Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Eugene Onegin

“A kind of symbolic shorthand…”

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"A kind of symbolic shorthand..."

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 36. You can read the previous installments here.

When we remember a story after the fact, our minds have a way of producing juxtapositions and connections that weren’t there before. Most fans, for instance, are aware that Kirk and Khan are never in the same place at the same time in Star Trek II, and their only real face-to-face confrontation, courtesy of a viewscreen, consists of a single scene. Still, they’re indelibly associated in our imaginations, certainly more so than the modern incarnations of the same two characters who shared so much screen time in a far less memorable movie. Similarly, in the movie version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes says just one line to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even bother responding. Yet we rightly think of Vincennes and White as two points in the movie’s central triangle, even if they interact largely through the contrasting shapes that they assume in our heads. As I wrote in a post on Legolas and Frodo, who also interact only once over the course of three Lord of the Rings movies: “We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other.” When the book is closed and put back on the shelf, all the pages overlap, and links appear between characters that aren’t really there when the story is experienced as a sequence.

You could also make the case that separating characters can paradoxically result in a closer relationship than if they were physically together. When two characters share a scene, they can’t help but be themselves; when they’re further apart, each one begins to seem like a commentary on the other. Closeness tends to emphasize dissimilarity, while distance stresses the qualities they share. Some movies do this deliberately—like Heat, which keeps Pacino and De Niro separated and invites us to draw the parallels—while others do it by accident. (In L.A. Confidential, it seems to have been a little of both: Vincennes and White simply wouldn’t have much to talk about, and trying to force them into a conversation would have subtly diminished both men.) Movies and books benefit from the way we’ve been taught to read them, in which we assume that two lines of action will eventually converge. It’s a narrative technique as old as the Odyssey, and it can be used to create anticipation and lend structure to the story even if it never quite pays off. The first season of Fargo devoted a lot of time to foreshadowing a confrontation between two characters, played by Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton, that it ultimately didn’t feel like providing. This worked well enough as a strategy to unite a lot of disconnected action, but the second season, which has consisted of a series of immensely entertaining collisions between disparate characters, reminds us of how satisfying this kind of convergence can be if it’s allowed to play out for real.

"I'm not responsible for what you've heard..."

And one of the unsung arts of storytelling lies in drawing out that distance as much as possible without losing the connection. One of the basic rules of visual design is that two elements in a composition, like two dots on a canvas, create a tension in the space between them that didn’t exist before. Elsewhere, I’ve written:

Two dots imply a line…No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story…In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

The tricky part is the placement. Put your dots too far apart, and they no longer seem related; too close together, and we tend to see them as a single unit. Much the same goes for characters, and it’s no accident that many of the fictional pairings we remember so vividly—like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, or Holmes and Moriarty—consist of two figures who spend most of their time apart, which only adds to the intensity when they meet at last.

I thought about this constantly when I was cracking the plot for Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe mostly keeps her distance from Maddy and Ilya, the two other points in the narrative triangle. Maddy and Ilya eventually converge in a satisfying way, but Wolfe isn’t brought into their story until the very end, and even then, their interactions are minimal. In the case of Maddy, they consist of a voice message and a long conversation in the last chapter of the book; with Ilya, Wolfe has little more than a charged exchange of glances. Yet I think that Wolfe still feels integrated into their stories, and if she does, it was because I devoted a fair amount of energy to maintaining that connection where I could. Wolfe spends a lot of time thinking about Maddy and following her movements, and even more so with Ilya—who also gets to send her a message in return. In Chapter 36, I introduce the concept of the “throw,” a symbolic shorthand used by thieves to send messages. An apple cut in half means that it’s time to divide the loot; a piece of bread wrapped in cloth means that the police are closing in. And when Wolfe finds a knot tied in a dishtowel at the crime scene in Hackney Wick, she realizes that Ilya is saying: I’m not responsible for what you’ve heard. As a narrative device that allows them to communicate under the eyes of Ilya’s enemies, it works nicely. But I also love the idea of a visual symbol that allows two people to speak over a distance, which is exactly what happens in many novels, if not always so explicitly. As Nabokov puts it so beautifully in his notes to Eugene Onegin, which I read while plotting out this trilogy: “There is a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another…”

The middle ground

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The Mad Men episode "In Care Of"

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What series are you waiting to dive into until you can do it all at once?”

Yesterday, while leafing through a recent issue of The New Yorker, I came across the following lines in a book review by James Wood:

[Amit Chaudhuri] has struggled, as an Indian novelist writing in English, with the long shadow of Salman Rushdie’s Booker-winning novel Midnight’s Children…and with the notion, established in part by the success of that book, that fictional writing about Indian life should be noisy, magical, hybrid, multivocally “exotic”—as busy as India itself…He points out that in the Bengali tradition “the short story and novella have predominated at least as much as the novel,” and that there are plenty of Indian writers who have “hoped to suggest India by ellipsis rather than by all-inclusiveness.”

