Categories
Book Reviews Prose

Book Review: James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’

Only just starting to date around the edges, this is an invaluable introduction to literature and the crafting of fiction.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
How Fiction Works: Amazon.co.uk: Wood, James: 9781845950934: Books

Overview

I hadn’t had much contact with literary theory until this year. I’d studied German and History, and although I’d done a couple of literature modules in German, I’d never grappled with the grand timelines of literary history, from the birth of the novel to realism to modernism to postmodernism and beyond. I bought this book to help me better understand the underpinnings of my MA Literary Translation course, and it was definitely a good idea. It was concise, easy-to-read, and full of interesting references to works I usually hadn’t read- which gave me loads of ideas for my summer reading list (when I’ll finally have the freedom to pick up a novel for myself and read it for my own goddamn pleasure).

Highlights

The sections are rather erratic and staccato – short sections of usually no more than a couple of pages and sometimes as small as a single line. This didn’t bother me, because I have a short attention span and a scatterbrained reading style anyway. I’m usually thinking of exactly 6 other things whilst reading, so the easily-digestible chunks were a relief. Nothing makes me groan more than opening a book and seeing that the chapters are 120 pages long, or that, God forbid, there are no chapters at all.

This book also gave me an insight into the jargon my MA Prose coursemates are often throwing around, as well as a good grounding knowledge of the first great novelists (Flaubert, Balzac). It also helped me to more understand the modernist literary mindset, and how it contrasts with postmodernism.

Lowlights

I have a few criticisms, which basically boil down to:

1- this book is a product of its time and American meta-anxiety during the ‘War on Terror’.

2- the author really could have tried harder to include some more female novelists (the only two which get any kind of in-depth mention are, of course, Austen and Woolf).

and 3-(this is my PET PEEVE) the author repeatedly quotes translated fiction without mentioning the translator or the fact that the fiction is in fact translated, as is the case with all the numerous French novelists he references. He references their work as if it were their original, unadulterated words, thus erasing the translator and their invaluable contributions to making international authors accessible to monolingual Anglophone audiences. Those are not Flaubert’s words. They are an impression of Flaubert’s words via another writer. You are a leading literary critic. Please do better.

Categories
Book Reviews Prose

Book Review: Algernon Blackwood’s ‘Roarings from Further Out’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the genre literally called ‘weird fiction’, Blackwood’s creepy Edwardian, late-Gothic tales from beyond the veil between Heaven and Earth are best read by firelight in a deep leather armchair on a cold winter’s night.


Roarings from Further Out by Xavier Aldana Reyes, Algernon Blackwood |  Waterstones

I like Gothic. I’ve read Dracula and some M.R James. Frankenstein is perpetually on my to-read list. I’ve grown up in an esoteric, half-Roma household full of Tarot cards and stories about Aleister Crowley sending a demon to kill one of his enemies on a remote Scottish Island. I thought I knew what I was getting into with this book, but nothing can quite prepare you for your first experience of Algernon Blackwood.

I don’t know if I ever would have stumbled upon this incredible name had I not decided to translate neo-Gothic fiction loosely based on his autobiography for my dissertation, but I’m glad I did. This is a collection of short stories put together by Reyes with a delightfully short introduction. The stories (“The Willows”, “Ancient Stories”, “The Wendigo”, and “The Man Whom the Trees Loved”) are actually more like novellas, and some are even weirder than others, but there are some overarching themes: nature, the supernatural, occultism, spiritualism, fabulous creatures, philosophy, psychology, dreams and nature. Did I say nature twice? I meant to. There’s nary a paragraph here without a tree in it.

Highlights

The stories are well worth reading. There’s a deep beauty to them, something haunting and almost intangible. They drip with horror and existential angst, but Blackwood never fails to show his deep regard for nature and the Earth we live on. A lot of the prose is incredibly introspective and internal, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just don’t expect much action or dialogue.

Blackwood is good at building a sense of dread and his descriptions are beautiful. His personification of the land we live on, and his deep psychological analyses of the unexplained are things I’d never experienced on this level before. You finish each novella with the distinct feeling that there could be things in Heaven and Earth that we could never even begin to understand, or things working in our subconscious to slowly drive us mad.

He brings in so many fantastical subjects: the weirdest novella of the four covers a tourist who stops at a French village and slowly begins to realise that the people actually turn into cats at night and behave more and more like cats during the day. Despite the utter nuttiness of this, the prose never feels forced or contrived. Blackwood can somehow make a ridiculous premise or situation feel believable and tangible, which is no mean feat.

Lowlights

This prose is incredibly ‘of its time’. I feel like most paragraphs could have been half as long as they ended up. The editor in me wants to put lines through so many superfluous adverbs, adjectives and even whole sentences which say almost exactly the same thing as the preceding sentence. But, then again, this was the style back then. It was completely normal to be verbose, to have purple prose, to add in reams and reams of disorientating description. Sometimes there was so much description I lost sight of what was actually being described.

I feel like these stories could do with a modern-retelling, much abridged. The ideas are so original and the creepiness so acute, but the stories do tend to go on for twice as long as they need to, which does damage the tension and suspense somewhat. The verbosity of the prose also dilutes the action, and the dialogue is lost amongst page-long paragraphs of internal monologue or natural descriptions.

Obviously, these stories were published over a hundred years ago, so it’s not surprising that there’s a bit of casual paedophilia thrown in (a forty-something man falling in love with a seventeen-year-old girl in “Ancient Sorceries”), and the image of women, along with Native American characters, is pretty dim. Actually, there are hardly any female characters at all, and, where they do exist, they are passive, not particularly intelligent, and extremely self-sacrificing. The two N-words also appear (both ‘negro’ and the unsayable one). Again, this was completely normal at the time, but it does make the modern reader’s toes curl.

