Translation Reviewing, Isabel Fargo Cole

Last month, Scott Esposito was kind enough to sand me a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Sleep of the Righteous in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation. The book is excellent, but what particularly interests me is the translation. Naming the translator has become a rallying cry and shibboleth among many people who talk about literary topics online, and though I, as a person who lives by translation, may see some benefit from this hoopla and therefore should be thankful, I am not always in agreement with the push to move the act of translation to the center of conversations about translated literature. In critics who are sympathetic to translators’ claims, it tends to provoke a cursory response, and the dashed-off “cleverly translated,” “brilliantly translated,” “awkwardly translated” etc. no more indicate real thought about the original’s rendition into English than the use of politically correct terms for minority groups, so-called, is a sign of sensitivity as to their status. Writers aware of this sometimes strive to do more, but lacking sufficient information, the attempt often comes out bad. A reviewer of a comic I translated went to the trouble of naming me, only to imply that I had been remiss in failing to translate an important note a character held in his hand; naturally this was the choice of the editor, who didn’t want to pony up for a hand letterer. Frequently, reviewers hoping to look clever will home in on an instance of “mistranslation”  without regard to the chain of associations with a certain word in a given text. In Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Landarzt. Porträt eines einfachen Mann, the word Wirklichkeit is thematic, though its scope in German, particularly in the philosophical tradition Améry is responding to, is broader than whatever English term I eventually settle on in the translation. To pick a single occurrence and say, what Améry really means here is objectivity or substantiality or truthfulness or what have you, would be short-sighted. Also, this exercise frequently fails: some years back, I saw a review censuring a translator from Spanish for having rendered maleducado as “ill-mannered.” Really, the critic claimed, it should be uneducated. Naturally, that is ludicrous.

Michael Hoffman makes the seemingly obvious, but still necessary point that his translations aren’t for people who speak German, and advocates for a measure of wilfulness on the translator’s part. What that measure is must be an open question, but it strikes me he is right, at least in many instances. A translation cannot respect the whole range of syntactic, rhetorical, and semantic niceties that undergird a work’s goodness or greatness in its original language; and to attempt to do so halfway may yield something clunky yet still far from illuminating in this respect. Lydia Davis, in her translation of Swann’s Way, claims to have taken pains to follow Proust’s punctuation and word order, but does would a reader ignorant of French really get a better sense of Proust’s French from her version than from the Moncrieff translation? Is it possible for a person who unfamiliar with a language to get a sense of what it is like?

“Fidelity to the original” is invoked at times to justify the awkwardness of a text, ignoring that rhetoric is not ideal, but instead embedded in historical and cultural circumstances that are not always transferable. Due to interference from Euskera, many Spanish speakers from the Basque country and Navarre place their verbs at the end of clauses. Were this reproducible in a target language, that would not make it advisable. At best, it would require a footnote providing the reader with a bit of pedantic trivia. English has a genius for combining words (cankles, frenemy) that carries over poorly into other languages; the same is true of the German yen for ponderous neologisms. Attempts at “fidelity” to the specific resources of the out-language, which also partake of the unique way its speakers think and live, may exhibit brilliance,  but they run the danger of yielding something ugly and unshapely, and there are already too many ugly and unshapely books.

(That said, much that is thought inherent to a language may be the result of ignorance of the language’s heritage, which those working in literature ought to struggle to preserve. It is averred, to take a small example, that German syntax is more complex than English and that German sentences requite breaking up. When I hear this, I think people need to read more De Quincey or Johnson.)

Anyway: The Sleep of the Righteous is one of the most exquisite translations I’ve read in some time, and gives some clues as to when and how discussing the translator’s art, even in the absence of an awareness of the source language, may be possible. Look at these beautiful sentences:

With their shoes slipping on the frozen mud crests, now and then the utterly phlegmatic beasts would stop; the coachman’s long, arcing whip, tip flicked out, sank from the white sky onto the horses’ huge rumps, darting there artfully until the mighty animals, making reluctant fluttery sounds with their nostrils, resumed their trot once more; fine wisps of ash rose from their coats as the man on the wooden seat administered those tiny, well-aimed rapier jabs that sometimes cracked like distant gunshots.

You can judge a think like this by counter-example: how could it have been done worse? From the poetic perspective, this is so magnificent, so subtly weighted, that almost any substitution would make it worse. I do not know whether the original is so alliteratively and metrically rich –– if so, Cole’s feat is doubly impressive –– but I also don’t care. No one to whom such phrases occur should fail to write them down. Throughout the book, the translator’s lexicon is so fresh and surprising (licquescing, dapples, asimmer, runnels, flues), and it makes the book a joy to read.

