Thursday, July 30, 2020

What can a writing workshop do for you?

Because I was dazzled by Rachel Cusk's trilogy, Outline, Transit, Kudos, I bought her collection of essays Coventry. Although I wrote about the novels in this blog, Katy Waldman did a much better job in The New Yorker. She wrote they "represent an attempt to remake the novel, to establish a blueprint for a form of negative literature. Cusk believes that traditional fiction is broken; she seems to long for an alternative that is wholly unauthored, without artifice. In the service of that vision, she dispenses with every convention she can think of: plot, dialogue, interiority. Her recent books have a searching quality; they chase after radical realism, the authenticity of the ascetic who forswears all but the bones of life." Because these novels resemble nonfiction (no inciting incident, no plot, no interiority, no denouement), what are her essays like?

I'm not going to generalize. Each essay offers its own pleasures although one commonality is the terrific writing. "Driving as Metaphor" takes the reader on a ride through rural England. In "Coventry" Cusk's parents send her to Coventry which means that "Every so often, for offenses actual or hypothetical, my mother and father stop speaking to me." "Rudeness" talks about the implications of rude behavior with case histories. 

Cusk writes about other books and authors: Francois Sagan, Olivia Manning, Natalia Ginzberg, The Age of Innocence, The Rainbow, Never Let Me Go, and Eat, Pray, Love, which she eviscerates. Elizabeth Gilbert's voice is that of "twenty-first-century self-identity: subjective, autocratic, superstitious, knowing what it wants before it gets it, specifying even the unknown to which it purports to be abandoning itself. It is the voice moreover of the consumer, turning other realities into static and purchasable concepts ('tradition', 'the art of pleasure') that can be incorporated into the sense of self." Fun stuff.

For writers, however, her essay "How to Get There" is worth the price of the book. In the second paragraph Cusk asks, "What other grown-up gets told how to do their job so often as a writer? Or rather, what is it about writing that makes other people think they know how to do it?" Composers don't have people say to them, "I heard a great tune the other day. Why don't you use it in a symphony?" Few people say upon retirement from the business world, "I've listened to a lot of music. I think I'll write an opera." Many people say, "I've got a book in me." (I know this because I'm one of them.)

The subject Cusk discusses in "How to Get There" is creative writing classes and the writers who teach them. She has taught creative writing and so brings an insider's perspective to the issue. "The ascent of creative writing courses has given writers a different kind of work to do," she writes, "and is transforming every established role—writer, reader, editor, critic—in the literary drama."

Because a creative writing workshop will contain students wildly diverse in ambition and ability and because they are led by writers of wildly diverse character ("contradictory advice can be given in two different classes about the same piece of work"), how to evaluate a workshop? How are standards defined? The answer she says is by agreement. "There is no autocratic way of assessing literature: the shared basis of language forbids it. Agreement is the flawed, frightening, but ultimately trustworthy process by which writing is and always has been judged."

She notes that some students may already be writers, "but often they are people whose immersion [in the social contract], conversely, has been complete; they are writers who have never actually written anything." But what is actually "taught" in a creative writing class? Point of view? Narrative arc? Theme? You can get all those in a good English class.

She quotes Karl Ove Knausgaard: "Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing's location and aim. But how to get there?" Ideally, what the student gets out of a writing workshop Cusk says, "is a feeling of being 'there' for a couple hours, the beginning of a process by which 'there'—writing—can become a more concrete aspect of identity." 

In other words, we attend a creative writing workshop and write, as I understand her essay, to become our authentic selves. This is not easy and the temptation "is to elude this labour by 'making things up', by escaping into faux realities or unrealities that are the unmediated projections of the subject self." Cusk says that this labor is what is—or, I would amend, should be—taught in creative writing classes. "How to Get There" is an essay for both writing students and their teachers. Cusk's collection of essays is for everyone interested in terrific writing.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Why are federal trials becoming an endangered species?

The Vanishing Trial: The Era of Courtroom Performer and the Perils of Its Passing is interesting if only because the author Robert Katzberg is able to make his memoir more than a collection of war stories. He argues that jury trials are slowly but surely disappearing in the federal criminal justice system as more and more defendants decide to take a plea rather than risk a longer sentence with a trial. 

In 1990 there were 5,210 federal jury trials; in 2018 there were 1,879. In percentages, the share of defendants demanding a trial dropped from a little over 9 percent to slightly more than 2 percent. This, says Katzberg, has consequences for defendants, trial lawyers, and American society. (There has not been comparable drop in state criminal trials.)

Katzberg, a graduate of George Washington University Law School and a member of its Law Review, began his career as a law clerk in 1971 to the Honorable Oliver Gasch on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. He served four years as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York (i.e., a prosecutor with the U.S. government as his client). He and a friend formed Kaplan & Katzberg, a white collar criminal law boutique in New York where he was a defense attorney. He's is now consulting counsel to Holland & Knight, an international law firm, so he is writing with considerable experience.