Wood, who is no fan of the “noisy, magical, hybrid” form that so many modern novels have assumed, draws an apt parallel to “the ceaseless quest for the mimetically overfed Great American Novel.” But an emphasis on short, elliptical fiction has been the rule, rather than the exception, in our writing programs for years. And a stark division between big and small seems to be true of most national literatures: think of Russia, for instance, in which Eugene Onegin stands as the only real rival as a secular scripture to the loose, baggy monsters of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Yet most works of art, inevitably, end up somewhere in the middle. If we don’t tend to write essays or dissertations about boringly midsized novels, which pursue their plot and characters for the standard three hundred pages or so, it’s for much the same reason that we don’t hear much about political moderates: we may be in the majority, but it isn’t news. Our attention is naturally drawn to the extreme, which may be more interesting to contemplate, but which also holds the risk that we’ll miss the real story by focusing on the edges. When we think about film editing, for instance, we tend to focus on one of two trends: the increasingly rapid rate of cutting, on the one hand, and the fetishization of the long take, on the other. In fact, the average shot length has been declining at a more or less linear rate ever since the dawn of the sound era, and over the last quarter of a century, it’s gone from about five seconds to four—a change that is essentially imperceptible. The way a movie is put together has remained surprisingly stable for more than a generation, and whatever changes of pace we do find are actually less extreme than we might expect from the corresponding technical advances. Digital techniques have made it easier than ever to construct a film out of very long or very short shots, but most movies still fall squarely in the center of the bell curve. And in terms of overall length, they’ve gotten slightly longer, but not by much.

Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

That’s true of other media as well. Whenever I read think pieces about the future of journalism, I get the impression that we’ve been given a choice between the listicle and the longread: either we quickly skim a gallery of the top ten celebrity pets, or we devote an entire evening to scrolling through a lapbreaker like “Snow Fall.” Really, though, most good articles continue to fall in the middle ground; it’s just hard to quantify what makes the best ones stand out, and it’s impossible to reduce it to something as simple as length or format. Similarly, when it comes to what we used to call television, the two big stories of the last few years have been the dueling models of Vine and Netflix: it seems that either we can’t sit still for more than six seconds at a time, or we’re eager to binge on shows for hours and hours. There are obvious generational factors at play here—I’ve spent maybe six seconds total on Vine—but the division is less drastic than it might appear. In fact, I suspect that most of us still consume content in the way we always have, in chunks of half an hour to an hour. Mad Men was meant to be seen like this; so, in its own way, was Community, which bucked recent trends by releasing an episode per week. But it isn’t all that interesting to talk about how to make a great show that looks more or less like the ones that have come before, so we don’t hear much about it.

Which isn’t to say that the way we consume and think about media hasn’t changed. A few years ago, the idea of waiting to watch a television show until its entire run was complete might have seemed ridiculous; now, it’s an option that many of us seriously consider. (The only series I’ve ever been tempted to wait out like this was Lost, and it backfired: once I got around to starting it, the consensus was so strong that it went nowhere that I couldn’t bring myself to get past the second season.) But as I’ve said before, it can be a mistake for a television show—or any work of art—to proceed solely with that long game in mind, without the pressure of engaging with an audience from week to week. We’re already starting to see some of the consequences in Game of Thrones, which thinks entirely in terms of seasons, but often forgets to make individual scenes worth watching on a level beyond, “Oh, let’s see what this guy is doing.” But a show that focuses entirely on the level of the scene or moment can sputter out after a few seasons, or less: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had trouble sustaining interest in its own premise for even thirteen episodes. The answer, as boring as it may be, lies in the middle, or in the narratives that think hard about telling stories in the forms that have existed before, and will continue to exist. The extremes may attract us. But it’s in the boring middle ground that the future of an art form is made.

The art of translation, part 2

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Vladimir Nabokov

In one of the wonderful short essays that appear in the anthology Selected Nonfictions, Jorge Luis Borges writes:

Around 1916, I decided to devote myself to the study of the Oriental literatures. Working with enthusiasm and credulity through the English version of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “A man condemned to death doesn’t care that he is standing on the edge of a precipice, for he has already renounced life.” Here the translator attaches an asterisk, and his note informed me that this interpretation was preferable to that of a rival Sinologist, who had translated the passage thus: “The servants destroy the works of art, so that they will not have to judge their beauties and defects.”

