jueves, 25 de noviembre de 2010

Shoot the Piano Player

Shoot the Piano Player (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1990)
by David Goodis
USA, 1956

Even if, like me, you've stupidly somehow never seen the famous 1960 Truffaut film that was based on this book, it doesn't exactly take a genius to figure out that something bad is going to happen to someone good early on in Shoot the Piano Player (originally published as Down There in its pre-movie tie-in incarnation).  That being said, I've got to give Goodis a lot of credit for at least making me hope I'd be wrong about who was going to get it by the end.  A gritty noir about what trouble walks into reclusive piano man Eddie's life the night a couple of mob goons chase his wayward brother into the Philly dive bar where he works, this slender novel also works in some affecting nods to family ties, the true cost of loyalty, and the unexpected kindness of strangers who can't be bought in the course of its 158 pages of bleary-eyed tragedy.  Although it doesn't all work--like in a lot of pulp fiction, characters would sometimes say and do things that just left me scratching my head in disbelief--enough does that I'd consider trying out another Goodis down the road.  In the meantime, two things really stood out for me here.  The first was Goodis' flair for characterization: in a Harriet's Hut full of carnivalesque barroom archetypes, the salty bar owner, the ex-professional wrestler turned bouncer, the waitress carrying a hatpin for protection against unwelcome advances, and even the house prostitute all seemed genuine as individuals.  The second was that Goodis was quite sympathetic toward his female characters, to the point that Lena the waitress could even be considered the most complex of all the leads in this otherwise high-testosterone genre workout dedicated to male criminality.  While the downward trajectory of Goodis' career as a writer--in specific, the flight home from Hollywood after the onetime bestselling author flopped out as a screenwriter and the subsequent return to an apartment above his parents' Philadelphia garage, where he's said to have spent the rest of his short life as an alcoholic churning out works that were largely ignored in this country--kind of makes him seem like a figure out of one of his very own novels, I halfway wonder whether his own experience with the heads or tails of "success" and "failure" accounts for the tender, almost sentimental treatment of his main characters here.  Of course, that doesn't keep any of them from dying.  (http://www.vintagebooks.com/)

David Goodis (1917-1967)

sábado, 20 de noviembre de 2010

TBR by Country: Spain

All the following are in Spanish with the exception of three titles in Catalan that are marked in red and three works about Spain but not written by Spanish authors at the end of the list.  With any luck, I'll be able to put together some kind of a Spanish literature reading project next year to complement my French literature reading project plans.  In the meantime, totals to date: Spain (24) + Argentina (47) + France (32) = 103 books in the TBR.
1) Anónimo.  Libro de Alexandre (Cátedra).
2) Anónimo.  Libro del Caballero Zifar (Cátedra).
3) Anónimo.  Poema de Fernán González (Editorial Castalia).
4) Alvar, Carlos y Alvar, Manuel (eds.).  Épica medieval española (Cátedra).
5) Berceo, Gonzalo de.  Milagros de Nuestra Señora (Crítica) [partially read].
6) Falcones, Ildefonso.  La catedral del mar (Grijalbo).
7) Goytisolo, Juan.  Don Julián (Cátedra) + Count Julian (Dalkey Archive).
8) Herralde, Jorge.  El optimismo de la voluntad: Experiencias editoriales en América Latina (Tezontle).
9) Laforet, Carmen.  Nada (Destino).
10) Lope de Vega.  El caballero de Olmedo (Clásicos Castalia).
11) López de Ayala, Pero.  Rimado de Palacio (Clásicos Castalia).
12) Marías, Javier.  Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí (Debolsillo).
13) Márquez Villanueva, Francisco.  El concepto cultural alfonsí (Edicions Bellaterra).
14) Martín-Santos, Luis.  Tiempo de silencio (Crítica).
15) Pérez-Reverte, Arturo.  El caballero del jubón amarillo (Alfaguara).
16) Riera, Carme.  La meitat de l'ànima (Proa) [partially read].
17) _____.  L'estiu de l'anglès (Proa).
18) Ruiz Zafón, Carlos.  El juego del ángel (Vintage Español).
19) Santa Teresa de Jesús.  Libro de la vida (Clásicos Castalia).
20) Somoza, José Carlos.  Clara y la penumbra (Debolsillo).
21) Teixidor, Emili.  El Llibre de les Mosques (Proa).
22) Fletcher, Richard.  Moorish Spain (University of California Press).
23) Kurlansky, Mark.  The Basque History of the World (Penguin).
24) Reilly, Bernard F.  The Medieval Spains (Cambridge University Press).