The vanishing trial is an issue because U.S. justice is built on an adversarial system in which you are innocent until proven guilty and the state must prove guilt. "For the adversarial system to work as required," Katzberg writes, "due process is an absolute necessity, and the power of the sovereign must be challenged whenever necessary. It is only when the defense lawyer can effectively mount a strong defense in the courtroom that the adversarial system is truly tested and can function as required. Simply put, without capable defense attorneys, innocent people will be convicted of crimes they did not commit." With fewer and fewer federal trials, young defense attorneys have fewer and fewer opportunities to hone their courtroom skills, further tilting the scales toward government prosecutors.

Why so few trials? What changed? The main culprit is the Federal Sentencing Guidelines adopted in 1987. The goal was "to achieve greater nationwide uniformity in sentencing persons convicted of federal crimes by creating a mandatory sentencing regime . . .  which ascribes numerical equivalents to all federal offenses." They sound scientific and reasonable until you look at actual cases, actual trials, and actual judges who are "required to sentence the defendant within the prison range corresponding to the total level of [points] calculated." Forget mitigating factors. 

Mandatory minimum sentences tend to be much higher than those imposed before the Guidelines. Moreover, the Guidelines require a convict serve 85 percent of the sentence. Facing a choice—a sentence negotiated with the prosecution or a much longer sentence if found guilty by a jury—defendants who don't trust the system are choosing the plea. It tends, I suspect, to subtly distort the system. It certainly has filled federal prisons.

Katzberg has interesting thoughts about judges and the idea of "textualism" or "originalism," the idea that the meaning of a constitutional provision or statute is based on "how a reasonable reader of that text would have understood it at the time it was written." This discussion is worth a book of its own, but Katzberg is skeptical of the theory. "Are we to believe that the individual 'textualist/originalist' judge's personal views and life experiences will nonetheless not play a role in the decision-making process, consciously or otherwise?" A case can be made that an "originalist" is using the idea as a cover to impose conservative value judgments. 

As I've indicated, The Vanishing Trial is an accessible insight into one aspect of the criminal justice system. Katzberg is an entertaining writer who made me laugh more than once. For example, talking about the power and respect federal district court judges command, he once asked a former colleague what had been the biggest change since he became such a judge. He said, "My jokes have gotten a lot funnier."

The book is a worthy effort to introduce lay people to the realities of federal trials. It's worth reading even if you never expect to need a defense attorney who can represent you in a federal courtroom. If, by then, you can even find one with the experience to do so.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

What did you do in the Civil Rights movement, daddy?

I picked up Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights by Steven Levingston because I'm revising my novel which is set in the period right after the time this history covers. My book begins with JFK's assassination; Levingston's book ends just before it with the August 1963 March on Washington and King's: "I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the color of their character."

Levingston spends the first chapters covering Kennedy's and King's biographies to put the rest of the book into a context. The bulk of the text, however, is a history of their activities and their evolving relationship between the 1960 presidential campaign and the March. This is history, but at times it reads like a novel as, just one example, a white crowd follows a Greyhound Bus with Freedom Riders out of Anniston, Alabama. The Freedom Riders planned to eat at interstate terminals that were, in theory, protected by Federal law under the Interstate Commerce Commission Act. The bus is forced off the road, windows are smashed, a Molotov cocktail is thrown inside, and the mob blocks the exit. Fortunately, the bus passengers included two armed undercover Alabama state police who, however they felt about outside agitators, were not willing to die and helped the riders leave the bus where the Freedom Riders were beaten by the mob.

In 1961, I was the editor of the Columbia OWL, a college newspaper and we organized a fund-raiser for Dr. King.
In 1961 I was the editor of The Columbia OWL, and the school newspaper
organized a fund-raiser for Dr. King where I met him. 

Because so much time has passed but not so much time that everyone involved is beyond being interviewed (pace John Lewis), Levingston is able to read the slanders about King that Herbert Hoover was able to put in front of Kennedy. As Senator and later as President, John F. Kennedy did not regard the Civil Rights as a major interest. He cared, but he also cared about Southern votes in congress and did not want to offend them. He seems to have felt that while Jim Crow was a bad thing, it would eventually go away and that sit-ins, Freedom Rides, marches and demonstrations were just making a bad situation worse. 

JFK was more interested in international affairs, was scalded by the Bay of Pigs debacle, and during this period had to confront Russian missiles in Cuba. He did want Black votes and he courted King before the 1960 presidential election. King did not endorse Kennedy or Nixon, however, feeling that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference should keep out of presidential politics. JFK's brother Robert, the Attorney General, was delegated to deal with the situation in the South. Robert seems to have become more sympathetic over time to black aspirations and impatient with implacable southern official like Sheriff "Bull" Connor and Governor George Wallace.

