The “seasons quartet” by Karl Ove Knausgaard comprises four books. In order of publication, their titles in English are: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. Made of paper (unless they’re in electronic form), each book resembles a flat rectangular box with three sides open and hinged lids on top and bottom. Inside are sheets of paper, bound with glue and thread to the “closed” side of the box. The cover of the box … Never mind all that Knausgaardian verbiage. What’s really inside each book? Autumn’s chapters—“September,” “October,” “November”—start with “Letter to an Unborn Child”; short personal essays follow. Winter follows the same scheme, with “Letter to a Newborn Daughter” heading each month. Spring steps out of the group with a novelly structure. Summer falls more or less back in step with essays followed by diary entries, per month. I was able to read the four books over their publication schedule. Spring I read straight through. Autumn, Winter, and Summer I put down and picked up at leisure. This is the way to do it. A forced march through the essays is not recommended. Even avoiding surfeit by taking them three or four texts at a time, I pondered if these books would have been better, more honest, with the dreck trimmed out, published as a single, longish book. I didn’t feel that way about Knausgaard’s autofiction opus My Struggle, the first five volumes of which I read twice in a row (the sixth is not yet available), or A Time for Everything, his mind-boggling novel which tells of biblical angels and retells a few Bible stories I’d assumed I knew pretty well. Those earlier books formed my conviction, shared by many (but not all, for sure), that Karl Ove Knausgaard is one of the greats whose literary works will live. Even given the enthusiasm carried by conviction, though, it’s plain that the seasons quartet would not stand without Knausgaard’s name on them. Leaving aside commercial ploys—banking on the author’s fame to sell a four-book project—should the seasons books have been published as they are, entirely? Yes, they should have been published as they are, entirely. The seasons books—and the wonders within—show the process of a literary writer. Sometimes he blathers. Sometimes the writing feels forced; sometimes it’s cutesy. Sometimes … you fall under that old Knausgaard spell, and if you can mark when that happens, you get to see a writer in his “flow.” Through the best and the worst of the seasons quartet, Knausgaard’s well-known quest for authenticity, exercised in My Struggle, is more transparent than ever. Authenticity, or truth, if you will: It’s the quest of every literary writer, from the most cynical to the most idealistic. The project was conceived as a series of messages to Knausgaard’s then-unborn fourth child. At the beginning of Autumn, he addresses the child directly: “I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees.” Clearly, the unborn child is muse, not reader. This disconnect makes the tone disingenuous. In “Chairs” (Winter), the description is made for someone who hasn’t the foggiest idea of what a chair is: “A chair is for sitting on. It consists of four legs on which rests a board.” Of course, by the time the child can read these books, or can read at all, hopefully she’ll have the hang of chairs, doors, floors, etc. So why describe the chair? (And not even that well, in this case. If you’re so naive to furniture that you need a chair described, and someone says it has four legs, won’t you think of a dog’s or cat’s legs? Four legs and a board to sit on. Picture it and laugh!) Should the editor have persuaded the writer to trim out from the books all the “A chair is for sitting on” bits? No. Even if the descriptions fail to give us a child’s-eye look at mundane objects, the build-out of tedium can be marvelous. The essay “Winter Sounds” (Winter) starts with the less-than-brilliant observation: “Walking in the forest in winter is quite different from walking there in summer.” And moves to: “The screech of a crow … which in summer is just one note in a greater tapestry of sound, in winter is allowed to fill the air alone, and every single nuance in its rasping, hoarse, seemingly consonant-filled caws stands out: how they rise aggressively at first, then descend mournfully towards the end, leaving behind a sometimes melancholy, sometimes eerie mood among the trees.” Then to a close with snow falling: “That sound, which is no sound, only a nuance of silence, a kind of intensifying or deepening of it, is the sonic expression of winter’s essence.” The main problem with reading too many of the essays in one sitting is that they can be formulaic. Physical description of an everyday object: “A chair is for sitting on …” Ruminations on the object’s use/activity in everyday life. Digression into deep thoughts. Close with an insightful non sequitur. Bada bing! You almost cringe in anticipation. At times, the thoughts