Poets, man!

A stinging tirade by one of the characters from Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints.

Poets, man! They’re the same all over. Mendicants, martyrs, lapsed monks convinced the world owes them an explanation or an apology or a meal, wine included. But fuck the dumb shit. I tell you this, if you’re planning a revolution or founding a new religion go to the poets. Don’t waste your time with fucking scriveners. Go to the source, the bards. At least you can count on them to be true to their essential nature. And what is this nature? Ruthlessness, I say! Enlist the poets and expect blood. There will be a lot of it. Enlist the poets and stay away from the novelists because novelists are feckless. They have no feck at all. They are yes-men hungry for approval and patronage, always looking out for their own best interests. As for playwrights, all they do is talk, talk, talk about the revolution and social justice, women’s empowerment, humanism, anarchism, but it never goes anywhere because that’s all it is, big talk, back talk, chitchat, gossip. They’re good at it because this is how they gather material. When it comes to putting words into action? They’ll be the first to disappear. You will also come across scriptwriters and screenplay doctors. Be warned. They live in their own reality and it rarely coincides with anyone else’s. I advise you to tread carefully with those bastards. Walk among them as if you’re in a den of goddamn vipers. Count on nothing and you’ll be okay. The only ones you can trust are the short-story writers because they’re like poets in at least one respect. They shoot their shot in one go and this leads to an understanding of luck and discipline. They learn early that discipline lies in waiting and allowing the circumstances for luck to arise. The point I am trying to make is that poets are born with certain unenviable traits. For example, paranoia. For example, they believe in persecution by persons of lesser sensibility. For example, they are born with a capacity for cruelty, followed by an infinite capacity for remorse.

– Jeet Thayil, The Book of Chocolate Saints

two quotes on doubt(s)

Again, rubbing texts against each other.

As often happens, even the doubts of the Master become dogma in the followers.

— Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, The Temple of Iconoclasts, tr. by Lawrence Venuti [1]

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers — perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet, tr. by Stephen Mitchell [2]

[1] ^ The original in Italian:

Come spesso accade, perfino i dubbi del Maestro diventano nei discepoli dogma.

— Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, La sinagoga degli iconoclasti

[2] ^ The original in German:

Und Ihr Zweifel kann eine gute Eigenschaft werden, wenn Sie ihn erziehen. Er muß wissend werden, er muß Kritik werden. Fragen Sie ihn, sooft er Ihnen etwas verderben will, weshalb etwas häßlich ist, verlangen Sie Beweise von ihm, prüfen Sie ihn, und Sie werden ihn vielleicht ratlos und verlegen, vielleicht auch aufbegehrend finden. Aber geben Sie nicht nach, fondern Sie Argumente und handeln Sie so, aufmerksam und konsequent, jedes einzelne Mal, und der Tag wird kommen, da er aus einem Zerstörer einer Ihrer besten Arbeiter werden wird, — vielleicht der klügste von allen, die an Ihrem Leben bauen.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe an einen jungen Dichter

threading quotes

When a book features “connections and interrelatedness” prominently, it seems only natural that reading it would set connections in motion — eager feelers dancing through the readingscape (and beyond), sounding it out, causing texts to rub against each other, sparking conversations. Such is the case with Inger Christensen’s collection of essays The Condition of Secrecy [1], translated by Susanna Nied and published by New Directions.

Here’s a small thread of quotes engaged in an improvisation — in bold: resonant nodes (emphasis mine).

Before we sit down with our paper in order to (maybe, maybe not) write a poem, as well as during the many hours we sit there, that’s the way it is: as if we’ve become lost. The world, which a moment ago, when we were drinking our morning coffee, was perfectly manageable and normal, has once more suddenly become far too big, and even if our consciousness wanders in all directions, bringing small bits of language along, it can’t locate exactly the stone, the plant, the situation, perhaps the incomprehensibility, from which it can find its way back to the world with the aid of a word.

— Inger Christensen, The Condition of Secrecy, tr. by Susanna Nied

Whether meandering or straight, an essay tries to follow with the closeness of a shadow the mind’s lilts and turns—while recognizing that thought and its expression are inalienably different. There will always be a gap between consciousness and words. In any case, an essay is a composition, not merely a transcription of whatever passes in the mind.