Categories
Prose Translations

Creative Adaptation: Kai Hermann’s “Engel + Joe”

I really enjoyed this book on first reading years ago, but it’s absolutely jam-packed with slang and colloqualisms. I thought it would be impossible to translate an extract and maintain its German context – because I have to swap the slang for something recognisable in English. I’ve gone for a London idiom instead. This book came out in the early 2000s, when Berlin was still experiencing a huge Punk vs. Skinheads problem. So I’ve swapped it for 80s/90s London, not that there are any particular time markers in the text so far. I’ve worked from my first handwritten draft and did not look at the ST at all in writing it up. I’ve added or taken away words and sentences at whim to try to create an ‘authentic’ voice: Joe is a teenage Londoner from a broken home. The end product is more of an imaginative adaptation than a translation, based on pp.14-17 of the novel.


Joe doesn’t hang around at the bus stop this morning. It would just get her down. There are loads of police around. Wailing sirens are weird for a Sunday. 

A couple of skinheads are standing in front of a Tescos trying to look hard. There’s lots of skinheads in these ends. Joe knows a few of the ones standing in front of Tescos. She wants to switch to the other side of the street, but one of the guys calls out to her. 

“Hey, Joe. Get over here.” 

The guy is called Killer. At least, that’s what everyone calls him. Maybe he started calling himself Killer at some point. To look hard. It’s better not to have any beef with the skinheads when you live in these ends. Joe doesn’t particularly like them. But at least the Nazis in this area aren’t the kind who kick homeless guys to death. She thinks. She’s known some of them since primary school. Boys who didn’t have the guts to talk to a girl alone or do any fucking thing alone. That’s why there’s always loads of them, beer cans in hand, safety in numbers.

Joe walks across the street on autopilot. Towards the guys, even though she absolutely can’t be arsed to let them chat her up. But that’s just how it is. That Joe sometimes automatically does things that these kinds of idiots ask of her. Skinheads, teachers, and even that Mike. When she wanted to show her mum a mock exam, that Mike said “give it here.” She gave him her exercise book on autopilot. Then she kicked herself afterwards. 

When Joe reaches the skinheads, Killer asks “Don’t we get a kiss?”

“Your breath smells like arse,” Joe says. She positions herself as best she can so the skinheads can’t see the swollen side of her face. One of them rips out an enormous burp, and the rest find it amusing. 

“Are you coming with? Squash some fleas?”

“Why?”

“The shitheads wanna kick up a fuss about our demo.”

“No time,” says Joe, “Don’t fuck up. See you around.” She pretends to be in a hurry. There’s nothing worse than bumming around Shoreditch on a Sunday morning. Even worse when you have no idea where you’re going. No window displays. Just dog shit. The big attraction is the posters in the used car salesrooms. At the corner, in front of a used car, a guy is squatting on the floor. Looks like a punk. Doesn’t really belong in these ends. Joe has to get a closer look at him. The guy has a bloody face. Joe wants to get past quickly. 

But the guy asks: “Do you have some shrapnel to call an ambulance?”

Any other day, you can walk about for hours without seeing or hearing a thing. See nobody you know far and wide. Nobody speaks a single word to you. Not even a single dirty builder to whistle at you. And you feel like a spare part. But when you don’t wanna hear or see anyone, suddenly someone’s chanking at you on every street corner. 

Joe rummages for some change in her jean pockets. Automatically. Although she shouldn’t give a shit about this guy. She gives him 50p and asks “Nazis?”

He says “Nope, police.”

The wound on his forehead doesn’t look good. It’s still bleeding. He wipes the blood from his face with a rag. Joe gives him some tissues. 

“You should get that sorted. It looks grim,” she says. 

The guy doesn’t respond. He pulls a rat from his bag. Presses his blood-smeared face into the rat’s fur. Kisses it. Puts it on his knee. 

Joe puts her bag down. Squats down automatically. Has a look at the rat.

“It’s cute.”

“Cute?” the guy puts some glasses on – the only have one lens – and looks at Joe. 

She turns the swollen side of her face away too late.

“Nazis?”

“No, my stepdad.”

“Really?”

Joe stands straight up again and hangs her bag over her shoulder. She has no idea why she bent down and told this guy (of all guys) anything. And then, to top it all off,  she said “my stepdad.”

“If I have to flatten him, lemme know.”

Joe rolls her eyes. She says “you can’t stay here. Nazis are coming.”

“Really?”

“Seriously. You gotta get away from here.”

The guy acts like he doesn’t give a shit. But he’s looking down the street a little nervously all the same. Says: “Thanks, by the way.”

Joe leaves without saying anything. The police cars are out in force again. She’s happy to get away from the guy. He’s probably an arsehole. Although he doesn’t look like one at first glance. How he looked at her through his broken glasses. A guy’s eyes are important to Joe. Not the only important thing, but important. But the guy with the glasses had kind of mocking eyes. Like he knew everything and was taking the piss out of you for it. Although he must have been feeling pretty shitty. He’s probably an arsehole anyway. Up himself. How he spoke to her. Like from his high horse. But the rat was cute. 

For a moment, Joe thinks about what the plan actually is. There isn’t one. Maybe she’ll throw herself in front of the Tube this evening. But that doesn’t seem likely. ‘Cause she doesn’t feel depressed, just lost.

Categories
Prose Translations

Finding Voice in Text: Continuing Andrew Cowan’s ‘What I Know’

This week, we’ve been talking about voice. What does voice mean in literature? How can we find it? What constitutes an author’s voice? And how can we replicate it in translation?

I’ve taken the first page of Andrew Cowan’s novel What I Know, which I know nothing about, and continued it for another page or two, attempting to replicate the author’s and narrator’s voice. It reads like your average white man having a mid-life crisis novel, apart from the deeply creepy, voyeuristic undertones:

 

Our impressions on first viewing were of tightness and gloom, and even at that time, with our second son growing inside of her – not that we yet knew it would be our second son – I had looked at the grey shadows of damp in the corner of the ceiling and at the tiny flecks of black mould huddled in the grouting on the window frames and considered running. I considered pushing past the bewildered, mousy estate agent and bursting out onto the street. I considered running, in either direction, past the rows of narrow, cloistered red-brick boxes with paltry front gardens. But I didn’t, and we bought the house. I convinced myself I saw a flash of sympathy in that mousy estate agent’s eye as she handed me the key. That was nearly seven years ago. I wasn’t brave enough to run, but I wasn’t brave enough to stay properly either. I like to convince myself that I’ve done my fatherly duties. Sometimes I even do my husbandly ones, too. 

