Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The language of others is unintelligible to me

The back of the New Directions edition of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp displays this quotation from Bolaño (in gold lettering on the matte black fabric): 'The only novel that doesn't embarrass me is Antwerp.' This was sufficient incentive for me to buy the book. Not that I actually disliked Last Evenings on Earth -- nor particularly disliked The Savage Detectives, even though I soon lost patience and gave it away, my longing to clear the thick fawn space that it occupied so much greater than any curiosity I had for the rest of it in the end. Simply, I was disappointed -- and especially disappointed given the hype that attaches itself to this book that is no longer in my house. 

In his introduction to Antwerp, 'Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two years later ', Bolaño gives some sense of how this tiny volume might be different to his other novels:

I never brought this novel to any publishing house, of course. They would have slammed the door in my face and I'd have lost the copy. I didn't even make what's technically called a clean copy. The original manuscript has more pages: the text tended to multiply itself, spreading like a sickness.

In the novel itself, although there are the usual maverick writers and slim, prostrated girls -- the usual crime and sleaze -- so much has been stripped from the hard, obsessive core of it, that it's possible to begin to be enchanted. Most fascinating is his use of ellipsis to isolate and make strange the found objects of speech:

But I used to be in a gang and I had the Arab in my sights and I pulled the trigger at the worst possible moment. Narrow streets in the heart of Districto V, and no way to escape or alter the fate that slid like a djellaba over my greasy hair. Words that drift away from one another. Urban games played from time immemorial ... "Frankfurt"..."A blond girl at the biggest window of the boarding house" ... "There's nothing I can do now" ... I'm my own bewitchment. My hands move over a mural in which someone, eight inches taller than me, stands in the shadows, hands in the pockets of his jacket, preparing for death and his subsequent transparency. The language of others is unintelligible to me. "Tired after being up for days" ... "A blond girl came down the stairs" ... "My name is Roberto Bolaño" ... "I opened my arms" ... (from chapter 4, 'I'm My Own Bewitchment' )

Monday, April 11, 2011

Something like a cross between an expensive shirt and a telephone message

Already before his death, Proust must have been anticipating the way 'une espèce d'instrument optique' would be mistranslated in Enright's revised version of the Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin as 'a sort of magnifying glass', because in the letter in reply to André Lang, which was published in Les Annales only months before he died, he is at pains to explain that he prefers the use of a telescope to the microscope as an analogy of what he is doing in his novel, where he is 'trying to discover universal laws' rather than analysing himself 'in the personal and odious sense of the word'.

Proust wants to emphasise the distance between the writer and the object that he pursues in his writing. As he continues in this letter:

It has to do with drawing a reality out of the unconscious in such a way as to make it enter into the realm of the intellect, while trying to preserve its life, not to garble it, to subject it to the least possible shrinkage -- a reality which the light of intellect alone would be enough to destroy, so it seems. To succeed in this work of salvage, all the forces of the mind and even of the body, are not superfluous. It is a little like the cautious, docile, intrepid effort necessary to someone who, while still asleep, would like to explore his sleep with his mind without this intervention leading to his awakening. Here precautions must be taken. But although it apparently embodies a contradiction, this form of work is not impossible.

Unfortunately I don't have the original French for this letter. The English is from the 1950 translation by Mina Curtiss. In Ronald Hayman's biography of Proust, the translation he cites (which might be his own) is:

It is a matter of drawing something out of the unconscious to make it enter the domain of consciousness, while trying to preserve its life, [not to] mutilate it, to keep leakage to a minimum -- a reality which could apparently be destroyed by exposure to the light of mere intelligence. To succeed in this work of salvage, the whole strength of the body and the mind is not too much. Something like the same kind of effort -- careful, gentle, daring --  is necessary to someone who while still asleep would like to examine his sleep with his intelligence, without letting this interference wake him up.

I like the way, in Hayman's translation, his use of the words 'mutilate' and 'leakage' evoke the delicate, membranous anatomy of some unknown submarine creature; Curtiss's 'shrinkage' and 'garble' deaden the image, turning it into something like a cross between an expensive shirt and a telephone message.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

To make us know an additional universe

Looking back at that letter Proust wrote to Antoine Bibesco in 1912 for the benefit of Gide and Copea in the Nouvelle revue française (NRF), I see that he finishes with:

Style is in no way an embellishment, as certain people think, it is not even a question of technique; it is, like colour with certain painters, a quality of vision, a revelation of a private universe which each one of us sees and which is not seen by others. The pleasure an artist gives us is to make us know an additional universe. How, under these conditions, do certain writers declare that they try not to have a style? I don't understand it. I hope that you will make them understand my explanations.

Proust, it seems, read the contents of this letter when he was interviewed a year later by the journalist Élie-Joseph Bois for Le Temps. Interestingly, the last three sentences, which constitute (to my reading) a direct challenge to Gide's own approach, were omitted in the interview.

I would say that they still stand as a challenge to any of us writing now.