My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.
New Directions’ The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, is a splendorous achievement. For the first time in any language, readers can turn to a single volume for all the short stories by the twentieth-century Brazilian writer affectionately known by her unusual first name, that enigmatic woman born in a small village in the Ukraine in 1920 to Jewish parents who fled the country when she was barely a year old. This is the sixth New Directions book by Clarice to appear in less than four years under the helm of series editor Moser, who is also the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press 2009). The other five are new translations of the novels Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, Água Viva, The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star. Each book has a different translator, which suits the multivalent spirit of Clarice’s strange and unsettling oeuvre.
Clarice is a writer obsessed with language, how it moves and breathes, how far it can be pushed and pulled apart, how it breaks down. Her prose, in the stories and novels and newspaper columns, follows overarching themes: how language is used to create identity, what is at stake when a narrator narrates, the reality of fiction, how words can be used to establish and maintain power, the failure of language when humans (and occasionally animals) want to communicate, silence and the unspeakable. Much of her writing features women whose lives unfold in domestic spaces, women who navigate traditional feminine duties such as housework and caregiving alongside the perils and pleasures of love, motherhood, romance, sex, money, and the mysteries of the world beyond the front door.
Men too populate Clarice’s stories: Marcel Pretre, the French explorer in “The Smallest Woman in the World”; Artur, the high school student who finds himself increasingly misunderstood by his parents in “Beginnings of a Fortune”; the bigamist Xavier and his two live-in girlfriends livid about the prostitute he favors for dirty talk in “The Body”; and the beggar who receives a five hundred cruzeiro banknote from high society wife Carla de Sousa e Santos because she doesn’t have change in “Beauty and the Beast or the Big Wound.” There are husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and sons, men in all manner of professions and affective arrangements. Clarice never considered herself to be a woman writer or a writer of women’s literature. Language, muscular and mystical, is her supreme concern, and language is universal.
“The Crime of the Mathematics Professor”: Clarice’s Debut in English
The first translation of Clarice’s work in English appeared in December 1961. William L. Grossman and José Roberto Vasconcellos’ version of “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor” debuted in the Odyssey Review, published by the Latin American and European Literary Society. It was later included in Grossman’s anthology Modern Brazilian Short Stories, published by the University of California Press in 1967. The story follows a mathematics professor, the dog he abandons when he moves to a new city with his family, and the dog he kills “in tribute” to the abandoned dog. Despite the professor’s careful calculations, a kind of moral mathematics he seeks to deploy, he fails to redeem his crime (of abandonment, of desire to rid himself of his original dog, of killing) by solemnly burying the dead creature before him. As translated by Grossman and Vasconcellos, in the final paragraph he decides to unbury the dead dog:
It looked unfamiliar with earth on its lashes and with its open, glazed eyes. Thus, the mathematics professor renewed his crime eternally. He looked to the sky and to the earth around him, asking them to witness what he had just done. Then he started down the hill toward the little city below.
Here is Katrina Dodson’s version from New Directions’ Complete Stories, which she titles “The Crime of the Mathematics Teacher”:
The dark dog at last appeared whole, unfamiliar with dirt in its eyelashes, its eyes open and glazed over. And thus the mathematics teacher renewed his crime forever. The man then looked around and to the heavens beseeching a witness to what he’d done. And as if that still weren’t enough, he started descending the slopes toward the bosom of his family.
In Clarice’s original, the final sentence is: “E como se não bastasse ainda, começou a descer as escarpas em direção ao seio de sua familia.” Dodson’s version is word for word in tune with the original.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Translations of “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector”
Elizabeth Bishop published her “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector” — “The Smallest Woman in the World,” “A Hen,” and “Marmosets” — in the summer 1964 issue of The Kenyon Review. For years these translations were somewhat hidden gems. Bishop never included them in any of her books the way she did with her poetry translations. Readers can now find the trio of stories in two recent Bishop compilations: Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Prose: Elizabeth Bishop (2011). The evocative triptych features three female creatures vying for agency, if not survival, in the face of human interaction: Little Flower, the smallest woman in the world, squares off against the French explorer Marcel Pretre who claims to have “discovered” her in the “depths of Equatorial Africa”; the Sunday hen is due to be killed for supper by the humans she lives with; and Lisette the marmoset is purchased by the narrator as a pet for her children one summer day in Copacabana. (For a sense of how Dodson handles her translations of these stories, it might suffice to say that she titles two of them differently: “A Chicken” and “Monkeys.”)
