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Writing

Quote of the Day

Tuesday, 18 September, 2018

“More fiction is written in Excel than in Word.” — Troy Vosseller


Turkish joke

Saturday, 1 September, 2018

A prisoner goes to the jail’s library to borrow a book.
The librarian says: “Sorry, we don’t have that book, but we have its author.”

Reality: On 16 February this year, the Turkish author Ahmet Altan, along with his brother Mehmet and four others, were sentenced to life imprisonment with the condition that they be locked up for 23 hours each and every day.


The mystery and mysteries of Gatsby

Friday, 31 August, 2018

Why is The Great Gatsby great? Why do some people never tire of re-reading it, no matter how many times they’ve read it already? The answer is that it’s the kind of book that nurtures you as you turn each page, and with each page, one is struck by something new, and this discovery creates a virtuous chain of reactions involving memory and pleasure and poignancy. How did the young Fitzgerald capture and record so memorably the mysteries of life? In pursuit of that mystery, one must keep reading and re-reading the novel.

“The track curved and now it was going away from the sun, which as it sank lower, seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city where she had drawn her breath. He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Let’s leave the last word to the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens, who read Gatsby closely and critically and admiringly:

Fitzgerald’s work captures the evaporating memory of the American Eden while connecting it to the advent of the New World of smartness and thuggery and corruption. It was his rite of passage; it is our bridge to the time before “dreams” were slogans. He wanted to call it Among the Ashheaps and Millionaires — thank heaven that his editor, Maxwell Perkins, talked him out of it. It was nearly entitled just plain Gatsby. It remains “the great” because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism, and finds the defeat unbearable, and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly. With The Great Gatsby, American letters grew up.

That’s the annual re-reading done. Until next August, then, God willing.


Murakami on translating Fitzgerald into Japanese

Thursday, 30 August, 2018

A Columbia University Press book titled In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, which was published in 2013, contains an essay by the great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. In it, he discusses the challenges that faced him when translating The Great Gatsby into Japanese. Snippet:

“When someone asks, ‘Which three books have meant the most to you?’ I can answer without having to think: The Great Gatsby, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. All three have been indispensable to me (both as a reader and as a writer); yet if I were forced to select only one, I would unhesitatingly choose Gatsby. Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there).

Gatsby Japanese translation Whatever the case, you can sense the level of my infatuation with The Great Gatsby. It taught me so much and encouraged me so greatly in my own life. Though slender in size for a full-length work, it served as a standard and a fixed point, an axis around which I was able to organize the many coordinates that make up the world of the novel. I read Gatsby over and over, poking into every nook and cranny, until I had virtually memorized entire sections.

Remarks such as these are bound to perplex more than a few readers. ‘Look, Murakami,’ they’ll say, ‘I read the novel, and I don’t get it. Just why do you think it’s so great?’ My first impulse is to challenge them right back. ‘Hey, if The Great Gatsby isn’t great,’ I am tempted to say, inching closer, ‘then what the heck is?’ Yet at the same time I am not without sympathy for their point of view. Gatsby is such a finely wrought novel — its scenes so fully realized, its evocations of sentiment so delicate, its language so layered — that, in the end, one has to study it line by line in English to appreciate its true value. Fitzgerald was a master stylist, and when he wrote Gatsby at the age of twenty-eight he was at the absolute peak of his craft. Unavoidably, Japanese translations have stumbled over some of the fine points of his novel, while others have been entirely omitted. As they say, a delicate wine doesn’t travel well. Try as one may, it will lose at least a portion of its aroma, mellowness, and texture en route.

Gatsby Japanese translation The only answer, I guess, is to read a work such as Gatsby in the original; yet that is more easily said than done. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s fluent, elastic prose lies in his ability to alter tone, pattern, and rhythm to create infinitesimal shifts in atmosphere. To be perfectly honest, a work that achieves this stylistic level is too difficult for a person with limited English to comprehend — only a truly advanced reader is able to see what he is really up to.

This is why, if I may be allowed to exaggerate in a somewhat high-handed manner, it is my impression that Japanese readers have never truly appreciated The Great Gatsby. At the very least, judging from the overall reaction of those I have exchanged views with (most of whom are, at least to some extent, professionally connected to the literary world), I can only be pessimistic about Gatsby’s reception in Japan. And standing behind this pessimism is the imposing barrier of the translation process itself.

I cannot be so presumptuous as to claim that my translation of Gatsby clears that barrier entirely. No one is more aware than I am of what a heavy undertaking it is to translate Gatsby, so I am not being falsely modest when I concede that my effort, too, is bound to have some faults. Whoever looks hard enough, I fear, can probably locate any number of places where I have failed. Yet is there a way of transferring a work of such beauty and completeness in English into another language without the occasional failure?

