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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Bohemond Rhapsody — Waugh’s preface to Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond (1964)

Tom Drum — Foreword by Waugh to Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence (1949)

Sparrows and Gunpowder — An Eminent Edwardian and Evelyn Waugh’s Journey to Faith

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Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

When I picked up my second Asterix book as a child, I opened it and then put it down again. I thought I had read it before, because it had the same first page: a map of Gaul, transfixed by a Roman eagle but with a magnifying glass on one small unconquered corner in the north-west, the Gaulish village where the pint-sized warrior Asterix lives with his giant friend Obelix.

After I picked up another book in the series, I realized my mistake. The Asterix books all had that first page. Now I realize something more: that the map is important not just to set the scene but also to assuage the humiliation. The Asterix books are ostensibly about clever Gauls getting the better of clumsy Romans, with the Gauls standing in for children and the Romans for adults. But they’re also about the French and the Germans during the Second World War. In fantasy, the Gauls managed to keep one corner of their homeland their own, fighting off and humiliating the Romans every time they tried to conquer it. In reality, France was entirely conquered and the French were the humiliated ones.

The German occupation was no joke. The Roman occupation could be, though. After all, it took place many centuries before Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix was first published in 1967, when the German occupation was still a vivid memory for millions of French. Asterix was a salve for the psychic wounds of a nation, but its pharmacological recipe works outside l’Hexagone.* The bright colours, constant action, chaotic plots, and visual and linguistic puns of Asterix will make you feel cheerful whether or not you’re French. And whether or not you read them in French. But reading in French is best, of course. As I’ve said before, if you’re learning a language you should do two things: use a monolingual dictionary and read comics.

With comics, you see language illustrated by action and objects, so you absorb meaning without your mother-tongue getting in the way. That happens all through Le Tour de Gaule, which is about a bet Asterix has with a Roman prefect called Lucius Fleurdelotus, who has been sent by Jules César to stop Asterix and the other villagers disturbing the “paix Romaine” of Gaul. Lucius has had the village surrounded by a palisade of stout wood and tells Asterix from a watch-tower that he and the other villagers will have to stay on their own small piece of land and be forgotten. Asterix defiantly disagrees: “ROMAIN! NOUS SOMMES CHEZ NOUS EN GAULE ET NOUS IRONS OÙ BON NOUS SEMBLERA…” – “Roman! Gaul is our home and we’ll go wherever we please…” He bets Lucius that the palisade will prove useless and that he, Asterix, can go on a tour of Gaul, gathering the culinary specialities of every region for a banquet to which Lucius is formally invited.

Lucius accepts the bet, promising to lift the blockade if he loses it. So Asterix and his best friend Obelix set off on their Tour de Gaule. First of all, Asterix needs a new flask of magic strength-potion from “le druide vénérable du village”, Panoramix. Obelix doesn’t need potion, because he fell in the druid’s cauldron when he was a baby. Unlike Asterix, he can knock Romans down like nine-pins without a draught from the flask. There’s always a lot of Roman-bashing in the Asterix books, but there are always good new jokes too. One of the best here is the visit made by Asterix and Obelix to a “Chars d’Occasion”, or “Second-Hand Chariot” dealership, where the beaming owner, dressed in a camel-hair coat, sells them a gleaming chariot and glossy black horse. “VOUS NE LE REGRETTEREZ PAS,” he assures them: “You won’t regret it.”

They set off, but the horse begins to tire very quickly. Then it begins raining. “NOTRE CHEVAL A DÉTEINT!” gasps Asterix: “Our horse has changed colour!” And one of the chariot’s wheels falls off. They’ve been sold a ringer: the horse was painted black and the chariot unfit for the road. But it doesn’t stop the Tour. They simply commandeer the Roman char de dépannage, or “pick-up chariot”, that arrives to tow away their wreck. There are lots more new jokes before the end of the book, plus the running gag that sees them meet a long-suffering pirate ship in the Mediterranean. And Obelix, as usual, reacts badly to the suggestion that he’s fat.

Because images accompany the action, I understood most of the French easily, but there were puns and regional jokes that went over my head. I didn’t understand the end of the book either, when Asterix gives Lucius the village’s own speciality: “LA CHÂTAIGNE!” – “The chestnut!” As he says it, he knocks Lucius – TCHAC! – right out of his sandals and high into the air. That couldn’t be translated literally into English and a lot must be lost when you read Asterix in another language. But the images remain and sometimes the translation works better than the original. The village druid Panoramix is called Getafix in English, the rotund village chief Abraracourcix is Vitalstatistix, and the caterwauling village bard Assurancetourix is Cacophonix.

Cacophonix would work in French too, but those names are a rare example of an outsider improving on the original. In their way, the Asterix books are one of the great products of French civilization, full of charm, cleverness and joie de vivre. I don’t think anything could make them more enjoyable, but that subtext about the German occupation makes them more interesting.