viernes, 19 de noviembre de 2010

Faceless Killers

Faceless Killers [Mördare utan ansikte] (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2003)
by Henning Mankell [translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray]
Sweden, 1991

For someone who's now read a grand total of all of one Henning Mankell titles in his entire life, I have to ask: Stieg who???  Hotshit Swede police procedural that's sort of like the reading equivalent of downing a 72-ounce Big Gulp and following it up with a couple of cups of coffee afterward.  Found myself rushing to plow through this book and am now finding myself impatiently waiting to get going on a second Mankell offering before the month is out.  Ironically, I'm not entirely sure why the book produced such an effect in me.  Inspector Kurt Wallander's an interesting enough lead character, to be sure: a flawed but sympathetic everyman trying to make some sense out of the senselessness he confronts in his personal and professional lives.  I also enjoyed seeing how the murder investigation itself--as in Maj Sjöwall's and Per Wahlöö's The Laughing Policeman, a lesser work Mankell discreetly tips his hat to at one point (144)--was portrayed as having been conducted and then solved collaboratively through a combination of routine policework and blind luck rather than by any superhuman feats of deductive prowess by a single individual.  And Wallander's sense that Sweden is changing for the worse, losing the battle to drug-related crime and gripped by an anti-immigrant fever that he in part understands, clearly adds some depth to the story as a whole.  But other than that, I'm afraid I'm at a loss to explain this whole Mankell thing yet.  Not my problem--any more room on that bandwagon?  (http://www.vintagebooks.com/)

Henning Mankell

lunes, 15 de noviembre de 2010

Orbis Terrarum Film Mini-Challenge: Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Germany, 2009

While I'd been meaning to read something by Hildegard von Bingen for about the past five or six years, German director Margarethe von Trotta basically rescued me from my lethargy with this fine film portrait about the 12th century Benedictine nun, woman of letters, and mystic.  One of the interesting things about the director's approach is that she doesn't attempt to explain away or oversell Hildegard's visions--they just happen, throughout the film as throughout her life, the point being that they eventually begin to seem as natural as the sickly Hildegard's propensity for being laid up with various physical afflictions.  Another thing I liked about the film was its attention to small day to day details and people rather than platitudes.  While I think that Von Trotta was quite wise to sidestep the question of whether Hildegard's visions were the product of mental illness or supernatural spirituality (we'll all have our own opinions on that one anyway), an unexpected bonus of her neutrality on the matter is that Hildegard's role as magistra, and later abbess of her own convent, is given more play here than it would have in sensationalistic hands.  Partly as a consequence of this and partly as a result of the acting, the relations between nuns and nuns and nuns and priests felt real to me--more so than in most movies in any event.  In short, if you were ever curious about what it must have been like to try and lead a normal life as an outstanding woman, maybe even a feminist avant la lettre,  in a culture where that brought about more detractors than admirers, I think you could do a whole lot worse than this for an answer.  Nice solid effort, with a compelling performance by Barbara Sukowa in the lead role, although the U.S. movie poster's soulless imitation of a perfume ad from Vanity Fair may rightly make you question my judgement (I'd understand, believe me).

Margarethe von Trotta

Orbis Terrarum Film Mini-Challenge
Reviewing a foreign film in November?  Let me know, and I'll add the link to it to here.  Big belated thanks to Emily and Stu, who contributed movie reviews below, back in September.  Cheers!

