Thursday, October 25th, 2007

What to read? It’s only a difficult decision because there is so much to read.

Sometimes you walk into a room and you just find yourself walking towards a particular shelf with your arm outstretched, fingers in the book-gripping position. Sometimes you pace back and forth, completely unable to choose, (while carefully, utterly ignoring the ceiling-high “official” to-read stack). Sometimes you happily go about your reading business, following a microscopic-breadcrumb trail, perhaps visible only to you.

Then there are the times when a reference comes up over and over from the such disparate sources that it begins to feel like a conspiracy. This is how I came again to Shakespeare, bane of my high school existence. All I wanted was to smack Hamlet upside the head and tell Juliet that no guy was worth offing yourself for.

But then again, there were a few wonderful moments. I remember the second time I did Romeo and Juliet, (I’d changed schools). We each had to learn a soliloquy and one girl got up in front of the class and actually broke down in the middle of hers. That’s when I got it. Suddenly Shakespeare wasn’t just something schools invented to torture young people, these were real characters, struggling through their lives just like us.

But mostly bored or indifferent teachers managed to squeeze the life out of things. The saddest part was, that every time I’d read one of his plays I’d never been able to relax and enjoy it. Not once. They were dissected, analyzed, “decoded”, paraphrased and summarized to death. Then we’d have to rake through the carnage one last time in two, hour-long essay questions on themes and symbols in the final exam. Before that girl started crying, I probably would have put Shakespeare in with the sciences.

So there were a lot of little calls to return in the past few months and then I saw a lovely every-last-doodle-included edition “commissioned by The Royal Shakespeare Company”. Who am I to say no? So, here I am again, after a long time away.

I’ve started with The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus which I’ve never read before. So far it’s quite good. And no one has asked me why a character said the word “the” in line 84 and what the symbolism means vis-a-vis his previous use of the word “is”. The footnotes are frequently entertaining (does anyone really need that explained?!?), disturbing (oh dear, maybe they do…) and enlightening.

Two interesting examples of the latter:

prodigies: ill-omens/unnatural events

I looked this one up in my giant Oxford and sure enough the earliest definitions had seriously negative connotations: “Of a person: (in bad sense) A monster” I’m hard-pressed to imagine how you could call someone a monster in a good sense…? And: “An amazing or marvellous thing; esp. something out of the ordinary course of nature; something abnormal or monstrous.” Isn’t it fabulous that we walk around now blithely chatting about “child prodigies”. I love how words have such complicated histories.

Solon’s happiness: the ancient Greek philosopher and lawgiver Solon observed that man is only securely happy when dead

Fun at parties, that one! I wonder if he ever actually gives his definition of happiness anywhere? I suppose if all you require to be happy is the absence of utility bills and consciousness, then that might work for you.

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Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translate Tolstoy’s War and Peace!

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I suppose you’ve guessed what this post is about.

I’m so excited!!! I’m not sure when I’ll get it here, maybe late October, early November. Time to call in sick at work! Too bad I’m self-employed.

When Brigg’s translation came out I was devastated. I’d been hoping and waiting for eons for my favorite Russian-to-English translators to get to War and Peace. I thought surely no publisher would release another translation of it for at least for a few years. How happy I am to be wrong.

While we’re all waiting, I found a wonderful article (reproduced in full) about Russian-to-English translators, translations and translating issues. It includes interesting details about V and P’s technique and the rather astounding fact that D.H. Lawrence and Constance Garnett were friends. (Somehow I can’t possibly imagine them in the same room together, let alone speaking.) There’s a lot of wonderful information in it, but I must say that I did find the writing of the article itself a bit uneven. Not that that stopped me — I devoured it in minutes!

I copied the text from the comments of this post on Prufrock’s Page (thank you!) and pasted them into a word processing program, then printed it out. I think if I’d read all 17 pages of it in that teeny text on my dreadful screen I would have gone blind (”…or insane!” Remember that from Love and Death? Ah, how I miss the early Woody Allen films…)

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

I normally have a policy of not mentioning contemporary fiction that I didn’t like. The reason being that all the published writers I know google themselves. I absolutely hate the idea that I might discourage anyone or make them feel bad. The only time I break this rule is if the book is truly, deeply awful and the author needs to be stopped from wasting trees or, if the author is insanely over-hyped, winning awards (therefore quite likely to be delusional about the quality of the work) and rolling in piles of money.

