Curzio Malaparte: The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte, Curzio (2018), The Kremlin Ball, NYRB Classics
trans. Jenny McPhee
ISBN 9781681372099

I reviewed Malaparte’s posthumous and strange novel for Review 31.

For better or worse, The Kremlin Ball gives us a point-blank perspective on Malaparte’s literary and personal inclinations: his egomania, his disdain for simple people, his attraction to totalitarianism, and his conflicted feelings towards masculinity. That alone makes it well worth reading.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Celan’s friends

I saw today that Stephen Mitchelmore has tweeted about a possible publication of an English translation of Celan’s Collected Posthumous Prose. The book, a thick, dense tome, is indeed wondrous, some of it in French, some in German, some in Romanian. The translator is Pierre Joris. The connection of Joris here is interesting, I find, and I want to say a word or two about Celan, his friends and his published correspondence.

There are so many volumes now of Celan’s correspondence (the only one I’m lacking is the one with his wife, because it is an expensive French “coffret” – and I assume the German version, though much cheaper, is translated and what would be the point of that) – but they all – every single one – have the same shape. Celan meets people with kindness, sadness and enthusiasm. He’s clearly difficult, but an extraordinary and intense person. Then, mid- to late career, fatigue sets in. Everything starts when Yvan Goll’s widow – Claire Goll – starts a public campaign that smears Celan as a plagiarist of her husband’s work. It is enormously untrue, but damages Celan immensely. And it’s not just the publicity and Goll’s loud attacks – there’s also the dubious reaction from his friends.

German critics, then as now, have a complicated relationship to Jewish literature. Henryk Broder has defined it as the difference between dead and living Jews: Germans feel guilty about dead Jews – but they will leap at the opportunity to attack living Jews. As a survivor of the Shoah, Celan straddled the line. When he entered German cultural life, his biography, in connection with his astonishing work, insulated him, gave him praise, protection and a certain status in German culture. But the Goll Affair exposed how precarious his situation was. Celan felt under attack – as a person, as a poet, as a Jew. And suddenly he found himself among Germans. Barbara Wiedemann’s valuable edition of documents around the Goll Affair show that the most engaged of his friends were Jews themselves, like Peter Szondi (a brilliant philologist and survivor of Bergen‐Belsen, who drowned himself a mere year after Celan’s departure, and 7 years before Améry’s ‘suicide, another survivor of the Shoah).

If you look at the letters, you can see the exact point where Celan turns to suspicion. It hams his relationship with Bachmann, whose sometime-lover Max Frisch had no empathy or understanding for someone not as securely ensconced in a country and culture as Frisch was, and it ends several others. Surrounded by Germans, Celan sees how tenuous his sense of home and security is. Like Peter Szondi, he looks towards Israel as a home. There is very little in his work that comments on Israel, but several passages in the collected prose refer to Israel. In his poem “Denk Dir,” written during the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, he describes Israel as “dies wieder / ins Leben empor-/ gelittene / Stück / bewohnbarer Erde.” (~ “This piece of land, suffered up into existence”). Like Szondi, he never moved there. Szondi’s motivations for not doing so may mirror Celan’s – Szondi writes in a letter to Gershon Scholem that he felt “at home” for the first time in Israel and that it was “unbearable,” this feeling. He was no longer able to be comfortable, after 40 years of alienation, genocide, and then living among the people who engineered that genocide. Celan’s relationship with Israel was certainly extraordinarily complicated, but he was clearly, unequivocally, a defender of the Jewish homeland.

Now, to get back to the English translation of the Collected Posthumous Prose. Pierre Joris is, in many ways, a typical representative of the Anglo-saxon left when it comes to Israel. His focus is on Palestine, and he is vocally, loudly, pro-BDS, a virulently antisemitic movement. To see his name next to Celan’s work gives me the shivers, but somehow, it feels fitting. Celan grew to be suspicious of many of his friends, aware that their relationship to the – for him, existential – questions of Jewishness, security, home, was different from his. Joris seems not atypical among his friends. Celan – like Améry, like Szondi – was ultimately dependent on the language of those who, a few years earlier, wanted to murder him and his family, he was dependent on structures partially built by murderers and lived subject to laws carried out by former murderers. The chancellor of Germany in the last years of his life was a former Nazi party member. Living in the language of Germans and among Germans, building a sense of home and language, informed much of his work. It is cruelly fitting that even in translation, he is dependent on the language of people with antisemitic sympathies.

Paulette Jonguitud: Mildew

Jonguitud, Paulette (2015), Mildew, CB Editions
ISBN 978-1-909585-03-4

Is it still a translation if a book was translated by its author? There’s something to that transition that many writers find a bit daunting. Yoko Tawada, for example, an author writing in both German and Japanese, does not translate her Japanese work into German. Thus, the Japanese novel which was translated into English as The Emissary, arrived in German later than in English, and in a translation by her longtime translator Peter Pörtner, despite the author being not just fluid in German, but regularly producing excellent novels and essays in this language. Another example regarding translations to Germany is Mikhail Shishkin, who is a professional translator between Russian and German, and yet, he does not translate his own Russian novels into German. In other cases, most famously Joseph Brodsky, it has been argued that Brodsky’s English equivalents of his Russian poems are inferior to the work produced by professional translators. As I said, it’s a bit of a curious issue. Why not regard the “translated” text as a new creation by the author? In any case, these are some of the questions raised by Mildew, Paulette Jonguitud’s (in many ways) masterful novel(la). Jonguitud is a Mexican author, and this book was published as Moho in 2010, and translated by the author in 2015. I found as I read and reread the book that one’s perception changes depending on whether we read it as a translation or as a new creation or re-creation by the author. I don’t think the book improves if we read it as translation – occasionally we come across strange changes in register, slightly uneven syntax, and other linguistic choices that I suspect read absolutely natural in the Mexican original. There’s a part of my brain that reads these passages as ‘mistakes,’ as infelicities, as problems that editors or a more careful translation could or should have fixed. I find that these passages don’t stick out as much if we read the book as an original English translation.

