Tuesday 18 November 2014

Vegan Reading: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair
On the surface a novel about the starry-eyed migrants who came to the USA in the 19th century in search of a better life, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair has been highlighted as a text that inspired some readers to make the leap to a vegetarian lifestyle.

Published in 1904 by socialist-minded journalist Upton Sinclair, The Jungle follows Lithuanian migrant worker Jurgis Rudkus as he struggles to make a living in 19th century Chicago. The book’s central theme is the way in which those on the bottom rungs of the labour ladder are swallowed by the capitalist machine, drawing instant comparisons with Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists published a decade later.

But it is the brutal realism of the depictions of the Chicago meat industry that have left a profound effect on many readers. Rudkus initially works in the slaughterhouses of Packingtown, helping to operate the machinery that sends cattle en masse irrevocably to their end. The power of the descriptions of these mechanisms – themselves mirroring the callous progress of their capitalist creators – has turned more than a few stomachs over the years, and even turned some towards a complete lifestyle change.

Writing on the Barnes and Noble blog, Lauren Passell describes the impact of the book on her reading group, even a century after it was first published;

“When my book club read The Jungle a few months ago,” Passell writes, “membership dropped drastically. People said they couldn’t handle reading about the nastiness of the meat industry, even though the meat industry in question existed more than 100 years ago.”

Have any other books provoked such a drastic lifestyle change in you? Let me know!

Click here for information on good protein sources for vegetarian diets.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Cliché: Something to Avoid or to Attack?

Writers are told to avoid clichés at all costs, but is such an attitude really necessary? After all, words and phrases become clichés after they are used again and again, which means they must be possessed of some inherent good in the first place.

Of course no great literature ever came out of re-treading tired turns of phrase over and over ad infinitum, and so it is the duty of all writers to find new ways to express their ideas. And if those methods of expression are good enough they might just become the clichés of the future, if the author is lucky!

But this does not mean that writers should simply give up the ground lost to cliché. If something has become passé, it simply means that it requires a new construction. To shun something for being cliché is not good enough; it constitutes a simple adherence to a ‘writer’s rulebook’ – something which does not, and should not, exist.

The best writers have the skill and confidence to tackle clichés head on, without fear of their work becoming mired in what has been said before. These writers can twist a cliché into a new form, reconstructing it and making it their own. Do this and you will be victorious; run away from clichés out of fear and you will have suffered defeat.

Click here for more info on clichés in romance literature, and how to deal with them.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Translated Texts vs the Originals: When Language Becomes a Problem

Tim Mackintosh Smith, author and translator.
His work with the writing of Moroccan traveller
and writer Ibn Battutah has earned him deserved plaudits
Unless we happen to be some kind of superhuman polyglot, all of us are going to read a translated text at some point. Of the thirty highest ranked novels in The Guardian’s much lauded/argued over “Top 100” list, eight were written in a language other than English. Meanwhile, novels translated into English repeatedly bother the upper reaches of bestseller charts, proving that literature truly is a beast that transcends geolinguistic boundaries.

The work of novelists such as Norway’s Jo Nesbø and Sweden’s Stieg Larsson have proved phenomenally popular in Anglophonic countries, and the English translations of texts such as “Crime and Punishment”, “Madame Bovary” and “The Dangerous Liasons” continue to shift copies many generations after their original publication.

So, does it matter that the book we are reading is perhaps not the one envisaged by the author?

There are several schools of thought on this, the most popular being a pragmatic one: of course we should try to read works of literature in the language in which they were written, but we should also recognize that this will not always be possible.

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of birth of Albert Camus, an event that went almost unnoticed in the author’s homelands of France and Algeria, but caused the global blogosphere to explode into life. Between the tributes and the reminiscences on the author’s career, a discussion opened about the comparative merits of reading works like “The Outsider” (“L’Etranger”) or “The Plague” (“La Peste”) in English or in the original French.

