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.