Monday, August 31, 2015

A Much Translated Man

“The word 'translation' comes, etymologically, from the Latin for 'bearing across'. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”

 ― Salman Rushdie, from Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 

 Call it, a problem in translation.  

The box was one of those huge things they sell at truck-rentals, the kind of box intended for towels and linens, not books.  The poor woman who brought it in could barely carry the thing.  Getting it up on the desk took the two of us.  Inside there were a dozen different Hemingways and a dozen Faulkners to start, but all  book club editions.  There was a hardcover Dickens, but a Reader's Digest.  None of this unusual, or saleable really.  But then, there were some promising volumes of Mr. Browning in rather delicate leather, all with lovely endpapers and such, American, early 20th Century. These turned out to be part of a broken set and half had broken hinges, and so back into the box they went.  A full set of Browning, even if repaired, and however lovely, being worth not a lot, might have moved to my "buy" pile.  Hope springs eternal. Even then, not much money would have been involved and I should probably have had the exquisite but not infrequent pain of seeing the set sell, if at all for no more than I paid for it.  That's the kind of unpleasantness best avoided, I've learned -- sorta.  Commerce is cruel, and however reluctantly I serve the Profits.

Then there was Tolstoy, or "Tolstoi", to use the translator's spelling.  A set of eleven volumes, including War and Peace in six books and Anna Karenina in three.  Volumes ten and eleven had Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, and The Cossacks and Sevastopol, respectively.  That was that.  Published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1899, this was the first uniform, American edition of Tolstoy.  The problem with it, or the first of a few, is that even at that date this was far from a complete translation of the writer's work.  Over the next decade or so, an additional nine volumes would be added by the same editor.  And there's the next issue.

Nathan Haskell Dole (August 31, 1852 – May 9, 1935) was a respected American scholar; educator, editor, critic, and translator.  Of stout, New England stock, son of respectable minister, as a boy Dole taught himself to read in French, German, Greek and Latin.  He would go on to Exeter/Andover and Harvard and to teach, lecture and write like a very proper Brahmin indeed. He also translated works from Spanish, Italian, and Russian.  His would have been the "Tolstoi" my great-grandmother read, had my great-grandmother read Tolstoy.  (And she might have done.  She was after all a school teacher and a good Christian.  Remember also that, according to an article I've just read by Tolstoy biographer and translator, Rosamund Bartlett, "At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more people reading Tolstoy in translation than any other writer.")

Most American and English readers of the great Russians before the turn of this century would probably have read the translations of Constance Garnett.  Her reputation has declined, at least in part for her reliance on French translations for her Russians, but also because of an almost endearing delicacy, not to say prudishness, particularly in intimate matters no longer likely to shock even convent girls, were there any convent girls still around.  With Mrs. Garnett a lady is always enceinte rather than pregnant, for example. The translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky would seem to have won the field in recent years, but theirs is certainly not the only Tolstoy in English these days.

Dole's Tolstoy, in even this abbreviated edition (1899) of just these first eleven volumes, seems to me none the less an admirable thing.  In her article on Tolstoy's translators, Bartlett quotes a critic from the New York Times of the day complaining that Dole's War and Peace contains "the geological subsidence of a layer of Russian into a substratum of English, leaving a number of words to linger fossil-like amid the latter in untranslatable durability”.  Oh dear.  Still, reading the first page of the novel in Dole's, Garnett's, and Pevear and Volokhonsky's versions, my inexpert ear finds much to admire in the oldest.

Here's just a taste:

"'Well, prince, Genoa and Lucca are now nothing more than the apanages of the Bonaparte family.  I warn you that if you do not tell me we are going to have a war, if you still allow yourself to condone all the infamies, all the atrocities, of this Antichrist, -- on my word I believe he is Antichrist, -- I will not recognize you; that is the end of our friendship; you shall no longer be my faithful slave, as you csll yourself.  There now, cheer up, cheer up, I see I frighten you.  Come, sit down and tell me about it.'

Thus on a July evening in 1805 the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honor and confidential friend of Empress Maria Feodorovna, greeted the influential statesman, Prince Vasili, who was the first to arrive at her reception."

Constance Garnett's first paragraph runs very near to Dole's, with small variations.  Here's the same passage from her second, by way of comparison:

"These words were uttered in July 1805 by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a distinguished lady of the court, and a confidential maid-of-honour to the Empress Marya Fyodorovna.  It was her greeting to Prince Vassily, a man of high rank and office, who was the first to arrive at her soirée."

