Thursday, April 29, 2010

Daniil Kharms and other coincidences

Three completely random links. First of all, a wonderful story by my friend James Warner on Night Train. This story manages to be cynical and heartbreaking at the same time. I googled "Ichiwa Ango" and I think James invented the label. But somebody definitely should steal the idea and design all the pieces James is describing. I'm also convinced that "Ichiwa Ango" is a secret code, and playing around with, it's possible that one of the meanings of it is "a bunch of coincidences." Which kind of makes sense. But then I don't know how to use Japanese dictionaries. Or whether Japanese dictionaries are of any help here.

Second, an online magazine dedicated to studying the work of Raymond Carver, appropriately entitled The Raymond Carver Review. One day I'm definitely going to read pieces published in Issue #2, on Carver and Feminism. It looks exciting.

Third, a review of the work of two Russian-Jewish-American poets in The Tablet: Ilya Kaminsky and Matvei Yankelevich. The best part of the piece are quotes from Yankelevich's translations of Daniil Kharms, who's definitely one of my literary heroes. I mean, how could he not be?? I'm reposting the quotes here, enjoy!

It’s hard to say something about Pushkin to a person who doesn’t know anything about him. Pushkin is a great poet. Napoleon is not as great as Pushkin. Bismarck compared to Pushkin is a nobody. And the Alexanders, First, Second and Third, are just little kids compared to Pushkin. In fact, compared to Pushkin, all people are little kids, except Gogol. Compared to him, Pushkin is a little kid.

And so, instead of writing about Pushkin, I would rather write about Gogol.

Although, Gogol is so great that not a thing can be written about him, so I’ll write about Pushkin after all.

Yet, after Gogol, it’s a shame to have to write about Pushkin. But you can’t write anything about Gogol. So I’d rather not write anything about anyone.

And another piece:

There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.

He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.

He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing to speak of! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.

We’d better not talk about him any more.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jim Shepard on video

I've blogged about Jim Shepard's amazing lecture on how to read and edit fiction, and now folks from Sirenland posted his video presentation online.

I am seriously considering playing this video every morning as I am eating breakfast or something, because of how inspiring this is -- and also good advice.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


As writers, I feel, many of us are obsessed with finding more immediate ways to represent our characters' interiority. Not only what they are thinking, but also what they are feeling, what physical and emotional experiences they are going through at the moment of crisis. This interest in interiority of experience is certainly a matter of the style currently in vogue -- Suzanne Keen reports that "some commentators see the focus on represented consciousness in modern literature as a symptom of a crisis of privacy" (63). I will leave the underlying philosophical discussion alone for the moment being, and limit myself to practical matters. We're interested in representing consciousness -- how do we do it?

Keen uses Dorrit Cohn's book Transparent Minds for her discussion of this. I've already mentioned this before, and since this is a key point, I will inevitably come back to this in the future from another angle. For now, let me repeat again the three ways Cohn sees narrators employing (and this discussion applies to third-person narrators, both authorial or figural) to describe the interior world of their characters: 1) psycho-narration; 2) narrated monologue; 3) quoted monologue. I have already briefly discussed quoted monologue in a reference to Clarice Lispector's story "The Imitation of the Rose," so now I'll pause on psycho-narration. The thing about quoted monologue is that I don't really think it's very much in vogue at the moment -- reading stories for Narrative Magazine, I'm by far more likely to encounter a first-person story than a third-person story that uses quoted monologue.

Psycho-narration basically describes those instances when a narrator tells us what a character thinks or feels. A narrator can tell us what a character thinks of feels at any given moment or over a long period of time, in general; these thoughts and feelings can be acknowledged by the character on the conscious level or not, the narrator has access into the character's subconscious psyche. Keen also reminds us that psycho-narration is very effective at representing what a character has not thought or felt. The example she gives: "She forgot to call the allergist for the third day in a row" (60).

Psycho-narration preserves the narrator's voice, the narrator's access to the usage of metaphors and other figural language; it certainly preserves the tense of the narration and the third-person perspective.

