Monthly Archives: May 2007

Rilke in translation

I’m now halfway through Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and am loving the experience of reading it. In an effort to understand it better, I’ve begun to check out other translations online when I’ve finished a section from the book I own, translated by David Young. I haven’t decided whether I like or dislike Young’s translations, not really knowing enough to make a judgment, but I discovered that I could understand the poem much better when I looked at more than one translation. I have the original German too, which I’ve been reading after I read the English a few times, but my German’s not good enough for me to judge translation quality. And, yes, these elegies are complicated enough to require a number of readings (they are relatively short, and this doesn’t take long). I am finding them beautiful and rich and mysterious — they touch on death, love, consciousness, relationships, loneliness, isolation, the world of the mind — they are about everything important, it seems like.

But to show you what I mean about the translations, here’s a short section from the Fourth Elegy, as translated by David Young:

But we, when we’re fully intent on one thing,
can already feel the pull of another. Hatred is always close by.
Aren’t lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other
they who promised themselves open spaces, good hunting and a homeland?
As when for some quick sketch a contrasting background
is made with great care so we can see the drawing. No effort is spared.
We don’t know the contour of feeling, we only know what molds it
from without.

The meaning of the first part is clear to me, and I like the idea — that we have trouble focusing on one thing, on the present moment, and are always in pursuit of what’s next. The bit about the lovers is interesting — they expect infinite possibilities from each other and are disappointed. The next four lines have an image that took me a while to get, but once I got it, I liked it; the artist took pains with the background of the drawing to make the drawing itself clearer, although the drawing itself is only the work of a moment. Somehow, this is like the way we experience emotion; perhaps emotion is like the sketch, which remains fleeting and mysterious; all we can know about emotion is what shapes it — the thing that molds it, like the carefully-prepared background. What’s confusing about this passage is the way the fifth line (“As when …”) seems at first to relate to the image of the lovers, not the lines about emotion. It’s only by thinking through the images carefully, that I can figure out the image of the sketch and the ideas about emotion go together.

Here’s the same passage translated by Robert Hunter:

But we cannot focus on
a single object without
worrying about another.
Conflict is our essence.
Aren’t lovers always
crowding one another,
despite mutual longing
for wide open spaces,
homestead and plentiful hunting?
As when a canvas is carefully
stretched and primed to receive
a spontaneous sketch,
the better to offset it,
we do not observe the
background of emotion,
only what is splashed upon it.

The passages are similar — but not the same; the meaning of each one seems different. Isn’t “hatred is always close by” different from “conflict is our essence”? It’s the difference between something existing outside us but easily available and something that is in us and a part of us. And then there’s the difference between “Lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other” and “lovers always crowding one another.” These are two very different things, aren’t they? It’s the difference between finding something inside the other — some emotional or mental attribute — and bumping into the other’s body. And in the second translation the sketch is clearly connected to emotion, as it forms one sentence, instead of the three sentences of the first.

And here’s another, translated by John Waterfield:

We, though, where we intend one thing, and mean it,
are vexed by shimmering alternatives.
Enmity’s near to hand. Don’t lovers always
come upon fences in each other’s souls
where they expected hunting, home, and freedom?
Then briefly a design that’s based on contrast
comes into focus, carefully prepared
for us to see. (They take some pains with us.)
We do not know the contour of our feeling:
only the thing that moulds it from without.

Now the lovers are encountering fences in each other’s souls — the place of conflict, the soul, is a more clearly defined, and we have a fence instead of a drop-off. And in the parentheses, some mysterious “they” gets introduced; I notice now the other versions used passive voice (“a canvas is carefully stretched,” “a contrasting background is made”). Who is this “they”?