Why did I stay? Cowardice? Shame? Societal pressure? Some potent mix of all three?

I shift my head to the side a little to follow her trajectory across her bedroom. I wonder if she noticed me felling the trees. There’s now a space where they used to be. The girl is reaching into the wardrobe and pulling out a towel. She leans forwards, her breasts forming pendulums reminiscent of my vertical wife. She wraps the towel around her hair with a few deft twists, fixing it in place with the same pink plastic clips that Jan leaves on the edge of the bathtub. No, with her arms above her head, her breasts look smaller and tighter.

My attention wanders when she begins to dress. It’s around midday. The clock on the wall marks the seconds. The boys are at school. They gave me childishly homemade cards this morning, and I pretended to enthuse. A spiky 4, an imperfect 0 a sagging oval. Jan has gone out, presumably to fetch me a present after forgetting again. Aren’t husbands supposed to forget these things? Isn’t that my sacred dereliction of duty? I’ve taken the day off, but needn’t have bothered. The world is no more exciting from the dining room floor.

Categories
Prose Translations

Translating from the Visual 2: Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

Edvard Munch | The Sick Child | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Don’t be sad, mama.”

Astrid’s mother will not meet her eye. The girl’s red hair is plastered to her milky forehead. A sweet, cloying smell hangs in the air. Astrid wants to ask her mother to open the window, just a crack, just for a minute, but knows she’d refuse. Bad for a fever. The room is warmed by a fire flickering in the hearth. It hisses the odd orange ember. It’s too warm: her mother is wasting fuel again.

Outside, snowflakes land on the windowpanes and immediately turn to water, dribbling their way downwards and making tracks through the condensation. When she is alone, Astrid likes to watch them, placing bets on which one will reach the bottom first. She doesn’t like it when they conjoin, it confuses her.

She turns her head to the left, to the mirror on the wall beside the window. She can see herself over her mother’s shoulder. Her reflection is her constant company. Beneath the sallow sheen of her skin, her eyes burn with the intensity of the damned. Her free hand travels to the silver crucifix around her neck. The metal feels hot to the touch. She swallows. Her throat is parched.

“Mama,” she whispers.

Her mother looks up. Her eyes are sadness ringed with blue. Downturned mouth, fine lines. Worry on her brow. Brown bun, streaked with grey. She’s still clutching Astrid’s left hand.

“Some water, takk,” She croaks.

 Her mother nods, stands up to her full height, crosses the room in two long steps. Pours water from the jug on the dresser, and returns. the room is dim, lit only by the small fire and a paraffin lamp. Her mother is wearing a dark dress. Her pale skin gives the appearance of a disembodied head and hands.

Astrid takes a sip from the glass which has been held out to her. She shifts her weight on the pillow supporting her back. Her joints ache. She wants to go out and walk, but Winter has gathered its short days and bitter cold. Her lungs couldn’t take it. 

An icy wind rattles the glass. Now, despite the heat, the heavy snow is beginning to collect in the corners of the window like dust. Her mother follows her gaze.

“Maybe it will be better by tomorrow,” her mother says, but they both know it’s not true. 

“Yes, maybe.”

“You could even visit the Anderssons in a few weeks, if we get a nice day.”

“Yes.” She tries to smile.

“It’s almost spring really, when you think about it. And then, once it’s spring, it’s not even that much longer until we can go cloudberry picking again. You’ll come with me, won’t you?” her words are falling out faster and faster now “Magnus gets bored, and Ingrid can’t carry the basket yet, or she might trip, and we can’t have tha-”

“Yes, mamma. I will.”

Her mother smiles and smoothes the hair from her forehead.

A silence settles. Astrid can hear her family’s feet creaking on the wooden floorboards in the rest of the house. She counts them: two heavy treads and one lighter tread. She knows who it is when they pass by. Her big brother’s loping stride. Her little sister’s uneven trot. Her father’s heavy thud. At least they seem to have made peace with her passing. She only sees her mother now, and only in the evenings. Only when the last of the sun’s weak light has long since faded over the horizon, travelling west. Only when her mother’s bones ache and her hands are red and cracked. Astrid is a ghost in this house. She haunts them.

 Her mother’s hands clutch at Astrid’s, rough skin brushing against clammy softness. She rubs Astrid’s hands as if she could rub the life back into them. 

“Shall I tell you about Askeladden and the forest troll?” 

Astrid’s heard the tale a hundred times. But her mother always embellishes it differently. Sometimes Askeladden’s brothers go back with him into the forest. Sometimes Askeladden’s cheese is too ripe to fool the troll into thinking it’s a rock. And sometimes Askeladden is sent by the troll to chop wood and threatens to bring the whole forest instead.

“I’m too old,” she says, but she knows her mother will tell it anyway, and secretly she wants her to.Her mother takes a deep breath and begins: “Det var en gang…

Categories
Prose Translations

‘River’: A Creative Translation Project

This is a start of a collaborative project working from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘River’. It’s a translation chain, which means that, as the first link in the chain, I have translated Duffy’s original poem into German, providing a back-translation in English and a commentary. The next person in the chain will work from either my German text or my English back translation, and so it goes on, until eventually, everyone on our course has made a contribution. How exciting!

Here’s my response:

Fluss

Bei der Biegung des Flusses

fängt die Sprache an, sich zu ändern,

ein unterschiedliches Geplätscher,

sogar ein unterschiedlicher Name für den gleichen Fluss.

Wasser überquert die Grenze,

übersetzt sich,

aber die Wörter stolpern und fallen noch zurück.

Und da, am Baum genagelt, gibt es Beweise.

Ein Wegweiser in neuer Sprache,

barsch am Baum.

Ein Vogel, nie vorher gesehen,

singt von einem Ast.

Eine frau auf dem Pfad bei dem Fluss wiederholt ein komisches Geräusch,

um den Vogelgesang nachzuahmen,

und seinen Namen danach nachzufragen.

