Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The sight was stunning

She had to admit the sight was stunning, though. There were squat ships and circular ships, brightly coloured ships and severe black, white and grey ships, ships made to resemble birds or giant fish; there were ships which seemed spun from spiders' webs and hung with silvery droplets of dew, ships so massive they looked as if they would sink into the super-reinforced concrete of their pads. A million shades of metal flashed and clashed in the crowded port. Peoples of every race and manufacture walked between the gantries or sailed above them in open air-cars leaking colour. And when the atmosphere testers came on, the new arrivals were hit by a sea of scents out of which it was possible to detect burning metal, fuels of every kind, plants, bodies, cooking food, the life-gasses of a thousand worlds.

— from The Coming of the Terraphiles (Or, Pirates of the Second Aether!!), by Michael Moorcock.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I'm reading a Doctor Who novel. I've been curious for years, thinking it might be just the thing to ward off serious withdrawal symptoms (or boredom) between television seasons. But it's not just any Doctor Who novel. It's one written by Michael Moorcock, whom many consider to be an author of very respectable science fiction and fantasy — that is, if your definition of respectable includes free-wheeling attitudes toward sex and drugs and rock and roll. As a bonus, this Doctor Who adventure features a journey into the Second Aether, and an encounter with a pirate captain, who is an incarnation of none other than the infamous and too-charming-to-be-trusted time-travelling superhero Jerry Cornelius, whose chronicled adventures I read back when I was 16.

The first section of the book concerns the Terraphiles, a group of hobbyists who delight in the reenactment of all things ancient Earth, where their idea of ancient coincides with early 1900s and, not surprisingly, many of the details have been lost in translation over the centuries, and the theft of a hideous designer hat.

When opened, the box revealed the most stomach-turning confection of poisonous colours, ebony, feathers, gauze, ivory, bits of silver, gold and presumably platinum wire plus a whole shower of precious stones mined from the bowels of a hundred planets, four multifaceted gems resembling eyes, the whole more than adequately arching over its generous brim of about a meter and a half around his spouse's head and bearing an uncanny likeness to a Shummyunny, the predatory arachnid occupant of Perseus IX, which was actually the creature of nightmares. Certainly of Mr B-C's nightmares. These said creatures were inclined to fill him with a mixture of nausea, dizziness and an irresistible tendency to race into the world cawing like a rook and tearing off all his clothes until he had located a small, dark space into which he could lock himself and give vent to his inevitable diarrhoea.

For the most part is sounds rather cheerio, as if Douglas Adams had adapted an Agatha Christie novel for a movie starring Cary Grant.

The latter portion of the novel is more sci-fi-y with the dangerous gravitational pull of black holes, contact with antimatter, dark tides, and life-threatening time storms. And pirates. It looks like this group of Terraphiles is being deliberately thwarted from reaching Miggea, where they are to play a championship tournament in some weird "authentic-Earth" sporting event (the Doctor's on the team). It's suspected that the trophy may be more than it appears to be.

Or maybe the journey is being kept off course because of the hat.

There's nothing particularly deep or especial about this novel, and it does nothing to enhance the characterizations of the Doctor and companion Amy Pond or expand the Doctor Who canon, but it is a great deal of fun.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My mind plays tricks on me

So with morning coffee I read chapter thirteen, about Julius stopping at a bank machine and freezing on his PIN, trying and thinking and just blanking some 20-odd times. My mom meanwhile is turning the house upside down looking for the soup packets she meant to send home with me — my favourite instant soup she'd set aside so it wouldn't be forgotten. Don't worry about it, I tell her. Like the kid's school pictures I spent the last 3 weeks looking for (and finding in a place I'd already checked twice), and disc 2 of season 3 of Doctor Who, the one with the Shakespeare episode, which inexpicably isn't in its DVD case — I'm still looking for it.

Chapter fourteen, Julius goes to visit the professor. But wait! Didn't he die? Julius had called, and a strange woman answered and told him he'd died. Did I imagine this? But if I don't know for sure whether I read this, I won't know for sure how to understand the next part of the story. Was it someone else who died? (I know the patient died, but the circumstances were different; I'm not mistaking that death for this one.) Why am I so sure it was the professor? Maybe it's not in this book at all, maybe it's some other book I was reading, but I haven't been reading anything else. Maybe I dreamt it. When I woke up with someone's name on my lips, maybe it's because I dreamt I phoned and learned he died, and for some reason I associated him with the professor.

