Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage

August 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Carthage, there are some people who do not “support” the war – the wars.  But they support our troops, they make that clear.

Daddy has always made that clear.

Daddy respects you.  Daddy is just awkward now, he doesn’t know how to talk to you but that’s how some men are.  He was never a soldier himself and has strong feelings about the Vietnam War which was the war when he was growing up.  But Daddy does not mean anything personal.

You have said It’s a toss of the dice.  You have said Who gives a shit who lives, who dies.  A toss of the dice. 

I know you don’t mean this.  This is not Brett speaking but the other. (p. 26)

In the past few years, several novels have been released that have touched upon some aspects of the 2001-present Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  If there were one thing in common about them, it would be a focus on the individual soldier, of supporting him/her, with the reasoning behind those conflicts mostly left unaddressed, at least not directly.  In her latest novel, Carthage, Joyce Carol Oates takes a crack at addressing post-conflict trauma, but she also broadens her topic to include familial strife and grief.  It is a novel that begins slowly, yet around the beginning of the second part, almost 200 pages in, the story shifts in surprising and yet ultimately moving ways.

There are two lost, suffering souls at the heart of the novel.  One is Cressida Mayfield, the 19 year-old younger sister of the former prom queen.  She is introspective and cynical, trying to find her own way in life.  One night on a trail near her upstate New York home in 2005, she meets up with her sister Juliet’s former fiancé, the recently-discharged Corporal Brett Kincaid, who himself has been suffering from PTSD.  What happens that night is a mystery; Cressida turns up missing and when questioned, Kincaid confesses to murdering her.  Told through the viewpoint of the Mayfield family members and Kincaid in alternating PoV chapters, the first part explores the traumas of Cressida’s apparent violent end.

Oates does an excellent job in establishing each character’s personality; their shortcomings and failures to understand (with one notable exception) Cressida’s struggles are dissected with sharp, ironic commentary.  As each person supposedly close to Cressida talks of their lives with Cressida being on the margins, a more complex, composite image of town and family life emerges.  Added to this are Kincaid’s chapters, in which his recent military past is shown to have broken him, making him a living ruin of a person.  It is a devastating portrayal of a traumatized soldier and Oates does not play this up too much for theatrical effect.  Instead, Kincaid’s suffering will ultimately be a mirror for what Cressida has undergone.

The second part inverts much of the first section’s examinations of the Mayfield family and Kincaid.  It is set seven years later and focuses on a Florida woman who suddenly has a traumatic experience when she enters into a prison’s death row with her new boss, a special investigator.  It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal the specifics of her case, but it begins a series of redemptive episodes that culminates in a powerful series of conversations and revelations.  The work Oates put into developing her characters and their motivations pays off with one of the more moving and yet ambiguous concluding chapters that I have read this year.

Carthage succeeds mostly due to its combination of well-drawn characters and a plot that contains a surprising twist.  Oates’ prose is excellent, as each sentence feels important in either developing character or scene.  There is a surprising economy of words for a novel that is nearly 500 pages long.  While at first it takes several pages to establish Cressida’s disappearance, by the time the immediate aftermath is reached, the reader is sucked in, trying to figure out not only just what really happened that night, but also how this is going to affect her parents, sister, and Kincaid.  Oates uses PoV chapters very adroitly, never lingering overmuch on a particular character.  This creates a semblance of plot progression even when most of this progression is internal character development and not external events.  The end result is one of the more moving portrayals of trauma and grief that I have read this year.

July 2014 Reads

August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Averaged exactly one book a day for the month of July, as I completed 31 books.  Most of these, unlike other months, were in English, as I concentrated on reviewing as many 2014 releases as I could manage.  20 of the 31 have already been reviewed, a few others were reviewed when I first read them in one language or another, and 4 will be reviewed in the coming weeks.  Not a bad reading/reviewing percentage, I suppose.