Stu from Winstonsdad's Blog: Wings of Desire

sábado, 13 de noviembre de 2010

La vida del Buscón, libro segundo y libro tercero y último

La vida del Buscón (Crítica, sin fecha)
por Francisco de Quevedo
España, 1626

Aunque tuve algunos problemas entiendo Quevedo en castellano (la mezcla de sus juegos de palabras con la germanía de sus personajes, aunque divertida, fue realmente difícil a veces) y después descubrí que la traducción de la obra en inglés era de poca confianza, tengo que subrayar que vale la pena de leer al Buscón en cualquier lenguaje.  Es escandolasamente chistoso.  Al pensar en esto, me gustaría concluir este mini ciclo sobre el clásico con una mirada dirgida a unos ejemplos de su humor provocador.  En libro II, capítulo 3, por ejemplo, el buscón Pablos casi blasfema al contar la historia de cómo, contra todas las expectativas, un ermitaño estafa a él y a un soldado en un juego de naipes: "Nuestras cartas eran como el Mesías, que nunca venían y las aguardábamos siempre" (83).  En libro III, capítulo 3, el aire sacrílego con la descripción de un impostor que se gana la viva por pretender ser un penitente en busca de limosna.  "No levantaba los ojos a las mujeres," escribe Pablos, "pero las faldas sí" (123).  En otra parte, Pablos amenaza la frontera entre el buen gusto y el mal gusto al opinar que la "conciencia en mercader es como virgo en cantonera, que se vende sin haberle" (85) y al decir que sabe que su madre, una presa de la Inquisición en Toledo, "hará humo" a la hoguera (95).  Aunque Quevedo ha sido criticado por los eruditos modernos a causa de los elementos antisemíticos y misoginistas en esta novela, yo pienso que es importante recordar que nadie escapa sin daño en esta vida de un criminal impenitente del siglo decimoséptimo listo para viajar al Nuevo Mundo.  Sumamente chistoso.
Even though I had some problems understanding La vida del Buscón in Spanish (the combination of Quevedo's frequent puns and the characters' criminal slang, while amusing, was truly difficult at times) and then felt swindled by Michael Alpert's unreliable English translation of the work, I'd like to second Amateur Reader in acknowledging that the experience of reading the Buscón [The Swindler] in any language is well worth the effort.  It's just scandalously funny.  With that in mind, I'd like to wrap up this little miniseries on the Spanish classic with a look at some examples of its edgy humor.  In Book II, Chapter 3, for example, the swindler Pablos comes awfully close to committing blasphemy in telling  the story of how, against all expectations, a hermit cheats him and a soldier out of all their money in a game of cards: "Our cards were like the Messiah--since they never turned up, and we were always waiting for them" (83).*  In Book III, Chapter 3, the sacrilegious tone continues with the description of an impostor who earns a living by pretending to be a penitent in search of alms: "He wouldn't raise his eyes to look at women", Pablos writes, "but their skirts were another matter" (123).**  Elsewhere, Pablos flirts with the boundaries of good taste by describing how a "good conscience in a merchant is like virginity in a streetwalker since it's peddled without being possessed" (85) and follows it up with a remark about how he's sure that his mother--imprisoned by the Inquisition in Toledo--will "make sparks fly" at the stake (95)!***  Although Quevedo has been criticized by some modern scholars for the anti-Semitic and misogynistic elements in this novel, I think it's important to remember that nobody gets off unscathed in Pablos' crude vita of an unrepentant 17th century criminal ready to ship off for the New World.  Hilarious.


*My more or less literal translation of the line, "Nuestras cartas eran como el Mesías, que nunca venían y las aguardábamos siempre" (83). This definitely anti-Jewish and possibly anti-Christian dig doesn't appear in Michael Alpert's English translation of the work.
**My loose translation of the line, "No levantaba los ojos a las mujeres, pero las faldas sí" (123).  Alpert translates this as follows on page 169 of The Swindler: "When it came to women he didn't raise his eyes, but that didn't apply to their skirts."
***My translations of the following: "Conciencia en mercader es como virgo en cantonera, que se vende sin haberle" (85) and "hará humo" (95).  Although the latter remark actually expresses the notion that Pablos' mother "will make or create smoke" at the implied stake, I've followed Alpert's lead on page 147 of his translation ["she will make sparks fly"] to bring you a more vigorous rendering of Quevedo's Castilian in English.