Almost any story I read today uses some form of psycho-narration. Here's an example from the magazine I'm reading at the gym this week, "Black Clock," No.11, short story by Susan Straight called "Alfonso":

A rat ran across the phone wire above his head just when he stepped behind the dumpster at the back doorway of Los Tres Chochinitos. He ducked, but the rat leapt into the branches of the tree across the alley, and he could smell the rotting fruit on the ground. Nectarines. It was August. Damn -- the rat was leaving Los Tres for dessert.

I love this example, because it's got both, psycho-narration and quoted monologue. This phrase "he could smell the rotting fruit" is psycho-narration because it gives us access to Alfonso's sense of smell in the voice and tense of the narrator. And the last sentence of this passage, "Damn -- the rat was leaving Los Tres for dessert," is a very good example of quoted monologue -- the word "damn" indicates Alfonso's thinking in the first person, and the entire line is something that Alfonso might actually say. The part of the sentence after the dash is in the past tense -- so I think technically this is narrated monologue (I save the discussion of narrated monologue for next time), but the word "Damn" set off between a period and a dash -- this one word, I believe, qualifies as quoted monologue.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Blok's "You walk by, unsmiling"

The fun part about translating Chukovskaya is that she keeps referring to different poets and sometimes quotes entire poems in her text. I suppose, as a translator, I could site one of the previous translations for these poems -- most of them have been translated to English multiple times, but since I don't have any pressing deadlines on this project, why not have the fun and try my hand at it? Here's one. In Russian, this poem written by Aleksandr Blok in 1905 is referred to by the first line, "Ты проходишь без улыбки":

You walk by, unsmiling,
with lowered eyelashes,
and in the total darkness above the cathedral,
the cupolas are golden.

How your face resembles
vespertine Virgin Marys,
lowering their eyelashes,
vanishing in the darkness…

But next to you walks a curly-haired
gentle boy in a white hat,
you lead him by the hand,
you won’t let him stumble.

I stand back in the shadow of a portal,
where the piercing wind is blowing
into my strained eyes,
misty with tears.

I wish to burst out into the open
and shout: “Oh Holy Mother of God!
Why did you bring the Babe
to my dark city?”

But my tongue is incapable of scream.
you walk by. Behind you,
above your holy footprints,
the blue darkness presides.

And I look on, remembering
the lowered eyelashes,
the way your boy in his white hat
smiled at you.

Lydia Davis

In one of the blogs I read, saw a link to a 2008 interview with Lydia Davis in the Believer. The interviewer seems to be completely flabbergasted by the kinds of stories Davis writes and most of the questions seem to dance around the notions of genre and style. (The question whether Davis ever thought of her narrators as "autistic" sounds like it comes from a very frustrated reader.)

But I do love that Davis provides a reading list, among which only one or two are familiar to me: "Yes, I suppose I do find the category “story” to be more elastic. But of course part of the problem is that we have only a limited number of familiar categories and into one or another of these we try to fit the work of writers such as Edson, Kafka, Peter Altenberg, Robert Walser, Jim Heynen, Henri Michaux, Léon-Paul Fargue, Peter Cherches, Francis Ponge, Geoff Bouvier, Martha Ronk, Phyllis Koestenbaum, Diane Williams."

Monday, April 5, 2010

an excerpt from “Broken Glass Park”

Words Without Borders posted an interesting excerpt from a novel called "Broken Glass Park" by Alina Bronsky (a pseudonym, which looks kinda like "Vronsky" if you read the first "B" as it's read in the Cyrillic alphabet, "V"). The excerpt from the novel itself doesn't strike me as yet another homage to "Anna Karenina," but then I wouldn't be surprised if the larger text of the novel took that turn.

The website claims that Alina Bronsky is a very private person and that not much is known about her, except that she was born in 1978 in Yekatirenburg (Sverdlovsk at the time). Which makes her inherently interesting as a representative of the ever-growing tribe of Perestroika-formed writers abroad..

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A classic from Fyodor Tyutchev

Russia cannot be known by the mind
Nor measured by the common mile:
Her status is unique, without kind –
Russia can only be believed in.

(Translation by Alex Cigale)