Sebald’s untranslated interviews

Only recently did I become aware of Auf ungeheuer dünnem Eis, an anthology of interviews with W.G. Sebald, edited by Torsten Hoffmann. Who knows why it isn’t translated? Beyond offering insight into Sebald’s early concerns, his sometimes surprising sources, and his manner of composition, it gives much to consider for writers inclined to reckoning with disaster and tragedy, but hopeful of sidestepping the sanctimonious kitsch and self-regard that often thwart the longing for gravitas.

Most interesting for me were the frequent references to natural history: concerning Karl Kraus, Sebald speaks of the “corruption of society as an almost natural-historical phenomenon”; the same goes for the degradation of syntax and grammar between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and particularly of the conception of mankind:

What a Roussea produced in a single day in correspondence alone, composed in consummate French! For us today, such a thing is almost impossible, and I have the feeling that our weakening grasp of language across the course of time is a generalized, almost natural-historical phenomenon.

Mankind does not consist, as we still hoped in our liberal daydreams in the 19th century, of emancipated, autonomous individuals. It constitutes an at times heterogeneous, but in principal homogeneous mass. This mass has a molecular structure – that is, individuals – which may transition into another aggregate state. The more one heats a mass, the faster the molecules move, and all at once, the point is reached at which the fluid of mankind takes on a gaseous form.

… the individual, the lone autonomous essence, the superordinate, that is a mere dream we have elaborated in our bourgeois epoch. In fact, man is a collective phenomenon…

Regarding his method, Sebald speaks frequently of bricolage and of the need to foment coincidence, by travel and by an intimate engagement with primary source materials (an aspect of Sebald’s work seemingly lost on his legions of imitators):

This is a form of aboriginal labor, of pre-rational thinking, in which one rustles about in casually accumulated debris until a pattern somehow emerges.

On the importance of the material in his work: Things have a mute history… in objects, something like a mute, wordless history is condensed.

On Kafka: he experienced his own life as illegitimate.

He dwells as well on the diminished meaning of place-names in a time of unrelenting progress, of the relation between architectural monumentalism and paranoia, the evocativeness of black-and-white photography, the distinction between melancholy and depression, but I ought not quote too much here. The most painful and also most poignant impression the book leaves me with is Sebald’s sense of the transitory nature of the human perspective, which emerges as the outgrowth of overdetermining organic processes and will vanish, despite the delusion of individual sovereignty, at those same processes’ behest, leading one to wonder to what extent the longing for suicide inspired by the unfathomable magnitude of life on earth is actually a form of nostalgia…

NB: The translations here are approximate and should not be quoted.



