Monday, 30 November 2009

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Lost in Translation

In September 2008, I emigrated to France, with the idea of remaining here permanently. And here I remain, and here I am happy (for now, but with the hope of that never changing). I was in the fortunate position of already having a fair grasp of the language before coming here, and while the best way of improving one's day-to-day use of the language comes through contemporary engagement with it (e.g., through French speakers - check -, through contemporary print media such as free metro magazines - check -, and through other contemporary media sources such as television and radio - erm, half a check, since we don't have and have no intention of acquiring a TV), I do also enjoy the privilege of being able to read books in the language. While this may not improve my contemporary French much (in the way of idioms and whathaveyou), it can only solidify other things, such as grammatical knowledge and vocabulary.

The joy of reading is pleasantly widened when one is given the chance to read in multiple languages, not only by the access to a greater range of stories but also in terms of cultural and linguistic access. And yet this joy is paradoxically tainted: very few novels are translated into English (relative to the number that are actually released in their original language) and while in some cases it is perhaps for the best, the aforementioned joy is at times tainted with the paradox that others will not be able to share it with you, since the lack of translation means there is no way that they will be able to read it in the near future.

This, to me, is still something of a puzzle. Why is so little work translated into the most popular languages (let's say, for the sake of argument, that these are English, Spanish and Chinese)? Why wouldn't publishers and agents want their authors' work to have maximum worldwide exposure? Is it due to a lack of interest from readers (perceived or actual)? Is it to do with the financial risk involved? Is it down to a lack of translators? Or something else?

Certainly the translator's task is no easy one; this is something that David Lodge acknowledges publicly in the foreword to his 2008 novel Deaf Sentence, which frequently draws on puns relating to deafness and death, including in the novel's title. To this end, he offers up his novel as a dedication to the translators by way of advance apology. But it is not only the translation of idioms that challenges translators - the uses of language that inextricably bind culture into them, such as the French 'tu' and 'vous', can often go horribly wrong in translation. In one particular translation of Pippi Longstocking, where the Swedish equivalent of this is handled quite badly, it took me years to understand what the series' original author, Astrid Lindgren, had been driving at in Pippi's rudeness towards her teacher.

This is certainly an issue of unending contention. However, we can only expect it to decline further if more literature lovers do not take languages at school and university (in the wake of the UK Labour goverment's policy by which foreign languages are no longer compulsory after the age of 14, when most only take up a second language at 11 as it is, fewer and fewer choose to study another language further and with any gravity). If the importance of other languages is not emphasised, so that the sharing of ideas the world over can be facilitated, even more books can be expected to be lost in the gulf of translation.

Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)

--The blurb--
"When the university merged his Department of English with Linguistics, Professor Desmond Bates took early retirement, but he is not enjoying it. He misses the routine of the academic year and has lost his appetite for research. His wife Winifred's late-flowering career goes from strength to strength, reducing his role to that of escort, while the rejuvenation of her appearance makes him uneasily conscious of the age gap between them. The monotony of his days is relieved only by wearisome journeys to London to check on his aged father who stubbornly refuses to leave the house he is patently unable to live in with safety. But these discontents are nothing compared to the affliction of hearing loss — a constant source of domestic friction and social embarrassment, leading Desmond into mistakes, misunderstandings and follies. It might be comic for others, but for the deaf person himself, it is no joke. It is his deafness which inadvertently involves Desmond with a young woman whose wayward behaviour threatens to destabilize his life completely."

--The review--
You could be forgiven for thinking that Lodge was a one-trick pony: in taking the maxim of 'writing what you know' almost to an extreme, his experiences of Catholicism and academia are recurring themes in several of his books. It's perhaps therefore difficult at times to pinpoint exactly what keeps his readers coming back, and certainly this latest effort from Lodge takes time to gather momentum, due precisely to this repetition of themes. However, as the novel gathers pace, and readers become ever more drawn into his manipulation of character and plot, it is easier to see where Lodge's mastery lies. Arguably this is Lodge at his best, with more focus on the human situation and less on the lampooning of academia.

