Tag Archives: books

The pleasures of an unsolved mystery

In this World in Words podcast, we pry open (but not too wide) a mystery or two. Strange to listen to it now: we recorded it a month before David Bowie’s death.

PODCAST CONTENTS

0:10 Nina Porzucki and Pien Huang tell their mysterious day stories. Both involve monks living in the mountains.

3:02 Me on the pleasures of incomprehension. It’s all down to DH Lawrence and David Bowie.

5:49 Cartoon Queen Carol Hills on how her Twitter followers help her curate foreign-language cartoons. If you like cartoons and satire, you absolutely must follow Carol on Twitter.

7:10 At the of Carol’s obsession list right now is Japanese manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, who died on November 30.

9:05 Mizuki’s English translator Zack Davisson on how Mizuki saved Japan’s supernatural culture.

10:37 Mizuki’s influence in Japan is akin to Disney’s in the US. “If you removed him from the equation, you would actually have a different Japan.”

12:27 The many mysteries of the “Codex Seraphinianus” by Luigi Serafini, a encylopedia of a fantasy world, written in an imagined script. (Nina is working on an entire podcast episode on this!).

17:53 “China Online” by Veronique Michel demystifies (though not completely) Chinese wordplay and netspeak.

20:01 “Lingo: a Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe” by Gaston Dorren is a funny and opinionated whistle-stop around Europe’s languages, large and small.

21:55 “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness” by Jennifer Tseng, a novel about a librarian living on an island who harbors an infatuation for a high school student. I’m not letting on what happens, except to say there’s plenty of exploration of the mysteries of love and friendship. By the book’s end, though, mysteries they remain. Quite right too.

MUSIC HEARD IN THIS EPISODE

“Dramamine” by Podington Bear

“Blackstar” by David Bowie

“The Resolution of Mr Clouds” by Alexander Boyes

“Life on Mars?” David Bowie

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Remembrance of the Man who Translated Proust

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Photo: louveciennes/Flickr Creative Commons

Read this post from Nina Porzucki. Or listen to the podcast above.

It’s not often that a translator has a story as good as the author himself. But C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s was wild enough to seem like fiction.

Moncrieff was the first person to translate Marcel Proust’s seven-volume epic, “Remembrance of Things Past” into English. He was also a poet, a soldier during World War I and a spy in Mussolini’s Italy.

But Moncrieff’s own life was mostly hidden, according to his great great-niece Jean Findlay. She recently published the book “Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff: Soldier, Spy and Translator.”

“All I really knew about him is that he had translated Proust,” Findlay says. “His life story was really kept hidden from me. Nobody had investigated it very much — mainly because they were ashamed of the fact that he was a homosexual.”
Findlay’s own interest in her great great-uncle began after her mother handed Findlay a suitcase full of his poetry.

“He had a book of poems that he’d kept since adolescence, which were mainly written in pencil,” she says. “A lot of them were first dedicated to a girl, and then dedicated to a boy. A lot of them were erotic and a lot of them were poems which had multi-layers and hidden meanings, and I realized that this was a very complex and exciting person.”

Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff was born at the start of the 20th century. “He was a bit of genius: He learned French when three from a Belgian nanny, and then he was a brilliant translator of Latin and Greek at the age of 11,” Findlay says.

He was a voracious reader, going through the entire library at his boarding school. He also began writing and publishing his poems at age 16.

He started working as a translator after returning home from World War I, and even his first translations weren’t anything to scoff at. He translated “La Chanson de Roland,” or “The Song of Roland,” from medieval French, and then went on to translate Beowulf from Old English.

In 1922, he tackled “Swann’s Way” — the first volume of Proust’s epic, “Remembrance of Things Past.”

The translation proved to be a challenge, not the least because of the dense and complicated prose — one page could often be one whole sentence. But, according to Findlay, the manuscript itself was a mess as well.

“The version he was given was a very complicated version, because it had been published during the first World War, when there weren’t very many typesetters,” Findlay explains. “They mixed up a lot of the objects and subjects of the sentences. So very often it was a work on interpretation and guess work.”

Even Moncrieff’s translation of the title, “Remembrance of Things Past,” was also called into question. It’s a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

“He thought that that line from Shakespeare contained enough references to cover the ambiguities in the French [“À la recherche du temps perdu”], which is about in search of lost time and wasted time,” Findlay says.