From Josef Winkler, Graveyard of Bitter Oranges

I no longer remember Volker Lehrer, the older of the teacher’s two boys, save that he used to wear leather short pants and red wool stockings, that he was a dim-witted loser who tried too hard, and that he used to wrestle on the ground with his brother Gabriel, who liked to run up behind him and kick him in the seat of his leather trousers. Perhaps I remember Gabriel better because he is dead, and it arouses me more to write about the dead than to write while I think about the living. When his mother, Frau Bergjordan, as we used to call her, wanted him to come home, she would open the living room window in the schoolhouse where they lived, put a shrill black whistle to her lips, and empty her lungs into it. Does she stand sometimes before his grave, stuff the mouthpiece of her black whistle between her lips, and call out to him, telling him to come home? Dinner’s ready! You’ve got homework to do! There’s nothing else for you to do in the village once the evening bells have rung! Gabriel Lehrer took his life a few years after Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from the same rope in the parish house barn in my village. Gabriel was found dead by his mother and father, with a bullet in his blood-drenched head, in his parents’ room in Villach. His father, who taught me in my first two years of school, also took his own life a few years later. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills; shortly before, the doctor had diagnosed him with terminal cancer. He, who had spent his retirement traveling all over the world, said a few days before his death, Soon I will take my final journey! Sometimes, when he heard his mother’s long, shrill whistle, Gabriel would hide out on the Aichholzers’ farm, in the stables among the restive horses, in the hay shed, or behind the mill, and he would stay there for hours without moving. Ten or twenty times, and half an hour later ten or twenty times more, and again, ten or twenty times after another half-hour, and ten or twenty times after twenty more minutes had passed, his mother would blow her lungs out into the mouthpiece of the shrill black whistle, peering between the two flaps of the open window on the second floor of the schoolhouse and looking left and right before giving up for another hour. When she lies on her deathbed, will she breathe her last sigh into the black whistle she used in the village to summon her two sons, Gabriel and Volker? The church bells resounded through the village at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. Through the snowcapped village, irregular and strident, Miss Bergjordan’s whistle would blare whenever she wanted her two boys, who were always fighting, closer to hand. Lunch is ready! The water’s running in the bathtub! The wood’s not been chopped yet! Back when I used to steal money from my father or mother –– I no longer know exactly from which, maybe from both, to split the blame, the debt they owed me for my birth –– I would go to Paternion and buy stacks of Fix and Foxi comics from the shortsighted tobacconist, whom I stole from often enough too, and after I had leafed through them, I would give them to Gabriel Lehrer to read. Sometimes we would sit in an old carriage in the Aichholzers’ tool shed behind the stables. Chickens would run past us or settle down not far from our feet, nestling their bodies in the warm, dry earth, and peacock feathers lay here and there, the warmth of the birds’ bodies still present in the feathers’ waxy white quills. Gabriel Lehrer would ask me where I got the money to buy the comics. I would give an evasive answer. I used to take the church circular from house to house, I was the first acolyte, and in the spring I sold bouquets of snowdrops to passing tourists, from a young age I earned my own money, like the street children in Naples. Besides the comic books, I bought profiteroles, macaroons, and cream horns that we devoured in the carriage shed, bent over those tawdry stories. Gabriel Lehrer would trade these pulps the next day at the high school in Villach, and that day or the day after, we would be able to settle in again, the sharp scent of chicken dung in our noses, and pore over our reading in the Aichholzers’ shed until his mother’s shrill whistle would make us raise our heads. We would hide the dime store sagas under a dusty board in the carriage shed and set a time to meet back there, so we could read further. Later he suggested I give him the money so he could go to Villach and buy new Fix and Foxi comics, because the selection, as he described it, was much better there than in the country tobacconist’s. Resolutely, while my mother wandered through the cemetery with her watering can, I walked into the pantry, opened a drawer, and took out her wallet. If there was only one tenner among the loose change, I wouldn’t touch it; but there were many mixed in, so I took one, maybe even two. A few days later, Gabriel Lehrer –– who has taken his own life, like his father, in the interim –– brought me the tattered, ratty pulps he claimed to have bought with my money. Does he now, lying beneath the earth –– with blood still pouring from the bullet wound in his head –– read to the end those Fix and Foxi comics we never managed to finish, because the shrill piping of his mother as she leaned out of the house, looking around between the two flaps of the windows, blowing over and over into her black whistle, always interrupted us?

Graveyard of Bitter Oranges is available from Contra Mundum Press

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.

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.


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.

Rainald Goetz, Büchner Prize 2015

Rainald Goetz doing his thing

Rainald Goetz doing his thing

It was announced yesterday that Rainald Goetz had won the 2015 Georg Büchner Prize, joining the storied ranks of Paul Celan, Friederike Mayröcker, and Elias Canetti, among others. The choice is a somewhat controversial one: Shigekuni, who knows more about German literature than I do, declared Lutz Seiler and Marcel Beyer of more merit, while the equally knowledgeable Katy Derbyshire, whose post about her ill-fated choice to go to a Rainald Goetz reading would make a lovely short film, hints that he may be a men’s writer (this is particularly worth noting since women seem in general to get short shrift at the Büchner, winning around 12% of the time).

Though the word “deserve” is almost meaningless and the idea of awarding literary performance a highly suspect one, particularly given the well-documented behind-the-scenes chicanery among literary prize juries and the dismaying degree to which prize money goes to further refining the snobbish indulgences of writers who are already well-off instead of helping those who need to buy food and pay rent, I admire Goetz’s work and feel it is particularly relevant for our time.