Más sobre el Buscón

Otras opiniones

lunes, 8 de noviembre de 2010

Wittgenstein's Nephew

Wittgenstein's Nephew [Wittgensteins Neffe] (Vintage, no date)
by Thomas Bernhard [translated from the German by David McLintock]
Austria, 1982

"Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science" (Wittgenstein's Nephew, 8).

Thomas Bernhard: where have you been all my life, you morose bastard?  An impressively sustained, mordantly observed 100-page monologue based on the author's real-life friendship with a relative of the famous philosopher, Wittgenstein's Nephew is yet another in a spate of works I've read of late where the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are hopelessly blurred.  I loved it.  Taking on as his subject the equilateral triangle of a life-changing friendship, severe physical and mental illness, and two friends' awareness of their impending deaths, Bernhard somehow managed to have me laughing out loud at his frequent barbs at the same time as I found myself genuinely touched by the evocation of the friends' fragile and increasingly diseased relationship.  Although Bernhard isn't particularly kind to many people in this novel, preferring the loaded gun of the biting remark to the dishonesty of being diplomatic when it's not deserved, he reminded me a bit of Robert Walser in his ability to bring troubled souls to the printed page with unpredictability, vividness, and what seemed like genuine honesty.  A great--and even an exquisite--treat.  (http://www.vintagebooks.com/)

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989)

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

viernes, 5 de noviembre de 2010

TBR by Country: Argentina

la sala de café de la librería Eterna Cadencia
Honduras 5582
Palermo, Bs.As.

OK, so maybe I need to slow down on buying books from Argentina for a while.  Or stop accepting them as gifts from my in-laws.  In the meantime, here's a found photo of what's probably my favorite bookstore in Buenos Aires, Eterna Cadencia, naturally located just a short distance away from both calle J.L. Borges and Plazoleta Cortázar.  As always, feel free to let me know if you have any questions about the following authors or titles and/or if you care to share a comment about Argentinean literature in general.  Next TBR list: books I own from Spanish or Italian authors now waiting to be read.  Totals to date: Argentina (47) + France (32) = 79 books in the TBR.
1) Aguirre, Osvaldo.  Rocanrol (Beatriz Viterbo Editora).
2) Aguinis, Marcos.  El atroz encanto de ser argentinos (Booket).
3) _____.  La pasión según Carmela (Sudamericana).
4) Aira, César.  Las aventuras de Barbaverde (Mondadori).
5) Arlt, Roberto.  El paisaje en las nubes: Crónicas en El Mundo 1937-1942 (Fondo de Cultura Económica).
6) Barsky, Julián y Osvaldo.  La Buenos Aires de Gardel (Editorial Sudamericana).
7) Bioy Casares, Adolfo.  La invención de Morel (Booket).
8) Bonasso, Miguel.  Recuerdo de la muerte (Booket) [partially read].
9) Borges, Jorge Luis.  Ficciones (Biblioteca Borges/Alianza Editorial) [partially read].
10) _____.  Historia universal de la infamia (Biblioteca Borges/Alianza Editorial) [partially read].
11) _____.  Narraciones (Cátedra) [partially read].
12) Caparrós, Martín.  El interior (Planeta/Seix Barral) [partially read].
13) Chaves, Gonzalo Leonidas y Lewinger, Jorge Omar.  Los del 73: Memoria Montonero (De la Campana).
14) Conti, Haroldo.  Cuentos completos (Emecé).
15) Cortázar, Julio.  Bestiaro (Punto de Lectura).
16) _____.  Cuentos completos/3 (Punto de Lectura).
17) _____.  Rayuela (Cátedra) + Hopscotch (Pantheon) [partially read].
18) Eloy Martínez, Tomás.  La mano del amo (Alfaguara).
19) Fogwill.  Cuentos completos (Alfaguara).
20) Fontanarrosa, Roberto.  Te digo más...y otros cuentos (Ediciones De la Flor).
21) Fresán, Rodrigo.  Mantra (Mondadori) [partially read].
22) _____.  Vidas de santos (Debolsillo).
23) González, Betina.  Arte menor (Clarín/Alfaguara).
24) Hernández, José.  Martín Fierro (Kapelusz).
25) Lanata, Jorge.  ADN: Mapa genético de los defectos argentinos (Planeta).
26) Mancilla, Lucio V.  Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (Edicol).
27) Marechal, Leopoldo.  Adán Buenosayres (Fondo de Cultura Económica).
28) Martínez, Guillermo.  Borges y la matemática (Seix Barral).
29) Martínez Estrada, Ezequiel.  Radiografía de la pampa (Losada).
30) Morales, Bruno.  Bolivia Construcciones (La Nación/Editorial Sudamericana).
31) Olsorio, Elsa.  Cielo de tango (Planeta).
32) Pauls, Alan.  El pasado (Anagrama).
33) Piglia, Ricardo.  La invasión (Anagrama).
34) Premat, Julio.  Héroes sin atributos: Figuras de autor en la literatura argentina (Fondo de Cultura Económica).
35) Rolón, Gabriel.  Historias de diván: Ocho relatos de vida (Planeta).
36) Rosendo González, Pablo.  La Argentimna fuera de sí (Editorial Sudamericana).
37) Sabato, Ernesto.  España en los diarios de mi vejez (Seix Barral).
38) Saer, Juan José.  Glosa (Seix Barral).
39) _____.  Trabajos (Seix Barral).
40) Saítta, Sylvia.  El escritor en el bosque de ladrillos: una biografía de Roberto Arlt (Debolsillo) [bought at Eterna Cadencia!].
41) Santucho, Julio.  Los últimos guevaristas: La guerilla marxista en la Argentina (Byblos).
42) Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino.  Facundo (Cátedra).
43) Sorensesn, Diana.  A Turbulent Decade Remembered: Scenes from the Latin American Sixties (Stanford University Press).
44) Strafacce, Ricardo.  La banda del Dr. Mandrile contra los corazones solitarios seguido de La conversación (Beatriz Viterbo Editora).
45) Walsh, Rodolfo.  El violento oficio de escribir: Obra periodística (1953-1977) (Ediciones De la Flor).
46)  _____. Variaciones en rojo (Ediciones De la Flor).
47) Nouzeilles, Gabriela and Montaldo, Graciela, eds.  The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press).