At night, the gleaming birch leaves caught the moonlight, and when they stirred in a breeze, a flutter or flicker passed down the edge of the causeway, an iridescent glitter like crinkled tinfoil, coming from beyond, from the rubbish heaps that loomed nearby forbiddingly with the blood-red light of fires, hellfires, shooting up between them: the red luminescence and the moon’s silver dazzle were echoed in the ripples of the bay… 

This is a blog post, not an essay, so I won’t say more, but congratulations and thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole and to Two Lines Press for this lovely book of stories, some of which will stay with me for a long time.

NB: I reread Torii Moi’s review of the now not-so-new translation of Beauvoir’s Second Sex this morning. The entire thing is a fascinating look at how and why a bad translation (for those who do consider it a bad translation) happens as well as the publishing politics that favor one sort of translation over another and that may affect the reviewing process afterward.

Jürgen Shmidhuber on Consciousness as Problem-Solving

Karl Popper famously said: “All life is problem solving.” No theory of consciousness is necessary to define the objectives of a general problem solver. From an AGI point of view, consciousness is at best a by-product of a general problem solving procedure.

I must admit that I am not a big fan of Tononi’s theory. The following may represent a simpler and more general view of consciousness. Where do the symbols and self-symbols underlying consciousness and sentience come from? I think they come from data compression during problem solving. Let me plagiarize what I wrote earlier:

While a problem solver is interacting with the world, it should store the entire raw history of actions and sensory observations including reward signals. The data is ‘holy’ as it is the only basis of all that can be known about the world. If you can store the data, do not throw it away! Brains may have enough storage capacity to store 100 years of lifetime at reasonable resolution.

As we interact with the world to achieve goals, we are constructing internal models of the world, predicting and thus partially compressing the data history we are observing. If the predictor/compressor is a biological or artificial recurrent neural network (RNN), it will automatically create feature hierarchies, lower level neurons corresponding to simple feature detectors similar to those found in human brains, higher layer neurons typically corresponding to more abstract features, but fine-grained where necessary. Like any good compressor, the RNN will learn to identify shared regularities among different already existing internal data structures, and generate prototype encodings (across neuron populations) or symbols for frequently occurring observation sub-sequences, to shrink the storage space needed for the whole (we see this in our artificial RNNs all the time). Self-symbols may be viewed as a by-product of this, since there is one thing that is involved in all actions and sensory inputs of the agent, namely, the agent itself. To efficiently encode the entire data history through predictive coding, it will profit from creating some sort of internal prototype symbol or code (e. g. a neural activity pattern) representing itself [1,2]. Whenever this representation becomes activated above a certain threshold, say, by activating the corresponding neurons through new incoming sensory inputs or an internal ‘search light’ or otherwise, the agent could be called self-aware. No need to see this as a mysterious process — it is just a natural by-product of partially compressing the observation history by efficiently encoding frequent observations.


from Schmidhuber’s Reddit AMA

Juan Benet on James Joyce

For the past two months I have been reading, in a typically overcompensatory fashion, the complete works of Juan Benet, to prepare for the foreword I will append to my translation of his Construction of the Tower of Babel, which I believe will come out in early 2017. Benet is a remarkable writer, peerless in twentieth-century Spain. His mind was nimble, his curiosity nearly boundless, his syntax as intricate and subtle as DeQuincey’s and his vision as unique, though far more extensive and recondite, as that of Rulfo, Faulkner, or Bernhard. His reputation hasn’t fared as well as it might have: in Spain, he is said to have disciples but no readers; in France, Pascale Casanova has written intelligent appraisals of his achievement, and his important work remains in print, but I don’t have the sense that its influence has reached writers of later generations; Suhrkamp published several of his books in Germany, though slowly they have gone out of print except for one. He was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa in the eighties: the books seem to have gotten decent reviews – A Meditation was blurbed by John Gardner – but Jeremy Davies, formerly of Dalkey Archive, is the only person I know who has read them. I imagine he suffers in translation: though an advocate of the grand style and contemptuous of Iberian insularity, there is something deeply Castilian, even Madrileño, in his writing, particularly in his stock of idioms, that doesn’t carry across easily: in the Rabassa translation, these swatches of local color vanish at times into incomprehensibility, as when the old commonplace coger el rábano por las hojas is translated literally. I would not be surprised to find similar occurrences in the French and German versions.

