The OF Blog

Monday, January 26, 2015

Testing canons or the constant restructuring of literary corpora

For a long while now, I have considered the issue of literature and its places and uses in contemporary society.  It was a secondary interest of mine when I was in graduate school (the primary being cultural religious concepts in practice in the early 20th century), ever since I had to present a brief summary of Paul Fussell's Wartime in a class and I found myself thinking about how certain literary concepts had become transformed when shifted back into an oral form and retransmitted through often-crude soldier compositions.  Nearly 20 years later, my opinions on it may be as fluid as ever, yet there are some interesting restructurings that have occurred in the interim.

The very concept of a "master list" or, which is much more palatable for the anarchist within me, a broadly-defined series of literary corpora is one that many can accept at a theoretical level.  There are, after all, certain works that a nation (defined here as a large cultural group that shares certain deep socio-cultural bonds in common and not as a synonym for a particular political organizing of peoples) very well might hold as being intrinsic for understanding that people:  religious texts, political tracts, histories, epic poems and fictions.  Things like Robert Burns' poetry being quoted in Scotland on Burns Night or recognizing who said "to be or not to be" or "behold I make all things new" are so familiar to certain cultures that one does not have to have been intimately familiar with the source material to understand the reference being made.

However, it is when we delve a bit further into the literary corpora that certain questions arise:  Is this material suitable today, centuries after its composition?  Are we neglecting other streams of thought by favoring this particular body of literature?  An old truism, albeit one fraught with fallibility, is that history is written by the "winners."  (In truth, histories are like any other power paradigm, with different expressions and strengths to those expressions.)  Are non-majority groups (working class, women, non-whites, non-Christians) adequately represented, whatever might be meant by "adequately?"

These are questions that not only should not be avoided, but instead they should be embraced if one wants to set about constructing any sort of national literary corpus.  I am the son of a retired high school English/literature teacher and I myself have taught literature and grammar in addition to social studies.  As is common practice, there were the sets of five books that we were required to read (and later, to teach) for certain high school lit courses.  Although I managed to avoid having teaching it, I remember questioning the validity of having John Knowles' A Separate Peace on the sophomore reading list when its setting (an all-white boarding school around the time of World War II) and characters were almost polar opposites of the experiences of the majority-black urban public school students I was teaching at the time.  Although there are many elements to Knowles' story that recommend it to many sorts of readers, it would have been very difficult to present it as something vital, something important to readers who had become accustomed to not being represented at all (or even worse, in token fashion) in school reading curricula.

What does a teacher or literature professor do when confronted with this reality?  After all, it isn't feasible to develop multiple, parallel reading lists or other literary canons in miniature without destroying the very concept of a national literary corpus.  Yet the possible solutions are fraught with difficulties, which those who are opposed to the reimagination of the reading lists take glee in pointing out.  How should we go about making the reading lists, and by extension, our understanding of what constitutes national "literary canon" more inclusive without seeming to "dilute" the quality of the literature or destroying even the shredded remnants of what formerly was a universally held understanding of what "all Americans should know?" (I use American literature here as an example as it is my native culture; similar arguments, albeit with different constituent works, would apply for other national literatures).

One solution, albeit not a perfect one (none are; we are a fractious species, after all) is to expand and to make the incorporation of diverse perspectives a foundational principle of understanding American culture and its literatures.  By all means introduce students to the First and Second Great Awakenings and the Transcendentalist Movement.  Just also introduce them to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance or the socialist writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Have them question why certain writers outside dominant American literary circles utilized similar sources (the Bible, Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, the letters of Lincoln, etc.) to argue for radically different paths for American society in the fiction, poetry, and non-fiction of the past two centuries.  By being aware of the similarity in sources as well as the divergences in interpretation and application, readers can be exposed to a wealth of different understandings of American history and literature in a way that shows the full truth of e pluribus unum without whitewashing the ideas or smothering dissenting views.

National literary corpora are not made to be static entities; they must be tested, tried, and occasionally discarded lest the national discourse become stale and enfeebled.  Two centuries ago, a "well-read" American would be able to quote Thucydides and Horace in the original Greek and Latin.  Today, while still esteemed by some, knowledge of either, in translation or in the original tongues, is not essential; their ideas, however, have been disseminated through others influenced by them.  Sometimes, it is preferable for certain texts, or at least certain interpretations derived from them, to fall away and be cast in the dustbins of history.  Surely few lament those execrable justifications for chattel slavery derived from Biblical passages!

But at the same time, as the literary corpora expand at a time when "deep" reading appears to have declined, there also should be a fight of sorts to find ourselves within our literary texts.  What does it mean to be a member of a nation?  In what do we really believe?  What is "natural law" and why do some believe that not only does it exist, but that it is essential to explaining just what we are?  Why should we study history and politics and literature in the first place, if each is controlled by other groups?  It is easy to acquiesce to current situations and to accept passively what is presented to us.  It is much more difficult, yet much more rewarding (and challenging!) to question all that is around us.

