Rejection. Every writer faces it. But more interesting than the ways writers have been rejected are the ways writers reject. For Paul Beatty, the rejection is of our nation’s shameful legacy of racism. In “Looking for Suzanne,” Chris Kraus’s rejected narrator tries to put the pieces of his enigmatic ex together, while in Claire Vaye Watkins’s “The Call,” futuristic California seems to have rejected everyone. Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky refuse to accept that the classic translations of Russian classics are sacred, and have made a career of breathing new life into Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, among many others. And channeling their spirit, perhaps, we embrace the opportunity to publish one of Chekhov’s previously untranslated stories, “Artists’ Wives.” Not to be outdone, even from the grave, Hemingway weighs in with a pugilistic letter, also previously unpublished. We all know what being rejected feels like. So it seemed like a gift to offer a handful of writers, including Mitchell S. Jackson and Leslie Jamison, the opportunity to pen their own rejection letters. James Patterson, one of the best-selling authors of all time, addresses us all, urging us to reject rejection and rally around the flag of reading. And poet Mary Ruefle has the last word, flat out rejecting Tin House. Ouch. But you, dear readers, must know we’ll never reject you.
Current Issue #63
Fiction:Paul Beatty, Claire Vaye Watkins, Anton Chekhov, Eric Puchner, Liz Ziemska, Chris Kraus, Nancy Reisman, Jessamine Chan, Peter Orner
1. 10/13/00: DOUGLAS F. [Caucasian male, late 30s, medium height, medium-but-fleshy build]
(conversation about cigarettes, untranscribed)
DF: The first time I met Suzanne was in New York. I went to a club to meet up with Catt, Suzanne was there with her. It was a cabaret show, I think. I came in in the middle of the show and sat down with them. And it was strange because there was a kind of weird chemistry that seemed—I felt like she was watching me a little bit during the show. And to be honest, I was watching her. Afterwards it was very odd, as if I’d met someone who’d been a friend for a long time. There was this . . . openness between us. I was very relaxed. And I felt this person—I immediately had the feeling this person understood me somehow. It was very strange. I’d just arrived from LA, where everyone is fragmented and no one leads a normal life, and walking into this dive-y club, I meet this fantastic girl! She seemed so normal and so healthy, like a girl who’d come in from the country. A country girl.
Basically, I would describe her as being very alive. She had the look of someone who has just come out of a winter night into a living room: her cheeks were red and she looked very healthy. And very happy, very grounded. Which I found subsequently to be kind of strange. But my first impression was that she was very direct and emotionally connected and very, very smart at the same time. It was a very interesting combination. It was bewitching.
She looked somewhat—voluptuous? No, soft. Soft was the thing that really comes to mind. She had a radiating warmth. And this was somehow reassuring. Her physical presence was very strong. It was kind of—hypnotic, in a strange way. No, not hypnotic, but direct. There seemed to be a very strong contact. And I felt like I knew who she was. Which, given everything that happened afterwards, sort of makes me laugh.
Actually, I was thinking the other day that it was like the surrealist experiment with the exquisite corpse. You start with part of an image and create your own addition to it, and end up with something you’ve partly created, but it doesn’t quite fit. Because subsequently I heard some stories about her. And it was as if each person had added their own little piece, without knowing what came before.
She told me some really extraordinary, actually kind of frightening stories as I got to know her. Stories about blacking out and losing automobiles and boyfriends committing suicide, things like that, which I found kind of disturbing because when I first met her, she seemed very kind, and very together, and very there. And yet, the stories, as they accumulated, made her seem more and more wild, as if there was a whole other history that at any moment could come crashing down.
She said she was from New Zealand, and I guess I didn’t question that. I assumed she was. She seemed to have some very strong relationships with friends back there, although, then again, it seemed that some of them were here. My impression was that she was in the midst of some kind of conflict with them I didn’t understand. But she spoke about her family, she spoke about—actually, she said she was an orphan. Which seemed odd. I mean, she seemed so normal. But then again, she had that sort of directness and honesty that made you feel like you could trust anything she said.
After that night I saw her again, and then we spent a lot of time together for several days. That fall I was going back and forth between New York and LA. And things started to get strange fairly quickly. I remember we went to a café on the Upper West Side and spent about four hours talking about philosophy and all these strange things. Just as we got up to leave, there was this torrential downpour, and we were running through the rain. It was just like something out of a movie. So peculiar . . . After that we tried going to Café des Artistes but we couldn’t get in because of how we were dressed, and then we ran through the park . . . I was alone at the time, I wasn’t seeing anyone.
Just once, when she was very drunk. In retrospect, I feel ashamed.
I don’t know where she lived, or whose apartment she was borrowing. By then, she’d already walked out on Catt’s film. She spent a great deal of time telling me what a nightmare it had been, and what demonic people Catt and Gerard both were. I felt like I was in the middle of a disinformation campaign, because the images I had of Catt and Gerard were so in conflict with the things that she was telling me. I mean, I’ve known Gerard and Catt for a very long time, they’re lifelong friends, ten, fifteen years. But it was basically the world against Suzanne—that was the sense I got. That nobody understood her. And she had the most incredible ability to make herself seem superior. And you wanted to believe her. One minute she was production manager of the film, the next minute she was leaving the film. After she left, she bragged about how she’d stolen someone’s jacket. Later on, there were a bunch of late-night calls from foreign countries on someone else’s credit card. But the most marvelous thing was, everything she stole, everything she sort of borrowed, seemed so justified. Oh, I’d think, I can see why you’d rack up these huge bills on someone else’s credit card. It makes perfect sense. There was a freedom to her actions that I found on the one hand utterly captivating, but then again also horrifying. It gave me a lump in my throat, somehow. Looking back, it was like dealing with a projection.
For a while we fell out of touch and then I saw her again, the last time, on Christmas. Christmas was the end. A few days before, she called me up, as if we were still in touch, and said she had no plans. She seemed so interested in being part of my family, and part of my life. Which was very inconsistent, because by then we’d made
plans on a number of occasions to get together, and she’d call me every hour to tell me where she was, but we’d never seem to get together. And then she’d show up roaring drunk at 3:00 AM, banging on the door. Of course these kinds of things made me angry. But they didn’t quite jibe with all these other impressions that I had of her.
