Weekendnotes, September 29-30

On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?

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This week has been Translation Week at the Glasgow Review of Books, and, as part of the proceedings, Splice masthead contributor Daniel Davis Wood published a review of River by Esther Kinsky (pictured above) with special consideration of the work done by her translator, Iain Galbraith:

“Crepuscular” is the word I was waiting for.

The use of that word is an intriguing choice on the part of Kinsky’s translator, Iain Galbraith, since Kinsky’s original text, in German, describes the cellar simply as “dämmrigen”: “dim”. Strictly speaking, in English, “crepuscular” is an adjective that applies only to motion or behaviour, not to a static space like a cellar. Foxes and badgers are crepuscular animals, awake and active twice a day, once in the hours between sunset and true darkness and again between the softening of night and the first rays of dawn. The light at these times of day is crepuscular, too, moving as it does, ever so slowly, from one state of illumination to another. With regard to a space like the cellar, dank and dim but not in a state of activity or flux, a term of greater precision but similar poetry would be “twilit”. “Crepuscular” might apply to the people who work there, but not to the cellar itself. Still, I was happy to see the word appear in River — and reappear five or six times throughout the novel — because even if it felt askew, it didn’t feel like an error of judgment on the translator’s part. It is, in fact, the word most apt to describe the mechanics of River as a whole, as the novel sets about enacting an aesthetics of the crepuscular.

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And also as part of the Glasgow Review‘s Translation Week, Marta Dziurosz has taken a close look at Olga Tokarczuk’s new novelDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones:

Tokarczuk performs the admirable feat of showing how a perspective that seems completely consistent from within can tip over into the erratic when seen from the outside. Duszejko, very much an unreliable narrator, sees meaning in the movements and placement of stars and planets; the precise time of one’s birth has the utmost significance; she gives everyone meaningful, personal names; there are rituals and bones that have to be buried. Is it sensitivity and compassion? Can it be detachment from reality?

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Tokarczuk has been enjoying a streak of good fortune lately, of course, thanks largely to her previous novel, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft. Well, that streak continued this week when Flights scored a coveted review by James Wood in the New Yorker:

The book’s two great themes, twining the fictional and the nonfictional ficelles, are mobility and curiosity. Like her characters, our narrator is always on the move, and is always noticing and theorizing, often brilliantly. Early in Flights, she tells us that she is “drawn to all things spoiled, flawed, defective, broken,” to “anything that deviates from the norm, that is too small or too big.” Later, she tells us that she loves Moby-Dick, a book written out of “a genuine desire to portray the world.” Tokarczuk’s approach, like Melville’s, is encyclopedic and multiform. She turns nothing away. She relishes the sites of mobility — airports, cities, hotels, trains — and all the world’s exemptions, the things that got away: “the unique, the bizarre, the freakish.” These include the living — a woman she meets at the Stockholm airport who is compiling an unfinishable book on every crime ever committed, called “Reports on Infamy” — and the dead: collections of strange specimens, such as fetuses suspended in formaldehyde, relics in St. Vitus Cathedral (“the breasts of St. Anne, totally intact, kept in a glass jar”), Chopin’s heart (an oversized organ removed after his death and preserved in alcohol), or anatomical wax figures at the Josephinum medical museum, in Vienna. Emperor Joseph II, Tokarczuk announces with apparent approval, collected “every manifestation of the aberration of the world” in his “cabinet of curiosities.”

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Elsewhere, Jonathan Gibbs wrote an incisive analysis of the interactions between character development and prose style in Normal People, the celebrated new novel by Sally Rooney:

…this is a great book, that matches a warm, oblique narrative style to a pair of characters who, while immensely likeable (or ‘compelling’, if you quail at the L-word) are also intensely uncertain about the value or depth of their own qualities: the more time they spend poking and probing at their own selves, the further they get from any definite conclusion, and so they rely on each other— on their relationship with each other— to ground themselves, but seeing as they continually misstep, misspeak and misconstrue, they are always finding that solid ground shifting beneath them.

Thus the warm — we like them— and thus the oblique — they are continually struggling to find the perspective that Rooney offers the reader, from which they can be seen as genuinely likeable.

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And Sam Jordison made some equally incisive comments about the function of a very challenging prose style in Marc Nash’s Three Dreams in the Key of G, recently shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize:

I’m confident no summary can really do justice to this fearsomely complicated book. Nothing is certain and everything is presented in dense, complex and frequently confusing sentences.

There’s something exhilarating about a novel that cares so little for reading pleasure. Marc Nash hasn’t compromised his vision in any way, which is admirable. But there are also obvious problems. Three Dreams in the Key of G can be a brutal slog, with Nash laying down some punishment prose. Such as: “For even though I range with my counter of lachrymosity and flash my bloodshot lens, I’m fumbling to illuminate America’s topmost popular pastime, spouse beating.” … Such gnarly prose can get annoying. So too can Nash’s propensity for making puns (“Jean’s gene genie is out of the box.”). No thanks.

Yet while such writing is ugly, it isn’t purposeless.

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Finally, a couple of eccentrics from Australia. First up, in 3AM Magazine, Julian Murphy published an odd little index of idiosyncratic cultural references in Shaun Prescott’s The Town. The novel was first published by Australian small press Brow Books and has recently been picked up by other presses around the world, and Murphy’s studious notes on the book’s references are probably a good cultural primer for those who aren’t already in the know — and a hilarious reminder of Australian inanities for those who are:

I read that an obscure Australian writer of fiction has been discovered by the publishing houses of the United Kingdom, Europe and North America. The Australian writer’s first novel is to be published across the world in the coming months and it is hoped that he will be catapulted to international stardom. Having read and very much enjoyed the novel, I am not sure that this particular writer desires international stardom. But that is not what worries me most. What leads me to get up from my chair in concern is the fear that foreign readers will not appreciate or worse, will deprecate, the particularly Australian features of the novel. Worse still, interventionist editors will Americanise or Anglicise the entire book such that it will no longer be set in a disappearing town of the Central West Region of New South Wales. Instead, everything will take place in the Mid-West of the United States or the quaint English countryside. Little can these distant editors appreciate the gulf separating our disappearing towns from theirs.

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And the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas has released a podcast recording of an interview with Gerald Murnane, conducted by Sean O’Beirne. O’Beirne opens with one of the best introductions to Murnane that anyone has ever written:

A lot of people in this room would’ve read Gerald’s work, and will know that to read Gerald Murnane’s writing is to leave the ordinary land of fiction: of story, drama, plot, the so-called imagination. All that, even in very good literary fiction, after you read Gerald Murnane’s books, starts to seem like a kind of busy, hopeful over-organisation that really gets nowhere near the strangeness of what our minds really mostly do: this thing that is with us all the time, but that we try not to see: the strange activity of our feeling-mind, emotion-mind, image-keeping mind, that’s always making our associations and refusals and patterns, our private, changeable-but-not-changeable colours. And in doing that, Gerald Murnane’s writing gets to some of the deepest, strangest, most important things about what we are, what we can keep, what we can give, how much we don’t want other people, how much they hurt us, how much we do want them, how much we have to want other people, what the world is, what the human world is. With extraordinary persistence, and extraordinary skills, for more than forty years Gerald Murnane has been at work, at that.

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And that’s all for this week! See you back here on Monday…