Monday, May 3, 2010

Show and Tell: Powder Blue and Red Macaw

Show: The Childers

This is a classic version of "The Childers", a salmon fly invented around 1850 by one Colonel Childers. In its original version, the Childers is made up of what appears to be a mixture of LL Bean sweater colors and the short stories of JD Salinger:

"Tag: Silver twist and light blue silk.
Tail: A topping, strands of red and powder blue macaw, and pintail on top.
Butt: Black ostrich herl.
Body: Two turns of light yellow silk followed by light yellow seal's fur and three turns of scarlet seal's fur at the throat.
Ribs: Silver lace and silver oval tinsel.
Hackle: White furnace hackle dyed light yellow.
Throat: Scarlet hackle and widgeon.
Wing: Strands of tippet and tail of golden pheasant: brown mottled turkey, Amherst pheasant, pintail, bustard, summer duck (wood duck), green parrot, powder blue and red macaw, gallina (guinea fowl), mallard roof and a topping.
Horns: Blue macaw.
Cheeks: Chatterer.
Head: Black ostrich herl."

(source: the Classic Salmon Fly website)

Many other versions of the Childers have been developed over the years, including ones by Rizah Trokic:

and Martin Bach:

Is Bach's rashly neon body a legitimate advance? Is Trokic's innovative hackle arrangement a discovery, or only avant-garde posturing? "Even the masters of old tied flies with the same name in many different ways and who are we to say which way is best", say the legitimate enthusiasts.

Tell: Translation's Audience

Translation is, in some ways, the clearest and simplest version of literary mimesis: you are trying to write something that "looks like" something else that someone else has already written. In order to do this, it's important to consider constantly the conditions and predilections of your audience; but even a super-fastidious observance of these quantities is no guarantee of success. The fish either bites or it doesn't: there may be a certain amount of whimsy involved in its decision, even luck...though here, as usual, any superstition we allow ourselves must be true superstition, meaning highly pragmatic. You may not know why wearing your wife's bra around your neck lets you catch on average two more fish a day. But your knowing why is not the point. Or rather, "why" is a luxury that can be maintained only so long as it remains intimately connected to "how".

Translation is not a science, though it is filled with sciences. It is impressionistic and therefore vulnerable, circumstantial, ridiculous. At the same time, it is almost completely unrenumerative, meaning the closest thing to street ball that literature has right now. In its own unique, and I think endearingly naive way, it believes in what anyone with half a brain knows is impossible: the miraculous/mundane transubstantiation of foreign into native. Parasitic as a pilot fish, its poetics must therefore be deduced, as the sun deduces salt from seawater, which is slow of course, but which earns for the translator, after long effort, the paradoxical combination of crystalline hardness and a generous capacity to dissolve instantly in water or saliva.

Translation has not, surprisingly enough, been "figured out". There are memoirs, but no adequate manuals. Like China, travel writing, and certain types of concrete poetry, it is an art of perpetual arrival whose moment in the sun is always "on the horizon".

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The End: a Paleontology

I. Petrified Metaphors

Ponder, if you will: no human being on earth, alive or dead, has ever seen a dinosaur.

In his fantastic exploration of millennial thought, The Sense of an Ending, British literary critic/experimental essayist Frank Kermode examines the concept of "spatialization" in literary criticism, first described by Joseph Frank. Frank's idea, roughly paraphrased by Kermode, seems to be that, while we read a book once "in time", we continue to experience it - through either memory or rereading - in space. Personally, I find this metaphor a little difficult to wrap my mind around (can time and space be isolated like that? Don't we always experience things in both time and space? Could I somehow interact with my living room in a way that doesn't require my moving through time as well? Could I spend an hour outside of space?). What seems crystal clear, however, is the qualifying aside that Kermode appends to it:

"Used in this way 'spatialization' is one of those metaphors which we tend to forget are metaphorical, like the metaphor of organic form." (p. 178)

For me this sentence sums up, among other things, the Novel, Russian literature, and What It Means to Be a Young Man. "One of those metaphors that we tend to forget are metaphorical". Say it with me - go ahead, don't be proud! After all, we're none of us so good at tracking squirrels or carving spoons out of larger spoons that we don't occasionally (read: all the time) treat our metaphors like a teenage boy lavishing backstory on his fake Canadian girlfriend. We're human: mixing up art and life is what we do, whether we're Jan Brady or a brainy Dostoevsky scholar.

II. Real Disasters

Dinosaurs are a perfect example of this. Who has ever seen a dinosaur? At the same time, who can forget the impact of Jurassic Park's introductory brontosauri? No amount of screen clippery can convey the impact this image had on me as a 13 year old; roughly paraphrased, my impressions were probably along the lines of "Holy crap: a real dinosaur!" And truly, this is the effect that Spielberg's expert technology shot at and achieved that long ago summer, for millions of people all over the world. A real dinosaur - meaning, a dinosaur that made the representations we'd been given in the past appear to be, not awe-inspiring and lifelike, but comical, ridiculous. Dinosaurs are not like that: they're like THIS, and thank god someone finally got them right! So the representation seemed to reach, not just back in time, but forward as well, rendering not only its ancestors, but its children obsolete as well.

In this way, the aesthetic implications of Jurassic Park were, as with all masterstrokes of mimesis, apocalyptic. In order to fully appreciate this, imagine an animator who had working on a dinosaur movie at a rival studio (Disney, for example) seeing those brontosauri for the first time: while the audience gasped, he was no doubt trying to decide which high-rise to throw himself off of - for really what's the point, after such mastery? Where can we possibly go? Hope shuts like an antennae-touched sphincter and the creative brain (which, after all, need hope to function) shrivels into something like dried fruit: something sustaining, in other words, and full of nutrients, but ultimately unsatisfying, like all desert foods.

