Writer’s Desk: Dylan Says

bob_dylan_-_the_freewheelin_bob_dylanSince Bob Dylan has been honored with a Nobel Prize for Literature, we may as well welcome the man into the community of those practiced in the art of belles lettres. Good to have you, Bob!

Here’s some advice from Mr. Zimmerman contained in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, which could apply to most any writers:

It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…

If you follow his often stream-of-consciousness lyrics, that approach makes sense. It’s harder to do, of course, than it sounds. Be open to the muse, but direct it.

Babel Tower: Of Phanariots, Googlebots, and Infidelity

Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire's dragomen, whose work as translators of the "infidels" language gave birth to the word "infidelity."
Constantine Maurocordato, one of the Ottoman Empire’s dragomen, whose work as translators of the “infidels” language gave birth to the word “infidelity.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s superb article “Is Translation a Language or Math Problem?” has many things to recommend it, most particularly this aside on the roots of the word “infidelity”:

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of “infidelity” has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan’s preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

Later in the piece, Lewis-Kraus limns what happens when engineers obsessed with using brute-force computation for online translation tools run up against the vagaries of literary nuance:

One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of “Don Quixote.” It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate,” what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept. All the Sancho Panzas, all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.

Nothing wrong with Google Translate, of course. But let’s hope that translating literature is left in the hands of people who, well, like literature and acknowledge the importance of linguistic subtlety. You wouldn’t hire a Ph.D in comparative lit to beta-test your server network, now would you?

New in Theaters: ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’

Carey Mulligan and dog in 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (Fox Searchlight)
Carey Mulligan and dog in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (Fox Searchlight)

postimageimage-ffmc-ffmc_blogIn Thomas Vinterberg’s take on Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the beautiful outfits and gorgeous Dorset vistas don’t detract a bit from a story about a strong-willed woman willing to rebuff all suitors, no matter how well-suited they might seem.

My review is at PopMatters:

Some people have all the luck. Take Bathsheba Everdere (Carey Mulligan), the willful heroine in Thomas Vintenberg’s gleamingly romantic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Mulligan’s perceptive performance gives some hint of Bathsheba’s internal anxieties, but in the main, she is blessed and seems to know it. In 1870 Dorset, at a time in Europe when it was by no means uncommon to fall sick and die or starve to death simply for lack of funds, she is beautiful and unattached, a young woman free to find her way in the world. This comes before her surprise inheritance…

Here’s the trailer, feast your eyes:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Finnegans Wake’ in China

finneganswake1There’s something about James Joyce’s last and arguably unreadable novel Finnegans Wake that has always attracted the obsessive. Fans range from Marshall McLuhan—who, one critic quipped after reading his manic interpretations, was possibly the only living person to have read every single line of the book—to those various reading clubs that have popped up where people read a couple pages each meeting over the course of many years.

Now, after one woman spent eight years doggedly translating what Joyce’s wife termed “that chop suey” into Mandarin, the book has proven to be surprisingly successful in China. Per the Wall Street Journal:

A newly affluent nation that prizes black Audi sedans and Louis Vuitton handbags has made a literary status symbol of what may well be English literature’s most difficult work. Thanks in part to a canny marketing campaign involving eye-catching billboards and packaging, “Finnegans Wake” sold out the first, 8,000-volume run shortly after it was released in December. The book briefly rose to No. 2 on a bestseller list run by a Shanghai book industry group, just behind a biography of the late Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s modern-day boom.

Perhaps it’s a sign of increasing affluence that people have the inclination to acquire status novels that they have little intention of actually reading.

Reader’s Corner: The David Foster Wallace Syllabus

Wallace

What gift did the Internets just deliver? A 1994 syllabus from the late, great David Foster Wallace that will make you wish the man had taught at your college. From my post over at Re:Print:

Wallace_Syllabus_001_large[Wallace’s] syllabus for the Fall 1994 intro class “English 102-Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction” eschews the books we’re all used to from college English lit classes (Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in favor of an eclectic mix of mass-market fiction, ranging from Stephen King’s Carrie to Jackie Collins’ Rock Star

New on DVD: ‘Anna Karenina’

annakarenina1

Anna-Karenina-DVD-CoverJoe Wright’s electric, Tom Stoppard-scripted take on Anna Karenina didn’t quite get the attention it deserved in theaters last fall. Here’s hoping that it can have a second life on DVD and Blu-ray (available today).

My full review is at Film Journal International:

All the world’s a stage in this highly self-aware yet free-flowing take on Tolstoy’s great novel of doomed romance and the thorny collision of ideals with the world of real humans. Joe Wright’s exciting take will divide audiences, but for those who go along for the ride, they’ll thrill at how it blows their hair back. Instead of moving from one stately mansion to the next, Wright sets most of his scenes inside the same grand but vaguely decrepit theatre, with obvious backdrops and stage props, adding music and elaborate choreography to further stylize the action. It can be read as a statement on the highly artificial world that the Russian aristocracy had entrapped itself in, circa 1874, or a device heightening the novel’s already potent melodrama…

You can see the trailer here:

 

Reader’s Corner: Four Hours a Day

Getting a look at somebody’s reading habits is always interesting. Not because it reveals particular traits that may lie dormant—though people with very persnickety reading tendencies (I must read everything from the New York Times bestseller list; I can only read one book at a time) are likely to be not the most relaxed types in their everyday life—but because it lets you see something of their inner self.