That notion of "critical thinking," however is much more easily packaged and pitched as a panacea in education than it is anything that can be instilled in readers.  To become a "critical thinker" means, at least in part, an abnegation of our own selves.  We cannot remain unchanged in this endeavor.  We have to test ourselves, deny certain preconceptions we have made.  We have to be remade anew through this enterprise.  To be anything less than "all in" is to become but a consumer of content, guzzling down pre-digested ideas and concepts and doing little else with the information but to argue matters of plot and favorite characters, with no real interest in what it all means.  I say this not to belittle those who do read for these purposes, merely to note that there are other literary worlds undreamt of in their philosophies.

All this, however, is so far only posturing.  However, I have also put into action certain practices that I hope will further and deepen my own literary education.  One such thing is a renewed focus on reading and reviewing both older and current American literary works, including non-fiction.  Over the next few years, I plan on reading and reviewing at least 20 books from the Library of America series.  These reviews (including the dozens I have already written over the past three years) shall help me in testing whether or not these works still retain their importance or if, as I suspect might be in the case for at least a few, they represent more past strains of American literary/social thought than current or future trends.

By writing about these hundreds (I have 139 volumes at present out of 266 due to be published by June) of works over a long period of time, I suspect I'll be exposed to more than just the "familiar suspects" of American letters.  Although there are certain key omissions to the Library of America series (some of which are slowly being rectified over the past two decades, namely works by women and people of color), there should be enough of a spectrum of American literature provided to make for several in-depth essays.  Hopefully, this reading/reviewing project will help me develop further as a literary critic and as a human being as well.  If this is not the ultimate purpose in testing literary canons and reconstructing my understanding of literary corpora, then what purpose is there to engage with these works at all?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day

Be sure to take the time today to appreciate one of nature's most engaging creatures.  Alas, I'll be spending most of the day again in bed, but I did at least get the chance to watch and appreciate one of the many fine squirrels on the property.  And yes, they are watching...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

One of my reviews has been translated and printed in a newspaper's literary supplement section.

Last week, I wrote a review of Serbian writer Zoran Živković's 1998 novella, The Writer.  Živković liked it so much that he asked if I wouldn't mind if it were translated and submitted to the literary supplement section of the Belgrade newspaper Politika.  I said sure, that would be great.  Late last night, Živković sent me this:

Although I have had other essays of mine translated into Portuguese, this is the first time that I have ever had one republished in a newspaper, much less a leading daily.  Just thought I'd share this very cool news with everyone.  And yes, I can understand bits and pieces of the translation. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Reading Poll

This one lists the e-ARC releases (and two print books) for upcoming releases (and one recently released) books that I likely shall be reviewing in the next few weeks.  Will be taking reader votes in consideration when choosing which book to read/review next.  Several promising titles here, including some from a few of the most well-known and recognized writers of the past half-century.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Zoran Živković, Pisac/The Writer

Uključio sam kompjuter.

Prethodno sam, naravno, spustio roletnu.  Bio je to deo jutarnjeg rituala, koji je imao praktičnog smisla za vedrih dana, kakav je bio ovaj, ali ne i onda kada bi bilo oblačno.  Svejedno, ja sam je i tada spuštao, sujeverno težeći jedinstvu ambijenta.  Moja radna soba gleda na istok, a ja sedim za stolom naspram velikog prozora, tako da bi me, bez roletne, sunce zaslepljivalo sve tamo negde do podneva, nagoneći me da čkiljim u ekran.  Ovako nisam čkiljio, ali sam zato, zarad ambijenta, naprezao oči  u nepotrebnoj polutami za oblačnih dana.

Roletna, doduše, nije bila sasvim spuštena.  Zaustavio bih je na petnaestak centimetara od donje ivice okvira, kako bi sunce ipak moglo da dopre tamo gde je svakako bilo dobrodošlo:  do osmostranog staklenog suda, smeštenog u prozoru, joji je nekada bio mali akvarijum, a sada je služio kao saksija za skupinu minijaturnih kaktusa, sa belim i ružičastim cvetićima.  Svetlost je, pored toga, dopirala i kroz tanke proreze ismeđu plastičnih rebara zategnute roletne, gradeći u polumraku sobe titrave arabeske.  Čak i da sam sedeo leđima okrenut prozoru, mislim da bih samo radi ove nestalne igre svetlihi tamnih pruga po površinama stvari držao roletnu stalno spuštenu.  Čudnovatom utisku nestvarnosti, koji je tu nastajao i koji je, ko zna zbog čega, veoma podsticajno delovao na mene, doprinosilo je i lelujanje zrnaca prašine u kosim zracima.  Znam da ima pisaca kojima je sasvim svejedno u kakvom okružju stvaraju, ali ja zasigurno ne spadam među takve.  Za mene je ambijent bezmalo sve. (pp. 5-6)

I switched on the computer.

