Saturday, October 29, 2011

Murakami's 1Q84 + New Lispector Translations for ND

Once upon a time, when I was younger, and certain writers published new books, if I could afford to, I would rush to the nearest bookstore to purchase the books as soon as they hit the shelves. I grew out of that around the time I went to graduate school and found myself with little money for anything beyond rent, food, basic clothes, and so on, and in the years since that kind of attentiveness to favorite writers' new works has never returned, but occasionally the announcement of particular books will spur me, if not the day they're released, then shortly after, to buy them. If, of course, I can afford to. I had heard murmurs about Haruki Murakami's extraordinary new novel(s), 1Q84, published in multiple volumes in Japan and in one giant volume this month by Alfred A. Knopf, but in the hurlyburly of preparing for and then beginning classes this fall, I'd forgotten about it, until a university colleague and fellow Murakami-phile, Nathan M., reminded me of it.  Our discussion of Murakami's new book jogged my memory of having seen it a few times when I was at Kinokuniya in New York this past summer. A branch of that store, which features in Murakami's works, including this one, sits right across 6th Avenue from Bryant Park and has a perfect little cafe for taking a library break, but I wasn't thinking at all about when the English translation would appear. And then, shortly after talking about the book and invoking Murakami in my undergraduate class (though we're not reading him this year), I was in Unabridged Books in Boystown and saw the book, and said, budget buster or not, I ought to get it. Only the hardcover (and perhaps the e-book, I haven't checked) version is out, and at 932 pages it's as big as a paving stone and as heavy. And it costs a cool $30.50. Perhaps I should have waited until the paperback(s) spring? Two translators, the acclaimed Jay Rubin (Books 1 and 2) and Philip Gabriel (Book 3), have brought it into English, and I don't read any Japanese, but my cursory glance suggests the prose flows as fluently, with Murakami's signature quirks, as ever. I don't know when I'll get to it; though I blogged about Roberto Bolaño's 2666 even before it was published it took my another year to purchase the English translation (the three-volume boxed paperback set) and several more years to read it the first time, after which I reread it again this summer. I hope to get to this Murakami volume this spring, but I have a very heavy required reading load right up through April, and a K-2 of books backing up before this so perhaps I will complete my rendez-vous during the summer. Every peep has revealed something strange and interesting, so I might not be able to wait that long. If you're curious about the novel, you can get a précis here.

A day or so after I bought 1Q84 I read Sam Anderson's somewhat problematic but still intriguing New York Times Magazine article "The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami," his account of his encounter with Murakami and (Murakami's) Japan. I say "problematic" because the article opens with the sort of annoying orientalism that should have gone the way of the Mikado. It's like Lost In Translation but without the interesting actors or acting or mood. Had he really never seen any films about Japan, read any other Japanese authors, never read a single history or sociological or anthropological or travel book about the country? At any rate, once you get past that bit, it really is an interesting, relatively brief record of an encounter--a portrait, though not really a profile, unless that terms suggests not getting beneath the surface or seeing other angles--of Murakami's life and work, and of Anderson's recognition of how distinctive he is in relation to Japan, yet how deeply rooted in aspects of Tokyo, at least, Murakami also is. Most of what even semi-regular Murakami fans already know about him receives a bit of treatment here, but I did find his account of how a trip on one of Japan's main highways led to the opening scene of the new book. In that scene, playing in the taxi is Leos Janacek's 1926 tribute to his country, his Sinfonietta, a piece of music that Murakami describes as "'probably not the ideal music'" for the experience. He goes on to say that its "weirdness" was the reason he chose it, and that "that is not a popular music at all." In Japan, I suppose, though it's nationalistic and militaristic Czech music--Janacek removed the "military" from the original title, brass fanfares tend not to be unpopular, and there are folkloric elements woven in, so I would imagine it's probably a bit more popular, at least in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, than Murakami credits it. Anderson, who I gather has never heard it before either (ugh!), describes it as: "busy, upbeat, dramatic--like five normal songs fighting for supremacy inside an empty paint can. This makes it the perfect theme for the frantic, lumpy, violent adventure of 1Q84." What? I rather like the Sinfonietta myself, and once even played a CD featuring the rousing opening for C (who wasn't impressed), but I was thinking of all the dreary cab rides I've been in over the years, some with awful pop music, some with chatty cab drives, one (and C will attest to this) with a religious fanatic who kept taking his hands off the wheel and assuring us that God would take care things, etc., and in any of those cases, I would much rather hear a lively brass fanfare than what I experienced. At any rate, one fascinating aspect of Janacek's piece is that he derives all of the subsequent movements from the cheerful opening motif, which is scored for brass and percussion, and never sounds like, well, John Philip Sousa (not without his charms either). I also have now heard several radio discussions of Murakami's new book, which hav included bemusement about Janacek's music (as well as the mangling of his last name--yah-NAH-chick!), so I include a Youtube video below of the opening two movements, with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. Does this sound like music in a paint can? Really?