159  Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (already reviewed)

160  Adam Wilson, What’s Important is Feeling (already reviewed)

161  Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (already reviewed)

162  D. Foy, Made to Break (already reviewed)

163  Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (eds.), The Time Traveler’s Almanac (already reviewed)

164  Andrzej Sapkowski, Il battesimo del fuoco (Italian; already reviewed the Spanish translation)

165  Andrzej Sapkowski, Baptism of Fire (already reviewed the Spanish translation)

166  Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (already reviewed)

167  Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (already reviewed)

168  Edan Lepucki, California (already reviewed)

169  Edmundo Paz Soldán, Iris (Spanish; already reviewed)

170  Tom Rachman, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (already reviewed)

171  Anna Hope, Wake (already reviewed)

172  Cristovão Tezza, O Professor (Portuguese; already reviewed)

173  Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves (already reviewed)

174  Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land (review will be posted on August 4)

175  Shane Jones, The Crystal Eaters (already reviewed)

176  Jorge Luis Borges, Ficções (Portuguese; already reviewed Spanish original)

177  Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (already reviewed)

178  Ben Hatke, Julia’s House for Last Creatures (young children’s book; very good; gave copy away for my niece to read when she’s 2-3 years older)

179  Can Xue, The Last Lover (already reviewed)

180  Scott Cheshire, High as the Horses’ Bridles (already reviewed)

181  Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

182  Simon Ings, Wolves (already reviewed)

183  Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage (review in the next week)

184  Seamus Heaney, Beowulf (poetry; translated fiction; very good)

185  Frederick Rebsamen, Beowulf (poetry; translated fiction; best of the three verse translations I read)

186  R.M. Liuzza, Beowulf (poetry; translated fiction; very good)

187  J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf:  A Translation and Commentary (already reviewed)

188  Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing (review in the next week or so)

189  Paula Bomer, Inside Madeleine (short story collection; review forthcoming)

Updated Yearly Goals:

Spanish:  37/50 (ahead of pace by 8; 1 read this month)

Portuguese:  20/50 (behind pace by 9; 2 read this month)

French:  24/50 (behind pace by 5; 0 read this month)

Italian:  26/50 (behind pace by 3; 1 read this month)

Women writers:  61/189 (behind pace by 2%; 33% for the month, or 10/31 read this month)

J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary

August 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Lo!  the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour.  Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute – a good king was he!

To him was an heir afterwards born, a young child in his courts whom God sent for the comfort of the people:  perceiving the dire need which they long while endured aforetime being without a prince.  To him therefore the Lord of Life who rules in glory granted honour among men:  Beow was renowned – far and wide his glory sprang – the heir of Scyld in Scedeland.  Thus doth a young man bring it to pass with good deed and gallant gifts, while he dwells in his father’s bosom, that after in his age there cleave to him loyal knights of his table, and the people stand by him when war comes.  By worthy deeds in every folk is a man ennobled. (p. 13)

Ever since I read extended excerpts of the poem in translation when I was a high school senior over twenty years ago, Beowulf has fascinated and frustrated me.  It contains a depth of character and theme that is uncommon even among the best epic poems of the past three millennia.  Yet there is a remoteness to it, perhaps due to the distance between Old English and its modern descendent and the attendant difficulties in rendering idioms precisely, or maybe it’s because it is difficult for teachers to convey adequately the poem’s riches to students who struggle with its form.  Whatever the reason, each time that I’ve revisited the poem, whether it be in prose or poetic translation/adaptation, it has been akin to staring at bright wonders through a smoky glass screen.

Therefore it was with great interest that I received the news that after decades of delays, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation notes on Beowulf would finally be published in book form.  I have been long aware of Tolkien’s expertise on Beowulf and the Old English language in general and his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I found to be entrancing when I read it around twenty years ago.  But there was some trepidation as well.  Having dabbled in translations ever since a college Latin course on The Æneid twenty years ago, I am well aware of the distortions that occur when going not just from one language to another, but also from the metered poetic lines to prose.  The sense of the lines may be preserved better in prose, but the elegance is almost certainly lost. 