are trite, better to have been laid to rest in the closed covers of a journal. At times, they can reach right into the heart of life. “A household of family … exists in the real and aspires towards the ideal. All tragedies arise out of this duality, but also all triumphs.” Then he goes on, “And the feeling of triumph is what prevails in me now, when the kitchen in the house on the other side of the lawn, lit up like a train compartment in the darkness, where only a few hours ago I did the Christmas cleaning, is sparkling clean and bright.” Should the last bit have been edited out? Wouldn’t the text be more powerful ending with “A household of family,” which beautifully evokes Tolstoy’s opening of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”? That wouldn’t be Knausgaard. He doesn’t “edit out.” Nor is he beginning a book about a tragic love affair in the glittering courts of imperial Russia. He’s writing about his family and about himself, a man taking a smoke on the lawn of a modest country house in early 21st-century Sweden. Spring stands apart. It’s a novel—autofiction along the lines of My Struggle—following the time frame of the other seasons books: the period around the birth of the youngest daughter. It’s ripping, heartrending, and like My Struggle, it raises the ethical problem of family-centered memoir and autofiction. On one hand, it’s the author’s and his family’s business. On the other hand, published, it becomes the business of whoever reads it. The exposure the family takes in Spring is daunting. In Summer, Knausgaard’s diary segues in and out of a fiction whose narrator is an old woman looking back on a disastrous love affair. It’s somewhat in the footsteps of Knausgaard’s college mentor Jon Fosse, though not nearly as perplexing as Fosse’s fiction (at least, what’s available in English). Each time Knausgaard announces the story, within his diary entries, it’s with a similar device: “While so far in this text ‘I’ have represented a forty-seven-year-old Norwegian man residing in Sweden with a wife and four children, ‘I’ will soon, as soon as this sentence ends, represent a seventy-three-year-old woman who is sitting at a writing desk in an apartment in Malmö on a summer evening.” The old woman’s story never goes far; it’s like an abandoned novel whose ending I didn’t particularly regret missing, though I enjoyed reading what there was of it. The problem was, after the first entry, the transition began to seem gimmicky, a clever device—should the old woman story have been deleted? Or the transitions made in a more conventional, less self-conscious way, by a space in the text, for example? Should the story have been gathered up into one segment, rather than scattered throughout the diary? No. Leave them in, just as they are. The story and the way it’s told share the writer’s process. Knausgaard writes most compellingly in the seasons books not of objects like toilets and toothbrushes but of his family’s life. He gazes on the belly of his pregnant wife and sees the child move within “almost like the ripples in water when a sea creature moves just beneath the waves.” He watches his son “curled up in a way I have always been affected by, with one knee pulled up to his belly, his head resting against his arm.” He doesn’t stifle the futile, aching urge to protect his children, nor conceal the shameful urge to judge and disparage them over trifles. He lets out the sheer fun of being with his children, both inside and outside their sphere. He lets us in on the joy of family and the deep fear—the deepest kind there is—that comes with deep love. And then he’ll rattle on about something like coins or kitchen utensils. The spirit of Knausgaard’s seasons quartet lies in its process and its flaws, its moments of physical loveliness, the hapless insights, emotions joyful and big-hearted, petty and bitter. Like My Struggle, but using a different method, they show us a man (with a more-than-ordinary talent for putting himself in words). You might not identify with him at all, but you feel him. At times you’ll be glad you don’t know him personally. At other times, he’s a given, like a friend you’ve known almost too long: a friend who can irritate the hell out of you, whose messes you more or less forgive, whose gifts win you over time and again.
