4 Post-Its in Search of an Intro
1. Certain delicate features of literature are easily shattered by translation, while other hardier features will stand up under even casual handling. (Rough analogy? In a drawing class, certain extreme faces – hawk-nosed, great-eyed, bald or lushly-maned – will assert themselves faithfully through all manner of renderings.)
2. When I told Dan Wells I wasn’t sure I couldwrite on translation since my foreign language skills, once modestly athletic, had atrophied with the years; plus, though some of my favourite authors are foreign, I wasn’t sure if that mattered to my reading of them in English, he said, “Try.”
3. Le mot juste. Is the belief in it more a necessary artistic credo than an aesthetic fact? A carver has to believe in the perfect stroke if he is to have any chance of finding the many excellent strokes he will need. Joyce said somewhere that he could defend every word in Ulysses. His requirement to do so – for how could he complete it otherwise? – need not convince the reader that numerous substitutions and excisions might not improve the novel. Usually it does convince, though, even a reader who quits the book in boredom. Why?
4. Quality is an existential bully; it radiates enough authority that the alternatives that might have replaced it fade to faint apparitions. If they disappear entirely we are apt to call the work a masterpiece.
. . . circa 1970, several pimply philosophers
Cool ideas were what we were after. Science fiction was the river we hunted in. Swarming at least one novel, or its equivalent in stories, per night, we behaved as reading piranhas, ravening little squirts with razor buck teeth, able to quickly strip a living carcass of words, however gaunt or obese, healthy or diseased, down to a gleaming white string of disarticulated notions. Cool idea! Unlike piranhas, our interest lay in what-was-left, the glittering inventions, and also in the sharing of them. We traded them like the marbles of two years previous, and the drug-and-sex tips of two years hence. You gotta hear this . . . then there’s this other . . . cool idea.
This was not at all unliterary. It was merely a hypertrophied taste for one of the important elements of literature: ideas. Strong, stimulating thought-fare. Not necessarily true ideas, obviously, but baseline plausible (that is, capable of fulfilling wishes without insulting them). And not necessarily unsubtle, though subtlety will always present transmission problems – author to reader, reader to reader – just as the delicately shaded drawing botches in the copying worse than the bold silhouette. And nor, twerpish though we mostly were, did we have completely tin ears. If someone could think up really cool stuff and convey it in really cool ways – well, such a two-fer would soon be shredded with lending . . . but that’s always been the tallest order, hasn’t it? And if we judged the idea-master with the mealy prose no more harshly than we would a chef who floated delectable morsels in a workaday sauce – is that leniency any more perverse than the modern high-literary preference for rumps of average sentiment, thinly sliced and soothed with a team-stirred reduction garnished with sprigs of local/historical colour?
Though we were boys when we believed in it implicitly, I don’t think the notion of all literature as translation, absurdly epic attempts to cross interpsychic space, was at all boyish – or childlike in any but the best sense of the word.
Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a reader better primed for first-time immersion in Céline. I’d just come out of a mental ward after an eighteen-month stay. As I roamed the streets of
I walked, drank coffee, and read. I’d found several places within a radius of a few miles that had a never-empty cup and waitresses who would let me ride that for three or four hours. I had a library card. When I hit a phrase or passage that was just too good, I copied it into the thick journal I’d bought. My own brilliant scheme, quieter than Shock 2’s (whose given name I’ve never been able to recall, I’m sorry), was to collect this essence of the best, distilling my own portable mini-library between hospitalizations, then reviewing, savouring, memorizing – consolidating – its pages during the times inside.
But I had strict standards. The project demanded them. A line had, like Shock 2, to plant itself in front of me and bellow, barring my way until I recorded it. If I detected the slightest “give” in the verbal presence, I moved on. Bons mots, of every kind, I enjoyed like any reader; holy writ I transcribed.
Céline and his Journey just about undid me. My already febrile and flayed – in other words, prepared – sensibilities were shocked, staggered and stupefied, they were KO’d, sent reeling and belted sideways through the ropes by the torrential brilliance of the medico-literary maelstrom that called itself Céline. I couldn’t get through a page without scribbling something down. Sometimes a single page forced me to flip open the journal three, four, five times. Often one fantastic image cascaded into the next, then the next, and then . . . it might be two thirds of the page before I could legally lift my pen. When it wasn’t tumultuously exhilarating, it was dismaying, tiring, annoying. Aggravating. Who wants to stop reading every three sentences? You don’t know whether to kiss or kick the author.