Speaking of the experience, Borges concludes: “A mysterious skepticism had slipped into my soul.” That skepticism never left him entirely, and you can see it on full display on his essays—which are among his best—on the translations of the Iliad and The Thousand and One Nights, most of which tell us more about the personalities of their translators than about the work itself. (If you ever want to disillusion yourself on the subject of translation in record time, just try reading a few translations, in parallel, of poetry in an Eastern language. This list of versions of Basho’s famous haiku on the jumping frog is a good place to start.)

And the irony here, of course, is that I’m also reading Borges in translation, in this case filtered through the words of the editor and translator Eliot Weinberger, and I didn’t think twice about it. Nearly every encounter I’ve had with Borges, who ranks among my four or five favorite writers, has been thanks to the midwifery of translators, and although I used to know enough Spanish to puzzle my way through a few familiar stories in the original edition of Ficciones, I haven’t tried this in a long time. And my conscience is clear. My only real firsthand experience with comparing translated texts to their originals was in college, when I studied Latin and Greek, and it left me with a few workable assumptions. Prose in a Western language can usually be translated into English without any devastating loss: Plato or Thucydides in English misses something, sure, but ninety percent of the original’s interest is preserved. Poetry is a different matter, and I never found a version of the Iliad I liked enough to read for its own sake. (I ended up relying mostly on what Borges calls Samuel Butler’s “unruffled” prose version, which renders Homer’s poetry as “a series of sedate news items.”) This is doubly the case with translated poetry from a non-Western language, which turns into a kind of performance art on the part of the translator, and it’s tempting to agree here with Robert Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.”

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

So what’s a reader to do? I’d been aware of these issues for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot that I started to piece together my own feelings on the subject. Le Ton Beau is a very strange book, a highly personal work on translation that ranges widely over multiple authors and languages—Hofstadter refers to himself as “pilingual”—while maintaining the chatty, nerdy, occasionally prickly tone of an interested amateur. Hofstadter’s conclusion is that poetry should be translated in a way that honors both the form and the content to the best of the translator’s abilities, even if this inevitably involves compromises in the literal meaning. It’s a sensible stance, and one that allows readers to more or less keep reading the same translations they always have. But it also pits Hofstadter against a formidable opponent: Vladimir Nabokov, whose epic translation and commentary of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin stands as the ultimate rejection of such easy consolations. For Nabokov, any conscious deviation from the literal text is a betrayal, a sop at the expense of the author to readers who can’t be bothered to learn Russian. To prove his point, Nabokov devoted unimaginable effort to a plodding, agonizingly “faithful” translation of Pushkin, published with two massive volumes of commentary. It’s a translation designed to destroy the reader’s very idea of translation itself, as well as the project in which Nabokov most resembles one of his own obsessive characters.

To be honest, I’ve never made it through all of Nabokov’s translation, but I’ve read all nine hundred pages of his notes, in which he lavishes all the invention, wit, and fire that he intentionally drains from the text itself. These notes strike me now as a defiant creative act in their own right, a statement that Nabokov would have been more than capable of blowing us away with a conventional translation if he hadn’t been too principled to do so. And it’s a stance that somehow manages to be unimpeachably correct and spectacularly wrongheaded all at the same time. Nabokov’s argument that fidelity to literal meaning should come first is impossible to refute, but he destroys the village to save it: his translation of Eugene Onegin is an “aesthetic self-wounding,” as Harold Bloom says elsewhere of Shakespeare, and it has little if anything to do with the qualities that draw readers to Pushkin in the first place. That’s a betrayal of its own, and in choosing between the two kinds of compromises, I can only speak from my own experience: reading a few stanzas of Nabokov’s work is enough to put me off Pushkin forever, while James Falen’s sparkling verse translation has made Eugene Onegin, or some version of it, a permanent part of my life—which is all a translation can ever hope to do. It’s hard to reconcile this, and rightly so, with our ideal of what a translation should be. But in response, I can only quote what Borges said, through an intermediary, to a translator who said that it was impossible to render one of his poems into rhyme: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

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November 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2011 at 8:07 am

Nabokov and the silly moon

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In his massive commentary on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Vladimir Nabokov writes of a stanza in which the title character insults the woman whom Lenski, his best friend, loves, comparing her to “that silly moon, up in that silly sky.” Nabokov says:

This [stanza] upset me so much when I first read [Eugene Onegin] as a boy that I mentally had Onegin next morning ride over to Lenski’s to apologize—with the suave frankness that made the proud man’s charm—for venting his spleen on the lover’s lady and the poet’s moon.

In the young Nabokov’s desire to rewrite a favorite work of art, it isn’t hard to recognize the glimmerings of the same collective impulse that will take shape online, many years later, as fanfic.

Written by nevalalee

January 15, 2011 at 10:01 am

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