Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Cooking with Pooh

As writers, the way we order each word is important. This thought came to mind on Tuesday after the screening of this week’s Channel 4 Dispatches. My husband’s friend, Robin Beste, pointed out that the name chosen by the filmmakers who approached the “cash-for-influence MPs” with their bogus lobbying company was called “Anderson Perry”. Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers and others were being given a clue that this was a stitch-up. Perry Anderson was, for many years, the editor of the New Left Review and remains a prominent philosopher and polemicist on the British Left. He probably finds it amusing that his fore- and surnames had been transposed for this sting.

Consider The Brothers Karamazov which has a very different connotation to The Karamazov Brothers. The former title carries gravitas, makes the reader think this is a classic Russian novel. Had it been given the same title with the two main words reversed, it could have been a circus act or the HBO sequel to The Sopranos. So the placing of each word is important. The poet Andrew Motion said, "Every time I peer into [the Oxford English Dictionary] . . . I think: All the words I'll ever need are here; the only thing I have to do is get them in the right order."

While we’re talking about word order, I thought you might like to know that there is a book with a picture of Winnie the Pooh on the cover that teaches children how to bake. It’s unfortunate, but hilarious, that its title is Cooking with Pooh and offers the promise of “Yummy Tummy Cookie Cutter Treats”. The recipes in this cookbook would only be “yummy” if it had a different title. The ex-Cabinet Ministers who were so willing to offer their services “for hire” were either so beef-witted or greedy that they couldn’t foresee the poo they would be in. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A Star Who Fell to Earth

The past few weeks I have been reading Julie Kavanagh's biography, Rudolf Nureyev. Today is an apt day for posting this blog as it would have been Rudi's 72nd birthday.

When I was a teenager, everyone else I knew had posters of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones on their walls. I had a dozen different posters of Rudik. He was a huge and charismatic presence and, even 17 years after his death, he still seems to be here among the living, one of those rare people you can't quite believe still does not walk (dance) this earth.

Born in 1938 on the Trans-Siberian Railway, he was constantly performing, choreographing, teaching. He had a huge intelligence, educating himself about everything from Byron's poetry to how to spot the best kilims. He worked endlessly, pushing his body to extend his repertoire and technique. From 1973 until his death in 1993, Kavanagh writes "Rudolf had been dancing with a permanent tear in his leg muscle; he had destroyed his Achilles tendon by years of landing badly; he had heel spurs; his bones were chipped so that even basic walking gave him pain." None of this stopped him from his passion of performing. One of the many ballets he left his stamp on was Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. If you want to see the final heartrending scene with Margot Fonteyn, watch this YouTube clip and weep. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Other Side of the Tapestry

Translations have always fascinated me and even more so when I read this quote by Miguel de Cervantes: ‘Translations are the other side of a tapestry.’ That set me thinking. You have the original writer writing in their own language. Then you have the translator writing in theirs and, in some cases, you have translations from translations, not to mention literal translations. Most early English translations of Turgenev were not from Russian, but from French!

One of the great Chekhov translators was Constance Garnett (1862 – 1946) who translated seventeen Chekhov works, seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol and four of Tolstoy. She worked so quickly that when she came across an awkward passage, she would leave it out. D H Lawrence remembered her ‘turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. The pile would be . . . almost up to her knees, and all magical.’

In 1994 Donald Rayfield compared Garnett's translations with the most recent scholarly versions of Chekhov’s stories: ‘While she makes elementary blunders, her care in unravelling difficult syntactical knots and her research on the right terms for Chekhov's many plants, birds and fish are impressive . . . Her English is not only nearly contemporaneous to Chekhov's, it is often comparable.’ In the 1998 anthology, The Essential Tales of Chekhov, the Constance Garnett translations were used by its editor, Richard Ford.

In the spirit of exploration I thought it might be interesting to look at the first sentence, and title, of one of Chekhov’s most famous stories. Here goes:

‘People were saying that someone new had appeared on the seafront: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Little Dog”, translator: Rosamund Bartlett

‘It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Dog”, translator: Constance Garnett

‘People said that there was a new arrival on the Promenade: a lady with a little dog.’ “The Lady with the Little Dog”, translator: Ronald Wilks

‘There was said to be a new arrival on the Esplanade: a lady with a dog.’ “A Lady with a Dog”, translator: Ronald Hingley

‘The appearance on the front of a new arrival - a lady with a lapdog - became the topic of general conversation.' “The Lady with the Lapdog”, translator: David Magarshack

On the basis of the story title and the opening sentence alone, which ‘other side of a tapestry’ would you choose as the most authentic ‘voice’ of Chekhov? Which has the most nuance and style? Having read all the various versions of this story, I know who my money would be on. 

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A Foreshadowing of Paris

Books are so important that some regimes have burned them. There have certainly been books which have marked me as permanently as a branding iron. The first I can remember was a biography of Anna Pavlova which made me want to become a dancer.

The next was one I had to read in school when I was thirteen, A Tale of Two Cities. It was with a chill I realised that the broken cask outside the Defarge’s wine shop was Dickens’ foreshadowing the blood that would flow during the French Revolution: “The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes.”

Another book which changed my life was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which, with 20/20 hindsight, encouraged me to think of writing as something I might do. It also made me determined to come to Europe as I wanted to see the Paris he had written about so poignantly. On my arrival in Europe I spent a month there, surviving on $5 a day. Four weeks in a bug-infested hotel on the Quai de la Tournelle whose only advantage was that I could see Notre Dame from my window. Walking from one end of Paris to the other, I could hardly believe that I was in the city of two of my literary heroes. Standing in the Place de la Concorde where the statue of Louis XV had been replaced by the Obelisk of Luxor, I saw not only the stone needle pointing to the sky, but something that had never physically existed: the knitting needles of pitiless Madame Defarge secretly stitching the names of victims who would one day lose their heads. Stay tuned . . .