- In France, a twenty-five-year plan to streamline the language for schoolchildren may spell the end of the circumflex, that most mysterious of diacritical marks: “The circumflex came into use in France much later, in the sixteenth century, and the Academie Francaise—let’s dump the acute and the cedilla—haven’t fought to the death to hang on to this trifling novelty. Diacritical marks are now ironic, as they were for Joyce. Anglo-Saxon bands use them as a design feature … From côte to côte, the circumflex tells us how closely French was related to other languages, often via Latin. But according to the Academie Francaise even educated people (‘les personnes instruites’) have trouble with the circumflex, and there’s no need to build a diacritical cult around a consonant that’s disappeared from any given part of speech.”
- In which Vivian Gornick rereads Howards End to discover that Forster knew far less than she’d remembered: “It has often been my experience that rereading a book that was important to me at earlier times in life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch. The narrative I have had by heart for years is suddenly called into alarming question … Howards End has proven just such a book for me. I read it when I was in college and now, many decades later, have reread it only to find myself dismayed not only by how much I got wrong but by how much in the book is wrong—the sexual naïveté, the rhetorical posturing, the hand from the grave all read like hokum today—and yet how absorbing this novel of novels still is!”
- The poet Richard Siken has found an unlikely cult following in the fanfic community, which mines his work for lines they can use to describe the mystery of, say, two characters from Sherlock. Siken, though he intended no resonance here, has embraced his new audience: “Fan fiction sexualizes. It’s transgressive because it suggests the possibility of the erotic. It’s political, because it complicates power structures. And it’s personal, because it grants permission for range of previously unacceptable expressions and interactions. I think my poems enact a space for complicated, multivalent relationships. I think that’s the draw.”
- Meanwhile, Gerry Adams, the president of the Irish republican party Sinn Féin, has become the latest public figure to publish his tweets as poetry: “The book, with its routine dispatches from Adams’s extracurricular activities (‘Pilates. Aaaaaahhhhh’; ‘1st Pilates of 2015…’; ‘Seriously overstretched myself @ pilates’) and its endless jokily plaintive references to overdue household chores, creates a vacuum of significance so total that you wonder whether you’re missing some deeper intent. There is, for instance, an overwhelming emphasis on bathing: aside from the frequent testimonials to his menagerie of rubber ducks, Adams insists again and again on his enjoyment of every aspect of the bathing process. ‘So the bath beckons!’ we are told. ‘Plastic ducks. Soapy suds…’ Elsewhere, he tweets that his bath ‘Overflowth,’ advising his followers that he has just taken delivery of his ‘1st Orange Duck,’ and that ‘A Good Suddy Soak’ awaits him.”
- The Lost Rolls: 1988–2012 collects unused pictures from the photojournalist Ron Haviv, depriving them of context and giving them a strange new beauty. As Colin Dickey writes, “The images of The Lost Rolls were selected from various rolls of undeveloped film that were tucked away in drawers and bags, mostly forgotten, in Haviv’s house for decades. The result is an assemblage of deteriorating photographs, depicting random moments in time and revealing a range of physical imperfections. Many are washed with a rose tint; others are streaked with broad swaths of yellow or drooping blemishes of cyan … Photojournalism is, by its nature, obsessed with the moment and defined by action verbs: to document, to witness, to reveal, to inform, to effect change. The images in The Lost Rolls, by contrast, are unmoored from context. Like the rolls themselves, the time signature here is lost.”
Richard Howard first appeared in The Paris Review in our thirteenth issue—from the summer of 1956. Since then, several of his poems and translations have found their way to these pages, and in 2004, J. D. McClatchy interviewed him for our Art of Poetry series. In our Summer 1989 issue, George Plimpton spoke with Howard about translating Proust.
The first line of Remembrance of Things Past is one of the most famous in literature. How does your version differ from the others?
Three versions of Proust’s first sentence—“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.”—have been published. The Scott Moncrieff-Kilmartin: “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” James Grieve (an Australian professor): “Time was, when I always went to bed early.” And mine: “Time and again, I have gone to bed early.”
And what is the thinking behind your version?
To begin with, “time and again” seems one of those cell-like phrases which sums up a meaning of the whole book, as long-temps does in French. I admire Professor Grieve’s “time was”, but it doesn’t have the notion of recurrence that I wanted. It seemed to me that what was needed was not only an opening phrase which would reveal the book’s meaning, but one that would begin with the word “time”, which would be the last word in the book as well, as it is in French. Read More
Robert Walser’s scrupulous art of translation.
Today is International Translation Day, an occasion of particular piety among the few who observe it. Translation, that glorious service to culture and human understanding!
There are failures, too, though. Some are of the sort that plague most any endeavor in this vale of tears: inadequacy, incompetence, ineptitude. A New Yorker cartoon, beloved in translator circles, shows someone approaching a horror-stricken writer and saying, “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the book of you?” Read More
A letter from Guillaume Apollinaire to Madeleine Pagès, dated October 11, 1915. Apollinaire had met Pagès, who taught literature, on a train in January of that year; by August they were engaged and Apollinaire was stationed in the trenches of Champagne, fighting the Great War. His prolific correspondence with Pagès from this period is remarkable not just in its erotic candor but in its portrayal of life in the trenches, down to the finest details: “mud, what mud, you cannot imagine the mud you have to have seen it here, sometimes the consistency of putty, sometimes like whipped cream or even wax and extraordinarily slippery.” At times he rebuked his lover for not writing often or well enough, though the beginning of this letter finds him pleased with her efforts. The following year, he was wounded by shrapnel; the injury so disturbed him that he refused to receive his fiancée during his convalescence, and soon the letters, along with their engagement, dried up.
