Proust? Ha!

Michael Hofmann

It’s been some time since I felt much optimism about the prospects for foreign literature in English translation, but for the last three years or so, I’ve been in open despair. In the Eighties, there was still room for the kind of felicitous miscalculation that made the appearance of certain books in English possible – it seems to me these things were only ever done by mistake. The period we are now embarked on is quite possibly terminal. After it, we may expect a deluge – a deluge of nothing.

Houses with venerable names and cosmopolitan traditions seem quite unembarrassed about putting out catalogues that are wall-to-wall English-language originals. Chatto – home of Chekhov, Proust and Joseph Roth – recently went through three or four seasons without any translations at all. Obviously, publishing isn’t what it was, the bottom line has risen inexorably, there were all the huge and much-bruited takeovers and mergers and acquisitions, but there are reasons more profound – even – than the state of publishing to explain why the number of foreign titles to appear in Britain is so low. The principal factor is the size and spread of the English language, which offers readers a delusive self-sufficiency. Why bother with anything else – apart from a handful of 19th-century French and Russian novelists, the only things that have ever really caught on – when there is so much to be read in English? Increasingly, it’s only English that counts, not only in England and other English-speaking territories, but globally. Scores of English books get translated every year into every language under the sun – thereby wrecking the indigenous writers’ domestic market – while pitifully few come the other way. English remains both the most highly sought reward and the basic measure of a foreign book, but, more and more, it denies access to itself.

Effectively, then, English is running a colossal and intolerable surplus with the rest of the world. (The abusive term ‘dumping’ comes to mind.) It isn’t good for the rest of the world to be without its biggest potential readership and probably its only guarantee of posterity – but nor is it good for English. The loss of the most distinguished, characteristic and classic books from other languages will finally make itself felt, however richly English is able to compensate itself from its multitudinous sources. There is nothing like the strange bi-authorship of translation; the hapless, resourceful or wooden sense of words not deployed by a single hand according to instructions from a single mind; the demands on vocabulary, and, less predictably, on syntax, that made the reading, for example, of Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude such an enlarging experience. Translation upsets expectation, it extends the field of comparison, it forces even the sluggardly to re-evaluate and to re-contextualise. A period of good writing has to be a period of good and abundant translating also. The fact that we’re not presently living in the latter leads me to qualify the large claims currently being made for British poetry and fiction. It’s written in a world language, but how much of it is world literature? The low level of interest in translation prompts the question.

For a long time, translated works were offered as part of a bigger landscape: this is what Johnny Foreigner is doing, take it or leave it. That’s what shows in Frank O’Hara’s great poem of 1959, ‘The Day Lady Died’, when he buys himself a hamburger and a malted and ‘an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days’. Subsequently, foreign titles had something of the status of evidence, or alibi: an increasingly mendacious and half-hearted assertion that such things were still part of the general scene, were still being cultivated. There was the token translation, like the token poetry list, or the token volume of belles-lettres. You noted it and were supposed to say: ‘Look, it has come through.’ It was a zoo (not, alas, in the colloquial sense of the phrase), where you could see the Márquez, the Grass, the Kundera, the Mulisch, the great beasts, the kings of the jungle; again, as in a zoo, there was something stale and old-fashioned about it, the animals were getting on, they were grumpy and neglected, they kicked the bucket and weren’t replaced, there was little sign of any fresh blood. And now? The foreign novel is a novelty. It’s a chimera or a yeti or a unicorn. Over time, it has changed from being a cornerstone to a decorative pillar to a perplexing functionless stump. It’s produced and consumed in a bodiless way, as though it came out of some (English-language) test-tube: people don’t read Høeg out of an engagement with Denmark, or Gaarder to see what the writers in Norway are doing these days. There is something resolutely and manufacturedly singular about the books that are translated: one-offs like stumps and yetis and chemical clouds; pornographic or quasi-pornographic oddities. Foreign books are bought in as an occasional punt. The only publishers to continue to be committed to them being Carcanet and the inestimable Harvill Press. As easily expect discrimination and independent judgment from a row of skittles as from a cartel of international publishers. And so it is that there land in front of us – and less and less often, at that – such confections as A Book of Memories, wildly oversold (‘claiming and extending the legacy of Proust and Mann’, ‘one of the great novels of modern times’), fantastically turgid, an all but unreadable version of the versnobter bonkbuster it so unmistakably remains.

Had I not been reviewing it, there is no stage at which I would not have stopped reading A Book of Memories. I ached not to read it. I would have stopped happily after one page, after five pages, after a hundred and five, after seven hundred and five. My marginalia grew more and more virulently obscene, before finally drying up altogether as I lapsed into apathy. For four weeks I put myself through it; I’ve never felt such a sense of waste when finishing a book. And then, for another four weeks, I was unable to contemplate the idea of writing about it.