Sie kniet sich hin für eine rote Blume,

pflückt sie,

später wird sie es vorsichtig zwischen den Seiten eines Buches pressen.

Was würde es dir bedeuten,

wenn du mit ihr dort sein könntest,

deine eigene Hände im Wasser baumelnd,

wo blaue und silberne Fische über Steinen hinwegflitzen,

Brocken, Kiesel, Schotter,

wie die Bedeutungen von Wörter,

einfach verschwinden.

Es fühlt sich so an als ob sie schon irgendwoander ist,

hochgradig,

einfach wegen Wörter;

sie singt laut ihren Unsinnsgeschnatter,

und lächelt und lächelt.

Wärst du wirklich dort,

was würdest du auf einer Postkarte schreiben?

Oder in den Sand kritzeln,

in der Nähe von wo der Fluss ins Meer fließt?


Back-Translation into English

By the bend of the river,

starts the language, to change itself,

a different babble,

even a different name for the same river. 

Water crosses the border,

translates itself,

but the words stumble and fall still back.

And there, nailed at the tree, there is evidence.

A  signpost in new language,

harsh on the tree.

A bird, never before seen,

sings from a branch.

A woman on the trail by the river repeats a strange sound,

to imitate the birdsong,

and to ask his name after.

She kneels down for a red flower,

picks it,

later she will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you,

if you could be there with her,

your own hands dangling in the water,

where blue and silver fish flit away over stones,

boulders, pebbles, gravel,

like the meanings of words,

simply disappear.

It feels as though she is already somewhere else,

intensely.

Simply because of words;

she sings her nonsense-chatter loudly, 

and smiles and smiles.

If you were really there,

what would you write on a postcard? 

Or scratch into the sand,

close to where the river flows into the sea?


Original: Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘River’

At the turn of the river the language changes,
a different babble, even a different name
for the same river. Water crosses the border,
translates itself, but words stumble, fall back,
and there, nailed to a tree, is proof. A sign


in new language brash on a tree. A bird,
not seen before, singing on a branch. A woman
on the path by the river, repeating a strange sound
to clue the bird’s song and ask for its name, after.
She kneels for a red flower, picks it, later
will press it carefully between the pages of a book.

What would it mean to you if you could be
with her there, dangling your own hands in the water
where blue and silver fish dart away over stone,
stoon, stein, like the meanings of things, vanish?
She feels she is somewhere else, intensely, simply because
of words; sings loudly in nonsense, smiling, smiling.


If you were really there what would you write on a postcard,
or on the sand, near where the river runs into the sea?


Commentary: ‘Fluss’

In my translation of ‘River’ into German, I decided to focus more on playing with the format other than the words themselves. My initial rough draft was a lot of fun to produce because I ironed it out over a Zoom call with my German partner, looking for grammatical errors and any clumsy word choice or formulations. This was my first attempt at ever translating a poem into my second language, so I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of asking a native speaker’s advice.

I think the drafting process is a really important aspect of translation that, unfortunately, often becomes invisible by the publishing phase or the final version. We delete and type over our process, but I think the process should be celebrated just as much as the finished product. Here, I’ve used scans of my initial draft as a background to my translation to highlight the fact that all translation is a palimpsest. We work over and over our initial ideas. 

I have played with a few aspects of the words, but my main focus here was creating something visual. I printed out my final version and cut the lines into strips, arranging them in waves on the page. I then overlaid the poem with my own biro doodles and used watercolour brush pens to add a splash of colour.

When it comes to language, I have changed Duffy’s reference to ‘things’ in the third stanza to ‘words’, as I disliked the vagueness of ‘things’ and enjoyed the focus of this poem on translation and language. I’ve made up a word in German: ‘Unsinnsgeschnatter’ (nonsense-chatter) cannot be found in any dictionary, but German is intensely malleable and flexible, inviting the writer to neologism. The new word caused Jannis, my co-editor, to break out in a smile, and I don’t think this poem wants to be taken too seriously.

 In the final stanza, I’ve added the verb ‘kritzeln’ (scratch) to accentuate the image of writing into sand, and Duffy’s use of ‘clue’ as a verb in the second stanza has been replaced by ‘nachahmen’ (to imitate/mimic), as I thought this suited birdsong very well. ‘Clue’ (Hinweis) as a verb (hinweisen) would have taken on a whole different meaning in German, as it means something more like ‘to indicate’, or ‘to point something out’ instead of ‘to figure something out’, which is what I think Duffy intended here, although I cannot be sure. I also really enjoyed the beat the introduction of ‘nachahmen’ created across these two lines, with the threefold repetition of ‘nach’.

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words Scene 5

A girl skips home from school. Her long, red hair- the colour of sin- is gathered in a thick braid down her back. As soon as she is home, a tall, proud man – her father- has her knitting and practising her handwriting. He has a good hand himself, and she must learn it perfectly. She often sits by the window and watches the other village children playing in the street. Sometimes, all she can hear is the gentle clack-clack of her needles slowing building row upon row of useful fabric, a warm weave of knots. Sometimes, her father sits next to her, reading the newspaper. Then, the soft rustle of the pages mingles with the clicks of her knitting. But it’s only that quiet when it’s raining or winter and the street is dark or cold and empty. Other times, her father teaches her how to hold a pen. She tries to keep her fingers straight, how he likes it, but her hands are clammy with the effort. Her father stands over her, long and lean, smelling of pipe smoke and lye. He leans forward, supporting his pipe in his right hand and himself on the back of her chair with his left. He chews on the mouthpiece, grinding it between his teeth. He has piercing green eyes and a strong nose. He is a handsome man, the villagers say. The spitting image of the Kronprinz Frederick.

Kitty’s hand slips. Her index finger crooks up. Her father grunts with displeasure and sends the bowl of his pipe cracking down onto the crest of her skull. Kitty feels faint. Waves of pain throb through her, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. She wants to cry, but that’s not allowed. Crying is weakness and girls are weak. Tears would prove it. She grits her teeth and carries on writing. A bead of sweat falls from her nose and onto the paper, blurring the ink. A shot of fear races straight to her heart. But this time she is lucky, very lucky. Her father hasn’t noticed because his eyesight is slowly failing him. 

