After the physical and emotional turmoil of August, September has continued somewhat in the same vein, the only highlight being the couple of days I got to spend at Bloody Scotland. My reading, therefore, continued to be a mix of translations (four out of eleven books), escapism (two uplifting books) and grit (six crime stories).
Paul Gallico’s Jennie was just what I wanted to cope with Zoe’s loss, while Lolly Willowes was witty and liberating, although I perhaps stretched things too much in comparing it with Tomb of Sand. I was sympathetic to but more ambivalent about the female rage displayed by Mareike Fallwickl and Anke Stelling – I could see what both books were trying to achieve (I think), but feel they might have fallen a little short of their ambitions. HIgashino’s Malice was a clever manipulation of the reader and a psychological study of envy and bullying. You can see what our Crime Book Club thought about it here, thanks to Rebecca Bradley’s recording.
Five more crime books in quick succession on my journey to Scotland and then after I fell ill with Covid: Danuta Kot for the realistic depictions of gangland warfare and poverty in the north-east of England, Lisa Unger for sheer page-turnability about the horrors of online dating, Jane Casey for posing questions about the justice system vs. personal morality, Elizabeth George perorating at some length about FGM, and Emma Styles for a refreshingly accurate rendition of Australian teenage girls’ voices, from very different strata of society.
But the best read of the month was made up of Javier Marias’ loopy sentences and tangential observations about everything under the sun in the first volume of his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. I have underlined the book liberally (yes, shock, horror!) but will review it when I complete the entire trilogy.
For October, I am keeping any reading plans very flexible, as my mind is flitting about too much at the moment (plus, I will be translating extensively, which always makes me want to seek out different things than I might normally choose). I have read a lot of books that are suitable for the 1929 Book Club, but am not sure if I will read a new one for the occasion. I might reread the quintessential example of Balkanic decadence and nostalgia by Mateiu Caragiale Craii de Curtea-Veche (Rakes of the Old Court).
I’m trying to sneak in a quick non-Women in Translation review, a remnant of the Stu Jallen’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month (which he has very graciously extended to August for latecomers like me).
I discovered Javier Marias and his trademark long, baroque sentences in 2016 or thereabouts, after seeing so many blogger friends praising him. I had also heard Margaret Jull Costa talk about the challenges of translating his prose (a difficulty compounded by the fact that Marias himself translates from English into Spanish). I absolutely loved A Heart So White and instantly bought several other books by him, but I stalled while reading the first part of the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. So it was with some trepidation that I rediscovered him – and the hypnotic joy of reading his circuitous prose – with the novel The Infatuations.
Like many of his novels, The Infatuations has a mystery at its core, but completely and utterly pulversises any expectations we might have for crime fiction. The narrator, Maria (aka the Prudent Young Woman), has been quietly admiring an attractive couple who have breakfast every morning at the cafe where she likes to go before work. She idealises them, invents a back story for them – just like any one of us would (or perhaps just those of us who are writers).
The nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company. At an hour when almost no one is in the mood for anything, still less for fun and games, they talked non-stop, laughing and joking, as if they had only just met or met for the very first time, and not as if they had left the house together, dropped the kids off at school, having first got washed and dressed at the same time – perhaps in the same bathroom – and woken up in the same bed, nor as if the first thing they’d seen had been the inevitable face of their spouse, and so on and on, day after day, for a fair number of years… There was a camaraderie between them and, above all, a certainty.
Well, isn’t that something to aspire to? Especially if you are a woman who does not have much of a social or love life, and who is not entirely satisfied with her publishing job and demanding, egotistic authors. No wonder Maria feels bereft when her favourite couple abruptly stop coming there for several weeks. At first she thinks they might have gone on holiday, but she then discovers that the man was killed in the street on his birthday.
Shocked out of her customary reserve, Maria decides to go up to Luisa, the grieving widow, when she sees her months later at the cafe with her daughter. To her surprise, Luisa seems eager to speak to her – perhaps as a reminder of happier times, or because she has exhausted the patience of her close friends in talking about her sorrow.
That’s another of the problems when one suffers a misfortune: the effects on the victim far outlast the patience of those prepared to listen and accompany her, unconditional support never lasts very long once it has become tinged with monotony. And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellant… Perhaps Luisa clung to me that afternoon because with me she could be what she still was, with no need for subterfuge: the inconsolable widow, to use the usual phrase. Obsessed, boring, grief-stricken.
