June 25, 2015 | by Damion Searls
How the Erie Canal changed our vowel sounds.
One thing you can learn from Timescapes, the surprisingly moving twenty-two-minute video at the Museum of the City of New York, is how big a deal the Erie Canal was. In the early nineteenth century, New York companies were already sending ships down the coast so reliably that it was cheaper for Southern merchants to send their goods to Europe via New York than to ship them directly. But everything in the Midwest—everything on the other side of the Appalachians—was stuck there, cut off from coastal and worldwide markets. It took weeks to get to Cleveland. Grain, bulky and relatively cheap, was especially not worth hauling east. The canal linking the Great Lakes to the Hudson, opened in 1825, was about twenty times faster than portage: shipping costs dropped 90 percent. It turned Manhattan into a modern metropolis, made New York the Empire State, and created America the economic superpower. Every major city in New York except Binghamton and Elmira is located along its trade route from Rochester and Buffalo through Schenectady, Utica, and Syracuse to Albany and New York City. Easy traffic made the Midwest “Northern” in the Civil War; before the canal, the Midwest had been predominantly settled by Southerners.
The canal was also the biggest thing to hit English-language short vowels in a thousand years. Read More »
June 9, 2015 | by Damion Searls
Translating Jon Fosse from Norwegian.
Norwegian is a language that English-language writers and translators seem willing to pick up: James Joyce learned it to read Ibsen; Lydia Davis is learning it to read, and solely by reading, Dag Solstad; and I learned it to read Jon Fosse. It helps that grammar is simple, with few tenses and word endings; the vocabulary is small; the language is one of the deep cores of English, so reading it feels eerily familiar, like a song you half know. After being asked to read Fosse’s novel Melancholy in German, I decided to cotranslate it with a native Norwegian-speaker friend, and I have since translated, on my own, two more of Fosse’s novels—Aliss at the Fire and Morning and Evening—two stories, and a libretto.
Jon Fosse is less well-known in America than some other Norwegian novelists, but revered in Norway—winner of every prize, a leading Nobel contender. I think of the four elder statesmen of Norwegian letters as a bit like the Beatles: Per Petterson is the solid, always dependable Ringo; Dag Solstad is John, the experimentalist, the ideas man; Karl Ove Knausgaard is Paul, the cute one; and Fosse is George, the quiet one, mystical, spiritual, probably the best craftsman of them all. Harrison’s titles—Something (aka Something in the Way She Moves), Here Comes the Sun, While My Guitar Gently Weeps—could even be Fosse’s: Someone Is Going To Come, Closed Guitar, The Name, Night Sings Its Songs, Angel with Tears in Its Eyes. But it’s harder to show what makes his music work. Prose doesn’t have hooks, and Fosse’s incantations are as unexcerptable as Philip Glass symphonies or Béla Tarr tracking shots. Here is an opening, a fraction of the first sentence of Aliss at the Fire: Read More »
May 26, 2015 | by Damion Searls
Looking to the stars to find Dante’s birthday.
Dante Alighieri was born 750 years ago, although the exact date of his birth is, authorities say, unknown. The Vatican played it safe by starting its celebrations on May 4, with Pope Francis expressing his hope that Dante and his work will accompany us during this year on our dark way. That same day, Roberto Benigni read from The Divine Comedy on the floor of the Italian Senate, a reading broadcast to the nation. (His lovely, nonhammy recital of Canto I of Inferno is online, along with many other clips.) Well, let church and state proceed with caution. I say it’s today.
Dante’s journey to the underworld, and overworld, took place during Easter week of the year 1300, when he was “midway on his life’s journey”: halfway to the Biblical seventy, or thirty-five years old. So he was born in 1265, as Boccaccio, in the first biography of Dante, confirms. Read More »
April 21, 2015 | by Damion Searls
What is poetry? Etymology provides more questions than answers.
T. S. Eliot, who once famously called National Poetry Month the cruelest, was also one of many to point out the hopeless semantic tangles that ensue because “poetry” has two opposites. Poetry can be the lined stuff, often with rhymes, as opposed to sentences and paragraphs; poetry can also be the good stuff, as opposed to the plodding or simply informational. But if good prose can be poetic, a novel can be “pure poetry,” and poems can be prosaic, then it’s not clear what anyone is talking about, really. Or rather, it’s clear except to theorists trying to come up with definitions. Poetry is what’s thrilling, while a poem is that poor thing with eleven readers, eight of them members of the poet’s extended family.
