Even more champagne

1 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]


It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve been awake since a decent hour of the morning looking up French village names, so sure! Let’s drink more champagne. It wasn’t so long ago I was too. (And I got to have a glass of Prévost last night. That was nice.)

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Year in review

2 July 2014

From Twitter, between January 1 and December 21, 2013. Question for the day: how do you archive & resurrect experience of the digital over time?


My sister at breakfast: “Do you know what the German word for birth control is? ANTIBABYPILLEN.”
4 January, 3:44 p.m.

On the Difficulties of Recollecting the Plots of Novels One Has Partly Read While Drunk. #unwrittenessays
10 January, 12:48 a.m.

“…but those who believe, that Abel lived an hundred and twenty nine Years, think it improbable he should die a Batchelor.
10 January, 1:06 a.m.

“If you put front vowels in your language, nobody will take it seriously as a language of Orcs.”
11 January, 4:47 p.m.

Tarantino films that feature scenes in which characters literally give each other acting lessons: Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs.
17 January, 1:28 a.m.

“There you are, like butter in sunshine.” Martin Luther insult randomizer:
20 January, 12:50 p.m.

RT: Thank God for technology. Before Twitter, I just used to go up to strangers and whisper in their ears. @tejucole
26 January, 1:42 p.m.

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Maletas perdidas

5 April 2010

— Pegaso camión, the model that Gabriel drives, found via Daniel Gascón.

This is beginning to become a series of book reports about Spanish-language novels, I’m afraid, but nothing else comes to mind these days. So: today I’d like to tell you about Maletas perdidas, Barcelona writer Jordi Puntí’s first novel, published last month by Salamandra in Catalán and in a concurrent Spanish translation (done by Rita de Costa, although Puntí is, of course, bilingual).

I found it in the library when I went looking for his story collection, Animales tristes (Salamandra, 2003), which was on Milo J. Krmpotic’s list of “Ten Celebrated & Beloved Novels From Spain That Have Yet to Find An American Publisher,” and I’m just short of finished with it.

It’s very good for a certain value of history as sensation, as a feeling — in this case the feeling you get of a Spain in the 60s & 70s still under an aging Franco, borders closed off, Barcelona a sleepier town without even an airport to its name, the first tentative shipments of tourists just starting to disembark in Málaga. Just try to imagine Spain without tourists, even — impossible, these days. Semana Santa this week, & Bilbao kind of empties out — it’s still a northern working town, and everyone’s on vacation — but you do notice foreigners on the streets now, French high schoolers, people asking me for directions to the Guggenheim in broken Spanish.

In Maletas perdidas, people are still getting thrown in prison in Barcelona for having Catalán political slogans written on plaster casts. War orphans in the 40s are sent to be cared for by monks or Jesuits, who give them last names that mark them as abandoned children (in the case of the father: Delacruz & Expósito) — this earns them a certain amount of sympathy in some cases, a certain amount of suspicion in others (how were they orphaned? is there Red blood in their veins, were their parents dissolute Republicans, anarchists?). Rural Andalucíans are migrating everywhere as cheap factory labor — to Bilbao & Barcelona, mostly, and also in Spanish neighborhoods on the fringes of European capitals. Puntí references Jaén in the backgrounds of three separate minor characters (shout-out!) as a shorthand for people escaping rural poverty. In Bilbao they still talk about that influx in the 60s & 70s as being encouraged by Franco explicitly as a way to de-Basque the provinces, bring in some Spaniards.

It’s a kind of a road novel — a missing father who drove a moving truck across Europe for a Barcelona-based company whose owner in is tight with the government & has a contract to move Francoist government officials to their posts in Europe when they’re assigned there. Gabriel, our missing, orphaned protaganist, fathers four sons in four different countries, and so we have two narratives — in the past, we’re given a kind of travelogue out of that somnabulent, isolated Spain into a Europe frothing over with rebellious students, drugs, cultural effervescence, social unrest. We get a lengthy psychadelic interlude on a ferry crossing the Channel, where in addition to household objects our furniture movers are covertly transporting the daughter of a wealthy Barcelona family to a London hospital so that she can get an abortion (she takes LSD with a couple of hippies & ends up naked on a horse). We get front row seats for radical student riots in Paris. Meanwhile, in the present tense, the four sons, who have only recently found out about each other, follow the traces left by their father (missing, but perhaps alive?) and narrate in the first person plural.

