Langham Place, damaged by a bomb in the Blitz; in the background, BBC Broadcasting House, looking like the Queen Mary. Attribution: By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20532090
In my previous post I suggested that the three novels in this trilogy published by Everyman are all very different in subject matter and approach. The first two, however, have a London setting in what, for Penelope Fitzgerald, would have been the fairly recent past.
She worked for the BBC during the Second World War; Human Voices is set in Broadcasting House (referred to in HV as BH, built in Art Deco style to resemble an ocean liner) during the Blitz of 1940, and lived in a Thames-side barge in the early 60s, which is the setting for Offshore.
Both novels concern small, unworldly communities, peopled by characters whose eccentricities are exposed with detached amusement; they aren’t judged. The riverside and the BBC are refuges for the lost, a place of solace for the lonely. The characters are shown in shifting patterns, interacting with those around them (there’s little conventional plot), and the reader is left to consider what their minor dramas signify. It’s that tone of humorous, often ironic sympathy, with an underlying menace and even violence that gives them both their distinctive effect. They both end with a distressing scene of catastrophe.
Tube station air-raid shelter in the West End during the Blitz. By US Govt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s inevitable that Human Voices
has a more sombre impact, given that the BBC was attempting to keep the public informed of the war’s disastrous progress; in 1940 France, like most of Europe, had fallen, and invasion of England seemed imminent. The BBC, a microcosm of the nation, was struggling to maintain its task: to broadcast continuously in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances. The lifts don’t function fully (to preserve energy), senior staff more or less live in BH (and their marriages implode as a result) and confusion is rife: ‘The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.’ The building is often shaken by bombs. Casualties are commonplace, even among BBC staff. A Blitz spirit prevails in the building as it does outside.
A central theme of the novel is the insistence by the BBC that they avoid what is now notoriously referred to as ‘fake news’:
Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.
The author isn’t frivolous. Despite her cast of amusing, bumbling and obsessively selfish or flawed characters, Fitzgerald has a serious message here. She did this in Offshore, too: the occasional step away from narrative detachment and levity to pronounce something of profound significance. Even with the ironic undertone in this example, her point is telling. All wars are reported mendaciously. People are always lied to by their leaders. This applied in 1940, in 1980 when this novel was published, and it still applies perhaps more than ever before today. Neither will the truth necessarily make you free.
Once the characters in the BBC have been introduced, it’s apparent that the institution has a crippling hierarchical structure. In this respect it resembles one of the stuffier English public schools or less prestigious military regiments (from where most of the senior staff were – probably still are – recruited). Referred to by the initials of their post, like DDP and RPD, they are comically self-important and often deluded about their own merits. Very like the characters in Offshore, in fact – where another hermetically detached community clings to its customs on the margins of ordinary life.
Once again I commend you to other blogs for plot summary. I’d like just to pick out a few salient features.
Annie Asra is employed by the organisation when she is just 17, and she’s a breath of fresh air. She’s refreshingly blunt and outspoken without being cruel – qualities which her colleagues are unfamiliar with.
Broadcasting the truth is discussed by Waterlow, one of the more eccentric BBC producers, responsible for drama and the arts (as precarious in 1940 as they are now), with Annie, when she asks with characteristic forthrightness why he seems to have so little to do.
The BBC is doing gits bit [he thinks that imitating her Midlands accent is amusing]. We put out the truth, but only contingent truth, Annie! The oppostite could also be true!
Annie refuses to be so cynical, or to accept that ‘truth’ is relative. When she asks what the BBC could possibly find to broadcast ‘that’s got to be true’ in his terms:
He gestured towards the piano.
‘We couldn’t put out music all day!’
‘Music and silence.’
The most important broadcast described in the novel is the ten minutes of silence that followed when Jeff, one of the two central characters, a senior figure in the BBC, ‘pulled the plug’ on a French General who, it was assumed, would speak extempore in praise of the continuing struggle against the Germans by the surviving Free French forces, but instead had launched into a defeatist harangue.
It’s typical of Fitzgerald’s wry take on the world that she shows Jeff being reprimanded for his initiative.
The novel’s title seems to be taken from Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – ‘then human voices wake us and we drown.’ Radio is mostly about voices (no TV in 1940). The voices in this novel also serve, as perhaps they do for emotionally paralysed Prufrock, to attempt to reconcile real life – the Blitz, war, death, cruelty, tragedy, comedy – and something more transcendent and mystical, like music and silence. When a central character dies at the end, it’s for his voice that he’ll be remembered, rather than his kindness to others.
Annie’s love for her boss, the serially predatory but deeply vulnerable Sam, isn’t entirely convincing in its resolution, but the novel is worth reading – like Offshore – for its quietly compassionate presentation of characters trying to get by in a dangerously confusing world, and for its well-crafted prose. Here’s just one closing example.
Annie is shown as a child helping her piano-tuner father:
When at last he took out his hammer and mutes, ready to tune, his daughter became quite still, like a small dog pointing… [He continues tuning:] It was a recurring excitement of her life, like opening a boiled egg, the charm being not its unexpectedness but its reliability.