If we consider the novel as an instrument of social analysis, lumping in, albeit clumsily, Balzac, James, Dickens, and contrast this to the novel of introspective reflection, it can be averred, to my mind, that the former has suffered greatly since the beginning of the twentieth century. Particularly in America, when I see these gargantuan kitchen-sink monstrosities that appear every few years with promises of greatness, inevitably accompanied by fanfare declaring that the author has learned Armenian, read ten thousand pages of classified documents, or penetrated the world of underground knife-fighting in the course of his research, I cannot help but think of the necessary compenetration of ego and ambition. Tom Wolfe is not a fashionable writer anymore, but his reviled essay Stalking the Billion Footed Beast remains important reading to the extent that it dissects not only Wolfe’s own artistic failures, but those of countless writers who have come after him, up to and including Franzen, who yammer about “stories” and “real life” and “moral complexity,” contemning both the recondite artifices of “experimental fiction” and the aw-shucks simplicity of the popular novel.

In a beautiful passage of Bowstring, Viktor Shklovsky recollects a scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up where a group of students is playing tennis. The sounds, the sights are real, but there is no ball between them. For Shklovksy, this is a metaphor of the anti-novel or meta-novel, a form that, for him, has already exhausted itself in less than a century. “Return the ball to the game,” Shklovsky says. There is something true in Shklovsky’s adjuration: after so much reading, and without disparaging their brilliance, there is just not enough meat in Perec, in Bernhard, or in Christine Brooke-Rose to sustain one over the course of a life. And yet I am sure Shklovsky would not agree with the philistinism of Wolfe and Franzen. The vices of so-called experimentalism do not sanction the endless mechanical excretion of novel after novel about generational misunderstanding, clashing cultures, domestic discord, shameful family secrets, integrity in the face of corruption, or the triumph over adversity, irrespective of how much research goes into them.

It is here where I think Rainald Goetz is important. Over the course of thirty years, in formats ranging from theater to collage to techno music to blogs, Goetz has trained his eye on many of the signal phenomena of the present day; but the concept of research, as handed down from Balzac and Flaubert, has been foresworn as an arrogant pretense in favor of a self-abandonment within the confines of the subculture the author is attempting to approximate. This is a difference not so much of method as of posture: certainly, when Goetz writes about the art world, about music or finance, he is well-versed in the subject matter, but the idea that any aspect of culture can be understood from without is abandoned as mere arrogance. As Goetz states in Celebration:

Intellectuality remains a class destiny against which revolt is possible.

Goetz received doctoral degrees in psychiatry and history before embarking on his first novel Irre, an exploration of madness that could be described as a punk-rock reimagining of Goffman’s famed work on asylums. His guiding light is the famed social theorist Niklas Luhmann, who analyzed cultural phenomena as complexity reducers whereby the chaos of unprocessed life is reduced to comprehensible and manageable symbolic values within closed systems. Goetz’s recognizes that the symbolic values encompassed by the numerous worlds into which contemporary society is divided (art, music, finance, and so forth) are not inhabited by, but are rather generative of, distinct types of subjects, and that any understanding of these worlds is incomplete without some sense of the feeling of being inside them.

A criticism that has been leveled against Goetz, particularly during the publication of the various volumes of the project Heute Morgen, is a lack of analytical distance: what if this guy’s just doing coke, hanging out with DJs, and having a laugh at our expense? My sense is, on the one hand, that Goetz’s project of undermining the author’s role as analyst, of calling into question the potential of analysis as typically conceived, precludes the distance some readers might find comforting; and on the other, that distance is already presumed in the act of reading, and that Goetz trusts the reader to take his writing at something more than face value.

In any case, while I personally am indifferent or even hostile to many of the phenomena he describes (I would happily throw Jeff Koons in a gulag, for example), Goetz’s engagement with popular culture is far more interesting than the embittered boilerplate about the world going to hell in a handbasket that is the specialty of so many men of letters.

Goetz is little translated: his books are hard, and a lot of them deal very specifically with German public figures that other countries don’t care about. His play Jeff Koons is out in English, Irre was published in French but is out of print, the really cool-looking Dutch press Leesemagazijn has picked up a few of them, and Sexto Piso is bringing out Irre in Spanish.

[Update: I will be translating Goetz’s Irre for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book is due out in Fall 2017.]


Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports

Baudelaire, Correspondences

Long before I could read him in French, Baudelaire was one of the essential writers for me, but rather as a horizon than an actuality: a bit like a drunk friend destined, you think, for wonders, if only he would sober up, Baudelaire seemed to hold hidden a trove of enticements and lugubrious arcana at which the not quite sensible, singsong English barely hinted with its blanched diction. I first read Flowers of Evil in the Arthur Symons version; later, when I’d had enough French to peck through the poems with a dictionary, I cribbed from the rather better Wallace Fowlie. Richard Howard’s translation is highly praised, and his qualifications are unquestionable; for me, however, their want of rhyme and, often, meter, makes them deeply dissimilar to the originals. I have long nourished, in the back of my head, the idea of translating Baudelaire’s masterpiece whole; I doubt I will, there must be little demand for it, and Englishing rhymed poetry is a time-consuming task; but since I’m not overwhelmed with paying work right now and life is too harried to dedicate myself to anything ambitious, and since I don’t know enough about movies anymore to solve a proper crossword puzzle, I’m playing around with poems like the following. I don’t like the hyperbaton in line 4 of the first stanza, but I haven’t found a way around it.


La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.


In nature’s shrine, where pillars quick
Perchance let mingled words emerge,
Man wends through symbol-forests thick,
Whose knowing gazes him observe.

Like echoes mingled from afar
In deep and tenebrous unity,
As vast as night, as clarity,
The perfumes, sounds, and colors hark.

Those perfumes cool like children’s skin,
Some oboe-sweet and prairie green
–– and others, rich, and rank with sin

And pungent of infinity
Like amber, resin, musk, incense
Intone the bliss of soul and sense.

Name the Translator: a Cautiously Contrary View

To the extent that I benefit from campaigns for greater recognition for translators, I shouldn’t carp about them, but they inspire a measure of ambivalence in me. Many veteran translators encourage their less-experienced counterparts not to settle for anything less than a certain rate (the BCLT recommends a handsome £88.50 per 1,000 words, while American translators seem to hover somewhere between ¢ .10 and .13 per word), which is not bad advice but ignores a number of difficulties, such as: that many small presses really don’t have the resources to pay; that it may be impossible for a translator’s pet project to arouse the interest of better-funded publishers; that a beginning translator may not have the CV needed to command the same rate as someone better known; and that many times, the choice is not between a bad deal and a better one, but between a bad deal and not getting published at all. Particularly for those who have yet to see their first book in print, the veneer of legitimacy publication beings may trump all other considerations. Translation is no more immune than any other field of the race to the bottom that can occur when desperate workers compete to outbid one another for work; but I don’t have the impression that this is especially dire at the present moment, because the expense of translation remains negligible for big publishers and *many* smaller publishers seem motivated to pay their translators a fair wage –– and regardless, I would argue that blame should be laid with capitalism as presently constituted rather than people who are hard-pressed to make a buck.

I have similar misgivings about the #namethetranslator campaign that has sprung up on Twitter. There is a part of me that likes the relative anonymity of translating, the privilege of working with beautiful words without appearing pompous or precious, the quiet dignity of craft as against the bombast of art. Of course, it’s nice to be recognized, but the craving for the recognition of others has long been correctly diagnosed as a vice. Beyond that, I wonder in how many cases is the translation representative of what the translator would do, were she free to do so, or even what the translator has actually done?

Here is a clause you will never see in a contract: “PUBLISHER guarantees the integrity of TRANSLATOR’S work will be preserved from editorial whim and chicanery.”

Now, it is possible that a few highly esteemed translators, who are commissioned to produce translations for which their name and style are selling points, manage to wrangle an agreement of this kind. But most publishers, I believe, would respond to such a demand with a two-word imperative ending in “off.” I am not certain there is a clear-cut right or wrong in this: the author’s original intent, the sense of the original, and so on are slippery issues, and in the short term, it is the publisher who stands to lose if a book flops (of course, a book may also flop thanks to ill-advised interventions on the part of a publisher, but this is a different matter). Some of this depends on the project at hand: I have translated pieces on spec because I thought they were beautiful or necessary, and I would be loth to impinge upon my understanding of them, as represented in the translation, for mere commercial considerations; other projects I have taken on for money, and what the publisher does with them thereafter is indifferent to me. And though this may not be a popular opinion to air, not all books are equally respectable: some authors work with intelligence, precision, and attention to detail, but many books are laden with errors, malaprops, repetitions, clichés, and various other trappings of intellectual sloth. I cannot see that the latter should merit the same regard as the former.