*“The Hexagon”, as France is known because of its roughly six-sided shape on the map.

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Æsthete’s Foot — Quennell, Acton and Powell on Waugh, Oxford and Crowley

Coo’ on Wu — extracts about Evelyn Waugh from Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius Norwich.

Pinal Chap — Max Beerbohm’s memoir of Swinburne

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Cover of The Bad Movie Bible by Rob HillThe Bad Movie Bible: The Ultimate Modern Guide to Movies That Are So Bad They’re Good, Rob Hill (Art of Publishing 2017)

(This is a guest-review by Pablo Magono)

There are good movies and bad movies. Among the latter, there are “movies so bad that you might think Adam Sandler was responsible for them, but so funny it won’t be for long.” That’s the simple premise behind The Bad Movie Bible. It’s easy to read, very funny, and full of information, posters, interesting screen-grabs, prize quotes, and sizzling starlets flashing flesh.

And as if that weren’t enough, the icing on the cake is that The Bad Movie Bible is itself mildly infected by Bad-Movie-itis. There are repeated references to a mysterious “right of passage” and the publisher’s address is given as “Bloosmbury”. Is this part of the joke? No, I don’t think so. It’s just a reminder that to err is human. But to err as badly as some of the movies here might be superhuman. Literally so, because Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is one of the entries in the “Science Fiction & Fantasy” section.

Elsewhere there are sections for “Action” and “Horror”, plus a grab-bag section called “The Rest” that collects everything from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and The Room (2003) to Empire of the Ants (1977) and Double Down (2005). All movies get ratings out of 10 for five essential filmographic categories: “Cheese”, “Acting”, “Excess”, “Ineptitude” and “What?” (“reflecting the movie’s propensity to offer up moments of baffling wonder”). The higher the mark, the badder-better that aspect of the movie. Then there’s an overall “BMB Rating”, again out of 10, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the average score on the other categories. Some movies are more than the sum of their parts, some are less.

The best of the baddest are also accompanied by interviews with stars, stuntmen or those who rescued them from oblivion. For fetid fans of scuzz-cinema, this book should provide many happy hours first of reading, then of watching its recommendations. But could anything ever live up to the promise of a title like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)? Or Kung Fu Cannibals (1982)? In the latter case, apparently it could: the movie, better-known as Raw Force, gets a BMB Rating of 10, despite an average rating of 8.4 on the other categories (only “What?” is 10/10). The horror movie Things (1989) also gets a BMB Rating of 10, but its average score on the sub-categories is 9.6 – it gets 10/10 for “Acting”, “Excess”, “Ineptitude” and “What?”, but “Cheese” is 8/10.

That makes Things the baddest-bestest in the book. For Rob Hill, anyway. It’s not his favourite movie in the book, mind, but he knows what he’s talking about. He has a lot of knowledge, with enthusiasm and wit to match:

Miami Connection is an extremely positive movie that preaches tolerance and the need to accept people from all walks of life. Unless they’re drug-dealing motorcycle ninjas. (Miami Connection, 1987) … Writer / director Amir Shervan doesn’t stumble around the fringes of incompetence: he jumps right into the middle of it and does a jig. (Samurai Cop, 1991) … During the following night the sword is blown out of Christie’s closet on fishing wire by a wind machine. (Ninja III: The Domination, 1984) … Just like its star, Deadly Prey has been honed, buffed and oiled to within an inch of its life, then stripped virtually naked and released into the wild. (Deadly Prey, 1987) … The best teenagers-get-eaten-by-radioactive-plankton-fed-mutant-human-hybrid-flying-fish movie ever made. (Creatures from the Abyss, aka Plankton, 1994) … The apparent lack of any traditional cinematic luxuries (posh stuff like a tripod to keep the camera steady) makes this hard to watch at times. … But there’s something about it. If we’re honest, that something might just be a sexually promiscuous doll. It’s hard to say. (Black Devil Doll from Hell, 1984) … Ben & Arthur is a personal and heartfelt glimpse into the world of writer / director / star Sam Mraovich. His world is batshit crazy. (Ben & Arthur, 2002) … It must be hard for a man surrounded by Bee Gees to look like the smug one. Peter Frampton has a real talent for it. (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1978)

Hill also has space for some “deliberately cheesy” movies like The Ice Pirates (1984) and Traxx (1988). He includes them because he thinks they’re not as knowing as they wanted to be: “Just because there are deliberate attempts to ape schlock, it doesn’t mean there can’t be inadvertent schlock, too.” Movies like this are “good-good, bad-bad and good-bad all at the same time.” But most of the book is given over to movies that are genuinely so-bad-they’re-good. With possible exceptions like the following, which might be so-bad-it-should-have-been-burned:

La Notte del Necrofilo / Night of the Necrophile (Italy / Romania 1986)

After watching an ordinary scuzzy movie, you may well be left wishing you could bleach your eyeballs. After watching Night of the Necrophile, you may well be left wishing that eyeballs had never been invented. This movie doesn’t merely plumb unprecedented depths of depravity, bad taste and offensiveness: it finds depths below the depths, and then depths below those. The ineptitude and amateurishness merely add an extra shot of slime to the whole fetid cocktail.