Benet is thought of as a fiction writer, and now, those who read him probably start with his first novel, Volverás a Región (Return to Región, in Rabassa’s version, or more literally, You Will Return to Región), read twenty or thirty pages, flip through the middle, read the last page, and give up. Benet is exasperating, but I do not think it is right to call him difficult; demanding seems to me the better word. Over long years of reading, one develops a multitude of bad habits that over time make of what at first was engaged appreciation a indolent receptivity little distinguishable from dozing; this is why so many critics lose their discernment with age and why Schopenhauer commends the art of not reading. It is impossible to read Benet lazily: a page skipped, a detail unattended, and too much is lost. Benet’s vocabularly is immense, encompassing archaisms and the respective parlance of technical science, philosophy, and letters, along with a liberal peppering of foreign phrasings and slang from the cities and countryside. Where one writer may content himsef with a vague description of mountain and lowlands and the position of the sun over some scant vegetation, as likely as not to be adventitious or out of season, Benet will spend ten pages on the geological movements giving rise to the specific landforms, the soil composition and mesoclimate. In his lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses, as elsewhere, Nabokov stresses the importants of a clear sense of the geography a tale sketches out, and draws a number of maps illustrating Bloom’s and Stephen’s travels. For Rusty Lances, his unfinished meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Benet published a topographical map of the imagined territory of Región at 1:150,000 scale.


A map of a route taken in Ulysses by Valdimir Nabokov


Juan Benet’s map of Región

Among doctoral students, who must form the better part of Benet’s readership, little mention is made of his essays, though they are arguably as accomplished as his fiction, and certainly provide a more amenable angle of approach to the body of his work. His expository style is urbane, elegant, and imperious, and gives some sense of his legendary sense of humor, which is not always apparent in his novels. In 1970, he was asked to provide a preface to Stewart Gilbert’s famous book on Ulysses, and with typical contumacity, used the space accorded him as the occasion for a public separation; a divorce, as he called it. The following quotes, representative of his never-quite-systematic but always penetrating aesthetic judgments, are taken from that essay.

A writer who with time – and borne aloft by his predilection for his own highjinks – searches for refinement by means of the substitution of a system of puns for a system of ideas, does not seem to me the most consummate intellectual  – as certain university professors assert with onerous insistence – if it is agreed to that intelligence is not an end in itself and the intellectual is something more than a tinkering mechanic who makes use of his abilities to define the maximal possibilites of artifice.

What cannot be denied is that [Joyce] was an innovator of the genre. What one must ask oneself, however, is whether his esteem derives solely from his innovations… and above all, from his having achieved them in such an explicit and deliberate manner. To begin, I ask myself as well – making use of examples from the past – whether the renovations and innovations of things as stable as the great literary genres – and the social taste they imply – may be achieved through a conscious will totally committed to such an end. I ask myself whether Tacitus, while he wrote the Annals, was conscious of casting into the world the first seed of uncertainty in history, of the lack of confidence in reason…

If the rare spirit makes use of anything, it is of a certain doctrinal uncertainty – as Keats would have it – convinced that its calling is not so much the ascertainment of hidden reality as the elucidation of certain of its many and contradictory enigmas.

What is in its essence original need not be intentionally original and from this I am led to conclude that what is so in its intention is rarely so in and of itself.

… wisdom is nothing more than a moment’s effort on the part of man to overcome and redeem himself from that radical idiocy that constitutes the substrate of his customs and the continuity of his consciousness.

Hegel, art, freedom


FullSizeRender-2.jpgI recently found a page of notes on Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics in an old notebook I was tearing pages out of. It begins with a note on Alberti. Whether the sculptor or the poet is meant, I have no idea, and strangely, I have no memory of reading either. The notes seemed interesting, so I have transcribed them below.

  1. As in Alberti, the notion that the significant difference between art and craft is achieved through freedom of action.
  2. Art represents at once the fracture effected by the progress of the mind and the mind’s attempt to remediate that fracture, which comes to appear, in a certain way, as a form of distress.
  3. In fact, it is the perception of freedom, of intention, that separates one’s understanding of artistic as distinct from natural beauty, and provokes the special sort of attunement we reserve for art objects.
  4. The an-und-für-sich Seiende  in Hegel must be the primal perception of another being experienced in its twin possibilities of menace and object of conquest (be it violent, erotic, domesticating) – these are our most basic modes of understanding other beings… [This drifts into notes that are partly illegible, and incomprehensible where they are not.]
  5. In terms both of form and content, art is constrained by its relation to the spirit. The nature of every genre of creative act (art, science) is defined by the specific limits that demarcate its realm of action from that of pure freedom.

A Visual Key to Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny

The highly abstract and poetic idiom of Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny can easily obscure its documentary basis: virtually every episode in the novel is based on some historical or visual record. Painting and photography are particularly important to decoding it. Gimferrer has stressed that the reader need not track down all his references, that what is important is the writing’s poetic force. As a reader, that was sufficient for me, but as a translator, I felt a need to better know the text’s background. My editor at Godine and I considered illustrating my translation; in the end, it didn’t happen; but since I still have a folder of images relating to the text, which not only aided my understanding of it, but also gave me an appreciation for the Fortunys and their artistry, I thought I would put this up here, in case anyone else were interested.