I can't read forward until I know.

J-F ask for his mouse, knows I have the mouse, accuses me of hiding his mouse. He'd handed me the mouse and asked me to tuck into one of the bags. I don't remember this. I can describe the contents of my suitcase in detail, down to the kid's spare socks, the white ones with the blue and green flower shapes, in the back bottom left corner (when the suitcase is oriented as it's lying open in front of you) and the travel size body lotion and spare plastic bag tucked in the top outside pocket. J-F never remembers anything. J-F insists. I think he must be joking, but I can't be sure.

We pack the car. I find the GPS jammed under the seat. It's been "missing" since January. I assumed it had been stolen out of the car, since J-F often forgets to lock it. I spend the next several hours checking the book up to page 168. I skim backwards and forwards. It might've served my purpose better if I actually reread the book, carefully, starting at page one, but as a rule I don't read in the car, much as I would like to, because it's rude; not reading is a gesture of solidarity with the driver. But this isn't reading, it's looking for something. I don't dare turn past page 168.

No one died like I remember it.

I finally settle into bed, leave the day behind me. The kid left her necklace on my mom's dresser. Nothing to do but read forward. Let Julius visit the professor, who in my memory is already dead.

Chapter sixteen, Julius calls up the professor, and a woman, not Mary, tells him he died, and he hangs up, just like I remember it.

Why would I have read page 183 if I hadn't naturally arrived there? When did I do this? I never skip forward. When I test drive books at the store, I start at the beginning. It's not standard to excerpt pages from the latter portions of a book. Did I flip open to page 183 by accident? The contents registered themselves on my subconscious mind, while I consciously worked to erase them? My mind plays tricks on me.

Friday, May 18, 2012

How fleeting the sense of happiness

I became aware of just how fleeting the sense of happiness was, and how flimsy its basis: a warm restaurant after having come in from the rain, the smell of food and wine, interesting conversation, daylight falling weakly on the polished cherrywood of the tables. It took so little to move the mood from one level to another, as one might push pieces on a chessboard. Even to be aware of this, in the midst of a happy moment, was to push one of those pieces, and become slightly less happy.

— from Open City, by Teju Cole.

I am finding my groove with this book finally, liking it more, and reading it much more slowly.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The abessive

Finnish is weird. It's not related to very many other languages, and it's relatively highly inflected — 15 noun cases and moods that include optative, potential, and eventive — making it pretty interesting linguistically speaking.

New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani, is only indirectly about grammar. You need have no knowledge of Finnish in order to appreciate the novel. In fact, the reader makes discoveries about the Finnish language through its protagonist, an amnesiac who has lost the ability to communicate and who, when it's assumed that he's Finnish, sets about learning the language.

The thing he likes most about Finnish is the abessive, "a declension for things we haven't got: koskenkorvsatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It's beautiful, it's like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven't got than that we have."

For the man who assumes the name Sampo Karjalainen, because that's what the label in his jacket says, learning Finnish and roaming around Helsinki are the only possible way to stir up some memories, reclaim an identity. Oh, and it's 1943 — war is raging outside.

I don't know much about Finland, so it was a bit of an eye-opener to read about Finland's involvement in World War II, its warring history with Russia in particular, its relationship with Slavic peoples, and its epic tradition.

The Kalevala is Finland's national epic, with a creation myth, magic, and romance. The Sampo is a magical talisman said to bring luck to its holder and consequences on those who come into contact with it.

"When you read the Kalevala you will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us! Look!" he added, opening the black leatherbound volume on the table. "These are not just words! This is a revealed cosmogony, the mathematics that holds the created world in place! Ours is a logarithmic grammar; the more you chase after it, the more it escapes you down endless corridors of numbers, all alike yet subtly different, like the fugues of Bach! Finnish syntax is thorny but delicate; instead of starting from the centre of things, it surrounds and envelops them from without. As a result, the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in upon itself; her meaning ripens slowly and then, when ripe, flies off, bright and elusive, leaving those who are not familiar with our language with the feeling that they have failed to understand what has been sad. For this reason, when foreigners listen to a Finn speaking, they always have the sense that something is flying out of his mouth the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight: it is this that you must catch, using your eyes and ears. Hands are no help. This is one of the loveliest things about the Finnish language!"