But the ineptitude doesn’t extend far enough. You can’t take refuge in an incoherent or non-existent plot, because the noxious narrative is all too appallingly evident and easy to follow. Gypsy criminals Gran Voio (played by a cackling Eric Napolito) and his dwarvish cousin Piccolo Psico (Samuel Tegolare) are hired by the black-clad, mask-wearing Doktor Nekro (Victor Queresco), a Nazi scientist / war-criminal who’s been hiding out in the badlands of southern Italy since the end of the war. He needs their help to collect a fresh batch of young female corpses for his perverted experiments in reanimation. The toxic trio set off in a refrigerated truck, committing brazen street-murders to source their stock or sneaking into municipal mortuaries and loading the freshest and most attractive corpses into their necro-wagon.

Then, just as night falls and news comes over the radio of a heat-wave the following day, the truck breaks down on the winding mountain road that leads back to Doktor Nekro’s well-hidden lair. The refrigeration fails and the three depraved criminals are left with a stash of stolen stiffs that aren’t going to keep… I’d describe what happens next, but I’m worried that my keyboard would report me to the authorities. Suffice it to say that Doktor Nekro begins to commit medical infractions that the framers of the Hippocratic oath could never have anticipated – indeed, could never have imagined possible. […]

The mysterious and probably pseudonymous director is rumoured to have died shortly after completing the movie, possibly of shame, his body being shipped back to Romania for burial. In his absence, Night of the Necrophile was hastily edited and rush-released in a desperate attempt to stave off Sanguecine’s looming – and well-deserved – bankruptcy. Be warned. And then warned again. This is a movie that makes Things seem like Citizen Kane and The Gore Gore Girls seem like Bambi. Approach with extreme caution.

That’s not a typical movie here, but it helps make The Bad Movie Bible as varied as the real Bible. It’s “Bad to the Bon”!

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A Clarificatory Conspectus for Core Comprehension of Key Counter-Culturality

A map describing the key components that feed into the use of 'in terms of' by keyly committed core components of the counter-cultural community

(Click for larger version)


Elsewhere other-engageable:

Ex-term-in-ate!
Maximal Metric
Keyly Committed Components

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ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Georgian is the most difficult language I’ve ever seriously studied. Phonetically it’s probably the most difficult full stop. But I continue to plod away at it and bought this Bible to help me. I wanted to encounter Georgian in the wild, as it were. Not that this is truly wild Georgian: it’s a translation, not something composed by a native speaker from scratch. But Bibles are usually strong influences on the language of a Christian nation and the Georgian Bible, like Georgian Christianity, is among the oldest in the world.

This is modern Georgian, though. Or fairly modern: I can notice some archaic plurals and I’ve been told that there are old-fashioned verbs. If my Georgian were better, I would notice more of what’s archaic, but I don’t think it’s as far from modern Georgian as the King James Version is from modern English. I’d been having even more difficulty with it if that were the case, I suspect. I would have preferred just a New Testament, because it would have been smaller and less intimidating, but perhaps one day I’ll be able to dip anywhere into this full Bible and understand what I’m reading.

At the moment, I can’t do that. I still find Georgian verbs very difficult, but that’s one of the good things about the Gospels. They’re repetitive and use a limited vocabulary. And I’m already familiar with the stories. Even so, I have to prime myself by reading each section in another language before I try the Georgian. Not English: that would be too simple and no good as linguistic exercise. Instead, I use the Latin of a Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine, with occasional glances at the Greek that flanks it.

Latin is easy next to Georgian and although I can’t read Tacitus or Cicero in the original, the Latin of the Gospels is very straightforward. But I still need to think harder than in English, which makes the meaning grow more slowly and powerfully in my brain. I didn’t appreciate the Gospels properly until I read them in Latin and Greek. There are some strange things going on and the Last Supper and Crucifixion are moving stories.

But I’m not moved or awed in Georgian: I’m still reading too slowly and understanding too weakly. The stepping-stones in Latin are close together and dry underfoot. I can walk across quickly and confidently, enjoying the sound and sight of the river:

Et recordatus est Petrus verbi Iesu, quod dixerat: Priusquam gallus cantet, ter me negabis. Et egressus foras ploravit amare. (Matthaeus 26:75)

In Georgian, the stepping-stones are far apart and slippery. I’m too busy trying not to fall off to appreciate the river:

და გაახსენდა პეტრეს იესოს ნათქვანი სიტყვა: სანამ მამალი იყივლებდეს, სამჯერ უარმყოფ მე. გამოვიდა გარეთ და მწარედ ატირდა. (მათეს სახარება 26:75)

Da gaakhsenda P’et’res Iesos natkvani sit’qva: Sanam mamali iqivlebdes, samjer uarmqop me. Gamovida garet da mts’ared at’irda.