I guess I’m pointing out something that’s fairly obvious if you think about it, which is that every translation is an act of interpretation. Every translation introduces its own meanings and shades of meanings. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time puzzling out different translations, though, so I’m struck by this idea in a different kind of way, actually seeing the various interpretations in front of me at once.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World

12314620.gif It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve written a substantive post on books; actually, it seems like it’s been a while since I’ve been truly absorbed in a book at all. I read a bit here and there, but mostly I’ve been busy doing this and that (retreats, visits with friends, errand-running), and I’ve been on a manic exercise kick that keeps me busy. For those of you who follow my races, last night’s race went very well; it was the longest, fastest race so far this season, and I stayed with the pack the whole time. I didn’t even work all that terribly hard to do it. Don’t get me wrong — I was definitely working — but it wasn’t kill-myself working. This weekend’s race got postponed, so the next race is Tuesday, which means I have some days available to do some long rides. I hope to begin tomorrow.

But, yeah, I’m going to write about books. I finished Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World last week and can report that I liked the experience very much; this is my first Shriver novel, but probably not my last (I need to read Double Fault next, if only because it’s got women athletes in it). It was a gripping novel, one I was happy reading for hours at a time, and, at over 500 pages, one that lasts a while too. It’s got three main characters, and we stay with them and only them for most of the novel; there are other minor characters here and there, but mostly it’s a lot of time with those three people. So, as you can probably guess, there’s lots and lots of character analysis, lots of relationship analysis, lots of scenes of agonized and agonizing dialogue and critique and confession. There are lots of fights and frustration and anger. It could feel claustrophic, all that time in a fairly narrow world, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Or maybe that’s just the way life is — a lot of time spent thinking about just a few relationships.

The main character, Irina, is practically married, although not quite, to Lawrence — they’ve been together many years but have never gotten around to the ceremony — and early in the novel (I won’t give anything much away) Irina is tempted to kiss Ramsay Acton, a snooker star, on his birthday. What happens is that two versions of the “post-birthday world” arise — one where she does kiss him, and one where she doesn’t. From that point on, the narrative splits into two strands, one following each world and each one narrated in alternating chapters. We get to see how things work out each way.

Shriver has a lot of fun (or it strikes me that it would have been fun) narrating the two worlds side-by-side; things are different in each world, obviously, but not as different as we might think. A lot of the same things happen in each version, but not always done by the same person or with the same meaning. Similar conversations take place, but the dialogue gets spoken by different people; Irina finds some successes and some failures in one world, and mirroring ones in the other; the roles of victim and victimizer, betrayer and betrayed shift around. It’s hard to say which world is better, and surely that’s part of the point — that the decisions we make can seem so very significant and life-changing, but from a larger perspective perhaps don’t make as much difference as we think.

I was struck throughout the novel at what jerks both Lawrence and Ramsay could be; although they are very different types of people, which is why Irina has such trouble making up her mind about them (she says at one point that they would be perfect combined into one man), they both tend to treat her badly, bossing her around, judging her, not letting her be herself. I’m not sure what to make of this — are we supposed to feel bad for Irina, that even though she loves both of these men, and they each make her happy in their own, very different ways, she doesn’t seem realize just what controlling bastards they can be? I wanted her to figure more of that out, to complain about it more, but she tends to accept their criticism and their pettiness and to blame herself, as though she’s constantly making mistakes, when she’s not.  I suppose this isn’t really a complaint about the novel, since the story is told from Irina’s point of view (third person, but following her consciousness), and it’s part of Irina’s character not to stick up for herself as much as she might, but it was painful to read about nonetheless.

At times I thought the writing was a bit sloppy; the point of view didn’t always seem consistent — it was told from Irina’s perspective, but sometimes a voice would intrude, saying things that Irina wouldn’t, in order to get across some information. But that’s a minor quibble. Mostly I was enthralled with this very close look at love and romance, at the varied types of love different relationships can offer, at the effects of time on any relationship.

It turns out that Charlotte has recently read this book too; make sure not to miss her post on it.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction

I hate it when I’m predictable

Well, of the 61 Best Novels You’ve Never Read, I’ve read none of them. Shoot. I do, however, have two of them on my TBR list.  Does that count for anything?


Filed under Lists

Riding and Hiking

Now is the time when the crazy exercising begins — yay! It’s the time when Hobgoblin and I do day-long hikes and hours-long rides, sometimes for days in a row. I’ve ridden the last four days in a row, including a race today; tomorrow we’re going to hike 14 miles over three mountains (it’s Hobgoblin’s birthday tomorrow!); Tuesday I’m going to race again, and then I hope to ride at least four more times before the end of the week, ideally two of those rides lasting for over four hours. This will be fun.