The novel's central themes of deafness and of life and death cleverly intertwine, right from the pun in the book's very title, which must make this a difficult piece of work for translators (something that the author acknowledges in the novel's dedication). However, while the tale of decline of the protagonist's father, and the sinister edge that is introduced by the bizarre Alex, one could say that this novel is less about death and more about life's multifarious peculiarities, though this would imply that the novel had an overriding message. It is more correct to say that it doesn't: it is affirmative, but not didactic, and rather than pushing an underlying moral, readers are left instead to make their own inferences.

As mentioned, too, Lodge focuses very precisely on the novel's human elements by zoning in on a small number of characters, rather than relying on the internal and complex politics of university departments, which perhaps allows the notion that this is among Lodge's more accessible works of fiction. It is stronger and more believable overall than The British Museum is Falling Down (in spite of the aforementioned slightly bizarre and macabre elements), and will without doubt reach a wider audience than Lodge's non-fiction works. Lodge is a visible and active member of the academic and literary communities already, and this novel only continues to cement his already laudable status.

Other works by David Lodge
The Picturegoers (1960)
Ginger You're Barmy (1962)
The British Museum is Falling Down (1965)
Out of the Shelter (1970)
Changing Places (1975)
How Far Can You Go? (1980)
Small World: An Academic Romance (1984)
Nice Work (1988)
Paradise News (1991)
Therapy (1995)
The Man Who Wouldn't Get Up (1998)
Home Truths (1999)
Thinks... (2001)
Author, Author (2004)

update November 2009

# of books read in November: 7

Cumulative total: 57

1. You Are Here (Bremner, Bird and Fortune)
2. Le Dossier: How To Survive The English (Sarah Long)
3. Du phonographe au MP3 (Ludovic Tournès)
4. Where Angels Fear To Tread (E. M. Forster)
5. Born on a Blue Day (Daniel Tammet)
6. The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki; tr. Arthur Waley)
7. The Comedy of Errors (William Shakespeare)
8. The Golden Gate (Vikram Seth)
9. Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko)
10. A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)
11. The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)
12. Le CV de Dieu (Jean-Louis Fournier)
13. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer)
14. The Music of Silence (Andrea Bocelli)
15. Love (Toni Morrison)
16. Class: The Secret Diary of a Teacher in Turmoil (Jane Beaton)
17. The Wives of Bath (Susan Swan)
18. The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)
19. The Queen and I (Sue Townsend)
20. Molly Fox's Birthday (Deirdre Madden)
21. Daisy Miller (Henry James)
22. The Rules of Attraction (Bret Easton Ellis)
23. Gods Behaving Badly (Marie Phillips)
24. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
25. The Crucible (Arthur Miller)
26. The British Museum is Falling Down (David Lodge)
27. them (Joyce Carol Oates)
28. Flaubert's Parrot (Julian Barnes)
29. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (Sue Townsend)
30. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
31. Tears of Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath (Michael and Elizabeth Norman)
32. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams)
33. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
34. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
35. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
36. The Nigger of the Narcissus (Joseph Conrad)
37. The Past is Myself (Christabel Bielenberg)
38. The Road Ahead (Christabel Bielenberg)
39. The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)
40. Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
41. The Rules of Engagement (Anita Brookner)
42. Cat's Eye (Margaret Atwood)
43. Three Men In A Boat (Jerome K Jerome)
44. La grammaire est une chanson douce (Erik Orsenna)
45. The Kabul Beauty School (Deborah Rodriguez)
46. Bonfire of the Brands (Neil Boorman)
47. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
48. Hotel du Lac (Anita Brookner)
49. Girl Meets Boy (Ali Smith)
50. Exercices de style (Raymond Queneau)
51. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka)
52. Weight (Jeanette Winterson)
53. Long Way Down (Nick Hornby)
54. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)
55. Choir Boy (Charlie Anders)
56. The Rain Before It Falls (Jonathan Coe)
57. Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)

Average number of books per month: 5

% by male authors: 55%
% by female authors: 45%

The Rain Before It Falls (Jonathan Coe)