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While at the bookstore I noticed what looked like a new New Directions edition of Clarice Lispector's penultimate, and best known novel, The Hour of the Star, which appeared just before she passed away, in 1977.  What I spotted turns out not only to be a new edition, but a new translation of this remarkable work, by Benjamin Moser, who wrote the authoritative English language biography of Lispector, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press, 2009). In it he traces not only Lispector's life and work, but the development of her thought, showing how her early engagement with Baruch Spinoza deeply marked not just the content of her works, but also its forms and its language. Moser, who also writes for Harpers and The New York Review of Books, has now brought into English what appears, at least from my reading of it, a version of Lispector's novel that is much closer to the original Portuguese. One thing that most readers do not know, but as I believe I've mentioned on this blog before, is that the longstanding English translation, by Giovanni Pontiero, I believe, not only changed key bits of text, but left out portions. A scholar of Brazilian literature and a scholar of Hispanophone literature who was reading the text for a paper both confirmed that this editing and bowdlerization had occurred, though most readers, including I, have fallen in love with the earlier English version of the text. Moser's Lispector is a bit wilder, and he discusses this in a thoughtful afterword that helps to orient the reader to the text. I almost wish it could have been exchanged with the foreword, by Colm Tóibín, which doesn't really add that much in a prefatory sense, though it would be fine after one read the book. 

The next 4 newly translated volumes
to be published, which
will form a portrait of
Lispector when placed together
From Moser's postscript and from the front matter it appears that New Directions will be publishing new translations of several more of the books, which Craig Morgan Teicher's September 27, 2011 article in Publishers Weekly confirms. New Directions will issue new translations of Lispector's highly praised début, Near to the Wild HeartThe Passion According to G. H., Lispector's greatest existential and spiritual exploration; A Breath of Life (Um sopra de vida: pulsações, her last, posthumous, highly abstract, metafictional book, which has not been translated into English); and Água Viva, which Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz translated as The Stream of Life, and published with University of Minnesota Press in 1989. Hélène Cixous, who brought worldwide attention to Lispector, wrote the introduction this earlier version; I wonder who New Directions will get to introduce it. Thank you, New Directions, and, as with Murakami's tome, when these appear, if I have the scratch, I will be getting them, and urging the university and other local libraries to do so as well. Fellow readers and teachers, take note!

From Moser's "Translator's Afterword" (p. 80):

Clarice Lispector's weird word choices, strange syntax, and lack of interest in conventional grammar produces [sic] sentences--often fragments of sentences--that veer towards abstraction without ever quite reaching it. her goal, mystical as well as artistic, was to rearrange conventional language to find meaning, but never to discard it completely. 
Paradoxically, the better one's Portuguese, the more difficult it is to read Clarice Lispector. The foreigner with a basic knowledge of Romance grammar and vocabulary can read The Hour of the Star with ease. The Brazilian, however, often finds her extremely difficult. This is because her subtle rearrangements of everyday language are so surprising that they often baffle the reader, particularly the reader with little experience of her work. 

And from his new translation, here is the narrator, the often strange, sometimes repellent, always beguiling Rodrigo S. M., describing the novel's protagonist, heartbreaking, hapless Macabéa (p. 29):

She had what's known as inner life and didn't know it. She lived off herself as if eating her own entrails. When she went to work she looked like a gentle lunatic because as the bus went along she daydreamed in loud and dazzling dreams. These dreams, because of all that interiority, were empty because they lacked the essential nucleus of--of ecstasy, let's say. Most of the time she had without realizing it the void that fills the souls of the saints. Was she a saint? So it seems. She didn't know that she was meditating because she didn't know what the word meant. But it seems to me that her life was a long meditation on the nothing. Except she needed others in order to believe in herself, otherwise shed'd get lost in the successive and round emptinesses inside her. She meditated while she was typing and that's why she made even more mistakes.

There's so much more. From Copyright © Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1977, 2011. Translation Copyright © Benjamin Moser, 2011.

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