Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hunting Season: Andrea Camilleri goes home

Even more than his Inspector Montalbano mysteries, Andrea Camilleri's Hunting Season is rooted in Sicily's soil.

The novel's central figure is a pharmacist, and the story takes place in a time (the 1880s) when that meant combing the forest for medicinal plants rather than combing insurance law for the license to dispense generic equivalents.

Nobles and those who work the land co-exist in this Sicily, and Camilleri has a touching eye for the strengths and absurdities of all.  The story is rooted in family secrets, and it's a lot bawdier than most mysteries.  Montalbano fans will be delighted to find that  not only does Camilleri set the novel in Montalbano's home town of Vigàta, but he even has a character curse the saints, as the splenetic Montalbano loves to do when he gets especially worked up.

The book comes with the kind of end notes from translator Stephen Sartarelli that are such informative additions to the Montalbano books, and with some remarks from Camilleri himself. I won't say more for fear of introducing spoilers, but suffice it to say that Camilleri loves his native island and its people, with all the weird, dark things they do.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mahābhārata, Part I: The big ... everything

Photos by your humble blogkeeper
The Mahābhārata consists of 100,000 verses plus long passages of prose and, by one account, 1,660,020,000 people die in it. Complete translations, near as such a thing is possible, fill 18 or 19 volumes.

My favorite character so far (Dhritarāshtra, a king in one of the two family factions in the war that forms the work's core), starts to complain, and, this being the Mahābhārata, he goes on complaining for 60 verses, each ending with: O Sanjaya I had no hope of success. The song is a kind of reverse "Dayenu," and the rhythm induced by the repetition is beguiling. Complaints are a marvelous way to tell a story, invested each reported fact or incident with urgency.

Indian have always loved big numbers, so no surprise in any of this. (They also loved grammar [they were thousands of years ahead of the West in the study of linguistics], and ancient Indian art and literature have more sex in them than any other ancient literature and art I know.) 

What is the biggest number you know of in literature or science? (If it ends in -illion, it has so be a real number. No bajillions allowed.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sen and sensibility: Detectives Beyond Borders schmoozes three Nobel Prize winners

The number of Nobel laureates with whom I have exchanged pleasant words grew to three this week when I attended a lecture by Amartya Sen, who won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1998 for his work on poverty, famine, and welfare economics.

"You can't have a humane society without considerations beyond your own interests," Sen told his audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and if that's a surprise from an economist, consider Wikipedia's summation of the economics classic with which Sen began his lecture. That book's author
"critically examines the moral thinking of his time, and suggests that conscience arises from social relationships. His goal in writing the work was to explain the source of mankind's ability to form moral judgements, in spite of man's natural inclinations towards self-interest. [He] proposes a theory of sympathy, in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and the morality of their own behavior."
If you know as little as I do about the literature of economics, you may be surprised to learn that the economist in question is Adam Smith — you know, the invisible-hand, self-interest guy (The book is The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the Penguin Classics edition of which comes with an introduction by Sen.)

I won't bore you with statistics and numbers, because Sen didn't bore me with them. Rather, he made the simple case that social factors, ethics, and indices of social well-being and misery all have a place at the economist's table, and he did so without turning preachy or dogmatic. In short, he's the kind of professor who might have made me an economics major had we crossed paths when I was in college.

Sen moves beyond the traditional purview of economics when he talks and writes about India, where he was born in 1933. His essays in The Argumentative Indian make the case that dissent, heterodoxy, and respect for opposing viewpoints have been integral to Indian culture at least from the time of Arjuna's debate with Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and constitute a touchstone of India's present and its future. And that constitutes his rebuttal to the chauvinist, nationalist Hindutva movement in Indian politics, whose apparently organized campaign on Amazon has done so much to generate interest in Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History.

"Oh, yes! They have attacked me!" Sen said as he signed my copy of The Argumentative Indian.

"Be proud of your one-star reviews!" I replied. If the line of autograph-seekers behind me had not stretched a fair way down a hallway, we'd have high-fived.

 (My previous most personal contact with a Nobel winner came in 1986, when I sipped coffee with Dario Fo, the Italian actor/playwright, who ordered decaf because he needed sleep. He regarded his envelope of Sanka with suspicion before tearing, pouring, stirring, and sipping. Then he made a face, shook his head sadly, and said in the one language we could speak with something approaching mutual comprehension, "Détestable!"

