Reading a translation when it first comes in is always a fascinating, exciting experience. Frequently we acquire books based on a sample translation, a reader’s report, and conversations/recommendations from trusted readers and translators. Although this system—for all its baroque qualities—works quite well, you never know exactly what it is you’re getting until the book actually arrives. Thankfully, in many cases, you receive wonderful surprises, like what we got when Michele Hutchison delivered her translation of Rupert, A Confession by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.
A Dutch writer, Rupert is Pfeijffer’s first novel. It was published in 2002 and won the Anton Wachter prize for a debut novel. As noted on his website, Pfeijffer is the only Dutch author to have won major debut prizes for both poetry and prose.
As referred to in the title, this book is a confession by Rupert about a crime he’s committed. In explaining his crime and the surrounding circumstances, he rambles, he entertains, he cloaks his vileness in humor. It’s a strange and captivating book, one in which you’re pulled in by Rupert’s wit, yet occasionally get a glimpse of how fucked up his mind is, and it’s sections like this one that made us decide to publish this novel next June:
The most important thing really is that the true insult shows creativity and is not a random collection of the tried and tested excrement and sexual organs. And just as the best style is quotable, the best insult has an aphoristic quality that does not just insult the victim but also, as an ultimate humiliation, renders him superfluous, so that the brio of the formulation of the insult outlasts the name of the victim. The renowned critic, Woulter Parr, was a master in this. The last paragraph of his review of one of K. Horvath’s plays engraved itself in my memory after a single reading: “This is no play to be lightly shoved aside, but one that deserves to be thrown with great force. The stage set was lovely but the actors kept standing in front of it. It was a performance in which all of the actors clearly and intelligibly articulated their lines, alas. Kitty Becker, in the lead, exploited the whole range of emotions from A to B. One would have to have a heart of stone not to watch her suicide at the end of the play without bursting out laughing. I never forget a face but in the case of Kitty Becker I’m happy to make an exception. Giving Hands is the type of play that gives failure a bad name. The only original idea about art ever to come from Ms Horvath’s pen had to do with her superiority as a writer in relation to writers greater than she. First God created the idiots. That was just practice – afterward he created Ms Horvath. It was an act of mercy that God allowed Mr Habold Sicx and Ms Horvath to marry thus making two people unhappy instead of four.” You don’t need to see the explanatory hand gestures or Ms. Horvath to be fully convinced by this.
Everything is always easier on paper, that is true – and I realize that now with every gasp of my confession as I stand here before you without the aid of the written word – but the ad hoc insult without an audience, man to man in the street, ought to respect the same principles. One often assumes one should be able to get straight to the point for that, and that’s a talent you either have or you don’t. This is only partly true. To insult without any thinking time is an art, and up to a certain point, one can learn any art. It’s the same with the lethal martial arts I have become familiar with. A person who isn’t intimidated by one’s opponent’s display, and who regards every lunge as a weakening of the opponent’s defense, won’t have difficulty finding chinks in his armor. And as long as you operate with confidence in your refinement and superiority, the most creative counter attacks will occur to you just like that. He who, in an unguarded moment, finds himself in a risky situation and cannot come up with a reply, can rely on three simple heuristic principles. The first guideline is the principle of contamination. One can say: “Jazz is music for imbeciles.” One can also say: “Jazz is torture.” But it is better to say: “Jazz was invented as torture for imbeciles.” The second hold is the principle of inversion. Destroy your enemy by turning what he says around, or compliment him on his weaknesses and present your criticism as a compliment; the way Baudelaire said of Wagner: “I like Wagner, but I prefer the music that a cat makes when it is being hung by its tail from the window and is clinging to the sill with its claws.” Another fine example is the compliment Will Rogers gave to the German people: “I must say one thing in favor of the Germans: they are always willing to give other people’s land away.” The so-called better than-inversion is extremely fruitful. People tend to saying things like, “it tastes better than it looks” or “he is smarter than he appears,” even without malicious intent. The reversal of both poles of comparison can produce very pleasing insults, like Mark Twain’s about Wagner: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The third principle is usually defined as an aprosdoketon and relates to the unexpected shift, to the sting in the tail. “Wagner’s music has its beautiful moments,” Rossini said, “and its awful half hours.” An even subtler example is offered in Clifton Fadiman’s characterization of German nature: “The German spirit has the talent to make no mistakes except for the very largest.” These three principles should offer enough support that you’ll never be faced with a lack of inspiration and they’ll enable the production of an appropriate and civilized insult at any time.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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