Infinite Read

ijWhen I first picked up Infinite Jest, I was just a naive sophomore merely entering into the sphere of THICC books and so – obviously – I failed at that attempt. And I’ve tried again. Looking for a PhD subject, I’ve thought about going somewhere into the area of media studies/consumerist culture/American society, namely something I’ve already done in my MA thesis’ chapter on DeLillo’s White Noise and what I kinda enjoyed writing about. I had a strict plan; ten days, one hundred pages each. And again, I failed.

Mostly because of bad timing. At the same time I was finishing a post-conference paper and it was much more demanding than I initially expected. And so the pressure of other responsibilities made me just browse some fragments looking for anything relevant to my present interests.

Putting aside all the jokes, memes, /lit/core material and so on, I’ve got to admit that it’s a great novel. It engulfs you. DFW creates a world full of everything I like; profound characters, obscurity, shitload of encyclopedic information, humor etc. It is problematic, of course. That whole “verbal blackface” thing, or how he depicts addicts, it’s better to read it keeping in mind all that stuff. However I cannot agree on comments about its pretentiousness. I think DFW was one of such types that he *could* appear pretentious although he was all about the real. It’s seen in his other fiction, essays, interviews, biographies, etc. Behind all that layers of obscurity, there’s a specific warmness in IJ which brings me back to this book again and again. Some kind of relatability. It makes sense if we look at it from the perspective of New Sincerity and all that it entails. It was made to give some kind of hope in our contemporary times. Does that really sound so pretentious?

Like, seriously. I love Pynchon, but from time to time it’s refreshing to read a big novel which doesn’t end in an ultimately pessimistic state of entropic disaster¹.

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1. It depends on one’s interpretation, of course. Even if we assume that from his first short stories to Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon was gradually developing his view of entropy as a force ultimately better than order (which is all about fascism and stuff), then we still have this mental discontent when Oedipa enters the auction room all frustrated and devoid of hope or at the end of GR (Now everybody-). And here’s Boltzmann’s and Gibbs’ definition of entropy:

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His Heart Was a Purple Castle

perfumeWhat makes good material literature? It’s when a piece of writing effectively encapsulates the essence of sensations, emotions or experiences with an emphasis on their physical dimension. In the case of Perfume by Patrick Süskind it’s obviously the sense of smell that is at the center of our attention. However, I found one paragraph which gives a fantastic description of what solitude is and how it feels like, and it goes like this:

His heart was a purple castle. It lay in a rock-strewn desert, concealed by dunes, surrounded by a marshy oasis, and set behind stone walls. It could be reached only from the air. It had a thousand private rooms and a thousand underground chambers and a thousand elegant salons, among them one with a purple sofa when Grenouille – no longer Grenouille the Great, but only the quite private Grenouille, or simply dear little Jean- Baptiste – would recover from the labors of the day.

It’s simple, poetic and violently accurate. Solitude is hiding in yourself, far from the outside world, to find one on the inside. In your guts. In your heart, or brain, whether you prefer to surround yourself with German romantic literature and suffer or write papers on analytic philosophy. And suffer. The fragment above presents the moment in the story when Grenouille finds a place where he can finally be far from the horrendous odor of humanity, where he can emerge from his bodily shell and be alone with his sweet memories and recollections of scents. Unfortunately, such transformation turns out to be impossible as he discovers a terrible truth about himself and his body. The plot goes on.

Good material literature makes a point about materiality of our world and carnality of ourselves. We cannot escape them. We’re trapped inside our bodies, trapped by the gravitational pull of earth, and so on. At least above the level of quantum mechanics, we’re governed by the laws of biology, and all we need to do is to realize and accept those laws – death, desire, the fact that every time I’ll go to the kitchen I’ll open the refrigerator even if knowing that nothing new did not suddenly appeared there but it’s a habit now and I accept that. Grenouille’s relation with the materiality was corrupted from the very beginning and that was the sole reason of his downfall.

I’ve seen the film adaptation of Perfume back in 2007 or ’08 when I was a teenager giggling at the orgy scene and surely I couldn’t fully appreciate this story until I’ve read the book just now. The Penguin Essentials edition’s cover is beautiful as well, soon I’ll probably check out Süskind’s Pigeon and I’ll give a feedback.

A Beautiful Sadness

stonerThere’s that one quote from South Park going around the internet which I like very much: “I’m sad, but at the same time I’m really happy that something could make me feel that sad. It’s like, it makes me feel alive, you know? It makes me feel human. And the only way I could feel this sad now is if I felt somethin’ really good before. So I have to take the bad with the good, so I guess what I’m feelin’ is like a, beautiful sadness.”

Simple as that. No self-help books or “Live Laugh Love” pictures on walls. And when I need some motivational guidance, I (obviously) resort to literature.

