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Vol. 30 No. 12 · 19 June 2008

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Up from the Cellar

There is a closer link between Josef Fritzl and Kurt Janisch, the protagonist of Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Greed, than Nicholas Spice could have known (LRB, 5 June). As we established in researching our book Elfriede Jelinek: Ein Porträt, Jelinek based her novel on a real criminal case from the 1980s that is so far unsolved. In the Salzkammergut, a young woman called Martina Posch disappeared on her way to work. Her body was later found in a lake. Investigations ran into the sand. The only certainty was that the perpetrator had a good knowledge of the locality. Now there is a new trail: near where the body was found, Josef Fritzl ran a holiday apartment and he was often in the area on that account. Also, according to the police, Martina Posch and Elisabeth Fritzl looked strikingly alike. The police will now reopen the case.

Verena Mayer and Roland Koberg

Over the years, we have translated and published five of Elfriede Jelinek’s novels, which, since the Nobel Prize, have found a large readership – 100,000 copies of The Piano Teacher alone.

Nicholas Spice has obviously read Jelinek in German and his opinion of the translation of Gier, which we published under the title Greed, is scathing. When Martin Chalmers’s translation of the novel came out in 2006 it was praised even by those reviewers who ‘had issues’ with the book. Chalmers has translated many contemporary German and Austrian authors, including Hubert Fichte and Alexander Kluge, and in 2004 he was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for his translation of The Lesser Evil: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer. As Spice himself notes, Gier ‘poses almost insuperable obstacles to good translation’ but this does not hold him back from claiming that Chalmers’s translation is so bad that ‘it would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.’ For sure, Jelinek’s quest to match form to the misogynist content makes for a difficult read but the difficulty is already there in the German original. Rather than allow Spice to suggest that a book were best left untranslated, the editors of the LRB should pay more attention to reviewing fiction in translation. Over the years this has been virtually non-existent, reflecting the parochialism of the culture that Spice seems to think he is not part of – because he reads German? It’s not that easy to free oneself from the contempt of the English intellectual élite.

Pete Ayrton
Serpent’s Tail, London EC1

As Nicholas Spice observes, Elfriede Jelinek has been ‘intensely preoccupied with male sexual violence against women’. But what’s even more striking about her work – and what the feminists who celebrate it have had to sidestep – is its disconcerting indictment of the victims for their complicity. Locked in the cellar of patriarchy, Jelinek’s women seek humiliation, not love, from men – who are only too happy to oblige. It’s probably not a coincidence that the heroine in The Piano Teacher has the same surname as the Viennese psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, a specialist on sadomasochism.

Sven Anderson

Blame Namier

Salah el Serafy is wrong to suggest that A.J.P. Taylor was cheated of the Regius chair in modern history at Oxford because – unlike his rival Hugh Trevor-Roper – he had been ‘ a wise and eloquent critic’ of the Israeli and British invasion of Egypt (Letters, 5 June). Adam Sisman, in his biography A.J.P. Taylor (1994), and Trevor-Roper in Letters from Oxford (2006), which I edited, show that many influences achieved this result: the disavowal of Taylor by his mentor Sir Lewis Namier, who advised Downing Street on the appointment, was chief of these – the fall-out from Suez was nugatory. Trevor-Roper was loud in his denunciations, in both Oxford and London, of the Eden government and despised its constituency supporters as fascistic. He thought that an Israeli attack on Egypt had been inevitable, that the overthrow of Nasser was desirable and that Russian designs in the Arab states were a menace; but he made no secret of his contempt for the ineptitude, weak nerves and bad faith of the Eden government, and was proud of Edward Boyle, his former pupil, for resigning from the government in protest at the Suez policy.

Richard Davenport-Hines
London W14

No Shangri-La

When I was a young student in socialist Yugoslavia, criticism of the regime was dismissed by those in power as ‘Western propaganda’. It was always enough to say threateningly: ‘We know whom such reasoning serves.’ To my surprise, the critics of my letter on Tibet and China rely on the same manoeuvre: my statements are dismissed with the claim that they repeat Chinese propaganda (Letters, 5 June). But I base my claim that Tibet before 1949 was an oppressive and corrupted feudal society on by far the best and most extensive study of the Tibetan legal system, Rebecca Redwood French’s The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet (1995), which has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese propaganda.

If it were the custom to dedicate letters, I would dedicate mine to the Tibetan exile settlements in Mundgod and Bylakuppe in southern India. All the media attention is on upper-class Dharamsala: nobody – the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere included – talks about the destitute thousands in these two larger camps.