The handsome hardback Everyman in my picture contains three of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels: Offshore, Human Voices and The Beginning of Spring. It seemed a shrewd choice to take on my extended foreign travels recently, compacting as it does three books into one. I wasn’t disappointed.
Most of the other 20C writers I’ve posted about in the recent past – Pym, Comyns, Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Wharton – have a distinctly identifiable voice, style and zone of interest. Penelope Fitzgerald never writes the same novel twice (though they all feature mischievous, often dark humour and surprisingly bereft characters who are outcasts, eccentric, struggling with life’s vicissitudes, constrained, thwarted, adrift – and violence is usually imminent).
The first, Offshore, notoriously won the 1979 Booker Prize against stiff opposition. I don’t intend summarising the plot – two of my favourite bloggers, Max and Jacqui, have done a great job giving an overview and critical response – links at the end of this post.
Max is particularly astute about the two astonishingly precocious (but endearingly innocent) children of the central character, Nenna: Tilda (6) and Martha (11) – so there goes one part of the post I intended to write!
Both of them embody the quiet, confused desperation of this novel’s fragile cast of impractical characters, adrift metaphorically and sometimes literally on their leaky Thames-side barges, buffeted by the winds of the world. Most of them are lost, lonely, waiting for something tangible in their lives – which resemble the inexorable tides of the river they float precariously upon. As in the Elizabeth Taylor novel I discussed earlier this month, the E.M. Forster notion of how characters ‘connect’ – or fail to – is central. That one of the members of this marginal community of drifters is a male prostitute called Maurice is pertinent.
Nenna, a former musician, whose artistic career was curtailed by her husband’s fecklessness and by motherhood, is more of an outsider than the rest of the houseboat community at Battersea Reach, being a Canadian expat whose bourgeoise sister constantly urges her to come ‘home’ and acknowledge her life in England is a failure. Yet she loves her boat and life ‘on the very shores of London’s historic river’, refusing to comply with the world’s promptings.
This is a novel interested in character and mood – its rewards lie in the language and the precision and compassion with which Fitzgerald places her characters in juxtaposition, struggling to make sense of themselves and their direction. It’s also suffused with warmth and humour, overshadowed by the tragic, shocking events towards the end.
Fitzgerald is also prepared to risk lengthy descriptions; she vividly evokes the mutable, muddy essence of bankside life in the early 60s to show both its romantic, intoxicating appeal and its grittily Dickensian reality. Here’s a typical early example, where in four beautifully modulated paragraphs she describes this fluvial world’s most significant rhythm: the tide turning. Tilda is ‘up aloft’ the Grace’s mast, ‘fifteen foot of blackened pine, fitted into a tabernacle’ (great word):
Her mizzen mast was gone, her sprit was gone [I initially misread that as ‘spirit’!], the mainmast was never intended for climbing…[Tilda] was alone, looking down at the slanting angle of the decks as the cables gave or tightened, the passive shoreline, the secret water.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Gold: old Battersea Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons
This is photographic realism full of concrete details and salty, nautical terminology, conveyed with the precision of an imagist poet. But she also does what all good writers do: she makes us perceive the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as ugly, dirty, decrepit…familiar. There’s a long tradition behind such descriptions of the ‘sweet Thames’, one that passes from Spenser through to Turner, Whistler (who features in the narrative at one point) Conrad (one of the boats is called ‘Lord Jim’), more ironically and wistfully in Eliot and later visual and literary artists.
A tremor ran through the boats’ cables, the iron lighters, just on the move, chocked gently together. The great swing round began.
Not many novelists deploy language and imagery so well. In this scene the progress of driftwood, temporarily ‘at rest in the slack reaches’, takes on an almost mystical symbolic significance that’s beautifully transmitted through the rapt gaze of the little girl clinging to the top of the mast, feeling the turning tide’s surge and its relentless surge. She’s uninterested in that urban ‘ratless’ world which consumes the interest of most people: ‘the circulation which toiled on only a hundred yards away’; she has a mudlark’s eye for the river’s gifts, but is acutely aware too of its dangers.
Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – view from Battersea towards Chelsea, where ‘Offshore’ is set:[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When she thinks of the many who’ve drowned in that muddy river, she feels ‘distress, but not often’ – unlike her big sister and her bohemian mother:
But her heart did not rule her memory, as was the case with Martha and Nenna. She was spared that inconvenience.
Here again she elides the concrete – drowned sailors’ boots, become flotsam – and the abstract: memory, sensibility. All this to create a memorable character: Tilda has the elemental indifference of a seabird, a piece of driftwood or the river itself – yet Fitzgerald shows how she’s still vibrantly alive.
Although at times the central metaphor of the novel, the river, becomes a bit too intrusive and obvious, and some of the characters are two-dimensional (but they aways have life) Fitzgerald assembles her cast of misfits, losers and dreamers with engaging sympathy: she never judges them.