Lexical cross-pollination is rife between English and French; both languages are peppered with words that have hopped the Channel and nestled snuggly in the dictionaries of their neighbours. As a result, the division between our two tongues is a fluid one: your average Marseillais would probably be able to order a beer in Birmingham, while a Geordie would be similarly at ease in the bars and taverns of Bordeaux.

However, getting to grips with a novel – with all its nuance, subtlety and hidden depth – is another matter entirely. Such a feat is likely to be beyond the linguistical abilities of most readers (myself included). As the discussion raged online, an unpleasant level of snobbery began to arise, belittling the experiences of people who had read Camus’ novels in English compared with those who tackled the books en Français.

Is this snobbery ever justified? I suppose it can be argued that the very action of translating a text involves straying into a dangerous area. By translating a text, particularly a text by an author who is no longer around to oversee it, we are transposing our own judgment onto the words of the original. In doing so, we run the risk of adding our own graduations and variations in content, style and tone.

Barthes’ famous “Author” did not suffer death just so another one could come along and project his or her own vision onto a text; we should remember that a text is very much alive and open to interpretation, and so all tinkering and translating must be done with the lightest of touches.

A light touch becomes even more necessary when we encounter words that are unique to a certain language. These so-called untranslatable words provide something of a quandary for a translator: should such words be translated as literally as possible – creating occasionally clunky and awkward sentences but preserving the original meaning – or should more weight be placed on retaining the author’s intentionally streamlined prose style.

Milan Kundera – after writing “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” in his native Czech tongue – oversaw its translation into French, adding an entire chapter devoted to explaining the Czech word litost, roughly meaning a psychological state of self-torment followed by a desire to equalize matters through physical revenge. Writer Dilshan Boange describes litost asa state of emotions that is rooted in the individual feeling himself to be a singular entity in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and a painfully evident helplessness.”    

Kundera’s litost is by no means the only example of a word whose meaning does not bridge the social-cultural boundaries of language. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Waldeinsamkeit” uses 12 stanzas to explore the depth and complexity of its title; a German word that is can be tentatively translated to English as a ‘solitary oneness with – or an abandonment of oneself to – nature’.

Another example – picked at random, but a concept that many empty-headed internet keyboard warriors would do well to employ – is the Catalan word Enraonar, meaning “to discuss in a civilised manner, using meticulous reasoning.”

These words, and the thousands of others that proliferate across the globe, serve as proof of the richness and diversity of the human consciousness. In a world where culture is in increasing danger of becoming homogenized and contained in order to fit with the lingua franca of accepted global thought, these words provide refreshing new perspectives, allowing people of all cultures to think outside the constraints imposed by their own language.

German academic, Thorsten Pattberg recognizes this. In a recent article for The Shanghai Daily, Dr Pattberg warns against Western media outlets “coercing their authors to hold back non-English words or eliminate them from their submissions” in an attempt to retain the purity and readability of their newspapers. Pattberg also calls for an end to “irresponsible translations of foreign key terminologies” and urges us to “work overtime to find the untranslatable words in each language”.

Dr Pattberg is correct; as lovers of literature we must welcome anything that broadens the scope of writing and reading. We must admit that language is, and forever will be, only a limited tool of expression, and so must embrace any methods that can decrease those limitations, both in an artistic and in an anthropological sense.

However, the fact remains that literary translation is a vital and invaluable endeavour. It democratizes literature, removes it from the preserve of the few and hands it to the many, while also facilitating the spread of ideas and debate around the world. Translation is as much an art as authorship; it requires patience, skill and an astounding amount of selflessness to produce a successful translation.

Many translations have been derided as failures, while others have been criticized as diluting the power and impact of the original. However, the work of translators such as Michael Glenny – whose adaptation of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” into English was particularly lauded – and Giovanni Pontiero, who was concerned primarily with translating Portuguese texts into English, introduced the British book-buying public to spell-binding editions of some of the cornerstones of our global literary heritage.

The key is to find a balance; to embrace the heterogeneous nature of language and literature while also promoting the lightness of touch and lack of egocentricity required to produce a truly masterful translation.