First I pulled down the Venetian blind, of course.  That was part of my morning ritual, and on sunny days like this one it had a practical function.  Nevertheless, I also pull it down on cloudy days, superstitiously striving to maintain the ambiance.  My study looks to the east, and my desk faces a large window, so that, without the blind, I would have to squint and scowl until noon to see anything on the screen.  This way there's no need to squint, but on cloudy days, for the sake of maintaining the ambiance, I strain my eyes in unnecessary semidarkness.

Not that I pull it all the way down.  I leave a gap of about fifteen centimeters above the windowsill, so that sunshine reaches the area where it is definitely welcome:  an eight-sided glass vessel, set in the window.  That vessel, formerly a small aquarium, has been converted to serve as a flowerpot for a group of miniature cactuses, the kind with very small pink and white flowers.  Light also slants through the narrow slits between the horizontal plastic bars, creating shimmering arabesques in the dusky air of the room.  Even if I sat with my back to the window, I think I would keep the blind down at such times of the day just to enjoy the transient play of bright and dark stripes on objects in the room.  The peculiar impression of unreality thus created, one which (for reasons unknown to me) I find very stimulating, is enhanced by dust motes floating in the air, caught by diagonal beams of light.  I know that some writers are not at all influenced by their immediate surroundings.  For me, the ambient mood is almost everything. (pp. 3-4, translated by Alice Copple-Tošić)

The beginning to Zoran Živković's 1998 novella, Pisac (The Writer), is in many ways typical of his writing.  There rarely are flashy, attention-grabbing moments in these introductory paragraphs.  Rather, almost the inverse is true, as he frequently begins with the most mundane of events (here, the simple powering up of a computer) before some peculiar trait of the narrator sends the narrative careening off into something remarkable.  Ambiance, as the anonymous narrator notes, is almost everything when it comes to Živković's stories and this is especially true for The Writer, the first of a triptych of stories that involves the writer-text-reader semantic triangle.

Plot may not seem to be a primary emphasis, yet The Writer depends heavily upon the intricate placing of narrative developments.  As the writer tries to compose a tale, his dependency upon shades of light and darkness takes on several forms throughout the novella.  His musings about his difficulties (a theme that Živković would revisit in several other stories, each time with a different permutation) are stacked upon each other, creating a catalog of issues that somehow, in their seemingly digressive fashion, manages to suck the reader into considering them at hand.  This meticulous assembly of the conundrums the writer faces may not appear at first to be akin to a crime novelist's revelations of clues, yet there is a certain familial relationship in how each is presented to the reader.  Živković's carefulness in parsing out of information related to the writer and his attempts to write pays dividends by story's end.

Characterization is also surprisingly well-done, considering the paucity of characters (two) and the amount of time devoted to exploring the narrator/writer's internal thoughts and actions.  With precise wording (the English translation does a good job of capturing the essence of the Serbian original, although at several points the sentence structure had to be broken in order to preserve more of the narrative's "ambiance"), Živković creates quirky, obsessive characters whose occasional single-mindedness leads to some amusing scenes, such as the pseudo-Freudian interrogation of the writer's childhood by the writer's so-called friend (himself a writer of sorts, albeit a possibly deluded one).  These oddball moments add a levity to the narrative that makes it as much a story about humanity as it is about the addictive art of literary composition.

As hinted at above, Živković's prose, in both the original and in translation, is nearly pitch-perfect.  He is a writer who creates "atmospheric" settings that feel simultaneously plausible and utterly strange.  He never rushes the development of setting, events, or characters, yet his narratives (and this is especially true here, as The Writer is around 30 pages in the omnibus The Writer/The Book/The Reader translation published by PS Publishing) are very compact, with almost no wasted space or energy.  Yet there is a sense of grandness behind this intimate story that belies its brevity.  The result is a story that is simple in its presentation and yet very nuanced in its details.