Chapter One: The Man in the Turban

Chapter 1 Fortuny Man with Turban.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Man With the Turban

Fortuny - The Battle of Tétouan.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Battle of Tétouan

Fortuny - Contino.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Contino

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – Self Portrait

Chapter Two: The Outsiders

Chapter 2 Henry James by John Singer Sargent.jpg

Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Chapter 3: The Flower Maidens

Chapter 3 Fortuny Flower Maidens.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – The Flower Maidens

Chapter Four: The Tragedienne

Chapter 4 Eleonora Duse by Corcos.jpg

Eleonora Duse by Vittorio Corcos

Chapter Five: At Palazzo Martinengo

Chapter 5 Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo.jpg

Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo by Luis de Madrazo

Chapter Six: Villa Pisani

Chapter 6 Amores in Villa Pisani.jpg

The Amores statues in Villa Pisani

Chapter Seven: Interlude

Chapter 7 Emilienne d'Alencon.jpg

Émilienne d’Alençon

Chapter Eight: Eros’s Mirror

Chapter 8 John Singer Sargent Study of a Nude.jpg

Study of a Nude by John Singer Sargent

Chapter Nine: A Visit

Chapter 9 Proust.jpg

Marcel Proust as a Young Man

Chapter Ten: Latitudes

Chapter 10 Condé Nast in a Fortuny gown.jpg

Condé Nast in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Eleven: Ornithology

Chapter 11 Carpaccio Two Venetian Ladies.jpg

Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies

Chapter Twelve: The Traveler

Chapter 12 Hugo von Hofmannsthal.jpg

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Chapter Thirteen: Embellishment

Chapter 13 sketch of Fortuny Dome.jpg

Sketch for a Fortuny Retractable Dome

Chapter Fourteen: Visions

Chapter 14 Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini and L. Casati in the Palazzo Leoni by Mariano Fortuny.jpg

Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini, and L. Casati at the Palazzo Fortuny, by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Fifteen: Henriette

Chapter 15 alt. Portrait of Henriette Fortuny.jpg

Portrait of Henriette Fortuny by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Sixteen: Nocturne

Chapter 16 Liane de Pougy.jpg

Liane de Pougy

Chapter Seventeen: Return to Villa Pisani

Villa Pisani

Chapter Eighteen: Theaters

Chapter 18 Martine_de_Béhague Comtesse de Bearn.jpg

Portrait of the Comtesse de Béarn

Chapter Nineteen: Intermission

Chapter 19 Enrico Caruso.jpg

Enrico Caruso

Chapter Twenty: The Wax Figures

Chapter 20 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-One: Instants

Chapter 21 Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy, in aviator costume.jpg

Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Lovers

Chapter 22 Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny.jpg

Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Sphinx

Chapter 23 Dolores del Rio from Journey Into Fear.jpg

Dolores del Rio, from Journey Into Fear

Chapter Twenty-Four: Encounters

Chapter 24 Charles and Oona Chaplin.jpg

Charles and Oona Chaplin

Chapter Twenty-Five: Episode

Chapter 25 Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino.jpg

Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino

Chapter Twenty-Six: Sisterly

Chapter 26 Lilian Gish in a Fortuny Gown.jpg

Lillian Gish in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Table Talk

Chapter 27 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal Window Granada.jpg

A window in Granada, by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Portrait

Chapter 28 portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.jpg

A portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Business

Chapter 29 Fortuny logo.jpg

The Fortuny Venise Logo

Chapter Thirty: The Dwelling

Chapter 30 Fortuny pattern modify.jpg

A Fortuny Pattern

Chapter Thirty-One: The Resolution

Mary McCarthy as a young woman. Kay wears a Fortuny gown in her novel The Group.

Chapter 31 Julie Christie in Fortuny need permission

Julie Christie in Fortuny tunic and leggings.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Incursions

Chapter 32 Orson Welles Othello needs permission.jpg

Orson Welles in Othello

Chapter 32 Orson Welles NYT.jpg

Orson Welles in the New York Times

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Second of May

Chapter 33 Goya el 2 de mayo 1808 or the Charge of the Mamelukes.jpg

Goya: The Second of May, or the Charge of the Mamelukes

Goya, The Second of May, 1808

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Bell

Chapter 34 Fortuny inidrect light needs permission.jpg

Fortuny’s system of indirect lighting

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Japanese Salon

Chapter 35 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal The Artists Children in the Japanese Salon.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: The Artist’s Children in the Japanese Salon

Ausiàs March

That Ausiàs March (1400-1459) is unknown to general readers in English is a serious omission to a proper conception of the breadth of the western poetic tradition. A knight and nobleman working in the shadow of Petrarch, he abandoned the conceits of the troubadours and the somewhat virginal idealism of stilnovismo for a more concrete and intimate treatment of his obsessions. In his morbidity, he recollects the Kirchhofsgedanken of the German poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, though March is elegant and sorrowful whereas Gryphius is grotesque. I first encountered March’s name in the epigraph to Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony:

QUI no és trist, de mos dictats no cur, / o’n algun temps que sia trist estat

Only those who are sad / or have been sad at some time/ need bother with my works.