New Finnish Grammar is a sad book, and quietly beautiful, but not the astoundingly original novel many reviews would have me believe. It's sad, but at a distance.

What Marani captures brilliantly is the experience of living in a foreign language. While my experience of choosing to move to a bilingual city in no way compares to Sampo's sense of isolation and his desperation to claim an identity, I do know what it is to be a linguistic outsider: no matter how well you conjugate your verbs, there will always be people who speak too fast or with a peculiar accent, that you will asking to repeat themselves or reconcile yourself to missing half of what they say; there will always be words whose meaning you have to piece together from context, semantic nuances you won't detect, cultural references that fly right past you. It is near impossible to be fully fluent in a language you learned the hard way.

In 1943 Finland, the present is bleak and the future uncertain; as time goes, it becomes harder to feel sympathetic toward Sampo. This book could have been about its other characters: the doctor who first found Sampo, the pastor who tutors him, the nurse who falls for him. Each of them has their own struggle with the past and their place in the world. I think it might have been a better book if these characters' stories were fuller, to balance Sampo's lack of a story.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

This strangest of islands

This strangest of islands, I thought, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused. I stood on the promenade and looked out across the water into the unresponsive night.

— from Open City, by Teju Cole.

I am liking this book well enough, but not loving it the way I expected it to.

I am missing the feeling of being wholly captivated by the book I'm reading. Where are you, the-perfect-book-for-me-right-now?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Three French graphic novels

There's a long, strong tradition of the bande dessinéebédé or BD for short — in the French language. It's so much more than Tintin. I am awed by the range of material covered by this format — neither "graphic novel" nor "comic strip" or "cartoon" comes close to adequately describing the possibilities.

Bookshops in Montreal have big sections devoted to BDs, and my local bookstore is no exception. The floorspace devoted to BDs is larger than that for any category or genre (the non-genre of "general fiction" aside), and it's bigger than the English books section — although, to be fair, the BDs span genres and include some English editions. I always need to stop and look.

French BD readers surely are already in the know, but here are 3 fascinating-to-me bédés (and we won't even mention the Assassin's Creed series of French-language graphic novels) I recently stumbled upon in-store:

1. Les derniers jours de Stefan Zweig [The last days of Stefan Zweig], by Laurent Seksik (text) and Guillaume Sorel (illustrations).

The author adapted his own book on the subject. It covers the period of August 27, 1941 — the day Austrian writer Zweig and his wife set foot in Rio — to February 22, 1942 — the day they died (suicide by drug overdose), holding hands.

2. Pablo (tome I, Max Jacob), by Julie Birmant (text) et Clément Oubrerie (illustrations).

The first of four volumes, Pablo recounts the daily life of a young Picasso in Montmartre, 1900–1912. Max Jacob, poet and Pablo's roommate, figures prominently as an influence.

3. Nietzsche, by Michel Onfray (text) and
Maximilien Le Roy (illustrations).

This volume follows Nietzsche's quest for happiness, in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation and position him as a hero for our times.

I hope these books find English translators/publishers some day soon. In the meantime, I suspect I'll be splurging on the above titles anyway, in the interest of practicing my French.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A learnt language is just a mask

A learnt language is just a mask, a form of borrowed identity; it should be approached with appropriate aloofness, and its speaker should never yield to the lure of mimicry, renouncing the sounds of his own language to imitate those of another. Anyone who gives in to this temptation is in danger of losing their memory, their past, without receiving another in exchange.

— from New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Translated books

The winners of this year's Best Translated Book Award were announced last Friday, with the fiction award going to Wiesław Myśliwski's Stone Upon Stone, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston.

Not having read any of the shortlisted titles, I was faintly rooting for New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani and translated from the Italian by Judith Landry, because I actually had a copy of it and was planning to read it soon (in fact, I'm reading it now). My second choice would've been In Red, by Magdalena Tulli and translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston, because I've had it on my shopping list since last September.