Slavoj Žižek

Loving Obama

‘It’s impossible to know what it would be like to bathe in the warm glow of Barack Obama’s rhetoric at first hand,’ but ‘endless cut-away shots of swooning audience members make it easy to guess’: thus David Runciman (LRB, 5 June). There is one way to engage with what Obama says at first hand: one can read his speeches, without music and without the distraction of an audience. The most striking feature of many of them is how unrhetorical they are. His most famous speech, the one he gave in Philadelphia in March about race and religion in the US, contained few flourishes. The camera didn’t pan to the audience once. In fact there was, unusually, almost no applause for the first fifteen minutes and thereafter none of the usual hooting and clapping after every other sentence. A more measured speech delivered by a politician, and a more measured reaction, it would be hard to recall.

‘Anyone who knows how to read the census data (and that includes some of the smart, tech-savvy types around Obama),’ Runciman writes, ‘has had a good idea of how this was going to play from the outset. All the rest is noise.’ Really? I don’t believe anyone could have guessed that it was going to turn out as it has, and I wouldn’t believe anyone who said they had. Runciman says that opinion polls exist to prod the cattle-like electorate in the direction the pollsters and those who have hired them want. The most famous practitioner of demographically determined and poll-driven politics was Bill Clinton. As Michael Kinsley has pointed out, the whole problem with the Clintons is that they can’t move without first taking a poll to see which direction they should follow. Does anyone think Clinton II would have been so different from Clinton I? Judging from her campaign, zip-code politics is as much Hillary’s way of doing things as Bill’s. How condescending is it to suggest that if only Obama were more earthy, less elevated, less educated, less good-looking, less clever, more of the black American man with years of experience in the hard grind of US politics, he would be more believable?

Inigo Thomas
London NW1

Pace David Runciman, Iowa is not smaller than New Hampshire: Iowa has 2.9 million people, New Hampshire 1.2 million.

Laura Mansnerus

To Chto Bylo On

There is one clarification I would like to make after reading Michael Wood’s detailed and attentive review of our translation of War and Peace (LRB, 22 May). Wood mentions my disagreement with Anthony Briggs over the use of contemporary idiomatic English in translation, and to illustrate what he sees as the occasional problems of our more literal approach, cites the example of the old Prince Bolkonsky’s death scene. Our version reads: ‘In the presence of Tikhon and the doctor, the women washed what had been he [‘to chto bylo on’], bound his head with a handkerchief’ and so on. Wood finds the phrase ‘what had been he’ clunky and prefers Briggs’s ‘what was left of him’, finding it more natural. Tolstoy could have written ‘to chto ostalos ot nego’ (‘what was left of him’), which is also more natural in Russian, but instead chose to use the extremely forced and unidiomatic phrase ‘to chto bylo on’. Is this a matter of Tolstoy’s own clumsiness, which a translator would do well to correct? Not at all. Death is the central theme of Tolstoy’s work; he struggled all his life with the mystery of the moment when what had been here is no longer here. The women wash ‘what had been he’ but, as Tolstoy’s wording implies, was no longer he. The mystery of his departure is the point, not ‘what was left’.

No doubt many readers will say they prefer the more idiomatic phrase anyway because it ‘reads better’ in English. That is the dilemma every translator faces. We chose to keep the strangeness where the original is strange.

Richard Pevear

Avant Po-Mo

The ventriloquists Peter Brough and Edgar Bergen had more in common than top-rating radio shows: in performance each could clearly be seen moving his lips (Letters, 8 May). Small wonder that they enjoyed their greatest success in a medium where voice characterisation was more valued than visual verisimilitude. Brough’s lip technique was notoriously bad. On one occasion when he mentioned that he would be performing at a particular venue, he was told: ‘You’ll do well there. The lighting is terrible.’

Garth Clarke

Forget It

August Kleinzahler rightly stresses the influence of Louis Zukofsky on the work of Basil Bunting (LRB, 22 May). It is difficult to think of any other British poet influenced by Zukofsky, except possibly Ian Hamilton Finlay, who introduced him to a British public with his publication of 16 Once Published in 1962, and maybe also Charles Tomlinson. The London poetry magazine Agenda published a special issue on Zukofsky’s work in 1964, and I remember the poet Peter Dale (who had worked on that issue) telling me some years ago that Zukofsky and his wife, Celia, regularly visited the editor, William Cookson, at his flat in Battersea to oversee publication. After countless visits necessitated by the mistakes made by the magazine’s Polish printers, Celia told Dale that she heard her husband use the F-word for the first and last time in her presence. ‘Oh, fucking forget it,’ he told Cookson, and returned to New York, hoping that, despite the difficulties, his customary precision and clarity, as Kleinzahler describes it, might still shine through in the issue.

W.S. Milne
Esher, Surrey

The Divisions of Cyprus

David Hannay takes Perry Anderson to task for dismissing Günther Verheugen as a ‘German Widmerpool’ when ‘he pulled off the most significant and transformational enlargement in the European Union’s history’ (Letters, 22 May). Yet even readers of the first volume of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time know that Widmerpool – to judge from his handling of the squabbling Nordics at La Grenadière – is indeed a diplomatic wonder.

DeAnn DeLuna
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

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