Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bad Manners

Of how many literatures am I completely ignorant, or nearly so? Just today, someone on the television, an Iranian, quoted one of the Persian poets with that touching conviction that his American viewers might recognize, if not the name, then at least the quotation. Along with the host and, I do not doubt, the vast majority of the watching American populace, I met this lovely gesture with a blank stare. Who? I could not, at this moment, and with access to at least two small anthologies of Persian poetry in translation in my own house, quote so much as a line or name a single poet. I'm a little ashamed of that fact, but only a little.

When I think of all the as yet unread, unexplored books in my own house, of all the great poets and essayists and novelists who have written in English that I have yet to read, the very idea of acquiring even a passing acquaintance with Persian literature strikes me just now as unlikely at best. Which is not to say I wouldn't want to know such lovely things as the line quoted today. I just don't think I ever will.

Likewise the literature of China, Finland, Chile, Korea, Ghana. I mention these as examples because, off the top of my thick head, I can with some confidence say that I have read, again admittedly only in English translations, books written originally in the languages of each. Have I studied the literature of any of these? No. Am I likely to? No. Do I have any prejudice against any of these or any other? Well, I don't know that I do.

Among the French and the Russians, even among the Danes, there have been authors I read and treasured. With the first two, I have read enough to claim at least a passing acquaintance with, if not by any means their literature, then at least with a few of their greatest novelists and poets. But what does that mean, that acquaintance? For me it has been and continues to be more a question of personality than nationality. True, there was a time, when I was much younger and intended to read everything good, when I tried to read more systematically, when I started, for example, with this South American and then moved to that, but I can't manage that sort of thing anymore, even if I wanted to. I do not feel I have the time now. I would not know where to begin with much of the world's literature.

I worked briefly with a rather dour little woman from Romania. I mentioned Mircea Eliade, of whom I'd read just a little, and asked politely after other Romanian writers she might be able to recommend. She drew on her cigarette, exhaled dramatically and said, "It's enough to have heard of the one, really. You would not enjoy them, even if they were available in English. You must trust me about this. Even Romanians shouldn't have to read the great Romanian poets."

Now I have no idea what she meant, or what what she said says about either Romanians or their literature, but I confess I met her dismissal with some relief. I certainly found her comments memorable. I was taken aback, of course, at not being applauded for pulling at least Eliade from the air, but my embarrassment at being caught out with just the one writer in mind, was as nothing compared to my pleasure in the honesty with which she dismissed the others as unnecessary to the casual American reader, however eager to make friends. I don't know that she was right, but I don't know that she was wrong either.

My acquaintance with most of the world comes from books, but often as not these have been books in English, written by English or American authors, if not expats, then just travelers. And even the writers native to such places as India that I know best, tend to be those who write in English. I can't say this seems such an unfortunate thing to me. What else am I to do with the little time I have?

The obvious problem with much that I've read of foreign lands, written by authors themselves foreign to the places they've written about, is that these have given me less connection to, say, India than to the British in India. Which is not to denigrate the value of Forster's India to me, or Paul Scott's, but it would be a mistake to think of their respective Indias as India. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a great writer, but how much of her India is German? how much is English? Anita Desai or R. K. Narayan or Kamala Markandaya have given me no less pleasure, but have they given me more of India?

And the old colonials and tourists, the religious seekers and students of revolution, even the most liberal of them, as opposed to the natives, to use a loaded word, seem often as not to let slip, here and there, something that betrays if not a prejudice, than a preference, either for India or "home," that colors everything they've written with a slight taint of either naivete or racism; the foreign place inevitably being either mysterious and unknowable, hence somehow richer than Bayswater or Cleveland, or strange and dangerous, oddly enough, at least in my experience, much like Cleveland.

There is something to be said about loving a place not really one's own that will never quite make it that. There have been great writers, and here I'm thinking particularly of the English, though some Americans also come to mind, who make the mistake of assuming ownership, which rather spoils even their most insightful writing about the worlds they move in but to which they never really belong. Reading Charles Allen's Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, I am reminded, yet again, of just this failure. The examples of this contradiction in Kipling are specially striking, because no other author in English did more to support and prop the Imperialism of the time, Kipling being perhaps the only genius in our letters who was also an unapologetic jingo, while at the same time, it can be fairly argued, no other Englishman in India wrote with more consistent empathy for and with more genuine understanding of the real lives of the poorest Indians. In just one brief passage, Allen describes a period of feverish productivity when Kipling wrote some of the best and most humane stories of Indian life he was ever to produce, stories like that of the sweeper Mowgri, in "The Great Census," and his tale of "Little Tobrah," even as he wrote the most censorious, reactionary screeds, in poetry and prose, attacking any among the colonials who might challenge the existing order and British rule. Even those who proved to be champions of Kipling's work, like Sir William Hunter, who went on to write one of Kipling's most important and influential positive reviews, but who dared, in retirement, to publicly support the Indian National Congress, were not spared. Kipling called him a hypocrite and worse in a nasty little poem for the the magazine the Pioneer called, "To the Address of W. W. H." It is worth noting that it was after this ugly poem's publication, and Kipling's receipt of a painfully kind letter from the subject of the poem, that this same gentleman went on to praise Kipling's poetry in print. That the only discomfort Kipling seems to have felt in this instance was entirely personal, an embarrassment at his bad manners, suggests an active refusal to consider any opinion, even that of a supporter of his work, even of a fellow Englishman, that challenged, however indirectly, the racism that ruins nearly all of Kipling's work for contemporary readers. Kipling would insist that India was as much his, by birth, as it was any Indian's. That he loved the country, that he was in fact born there, does not, for readers in the 21st Century, excuse either his awful politics or his worse arrogance.

And this is a shame. I can recommend many of Kipling's Indian stories without reservation, or would, if Kipling himself were not so much in the way. Kipling's India was my first. I rather doubt I would ever have gone on to visit Narayan's India had I not been fascinated first by The Jungle Book, and by Kim. I might have done, but I might not.

I think we take the path out into the world and the world's literature that is open to us, most of us anyway. There are good and brave souls who make their own way, who study languages and cultures other than their own and who find a place for themselves elsewhere. I will never be one of these. I will always be only a tourist. I think I am resigned to that, long since. And if there are places, like ancient Persia, where I have still yet to set foot, I think I am alright in thinking the only loss will be my own if I never go there. I'm sure the Persians won't have noticed my absence, though I'd bet they'll be marvelous hosts, should I stumble in one day. The man quoting the poet on TV this morning seemed charming.


  1. What a great post!

    Somehow this issue -- or at least the whole notion of literature in translation, and how little Americans read it -- has been in the air lately. Enough so, anyway, that I'm devoting the third quarter of this year to reading and blogging about literature in translation. You should see the piles I've created in preparation!

    I'm glad that you posted this, because you were linked by one of the blogs I read every day, and now I'll have your blog to add to my daily rounds. Thanks!

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comments, and for adding me to your rounds. Please let me know when you start posting about the pile of translations, sounds quite interesting.

    Most "exotic" translation in the stack? Just curious.

  3. Very likely The Swarm by Franz Shatzing would qualify as the "most exotic." But I won't really know until I get there.