Until Gatsby, I had always tried to keep the fact that I was a writer far from my mind when translating: I wanted to make myself invisible, like a black-garbed puppet handler on the Bunraku stage. What mattered, I believed, was fidelity to the original. Gatsby in Japanese True, my being a writer had to be involved to a certain degree, since it formed part of the context I brought to the work, but that was something that arose naturally, without any conscious intent on my part. Gatsby, however, was a different story. From the outset, I set my sights on putting my novel-writing experience to as good a use as possible. This did not mean that I translated loosely or substituted my own phrases for those of the original. Rather, it meant that, at strategic moments, I brought my imaginative powers as a novelist into play. One by one, I dug up the slippery parts of Fitzgerald’s novel, those scattered places that had proved elusive, and asked myself, If I were the author, how would I have written this?

Painstakingly, I examined Gatsby‘s solid trunk and branches and dissected its beautiful leaves. When necessary, however, I stepped back to take a broader view, forsaking a word-by-word approach. Had I gone about translating Gatsby any other way, I wouldn’t have been able to convey the power of Fitzgerald’s prose.”

Tomorrow, here, the enduring mystery of Gatsby. But before that, a big, big thank you to @Eimi1003, who provided the cover images of the Japanese translation of the novel.


Clive James on Fitzgerald: the style was the man

Wednesday, 29 August, 2018

It’s always instructive to dip into Cultural Amnesia, Clive James’ magisterial book of biographical essays. For those who have not yet purchased this essential volume, here’s a brief review: James has managed to construct a book that contains gems of brilliance on each of its 856 pages. Here, his commentary on Gatsby (page 219): “Fitzgerald’s prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when, by his own standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man.”

Fitzgerald style

Tomorrow, here, Haruki Murakami translates The Great Gatsby into Japanese.


Gatsby’s metropolitan twilight

Tuesday, 28 August, 2018

The annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby is in train and the metaphysics of Fitzgerald’s prose are as enchanting as ever: “Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed.”

But that’s just a “twilight” warm up. Consider this:

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others — poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner — young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Many writers, especially Jay McInerney, have spent their lives trying to match this and they cannot be faulted for having failed to reach or surpass the benchmark. But, then, who has? With Gatsby, published 93 years ago, Fitzgerald managed the miracle of sounding modern while appealing to an audience that had grown up reading Henry James. The genius of the book is that it continues to sound modern. Fitzgerald wrote in the shadow of cataclysm and no one who reads The Great Gatsby can put it down without feeling dread. Not just for those who would lose their fortunes in 1929, but for those who would be visited by war in 1939.

Tomorrow, Clive James on Fitzgerald’s writing and why the style was the man.


We would all have had one more

Monday, 27 August, 2018

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul Minnesota on 24 September 1896. He went to Princeton, and afterwards joined the US Army. He was only 22 years old when he wrote his first novel: This Side of Paradise. It was a huge success and Fitzgerald was subsequently declared “the voice of the Jazz Age.” He was the writer who lived it, studied it, drank it and described it in “real time.” An era had found its lyricist.

Despite Prohibition, everyone was having one more. People wanted to celebrate and be celebrated, which is why The Great Gatsby was not well received. The reviews were sour. Gatsby painted a picture of a dizzying Jazz Age that was turning and turning in a widening gyre. The centre could not hold, it suggested. And, sure enough, a decade after This Side of Paradise was published, it all came crashing down on Wall Street. In 1931, Fitzgerald wrote an elegiac essay titled “Echoes of the Jazz Age” about that lost world, the faint melodies of which still signalled from beyond the ruins. Snippet:

“A young Minnesotan who seemed to have had nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams. Maybe there was a way out by flying, maybe our restless blood could find frontiers in the illimitable air. But by that time we were all pretty well committed; and the Jazz Age continued; we would all have one more.”

In June 1940, fifteen years after Gatsby was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a poignant letter to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribners:

“Would the 25-cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye — or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? Would a popular reissue in that series with a preface not by me but by one of its admirers — I can maybe pick one — make it a favorite with classrooms, profs, lovers of English prose — anybody? But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much!”

F. Scott Fitzgerald died on 21 December 1940 aged 44 — so young and so unjustly after having given so much so early. Posthumously, Gatsby was crowned his masterpiece. Tomorrow, here, a favourite glimpse of its metropolitan twilight.

F. Scott Fitzgerald


Getting ready for Gatsby

Saturday, 25 August, 2018

The annual reading of the greatest of all modern novels, The Great Gatsby, begins next week. What joys remain to be discovered? Which new sorrows will be revealed? We’re prepping with one of the most perceptive essays F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Early Success.” Three years after it was published, he was dead, aged but 44. Snippet:

The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination, I had fairy years to waste, years that I can’t honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea. Once in the middle twenties I was driving along the High Corniche Road through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling on the sea below. As far ahead as I could see was Monte Carlo, and though it was out of season and there were no Grand Dukes left to gamble and E. Phillips Oppenheim was a fat industrious man in my hotel, who lived in a bathrobe — the very name was so incorrigibly enchanting that I could only stop the car and like the Chinese whisper: “Ah me! Ah me!” It was not Monte Carlo I was looking at. It was back into the mind of the young man with cardboard soles who had walked the streets of New York. I was him again — for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams, I who had no more dreams of my own. And there are still times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment — when life was literally a dream.