jueves, 4 de noviembre de 2010

Lost in Mistranslation: Penguin's Underwhelming and Unreliable "The Swindler"

Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler (El Buscón) (Penguin, 1975)
by Anonymous (Lazarillo de Tormes) and Francisco de Quevedo (El Buscón) [translated from the Spanish by Michael Alpert]
Spain, 1545 & 1626

On Tuesday, I promised you all a post about why I thought Michael Alpert's Penguin translation of Francisco de Quevedo's 1626 La vida del Buscón--along with the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes and Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, commonly regarded as one of the three greatest picaresque novels to come out of Spain--was such a dud in its English incarnation as The Swindler.  While I realize that the vast majority of you won't be bothered by the idea of a bad translation of a book you were never going to read anyway, I hope those of you interested in translation matters in general will bear with me for a couple of moments while I relate this "cautionary tale."  Although I actually have a lot of complaints about the translation, I'll try to keep things relatively brief and non-technical as regards the language issues.

At the beginning of Chapter Twelve in Alpert's translation of The Swindler, we find the rascally narrator Pablos on the road to Madrid in the Castilla-La Mancha region in Spain.  "But to get back to my journey," he writes, "I was riding on a grey donkey like Sancho Panza and the last thing I wanted was to meet anybody when, in the distance, I saw a gentleman walking along with his cloak on and his sword by his side, wearing light breeches and high boots" (147).  This gentleman, whose appearance, manners, and hard luck may superficially remind some of Don Quixote, will then fall in with Pablos for a spell in what looks like it could be a send-up of an adventure from Cervantes' recent runaway best-seller.  So what's the problem with such a tantalizing metafictional scene? It doesn't appear this way at all in my Spanish version!  At least, there's no mention of Sancho Panza in my Quevedo--just the detail that Pablos was riding on a "rucio de la Mancha" [gray horse from La Mancha] (II, 5, 95 in the Spanish text).  Is Alpert trying to embellish the Don Quixote-like "cameo" for English readers, using a variant text, or just making shit up?  It's hard to say.  While there are at least three Buscón manuscripts known to scholars in addition to various printed versions of the novel, Alpert never once mentions which version of Quevedo's text he's used as the source for his translation.  Kind of a big problem there, no?