Joseph Killorin, the man handpicked by modernist writer Conrad Aiken to collect and edit his letters, explained in the introduction to Aiken’s Selected Letters that “to write a letter was a way to ‘fix’ the hourly news of consciousness.”


In other words, a single letter has a momentary function that gets lost when read as a back-and-forth exchange. Time passes in the gaps between letters. Life happens between the licking of stamps. There is something a little voyeuristic, a little seedy, a little unfair, perhaps, in looking too closely at the nakedness of a moment without acknowledging the clothed gaps between those bare moments.

[1] ^ The first pathway starts from the title itself & points to “the condition of secrecy Novalis speaks of when he says, ‘Das Äusere ist ein in einen Geheimniszustand aufgehobenes Innere.‘ (The outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy.)” (Inger Christensen, “The Condition of Secrecy,” tr. by Susanna Nied).

[2] ^ I stumbled on this essay as I was doing some research on Lu Ji’s Wén Fù (文賦: Fu on Literature) after reading about it in one of Inger Christensen’s essays. This pathway leads straight into a rabbit hole — I might do a post on this.

sketching a reading itinerary

Reading about reading projects is tickling my own tendency to draft such plans. So here are some partial, rough sketches of reading routes I would like to travel.

  • Authors whose works I aim to explore:
    • Christine Brooke-Rose [1]
    • Guy Davenport
    • Lucy Ellmann [2]
    • Hans Magnus Enzensberger
    • Paul Metcalf [3]
    • Thucydides
    • Gregor von Rezzori [4]
  • Authors whose works I aim to further explore:
    • Mircea Cărtărescu
    • Inger Christensen
    • William H Gass
    • Alexander Kluge
    • António Lobo Antunes
    • Arno Schmidt
    • Miklós Szentkuthy
    • Olga Tokarczuk
    • Antoine Volodine
    • Virginia Woolf

& here I am, wondering: what about William Gaddis? what about Antonio Moresco? what about Marguerite Young? … Besides, I am a very slow reader… Oh, well…

[1] ^ Amalgamemnon is on its way to my mailbox. I first glimpsed the book in this tweet by Anthony Brown

and my interest further deepened when I read this piece by Davis Smith-Brecheisen.

[2] ^ I pre-ordered Ducks, Newburyport, and yes, Claro did influence my decision.

[3] ^ The first volume of his Collected Works is also on its way to my mailbox. If you feel like being tempted to discover Paul Metcalf’s works, I cannot but recommend this piece by Jacob Siefring.

[4] ^ I owe my discovery of Gregor von Rezzori to The Untranslated.

lost in a rereading in translation

I tried to invent an etymology for the word “parka” but couldn’t think fast enough. Todd was on another subject—the freight train, laws of motion, effects of force, sneaking in a question about the number of boxcars that trailed the locomotive.

Я попытался придумать этимологию слову «парка», но не успел сообразить. Тодд уже перескочил на другую тему – грузовой поезд, законы движения, физические силы, захватывая вопрос, сколько вагонов тащил локомотив.

— Don DeLillo, Midnight in Dostoevsky, Russian translation by Sergei Karpov

A few weeks ago, Twitter serendipity led me to discover Pollen — a Russian project gravitating towards American literature. Fumbling about on their website, I noticed that one of the issues of their fanzine was devoted to Don DeLillo. Curiosity went “mmm.”

<click> & here it was, first in the table of contents: a Russian translation of the short story “Midnight in Dostoevsky.” Curiosity went “MMM,” & I thought, “Well, well, well, why not reread it in the original along with its translation?”

A weird—irresistibly irrational / irrationally irresistible—compulsion.

This is how I embarked upon a rereading which is likely to take time. So far it has proved to be a wild, delightful playground for a (daredevil) beginning learner of Russian: swarming with lexical discoveries & grammatical puzzles.

“Who’s that with the beard?”

“The familiar Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge photo, showing Maxwell in right profile”

     Koteks looked at both sides, then rolled his chair closer. ‘You know the Nefastis Machine?’ Oedipa only widened her eyes. ‘Well, this was invented by John Nefastis, who’s up at Berkeley now. John’s somebody who still invents things here. I have a copy of the patent.’ From a drawer he produced a Xeroxed wad of papers, showing a box with a sketch of a bearded Victorian on its outside, and coming out of the top two pistons attached to a crankshaft and flywheel.