In 1922, Fitzgerald, then 26, wrote in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, an editor at Scribners: “I want to write something new — something extraordinary and simple & intricately patterned.” The Great Gatsby was published in 1925.


Remembering Naipaul

Tuesday, 14 August, 2018

The novelist VS Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001, died on Saturday evening in London. He was born in Trinidad in 1932, wrote more than 30 books including a genuine masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas. He also fell out with the American travel writer Paul Theroux, who he had mentored, after Theroux discovered a book he had given Naipaul in a second-hand bookshop. After a bitter 15-year feud, they reunited and, paying tribute to Naipaul on Sunday, Theroux said: “He never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliché or an un-thought out sentence.”

Back in mid-August 16 years ago, Rainy Day went along one evening to hear Naipaul speak. Here’s what we posted the day after, 13 August 2002:

Honoured guest in Munich’s Literaturhaus last night was VS Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. Now 70, he says his contribution to letters is drawing to a close. Maybe two more books and that’s it. Quality, not quantity, however, is the measure of the man’s work and what a career he has had. His fiction remains definitive of the post-colonial experience and his fact, primarily travel writing, is without parallel because it describes not just places and people but the history and politics that have made them what they are.

From The New York Review of Books here’s part of Ian Buruma’s review of Naipaul’s magnificent Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples:

Why Islam? Why did Naipaul feel the urge to return to the Muslim believers? He offers some reasons. Peoples converted to Islam, he says, become part of the Arab story; they reject their own histories, turn away from nearly everything that is theirs. As a result, he writes, people “develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil.” There is another, more sweeping reason. Conversion, Naipaul argues, “can be seen as a kind of crossover from old beliefs, earth religions, the cults of rulers and local deities, to the revealed religions — Christianity and Islam principally — with their larger philosophical and humanitarian and social concerns.” The crossover to Islam, which still goes on, is “like a cultural big bang, the steady grinding down of the old world.”

Buruma is in splendid form here, and he continues: “There are many hints of this parallel with communism in Naipaul’s own account. During his first visit to Tehran, in 1979, he looks at the booksellers and cassette-sellers on Revolution Avenue, near the university. He sees books on the Persian revolution. He sees cassette tapes of Khomeini’s speeches, and those of other ayatollahs. And he sees piles of English translations of Marx and Lenin. As he observes: ‘One revolution appeared to flow into the other.'”

Beyond Belief The similarities do go back further than the recent Islamic upheavals. In the Prologue to Beyond Belief, Naipaul writes that the revealed religions (like Marxism) are more concerned with large humanitarian and social problems than the old beliefs. That is why so many Indians converted to Islam in the past, without having to be forced: Islam, with its egalitarian ethos, seemed the perfect way out for low-caste Hindus, who felt oppressed by the old beliefs. Naipaul doesn’t make a point of this, even though he gives a chilling description of the continuation of Hindu caste prejudices under the Islamic surface of contemporary Pakistan.

Communism, too, has (or had) Meccas far removed from most converts—in Moscow or Beijing. And communism is a notorious wrecker of the past: history is a mere collection of dustbins along the way to Utopia. In his section on Indonesia, Naipaul makes a very interesting comparison between nineteenth- century Sumatran pilgrims to Mecca and colonial students sent abroad in the twentieth century. The pilgrims returned from Arabia under the influence of Wa-habi fundamentalism and were ‘determined to erase local errors, all the customs and ceremonies and earth reverences that carried the taint of the religions that had gone on before….’ This is precisely what the most monstrous tyrants did in our own time, in the name of communism. Pol Pot wanted to remake Cambodia in the image of hazy visions picked up from revolutionary circles in Paris (not perhaps a Mecca of world communism, but at least a major shrine).”

Rest In Peace Sir Vidia. “The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.” — VS Naipaul, In a Free State.


Charles Krauthammer, RIP

Friday, 22 June, 2018

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer, died yesterday. He was 68. The cause was cancer of the small intestine. On 8 June, explaining what he called his 10-month “uncharacteristic silence,” Krauthammer revealed in The Post that despite surgery for the tumour last August, cancer had recurred and that he had only weeks to live.

“This is the final verdict,” he wrote. “My fight is over.”

Charles Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist and self-described Great Society Democrat metamorphosed into one of America’s most persuasive conservative voices. He originated the phrase “the Reagan Doctrine” for the president’s strategy of going beyond the policy of containment to actively encourage anti-communist insurgencies. He coined the term “unipolarity” to describe the era of American power after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and he diagnosed as “Bush Derangement Syndrome” the response many people had to the presidency and even the very existence of George W. Bush.

This is from Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics:

“For the Europeans there really is a peace dividend, because we provide the peace. They can afford social democracy without the capacity to defend themselves because they can always depend on the United States.

So why not us as well? Because what for Europe is decadence — decline, in both comfort and relative safety — is for us mere denial. Europe can eat, drink and be merry for America protects her. But for America it’s different. If we choose the life of ease, who stands guard for us?”


Life begins over again with the summer

Tuesday, 5 June, 2018

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Summer