This feeling, of course, is completely normal: a mix of jealousy, dread and despair that anyone who has ever tried to create something new or at least original has experienced again and again. The history of art is a book of last days: just look at our own chapter if you want proof. Genres are dying, fundamental procedures being re-examined, hallowed formal and extra-formal procedures pushed back by forces that not even the most fervent fundamentalist believes they will be able to overcome. Innovators are heralded as precursors of Mayan-level apocalypses and hold-outs scorned with the cold gaze of opportunistic Bruckheimers peddling their personal 2012s (in which they have decided, despite the promising casting of John Cusack, to stick to the familiar Hollywood disaster-movie formula). Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for the little water glass on the dashboard to start trembling.

III. Last Boat to Kairos

The novel, named for its newness, is gloriously susceptible to these murmurs. As Kermode says:

"Any novel, however 'realistic', involves some degree of alienation from 'reality'. You can see the difficulty Fielding, for example, felt about this, at the very beginning of the serious novel; he felt he had to reject the Richardsonian method of novels by epistolary correspondences, although this made sure that in the midst of voluminous detail intended to ensure realism, everything became kairos [Kermode's appropriation of a Greek word concept of time that is about to end (as opposed to time unoppressed by, for example, a gigantic tidal wave)]."

Fielding debunked the vision of novelistic time that he found in the novel as it had been left to him by previous writers; so he invented a different way of putting things together that he felt was more realistic. The public agreed; but the important word to remember here is "invented". He was making it up. At the same time, the thing he made up appeared, to many people, to be a more accurate (or at least intriguing, beguiling, etc.) representation than what had come before it.

Was Fielding wrong to do this? Actually, Kermode says, he was, in his inventions, being far more the novelist than many of his more derivative contemporaries:

"In short, [Fielding] is, and would have been happy to hear it, of the family of Don Quixote, tilting with a hopeless chivalry against the dull windmills of time-bound reality. All novelists must do so; but it is important that the great ones retreat from reality less perfunctorily than the authors of novelettes and detective stories." (p.51 - and I would advise the reader concerned with the uniquely realistic mimesis of genre fiction to substitute here, for Kermode's somewhat unimaginative "novelettes and detective stories", whatever literature they find most generic)

IV. Hold on to Your Butts

To all those troubled by the coming End, I recommend a re-watching of Jurassic Park. As a meditation on novelty, the movie is endless: a formal and thematic mobius strip, in which the constantly-expressed mistrust of innovation is continually transforming into a delight at newness, or if not newness than at least technology, wittily adapted and charmingly executed (Spielberg's direction being an analogue here of Tom Cruise's smile: irresistible because impenetrable, and impenetrable, not because we can't find our way to the other side of it, but because we feel content to enjoy it as an end, however reduced). I find the velociraptors particularly heartening - for with their green eyes, hunched backs and withered little arms, they are so clearly caricatures that the question of how "real" they look becomes irrelevant, pedantic. Bugs Bunny wouldn't look like that, let alone walk on two legs, let alone talk. Yet he is a persuasive mimesis - if not of a rabbit pure and simple, then perhaps of something (or someone) "rabbity", or perhaps harelike. Animals are riddles - even dinosaurs. Applying them to our lives inevitably involves alterations, infidelities, as all translations do.

Art, like everything, is contextual, and just saying that once-revolutionary innovations now look stupid (or amazing) to us does not absolve us from acknowledging the newest New Thing, even if only by rejecting it. At the same time, my own experience of trying to make is that context can become overwhelming, and that, when this happens, it is helpful to remember that none of us succeed, not even the geniuses. The world goes on, or as A.R. Ammons (who, derivative-sounding when he appeared, has grown since his death into the most experimental American poet) writes:

"the anthology is the moving, changing definition of the
imaginative life of the people, the repository and the source,
genetic: the critic and teacher protect and reveal the source

and watch over the freedom of becomings there: the artist
stands freely into advancings: critics and teacher choose, shape,
and transmit: all three need the widest opening to chance

and possibility, as perceptions that might grow into currents
of mind can find their way; all three are complete men,
centralists and peripheralists who, making, move and stay:" (Sphere, p. 18)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fiction's Failure

I. Making Mistakes

The opposite of failure is success - but what's the opposite of a mistake? A success? And what is a success? The word belongs to that peculiar class of abstract English nouns we call "states", which you can travel into and out of without hassle or identification. But then you try to buy gas and the prices are different.

Mistakes, on the other hand, are local as furniture. They have no lexical antonym and are therefore free to roam through English unharassed. Their peculiar combination of flimsiness and power makes them interesting, unlike success - for success is the Velveeta cheese of human conditions: the same no matter where you slice it. All successful men are alike, to paraphrase Tolstoy. On the other hand, when a man tells us that he's made some mistakes, we want to know EXACTLY what they were.

"Everybody makes mistakes."

"Make one mistake and you're dead."

(Success may be something you achieve, but mistakes are made)

The most common uses of "mistake" imply recognition, which in turn point to two separate (-seeming) worldviews. Either 1) error is folded into life, which means success is a matter of overcoming one's errors, or 2) Success is achieved only through the strategic and near Herculian ability to avoid making mistakes.

"You had it all planned out - but you made one mistake" (sardonic, heavy-eyebrowed gangster-voice). In this sentence, as in the two quoted above, the sense of "downfall" is both heightened and strangely mitigated by the inherent domesticity of the "mistake" itself (which unpacks as something like "one little mistake"). The speaker is luxuriating, as choruses do, in the justice of the gods. The sentence creaks comfortably beneath him - for in the rumpus room of his thoughts, everything, even the juice stains on the carpet, contributes to a sense of ingenious inhabitation.

(and then isn't there also a sort of wonderful artistry about mistakes? Don't we appreciate them aesthetically - even when they're our own?)

