Monday, May 26, 2008

Three classics

As promised, random sampling from my winter reading binge:

1. Eugene Onegin

Tatyana falls for Eugene, who rebuffs her (gently).
Time passes.
Tatyana marries a prince.
Eugene falls for Tatyana, who rebuffs him (gently).

And Pushkin whips the whole affair into this wonderfully frothy souffle, which any Russian will tell you is one of the summits of Russian poetry. It certainly disproves the notion that all of Russian literature is dark, brooding, and gloomy. The Penguin Classic translation is by Charles Johnston. Having just re-read the chapter about Onegin translations in Douglas Hofstadter's "Le Ton beau de marot", I'm inclined to seek out some of the other versions as well.

2. Madame Bovary

Flaubert is da bomb!

Seriously, who knew? I suppose if I had done French, rather than German, in high school I would have discovered Madame Bovary before now. Better late than never. Obviously, I knew what Madame Bovary was about before reading it. But I had no idea how brilliantly Flaubert would suck me in to the story. He pulls no punches, just lets the story unfold to its horrifying, inexorable conclusion.

What I hadn't expected were his unerring eye for the details of the life of the bourgeoisie, which he lays out for us in unsparing detail. Or how he manages to make us care about Emma, and to sympathise with her, even as she makes one misguided choice after the next. The flair with which he executes the set pieces. And the power of some of the images - Emma cramming her mouth with arsenic, the final stream of black liquid (like vomit) that flows from her mouth, just after the innkeeper's remark about how peaceful she looks.

It's not hard to understand why this book caused such a scandal upon publication.

Way to go, Gustave!

3. Dante's Inferno

When I finally decided, earlier this year, to try to plug some of the holes that my 'classical education' had somehow left unfilled, "The Inferno" was high on my list. Since I don't know any Italian, choosing a decent translation was one of the first questions to be addressed. I spent an hour in Cody's comparing various options (there are a gazillion translations out there) - this was one of two that I ended up buying. Surprisingly (to me at any rate), roughly half of the available translations chose the low road of not even bothering to preserve Dante's famous terza rima metric scheme, with the excuse that only a 'literal translation' can convey the meaning adequately. Fie on your lazy asses, say I - it obviously can be done, even if you are too lamebrained to try. So I rejected the 'literal translations' out of hand, for the same reason that I would not choose a translation of 'Eugene Onegin' that didn't at least try to preserve Pushkin's meter, when it is obviously such an intrinsic aspect of the work. I can't vouch for the fidelity of Carson's translation, but I liked it a lot. (I liked the other translation I read as well, but that's part of a different review). He does well by the terza rima, while managing to achieve an overall natural flow of the language. At times it is highly colloquial, which might disturb the purists:

"Ratbreath, when he heard this, rolled his eyes,

and hissed 'Don't listen, it's a dirty trick,

so he can jump. He must think we're not wise.'

And he, whose AKA was Señor Slick,

replied: 'It's dirt indeed, to get my comrades

in the shit; in fact, it's rather sick.'

Now Harley Quinn, unlike the other blades,

was eager for some sport. "

Canto XXII, lines 107-114.

As for the work itself, I think you all know the story. I haven't read "Purgatorio" or "Paradiso" yet - it seems highly likely to me that the "Inferno" is the most fun of the three, if only because it's entertaining to see how he uses it as a vehicle for getting even with his enemies. But, if you've been putting it off for years because you're intimidated by its status as a "classic", don't be put off any longer. It's actually a lot of fun, and easy to read. Comparing translations is an auxiliary source of entertainment, for those (like myself) who enjoy that kind of thing


the plain people of Ireland said...

Here, what's this then? We thought this was a family blog. Nuala! Stop reading this filth, right now!!

gaelstat said...

If your delicate sensibilities have been mortally offended by the appearance of the s**t word in today's entry, I apologize. But don't blame me - take it up with Señor Dante, or his fine translator, Ciaran Carson.