The narrative voice (nosotros) certainly sounds unusual in English, & I think it probably qualifies as a formal innovation in Spanish too. Puntí’s prose style (well, in translation) is funny, colloquial & lyrical by turns— and, interestingly in Spanish, pretty punchy. Lots of sentence fragments, the rhythm much more staccato than, say, those sinuous & winding pagelong sentences in Javier Marías.

It doesn’t look to me as though this will see English publication any time soon — Puntí is pretty well critically acclaimed, but he writes in Catalán, and his 2003 story collection doesn’t have an English-language deal either. In that spirit, then, and after a too-pretentious facebook status recommending it to any of my friends who read Spanish prompted Bryan McKay to leave a two-word comment (“Translate it”), I got an itch & decided on Sunday to do exactly that, at least to the end of the first chapter, to try and give you the flavor of it.

I have some thoughts about the particular difficulties of translating it, & the piecework strategies I used, but I’ll save those for the comments. All I have to say now is the obligatory — Translation is hard! I mean fatiguing. The more you read, the more you start to think in Spanish, & the harder it is to recover whatever idiomatic English you’re trying to bring to mind.  This is just a rough run-through I patched together yesterday & this afternoon over vermouth in the Casco Viejo — if you’re interested, I’ve attached the first eleven pages in a pdf here: Translation, MALETAS PERDIDAS.

Tasting what you read

4 February 2010

— Contemporáneos, Alicia Martín (2002). Via cloudy1985.

I happily subscribe (yes, like a magazine) to the notion that translation is inevitably partial & in some sense insufficient, a remaking — and if you can read the language that the original’s printed in, why lapse back to your native tongue? — but I also confess that from time to time, reading Spanish fiction, I’ve thought guiltily that I’d be picking up on more things if I were reading the English version. Wanting to go back to translation feels lazy, like giving up — or maybe like surrendering your membership card, having to read in English like everyone else, people who haven’t even tried to learn how! — but it’s true that in Spanish there’s a frustrating opacity, a flat effect that I don’t feel with English. I don’t have as good a sense of the flavor of the words, I can’t taste them, even though can follow the action.

But on the bus the other day I thought to myself that it wasn’t such a surprising feeling, either. Read literary fiction & you see the writer working within or against the language (I’m glossing DeLillo, I just realized — ‘matching with the language’). You have to have a sense of how sentences look when they’re readymade, the coloring of certain words, what the clichés are, or the equivocal signalings that signify an unreliable narrator or the rhetorical flourishes adopted by pedants or what barbed overformality looks like — and in English you’ve absorbed all of these distinctions & weights & flavors from thousands upon thousands books read or alluded to. It’s easy for me to forget just how little I’ve read in Spanish. More than a half-dozen books? Certainly not more than a dozen. A dozen — stack them up and they make a sad little pile set against those thousands upon thousands of English books, the blue Hardy Boys boxed set that was the first book you ever read on your own, big doorstop Michener wheezings, those bent & thumbed Lord of the Rings paperbacks, the time in high school you didn’t like My Ántonia . . . To say nothing of the books I’d say now I love (but with those there’s always a little bit of posturing).

That’s one of the enormous disadvantages of learning Spanish like I did, by bullshitting to people over beers & teaching teenagers & watching daytime television & reading the newspaper sometimes. In this language I’m talkative but not literate. Maybe this gets compounded by the tendency, if we like to think of ourselves as well-read, to cut our teeth on, I don’t know, Cortázar or Borges (or Marías) instead of the boundless & fecund soil of run-of-the-mill fiction they sprouted from. Imagine (in belated honor of his birthday), James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man being the very first book you tried to read in English.

