Posts from May 2010

May 30th, 2010

A Tale of Two Echoes in the Penny Press!

It’s become entirely natural to bump into correspondences between Open Letters and the rest of the book-review world. After all, publicists want every critic to read their pet books and rave about them (they want it so badly they’re willing to risk the alternative, when a book hits a critic on the wrong day and gets savaged about the head and neck for 700 words). They send advance copies of those pet works to as many critical journals as possible, hoping for a bite – or, if Santa’s been very good to them this year, a cascade-effect.

Consequently, a week doesn’t go by when I don’t see a long review in The American Scholar or The New Republic or the London Review of Books and think, “Hey, I know that book! Almost had a reviewer for it, but …” and then, usually, one of the following conclusions: a) the freelancer talked the talk but ended up declining to walk the walk, b) the ‘review’ turned out to be written by the book’s author’s pining (or furious) ex-lover – or worse, by one of those ever-hopeful publicists, or c) the editor in question reads the book first and decides against running a review of it before it ever gets considered for a freelancer (if, say, the book is the tenth in a murder-mystery series, or about post-Industrial Revolution finial design, or just plain bad).

If Option C ever applied to the author Andre Aciman, it certainly doesn’t anymore: he proved himself to be noticeably, memorably talented with his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name, and his new novel, Eight White Nights, is a stylistic tour de force plopped right onto the same bookshelves as Vince Flynn and Nora Roberts. It was just barely possible to think of Call Me By Your Name as something of a ‘hidden’ classic, a slim, unhyped novel flying below the radar and yet accomplishing things fiction critics wish a lot more writers would try. That’s not possible with Eight White Nights – this novel clearly marks Aciman’s entrance into the Big Leagues.

I thought it was poetic, irritating, almost disturbingly insightful, and wildly, extravagantly good. Naturally, I kept an eye out for what kind of critical reception it got.

So my proverbial heart was in my proverbial throat when Open Letters’ own Sam Sacks decided to review it. There’s a reason Sacks’ fiction reviews are starting to appear everywhere: he misses nothing that an author does on the page – which is good news because he’s sure to see all the work the author put in, all the subtlety perhaps missed by other critics, but it’s also bad news, because their failures and shortcomings and deceptions will likewise come under that same level of invasive scrutiny. And to make things even worse (or better?), Sacks virtually never simply eviscerates a bad author – instead, he wraps the anvil in layer upon layer of gorgeous, velvety prose before he drops it on their head. They still end up crushed, but they almost feel like thanking him.

So when I read the latest New York Review of Books and saw that Michael Dirda, their foremost critic of contemporary fiction, had a review of Eight White Nights, I was doubly curious. Not only was Dirda reviewing the same book Sacks reviewed back in April, but Dirda himself had been reviewed by Sacks way back in 2007, and not entirely favorably (“Far too often, Dirda writes with propitiating caution, as though he thinks that a single lapse into complexity and his entire audience will start playing cell-phone Tetris,” etc.).

But Dirda’s piece is as safely anodyne as everything else the man writes – and for what it’s worth (at least something, to me: it’s a frustrating thing to like a book nobody else likes), he likes Eight White Nights a great deal. In fact, much of what he wrote about it struck familiar chords. In his initial notes of praise, he of course catches the requisite Russian echoes:

Eight White Nights is a bravura recreation of all the feints and counter-feints, yearnings and frustrations, of modern courtship. It possesses the psychological acuity and intensity one associates not just with Proust but also with Dostoevsky (its title and serial structure pay homage to “White Nights,” his story of overly tentative love).

Back in April, Sacks caught those same notes, in just a slightly different register:

the narrator leaves the Christmas Eve party in the small hours and sits in a nearby park experiencing a euphoria so strong it could melt the snow around him. The novel’s title and premise is evidently borrowed from an early Dostoyevsky story called “White Nights”; but here I thought of Tolstoy. After Levin learns in Anna Karenina that Kitty loves him, he wanders Moscow in dizzy ecstasy, transfiguring all the mundane, even grubby, sights with supernatural radiance: “Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker’s window by an invisible hand touched him particularly. These loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth.”

(In fairness to Aciman’s literary acumen, it should be pointed out that almost no effort is required to prompt Sacks to say, “I thought of Tolstoy” … an average trip through the supermarket aisles will elicit it at least once)(writers and their go-to favorite writers! Feh! Glad I don’t do that!)

Dirda paints a picture of a critic trying to resist the intoxicating, saturating enchantment Aciman is trying to weave from his novel’s first paragraph:

By the second or third of the white nights, I could still see all the things that bothered me about Aciman’s writing, but they began to seem increasingly unimportant. I was caught up by the unfolding story.

Back in April, Sacks also found himself falling under that spell:

It seems a bit much. And in truth, in the cold light of day about 95 percent of Eight White Nights seems a bit much. But Aciman’s refusal to allow in any of the emotional ambivalence that is the modern-day hallmark of realism is crucial to the spell he’s trying to cast.

