A Sip of This Cream, and Other News


On the Shelf

Thomas Frognall Dibdin.

  • Nonalternative fact: our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, is also an accomplished translator. In a new interview with Jessie Chaffee, he offers some of his favorite metaphors for translation: “A translator with only one metaphor is lost—he or she needs three, four, dozens! One of the great things about Benjamin’s ‘Task of the Translator’—a thrillingly unfathomable essay for me—is the number of metaphors he gives us for translation, without settling on any one of them. He says translation is like a royal robe that amply enfolds the original; or else it is a series of vessel fragments which one pieces together with those of the original; or else it is like a tangent line that touches the sense of the original fleetingly at one point (which makes all the difference). He also says it’s like a transparency that lets the light of pure language shine upon the original. All of these analogies have appealed to me at one time or another and I don’t feel compelled to decide between them. Translation is most fun when it is ad hoc. I use whatever I have to hand. Sometimes a royal robe, sometimes a transparency.”
  • Looking for the roots of bibliophilia—a tragic condition wherein otherwise sane people start to say shit like “I just love the smell of old books!”—Lorraine Berry looks back to Thomas Frognall Dibdin, a nineteenth-century English cleric who “was obsessed with the physical aspects of books, and in his descriptions paid an intense attention to the details of their bindings and printings (rather than the content) that betrayed his own love … Men who collected books were often portrayed as effeminate. In 1834, the British literary magazine the Athenaeum published an anonymous attack implying that one of the prominent members of Dibdin’s club was homosexual. Dibdin’s language, which has been noted for its sensuality, is full of double entendres and descriptions of book collecting in sexualised language; from his Bibliographical Decameron, some characteristic dialogue: ‘Can you indulge us with a sip of this cream?’ ‘Fortunately it is in my power to gratify you with a pretty good taste of it.’ ”

  • Alena Graedon talks to César Aira, the Argentinean novelist who carries what’s surely the world’s brightest-burning torch for Borges: “Aira’s novels are difficult to classify—they’re by turns realist, surrealist, absurd, and philosophical. He has written about an accident that disfigured the nineteenth-century German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas (Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter), a construction site haunted by naked ghosts (Ghosts), and a translator-cum-mad scientist who sets out to clone the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes (The Literary Conference). When I asked him, a while back, about works in progress, he described two very different books: one was an ‘extreme roman à clef,’ for which, he joked, ‘only one person in the world’ has the key. The other he compared to an Escher drawing, a ‘completely irrational narrative.’ His novels’ most consistent features are their brevity—they’re generally a hundred pages or less—and their method of composition, which he has called la huída hacia adelante, or the constant flight forward. Roughly, this means that he writes without rewriting, inventing as he goes.”