The race today went pretty well. Hobgoblin and I drove up to Hartford to ride in their criterium; I’d watched races there before, but this is the first time I actually rode on the course. It was a women’s open race, which meant I was riding with women from all categories — which meant it was a fast race. I had no idea how I would do, as the last women’s open race I rode in was last year in my first race ever, which turned out to be a disaster (I got dropped after about two laps).

Mostly I hoped not to embarrass myself, which I most definitely did not; I finished the race with the pack. I got only 30th place out of 42 starters, but the point for me was to finish with the pack, not necessarily at the front of it. I felt pretty good throughout, but going through the corners in the last lap I didn’t have a whole lot of strength left to sprint with — and if you’re nowhere near the front of the pack, it really doesn’t make sense to sprint anyway, since you’d be sprinting for something like 30th place, which doesn’t mean much, and you put yourself in danger of crashing.

What I learned is that I need more practice riding fast through corners; I noticed that I slowed down too much at the corners and began to slip back farther in the pack, and then once I was through the corner, I had to speed up to catch up with everybody else. That takes too much energy. I just don’t have a whole lot of practice cornering; the criterium course in my town doesn’t have difficult corners, so they are new to me. I also need to be a bit more aggressive; I let other people jump in front of me too easily.

So, enjoy your holiday everyone!


Filed under Cycling, Life

Summer Reading

So I’ve committed to not doing a summer reading challenge, and I’m not going to, but I would like to muse a little bit about what I might read this summer. If I make a list of things I will read, I will feel constrained and will quickly get tired of all my choices. But I can think about some things I could possibly pick up, or, better yet, some categories of things I’d like to read, the exact titles to be chosen later. So this is not a very exact list, and it’s also not one I’m sticking to. It’s just some thoughts for the moment:

  • I am committed to reading Proust and Cervantes. I’d like to finish both of these before Labor Day, although that may not be possible. But I’ll try.
  • Back in the days when I was more likely to sign up for reading challenges, I decided to do Kate’s Reading Across Borders challenge, and it’s one I’m still excited about (probably because there are so many possibilities and I didn’t commit myself to any particular titles). So far this year I’ve read 2 books out of my goal of 5 (these include So Long a Letter and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter). This summer I’d like to read at least one more; possibilities include Mahfouz’s Palace Walk and Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City. But other interesting ones may pop up.
  • I’d like to read some more travel writing. I haven’t read much contemporary examples, but the ones I have I’ve liked (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It; Eat, Pray, Love; The Places in Between). I’ve got Peter Matthieson’s The Snow Leopard on the shelves, and also Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.
  • A literary biography might be fun too; I’ve got a short one of Proust and am also interested in reading biographies of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. I haven’t read that many biographies in my life — largely because they are so often long and I’m a slow reader — but I would like to know more about some of my favorite authors.
  • More poetry — I’m in the middle of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and enjoying it a lot, but I’m trying to decide what poet to read next. Part of me would like to read somebody from an earlier time period, like Keats, for example, and another part of me wants to return to contemporary writers. I’m not sure which side will win out.
  • There are a couple books I’ve been meaning to read because friends recommended them to me (as have other litbloggers); they include McCarthy’s The Road and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, and anything by Geraldine Brooks, although The Year of Wonders is what I have on my shelves.
  • I’d like to read something challenging. I’m not sure what this means; perhaps a long and difficult novel like The Recognitions which Ted recently sent me (thank you!) or something philosophical like the Martha Nussbaum book I’ve got on my shelves, or perhaps William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, which I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. That one wouldn’t be a difficult read, but it would be challenging in the sense of making me think a lot.
  • Perhaps I’ll finally, finally get around to reading the Bhagavad Gita?
  • I’d also like to read as many books as possible from my TBR shelves — not so much to clear them out as to create space for more new books. Here is where my vague plans start to shift into fantasy …


Filed under Books, Lists

A Sentimental Murder

I finished John Brewer’s A Sentimental Murder quite a while ago, but still want to write one last post on it (a previous post is here). It’s a wonderful book, in short. It tells the story of James Hackman’s murder of Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, in 1779. But it does so much more than that — the first chapter tells what we know of the basic facts, and then subsequent chapters tell the story of how the story got told, how various versions developed, the “facts” changed, sympathies shifted.