And sometimes it’s fascinating just because it reminds you exactly what an important part of life the daily habit of reading books is. Take Joe Queenan’s piece from last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “My 6,218 Favorite Books.” In it, Queenan writes affectionately of his lifelong addiction to the daily pursuit of printed words on bound pages, and of the somewhat hopeless nature of it:

I’ve never squandered an opportunity to read. There are only 24 hours in the day, seven of which are spent sleeping, and in my view at least four of the remaining 17 must be devoted to reading. A friend once told me that the real message Bram Stoker sought to convey in “Dracula” is that a human being needs to live hundreds and hundreds of years to get all his reading done; that Count Dracula, basically nothing more than a misunderstood bookworm, was draining blood from the necks of 10,000 hapless virgins not because he was the apotheosis of pure evil but because it was the only way he could live long enough to polish off his extensive reading list. But I have no way of knowing if this is true, as I have not yet found time to read “Dracula.”

There is never enough time in the day to read even a fraction of what you want to. So what are you doing here? Get cracking. That pile on your bedside table isn’t going to get any smaller the longer you waste on the Internet.

New in Books: ‘American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of The 1950’s’

My review of the nine novels in the Library of America’s new two-set volume American Science Fiction is now up at The Millions:

There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that pseudo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that. The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others…

You can also read essays on these novels by authors from William Gibson to Neil Gaiman at the Library of America site here.

Reader’s Corner: George Orwell and ‘The Thinginess of Life’

As part of the effort over the past several years by various publishers to ensure the longevity of George Orwell, this past August a collection of some eleven of his diaries was released, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Barry Gewen’s New York Times review doesn’t make it sound like the most engaging of reading, advising readers to take Hitch’s faint praise (notable from such an Orwell fan) to heart. In other words, there are a lot of things in these diaries that many people put in their diaries which aren’t meant to thrill the public (lists of animals spotted, far too much information about chickens).

But the review gives Gewen a chance to consider the many contradictions and attractions of Orwell’s writings, namely, his attention to the quotidian details of the everyday, the “thinginess of life.” This focus on grounded realities—as well as his natural aversion to authority—made Orwell healthily suspicious of abstractions and “isms.” Although a patriot, he despised much of the systems that constituted England: “Insofar as patriotism was equated with God, King and Country or, worse, the preservation of the British Empire, he was against it.” Gewen further notes:

What patriotism meant to Orwell was the ordinary things of his English life — heavy coins, stamp collecting, dart games, an irrational spelling system. In the essay “Notes on Nationalism,” a companion piece to “England Your England,” he said: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.” It was around this same time that he wrote essays in praise of pubs, cricket, even (outlandishly) English cooking. He would lay down his life not for the grandiose abstractions preached by politicians and the clergy but for gardening and warm beer.

In other words, a patriot for humanity, and not a flag.

 

 

 

Reader’s Corner: Kurt Vonnegut

 

Next month, Delacorte Press is publishing the collection Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Now, normally these sort of things are of interest only to the extremely engaged fan—those completists who just have to own every scrap of material written by a particular author. The “lost” letters of Edith Wharton, say.

However, the Delacorte edition promises to be something different. Among the items collected within its pages is this selection from a January 1947 “contract” drawn up by Vonnegut and his pregnant wife, Jane (the two had been married for sixteen months):

i. In the event that my wife makes a request of me, and that request cannot be regarded as other than reasonable and wholly within the province of a man’s work (when his wife is pregnant, that is), I will comply with said request within three days after my wife has presented it. It is understood that my wife will make no reference to the subject, other than saying thank you, of course, within these three days; if, however, I fail to comply with said request after a more substantial length of time has elapsed, my wife shall be completely justified in nagging, heckling, or otherwise disturbing me until I am driven to do that which I should have done;

Eminently reasonable, but just slightly cracked in execution. In other words, exactly what you would expect from the author of Cat’s Cradle—the sanest book on the insanity of modern life that you can find. Funniest, too.

 

Dept. of Literary Expatriates: Henry James

Although Henry James remains today one of America’s most celebrated novelists, and his most famous characters were usually American, he was never precisely enamored of his home country. Much like how T. S. Eliot decamped from St. Louis quickly as he could for the more rarefied airs of London intellectual life, James didn’t see much of value in his home country—though, unlike Eliot, he would frequently write as an American abroad in the wider world.

Novelist Colm Toibin, in reviewing Michael Gorra’s new book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, pulls out this interesting bit from a piece James wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne just before The Portrait of a Lady. In it, a sweepingly dismissive James lists the things he sees as missing from American life that he sees as necessary for the novelist:

…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church . . . no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses . . . nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals . . . no Oxford . . . no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class . . . no Epsom nor Ascot.

To a baroque and class-obsessed stylist like James, the country’s comparative lack of history makes for a thin existence. To a degree, James is right, without that weight of civilization which he lists, it is difficult to create a certain kind of literary figure: i.e., those like himself. America did ultimately export the likes of Twain, Hemingway, Kerouac, Bradbury, and Bellow, who all did just fine without thatched cottages or cathedrals—but never could have written The Portrait of a Lady (whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your taste).