What little plot there is largely involves Nenna’s struggle to confront the reality of being abandoned by her husband – he doesn’t want the liminal existence she’s embraced ‘offshore’; neither does he want her sexually or emotionally. Their marital argument at the heart of the novel is the most visceral and shocking I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction.
There’s a particularly fine, sagacious cat, as muddy and flawed as the humans in the novel; Stripey fights a complicated war with the wharfside rats, her survival as precarious, and her sex life as mysterious as those of the humans she disdains.
I’d urge you to read Penelope Fitzgerald.
Links to other discussions of this novel:
Jacqui Wine here
Max here (who provides links to other good reviews)
[I’ve managed to refrain from using the word ‘riparian’ in this post, even though it would have been particularly apposite.]
Yesterday I posted my goodbye to Berlin – helping son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons (2 and 3) pack up and prepare to move to Sant Cugat del Vallès, a suburb of Barcelona.
TD jnr and I ended up having to drive the family car, with disgruntled cats, the 1800 km via
autobahn (roadworks everywhere), autoroute and autopista. So not much scenery to admire – endless, mind-numbing motorway embankments. It took two days.
Having an academic background in medieval hagiography, I was ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of the Catalan saint after whom the town they were moving to was named. Cugat is the Catalan for St Cucuphas.
He was a missionary of African origin, martyred in the fourth century under the persecution of Diocletian. He suffered some of the more unpleasant tortures before his dispatch, involving iron nails, scorpions, vinegar and pepper.
Monastery of Sant Cugat
As his remains were said to have been buried at the site of his death in what became Sant Cugat, it seemed natural for the Benedictines who founded the monastery there in the ninth century to dedicate the house to this saint. My picture shows the handsomely restored building in the town centre.
After a few days of unpacking and exploring the new neighbourhood, and discovering the local mosquitos particularly like the taste of Mrs TD, we all drove into the city and had a tapas lunch near the Ramblas – no sign of the recent awful attack – and took the boys to the Ciutadella park where there’s a fountain which famous local architect Antoni Gaudí helped design.
That’s me in the shadows by the hind leg of the mammoth in Ciutadella park
The Arc de Triomf, near Ciutadella, designed for the 1888 World Fair by Vilaseca i Casanovas
Next day Mrs TD and I, enjoying some adult time away from toddlers, visited the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s still unfinished cathedral. When we were here last summer we didn’t go inside; this time we did, and it was breathtaking. Here are some images to finish with.
This figure in the Sagrada Familia looks sinister for a cathedral
Goodbye to Berlin
Yesterday’s post on Elizabeth Taylor was the first in a few weeks. I thought I’d explain why.
My stepson, his wife and two nervous cats and two small boys were moving from Berlin (Prenzlauerberg district, in the former East sector) after many years there, working in the music business. They were going to Sant Cugat, 20km north of Barcelona.
Mrs TD and I flew over to help. I took a load of photos, quite sad to think we’d probably not go back to Prenzlauerberg. We’ll certainly revisit Berlin centre, though.
Carl Legien estate, designed by Bruno Taut, on which is found the lovely Café Eckstern
Here’s a selection of those pictures, my valediction to an interesting area of the city, full of psychogeophraphical surprises – there are statues, carved details, murals, Bauhaus design – all round this area. Like the area around the café mentioned below: workers’ accommodation designed by Bruno Taut (associated with the Deutscher Werkbund, which included Walter Gropius) in the early 30s.
Just look up or around: there’s always something worth lingering over. As I did in a post way back, my Berlin dérive...
Here’s the hof being used to store boxes before loading on the truck, with Berliners’ ubiquitous bikes parked next to them:
And here’s the removal truck:
An old pumping station
The pumping station looked indifferent from the distance, but there were delightful architectural details, iike this Berlin bear over a doorway
Another little artistic detail over a corner
This charming statue is just outside the house
And we had several coffees, muesli, croissants, bagels and cakes from our favourite café round the corner: Café Eckstern – which I wrote about affectionately earlier this year
Typical Berlin scene: hipsters have pimped this former police van and made it into something wildly different: the word ‘Polizei’ may not be visible in this picture, but it’s there, dimly surviving just below the windscreen.
Enough pictures for one post. Next time, Sant Cugat, after a LONG road trip with those traumatised cats.
Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75), The Soul of Kindness. VMC 2012; first published 1964
Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel is not her best; it verges at times on soap-opera, and some of the characterisation is dodgy (like Liz, the unconvincing, scruffily antisocial artist). But it’s still one to be savoured slowly for the subtle prose and insidious, perceptive wit that shows with human warmth the vicissitudes of living among other people who know themselves as little as they know you. A former university acquaintance of mine was noted for her frequent marginal comments on MSS she edited when she turned to publishing: LTRDSW – let the reader do some work. That’s just what this author does when she’s at her best: she doesn’t spell everything out.