Proust himselt didn’t like Moncrieff’s title: He wanted the translator to put a “To” at the beginning: “To Remembrance of Lost Time.”

“And then [Proust] said, ‘Well my English isn’t that good, so that might not be a good idea,’” Findlay says.

Moncrieff’s translation of Proust went on to be the authoritative version for many years. A new translation wasn’t even published until 2002. That attempt took seven translators and seven years to write. Moncrieff also took seven years to complete the work — in between spying for the British in Mussolini’s Italy as well as translating other authors, like Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Moncrieff’s version went on to influence authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. “In fact, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that she was reading Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, and it was so exciting it was almost like a sexual experience,” Findlay says.

She re-read her great great-uncle’s translation while she was working on his biography. “I think he’s better and better the more you read him,” she says.

“You can actually open Proust anywhere in the enormous novel and find something which is utterly poetic and meaning and will take you back into yourself,” Findlay says. “It’s a bit like meditation: It takes time apart. It can make one second an entire chapter.”


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The man who claimed to be a whaler, and other online dating adventures of Anya Ulinich

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr


Here’s a post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

Never has the art of finding love been more entwined with the art of writing. And the potentially life-changing issue of who you attract and how you attract them comes down to one key document: your profile.

Writing, dating and love are central themes in Anya Ulinich’s funny and raw new novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, which follows a Russian-American divorcee’s descent down the rabbit-hole of online dating.

Like her protagonist, Ulinich was also born in Russia, and also discovered online dating after her marriage ended. I caught up with Anya at her apartment in Brooklyn to discuss the art of profile writing and how being foreign-born can unexpectedly complicate things. Even when it comes to answering simple questions, like “what’s the first thing people notice about you?”

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

“If I say, ‘I speak with an accent,’” Ulinich explains, “then when we meet, I will get these boring, boring questions, like ‘Where are you from? How long have you lived in America? How do you like the USA?’ It’s a real non-starter. I just want to run away.”

But if she doesn’t mention she’s an immigrant?

“Then there is this shock when I meet someone,” says Ulinich. “Like they have to adjust to the way I talk. You can see them recalculating what they expected versus what they see in front of them — and that’s unpleasant too.”

In other words, if Ulinich doesn’t want to be cast in the unsexy role of all-immigrant, all the time, she has to be strategic with her reveals, navigating sure giveaways like the ubiquitous list of music preferences.

“My music preferences are just bizarre,” Ulinich tells me. “They’re just very, very strange. I listened to things that my grandmas loved from 1950s Soviet movies and I have a soft spot for really corny Soviet rock music from the 80s. I absolutely did not say the truth in that section. I just put down Radiohead and some things that I knew was OK to like in order to not just be outright rejected by men in New York.”

It’s depressing to think we must all circle the musical drain of Radiohead in order to find love. I mean, if everyone is out there lying about their adorable quirks then how will we ever get to know one another? According to Ulinich, it’s less about hiding things and more a matter of calibration. “I think you experiment in your profile with sort of the shades of truth. It’s not really lying — because I do love Radiohead — it’s just — it’s a mission. You omit the guilty pleasures, you omit things that make you seem too much of a foreigner.”

A page from Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

A page from Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

However being foreign-born not only colors how Ulinich is perceived, but how she judges potential suitors. Take the question: “Would you date someone who lives with their parents?”

“As an American, in my mind, what that implies is someone who’s, like, a total loser,” Anya admits. “But there are all these other scenarios. For example if you’re making a living here and then you bring in your parents from another country and you’re supporting them.”

Actually, Ulinich did go out on a date with a guy who lived with his mother — but for a different reason. As a writer, she cares a lot more about creativity than whether someone is a hottie. And this guy claimed to be … a “whaler,” as in harpoons and blubber.

“He was genuinely crazy. But I like crazy on paper. With crazy-on-paper it’s like this: sometimes you meet them and it’s 50-50. There’s a 50 percent chance that this person’s really funny and messing with the format. And 50 percent chance that they’re genuinely, like, an insane man. So you take those chances.”