In the coming weeks I plan to have a crack at Alaa Al Aswany’s 2002 novel "Imārat Ya‘qūbiān". As my Arabic is not fully up to scratch (read: nonexistent) I will have to rely on Humphrey Davies’ translation. And still the world keeps on turning. 

Click here for more information on untranslatable words.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Happy Birthday Albert Camus!

Collar up, cigarette lit, hair neatly
slicked back: Camus is still ready to
roll at 100.
It was always unlikely that Albert Camus was going to live to see his 100th birthday. Had he not died on that roadside in northern France in the January of 1960, then it is likely that the endless stream of cigarettes he liked to be photographed with would have caught up with him in the end. And then there were all the rumours of Soviet agents plotting against his life.

No, Camus was a man who was always going to live fast and die young, but in his 46 brief years he managed to become one of the 20th century’s most striking philosophical and literary voices.

Born on November 7th 1913 in what was then French occupied Algeria, Camus never forgot his homeland. He penned lovingly crafted essays on the place – most notably “Summer in Algiers” and “Return to Tipasa” – and two of his best known pieces of philosophical fiction - “L’Etranger” and “La Peste” - are set in the North African territory.

It was these works that helped cement Camus’ reputation as a fascinating critic of the absurd.

While some philosophers despaired at the entropic uncertainty of the world, its apparently barren moral landscape and lack of overarching meaning, Camus reveled in it.  In “La Peste” he explored the human capacity for altruism and selflessness, even in the face of apparently overwhelming opposition, while “L’Etranger” saw Camus questioning the arbitrary social conventions that decide our validity as modern human beings.

Along with Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, published in 1942, these texts provide the clearest picture of the great man’s groundbreaking take on absurdism, and perhaps offer an insight into his acrimonious philosophical falling-out with friend and fellow thinker, Jean-Paul Sartre.

But enough about the philosophy, what about the trenchcoat? Yes, Camus was the poster-boy for philosophy in the late 20th century. His snappy dressing, intellectual Gallic drawl and ubiquitous cigarettes made his image a regular fixture on the bedroom walls of college students all over Europe and the US. He was the James Dean of existentialist thought, and probably appreciated the absurdist sentiments contained in Dean’s picture “A Rebel Without a Cause”.

To put it simply, Camus is cool as hell and not a man to let a little thing like being dead stand in the way of his status as a philosophical maverick. Happy birthday Albert, many happy returns!

Monday 28 October 2013

Gallacher Might Not Be a Fan of Literature, but Nick Cave Knows a Thing or Two About It

Last week I wrote a post on this blog about Noel Gallacher’s recent comments to Danny Wallace in GQ magazine. Over the course of the interview, Gallacher branded literature a “fucking waste of time”, before claiming that people who write and review fiction only do so to look down on others.

It was an odd rant, I’ll be honest. At times Noel Gallacher has shown himself to be a truly excellent lyricist, and for a proponent of one artform to pour scorn on those who practice another for no apparent reason seems baffling to me, not to mention a little mean.

But don’t worry, not all musicians have been so scathing about literature, some have embraced it as their own. Some have even done it well! Introducing, Nick Cave.

Born in Victoria, Australia in 1957, Nick Cave has become one of the most unanimously revered musicians on the global ‘alternative’ scene. His onstage persona as a wide-eyed, finger-jabbing deranged preacher of the Southern Gothic gospel have earned him as much affectionate parody as respect, but his undeniable sonic artistry has been enough to land him critical acclaim in spades, as well as legions of fans, and, I dare say, a fair amount of cash.

Anyone familiar with the dark poetry, the biblical obsessions and the murderous wit of Nick Cave’s lyrics will be aware that his lyrical fiction is already not too far removed from literary fiction. Disturbing vignettes are woven together with the intricate, detailed eye of a novelist, while the rich and complex characters he conjures are placed in environments to match.

Take Lottie, the sweet, green-eyed, 14-year-old narrator of “The Curse of Millhaven”, taken from Cave’s acclaimed 1996 record “Murder Ballads”. Lottie tells us about the series of horrific tragedies that have befallen her hometown of Millhaven, until the narrative tone suddenly becomes confessional.