So, Christmas came around. Suzanne had no place to go, and she seemed to want to spend it with my family. So my family very kindly incorporated her into the—my family, they’re sort of old, traditional Upper East Side New Yorkers. And Suzanne seemed very poised and very graceful, like she knew exactly how to handle herself. And I think my mother had even gotten a little something to give her. And of course Suzanne brought daffodils or something, I can’t remember, some sort of flower.
Anyway, we had this nice thing where we would open the presents. Then we had this wonderful dinner. My mother is a fantastic cook, and she put on this great, huge spread. And Suzanne was so affectionate and warm, and friendly, and sort of intimate. But as soon as dessert was finished, she got up and said: I have to go now. And she just basically got up and left. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and I was kind of shocked. Here we had put on this whole thing and included her, and she decides to go. And I said, Well, Suzanne, where are you going? And she said, I have to go home and work. And this, of course, was Christmas.
And I thought, That’s very strange. I asked if I could call her. Maybe we could get together later on. And she said, Oh no, no, I have to work all night. And I said, At what? And she said, Oh, I’m going home, I think I’m gonna write. Well, to be honest, I was really—I was kind of put out. My family was appalled. And the funny thing was, it seemed before then that she really wanted family, and my friendship. And then she just kind of disappeared—at least, that was the last time I talked to her.
Several weeks later she called my family’s house and my mother answered. And she said, Hi Mrs. Farley, this is Suzanne. And my mother goes, Oh, you’re the girl that dumped my son. And then Suzanne called her a bitch and hung up the phone. What’s interesting about this is—well, we all have our family dramas, family stories. But my mom has never really stood up for me in any way. And it was strange to have it happen through this kind of circumstance. I was hurt after the Christmas thing. But in the end, it dovetailed with all the other things—the suicides and thefts and times she’d shown up drunk at 3:00 AM.
The whole thing sort of just disappeared, like water into sand. Yet there was a kind of residue . . . and even after all this happened, the image of her as a healthy, wholesome sort of country girl whose boyfriend had just happened to commit suicide, who just happened to disappear with other people’s things, remained. There was always a strong undercurrent of sexuality behind it. She was either completely drunk or very prim and proper, almost prudish. No matter how dark things became, she’d come out of it with these rosy cheeks and laughter.
Suzanne was shrewd. She knew how to please people. But she also knew how to disappoint them. Obviously, to really disappoint someone you first have to know how to please them.
At one point she was supposed to move out to LA. I was still working in the film industry, and I think she expected I could help her get some production work on someone’s film. I sort of scheduled all these things around her visiting, and then she never called, never showed up. I think she finally called from Mexico or Canada, some foreign country, saying, I’m sorry, I couldn’t make it. I don’t know.
Poetry:Yusef Komunyakaa, Melissa Broder, Rachel Jamison Webster, Charles Simic, Gretchen Marquette, David Rivard
THE RAVEN MASTER
LUCKY DAY STILL
Features:Debra Gwartney, Ann Hodgman
Rejection Letters:James Patterson, Leslie Jamison, Mitchell S. Jackson, Ernest Hemingway, Mary Ruefle
October 8, 2014
Stephen King has taken potshots at me and my writing more than once. Basically, he rejects my work: Alex Cross, the Women’s Murder Club, Maximum Ride, I Funny, all the rest.
I don’t know his reasoning, but I am pretty sure his very public comments are stoked—at least in part—by the echo chamber of this little industry.
At least until recently, I think you’ll agree, book publishing has largely operated as if under a single roof—even as the shingles are being torn off by declining profits and the barometric pressures of content-coveting distribution megacorporations—and, as often happens with insular communities, hierarchy, snobbery, and infighting have been endemic.
That said, I can understand how I am not a literary darling to some. I have the wrong pedigree, and I’ve done the wrong things. Though they were well reviewed, my first books did not make a lot of money and—for personal reasons—I eschewed living in a garret and instead threw myself into a pretty successful advertising career. When my later books started to hit best-seller lists, I indulged in all kinds of aberrant behavior: I began to publish more than one book a year, to write with coauthors, to do TV commercials, and even to work without a traditional literary agent.
And though I’ve been writing almost every single day—longhand at that—since 1970, I can understand how some readers might still think of me as an interloper. I do not pretend to be an Updike or a Pynchon or a Franzen. That Great American Novelist gestalt just isn’t me somehow.
At this point maybe you’re thinking—the theme of this Tin House issue being rejection—that this is my application to be named America’s Literary Lion, and perhaps Stephen King’s buddy: “I reject my rejection!”
But that’s not why I’m writing to you.
I began this letter with King’s pokes at me because it’s an appropriate lead-in to the point I want to make. The fact is that if we in book publishing don’t stop wasting time and energy on internal rancor and, more importantly, if we don’t start looking outward, we’re going to have more than our roof shingles torn off. If we don’t start pulling together, our house will not just need a new roof; it will be utterly razed. And the ground we now occupy will be gobbled up by commercially efficient but largely soulless multiuse developments that, by the way, have no real use for bookstores or libraries.
And so here is what I am rejecting and what I am asking all of those who love books to reject: anything that in any way gets in the way of people enjoying books.
We have a common enemy here, and that enemy is neither authors who do TV commercials nor their fans. And it is not dopey best sellers. And it is not agents or editors or the big New York publishing houses. It is not even—directly, anyhow—the efficiencies and razor-thin margins of modern megaretailers.
Our real enemy is cultural indifference and irrelevance. Our real enemy, ultimately, is the decline of the book-reading habit.
We all know it’s looming. Per capita—and per waking hour—people are reading fewer books with every passing year. It makes sense. Time was, the best ten-hour escape to which a person could aspire existed between the covers of a book; these days we can do a season of a very fine HBO program instead. Or we can be distracted by the often amazing posts of our friends and relations on social media. Or we can just be too freaking busy and mentally taxed by all the e-mails, texts, and spreadsheets of our ever-expanding day jobs to want to push our eyes across the 100,000 additional words that make up a novel.
And then there’s the fact that the world is rapidly becoming less understanding of—and less patient with—the enormous amount of time and effort it takes to make a book.
Despite the technological simplicity of books, you and I know they are enormously complicated undertakings that require investment not just from authors but from their families, from their agents, from booksellers, and from the book-makers (and -funders) themselves, the publishers.
It’s a real danger that people, companies, and government (see USA v. Apple et al.) are not mindful of this. The public these days tends to assume that books will continue to be made at current levels of quality and quantity despite declining revenues, despite declining interest, and despite how it would be, in the short term, more convenient to pay less money for them.