Take one random example. Richard Quartermaine, a successful but bored businessman, has by chance met a near neighbour, Elinor, on his commute home, and they’d taken tea together. He neglects to tell his wife, Flora, heavily pregnant with their first child, on his return. Flora is a variation on Emma: a meddler in other people’s lives, invariably with catastrophic consequences (one of them in this novel turns out to be fatal).
The narrative here takes the point of view and voice of Richard, contemplating the ‘placid beauty’ and ‘appealing gaze’ of Flora, all innocence and complacent ‘Botticelli calm’:
She seemed to be as busy as anything, just bearing her child. Full-time job. He brushed a thought from his mind.
From his guilty interior monologues earlier it’s evident that this ‘thought’ is disloyal to her, and that he’s in some way attracted to the less flawed Elinor. By not admitting their tea together, that guilt is compounded. Taylor trusts her readers to know what’s going on.
The disasters that befall those whose lives Flora interferes with are competently recounted in the novel, but for me the more interesting plot involves this…whatever it is… between waveringly loyal Richard – frustrated by his wife’s childlike schemes and indolent self-satisfaction, oblivious to and unaware of the damage she causes – and Elinor, whose blimpish MP husband neglects her, leaving her starved of affection. In Richard she sees a sympathetic fellow sufferer and potentially more satisfying connection. Is he?
Elinor’s childlessness is a Taylor trope, usually signifying lack of emotional fulfilment, and — her habitual central theme – loneliness.
The first time they’d awkwardly got together she’d told Richard how busy her husband was – implying his neglect. Richard blurts out:
‘Aren’t you lonely?’ immediately wishing that he hadn’t – definitely not a question to put to another man’s wife…
‘Sometimes I am,’ she then admitted.
Flora gives birth in a nursing-home after a long labour. Visited by Meg there after the birth of her daughter, she asks her friend to be godmother. The reader knows that Meg is not her first choice – but it wouldn’t occur to emotionally stunted Flora to consider this hurtful to her closest friend. When Meg tells her she doesn’t believe in God, Flora’s response typifies Taylor’s economy in revealing character and her mordant precision with language:
‘But of course you do, darling,’ Flora said comfortably.
Back to Flora’s husband and Elinor. It’s not quite a flirtation, and certainly not an affair. There are several further liaisons, after that furtive teashop meeting. We’re given numerous insights into the loveless marriage Elinor endures with her boring, thoughtless husband. Finally, she detours past Richard’s street, having spent a soul-numbing break in a drab seaside resort (while her husband was abroad) that only intensified her sense of loneliness, and then a humiliating solitary day in London that ended with her being chatted up by a tedious pub lothario. The narrative provides her thoughts as she nears Richard’s house, torturing herself by imagining his idyllic life with his lovely wife and baby, newly returned home :
Richard was one of her given-up hopes. She had not wanted much of him – his company and conversation.
Really? She goes on the consider that he merely used her for company when his wife was confined. When he invites Elinor in for a drink (she hadn’t realised he was alone), she reconsiders, in directly narrated first-person thought that artfully slips straight into semi-revealing third-person free indirect thought, an indication of how incompletely honest she’s being with herself?
‘He’s really my only friend…How dreadful if I did something to lose him. It was all she wanted – and had happened with miraculous luck – to talk to sit and have a drink with him, for him to be at ease with her, to take her for granted. She had not fallen in love with him, and desired nothing that belonged to Flora: but he must have something left over from that, which he could spare her; everybody has something left over.
Another rare instance in the novel, perhaps, of a character confronting the reality of her connection with another human being.
Meg’s interior monologue continues:
Marital complications she abhorred – husbands and wives in a changing pattern. Complications; embarrassments. If, for instance, as he crossed the room now with her drink – if, instead of handing it to her, he should put it down on the little table beside her and take her into his arms…even imagining this she was overcome with confusion and dismay. [Author’s ellipsis, tellingly]
So – maybe she’s not as honest with herself as she appeared to be earlier. The scene ends with a trademark Elizabeth Taylor disappointment; as she leaves, Richard half-heartedly invites her to visit more often – to see Flora! Elinor’s thoughts on this:
He was always easy with her, always kind and equable; but behind his urbane manner might conceivably be bored, or irritated, or embarrassed…Kind, neighbourly words [she muses as she walks home]. All he had to offer. We all talk like it most of the time, to make the wheels go round.
What’s worse than wondering if the one you’re attracted to doesn’t reciprocate your feelings? The possibility that you bore, irritate or embarrass them. We all think like that. But few writers depict it so poignantly.
I was glancing through my copy of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, that early novel of hers (1859) full of earnest Methodists and wronged maidens (did Hardy get the idea of Tess’s infanticide from this?), and noticed this odd word:
Book 1, ch. 7: The Dairy
The dairy was certainly worth looking at: it was a scene to sicken for with a sort of calenture in hot and dusty streets–such coolness, such purity, such fresh fragrance of new-pressed cheese, of firm butter, of wooden vessels perpetually bathed in pure water…
Picture of Adam Bede in his carpenter’s workshop, from an early American edition. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s the OED online (as ever, thank you, Cornwall Library Service for this free resource; I’ve omitted most of the citations):
Etymology: < French calenture, < Spanish calentura fever, < calentar to be hot, < Latin calēnt-em hot, burning.