While visiting Luisa, Maria meets a friend of the couple, the handsome Javier Diaz-Varela, and starts a somewhat desultory affair with him. Or at least, she suspects that the affair is meaningless for him, because the one person he seems to be most concerned about is Luisa. She soon decides that he is waiting in the wings to emerge as the widow’s saviour, but she cannot help hoping that at some point he will realise that he will never win the woman of his dreams and might stay with Maria ‘out of pure inertia’.
The authors cleverly surfs between the real-life conversations that Diaz-Varela and Maria have (about characters from Balzac and Dumas, of all things!) and through the words that Maria feels he implies through his gestures, until we are no longer quite sure what is real and what is imagined. And then Maria overhears a secret conversation which makes her very suspicious indeed… a melodramatic plot twist that, interestingly, also appeared in the very next book I picked up (56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard). Needless to say, this leads to quite a dilemma, with Maria seriously grappling with issues such as truth and guilt, loyalty and love, and what constitutes justice.
A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny. The trouble with murder is that it’s always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed.
Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.
It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Javier Marias has translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish. In both Marias and Sterne we find something of the same obsession with the seemingly irrelevant detail which grows and grows in importance as time goes by, the lack of concern for narrative linearity and the love of going off on a tangent. I have not heard him compared to Karl Ove Knausgård, but this was the author I was reminded of as I read this, my first book by Marias (but certainly not my last). The same fascination with the fluidity of margins between fact and fiction, the same ability to take the most mundane little detail and philosophise about it endlessly, the same long, meandering sentences… which must be contagious, as I find my own sentences growing longer and longer as I attempt to review this book.
If that sounds like I am trying to put you off Marias, you couldn’t be more wrong. In theory, he is everything that writing craft workshops warn us against; he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He moves from a personal point of view to a generalisation or something abstract within the same sentence, separated by nothing but a fragile comma. His characters are slippery and unknowable, enigmas to themselves and others. He has sentences that run on into whole paragraphs, half a page or more. He often repeats himself (or his characters do). And yet, somehow it all works (thanks also, no doubt, to Jull Costa’s outstanding translation). He is compulsively readable and this was the book which got me out of my reading slump back in December.
There is a mystery at the heart of the book: Juan discovers that his father’s first wife, his aunt Teresa, shot herself in the heart in the bathroom in the middle of a family lunch shortly after they had come back from their honeymoon. As Juan is about to get married himself, he starts wondering why this happened and discovers that his father had another wife even before Teresa. So, at the most basic level, this could be called a ‘whydunit’, but of course it is a lot more complex than that. The protagonist and author question our ability to cope with full disclosure and the past, ponder on just how reliable our perceptions are, how we create stories that we can live with. Above all, it is a poignant meditation on what it means to love and be loved, and how (whether?) that fits in with marriage.
If you’re still not convinced, I probably won’t help matters by saying that the first few pages can seem like hard work, until you get used to the cadence and tumultuous flow of the Marias river of prose. However, if you stop resisting, if you surrender to the hypnotism of his sentences, there is so much to love here! And it’s not all doom and gloom; there are many funny moments too. The author is a sarcastic observer of the foibles of simultaneous interpreters and speakers at international conferences and there is a particularly enjoyable scene where Juan decides to ‘pep up’ a dull conversation between two senior politicians by mistranslating.
So I urge you to give him a go if you haven’t made his acquaintance already and I certainly want to read more by him. What would you recommend I read next?
This is a summary of the hugely entertaining and interesting session on literary translation that I mentioned earlier. Margaret Jull Costa (award-winning translator from Spanish and Portuguese, of José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa, Javier Marías, Bernardo Atxaga and many more) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including Primo Levi, Leopardi, Pasolini and most recently Elena Ferrante) were moderated by Boris Dralyuk (himself a translator of poetry and prose from Russian, including Andrei Kurkov and Tolstoy).
How did you get started in translation?
MJC: I was always useless at most subjects at school but fell in love with the translations I had to do for my Spanish A Levels and discovered I could do them. I then went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at university and was asked to translate some Garcia Marquez for a Granta magazine project – so I started at the very top.