The book covers—sometimes almost hour-by-hour—the Montgomery bus boycott, the Albany Movement, the "Letter from Birmingham jail," the police dogs' attack on peaceful protestors about which Robert Kennedy said, "The dogs and the [fire] hoses and the pictures with the Negroes [being attacked in Birmingham, AL] is what created a feeling in the United States that more needed to be done." 

We read about the involvement of Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Wyatt Walker, Nicholas Katzenbach, Harris Wofford, and more, and more. Fortunately the book comes with an index, notes, and an extensive bibliography.

It's an interesting history to read at this moment. The country continues to struggle with its racial history. On the one hand, Kennedy and King indicates how far we've come: no more segregated lunch counters, white-only drinking fountains, poll taxes and preposterous literary tests to register to vote. On the other hand, how far we have yet to go when we can watch a white police officer murder a black man on the street. We're not where King (or Kennedy for that matter) would want us to be, but Levingston's history can help us see where we've come from.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

How to have a better life in 216 pages

Is this you? "Your alarm goes off. You slam the snooze button. 'If only I had more time to sleep,' you think. You feel a heaviness, but it's hard to pinpoint where it's coming from. Your head? Your heart? Your body. You can't decide, so you grab your phone and escape into social media and incoming emails. Your day hasn't started, and you're already behind. 

"At lunch, you catch up on the day's news, which only manages to make you feel even more depressed. By the end of the workday, your eight (or more) hours feel like a waste. You gravitate again to social media, browsing the photos other people are posting of their 'perfect' lives. By the time you stumble to bed, it's way later than you intended. . . ."

If that's you, then Redefining Possible: Proven Strategies to Break Belief Barriers and Create Your New Normal by Dustin Hillis and Ron Alford is the book for you.

Before we go any further, let me say as clearly as I can that Redefining Possible is filled with solid, practical, useful information and suggestion. Readers who (and this is the small print) actually embrace the advice and follows the authors' suggestions will accomplish more than they would otherwise and be more considerate husbands, fathers, employees, and managers.

Hillis is the CEO of Southwestern Family of Companies; Alford is vice president of recruiting for Southwestern Coaching. Southwestern, says Wikipedia, is a diversified, international, employee-owned family of companies. The original, a publishing company, was founded in 1855 in Nashville, TN; it now has fourteen companies in consulting, sales training, executive search, travel, tax services, and more.

Both Hillis and Alford had road-to-Damascus moments that led them to where they are now. Hillis during a high school wrestling match when "I snapped inside . . . I heard a voice in my head say, 'If you give up now, you're going to keep giving up for the rest of your life.'" He decided, "No!" pinned his rival, and had redefined the possible for himself.

Alford had his during a rough patch during his marriage when "an unexpected divorce had turned my entire world upside down." He realized, "I could stop whining and wallowing and accept the potential for growth in the pain . . . I finally realized that I had the power to choose which path I would take."

Their process can be reduced to three formulas: (1) Focus + Ownership = Vision; (2) Belief + Confidence = Faith; (3) Vision + Faith + Impact = Redefining Possible. 

You sharpen you focus by eliminating mental clutter, choosing your targets (write down goals and plans), guarding you momentum, and speaking your new reality aloud ("I am calm and focused in all that I do." "I'm present with every person I talk to.")

Ownership means "accepting personal responsibility for your actions—whether the results are negative or positive." It means not lying to yourself or others by rationalizing that "Everybody does it," "It's not my job," "I'm only human," "It's not important," or making an excuse.

Vision they say is "seeing a future that hasn't happened yet." With it, you are able to do everything with more energy, more motivation, and more excitement. Make a poster of what you want: a big house, foreign travel, expensive car, ocean-going sailboat . . . whatever will get you out of bed in the morning. 

Belief incorporates "the principles and values that are hardwired into who you are. You may have devout spiritual beliefs such as an unwavering belief in God or belief in a higher power, or you might believe in love, family, or helping those in need."

Confidence is "the authentic expression of having certainty and belief in what you are doing and how you are moving toward your goals." They do warn against—and define—false confidence and conditional confidence; they encourage unconditional confidence. I suspect it's tricky to always tell one from the other.

Faith is more than belief. It's "acting on an internal conviction. Trusting in the unknown and the unseen and being willing to step out and act even though you don't know what is going to happen."

To help readers understand and incorporate these elements into their lives, Hillis and Alford provide examples, brief illustrative case histories of remarkable successes, personal stories, and exercises. And if that's not enough, the book tells you how to reach one of the company's "life-changing coaches" to buy their services.

Although both authors have strong Christian beliefs, the techniques in Redefining Possible do not depend on a belief in a Christian God for their effect; it helps, but it's not required. They do believe in the power of verbal affirmations and power statements, the idea that if you tell yourself "I can do this," you will be able to do it. (It may also get you killed if you confuse it with false confidence.) 