Etymology doesn’t help—it only highlights that the apples and oranges here are how the thing is made and how it moves. Poetry is from the Greek poiein, “to make”: a poem is something made, or in English we would more naturally say crafted. Yet everyone agrees good prose is well crafted, too. Prose means, literally, “straightforward,” from the Latin prosa, proversus, “turned to face forward” (whereas verse is all wound up, twisty and snaky, “turned” in every direction except, apparently, forward). Yet we all know that poems can be clear and direct, too, especially when they’re songs. Read More »
April 9, 2015 | by Elianna Kan
The Latin etymology of the word translate derives from trans (“across”) and lātiō (“carrying”), which makes the translator a sort of linguistic smuggler, carrying gems from one language, one culture into another. Valerie Miles has worked as a translator, in all senses of the word, for Spanish-language culture for more than twenty years: as a journalist, editor, writer, and professor—and, of course, as a literary translator. In the early nineties, she wrote about British and American writers for the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, and then entered the world of Spanish publishing, where she introduced English-language writers such as Lydia Davis, John Cheever, and Richard Yates to Spanish-speaking audiences. In 2003, together with Aurelio Major, she founded Granta en Español, which has served as a major platform for launching the careers of emerging writers. Most recently, she translated Milena Busquets’s novel This Too Shall Pass.
Last fall, Open Letter published A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, Miles’s anthology of twenty-eight Spanish-language writers from Central and South America and Spain. The name of the anthology comes from an Emerson essay about the whole of history folding into a single individual experience. The book features excerpts of each writer’s work, brief discussions of their literary influences, and explanations of why each writer chose a particular excerpt as being exemplary of their work as a whole.
Valerie spoke with me late last year from Spain, her adopted home (she grew up in Pennsylvania), and gave me a guided tour through the forest of Spanish letters.
Where did the idea for this anthology come from?
I came across an anthology from 1942 called This Is My Best. I was really taken with the literary value of the book as well as its historical significance. It had all these marvelous writers—Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Pearl S. Buck, John Dewey, Lillian Hellman—talking about what they consider their best pages. Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot wanted to contribute, but it was 1942 and the breakout of war made communication very difficult. So the anthology becomes a multifaceted literary portrait of an era in American history and an incredibly vital way of fighting one of the most horrific moments of the twentieth century. In a time of such widespread destruction, the anthology serves as a testimony to the fact that humans also create things of beauty—they don’t simply wreak bloodthirsty havoc on one another. This book is like a shout for humanity in the midst of horror, and storytelling, poetry, and philosophy in the face of slaughter and genocide. As though saying, We are that, but we are this, too, and I want to remember that we are this. It was really an unusual way of being introduced to a moment in time.
When I saw the book, I wanted to do the same thing in Spanish. The twentieth century was a pretty busy time for the Spanish language—in the 1960s and seventies, for example, there was the Latin American Boom Generation, and there are only a few of those writers left to ask the question, What are your best pages? Beyond a reading list, I wanted to find an intimate history that only the writers themselves could tell.
March 31, 2015 | by Damion Searls
More on automated sentiment-analysis, and Moby-Dick.
Paul Valéry tells the story: The painter Edgar Degas was backhanded-bragging to his friend Stéphane Mallarmé about the poems that he, Degas, had been trying to write. He knew they weren’t great, he said, “But I’ve got lots of ideas—too many ideas.” “But my dear Degas,” the poet replied, “poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made of words.”
Paintings, for that matter, are not made of pretty ballerinas or landscapes: they’re made of paint.
Which brings us to Syuzhet, Matthew Jockers’s new program that analyzes the words of a novel for their emotional value and graphs the sentimental shape of the book. Dan Piepenbring has explained it all here and here on the Daily, with links to the original postings and the various outcries, some of them in the comments, that have blown up around Jockers.
Many people apparently find Jockers’s research the latest assault of technocratic digitocracy on the citadel of deep humanistic feelings, but that’s not how I see it. What the graphs reveal about potboiler narrative structure versus high-literary arcs, for instance—Dan Brown’s higher average positivity than James Joyce’s, and his more regular cycle of highs and lows to force the reader through the book—is insightful, useful, and great. Read More »