sábado, 6 de noviembre de 2010

A Void


A Void [La disparition] (David R. Godine, 2008)
by Georges Perec [translated from the French by Gilbert Adair]
France, 1969

I imagine that most of the people who wind up reading Perec's nearly 300-page long lipogram--in the original French as well as in the English adaptation, defiantly constructed without the use of the letter e--have heard the story about how the missing vowel has to do with the traumatic events in the author's childhood: writing a novel sans e (without [an] e), which sounds so close to sans eux (without them) in spoken French, could provide a way for the Jewish author to surreptitiously acknowledge the loss of his soldier father in World War II and the subsequent loss of his mother in the Holocaust--this, in a work in which the most basic words relating to his orphaned identity (mère [mother], père [father], the very name Perec) are expressly absent or "forbidden."  I also imagine that many readers of A Void go into it having heard that Gilbert Adair's English translation of La disparition [The Disappearance] is a highwire act on a par with Perec's own "untranslatable" original.  What I'm less certain about is how many are aware that this so-called metaphysical whodunit, rife with disappearing bodies in what is probably both a homage to and a send-up of the traditional murder mystery, is more absurdist than dramatic in tone.  In any event, imagine my surprise when I found myself loving the wacky linguistic hijinks but only mildly interested and occasionally even outright bored by the goofball narrative itself.  WTF?

Perec on a bad hair day

Since I won't be able to say how much the novelist or the translator deserves the blame for the choppy reading experience until after I have more time to compare La disparition with A Void, I'd like to turn to a happier question: how the hell did they come up with anything legible at all without the use of the e?  The answer: with a lot of style!  The novel seems to have six books and twenty-six chapters, for example, but both the second book and the fifth chapter have gone missing in recognition of e's place in the "a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y" vowel sequence and the a-b-c-d-e beginning of the alphabet.  Even before lead character Anton Vowl (Anton Voyl in the French) disappears, both Perec and Adair seem to jump at every opportunity to draw attention to the corresponding missing vowels or voyelles.  Here is one of Adair's early efforts: "Probably nodding off for an instant or two, Vowl abruptly sits up straight.  'And now for a public announc-...'  Damn that static!  Vowl starts twiddling knobs again until his transistor radio booms out with clarity" (4).  Elsewhere, Adair uses a combination of simple substitutions ("auditory organs [as doctors say]" for ears on page 8), alternate spellings ("Oïdipos" for Oedipus on page 32), and archaisms ("grampus" for whale in one of the many references to Moby Dick) as part of his bag of tricks.  One of my favorite moments in this regard has to do with a "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" rewrite in Chapter 4 where a character named Dupin (hint, hint) exclaims in anger "I'm PO'd, truly PO'd" before Adair unnecessarily adds "PO was a contraction of 'piss off'" (39).


While amusing puns like that are to be found throughout the novel, so too are the less succesful moments where either Perec's or the translator's circumlocutions feel forced or stilted (I won't cite any examples because they aren't difficult to find at random).  In short, Life A User's Manual is an almost perfect affair; this one isn't.  More troublingly, I realized partway into A Void that Adair was seriously overstepping his bounds as the intermediary between the author and his English-dependent audience.  Here are two examples from Chapter 20 alone.  In the first sequence, a character named Amaury says that "I can't stop thinking that I'm in a sort of roman à tiroirs, a thick gothic work of fiction with lots of plot twists and a Russian doll construction, such as Mathurin's Monk, Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found at Saragossa and just about any story by Hoffman or Balzac (Balzac, that is, prior to Vautrin, Goriot, Pons or Rastignac)..." (198).  Since Maturin wrote Melmoth the Wanderer and not The Monk, I took at look at Perec's original to see if I could decipher what reason might be behind the character's declaration that Mathurin [sic] and not amusing weirdo Matthew Lewis had written the monastic roman in question.  Was it all about the letter e?  To my horror, I saw that Perec doesn't mention The Monk at all nor does he mention the title of Potocki's work: just a "roman à tiroirs, un roman noir à l'instar d'un Mathurin, d'un Jan Potocki, d'un Hoffman, d'un Balzac avant Vautrin, Goriot, Pons ou Rastignac..." (217) ["an episodic novel, a Gothic novel in imitation of a Maturin, a Jan Potocki, a Hoffman, a Balzac before Vautrin, Goriot, Pons or Rastignac..." in my translation].  Later in the chapter, Adair makes a similarly poor decision.  Listing an "amorphous mass of books and authors" that "bombards his brain," Amaury asks himself: "Moby Dick?  Malcolm Lowry?  Van Vogt's Saga of Non-A?  Or that work by Roubaud that Gallimard brought out, with a logo, so to say of a 3 as shown in a mirror?  Aragon's Blanc ou l'OubliUn Grand Cri VainLa Disparition?  Or Adair's translation of it?" (201).  In addition to including himself where Perec does not, Adair negligently fails to mention one "Christian Bourgois." So why does the guy think he has the right to rewrite Perec?

