~ Back to Reality Once More

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

I took a week off.

I barely went on the internet and read in the sunshine on the one day of sunshine we had.

I took pictures of flowers.

I said hello to a semi-wild horse.

Went on a wonderfully sunny walk – and a rainy one too.

I felt warm and happy from seeing beautiful familiar faces.

I took a week off.

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~ On Reading Two Books at the Same Time

February 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

It’s something I’d always done but stopped during my English degree, so I suppose I’m falling back into old habits. My mum always wondered how I didn’t get all muddled from switching back and forth between books but I used to think it was the best thing: you could change when you got tired of one, until you got tired of the other! Plus, you need different ones for different moods/times of day (anyone with me on this one?). But this time it feels a bit different because I am reading two books at the same time, in light of each other.

faraway tree

Egmont, 2012

A friend of mine got me The Magic Faraway Tree trilogy by Enid Blyton for my birthday, because you’re never too old to catch up on children’s literature you never got round to reading at the time. I have thus been spending the last few weeks surrounded by fairies, multicoloured cakes and an ever-changing, lively, generous Nature. To be very honest, I’ve been having the best of times immersing myself in it and I can see why so many children have loved it and still cherish these stories as adults.

But the books took on a new flavour when I started reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring last week. A work that couldn’t be more different from the Faraway Tree. And yet.

Next to a story for younger minds that teaches them the beauties and secrets of the natural world is this work on the harmful effects of pesticides and their destruction of our entire natural environment. It took me a few days to connect the dots but reading them in parallel of each other once I’d made the connection has been heartbreaking. The children who are taught that their natural environment is something fun, to be cherished and full of exciting beings grow up to find out that this very same environment is on the verge of destruction – through their own species’ fault. The stark contrast between the innocence and the reality of these two works is enhanced by Rachel Carson’s beautiful prose (she was an English major before turning to biology) whose words describe with visible emotion yet scientific precision the irreversible waste we are creating.

And so, since last week, I can see the branches of the Faraway Tree bearing no more of its ever-changing fruits. The squirrels have died and the mushrooms the elves used to sit on no longer grow. Mrs Washalot’s water is filled with human-made chemicals that kill with a single touch. There are no more birds to carry messages around. The wood is silent, as silent as Mrs Carson’s spring. And the children have to stay inside and play video games. Melodramatic? Maybe. But not that far away from the truth.

I am still very much enjoying The Magic Faraway Tree but the after-taste in my mouth when I finish it will certainly be more bitter than if I hadn’t started reading Silent Spring. Am I sorry for it? Actually, no – it has only given the stories a much deeper meaning.

It convinces me even more of the importance of reacting now, to stop the damage, so that children in fifty years’ time don’t read Blyton’s stories like she’s talking about another planet.

~ On the Artist and the Unseeing Layman

February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

This morning, I was part of the lucky bunch that had a ticket for the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris at 5:30am (yes, the exhibition has been so popular it’s been open 24/7 – talk about keen…).

Despite having to get up at an hour that is more than inappropriate for a Sunday, I wasn’t sorry I went: the exhibition was truly enlightening and one quotation about Hopper’s paintings struck a chord.

Charles Burchfield wrote about Hopper’s art:

From what is to the mediocre artist and unseeing layman the boredom of everyday existence in a provincial community, he has extracted that quality we may call poetic, romantic, lyric, or what you will. By sympathy with the particular he has made it epic and universal.

And I thought to myself how true this is about literature as well.

The transformation our world undergoes when written about by someone else is what I would call a literary ‘axiom’ to me. It is what makes reading so enjoyable but also enriching, opening new windows of thought. Having a style so unique it changes a person’s perception differentiates the artist from the ‘unseeing layman’ – whether it be literature, painting, music, photography or cinema.