It’s hard to say what makes it so prodigiously unsatisfactory: length, long-windedness, evasiveness, over-structuring, mediocre expression, absence of humour, absence of voice, smugness and preachiness, the persistent withholding of such ordinary amenities as names and ages and settings and incidents, a dully and vauntingly cerebral book about bodies (how disgusted D.H. Lawrence would have been with it!), racking up more and more about less and less, semi-colons adrift in bloated and fussy prose. It is a book about sexual disloyalty or sexual distraction, written without heart and, barring two short scenes that are like a dentist’s dream of pornography (‘can swab and scrub the tight yet slippery cave of the vagina’), without sex, as portentousness and delay and sheer dropsy get in ahead of lubriciousness. And yet the book turns on sex, and is about sex: the narrator’s homosexual relationship with an East German poet, Melchior, against the background of female interest in them from the actress Thea; flashbacks to his adolescence in Hungary, on the periphery of a group of girls and a group of boys, and a mother and father both interested in other partners; the corrupt Fin-de-Siècle narrative he is writing, about a similarly placed bisexual hero Thoenissen; the hackneyed device of a framing epilogue by Krisztián, one of the Hungarian boys, since grown up to be another (completely indistinguishable) self-regarding sex maniac; the scriptural epigraph about ‘the temple of the body’. A Book of Memories would like nothing better than to be shockingly truthful, gaily polymorphous-perverse, but it’s tedious and repressed. The Priest of Love would have loathed it for its timid omni-sexuality, its do-nothing mindfuckery: ‘The reason for this, he went on, may have to do with the fact that the first thing every living thing takes into its mouth is its mother’s milk-filled breast; and that’s why we want our father’s red-veined cock in our mouth, too.’

Nádas’s calamitous formal innovation is the first-person omniscient narrator who is also largely his own subject. It is impossible to convey just how deadly this speaker and vantage-point are, how his orotundity anaesthetises the reader and annihilates and makes incredible whatever it touches on. His particular foible is to begin relating something, switch to something else, go back to the first thing, then the second again, and in such a mechanical and impersonal way that the reader, feeling the contempt with which Nádas treats both subjects, his strategy, himself and his audience, is reduced to helpless fury in short order: Stalin’s death and a landscape; adultery and a scene from childhood; and most contemptuously, the 1953 riots in Berlin and the 1956 uprising in Budapest. For hundreds of pages nothing very much happens, then there is a sudden flash of action, scandal or guignol: ‘especially since I who, let’s not mince words, was the son of a murderer, a common ravisher’ or ‘When years later I came across the little teddy bear, I looked at it; it hurt too much; I threw it away.’ This works to the mutual disadvantage of both sorts of writing: the quick, lurid inserts are incredible, and the surrounding descriptions inflict unnecessary suffering on the reader. The book is a bastard of romantic schlock and watered-down Modernism. To describe this as ‘claiming and extending the legacy of Proust and Mann’ is quite breathtaking. Yes, Nádas’s sentences are long and relatively abstract, but they have none of Proust’s openended inquisitiveness or the purpose and design of Mann. They are without risk, without discovery, without grandeur. Far from resembling or – ha! – outdoing Proust and Mann, this is utterly epigonal writing, a third-generation Zweitaufguss for middlebrows.

A Book of Memories must have been grindingly unpleasant to translate – I couldn’t face getting hold of the German version at least to compare translations – but Sanders and Goldstein haven’t done badly, though they haven’t been above such things as ‘back on track’ or ‘total eating pleasure’ or the description of a flaccid penis ‘lying on my thigh with infantine disinterest’. The impression they give – faithfully, I assume – is of a book that is nowhere as good as it believes itself to be, with its moronic pseudo-epigrams (‘the most elemental need in a crowd is to close ranks’) and bungled crescendos: ‘I believed my life was so miserably hopeless, so over, so terminated and therefore certainly terminable.’

A feature of the writing throughout is a certain flagellated quality: ‘We talked, as I say, though it would be more correct to say that we told each other stories, and even that would not be an accurate description of the feverish urging to relate and the eager curiosity to listen to each other’s words.’ It is an automatic upping, a tyranny of enhancement. Things that might be perfectly commonplace are garnished with meaningless mark-ups for a kind of faux intensity: ‘an unusual and for me perfectly typical relationship’; ‘studied coyness, no doubt, but not the usual kind’; ‘lighting up, for us, was not simply the act of common puffing on a common cigarette but the very essence of smoking pleasure’; ‘she had one of those female voices that have a very strong effect on me.’ The poverty and inadequacy of this writing are self-evident: it’s an overblown bubble, vibrato on an air-violin, going 700 pages with an auctioneer. Nádas has a gift for making nothing matter. He gives us the long-winded épateur, the over-psychologised psychological moment, the phantom sexual voracity, the political and mythological tie-ins, the closet worldliness, the logomachic belly-flop, but there is nothing there between his mirrors. In Sylvia Plath’s phrase from ‘Death & Co.’ he is ‘masturbating a glitter’.

None of this would matter much if it were against a background of engagement with other languages and literatures, of a cornucopia of translation, of a continuing search for interesting and worthwhile books. It’s the fact that there is no such background, and that this book isn’t merely bad but rotten while being called not merely good but great, that makes it worth writing about. It deforms a void.