To my reading, the Nathan Haskell Dole is better; more economical, better made as English.

Pevear and Volokhonsky's Anna Pavlovna Scherer starts in French, as I must assume Tolstoy has her speak in his original.  Most annoying, frankly.  Means the very first thing the monolingual reader like me must do is refer to a footnote!  No way to start a long-term relationship, I say.  (Tolstoy I suppose could assume French in his readers.  No idea why anyone translating Tolstoy into English should.)

I didn't read far enough in Dole's translation to stub my toe on any of the outcrops of Russian of which his long dead NYT reviewer complained. I can only speak from the little I read, but even my own cursory review of the first page makes me wonder if Garnett et al have actually done much to improve on Dole.

Not reading Russian, I can't of course speak to which translation might be most loyal to the original.  I know which one reads best to me in English, though.

And so, despite the brevity of the set I saw today, and it's age, I bought it to sell used at the bookstore where I work.  Didn't pay much for it. Won't be expensive.  Someone though may open that first volume and like the sound of those sentences as I did.  Who knows?  That person then may read all six volumes of Tolstoy's masterpiece, may even go on to read the other five, may even then search out the missing nine that came later.  As good a start as any.

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn


Two dumpy women with buns were drinking coffee
In a narrow kitchen—at least I think a kitchen
And I think it was whitewashed, in spite of all the shade.
They were flat brown, they were as brown as coffee.
Wearing brown muslin? I really could not tell.
How I loved this painting, they had grown so old
That everything had got less complicated,
Brown clothes and shade in a sunken whitewashed kitchen.

But it’s not like that for me: age is not simpler
Or less enjoyable, not dark, not whitewashed.
The people sitting on the marble steps
Of the national gallery, people in the sunlight,
A party of handsome children eating lunch
And drinking chocolate milk, and a young woman
Whose t-shirt bears the defiant word WHATEVER,
And wrinkled folk with visored hats and cameras
Are vivid, they are not browned, not in the least,
But if they do not look like coffee they look
As pungent and startling as good strong coffee tastes,
Possibly mixed with chicory. And no cream

Sunday, August 30, 2015

What I Dread on My Summer Vacation

Packing for a visit "back to home" in Pennsylvania is always an exercise in both optimism and prudence.  The obvious questions; will I need socks in July? long pants? present no special difficulties.  By most standards, I travel light.  Less obvious to anyone who might not know me or the place I come from is the more important question of how many books should I take?  There are no bookstores back there.  None.  What I'll read while I'm there has to come with me.  It's a scary thought for someone who reads as I do, someone used to seeing new books every day and with old books on nearly every flat surface in my house.

I grew up without bookstores.  My earliest reading came from school libraries, drugstores and yard-sales.  I can still remember the authentic wonder when I was a boy of walking into the then quite new Walden Books at the Shenango Valley Mall, I think it was, in Hermitage, PA.  Books!  Books everywhere and of nearly every description (or so I thought at the time.)  Even that little chain-store has gone the way of things, as did the remainder-shop at the outlet mall, as have all the little used shops that came and went down the years.  Not the most bookish place, "back to home."

When I go back, my elderly parents, bless them, will always try to scout out a flea market or thrift shop that might meet my peculiar need for printed paper, but that's proven to be a rather hit and miss effort.  The days when anything much worth reading was to be had at a Goodwill are gone, and few sights are more depressing to the bibliophile than two tin shelves of Readers' Digest compendiums, Time/Life history and dusty Romance, punctuated here and there by a warped biography of Mamie Eisenhower or Ruth "Mrs. Billy" Graham.  (Such sad corners always conjure for me the shade of Barbara Cartland, floating over the bin of cover-less mass market paperbacks and murmuring, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!")

And so, my suitcase and the contents thereof.  Airports are nowadays but modern Hells of stifling crowds, intentionally uncomfortable furniture, time, short and long, and unrelenting noise.  I will say nothing of "economy class" and the airplanes themselves.  My strategy for surviving the day-long ordeal of a trip across the continental United States involves bottled water, energy-bars, earplugs, a pillow, and the New York Review of Books.  Add to this, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, and an Agatha Christie.

The magazines and the mystery seldom last longer than the first connection.  This trip, the Christie was Towards Zero (1944), sans Poirot, but no worse for that, and no better.  The puzzle ticked along with Dame Agatha's usual professionalism and resolved itself with the not unusual unreality, alas, of a mad confession.  This was followed on the last page by a happy ending of such unforeseen silliness as to elicit from the constant reader an actual "tut."