(My third Nobel encounter was more memorable for the beautiful, philo-Semitic water polo fan in line behind me as we waited for Isaac Bashevis Singer to sign our books.  "Tell him something in Yiddish!" she said. Alas, the moment did not mark the beginning of a torrid fling.)
***
Sen's dynamic view of the Sanskrit classics sent me in search of The Mahābhārata. To my delight, the opening of that ancient book suggests that it may be as glorious a celebration of storytelling as The Thousand and One Nights.  I doubt if I'll write a complete review any time soon, though. The Mahābhārata is variously said to be seven, 10, or 11 times as a long as The Iliad and The Odyssey put together.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Casanova to Catarella: Detectives Beyond Borders interviews Andrea Camilleri's translator Stephen Sartarelli, Pt. II

In the second part of his interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Stephen Sartarelli, Andrea Camilleri's English-language translator, talks about translating poetry. cursing the saints, Casanova, Catarella, Camilleri's relationship with Luigi Pirandello, and about future projects in crime fiction. He also fleshes out the list of crime writers he read to familiarize himself with the genre when he began translating Camilleri: "Well, let's see: Chandler, Goodis, P.D. James, Vargas, Mankell, Vázquez Montalbán ... "

[Read Part I of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Stephen Sartarelli, Read more  Detectives Beyond Borders interviews. (Click link, then scroll down.)]
 ==========================
Detectives Beyond Borders:   I'd like to bring back something you wrote in a comment here at Detectives Beyond Borders about the expression you render in English as "cursing the saints":
"I, as a translator, have always taken to heart the injunction made by Pouchkine where he said (I forget where) that the translator must create `new space' in the language into which he translates, since each language has many spaces peculiar only to it. Thus my "cursing the saints.'"
What further examples can you give of these new spaces a translator creates, whether in your own work or that of other translators?

Stephen Sartarelli:   Well, for example, there is the Italian expression of “far girare le palle,” literally to “make [someone’s] balls spin,” which I’ve translated more or less literally, though using the Spanish cojones, which is familiar to some US readers, as an exotic touch, since Camilleri always uses the Sicilian word for testicles, cabasisi, a word that is hilarious in and of itself. In Italian/Sicilian, it’s actually a way of saying “to get on someone’s nerves.” Another example would be my literal rendering of certain dialectal pleonasms, such as “poissonally in poisson” for di pirsona pirsonalmente, and so on. (I’m sure there are many more possible examples, but I can’t think of any right now.)

DBB:   What is the relationship between Camilleri and Luigi Pirandello?  I have read that there was some distant family relationship. I thought of this also because of a bit of meta-fiction in The Dance of the Seagull, where Salvo and Livia argue about the possibility of Salvo's running into "the actor who plays me? ... What's his name—Zingarelli."?  (The reference is to Luca Zingaretti, who plays Salvo in the excellent Italian Inspector Montalbano television series.)

SS:   Pirandello was a distant relative of the Camilleris, but above all he was a good friend of the family, to whom he was known as “don Luigi.” And there’s no question that he had a strong influence on the young Andrea, who had a long, successful career in the theatre. Incidentally, there’s another example of Pirandellian metafiction in one of the short stories that will figure in the forthcoming “Stories of Montalbano” collection, but I’ll let that one be a surprise.

DBB:   You have also translated work by the Italian crime writer Marco Vichi. What other authors have you translated, crime writers or otherwise? What special problems do they present?

SS:   Well, I’ve been at this for a long time, over thirty years, so, yes, there are plenty of other authors. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Francesca Duranti, Gesualdo Bufalino, Gianni Riotta, Umberto Saba, as well as classic French authors such as Jacques Cazotte, Gérard de Nerval, Xavier de Maistre, and Casanova, who was of course Venetian but wrote mostly in French.

Casanova was a particularly interesting case because, as an 18th-century Italian writing in French, his style is full of Italianate quirks and tics that are utterly foreign to the simplicity of 18th-century French. I tended to clean up his prose, however, in the translation, especially since there’s already a complete translation, by Willard Trask, of his immense, 3,000-page Story of My Life that renders his style pretty much the way it was written, and I find it for the most part unreadable. Ours was a selection (about 600 pp., Penguin Classics) of several outstanding episodes from the Story of My Life, and we decided to make it as readable as possible for the contemporary audience. (I say “we” because I translated it in collaboration with my wife, Sophie Hawkes, though I did the lion’s share of the work.) I also now have a large selection of the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press (July 2014), a critical edition entirely curated and edited by me. That was rather difficult simply because it’s poetry, sometimes fairly regular in meter and rhyme. Poetry’s always much harder to translate because of the way that poetry (or good poetry, I should say) normally condenses as much meaning as possible in as few words as possible. Once you’ve unraveled the meaning of the original, it’s quite a long and arduous process to forge it back into as economical a form as it came from. But I try, and it sometimes works.

Camilleri and Vichi are the only crime writers I’ve translated, though later this year I’m supposed to be translating a two-author duo, also Italian, but I don’t have the contract yet.

DBB:   Talk about Catarella's malapropisms and about why you decided to render them they way you did. What alternative ways, if any, did you consider for portraying his mangled speech in English?

