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Writing doesn’t know any other country than that of their mother tongue.

August 22, 2013 24 comments

The Confessions of a Bourgeois by Sándor Márai. 1934. Egy Polgár Vallomásai. French title: Les Confessions d’un bourgeois.

After a billet about the events told in Confessions of a Bourgeois, I thought that the book deserved a billet dedicated to literature. Márai exposes his views on writing, on being a writer and he unravels how he came to his vision of literature and writing. For him, it’s an obsession and naming it a calling is just a way to embellish an urge. He was 14 when he knew he had to write but it took him years to know what he would write. He’s not a writer who spent his youth scribbling stories or writing theatre plays he would play with his cousins in front of the family. Márai doesn’t mention a lot of influential writers but he does refer to Kafka as a writer who “spoke” to him:

Il s’avère toujours difficile de cerner la notion d’influence littéraire et de rester objectif et sincère à l’endroit des auteurs qui ont déclenché en vous ce qu’on peut appeler une vision littéraire du monde. La littérature, comme la vie, comporte des affinités mystérieuses. Il m’est arrivé une ou deux fois— pas plus— de rencontrer des êtres qui me paraissaient aussitôt douloureusement familiers, comme si, en quelque époque préhistorique, j’eusse manqué avec eux je ne sais quel rendez-vous. Ces êtres ont la faculté de m’arrêter sur mon chemin et de me révéler à moi-même. It’s always difficult to grasp the notion of literary influence and to remain honest and objective about the authors who triggered in you what you may call a literary vision of the world. Literature, like life, has mysterious affinities. I happened once or twice –not more often—to meet with a being that immediately seemed painfully familiar, as if I had missed a rendezvous with them in some prehistoric era. Such beings have the power to stop me on my journey and to reveal myself to me.

I think all readers have had this experience of reading a book which suddenly seemed to have been created only for them. Some writers have a direct access to our inner selves, knocking down the barriers of time, sex or language. That’s a wonderfully soothing effect of reading. After a few years, Márai made up his mind about what a writer should be:

Je me méfie de ces âmes délicates qui fuient la vie, comme je trouve profondément antipathique l’écrivain « naturaliste », qui, semblable à un violoniste tsigane, « n’écoute que son cœur » et « décrit l’existence » avec une précision minutieuse. C’est entre ces deux pôles extrêmes que vit, crée et se débat l’écrivain. I am wary of these delicate souls who shy away from life, just as I deeply dislike the naturalist writer who, like a Hungarian Gypsy fiddler only listens to his heart and describes life with a thorough precision. An author lives, creates and struggles somewhere between these two extremes.

For me, Rilke is a writer of the first category, it is clear in his Letters to a Young Poet while Zola is, of course, one of the other category. As a reader, I enjoy both and struggle with both. I’ve had a hard time following all of Malte’s inner musings in The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and I didn’t enjoy much the lengthy descriptions of Les Halles in The Belly of Paris. I guess Márai has a point when he says a writer should find a middle ground between the two. Philip Roth manages that brilliantly; he can mix the most down-to-earth details with deep thinking. However, I’m not sure about Márai’s idea of writing only in your mother tongue:

L’écrivain ne peut travailler que dans l’atmosphère de sa langue maternelle, et ma langue maternelle était le hongrois. C’est pourquoi, quelques dizaines d’années plus tard, alors que j’écrivais déjà passablement en allemand, et baragouinais tant bien que mal le français, pris de panique devant ma surdité quant à l’essence même de ces langues étrangères, je rentrai précipitamment au pays pour me réfugier au sein de ma langue maternelle. A writer can only work in the atmosphere of his mother tongue and my mother tongue was the Hungarian language. Therefore, a few decades later, when I could passably write in German and jabber away in French, I panicked because I was deaf to the essence of these foreign languages. I hurried home to find shelter in my mother tongue.

Zachary Karabashliev wrote his book set in America in Bulgarian, even if he’s been living in Ohio for years now. He didn’t translate his book into English himself. It seems to confirm Márai’s theory. I’m not a writer and I’m not sure my opinion about this is worth anything. But still. On the one hand, writing in another language can be liberating because the words aren’t loaded with unconscious meanings or don’t carry the same emotional weight. On the other hand, they’re new to the writer but aren’t new to the reader who may load them with a meaning unexpected by the author. More importantly, I wonder if writing in another language doesn’t give the writer to innovate in their adopted language. Perhaps it is an opportunity for the adopted language. Romain Gary never wrote a book in Russian. However, he transposed some of his Russian heritage in his writing in French. He has a unique way of using the French language, something someone with a French background may not have invented. I wonder what Márai who have thought about Beckett or Milán Kundera?

Then, if a writer can only write in their mother tongue, translators are vital. Márai also mentions translations as he discovered French literature in translation.

Etrange métier que celui du traducteur, qui requiert toujours la présence de deux artistes. Le traducteur est souvent un écrivain avorté, comme le photographe un peintre dévoyé. Translator is a strange profession as it always requires two artists. A translator is often an aborted writer, just as a photographer is a corrupted painter.

While I agree that translating literature requires more artistic skills than translating directions for use, the rest of the quote is a little too harsh for me.  I think that photography is an art of its own; it’s not the residue of a more noble art called painting. Plus, aren’t translators literature lovers who strive to promote foreign literature in their language? They bring the world to us, readers and allow us to wander outside of our culture, our language. I like better what Zachary Karabashliev wrote in the Acknowledgments section of 18% Gray “I grew up in a country whose language is spoken by fewer than nine million people. Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation, mostly English works in Bulgarian. This translation of 18% Gray from Bulgarian to English is, in a way, my chance to give back what’s been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from.” I told you I liked the man behind the book.

Last, but not least, I leave you with a quote coming just after Márai sold his first article written in German:

Ce fut mon premier article écrit directement en allemand. Je rédigeai en cette langue étrangère avec une assurance aveugle. Après coup, l’entreprise me parut d’une folle témérité. Fixer mes idées en un idiome, que certes, je comprenais et parlais, mais en lequel je n’avais jamais encore écrit la moindre ligne, relevait de la gageure. This was my first article written directly in German. I wrote in this foreign language with a blind assurance. Afterwards, this initiative seemed to be of a crazy boldness. To lay down my ideas in a language that I could understand and speak but in which I had never written a line was a real challenge.

At my own little level, I know the feeling quite well…

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