- A disease incident to sailors within the tropics, characterized by delirium in which the patient, it is said, fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it.The word was also used in the Spanish general sense of ‘fever’, and sometimes in that of ‘sunstroke’.
1593 T. Nashe Christs Teares f. 45 Then (as the possessed with the Calentura,) thou shalt offer to leape.
1719 D. Defoe Life Robinson Crusoe 19 In this Voyage..I was continually sick, being thrown into a violent Calenture by the excessive Heat.
1721 Swift Bubble vii So, by a calenture misled, The mariner with rapture sees, On the smooth ocean’s azure bed, Enamell’d fields and verdant trees.
- fig. and transf. Fever; burning passion, ardour, zeal, heat, glow.
1596 T. Nashe Haue with you to Saffron-Walden sig. F3v Er hee bee come to the..raging Calentura of his wretchednes.
a1631 J. Donne Poems (1650) 158 Knowledge kindles Calentures in some.
1841 H. Smith Moneyed Man III. ix. 238 The mirage of a moral calenture, which conjures up unexisting objects.
So it would seem to be this second, figurative meaning that Eliot intends. Given the simmering passions among the main characters in this scene, the erotic connotations are surely intended.
That sailors would suffer the delusion that the ocean was green fields or prairies and they wanted to jump overboard to escape the confines of their ship reminds me of a similar feel to the early parts of Moby-Dick.
Calenture: useful word to have in your repertoire.
This will probably be my final post for a couple of weeks; I’m going on travels with family.
A character says in the story ‘Couch’: ‘Life isn’t supposed to hurt all the time.’
My previous post gave an introduction/background to this collection of 37 very short stories by two authors, but translated by 37 different translators. The identity and method of each one isn’t revealed until you’ve had time to absorb the story.
Last time I mentioned a central theme in many of them: talking or not talking – ‘In the end I didn’t talk about it’, says the speaker in ‘Cupcakes’, avoiding the tragic subject that fills the room. ‘There’s no point talking about it’, says the voice in ‘Trolls’, this time about the love and death of a much-loved grandmother.
The first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Anglo-Australian literary reviewer Tony Malone (I recommend his site – Tony’s Reading List for its coverage of translated literature; this is his first effort at translation – brave chap!) opens with the words that give this anthology its title.
Photo of one of the two authors of the story collection, Véronique Côté, by Maude Chavin, from the QC Fiction website
Several stories start with this cryptic kind of reference – you have to read on to find out what the ‘it’ is and who the ‘I’ is who refuses to talk about ‘it’. It turns out to be a particular kind of obsession, and this is a feature in several of the stories. The speaker/monologuist (for these were all originally promenade theatrical monologues performed in the streets of Quebec City) is presumably female, for she mentions one or two personal female-specific details (the gender/identity of the speakers in most stories is not usually identifiable; it’s what they say that matters). She’s conflicted about her obsession, which she denies is OCD, and insists ‘I’m normal, I think’ – not entirely convincing. She claims to be adept at concealing it. In paragraph one she says:
It’s humiliating, totally. I don’t want the people I love to notice, I don’t know how I’d be able to go on afterwards.
Later: ‘It disturbs me.’
This confusion, desire to be different or complete, inability to fit in, to understand herself or others, is a recurring feature in these stories. That’s why talking – or not talking – about such things is so crucial, and features so often in them. For what do we talk about when we talk about, or don’t talk about, our anxieties, obsessions, relationships?
Her parents, she believes, should have taught her one thing in life:
that nothing is missing. Like Buddha, or a monk, or a poem would say, nothing is missing, life has absolutely everything, everything is here, I mean: I’ve never wanted for anything, why am I so scared that all that might change?
The translator here adopts the stream-of-consciousness style that of most of the other stories here, choosing to render what he calls ‘essentially a spoken text’ at a level that’s not ‘too high’ in register and tone (I talked about this at greater length in my previous post). He tries to get the ‘voice’ as close to the original French as possible. I think he’s done a pretty good job. That voice shows pain, regret and longing, and a strong desire to feel impenitent, less ‘scared’ – how many of us haven’t felt that way before? The run-on sentences and comma splices represent the rhythms of the voice of a character who’s floundering, hurting, and trying to limit the damage of life’s experiences.
So who is she addressing here, if she ‘doesn’t talk about it’? The reader. Which positions them in the role of confessor – a highly privileged one, but demanding (and in most cases in this collection, rewarding). For we don’t have the capacity to absolve or forgive (if this is needed). All we can do is try to understand. Which is surely one of the main reasons we read? To broaden and deepen our understanding of human nature.