SS:    Catarella serves as a good example of the evolution of my approach to translating the Montalbano novels. At first I was fairly daunted by the oddity of his language and would groan whenever he entered the scene, because I knew it would take me much longer to get through his lines of dialogue. Shortly thereafter, however, I began to view him as an opportunity for freedom and creativity in my interpretations. Very often, however, I have to look for different sorts of word play in the English, because a literal rendering of the character’s quasi illiterate Sicilian-Italian tends not to lend itself to the kinds of distortion necessary to carrying over the same effect as in the original.

People also often seem mistakenly to believe that with Catarella it’s only a question of dialect. It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. Catarella is an example of a dying breed of provincial Italians who don’t really speak Italian, but only their regional dialect. And since he’s a policeman, an employee of law enforcement, the majority of the Italian he comes into contact with is bureaucratese, which in Italy can be very convoluted and ornate, and it is, moreover, the only form of Italian he really knows. Thus he tends to conflate proper Italian with bureaucratic Italian, to predictably comic effect. If you then throw in a good dose of heavy dialect (also often misused) and a sort of written and oral dyslexia, you get the sort verbal chaos that is Catarella. All I can say is that I try to do my best to reproduce more or less the same effect in English. Some people, coming at the series for the first time and reading one of the episodes at random (a mistake, in my opinion), complain about Catarella as being incomprehensible, but that’s only because they’re unfamiliar with the character. It would be a mistake to clean up his language in translation. He’s supposed to be incomprehensible, or almost.

DBB:   The Smell of the Night (Scent of the Night, for tender British noses) has Salvo growing exasperated with Livia's clichés. You render these into English as "count your chickens before they hatch," "eat like a horse," and "sow your wild oats."  Talk about the Sicilian/Italian/Camillerian originals, about why you chose the English versions that you did, and about any shades of difference in meaning between the originals and the translations.

SS:   Actually, that was one of those rare instances where I was able to use what were more or less exact English equivalents of the Italian expressions. Not literally exact, of course, but occupying the same semantic space in the language. For example, “sowing your wild oats” is correre la cavallina; “eating like a horse” is mangiare a quattro palmenti, or “to eat [the equivalent of] four millstones.” But in that little paragraph I also took some liberty, since two of the English expressions I used involved a horse. Camilleri cites two consecutive clichés to mean “counting your chickens before they hatch,” but I separated the two English expressions of more or less the same meaning so that I could write “or eat like a horse, when you’re not putting the cart first!” That way I could recover some of the humor of Montalbano’s exasperation at the “incomprehensible variant” of “selling the bearskin before you’ve killed the bear,” which is “don’t say four if you haven’t got it in the bag!”
======================
[Read Part I of the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Stephen Sartarelli. Read   more Detectives Beyond Borders interviews. (Click link, then scroll down.)]

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Poissonally in poisson": Detectives Beyond Borders interviews Andrea Camilleri's translator, Stephen Sartarelli — Part I

Stephen Sartarelli has translated Pasolini's poetry and Casanova's memoirs, and he's also a poet. But readers of crime fiction know him best as the English-language translator of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano novels, the seventeenth of which, Angelica's Smile, is to be published later this year. Camilleri is as Sicilian as the rocks and the sea and the waves of peoples who have vanquished and become part of that island over the millennia.  His blend of Sicilian dialect, standard Italian, and "an invented language ... never before ... assembled in quite this fashion" would test any translator, and Sartarelli meets the challenge well; his historical and linguistic footnotes are concise, informative lessons in Sicilian language and society.  Sartarelli and Camilleri received the CWA International Dagger Award for best translated crime fiction in 2013 for The Potter's Field. In the first part of an interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Stephen Sartarelli talks about poetry, translation, the place where they meet, and the lack of respect crime fiction gets in the prestige U.S. press. 

[Read Part II of the Stephen Sartarelli interrview. Read more Detectives Beyond Borders interviews (click link, then scroll down).]
======================
Detectives Beyond Borders: How did you first come to work with Andrea Camilleri?

Stephen Sartarelli:   I was contacted around the year 2000 by William Weaver, who was a good friend and my sort of mentor in the field of Italian literary translation. Bill, at the time, was the “dean” of American literary translators of Italian and often gave me first dibs on the work he was offered, but didn’t have time to do. So I decided to have a look at the first two Montalbano novels. I’d heard about Camilleri but hadn’t read him yet. And I confess that I had a sort of literary prejudice against detective fiction as not sufficiently “serious” to merit my attention—with the exception, of course, of classics like Poe, Conan Doyle, Simenon, Hammett and a few others. Well, I read those first two novels in the Montalbano series and liked them very much. Also, having worked with Sicilian before—predominantly in translating the mammoth modern classic Horcynus Orca, by Stefano D’Arrigo, which runs about 1,300 pages and which I haven’t finished yet—I was perhaps less daunted by Camilleri’s dialect than other translators might be. And so I got the job, a contract for the first two novels, and that got the ball rolling. I should add that before setting about translating the first Montalbano novel I boned up on the hard-boiled and detective genres to acquaint myself a little better with the tone and the sort of language those authors use, and this proved very helpful, at least at first, in finding the right sort of stylistic approach to take.