While I wouldn't expect Alpert's "popular" Penguin translation of The Swindler to have the full critical apparatus of Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza's academic Crítica edition of La vida del Buscón given that they were probably put together with different audiences in mind, my concerns with not knowing Alpert's source text are compounded by disputes with his translation itself.  I've already mentioned elsewhere how his mistranslation of a raunchy joke about priests and prostitutes misses a wicked anti-clerical jab by Quevedo.  In addition, he muffs up simple translations often enough that I'm not sure whether he's just sloppy or whether he's actively trying to rewrite Quevedo.  Sloppy: Translating "four" years (120) instead of the correct "forty" years (Quevedo, 55) in the description of how long Pablos' uncle had worked as a hangman.  Actively rewriting: Substituting "man of leisure" (86) for "caballero" [gentleman or nobleman] (Quevedo, 12) when translating Pablos' stated goal for what he wants to become in life.  Granted, some of these quibbles are minor--but some are not.  In any event, they all tend to erode my confidence in the English version of the work.

As does Alpert himself.  If I can step away from the nitty gritty of the translation for a moment, I have to say that the personal side of himself he reveals in his introduction makes me less forgiving of his miscues as a translator.  He would almost certainly make a dud tour guide as well.  Check out these three asides: "The pícaro's goal is respectability, which means money, and of course he is keen to make the best showing he can in the world; Spaniards traditionally are" (7).  "The author satirizes at the same time the traditional Spanish preoccupation, quedar bien: to impress, to make a brave showing in the world.  No one can have failed to notice it who has been to Spain and seen how apparently poor people dress impeccably and spend their money freely" (9).  "Besides, that Spaniards are proud is a truism" (10). These comments, while they may not be as "racist" as many of the barbs in Quevedo's 17th century text, rub me the wrong way with their 20th century cultural stereotyping...and this from a British translator who discusses Spanish currency in terms of the "farthing" on page 85!  Maybe translators should just be seen and not heard, I don't know.  In any event, the sad thing is that Alpert's translation of The Swindler--as underwhelming and unreliable as it is in my estimation--is one of the few ways for English readers to experience a Spanish classic so wrongly comic that it almost landed its "anonymous" author in hot water with the Inquisition.  More on that in a day or two perhaps along with a quick look at some of the other targets of Quevedo's humor.

miércoles, 3 de noviembre de 2010

The Cairo Trilogy Readalong

After test-driving Naguib Mahfouz's sporty little Miramar over the summer, I knew I was ready to slide behind the wheel of his 1,360 page The Cairo Trilogy before the end of the year (please pardon the comparison, but I think the "manly man" in me is undoubtedly reacting to all the Persephone catalog love that I've been seeing around the blogosphere of late!).  As luck would have it, a few of my dearest blogging friends said they'd also be interested in reading this 1956-57 classic with me. Would you, too, care to join us?  If so, let me know and I'll add you to the list below.  In the meantime, the schedule is as follows:

December 26-27th: Palace Walk posts and discussions
January 30th-31st: Palace of Desire posts and discussions
February 27th-28th: Sugar Street posts and discussions

The dates above correspond to the last Sunday and Monday of each month, but feel free to post whenever you like (I'll collect links to your posts after mine are up to make the blog visiting easier).  Have you read part of The Cairo Trilogy already or just aren't sure that you want to commit to a three months-long group read with a bunch of strangers?  No problem!  Join us for a single book if you'd like.  You can also just join us for the discussions if that makes thing easier for you.  Anyway, hope some of you out there will consider reading along with us.  Cheers!

Which edition of The Cairo Trilogy should you read?
Alas, I have no idea as yet!  I've been eyeing the Everyman's Library omnibus edition up top because I like carrying unnecessarily heavy books around with me.  However, the Anchor three-pack above also looks pretty nifty and the volumes are sold separately for easier portability.  To complicate matters, Emily has a post here where she displays two more spiffy covers (from the UK's Transworld Publishers, Ltd., if I'm not mistaken).  Anybody have any advice on the best translation?