I believe Hillis and Alford have found and codified a system that has worked for them, for the company's coaches, and for many, if not all, of their clients. If you feel the grind of life is wearing you down, try the book's techniques; it's an easy read. If that doesn't work, sign up for the coaching. If that doesn't work, maybe you're just one of those people who can't redefine what's possible.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Kay Ryan's essays on poems, poets, and notebooks

Kay Ryan is a big deal. Seven books of poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship (2004), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2004), U.S. Poet Laureate twice (2008-2010), the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2011), a MacArthur Fellowship (2011). For all of that and even given my casual interest in poetry, I'd never heard of her until a month ago. My loss.

Synthesizing Gravity
is a collection of Ryan's prose written over thirty years. It includes comments on poems and notes about poets including Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, Stevie Smith (a favorite), Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens (his letters), Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and William Bronk all of whom—except Bronk—I had heard. (Note to self: Look up work by William Bronk.) Her observations about other poets and their poems are thought-provoking and apt.

Here she is, for example, on Williams: "The poems feel blown around. Some of my favorites have nearly been blown away. We sense this terrific freshness and immediacy when we read Williams; we hear this arrestingly authentic, direct voice."

And here she is on a Larkin's "We Met at the End of the Party": "the wonderful power of this Larkin poem comes clearly and simply from its being exactly what Larkin would write, from its issuing from a single self. It is his envy of those who can live forward, his chronic sense of missing out, and his enviable technique . . ."

In addition to the substantial material on poetry, Synthesizing Gravity includes essays on attending Ryan's first (and last) Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference and—worth the price of admission by itself—"Notes on the Danger of Notebooks."

Writers are often advised to maintain a notebook. If you overhear a snatch of interesting conversation, write it down. If a random idea strikes you, write it down. If you have an unusual experience, write it down. Do it because, as Ryan begins her essay, "Almost everything is supposed to get away from us." But while it may be easy press a few blossoms in your notebook to keep for future reference, it's hobbling. "For the truth is that memories are indistinguishable from matter in that they can neither be created (despite the claims of vacation brochures) nor destroyed." 

When you create a poem or a story, she argues, the memories necessary will be there. But taking notes, "the actual physical act of taking them, along with the resulting document in our own words, lends them a spurious importance. It becomes important to us to determine what we meant by that note because we wrote it. We are very self-conscious and therefore we must be vigilant about what we let ourselves see of ourselves. We can see too much."

She quotes Milan Kundera, "We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day, we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image." (Try it, you diary-keepers.) "If a poet seeks to make or keep memories," Ryan writes, "how will she ever know which ones contain the true power, which would assert themselves on their own?"

This essay affected me more strongly than Ryan's others because, while I do maintain a journal, I've never kept the kind of writer's notebook recommended to record snatches of thought, bits of dialogue. And—validating Ryan's point—when I write I use whatever's available already in my brain: dialogue, concrete images, connections, whatever. If it's not in my brain, I use Google. 

And I'm going to stop feeling guilty because I don't carry a notebook.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

"Prelude to Foundation": For dated science fiction

I'm afraid I have to admit that I've never read one of the classics of science fiction, Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (Foundation, 1951; Foundation and Empire, 1952; Second Foundation, 1952). Therefore when we were able to borrow Prelude to Foundation from the library without actually going inside the building, I read it.

Asimov published Prelude to Foundation in 1988, thirty-seven years after the first Foundation novel. As the flap copy says, "It is the year 12,020 C.E. and Emperor Cleon, First of the Name sits uneasily on the Imperial throne. Here on Trantor, the great multi-domed capital of the Galactic Empire, forty billion people have created a civilization of unimaginable technological and cultural complexity. It is a world so intricately woven that pulling one thread would unravel it all. Cleon I is unnerved by this . . . " When 32-year-old Outerworld mathematician Hari Seldon presents a paper on psychohistory, "little does Hari realize that he has sealed his fate and determined the destiny of humanity. For Hari Seldon possesses the prophetic power that is so desired by the Emperor. And now suddenly, this naïve and little-known Heliconian has become the most wanted man in the empire . . . ."

In some ways the book is a kind of Gulliver's Travels as Hari travels from area to area on Trantor, each with unique modes of dress, individual taboos, and concerns. He travels with a female historian who reveals almost superhuman skills as a knife fighter, and is rescued from one area after another by a character with the superhuman ability to show up when Hari needs help. Presumably Hari is assimilating the information he needs to perfect his formula for predicting the future, a future that I assume the later novels describe.

Asimov says there is unimaginable technological advances 10,000 years in the future, including cold fusion, faster-than-light space travel, books with paper on which the type advances automatically, a neuronic whip, and blasters that "mangled the organs inside the sergeant's chest" so that "without a change in expression, without a wince of pain, the sergeant crumbled and fell, dead beyond any doubt or hope." Trantor somehow is able to feed forty billion people with the entire land area covered by computer-controlled domes of various sizes and vast underground factories, stores, residences, and more. There is even the beginnings of anti-gravity, but it's expensive and limited.