There was something so familiar, so intimate and almost-cosy, in those first post-ward days, about this Jouney to the End of the Night, everybody’s dark-enraptured ride to the end of the line encoded in its incomparable title, but elaborated and transposed, transported, unforgettably. Infinitely, I would even say. (“Infinite” and “eternity,” in various permutations, are words Céline used constantly, naturally; something, one of many things, that perplexes his rancid guttermouth Jew-baiter persona. He loved dancers, married one finally, and his language, even, or especially, when moling through the blackest of composts, is prone to “leap,” “pirouette,” “spin,” going aerial to perform dogfights, ethereal glides, sunrise banks, flame-outs and death spirals.) “It is not reality which Céline paints but the hallucinations which reality provokes,” said André Gide on the novel’s reception, adding, “I find here the accents of a remarkable sensibility.” It is the sensibility of a translator, I would venture, an author who never for a moment loses the sense of putting his shoulder to the door of a room which will never open more than a crack but whose contents he is determined, however meagrely, with a hopelessly hopeful faith, to display. Such ardors of transcription lead to doggedness, resourcefulness, and strangenesses of the kind that might be called dislocations to suggest an unpinpointable location (because it is everywhere and nowhere?).3
For I never lost the sense, even in the most hectic moments, that angels of translation – clamorous, flappy ones in this boisterous heaven – were the particular spirits attending this sacred copywork in the eye-dimming coffee houses. From Céline’s vast ecology of fantasy, I was stocking an ark with specimens for replanting and breeding attempts on the other side. And the already considerable journey this Journey had made, from a French vernacular slang reputedly a tough stretch even for modern French speakers, was as nothing to the distance Céline had had to cross to incarnate the creatures of his hothouse phantasmagoria in any language whatsoever.
No doubt about it. Céline was Shock 1. The rest of us, echoes, later emanations, laudable in just the proportion with which we honoured the source, limping mimics of that inimitable rap, would have to fit ourselves inside some fractional nomenclature:
1/8, 2/8 . . . 1/16 . . . 1/32 . . . .
A beloved book reread without profit.
Guiltily and fearfully, too. Was I such a dull jerk now that genius bounced off me like nerf balls? Had I become, inside a decade, Catullus’s “fit dolt for the treadmill”?
Or – just as bad, or worse – Could my earlier exultation have been deluded? Adoration of Céline . . . a symptom?
Obviously, both lines of thought were too discouraging to pursue and I must have let them down a drain of some kind.
Twenty years passed.
Dan Wells asked me to consider works in translation, and I took – with due trepidation – Marks-Céline and Manheim-Céline from their dust on my bookshelves.
A thousand compared pages later, the two texts read in tandem, warped and porcupined from several hundred yellow Post-It notes (Céline as exhaustive and exhausting as ever), two general conclusions were obvious to me. The two translations are so different, line by line, word by word, that it is obviously extremely difficult, requiring much ingenuity, judgement and (presumably) compromise, to render Céline’s language into English. More interestingly, though, the distinctive lineaments of Céline’s creation emerge so unmistakably from both translations that, though made of words, they seem impervious to words. The ideas are too cool not to make it across. (Within limits, obviously; they are immune to the fluctuations of skilled translators doing their level best by the work.) This, and not premature senility or recollected mania, was why I’d felt such ennui reading Manheim’s new translation: I was expecting a revelation, but I’d already had it. Manheim’s new version was more smoothly readable while more sharply particular, grittier, earthier, an improvement in most (not all) ways over Marks’s fifty-year-old, and now a little fusty and clunky by comparison, original. But –
– what might be an appropriate analogy? You’re walking through a gallery of rather staid and accomplished artworks, more or less pleasing, more or less equivalent. You round a corner and – WHAM! you’re struck by, slammed by a work of radiant gusto, a giant fresco seething with form and colour, so wholesome and rich in its depraved audacity . . . naturally your tour is over. You ogle until they kick you out. Decades later you hear they’ve made improvements, removal of films and dust, some censored bits, that were occluding it. You go back. The renovations are as claimed. But appreciation is a poor relation, an eighth or ninth line cousin, of awe.