Tolkien’s Beowulf was originally done as a sort of extended notes, one that would allow Tolkien to make easier references to specific lines in modern English without needing to translate repeatedly to suit the context of the cited passages in his lectures.  Completed by 1926, when Tolkien had recently accepted the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, his Beowulf translation largely remained locked up in his study, only updated occasionally in light of new research that indicated different ways of restoring and reading the burnt original manuscript.  Although in the intervening decades Tolkien became one of the foremost experts on the poem, there never really was any intent on his part to have his prose translation published.  Yet it still played a role in his research, serving as a point of reference whenever he would write commentary notes for his lectures on the poem, particularly its first half (which was the part studied by English students who were intrepid enough then to complete their degree through the Anglo-Saxon path).

So what value does this translation have in 2014, besides showing how one of its foremost mid-20th century experts approached the material?  Sadly, not much at all, except as a curio.  The translation itself is decent enough and after having read three 1990s-2000s verse translations (Rebsamen, Liuzza, Heaney), Tolkien’s rendering of certain expressions (such as “Lo!” for “Hwæt!”) certainly stands its ground with these translations (of which, I found the Rebsamen to best capture the alliterative poetic structure of the original).  There are moments of livelihood in Tolkien’s translation, and he certainly utilizes the original’s use of stock expressions (under the clouds, under heaven) to great effect when establishing scene and mood, but there are some flaws to his approach.  In particular, his use of now-archaic expressions, such as the above-quoted “throve in honour” or “thus both a young man bring it to pass,” while occasionally bestowing a sense of ancient grandeur, often creates stilted dialogues that weaken the effectiveness of pivotal scenes.  But these lapses can be forgiven, especially considering the apparent intent behind writing this prose translation.

I am less charitable when it comes to the remainder of the book.  The commentary section, comprising roughly half of the 425 page book, is interesting enough at times, but it lacks enough editorial framework to make it readily accessible to general readers.  While it was mostly clear for myself, I have had some background in academic discussion of texts.  Readers who have not can easily find themselves skipping over this section, as it is not worth their time trying to decipher what exactly Tolkien is referring to in quoting certain passages and explaining their word meanings.  Christopher Tolkien could have done a better job in providing more context for these discussions instead of just posting the poem commentaries whole cloth.  The remaining two sections, “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf” serve little purpose beyond illustrating how the poem sparked some playing around with the language and structure of the original poem in his creation of two (or three, counting a revision) minor poems.  Even worse, Tolkien’s famous 1936 essay on the poem’s monsters is left out of this book.  The structure of the sections is just very poorly-done.

Yet despite this lack of interesting material outside the translation itself, I mostly enjoyed reading Tolkien’s translation.  Yes there are flaws in this 1926 prose rendering, but as I noted above, these are interesting not just because they show a writer trying to render as literally as possible words constructed in a different language and in a different medium, but because the care with which Tolkien had done this appeals to me as an occasional translator.  But outside of reading it as a look in how a 20th century expert approached his subject, there is little to recommend Tolkien’s translation to those who are already familiar with the story.  It is a good prose translation, but there are other, better translations, especially into verse, that reflect the changes in Beowulf scholarship since Tolkien’s 1973 death.

A continued exercise in translation: more from Roberto Arlt’s "The Little Hunchback"

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Below is the part that I translated last year, followed by the first draft of the next half-page.  I will be editing this for smoothness this weekend, followed by more pages:

The diverse and exaggerated rumors spread as the result of the behavior that I observed in the company of Rigoletto, the hunchback, in Mrs. X’s house, in time turned many people against me.

However, my peculiarities did not incur greater misfortunes until I perfected them by strangling Rigoletto.

Wringing the hunchback’s neck has been for me a most ruinous and reckless act for my interests, one that threatens the existence of a benefactor of humanity.

