start reading (and rereading) Perec:

David Bellos spoke at NYU’s Maison Française last night, presenting his new translation of Georges Perec’s The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. This book is a variation of what Bellos explains is now generally called matrix literature, stories based on allowing readers to select certain plot strands and ignore others à la choose your own adventure books. But in this case, rather than excluding the rejected possibilities, Perec includes all of them, detailing the various choices the book’s protagonist (addressed in the second person passim) might make and then describing what will happen in each case. Where Raymond Queneau’s approach to the matrix story in “Conte a votre façon” (A Story As You Like It) might be described as “intellectual” (says Bellos, and I agree), Perec’s is “obsessive” and “exhaustive.”

[. . .]

Bellos also passed on an interesting bit of insider gossip for readers of Perec’s masterpiece La vie: mode d’emploi, which appears in his translation as Life: A User’s Manual: the answers to many of the mysteries in this book are contained only in the index, and the index of the English-language book contains several more answers than the French original. Bellos felt that certain of the clues Perec included elsewhere in the book became so much more obscure in English translation that the reader deserved a second chance to find them.

And just a reminder (and another reason to get on this Perec thing): The Conversational Reading Spring 2011 Group Read of Life: A User’s Manual kicks off on Sunday. Click here for the schedule and other details

9 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of my all-time favorite books is Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, and for months years, I’ve been meaning to reread it.

Well, starting sometime soon, Conversational Reading will be hosting a Big Read of Perec’s classic novel.

No real info up there yet, but as soon as the schedule is announced, I’ll post it here. It’s been ages since I participated in an online book club, and I’m a bit psyched . . . Mostly just to reread Life, but also because Scott does such a great job of getting interesting content about the title under discussion. (I’m not-so-secretly hoping to contribute something myself.)

If you’re interested in joining in, be sure and get a copy of Godine’s revised edition of the book. This version contains some corrections, etc.

For more info about the new edition, and Perec in general, be sure to check out this interview Scott conducted with Godine editor Susan Barba.

25 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

The other week, the New York Times ran a piece on advances in Google’s translation tools, focusing on the way Google essentially crowdsources its mechanical translations by searching its mammoth database of web pages, books, etc.

Creating a translation machine has long been seen as one of the toughest challenges in artificial intelligence. For decades, computer scientists tried using a rules-based approach — teaching the computer the linguistic rules of two languages and giving it the necessary dictionaries.

But in the mid-1990s, researchers began favoring a so-called statistical approach. They found that if they fed the computer thousands or millions of passages and their human-generated translations, it could learn to make accurate guesses about how to translate new texts.

It turns out that this technique, which requires huge amounts of data and lots of computing horsepower, is right up Google’s alley. [. . .]

“This technology can make the language barrier go away,” said Franz Och, a principal scientist at Google who leads the company’s machine translation team. “It would allow anyone to communicate with anyone else.”

Statements like that fired up a number of translators, sparking at least one letter to the editor, and several snarky email exchanges. What really pissed everyone off though was this chart, which compares Google’s translation to published ones, never once mentioning the living, breathing translator’s name at all (instead referring to the “human translation”), nor acknowledging that, yes, Google can seemingly perform translation wonders when it’s searching the web for some of the most famous opening lines in the history of literature. Only a dummy would be surprised to see Google nail the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, since Gregory Rabassa’s brilliant rendition is available virtually everywhere.

Fast forward a couple weeks, and welcome renowned translator David Bellos for the smackdown.

Bellos’s op-ed piece in yesterday’s Times is the perfect example of how to write something like this. The piece is brilliant from opening to finishing flourish. In a very balanced, smart way, he starts by describing the history of (and potential need for) machine translation, and building from there to explain the paradigm shift from thinking as language as a “code” made up of a lexicon and a grammar, to the statistical approach, which functions because people tend to say the same things over and over again in all languages.