In recent years I've discovered the rather mixed pleasure of Christie when she was free of Poirot and Marple and might do just as she liked.  I'm very fond of both of the Dame's great detectives, and even have a small, warm place in my heart for Tommy and Tuppence.  Reading my way through Christie's other efforts however feels fresher now for not being so familiar as The Murder of Peter Ackroyd or Murder at the Vicarage.  (That said, I've never remembered a resolution or even a plot except for Murder on the Orient Express and Ten Little Indians, so every Christie, in a way is new to me at least with each reading.)  The problem, if it can be called so much as that, with reading her other efforts is that there may not be much to the business in the absence of the only characters she ever much bothered describing.

The Adventures of Father Brown proved much the more reliable pleasure.  Chesterton's stories are reputed to have declined in quality after the first batch, The Innocence of Father Brown, but in my reading I would only say the author used his detective in increasingly traditional mysteries; Father Brown does not much change so much as find himself in less theologically interesting problems. 

(And just an aside here to say how much I loath the current television incarnation of Father Brown.  The lead, Mark Williams, is a very good comic actor, if not a patch on Kenneth Moore, but that's the problem, or one of them anyway with the new series.  Not only have the writers hopelessly rewritten Chesteron's classic stories much to their detriment, the producers have also decided to remake the whole enterprise into low comedy; tart-tongued housekeeper, village types, and much too much comedy "business."  Awful, unfunny and dumb.)

Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Polifax is an absurdity; an elderly New Jersey widow as masterful CIA operative.  That's both the pleasure and the problem with Gilman's books, and light, comic thrillers in general.  (A sub-genre that may or may not be still much in production?  Spy novels in general would seem to have largely gone the way of the Berlin Wall. As for that matter has much of the audience for light-hearted fiction not immediately to do with Romance.) Even when airport or travel reading, I admit to getting a bit peevish when expected to accept that our elderly heroine should organize a prison-break behind the Iron Curtain, even when said operation involves a flock of rather unfunny geese.  Let's just say the tone goes a bit flat when torture and tightrope-walking are both called into play.  Still, the lady's December romance with an old hero of the underground was deftly handled and the Mrs. Polifax herself yet again proved a noble sort.

Some sharp-eyes reader will have noticed by now that I have yet to mention the Balzac so hopefully displayed in the first photo.  It's true, I took it with me and made a braze start, but the type and the text proved a bit dense for travelling, so back it came with me.  Another day.  

Meanwhile, I read a Francis King.  Act of Darkness (1983) was far from my first such.  I've been reading the late Francis Henry King CBE (4 March 1923 – 3 July 2011) since some of his earlier, more overtly gay novels were reprinted in the mid to late eighties, I'm thinking.  Then, with all the energy of youth, I read any and everything I could find.  Now and again, I find one I'd missed.  This one was a story of the Raj, and a murder mystery, both perfect catnip to me.

Though King often incorporated popular elements of genre and plot in his serious fiction, his style is closer to Forster than to Christie.  Of his contemporaries, I am most reminded of Angus Wilson; there is something of the same waspishness about and genuine sympathy with the victims of the Empire and of class, though King is never so outrageous as Wilson.  Act of Darkness could, I suppose, be read with pleasure as a straight thriller, though it might be a bit long and a bit slow for that.  For me, what made the book a respite from my "summer reading" were all the telling -- read as damning -- details of British India.  For example, the English family joking amongst themselves about, and within earshot of, a servant with a bad cough that sounds tubercular.  King writes the brief scene in such a way that he need hardly add that it occurs to no one to send the sick, Indian child to a doctor.

The last book to mention, though not the last I read this trip, was a contemporary thriller given to me as a gift.  Knowing of my interest in William Cowper and my habit of collecting mysteries to read when I fly, my friend gave me a copy of A Fountain Filled with Blood, by Julia Spencer Fleming.  The titles in the series seem all to have been taken from Cowper's hymns, and the central character proved to be a female Episcopalian priest and former military helicopter pilot. (!) That last, unsurprisingly proved to figure in the third act, rather like a pistol left conspicuously on the end-table in every mid-century murder mystery on television.

Of the plot proper, I will say no more.