It’s a care, a real care, when a writer whose work you love takes on a project like a seasonal quartet. The potential for readerly woe is plain: four novels forced into a form already replete with corny allegories and tired themes. Ali Smith begins her seasonal quartet of novels with Autumn, followed by, of course, Winter. She doesn’t dump those most tired of themes—decay and death. She jumps right into them. Autumn opens: It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. Her Autumn and Winter do indeed fall apart; they unravel. They were never tightly constructed in the first place. Autumn and Winter are no more neatly plotted than life itself; like human life, they are constructed of stories. Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family. At times, all these goodies threaten to tumble us into a literary junk shop, but Smith exerts a literary master’s superb confidence in her readers; she trusts us to make of her glorious mess the novels she wants us to read. The three stanzas of John Keats’s poem “To Autumn,” lend Autumn its three sections: summer’s departure, fall’s transformations, winter’s threshold. Departures, transformations, thresholds: Autumn’s people move and metamorphose in the most dramatic ways we humans know: growing up and dying. Elisabeth, the book’s female protagonist, grows from child to woman, a metamorphosis conveyed in a collage of memory and the book’s present time. Her intellectual and sentimental education is shaped by Daniel, a vital old man who befriends her as a child and teaches her how to see, deeply and subversively, art and literature. Her love for her old friend metamorphoses from that of a father-hungry child, into unrequited quasi-romantic adolescent devotion, into a mature love no less profound for being unspoken; it ripens as Daniel lies semi-comatose in a nursing home bed. With Elisabeth in vigil, Daniel’s dying dreams pare his past to essentials: he forgets the name of his beloved, Holocaust-dead sister but remembers her brilliance and that she called him “summer brother.” His memories both fall away and become evergreen; he dreams he’s a green man, rejuvenated yet unalive, helplessly mythic. Meanwhile, his and Elisabeth’s land metamorphoses, not so much under the seasonal round as from climate change, and Britain unravels, Brexit both symptom and result. By winter, in Winter, things have finished falling apart. They’re dead. Right at the start, Winter says so: God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they all were dead, art was dead…. The dead continue in a fabulous list: heaps of culture, isms, social institutions, electronics, sentiments, dead; yes, dead with few exceptions, all the way through to love. Flowers are dead…. Of course flowers are dead. It’s winter. Except, says this listmaker, an omniscient who pops in now and then throughout the book: Imagine being haunted by the ghost of a flower. No, imagine being haunted (if there were such a thing as being haunted, rather than just neurosis or psychosis) by the ghost (if there were such a thing as ghosts, rather than just imagination) of a flower. Right away, the narrator slyly disclaims any possibility that this is to be a ghost story: "forget ghosts, put them right out of your mind." Winter’s two protagonists, a mother and her son, are haunted by memories they don’t always remember, and by people they loved and failed to love. And yes, by the ghost of a flower: a rose bud, dead and gone for centuries, whose impression pressed into a Shakespeare folio lives as a shapely ghost of the flower. [millions_ad] Sophia lives not as she wishes, not in "a story that’s thoughtful, dignified, conventional in structure thank God, the kind of quality literary fiction where the slow drift of snow across the landscape is merciful, has a perfect muffling decorum of its own," but trapped within a wasteland of her own making, literally wasted by paranoia-induced self-starvation, spiritually wasted by her own systematic rejection of those who would love her most: son, sister, and lover. Sophia’s son Art authors a twee and fairly popular blog, Art in Nature. He tweets to a fairly sizable following. But in a breakup battle royal, his girlfriend destroys his laptop and hacks his Twitter account; her departure severs a good part of his identity. He hires Lux, a young woman he meets at a bus stop, to pose as his freshly ex-girlfriend on his Christmas visit to Sophia. (Lux, an immigrant from Croatia by way of Canada, is engaging but rather boilerplate: the downtrodden outsider, canny and kind, who magically appears to help and heal and astonish with flashes of erudition a family privileged but benighted and emotionally needy.) When Art and Lux arrive at Sophia’s, her physical and mental deterioration prompts Lux to insist that Art call Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Iris, nicknamed Ire, rushes to the house to perform what therapists would call an intervention. Family assembled. Let the holidays begin. The Christmas family dinner is just as awful as any you’ve ever sat through, stomach clenched on the congealing feast. People (the adults) drink. A fight erupts. Mean and mean-spirited things are said, both laughable and devastating. A revelation (not a skeleton-in-closet type secret, more the awkward clunk of a psychological veil falling off) brings a gut-shot truce: silence. In the silence, Art: He now knows he never wants to see another Christmas Day again. What he longs for instead, as he sits at the food-strewn table, is winter, winter itself. He wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it…. For snow to fill this room and cover everything and everyone in it. But winter’s not performing: it’s the warmest on record and no snow will fall to sheathe the woods and cover up Art’s troubles along with his troublesome relatives. And himself. For in Winter, in winter, under the force of family dead, living or absent, masks slip on and masks slip off. Memory reveals and conceals the past. Art, too (arty art, as Elisabeth’s mother says in Autumn—not Art, though he does too) reveals and conceals. Autumn and Winter center on the works of two real-life artists, both of whom are dead. In Autumn, it’s Pauline Boty, an English pop artist who died in 1966 at age 28, and whose mostly forgotten works are undergoing a revival. Daniel, who knew Boty, describes one of her works to 11-year-old Elisabeth. Then: What do you think? Daniel said. I like the idea of the blue and the pink together, Elisabeth said. Pink lace. Deep blue pigment, Daniel said. I like that you could maybe touch the pink, if it was made of lace, I mean, and it would feel different from the blue. Oh, that’s good, Daniel said. That’s very good. What does Daniel want? Elisabeth’s mother demands. Why would a man more than 70 years old befriend a little girl? No one can answer that, Daniel least of all. Maybe he wants a daughter to teach, or maybe he longs to open the eyes of his long-dead little sister. He must want to relive his love for Boty, an affair no more physical than his relationship with Elisabeth. Both man and girl want and need what we all want and need: a true friend. As Daniel says on meeting Elisabeth: The lifelong friends, he said. Sometimes we wait a lifetime for them. Ali Smith’s treatment of Boty and her work could be called Feminism 101: the objectification of our bodies, the ignorance, intentional or careless, by critics and academics concerning our works, the dismissal of us as artists. (“Feminism 101” is not a slight or sneer. We all keep flunking Feminism 101, and we all need to keep taking it, over and over, until we learn it.) Winter’s central artist, Barbara Hepworth, who died in 1975 at age 72, worked in stone, cold, hard stone sculpted into the softest forms, rounded, caressable, often shaped as that most tender icon of our iconography: mother and child. In Feminist 101 terms, Hepworth was more the exception than the rule, one of the few renowned female artists of her time. One of Hepworth’s works, or what seems to be part of a work, takes on life as a disembodied child’s head that Sophia sees floating near her. The contact is both delusional and beautifully fulfilling, for Sophia’s evolving hallucinations of the stone “head” follow the trajectory of her own memories and needs and loves. She’s not a good mother; like most mothers, she’s the mother she is. Or she’s the woman she is, at different times. She’s the mother of a gentle, sensitive boy. She’s a woman in love with a man who looked at her through a holly wreath and owned a Hepworth sculpture. She’s a business woman for whom djellabas and Afghan coats, stuff beloved by her sister’s dope-smoking friends, are no more than trendy wares to buy and to sell at the highest markup she can get. Both Autumn’s Elisabeth and Winter’s Sophia embrace art, but whereas Elisabeth takes a more political, intellectual route, Sophia literally embraces her artifact as a memento of lost love: the lover, face framed in evergreen, who gave her the most blissful days of her life, the child she never could embrace, “a squalling, appalling dark night of the soul.” Save for a few, select, painful and blissful memories, the past for Sophia means no more than her shedful of faux-aged trinkets (the detritus of her closed-down business). Sophia yearns for a clean, featureless beauty, without story, unpeopled, with no possibility of fiction and its cheats. She accuses her sister Iris of “myth-making.” Iris is happy to make story. Sophia’s austere, ideal Beauty doesn’t concern her much. She cares for the human—humans—whether in art or politics. When Art texts her to ask the difference between politics and art, she replies: the diff dear Neph is more betwn artist and politician—endlss enemies coz they both knw THE HUMAN will alwys srface in art no mtter its politics, & THE HUMAN wll hv t be absent or repressed in mst politics no mtter its art x Ire. Art himself is trapped in the middle. He dreams of being chased by giant flowers, metamorphosing into a stone knight so they can’t eat him. Sheltered in stone—oops! he’s captured in stone. He’s become stone. Inert under the accusations of his anima/ex-girlfriend (“dead, she said, like your political soul”), he whines: Stop bullying me. I am political. It’s pathetic. Look at you, all mouth and stamen. Look at me, stiff as a stone. What would Freud say about this dream? Smith leaves it to us to imagine what Freud would say: devouring females and the paradox of stones: a