There’s another noise in the room. She looks up. A woman is curled in the corner furthest from the door. She hangs her head, arms hugged around her knees. Her nightshirt has ridden up, revealing a delicate, lacy network of bruises up her shins. She is crying softly. She knows this must be her mother- her long, auburn hair just a few shades darker than her own. 

Kitty’s writing desk faces the window, so she has had to crane her neck around to see the sound’s source. She remembers her schoolwork and flinches, waiting for the pipe to come smacking down once more, this time for her insolence and unscholarly distraction. But her father is gone. 

Her mother senses Kitty’s presence. She raises her head and must be seeing Kitty silhouetted in the soft, afternoon light which falls through the window and illuminates the dust motes hanging suspended in the air. The room is panelled in dark wood, and bare except for desk, mother and child. She opens her mouth, and Kitty wants to run to her, to rub warmth into her blue-white hands, but she stops dead and the blank fear returns. Her mother is looking at her with her father’s piercing green eyes, full of contempt. It’s not right, it doesn’t fit, because her mother’s eyes were blue, weren’t they?

The woman in the corner raises a long, pale finger and points at Kitty. She speaks with her father’s voice.

“Unnatural child, why don’t you love me?”

Kitty screams until a creak at the door cuts her off. Perhaps her father is back, or is he in the corner? She doesn’t know where to look.

“Hello, Kitty.”

A tall man strolls in, but he is not her father. Her little writing desk has become something larger, more stately, poised on polished mahogany legs. There’s now a low couch in the corner where her mother was crouched just moments ago. An ostentatious chandelier hangs low from the ceiling. Through the window, Kitty can see that she is a few floors up, and that the street below is busy. Women stroll past, clutching decorative parasols or unruly children. Men in tall hats huddle together, moustaches quivering. 

Kitty turns away from the window, from a London both distant and familiar. The man has gotten closer, much closer. Why did she ever let him out of her sight? He has positioned his body between her and the door. His huge desk is behind her. She knows she is trapped, and he knows it too. He is so close she could count the crumbs in his beard and smell the day-old gin on his breath. Gin he keeps in the top left-hand drawer of his desk. She knows because she has seen him taking it out, pouring it and returning it with an almost clerical solemnity. She knows because he has offered her some, and she has seen the flash of indignation in his eyes as she declined. 

“How about a kiss, my dear Kitty? Just a harmless kiss.”

She backs away until her hips collide with his monstrous desk. She makes to slide over it, lithe as a river eel, but he catches her around the waist in one sly, practised movement ill-fitting with either his paunch or his advancing age. Kitty should be terrified. She knows she was the last audition that day. She knows that the others have gone home by now. She did not notice whether his secretary has also left for the day or whether she lurks somewhere, complicit.

“I don’t understand you, Kitty,” he remonstrates, “young girls like you like to be made love to, they like to kiss. You’ll never be a success in the music halls if you don’t, my dear.” There is a malign glimmer in his watery, bloodshot eyes. Her so-called agent presses himself against her, trying to plant his lips on hers, scratching her chin with his wiry bristles. She squirms like a polecat, clawing him and screaming, drawing her knee up to the one place she knows men are vulnerable. He gasps, withdraws, his breath catches, his face contorted with pain, but he still has a vice like grip on her wrist. He’s not going to give it up, he’s not going to be bested. Not by her. He’s panting, a hairline scratch underneath his eye seeping blood, and still he tries to pull her towards him. Kitty feels herself losing her balance in slow motion. She pulls back, tips, falling towards the desk, her leg lifting, wading through treacle. Or is the desk falling upwards to meet her temple?

The last sensations Kitty remembers as she loses consciousness are the running of water, a gushing, rushing feeling, and the ringing of church bells somewhere far off in the distance. 

Suffragettes at Holloway prison, London #HappyInternationalWomensDay |  Suffragette, Women in history, Holloway prison

Kitty wakes up on her narrow pallet bed. She’s glistening with sweat, and her cheap, off-white nightgown has gone almost translucent pressed against her legs and stomach. It’s cold in her cell, and already she starts to shiver. She draws her  scratchy, prison-issue woollen shawl around her. Her escapades the previous day provoked the wardresses to force her into regulation clothes. She looks up at the small, grated window. Weak morning light filters through, and she feels dirty. She feels the same outrage and wounded pride, clenching her fists around the bed frame. They’ve escaped from their drawer again.

She’d come to her senses that day fully clothed. Either someone had heard the commotion, or his predilections didn’t stretch to the unconscious. Either way, she hadn’t stayed to discover which. She remembers the moments after fleeing, after extricating herself from that man’s office. Dazed and bewildered, she had burst out onto the streets of London. She was not yet twenty. She had felt ashamed of something she was in no way accountable for. All she had wanted was to stand under a stream of scalding hot water and scrub herself raw with carbolic soap, but instead she had stood at the railing of Westminster Bridge and gazed down into the sluggish brown waters of the Thames below. She had pulled herself back. That was the day she realised that courage had nothing to do with men.

Categories
Prose Translations

The Benefits of Copying

Our writing task this week was two kinds of copying, and discovering what it can teach us about translation and writing more generally. We first read an extract from Ali Smith’s novel Autumn (2016) on the Brexit referendum result in the UK:

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.

All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipped about in the air above the trees, the roots, the traffic.

All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: What is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

Ali Smith, Autumn, 2016

We had a couple of minutes to read and attempt to memorise this extract. Then, we attempted to copy out the text from memory. This was my attempt:

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing.

All across the country, people emerged, shocked, when the news whipped around like an electric pylon after a storm when one of its wires had been snapped and was whipping around everywhere.

All across the country, people thought it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people thought it was the right thing. All across the country, people thought they’d really lost. All across the country, people thought they’d really won. All across the country, people turned to Google: what’s the EU? Google, move to Scotland. Google, how to apply for Irish passports.