Robert Archer, Cervantes Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London, has done valuable work on Ausiàs, but there is still no rhymed translation of his work in English. I have toyed with the idea of doing one, but the difficulty I’ve had in getting easier or more patently appealing authors published is potent suasion thereagainst, particularly as even a poor rendering of the original requires a great deal of effort.

I don’t consider that there’s much room for absoluteness in translation, and whether mimicry of rhyme and meter yield the best version depends on the poet in question, the translator’s sensibility, the in-and out-languages, and the reader’s particular tolerances and proclivities. As a translator, I instinctively feel there is something lackadaisical about translations indifferent to the form of the original, but as a reader, I must admit that the singsong qualities of the many rhymed translations of, say, Pushkin or Baudelaire, is a deeply irritating distraction.

Regardless, I have stopped working crosswords because I don’t know enough about movies or sports, and attempting a rhymed translation, however questionable the result, offers a similar sort of amusement. It is not perfect: “erstwhile friends” seems very weak to me, and “Absence eats into it,” which I hear as –––UUU, is cacophonous.  I am having trouble cutting and pasting the original Catalan, but it is the first poem in this anthology, which also includes English prose versions.

Take me as one who savors dreams,
Who savor finds in frenzied thoughts:
As one whose fancies harbor naught
But vanished time, and absence deem
A solace lorn that torment feigns to flee
But falters, and falls prone before its claims.
No good do times to come proclaim:
For me, what’s best nor was nor is to be.

My heart dilates with love for time expired,
With love for what is not, for absence pure,
Until my thoughts, in reveries immured
Are rent from bliss and singed by loss’s fire:
Like one condemned to death, who waits,
Deplores his fate, but lately solace meets,
Is given word that soon he will be freed,
But rashly slain when falls the fated date.

Pray God my thoughts were rendered dead,
My life elapsed in listless sleep;
Wretched is he whose recreant musings reap
The fruits of languor in his rival’s stead;
Whose dreams, when he for succor pleads
And cries for venom’s bitter taste
Are like a foolish mother’s haste
His ruinous vagaries to heed.

Better were to suffer pain
Than add a modicum of bliss
To the anguish in my mind’s abyss.
For when the thought of cheer has fled again,
My joy perforce to torment turns,
As a sick man’s craving something sweet
Makes every meal a joyless deceit,
Short solace is by doubled sorrow spurned;

Or like the hermit long estranged
From home and from his erstwhile friends,
Convinced his plaints have met their end,
Then finds his memories unchanged
When chance brings one across his way
Who breathes new life in pleasures passed
Then leaves, and joy cannot hold fast;
For sorrow heeds the call when good abates.


Wise woman, when love is old and grey
Absence eats into it like a worm
If constancy does not hold firm,
Ignoring what the envious say.


Pasolini, freedom

The above quote from Pasolini, whom I was reading a good deal of two or three months back, did not leave my thoughts for a long time. Nonetheless, there is something sinister to me about Pasolini. When I was younger, I was often approached by gay men in ways that ranged from obtrusive to openly aggressive; this rarely bothered me, because I didn’t fear for my safety, and because – for reasons likely as much genetic as moral – their advances did not disgust me; but in retrospect, it is clear to me that what interested many of these men was closer to exploitation than love. Pasolini is one of a large group of people who might be described as “aesthetic communists,” whose objections to capitalist modernity derive less from concern for the happiness and prosperity of the proletariat than from an erotic inclination toward the degraded and downtrodden, and even toward violence as such, under the guise of an appreciation of authenticity, and whose distaste for the free market’s tawdry fruits betokens an aristocratic bent (as Gombrowicz notes of liberalism in general in his diaries). As I watch, for a second time, Comizi d’amore, I wonder what is so admirable in Pasolini’s subjection, on camera, of members of all classes of Italian society to intrusive sexual questions, particularly as the relationship of interviewer to interviewee so clearly recapitulates the asymmetrical status relations Pasolini allegedly opposed; and the self-consciousness, embarrassment, and perplexity of the respondents recalls a favorite passage from Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard:

It was outrageous, he said, to ask him such a stupid question. Your question is quite simply stupid, he said. She could surely not expect an intelligent answer to such a stupid and insolent question. I think you’ve struck the wrong note, he said, making to get up from his chair, as though he wanted to leave the Auersbergers’ Gentzgasse apartment at once and without further ado, having had enough of this insolent questioning. However, seeing the hostess return with the coffee, he sat down again in his armchair, saying as he did so that he did not have to answer stupid questions like that. Such a tasteless question, he told the astonished Jeannie, would naturally get no answer from him. What impertinent nonsense about my coming to the end of my life! said the actor from the Burgtheater. What impudent presumption! How rude to confront me with your stupidity!