The Kite Runner falls into the second category.

The covers of this book were bristling with those familiar, gushing clichés: “Powerful.” “Haunting.” “Moving. “Genuine.” “Riveting.” “Unforgettable.” Exhausting. Ooops, that last one is mine. But it’s how I feel being assaulted by all this manic, hysterical selling. There was even a review quote on the spine, as well as a NYT Bestseller warning — I mean boast. The word “powerful” actually appears six times on the outside of the book. Strangely, three of those six times are from the same NYT review. Guess they were proud of that one. As the too oft quoted Shakespeare line goes: “I think the lady doth protest too much.”

So I ended up starting this book with Dostoevsky-level expectations, when all I originally had in mind was reading something based in Afghanistan–as I know shamefully little about it, past or present.

The impression I had throughout was of a rather strained first novel with a lot of structural flaws. Not to mention that emotionally, it felt dishonest. I didn’t get much of a feel for the country and virtually none at all for the people because the narrator is a little overprotected rich kid. The “harshness” is TV-style and the violence clichéd and unreal. The first third is the better crafted, after that it devolves and by the last third we are reading an outline for a screenplay: plant, pay off, plant, pay off. It almost gives you motion sickness. And he just keeps hitting the beats; again, bad TV comes to mind. The ending is insultingly TV-ish: unreal and neatly tied up. Does anyone actually think that life is that simplistic?

There was one section that completely stood out, in a very odd way. It’s a scene in a hospital where a doctor is described as having a “Clark Gable” mustache, blinding white teeth and looking like a soap opera star. Then there is a highly technical one-page description of the character’s injuries. At the time, I thought, okay, he did some research and shoveled it in a bit heavily. But that scene kept coming back to me as just being, well, strange. Like it had some subliminal neon thing going on. Why? I did a bit of rooting around on the web… and wouldn’t you know it, the author is a doctor.

Now, I’m going to say something completely politically incorrect, so brace yourself. I think the reason this book is so hyped and popular is because people are always curious about the people they are–how shall we say it–subjugating? crushing? bombing the crap out of? Britain was obsessed with India, France with everything Egyptian (Napoleon), then the South Pacific, then Africa… Chinese scholars are fascinated with the Tibetan cultures China is doing its best to annihilate. If you look at the front page of the author’s website, you can see the two active ingredients here: guilt (note the author’s UN work video and the “ways to aid Afghanistan” section) and curiosity (”Buy the book!”).

If it hadn’t been hyped to death, I wouldn’t be angry. This is a slipshod “product”, more marketing than substance.


The Double by José Saramago

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

double saramagoI’ve always been fascinated by doppelgangers. (I’m sure this reveals something shocking about my psyche, please feel free to mail in your ideas!) I really enjoyed “Blindness”, so I was thrilled to discover Saramago having a go at doppelgangers.

This is going to be great! I thought.

I was wrong.

I’ve never seen a theme so utterly unexplored. A veritable Dickensian waif of an idea wandering aimlessly through the void. The author set up what might have been an interesting story, brought in a few characters, and then we all sat there waiting for something to happen… discretely checking our watches now and then. You could almost hear the Musak and the rustle of Nixon-era magazines. Strangely, Saramago was in the waiting room too. He entertained us passably with his occasional narration, but he gave the very distinct impression of a man putting in time. Like community service for a series of parking violations.

Much as I liked the device of the narrator, (who frankly, was the only one in the book with any personality or sense of humor–in fact, he was the only rounded character in the whole thing…) As I was saying, much as l liked the narrator, he certainly couldn’t fill, never mind redeem the book.

I wonder if the Nobel Prize people are slapping their foreheads. It’s much easier to give prizes to the dead — fewer surprises. It’s an odd thing that no matter what rubbish a Nobel winner comes up with, for the rest of his life he’s got this massive endorsement. I wonder if the Nobel committee ever tried to take the prize back? Or perhaps threaten authors with notes attached to bricks flung through windows: “The next one better have character arcs or say goodbye to your garden gnomes!”

Verdict: A terrible disappointment. Embarrassingly bad ending!

(Sometimes, after a book, I scoot around on the web to see what other people thought. Looks like a hell of a lot of other people were unimpressed as well.)

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