II. Failure and Floating

To move into failure from this cozy realm is like being shot into deep space - for if mistakes are the most distinctive of nouns, then failure, I would argue, is the most nebulous. It's a "frozen verb": a linguistic/conceptual black hole ("frozen star" in Russian), whose location is fixed but whose axis pulses with mind-bending movement. Failure vibrates, like a fly on flypaper. It moves without moving. Next to the other "states" we occupy, it always seems to have been put into our box by mistake from some other puzzle.

Success is an endpoint, hence our dissatisfaction with its worldly version - for in achieving it, we inevitably discover that we have not achieved it. Being a failure on the other hand is like being stuck on one of the Snakes and Ladders snakes: you're not supposed to be there, but there's a luxuriant satisfaction in floating past the world's ankles with such impunity. You're moving. It's over, but it's not over - it is failure, which is similar to the pre-natal dream in that during it we feel both perfectly responsible and perfectly absolved. We are Jonah, delivered from the small whale of anxiety into the larger, more-predictable whale of God's will. This is the fall-as-rise of comedy - of Hrabal and Svevo and Flaubert and Tolstoy, among many others - which transfigures our inability to do what we want into precisely what God wanted all along.

III. The Mimic Plot

In fiction - from the hackneyed who-done-it to the lofty roman fleuve- the most persuasive mimesis of this transfiguration from mistake to failure to success is plot itself. What - you didn't see it coming? Well relax, and watch your anxiety transform alchemically into a faith that the confusing events of your life (which seemed so distinct at the time) really will, as James said, "hang together". Mistakes will turn out to be not just themselves, but part of some larger failure, which you couldn't see at the time you made them. Likewise this failure, so final-seeming when it fell, will turn out to be inside out.

This is why novels, as a genre, are so particularly powerful: not just because they contain mimeses (characters, settings, dialogue), but because they ARE mimeses. They're "graphs made up of graphs" as Guy Davenport puts it: collections of accurate particulars tilted against one another like dominos, so that the reader's attention might move through it Rube-Goldberg-style, losing - and yet somehow at the same time gaining - energy.

(So, when I hear people talk about difficult (read: "experimental") art pejoratively, I find myself strangely divided. On the one hand, I also hate art that lacks interest and attention. On the other hand, I feel that what these "traditionalists" are freqeuntly missing is the existence of this second-level mimesis. They want trees that look like trees: but the book itself looks like a tree)

A fictional plot, then, really is a sort of distilled failure: a strange-making, to use Shklovsky's phrase, which we live (..."in order to" wants to follow this somehow - but doesn't the Old Testament (that great book of plots) suggest the insignificance of a final clause? Order is in us, as we are in it. With a setup like that, there is no point in looking for a "point")

If the novel has a secret, particularly, it is how natural this plottedness is to it, and how, if we look back at the great novels of the past, we almost always find exactly what Sterne, Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Bolano say we're going to find. In saecula saeculorum, or as the KJB translates it, World without end. For how could we "succeed", in life or art? Likewise, how could a faithful mimesis fail to untie its own knots, no matter how convincingly it presented them? What would we think of its conscience?

IV. (close parenthesis)

(Finally, writing fiction, then, must be a matter both of being willing, and - MUCH more importantly - able to fail.

This is far more difficult than people realize)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rabbit or Duck?

Contemporary literature and visual art share a vague, background-level prejudice against/weakness for mimesis - that is, for works that blend, stick-insect-style, into the bewildering tree of the real. Personally, my view of this is Tolstoyan (in the novels, not the criticism) and therefore completely unrealistic: it's all a misunderstanding, a question of an original unity splitting itself through will and perversity into a series of schismatic offshoots, whereas if our wife was dying on the other side of the room we would find a way not just to forgive the lover that she had left us for, but actually to love him ourselves, and with all our hearts.

I mention this strange Russian garden of aesthetic peace because the British tradition of criticism, both literary and artistic, has always seemed to me to be fundamentally Tolstoyan. The desire is not to overcome an opponent's argument by amassing esoteric tautologies one on top of the other like a tower of spinning dishes, or to deconstruct relentlessly until everyone whimpers, but rather to ask, at every point, "What are we actually talking about here?" The appeal is twofold: towards "we" on the one hand (the shared reality of communication), and "what" on the other (the world under discussion). The overall tone is one of stern good will. It is all a misunderstanding, but we will make it through, you and I, these two men (women, children) of taste and understanding.

The sheer pleasantness, not to mention charm, of this kind of writing is obvious to anyone with an ear and heart; it's usefulness, unfortunately, is not. We want our aesthetics to be high tech and glistening, or folksy and hemp-smelling. Manners, we all agree, are boring.

They are not, of course: they are the heart of it, the backbone, the solution. We swim in manners. E.H. Gombrich's Art & Illusion even goes so far as to suggest that we are manners, or at least that any "original" act of seeing/reading is original only insofar as your decision to die your hair blue was original. It was, of course - but at the same time, it wasn't: it was a choice between existing possibilities, which you made either for or against the opinions of your peers - but still within the context of those opinions.

Multiply a choice like that times a thousand, Gombrich says, and you've got Van Gogh's decision to paint the skin in his self portrait using green paint. Was he painting from life? Or was he making his decision within a context of conventions so fine and expansive that spraying an aerosol can around his head would have revealed a veritable spider-web of ruby-red lines radiating out in every direction?

Freedom and meaning are incompatible: this is the tragedy of space and the reason why there will never be any great epics written by children who were raised by wolves - unless, of course, they are later taught by a French Catholic schoolmaster. Art is a continual process of debunking and rebunking, but in order to do either you've got to know, somehow, what you're doing. Not knowing leads to sterility and death, even if you manage to hit it once. So when you're out walking around town trying to see nature and dust and the soles of people's feet, take a copy of Whitman, or Rilke, or King, or something.