Stoner by John E. Williams is a beautiful, though a sad story – at least at the first sight. A “campus novel/Bildungsroman” about a farm boy who becomes a literature professor after discovering his love for written word really touches the heart. Throughout the story, titular William Stoner struggles with his upbringing, identity, his wife who turns out to be a different person than he initially expected, his career and various people who try to ruin it for various reasons, both world wars and how they changed the society, his only child and many more. The second paragraph already reveals the novel’s seemingly tragic character:

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual questions. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

It took me very little time to get through the book (it’s not long anyways; around two hundred pages). Williams’ writing is like a flowing river. His style is smooth, calm, even soothing in a sense. I think if it wasn’t for that style then Stoner wouldn’t have the same effect.

So what we get here is an account of a man’s mediocre, dull, an unhappy life.

Is it so?

No really, actually.

Despite all the bad stuff that happened in Stoner’s life, the novel retains a positive message. He was able to find happiness thanks to literature, which accompanied him from the moment when after reading a Shakespeare’s sonnet for an English class he decided to change his life, to the very end of his story (which actually takes place in his study room filled with books). Even if certain people tried to somehow stop him from fully endorsing his work and passion, he was still able to find courage to fight for what he really loved.

Quite often I feel very insecure about my plans for future and my ambitions to become something-like-a-serious-literary-scholar. Well, it’s not easy. Jobs are scarce, competition is wild and books are expensive (bless God for the internet! Stoner would’ve had it harder if not for the fact that in the early 20th century they were all doing only Milton and Shakespeare anyways). I guess those are some universal things for most people nowadays. However, I feel like I can truly relate to Stoner in that way. Working with literature gives me a lot of fulfillment in itself and that’s what really matters. Of course we cannot just stop thinking about competition or feeling down if our plans fail several times in a row. It all narrows down to focusing a little less on all the surrounding issues and a little more on the same subject of our work. This is just some kind of a stoic lesson which really should be endorsed; at least it works for me.

John Williams’s greatest literary achievement (beside Stoner) was Augustus, for which he was given a U.S. National Book Award. Nevertheless, it’s the first one for which he seems to be remembered the most. As Wiki tells us, in an interview he was asked if literature is written to be entertaining, to which he replied: “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.” As a writer and scholar he just did what he loved to do. And this is it. Go get the book and read it, it’s worth it.

War of the Words

fu-wojny_435Translator’s profession is a peculiar one. Their very mission requires them to be invisible; to hide themselves behind a huge, wobbly block of text while standing on even wobblier block of original work and trying to hold them both from failing into opposite directions of obscurity. I don’t say it’s always like that. Translating Carver or Hemingway is objectively easier than Melville or Pynchon. But what about Joyce and works as radical as Finnegans Wake? I suppose it’s appropriate to extend the earlier metaphor and say that it’s like hopping from a piece of text to another over the pits of boiling lava shooting fiery balls into you, Super Mario Bros style.

And although Krzysztof Bartnicki probably didn’t have to fight Bowser after ten years of working on his translation of Joyce’s novel to Polish, some fighting actually took place. Fu wojny (“Fu of War”), published the same year as Finneganów tren, welcomes us with those striking words: “Translation is a continuation of war with other means.” That’s a very solid metaphor, actually. Translator needs a strategy to overcome challenges imposed by the source text – his “enemy.” The more difficult the text, the more complicated strategy must be put in work. What does it take to battle FW? Apparently a whole collection of ancient Chinese treatises on the application of military strategies to the art of translating.

At least that’s what Fu wojny is said to be. Why “said?” Well, there’s very little possibility that some ancient Chinese treatises delved into the detailed problems of translating Finnegnas Wake (like the fifth text from the collection, “Of the Story From the Riverbank,” which is concerned specifically with the first word of the novel, “riverrun.” Think that’s weird? Just wait till I write about Bartnicki’s Prospekt emisyjny).

Nevertheless, the book is important for a particular reason. Bartnicki takes a metaphor and stretches it into the whole book to discuss methodology of his translation. Literary images of soldiers attacking the battlefield, dialogues between generals or overcoming natural obstacles are supported by numerous footnotes referring to particular moments in the novel, comments of other translators, writers, facts from history or Joyce’s biography etc. And it does its job excellently. It talks about translation in an engaging and profoundly enlightening way, contrary to a bulk of academic books/papers about translation theory and practice.

Obviously, such work as translating Finnegans Wake somehow blurs the boundary between translation and literary creation. It needs elements of both, pretty much as in translating poetry. A lot of criticism can be (and was) drawn from the opinion that the elements of translating are getting lost in the myriad of linguistics gimmicks. That’s why I suppose works such as Fu wojny are necessary. A specific literary sensibility helps enormously in working on experimental literature; not only the passive encyclopedic knowledge but also a deep understanding of a text’s metaphorical nature and a “feel” of style/language.

So a translator’s profession is not only peculiar but also dangerous. Before Bartnicki, two other translators (Maciej Słomczyński, who translated Ulysses to Polish and Tomasz Mirkowicz) were defeated at the battlefield. It doesn’t mean though that they failed in a literal sense. The joint forces of past and present translators are like an army who accumulate experiences to “win” over their texts; hence, they make literature better for all of us.