never-alive mineral, a man’s generative parts. Paradox and puns are not dead. Autumn doesn’t draw Winter’s sharp line between living and dead. The season is, after all, as Keats put it, “season of mellow fruitfulness.” Boty’s work is of paper and cloth, Hepworth’s of stone. In the underworld of dreams, Autumn’s old man Daniel is trapped inside a pine; Winter’s young man Art is locked in stone. Autumn sheds summer’s dress of green gently, passively. Winter is hard ice and death. Not to say that Autumn holds autumn blameless. After things fall apart, winter’s unmasking is all the more brutal, all the more essential, its potential all the more thrilling. One of Winter’s ambiguous narrators—maybe it’s Iris story-telling to the child Art, maybe it’s Art mansplaining that story to Lux—tells a tale of a child captured by the god of winter. But don’t worry. Because the child shoots through that underworld like hot blood through the veins of every cold dead person who grew up to be lost in the snow, and there are millions of them, and the child passes like warm blood through them all and what the child is seeing when it does is pure colour, the colour green, Christmas green, green at its brightest, because green isn’t just a summer colour after all, no, green’s a winter colour too. What’s implied: But the child won’t be able to melt the ice, if we don’t get any ice at all. Climate change threatens Autumn’s green man and Winter’s ice god alike; it threatens to extinguish the seasons themselves. Yet here Smith’s novels thin out, not because of the dreaded seasonal conceits, but because they verge on preachy. Brexit, climate change, Donald Trump and his followers, nuclear saber rattling, hard-hearted immigration policies, pollution: all are issues vital to the characters (and us), whether we demand change or justify the status quo, but at times the author’s concerns nearly smother the characters’ concerns, and the books become, at moments, just for moments, Ali Smith’s bully pulpits. Maybe that’s exactly right. If Shakespeare’s Prospero (who looms large in Autumn) can break through the fourth wall to beg life-giving applause, why shouldn’t a novelist engage her readers in a worthy cause? Smith’s skill is to make us realize how much we miss the seasonal treasures cherished by the children of autumn and winter: the ponds and canals that used to freeze over and we’d get out our skates, the balmy gift of an Indian summer interrupting late fall’s death-grip chill. And it’s not as if she and her characters ignore the tension between art-making and activism; art as beauty versus art as message; art versus artist. Art versus reality, for that matter. Autumn’s Daniel owns that, for him, love is “how eyes that aren’t yours let you see where you are, who you are.” He’s stuck seeing his reflection in the eyes of his beloved, rather than the beloved itself—herself. Winter’s Art, too, is in love with the image—of himself, of his ex-girlfriend, of his faux girlfriend. Paradoxically, his self-awareness, what his ex called narcissism, and his passiveness may give him the means to break free. He reflects: That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you. Or is he eyeing a retreat? Is it a retreat, from the hard issues of our season, to revel in the pleasure of reading passages like this, in Autumn: The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things. And in Winter: That’s where the birds came in and out, they were pigeons, no, they’re called collared doves, they had their families here, several families over the years, I remember there were quite a a lot of birds in here at one point. They made a lovely soft sound. We gave them a box full of straw to nest in but they brought their own twigs and took bits of the straw and wove them together, built nests up in the rafters and only used this room when it was rainy or cold. They mate for life, you know, those birds. I think you’ll find that’s a myth, Sophia said. Bending and breaking national borders, disastrously vulgar world leaders, narrowing social policies, loudening militancy, expanding deserts, shrinking glaciers—is it the worst of times, the very worst of times, after which times can only end? Or can the ghost of a flower: the life of it reaching across the words on the page for all the world like a footpath that leads to the lit tip of a candle —or can the image of a flower’s ghost, a photo viewed on the Internet, an impression of a rose trapped in dead-tree medium of words (the Shakespeare folio)—can it really light up the world? Can art light up anything? If we’re in the worst of times, can things only get better? Do we have to wait for Spring to find out? I’m looking forward to spring. I don’t like the cold. Where I live, the snow comes down these days as sleet and the dust on my ice skates thickens every year. But I’m also looking forward to Spring because I love Autumn and Winter.