As you can see, I didn’t get everything, but I got the main ideas. I struggled with the extended simile, and missed some of the middle of the final paragraph.

Learning from Copying

So, what’s the point? What did I learn?

In short, repetition is memorable. Texts with a specific pattern of foregrounded words can be repeated from memory more easily. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it does teach you how important repetition is when appealing to a reader. It’s not the mark of bad writing.

The extended simile, on the other hand, was difficult to remember. It’s not difficult to see why. It stretches over several lines and uses some confusing imagery. However, not being able to remember something isn’t a mark of bad writing either. The pylons whipping around: It’s a long image. You can argue that this is a kind of stretching the metaphor. It lengthens the experience, and sometimes also the aesthetic effect, of reading. A simile or a metaphor invites us to put together two ideas which don’t usually belong together. Shklovsky’s ideas on defamiliarisation are linked to this. We need strangeness in art, and by extension literature as a form of art. It’s only through experiencing the strange, of juxtaposing ideas together, that we can feel and form something new.

I’ve also learned that syntax can be an expressive tool, a stylistic device. The order the words come in and the way they are arranged go a long way to whether we remember them or not. We tend to remember the beginnings and ends of sentences and not the middle section, and the same goes for paragraphs. It’s best not to hide my main ideas somewhere in the middle of my text.

Copying by Hand: What can it do for us?

Now we’ve talked about some of the benefits of copying, we can come onto some of the benefits of copying by hand.

Over the last year, I’ve turned into a bit of a writing purist. I’ve gone from hardly ever writing by hand to writing all of my first drafts manually. I have a specific type of pen I love (the Works, cheap blue or black gel pens), and specific types of notebooks (A5, hardback, not ringbinder, not too many pages, thick pages, narrow lines to keep my handwriting under control). I love the physicality of it all – I’m at my work desk, crafting something. I love filling up notebooks, I love how timeless and analogue it is. I love riffling through the crispy pages afterwards. I love stashing them on my bookshelves and pretending to be a published author, with my works nestled between Mantel and Harper Lee. I love how notebooks get thicker and fatter as you fill them up. I love how it forces me to slow down and think about my choices, and I love how all of my thought processes are visible, the editing is visible. If I add a word, if I take one away, this can be seen on the page. Drafting in a Word or Google Doc, is, on the other hand, invisible. The process has vanished. Creating a first draft by hand and then typing it up also forces you to edit. You suddenly notice which word choices feel clumsy, which arrangements fall short of lyrical. I like to put lots of word choices in a first draft of fiction or translation, and then pick one when typing it up. You edit as you transpose your text from the page to the screen. You realise what needs elaborating, and which passages are unnecessary.

But I digress, this was supposed to be about copying specifically. Copying this passage made many of us realise how laborious and unnatural the repetition feels. There’s so much repetition in this extract, and when reading it, we tend to just skip over the repeated words without giving them much thought. But when it comes to actually writing each one, that’s when we realise the weight of it. Copying repetition also meant that some of us, including me, were losing our places, forgetting which sentence we were on when a lot of it looked the same.

Copying by hand helps us to gauge the effect of some stylistic features on the reader. Some translators swear by copying some passages from the source text before they embark on a translation, just to see and understand what the author is doing, to get inside the text, so to speak. We can gauge the words better. Copying can be used in this way as a translation resource.

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds Not Words: Scene 3 Part 2

8th June, 1913. Kew, London

Clara is still clutching the carpet. They have no idea what to do with it. Kitty slings it over her shoulder, and they run hand in hand towards the nearby towpath. There’s a ditch and a copse of trees lining the furthest edge of the cricket pitch. They hurl it in and cover it with some hastily kicked earth and twigs. Luckily, it’s not a garish colour, but, sooner or later, it will be found. Their backs are now to the racecourse, but even from here they can feel an echo of its immense heat. Their cheeks are still flushed.

As they near the gas lighting, they stop to rearrange their hair and dress. 

“Do I look respectable?” Clara asks, plaintive. She’s brushing dirt from her sleeves and rearranging her hairpins. 

“Never!” Kitty beams. For practical reasons, they have opted to go hatless tonight. It only serves to make them more conspicuous. 

They set out along the towpath, being the natural choice and much quieter than the streets around Hampton Court Palace, although it is now after midnight – too late for respectable ladies to be out unaccompanied. Too late, even, for respectable ladies to be out at all. Aside from some figures in the distance, the path is empty. 

They finally have the time and inclination to talk freely.

“Did you see that! It went up like a Christmass tree! We barely made it out in time,” Clara squeaks, her voice tight. 

“Well, you know Betty, the best laid plans of mice and men…how could we know the fire would take so quickly?” Kitty’s rush is already beginning to fade, leaving an empty fatigue in its wake. She pinches the bridge of her nose and rubs her eyes. They sting with smoke.

“I wish Pem could see this. It’s spectacular.”

“Yes, but I wish that old turncoat would stop forcing our hand like this. Despite all appearances, I’m not a born criminal.” Deep down, she hates this whole business.  

“We’ll get our way, one day, for everyone’s sake. Until then, this is our duty. Pem may be gone now, but her words live on. Her beautiful words.”

Their boots crunch over the gravel. They are forcing themselves to take slow, measured steps. Clara’s eyes shine with tears. Kitty looks thoughtful. The river is on their right. It reflects the warm orange glow of the blaze, dancing and sparkling on its inky surface. By this point, clusters of onlookers are beginning to gather, men and women. Apparently, there’s no such thing as being out too late when there’s a jolly good spectacle. At first, Kitty can’t decide whether that raises or lowers their chances of getting caught. They may have a chance to blend in, but then she reflects on their hatless, dishevelled, manless condition. Tries to see themselves through a stranger’s eyes. There are now far more witnesses, far more people who could report having seen them, sticking out like sore thumbs along the Molesley towpath. The place is probably already swarming with police. A few men are already running towards the fire, eager to prove themselves. 

Kitty has been putting on a show her whole adult life. Feigning nonchalance is no great strain for her. She dawdles, gazing at the blaze, tipping her head to passers-by. Clara’s jaw, on the other hand, is clenched firmly. Her hair is plastered to her forehead with sweat. One of her sleeves is torn, revealing a flash of milky skin on her upper arm. They are a sight to behold.