First, though, to the improvements. (Which would, I enviously acknowledge, give the virgin reader now an even purer hit of what floored me.)
Marks, in 1934, was sometimes a bit prudish, where Manheim runs right at things:
Upstairs the woman’s ass was still bleeding. (259)
This casual profanity sounds like Céline, meaning it hangs together better with the rest of the sensibility encountered, whereas Marks’s genteel decorum sometimes makes it seem that a Mormon has walked into the bar:
The woman on the third floor was still bleeding profusely. (300)
And yet, even this seemingly undeniable improvement is not crystal clear. Nothing ever is with Céline. He’s like a big dark sun you’re trying to wrap your arms around. Marks’s reticence may capture a drawing-back from certain matters, a delicacy, even a prudery, that is authentically Céline. Céline said somewhere that a novelist should have a sense of shame, and a repeated motif involves the prose drawing the curtains over a scene that won’t stand any more scrutiny. After parading the grisly horrors of trench warfare near the start of the novel, Céline’s narrator, Ferdinand Bardamu, backs away with a discretion that underlines the carnage terribly, assuring us it’s only a peek:
Each of us returned to his own war. And things happened, a whole host of things went on happening, which it isn’t easy to talk about now, because nowadays people wouldn’t understand them any more. (Marks 43) [Manheim’s version is very similar]
The novel concludes with Bardamu’s obliterating vision, sparked by a tugboat’s hooting call, of the whole world being summoned to disappear. Marks conveys it like this:
It was calling to itself every boat on the river, every one, the whole town, and the sky and the country and us, all of it being called away, and the
The abruptness of this, the yanking shut of theater curtains on an intolerable scene, jibes with Bardamu’s frequent assertions that, though a journey to the end of the night really has no end, there are repeated limits to a voyager’s ability to take (or tell) what he finds. Manheim ends the summons to dissolution with: “ – and that would be the end of us.” (435) It is noteworthy that the two translators would have recourse to such different formulations for words in such an exposed position, the very last in the novel. Each uses the dash and a phrase of abrupt dismissal, but in Manheim the dismissal is of existence itself – a reiteration of nullity that at the end of the voyage is too familiar and too blandly assured – while in Marks the dismissal is of the telling, which has been shocked into (what will prove, with the publication of Mort á credit four years later, temporary) silence.
For the Célinian narrator is, above all, exposed. His nerve endings assault him with jagged illuminations; he sheathes them in dark broodings and digressive ruminations. Which doesn’t mean the tough talk is unreal; it is as real as any hard, clenched muscle. As one reads the novel, one gets used to this rhythm of astonished contact – usually signalled by a startling metaphor – followed by cynical flight. It is the dominant rhythm of the narrator’s contacts with others, especially his contacts with women. As frank and explicit as he is about the body and most of its functions, Céline is more reserved about sex. He seems to have mystical notions about sex, which he acknowledges sometimes, but which he perhaps intuited would vitiate his novel, or just embarrass him, if he voiced them too often or too fully:
[Musyne] has a gift for locating her fantasies in a dramatic faraway setting that gave everything a lasting glow. . . . Her medium was eternity . . . that unfathomable realm (Manheim 66-67) . . . those dreams which blossom out of fact and are man’s only love. (Marks 77) [I’ll combine Marks and Manheim in this way if their different registers blend in a Célinian harmony.]
But I can feel myself straying here from translation; Céline is sucking me into his world-blender, seducing me as he always did. If I want to convey those essences of Céline that Marks and Manheim transmit so faithfully, while wording them so differently, I’ve got to be brutally programmatic. First, though, a remark in passing to correct an impression I may have given. One doesn’t have to believe, as I obviously do, that some of the most translatable literary elements also represent some of the highest literary values. One only has to concede that they are durably transmissible. Some works travel better than others. Why? It’s no counsel of carelessness to admit that some imaginative ecosystems are bigger than others, so richly teeming that they can lose numerous organisms without threatening their major life forms. It’s the marginal systems that keep you counting ticks and fleas. But that image can be taken to imply a simplified equation, Great = Translatable, which is not true (especially not in reverse). It depends on the qualities, not the quality, of the original. Average bottles of artificial vanilla extract give a pretty fair flavour of natural vanilla. With lemon, on the other hand, even the more expensive brands go wide of the real lemon mark. But not because vanilla is a better flavour than lemon. Something, some chemical constituents in lemon, must be more elusive or fragile.