Here’s why: the protagonist is a mentally unstable woman, and the book an interior monologue as she comes to terms with some horrible things that happened to her and in her life, as she’s preparing for her daughter’s wedding. If we read the stylistic oddities as related to her state of mind, they seem less odd than if we read them as related to the language of origin. And in this way, they add to the tapestry of the book – the sometimes odd syntactic choices can make a fussy impression: the language of someone who is trying to piece together what has happened in the past years, months and – crucially- hours. Constanza, the protagonist, is preparing herself and her daughter’s dress for the imminent wedding, but as she prepares, she notices a stain on her leg. The more time passes, the longer and larger and greener the stain grows, the titular ‘mildew’ slowly envelops her body. Jonguitud uses well-trod literary ground, but she remakes it new. The book weaves memory and worries, past, present and the possible future into a seamless narrative. The book is conceptually heavy, but never loses the fat meat of literary narrative and psychology. Unlike other books that have seemed too skeletal to me, like fellow Mexican writer Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, which was all concept and structure, Jonguitud’s book has emotional and narrative depth beyond the conceptual playfulness. Constanza appears before us: believable, distressed and lost. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her, and neither do we – we look at her past for clues, much as she invokes her own past as what has led her to this point and the green growth on her body. I’ll spoil it now: while there is a revelation towards the end, we never really get an explanation for the mildew. The book beautifully ties everything together in the dark last chapter, but that’s not an explanation.

And there’s a good reason for that. I will say I am leery of writers who use disfigurement and disability as a cheap metaphor – too often in books where, once the ‘problem’ is cleared, the disfiguration also clears up. It was in our heads all along! Sontag has warned of the use of metaphor to discuss illness: “illness is not a metaphor, and […] the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” But here’s the thing: it’s not really a metaphor, and not really an illness. And it doesn’t clear up. I honestly expected it to be in the narrator’s head – a manifestation of her fears, her self-hate, her guilt. I know this – the feeling some part of your body has developed a life of its own, the Sancho Panza to my anxiety’s Don Quixote, rushing the windmills of my mental health. It was instantly believable – but when Constanza’s daughter comes in and sees the mildew, and thus the mildew becomes a real object in the real world of the novel, we move out of these simple equivalencies. That we don’t get a reality based solution to what the mildew is means that we’re in a very different territory here. The obvious siblings of Jonguitud’s story include writers like Kafka, and his stories of the world’s terrifying, unexpectedly cruel and monstrous reality. The world suddenly turns on many of Kafka’s narrators and suddenly things we considered workable tactics in dealing with our environment slip out of control, change, become strange or threatening or both. Constanza isn’t suddenly disabled, or possessed – no, a real, physical mold has started to grow on her, something that inhibits her movements, even, not a discoloration, it’s suddenly there, it’s part of her reality and she has to deal with it. It mirrors the way things have changed in her own life, how certain people and their actions have become part of her reality and she had to deal with them.

There is an obvious Deleuzian angle here – but it’s indirect, in the way that much of the important theory of our time is Deleuzian in one way or another. When Foucault said that we would view the 20th century as Deleuze’s century, he was right – but off by a century. And I don’t really want to dig into the theoretical angle here, but I do want to note how extraordinarily rich in meaning Jonguitud’s mold is. Depending on how you approach the book, it can be seen to be about a vast variety of things. There is the obvious issue of the body – of the way women are socialized to view their bodies from birth to the end of their lives – and how other women often reinforce the pressures and expectations of physical womanhood. What is feminine, what is attractive, what is worth having? In this reading, the mildew is what Sontag called a “punitive […] fantasy” – but Constanza didn’t do anything wrong – except to be born a woman into a patriarchal society that places certain values on certain physical manifestations of feminity and womanhood. And yet – she’s clearly complicit in these narratives to a certain extent – and complicit in something much worse, as it turns out. The most obvious reading of the book would be an ecofeminist one, about how power separates and controls things, how certain forms of speech control and damage. There’s so much here, but it’s hard to really discuss without giving away some crucial details of the book. In some ways, one can read the book as an attempt at connecting the “becoming-minor” with “becoming-woman” as Deleuze and Guattari suggested in their Kafka book (I appear to circle back to Kafka here).

Suffice to say that Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is darkly brilliant – condensed but rich, one of the best books of its kind that I can remember reading. Stylistically it’s not without flaws – but it’s not all bad, either. Jonguitud’s English is simple – I am not a fan: simplicity is the most difficult style – there’s nowhere to hide. I sometimes have the suspicion that the reception of writers like Kafka in translation is also one of simplicity of language – in German, there’s nothing simple about Kafka’s language which consists of carefully layered tenses and conditionals, of precariously balanced registers and complex descriptions that can take many readings to unfurl. We don’t get that here. The language in Mildew is plain – but even so, the book is brilliant and everyone should read it.

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