- Cézanne Portraits
National Portrait Gallery, London, until 11 February
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 25 March to 1 July
Look first at Woman with a Cafetière, who presides over the next to last room of the Cézanne Portraits show, staring down even the saturnine Ambroise Vollard. Then meet the gaze of Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, infinitely courageous in her alarming throne-room, oppressed – or is it enlivened? – by a glorious Vermeer curtain, a bucking dado, a chairback like a coffin lid, exploding fire tongs, white lightning in the grate, a painting – or is it a mirror? – perched on the chimney breast. It matters that both portraits are of women, and I shall come to that. But it matters just as much that still, more than a century after they were painted, these images so effortlessly keep their distance, resisting our understanding, refusing (as the philosophers say) to ‘come under a description’. In particular they strike me as putting the strange word ‘expression’ to death.
‘Woman with a Cafetière’ (c.1895)
The full text of this exhibition review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] National Portrait Gallery, 256 pp., £35, September 2017, 978 1 85514 547 4.
Vol. 40 No. 9 · 10 May 2018
Quite often the London Review publishes articles containing quotations in foreign languages with no translation, as for example in T.J. Clark’s piece on Cézanne’s portraits (LRB, 25 January). My last year at comprehensive school was 2010 and, like more than 90 per cent of my classmates, I do not speak any foreign language fluently. I doubt that the majority of your readers are fluent in French. What’s more, I would be surprised if, in an article about a Vietnamese artist, you would publish an untranslated quotation in Vietnamese. Or in Polish or Arabic (which must be more commonly spoken in London than French).
Does the LRB have a well-defined policy on this? In the 8 March issue Marina Warner’s article appears with French quotations usefully translated, and there is a poem by Galen Strawson entirely in French, which I found evocative in the same way I find, say, Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange to be evocative, though one of the feelings evoked is alienation since none of these languages is intelligible to me.
I concede that there is something alluring about the old attitude of expecting everyone to know French, and I do wish it was still reasonable. When I first started to read the LRB, the occasional untranslated quotation contributed to the impression of intellectualism (along with the austere layout, which should last for ever). It is part of the tradition of literariness in Britain. But it seems more and more to me a pointless tradition. The LRB should be progressive and inclusive, not disdainful of its readers. It should be challenging because it deals with complex concepts and is written to the limits of the language. In Amia Srinivasan’s piece on the ‘right to sex’, the word ‘unfuckability’ is used without scare quotes (LRB, 22 March). It is ‘unfuckability’ that is dangerous, highbrow and literary; untranslated French is just atavism.
Vol. 40 No. 10 · 24 May 2018
Conrad Teixeira has got the wrong end of the stick (Letters, 10 May). We are entering an era in which machine translation is already opening up a wide landscape of literature and language previously available only to specialists, or restricted to the biggest names in the canon. It takes only a small effort to type or paste the inexplicable into one app or another, and you can have Jibanananda Das as well as Tagore, Tanpinar as well as Pamuk, or an instant if occasionally surreal translation of any quotation in just about any language you like. All this is good (if not so good for the human profession of translation, but that’s a more difficult matter), and to say that untranslated French in a literary periodical is ‘just atavism’ is quite the reverse of the current position. Bring it on, and Vietnamese too.
Vol. 40 No. 13 · 5 July 2018
Like Conrad Teixeira, when I subscribed to the LRB last year I too noticed the untranslated French (Letters, 10 May). At first, I was amused by what seemed to me a holdover from a certain style of English erudition. But then I decided to take it as an invitation to learn French. I will never achieve fluency, or anything near it, even though according to Duolingo I’m 68 per cent of the way there. I’ve studied it for months now (I take the French lessons for Spanish speakers, to practise my extremely incomplete Spanish knowledge at the same time), and can just about make out the French news tweets that float by my timeline. In addition, Alice Spawls’s majestic essay on the Brontës (LRB, 16 November 2017) and a recommendation from, of all places, Gloria Steinem’s book of 1992 on self-esteem, Revolution from Within, encouraged me finally to read Jane Eyre, and I could follow little Adèle’s patter. Now, rather than skipping over the French-language passages I encounter, I at least attempt to engage with them.