AG: I fell into it more by accident. I fell in love with the Italian language and wanted to read Dante in the original. So I had Italian classes and at some point in 1992 was asked to read an Italian novel in the original by my boss, purely in order to reject it. But I loved it and translated part of it.
BD: My family was Russian-speaking, from Ukraine, but we came to the UK when I was a child, so I forgot all about Russian until I rediscovered it when I was 14. I then fell in love with the beauty of it, especially the poetry.
Which has been your most challenging translation project?
AG: All of them! There’s no such thing as an easy book – even the ones that seem easy are deceptive. Simplicity is sometimes harder to translate, because it can sound pedestrian and banal, while a difficult writer is easier to render into another language.
MJC: Poetry is very challenging. Especially since Spanish and Portuguese are very flowery languages and English isn’t at all, so you have to ‘unflower’ the lines. The syntax and grammar are much more rigid in English, too, while in Romance languages the place of words is more fluid, the pronouns are often dropped and so on.
BD: Dialogue is really hard to get right, to make it sound natural. You have to hear it in your head. I am currently translating stories by Isaac Babel set in my home town of Odessa. And it’s all this jargon and slang (this is where local knowledge really helps), but just so difficult to capture that flavour into English. I’ve gone for a slight American gangster tone.
Do you have a set routine?
MJC: I just sit down at my desk and work. I’m fortunate enough to be doing translations full-time – that’s my day job. I don’t know how you guys manage to do it on top of other jobs, because it can be quite exhausting. My desk is a mess, I surround myself with dictionaries, papers, notes.
AG: It is time-consuming and tiring. I work in the early morning, weekends and during my vacations, sometimes a little bit in the office. I use the internet a lot, not so much for dictionaries, but for extra research, Google images to see what an object might look like, or for further research.
BD: I work on it whenever I’m supposed to be doing something boring in the office. I too use the internet a lot, but I print out and edit on paper, it reads very differently then.
MJC: It is physically exhausting, playing with someone else’s words all day – which is why interpreters at the UN get paid a lot.
Do you prefer living or dead authors?
We all prefer dead authors, because they are very quiet. But we have developed some lovely relationships with living authors – it is such a privilege and relationship of trust. I suppose they like talking to someone who knows their work so well and many are grateful to be translated into English – as long as they don’t think they know English better than you.
Do you read scholarly/critical works?
MJC: Only if I have to write an intro.
AG: I’m not scholarly at all, I don’t even have a degree in Italian. I know nothing at all about translation theory. But sometimes it can be helpful – for instance, I did ask the experts at the Primo Levi Centre in Turin.
BD: I would only read after doing the translation, so as not to taint my feelings.
What would be your dream project?
MJC: I’ve been lucky enough to have already worked on that – a 19th century Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. I translated all his ten novels.
AG: I’ve fallen into everything by chance. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to translate Pasolini, but I became fascinated by him. And, although Primo Levi has been translated, I was delighted to become involved in a project to translate all of his oeuvre.
Who do you wish would get more attention?
AG: Leopardi – a few of his poems are well-known, but his quasi journal filled with philosophical observations Zibaldone is a massive work which deserves to be read more widely. Out of the contemporary writers, I’ve most enjoyed Alessandro Baricco. But let’s face it, translated fiction in general doesn’t get much attention.
Do you have a target audience in mind when you translate?
MJC: No, it’s a purely selfish pursuit. I translate what I enjoy reading.
How do you feel about retranslating the classics?
AG: After 50 years even very good translations can seem dated. There is always room for a new translation – the differences between the various versions can be astonishing. You have to approach your translation as if it will be the definitive one.
Would you translate something you’re not passionate about?
Yes. [Laughter – implication being that it pays]
BD: I’d try to work up some passion about at least some aspects of the work and its author.
MJC: It can be hard if you don’t like the writer at all, but you don’t have to think he or she is a good writer, you can still do a good job.
AG: And you learn something even in those cases, something which will help you in those projects that you are passionate about.
How does your own style influence your translation?
MJC: That’s my greatest fear – that all the authors I translate will start to sound like me. Ultimately, it’s a little bit like being an actor – the charm of doing all the different voices.