     ‘Who’s that with the beard?’ asked Oedipa. James Clerk Maxwell, explained Koteks, a famous Scotch scientist who had once postulated a tiny intelligence, known as Maxwell’s Demon. The Demon could sit in a box among air molecules that were moving at all different random speeds, and sort out the fast molecules from the slow ones. Fast molecules have more energy than slow ones. Concentrate enough of them in one place and you have a region of high temperature. You can then use the difference in temperature between this hot region of the box and any cooler region, to drive a heat engine. Since the Demon only sat and sorted, you wouldn’t have put any real work into the system. So you would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something for nothing, causing perpetual motion.

     ‘Sorting isn’t work?’ Oedipa said. ‘Tell them down at the post office, you’ll find yourself in a mailbag headed for Fairbanks, Alaska, without even a FRAGILE sticker going for you.’

     ‘It’s mental work,’ Koteks said, ‘but not work in the thermodynamic sense.’ He went on to tell how the Nefastis Machine contained an honest-to-God Maxwell’s Demon. All you had to do was stare at the photo of Clerk Maxwell, and concentrate on which cylinder, right or left, you wanted the Demon to raise the temperature in. The air would expand and push a piston. The familiar Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge photo, showing Maxwell in right profile, seemed to work best.

— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

“and known, then, because of a painting”

Bordando el Manto Terrestre, 1961 by Remedios Varo

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central paintings of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre’, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she’d wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape.

— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

peeping through translation

Funnily (or frustatingly), this post has been in the pipeline for about four months [1]. It stems from a German sentence rubbing against its reflection in an English translation — with French in between. Reading this friction has unfolded into an invitation to contemplate how meaning morphs according to choices of words.

Die Schwester habe schon als junge Frau jeden Tag im Geschäft gesessen und in den Romanheften gelesen, während P nach einem Guckloch in die weite Welt gesuch habe.

— Yoko Tawada, Porträt einer Zunge

Upon reading this sentence, I looked up “Romanheften” und “Guckloch” in the German-French PONS dictionary:

  • Romanheft: roman à quatre sous publié sous forme de fascicule vendu dans les kiosques, i.e. ± penny dreadful, dime novel; the German-English PONS dictionary translates Romanheft as “cheap [or dime-store] romance novel.”
    (Roman = novel) + (Heft = [stitched] booklet)
  • Guckloch: judas, i.e. peephole.
    (gucken = to look) + (Loch = hole)

Then I read Chantal Wright’s translation:

As a young woman, her sister had sat in the store every day, reading novels, whereas P had looked for a window onto the wider world.

& I wondered — am still wondering.

The world seen through a window vs the world seen through a peephole: they are the same (aren’t they?), yet they surely do not look the same. Depending on the window —

  • A window is: an opening, usually covered by one or more panes of clear glass, to allow light and air from outside to enter a building or vehicle [2].
  • A peephole is: a small hole, opening or piece of glass, especially in a door, through which one can look without being seen [3].

So: we can argue that a peephole is a kind of window, right? If one makes a genealogy of windows, one will surely encounter peepholes.

Aside: in Japanese, a peephole / judas / Guckloch translates as 覗き穴 (のぞ・き・あな), made up of 覗き = peep & 穴 = hole, or as 覗き窓 (のぞ・き・まど), made up of 覗き = peep & 窓 = window.

A window defines a point of view. A frame. Like a camera. Or, the other way round: to quote Naoya Hatakeyama: “Doesn’t [a camera] look like a small room or a ‘shed’ with a window?” [4]

Can a novel be a window onto the wider world? What if it is a cheap novel? Are some books panoramic windows whereas others are peepholes? Does the geometry of a window-book depend on the reader looking/peeping through it? Does it make a significant difference that P’s sister was reading Romanhefte rather than Romane?

There is something prismatic about having access to two (or more) versions of a text — either the original & a translation, or two translations. Reading passes through a prism: engagement with the text — or rather, the texts — fans out in an ever wider spectrum. Surprise, puzzlement, amazement. Pausing to chew over a choice of words, a turn of phrase, a translatio. Feeling how the translation rubs languages against each other, and how languages rub against each other in the reading experiences.