Gombrich's book is not just a history of art, but a plea for histories of art. If you want to know how to see better, it behoves you to learn how others saw in the past, and to think about the similarities and differences between their vision and yours. After doing this, you may be surprised to find that certain trends persist, for example, the desire to copy - to be, as Gombrich calls it, illusionist. You may find yourself either troubled or comforted by that, depending on how you fancy yourself.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More Please

Watching Shrek in Tehran is a four part Believer essay by author/teacher Brian T. Edwards that trades particulars for a gloss that I, at least, found smoggy and vague. In the first section, the Alborz mountains disappear "shade by shade into the ever-increasing fog", as Edwards's "smart and dynamic" Iranian interlocutor Nahad (whom the orientalist will no doubt imagine in dark sunglasses and a mini- skirt) describes the national love of Shrek: "You know," she says, "It's not really the original Shrek we love so much here. It's really the dubbing. It's really more the Iranian Shrek that interests us." In the second section, Edwards abandons Shrek in order to introduce the mysterious "Ali", a 35 mm. film collector, whose illicit lending and projection of western films has earned him the nickname "The Iranian Henry Langlois." The sixty year old Ali wears "a plad shirt under a worn tweed jacket." No pun intended. "Everybody knows Ali, but nobody knows where his archive is." In the third section, a brief filmography of the renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami contrasts with a description of two articles about said filmmaker: a laudatory, if inadvertedly political one by Deborah Solomon (in the New York Times magazine), and a more rhetorically savvy, if still naive one by SUNY Buffallo's Jean Copjec. Finally, a fourth section manages to touch on the recent political unrest by quoting lengthily from a pair of Guardian articles by young gun Iranian filmmaker Mosen Makhmalbaf.

All of this leaves us wanting more about the whole Shrek-dubbing phenomenon, which surely deserves its own article/monograph/career. The translation of American movies is apparently growing into its own as an art form. Like the melody in a jazz song, or the text in one of Maurice Sendak's "picture books", the film itself becomes a set of constraints that the audio track then plays with and against. Local details (stereotypes, characters, political critiques) are grafted onto mythological stock (much the same way that the American Shreks harness fairy tale themes to, um, Mike Myers's Scottish accent).


In Travelling Between Languages, the poet Chen Li asks "Is writing some kind of translation, travelling between languages"? More Hanks than Clooney, when it comes to air travel at least, he lingers in the terminals of his various poems like a short, nondescript man with dark sunglasses and a newspaper folded over his knee. That glow you feel radiating off of him is love: "Travelling in the family of poetry is the most substantial and warmest link on the lonesome journey in the universe," he says, which is sort of like what Mandelstam said. Actually, a lot of his poetry reads like Mandelstam to me, which would seem to be the most striking and improbable translation of all (except maybe not so improbable: after all, family members do tend to resemble one another...)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Failure, or Why I Blog

My excitements about blogging are: immediacy, risk, invention and community. My worries are superficiality and failure. Especially failure, which I’m obsessed with and actually quite good at, especially on the internet.

Looking back, I find my success as a failure funny and even ironic – for like many great successes, I began my life hoping to pursue a completely different career than the one that has, apparently, become mine. The career I wanted to pursue was success; so, having heard that success is the opposite of failure, I set out to avoid failure at every turn. The resulting contortions – which cost me huge amounts of time and money, not to mention the respect of my peers and the love of those who had the gall to believe that really, failure was not such a terrible thing after all – were ridiculous and, I suspect, a little absurd: like trying to avoid the ground after you’ve jumped out of a plane. But when it comes to failure, I think I can say that I’ve succeeded, up to a point. Meaning of course that I’ve failed, at least at the success that I originally thought was my purpose and m├ętier.

This may sound depressing to you; but the interesting thing is that accepting my failure has opened up many avenues of experience for me – at least as many as my attempts at success have shut down. For example, there is the diary that I have begun keeping ever since I realized that the chances of successfully getting anyone to hear or read about anything I did were slim, at best. At first, of course, I felt a slight twinge at having given up so easily on my dreams – at settling (as it is impossible not to feel that I have) for a less demanding, and therefore less glorious, and interesting medium. But then the truth is that, by keeping this diary of mine, I have really been following in the footsteps of previous failures the world over.

I will make a digression here, if you don’t mind – since I am apparently failing, once again, to keep on track – on the nature of diaries. Diaries have dangled for centuries from the foreheads of certain intense and observant young persons, as they walked down their streets or through their woods. Many times, these persons were simply trying to make themselves feel like less of a failure – but many other times, this attempt to make themselves feel less like a failure went hand in hand with the intuition that, even if they themselves were a failure, the world was not. In this, I find my own attitude in line with the classic diarists – for to me, the world is a success, meaning, so far as I can see, that a walk through the world, on any given day, can yield the kind of great lines and slow bits and effects that make you suck in your breath or grab yourself inappropriately that a successful poem, or novel, or movie does. If the diarist experiences enough of these moments, he or she might, after a while, decide that they are worth holding under other people’s noses. So said diarist might attempt, not to succeed, necessarily, but to report the world’s successes – which effort (the diarist’s, I mean) would look a lot like success, so long as the observer was not standing more than a few feet away from it.

In closing, I will say that of course, in keeping this diary I have also been somewhat of a hypocrite, since I’ve been trying to make a success of it, and so escape my fate as a failure. Will I do it? I pretend despair, but no matter how thoroughly I pretend, there is always hope. I hope, meaning that I think that the world I live in would be interesting to other men. More importantly, I think that the world I live in would be interesting to me – or rather more interesting – if I looked at it, not just as a success, but as a success that requires my participation in order to succeed. This is my hope, anyway, and the reason why, at the end of the day, I have failed even at failure, which I have heard described as “that most exacting of arts”.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tournier in Iraq

"Trois annees passent, et les pirates se manifestent a nouveau. Je recois une lettre de Nazareth avec un exemplaire de Vendredi. Cette fois il doit se livre a l'enevrs, car il est traduit en arabe. Il vient de Bagdad, et est produit par les editions tres officielles du ministere irakien de l'Education et de la Culture. Je me disais bien que Saddam Hussein ne pouvait pas se passer plus longtemps de mon livre. Je suis incapable de virifier la traduction. Mais les illustrations de l'edition francaise ont ete reprises. L'une d'elles figure Vendredi nu et de face. Dans l'edition irakienne, on l'a pudiquement habille d'un bouquet de feuilles."