All that’s fine and good—machine translation can help interpret when people are calling for help, when they’re making basic statements. But the implication beneath the original article (and especially that damned chart) is that machine translation can translate anything from menus to distress calls to works of high-literature. And it’s that last category which caused everyone to spit out their morning coffee. For a few reasons:

Can Google Translate ever be of any use for the creation of new literary translations into English or another language? The first thing to say is that there really is no need for it to do that: would-be translators of foreign literature are not in short supply — they are screaming for more opportunities to publish their work.

But even if the need were there, Google Translate could not do anything useful in this domain. It is not conceived or programmed to take into account the purpose, real-world context or style of any utterance. (Any system able to do that would be a truly epochal achievement, but such a miracle is not on the agenda of even the most advanced machine translation developers.)

However, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, if you were to take a decidedly jaundiced view of some genre of contemporary foreign fiction (say, French novels of adultery and inheritance), you could surmise that since such works have nothing new to say and employ only repeated formulas, then after a sufficient number of translated novels of that kind and their originals had been scanned and put up on the Web, Google Translate should be able to do a pretty good simulation of translating other regurgitations of the same ilk.

So what? That’s not what literary translation is about. For works that are truly original — and therefore worth translating — statistical machine translation hasn’t got a hope. Google Translate can provide stupendous services in many domains, but it is not set up to interpret or make readable work that is not routine — and it is unfair to ask it to try. After all, when it comes to the real challenges of literary translation, human beings have a hard time of it, too.

Well played, David.

3 June 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments [3]

1

The life of the Perec family (the family name was originally Peretz) was one of removals. The Perecs moved from one city to another in Poland before leaving Poland for France. Georges was born in France in 1936 and against the background of troubled times the exact details of his early life are lost. His father was one of the few French soldiers to die in the course of the German invasion. His mother was taken up by the authorities and sent to Auschwitz where she was one of the multitude that was to die in the death camps. The remainder of the family successfully eluded the round up of the Jews and Georges’s Aunt Esther and her husband Paul took Georges into their protection. The death of his parents and the necessity of concealing his Jewish background created psychological problems that were reflected in his work as a writer.

He completed his formal education without his achieving the academic cushion that traditionally supported French writers. As early as his eighteenth year he had chosen writing as his vocation, but his will was not equal to his determination and he drifted for a long period during which his pursuits were trivial and his sufferings from bouts of depression were frequent. During this trying time he was called up to serve in the military. He was a parachutist and this, curiously, had a liberating effect. He began at twenty-three to write his third “first” novel. Like its predecessors it had, despite its merits, insuperable faults and was never published. Perec reused pieces of it in his later works.

In 1960 the German government paid reparation money to victims of the Nazis. He and his lover Paulette Petras used the money to buy an apartment. Although they had no financial resources after this purchase, they were able to live in relative security and comfort. He was the center of a wide circle of friends and his reputation as a writer – even though an unpublished one – was secure.

He worked for a time as a consumer researcher, a quasi-discipline imported from the United States. The research involved the definition of men and women through their actual or desired possessions and employed impersonal interviewing techniques. Both the concept and the method contributed to many elements in Life: A User’s Manual.

A further workplace influence was his job as information retrieval specialist with medical research institution. He held this position from 1960 to 1979. The ability to find unexpectedly pertinent relations became an important element in his writing. The computer displaced him from this job and he had to his credit ingenious systems that the computer also rendered useless.

Although Jewish he had no interest in a Jewish heritage. Aunt Esther and Uncle Paul were assimilationists. He had never digested his grief over the senseless deaths of his parents, especially the death of his mother. In a way he worked through these problems in a series of articles that he wrote for Partisans in 1962. In this year he began the creation of his first published work. This was Things: A Story of the Sixties. It was a short book but he labored over it for three years. His publisher printed a small number of Things as a favor to Perec, but the book succeeded by word-of-mouth and won the Renaudot Prize, a prize that traditionally recognized outstanding new writers. Perec was twenty-nine. He had only fifteen years left to live.