As they begin to turn right over the bridge across the Thames, a fire engine screams around the corner, cartwheels screeching over the cobblestones, horses frothed and lathering. The ladies stroll over the bridge arm in arm. It would be easy to miss the conspiratorial gleam in their eyes. They walk in the direction of Richmond and Kew, ducking into sidestreets whenever policemen come dashing along on motorcycles. There really is something eternally enticing about fugitive status, about not quite legally existing in the world. Clara’s dark blonde hair threatens to spill down her back. She’s from a well-to-do family. Kitty effectively has no family at all, nobody to shame.

They meander through the streets of Fulwell, Twickenham and Kew for hours. They desperately try to remember Eileen’s instructions and not to look lost. By the early hours of the morning, they have covered almost eight miles from the scene of the crime, although the women have lost all sense of time. They are looking for the safe house, but London is huge, and neither of them have been to this area before. The suburban streets are quiet as the grave, and had Jesus rode in on a silver bicycle, he would have been less conspicuous than these two. 

“Excuse me ladies, are you lost?”

Kitty and Clara jump out of their skins, and then immediately go about disguising the fact. Kitty’s hand flies to her hair, as if checking it, although it now more resembles mistletoe growing on a tree branch. Clara places her raised hand demurely on her breastbone and looks up at the policeman through her eyelashes. 

“Why yes, sergeant, in matter of fact, we are a little bit lost.” For once, Clara is quicker off the mark. 

He doesn’t look like a sergeant, Kitty thinks. Far too young. He’s puffing up his narrow chest as we speak, and his chin strap doesn’t hide his acne. But there’s no harm in buttering him up. Clever Betty.

“Why are you two ladies out at a time like this?” 

He narrows his eyes. He knows they don’t look like fallen women. He shifts his weight uneasily from foot to foot. His boots look new, too stiff and shiny. Is he afraid of us? Kitty thinks. She almost laughs. Perhaps he thinks we’re going to pull out a horsewhip and start clobbering him with it, like plucky little Theresa and that oaf Winston Churchill a few years back. Unforgettable. Kitty pulls her thoughts back to the question at hand. 

“Sir, we’re music hall performers, you see. We’re often out late, it doesn’t bother us.” She flashes her most winning smile. 

The policeman begins to look mollified, but then clearly decides to put his extremely recent training to good use. 

“Which music hall?”

“The Prince of Wales on Tottenham Street, sir.”

You can see him calculating the distance in his head. 

“You’ve come a long way, then, girls.” Him calling us girls. The tenacity.

“We took the tram.”

“The trams are still running this late?”

The trams are still fairly new to London. Kitty desperately hopes that this green lad isn’t familiar with the timetables.

“It was still rather a long walk from the stop.”

“And why, after your shift, have you come this far?”

“We’d organised lodgings here. A much fairer price than in the City, you see. On West Park Road. But we couldn’t find them, and now we’re lost.”

The policeman nods, seems satisfied. He gives them directions to West Park Road, but the women know they have been rumbled. They hurry off in the direction of his pointed finger. He stares after them. For a few breaths, Kitty hears nothing but their heels clicking. Her feet throb, they’ve been on them all night. 

“We’re finished”, Clara groans once they assume he’s out of earshot. 

“I know.” Kitty grits her teeth. They’re both exhausted. They will be arrested the next morning at the latest. But the police want to see where they will lead them first. They want to know where these dangerous, violent women go to roost. 

They can feel their tail. The faint creak of a bicycle chain drifts on the still air. She wonders if he thinks he’s being subtle. They don’t really have a choice now but to lead them back to Eileen’s. Hopefully, she and her parents will be able to claim ignorance of the women’s actions. But for now, they have finally reached their safe harbour. Clara pulls at the latch key hanging on a chain around her neck, and it rises up from under her dress. They are now before a looming redbrick townhouse, framed by two pruned hedges. Its bay windows ape an unknowing stare. It’s a picture of solid, middle class English life, and here they stand, two free radicals. 

A low, wrought iron gate lets out a reedy creak of discontent as they push their way through. Clara fumbles with the lock before they can let themselves in. All is quiet. A grandfather clock ticks softly in the hallway. Kitty is shocked by her reflection in the hall mirror. She looks sallow, bedraggled. Maybe they are getting too old for this. The excitement of the last few hours has snuck off, taking her complexion with it. 

Kitty thinks of the policeman watching the house. He’s probably throwing himself into the saddle of his bicycle at this very moment, speeding off to the Kenley police station to deliver his prize nugget of intelligence, desperate to make a name for himself as a small fish in a big pond. I’ve got them! I know where they are! The Hurst Park Arsonists. Although, she does admit the title has a nice ring to it. 

She collapses into the soft white cotton sheets of the guest bedroom. As far as they are aware, they’ve slunk in without rousing Eileen, her parents or either of the maids. Kitty doesn’t even bother to undress. All she removes are her boots, still plastered with damp grass. She tries not to think of the ordeal ahead of her, to no use. Arrest, trial, imprisonment. Playing Cat and Mouse at His Majesty’s pleasure. 

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

Deeds not Words Scene 3 Part 1

8th June, 1913. Hurst Park Racecourse, Molesley, London

Image result for hurst park racecourse

Emily has breathed her last in hospital. Kitty is attempting to scale the perimeter fence of the Hurst Park Racecourse with the aid of a piece of carpet. 

“Hurry!” Clara hisses.

Kitty is perched on top of a tool shed on the edge of the cricket pitch. She brandishes the carpet above her head like a hunting trophy, swinging it wildly back and forth and hoping it will catch on the spikes on the double layer of barbed wire which crowns the Racecourse’s perimeter fence. She is alternately laughing and panting with the effort. Clara stands by the base of the shed, taking in the spectacle. From this angle, she can see up Kitty’s skirts. She realises that she’s never seen another woman from this angle before. She looks away, and then sees that her friend’s boots are in dire need of a polish. 