So I’d like us to stop worrying so much about which books we like and which books other people like. Let’s stop worrying about the pedigrees of authors and editors. Let’s stop worrying about paperbacks versus hardcovers versus audiobooks versus e-books. There is one goal here: to get more people to enjoy reading books.
I want to say two last things about Stephen King. The first is that I continue to be a fan of his work.
The second is that he and I—and I don’t know if he went first or whether it was me, not that it really matters—both recently signed a letter to Amazon asking that it please stop interrupting the delivery of books to its customers as a business negotiation tactic. (That sort of behavior, to my point, is not making it easier for people to read.)
This singing from the same page is exactly what we need to be doing right now. Let’s please reject all the rest. It’s just insular noise.
Yours in books & reading,
Richard Pevear was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on April 21, 1943. He studied at Allegheny College and took a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in 1965. After teaching at Columbia University and elsewhere in the United States, he joined the faculty of the American University of Paris in 1998, where he taught courses in Russian literature and translation. In 2007, he was named Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, and in 2009 he became Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Besides translating Russian classics into English with Larissa Volokhonsky, whom he married in 1982, Pevear also has translated works from French, Italian, Spanish, and Greek. He is the author of two books of poems: Night Talk (1977) and Exchanges (1982).
Larissa Volokhonsky was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. After graduating from Leningrad State University with a degree in mathematical linguistics, she worked in the Institute of Marine Biology in Vladivostok. Volokhonsky emigrated first to Israel in 1973 and then, in 1975, to the United States, where she earned a master’s degree at the Yale Divinity School.
Together, Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1990) and Crime and Punishment (1992), the stories and short novels of Chekhov (2000), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (2000) and War and Peace (2007), Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (2010), and much else by these and other great Russian writers.
JOHN BIGUENET: Many American poets of the sixties and seventies accepted a responsibility to bring the poetry of other languages to readers of English. Richard, did your work as a translator stem from your poetry writing?
RICHARD PEVEAR: I began to translate almost as soon as I began to write. The source was the same, and I never really reflected on why I was doing it. I simply wanted to see and feel how certain poems would go into English. The first was Guillaume Apollinaire’s “La jolie rousse.” Other poems by Apollinaire followed, as well as many poems by Henri Michaux. Later I made a version of Charles Baudelaire’s great poem “Le cygne.” I also translated verse and prose by Antonio Machado’s apocryphal Abel Martín, some poems by Jorge Luis Borges, Ugo Foscolo, Eugenio Montale, Friedrich Hölderlin’s “The Parting,” and poems, prose, and bits of plays by Bertolt Brecht. All of this was a way of sounding out the originals in English, of seeing how much of the “foreign” English could accommodate. It may be that I was trying to find a voice for myself as a poet—a voice that could carry the qualities I most admired in the works I translated—after the Beats, the New Formalists, the Black Mountain poets. And that impulse may have been shared, as your question suggests, by other poets of that time.
JB: What was the effect on your own work?
RP: The danger, and it’s not a small one, is that you may wind up writing your own poetry in a “translation style,” as Salvatore Quasimodo (himself a prolific translator) referred to it in his “Discourse on Poetry.” Both formalist and historical materialist critics used the term “translation style” to criticize the Italian poetry that appeared after the Second World War. Quasimodo saw a positive side to it as “a prelude to a concrete language that reflects the real and disturbs the traditional planes of rhetoric.” (That “prelude” is important.) The negative side is that you may drift away from essential qualities of your own poetic tradition and produce, not a concrete language, but a formless poetical blather. We’ve seen quite a lot of that. Ideally, translation should disturb the “norms” of your own language, awakening new possibilities. It’s a kind of cross-pollination. The long tradition in English of poets translating poets shows the fruits of it.
JB: A few months ago, you both gave a lecture at Columbia University on translation. In answer to a question afterward, Larissa answered, “Translating is good for all writers.” Is translation an apprenticeship you’d recommend to young writers?
LARISSA VOLOKHONSKY: It would probably be more accurate to say that for a young writer, or for any writer, to be interested in translation is a natural thing—and to practice it, if one has command of a foreign language. Translation proceeds from love of and interest in literature, in knowing and absorbing what others are doing now or have done before, not just in your language but in the whole past of literature. Richard already mentioned that he began translating at the same time that he began to write, and he translated what he liked, without any plans to publish. Every few years there is a new translation of Dante by a well-known poet, at least of the Inferno if not of the whole Comedy. There are six or seven translations (all in verse, except for Nabokov’s, and all reproducing the very complex “Onegin stanza”) of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin—an impossible task. Dostoevsky’s first publication was a translation of Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet in 1844. The young Leo Tolstoy’s first step as a writer was a translation of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. These examples can be multiplied. The number of existing translations of the same work does not matter, because once you like a poem or a story, there begins something like an “itch” to see “How would I do it?”
Every young writer’s way is different. I do not think that by doing translation one becomes a better writer. But I do think that through reading foreign literature one’s world becomes bigger and richer and more interesting, and the
impulse to translate may come naturally. And if this does happen, then translation becomes a school for learning.
JB: What is it that translation teaches?
LV: A very interesting vision of the work of translation is given in a book by the French writer, poet, and translator Valery Larbaud, Sous l’invocation de Saint Jérôme (St. Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, being the patron saint of translators). Larbaud considered the work of a translator a highly virtuous occupation. A translator is humble, because he works in the shadow of an author. He has an open mind and an open heart, willing and able to convey what is not his. His work presupposes scrupulous honesty, self-denial, a great deal of knowledge, good memory—all qualities that a young writer might find useful.
The key moment in the work of a translator, according to Larbaud, is the moment of love, because translation, like love, calls for self-denial, zeal, and faithfulness to the original. It also calls for respect for the potential reader, for whom the translation ultimately is intended. Needless to say, this perfect translator does not exist, but by holding the ideal up and reflecting upon it, one may learn a great deal not only about languages and writing in them but also about oneself and others.
JB: Speaking of love, how did a couple like you begin to translate together?
LV: Before we began translating “seriously,” that is, with contracts and deadlines, being in a naturally bilingual situation every day, we translated simply for fun. Whenever I liked what I was reading in Russian, I tried to translate it for Richard, offhandedly, just to share the experience.