Perec on another bad hair day

To take a break from throwing the translator under the bus in back to back review posts, I ought to mention that the Roubaud reference above reminds me that Stephen Frug of Attempts blog recently pointed out that a Jacques Roubaud-penned poem called "La Disparition" appears in Perec's novel but not in Adair's translation.  Thanks to Stephen, you can find the English translation of the poem here and a really interesting post about other A Void related material here.  And although the translation let me down in many ways, I still look forward to reading the novel as Perec wrote it one of these days.  Why?  Just in skimming La disparition, I encountered multiple examples of wordplay that would probably be lost in any translation.  In Chapter 21 in the David R. Godine edition, for example, Adair forces the imitation is the sincerest form of flattery issue by making a lame-o joke about a chicken crossing the road.  While Perec isn't above such low humor on his own, note the extreme contrast in style between his original text and Adair's translation: he mentions a dindon dodu [a plump turkey] before adding in parenthesis, "dont Didon dîna dit-on du dos" (225).  Am I right in suggesting that you don't even need to know how to translate that line to appreciate the effort? An interesting and simultaneously uninteresting start to the French literature reading project that I hope to pursue over the coming year, A Void is probably a timely reminder that not all translations are created equal.   In other words, too bad my schoolboy French is so damn merde-y!  (http://www.godine.com/)

Other Bloggers on Perec's A Void
Bellezza (Dolce Bellezza) #1 & #2

13 comentarios:

  1. Ah, I see we had similar experiences in preferring the wordplay over the story. The story only really interested me when it was at its loopiest. The more straightforward whodunit stuff and the long conversations were boring without the verbal gymnastics to hold my interest.

    And Adair definitely makes his presence known, but it didn't bother me much. I'm just not sure it would be possible to translate Perec's verbal tricks and remain within the e-less constraint, so Adair had to make up some gags of his own. I can only hope that there were in the same spirit and style as Perec's. It does look like from your examples, he went further than was necessary, although I must confess that I chuckled at the reference to his own translation. So cheeky of him to take advantage of the lack of an e in his own last name!

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  2. Did Perec ever not have a bad hair day? I was mildly surprised when I saw a while back that Perec seems to be a chosen author for many bloggers. Why? From a French point of view I would say he is okish. La vie mode d'emploi might be good and Les choses is still somewhat recommended reading. The fact that he wrote crosswords for newspapers made me always suspicious. With or without the WWII background I wouldn't want to read La disparition, would rather be interested to see how the translator manages.

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  3. I suspect Mr. Perec's hair looks better in the original French.

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  4. I agree with Caroline - Perec seems never to have had a GOOD hair day. I can't wait till you read a more attractive author so your header will have more appeal! :--) Also, is it just me, or does "And now for a public service announce-...' Damn that static!" have two e's in it?

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  5. *Teresa: Definitely with you on the wordplay over the story! And I probably wouldn't have minded that one "cheeky" intrusion of Adair's so much if he hadn't unnecessarily added or subtracted from Perec so many times elsewhere. On the other hand, I agree that he deserves some credit for his achievement (and his imagination) when not consciously distorting the text. It couldn't have been an easy task!

    *Caroline: I think Perec has a relatively small but vocal number of fans from outside France, so it's interesting to hear your somewhat anti-Perec perspective as a Frenchwoman. For my part, I absolutely loved La vie mode d'emploi and view his crossword puzzle writing as an outgrowth of his love for puzzles and writing. Nothing too eccentric about that, is there? :D

    *C.B. James: Ha ha, it will be nearly impossible to top that comment on this thread! Thanks for weighing in. :D

    *Jill: Your eyes did indeed spot a mistake with "public [service] announce-...," but that one was mine and not Adair's! Sorry--I've since fixed it. As for Perec's hair, although I tend to agree with you and Caroline, I'm usually more amused by it than put off by it since Perec seemed to wear it with such wacky pride. I also ran the twin photos as a method of baiting Frances, who has expressed concern about the quality of the author photos on the blog on more than one occasion (she's a tough critic, that one, ha ha). Cheers!