It is a property of literature – good literature – that it can talk about anything and make it exceptional; an example that was given to me before was Chekov’s Cherry Orchard in which nothing happens yet is considered a masterpiece. What makes it ‘poetic, romantic, lyric’ is the lens, the vision. The ‘boredom of everyday’ is broken because the usual is made new, described in an unusual way. I insist on this matter because it is at the core of this blog. Virginia Woolf’s ‘moment of being’ is the flash that allows you to see clearly, for no more than an instant, the moving quality of what usually goes by unnoticed. Art is then an invaluable gift that has the power to make great what is usually insignificant.

And so, all the time, writers depict ordinary lives, mediocre lives, taking the step back that allows them to give these stories a meaning – the one that we so lack as we live imprisoned in the everyday but for the occasional flicker of light when everything, for a glorious instant, is beautifully clear; where, for a moment, ‘the pearl [is] handed to [you]’.*

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* Jack Kerouac, On the Road

~ On Translation

October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Languages are selfish. Everyone knows that once they’ve been abroad and struggled to make themselves understood. That is a sad thing, but even sadder is that they separate us from great books.

As a multilingual person, I knew about the cruelty of translation as something terribly frustrating to do – how do you translate Gatsby’s ‘old sport’ in another language without making it sound ridiculous? Is it even worth trying to translate a poem? And if you do give it a go, what do you choose to leave out? The rhyming scheme? The metaphors? The rhythm?

But my frustration deepened and took another dimension recently when I finished a great book. In French. And I wanted my boyfriend to read it. In English.

And there were no translations available.

That is when I started appreciating how lucky I am to be able to read in several languages and how much I have been taking it for granted. This matter is not trivial when we know that some people learn a specific language to gain access to its literature in the original – Dante, for instance (and it certainly is on my to do list). I have always worried about not being able to read everything before I die but once I started taking literature in languages I cannot speak into account, my head started spinning.

And I also started wondering who decides. Who has the power to say that a particular book will be granted publication in a different language and that another one will remain the privilege of a lucky few? I am sure many elements come into play, such as how popular it has been or whether it would translate in cultural terms but it seems sad that some books should be left out simply because only a few can be afforded and all the others do not make the cut. I suppose some take longer than others – for instance, I wonder if J.K. Rowling’s new title would have been translated so quickly (or at all) despite its mixed reviews if she wasn’t the phenomenon that she already is.

And so I can only shout at the top of my lungs on this vast Internet space: To Whom It May Concern, please, please, PLEASE translate Marie-Aude Murail’s Miss Charity into English! It is brilliant, will delight children and adults alike and it takes place in England, for heaven’s sake!

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NB: Incidentally, many other of Marie-Aude Murail’s books are fantastic and some have actually been translated (a list can be found here) although my favourite ones are not available in English yet. I may have to write about them at some point anyway.

~ On the Art of Lending and Borrowing Books

October 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other people have lent me.

~ Anatole France

I came across this quotation the other day and, as funny as it is, it actually got me thinking about book lending/borrowing. I have to say I am quite selfish with my books. I will be the first one to recommend titles to my friends, but I would rather buy them a copy than part with an all-time favourite. This is probably because, as the writer Anatole France warns us, the ones I did lend were never returned. And equally, the books I did borrow that are still on my bookshelf years after I should have returned them are an object of shame. I feel like they are looking at me reprovingly, like stray dogs, hoping they will, one day, be reunited with their real owners.

It might be then that book lending and borrowing is an art that requires a certain savoir-faire – that is, a certain outlook.

Some people believe books are objects that should travel, that should go from one pair of eyes to the next so that their wisdom might be shared. I know someone who would exchange books with unknown travelers along the way during the few months she spent in South America. As much as I like the beauty of the gesture, I know I like keeping the books I have read – most of the time – because they mean something to me, and I am proud to display them on my shelves. Every once in a while, I look at them and I remember what they all taught me.

Is that selfish? Stupid? A bit extreme?

If you are a goodreads fan you will know that this week was ‘Banned Books Week’ and this occasion has certainly reminded me that what is truly important in a book is its message, and not the physical object that contains it. So perhaps I should try and work on my outlook  and be less materialistic about reading…

How do you feel about this? Am I the only one with an overdeveloped affection for bound sheets of paper here?

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