Sunday, August 28, 2022

Literary services

I've been assigned to escort a famous poet to a public reading in Princeton, New Jersey. We are to meet in Grand Central Station before transferring across town to catch a southbound train, but I've neglected to arrange an exact rendezvous with Famous Poet, whose number isn't in my phone. I wander about looking for him, but the terminal is an enormous bazaar covering acres and acres, and it's hopeless to try to locate one person in such an intricate and crowded space. Parts of the bulding have been torn down or have fallen into ruins; on the levelled ground earth-moving machines are preparing the foundation for new structures to come. I select a name from my list of contacts, a colleague who would be likely to have Famous Poet's number, but the person who answers is a stranger who knows nothing about it. I call my boss but he can't help; he is alarmed that we aren't already on the way.

Finally I spy Famous Poet near the ticket booth. He is distraught and tears of rage are streaming down his face. There's no question of continuing; the reading will have to be rescheduled.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (III)

It's been another unpredictable year in the squash patch. The acorn squash that I planted in the wake of last year's profusion of volunteers didn't come up at all, perhaps because the seed I saved just wasn't viable. It looks like I may have some Black Futsus coming (seed from Baker Creek), and I have some vines that are just starting to run but that I suspect may turn out to be butternuts. In general things are late, perhaps because the spring was a bit cool here and the summer has been hot and dry. I did get some nice gray zucchini before the vine borers wiped them out.
The big surprise (literally big) is this 15-lb. pumpkin, which I didn't consciously plant and which I suspect grew out of last fall's Jack O'Lantern. I've named it Rusty Staub, in homage to le grand orange.

Dominoes (Georges Perec)

Before the former child star Olivia Rorschach sets off on one of her frequent trips, she leaves instructions for her au pair, Jane Sutton, one sentence of which reads "Buy cooked Edam for Polonius and don’t forget to take him once a week to Monsieur Lefèvre for his domino lesson." Perec appends an explanatory footnote:
Polonius is the 43rd descendant of a pair of tame hamsters which Rémi Rorschach gave Olivia as a present shortly after he met her: the two of them had seen an animal-trainer at a Stuttgart music hall and were so impressed by the athletic exploits of the hamster Ludovic – disporting himself with equal ease on the rings, the bar, the trapeze, and the parallel bars – that they asked if they could buy him. The trainer, Lefèvre, refused, but sold them instead a pair – Gertrude and Sigismond – which he had trained to play dominoes. The tradition was maintained from generation to generation, with each set of parents spontaneously teaching their offspring to play. Unfortunately, the previous winter an epidemic had almost wiped out the little colony: the sole survivor, Polonius, could not play solo, and, worse, was condemned to waste away if he was prevented from indulging in his favourite pastime. Thus he had to be taken once a week to Meudon to his trainer, who, though now retired, continued to raise little circus animals for his own amusement.

Life A User's Manual (translation by David Bellos)

Monday, August 01, 2022

11 Rue Simon-Crubellier

When I first read this 1978 novel by Georges Perec in David Bellos's translation years ago I recall being entertained but also perhaps a bit underwhelmed. This summer I'm reading it in the original (with the translation on hand as a crib) as a way to keep up my French. In some ways it's ideal for the purpose. It's made up of fairly short, self-contained chapters that I can read at a relaxed pace of one or two a day, and it's not particularly slangy or conversational (street French not being something I'm up on). The grammar I can handle; the hard part is the vocabulary for material objects (clothes, home furnishings, tools) which Perec delights in ennumerating. (In fact the cataloguing of objects was part of his compositional method.) These are, as it turns out, the very things where my English vocabulary is weakest; thus when Perec refers to an aumônière, I am little wiser when I turn to Bellos and find that this is "a Dorothy bag." My eyes begin to glaze over when Perec, at his most maniacal, devotes several pages to the contents of a catalog from a hardware manufacturer. Fortunately, such extreme moments are rare.

For those unfamiliar with the book, La vie mode d'emploi captures a snapshot of the inhabitants and furnishings of a Paris apartment building at one instant in June 1975. In addition to describing them synchronically, he also moves back in time liberally in order to narrate the stories of the present and former denizens of the building. There's also a frame tale involving an expatriate Englishman named Bartlebooth who wanders the world for twenty years painting harbor scenes, which he sends home and has made into jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles and games fascinated Perec, and the writing of the novel was itself structured by the use of various constraints and procedures, such as a "knight's tour" in chess, in which the knight visits every space on the chessboard exactly once. But arguably the parts are more interesting than the whole.

Comparing the two versions raises new puzzles. Why, for instance, in the list of paintings created by a tenant named Franz Hutting, did Bellos translate
14 Maximilien, débarquant à Mexico, s'enfourne élégamment onze tortillas
14 Maximilian lands in Mexico and daintily scoffs four nelumbia and eleven tortillas
and for that matter what on earth are "nelumbia"? Why does
21 Le docteur Lajoie est radié de l'ordre des médecins pour avoir déclaré en public que William Randolph Hearst, sortant d'une projection de Citizen Kane, aurait monnayé l'assasinat d'Orson Welles
21 Dr LaJoie is struck off the medical register for having stated, in front of Ray Monk, Ken O'Leary, and others that, after seeing Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst had put a price on Orson Welles's head
with the parts in bold (my emphasis) being apparently gratuitous additions by the translator?

As it turns out, there is method to Bellos's changes. According to a table available here, each painting description in the original conceals the name of one of Perec's friends and associates. Thus "s'enfourne élégamment" hides (Paul) Fournel, which Bellos has reproduced with the mysterious "four nelumbia." Similarly, "Kane, aurait" reveals (Raymond) Queneau, prompting Bellos''s "Ray Monk, Ken O." (Harry Mathews, by the way, is tucked into "Joseph d'Arimathie ou Zarathoustra.")

These diabolical devices, of which there must be many examples throughout the novel, add to the book's fascination, but also provoke some frustration. What else, one wonders, is one overlooking as one reads innocently along?