Neither of them has much of an idea how they are going to scale the fence in their short skirts, coming in at just above the ankle. They should have gotten hold of some breeches, Clara thinks, and worn them under their clothes. But then what would they have done with their skirts? They would have been a gleaming beacon to any passers-by that something was amiss. Could they have hidden them in a bush? In the shed? The shed is locked, and there are no bushes for a hundred metres, at least. Too late now, anyway. We’ll manage. 

All the while, Kitty has been busy beating the fence as if it had just torpedoed the Conciliation Bill. Then the carpet catches. They want to whoop with joy, but they manage to stifle it to a high-pitched whistle of air from their noses. 

Kitty’s flushed face appears over the edge of the cricket shed. She looks every inch the warrior queen, coarse red hair tumbling from her loose bun. Her face is full yet well-formed, with a long, proud nose. Clara imagines her statue by Westminster Bridge, standing tall in her chariot and leading her tribe into battle. Their eyes are aglow with the first heady rush only risk can provide. Their faces are just inches apart.

“Bravo,” Clara giggles, “Bravo sister!”

The night is calm, sound carries.

“Hush, Betty. We can’t afford to forget ourselves.” Kitty feigns a stern countenance, but breaks into a grin. 

Now they must scale it. Kitty is the stronger of the two. She has been blessed with deep lungs and the statuesque figure so esteemed on the stage. She has been kneeling, but now she lays down, belly down, on the cold corrugated iron roof of the shed. She stretches out her arms, and Clara grasps them, shoulder to hand, hand to shoulder. She hauls Clara up. Her shoe finds purchase on a windowpane, and the glass cracks. Even that small sound sends a whisper through the night. 

It’s almost pitch black. They are surrounded on three sides, four including the track behind the fence, by a wide expanse of turf like a calm sea. The cricket shed is a lifeboat, and they are about to disembark. Far behind them, streetlamps form tiny pinpricks of light. They are completely alone. Kitty puts her hands on her hips, surveying her kingdom, elbows jutting. Luckily, Clara has thought to pass up their wicker suitcase of munitions before climbing onto the shed herself. 

“Well then,” Kitty sighs, “up we go.”

Kitty bends her knees into a slight squat and braces her shoulders. She forms a cradle with her hands, lacing her fingers together. Getting Clara over is their first priority. How they will get the buxom Kitty over afterwards is anyone’s guess.

Kitty pushes up Clara’s damp boot with a resolute grunt. Clara grasps at the carpet. She’s past the halfway point, momentum tipping. Gingerly, she tries to turn her body to face back towards the fence from the other side, but soon she has worked herself into a breathless muddle. 

A few seconds later, she hangs from the end of the carpet on the other side to shorten her fall, Kitty grasping it from the cricket pitch side of the fence so that Clara doesn’t take it with her. There’s still a good few feet to drop. The fence trembles dramatically, then Clara plops down onto the racecourse. Her skirt is rucked up around her thighs like a carelessly dropped china doll on a carpet of grass. She’s sitting in a cloud of white, lace-trimmed underskirts, boots sticking out at jaunty angles. She has survived, they are criminals once again. Clara looks back over her shoulder and giggles. It is catching. 

Now it’s Kitty’s turn. She stares at the fence, willing it to bend, break or melt. 

“Can I help?” Clara hisses.

“I don’t think so.”

Kitty hurls the suitcase over the fence like a champion shot putter. Then she jumps. Her hands miss the crest of the carpet. She slides back down, jumps again, and again. Just before she thinks her hands may start bleeding with the friction, she jumps high enough to grasp its peak. She can feel the fence’s barbs and spikes, menacing under the thick fabric. She hopes it holds. She’s not going to end this night in hospital, for Pem’s sake. 

Kitty’s legs are scrambling, looking for toe-holds. She’s slowly managing to pull herself up. She thinks to herself, this would make an excellent film. A dramatic comedy. Two ladies versus an unscalable fence. 

But seconds later, Kitty is clutching at Clara on the other side. They are indefatigable. No cuts, scrapes or bruises. A small miracle, sent by the Maid of Orleans. 

They stuff their munitions back in their suitcase. They scurry over the long grass, wet with dew, before reaching the Grandstand. 

“We’re here”, Clara whistles.

“What a marvelous beacon it will make,” Kitty winks. 

They race up the steps, drunk on adrenaline. In a southwestern suburb of London, under a clear, starry sky, their grand tribute to a fallen comrade begins to take shape. They pour out a gallon of oil, spreading it behind seats, in front of doorways. The wood is tinderbox dry, it hasn’t rained in over a week. They converse, when necessary, in stage whispers, hearts leaping.

Clara lights the candle stub with a match and places it on the oil-soaked rag. It should give them an hour to make good their escape, but no man or woman can bend fire to their will. They hear a whoosh as they scamper away from the pavilion. They don’t turn back at first, desperate to put a safe distance between themselves and the blaze. The whoosh becomes a roar. The two women start fleeing for their lives, silhouetted starkly against the blistering inferno. 

The whole Grandstand is aflame, crackling and chattering, and now the women are whooping with exhilaration and delight, skipping, driving themselves onwards. The clatter of falling roof beams muffles their cries. The stresses, strains and enforced silence of the previous hour find their release. 

They are just a few hundred metres away from the conflagration when an ear-splitting boom tears the sky apart. The co-conspirators spin around, skirts billowing, flames in their eyes. Some of the Grandstand’s roof goes flying into the air. The building’s gas piping has exploded. Kitty and Clara turn to each other, brimming with emotion. Fear and euphoria. Words fail them.

They escape the same way they broke in, a suitcase lighter. Kitty hopes all trace of their kit will be destroyed in the flames. It’s more difficult to scale the fence from the racecourse side, but Kitty finds that, after giving Clara a push, she can find toe-holds in the metal fence. 

A small grey purse drops from the folds of her dress. It lands silently in the thick grass, unnoticed. 

Once they are clear of the fence, they embrace. 

“We made it,” one of the women murmurs into the other’s hair. 

“We did.” Kitty can offer no insight.