That’s how we came to realize, quite unexpectedly, that there was room for a new translation of The Brothers Karamazov. We were reading, or rather rereading, the novel simultaneously, Richard in English and I in Russian. This was in the prehistoric year 1984, and questions of translation were little discussed at the time. There were several versions of The Brothers Karamazov on the market then, but people didn’t give much attention to comparing them. You looked at the price, at the picture on the cover, or simply bought what was on the shelf in your local bookstore. We happened to have the Penguin edition in David Magarshack’s translation.
I still remember the moment and the word that prompted me to further attention and finally led to our first “big” translation. Some five or six pages into the book, the narrator of the story (who, incidentally, is a local chronicler, not Dostoevsky) uses the colloquial phrase podtibril . . . u nee vse ee denezhki (about his first wife’s dowry). The word podtibril means “stole” but tends toward something more slangy (particularly if we keep in mind that we are dealing with nineteenth-century prose), so the whole phrase should be translated as something like “filched [or pilfered] all her cash.” As a reader of the native language, I would not have paid any attention to it had it not been for the fact that Richard was simultaneously reading the novel in English. I peeked over his shoulder to see what the English text said only to discover that the English used the flat “cheated her out of all her money” (Garnett’s translation is “got hold of all her money”).
After that I started paying attention to all forms of unusualness in the Russian text, of which there are plenty. In almost every case, the English flattened or altogether omitted the interesting nuances of the text. One remarkable thing was a stubborn refusal to reproduce the repetitions of the original, which are numerous and bear stylistic significance. Not only the repetitions of words but also of parallel constructions, little rhyming Russian sayings—most of it was lost. I told Richard, “You are reading a stylistically very different text from the one I am reading”—and then the light came on: Why not do a translation that attempted to restore all these nuances, as far as it is possible in the English language?
JB: What method did you use to achieve this?
LV: The same approach we still use. I prepare the first draft, which I write in pencil, not out of a challenge to modernity but because such is my habit of many years, and I do not want to change it. In this first stage, I pay the greatest attention to the level of diction: ordinary and unremarkable narration, colloquialisms, archaisms (such as biblical citations from memory and, therefore, slightly or not so slightly distorted), hidden quotations (from Russian poetry, lore, or songs), clichéd phrases (or clichés used incorrectly—something people do in speech and in writing all the time without noticing it), sayings, proverbs (often rhyming), syntactic peculiarities (inversions, repetitions of words or constructions)—all the little things that can so easily disappear in a translation if one wants to create a text that is smooth, flowing, and idiomatic, a text that reads as if it had been written in English. But what does it mean to say, “as if it had been written in English?” Written by whom? When? And what kind of English? Contemporary spoken? Archaic? If so, then how archaic? And how do we judge it? Did Dickens (from whom, incidentally, Dostoevsky learned a great deal) write in “good” English? Did Faulkner? I won’t go on. But does such a hypothetical thing even exist—an average good language? Please show me where.
The most important qualities of prose to disappear in a translation of “our” authors, if one is not attentive to the
above details, are irony, humor, jest, and, finally, comedy—especially in Dostoevsky but also in Gogol and Tolstoy. In the famous courtroom scene, Alyosha Karamazov, when called to testify, starts beating his chest with his fist, repeating the word imenno, “precisely”: “precisely then . . . ,” “. . . and I precisely thought . . . ,” “this is precisely . . .” He repeats it some fourteen or fifteen times during the scene, which occupies a page and a half of the text. Finally, the accused Mitya, who is sitting in the dock and listening, jumps up and shouts: “Precisely, Alyosha!” The emotional tension is discharged and dissolves in the comic. It would be wrong for a translator to “elegantly vary” these repetitions for the sake of “good style,” an impossible task in any case. It is to the ironing out of these sorts of little details in translations that Dostoevsky owes his reputation as a dark, obsessed writer. There is a lot of light, joy, playfulness, and freedom in Dostoevsky, and we find it more in his style, in the way he writes. By playing with the language, a writer enlarges and ultimately transforms it. It is a translator’s task to try to do the same.
JB: At dinner, in discussing your translation of Doctor Zhivago, you both focused on how sometimes shocking, unpoetic, and even grotesque Pasternak’s writing can be.
LV: In Zhivago, Pasternak used the Russian language in a singular way. He moved from the extremely complex, convoluted, all but incomprehensible prose of his early works to a much more comprehensible one. It is deliberately “unpoetic.” As he worked on the book, he visited his friends and neighbors in Peredelkino and read to them from what he had written. They were often nonplussed and did not know what to say. They respected and admired him, they loved his poetry, but here they were in the presence of something unusual, strange—something they did not expect. So they praised some passages as “lyrical and beautiful,” which made Pasternak very angry. This was not what he wanted from them. Even in the most lyrical passages, there appears all of a sudden some lowering or even shocking detail (like those “dry, popping salvos emitted by the horse’s guts” in the otherwise beautiful description of a ride through an autumnal forest). The novel is written—and purposely written—in a very unusual style, which we tried to convey. To smooth it out would be to betray Pasternak’s intention. We did not strive to please all readers. Pasternak’s prose has never been to everyone’s taste. Not all Russians like it. It is often awkward and unwieldy; the dialogue is often unnatural and mechanical-sounding. It is sometimes hard to understand what the narrator is telling us (“he thirsted for a wingedly material thought”). In our translation, we tried to reproduce this singularity and complexity the best we could. We took the risk of displeasing some readers and are glad to see that people’s reactions to our translation are precisely what the reactions of Russian readers are—very mixed, sometimes outright negative, not at all “Oh, how beautiful and lyrical!” as they expect it to be, especially after watching Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in David Lean’s film.
JB: And what is Richard’s role once you’ve completed your first draft?
LV: In the wake of my so-called “literal” translation (and let me say here, as I do each time I have a chance, that literal translations do not and cannot exist, unless one translates a phone book), Richard writes a second draft. Here again I want to emphatically point out that Richard’s ignorance of Russian has been grossly exaggerated by some reviewers. Especially now, after almost thirty years of working together, it is, in fact, quite good. In this second draft many questions are raised in the margins, and we discuss them all very thoroughly as I reread it once more against the original. After these detailed discussions and weighing all pros and cons concerning a multitude of small decisions, Richard writes the third draft and then reads it aloud to me, while I follow along in the Russian. After some last revisions, the translation goes to the publisher. Then there is the copy-editing stage, in which questions again are raised, thought over, and discussed, and then there are the first proofs, at which point I reread the whole text against the original for the last time, raising final questions and making final changes. Needless to say, between these stages we live with the author and discuss all the problematic points endlessly at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
JB: Your collaboration assumes shared views on fundamental questions of translation theory and practice.
