Sunday, December 27, 2009

Translating ourselves to survive in the world (Books - The Translator by Ward Just)

I am holding off on writing about my best fiction reads of 2009, having covered all the other categories, because in my final novels of the year I keep reading such good stuff. I am reading my third book this year by Irish novelist Deirdre Madden, Remembering Light and Stone, and it is beautifully written and deeply probing about ordinary human experience. I just completed my third novel by American writer Ward Just - The Translator, having read Exiles in the Garden and Forgetfulness earlier this year.

I found The Translator a more subtle work than the previous two - it is simple in its theme, which I read as a study of how human beings adapt or maladapt to change on both the personal and the political level. It accomplishes this in a way I felt more akin to music than any other form. I would liken the book to a symphony, divided into four parts with a prelude and a coda. This large theme of change holds the entire piece together and each of the four movements (chapters) introduces and develops its material in a more linear way - in a book we would say the plot advances, and it does, but this book is not heavy on its plot - it goes deep into the inner lives of its central character - Sydney, the translator - and those important to him, and one looks up suddenly and finds that time has passed but not in a typical this-happened-and-then-that-happened way. We experience Sydney from his boyhood in war-ravaged Germany and his fascination with American film, to his eventual immigration to Paris, where he makes his life. As he lives his life he works translating German fiction and, around him, the balances of power shift from a post war world, to a cold war world, to a post-Soviet world. Parallel to that Sidney meets a woman, they have a family, they negotiate relationships with estranged parents (a theme the three Ward Just novels I have read have shared). The influences of East and West, Europe and America, play a significant role in the larger structure of this novel and are mirrored by the points of view of male and female, seasoned and innocent, native and exile. It is a beautifully put together work of fiction. As an example of how Just works his themes, I would say that one of my favorite scenes takes place on rue de Rivoli in front of a gallery window in which is dispayed a painting:
It was one of Vuillard's nudes, a sketch of a woman seated at her kitchen table. Her face was in shadows. She was neither young nor old. The time appeared to be early morning of no particular day in the summer. The woman had no plans. Through the open window behind her were the knuckled rooftops of Paris, roughly sketched but vividly alive. The woman leaned on her elbow, her chin touching the back of her hand in an attitude of infinite languor or ennui. It was not Entzauberung because this woman was not German or married to one. Perhpas it was only indifference, rising to wlecome an anonymous summer morning. She would be feeling a breeze on her skin and noticing the smells rising from the street, fresh-baked bread, wood smoke, and other smells less appetizing. Her hair was mussed so she had just climbed from her bed, probably out of sorts, half asleep and fuzzy around the edges. A vast silence seemed to surround her, so surely she was alone in the apartment, thinking her own thoughts, alone with her black cat, watchful in the corner of the room.

Sydney believed he was looking into the woman's soul. Vuillard was the savant of French domestic life. The cereal bowl, a knitting basket, flowers in a vase, the cat in the corner. These were the matters of consequence in a human being's life, the family and work. No artist had ever done it better, and most did not care to do it at all. Sydney touched the window glass with his fingertips, experienceing a moment of veritgo. ..
Sydney imagines not only his version of the life of the woman who is the subject of the painting, but his wife's version as well. He does this in the context of being temporarily separated from her, and walking a route they have often taken together. An added layer of memory plays a part in this scene as his walk in the present is preceeded by his memory of a similar walk through Paris with his wife in the past. Following his imaginings, Sydney meets a wealthy West German couple who discuss buying the Vuillard and all at once Just has created the entire world in front of us - married and alone, wealth and relative poverty, past and present, art and life, world politics and the minutia of daily domestic existence - and through this, time eventually is experienced as having moved forward and the plot (if you like) advances. I find that I experience time in relation to my life similarly. I don't see my hair turn grey, I just notice one day that it has. As life changes we can (or not) follow suit. Adaptation is like translating ourselves from one language to another. That is the meat of The Translator - finely detailed on the one hand, sweeping across great swathes of time and political influence and the other. It rendered with extraordinary depth, humanity, and complexity by Ward Just.

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