In English, that verse is:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:75)

One word is almost identical in all three languages: “me”. And the Georgian genitive of Iesos uses a suffix much like the one in English. The suffix Georgian uses on nouns in the past tense – ეს თორმეტი იესომ დაარიგა, Es tormet’i Iesom daarigi, “These twelve Jesus sent forth” (Mth 10:5) – is strange to speakers of English, French or German, but it’s like the -ne used not so far off in Hindi. Georgian isn’t an Indo-European language and has resisted the influence of its giant neighbour Russian with surprising success, but it’s not as alien as Chinese or Arabic.

Except in its phonology and phonetics. That’s part of what attracts me to it: as I said in an earlier review, Georgian torments the tongue even as it pleases the eye. The alphabet is one of the most beautiful ever created. I was disappointed at first by the font used in this book, but I’ve got used to it now. It’s minimal, distinguishing ხ and ძ, შ and წ only by orientation, and perhaps that suits the simplicity of the Gospels better.

But I would prefer a more decorative font for იოანე ღმერთისმეტყველის გამოცხადება, Ioane Ghmertismet’qvelis Gamotskhadeba, or the John Prophet’s Revelation. I’m not ready for that final book of the New Testament yet, because I’ve not even reached the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament. But I hope to be ready one day. I might even be able to read parts of it without a Latin crib. That’s where the მეძავთა და დედამიწის სიბილწეთა დედა is waiting: the medzavta da dedamits’is sibilts’eta deda, the “whores’ and earth’s abominations’ mother”, is waiting. Revelation in Georgian will be even stranger than it is in Greek, Latin and English.

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Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

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Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.

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Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.

This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:

Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94,consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.

Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:

Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.

That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.

English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.

But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.

But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.

But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:

Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?

In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.

Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:

Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)

Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.

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Maverick Munch: Selecting a Sinisterly Savory Snack to Reinforce Your Rhizomatically Radical Reading, Will Self (TransVisceral Books 2016)

What is it with savory snacks and the Counter-Cultural Community? Well, if you don’t know, no-one’s going to tell you. In fact, no-one could tell you. As George Orwell put it in another context:

Consider, for example, such a typical sentence from a Times leading article as Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. The shortest rendering that one could make of this in Oldspeak would be: “Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism.” But this is not an adequate translation. To begin with, in order to grasp the full meaning of the Newspeak sentence quoted above, one would have to have a clear idea of what is meant by Ingsoc. And in addition, only a person thoroughly grounded in Ingsoc could appreciate the full force of the word bellyfeel, which implied a blind, enthusiastic acceptance difficult to imagine today; or of the word oldthink, which was inextricably mixed up with the idea of wickedness and decadence. (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Appendix)

As Will Self might have put it: Normthinkers unbellyfeel crispcrunch. But “wickedness and decadence” are (of course) precisely what he wants to promote in this ferally phantasmagoric book. If you think that a glass of wine and some cranked-up Throbbing Gristle or Sunn O))) are a suitable accompaniment to your transgressive textualizing, I’m afraid you’re sadly out of touch. Mavericks munch, matey.

Which means you don’t want music getting in the way of your commitment to crunch. But flavour matters passionately too, of course. There are no hard-and-fast rules – this is the Counter Culture – but no-one with a culturally sensitive palate would think of combining Soft Machine with salt’n’vinegar crisps or Last Exit to Brooklyn with cheesy wotsits.

So what should you combine them with? That’s up to you and your counter-cultural conscience, but Self closes the book with his own suggestions for a full year’s worth of “Sinisterly Savory Snacks” to “Reinforce Your Rhizomatically Radical Reading”. His hierarchy of hot’n’spicy heresy includes Les Chants de Maldoror (Chilli Heatwave Doritos), Cities of the Red Plain (Pickled Onion Discos), The Ticket That Exploded (Beef Hula Hoops), American Psycho (Barbecue Pringles), Junkie (Morrison’s Salt-and-Vingear Twists), 120 Days of Sodom (Scampi-and-Lemon Nik Naks) and The Satanic Verses (Paprika Walker’s Max).

I feel like releasing a satisfied (and strongly flavoured) belch just reading that list. But there’s one ringer amid the relentlessly radical recommendations – if you can spot it, you should definitely read this book. If you can’t, you should even-more-definitely read this book. Munch matters. As Self says in his incendiary introduction: “Commit to Counter Culture – Commit to Crunch.”

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