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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


Leonard Bernstein, JFK and Yo-Yo Ma walk into a bar

Sunday, 26 August, 2018

#BernsteinAt100 “is the world-wide celebration of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, the composer, conductor, educator, musician, cultural ambassador, and humanitarian.” So declares the website devoted to the artist who was born on 25 August 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

On 29 November 1962, when the cellist Yo-Yo Ma was just 7 years old, he played at a benefit concert for an audience that included President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline. Leonard Bernstein introduced Ma to the crowd, saying: “Now, here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen. A seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots.”

Bernstein once said that the chief requirements of a conductor are that “he be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience; that all his efforts, however strenuous or glamorous, be made in the service of the composer’s meaning — the music itself, which, after all, is the whole reason for the conductor’s existence.”


John McCain: warrior, Senator, patriot, man

Sunday, 26 August, 2018

The gallant old warrior, John McCain, who served America with such distinction and honour, is no more. He died yesterday aged 81. Senator John McCain was a patriot who believed in his bones that America was exceptional, and it is exceptional because of people like him.

In the coming days, it will be instructive to study the waves of admiration that wash over the legacy of the man who fought Hanoi Jane Fonda’s hero, Ho Chi Minh. And if we fast-forward from 1967 in Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war, to 2008, when he was running for the presidency of the USA, we can learn a lot from how the media treated John McCain then and how the media operate today. Consider the role of that bastion of liberal ideals, The Atlantic.

Its October 2008 cover story was titled “Why War is His Answer – Inside the Mind of John McCain” and the author was one Jeffrey Goldberg. But because a picture is worth more than ten thousand of Goldberg’s words, the role of the snapper hired to do the (hit) job on McCain tells us as much as we need to know. The operative was Jill Greenberg, who styles herself as @jillmanipulator on Twitter, and here’s how she deployed her manipulative skills to take the photo that so tarnished the McCain campaign:

When The Atlantic called Jill Greenberg, a committed Democrat, to shoot a portrait of John McCain for its October cover, she rubbed her hands with glee…

After getting that shot, Greenberg asked McCain to “please come over here” for one more set-up before the 15-minute shoot was over. There, she had a beauty dish with a modeling light set up. “That’s what he thought he was being lit by,” Greenberg says. “But that wasn’t firing.”

What was firing was a strobe positioned below him, which cast the horror movie shadows across his face and on the wall right behind him. “He had no idea he was being lit from below,” Greenberg says. And his handlers didn’t seem to notice it either. “I guess they’re not very sophisticated,” she adds.

So, when you hear any of this lot eulogising the late John McCain, take note that they were again him before they were for him.

John McCain


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.


Four Things Make Us Happy Here

Friday, 24 August, 2018

The English poet and cleric Robert Herrick was baptised on 24 August 1591. He is best known for Hesperides, a book of poems, which includes the carpe diem verse “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”, with the first line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”.

Four Things Make Us Happy Here

Health is the first good lent to men;
A gentle disposition then:
Next, to be rich by no by-ways;
Lastly, with friends to enjoy our days.

Robert Herrick (baptised 24 August 1591 — buried 15 October 1674)


Grace and Graceland

Thursday, 23 August, 2018

Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder and Yolanda Adams will perform at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, which is set to be a four-day event in Detroit, with public viewing on 28 and 29 August at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History before a religious ceremony at Greater Grace Temple.

Talking of Grace brings us to Graceland, where Elvis Presley died 41 years ago this month. Songs like Hurt and Mystery Train cover a range of emotions, from the elation of his early days to the pain of his final days as, unhinged by pharmacopeia, he sought for answers where there are none. As Dave Marsh wrote in Elvis:

“Somewhere, out of all this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither — he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.

This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.”