I do not know what it was like to have lived under fascism, or the peculiar psychological pressure it must have induced, especially in a person like Pasolini; I cannot imagine, to take an example from Pasolini’s life, the sophistry required to maintain faith in a dogma whose doctrinaire followers had murdered my own brother. Our appreciation of projects like Pasolini’s springs from a reactive and perhaps misguided Schadenfreude, a joy at seeing bubbles burst and the straight-laced forced to face up to their so-called hypocrisy. I return to those words of Samuel Johnson:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

We long to be free, and freedom must be, in some sense, a basic good, but it is also indisputable that freedom as such is an aporia, that what exists in its stead is a range of minor freedoms made possible by distinct political orders; and when I think of many aspects of the idea of freedom in its current incarnation in the west, whose citizens show themselves increasingly blithe  prevail about the superficiality of their sexual cravings, their love of lucre, their disdain for the good, and their detestation of the poor, I cannot help but think that along with hypocrisy, a certain kind of earnestness has also been lost, and that the ideal objects of freedom have grown more vulgar.


Mohamed Bamba, 1967-2015

I first met Mohamed Bamba in Recife in Brazil, to which I flew for three days, because my future wife, whom I had met a month before, was going there for a conference. It was late summer or early fall, and I was exhausted, because I had worked thirty or so days straight in order to take off as much time as possible when she came to America from Spain to visit. We flew from Philadelphia to Miami, from Miami to Salvador de Bahía, and from Salvador to Recife. In the Miami airport, a Romanian waiter spoke to us in fluent Spanish. In the bus to Recife center, trying to squeeze past the passengers, all of whom were fat, I kept repeating com licença and obrigado, the only two words I could say confidently in Portuguese. When we arrived at our hotel, Pousada das ventas or Pousada Boa Vista or something like that, the staff told us we were early and couldn’t enter our room till the afternoon. My wife asked them in Galician if there were somewhere we could leave our things, and once that was arranged, we walked to a bookstore where I bought her a minuscule book on Matisse, which neither of us has yet read, and where I drank a mediocre coffee before going on to a gathering of dilapidated pastel buildings said to constitute the city’s historic center. I tried to order a beer at a bar, but they only had lemonade. After two hours, we returned to the hotel, and while my wife showered, I lay back, soaked in sweat, on the bed, falling instantly asleep until my wife announced she’d read the schedule wrong, and that we had to take a taxi to the university there straightaway.

The film school was an angular building of concrete mixed with pebbles with no clear delineation between inside and out. The corkboards were papered over with all sorts of leftist propaganda, in addition to the usual offers of tutoring services and textbooks for sale. We soon found the classroom where my wife’s presentation would take place; no one seemed to care that we were late. The speakers who preceded here were humdrum, from all I could gather: a pretty girl who hadn’t bothered to type her material up, preferring to read it from a small, spiral-bound notebook and occasionally incapable of deciphering her own handwriting, and a thin, swarthy man who showed an almost shockingly dull film of two hands caressing each other set to classical music. When my wife began to speak, it was clear no one understood what she was saying save for a man sitting to my right in an orange T-shirt that favored his muscular arms. His skin was rather matte than burnished, his eyes were large and intelligent, and he wore a small, fashionable hat. The conference organizers had specified that presenters could read their work in Portuguese, Spanish, or English; my wife chose Spanish, one of her native languages, and was reading at a velocity that recollected an auctioneer. Three times, a man in his fifties with a piebald beard asked her if she could speak more slowly, before I finally said that in fact she couldn’t. When she’d finished, the man in the orange shirt began to barrage her with questions. This habit, inevitably male, of turning a public event into a dialogue, normally irritates me, but in this case it was for the best. I shook the man’s hand before we left.

I would become jealous of him over the coming months. He, like my wife, studied African cinema; they became friends on Facebook, and he would comment every time she updated her status. For various reasons, she was disinclined to post evidence of our relationship online, and so a great deal of her Facebook activity consisted of warmhearted interactions and occasional inside jokes with this person.