The police, judges and newspapers have fallen on me.  And at this hour I still ask myself (considering the rigors of justice) if Rigoletto was not called to be a captain of men, a genius, or a philanthropist. Nothing else explains the cruelties of the law in taking revenge on the arrogance of a good-for-nothing, which, in order to pay for his insolence, it is insufficient for a brigade of well-born people to administer all the kicks they can to the rear.

I am not unaware that worse events occur on the planet, but this is no reason for me to stop watching anxiously the leprous walls of the dungeon where I am housed awaiting a worse fate.But it was written that from a deformed man many difficulties would arise for me.

 I remember (and this bit of information for fans of theosophy and metaphysics) that from my tender infancy hunchbacks grabbed my attention. I hated them yet was attracted to them, as I detest and yet it calls to me the open depth under the balcony of a ninth floor, to which railing I have approached more than once with trembling heart of caution and delicious dread. And so, like in front of a vacuum I can not escape the terror of imagining myself falling in the air with my stomach contracted in asphyxia from crumbling, in the presence of a deformed man I can not escape the nauseous thought of imagining myself hunchbacked, grotesque, frightening, abandoned by all, housed in a kennel, pestered by the leashes of ferocious boys that stick needles in the hump

It’s terrible not to mention that all hunchbacks are evil beings, possessed, wicked so that by choking Rigoletto I think I have the right to say that I did a huge favor to society, for I have liberated  all sensitive hearts like mine from an awful and disgusting spectacle. Without adding that the hunchback was a cruel man. So cruel that I was obliged to tell him every day:

 Look, Rigoletto, do not be perverse. I prefer anything to seeing you with a whip hitting an innocent pig. What has the sow done? Nothing. Is not it true that it has not done anything? …”
“Why do you care?”
She has not done anything, and you stubborn, obstinate, cruel man, you vent your fury on the poor beast…”

Since she has annoyed me for a long while I am going to sprinkle gas on the sow and then set her on fire.”
After saying these words, the hunchback discharged lashes on the beast‘s long-maned back, grinding his teeth like a theatrical demon. And I said:

“‘I’m going to wring your neck, Rigoletto. Listen to my paternal warnings, Rigoletto. It suits you…”

Preaching in the desert would have been more effective.  He took delight in contravening my orders and showing at all times his sardonic and fiery temper.  It was useless to threaten to tan his hide or knock the hump through his chest.  He continued observing an impure behavior.

Returning to my current situation, I will say that if there is something with which I reproach myself, it is having made the ingenious error of confessing such minutiae to reporters.

I believed that they would interpret them, but here I have now doomed myself to a damaged reputation, because to that mob at least they have written that I am a madman, claiming with all seriousness that under the union of my acts they discovered the characteristics of a perverse cynicism.

Certainly, my attitude in Mrs. X’s house, accompanied by the hunchback, had not been that of a member of the Almanach de Gotha.  No.  At least I wouldn’t be able to affirm it under my word of honor.

Yes, very rough, as I often transcribed it into very literal English first before “breaking” it to make for a better read.

Simon Ings, Wolves

July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

Falling in love with a person is hard.  Falling in love with a world is easy.  Confusing the two loves is easier still.  I spend the day wandering round the house in mourning for it all.  Mandy’s kitchen.  Mandy’s underwear.  Mandy’s pillows and shoes.  I love her scarves and her seven different kinds of toothpaste (a flavour for each day of the week).  I love those little blue bottles of essential oils gathering dust on her bathroom shelf.  I was always a sucker for Mandy’s world.  Her visits to out-of-the-way antique shops.  Her cutlery drawer, every knife and fork a ‘piece.’  Wine glasses from an arcade near the Palace of Sports.  Cushions from a woman who lives on one of the old lime tree avenues in the Turkish quarter.  In Mandy’s world, everything has an aesthetic value.  The humblest objects acquire a small but telling erotic change. (p. 20)