Nevertheless, there's an old-fashioned feel to the technology. Trantor does have (primitive) computers, but there's no internet and no cell phone. Medicine does not seem to have advanced much, let along genetic engineering. When the character wants to buy a knife, she has to do so in an appliance store, and she recognizes the store for what it sells by a washing machine in the window. 

Even the description of the Galactic Empire sounds more like the Byzantine Empire than something 10,000 years in the future, although I'm willing to give Asimov a pass on this. I am willing to believe that, given humanity,  there are only a limited number of political arrangements possible, and people will not fundamentally change. There will always be anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, and contempt. 

My biggest difficulty with Prelude to Foundation, which is a key to the entire novel, is the unquestioned assumption that humanity would give up an advanced technology without something better to replace it. That's not the way I understand science and technology works. We give up an early technology for a more advanced technology. We gave up 78-rpm records for LPs, LPs for compact disks, CDs for downloads. I am not aware of an example in the history of technology were a device was perfected and then abandoned except in cases where it was a component of another primitive technology that itself was outmoded. 

In Prelude, humanity had apparently perfected a technology and then gave it up and never produced more of the item. (I'm being coy here because I don't want to spoil the surprise for readers who have not read the book.) I simply don't believe it, and because I don't, the novel fails for me except as a kind of old-fashioned boy's adventure story. I plan to read Foundation, however, to see what exactly this was a prelude to. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

My life as a Moroccan prostitute

Jmiaa is a thirty-four-year old Casablanca prostitute. She lives in one room with her daughter Samia who is young enough that, when Jmiaa brings a john back to the room, Samia accepts the story that they are repairmen. "It's very rare that she's there when I bring men home—" Says Jmiaa who hires an old lady to take care of the girl. "—but when she is, I tell her that they're repairmen . . . I don't know what she thinks, but what's certain is that she's growing up and if this continues, it might start to cause some problems." What's certain is that Jmiaa, divorced, uneducated, alcohol dependent if not an alcoholic has very few options.

So in the first third or so of Meryem Alaoui's debut novel, Straight from the Horse's Mouth (translated from French by Emma Ramadan), Jmiaa tells an identified listener about her life as a whore; the challenge of tolerating the men she services; the circle of girls and regulars in which she travels; her marriage, separation, and divorce (she should have listened to her mother). She has a filthy mouth and her room and neighborhood sound squalid and dangerous. It's not a picture of city that the Moroccan National Tourist Board wants publicized.

Jmiaa's aimless life changes when she is connected with a Moroccan filmmaker, "a skinny stick with long disheveled hair at the end. Hamid told me she was the neighbor's niece but I hadn't imagined she would be so young. She's standing in front of the door, and she's looking at us and smiling. Toothy grin. Horse's mouth!" And from then on Jmiaa refers to her as Horse's Mouth.

Horse's Mouth is writing a screenplay about a prostitute who robs a jewelry store in Casablanca. She wants local color, local mores to improve her script. Jmiaa fills her in. The writer writes her script and raises enough money to produce it, but cannot cast a leading lady. Desperate, she auditions Jmiaa who is a natural.

Jmiaa's life changes dramatically. The movie company puts her up in a luxury hotel in which the bed alone is as big as her former room. A car picks her up in the morning and brings her back to the hotel at night. Not only does the role fit Jmiaa as a comfortably as a djellaba*, the film is an international hit. By the novel's end, Jmiaa has a sustaining role in a Mexican TV series.

The book's jacket says that Alaoui "creates a vibrant picture of the day-to-day challenges faced by working people in Morocco, which they meet head-on with resourcefulness and resilience." Because I know nothing about working-class life in Morocco nor do I know what it would be like to be a prostitute in such an environment, I accepted and was entertained by Jmiaa's story.

On the other hand, I think the translator made a mistake by noting foreign terms with an asterisk and sending the reader to a glossary in the back. For example, " . . . he adds as if he were Imad Ntifi*." The glossary says Imad Ntifi is (was?): "Famous presenter of musical and other entertainment shows." Why not make it, " . . . he adds as if he were the famous presenter of musical shows, Imad Ntifi"? Why make the reader work?

Another example: "The bnader* started up." Bnader we learn is the plural of "bendir: a drum traditionally fashioned from goatskin." Surely there's a way to avoid the asterisk. Maybe, "The goatskin drums started up"?

And at the other extreme, there are glosses we don't need. Jmiaa says about her ex-husband in Spain, "The only effort he makes is walking the two hundred yards between him and the grocery store* where I send the money." Does the reader need the following: "Berber grocery stores are often used as informal networks for transferring funds across the Mediterranean. The sender gives dirhams to a grocer in Morocco, and the recipient gets the equivalent in euros (minus a commission) at the cousin's grocery store in Europe—and vice versa." I figured out from the text that there was an informal transfer system; I didn't need the details of who does what minus a commission.

