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Writing

The violence of a peaceful demonstration

Sunday, 31 March, 2019

News from the real world: “Channel 4 News has apologised after its presenter Jon Snow said he had ‘never seen so many white people in one place’, referring to the pro-Brexit protesters who flooded the centre of London on Friday.”

Ballard What a pity J. G. Ballard is not alive at this hour as his take on Brexit take would be very entertaining, no doubt. Acidic observations dripped from the pen of the late British author: “Nothing brings out violence like a peaceful demonstration,” is a classic and here’s another good one: “My brief stay at the hospital had already convinced me that the medical profession was an open door to anyone nursing a grudge against the human race.”

The writer of Empire of the Sun, Crash, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes could turn a memorable phrase and many of the best can be found in J.G. Ballard: Quotes, a 400-page volume drawn from 40 years of writing. Seven gems:

  • “Sex times technology equals the future.”
  • “Sooner or later all science fiction comes true.”
  • “The only definition of real happiness: to find yourself and be who you are.”
  • “A general rule: if enough people predict something, it won’t happen.”
  • “The advanced societies of the future will not be governed by reason. They will be driven by irrationality, by competing systems of psychopathology.”
  • “A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction.”
  • “Learn the rules, and you can get away with anything.”

Ballard isn’t for everyone. He tended towards the dark, so if you’re feeling down, wait until the clouds have cleared before opening any of his works. Still, he gets it right a lot of the time, especially about the “new totalitarianism”, which is what he called the emerging mix of bland architecture, pervasive computing, docile citizenry and cultural relativism. He sums it up brilliantly here: “The New Totalitarians come forward smiling obsequiously like head waiters in third-rate Indian restaurants, and assuring us that everything is for our benefit.” J. G. Ballard warned us, quotably.


Diarist of the day

Wednesday, 13 March, 2019

Virginia Woolf, 13 March 1921 — “[T.S.] Eliot dines here tonight, alone, since his wife is in a nursing home, not much to our regret. But what about Eliot? Will he become ‘Tom’? What happens with friendships undertaken at the age of forty? Do they flourish and live long? I suppose a good mind endures, and one is drawn to it, owning to having a good mind myself. Not that Tom admires my writing, damn him.”


The ideal adjectives

Sunday, 10 February, 2019

Observe how waxworks, chagrined and awakened are used here:

1. “From that year on, Martin developed a passion for trains, travels, distant lights, the heartrending wails of locomotives in the dark of night and the waxworks vividness of local stations passing by.”

2. “…the country coolness of the rooms, so keenly perceptible after the outdoor heat; a fat bumblebee knocking against the ceiling with a chagrined droning; the paws of the fir trees against the blue of the sky…”

3. “A wave would swell, boil with foam, and topple rotundly, spreading and running up on the shingle. Then, unable to hold fast, it would slip back to the grumbling of awakened pebbles.”

And the writer? He lost everything he had, not once, but twice when he was forced to flee from two of the 20th century’s most wicked tyrants. And although the magical sentences above were written in English, it was not his first language.

The author was Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and the sentences are from Glory.


Harold Brodkey: endless kvetch

Saturday, 26 January, 2019

On this day in 1996, the short-story writer and novelist Harold Brodkey died. His greatest claim to fame was the 32 years he took to write his first novel, during which time a legend grew about the much-awaited book. When it was finally published in 1991 as The Runaway Soul, it was not well received and caused bewilderment as to whether it was really the same masterpiece he had been promising for decades.

Harold Brodkey’s career began auspiciously with the short-story collection First Love and Other Sorrows, which received widespread critical praise at the time of its 1958 publication. Six years later he signed a book contract with Random House for his first novel, provisionally titled “A Party of Animals” and sometimes referred to as “The Animal Corner”. The unfinished novel was subsequently resold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1970, then to Knopf in 1979. As the Paris Review interview linked to above noted, “The work became something of an object of desire for editors; it was moved among publishing houses for what were rumored to be ever-increasing advances, advertised as a forthcoming title (Party of Animals) in book catalogs, expanded and ceaselessly revised, until its publication seemed an event longer awaited than anything without theological implications.” In 1983, The Saturday Review referred to “A Party of Animals” as “now reportedly comprising 4,000 pages and announced as forthcoming ‘next year’ every year since 1973.”

In 1993, Brodkey announced that he was suffering from AIDS, and this prompted the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Howard to write in The New Republic that the disclosure was “a matter of manipulative hucksterism, of mendacious self-propaganda and cruel assertion of artistic privilege, whereby death is made a matter of public relations.” In posthumously reviewing Brodkey’s essay collection Sea Battles on Dry Land for The New York Observer, Susie Linfield wrote, “When Brodkey is bad, he is very, very bad, and he is very, very bad quite often. Sea Battles is filled with whoppers: misstatements, overstatements, nonstatements and statements that are silly, false or incomprehensible.” This is classic Brodkey:

“I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but who is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to reenter and be riven. An acrobat after spinning through the air in a mockery of flight stands erect on his perch and mockingly takes his bow as if what he is being applauded for was easy for him and cost him nothing, although meanwhile he is covered with sweat and his smile is edged with a relief chilling to think about; he is indulging in a show-business style; he is pretending to be superhuman. I am bored with that and with where it has brought us. I admire the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event.” — Harold Brodkey (1930 – 1996)


William Trevor: Last Stories

Monday, 14 January, 2019

January is a series of long nights and it’s an ideal month for reading some of those Christmas-present books. First up, from the house of the Donnellys, is William Trevor: Last Stories. The first of the last is titled The Piano Teacher’s Pupil and it contains all the wistfulness that marked Trevor’s storytelling. Snippet:

“Miss Nightingale’s other pupils came and went also, but among them only the boy never requested a different day, a different time. No note was ever brought by him, no excuse ever trotted out, no nuisance unrecognized for what it was. Graham talked about his pets to delay his unpractised piece. Diana wept. Corin’s fingers hurt, Angela gave up.”

The life of the lonely Miss Nightingale is coloured by loss and regret, but she loved and was loved once, and one great pupil compensates for so many disappointments.

The late William Trevor was born in 1928 in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, and his home could do with a decent coat of paint in 2019.

William Trevor


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.