What, then, are the extracts of Céline’s Journey that come across so unmistakably from the very different laboratories of Marks and Manheim?
Strong characters, for one. The world-wandering Bardamu is an unforgettable mixture of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, sneering philosopher, lust-crazed low-life, rhapsodic visionary and persevering slum doctor . . . to name just a few of his shifting attributes. He is a protean derelict, musing from the heights, bitching from the swamps. Robinson, the degenerate (and unregenerate) coward he keeps running into – in “the muddy fricasee of heroism” (Manheim 41) of Flanders, in Africa, in
But I don’t want to be loved anymore . . . It disgusts me! . . . I think it’s like making love in the crapper! [Marks says “lavatory”] (Manheim 424-425) . . . You don’t mind eating rotten meat? Helping it down with that Love sauce of yours? That’s good enough, is it? Not for me, it isn’t. (Marks 498)
And she shoots him in the belly three times. There’s no mistaking characters this raw and startling. And they take prime place in a drama filled with dozens of minor characters just as originally conceived and minutely particularized. This particularization is one of the features of his writing that bedevils Céline’s characterization as a hopeless misanthrope. (No less misguided, as an oversimplification, is the counter-assertion of his heroic compassion in chronicling naked human misery. His imagination was capacious, and his literary judgement astute: paradoxes ramble and collide in his great first novel, but always within the parameters of a finely tuned tone and trajectory.) The true literary misanthrope is more likely to pen a good book club selection, a socio-historical Theme Park in which embodied attitudes jostle toward a conclusion of dogged hopefulness unencumbered by a living person. The casually judging author, whether sunny or sour, trades in broad-brush types; when the Célinian narrator flees to jeering derision, as he does constantly, it is at least partly for respite from the constant threat of his engulfment by obsessively particularized others:
. . . he had the most beautiful eyes you ever saw, supernatural velvet . . . (Manheim 71)
Nature, too, is always trapping the narrator’s eye with minatory revelations:
. . . those ungainly, caparisoned caterpillars which, quivering and foaming at the mouth, kept assailing our forest cabin. . . . God help you if you are clumsy enough to crush one. You’ll be punished with an entire week of intense stench, which rises slowly from that unforgettable mash. (Manheim 144)
Both translators, though Manheim better than Marks, capture the novel’s endlessly inventive and addicting rhythms: joltingly pell-mell, spiky and panicked, then suddenly relaxed, chatting and blackly joking, the forward propulsion harried with sudden reverses and digressions, but always compulsively readable. Harrowing and, just as often, hilarious. (Baradmu, who has become by default the director of a mental asylum, tells how “At Easter time our patients became rather agitated, women in light-colored dresses had taken to strolling back and forth outside the garden. Harbingers of spring. I gave them bromides.”) (Manheim 396) It is miraculous that a novel so rich in internal reflection should also be so rich in external event, the audaciously extravagant escapades that entrammel Bardamu – and which he usually just escapes by fleeing – in World War I, the Congo, New York, the Ford factory in Detroit, Toulouse and Paris. One rich episode among many has Robinson paid by the Henrouilles to kill the wife’s detested mother by wiring her rabbit hutches with explosives. But the bomb explodes in Robinson’s face instead, blinding him. As Bardamu, the doctor, nurses him back to partial sight, Robinson confides that a new scheme is afoot: he and the old lady, his former intended victim, are going to
A translator can’t miss with material like that. Or with Bardamu getting out of Africa only when, raving with tropical fever, he is sold by a priest to a slave galley bound for
To house numerous extended episodes like this, with all their attendant richnesses of description and reflection, should need two thousand pages instead of five hundred. That it doesn’t – that it can be compressed without feeling constricted – is due, I think, to the novel’s sly and brilliant construction. Journey, which can be taken as a grab bag of wild riffs and ravings, is in fact a tightly disciplined delirium, an exploration so focused as to be forensic that only poses as a haphazard picaresque. For all its exuberant sideshows, it proceeds like a dissection, deeper and deeper into the tissues under its glaring lights. But what is the body – the crime one might say – laid out on the table? It is both self and world, inner