LV: Already at the beginning of our work together, we developed certain principles, or, better to say, working rules we keep in mind as we translate. I prefer to call them rules, because, as the saying goes, rules are made to be broken. It is easy to say that repetitions should always be translated the same way, that a cliché should be conveyed by a cliché and an unusual expression by an unusual one. To do this consistently, slavishly, does not always work, and there is nothing, alas, but intuition that occasionally tells us not to follow our own rules. Translating a major work calls for having a vision of the immediate context and also a vision of the whole. That is why we read and reread the translation in its entirety before we send it to the publisher. That is also the reason why it is so hard to evaluate a translation: minute details that may seem “off” when scrutinized closely make perfect sense when understood as part of the sweeping whole. But anyone who has ever had to do editorial work knows that.
JB: Earlier, you quoted Larbaud’s comment that translation, like love, calls for self-denial, zeal, and faithfulness.
Does collaborative translation, then, have anything to teach us about maintaining a happy marriage? Should couples whose relationship is in trouble try translating, well, maybe not Anna Karenina but at least War and Peace?
LV: Ultimately any means is good if it leads to a happy marriage. Psychologists often say that to maintain a happy family it is important to do things together. But translating together is not a promenade in a shopping mall. I’ve described a way of working, not a way of living together. And, as I said earlier, translation should be an extension of one’s love for literature. It is necessary, therefore, that the couple has this shared love. Furthermore, it is impossible to fathom the actual “chemistry” or “mystery” of what goes on in the mind of one translator, to say nothing of two. I suppose that before embarking on such an enterprise there should already exist within a couple not only this common interest and love for literature but also a certain harmony or, better to say, “attunedness” to each other. Otherwise it may be a dangerous thing and lead to unexpected results.
RP: I might add here that collaborative translation can have distinct advantages, and it is not as unusual as it might seem for married couples to work at it. (I’m thinking of Willa and Edwin Muir, Louise and Aylmer Maude, Richard and Clara Winston, John and Bogdana Carpenter, among others.) Our least friendly reviewer recently caricatured us as “he with little Russian, she with imperfect English,” which, apart from its gross inaccuracy, also ignores the essential question: that of Larissa’s Russian and my English. The advantage of our working together is that we can constantly check each other. I’m ultimately responsible for what the English says, but Larissa is ultimately responsible for the voice of the original—for instance, all those stylistic qualities she described in The Brothers Karamazov. If I didn’t have to answer to her (that is, finally, to Dostoevsky), I might fall into self-complacency.
JB: Larissa has said that in translating Anna Karenina, you had a simple goal: “We want to re-create Tolstoy in English. We want to bring the English reader to Tolstoy, not Tolstoy to the English reader.” That reminded me of the quotation from Rudolf Pannwitz in Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator.” Pannwitz argues that the point of a translation is not to turn Hindi into German but to enlarge the German language so that it can accept a Hindi work of literature. Is translation the means by which we renovate and expand our own language?
RP: Since I first read Benjamin’s essay many years ago, I’ve always spontaneously agreed with Pannwitz when he says: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language.” But now that you make me think about it, I’d like to come to the defense of some of our own best translators.
Gavin Douglas (1474–1522), in what was the first translation of a major classical poem into English, turned the hexameters of Virgil’s Aeneid into pentameter couplets and exchanged his high Latin for a much rougher Scots vernacular. Arthur Golding turned the hexameters of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into bouncing rhymed fourteeners (like ballad meter) and preferred a more Anglo-Saxon than Latinate English (Shakespeare made a bit of fun of that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The young Christopher Marlowe changed the elegiac meter of Ovid’s Amores (alternating hexameter and pentameter lines, which Ovid was rather proud of) into pentameter couplets. George Chapman, following Golding, chose rhymed fourteeners for his Iliad. Dryden perfected the heroic couplet in his translation of the Aeneid, and Pope used the same meter in his versions of Homer. All this would seem to bear out what Pannwitz says about “proceeding from the wrong premise,” that is, imposing English norms on the original. But it’s not so simple.
In fact, none of these translators preserved the state in which his own language happened to be. In every case (even going back to Chaucer’s translations from the French and Latin), the translator’s own language was deeply influenced by the foreign original: it was expanded and enriched poetically.
JB: Your examples remind me that the Renaissance necessarily was the beginning of a golden age of translation as well as the beginning of modern notions of translation.
RP: Dryden, talking about translation in the preface to Sylvae, makes a remarkable observation:
“Neither is it enough to give his author’s sense in good English, in poetical expressions, and in musical numbers. For, though all these are exceeding difficult to perform, there yet remains an harder task; and ’tis a secret of which few translators have sufficiently thought . . . that is, the maintaining the character of an author, which distinguishes him from all others, and makes him appear that individual poet whom you would interpret.”
That character is what Dryden elsewhere calls “the spirit which animates the whole.” The imposing of English norms on the original would miss the spirit, which is not only in its meaning but also in its way with words—that is, not in some sort of generic Latin but in Virgil’s Latin, in Ovid’s Latin. Yet the spirit also cannot be caught by a
word-for-word “metaphrase” (Dryden’s term for a literal translation). The translators I’ve mentioned used English verse forms, English poetics, and, of course, English words, but they were also engaged in an exchange with the original that influenced their work musically, poetically, and therefore also influenced the future of English poetry. I suppose that is what Pannwitz meant by being “powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.” Dryden said that he hoped his occasional additions to Virgil would seem “not struck into him, but growing out of him.”
As Larissa said, fidelity to the author’s specific way with words is what we try for in our translations. That’s the whole joy of it.
JB: At dinner, you also mentioned the difficulty Yves Bonnefoy had in rendering “fish, flesh, or fowl” in his translation of William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” As an example of a similar loss in translating Russian into English, Larissa attempted to recite some particularly evocative lines by Pushkin. The moving beauty of the verses in Russian brought her literally to tears, yet the English version seemed unremarkable. Was Robert Frost correct when he said, “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation”?