I will say that at least the cliches of genre in the earlier generation of Chesterton, Christie and Gilman, etc. had all to do with a kind of ruthlessness of purpose, a mechanical precision of detail and timing.  If character and psychology often got short-shrift in the Golden Age, and plots proved as improbable as they were ingenious, at least the trains, as it were, always ran on time.  The contemporary thriller, while every bit as packed with the implausible, is by comparison a lazy thing with romance and scenery and, yes, happy dog stories.  I've heard the claim before that the primary audience for mysteries and thrillers is female.  As a bookseller, I have no sense of the reality of this.  Men and women seem to shop the section in nearly equal numbers.  Nonetheless, I can see where in something like Spencer Fleming's book, concessions are clearly being made to a warmer, more emotional involvement in her detective's personal life than was likely in most Agatha Christie.  Ngaio Marsh and Dorthy L. Sayers both gave their detectives fairly convincing romantic partners, but there was never much in the way of gush about any of it then.

My annual submersion in genre has reminded me yet again that even at something near to being its best, what defines the mystery/thriller, then and now, is really the conventionality of the moral point of view -- which needn't be a bad thing, you understand -- and the less appealing conventions of character, setting and plot.  A week of the stuff's about right.  Any more and I begin to long for an entirely different order of moral complexity, not to say ambiguity, and beauty beyond the craftsman's art.

I should remember to pack some poetry next time.  Can't think why I didn't.  Lord knows, the only poetry I'm likely to find when I get there will be outside in the open air, and that's never enough for me, not for a full week.  Pack more books.

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn


Though night is always close, complete negation
Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion,
Night from the air or the carnivorous breath,
Still it is right to know the force of death,
And, as you do, persistent, tough in will,
Raise from the excellent the better still.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Deceiving No Eye But His Own

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn


It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Caricature of a Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Spectator, Volume One, by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele


"It would methinks be no ill maxim of life, if, according to that ancestor of SIR ROGER home I lately mentioned, every man would point to himself what sum he would resolve not to exceed.  He might by this means cheat himself into tranquility on this side of that expectation, or convert what he should get above it to nobler uses than his own pleasures or necessities. This temper of mind would exempt a man from an ignorant envy of restless men above him, and a more inexcusable contempt of happy men below him."

From No. 114, Wednesday, July 11, 1711 (Steele)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Breakfast at the Bookstore with Brad and Nick #44

Daily Dose

From The Spectator, Volume One, by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele


"We all of us complain of the shortness of time, saith Seneca, and yet much more than we know what to do with."

From No. 93, Saturday, June 16, 1711.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Selected Essays, by Joseph Addison


"Why should not a man who takes delight in reading everything that is new, apply himself to history, travels, and other writings of the same kind, where he will find perpetual fuel for his curiosity, and meet with much more pleasure and improvement, than in these papers of the week?"

From The Newspaper

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Caricature

I almost never approach an author with a picture unless I already know the individual.  Now and again though.  The science fiction/fantasy fellows seem uniformly approachable, and Moore was very funny and frankly delightful when he spoke at the store tonight, so what the Hell?  He signed it for me.

Daily Dose

From The Examiner, by Jonathan Swift


"But although the devil be the father of lies, he seems, like the great inventors, to have lost much of his reputation by the continual improvements that have been made upon him."

From No. 15, Thursday, November 9, 1710.

Monday, August 24, 2015

An Unverified Doodle

There is no basis in fact for this one either, I was just stuck at the register on the last hour of my shift at the bookstore and was staring at a science magazine celebrating Einstein.  It happens.  Sorry, Albert.

Daily Dose

From The Plague, by Albert Camus, translated by Stuart Gilbert


"Thw plethora of sibilants in the sentence still offended his ear, but he saw no way of amending them without using what were, to his mind, inferior synonyms."

From Part Two, page 129, this edition

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Duck Duck Goose Doodle

Wholly invented story, by the way.

Daily Dose

From The Heracleidae, by Euripides, translated by Ralph Gladstone


"We're absolutely destined from the start
to fall and be cut down like animals.
Yet maybe you can think of something."

From Iolaus, page 142 this edition

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Breakfast at the Bookstore with Brad and Nick #43

Daily Dose

From A Day in the Country and Other Stories, by Guy de Maupassant, translated by David Coward


"Lunch lasted an age, and they made a separate meal of the crime."

From The Little Roque Girl

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Latest Readings, by Clive James


"It's one of the good things about the study of literature: taste trumps prejudice."