I suspect the translator (and her editor) wanted to give native English speakers a sense of Moroccan life and culture by retaining these linguistic markers, words like caid, chaabi, Cheikb Yassine, chemkara, chikbate, choumicba, Cimi . . . But rather than enhance the book's pleasure, they are constant interruptions. I could have done without.

*By the way, "djellaba" is not defined. Wikipedia tells me it's a long, loose-fitting unisex outer robe with full sleeves.

Friday, April 17, 2020

What is the translator's obligation?

The New York Times published a review of a French novel, And Their Children After Them, the novel I just reviewed. In it the Times reviewer complains, "But it is a flawed artwork all the same — a somewhat ineptly translated narrative (“you guys give me a pain,” one native-born character declares) . . . Its descriptive language can be comically bad, with phrases any creative writing instructor would banish from her class: A heart is “as heavy as an anvil”; the day is “as hot as a frying pan”; expressions flit across faces “like clouds”; a mixed-race girl is “a knockout”; a MAC 50 pistol is “super beautiful.”

Without defending (or attacking) this reviewer, it this raises a question: What is the translator's obligation here? To reflect the author's work as written or to improve it? To use the author's images and metaphors or invent her own?

It provoked a number of responses from the Literary Translation Facebook group, which I have edited and copied below:

SP: I'd say the translator should reflect the author's work as is. It's more complicated when it comes to idioms and metaphor or similes, though. In Catalan, we say 'anar amb peus de plom' (walk with feet of lead) whereas in English, we 'walk/tread on eggshells'. The Catalan is nice and paints a good picture, but -- unless my aim were to maintain a strongly Catalan flavour -- I'd go for eggshells rather than leaden feet in a translation. Also, some metaphors and similes can be fresh and original in one language, but hackneyed and clichéd in another. It's all a question of balance and the effect, firstly, that the author was creating, and secondly, that the translator wants to create or reproduce.

BH: But walking on eggshells is the opposite of walking with feet of lead.

SP:Not really. In either case you have to tread very very gently so as not to break what's underfoot.

LL: Hm, I understand walking with feet of lead to mean (metaphorically) clomping about clumsily, while walking on eggshells implies an effort to tread very delicately and not break them?

SP: Not in Catalan.This is, of course, another reason why it's important to translate the intention of the author and not, when it comes to idiomatic use, go for a more literal approach.

GT: I think your example of peus de plom demonstrates very well why it is usually better to use an equivalent idiom in English rather than sticking to the original image - at least when the original image gives a very different impression. If the author didn't mean something to sound different or awkward, then it is not really a good idea to come up with a translation that is. Of course, sometimes authors deliberately play with language to give weird images or ways of expressing themselves (one of my authors does this), in which case you have to come up with something that reflects that intent and has a similar effect in English, but otherwise I think you are doing the original text/author a disservice.

EB: “Ineptly translated” seems like inflammatory language rather than from a place of knowledge or authority. Unless the reviewer was remotely as qualified as the translator themself, I wouldn’t give this much attention.

NL: He lives in Paris and is married to a Frenchwoman, so I think it's pretty likely he's come across it in French.

JK: Some translations are inept. If the reviewer can make the case with the original text, s/he should. But general accusations don't help.

CH: Translators shouldn't be editors - so even though I agree with the reviewer that "hot as a frying pan" is a dull turn of phrase (in English just as in French), that's the fault of the writer, not the translator. (I'm not sure if the reviewer was implying otherwise; it doesn't sound like it.) What does sound like a translation flaw is the "you guys give me a pain" line - if it wasn't intended to be grammatically incorrect, then yes, this was a bit of a cock-up on the translator's part.

AH: It all depends on the original work. A cliché for a cliché. As the poet J. H. Prynne says, 'don't solve the problem - translate it!'

AG: Japanese as a language has a high tolerance for mixed metaphors. I think this is because character combinations create independent visual worlds that can sit comfortably next to each other without much commingling. A straight translation of such a sentence into English can be risible gibberish.

RS: Well said. The challenge of striking a balance between explaining and exposing to another language.

MM: I wonder of any of these are attempts to render youth speak or non native speakers of French? Just a thought. FWIW, I like a heart as heavy as an anvil. And give me a pain isn't impossible in BE.

CC: I have German friends with excellent English who choose to say “he’s falling on my nerves” because they find it expresses what they want to say better than “getting”. I wouldn’t put it in a translation, though. Ditto my Israeli friend’s preferred “It does me nothing” - though I do use it with her.

LL: From the examples given, I wondered if it was intended to suggest a young person's speech (not sure how authentic the result is tbh)? It sounds as if the review transfers blame for aspects of the original book and its writing, to the translation. Makes no effort to see if the frying pan and anvil similes are there in the FR, for eg. (and if the reviewer did check, and they are, doesn't want to blame the author?) Sloppy.