Clarice and Bishop were neighbors during the time Bishop shared an apartment with Lota de Macedo Soares in Leme, Rio de Janeiro. Bishop first arrived in Brazil in late 1951, while a freshly separated Lispector moved back to Rio in 1959 alone with her two sons after 15 years of living abroad with her diplomat husband. In late 1962, Bishop gave Lispector a selection of nine of her own poems — “Questions of Travel,” “Manuelzinho,” “Electrical Storm,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” “Song for the Rainy Season,” “The Armadillo,” “Sandpiper,” “The Riverman,” and “A Norther—Key West” — along with the following hand-written note: “For Clarice Lispector, from her admiring translator, Elizabeth Bishop; Rio, November 22, 1962.” When I first fixed my eyes on this sheath of papers at the Clarice Lispector Archive at the Museu Casa de Rui Barbosa in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood, years ago as a graduate student, my hands shook with excitement upon recognizing Bishop’s small, slightly slanted handwriting in the upper-right hand corner of the first typed page.
Bishop’s translations of Clarice’s stories suggest overlapping thematic interests: questions of foreignness, the feminine, motherhood, language, identity, and the relationships between humans and animals. Questions of self-possession. In addition to this Clarice-as-rendered-by-Bishop prism, a kind of conversation between two great literary minds, the most important thing about the Bishop translations is the fact that their publication led to additional translations of Clarice’s work in English. Bishop considered taking on one of Clarice’s novels, but ultimately declined. In her May 26, 1963, letter to Robert Lowell, she wrote: “Knopf apparently is definitely interested in one of her novels. I’ve refused to do any of that kind of translating, however. It’s too boring & time-wasting.” The Apple in the Dark, the very un-boring novel translated by Gregory Rabassa and published by Knopf, appeared in 1967 and clocks in at well over 300 pages. That same year Bishop published an original trio of texts — the prose-poems “Giant Toad,” “Strayed Crab,” and “Giant Snail” — grouped under the title “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics” in The Kenyon Review. Bishop’s Sub-Tropic trio offers a kind of lyrical response to her 1964 Clarice translations.
Katrina Dodson’s Clarice: “A One-Woman Vaudeville Act”
I have always been fascinated by the fact that Clarice might have been an English language writer. I say this because when her family fled the Ukraine in 1921, they first landed in a refugee hostel in Bucharest, and from there they waited to see whether their relatives in the United States or Brazil would sponsor them. When they heard from Clarice’s maternal aunt and her husband in Brazil, they were issued passports by the Russian consulate in Bucharest and traveled to Hamburg where they would board the Cuyabá, a homeward-bound Brazilian ship. The Lispectors crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the northeastern port town of Maceió, which, as described in Moser’s Why This World, had a dock “graced with its own replica of the Statue of Liberty.” But it was no Manhattan. And if the Lispectors had heard from Clarice’s mother’s half-siblings in the United States first? In my mind, this twist of fate heightens the stakes for Clarice’s English-language translators. Many have tried to render her into what might have been her mother tongue: Grossman and Vasconellos, Bishop, Rabassa, Alexis Levitin, Giovanni Pontiero, Earl Fitz and Elizabeth Lowe. And there is the new crop of translators recruited by Moser, including Dodson, Idra Novey, Stefan Tobler, Alison Entrekin, and Johnny Lorenz.
In Clarice’s final work The Hour of the Star, a slim novel published in 1977 mere weeks before her untimely death of ovarian cancer at age 57, she dedicates “this thing here” to a number of composers including Schumann, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Carl Orff, Schoenberg, and “to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident cries of the electronic generation — to all those who reached the most alarmingly unsuspected regions within me, all those prophets of the present and who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I.” I have no doubt that “all those prophets” include her translators, past, present, and future. She goes on to describe the “I” she “exploded into” and to invoke — provoke — her translators and readers, critics and champions: “This I is all of you since I can’t stand being just me, I need others in order to get by, fool that I am.”