--The blurb--
"In the latest from acclaimed London novelist Coe (The Rotters' Club), the story of two cousins' friendship is key to a hatred that is handed down from mother to daughter across generations, as in a Greek tragedy. Evacuated from London to her aunt and uncle's Shropshire farm, Rosamond bonds with her older cousin, Beatrix, who is emotionally abused by her mother. Beatrix grows up to abuse her daughter, Thea, with repercussions that reach the next generation. All of this is narrated in retrospect by an elderly Rosamond into a tape recorder: she is recording the family's history for Imogen, Beatrix's granddaughter, who is blind, and whom Rosamond hasn't seen in 20 years. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Rosamond's fundamental flaw and limit is her decency, a quality Coe weaves beautifully into the Shropshire and London settings — along with violence."

--The review--
Coe's literary history shows him to be a diverse and successful author: while he has one adapted-for-television series under his belt in the form of The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, he knew to quit while he was ahead and moved onto other equally accomplished novels that also became best-sellers. The Rain Before It Falls is no different: it is evolutionary, revolutionary, experimental, and emotional - so, in short, a real tour de force for Coe that shows no sign of deceleration or decline.

While the cast of characters and the connections between them are initially overwhelming, it is this along with the novel's non-linear, almost epistolary format, that helps to keep you on your toes until these things become more familiar. Once these aspects have slotted seamlessly into the background of the reader's mind, it is the pace and suspense created by the tenacity of the plot that keep the reader hooked and make this novel into a sure-fire winner. If there is a weakness, it is in Coe's link between the title and his text: at times it feels strained and contrived, and it is always less effective when the reader is told how to interpret the title through the text, rather than just being left to work it out for themselves.

Coe certainly meets his challenge in not only being able to portray the speech and thoughts of characters of several different generations, but also recreates realistic female voices, which is not to be underestimated given the notorious difficulties inherent in writing as the opposite sex. He even meets this criterion consistently in the protagonist, Rosamond, whose voice is the one that readers hear for the majority of the book. The ending is quietly dramatic while remaining somehow fitting; the threads of the novel are easily traceable without being predictable, and all is well tied up. And despite the decisive conclusions that are drawn, one wants to read and reread The Rain Before it Falls, in order to keep on unwrapping its various layers, and to know the characters so intimately that they are almost friends - something that Coe always achieves masterfully.

Other works by Jonathan Coe
The Accidental Woman (1987)
A Touch of Love (1989)
The Dwarves of Death (1990)
What A Carve Up! (1994)
The House of Sleep (1997)
The Rotters' Club (2001)
The Closed Circle (2004)
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim (2010)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Choir Boy (Charlie Anders)

--The blurb--
"Twelve-year-old choirboy Berry wants nothing more than to remain a choirboy, surrounded by perfect notes, as opposed to his imperfect, quarreling parents. Choral music and the prospect of divinity thrill him. Desperate to keep his voice from changing, he tries to injure himself, and then convinces a clinic to give him testosterone-inhibiting drugs. The hormone pills keep Berry's voice from deepening but also cause him to grow breasts. Suddenly Berry faces a world of unexpected gender issues that push him into a universe far more complex than anything he has experienced. A fantastical coming-of-age story, Choir Boy combines off-kilter humor and its own brand of modern day magic in a rollicking, bittersweet story about growing up different."

--The review--
The ambiguously-named Berry is the centre of this unusual coming-of-age story, where the focus shifts from music and growing up to altogether more sobering issues. Anders clearly knows her stuff when it comes to the music, displaying an impressive breadth of knowledge and appreciation thereof; and, as the book goes on, the denouement becomes so realistic that readers get the impression that Anders also knows a fair amount about many of the other topics raised in the novel. A few morsels of research quickly reveal that this is indeed the case: Anders, like her main character, identifies as a male to female transgendered person. Writing what you know, then, certainly applies here.