"Three years pass, and the pirates appear again. I receive a letter from Nazareth with a specimen of Friday. This time it must be delivered backwards, because it is translated into Arabic. It comes from Baghdad, and is produced by the very official editions of the Iraqi ministry of the Education and of the Culture. I said to myself well that Saddam Hussein could not do without my book longer. I am unable of verify the translation. But illustrations of the French edition were taken again. One of them appears naked Friday and of face. In the Iraqi edition, one of them has moderately equips with a bouquet of sheets." (trans: babelfish)

"Three years later the pirates make another appearance. I receive a letter from Nazareth, along with a copy of Friday. This time, I have to read the book backwards, since it has been translated into arabic. It comes from Baghdad and has been produced, in a very official edition, by the Iraqi minister of education and culture. Apparently (I tell myself) Saddam Hussein could not wait any longer for my book. I am incapable of checking the tranlation. But the illustrations have been reprinted from the French edition. In one of the pictures, Friday is shown nude, en face. In the Iraqi edition, his pubic area has been covered by a cluster of leaves." (trans: Billings)

Source: Michel Tournier, Vendredi et les Pirates, in Les Vertes Lectures

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wane Anew

Ronald Johnson, from Songs of the Earth (at the Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fantastic and Wild, Part 2: Fox as Ruth

(Part two in my four part Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are longform. A little late, hopefully not too short. Coming soon: Maurice Sendak as syncopated master-poet!)

Translation is an act of love; but as anyone who has ever been in love will tell you, love is not enough.

This goes double for movies. Take the Lord of the Rings films, in which a series of flawed, but narratively masterful books are bear-hugged by a project so bloatedly faithful that the end effect is like having to sit through a piano recital by your best friend's daughter: sure, she's talented, and sure she's cute; but in the end all you want is for Gandalf to stop - talking - so -damned -slowly, and kiss a Hobbit. That he can't, and won't, of course, is one of the limitations of fidelity - for where most works of art are free to follow their own involutions, translations have their hands tied. As such its tricks are limited, so much so that the phrase "the book was better" is as unsurprising to us as saying that so-and-so author is more X (interesting, beautiful, musical) in his original language.

The exceptions to this platitude can tell us a lot about being faithful. When the books version of the fantastic Mr. Fox finds himself and his family trapped by the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, he decides to dig. His wife watches him spring to action:

"Slowly, Mrs. Fox got to her feet. She was suffering more than any of them from the lack of food and water. She was very weak. 'I am so sorry,' she said. 'But I don't think I am going to be much help.'
'You stay right where you are my darling,' said Mr. Fox. 'We can handle this by ourselves.'" (p. 28)

What are we seeing here? A happy family. More specifically, a happy family in a children's book. Mrs. Fox's suffering is like a heavy cold, and her polite attitude to her husband evidence that, even under duress, the family unit will function like a body, with the father as the brainy head, the mother as the beating heart, and the children as the, uh, frantically-digging paws.

Compare this to the same scene in Wes Anderson's movie version of Fox. After asking "to have a word" with him, Mrs. Fox tells her husband that she's going to lose her temper. "When?" he asks. "Right now," she says, before slapping him across the face. With the sharp, but gorgeously pointed facets of a mineral deposit glittering behind her, Mrs. Fox asks her question:

"Mrs. Fox: Twelve fox years ago, you made a promise to me, while we were caged inside that fox trap, that if we survived you would never steal another chicken, turkey, goose, duck or squab, whatever they are, and I believed you. Why - why did you lie to me?
Fox: Because I'm a wild animal.
Mrs. Fox: You are also a husband, and a father.
Fox: I'm trying to tell you the truth about myself.
Mrs. Fox: I don't care about the truth about yourself. This story is too predictable.
Fox: Predictable? Really? What happens in the end?
Mrs. Fox: In the end? We all die. Unless you change."

So many things differ between these two scenes that it seems almost pointless to say what, other than the two characters involved, they share - but I think that Anderson is actually sticking closer to the spirit of his text than we think. In his version, Mrs. Fox is harsh and accusatory; Mr. Fox "honest" and self-deceiving. But they are still husband and wife. The scene is, like its original, a picture of a happy family; except that now, the word "happy" has been translated out of the language of childhood in which it originally appeared, and into the language of adulthood. Happy, as derived from the middle english "hap", which denotes a balance that is precarious but also durable, like a stick balanced on the end of your finger. The stick moves, you move; you move, the stick moves. The Fox couple fights without resolution; but they persist. Mrs. Fox's fidelity to her husband includes confrontation, because it is based on an idea of a relationship that goes beyond cordiality and into intimacy, where we give and take the capacity to hurt because it makes the person we give to or take from important, even unique. Because of this, the scene speaks to an adult in a way that the book's version can't.

Think of the many ways that this could have gone wrong. In an over-loving version, Dahl's emotional choreography is repeated step for step, and the movie is at best a good kids' movie, at worst an adults' movie that treats its audience as if they were emotional idiots. On the other hand, the version that replaces the spirit of Dahl's scene with a word of its own is unloving - meaning careless, butterfingered. A translation that thinks too much of itself and too little of its source, or decides that what it is doing is "better for everybody". Neither of them will be rewatched, at least by me. Stay with your man out of nostalgia, stay with your woman because you want to feel like a master of the universe. There are a thousand ways not to fall in love. But fidelity means (strangely enough) being willing to change.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox succeeds because of its mix of fidelity and daring. It is a fairy tale, like its original; but the world that it is trying to explain is the adult's universe of consequence, rather than the child's world of courage. In order to do this it has to find common ground: the "master language" of human experience behind both.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fantstic and Wild, Part 1: Escaping Safely

(this is part one of a four-part discussion of adaptation, movies, kids books, and Generation X, among other things. It uses the recent movies The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Where the Wild Things Are as a starting point. Part 1 is on the various book versions of TFMF. Part 2, which looks at the opera- and stage versions, as well as Wes Anderson movie and cinema in general, should go up by Wednesday. Part 3, on Maurice Sendak, should be ready by Friday, and then (fingers crossed), I'll round it out with part IV this weekend. Please feel free to post responses along the way, and enjoy!)