Perhaps it is an accident of reading or just something that is part of the espirit du temps, but in the past decade there seems to have been an increase in stories of individual and societal collapse.  Whether it is television specials about how the world would change without humans, conferences on climate and global warming that speculate on how these changes would negatively impact human life, or speculative fictions on post-disaster life, ruination is a hot topic.  Louis XV might have said, “Après moi le déluge,” but for quite a few of us living today, it feels like that deluge is about to overwhelm us at any moment.  This certainly can be seen in our contemporary literature, where natural crises serve as a way of exploring our own fragile place in a seemingly more hostile world.

In his latest novel, Wolves, British writer Simon Ings explores the effects of this increasingly pessimistic world-view.  Set in the very near future, it is a novel that attempts to do several things at once:  develop a contemporary coming-of-age tale that mixes in futuristic elements like “augmented reality” with crime tropes, while also making a pointed commentary on this recent infatuation with worlds, real and imagined.  The execution, however, is spotty, with some elements feeling underdeveloped.  Yet despite this, Wolves largely succeeds in making the reader consider the import of the issues raised within it.

The core story revolves around two boys, Conrad and Michel, and their complex relationship with each other over a span of decades.  Told through Conrad’s point of view, their lives, beginning with their adolescence and continuing a couple of decades later, is at times banal.  There are frustrated loves, the inability to integrate themselves within society as a whole, and their own complicated set of feelings for and about each other.  This banality contrasts well with Michel’s dreams of apocalypse, of society’s impending collapse.  The worlds he imagines affects Conrad in subtle ways.  One example is seen in the passage quoted above, where the adult him describes his failing relationship with a woman who had lost her hands in a car crash they were in.  Conrad thinks in worlds and objects, but rarely in his dealings with women is there a sense of any true understanding of humanity.  For him, humanity has been replaced by its material objects – worlds, if you will.

This lack of empathic understanding can also be seen in the mystery of his mother’s death and his ill-conceived notion of hiding her body after he discovers it in the “boot” (trunk?) of the family car.  There is some mystery behind her death, but it is not adequately fleshed out.  Instead, the focus goes more and more in the latter half of the novel on the augmented reality that a rich, blind capitalist has developed based on some of the epic fantasies that Michel has written in the two decade interim.  There are some witty remarks about the shortcomings of this replacement of reality with this “augmented” version, but ultimately this plays second fiddle to the Conrad/Michel relationship.

Frequently I found myself wishing that Ings had fleshed things out a bit more or at least had pared down certain elements.  The murder mystery subplot fizzled for the most part, with only a few sparks toward the end.  The same applies to Conrad’s ill-fated relationships with women; it served to illustrate how ill-socialized he was, but other than that, it occasionally detracted from his primary relationship.  Ings’ meta-commentaries on invented world creation and societal desires to “escape” from gloomier times were mostly spot-on, yet at times they too were not developed as well as they could have been.

With so many desires for something to be amplified or pared down, it would be easy to conclude that Wolves was a failed fiction.  Yet for all its flaws, there is something about the presentation of these elements, perhaps the ambition behind this attempt to portray lives affected by dreams of living something, anything else than their own lives, that makes Wolves such a compelling read.  Some novels are memorable not for how well they succeeded, but for their ambitious shortcomings.  Wolves is one of those novels.  It may not be technically great in all regards, but its ambitions, regardless of how realized they may have been, make this a worthwhile reading experience.

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

July 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I kill men.  I kill women because I don’t discriminate.  I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.

I do it for money.  Sometimes for other forms of payment.  But always for the same reason.  Because someone asked me to.

And that’s it.

A reporter buddy once told me that in newspapers, when you leave out some important piece of information at the beginning of a story, they call it burying the lede.

So I just want to make sure I don’t bury the lede.