The way in which this novel's plot evolves is intriguing and suitably gradual: Berry goes from wanting to stay in a boy-like state merely in order to preserve his beautiful singing voice, but this simple desire accumulates further depth as he realises that in order to stay female-like in terms of his voice, this to an extent involves 'playing the game' a bit (so that the medical professionals will continue to give him the medication that he needs to achieve this, he also needs to play the role of a woman in terms of dressing in female clothing, although the breasts accorded to him by the medication are helpful in this regard too). The novel therefore centres decreasingly around music and more on questions of gender and identity, and where the transsexual and transgendered really belong. Should they use male or female toilets? Should they wear male or female clothes? And should Berry be allowed to remain in the boys' choir that he has always been part of, or will he be made to join the girls' choir instead?

The feeling that Anders knows what she is talking about and the realism with which she expresses this leads the reader to feel a great sense of understanding and empathy towards Berry and others like him. But this is not to say that the book is a hippy love-fest: rest assured, the changes that Berry undergoes, both physically and emotionally, wreak extreme trauma and argument between him and those he cares for. His semi-girlfriend, Lisa, provides a welcome force of balance in amongst all this confusion and angst. Additionally, some of the scenes in the novel are horrifying: with Berry's revulsion towards becoming a man comes some graphic scenes of self-mutilation. This is not for the faint-hearted and Anders jumps in with this relatively early in the book, making one's first encounter with her work a real baptism of fire.

Anders is already a famous face in the science fiction community due to her writing output elsewhere. However, her arresting prose in this fiction debut puts her up there with writers such as Chris Cleave as a significant talent of the past decade, and I have a feeling that we'll be hearing a lot more from her as the years roll on.

Other works by Charlie Anders
The Lazy Crossdresser (2002)
She's Such A Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff (2006; with Annalee Newitz)

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)

--The blurb--
"The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter is drawn into the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism."

--The review--
Popularity is in a way like a runaway freight train: for whatever reason, a thing becomes popular. People then choose to read, consume or experience it because it is popular, thus making it more popular...and so it goes on. The marginalised, however, rightly or wrongly, in most cases remain so. Wilkie Collins is arguably an author of the latter category: while his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White are relatively well-known, he and his other works have fallen by the wayside, while his contemporary and colleague, Charles Dickens, jumped aboard said runaway train with aplomb and has not got off since. However, those seeking a slightly off-road challenge will undoubtedly be rewarded with The Woman in White.

Even though there is certainly a little Miss Havisham in Anne Catherick (one of the novel's main personages), Collins is decidedly his own writer and not just a mere Dickens knockoff. While the character of Walter Hartright is clearly meant to seem dashing but only gives a slightly insipid impression, this is more than compensated for by the other characters. Marian provides stability and momentum, with Count Fosco adding the requisite wickedness and Laura being there to be appropriately lovely and simpering. Further to this, Collins combines traditional themes and genres (mystery, identity, madness) in a way that makes the novel really quite unusual. Surprise and suspense await the reader at every turn, and while there are one or two inconsistencies or instances where a little more clarity would be helpful, this on the whole does not impede understanding or enjoyment.

Atmosphere is deftly created and maintained, and the vast country residence shrouded in Victorian fog suitably foreshadows other successful classics, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Narrative voices are changed well and for good, realistic reasons (with said reasons being revealed either at the time or towards the end of the book, as is fitting). It is perhaps testament to the book's gripping and compulsive nature that readers find themselves fervently wishing for characters to have justice be served, even when at times this seems at its most improbable; thankfully, though, they do, and the book is made all the better for it. Even though we would certainly all get fed up if books constantly presented us with happy endings, here it works well. It is almost astounding that Collins should be so in the shadow of his better-known contemporaries; those who brush him aside are missing out on a cache of fabulous reads.

Other works by Wilkie Collins
Basil (1852)
No Name (1862)
Armadale (1866)
The Moonstone (1868)
Poor Miss Finch (1872)
The Law and the Lady (1875)
The Black Robe (1881)

A Long Way Down (Nick Hornby)

--The blurb--
"Narrated in turns by a dowdy, middle-aged woman, a half-crazed adolescent, a disgraced breakfast TV presenter and an American rock star cum pizza delivery boy, A Long Way Down is the story of the Toppers House Four, aka Maureen, Jess, Martin and JJ. A low-rent crowd with absolutely nothing in common - save where they end up that New Year's Eve night. And what they do next, of course. Funny, sad, and wonderfully humane, Nick Hornby's new novel asks some of the big questions: about life and death, strangers and friendship, love and pain, and whether a slice of pizza can really see you through a long, dark night of the soul."