My love, I had two letters from you today. I am very happy with them … especially out here, where your precious sensuality is a consolation to me, the sole remedy for all my troubles. Please do mark this well, my love. You said yourself that we should strengthen the secret between us, so do strengthen it, and fear for nothing. Be naked before me—as far away as I am … Your meaningful look in Marseilles is admirably clear to me in memory, charged with all the voluptuousness that is part of you. You are very beautiful. I kiss your mouth through your hat veil, tearing it like a Veil of Isis and grasping the whole of that little traveller who is now my own beloved little wife and clasping her madly to me …
I take your whole mouth and kiss it, and then your breasts, so sensitive, whose tips harden at my kiss and strain towards me like your desire itself. I wrap my arms about you and hold you fight forever against my heart. Read More
- Explaining the Internet’s Joan Didion obsession is a tricky thing: “In the crossover of feminism, fashion, and literary interests, there is a whole swathe of the internet where Didion is a staple reference. Her borscht recipe can be found on the website Brain Pickings, and her list of items to pack for reporting trips periodically crops up on style blogs … In 1989, she appeared in GAP ads with her twenty-three-year-old daughter, wearing black turtlenecks, and staring defiantly into the camera with only the barest suggestion of a smile. Last year, she wore huge black shades in ads for the French luxury goods brand Céline, which inspired devotion in unexpected places and in-depth analysis from the already devoted.” And yet this obsession seldom seems to extend to her political writing, which accounts for the bulk of her output—they only want her to write about herself. And what of that self? “To be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of,” Pauline Kael once wrote, was the “ultimate princess fantasy.”
- This is peak road-trip season. If you’re not in a car right now, lighting out for the territories and exuding manifest destiny—well, it’s not too late. But don’t be all Fleetwood Mac about it. You cannot, in fact, go your own way. You can instead follow in the footsteps (tire tracks?) of writers past: Kerouac, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Wolfe …
- On second thought, stay home. It’s more or less impossible to be a good travel writer anyway. You risk falling into two camps: the Elizabeth Gilbert, interior psychodrama, “obnoxious white lady in brown places” camp, or the Bruce Chatwin, indomitable male, “colonialist’s baggage stuffed full with preconceived assumptions” camp. If you’re looking for role models, try Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy: “Stark was in the world with her writing, not above it, not in herself … Her writing restores humanity to people who have otherwise been stripped down to news reports, reduced to death tolls and photos of open-mouthed weeping. The secret to her success was listening to the people she visited and letting them tell the story. This shouldn’t be any secret. It should be what every travel writer does.”
- A man who speaks hardly a lick of French has triumphed in the Francophone Scrabble Championship having apparently memorized the entire French Scrabble Dictionary in just a few days. Nigel Richards, “the Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” regards words as “just combinations of letters,” like numbers: “He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t.”
- On James Purdy, who wanted to write stories that “bristled with impossibilities”: “In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel … It’s hard to think of a contemporary writer whose work shares this sensibility, a cool elegance laid over extreme emotion. The most apt comparison may be Wes Anderson, whose films similarly feature casts of eccentrics, dialogue full of non sequiturs, deadpan humor, and unabashed farce.”
- At last, the time has come for robots to harness the single most powerful force known to humanity: metaphor. An attempt to teach emotional nuance to artificial intelligences, The Poetry for Robots project invites people—even decidedly unpoetic people—to react to photographs in verse, which the robots will thereafter memorize, as is their wont. “By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to ‘teach the database the metaphors’ that humans associate with pictures, ‘and see what happens.’ ”
- Pistols at dawn! The duel, which was at the peak of its powers in the eighteenth century, enjoyed a prominent status in the literature of the era. Actually, “without literature, there would be much less to go on, historically speaking. Dueling was usually illegal. It was often tolerated, but, still, discretion was an issue—dueling at dawn was popular for reasons of secrecy … One outcome of the silence surrounding the activity was that, for first-timers, the nearest guide to protocol might lie in fiction.”
- Vivian Gornick on Delmore Schwartz: “Like the time itself, everything about him was out of control—his beautiful, anxiety-ridden face, his stormy eloquence, his outrageous self-dramatization. He charmed and alarmed. There was a sweetness of spirit at the center of all his dishevelment that made nearly everyone who knew him hold him in tender regard.”
- Fact: “under the right conditions, three atoms that all repel each other will be forced into an inseparable triad.” Physicists have only recently discovered what existentialists have known for a good while—“hell is other atoms.”
- In French, the word créneau—what we’d call a crenellation, or a battlement in a castle—has taken on a rich figurative life; it can mean a parking spot, an appointment time, even a market opportunity. In other words, it’s very much like our word slot. So why not ask: “Does it mean anything that the French etymology sees appointment times, schedule segments, and parking spaces as figurative openings in a defensive wall made for ‘shooting or launching projectiles upon the enemy,’ while English speakers see them figuratively as shaped depressions made to allow pieces of wood to be fit together into useful structures?”