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a story about doing: a hymn to action whose main character succeeds, like Tom Sawyer, no matter what obstacles are put in front of him. In part, this is what makes his book so wonderful to kids - for as the French philosopher Alain writes, "Courage is the king of fairy tales and the god of childhood". Children, who are terrified all the time, and who therefore have a very good idea of what "being brave" means, want bravery to be a skeleton key that opens any lock; so, as soon as Mr. Fox is menaced, he sits and thinks. Then he has an idea. Then the idea is translated from his head out into the world of action. The transition between each of these stages is smooth, even flawless, leading us to assume that the two languages - thought, and action - are less separate languages than dialects, or even accents, like British and American English, whose occasional differences of pronunciation are cause more for gentle awkwardness (or at worst a misunderstood street name) than any real disaster.

Donald Chaffin's illustrations in the original Alfred P. Knopf publication (1970) of TFMF only emphasize the essential harmlessness of Mr. Fox and the world he lives in. With his soft, inexpressive eyes, frozen smile and teapot-shaped head, this version of our hero is less like a drawing of an actual beast and more like an icon: a sticker peeled off its sheet and placed against a series of autumnal landscapes. His double-breasted waistcoat is always impeccably clean, even after an afternoon of hard digging - but then this is exactly the point, since dirt in this fox's world is not a dense element that must be dealt with in order to succeed, but a sort of second atmosphere, as civilized and malleable as butter.

Such heightened domesticity is of course a staple of children's literature, which works to transform the hard world that children experience into a sort of gigantic rumpus room. In Dahl's book this impulse is most obvious in the plot itself, which summons Boggis, Bunce and Bean like a trio of evil clowns and then knocks them over without once making us feel that they might actually manage to harm our hero or his family. Throughout this, Chaffin's cozily undramatic pictures (the foxes appear to be smiling even as they "frantically" try to escape from an approaching bulldozer) form a perfect accompaniment: a sort of light jazz for the hospital waiting room of the story.

It is interesting to note, however, that on his way to this placidity Chaffin glosses over those moments of nose-picking grotesquerie that are the calling card of Dahl's prose. The book's descriptions linger over the three farmers like a schoolboy picking through entrails: Bean's smile is "sickly", showing "more gums than teeth"; he pulls "something black and hard out of his ear" and tosses it in the grass. Bunce eats donuts filled with goose liver paste. The trio are physically disgusting - and then, though this atmosphere is missing entirely from the pictures, it creates an interesting tension in the book as a whole: as if what we were reading was not one, but two stories, which agree in places and disagree in others, like a pair of old men squabbling over a single story.

Such stereoptic storytelling may seem strange in what is supposed to be a straightforward story - but as master illustrator and children's book writer Maurice Sendak says, it is actually normal - exemplary even. For Sendak, the "picture book" (as he calls it) is by its very nature a hybrid, in which text and image dance around one another with a freedom that is, perhaps, the most childlike part of it. The task of the author/illustrator is therefore not to downplay this interaction, but to encourage it. As Sendak says in an interview with Walter Lorraine:

"You must not ever be doing the same thing, must not ever be illustrating exactly what is written...You have worked out a text so that it stops and goes and stops and goes, and the pictures become so subtle, too, that quite independent of the words they tell their own side of the story. The illustrator is doing a tremendous job of expansion, collaboration, of illumination." (Sendak, Caldecott & Co., p. 186)

Given this potential for interplay, one of the most interesting things about rereading (or watching, or listening to) TFMF in its various interpretations is the chance that it gives us to see how illustrators over the years have changed the work, emphasizing or downplaying certain elements depending on their own visions and temperaments. In Quentin Blake's translation, for example, Dahl's fox sprouts pan legs and stiff, wing-like coat-tails, not to mention a coat of fur that looks like it was scratched onto him by a particularly dreamy fifth-grader. The paint-box water-coloring gleefully overrun its outlines, giving each picture a happy, anarchic feeling, like a doodle whose energy and wildness have been rendered harmless by the controlling figuration of the characters. In turn, the Mr. Fox we read about in this book is wilder, freer: less the super-effective aristocrat of fate and more the cockney jobber. His success is the fool's success and therefore lovable, though perhaps less parentally endorsable.

Comparing these two characters raises the inevitable question: who is the real Mr. Fox? Is it Chaffin's wall-hanging, or Blake's sculpted snot-chunk? Sophisticates may scoff - but anyone with children will understand the importance of this point, which unfortunately only gets more complicated the more we look into it. Puffin will publish two more versions: a Chaffinesque saga with a beautiful, moonlit cover by Jill Bennett, and the more Blakean "young reader" version by Tony Ross, in which Mr. Fox looks like a cross between Elmo and Bart Simpson. The drawings are excellent; but in each of these cases, the illustrators, like their predecessors, conceive of their protagonist through one of two personas: the mischievous trickster, or the Victorian gentleman. Confusingly enough, the text supports and contradicts both - which is important, since it in turn illustrates for us the way that Dahl's writing is itself already syncopated (to use one of Sendak's terms): not a pure stream at all, but a muddy river of twigs and branches and seeds, which flows, sure, but also eddies, to the delight of its readers and profit of its interpreters.