His next book, A Man Asleep, was less well received. Despite public apathy this was a gritty study of abulia and the death of the spirit. The protagonist of A Man Asleep will reappear as the student Grégoire Simpson in Life.

Perec received an invitationin 1967 to join OuLiPo (Ouvrior de literature potentielle, or, Workshop for Potential Literature), an organization of men interested in literature and mathematics. This group had developed the theory that all literature should be subject to some restraint. The group shunned publicity and invited few to join it. It would include eventually the new members Jacques Roubaud, Harry Matthews, and Italo Calvino. The most prestigious of the founding members was Raymond Queneau. It would be to the memory of Queneau, who died in 1976, that Life would be dedicated.

Contact with OuLiPo and its aims acted as a powerful influence and Perec’s first oulipian book was the book known in English as A Void. The constraint that he used was to avoid the letter ‘e.’ A Void is modeled on the murder mysteries of which he was a fan and the cause of the deaths one by one of Anton Vowl and his friends is the result of some lack in the universe, that lack being the want of the letter ‘e.’ Thus the restraint is not simply mechanical but an intrinsic part of the narrative.

W, or The Memories of Childhood was an attempt to reconstruct an emotional equivalent of Perec’s own early experience and to restore to life the fantasies with which as a child he consoled himself. It’s a powerful book. In it Perec revives Gaspard Winckler, a name that occurs in his early unpublished work as well as in his first published book, Things. The Gaspard Winckler of Life will be already dead before the story begins, but his influence – that of a figure not unlike Perec capable of trickery, a master puzzle maker – pervades the book.

Perec, always ready to succumb to a hostile world, had great difficulty writing W, especially since in 1970 his long time companion Paulette left him. He felt suicidal and submitted to analysis. By 1972 he was ready to begin the book that proved to be his masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual and one of the acknowledged great books of the twentieth century. This work used several constraints instead of just one. Ready to begin, but typically deflected from the book by other commitments, he did not begin Life until 1976.

Besides the books already mentioned, Perec around 1980 wrote ‘The Winter Journey,’ a perfect story, a mysterious and tantalizing puzzle. It is difficult to find and its publishing history is almost as much an enigma as the story itself. There was also a posthumously published novel, 53 Days, edited by his OuLiPo friends Harry Matthews and Jacques Roubaud.

Perec died in 1982 of cancer. He was forty-six years old.

There is a famous photo of Perec by Anne de Brunhoff. In it, a man with bushy hair leans forward to engage directly with the spectator. He has a satyr’s wispy beard, but the eyes are haunting. They are the eyes of Hermes the Thief, Baron Samedi, Raven, Coyote, the eyes of an ingenious trickster.

2

A cartoon by Saul Steinberg was one of Perec’s inspirations for Life. The cartoon showed at the left the façade of an apartment. The rest of the cartoon showed the forward wall stripped away and this permits us to observe the men and women as they move about the clutter of their possessions.

Perec elaborated on this. Instead of the half dozen or so apartments shown by Steinberg, he composed a square grid of 100 squares. The result ranged from a top floor of servant rooms or former servant rooms to the boiler and storage rooms in the basement. From left to right were apartments, the elevator shaft and the steps with more apartments to the right of the steps. Perec concerned himself with the past as well as with the present occupants. Many of the new occupants have enlarged their living space so that when Perec visits a square – and he only visits each square once – he will relate the events of the current or the past occupant or he will describe the furnishings of the room. Some of the paintings involve short narratives to explain their content.

The apartment dwellers are not necessarily involved with each other and this prevents a unification of many of the stories that sit by themselves with their own intrinsic fascinations. Life is thus a collection of tales – and especially of tales within tales. Despite the persistently urban setting, Life is in the oldest of literary traditions, that of the storyteller.

But an involved triangular relationship unites some of the characters: Percival Bartlebooth, Serge Valène, and Gaspard Winckler.