Charlotte Mandell lives immersed in words and sound. She translates French to English; she loves music and books; her husband is the poet Robert Kelly; her spiritual practice, Tibetan Buddhism, involves extensive chanting. One of her favorite ways to relax is to feed songbirds, including a cardinal so tame he’ll hop up in her lap for a handout. Paradoxically, a quiet presence envelopes Mandell, perhaps an emanation from the heart of her spiritual practice, meditation that cultivates inner silence. Both an ear for the rhythms and music of language and a receptive quiet interlace with Mandell’s translation work. Mandell’s facility with the French language took root during childhood summers in the French Alps. Her parents, Marvin and Betty Reid Mandell—both professors, activists, and founding editors of the journal New Politics—brought up their daughters in Boston, where Mandell attended Boston Latin High School. There, a young French teacher, Michèle Lepietrem, fired Mandell’s love of French, and she went on to major in French and film theory at Bard College, translating for her senior project a book of poems by Jean-Paul Auxeméry. She spent her junior year in Paris studying semiotics and film theory at Université de Paris III. Her published translations span French literature, from classic to contemporary, from fiction to poetry to nonfiction. Years of esteemed obscurity ended with the English edition of Mathias Énard’s Goncourt Prize winning-novel Compass. Mandell’s translation, called “a feat of great beauty” by New York Journal of Books and “resoundingly successful” by The New York Times, put Compass on the short-list for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, co-awarded to author and translator. The London festivities for MBI included bookstore appearances and a radio interview leading up to the live-streamed awards dinner—a daunting agenda for Mandell: "I like writing as other people,” she says. “I don’t think I have much to say as myself.” As it turned out, London “really was like a fairytale,” she said. Most rewarding, she got to meet Mathias Énard face-to-face after nearly 10 years translating his work. On her return, we had a chance to talk about her translation process, and about Compass. Like the narrator of Compass, Mandell carries her past in her surroundings, though with more joy than aching nostalgia. Her office is cluttered with memorabilia: many, many stones and crystals; bird feathers; sea shells; religious paraphernalia and images of Buddhist saints and gurus; family photos; love poems from her husband; souvenirs from her travels. Bookcases are packed with books in French and English, including her translations and her prized complete Le Grand Robert French Dictionary, in six volumes—though for work she uses a digital edition of Harrap’s Professional French-English Dictionary. The Millions: What is your work rhythm? Do you have any rituals that help get you started or keep you going? Charlotte Mandell: I work best in the late afternoon to early evening. I’m not a morning person, though I wish I were. No rituals except coffee or tea. Music, classical always, opera usually. Oh, actually, I do burn incense. I work a lot with aromatherapy, and it helps if I can smell something good while I’m working. Usually it’s Japanese cedar or sandalwood, and frankincense and myrrh. TM: Are those scents in particular conducive to intellectual and creative work? Or is it just personal preference? CM: I find those scents very calming and conducive to intense concentration. In ancient times, sandalwood was associated with the intellect. I also diffuse lemon oil to wake me up if I’m feeling sleepy. TM: What are the “nuts and bolts” of your process? Do you write by hand or on computer? Go sentence by sentence? Paragraph by paragraph? CM: I always work on the computer—it’s faster, and I try to work quickly—and I work sentence by sentence. I try not to think too much as I’m translating. “First thought best thought,” as Chögyam Trungpa said. [Chögyam Trungpa was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist gurus to teach in the West.] If I come across something particularly difficult or challenging, I leave it in bold face and come back to it later. Depending on what I’m working on, I try to translate about 10 pages a day. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but translating is mentally draining, and I can’t do much more than that if I want it to sound like good English. Then I read over what I’ve just translated, change it to sound more fluid. The next day I enter the changes into the text. When I finish the entire book I read over my translation very carefully and enter more changes. Then I read over that. I keep editing until I’m happy with it. Revision is an important process to me. TM: How do you get a feel for a work as you embark on translating it? CM: It usually takes me a week or two to really inhabit the voice and to feel it coming organically from within. Since I don’t read ahead, the voice has to sort of come on its own, as I translate. If I stay faithful to the text, and translate it as literally as possible, the voice usually comes on its own. Starting a translation is always the most difficult thing for me. It gets much easier when I’m about 50 pages in. TM: Translating is a creative process, yet a translator is bound to adapt to each author’s work. For example, your translation of Marcel Proust wouldn’t be like your translation of Mathias Énard. How do you negotiate the unique demands of each work? Each author? CM: I trust the text to tell me what it wants. I think the sign of a good translator is the lack of a particular “style.” You shouldn’t be able to guess who translated a particular work. Each work should sound unique and different. The less the translator inserts himself or herself into the work, the better it will sound. I try to let the work speak for itself. TM: You’ve said that you translate as you read. Among ordinary readers, this is a very unusual experience: to translate while reading. Can you describe in some way the effect of it, how the words mix in your mind? CM: When things are going well, you sometimes forget you’re translating—you feel as if you’re writing and reading at the same time, if that makes any sense. You become completely absorbed in the narrative until you’re inside the words and they’re flowing on their own. It’s a wonderful feeling, mesmerizing and addictive. I very often lose track of time when translating an absorbing book. TM: How does being married to a poet inform your translation work? CM: One of Robert’s favorite sayings is “All language is translation,” and I agree with him. Whenever we speak or write anything down, we’re translating our inner thoughts into language; we’re finding the right words to convey our thoughts. Robert’s command of language is extraordinary. He can read a number of languages—his first job was as a translator, actually. He was also raised with Latin and Greek, so we have similar backgrounds. My appreciation of beautifully wrought sentences and complex grammar is due in large part to Robert’s poetic use of language. He’s also my best editor. He reads all my translations and makes excellent suggestions to improve the English. TM: You use the words “sound” and “voice” and “speak,” terms usually applied to spoken, not written, words. It brings to mind Karl Ove Knausgaard’s praise for Don Bartlett’s translation of My Struggle—that Bartlett captured the “voice” and “rhythm” of the original. For Knausgaard, that seems to be the most essential quality in a translation. CM: I agree, the narrative voice is the most important aspect of a translation, especially in the cases of Zone and Compass, where the voice is all-pervading. Once you get the voice, everything else—rhythm, syntax, grammatical structure—falls in place and flows naturally. TM: There’s the sound, the voice of the translation. And there’s the technical side, grammar, vocabulary, and such. But you’re also charged with capturing the meaning of the text, the author’s intentions. Do you ask the author what the work is about before you begin? CM: I don’t ask the author anything at all! I just start right in, translating. That’s the way that works best for me—the work will tell me what it’s about. I love that feeling of the unknown before I translate a book. It’s what a reader feels when starting to read a book for the first time. You have no idea what’s in store for you, but you’re eager to find out. And invariably you find yourself changed by the time you reach the end. TM: Some authors don’t get involved at all in the translation process; they just leave it up to the translator. Again, we can cite Knausgaard and Bartlett. Other author-translator pairs are much more enmeshed. Take, for example, Paul Celan and Michael Hamburger. Before their unfortunate falling out, they corresponded extensively. Can you describe your interactions, your process with Mathias Énard? CM: I prefer to translate the whole book, then send the final draft to the author for comments or revision. Mathias doesn’t interfere during the translation process, and he doesn’t usually change very much. He trusts me, which is gratifying. Since he translates Arabic texts into French, he knows the issues involved in translation. If I have questions, I text him via WhatsApp or send him an e-mail, and he answers right away. Before meeting him, though, I was hesitant to bother him. Now that I’ve seen what a lovely and generous person he is, I won’t worry about disturbing him. I feel more free to ask him questions. TM: How have other authors inspired your process? CM: Working with Jonathan Littell was very instructive. He’s completely bilingual, raised speaking both French and English. Often he had a particular phrase in mind that he wanted to use in English, and though it diverged wildly from the literal French, it conveyed the same meaning. He