Mohamed Bamba came to the United States in 2013 for a conference my wife helped host at Princeton. I rented a car to pick them up from the station at Princeton Junction, because a train for the two of them would be just as expensive. We took him for a pizza in Philadelphia. I remember he was shocked when I told him how much people tipped, and that when he slipped into French and caught himself, my wife said to him it was fine, and he could continue in that language if he wished.

We saw him next in Girona the following year. He was dating a girl from Madrid and they had traveled through France and came to see us on their way to, or back from, Barcelona. We met him at the König under the arcade of the Plaça de la Indepèndencia. A young African came past our table, called Mohamed brother in English, and asked him for money, and after the boy left, he spoke for a while about his occasional irritation at the assumption of kinship or mutual obligation that was supposed to bind him to others from the African continent.

Mohamed was given a fellowship of some kind to study at the University of Michigan with a well-known film professor there, and he came to New York this past spring for the African Film Festival. We met him several times to eat, but the food, Mexican or Ramen, was always too spicy or too strange for him. At the so-called gala, he danced enthusiastically with a woman with a shaved head, but I don’t believe they went home together, in the end.

A month ago, Mohamed wrote my wife and told her he had liver cancer. We both cried, and I read about the cancer and the awful prognosis associated with it. We had heard from him recently, he said he felt fine and was continuing to work. And then this morning, a friend of his wrote my wife to say he had died. We do not know why, though the obituaries I have seen in Brazilian newspaper have said he suffered an infection.

His death makes me think of so many things: of how, when I was a child, I only knew five or six people who didn’t say the word nigger; of the frequency with which Africans fall victim to liver cancer as a consequence of the higher instance of Hepatitis and liver flukes on that continent; of how, in my seventh grade geography class, where I would have learned for the first time the name of Ivory Coast, the country where Mohamed was born, my teacher thought it relevant to have us learn the different races, one of which he called “negroid”; of how the same ocean that separates me from my own family will also separates Mohamed’s body from his, forever, it seems, as his obituary indicates he will be buried in Salvador de Bahía, where he lived for some years, working as a professor in the Universidade Federal. I wonder what his life was like in his home country, which I have never been to, learning Spanish from nuns who had traveled there as missionaries and worked at the high school he attended; in Paris, where he studied, and where much of his family still lives; whether he was afraid or sanguine when he moved to Brazil. At a time when millions of my compatriots who cannot read without moving their lips are fulminating against Muslims after the murders in Paris, I cannot stop thinking of this person who loved life so much and who did, I believe, live exactly as a person should, kindly and celebratorily.

Sunday, Olga

Recently, I learned that an acquaintance of mine had died, a person with the middle name Sunday. He came to my school when I was fourteen. There was something ridiculous to me about him, about his angular blond hair, combed straight up and fixed with hairspray, about his cheap-looking clothes and polyester shirts. (I was ashamed of the cheap clothes my own parents bought me, and refused to wear them; instead I stole clothing out of other children’s gym lockers. Many of the students were so wealthy, they didn’t know what they owned, and wouldn’t empty their lockers for weeks.)

I disliked Sunday, and did not hide my sentiments. His skin must have chapped easily, and he was always applying some kind of petroleum cream to his upper lip and philtrum. This inspired me to make a crude joke once about his being gay. He carried a bible in his backpack, which I thought ridiculous, and he told people he was writing a novel, and would include in it unflattering characterizations of anyone who mistreated him.

So much of life is a progressive loss of vigor, and the ebbing of the pure joy of play or the limitless sorrow a child can feel over trifles is also apparent in our cruelties, which become more mendacious and urbane with age. In the following years, I simply didn’t think of Sunday, though I would exchange amicable words with him if we stood together in the lunch line or were waiting together in the parking lot for a ride. In any case, the advent of sexual love for women supplanted, to a great extent, my need for or interest in social relations, and attenuated both my friendships and enmities.

Sunday went to college in Memphis for a year; third-hand, I heard he met a girl, spent all his time in his dorm room drinking, and flunked out. I saw him later in the cafeteria of the college in my hometown; my own first year at university had been difficult as well, I’d fallen into a deep depression and come back, unwell and ashamed, to live with a friend. I cannot remember whether it was Sunday or a common acquaintance who told me, around that time, that he was bisexual.

When I was twenty-one, I was waiting tables and saw him coming through the front door of the restaurant in an outlandish blue uniform with epaulettes and a sword hanging on his side. We greeted each other, not coldly, but as though at a loss, and he said he had joined the marines. I had a sense that, while he was proud of the uniform, he preferred not to be seen in it by anyone from his past, as though this new self should be a definitive replacement of the old; but I have no evidence for this assertion, and it may be I am thinking of myself, because I have often felt this way.