and outer; the journey proceeds in both directions simultaneously, the seeming paradox made possible by the myriad evocations of the named subject, “night.” Night ramifies, accretes, alludes, and dodges; we learn a new quirk or aspect of it on nearly every page (and almost every page of my old journal), the sum of these revelations, which, curiously like the Cappadocian refusal to fix God’s essence finally, approach without confining, shoving us into intimate proximity with something we can never quite see, confirming Night as both the central character and the presiding genius of the novel. The journey which binds the narrator to this undiscoverable, beckoning night is evoked with equal fluidity (the whole novel, not just its final scene, is riverine): it is a compulsion to “record the worst” (Manheim 18) . . . “to get at the essential truth” (Marks 29) . . . “more a sickness than a voyage” (Manheim 98) . . . “groping among the shadows” (Manheim 145) . . . “a key with which to try locked doors of many years and months, and finally days” (Marks 168) . . . “my vice, my mania for running away in search of God knows what” (Manheim 197) . . . “the strength to go further . . . even deeper and lower” (Manheim 230) . . . “calmly walking round by oneself to the other side of Time”(Marks 287) . . . “meticulous observation . . . a hobby of mine” (Manheim 291) . . . “to go further and still further with Robinson.” (Manheim 329) And Robinson, the always-questionable guide to deeper night, is first encountered as a figment of night, a part of it that detaches with difficulty: “That change in the layout of the darkness had taken place a few steps away.” (Manheim 33) “A few feet away the shadows had shifted . . . There must be somebody there.” (Marks 37) As the search leads the searcher everywhere, everything is to his purpose. Everything seeming to fly apart actually hangs together. The result is one of those world-devouring, world-disgorging novels that, while you are reading it, actually becomes the world. Nothing comes to you that is not Céline-mediated.
One of the great joys of this conceit of the inner/outer journey is that it allows for a complete elasticity of time and perception. When fact and perception of fact mingle across a perpetually permeable membrane, there is no discrepancy in, for example, the narrator’s first visit to a New York cinema taking longer, and seeming more significant, than his training to be a doctor. Metaphor ceases to be an adornment and becomes a law, a life force. Céline’s superabundant metaphorizing seems like precisely the consummation his narrator wishes for so devoutly: “One day when the inner rhythm rejoins the outside one and all your ideas spill out and run away at last to play with the stars.” (Marks 310) That ecstatic, universal communion is what I found, and still find, so shatteringly joyful and permitting a force in Céline. Imagination reels in a playground that is populous and deserted, centrifugal and centripetal; shocked remarks spin away from, and draw attention to, the gleeful panic at the centre.
One can be as innocent of Horror as one is of sex. (Marks 9)
Céline did not stay working consistently at these heights. Who could? In the later, more fitfully brilliant novels, his snarl often dilutes to a whine, his disgust too often lacks its vitalizing obverse of astonishment, and his by-then-signature three dots (used sparingly in his first novel) are too often a lazy stand-in for the jarring juxtapositions that produced the original effect of catching perception on the run. But in Journey to the End of the Night he accomplishes something truly extraordinary. There he functions as that prized anomaly: the fertile hybrid. His pages don’t alternate between plodding rationality and insipid whimsy, each faculty enfeebled by the retreat of the other. He is always fully conscious and fully dreaming, and that is what gives his work its peculiar aura of lucid hallucination. He articulates a world that is perpetually dissolving in the act of reaching us. He crosses our own orbit as both messenger and mirage.
Macbeth: A Picture of Health
A Chinese student of mine, poor in English and disinclined to improve, recently read Macbeth in a translation that was at least thirdhand: Chinese prose (which she also found too hard) rendered into basic English and retrieved in chunks from someone’s website. The results were notably threadbare: “It is a story told by a fool. Full of noise and anger, yet without meaning.” Along with shock at how much was missing (and relief that Faulkner got his title at the source), surprise crept in, a little after, at how much still remained. Shakespeare’s distinctive language may be gone, but the image of bottomless nullity endures. The image is so strong it can survive extensive hacking.
