Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.
I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.
That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.
By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.
Hữu Ngọc asked me yesterday on the way to lunch whether I had written any poems about Hanoi. “Only one,” I told him. This appeared a while back in the Beloit Poetry Journal & it is the second poem (currently) in the book manuscript I’m trying to finish putting together:
A Dog in Hanoi
Maybe Ngoc Ha is nothing
but a vivid dream & here
I am nothing but an animal
who does not understand
the higher order of things.
Maybe the traffic is only
a tumbling hallucination
& I am nothing but one of
these charming, silent dogs
who watch & listen with
detachment—the way that
I listen to the language of
my fellow creatures. Maybe
only quiet dogs survived
the war. They walk along
the curb but seldom speak.
Vietnamese poets—this may be common in everyday speech, but I haven’t run across it—will pile up two words with essentially the same meaning. Here is an example: The poet Tô Ngọc Thạch begins a line with the phrase “Lớp lớp địa tầng” in which, as near as I can tell by dictionary crawling, both “Lớp lớp” and “địa tầng” can straightforwardly be translated as “layers” or “strata” in English. I don’t know whether I should render this as just “layers” or “strata” or something more like “layers of strata.” Clearly, I need to seek the help of a Vietnamese poet on this, but I’m beginning to think that Vietnamese writers use these doublings & sometimes triplings to elicit shades of meaning. That is, redundancy — that’s what we’d call it in the West — is a fundamental element of style in Vietnamese, particularly in literature, but also in everyday speech.
I’m not sure if “mind” is exactly the word I’m looking for–is there a word that combines the sense of “mind” & “personality? Style, maybe. In the Confessions, Rousseau writes, “I have a passionate temperament, and lively and headstrong emotions. Yet my thoughts arise slowly and confusedly, and are never ready till too late” (113). I’ve certainly felt this way all my life and one of the things that draws me to the Confessions is the sense that I am reading about myself. Rousseau, looking back on his life, discerns traits I recognize looking back on my own life. He tells us that he can only speak fluently to a sympathetic auditor: “My heart loved to expand, provided there was another heart to listen. But dry and cold questionings, without any sign of approval or blame, gave me no confidence” (84). Ah, so this is not my failing alone! He goes on:
But I do not suffer from this combination of quick emotion and slow thoughts only in company. I know it too when I am alone and when I am working. Ideas take shape in my head with the most incredible difficulty. They go round in slow circles and ferment, agitating me and overheating me till my heart palpitates. During this stir of emotion I can see nothing clearly, and cannot write a word; I have to wait. Insensibly all this tumult grows quiet, the chaos subsides, and everything falls into place, but slowly, and after long and confused perturbations (113).
For a long time I thought this described the mental processes of all writers, but then I met writers who said they merely transcribed what they already knew rather than having to figure things out during the actual process of writing. I suspect most poets are like me (and Rousseau), but I won’t presume to speak for fiction writers. Often, I have the sense that it is the language itself thinking through me. The main consequence of this is that it take me forever to write anything. I’m among the least prolific poets I know even though I am writing pretty much all the time. Lately, I have been able to write some extended prose–a whole conference paper!–but proset is always a grind, exactly as Rousseau describes.
How can I have made it to age sixty-one without having read Rousseau’s Confessions? Before coming to Vietnam, never knowing what I’ll want to read while traveling, I downloaded several free e-books of “classic” (in the advertising sense of the term) texts, The Complete Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau among them.
I also filled the Kindle with more than a shelf-full of serious fiction and even some poetry (which seems wrong, somehow, as e-text), but during the long flight between Frankfurt & Singapore, the Rousseau somehow bobbed to the surface of the electronic sea. I think I may have begun reading the Confessions sometime earlier, perhaps as an assigned text in college, but I’d never got a sense of the man’s voice until I was forty thousand feet above Central Europe. The text I have is that of the Penguin edition, translated by J.M. Cohen. The English sentences are graceful and wonderfully fluent, catching what must be something of the conversational style of the original. The author of the Confessions is a sort of Prince Mishkin without the Russian angst. Dostoevsky must certainly have read this book, what with his interest in Christ-like innocence. I’ve been dipping into the text a bit each day, following the young Rousseau for a few of his adventures, and then putting him aside to return refreshed to other work.
What strike me most strongly about the Confessions is that every word & sentence is saturated with a kind of longing for the lost world of childhood. Even when Rousseau is presenting his own childhood, there is a strong elegiac feel to the descriptions, a kind of pre-nostalgia. The adult Rousseau looking back on his life, I think, is writing himself back to that state of innocence. It’s a funny sort of innocence, too–that has a knowing quality about it. Mostly, though, we the innocence is perceptual and social. The boy Rousseau sees everything–including pretty young women–with an absolutely fresh eye; and this innocence of his observations of social relations is devastating, laying bare hypocrisy without the least sense of the judgmental. What a remarkable intelligence.
Talk about hitting my sweet spots — here is a blog about poetry and neuroscience! I think I found it via Don Share’s (Poetry Magazine) Twitter feed. Comes at a good time for me, since I’m writing an essay that touches on poetry & brain science.
Poetry on the Brain: A Bittersweet Symphony.