Many publishing contracts place strict limits, not only on the role of the translator, but even on that of the foreign author and her publisher with regards to the final version of a text in the second language. Translators or authors objecting to changes introduced by a publisher often have no recourse whatsoever. It is easy to aver that they should not have put their names to such a contract; it is generally easy to prattle about what other people should or shouldn’t do; but again, this is a question of deep-rooted social inequalities as a result of which most workers, including those employed in culture industries, have no choice but to take what they can get, and no amount of principled moral posturing will change that.

In other words, there is often no legal barrier to prevent a publisher from dismantling and completely rewriting an author’s or translator’s work. I do not know how often this is done, but it does happen; it may be for the better, and the author or the translator may consent to it. But the fact remains that the final project has little to do with the translator, and the assumption that the final text is her responsibility is a distortion of reality.

There is a final, rather more trifling point to consider: as has been widely noted, and as is obvious to anyone who owns a computer, something about the internet inflames many people’s inner douche, and once inflamed, the opportunities to run off at the mouth online are nearly endless . Not only that, but sounding smart is a beloved pastime of the internet douche, and commenting on the quality of a translation is a capital way to sound smart. In a time when blogs, self-styled critics, and public forums like Goodreads and Amazon have a nebulous but not negligible influence on books’ fate, inviting the captious to bring translation into their purview may not, in the end, prove wise. I can remember my obnoxious old roommate, whose grandparents were French but who could not have ordered a cup of tea in that language unaided, complaining once that the subtitles were wrong while we watched La Femme Nikita. When I asked why, he grumbled, “they’re just leaving a lot of stuff out.” He was bluffing, he knew I knew he was bluffing, he knew I knew that he knew it, and he shut his mouth for the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the barrier of scrutiny met with by the quibbling or showy in real life is largely absent on the internet, and few things are easier, with a semester or two of language under one’s belt, than to compare a translation to an original and start blathering about how “really what this word means is X…”

Finally there is the plain fact that some books are simply bad, and that is no insurance against their being translated. I remember imagining the Empyrean Heaven I thought translators dwelt in before I was engaged in that métier: a stately realm where people sat around drinking espresso and sifting through book after book in search of timeless pearls; twice a year or so they would find one, to their publishers’ unending gratitude… Something like this may obtain for translators with a day job, but those who earn their bread by their pen alone are inevitably forced into some kind of compromise (I have a strong feeling Paulo Coelho is not a labor of love for Margaret Jull Costa). Typically critics who lambaste a translator’s style as creaky, wooden, stiff, etc. have no idea of the defects of the original, which may be significantly worse than its translated counterpart. A major motivation for translators to improve upon the original is their awareness, unjust though it may be, that they will be made to answer for its infelicities; but sometimes no amount of intervention can save a book from its author’s ineptitude. As they say in Naples, é inutile continuare a versare rhum: uno stronzo non diventerà mai un baba…

José Saramago and the Elephant

This morning, the Portuguese newspaper Público reported that the rights to José Saramago’s estate had been granted to the Andrew Wylie agency, a company known for negotiating exorbitant sums for its clients and for transforming allegedly progressive cultural figures into the kind of money-grubbing upper-crusters they publicly claim to despise. In the documentary José y Pilar, Saramago digresses prophetically about the inspiration for his novel A viagem do Elefante. Having seen, in a European country, the foot of an elephant in an antique shop refashioned as an umbrella stand, he thought of the animal’s birthplace in faraway India and the travails it must have suffered through before arriving at its ridiculous destiny.

FullSizeRenderIt is difficult to see what distinguishes the treatment of the writings of  the lifelong communist Saramago, offspring of a peasant family in Ribatejo, from the indignities suffered by this mysterious animal for the amusement of the wealthy.

In their imaginative sensitivity, Saramago’s meditations on the elephant’s vanished life recollect those of Flaubert concerning the twin of an obelisk at Luxor, stolen away and shipped to France to be erected in the center of Paris:

Perched on its pedestal, how bored it must be in the Place de la Concorde! How it must miss its Nile! What does it think as it watches all the cabs drive by, instead of the chariots it saw at its feet in the old days?

Paris obelisk  - sketch of the capstan used to raise it in Paris - from The Architectural magazine