So now I'm looking for a copy of Stone Upon Stone, only in Polish (Kamień na kamieniu), cuz it strikes me as something my mother might be interested in reading. (Only it's not so easy to find and it will not be done in time for Mother's Day.)

Here's something to chew on: it's not a new book. The novel was published in Polish in 1984. There was a movie in 1995. The English translation was published December 2010. That's a long time for a book to find an audience beyond the speakers of its original language.

I'll add a word of general praise for Bill Johnston, translator of the winning book and one of the other finalists (see above). This winter I listened to his translation of Stanisław Lem's Solaris — "the definitive edition" — and it was unputdownable (something I never thought I'd say about an audiobook). The credit for this is in part owing to the stunning source material, as well as to the impeccable narration (Allessandro Juliani). This audio experience was vastly superior to that of reading the book (and that's another thing I never thought I'd say with regard to an audiobook) — some time ago I read an English version that was translated via French. All this to say: you're doing a great job, Mr Johnston.

Note, however, that the above-mentioned award is for the best translated book. This is not synonymous with "best translation." It might help to think of it as the best book newly brought to the attention of English readers, which is a collaboration between publisher and translator and dependant on the quality of the source material. Maybe?

I read a healthy amount of translated fiction. Over the last year or so, the predominant source languages have been French and Polish — ironically languages that I am capable of reading in the original (given time, patience, and a dictionary, and acknowledging that they will be read at the expense of any subtlety and nuance in the language).

I detect occasional hiccups in phrasing. These can generally be chalked up to the fact that the books were written in another era (for example, Simenon books of the 30s), or they are "historical fiction" and describing another era (for example, contemporary Krajewski noirs, set in the 30s and prior)— they are not of this millennium.

The very best translators are, of course, absolutely invisible. I don't notice them, and they generally go unheralded.

How about you: do you pay any heed to who translates the foreign fiction you read? (Really, barring novels by the Tolstoys of the world, how often do you get to choose whose translation you're going to read?) Are you concerned about what's lost in translation?

Friday, May 04, 2012

The laws of humanics

"Human beings have ways of thinking about human beings that we have not." Had Giskard been human, the remark might have been made with regret or envy, but, since he was a robot, it was merely factual.

He went on, "I have tried to gain the knowledge, if not the way of thinking, by reading human history in great detail. Surely somewhere in the long tale of human events, there must be buried the Laws of Humanics that are equivalent to our Three Laws of Robotics."

Daneel said, "Madam Gladia once told me that this hope was an impossible one."

"So that may be, Friend Daneel, for though it seems to me such Laws of Humanics must exist, I cannot find them. Every generalization I try to make, however broad and simple, has its numerous exceptions. Yet if such Laws existed and if I could find them, I could understand human beings better and be more confident that I am obeying the Three Laws in better fashion."

"Since Partner Elijah understood human beings, he must have had some knowledge of the Laws of Humanics."

"Presumably. But this he knew through something that human beings call intuition, a word I don't understand, signifying a concept I know nothing of. Presumably it lies beyond reason, and I have only reason at my command."

— from Robots and Empire, by Isaac Asimov.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Smudged girls

When I clicked on the lamp, I saw she was still in her dress and her face looked blurry like someone had tried to erase it. And her mouth was like the mouth of a little kid when they eat too much jelly.

I really enjoyed Mathilda Savitch, by Victor Lodato. The prose was so fluid and fresh and honest; every few pages I felt caught off guard, like when you suddenly come across a beautiful poem. It's funny and poignant, and it felt like the perfect book at the perfect time, just when I was bogged down in a pile of books I really wasn't enjoying.

It's about Mathilda, 12 years old, about her sister having died under a train a year previously, about their parents, about living in the grip of terrorism, about being 12. It's all very tragic, really, but it captures very well how very hard it is to be 12.

I love the line above, about her sister's face looking like someone had tried to erase it. It reminds me of a phrase I read recently, about smudged girls, but for the life of me, and I've checked through all the books I've recently read, I can't place it. It might've been, must've been, Simenon. It was just the perfect word, smudge. The girls made up and undone, smudged by excitement or sex or tears, smudged by boys, physically or morally. Mathilda's sister also was smudged. So much in that sad little smudge of a word.