Probable Participants
Claire of kiss a cloud

martes, 2 de noviembre de 2010

La vida del Buscón, libro primero

La vida del Buscón (Crítica, sin fecha)
por Francisco de Quevedo
España, 1626

Hace seis meses, escribí un post dedicado a mi aprecio por el principio del Buscón y mi decepción con la traducción de la obra (abajo).  Después de un enorme intervalo, por fin lo terminé hoy y puedo decir que era un verdadero encanto aunque la traducción era malísima.  En el Libro Primero de la novela, el narrador se nos introduce como el hijo de una familia segoviana en cual el padre trabaja como barbero y ladrón y la madre trabaja como bruja y puta.  Aunque sus padres naturalmente quieren que el joven Pablos siga en sus propios pasos, él quiere convertirse en un "caballero" y por eso sale de Segovia en busca de un futuro mejor.  Escrito como el bildungsroman de un vago profesional, la primera parte de la obra incluye un sinnúmero de escenas cómicas como aquellas donde Pablos sufre a las manos de un avaro (del hambre) y de los estudiantes crueles (casi se ahorca durante una tormenta de saliva) antes de ponerse al tanto y convertirse en un buscón en Alcalá.  "Confieso que nunca me supo cosa tan bien", declara luego de su epifanía (52).   Sin obstante, al final del séptimo capítulo Pablos recibe noticias de un tío que su padre ha muerto y que su madre está una presa con la Inquisición a causa de su brujería.  Mientras tanto, Pablos regresa a Segovia para recoger la herencia.

Six months ago, I wrote a post about how jazzed I was by the beginning of the Buscón [The Swindler] and about how disappointed I was by Michael Alpert's English translation of the work (below).  After a long break, I finally finished the book today and am happy to report that it was a sheer delight even though the translation was a dud.*  In Book I of the novel, the narrator introduces himself to us as the son of a Segovian family in which the dad works as a barber and a thief and the mom works as a witch and a part-time prostitute.  Although his parents naturally want young Pablos to follow in their respective criminal footsteps, he wants to become a "gentleman" or a "nobleman" and thus leaves Segovia in search of a better future.  Written as the bildungsroman of a professional ne'er-do-well, the first part of the work includes an endless variety of comic scenes such as the ones where Pablos suffers at the hands of a miser (from starvation) and cruel students (he almost drowns under a hailstorm of spit and phlegm) before wising up and becoming a swindler in Alcalá.  "I must confess I never felt better in my life," he declares after his wake-up call (117).  At the end of the seventh chapter, though, Pablos receives news from an uncle that his father has died and that his mother is in danger of following suit since she's become a prisoner of the Inquisition for practicing witchcraft.  At this point, Pablos returns to Segovia to collect his inheritance.

Aunque he dicho más acerca del argumento de lo que intentaba, tengo que subrayar que lo mejor de la novela tenga que ver con el malévolo sentido de humor y los juegos verbales de Quevedo.  La madre de Pablos, por ejemplo, se introduce en una escena donde se enoja tanto que por descuido rompe "un rosario compuesto de los dientes de los muertos que siempre lleva consiga" (mi traducción, véase la nota**). Y mientras que el autor es capaz de hacer los juegos de palabras inocentes ("Dicen que era de muy buena cepa", el narrador dice de su padre al principio, "y, según él bebía, es cosa para creer" [9]), parece preferir el humor más arriesgado.  Mira, por ejemplo, a la escena en el capítulo VII donde una descripción del tío de Pablos es seguido con la descripción de la muerte del padre de Pablos por parte del tío:

"En este tiempo, vino a don Diego [el amigo y "maestro" de Pablos] una carta de su padre, en cuyo pliego venía otra de un tío mío llamado Alonso Ramplón, hombre allegado a la justicia, pues cuantas allí se habían hecho de cuarenta años a esta parte han pasado por sus manos.  Verdugo era, si va a decir la verdad, pero una águila en el oficio; vérsele hacer daba gana a uno de dejarse ahorcar" (55).