DBB:   You are also a poet. What does this contribute to your practice of, and attitude toward, translation? I can't recall the interview or article that gave me this impression, but I seem to remember that you take a humble attitude before the words that you must translate from one language to another. Is that a poet's attitude?

SS:   I don’t know if that attitude has to do with being a poet, really, but where the poet’s craft intersects with the translator’s is, I think, in viewing language as something plastic that can be molded to fit the circumstances, the desired effect, and so on. This is even truer, of course, when one is translating poetry. But there is a stage in the translation process that is rather similar to poetry composition, and that’s in what I would call the intermediate revision process, when I don’t even look at the original anymore and just deal with the words on the page and how they sound and look as an English text. This is similar to poetry revision, I think. That is, I revise my poetry compositions much more than my prose writings. And while I’ve refined my translation approach to the point that I revise less now than when I was first starting out, there’s still that crucial phase when the original text is no longer in view, and I work the text as if I’d written it myself.

DBB:   Talk about the challenges of translating an author who writes "an invented language, in the sense that, though made up of existing manners of speech and writing, it has never before been assembled in quite this fashion."

SS:   It was a little daunting at first, I must say, though, as I said above, my experience with D’Arrigo, who also writes in an original blend of Sicilian dialect (though it’s from the Messina area, and thus different from Camilleri’s) and Italian, was very helpful. But with a writer as original as Camilleri there’s always that slight feeling of regret that I’m not reproducing all the multifacetedness of the original, and so I try to focus on the most important things: the humor, the tone, the different speech patterns of the different characters. If I can get those things right, then I’ve already covered the most important things. There’s also the problem of the standards of American publishing. When I first started translating Camilleri, I was a little more timid about carrying over too much of his linguistic hodgepodge, for the simple reason that the editors would start questioning everything, as they always do when they come across something different from the norm. The very existence of a writer like Camilleri, or say, Cormac McCarthy for Americans, renders the Chicago Manual of Style useless, at least for fiction writers. But once my translations of Camilleri started to do well, and I became more familiar and comfortable with his approach, I had a little more freedom to experiment and I began to see the unusualness of his language as an opportunity to be creative.

DBB:   You are probably one of the few crime-fiction translators whose work has been the subject of an academic study. Discuss Does the Night Smell the Same in Italy and in English Speaking Countries? An Essay on Translation: Camilleri in English by Emanuela Gutkowski.

SS:   I think this has more to do with Camilleri’s popularity and mastery than with the fact that I’m his translator. He’s such a cultural phenomenon in Italy that he’s become the object of intense study. There’s also the fact that in Europe the field of literary translation has become a proper area of university study, and you can now get a degree in literary translation, which I don’t think is the case yet in the US. I do find it strange, however, that the Italians are devoting so much attention to my translations. I periodically receive university theses based on studies of my translations (usually of Camilleri). And I’ve even told some Italian academics that they might do better to devote more time to studying Italian translations of foreign authors, where they would have a better grasp of what the translators are doing than in studying translations into a tongue that for them is at best a second language. That’s because, while a full understanding of the language of the original text is of course essential for any translator, the crucial part of translation comes in the rendering in the target language. A foreigner for whom English is a second language will never, except perhaps in rare cases, fully grasp the process whereby I arrive at the final version of the translation.

DBB:   I have long enjoyed your historical, linguistic, and gastronomical footnotes to the Camilleri novels. Why did you decide to include them, rather than letting the text speak for itself in all respects?

SS:   I’m not really sure. I think I simply thought that it would be a shame for readers to miss the full meaning of certain details and references in those books. And I suppose it was a way to confer a “scholarly” veneer on a writer in a genre that still isn’t treated as seriously by critics as straight fiction. I’m amazed sometimes how, say, the New York Times Book Review, will devote a half-page or a full page to the first book of a budding but mediocre young novelist but only a short paragraph in a group review to an accomplished master like Camilleri, simply because it’s detective fiction. So in this sense the notes give a sense of what lies just beneath the surface of what are relatively simple stories. And I think these underlying meanings and messages are necessary to a full appreciation of the work.

DBB:   Have you ever had to leave out a word, phrase, or concept from a Camilleri novel simply because you could find no suitable equivalent in English?

SS:   No, I don’t think so. I tend to think that everything, with enough good will and effort, is translatable. There may be an instance or two where I left out a reference to the fact that, say, Montalbano, switches from the formal address to the familiar in talking with another character (since this doesn’t exist in English), but normally I try to work this in too. More likely there may a phrase here or there that I’ve dropped because, in the circumstances, it was redundant or superfluous.
===================
[Read Part II of the Stephen Sartarelli interrviewRead more Detectives Beyond Borders interviews (click link, then scroll down).]