RP: Bonnefoy wrote an interesting article about the problems he had in translating Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” into French. The first problem was the title itself. The most faithful French rendering would be “L’embarquement pour Byzance.” But, especially for a French reader, that immediately calls up Watteau’s famous painting, L’embarquement pour Cythère, and all the accompanying associations are wrong. (“Impossible,” says Bonnefoy.) Other renderings of “sailing” in French (appareiller or faire voile) lose the active energy of the English. “To sail,” he writes, “makes one think not only of departure but also of the sea to be crossed—difficult, troubled like passion—and of the distant port . . .” He finally resolved on “Byzance—l’autre rive” (“Byzantium—the Other Shore”), keeping “a certain tension,” but losing “the wrenching away that the verb expresses.”
Then he comes to the “fish, flesh, or fowl” I mentioned to you at dinner. The literal translation into French would be poisson, chair, ou volaille—more appropriate to the restaurant we were sitting in, or to the market down the street, than to the primal life Yeats’s speaker is wrenching himself away from. And for that very reason, Bonnefoy did not translate it literally. “Yeats crams the variousness of life into three words—its energy, its seeming finality—and does so above all by means of alliteration.” Yeats’s three monosyllables “seem to repeat the first divine bestowal of names,” but in French “the ‘felicities’ of language do not coincide.” His translation is “tout ce qui nage, vole, s’élance” (“all that swims, flies, races”), which, he says, keeps the vitality of the original “in the sense but not in the substance of the words.”
The most interesting thing, however, is the paradoxical conclusion Bonnefoy comes to: “You can’t translate a poem. But that’s all to the good, since a poem is less than poetry, and to the extent that one is denied something of the former, the effect can be stimulating to the latter.” In the rest of the essay he explains the paradox, perhaps most succinctly when, reversing himself, he says, “Translation is possible—which is not to say that it’s easy: it is merely poetry rebegun.” What he means, I think, is something about living our way back into the source of the poem, into poetry, in the process of translating (or failing to translate) it.
But we’re still faced with the problem Larissa raised in reference to Pushkin’s lines, “Po ravnínam okeána/Yédet flót tsariá Saltána.” The meaning couldn’t be simpler—“Over the ocean’s plain/Goes the fleet of Tsar Saltan”—but what brings tears to the Russian reader’s eyes is something else entirely, something that is essential to poetry. If we recite the Russian sounds, we may begin to feel it even without knowing what they mean.
JB: Perhaps Bonnefoy’s argument explains why, but I’ve always found it curious how impermanent translations tend to be. With the exception of a text you’ve already mentioned, Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Ezra Pound maintained was the most beautiful book in English, and the King James Bible, completed less than fifty years later, few translations outlast the generation in which they are composed.
RP: I think your list of two can be extended a bit. Chapman’s Homer, published between 1598 and 1616, is still in print, published by Princeton University Press in 1998 and 2000. Sir Thomas Urquhart’s great translation of Rabelais (1653) keeps being reprinted, most recently by Everyman’s Library in 1994 (and in Kindle in 2014!). Dryden’s Aeneid is in Penguin (1997), and his fine translation of Plutarch’s lives is in the Modern Library (latest edition 2001). Pope’s Homer is available in several editions. Sir Richard Burton’s The Thousand and One Nights (1886–88) is in Modern Library, newly reissued in 2004. Then there is Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, available in many editions, including a new Oxford World’s Classics published in 2010.
I’ve singled out FitzGerald because his translation of Omar, published in five editions between 1859 and 1889, has not only become a classic of English poetry but is also a focus for many of the contradictions inherent in translation and in discussions of translation. First of all, FitzGerald created a perfect English verse form for Omar’s quatrains:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
That is from the 1879 edition. To appreciate the perfection of it, and the poetry of it, it’s enough to compare it with some of the later English versions of the same quatrain:
In the sweet spring a grassy bank I sought
And thither wine and a fair Houri brought;
And, though the people called me graceless dog,
Gave not to Paradise another thought!
—EDWARD HENRY WHINFIELD (1882)
In Spring time I love to sit in the meadow with a paramour
perfect as a Houri and goodly jar of wine, and though
I may be blamed for this, yet hold me lower
than a dog if ever I dream of Paradise.
—JUSTIN HUNTLY MCCARTHY (1889)
I desire a little ruby wine and a book of verses,
Just enough to keep me alive, and half a loaf is needful;
And then, that I and thou should sit in a desolate place
Is better than the kingdom of a sultan.
—EDWARD HERON-ALLEN (1898)
A gourd of red wine and a sheaf of poems—
A bare subsistence, half a loaf, not more—
Supplied us two alone in the free desert:
What Sultan could we envy on his throne?
—ROBERT GRAVES and
OMAR ALI-SHAH (1967)
I need a jug of wine and a book of poetry,
Half a loaf for a bite to eat,
Then you and I, seated in a deserted spot,
Will have more wealth than a Sultan’s realm.
—PETER AVERY and
JOHN HEATH-STUBBS (1979)
In spring if a houri-like sweetheart
Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,
Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,
If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.
—KARIM EMAMI (1988)
Some ten or twelve English versions of the Rubaiyat have been published since FitzGerald’s. They show the various ways that translators approach the task of rendering verse—in plain prose, in rhythmic prose, in free verse, in blank verse (Graves), or in a copy of FitzGerald’s quatrain. But none has become anything like a classic in English; none of them achieves the music of FitzGerald’s version, its quality as poetry. FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat has been criticized for being more FitzGerald than Omar, for inaccuracies, omissions, and additions, for being largely his own creation. FitzGerald himself admitted that he “mashed together” some quatrains and lost something of Omar’s simplicity. Yet he still insisted that it was a translation (or “transmogrification,” as he once jokingly put it). He wrote to a friend in 1859: “I suppose very few people have ever taken such pains in translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all cost, a thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse life if one can’t retain the original’s better. Better a live sparrow than a stuffed owl.” The whole question is nicely presented in the Wikipedia entry for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam—an excellent little treatise in comparative literary translation.
So FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat certainly belongs on the list of permanent translations in English literature, which, as I
said, is somewhat longer than you suggested. But it’s true that the list is still quite short compared, say, to a list of Dickens’s novels alone.
JB: So, as you concede, few translations last. Why is it that we need a new Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov but Russians do not?
LV: Russians, as you say, do not need a new Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov for the same reason that the French do not need a new Montaigne; the English, a new Jane Austen or Dickens; the Italians, a new Dante. On a deep level, languages—literary languages—do not change as quickly as vernaculars, and this allows us to read old works in our own language.