Sunday had gone on to work in the local theater of a mid-sized college city. His widow and he share both a middle and last name, and my feeling is they may have taken each other’s names. He had accounts on Twitter and Goodreads, which will probably linger in the ether until some Russian hacker cracks them and starts offering discreet sex partners or cheap Cialis. His Twitter handle was “radical male,” and his tweets talked mostly of marriage equality and institutional racism in the United States. On Goodreads, he had rated the works of Shakespeare, as well as a few fantasy novels. Seeing this, I recalled the two times in my life when I’d read Shakespeare seriously: in high school, as an actor, and in 2005, during my first trip to Europe. For more than a decade, I had dreamt of seeing Paris, but when I arrived there, I hated it, and I spent most of the trip in the common room underlining verses. I also memorized twelve or thirteen of the sonnets a few years later, following some perverse ideal of erudition I’d picked up from reading Cyril Connolly or Harold Nicolson.

The night before I learned of Sunday’s death, an acquaintance, Olga, came to our apartment to spend the night. She told us about her sexual relations with various colleagues at a conservatory where she was employed. She is young, and the majority of her partners are much older; one is on the verge of a retirement he plans to spend with his wife, restoring an old house on the seaside. The next day, Olga talked about her difficulties with her father. I think he still hasn’t forgiven me, she said. When I asked for what, she said she had called an ambulance when she found he’d tried to kill himself with sleeping pills. Four years have passed since then, she said, if he resents me so much, he’s had plenty of time to do it again.

Peter Weiss, Again

This morning Michael Orthofer posted a link to an article in the FAZ about the history of a self-portrait by Peter Weiss, and bemoaned the relative obscurity into which Weiss had fallen. These things are hard to quantify, but it is true, at least anecdotally, that one hears less about his theater than, say, twenty years ago; and translations of his prose into European languages seem never to have appeared in sufficient frequency or abundance to establish him as a novelist worthy of canonical status. Much of his work remains unavailable to those who don’t read German, the majority of what is translated is now out of print, and his current publishers are mostly small outfits specializing in leftist literature, theater, or (in the case of the French translation of Aesthetics of Resistance) sociology and cultural criticism.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, among them the degree to which Weiss anticipated, in his novels, many stylistic innovations that have now become common currency (the question of Weiss’s influence, particularly outside of German-speaking countries, is not one I am knowledgeable enough to address). To my mind, Weiss’s early narratives represent a sort of fictional equivalent of the phenomenological investigations of memory, embodiment, and selfhood carried out by those imminently humane and attentive thinkers, Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricoeur. Weiss’s early fiction practices a sustained, deliberate observation of what Antonio Damasio has called “the feeling of what happens,” and produced a novel type of autobiographical writing as distant as possible from the grand European tradition that extends from Chateaubriand and Rousseau through Dichtung und Wahrheit to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words. The result produces a kind of dislocation similar to Robbe-Grillet’s better-known works; but the humane seriousness of Weiss’s writing prevents it from lapsing into the gimmickiness that exasperates me in Robbe-Grillet.

Did the twentieth century produce a more radical novel than the Aesthetics of Resistance? This kind of question is always absurd: who has read enough to answer? Especially when, as Tim Parks suggests in several recent essays, the presumptions on which the occidental canon was founded are irreparably damaged, and any intelligent person must admit that not all values are transmissible through translation and indeed, that an aptitude for translation may necessarily imply a degree of departure from what is essential in a book’s original culture (a favorite example of mine is Los ilusos by Rafael Azcona, a beautiful, moving little book that would hold no charm whatsoever for a reader unacquainted with Madrid, with the tribulations of the postwar years, with a kind of partly gallant, partly childish eroticism peculiar to a certain generation of Spanish men, or with a particularly Castilian brand of literary mediocrity). But if one thinks of the big names, of Hunger, Ulysses, The Waves, The Death of Virgil, and so on –– it seems to me that, for all their singularity, they remain concerned with the traditional problems of storytelling and Weiss’s novel is the first I know of to point toward a kind of novel in which the primacy of narrative is cast aside and the possibility of doing something completely different arises.

That Weiss chose to frame his novel around the preoccupations of left-wing politics undoubtedly prejudiced its reception. The argument for the exclusion of politics from literature has never been rigorous, but the sloganeering readers, critics, and teachers who propound it have also never been inclined to thinking deeply. Perhaps, as his political concerns come further toward the forefront, Weiss’s openly partisan, openly accusatory approach will be vindicated; but the fact that the most indisputable tenets of Marxism remain in ill odor even now, when technocracy is dismantling Europe’s social democracies and the American right and center are bent on rolling back the Great Society, gives little hope. It must be stressed though that Aesthetics of Resistance remains a work of art, and has little in common with the ham-handed morality tales of socialist realism in its vulgar permutations.