The Writer, as one of Živković's earlier works, can almost be seen as an ur-text of sorts for his later writings.  The structure of the narrative, beginning and ending with simple, mundane actions, along with the character type of the narrator, is seen, at least in glimpses, multiple times in his latter works.  Yet here (as well as in most of his other tales), these familiar elements do not equate to staid stories, as there is always some unique element (perhaps a different mental train of thoughts from a common point, or a more or less fantastical component) that makes each story different from each other.  Certainly The Writer is a well-written story in its own right; it is merely a bonus to see certain connections between it and Živković's latter works that enrich both.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Three Upcoming Reviews This Weekend

Bben a bit busy the past couple of days, but I have three reviews that I hope to have published here by Sunday:

1.  Zoran Živković, Pisac/The Writer (part of a triptych in English translation; standalone in Serbian).

2.  Andrés Neuman, El viajero del siglo (2009 Premio Alfaguara winner).

3.  Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A little something I'm working on now

Working on a first draft translation of these seven paragraphs to add to the ones I've already done in my translation of Roberto Arlt's "El Jorobadito" ("The Little Hunchback"):

Pero de este extremo al otro, en el que me colocan mis irreductibles enemigos, media una igual distancia de mentira e incomprensión. Mis detractores aseguran que soy un canalla monstruoso, basando esta afirmación en mi jovialidad al comentar ciertos actos en los que he intervenido, como si la jovialidad no fuera precisamente la prueba de cuán excelentes son las condiciones de mi carácter y qué comprensivo y tierno al fin y al cabo.

Por otra parte, si hubiera que tamizar mis actos, ese tamiz a emplearse debería llamarse Sufrimiento. Soy un hombre que ha padecido mucho. No negaré que dichos padecimientos han encontrado su origen en mi exceso de sensibilidad, tan agudizada que cuando me encontraba frente a alguien he creído percibir hasta el matiz del color que tenían sus pensamientos, y lo más grave es que no me he equivocado nunca. Por el alma del hombre he visto pasar el rojo del odio y el verde del amor, como a través de la cresta de una nube los rayos de luna más o menos empalidecidos por el espesor distinto de la masa acuosa. Y personas hubo que me han dicho:

-¿Recuerda cuando usted, hace tres años, me dijo que yo pensaba en tal cosa? No se equivocaba.

He caminado así, entre hombres y mujeres, percibiendo los furores que encrespaban sus instintos y los deseos que envaraban sus intenciones, sorprendiendo siempre en las laterales luces de la pupila, en el temblor de los vértices de los labios y en el erizamiento casi invisible de la piel de los párpados, lo que anhelaban, retenían o sufrían. Y jamás estuve más solo que entonces, que cuando ellos y ellas eran transparentes para mí. De este modo, involuntariamente, fui descubriendo todo el sedimento de bajeza humana que encubren los actos aparentemente más leves, y hombres que eran buenos y perfectos para sus prójimos, fueron, para mí, lo que Cristo llamó sepulcros encalados. Lentamente se agrió mi natural bondad convirtiéndome en un sujeto taciturno e irónico. Pero me voy apartando, precisamente, de aquello a lo cual quiero aproximarme y es la relación del origen de mis desgracias. Mis dificultades nacen de haber conducido a la casa de la señora X al infame corcovado.

En la casa de la señora X yo "hacía el novio" de una de las niñas. Es curioso. Fui atraído, insensiblemente, a la intimidad de esa familia por una hábil conducta de la señora X, que procedió con un determinado exquisito tacto y que consiste en negarnos un vaso de agua para poner a nuestro alcance, y como quien no quiere, un frasco de alcohol. Imagínense ustedes lo que ocurriría con un sediento. Oponiéndose en palabras a mis deseos. Incluso, hay testigos. Digo esto para descargo de mi conciencia. Más aún, en circunstancias en que nuestras relaciones hacían prever una ruptura, yo anticipé seguridades que escandalizaron a los amigos de la casa. Y es curioso. Hay muchas madres que adoptan este temperamento, en la relación que sus hijas tienen con los novios, de manera que el incauto -si en un incauto puede admitirse un minuto de lucidez- observa con terror que ha llevado las cosas mucho más lejos de lo que permitía la conveniencia social.

Y ahora volvamos al jorobadito para deslindar responsabilidades. La primera vez que se presentó a visitarme en mi casa, lo hizo en casi completo estado de ebriedad, faltándole el respeto a una vieja criada que salió a recibirlo y gritando a voz en cuello de manera que hasta los viandantes que pasaban por la calle podían escucharle:

-¿Y dónde está la banda de música con que debían festejar mi hermosa presencia? Y los esclavos que tienen que ungirme de aceite, ¿dónde se han metido? En lugar de recibirme jovencitos con orinales, me atiende una vieja desdentada y hedionda. ¿Y ésta es la casa en la cual usted vive?
One interesting challenge, looking back at what I did back in 2013-2014, is going to be conveying in English the sort of affected voice the narrator has without it appearing to be stilted.  I sense multiple rewrites in the weeks to come (I aim to have the complete first draft completed around the end of the month).  Should be a rewarding one, though, even if I'm uncertain if I could ever get my translation published elsewhere once I'm done with revisions (the author's works are now in public domain, or else I wouldn't even be posting these excerpts for translation online).
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