Then the dark side of little Lottie’s character quickly makes itself known. “My eyes ain’t green and my hair ain’t yeller,” she tells us. “It’s more like the other way around.[...] The last thing that [Mrs Colgate] said before the cops pronounced her dead was 'my killer is Loretta and she lives across the street'".

It’s this kind of smart characterization and cunning way with a narratorial arc – evident throughout his extensive catalogue of work – that makes Cave’s music so rewarding to listeners.

It will, therefore, be of no surprise that Cave is an accomplished novelist. Published in 1989, Nick Cave’s first foray into the world of novel-writing was the sprawling southern epic “And the Ass Saw the Angel”, in which ideas raised by Cave’s lyrics were explored in more depth.

Writing like a sort of nightmarish Faulkner, Cave leads his reader through his own version of the great man’s Yoknapawtha County: an encapsulated microcosm of the American South upon which the author is able to unfold his tragedy. The novel reads like an extended play of Bad Seeds’ song "The Carny", a dark tale of a travelling circus stalked by death and disaster, which draws as much from Tod Browning’s "Freaks" as from Edgar Allen Poe’s Southern Gothic.

True to Cave’s esoteric song-writing style, he plays fast and loose with language in his prose too. In an effort to create a total – “perfect”, in his own words – isolation for central character Euchrod, Cave set about constructing his own vernacular for his protagonist, as explained in an interview with Bomb Magazine’s Lindzee Smith;

“I wanted to create an alien language. That was one of the reasons I made Euchrod a mute. He didn’t use language to communicate. Language was an abstract thing to him. Although he would not know these words, I wanted his way of speaking to be… difficult for the reader to understand.”

The result is a fascinating study of a man adrift in a frighteningly violent world, a study of the darkest machinations of the human psyche, and the roll that religious and societal constructs play in these machinations. At times, “And the Ass Saw the Angel” makes for tough reading, such is the density and luridity of its prose and subject matter, but the rich, visceral world that Cave builds for his marginalized characters makes the book a must-read for those who like their literary kicks that little bit darker.

Thursday 24 October 2013

“A Fucking Waste of Time”: Noel Gallacher Does Not Mince His Words When It Comes to Literary Fiction

Noel Gallacher, looking unimpressed. Presumably with a book.
Quite what Noel Gallacher thinks he is doing when he sits down to pen lyrics for High Flying Birds is beyond me, but, according to the man himself, it certainly ain’t writing fiction.

Speaking to GQ’s Danny Wallace, Gallacher described fiction as “a fucking waste of time”, and as a way for “people who write and read and review books [to] fucking put themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us”. This from a man who, in his day, could confidently count himself amongst the pantheon of great lyricists born out of the Manchester indie scene.

But Gallacher is obviously confused. Even as he sets about levelling his pot-shots at the world of literature he manages to betray his past as master song-crafter with some natty turns of phrase:

“You can substitute any word,” he says, discussing the esoteric nature of the titles read by Gallacher’s wife, something that has so obviously got the man’s goat.

“It's like a Rubik's Cube of shit titles - it'll be entitled 'The Incontinence Of Elephants'. And I'll say "What's that book about?" And she'll say, "Oh it's about a girl and this load of fucking nutters..." Right... so it's not about elephants, then? Why the fuck is it called 'The Incontinence Of Elephants'? Another one: 'The Tales Of The Clumsy Beekeeper'. What's that about? "Oh it's about the French Revolution."”

“A Rubik’s cube of shit titles”. The man is a genius, and I’m having that one for myself.

So am I going to set about exploding Noel Gallacher’s rather controversial theories about literary endeavours? Maybe I would have, but he does it himself later in the interview when Wallace asks him about his favourite film, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

“Well, you’ve presented me with a dilemma there,” he says, hopefully squirming in the plush leather wingback that they I imagine they provide for interviewees at GQ towers.