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Eight Hurricane-related Bob Dylan songs and albums that are better than "Hurricane"

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter died today.  A few years ago, I passed the time during Hurricane Irene by posting a list of hurricane-related songs and albums by Bob Dylan. "Hurricane," Dylan's celebrated cry against Carter's conviction and imprisonment for a triple killing in Paterson, N.J., was the worst of these.  

Since I first put up the post in 2011, I have discovered that "Hurricane" was even more scurrilous and careless with the facts than I first thought. According to Wikipedia, "Dylan was forced to re-record the song, with altered lyrics, after concerns were raised by Columbia's lawyers that references to Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley as having `robbed the bodies` could result in a lawsuit. Neither Bello nor Bradley were(sic) ever accused of such acts." Now, here's my list. It contains some damn fine Dylan and also "Hurricane."
===========================

1) "All Along the Watchtower." One of Dylan's best and most chill-inducing songs.  "Two riders were approaching / And the wind began to howl."  If only all weathermen  could deliver their forecasts with such apocalyptic flair. But then ...

2) "Subterranean Homesick Blues." You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.

3) "Shelter From the Storm." I divide Dylan's career in three, with the 1975 album Blood on the Tracks marking the climax of the more introspective middle period, just before he veered off into overblown story songs (See #9) or, as Lester Bangs said of one song from the period, "repellent romanticist bullshit."   "Shelter From the Storm" is the highlight of one of Dylan's best, most mature, most affecting records.

4) Before the Flood. Spectacular 1974 double live album with The Band backing Dylan. Its version of "Like a Rolling Stone" may be the most exuberant rock and roll song ever recorded, a worthy companion to the song's 1965 original version.

5) "Idiot Wind." More appropriate to the ritual pre- and post-storm television and newspaper overkill than to the storm itself.

6) "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." An obvious choice, but a fine song nonetheless.

7) "Blowin' in the Wind." See comment for #6. This ranks lower because the action in its title is not quite as violent as a hurricane ought to be. Of course, neither was Irene once it got to where I was.

8) "Buckets of Rain."

9) "Hurricane." Nicely arranged in its original appearance on the 1976 album Desire, but full of strained rhymes and ungainly allusions ("We want to put his ass in stir / We want to pin this triple MUR / der on him. He ain't no Gentleman Jim.") Gentleman Jim? Gentleman Jim Corbett fought his last bout in 1903. Would anyone have invoked him at the time of the killings that landed Carter in prison? Is he in the song for any reason other than the cheap, easy rhyme?

"Hurricane" also falsifies history. Carter was not the "number-one contender for the middleweight crown" at the time of the killings. He was on his way downhill as a boxer at the time. He lost three of four fights against contenders in 1965, the year before the murders.

Any further contenders for this list, even if they are not the number-one contender?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011, 2014

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 18, 2014

So, which comics do you like?

I'll never be current with comics, because I don't want to pay four or six or eight dollars for something that will take me five minutes to read, then leave me hanging for a month.  But the volumes that collect multiple issues between hard or trade paperback covers are a good deal, as long as they're not too padded with collectible extras.

I was precious close to being late for work today because I was absorbed in a volume of Scalped (written by Jason Aaron, illustrated by R. M. Guéra), some of the hardest-hitting, non-stop dramatic, visually arresting noir in any medium in recent years.

I'm also enjoying, somewhat to my surprise, the first bound collection of Chew. That acclaimed series is about as high as high-concept gets: Detective hero can learn anything there is to learn about any person or thing by eating it. He's cibopathic, that is, and I assume the book's creator, John Layman, invented the word.

On the one hand, the opening stories (the series is up to about 40 issues by now) are cheekily arch and jokey. The first bound collection of the book is called Taster's Choice, for example, and the series' protagonist is named Tony Chu (say it out loud, then remember his cibopathic power). On the other, the jokiness and genre self-awareness somehow work nicely with the story's dystopian universe, in which chicken and other poultry are illegal.

Finally, I browsed a bound volume of World's Finest Comics that collected issues from my day, when a copy cost 12 cents.  Man, that stuff was for kids!
*
Which comics, or graphic novels, do you like, and why? What do they give you that movies or television or books can't?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Burnable Book gets its time and its crime right

"In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelry
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye ... "

— Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Bruce Holsinger's crime novel A Burnable Book is full of history. John Gower is its protagonist and narrates parts of it; Chaucer is a central personage; John Hawkwood cuts a figure something like Al Pacino's in the remake of Scarface. Richard II and John of Gaunt figure in the book; the Avignon papacy is invoked. So are Wycliffe, Wat Tyler, Boccaccio, and the Bardi family of Florentine bankers. In short, if you missed the Late Middle Ages, read this book, and you'll catch up.