Katrina Dodson, who recasts the Complete Stories into English with an energetic mastery that feels utterly contemporary while evoking the intoxicating dissonance of the original Portuguese prose, calls reading Clarice’s work “a disorienting experience” in her “Translator’s Note.” Dodson then candidly discusses her translation process:
Translating Clarice has meant growing attuned to the ways her sly surrealism, which can veer into the absurdist or fantastical, is embedded in her style. The logic of a deceptively simple narrative or series of declarations becomes distorted or ends in non sequiturs. … The most dizzying feature in Clarice’s writing are the surprises on the level of the sentence. Certain combinations seem contradictory or disproportionate like “delicate abyss,” or “horribly marvelous.” The usual expression takes a detour, as when an elderly matriarch scornfully calls her offspring “flesh of my knee” instead of “flesh of my flesh.” A comma trips up the pace where it doesn’t seem to belong, like a hair she’s placed in your soup. … In keeping up with Clarice’s shifting registers and translating nearly four decades of work in two years’ time, I’ve often felt like a one-woman vaudeville act, shouting, laughing, crying, musing, singing, and tap-dancing my way breathlessly across the stage.
I can attest that attempting to translate Clarice is no easy venture. I tried when I was a graduate student enrolled in the famed UCLA translation workshop with the late Michael Heim, indefatigable teacher, generous mentor, and formidable translator of Milan Kundera, Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, and Günter Grass, among others. He assigned us the task of finding an “impossible text” to translate, precisely so he could teach us how to make good choices as translators faced with worst-case scenarios. I settled on Clarice’s short story “Silence,” which I read as a statement on how to live and how to write. I figured that redeploying her “Silence” into English would help me better glean Clarice’s wisdom. Here is my scratchy version of the opening paragraph:
It is so vast, the silence of the mountain evening. It is so uninhabited. A vain attempt is made not to hear it, to think quickly in order to disguise it. Or to create an agenda, the fragile stitch that barely ties us to the suddenly improbable tomorrow. How to transcend that peace that watches us. Silence so big that hopelessness is ashamed. Mountains so tall that hopelessness is ashamed. Both ears prick up, the head leans, the entire body listens: not a sound. Not a cock crows. How to be within reach of silence’s profound meditation. Of that silence without memory of words. If it is death, how to reach you.
And here is Dodson’s undoubtedly superior translation, where the connection between silence and death, and more specifically between the second-person narrator’s avoidance of silence and enchantment with death, is made much more clear while maintaining the edginess and multiple layers of the original:
The silence of the night in the mountains is so vast. It is so desolate. You try in vain to work not to hear it, to think quickly to cover it up. Or to invent some plans, a fragile stitch that barely links us to the suddenly improbable day of tomorrow. How to surmount this peace that spies us. A silence so great that despair is ashamed. Mountains so high that despair is ashamed. The ears prick, the head tilts, the whole body listens: not a murmur. Not a rooster. How to come within reach of this deep meditation on the silence. On that silence without memory of words. If thou art death, how to reach thee.
Dodson’s successful rendition of Clarice’s “Silence” and my long ago attempt both point to what Moser highlights in his “Introduction” to the Complete Stories:
Clarice undid reflexive patterns in grammar. She often had to remind readers that her “foreign” speech was not the result of her European birth or an ignorance of Portuguese. One of the most highly educated women of her generation was no more ignorant of the standard Brazilian language than Schoenberg was of the diatonic scale, or Picasso of anatomy.
In his “Translator’s Afterword” to The Hour of the Star, Moser says: “no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original.” He assures us, however, that “her books are not untranslatable.” He believes that Clarice’s translators must “resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it that ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.” The hair in one’s soup, as Dodson sees it. Glittering.