The other author, Steve Gagnon, attributed to France-Larochelle, from the QC Fiction website
Not all of the stories do this; some are lighter, humorous, lubricious – there’s some pretty graphic sex and talk about sex – or downright revolting; I found the story about a person whose obsession is eating their own snot pretty hard to stomach. And there’s quite a lot of vomiting going on.
But mostly these are wonderful snapshots that reveal a whole life of a spectrum of individual types, from the panic-stricken, the defeated and the ‘social misfit’ to the woman who appears to have everything, but has really ‘passed myself by’. Often there’s an auspicious or disastrous epiphany. Translators talk about the polish and elegance of the prose of their originals, and mostly they reproduce this skilfully in their renditions.
It’s always difficult to convey the feel of a story collection in a brief post – especially a collection with so many variables (authors, translators). So I’ll just pick out a couple of my favourites.
Children’s fraught relationships with parents or other family members, some of whom die, walk out or become estranged, are the basis of some of the strongest, subtlest stories. Often their love for each other goes unacknowledged, unexpressed, or talked about with honesty too late – and this can be ‘sad’ and ‘a shame’ (from ‘Attic’, in which a mother’s curt, posthumously delivered postcard brings a kind of confirmation but not consolation).
In ‘Wrestling’ the speaker reflects fondly on his (I think this a ‘he’) loving ‘fights’ with his dad when he was a kid. Language, words, talk are again the point here:
I never needed words to say that I loved him, and he never needed them either, we had other ways…My dad and me, we don’t wrestle any more. [My ellipsis]
And he misses these fights, which arose not out of ‘rage’ but love, pride and admiration:
I never talked about this with my dad. Probably because we never managed to develop a common language, we never got used to the fact that there were words between us.
What a wonderful sentence that last one is. And his closing words to the story bring a surprising shift in emotional tone. Language brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. This is another deeply moving monologue, honest and raw.
Daniel Grenier, who translated this story, has one of the 37 translators’ most interesting and revealing explanations for his approach to his task. He says it’s ‘destabilizing’ to translate in a language that is not your own:
To understand something is quite different from saying it, or even repeating it…English…is so subtle, so difficult, it’s as difficult and hard as a diamond. [My ellipsis]
‘Light’ is a tender, passionate account of a parent’s fear when contemplating their child’s vulnerability, and the powerful need to protect them, to tell them not to give up (the woman in ‘Olives’ could do with a parent like that).
In ‘Nightmares’ there’s another parental bereavement, and the child’s response is beautifully, poetically conveyed in the translated prose.
‘Dishes’ and ‘Notebook’ deal unsentimentally and innovatively with the notions of reading, writing and humility (‘Hell is being the only person to truly know yourself’).
‘Looks’ is about the impact on a non-academic child of growing up in a bookish family of intellectuals and teachers:
I’m looking for peace. I want peace and literature is the opposite of peace.
I’m out of time. Let me end by just recommending this collection for its unique take on the nature of translation by providing some excellent, brief but powerful stories and some thoughtful, stimulating translators’ insights.
I Never Talk About It: QC Fiction, 2017. First published in 2012 as Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir by Les éditions du Septentrion
Most books of translated fiction foreground (not surprisingly) the original author; the translator – if they’re even mentioned – will get a tiny credit somewhere near the front, probably not on the front cover.
Quebec-based QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books based in Montreal, was set up last year to do things differently, to publish exciting new Québecois voices with translations that are as original and vibrant as the source texts.
I Never Talk About It, published 1 September, is even more daring and innovative than QC’s usual output: 37 stories written by actor-authors Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon are presented with no attribution – we can’t tell for sure which author (maybe both?) wrote which story (it’d be easier in French, I suppose, because of the use of gendered nouns, etc.) OK, some stories are clearly narrated by a woman or man, but that doesn’t necessarily signify the gender of the author.
Here it’s the translators who take a more central position. This is what QC say about the project on their website:
This project aims to show there are all kinds of ways to bring across an author’s voice in translation… at least 37 of them! Translators include literary translation students, first-time and up-and-coming literary translators, world-renowned translators who have won major international prizes, some of Montreal’s best writers and translators, a retired high-school French teacher in Ireland, and francophone authors translating into their second language. There are even people in there who (armed only with a dictionary and the priceless ability to write a beautiful sentence) barely speak French.
As Peter McCambridge, fiction editor of the imprint, says in his Introduction, ‘readers want to read faithful translations, don’t they?’ His question raises some familiar if important points about translated literature. What if readers want something more, something like ‘a different sort of artistic creation’? This volume doesn’t exactly provide answers to that question, but it does offer some textual examples (stories) and commentaries on them to provide some implicit suggestions.
So: ‘let’s start a conversation’, he suggests. ‘Let’s talk about the types of translators and translations you’ll come across in this book.’ The anthology’s title is taken from the opening line of the first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Tony Malone (and found again, in the past tense, in ‘Wrestling’, and with other variations in other stories). And talking – or not talking – is a central theme in many of the stories in the collection, another indication, surely, of their origins in oral-theatrical performance.