SP: How do you know they didn’t check the original French?

DC: Isn't the problem in the example the whole construction ("you guys give me a pain")? (Rather than "you guys are a pain [in the neck]")

DD: I just read the entire review and wondered myself what is the original French for "you guys give me a pain"? This was the reviewer's only example of "somewhat inept" translation and I wish he'd expanded on why. I think either "give me" or "are a" pain is standard American conversational usage (at least for my generation). As to where the pain's located, it can be idiomatically either "in the ass" or "the neck". But "neck" feels definitely more dated and leaving out "the ass" softens the complaint. A diplomatic omission when, say, expressing the complaint to one's partner? Similarly isn't "give me" a little milder that "are"?

JZ: That's a calque of the French phrase "vous me faites de la peine." It's often translated as "you're hurting my feelings." NOT "you're a pain in the neck."

DD: So what's going on in the passage is "hurt", not "annoyance"? But would the character say "you guys are hurtful" to his buddies? Or would something closer to "you're killing me" or "breaking my..." be more in character. I haven't read the book, just saying the rendering may be not all that simple and the foreignization of dialogue here maybe not all that awful an alternative.

VJ: It's a question for everyone, really. Where does your loyalty lie? Your publisher, your wallet, your target language, your author? From readers' perspective, it's quite clear: they don't know about our deadlines. They just want the text in the best shape possible.

DM: I'm no judge of English prose, but "phrases any creative writing instructor would banish from her class" gives me a pause. That should not be a criterion outside a creative writing class. A lot of great literature in any language would be banned wholesale by a run-of-the-mill creative writing instructor.

MS: The reviewer's overall impression was that the text used clichéd language, but also clichéd narratives and structures. These things seem, to the reviewer, to be connected and I would generally agree. The writer who says that an expression flitted across someone's face like a passing cloud is putting you on notice that he (in this case) is not taking every precaution to avoid mental ruts. And that's a serious criticism, not just in a writing class. The book is trying to depict a world that is often overlooked, or whose complexities are flattened. If he does the same thing, it should be noted.

LC: I'm working on an MFA in Literary Translation and this is a question we grapple with a lot. Translating is certainly a delicate balancing act and there might be times when the translator improves the text's clarity but if the text has a unique tone, that needs to be preserved in the translation. Without reading the full article I don't want to judge this reviewer but I do wonder what he/she considers the role of the translator to be.

CC: As others have pointed out: an editor was also involved in this process, and should definitely have pounced on some of the examples given.

My opinion: I believe the translator's obligation is to the reader. The first challenge is to convey the author's meaning even if, as sometimes happens in Japanese, the meaning is between the lines, not in the text. The second challenge I believe is to preserve as much as possible the author's tone, style, cast of mind. If  it comes down to a question of clarity versus style, however, I would in most cases go for clarity.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Small lives in a small town, and fascinating

And Their Children After Them, Nicolas Mathieu's second novel (translated from the French by William Rodamor), won France's prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. That's one reason to read it.

Another, of course, is that it's an engaging and absorbing portrayal of a slice of French life with which most of us are entirely unfamiliar.

The title comes from the Wisdom of Sirach (also known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus): "There are others who are not remembered, as if they had never lived, who died and were forgotten, they, and their children after them." Those are the lives Mathieu evokes: small lives in a small town who die and are forgotten.

The novel begins in the summer of 1992, jumps to 1994, to 1996, and finally to 1998. It follows a group of teenagers in the imaginary French town of Heillange, a formerly prosperous (if noisy and polluted) steel-making town. Now the blast furnaces are derelict, the workers unemployed, underemployed, or pensioned off, and their children are pretty much on their own.

In 1992, a heatwave is broiling Heillange, weed is in sort supply, and a song by Nirvana "that usually made you want to smash a guitar or set fire to your school" is spreading like a virus. Fourteen-year-old Andrew Casati is bored out of his skull. Lazing around the dull side of the local lake, Anthony and his cousin decide to steal a canoe to find out what it's like on the other side, at the famous nudist beach. The choices Anthony makes that day shape everything that happens in the rest of the novel, from an enduring crush to a collision with a boy named Hacine, son of Moroccan parents, who lives in a decaying housing project.

Children is a picaresque novel that follows Andrew, his parents, his friends, his enemies, and their parents. The book is stuffed with characters, but Mathieu moves easily from the point of view to another, from Andrew's alcoholic father as his marriage collapses to Hacine who deals drugs. These are working-class teens who smoke dope, drink far too much, and, in the heat of the moment, engage in unprotected sex.