Holsinger is a scholar. One expects lots of history from him, and the few examples that I fact-checked suggest that he gets his history right. But he gets the atmosphere right, too. Medieval London is a natural setting for hard-boiled crime, with its lawless precincts just outside the city, its cruel masters and mistreated apprentices, its fetid streets, its premature deaths, its maudlyns plying their trade in Gropecunt Lane, and Holsinger describes it vividly and well..

More important for the reader of crime fiction is that he makes of Gower a credible investigator and hard-boiled protagonist without, however, giving him the anachronistic mannerisms of a Philip Marlowe.  (Getting the essence right without slipping into genre cliché has to be one of a historical crime novelist's toughest tasks. The farther back in time the story is set, the greater the pressure on the author to avoid having his or her protagonist do things a modern fictional detective would do. One crime novel with a medieval setting was ruined for me when its otherwise vividly rendered main character turned without warning into Columbo.)

Holsinger gets around this by telling instead of showing. Gower examines in a straightforward manner his role as investigator and in doing so, makes himself both credible in the role and familiar to readers of hard-boiled crime: "If you build your own life around the secret lives of others ... Information becomes your entitlement. You pay handsomely for it; you use it selectively and well."

The book establishes Gower as temperamental kin to every flawed crime fiction protagonist who exists in a morally compromised world, and Chaucer, the liveliest of all great poets, underlines this nicely, challenging Gower not to be such a stuffed shirt in his own writing: "Do you write this way because you see yourself as some white-clad incorruptible?"
***
The novel's title refers to a manuscript that falls into the wrong hands, a book so subversive that it deserves burning.  Just as The Canterbury Tales begin in Southwark, a district across the Thames and just outside London in the Middle Ages, significant parts of A Burnable Book are set there. By happy coincidence, I bought my copy of The Canterbury Tales in the old Philadelphia district of Southwark which, like its English namesake, lay outside the city centuries ago but has since been absorbed by it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dr. Johnson was a great lexicographer, but he could have used a copy editor

April 15 marks the 259th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language:
"I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected, suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance, resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion, and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation."

Samuel Johnson, from the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language
Awfully prescriptive, isn't it, not the sort of thing one would would see today.

I bought an abridged edition of the great book a few months ago. In honor of the book's birthday, here is a surprise I found within:
"asshead n.s. [from ass and head] One slow of apprehension; a blockhead.

"Will you help an asshead, and a coxcomb, an a knave, a thin-faced knave, a gull."
Shakesp. Hamlet.
The remarkable thing, other than the word's beguiling punch, is that the line is not, in fact, from Hamlet, but rather from Twelfth Night, Act V, Scene i

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dalkey Archive: Flann O'Brien says things funny

I like writers who don't just write funny things, but write things funny.  I'll save the narrative high points of Flann O'Brien's last novel for a later blog post, the deadly substance that can end all life, the underwater meeting with Saint Augustine, and the discovery of James Joyce alive, well, and tending bar in a seaside resort years after his supposed death.

For now, what I like best about The Dalkey Archive is that O'Brien seemed incapable of writing a non-funny sentence.  Even purely expository passages and the most routine actions are funny:
"It was near six when they stopped a tree."
*
"My goodness, the Bishop of Hippo!"
*
"I implore you not to be facetious, the unsmiling Crabbe replied. The funny thing is that I like the name Nemo. Try thinking of it backwards. 
"Well, you have something there, Hackett granted, 
"Poetic, what? 
"There was a short silence which Dr. Crewett broke. 
"That makes you think, he said thoughtfully. Wouldn't it be awful to have the Arab surname Esra?"
Who else is like that? Who else is funny no matter what he or she is writing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, April 10, 2014

John McFetridge in my home and native city / Ville de mes aïeux

I'd like John McFetridge's Black Rock even if I were not in it, in the person of an enterprising police photographer named Rozovsky, who appears to have a nice little business going on the side. (This proves that McFetridge borrowed nothing but my name. For me, initiative means dragging myself out of bed early enough in the afternoon to have lunch before I have dinner [we called it supper back home in Montreal].)

What I like about Black Rock is that even though I lived in Montreal at the time of the book's setting and so did McFetridge, my Montreal was not his, and neither of our Montreals was that of the events that made headlines at the time and form the background to the novel's real action.

Those events are the FLQ terrorist bombings of 1970, the investigation of which punctuate the life and work of a young police officer named Eddie Dougherty as her pursues his real professional interest: the murders of a string of young women. (Read a newspaper clipping about the killings that sparked the novel at McFetridge's blog.)