Every story is only a few pages long, more Flash Fiction than ‘short story’ – and it’s apparent that each translation is a sequence of personal interpretations and decisions, linguistic leaps, deviations or distortions, however well intentioned. How much of their own personality or ‘reading’ of the story is apparent, and how does that affect our own reading of the text?
Each story is translated by a different person, each with their ‘own unique approach.’ Their identity is only revealed after each story, so as not to influence the reader’s experience beforehand; they were invited to apply a single adverb to describe that approach, and to give a brief account to reveal how and why they completed their task.
The stories’ origin as spoken texts – monologues, in fact – is an important factor. The two writers produced their scripts, which were then performed in various locations across Quebec, and the audience followed the performers as they moved across the city. The stories therefore read differently from the usual literary type, and as readers we can’t reproduce the exact experience of the original audience, watching the actor in a particular urban setting .
The translators frequently refer to their attentiveness to ‘voice’, ‘register’, ‘tone’, ‘rhythm’, ‘pace’. They comment on the intimate or ‘confessional’ nature of the narrative voice, of following the ‘spirit’ not the ‘letter’, striving for a ‘fluid’ style, not ‘forced’. Many refer to the difficulties of rendering the original punctuation, which tends to be looser in French – especially in colloquial texts created to be orally delivered, many of them in stream-of-consciousness mode, which doesn’t lend itself easily to conventional written orthographical and syntactic conventions.
Comma splices, run-on sentences: these posed problems for the translators that wouldn’t have been so apparent to the original audiences, listening to the words spoken in the streets of the city. Every punctuation mark in a written text is a function of a different mode and level of discourse from spoken texts. Is there such a thing as a semi-colon in spontaneous speech?
Some translations are, as one might expect, more successful than others when coping with these matters.
Of course it’s a matter of personal taste how you judge this. I found the stories with typographical quirks – text laid out like poems, say – more distracting than exciting. A bit too overtly “edgy”.
I’d like to say more about the content of the stories and the nature of these translations in more detail next time; I find that I’ve gone on too long already. Note the high-register use of the semi-colon there.
Paperback (advance reading copy).
Links to my posts on other QC Fiction texts:
Brothers, by David Clerson
Listening for Jupiter, by Pierre-Luc Landry
[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.
Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:
1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.
An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons
Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).
Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):
“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”
Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).
I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).
In a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:
Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.
He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:
Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.
Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.
Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:
Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?
Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:
…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.
When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:
Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.
An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:
How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.
Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. Paperback.
The best I could do was to put real people into situations that probably did not exist, which after all is what history is all about.
This is an extraordinary novel, and will need more than one post. This one will be a sort of introduction.
Charles Newman (1938-2006) had produced several novels by the time he started In Partial Disgrace [IPD], late in the 1980s. As Joshua Cohen explains in his introduction to the Dalkey Archives edition, he excelled as a young man at sport, later at sexual promiscuity, drinking, breeding hunting dogs, and writing (characteristics found in his character Felix, his alter egotist, about whom more shortly).
After university (Yale, Oxford) and military service he reluctantly entered upon an academic career, turning the standard Northwestern campus magazine TriQuarterly into a stellar fixture in American literary life, championing such writers as Borges, Barth, Coover, Gass and Márquez. Their experimentalism (postmodernist, perhaps) was to inflect his own writing.
He visited Hungary frequently, and riskily translated and published there. The setting of IPD is the invented, economically struggling province of Cannonia in the kingdom of Klavierland (more on that later, too), a fantastic land of swampy plains and forests, bounded by a meandering river like the Danube, a setting very like Hungary – but also like a Viennese piano. It’s that kind of novel.
Photo of Newman: attribution – By Harold Doomsduck – vacation, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Newman may have been able to travel so freely behind the Iron Curtain because of murky connections with agencies of espionage – another central theme in this novel, as we shall see.
He spent decades revising and expanding this wayward novel. His nephew, Ben Ryder Howe, tells us in an editor’s foreword of Uncle Charlie’s chaotic, obsessive methods. Slips of paper, many containing just single words, short phrases or ‘mystically oblique’ sentences, were taped into notebooks or tacked on the walls. This collection of papers expanded as his magnum opus, part Cold-War spy-thriller, part fake memoir/history/philosophical-rhetorical tract, reflected the fact that Newman was becoming bogged down in research (a trait familiar to anyone who’s ever written anything) – arcane diaries, memoirs, letters, folktales, histories… All turn up in various guises in IPD.
Eight years after his uncle’s death Howe found in Newman’s New York office another vast jumble of papers and obscure source texts. The MS was stuffed in boxes, envelopes and elsewhere, innumerable, jumbled drafts. Howe had somehow to rearrange and edit this deluge of papers into some kind of coherent order. (I’m reminded of the task facing the editors of the various redactions of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which IPD resembles slightly in tone, fragmentary structure and elegant literary style.)