In the fiction-writing course I took my junior year of college, a professor assigned a story by Deborah Eisenberg, a writer of whom I’d never heard. We’d been studying the art of dialogue, and I knew enough to admire the characters’ hesitations and evasions, but somehow the story didn’t quite ignite for me. This is a polite way of saying that I was impatient and stupid, and a bad student to boot – I think I must have skimmed the reading in the half-hour before class, still hung over from the previous night. Later, in graduate school, I had a chance to hear Eisenberg read a newer story, and the sound of her voice – surprised and surprising, hilarious and human – made me regret everything my undergraduate arrogance had hidden from me. Well, I’ve spent the years since making up for lost time. After ripping through 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes, twice, and then All Around Atlantis (1997), I managed to track down a $32 print-on-demand paperback of The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg, which combines her first two collections, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) and Under the 82nd Airborne (1992). (Surely it’s time for these to be reissued separately. Paging FSG Classics!) As I started in on Under the 82nd Airborne – the last remaining unread stories – I found myself slowing down, like a kid conserving candy. This gave me some time to think about why Eisenberg’s work affected me so strongly, and why she had vaulted, during that 2005 reading, directly to the head of my list of favorite writers.Eisenberg writes slowly – 28 stories in about as many years – but her body of work hardly feels insubstantial. Rather, each of her unhurried narratives attains the philosophical and psychological depth of a novel. Where a more conventional writer persuades the reader through the accumulation of realistic detail, Eisenberg pays minute, almost Proustian attention to the phenomenal space in which those details occur. She understands that to be human is to be continually “thrown into” the present, and so her characters seem as surprised to find themselves caught up in stories as we are to find them there. Visual features – animals, faces, furniture – list and loom out of defamiliarized landscapes. The characteristic mood is a kind of beguiling bewilderment.In “A Cautionary Tale,” for example, a protagonist named Patty is subletting a studio in an apartment building full of mildly deranged New Yorkers.When she went back down the hall, there was no sign on the floor of Mrs. Jorgenson or her blanket, but as she passed the spot where they’d lain a psychic net seemed to be cast over Patty, and later, trying to sleep, she flopped about, struggling, unable to disengage her mind from the phantom form of supine Mrs. Jorgenson. How tender Mrs. Jorgenson’s puffy ankle had looked, where it was exposed by her rolled-down stocking.There is a kind of deadpan comedy here, the clash of linguistic registers (“flopped” vs. “supine”) undercut by the rhythmic banality of “Mrs. Jorgenson,” but there’s also a great compassion, both for Mrs. Jorgenson and for tender, mixed-up Patty. The imprecisions – “a psychic net” “phantom form” “puffy ankle” – are echt Eisenberg: not loose writing, but an attempt to capture on the page the looseness of consciousness. That is, we can see Patty’s world only as clearly as Patty can herself.The sum of Eisenberg’s comedy and her compassion is a rich and old-fashioned irony, which seem part of her authorial birthright, as natural to her as breathing. Two other legacies carried over into Under the 82nd Airborne are an ear for the eccentricities of speech (interjections like “well” and “obviously” leaven even third-person narration) and a gift for audacious, dreamlike metaphors. The two align neatly in a later scene from “A Cautionary Tale.” Patty’s new roommate, a dilettante named Stuart, has decided that they should have intercourse. She rebuffs him in a passage I can’t resist quoting at length:”I’m not attracted to you, Stuart””You would become attracted to me if you were to sleep with me,” he argued affably.”But I’m not going to sleep with you,” she said.”Don’t you see the beauty of it, Patty? It’s sound in every way – politically, economically, aesthetically. You and I would be an entire ecology, generating and utilizing our own energies.””I’m not here to…to provide physiological release for you,” she said.”Why not? I’m here to provide it for you. Listen, you’re going to start suffering from pelvic distress one of these days. There could even be colonic or arterial consequences, you know.”It wasn’t fair, Patty thought – Stuart obviously felt entitled to win every argument just because he knew more words than she did. She could only repeat herself stubbornly while he continued to whine and orate, disguising his little project in various rationales, until it seemed that one wolf, in different silly bonnets, was peeping out at her from behind a circle of trees.As wonderful as this is – his “little project!” “silly bonnets!” – Under the 82nd Airborne might represent merely a refinement of the technique of Transactions in a Foreign Currency, were Eisenberg not such an ambitious writer. Where the earlier collection plumbed the emotional depths of doomed romances and urban anomie, Under the 82nd Airborne strikes out for thematic territory the feckless Stuart can only gesture at: the political, the economic, and the aesthetic. As “A Cautionary Tale” unfolds, the dialogue will open up to admit long, idea-rich speeches from Stuart and from several intellectual foils. And in