I couldn’t agree more, with both of these critics (although as usual, Sacks’ piece is itself beautifully written, whereas most of Dirda’s reads like deadline prose), and I was hugely relieved at that. No feeling quite as rotten as loving a book and then having heavyweight critics cudgel it into the mud.

On a much lesser note of coincidence, this same issue of the NYRB has an ad for the latest title in their stellar reprint series – none other than The Murderess, byAlexandros Papadiamantis! So for once, when I praise an obscure title here at Stevereads, you’ll have easy, push-button access to it!

May 21st, 2010

The Murderess!

Our book today is a slim, weird masterpiece of 20th century Greek literature, The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis, published in 1903 and translated into English by Peter Levi in 1983.

Translated into English, with the usual apologies. Translator apologies almost always bug me, and Levi’s is no exception; they almost always take as their premise that precise or even cognitively close translation isn’t really possible – that the best even a skilled translator can do is cobble together a series of more or less serviceable approximations … that everything, in other words, is lost in the translation.

Levi is fairly explicit about it all, in his Translator’s Preface to Papadiamantis’ jagged, admittedly idiosyncratic book. The particular twists and turns of Papadiamantis’ prose, Levi tells us, “… the realism and the exoticism, the narrative gift and the excessively romantic lyricism, make it impossible to disentangle his virtues from his vices as a writer. They are also extremely hard to render in modern English.”

Needless to say, I never have any idea what to make of a translator who openly tells his readers that the one thing he wasn’t really able to do with his source text was translate it. Resorting to incomprehensible evasions like maintaining an author’s strengths can be indistinguishable from his weaknesses doesn’t help any, as does imputing blame to the very regionalism that is the reason for translating the work in the first place:

It has been impossible to produce accurately the texture of the original. I had trouble with proverbs and the names of herbs. Certain popular phrases exist in every language that have roots in an entire culture, and Papadiamantis uses more of them than most writers. Then at times he can be painfully slow and repetitive, or he can drag in by the hair some weighty phrase out of a literary journal. Nowadays a publisher’s editor would simply strike it out. It is not the task of a mere translator to underline such phrases.

Fortunately, Levi’s own work in translating this little book bears out a different tale, one in which his skills as a translator positively shine. Papadiamantis’ tale is that of an old woman named Hadoula, sometimes known as Frankojannou, who as the book opens has gone four days and nights without sleep at the side of a newborn granddaughter, a little baby born sick who’s done nothing but cry for days. Drifting in and out of aggravated patches of half-sleep, Frankojannou’s mind more or less snaps; she sticks two fingers in the baby’s mouth and holds them there until the infant is completely still. The child’s mother is asleep in the same room of the poor little hovel, and the tiny village’s doctor is away from town – his temporary substitute rather easily puts the death down to fever, but by that point old Hadoula’s mind has permanently altered. Whether she’s reacting to the grinding poverty and social nullity in which all the women of her world live, or whether she’s simply gone insane, we don’t know. But it isn’t long before she pushes two little girls down a well and cold-heartedly waits while they first struggle then float face-down.

Shortly after that, she’s seen nearby when another girl goes down a well, and the police begin to suspect she’s somehow involved. In the classic tradition of ancient Greek tragedy, Frankojannou has by this point become little more than a beast at bay, tormented by the same memories that exhilarate her, intent on fleeing into the mountains rather than be apprehended and put in prison:

As she went out, the lamenting voice of the infant, the tiny girl unjustly slain, moaned inside her. She stood in the doorway, peering carefully outside, right and let, up and down the road. Not a soul, not a shadow. She put wings to her feet. It was not the first time she had heard that sorrowful infant cry in the cavernous, echoing darkness of her soul. Now she thought she was escaping from danger and disaster, escaping from dungeon and prison, but prison and Hell were within her.

The bleakness of this story moves effortlessly from the hardscrabble streets and huts of the poor Greek villages that are its setting to the minds and memories of its characters as they gradually react to this horrific tragedy unfolding amidst them. And of course nobody’s reactions are more intense than the murderess’ own:

In her [Frankojannou’s] sleep she thought she was still young; her father and mother married her off in her dream as they had done in fact, and gave her ‘the blessing of the dear departed’ and the dowry, including her father’s plot, where she had dug and watered cabbages when she was little. And her father rewarded her for her hard work, and gave her ‘four heads’ out of the cabbages. Hadoula took the four plants happily into her hands, but when she looked, Oh horror! she saw they were four little dead human heads.

Despite his protestations, Levi does a wonderful job conveying all this. Papadiamantis is entirely unknown to the world outside Greece, and he represents a large gallery of such regional artists in similar positions. Such artists represent entire worlds, of course, and each one of them is worth exploring. I can recommend Papadiamantis as one of those destinations, and this book – his strongest and bleakest – is his best.