So, while bombs go off downtown and in Westmount and Old Montreal,  the action also takes Dougherty to crowded apartments off the Main and to bars in Point St. Charles, a local boy returning to his turf, this time as a cop seeking the killer of a murdered woman:
"They walked half a block to Dougherty's squad car, and Carpentier said, `They know you.' 
"`Yeah.' 
"`But you're not one of them?' 
"`English can be pure laine, too."
The past can be a foreign country, but so can one's own country. (For another crime-fictionalized look Canada's October Crisis, see Giles Blunt's novel The Delicate Storm.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Augustus Mandrell is as American as hamburger

I'm rereading Shoot the President, Are You Mad?, Frank McAuliffe's long-awaited fourth book Augustus Mandrell. How long awaited? The book appeared in 2010, twenty-four years after the author died and following collections of Mandrell "commissions" (he's an international hit man) that had appeared in 1965, 1968, and 1971.  Here a post I made back when I first read Shoot the President, Are You Mad? When I'm done with it (the book, not the post), I just may reread the first three Augustus Mandrell books. They're that good.

================
I've mentioned the bracing mix of British manners and American sensibilities in Frank McAuliffe's books about Augustus Mandrell. McAuliffe, an American, made Mandrell a kind of outsider, apparently British. This gave him the luxury of observing American ways with amused detachment. Here are some examples from Shoot the President, Are You Mad?:
"There was certain to be some grumbling regarding the issue of `conspiracy' since the American people, despite their impressive history of individual action, appear rather keen on attributing dramatic events, particularly those of an anti-social nature, to shadowy groups."
and
"[A]s the days passed with still no apprehension of the despicable manufacturer of air conditioners, the president, now enjoying the role of spiritual leader to the electorate ... "
and
"`But no class, Man, no class,' the Doctor objected. `They underbid each other. "If Tony will do-a da job for 300 bucks, I'll tell-a you wot. I'll do it for 250, if you buy da bullets." How you going to get class when you're shopping around for the lowest bidder?'

"`My dear Doctor, are you questioning the "free enterprise" system? The very cornerstone of America's greatness?"
McAuliffe also pokes delicious fun at insecure Americans' worship of culinary luxury, having Mandrell issue elaborate instructions to a chef that include "a quarter pound of lean Argentine beef. You chop it into an even consistency and form into into a patty. Fry, over a natural gas flame for eleven seconds per side ... A folded leaf of California lettuce ... place just under the top bun a slice of Bermuda onion, one sliced within the past 12 hours."
"`Clifford,' says Mandrell's puzzled companion, `that concoction you ordered, do you know what it sounded like? One of those dreadful hamburgers the Americans are always eating in their backyards.'

"`Of course, my dear,' I smiled. `I've been dying for one all day. I was but attempting to spare the man the embarrassment of writing `hamburger, with the trimmings' on his pad. He'd have been the laughing stock of the kitchen.'"
=============
Historical notes: It has been reported that McAuliffe submitted the manuscript of Shoot the President, Are You Mad? to his publisher just before John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and that the unfortunate coincidence was responsible for the decades-long delay in the book's appearance. But an afterword from McAuliffe's daughter says McAuliffe wrote the book in 1975. Even then, she wrote, "the mutual consensus was that the American people ... were not ready to make light of the demise of an individual who held possession of the highest office in the land."

=============
The third Mandrell book, For Murder I Charge More, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for best paperback original in 1972. A second award would not be out of place in 2011.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010, 2014

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Words, words, nice, easy words

The folks who administer the SAT announced last month that they were dropping from the test what one news account called "some vocabulary words such as `prevaricator' and `sagacious' in favor of words more commonly used in school and on the job." (Emphasis mine.)

As much as I relished the thought that this nation wants to raise a generation to talk like schoolyard show-offs and human-resources professionals, I moaned at the dumbing-down of it all. (In grade school I had a vocabulary book called Words Are Important. Might be time to revise that title.  And has anyone else noticed that, unlike a few years ago, corporate executives no longer bother to lie to interviewers that they value liberal arts graduates for the thinking skills they bring to the job?)

As evidence that we have been getting dumber at least since the year I was born, however, I'll bring back a blog post from 2011. You'll have to read to the fourth paragraph to get to the evidence, which is kind of long-form for contemporary attention spans, but you can do it!
© Peter Rozovsky 2014 
=======================
Though they lived in the fictional town of Bayport. the Hardy Boys occasionally were called out of the country to solve mysteries.

Language was never a barrier. Even though the boys rarely if ever appeared to attend their language classes (or any other classes) at Bayport High School, all it took was a few words and phrases, and they could sleuth unobtrusively among the natives. (I always wondered if they simply muttered rhubarb* over and over.)

The books never revealed what those magical words and phrases were, but by God, I believed in the Hardy Boys!  Now I'm asking you to do the same:  Pick a country, and tell me what words and phrases you would learn if you wanted to pass as a resident.
***
Wikipedia's article is full of good stuff about the Hardy Boys. I'd long known that the books were revised to remove odious racial stereotypes, but I was chagrined to learn that beginning in 1959, they were written more simply, to compete with television, that "Difficult vocabulary words such as `ostensible' and `presaged' were eliminated."

