Monday, April 06, 2009

Books read in March, part two

Stories and Remarks, Raymond Queneau (trans Marc Lowenthal)
Birthday present to self. I hadn't even realised this book had been translated into English - a pleasant surprise. This replaces the French copy - increasingly I feel I'm kidding myself by keeping hold of any books in French when it's so much effort now to read them. So now I plan to keep hold of the originals only when I feel there's a real need, i.e. when I don't rate the English translator's chances of keeping the wordplay intact. Which pretty much narrows it down to Ionesco's plays, Oulipo anthologies, Queneau's Exercises de style and Perec's La disparition (see below).
This volume includes a nice illuminative introduction and a moderate set of translator's notes, which I appreciated. Highlight of the collection would be Queneau's earnest scientific analysis of the language of dogs in Sylvie and Bruno. Saucy fellow.

A Void, Gilbert Adair (translation of La disparition by Georges Perec)
See, here's a case where the translation, while as close as it can be, can't hope to capture the exact sense of the original, but deserves kudos in its own right. It's almost a reimagining rather than a translation.
What Perec did was to write a 300-page novel without using the letter "e", while - for extra cheeky points - making the absence of the letter "e" the centre of the story. You should be able to see at once the difficulties in translating this into English while still keeping "e" out of it. A Void isn't perfect, but it's as good as - there might be as many as half a dozen cases where Adair's used a past tense apostrophe (e.g. "vanish'd") or an abbreviation that, spelled out in full, would contain an "e". Purists might call this cheating, but it's a 300-page translated novel for goodness' sake, and it's a staggering achievement to get away with only half a dozen fudges. And it's still both readable and intellectually stimulating.
What's surprising is that there were two other competing translations that might have been published if this one hadn't got there first. One of them was by Ian Monk, who like Perec is* a member of Oulipo. Dammit, why can't we have two translations of the same book?!
*Yes, even though Perec is dead he's still a member. The Oulipo are very clear on this point: membership cannot be resigned, revoked or considered defunct just because the member is dead.

Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (translator George Bird)
Birthday book #2. A modern Russian novel that isn't a gratuitous pulp gangster story. Still a bit of a disappointing read, though. The premise is that a struggling Ukrainian writer, whose flatmate is a penguin that he rescued when Kiev's zoo ran out of money, gets work writing obituaries to order for a newspaper. The twist being that the subjects of his obituaries start dying after he's written them.
This sounds like it ought to make for an excellent novel - a pleasing mixture of suspense, black comedy and surrealism. In fact it's quite flat. Victor, the protagonist, just seems to drift from chapter to chapter while things happen around him. The penguin is played straight rather than for laughs, which isn't a problem in itself - in fact he may be the best thing about the book. But a perfectly ordinary realistic penguin, even in the unusual setting of a Ukrainian flat, isn't enough to carry a book on its own. None of the characters were lively enough to engage my interest. The translation's slightly jarring in places as well. Russian doesn't have a definite or indefinite article, so an English translator has to decide for himself whether the sentence calls for "a", "the" or nothing at all - the translator here plumps for nothing at all in a large number of cases where I really would have thought something would have worked better, judging from the context. But maybe I'm just looking for faults now. Not the year's top read.

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, Will Cuppy
Much better. A series of factually accurate but very sardonic historical profiles. A bit like 1066 And All That rewritten by PG Wodehouse (ugh, an "X written by Y" reviewbite!). Nice light-hearted reading to round off the month. Well, nearly.

The Quiet Woman, Christopher Priest
Now there's a title that invites cheap Les Dawson-esque gags. (What kind of book is it? Fiction! What kind of fiction? Fantasy!) An author's manuscript is seized by an over-zealous Home Office in a slightly parallel world where a French nuclear reactor leak has irradiated the Home Counties. She tries to investigate the reasons for her manscript's censorship and the reasons for her neighbour's murder, and it turns out they're connected. Priest himself is apparently dissatisfied with this novel, and a lot of people apparently agree with him. I certainly wouldn't rank it among his best, but it's not bad. Problematic is the word. It's Christopher Priest's problem novel. Having had the chance now to go through it with NESFA's collection of critical essays on Priest in my other hand has shed some more light on the story, but hasn't really made me like it any better. Still, it might warrant another reading at some point.

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