[1] ^ Why so long? Maybe I was trying to make sure that this post would not sound like policing. Maybe I was waiting to hear about Atelier Bow-Wow and the book WindowScape 2 — 窓と街並の系譜学.

[2] ^ Source: Wiktionary.

[3] ^ Source: ibidem.

[4] ^ From: Naoya Hatakeyama, “The Photographer and Architecture,” Places Journal, April 2018. Accessed 17 Jul 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/180403.

texts rubbing against each other

A few days ago, I was wandering [1] along the whirls & whorls of Twitter when I came across this tweet by Robert Minto:

An instant favourite. This reflection resonates with my weakness for parallel reading. A weakness, for it turns me—a slow reader—into an even slower reader. Even so, I love being on the lookout for these “thought-sparks” books make “by rubbing against each other.”

Robert’s tweet also sent me back to Chantal’s Wright introduction to her translation of Yoko Tawada’s “Porträt einer Zunge” [my blogging-spark so to speak]. At the end of her second introduction, Chantal Wright lists the different categories of quotations that the reader will find in her commentary. There are three of them:

  1. quotations from texts mentioned by Yoko Tawada in her own text,
  2. quotations from texts written by other German exophonic writers,
  3. quotations from texts read by Chantal Wright while she was working on her translation.

I also included citations from texts that I happened to be reading while I was working on the translation and where my mind, busy with “Portrait of a Tongue” even when I was away from my desk, forged connections to the text (e.g. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). This use of citation seemed to me to be in the spirit of Tawada’s web of associative thinking.

— Chantal Wright, Translating ”Portrait of a Tongue”

I like being aware of the web(s) of associations a text belongs to—be it as part of its being written and/or as part of its being read. Being aware of such a web: first by groping for it, then by analysing its threads & strings, plucking them & listening to whatever sound is produced, and why not? by partaking in the weaving.

Texts may rub against each other in various contexts:

  1. the author of a text straightforwardly refers to another text, thus inviting (or inciting) the reader to follow the breadcrumbs, fetch this other text & bring it in contact with the starting text—for example: in “Porträt einer Zunge,” Yoko Tawada’s narrator mentions Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Erklär mir, Liebe,” which may trigger the urge to read it [2];
  2. another text (more or less inescapably) appears complementary to the text being read—for example: reading Chantal Wright’s experimental translation and Kate Briggs’s This Little Art in parallel is bound to lead to some friction since both books orbit the act of translating (and this would remain true if the readings were out of sync);
  3. two texts with no obvious common foreground/background/backstage happen to be read at once: they might remain indifferent to one another, or they might rub against each other in unexpected ways—for example: suddenly, as I read them, Roberto Calasso [in Il Cacciatore Celeste] and Miklos Szentkuthy [in En marge de Casanova] both write about masks…

Every reading choice actualises a new node in these webs of associations. Switch two books in your reading history, and this may send a ripple through the tapestry as a whole.

At this point, I cannot help but quote this passage from This Little Art by Kate Briggs—emphasis is mine:

The theorist and critic Derek Attridge has written at length about the complex ways our sense of the identity of a work of literature requires, on the one hand, repetition (the repetition of what he calls ‘these specific words in this specific arrangement’ across all material supports: whether the book is read online or on paper or out loud, whether it is printed in this font or that, we are still able to identify it as the same work) and, on the other, an openness to just how non-identical the different manifestations of (and the forms of my engagement with) apparently the same work can be. How, in fact, the font does matter, or it can — likewise the timing and circumstances of my reading, the books I am reading the book with, the people I am talking to about it, who might make me think differently; the difference between reading a book for the first time and for the third. ‘Literary identity,’ he writes, ‘involves both repetition of what is recognized as ‘the same’ and openness to new contexts and hence to change’. In other words, to translation.

— Kate Briggs, This Little Art

[1] ^ Robert Macfarlane has gathered world-wide words for “wandering.”

[2] ^ … and which may also send me back to Max Frisch, but that’s another story. And to drift further: the very name Ingeborg may also connect with my current reading of Roberto Bolaño’s Le Troisième Reich.