The book, however, is more than the comings and goings of the characters, interesting as those are; Mathieu wants more; he wants to show the effects of immigration and globalization without preaching. For example, here's Hacine's father:

He "had emigrated from a poor country and found something of a refuge in Heillange. At the steel mill, he had taken orders for forty years, while being punctual, falsely docile, and an Arab, always. He very quickly understood that the hierarchy at work was determined by more than skills, seniority, or diplomas. Among the workers there were three classes. The lowest was reserved for blacks and North Africans like himself. Above him were the Poles, Yugoslavs, Italians, and the least competent French. To get any job higher than that, you had to be born in France; that was all there was to it."

While the novel tells a number of stories, it has no neat plot, no inciting incident, rising tension, climax, and resolution. It does have fascinating snapshots of French life, conventions, and expectations. Anthony, for example, sees no future in Heillange. He "passed the technological baccalauiréat without having to take the orals, and also without any illusions about what would happen next." He joins the Army, injures a knee playing soccer, the Army washes him out, and he returns to Heillange. So much for escaping your fate.

Mathieu was born in Épinal, France, in 1978. His first novel, Aux animaux in la guerre, was published in 2014. He says he was visiting an old postindustrial site to get some documentation in a small town call Uckange. It was late and the place was deserted. He knew he wanted to write about teenagers and deindustrialization, about a small town and youth. He was listening to music when suddenly a live version of Bruce Springsteen's The River came on. Springsteen speaks about his youth, relationships with his father, etc., and then the song begins. It inspired Mathieu to tell the same story, one of father and son dynamics, of appetites, and of limits.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The antidote for everything is . . . ?

How's this for a novel's first sentence: "Most women did not begin their days by stabbing a man in the scrotum, but Georgia Brown was not most women"? Thus begins Kimmery Martin's second novel The Antidote for Everything, and continues in the operating room as Georgia operates an a patient's infected scrotum.

Georgia is a 36-year-old, single urologist who works in a Charleston, SC, clinic that is attached to a church-owned hospital. (This is significant.) Her very best friend is Jonah Tsukada, a 32-year-old primary care physician who works at the same clinic and who happens to be gay.

In the opening chapter, Georgia's cell phone receives a text as she's operating. The circulating nurse asks Georgia if wants to hear the messages. Georgia's beloved dog is at the vet's being operated on; of course she wants to hear. The circulator reads silently, then suggests Georgia look at the message privately. Georgia orders her to read it, so she reads:

"Dear Georgia, Don't take this the wrong way, but it's over. I'm guessing you don't want to see me, so I'll stop by for my board if you leave it on the porch. If you want my advice, in the future you might try to pretend you don't know more than everybody else. One more thing. You might also want to consider waxing. Or at least trimming." 

"Ouch," says someone in the operating room.

Kimmery Martin is an emergency medicine doctor-turned novelist. She grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, outside a small town called Berea. She completed her medical training at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. When she started writing her first novel, The Queen of Hearts, she worked in the emergency room full-time. She now lives with her husband and three children in Charlotte, and has a job that allows her more time to write.

As an emergency medicine doctor, Martin brings authority and conviction to her medical scenes. She's (as we say) writing from the inside. And the issue that Georgia and Jonah have to confront is both true and troubling. Jonah's patients have been leaving him, which is disturbing both because they need his care and there is no convenient—or in some cases possible—alternative and because Jonah needs money. He's staggering under hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans, costly in-home medical assistance for his grandmother, and "a self-inflicted credit card issue stemming from his days as an under financed medical student."

Jonah's patients are leaving him because the clinic has sent them letters it will no longer provide them medical services. And they turn out to be his transgender, nonbinary and gay patients. The clinic's director of HR tells Jonah "they'd been getting complaints about 'him' [one of Jonah's more flamboyant trans patients], that some of the other patients were finding the waiting room to be an uncomfortable environment when 'he' was there. He also said some of the clinic employees felt they were compromising their beliefs by taking care of 'him.'" And, "They're talking about a clinic policy allowing providers to stop providing birth control to female patients, because that also compromises the beliefs of these same employees."

Can this be legal? (Forget moral or the Hippocratic oath.) Apparently it is "perfectly legal in our state to refuse medical care to someone because they're transgender or gay. For that matter, it is perfectly legal to fire someone because they're gay." Because the hospital is owned by a church and does not receive federal money, it can do what it believes is Christian. So Jonah has to watch himself or he'll be out of a job.

The Antidote for Everything is wonderfully well-written. The banter between Georgia and Jonah early in the book made me laugh out loud. (The dialogue later in the book is not so jolly.) After being dumped, Georgia begins an affair with a man who seems almost too good to be true (tall, handsome, single, with.a hedge-fund expense account, and great in bed), but given everything else that happens in the novel, spending more time on Mark probably would not have added much. As it is Martin writes five chapters from Mark's point of view; the rest from Georgia's.

I'm not sure there is a single antidote for everything, but I agree with Martin that friendship is the antidote for a much of the world's pain. Reading her novel can be an antidote to the blahs; it was for me.