Williams, Davis (translating Proust), Clare, and Murakami

Gordon Williams’ From Scenes Like These was shortlisted for the first Booker prize. What’s more, he wrote the book (The Man Who Had Power Over Women) from which Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was adapted.* DJ Taylor finds out what Williams has been up to since his virtual disappearance twenty years ago. Among other things, the author reveals that he has a new book, Deadline for a Ghost, practically completed.

Lydia Davis has translated Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s Lost Time, into English. The translation is “the first entirely new version in 80 years.” Paul LaFarge argues that Davis’ translation is more accurate than the last:

[C.K. Scott] Moncrieff’s translation [the last before Davis’] was published in 1922, and in England; linguistic practices have always been different in America, and everyone’s way of speaking has changed in the last 80 years. Still, it’s impossible not to conclude that Moncrieff’s is the more poetic of the two English versions. Where Davis is happy with the bottom-shelf taking part he reaches for the premium intervene upon; his almost we have created it profits from a poetic rearrangement of English syntax; he gives the resonant there below where Davis goes for the concrete downstairs. Moncrieff’s English sounds more the way one imagines Proust ought to sound: big, breathy, an asthmatic wheezing for the ages. But in fact Davis is closer, much closer, to Proust’s French.

Yesterday Jessa Crispin of Bookslut linked to Christopher Caldwell’s Slate piece about poet John Clare and Jonathan Bate’s new biography of him. The poet was an impoverished day laborer who at the height of his career was considered nearly the literary equal of John Keats but died in a mental institution.

Clare did not have the financial wherewithal to dedicate his life to writing, and his literary endeavors alienated him from others in his village community. According to Caldwell:

Clare’s chances of eking out a living with day labor were eroded by his literary commitments. Straddling social classes proved even more stressful than juggling jobs. Clare’s four visits to London—where he met Charles Lamb, Samuel Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey—did not win him entrée into the nation’s literary set, but they were sufficient to alienate him thoroughly from most of his fellow villagers. (“I live here among the ignorant like a lost man,” he wrote. “They hardly dare talk in my company.”)

John Lanchester’s excellent article about the poet and the new biography appears in the current issue of The New Yorker. Lanchester talks about the poet’s difficulty securing even the most basic writing implements:

The great curse of Clare’s life was poverty. He is the poorest major writer in the canon of English literature, so poor that he was often unable to afford paper. These struggles are reflected in some of his manuscripts: he made his own paper, if it can be called that, by scraping layers of birch bark, and his own ink by “a mix of bruised nut galls, green copper, and stone blue soaked in a pint and a half of rain-water”—and he was doing this after the supposed breakthrough success of his first book, “Poems, Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery,” in 1820. Some of his manuscripts are made from letter covers stitched together; one of his best nature poems is written on the back of a handbill for a local election in which Clare could not vote, because the poor were excluded from the franchise.

The poet’s work apparently distinguished itself from that of the other Romantics by being less rhapsodic and more descriptive:

Clare resisted turning nature into metaphor, or into a mask of the transcendent, and he was at his best saying something that the other Romantics never wanted to say: it is what it is. There are surges of emotion in his nature poetry—as Bate points out, one of his favorite phrases is “I love”—but their movement is consistently away from fantasy, back to the thing itself.

Clare ultimately was committed to various mental institutions. He spent his last eighteen years in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. This reply to a fan, according to Lanchester, is one of the last things he ever wrote:

March 8th 1860
Dear Sir
I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who you are you must excuse me for I have nothing to commu[n]icate or tell of & why I am shutup I dont know I have nothing to say so I conclude
yours respectfully
John Clare

Our Girl in Chicago heralds the posthumous reissue of two of Lady Caroline Blackwood’s novels. She quotes Gary Indiana on the writer’s career: “The prose inventions of Caroline Blackwood have the beguiling and ominous quality of fireside tales told at a very louche and drunken summer camp for morticians.”

“She waited on tables as usual that day, her twentieth birthday.” This is the first sentence of Haruki Murakami’s “Birthday Girl,” a short story that appeared in the July 2003 issue of Harper’s Magazine. (Via Cup of Chicha.)

* I’ve been looking for an opportunity to link to Dana Knowles’ elegant defense of the Peckinpah film, which has always resonated with me. Mr. Maud loathes it–the movie, not the Knowles piece.


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