Newman’s original ambitious plan was for a massive sequence of maybe nine novels divided into three volumes. The first was to contain the story of Felix, the bankrupt Cannonian aristocratic owner of an abandoned, decaying former royal hunting estate called Semper Vero (a typical Newman joke: “eternal truth” is not a highly valued principle with Felix). He’d turned to being a ‘breaker of crazy dogs and vicious horses’ (hence his title of Hauptzuchtwart Supreme) to try to offset his debts. Vol. 1 was to feature his fractious friendship with the Professor, a psychoanalyst clearly based on Freud. It is set around the time of the close of WWII and the years of Cold War that followed. This is what was to become IPD.
Volume two would continue the story a decade later in Russia, relating Felix’s relationship with Pavlov, followed in volume three by his emigration to America. Newman became hopelessly enmired in a huge, rambling introduction to this vast work. All was description of setting and background; very little happened, and characters were hazily deployed. Rufus, the CIA agent, opens the novel in Howe’s recension by parachuting into this ‘hermit kingdom’ on a spying mission (America has declared war on Cannonia, and Felix’s son Iulus, a double or maybe triple agent, is his contact) — then he disappears for long periods.
He is the putative ‘editor’ and translator of the various narratives in the text, and tries (like Newman’s nephew – life imitates art) to summarise Felix’s 10,000-page MS, alongside the papers of Iulus, another redactor of his father’s work, which is the quixotic basis of IPD:
A memoir without hindsight? A meditation on the inherent wildness of history? A novel for people who hate novels?
This vast opus of Felix was thinly disguised by him as a ‘Traveler’s Guide to Cannonia’ – clearly a doppelganger of IPD, consisting as it does as a massive stash of random papers which at a key point are dispersed by the wind, many to be lost, those retrieved proving impossible to reassemble coherently. Felix himself, with characteristic, paradoxical disdain, describes it as an attempt to rescue Nietzsche from being “so damned Nietzschean”, a history of ‘the only people without a history’.
Howe has done a fine job in trying to create some kind of narrative order and logical structure from this disparate, enigmatic raw material – but the key weakness of the novel he’s reconstructed is its erratic or absent plot (although that’s also, arguably, its main strength: it’s about itself). That lack of action and tension noted earlier is mitigated, but there are still sections that come across as self-indulgent and inert – although even these are never completely tedious. Newman has a tendency to indulge his passion for elaborate Borgesian catalogues of imaginary, bizarre or everyday objects or concepts, or for eccentric zoological taxonomies like the anti-Darwinian ‘Scale of Being’ and ‘Tree of Life’ (in which dogs tend to appear at the top, not surprisingly in a canicentric novel).
IPD is then one of those novels which appear to conform to the conventions of prose fiction, in that they are not ostensibly ‘difficult’, but which are nevertheless cryptic or elusive, or which have surreal or non-realistic or fantastic/postmodern elements; Kafka and most of the novels of Pynchon fall among these categories, or the later works of Calvino (Invisible Cities). Gerald Murnane (another who feels an affinity for the plains of Hungary) comes to mind. And there are many more.
But the seminal work of this kind, and surely an influence on IPD, is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67), also highly innovative, non-linear/fragmentary, eccentrically digressive (it takes three volumes for its protagonist to be born) and unconventional, yet heavily dependant on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621, subsequently revised). Anatomy, as its name suggests, is another playfully earnest text of compilation, classification and erudite assimilation, not a coherent ‘narrative’. It, in turn, was influenced by the sprawling, endlessly accreting, fragmentary and digressive narratives of Rabelais and Cervantes.
Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s character Iulus talks endlessly about his father, Felix (whose name in Latin signifies the opposite to the ‘sadness’ implicit in Tristram’s name).
IPD owes much of its style and method to such texts, and also to Newman’s idiosyncratic methods – hence its meandering structure, digressions, puns and paradoxes (time, like the Cannonian border river Mze, runs both ways, unpredictably), playful learned allusions (Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus pop up regularly, wittily), disquisitions on all kinds of arcane and mundane topics, from venery (in both senses) to dog-training theory, psychotherapy to topography and military history), and so on.
So far, if you’ve stayed with me, you might be thinking this sounds terribly cerebral and obscure – but it isn’t, at least, not in a bad way.
Take it in small chunks, don’t binge. It doesn’t lend itself to rapid consumption; each rich phrase has to be weighed, sampled, savoured. Take for example the frequent aphorisms that adorn the text with little intention of making conventional sense or advancing the narrative, but which contribute to the novel’s own uniquely rewarding ambience, adding a kind of self-referential commentary on what the reader is engaged in reading, and the writer, writing:
I neither write a system nor promise a system, nor do I subscribe or ascribe anything to a system.
For a landscape to have grandeur, it must have a bit of nonsense.
History is driven by failed artists.
A man is nothing but a handful of irrational enthusiasms, and nothing in this world can be understood apart from them.
Next time I hope to examine characters, setting and style more closely.