Hasta este punto, ningún problema. No obstante, en el próximo párrafo, el tío de Pablos dice con aire de naturalidad que "vuestro padre murió ocho días ha con el mayor valor que ha muerto hombre en el mundo; dígolo como quien lo guindó" (56).  Y después le coup de grâce: "Yo lo hice así.  Cayó sin encoger las piernas ni hacer gesto; quedó con una gravedad que no había más que pedir.  Hícele cuartos y dile por sepoltura los caminos.  Dios sabe lo que a mí me pesa de verle en ellos, haciendo mesa franca a los grajos.  Pero yo entiendo que los pasteleros desta tierra nos consolarán, acomodándole en los de a cuatro" (57).*** Para un blogger, es difícil superar una secuencia donde el humor negro se sigue de el humor canibalístico.  Por eso, voy a parar para el momento y regresaré más tarde en la semana con más reflexiones sobre el re-divertido Buscón.

Although I've said more about the plot than I'd intended to, I should stress that the best part of the novel has to do with Quevedo's wicked sense of humor and wordplay.  Pablos' mom, for example, is introduced in a scene where she gets so angry that she inadvertently smashes "a rosary of dead people's teeth that she always carried around with her" (86).**  And while the author's capable of making an innocent pun from time to time ("They say he came from very good stock," Pablos says about his father at the outset, "and that's not hard to believe considering how much liquid he consumed!" [85]), he usually seems to prefer a more devilish approach.  Note, for example, how Pablos' description of his uncle in Chapter 7 is mercilessly followed by the uncle's description of Pablos' father's death afterward here:

"About this time Don Diego [Pablos' friend and "master"] had a letter from his father and in the same envelope one from an uncle of mine named Alonso Yobb, a very virtuous man and well-known in Segovia for his passion for justice, especially final justice, because he'd been responsible for all those who had experienced it in the last four years.  In other words, he was a hangman, and a very able one too.  Seeing him at work made you feel like being hanged yourself" (120).

So far, so good.  In the next paragraph, though, Pablos' uncle casually reveals that "your father died a week ago as bravely as any man ever did.  That I can guarantee as I topped him myself" (120).  And then the coup de grâce: "One could not have asked for a more dignified death.  I quartered him and buried his remains along the roads.  God knows I can't bear to see the crows getting a free meal from him.  Still, I reckon the pastry-cooks will cheer us up by putting his bits in their four-real cakes" (121).***  For a blogger, it's awfully tough to top a sequence initiated with gallows humor and then followed up by cannibalistic humor.  With this in mind, I'll stop here for now and then return later in the week with more thoughts on the über-entertaining Buscón.

Don Francisco de Quevedo

*Los defectos de la traducción en inglés será un tema de uno de los otros post./The English translation's shortcomings will be a topic of one of the other posts (unless otherwise noted, all translations above are Alpert's) .
**No se puede encontrar esta descripción del rosario en mi edición de La vida del Buscón, basada en el manuscrito B según Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza.  Es posible que es un variante que se puede encontrar en uno de los otros dos manuscritos, pero el traductor británico nunca (Michael Alpert) nunca menciona sus "fuentes"./This description of the rosary isn't to be found in my edition of La vida del Buscón, which is based on manuscript B according to Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza.  It's possible that it's a variant that can be found in one of the other two manuscripts, but British translator Michael Alpert never mentions his "sources."
***Cabo Aseguinolaza tiene una nota informativa sobre este punto: "Esto es, en los pasteles de a cuatro: 'especie de empanadillas, hojaldradas y, por lo general, rellenas de carne, que costaban cuatro maravedís'.  Eran los pasteles más baratos; por ello, en la literatura de la época abundan las insinuaciones, o bien acusaciones directas, sobre la dudosa calidad y naturaleza del relleno."/Cabo Aseguinolaza has an enlightening footnote on this point: "This means, in the case of the pasteles [pastry] de a cuatro, 'a type of little empanada, or puff pastry, generally filled with meat, that cost 4 maravedís.'  They were the cheapest pastries; because of this, insinuations or even direct accusations about the questionable quality and nature of the filling abound in the literature of the era" [my translation].
  • Francisco de Quevedo (edición de Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza).  La vida del Buscón.  Barcelona: Crítica, n.d.
  • Michael Alpert, ed.  Two Spanish Picaresque Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler (El Buscón).  London: Penguin, 1975.