The oft-repeated assertion of the need for “new translations for new generations” is thoughtless and fallacious. Garnett’s translation of War and Peace was published in 1904 and was followed by the Maude translation of the same work twenty years later. Now, a century later, both translations are still in print, still among the best, still widely read. There were no more translations till 1957, when Rosemary Edmonds published hers with Penguin. Ours, for Knopf, came out in 2007.
Translations do not necessarily reflect the need to render a given work in “modern” language; the best proceed from the inner need in new generations of translators to enter into a dialogue with these foreign works, and through them with our common European culture. A translator, often himself a writer or a poet, wants to see how a given text “works” from within his own understanding and experience of the language. This may partly explain the “itch” we talked about earlier. There is also something that Zbigniew Herbert calls the “active relationship to tradition.” What he means is that we do not inherit culture as we might a house; instead, we have to work and make it our own. And this is the work not of just one generation but of successive generations. Part of this work is done by translators, but part also by readers. If not nourished by this constant effort, cultural tradition can wither away.
JB: In an earlier interview, Richard has argued that it’s nonsensical to suggest that a translation could be better than the original because the translation wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the original. As he put it, “The original has a prior claim.” Larissa, too, has declined to accept the notion of a definitive translation. Is it impossible that translating a text could result in a work of greater literary merit—and even greater longevity, perhaps—than the original’s?
LV: I also would like to ask a question: How do we measure literary merit? A great poet—say, Pasternak—translates Hamlet. It is an excellent translation, close to the original in form, some of the lines actually enter the Russian language as sayings, it works on stage—in short, it “lives” in Russian, and it becomes the Russian Hamlet (even though there are several other very good translations). Who would dare to say it is better than the original? If Shakespeare had not written his play, there would be no Pasternak Hamlet. There is a superb Russian translation of Byron’s Don Juan. A lady of our acquaintance once said to Richard: “I just read the English version; it’s almost as good as the Russian.” It is hard even to try to explain why this is a ridiculous statement. Some friends once came to see us and brought with them the Russian translator of Winnie-the-Pooh, which is tremendously popular in Russia. His is a virtuoso translation, alive, inventive, witty, and charming—it acquired a life of its own in Russian. All Russian children read it. It has been illustrated; it has been made into a cartoon, into a radio performance. During our conversation over dinner, the translator, Boris Zakhoder, allowed that some think his translation is better than the original. He said it, looked at Richard (the only native English speaker in the room) . . . and blushed. He knew that what he had said was absurd. Without Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, there would be no Vinny Pookh in Russian.
Richard once translated a song by my brother, Henry Volokhonsky, called “Paradise.” This was a rare case of translator’s luck, one could even say a miracle: everything is effortlessly reproduced, and it can be sung to the same melody. It also has poetic virtue of its own. My brother himself once said that the translation is better than the original. But, again, there is the question of “prior claim.”
RP: A Russian-speaking blogger objected indignantly to one of our translations: “There’s not a word left of the original!” I couldn’t help agreeing with him. The author does all the real manual work of construction, creating characters, dressing them, giving them faces, manners, voices, moving them through space and time, involving them in events, relationships, conflicts. The translator has nothing to do with that; it has already been done. Translation, even of prose, is more like poetic composition—hearing, weighing, feeling the author’s words; catching their rhythms, cadences, even sounds if possible; and all the while replacing every word of the original with words of another language. It’s an attendant art. García Márquez said that he preferred Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his own Spanish original, but I suspect that, like my brother-in-law, he was simply being gracious.
JB: Then what is the ambition of translation? This formulation is a bit of a commonplace, but is it the equivalent of a performance of a piece of music? Glenn Gould’s early and late recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations are both
brilliant, I think, but neither rendition attempts to replace Bach’s original score. Are translators performing literature rather than creating it?
RP: Analogies are always approximate. The making of a new translation is often compared to the cleaning of an old master painting—the dimming effects of time are removed, the colors show more brightly, the original freshness is restored. There is some truth to that, but there is also some forcing. What’s restored is, after all, the original painting, not a “version” of it. The analogy to a musical performance is closer to the truth and brings out something essential about translation in general. Instead of claiming that there is such a thing as a definitive translation, the “right” translation of a given book, it allows for variations of nuance, tone, inflection, and even welcomes them. This looseness may make readers uneasy. Shouldn’t there be a right version? Shouldn’t we be confident that we are reading Tolstoy and not somebody’s performance of Tolstoy? There is a lot of leeway here, but that is precisely what makes for the dialogue between the translation and the original. And that dialogue continues in time, as do the alterations of musical performance, while the “score” of the original remains the same. Translation is more fluid than original creation; that is its weakness, but also its gift. I’ve just mentioned Gregory Rabassa. In an interview with Thomas Hoeksema entitled “The Translator’s Voice,” published in Translation Review (1978), he ends by saying: “The translator may be the one person who exists simultaneously in two different worlds: as he works he must be both critic and writer, writer and reader. This position of his, unique in the literary world, is what makes his presence valuable beyond the mere idea of middleman . . .” That puts it very well.
JB: Does a translation, then, constitute a critical assessment of a work of literature or, perhaps, an argument on behalf of a certain reading of a text? Your Dumas, for example, makes the case that the author wrote a very different novel than English readers have been led to believe by previous translations of Les trois mousquetaires. Is translation a form of scholarship?
RP: I wouldn’t say that translation is a form of scholarship, and neither, I suspect, would most scholars. It is more intuitive, based on literary sensibility rather than objective knowledge. It is, or should be, informed by an artistic understanding of the original. But that understanding can be distorted by various preconceptions, personal or collective: we expect something, and so we find it. I think that’s what happened with the versions of the Musketeers I refer to in my preface as “textbook examples of bad translation practice.” It is supposed to be a swashbuckling novel of duels, skirmishes, galloping horses, so the translators felt free to turn up the sound, amplify the rhetoric, add a lot of bluster that simply isn’t there. Dumas’s writing is in fact very simple, direct, unaffected, and his “adventure novel” is nine-tenths dialogue. No doubt there are readers who like the swashbuckling, and they are free to do so, though they don’t suspect that the translators have imposed that “certain reading” on the original.
What I did in my translation was not an act of scholarship, restoring the book to its original state; I simply turned the French into a corresponding English as faithfully as I could—always remembering that, as FitzGerald put it, “a thing must live.” Scholars sometimes forget that.