All of which is a long way of saying that Corazón tan blanco has been teaching me a lot of new words, in part because of the narrator’s analytic formality — saying ambos, which I’d never heard before, instead of los dos (both), calling marriage el contrato — and, mostly, in a series of sequencies mired in the past, in looking at photographs of the dead, that seem to be summoning up a more elaborated & colorful language than what was being used previously, more descriptive, using words whose mystery is perhaps unjustifiably enhanced by my unfamiliarity with them.

I don’t know if you find, as I do, that sometimes you plow through foreign language fiction & depend on context to pick up on words & that other times you find yourself looking up practically every word, suddenly sucked in to wanting to know exactly what’s being said, wanting to make sure that you’re really, really understanding what’s happening — and I don’t know whether this has to do, actually, with part of the book itself that we’re reading or whether it depends on us, on our mood, on how lost we’re willing to feel.

I’m reading with a paperback U of Chicago dictionary published the year I was born, & some words it just doesn’t have. I’ve managed to find definitions for the following after writing them down here, but with no internet at home these were mysteries to me for a week: difuminarse (softening, losing clarity, blurring); picaflor (hummingbird, known also as colibrí, pájaro-mosca, or chupamirto, but in this case, a womanizer); atezado (tanned, browned by the sun); irguiendo (raising the head, straightening the back); paulatina (gradual).

Picaflor was particularly frustrating because the narrator’s father repeats it — “yes, I said picaflor” — and the narrator later reflects that his father had been choosing his words carefully. That entire chapter, the two of them talking on the night of his wedding, is actually really well done propulsive tension even in the midst of circular digression, a momentum, a motion building up to a final word: Cuando tengas secretos o si ya los tienes, no se los cuentes. — Y, ya con la sonrisa devuelta al rostro, añadió: — Suerte.

Other examples, from my notes (I don’t know how interesting this is to anyone but me): Nudo is a knot, join, union, bond, or tie — in a play it’s the turning point. Pulcro (neat, trim), carlajada (peal of laughter), atolondrarse (to confuse, muddle, perplex — here, reflexive, it means to mingle, like in a crowd), jactado (bragged, boasted), apaciguada (appeased), silbido (a whistle or hiss).

My latest attempt to describe how Corazón tan blanco is working on me: Marías’ fiction as pearl-making. The fictional world, at first a tableau illuminated, as if by a camera flash, by a shocking & specific moment of violence, is added to & added to, filed in, elaborated, becomes more and more complex & self standing, a living thing in fits & starts, not secrets kept from us & then revealed, exactly, but entire histories that we don’t notice we’re not being told because each digression is so complete, so exhaustive. Or maybe not a single pearl, but stringing a necklace?


20 January 2010

Javier Marías, in a posed photograph from 1997 that is absolutely as serious as serious could possibly be.

In which I talk about Corazon tan blanco
without actually saying anything about the novel itself.

It’s not necessarily that Javier Marías uses extravagant adverbs as a stylistic tic. Better to say, I don’t know whether they’re extravagant to an educated Spanish reader or just to me. And anyway, even though the narrator in Corazón tan blanco is a translator & has an obsessive way of spiraling around a topic or turning a thing over in his head, of seeing actions as modified, Spanish piles on the syllables more than in English. The suffix for an adverb is -mente instead of -ly.

In which I sound words out under my breath.

Maybe it’s just the margins — skinny ones, so that sometimes the adverb is a third of the line. The sentence comes to a stop, as though the serifs had gotten into a car crash. I find myself stopping to sound them out, just to hear them roll off the tongue, endless parade of consonant-&-vowel: apresuradamente, incomprensiblemente, artificiosamente, amortiguadamente, retrospectivamente, momentáneamente, incansablemente, apróximadamente, and my favorite, estereofónicamente.