Posts Tagged ‘Finnegan’s Wake’

Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.




Writing, writers, language and inspiration

February 26, 2016

I’ve been thinking some more about the craft of writing: it took a while before I told myself I was a writer, because I write this blog (heading for 400 posts now), and because I’ve been working on another study guide recently. I was often asked, while still teaching, if I was going to write when I retired, and I always said no, thinking that people meant lengthy and serious stuff, or novels. And when I was a student I used to write book reviews for SF magazines, and worked on the student union newspaper for a couple of years. Hell, my alternative career choice – to teaching – was always journalism…

I’m supposed to be an expert at writing: I taught it for years; I know all the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling (allegedly); I know all about planning, structuring, drafting and revising. When I write, I particularly enjoy the possibility of choosing my words carefully, and of revising a piece until it’s just what I want it to be. Some of that is easier in front of a computer, some isn’t.

And yet there’s more: there’s inspiration, there’s the original spark of an idea to get creativity flowing. That’s the case with this blog, too: obviously I write about what I’ve been reading, but at other times I get a sudden idea for something to write about. And that has got easier over time. But the sort of flash of genius – the sort of thing I often imagine fires good poetry, for instance – no.

I’m in awe of what good writers can do with language. John Donne is probably my favourite poet of all time (unless you ask me tomorrow, when I’ll choose someone else): he creates moods through language, he varies his tone of voice at will, he uses metre masterfully, and he is witty through his use of language – that supremacy of the sixteenth century mind playing cleverly with words and ideas, that today would probably just seem smart-arsed. Who else would dream of using the image of a flea to persuade a woman into bed?

Shakespeare and Milton are just stunning, when you listen to them. Some of the magic surely comes from their invention of new words, which abound; some comes from the sounds of those words, some from the poetry, some from the ideas and feelings bound up in those words.

James Joyce plays brilliantly with words: the opening chapter of A Portrait of the Artist with its closely observed baby talk; the sections of Ulysses written in the styles of different authors and the masterfulness of the closing chapter. And I haven’t read Finnegans Wake, though the bits I have seen show a wordmaster at work. And someone has translated it into Chinese (?)…

I love the wonderful chattiness, homeliness, conversationality of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, wit its dry humour; I marvel at the way Raymond Chandler creates place, time and sleaze with so few carefully chosen words; I chuckle at the wonderfully subtle and catty put-downs that are hidden throughout Jane Austen, and so easily overlooked.

English is an extraordinary language (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?); although I can read French I don’t feel I can get inside it and appreciate its subtleties in the same ways. And English is special, for the hugeness of its vocabulary – several times the size of other languages – which gives the possibility for precision, shades of meaning, myriad rhymes in poetry and so much more. It is a particularly good language to write poetry in because of this richness, and blank verse works, or has been developed, in ways that I’m not sure exist in other languages – I think of the straight-jacketing rhyming couplets of French dramatists contemporary with Shakespeare.

No wonder this blog is as far as I’ve got…

More thoughts on translation

June 8, 2015

41nJdX9Qe7L._SL160_You may have realised from this earlier post that I’m fascinated by translation; indeed, sometimes I think if I could have my time over again, I’d perhaps study linguistics and then go into the business…

As far as I can make out, the book I read is a compilation of several talks and series of lectures Umberto Eco has given on the subject. Eco writes knowledgeably: he is a translator, as well as a writer, and has collaborated closely with the translators of his novels into many languages. He starts off by having some fun with computer translations and the confusions that they often cause, and throughout the book frequently provides humorous examples of how translators are tied in knots by the untranslatable. As your read, you become aware of the Pandora’s Box that is translation – the range of subtleties and nuances, difficulties and issues that you never imagined were there behind the scenes, needing to be addressed and taken into account. You just got on and read the translation. There are so many aspects I’d never even imagined.

Except that Eco’s point is that there is no such thing as a translation as we simplistically and superficially understand the concept: that’s why the title of his book (in English) is ‘To Say Almost the Same Thing‘; in translating one never says the same thing. All the issues are enumerated and copiously exemplified, through a range of translations of all sorts of works: some are of Eco’s own texts, some are texts he’s translated. Even issues such as how speech is punctuated in different languages can make a difference to how text is perceived. Then there is the question of slang. And what about culture-specific references? There are some issues Eco admits are just insoluble: the question of colours, for example: there is no universal language of colours.

It turns out that there were quite sizeable cuts and changes made to the original text when The Name of the Rose was translated into English, for various reasons and with Eco’s agreement; I found myself wondering whether to read it in French next time just to see if/what I noticed…

As I read I found myself pondering several questions: does the average reader pay that close attention to anything? would s/he notice all these things Eco points out, if translators didn’t pay such careful attention to detail? how much does it really matter that I might be reading something translated that is not actually the same as the original?

My head started to hurt when Eco got onto the issues involved in translating Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake. Looking at the book in the original English (?) made me seasick, but yes, it has been translated into a number of languages.

Eco  also observes that movement from one medium into another (i.e. book to film) is an aspect of translation, and this does not escape his examination either. He points out that translation is easier with concrete than abstract original texts. We are asked to reflect on the difference between translation and interpretation, and the idea of versions and adaptations

I think that if anyone wanted a reasonable – not easy – introduction to the full range of problems in the field of translation, then they could do worse than tackle this book. I found it fascinating, and really enjoyed it.


June 16, 2014

Today is Bloomsday, and although it’s quite some time since I last re-read Joyce’s Ulysses, there’s always a small leap in my spirits whenever I recall it. I think I’ve read it three times so far, although it’s a novel which, in the end, I respect greatly rather than love for ever. I’ve never fully warmed to it as I have to other classics.

I had to read it, having studied A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for A level many years ago. I have still no liking for the character Stephen, but I do like, even warm to, Leopold Bloom, who seems human and humane in a way that Stephen doesn’t.

It is an astonishing achievement as a novel; the idea of focusing all the action in the single day (16 June 1904) and place (Dublin), and the wealth of writing styles as the eighteen sections unfold… I have always particularly liked the parody section, and the question and answer section.

It is also a very erudite novel: when I next re-read it, I intend to have the OUP annotated edition open at the notes (several hundred pages of them) to make sure I haven’t missed anything. I’m always saddened when I realise the difference that the disappearance of classical education in Britain over the last decades has made to students’ ability fully to access and appreciate so many works of literature. I remember needing to give crash courses in the Bible and basic theology before being able to teach Milton or Donne, for instance. If you want your hand holding as you read, I can highly recommend The Bloomsday Book, by Harry Blamires

Novelists have always experimented, and Joyce was one in a long line; experimental writing isn’t always easy to access, but it shows others possibilities they may not have contemplated, and ultimately enriches the whole world of literature. I have always loved Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is another challenging read, but so many of the ideas that other writers were to try out in the following centuries are foreshadowed there.

I have to admit that I did own a copy of Finnegan’s Wake for a while, but that was as far as I got…

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