If you cannot fashion your life as you would like, endeavour to do this at least, as much as you can: do not trivialize it through too much contact with the world, through too much activity and chatter.
Do not trivialize your life by parading it, running around displaying it in the daily stupidity of cliques and gatherings until it becomes like a tiresome guest.
– “As Much As You Can,” C.P. Cavafy: Selected Poems, translated by Avi Sharon, Penguin Classics, 2008.
There are many reasons I’m glad, and you probably should be too, that I don’t participate in nuclear negotiations with North Korea.
In what was apparently an attempt to drive home his country’s determination to develop nuclear weapons, no matter what the United States said, Mr. Kang once told American negotiators that he would quote from the novel “Gone With the Wind.” He said slowly in English, “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”
I would have been all like “Dude? Pretty sure that’s The Red Sea Sharks!”
And then it might have gone nuclear, because Kang Sok-ju “could turn prickly, bombastic and sarcastic, especially when he was tired,” according to his New York Times obituary. (Although, hey, I get that way too sometimes, so maybe we’d be alright.)
I’ve never read nor seen Gone with the Wind, and am probably OK with not ever getting to either. But boy, would my life be the poorer for not having read The Red Sea Sharks. If Frederick Forsyth had written a Tintin book, this would be it, and it’s where I learned the aforementioned proverb:
I was once offered a ticket to go see Jimmy Buffett. My reply: “Buddy, I don’t sing along about margaritas, I drink ’em.” Then I blew imaginary smoke off my bepistoled fingers. Yippee Ki Yay, my good fellow!
I’ve got somewhat of that attitude toward reading books about books, or books about writing.
However, at the urging of someone whose opinion I esteem, I read Pen of Iron by Robert Alter. It’s about the influence of the King James Bible on American writers, namely Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, and Hemingway.
It’s one of those books that makes me realize that, when I read, I grasp insufficiently what there is to be grasped. Given the amount of my life I’ve spent reading… well, it would sober a Parrothead.
(And you know what else? I’ve never read a lick of Faulkner. And I tried The Adventures of Augie March, and, uh, didn’t get it. But I have read books by the writer Hemingway and they were good books and he wrote them well.)
Now then. I wish to talk about Something They Say, and I’ve resigned myself to Their Wisdom: if you’re reading a translation, you’re reading a different book.
Here’s what Alter has to say about Moby-Dick:
What is robustly odd in the English is regularized in the French: “Hindoo” becomes l’indienne; “wide-slaughtering” is simply destructeur, and “unverdured” is interpretively translated and sadly flattened as infertile.
Alter’s unhappy verdict on translation:
What usually happens… is that a dutiful, more or less semantically faithful version of the original, employing a rather conventional set of stylistic procedures, erases a good deal of what is most compelling in the original text.
So if you haven’t yet read War and Peace, don’t sweat it. Go learn Russian first.