Percival Bartlebooth provides the widest number of connections. A wealthy eccentric, he has created an occupation for his otherwise idle life. He became a resident of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier to be near Serge Valène, a painter. Bartlebooth, without any special talent as an artist, has set himself the goal of learning to paint in watercolors. He studies with Valène for ten years and emerges form this instruction as a competent painter. He and Smautf, his servant, travel over the world from port to port. He will paint 500 paintings. As each painting is completed he returns it to Gaspard Winkler, another occupant of the apartment building. Winckler turns each painting into a jigsaw puzzle of 750 pieces. After Bartlebooth assembles the puzzle, the pieces are so meticulously rejoined that it is indistinguishable from the original painting. Bartlebooth (or his agent when he becomes to old to travel) returns with it to the scene where it was painted. He then washes the paper clean so that nothing is left except a blank sheet of watercolor paper.

Bartlebooth is the complete oulipian. He only differs in that he has followed the path of his creative constraints to their logical conclusion.

A character named Gaspard Winckler appeared in early books by Perec. Although he was never the same person, he had always something about him that made everyone uneasy. He was a person of either simple mystery or downright villainy. In Life he is more complex but at last he has his revenge. (He has died, by the way, before the story opens.) Bartlebooth dies while he is completing a puzzle. He dies with the last puzzle piece in his hand. It is shaped like the letter ‘w,’ but the space to be filled has the shape of the letter ‘x.’

Although the activities of Bartlebooth bring major coherence to Life, Serge Valène is its presiding spirit. (Whenever Perec uses “he” without explanation, Valène is meant.) He plans a great painting that will depict the major – and many minor – events, past and present, of 11, Rue Simon-Crubellier. There is a list of the selected scenes, 179 of them. (Perec describes all of them with the same number of letters so some of the events are described very cryptically.) But we learn at the last that the most that Valène has done on this grandiose project is a few charcoal marks on his canvas. He dies one week after Bartlebooth.

In general the other occupants are scarcely less eccentric than Bartlebooth. Some of them are frauds, such as the faddish painter Hutting or the conniving wheeler-dealer Rorschach. Some of them are monsters of miserliness and others are criminals. They all make ridiculous or dramatic entrances. They all prove to be good copy, and the apparently haphazard presentations of them by Perec do not in the least detract from the fascinations that they have to offer. Perec lavishes special care on the parts of the apartment that are more impersonal such as the stairs or the boiler room.

The shape of the book may a little puzzle, but so far all that I have described is transparent, accessible without special effort. The constraint in A Void was obvious, but in Life Perec used several constraints and they function discreetly with the minimum of surface disturbance. The movement from square to square uses the knight’s move from chess. This move is one square forward and one square to the diagonal. With it Perec was able to move through the entire grid of 100 squares without repetition. When he arrives at a different room of Rorschach’s apartment, for example, he can select which type of narrative he will use. He can revisit the same apartment as many as six times.

Perec also uses the constraint of quotations. It is safe to assert that he had a formula for this and that quotations from the same kind of authors are distributed by pattern. But the degree to which the book consists of quotations has not been determined and some have held without any real proof that Life consists greatly of quotations. Perec’s quotations from Joyce and Borges are obvious enough, but he also quotes Agatha Christie whose essentially bland style make quotations from her difficult to spot. David Bellos, translator of Life and author of the major book on Perec, has written an article on the mechanism of Perec’s system of quotation. It is fearsome to contemplate.

Life allows readers to detect puzzles – Perec for years created difficult crossword puzzles for a Paris paper – and to spend time and effort on the examination of all the machinery that makes the book run. This is a gratifying activity, but the book is as it appears on the surface, a masterful assembly of lunatic scholars and assorted eccentrics as they pursue slightly or very demented goals. There is humor and humanity in all this and every detail is richly rewarding, the kind of book rewarding enough to forever leave the reader breathless and gratified.

Life A User’s Manual
By Georges Perec
Translated by David Bellos
Reviewed by Bob Williams

....
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