This was news to me; I once startled my third-grade teacher by knowing what a taxidermist was; I'd learned the word from a Hardy Boys book, and if taxidermist isn't a difficult vocabulary word, I don't know my difficult vocabulary words.
***
This is the second post this week whose idea came to me in the shower. If I worked from home,  could I move my desk into the shower and claim my bathroom as a business expense?
========================
* The word rhubarb was used by radio actors to imitate the sounds of raucous crowd. The actors would murmur “rhubarb, rhubarb” in the background to simulate crowd noise. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Trevanian and the slice o' life, or McFetridge, Montreal, Toronto, and Hamilton

I'm not sure I'd have compared Trevanian's 1976 novel The Main with John McFetridge's novels had McFetridge not written about it in Books to Die For.  Knowing of McFetridge's love for the novel, and having just finished reading it myself, though, I recognize The Main as an earlyish example of a kind of crime writing at which McFetridge excels: that in which the protagonist's life is at least as integral to the story as are the crimes he solves or commits.

The Main's Lt. Claude LaPointe has a problematic domestic situation and trouble with his boss, as do a million other fictional cops. But Trevanian delves so deeply into LaPointe's inner life, and he so efficiently but fully fleshes that boss out as a character, that the conflicts seem fresh and deeply felt. The same goes for a number of the novel's other minor characters. They may be minor, but they feel like more than just plot devices. Like McFetridge's Toronto novels, The Main offers an affectionate, unsentimental look at the city where it is set. As in McFetridge's Black Rock, that city is Montreal. Unlike Black Rock, The Main lacks a police photographer named Rozovsky,

In what other crime novels is the protagonist's life as important as the crimes he or she solves? In which novels are the alcoholism, troubled relationships, and clashes with authority more than mere window dressing?

 *
Here's a bit of my recent non-crime reading that is ripe with potential for a dark crime story:
"For it is a truth, which the experience of ages has attested, that the people are always most in danger when the means of injuring their rights are in the possession of those of whom they entertain the least suspicion."
Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 25
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, April 04, 2014

You can take the book out of the genre, but you can't take the genre out of the book

I don't know if reviewers were saying "transcended the genre" back in 1976, but they edged awfully close when they discussed Trevanian's novel The Main.

The author himself says he had high ambitions for the book, intending at first to write it under the name Jean-Paul Morin to distinguish it from the thrillers he had written under the Trevanian byline. (His real name was Rodney William Whitaker.):
"Well, The Main came out, and readers who associated the Trevanian name with crisp, shallow action novels blinked and wondered what the ****?!"
I have not read those thrillers, The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction, or seen the Clint Eastwood movie based on the former, but amid its slow buildup and its somber urban anthropology and its study of character, The Main plants two classic thriller time bombs in its early chapters. Each follows the "Will X accomplish Y before Z happens?" formula and, while they're surprising in light of what surrounds them, they work.

What novels can you name by authors who step out of their customary genres or who write in multiple genres? What do you think of such books? Do hallmarks of one genre show up in the author's work in a different genre?

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Trevanian's crime classic from my home town

I can see why John McFetridge chose Trevanian's The Main as his Book to Die For.

The Main reminds me especially of McFetridge's new novel, Black Rock. That book departs from McFetridge's Toronto series in several respects. It takes place in Montreal, it views its sweep of character and incident largely through the eyes of a single character rather than from multiple points of view, and it is set in the past, 1970, during Montreal's own wave of terrorist bombings.

Trevanian looks at Montreal's Boulevard Saint-Laurent and its crowded side streets and alleys (known colloquially as "the Main") through the eyes of a tough local cop called LaPointe and, while the novel's setting is roughly contemporaneous with its publication (1976), time and Trevanian's copious research lend it a retrospective, even anthropological air. And that's no bad thing, because his preparation was so thorough, and his writing was so good. Here's an example of research that may not be strictly necessary to the story, but that I loved, because it was so unexpected:
"Guttmann speaks up in his precise European French, the kind Canadians call `Parisian,' but which is really modeled on the French of Tours."
And here's a bit of research that contributes greatly to the novel's atmosphere:
"When LaPointe began on the force, there were almost no Anglo cops. The pay was too law; the job had too little prestige; and the French Canadians who made up the bulk of the department were not particularly kind to interlopers."
Trevanian excels at rendering with complexity characters who could easily be stereotypes. The snooty, careerist police commissioner, a stock figure in police procedurals if ever there was one,  here has the respect of his men, and, Trevanian takes care to point out, has actually read the books that line his office.

Furthermore, Trevanian knew he was doing this. He made the savvy decision to pair the tough, older Francophone cop with a younger, college-educated, Anglo partner, just so he can have the partner think, after the requisite physical inventory ("the wide face with its deep-set eyes that is practically a map of French Canada") that "there are aspects that Guttmann had not anticipated, things that contradict the caricature of the tough cop."  It's pretty clear what Trevanian is up to, but he pulls the strings so well.
*
(Trevanian talks about The Main at the trevanian.com Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

Labels: , , , ,