From Treasuring Osbert Lancaster

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Doodle Cheat

Daily Dose

From The Leopard, by Giuseppi di Lampedusa, translated by Archibald Colquhoun


"He looked out: in front of him, under the ashen light, the landscape lurched to and fro, irredeemable."

From Chapter 4

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Bezos Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of John Dryden


Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

-- John Dryden, born August 18th, 1631

Monday, August 17, 2015

Easy Readers

Daily Dose

From Latest Readings, by Clive James


"He overstated even the understatements."

From Hemingway in the Beginning

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Moleskine Lament

Daily Dose

From Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris


"A colon is a very controlling gesture."

From Chapter 7, A Dash, A Semicolon, and a Colon walk Into a Bar

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States, by Ira Berlin


"The demise of slavery was not so much a proclamation as a movement; not so much an occasion as a complex history with multiple players and narratives."

From the Introduction

Friday, August 14, 2015

Breakfast at the Bookstore with Brad and Nick #41

Daily Dose

From Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris


"Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide?  That's a rhetorical question, but I'm going to answer anyway: fuck yeah.

From Chapter 9, F*CK THIS SH*T

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Final Beasts

Daily Dose

From The Works of "Banjo" Paterson, edited by Andrew Barton Paterson


The chorus frogs in the big lagoon
Would sing their songs to the silvery moon.
Tenor singers were out of place,
For every frog was a double bass.
But never a human chorus yet
Could beat the accurate time they set.
The solo singer began the joke;
He sang, "As long as I live I'll croak,
Croak, I'll croak,"
And the chorus followed him: "Croak, croak, croak!"

The poet frog, in his plaintive tone,
Sang of a sorrow was all his own;
"How shall I win to my heart's desire?
How shall I feel my spirit's fire?"
And the solo frog in his deepest croak,
"To fire your spirit," he sang, "eat coke,
Coke, eat coke,"
And the chorus followed him: "Coke, coke, coke!"

The green frog sat in a swampy spot
And he sang the song of he knew not what.
"The world is rotten, oh cursed plight,
That I am the frog that must set it right.
How shall I scatter the shades that lurk?"
And the old man bullfrog sang, "Get work,
Work, get work,"
And the chorus followed him: "Work, work, work!"

The soaring spirits that fain would fly
On wings of hope to the starry sky
Must face the snarls of the jealous dogs,
For the world is ruled by its chorus frogs.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Further Beasts

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poems: 1927 - 1979, by Elizabeth Bishop


I am too big. Too big by far. Pity me.
My eyes bulge and hurt. They are my one great beauty, even
so. They see too much, above, below. And yet, there is not much
to see. The rain has stopped. The mist is gathering on my skin
in drops. The drops run down my back, run from the corners of
my downturned mouth, run down my sides and drip beneath
my belly. Perhaps the droplets on my mottled hide are pretty,
like dewdrops, silver on a moldering leaf? They chill me
through and through. I feel my colors changing now, my pig-
ments gradually shudder and shift over.
Now I shall get beneath that overhanging ledge. Slowly. Hop.
Two or three times more, silently. That was too far. I'm
standing up. The lichen's gray, and rough to my front feet. Get
down. Turn facing out, it's safer. Don't breathe until the snail
gets by. But we go travelling the same weathers.
Swallow the air and mouthfuls of cold mist. Give voice, just
once. O how it echoed from the rock! What a profound, angelic
bell I rang!
I live, I breathe, by swallowing. Once, some naughty children
picked me up, me and two brothers. They set us down again
somewhere and in our mouths they put lit cigarettes. We could
not help but smoke them, to the end. I thought it was the death
of me, but when I was entirely filled with smoke, when my slack
mouth was burning, and all my tripes were hot and dry, they
let us go. But I was sick for days.
I have big shoulders, like a boxer. They are not muscle,
however, and their color is dark. They are my sacs of poison,
the almost unused poison that I bear, my burden and my great
responsibility. Big wings of poison, folded on my back. Beware,
I am an angel in disguise; my wings are evil, but not deadly. If
I will it, the poison could break through, blue-black, and
dangerous to all. Blue-black fumes would rise upon the air.
Beware, you frivolous crab.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

More Beasts

Daily Dose

From The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, Together with More Beasts for Worse Children, by Hillaire Belloc


Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As 'Slimy skin,' or 'Polly-wog,'
Or likewise 'Ugly James,'
Or 'Gap-a-grin,' or 'Toad-gone-wrong,'
Or 'Bill Bandy-knees':
The Frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.

No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).