helped me to be freer in my translations and to be unafraid of taking liberties when necessary. TM: You share the practice of Tibetan Buddism, as it turns out, with Mr. Énard’s wife and with Sarah, a central character in Compass, and with me. In fact—I don’t know if you remember—we were on a retreat when I first learned that you’re a translator; you were working on Mathias Énard’s Zone. Did you advise or discuss Buddhism with Mr. Énard? CM: I didn’t advise Mathias about Buddhist matters, but I did, with his permission, insert some Tibetan words for ceremonial instruments—radong [also transliterated rag-dung, a long horn somewhat like an alphorn] and gyaling [a double-reeded woodwind somewhat like an oboe]—into one of Sarah’s letters from India. I also added the word bardo after barzakh, since they both point to the same thing, and I thought those were words Sarah would use. [Tibetan bardo means, literally, interval; it usually refers to the phase from death to rebirth. Arabic barzakh means, literally, separation, and refers to a purgatorial phase from death to resurrection.] TM: How does the practice of Buddhism affect your work? CM: I find Buddhism very conducive to translation. When you meditate, you empty yourself of a “self,” a sense of ego, just as when you translate, you forget about yourself and become someone else: the narrator, the author’s voice. I think that’s why I enjoy translating so much—I like not being myself for long stretches of time. TM: Do you identify with any of the characters in Compass or in other works you’ve translated? CM: I felt very close to Sarah, and to her descriptions of her Buddhist practice—but then, I identify with all the characters I translate! When I translate a book I end up inhabiting the characters in a very intimate way, so that I often dream as them. This was a problem when I was translating The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. I had recurrent dreams—nightmares, usually—as Max Aue, the Nazi narrator. With Franz Ritter [the narrator of Compass], it was more a case of inhabiting his melancholy state of mind, and identifying with his longing for Sarah, the long-lost beloved. One of the perks of being a translator is that I get to inhabit a male character and see how his mind works. I think that might be one reason I enjoy translating male authors: it’s a window onto the Other, another way of not being my “self.” TM: Before you left for London [for the 2017 Man Booker International awards], you were looking forward especially to meeting Mathias Énard for the first time. CM: It’s such an interesting thing to meet for the first time an author whom you’ve been translating for almost 10 years—like meeting an old friend for the first time. TM: What did you two talk about? CM: We talked about lots of things: sailing, which we both grew up doing; the Lebanese restaurant Karakala in Barcelona, which Mathias co-owns; Buddhism, a little bit. Strangely, we didn't talk about Compass. TM: What do you think Compass is about? CM: Compass is not really “about” any one thing. The pleasure in reading it comes from the language itself more than from the plot. For me, the experience was similar to that of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. You see the workings of the narrator’s mind, how it jumps from one thing to another and back again, how it obsesses with one thing—Sarah—while recalling others—books, scholarly papers, music, faraway places. Mathias described the book once as “a Thousand Nights in One,” and I think that’s as good a description as any. TM: At the end of the joint radio interview of you and Mathias Énard [BBC World Service, 12 June 2017], he said: “Compass is not a cemetery, you know. It’s not about lost places. I think it’s about the hope that we can have those places again.” For me, the book’s arc didn’t lead that way. I wouldn’t call Compass “dark” by any means, but hope was introduced late—not only in the romance but concerning the narrator’s health. So the book itself left me unconvinced by Mr. Énard’s statement. My take is that the book has an open and ambiguous trajectory, and a bittersweet ending—but let’s start with, “Compass is not a cemetery.” CM: I think Mathias was saying in the interview that Syria isn’t a cemetery. We see the devastated parts of it, but there are still huge swathes of it rich in culture and alive with people. TM: Do you agree with the rest of Mr. Énard’s statement? I guess my question is, where’s the hope, in Compass? CM: There is an ancient saying, by Antisthenes of Greece, which I grew up memorizing: “To the wise nothing is foreign.” The hope in Compass is the hope of openness to the Other, a certainty that there is no “us” and “them,” there is only “we.” The East permeates and influences the West, and vice-versa. The hope lies in the narrator’s curiosity—which should be ours as well, in his thirst for knowledge. Compass is a love letter to the Other.