Counter-intuitive though it might seem, this narrative syncopation is one of the real reason why kids like Dahl so much - for no matter what strain its illustrators choose to pick up on, TFMF retains two basic tools: the reassuring and protectively regular plot (Dad), and a giggling, distractible, body-obsessed description (Dad's boozing, lazy, no-good brother Tom). The reader gets to have her cake and eat it too, laughing at the descriptions of the triumphant Mr. Fox launching belch after celebratory belch without having to worry that his joy de vivre might cause him to do something excessively vigorous, and so overflow the conventional outline of his cage/house.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The God Plot: Michel Tournier's The Four Wise Men

The French novelist and children's book author Michel Tournier has a gift for first sentences. Here are three from his novel Gaspar, Melchior et Balthazar, published in English as The Four Wise Men:

1. "I am black, but I am a king." spoken by Gaspar, King of Meroe

2. "I am a king, but I am poor." spoken by Melchior, Prince of Palmyra

3. "Sri Akbar had that ambiguous - half-cajoling, half-ironic - smile on his face as he handed Prince Taor a casket of sandalwood inlaid with ivory."

Like Samuel Beckett (his exact opposite on the color wheel of writers) and St. Augustine of Hippo (blood red to his cool French blue) Tournier writes sentences for their shape as much as for their sound or content. Amalgamated, these shapes make patterns; so the plots of his novels unfold like gigantic placemat-mazes, through which the pencil-line of the reader's attention is shuttled with the heavy-handed direction of a Disneyland tour guide.

Such sculptural control may seem redundant and even condescending to readers used to more open-ended experiments; but a close reading of Tournier's works shows that his formal designs are always matched by a deep interest in how human beings turn their lives into stories. A plotter, he writes about plots with the naturalist's combination of loving eye and muscular mind. He also writes about plotlessness: a perhaps mythical state of mind that has its own flourishes and attractions to even the most single-minded storyteller.

Each of the wise men in Tournier's book is unbalanced: tipped by the tiny flipper of a comma into a mirror-story where what they have is nothing and what they lack is everything. For Gaspar, the black wise man in Brueghel's "The Adoration of the Kings", this lack is called "blondness" - specifically, the blonde hair of two of his slaves. For Melchior (the young King in the picture) it is politics; for Balthasar (the old King) art. Their opening sentences state their problems, summing their lives up and boiling them down at the same time, into a single, unanswerable paradox. Is this how real life works? Maybe, maybe not - but again, I think that, by exaggerating the familiar features of his "hyperrealistic" storytelling (his own words) Tournier is studying something more interesting than it might at first seem. His mimesis is of storytelling itself, not the ancient world. As such, he is more a performer than a representer: a bird of paradise tufting its neck-feathers, rather than a stick insect trying to remain hidden.

The Kings are trapped in plots that even they find stale and unconvincing; but by finding the child Jesus, they are allowed to escape into a story that is bigger, fresher, and more interesting than their own. In the Gospel of Matthew (its only appearance) their visit occupies a mere sixteen verses; Tournier extends it to 158 pages of narrative that might have been written by Jules Verne on a particularly inspired day.

After them comes Taor, Prince of Mangalore. Taor, who does not appear either in the Bible itself, but whose existence Tournier claims to have cobbled together from "the American Pastor Henry Van Dyke, the German Eduard Schaper, and Russian Orthodox legend", is a child of sweetness. He sets out to cross the ocean in search of Turkish delight, a pistachio cube of which is contained in that initial sandalwood box. An "eternal latecomer", he meets the wise men on their way back from the famous manger, rushing onto the scene with the flailing exuberance of a vaudeville comedian making it onstage just as the curtains are being drawn. After they leave, he is gripped with aimlessness and depression. He has missed the climactic scene of his own book, and so finds himself outside the story that he's been hearing about for months now.

But novels, as Milan Kundera said, are what happens on the morning after, and in Taor's case, this is nothing less than a Passion of Salt. He loses everything - slaves, elephants, candy - as he moves further from his goal, and closer to the horrific salt mines of Gomorrah. Tournier, however, in the great tradition of comic inversion, figures this series of losses as a Progress:

"More and more clearly, [Taor] saw his life arranging itself in stages or levels, each showing an evident affinity with those preceding it, but also a surprising originality, at once forboding and sublime. And in each of these levels he was bound to recognize himself. Fascinated, he saw his life metamorphosed into a destiny. For now he was in hell, but hadn't the whole story begun with pistachio nuts? Where was he going? How would it all end?"

Taor's lament here is familiar to any novelist afflicted with the peculiar aimlessness of writers' block; it should be, for Taor at this point is not just a character in, but a writer of his own story. The arrival of Christ has changed things - but how to live inside that change? How to exchange, in other words, the diary of luxury for the novel of belief?

For Tournier, then (as for Nabokov), God is a writer, and Christianity a translation of a text that has become too difficult for us to read in its original language. The sense of every person's life having a personal destiny - a plot with its own distinct stages and trials - is what is added to the world by the translation of a placeless, absent deity into human form. God is now within all of us, even pistachio-obsessed princelets. So the story expands, from a local saga into an epic of worldwide (perhaps unprecedented) proportions.

Tournier's books have been called formally retrograde; but if anything they force us away from nostalgia, and towards deeper thinking about what we mean by progress in literature. A translator when young, he retained the translator's Frankensteinian relationship to literary history. In his autobiography, The Wind Spirit, he writes, "Literary and artistic creation are important because myths, like all living things, must be irrigated and replenished or die." In The Four Wise Men, he shows us one way that this can be done.

Image: Pieter Breughel's The Reverence of the Three Wise Men

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Found in Translation: A Short Essay in Two Parts

Part 1: God as M. Night Shamalyan

If there's one thing the history of religion teaches us, it's that Gods are like movie monsters: the most memorable ones stay hidden.