--The review--
The downside of the writers' maxim "write what you know" is that this causes some writers to be guilty of monotony. Nick Hornby is not one of these - while similar characters may occasionally reappear, the situations in which they find themselves are so wildly diverse that this is soon forgotten. In A Long Way Down, Hornby also throws together an almost completely random cast, too, and kicks off in medias res, so that the reader's main goal is to work out how this kaleidoscope of characters all ended up in the same place, with the same aim, at the same time.

This in itself is immediately attention-grabbing, as is the darkly awkward backdrop against which it's set. Hornby takes a risk with grouping four people on the roof of a tall building with the same shared purpose of committing suicide, as it initially seems to the reader that there's only one way this could go: presumably they cannot actually go through with their aim, or there would be no book. Indeed, the answer to this question is repeatedly deferred, but the deferral is not irritating: it allows us to find out more about the characters, reach a conclusion that is (arguably) more appropriate than the obvious, and carry out a stark assessment of the ways in which we view the problems of others. There is superficiality in droves, but in spite of this, all of the characters seem equally seriously trapped, and it is easy for us to see how they might believe that this is the only way out.

Subsidiary characters are also well-developed - even those whom we actually never meet, such as Jess' sister Jen. They are all accorded the required level of importance to make the novel an effective one, and it is perhaps this that contributes to the resolutions that occur at the novel's end (resolutions which, it should be mentioned, do their job well without everyone necessarily sailing off into the sunset). The novel is unconventional, so it's worth going in with patience and an open mind. It is different to Hornby's previous work; instinct tells me that it is perhaps also not as good, though perhaps only rereadings will be able to confirm that. It was certainly a gamble for Hornby, who could easily stay in the romantic comedy genre for the entirety of his career (or even not write again at all should he so wish), but maybe it is only through such risky bets that real winners emerge.

Other works by Nick Hornby
High Fidelity (1995)
About A Boy (1998)
How To Be Good (2001)
Slam (2007)
Juliet, Naked (2009)

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Weight (Jeanette Winterson)

--The blurb--
"In ancient Greek mythology, Atlas, a member of the original race of gods called Titans, leads a rebellion against the new deities, the Olympians. With her typical wit and verve, Winterson brings Atlas into the 21st century."

--The review--
Jeanette Winterson is well-known for making fairly big and public splashes, both in terms of her literary success and in terms of her personal life. It is obvious why she is able to capture the interest of the general public and its literati just from the first few pages of Weight, even for those who have never before read any Winterson work. This novella is well-written, poetic (yet lucid), surprisingly modern, arresting, and intelligent. Winterson says that as soon as she was asked to write an instalment of the Canongate Myths series, she knew 'even before hanging up the phone' that Atlas and Heracles would be her choice.

It is therefore mystifying, then, to find that even despite the above characteristics, the end result is not better. It is an enjoyable and quick read, to be sure, but it is ultimately forgettable (thankfully its length does not preclude multiple readings so that this may be tempered). It is equally unfortunate for Winterson that her underlying thread in the novella of "wanting to tell the story again" seems contrived and unnecessary; it doesn't really wash. Consequently, then, this is unlikely to be one of Winterson's most enduring works, even if it does sit well in the company of the other titles in the Canongate Myths series (and I say this even despite the fact that Ali Smith's and Margaret Atwood's respective contributions to the series are more memorable). I can also appreciate how one's liking of the book may mature with multiple readings.

This Winterson attempt at modernising myth may appeal to younger readers who are seeking their first introduction to the realms of ancient legend, but equally they may be put off. I would encourage the beginning seekers to try something else instead, and perhaps save this for another time.

Other works by Jeanette Winterson
Orange Are Not The Only Fruit (1985)
Sexing The Cherry (1989)
The World and Other Places (1998)