Taking those chances turned actually finding a boyfriend into something of a whale-hunt itself. But Ulinich still had her deal-breakers: Anyone professing a love of fantasy novels was automatically out. I mention that I’m in the middle of Clash of Kings, and even though Ulinich wouldn’t date me, I’m not offended. Let’s face it, when you’re trying to squeeze the entirety of your human essence into one literary bullion cube: Every. Word. Counts. Even your username, which in Anya’s case was “Victory Day.”

Russians immediately recognize “Victory Day” as a reference to May 9th — the day the Nazis capitulated to the Russians during World War II. But Ulinich wasn’t trying to attract flag-waving patriots from the Motherland or anything — May 9th also happened to be the day Anya had her first kiss back in Russia, more of a personal Victory Day.

American guys had their own interpretations though. “I dated two guys who were still obsessed with their ex who was named Victoria,” Ulinich told me. “Or they would say it sounds like a porno-name.”

Then last November she received a message from a potential suitor which began, “if this were back in May, I would congratulate you with the Nazi capitulation.” And Ulinich thought, “Well that’s cool!”

It turned out the guy was an art-historian with an apartment full of books about Socialist Realism — think idealized paintings of tractors and people picking wheat — which Ulinich ranked just below fantasy novels. But by then, they’d taken their relationship offline, where there’s no limit to the length of your answers. Or the depth of your questions. They met the week Ulinich handed in the final draft of her novel — and they’re still together.


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“Dear Sir, I like words…” and other letters of note

Letter written in 1957 by Denis Cox to Australian scientists. Cox wanted Australia to join the space race. (Courtesy Shaun Usher/Letters of Note)

Letter written in 1957 by Denis Cox to Australian scientists. Cox wanted Australia to join the space race. (Courtesy Shaun Usher/Letters of Note)


Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki.

In 2009, Shaun Usher was working as a copywriter when he received an assignment from a stationery company. He was tasked with somehow making stationery interesting — a daunting feat in an era of email and Twitter and Facebook posts.

So, what did he do? He went to the library and dug through collections of old letters.

“I spent a few hours looking at these old, dusty books full of correspondence and was instantly hooked,” he says. So he decided to start a blog. “I couldn’t believe that a blog didn’t actually exist.”

The first letter that he posted on that blog was a rejection letter from Disney to a young lady who wanted to be an animator. Disney replied to her on beautiful Snow White letterhead stationery, says Usher, though the message itself wasn’t so beautiful.

“It basically said women don’t get animation jobs, instead you should apply in the tracing department where men aren’t employed,” says Usher. “It was a document of its time.”

Usher has since posted hundreds of letters from the famous and not-so-famous. Now, he’s publishing many of those letters in a book, Letters of Note, coming out in May.

The letters Usher has collected span the globe. And you find so much about history and culture between the lines of missives —whether it’s William Safire’s letter to the Nixon White House on what to do in the event of a moon disaster or author Mario Puzo’s letter to Marlon Brando begging him to play Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s version of The Godfather.

Here’s one penned by Mahatma Gandhi that never found its way to its intended recipient:

Shaun Usher is partial to the sad letters that he has collected. And quite a few of them are pretty sad. One letter featured in the book is between the Ciulla family from New Jersey and the Connell family from Lockerbie, Scotland.

In 1998, a bomb exploded on a PanAm flight destined for New York while it flew over Lockerbie. Frank Ciulla was onboard that flight and his body landed on the Connell’s farm in Lockerbie. Years later, the Connells hosted the Ciulla family when they came to visit where Frank’s body had been found in Scotland. The Connells then wrote a letter to the grieving Ciulla family to thank them for their visit.

“It really touches me because it’s such a difficult letter to write within such a tragic situation,” said Usher, “And I’ve been in touch with both families whilst producing this book and they’re both the loveliest families, brought together by such a hideous event. It really is a unique letter.”

Another tragic letter that Usher included is from sixteenth-century Korea. It’s a letter from a widow to her dead husband. “How could you pass away without me?” she writes to her husband. The letter was found in 1998, when archaeologists unearthed the tomb of Eung-Tae Lee, a thirty-something man who lived in the 1500s. The touching letter was found resting on his chest and caused a cultural stir in Korea. There are books, movies, plays, and even an opera based on the letter.

“It’s a unique way of looking back at history,” says Usher. “I find it a more interesting way than just reading a textbook.”

A rocket design included in the letter written by Denis Cox to Australian scientists.

A rocket design included in the letter written by Denis Cox to Australian scientists.


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