the stories that follow, Eisenberg will throw her urban characters into settings that force them to confront cultural difference and the ugliness of privilege.The most haunting of these, the title story and “Holy Week,” draw on the time Eisenberg spent abroad in the 1980s. Throughout Central America, the Reagan administration was funding a series of proxy wars against Soviet-backed revolutions, and Eisenberg and her partner, the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, spent time touring the affected countries. Shawn wrote directly and wrenchingly about his experience in a one-man drama called The Fever. In fiction, however, such directness can easily give way to didacticism. The method of Under the 82nd Airborne allows Eisenberg to avoid this trap. As in “A Cautionary Tale,” we stay rooted in the consciousness of the protagonists, with little authorial intrusion. Characters can speak directly about politics, but Eisenberg refuses to privilege or denigrate their positions. Her wayward Norteamericanos are no more mixed-up than Patty, and she extends them no less of her sympathy and humor.Absent any clear “message,” the chief effect is a radical raising of emotional stakes. When Patty makes a mess of her life in New York, she is the one who suffers. When Dennis, the peripatetic food journalist of “Holy Week,” fails to challenge the system that has put him in Honduras (or anyway, I think it’s Honduras), a whole country suffers with him. In each case, Eisenberg does not pretend to have solutions. “All right,” Dennis thinks at the end of “Holy Week.”Yes, the planet is littered with bodies…But will it improve, the world, if Sarah and I stay in and subsist on a diet of microwaved potatoes? Because I really don’t think – and this is something I’ll say to Sarah when she’s herself again, I suppose – that by the standards of any sane person it could be considered a crime to go to a restaurant.Nested within massive geopolitical conflicts, the tensions between men and women like Dennis and Sarah start to seem very much like dirty wars, the collisions of irresistible forces and immovable objects.Under the 82nd Airborne’s dialectic of power and powerlessness anticipates the themes and settings of subsequent Eisenberg productions including “The Lake” and “Flaw in the Design,” and, in its diary-like arrangement, a story like “Holy Week” presages the formal adventurousness of “Twilight of the Superheroes.” But, even as it consolidates its strengths, Eisenberg’s fiction continues to leave room for “enormous changes at the last minute” (in the formulation of Grace Paley, a writer Eisenberg sometimes resembles). The most wonderful thing about her short stories – the thing I wish were true of my own – is that it’s impossible to guess, from sentence to sentence, what might come next. As a kind of salute, then, I’ll close with a semi-non sequitur: The Friday after Thanksgiving last year, my wife and I found ourselves gridlocked on the New Jersey Turnpike. Our rented car and the tens of thousands stretching ahead and behind us were probably sputtering out enough greenhouse gases to kill several dozen polar bears and maybe a rare species of cancer-curing Arctic flower. Patience continued – well, continues – not to be among my virtues. I was halfway through Under the 82nd Airborne, so I took it out and began to read aloud, and there, in the failing light at the heart of the Eastern Seaboard, we finished the book. I can’t say the world changed, obviously. But for as long as those stories lasted, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.
Pete Dexter’s new book Train comes out October 7th. Here is my review:In the grand tradition of Los Angeles noir, Pete Dexter’s new novel Train, is framed in black and white by the minds eye. Yet Dexter has applied his considerable skill to softening the edges; it is delicately written noir.Train is the nickname of Lionel Walk, a black caddy at a posh Brentwood country club, whose world seems populated only by malevolent forces: the crass racism of the country club members, the criminal element among his fellow caddies, and the undisguised malice of his mother’s lover. In the same city, and yet, of course, in another world entirely, a woman named Norah is brutally attacked and her husband is murdered while they are on their yacht, anchored off the coast. Norah manages to escape into the arms of Miller Packard, whom Train will later dub “Mile Away Man,” which sets the book careening towards its inevitable conclusion. Packard is brilliantly written as both heroic rescuer and herald of malevolent chaos.The mystery inherent in this book is not of the whodunit variety – we know from the start who commits the murder on the yacht – rather it is to see which of the forces that seem to inhabit Packard will win out in the end. In fact, one of the strengths of the book is Dexter’s ability to embody his characters with such ethereal qualities. Packard seems as though he has been touched by some unmentioned force that torments him. Train, meanwhile, has been similarly touched, and though this force is of pure benevolence, one cannot be sure if it will be strong enough to lift him from his circumstances. Train turns out to be, of all things, a golf prodigy, which would be a lucrative gift for almost anyone except someone in Train’s circumstances. Instead, his unaccountable proficiency serves only to further enmesh his life with that of Packard and Norah and a blind former boxer named Plural.Train is bleak but captivating. The book unfolds in front of you, and you find yourself not wanting to look away.