Though it wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve buried. (pp. 4-5)

Noir is perhaps the most distinctive literary genre.  Its staccato sentence bursts, fragments compounding, syntactical gaps left for readers to fill in the blanks – these are some of its narrative trademarks.  It is also a very violent style, as the short, sharp sentences convey this sense of abruptness, of some force crashing into another.  It is a style that occasionally appeals to me, although there are times that less is not more, that I am left wanting some of those gaps filled in order to ensure that I do not miss an important bit of information. 

Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, combines noir elements with a post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic setting.  Spademan, a former garbage man who is now a hit man years after a “dirty bomb” and related terrorist attacks devastated New York City’s core, has been presented with an attractive case:  kill the daughter of a megachurch pastor.  Yet he cannot bring himself to do this after discovering that she is pregnant and that her own father was the one who impregnated her.  His mission turns from killing her to protecting her and exacting revenge on her father.  It is not the most original of tales, yet sometimes entertaining stories can emerge from stock material.

The narrative depends upon Spademan’s point-of-view to carry the brunt of the load.  Certainly this is a fascinating character, as his backstory slowly emerges in his narrative.  Hard, yes, but with a surprisingly funny dark sense of humor, as seen in this aside after a previous hit job:

The most holy relic, by the way, is the Eucharist.  The communion wafer that’s the literal flesh of Christ, transmuted the moment you receive it on your tongue.

Like I told you, I took First Communion.

If you believe in that sort of thing.

Edible flesh.

The holiest ritual.

But don’t worry.

I didn’t eat the lawyer.

But I did take some souvenirs. (p. 168)

If it weren’t for this macabre humor, Shovel Ready easily could have collapsed under the weight of its artifices.  The complex, meandering path from Spademan’s initial encounter with the daughter to his eventual arrival at the pastor’s compound takes some getting used to, as Sternbergh jumps back and forth in narrative time.  The post-nuclear setting felt a bit too contrived, as though it were only a mere plot device in order to establish the gruesome environs in which Spademan operates.  Yet despite this sense of a stock, underdeveloped setting, Shovel Ready largely works because the Spademan character is so fascinating that the reader almost looks forward in anticipation to his next witty repartée after he kills another victim.

This violence, although largely shown in its aftermath rather than the moment of its brutal occurrence, can be a bit much at times.  However, there is something to be said for narrative and audience expectations and for the most part, Shovel Ready‘s violence is within the norms of noir literature.  Certainly it is not gratuitous violence, at least not in the sense of there being relatively more descriptions paid to the deaths than to other events.  Yet the deaths are narrated in such a deadpan fashion that the reader may find herself shivering slightly after contemplating just what sort of personality type Spademan might actually be.  I myself have conflicted feelings about how this character is portrayed:  I get the point behind him and find his witticisms amusing, but part of me is disturbed by just how casual the violence is at times.  It’s not something that detracts from the flow of Sternbergh’s narrative, but it is something that made me pause a few times in reading it.

Despite this slight unease, Shovel Ready is one of the better-written recent noir novels that I’ve read.  The action moves at a crisp pace, only occasionally getting bogged down in establishing Spademan’s backstory.  Spademan’s characterization is very well-done, while the others could have used a slight more fleshing out to make them even better.  Sternbergh’s prose is effective, helping raise Shovel Ready above the clichéd story it so easily could have been.  A very good debut effort, with only a few minor flaws marring it.  Highly recommended to those who enjoy noir fiction.

Finally resumed working on a long-delayed translation project

July 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Just a brief note:  I am planning on devoting some time in the coming weeks to completing a translation project of a story collection that I believe is now in public domain.  When I finish the first story and have revised it, I’ll check and see about posting here.  My ultimate goal is to sometime in the next couple of years get this published, so I might need to keep this under wraps some, just in case I don’t go the self-publishing route.

But it is nice at least to have a pleasant diversion again to distract me from some stressful situations in my professional life.  That is all, more or less.

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