LV: Speaking of scholars, one of our more severe critics, a respected scholar, likes to quote a tenth-century Georgian monk-translator who said that any subsequent translation is a great sin, “because the second translation will appear to be a hostile act against the first.” (Which did not prevent the same scholar from retranslating at least one much-translated work of Russian literature.) This suggests an underlying notion of competition among translators. I think that a multiplicity of translations rather reflects the linguistic richness of the original, which allows for the variety of intuitive interpretations and artistic understandings Richard just mentioned. Specific knowledge (of history, of local culture, of apiculture, if you wish) is necessary to a translator, but a scholarly, philological approach may, willy-nilly, put the translator in bondage to his own knowledge and bend his judgment toward proving some point he wants to make.
JB: Richard urged me to read his newly published translation of Alberto Savinio’s Signor Dido, a lovely collection of stories, as I’ve discovered. Signor Dido is the author’s double. Is the translator, too, in some sense, an author’s double, or is the relationship even more complicated than that?
LV: What a strange thought! I have never felt like a double of anybody, certainly not of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or—God forbid!—Gogol or all the rest of the pantheon. When I prepare my first draft, I try to say what the original text says as faithfully as I can. To do that, I try to enter the spirit of the text, and since the spirit abides in the letter, I also work on keeping close to the letter of the original. This process, which is really impossible to describe, is probably very far from what happens in the author’s mind—no, the whole thing is too complicated, and ineffable as well. Words fail me. Richard will say it better.
RP: I think it’s a bit more complicated. A double actually appears, after all, as Goliadkin Jr. appears to Goliadkin Sr. in Dostoevsky’s disquieting short novel The Double. In Savinio’s stories, Signor Dido is a free variation on the author himself: he inhabits some of the stories; Savinio himself inhabits others. Whereas a translator, like the author, appears only in the words on the page; not alongside the author, but in place of him.
That’s where the complications begin. How can you “replace” the author? First of all, as we’ve already said, you can’t. Yet there is a sort of appropriation in the act of translation (unless it’s simply done mechanically, on commission). As Larbaud once wrote of translators, “We’re all plagiarists to begin with.” That primitive instinct, that appetite of appropriation, is fundamental, though we have to learn how to tame it, to civilize it. The range of possibilities here is very wide, owing to the permanent existence of the original, and they can all produce fine work or very poor work. How do we tell the difference? If you try to lay down the criteria for good translation, you immediately find excellent examples that contradict them. “A thing must live,” but that life seems to elude definition. Which is probably all to the good.
Lost & Found:William Todd Seabrook, Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, Ryan Chang, Robin Wasserman, Siyanda Mohutsiwa
Whenever I tell people of my deep, bleeding love of L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, I always find my opinion being challenged. As if I just don’t know the facts.
Yes, I know it was written by the crackpot founder of Scientology.
Yes, I have seen the burning slurry pool of a film.
And, yes, I still love it.
But that is not to say that I think Battlefield Earth is actually good. It most definitely is not. My love of Battlefield Earth is not rooted in its message or its poetry, since to say it has little of each is a gross understatement. I love it because it is the most epic novel I have ever read, because it has the single greatest hero ever written, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, and because it is one of the few books I have encountered that I can honestly say is flat-out astounding.
I have been reading science fiction all my life, the good and the bad. I am drawn to the vast possibilities allowed by the genre—the expansive settings, the epic time lines—and to the colossal intelligence and imagination it takes to fill those infinities. And it doesn’t get much more expansive than Battlefield Earth.
Hubbard’s 1,050-page novel begins in the year 3000 with humans living as hunter-gatherers on the verge of extinction. An alien race called the Psychlos has been ruling over planet Earth for a thousand years, mining it for gold (because, of course, like us, aliens have based their economies on gold). Jonnie leads a rebellion not only to rid Earth of the Psychlo menace but also to destroy the Psychlo home planet.
That is the plot of the movie, and most people who haven’t read the novel believe that is all there is to Battlefield Earth. I did. In fact, it was only after I had seen the movie that I decided to read the book, because I assumed that it would be better (it certainly couldn’t be worse) and because I enjoy grand ambition in storytelling, and a small band of rebels reclaiming an entire planet seems as grand as it gets.
After I started reading Battlefield Earth I discovered that while the writing is dreadful, the characters flat, and the aliens imbecilic, the ambitious arc of the movie that so enticed me ends at page 450.
Out of 1,050!
There was so much more to come. After the Psychlos are gone, Jonnie and the measly remaining humans (who are mostly Scots) must fight off dozens of other alien races that now want Earth. They fend them off long enough to find out that the planet has gone into arrears at the Galactic Bank—what?!—and is about to be put up for auction to the very aliens they are trying to keep at bay.
And the plot just keeps going. And going. In his introduction to the book, Hubbard writes, “I decided not to cut everything out and to just roll her as she rolled,” by which I assume he means he wasn’t going to edit a single page, and would solve all problems with deus ex machinas. Hubbard also claimed a guardian angel dictated all of his writing to him, which is one of the reasons he thought his writing infallible. In reality he suffered from hypergraphia, a condition that creates in the sufferer an intense need to write and that is evidenced in Hubbard being one of the most prolific authors of all time.
His guardian angel was either a genius or an idiot, because anyone with the slightest feel for plot would have ended with the death of the Psychlos at page 450 and the book probably would have been fine. A garbage sci-fi novel, one of many second-rate genre books, but fine.
But Hubbard followed through with his universe, lifting Jonnie into higher and higher realms of science, politics, and blond-bearded heroism. Jonnie starts out as a twenty-year-old hunter who is mesmerized the first time he finds a piece of glass. By the end of the book, he speaks several languages, has solved two-millennia-old mathematical problems, and has created a teleportation device. And while he was doing all that he also rid the galaxy of the 100,000-year-old Psychlo scourge, eradicated all war among alien species, forever, and made Earth the richest planet in the universe.
Not too shabby.
And that’s just it. Somehow Hubbard created a world that is both overwhelmingly complicated and amazingly simplistic. In a word: astounding. I don’t care that it was written with the literary precision of a blind parakeet trying to peck crumbs out of a typewriter, or that it’s a thin sheath for Scientology. Whenever I finish Battlefield Earth, it feels as though I have traveled a long way. This is the feeling that started me reading science fiction, the urge to explore space and time and the universe, even though there is always a reserved sense of disappointment waiting for me at the end, the knowledge that the world I was born into will not allow me to touch the stars or see our distant future.
But Jonnie Goodboy Tyler did it. He did it for us all.