“I don’t want to have to invent the character Clint Eastwood plays, I just want to watch him.”

Fair enough.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Somerset Maugham’s China: The Painted Veil

Shanghai's French Concession in the '30s. A clash of West and East.
The regularity of my posts on this blog has been a little out of whack in recent months. I have an excuse, and it’s a fairly good one.

After 26 years of living in the British Isles, travelling around intermittently but always impelled back to the UK by that centrifugal force of home, I decided to up sticks and move away. A long way away, it turns out; to China.

But this blog is not about me, it is about literature, and so I will shut up about myself and get to the point. Finding myself in China with limited reading material, I decided to re-read a novel that had had a profound effect on me when I initially read it last year: "The Painted Veil" by W. Somerset Maugham.

Maugham’s novel, published in 1925, deals with the events and repercussions of socialite Kitty Fane’s affair with colonial administrator Charles Townsend. When Kitty’s husband – Walter, an eminent bacteriologist – discovers the affair, the acrimonious couple leave the comparative safety of the European enclave of Hong Kong for the Chinese interior, moving right into the heart of a cholera epidemic in the fictitious village of Mei-tan Fu.

On reading the novel back in England, I found that it posed some interesting questions about nationhood and race, two themes that I covered to an extent in an earlier post. Maugham paints a picture of Hong Kong at the tail end of the colonial era as a sort of transplanted European city, full of the sorts of functions, social activities and airs and graces that would not be out of place in Tolstoy’s imperial ballrooms, or Austen’s Netherfield Park.

However it becomes a sort of community in limbo, existing neither truly in China or in Europe, and is held together by arbitrary associations such as geographical origin and class. This is highlighted by an assumption at the heart of the book’s narrative; the assumption that Walter will never bring a scandal upon himself by confronting the socially superior Charles over the affair.

This anachronistic social naivety backfires on Charles and Kitty, when the relatively lowly Walter plays the hand that he is dealt. As Maugham was putting pen to paper, the Chinese Communist Party, recently formed by Li Dazhao and Chen Duxio in Shanghai, was entering into an uneasy alliance with the ruling Kuomintang party. The red flag was already flying high in parts of China following bloody strikes in Beijing and Hunan, and the stage was being set for the bitter struggle between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists.

Intentional or not, Maugham’s foreshadowing of the political tumult unfolding across China is one of the things that makes the work so compelling. Charles and Kitty make their moves in a feudal chess game of class-posturing and chivalric-maneuvering. It backfires and they fail. Karl Marx would have been proud. If only Walter had been a brickie.    

The awkward nature of Hong Kong in the 1920s is highlighted when the narrative shifts beyond the walls of the citadel to the beleaguered village of Mei-tan Fu on the Chinese mainland. Maugham paints Hong Kong’s decadent grandeur as archaic and inflexible, an anachronism in a world that is rapidly consigning its colonial past to history. However, once we slip outside these walls, the voice changes.

Here Maugham shows his readers a China in transition, displaying the effects of the political unease and turmoil that was gripping the country at that time, and would continue to do so for much of the 20th Century.

While Maugham put the finishing touches on “The Painted Veil”, Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China was gradually succumbing to the cancer that would kill him shortly before the book’s publication in the UK. Meanwhile, his successor – China’s future Generallissimo, Chiang Kai Shek – was waiting in the wings, preparing to remodel the Kuomintang around his own ideas.

Nationalist fervour was rising in China at that time, largely unbeknownst to the Western Emigres in the ivory tower of Hong Kong. The violent scenes depicted later in the book illustrate this, helping to contextualise the position of the Fanes as two people in isolation, adrift in a world that seems all too ready to reject or harm them.

However, the book is far more than mere period drama concerned with intrigue at court. The themes of isolation, of nationhood, of moral and political ideology, and of sacrificing oneself for ones beliefs still ring true today. I sat down to re-read "The Painted Veil" out of necessity; I finished it for different reasons.

Wherever you find yourself, however far you are from home, Maugham’s 1925 work is certainly worth delving into.