Su wei (I will call her) proceeded to give me a rather remarkable précis of Macbeth consisting almost entirely of vivid pictures. Remarkable because this string of vivid tableaux laid bare the play’s strong skeleton of imagery and event, and, even more remarkably, suggested (to Su wei and to me) many of the subtleties of its flesh, quite without the flesh of Shakespeare’s language.
Macbeth’s battle prowess, his résumé of violence . . . his temptation by witches, whom he more than meets halfway . . . a skeptical friend, a scheming wife . . . “unsex me” invocations (these never fail to impress, perhaps largely due to the word “sex”) . . . a beckoning, floating dagger . . . murder in the dark castle, the frightened perpetrators, blood . . . “Sleep no more” . . . And so on, a necklace of brilliantly macabre moments, until “Out, damned spot!” and the clasp closes with a new traitor’s dripping head displayed.
(None of my students, by the way, fail to see the play as a love tragedy, the childless protagonists driven to separate corners of hell by the very means they had supposed would unite them fruitfully. They arrive at this understanding mathematically, noting Lady Macbeth’s diminishing number of lines and then her absence from many scenes until her pre-suicide ravings. Movie-schooled to calibrate screentime, which in a halfway honest screenplay will predict plot turns (none of my students was surprised, a decade ago, by Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the box in Seven; her coffee shop conversation with Morgan Freeman had prepared them; otherwise, “baby talk in that restaurant . . . waste of time,” as one boy, now a dentist, informed me), they count the solitary scenes that spell the end of a marriage. Not uninterestingly, they see Macbeth as a middle-aged, and thus appropriately perverse, sequel to Romeo and Juliet. Su wei even recognizes the gender divide implicit in the different deaths available to husband and wife: “He can fight other men . . . she just kill herself.”)
Now, if it would be absurd to claim Su wei had any real knowledge of Shakespeare’s language, would it not be equally absurd to deny that she had some significant acquaintance with his imagination? And can that mean, really, no knowledge of language? Can we amputate so neatly the world-staining hands she knows from the “multitudinous seas incarnadine” she cannot, saying one is image and the other words?
The other day, I was reading a translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoires d’outre tombe (a title even Céline might have envied), when I came across the memoirist’s evocation of a bygone era (more fanciful than historical, I assume), “an imperfect state of civilization [in which] superstitious beliefs and semi-barberous customs of foreign origin mingled romance with everything: characters were strongly deWned, imagination powerful, existence strange and mysterious.” Chateaubriand being Chateaubriand, I couldn’t be sure if his tone was more nostalgic or contemptuous, but it struck me that his listed attributes are equivalent to several of the most robust literary features, those most likely to come through translation intact: strong character, powerful imagination, strange and mysterious existence (or sense of existence).
“Exuberance is Beauty,” said Blake. (Who, not incidentally, was constantly aware of translation as the core activity of writing. His poems were “dictated” to him by the visionary world, and he testified in active verbs to the number of realms and faculties they had to cross to reach him: I saw a mighty Devil folded in black clouds, hovering on the sides of the rock: with corroding fires he wrote the following sentence now perceived by the minds of men, and read by them on earth.” [emphases mine]) And exuberance is precisely what is least easily swaddled by decorum or change of costume. Every author is a translator first. So is every reader. Words cross monstrous gulfs to reach us. But admitting all crossings are perilous is a long way from saying all are doomed or even equally costly. If all authors defy you to get them right, some, and the best among them, dare you no less ardently to get them wrong.
1From “a conversation between two persons diagnosed as schizophrenic,” recorded in R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (Penguin, 1967), p. 84.
2John H. P. Marks. Journey to the End of the Night.
3“Everywhere and nowhere,” like “hopelessly hopeful faith,” point to an experience – eerie and brain-arresting, though not really puzzling – I have had from time to time; that is, finding a phrase or passage that might illuminate Céline’s aesthetics – and this is the only time I find such phrases – in a religious work, particularly of the mystical variety. The parallel popped up most recently – as it will pop up again in this essay, if I can slip it in over Our Author’s intensified cacklings in Eternity – in a volume of Simone Weil, in statements such as these from “Decreation”: “It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day. To uproot oneself socially and vegetatively. To exile oneself from every earthly country. . . . But by uprooting oneself one seeks greater reality.”
4Ralph Manheim. Journey to the End of the Night.