Take the God of the Old Testament. Other deities of the period lived in knives or trees or mountains, and in this way they acted more like roommates, or perhaps local celebrities, than the gods that we worship today. But for a nomadic and frequently exiled tribe, an unmovable, place-based pantheon was about as useful as an expensive set of furniture. What they needed was something they could take with them, or better yet something that they didn't have to. So they invented (or met, or came to understand) a God who was homeless, like them, and who could therefore be unfolded like a placemat no matter what the terrain.

Seen in these terms God's invisibility is less a random characteristic and more an adaptation, like the zebra's stripes or the butterfly's eyespots. Like any deviation, it must have appeared strange and even freakish upon first arrival; but the interesting thing for me is how the increased "nowhereness" of God, which at first must have seemed like such a reduction, actually ends up expanding his worshippers' sense of spiritual sufficiency. For if God lives nowhere, then really God is everywhere - and if God is everywhere then home is everywhere, at which point look, the world just got significantly less terrifying.

The much-lamented absence of God, then (which after all only increases as the story of the Bible moves forward) is actually a genius move of imaginative entrepreneurship, on par with stuffed crusts and the all-night drive through. Apparently, it caught on. As the philologist Erich Aurbach describes it in his book Mimesis, "[God's] lack of form, his lack of local habitation, his singleness, was in the end not only maintained but developed even further in competition with the comparatively far more manifest gods of the surrounding Near Eastern world."

Anyone who has seen the famously effect-dependent "Clash of the Titans", or better yet watched the trailer for its remake, will be able to attest to the wisdom of this strategy. For all their popularity, the gods of the time were Michael Bay: stuffed with special effects that were big, sure, but also fundamentally alienated from the imaginative needs of their audience. Yahweh, on the other hand, knew the importance of story.

Part 2: Threading the Needle Instead of Pounding the Rock

The good news for those seeking religious clarity is that gods come with instruction manuals. The bad news is that these instruction manuals are usually washed out, strangely-folded, and written in Korean.

The Bible you and I and quite a bit of America know is a sort of hall of mirrors: a translation of an anthology of a set of documents that, written over a very long period of time, were themselves altered, augmented, and annotated by the vast game of telephone that is popular culture. Within this process, translation plays an important part - for with each new version of the books designated The Bible, a new set of the old words had to be found, dressed up, and shoved on stage. Sometimes the things that emerge from their mouths are disappointing. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Christ designates Peter as the person on whom his Church will be founded; the statement is not a simple compliment, but a pun that, in ancient Greek at least (the language in which the Bible was written, though not the language Jesus himself was speaking), probably had them rolling in the aisles. In English, however, the effect if not the meaning is lost, unless of course some industrious and sacrilegious translator decides one day to rename Peter "Rocky".

This is just one example; but the truth is that, even if you grant the Bible's origin in God Himself, you're still left dealing with what must be among the holiest of holey documents. Were the Author around to correct our readings, the problem might be "solved" - but it's important to remember that clarifying may mean locking us into rather pedantic clarities. "Trust the tale, not the teller," as D.H. Lawrence said. For example, in the famous eye of the needle analogy:

"And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

Like most of Christ's parables, this one benefits from its precise and evocative balancing of particular and abstract terms. In this way it's a lot like an algebra equation, which consists of both actual numbers and placeholding x's. Solve the problem and the equation vanishes, meaning you can stop worrying your pretty little head about it. As translator Robert M. Adams puts it in his book Proteus, His Lies, His Truth:

"Translator-interpreters with well-to-do congregations have been known to explain the passage by saying that there were a couple of tall rocks by a road near Jerusalem known popularly as 'The Needle's Eye'; the space between them was narrow indeed, compared with the surrounding plain, but not so narrow that a fully loaded camel could not pass through quite comfortably..."

Adams's semi-facetious example makes us remember that sometimes more comprehensive scholarship does not necessarily mean a better translation. For those people who speak the "original language", in this instance, a riddle with an intriguing euphony of possible solutions collapses into a comment on local geography. We are left with "the truth" of what Jesus said - though it's important to remember here, as Adams does, that there is no debunking which does not simultaneously rebunk. The solution is self-interested: offered to "well-to-do congregations". One reading is replaced by another, more linguistically accurate, though perhaps less "true" one.

So, in examining the King James version of this parable - which, like many details in the Bible, can be "explained" out of its resonance and into a matter of local and historical fact - we see a clear example of a rather underdocumented (though quite common) process. A significant nuance has been, not lost, but found in translation.

Image: The Last Supper, from The Brick Testament

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Play Well

Beg Borrow Stijl is a blog about translation, written by me, Josh Billings. Like everything I do it's an imitation, in this case of the dozen or so blogs that I've fallen in love with over the last five years. It's also an experiment in thinking out loud, meaning something done in front of anybody who wants to watch.

Actually all writing is done in front of somebody, which is the point, since writing practiced in absolute solitude is 1) impossible, and 2) like a chemistry experiment where you get to make up all your own elements. That might sound like fun, but think about how boring video games became when you discovered the cheat that let you walk invisibly past your enemies. Language on the other hand doesn't have cheats - or if it does, they lead to other levels, secret doors, games within games. Finding them isn't the end, because there isn't any end to language, or at least none that those of us trapped inside it will ever be able to find.

In this way there's no difference between Super Mario Brothers 3 and James Joyce's Ulysses: both are, essentially, gigantic advent calendars. Like normal advent calendars, the specific toys hidden behind each of their doors isn't really the point: the point is that, in opening/playing/reading them, we train ourselves to treat the world the same way - that is, as something we can explore, expand, use. To me this, more than snow, is one of the main reasons why Christmas always feels so wonderfully deep.

The best books, like the best video games and Lego sets, are batteries of creative energy. Building them is just the beginning; the eral adventure is taking them apart and rebuilding, combining one set with another until something happens. That something does happen (at least if we wait long enough for the codebreaking attention to be coaxed out of its place) is the article of faith powering this particular enterprise.

When I say that BBS is going to be a blog about translation, this is the sense of the word I want to try and jimmy. The world can be opened. In fact, it wants to be.