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  6. I also chuckled over Adair's insertion of his own translation into the text - that particular moment seems d'avoir l'air Perecien, although I can understand your frustration with a couple of the other freedoms he takes.

    As for the issue of the wordplay being delightful but the actual story boring, I was just AMAZED that Life A User's Manual managed to avoid this pitfall - the constraints were there & were amazing, but you could totally read it & enjoy it without even knowing about them. I'd be surprised if an author could pull that off reliably time after time, so it's not too surprising that Perec stumbled occasionally. I'm enjoying people's thoughts on this one.

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  7. Richard, You still need to get rid of the final e of announce- . And I have a suggestion for your next review. (In desperation for seeing a better header on your blog, I have given this some thought.) How about reading and reviewing an interview in some movie fan mag with Javier Bardem? He's very cute, never has bad hair days, and you'll garner tons of new followers (and of course they'll be just the kind you want!) :--)

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  8. I was curious to hear about the translation of such a work.
    I agree with Caroline, he seems more appreciated abroad than in France. I've never met anybody who has read him, although the titles of his books are well-known.
    I am myself very skeptical about literature under constraint. For me, the style is there to serve the story. A story shouldn't be invented just to wrap up a writing exercice or experiment.
    In the end, that's how you seem to feel about this book. Funny style but weak story.

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  9. Finished the book last night, and am not sure if I will even post for fear that people might only catch my disappointment and not try other Perec, namely Life: A User's Manual. Richard, I was seriously bummed. For all the reasons you and Teresa list, but for another I am struggling to understand. The damn book gave me a headache.

    Knowing that people process the words they read differently, and knowing that I tend to "hear" what I read in my head did not help me when the book started to drone on in my head in a blurry streak. Variance in sounds adds to the beauty of spoken language, and this began to "sound" very ugly to me. Stupid I know but I was beyond irritated by the time I finished. Grrr! (but not your fault of course!)

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  10. *Emily: I think you make a fine point about the constraints creating a situation where it might not be reasonable to expect the author to succeed every time. Of course, see Frances' comment below for a second opinion on how much A Void didn't succeed going head to head with
    Life A User's Manual. I want to hold off further judgement against Adair until I read more of Perec's original, but I suspect the translation may be more at fault (understandably and not) for the letdown in the long run.

    *Jill: Given all your proofreading help with this post (thanks!), I'll be running Javier Bardem photos in the header until my readers come begging for mercy. On a related note, it's really a great shame that Penelope Cruz hasn't written any books that I could spotlight via a delectable author photo!

    *Bookaroundthecorner: I would be skeptical about literature written under constraints as well except Life A User's Manual was so wonderfully narrated, witty, and ingenious in regard to how the constraints were integrated that I'm now a believer--at least on occasion! Unfortunately, you sum up my reaction to the translation of A Void perfectly. Cheers!

    *Frances: I was "seriously bummed" for much of the second half of A Void, too, and it's perhaps a failure of my post that I didn't make that more clear (I did love the wordplay, though). So while I'm sorry you had such a bad experience with the book, I completely understand your annoyance over the headache it gave you. If it's any consolation, one of my Latin American blogger friends called the Spanish translation of the work "unreadable" or something like that. Too bad I didn't want to believe him at the time!

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  11. This comment thread is fabulous - and I would have to say that your header sports Javier Bardem in my least favorite hairdo! (Great movie though...) Anyway, I'm definitely struggling with the second half, and I can very much relate to Frances' headache, even though mine isn't so severe! I wouldn't say that I'm disappointed though, given that something written under such constraints that still has as much entertainment value as A Void manages astounds me. It doesn't put me off Perec at all, to say the least! :)

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  12. *Sarah: You have to admit that Jill must have been provoking me when she said that JB "never has bad hair days," don't you? Anyway, glad you seem to be enjoying A Void more than I did and much more than Frances did. I still think the verbal stunt is worth talking about even if the story largely wasn't.

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  13. I'm sorry I don't have anything meaningful to add. I did go to the effort of procuring a French copy, but it just wasn't the right timing for me to be rereading this. I don't remember the story at all, so I'm in concurrence about the wordplay being the book's strength.

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