There isn’t much we know of the facts, actually; Hackman had fallen in love with Martha Ray, but we don’t know for sure what her feelings were in return. On the night of the murder, he seemed more likely to commit suicide and leave Ray in safety, but something changed his mind, and he shot her just outside Covent Garden Theater. He tried to shoot himself, but failed.  He was tried for murder and hanged.

As the story gets shaped and retold through the end of the 18C and on into the 19C and 20C, the story focuses on different characters and different interpretations; at one point Hackman becomes a kind of sentimental hero — even though he is the murder — and at another, the focus is on Sandwich as an example of the corrupt aristocratic rake, and at another, on Martha, sometimes as an example of a fallen woman and sometimes as an exemplar of loyalty and devotion.

But the book does more than give varying interpretations of the story; it uses the story as a way to examine the culture surrounding it. Brewer includes a chapter on the 18C press, explaining how its openness and relatively amateur status meant that those in power could shape news stories as they saw fit (although those with competing versions of the story could do that too). He explains the late 18C culture of sensibility and how it fed into interpretations of the murder — this is a culture that valued emotional displays and loved to theorize about the political and social consequences of feeling. As he moves into the Victorian era, Brewer explains how writers took the murder as evidence of the decadence of late 18C life, compared, at least, to the moral uprightness of their own time.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the very end where Brewer backs up a bit to discuss theories of history and how his own story fits into them. He describes how, since the 1960s, the discipline of history has moved away from focusing solely on the public world of politics and economics and the big names — kings and presidents and prime ministers — and has moved toward telling the stories of everyday people. Writers of history also began to move away from using a detached and objective voice and wrote in a more subjective, personal, and engaged way. They began to look to new sources too — diaries and letters were sources of information, as well as the more traditional sources such as records of parliamentary debates.

Brewer explains how these changes in the discpline of history shaped his book:

The recent attempt to rethink the practice of historians, in other words, is a challenge not a threat. And it is in this spirit that I have written this book, partly as a certain kind of new history but also as an experiment, to see if it will work. I deliberately foreswore an approach that set out to recover the truth about events between 1775 and 1779, though I, as much as anyone, wonder about what lay behind the miasma of news, rumour, and information that circulated after Martha Ray’s death … I did not want to treat all subsequent accounts of the affair merely as sources of facts or evidence … I took what I considered a less invasive alternative. I tried to treat these accounts as stories or narratives with their own histories — not as databases of facts. The significance of each individual account — whether novel, anecdote, or essay — lay not in what it told us about James Hackman, Martha Ray, and the Earl of Sandwich, but in what it told us about the relationship between itself and the events of 1779, the connection between the past it was describing and its present.

If this book is an experiment in new forms of historical writing, I think it succeeds very well; he talks about history written from the bottom up, and this strikes me as a wonderful example — he gives us a picture of the late 18C century (and Victorian and 20C views of the late 18C) by focusing on one small story and following its development and implications. The story includes an aristocrat, but it’s a love story, not a political one — it’s a very personal story, and yet it tells us so much about the culture of the time. And the point is not so much what actually happened between Martha Ray and James Hackman — so much is unclear — but what the various versions of their story meant, what they reveal about the people telling the stories.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

More on books soon …

Your Score: Pure Nerd

86 % Nerd, 4% Geek, 26% Dork

For The Record:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.
A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.
A Dork is someone who has difficulty with common social expectations/interactions.

You scored better than half in Nerd, earning you the title of: Pure Nerd.

The times, they are a-changing. It used to be that being exceptionally smart led to being unpopular, which would ultimately lead to picking up all of the traits and tendences associated with the “dork.” No-longer. Being smart isn’t as socially crippling as it once was, and even more so as you get older: eventually being a Pure Nerd will likely be replaced with the following label: Purely Successful.



Thanks Imani!


Filed under Life