Twilit or Otherwise?

For the Glasgow Review of Books, I’ve reviewed Iain Galbraith’s almighty translation of Esther Kinsky’s River:

Only a few pages into Esther Kinsky’s River, I began to anticipate a very particular word. Sure enough, fifty or so pages later, there it was. The novel is narrated by a young woman from Germany who has spent a significant portion of her life in London, and at one point she recalls the summer she “landed temporary work in a basement office” while coming to terms with the death of her father. The office “was situated in a dark building on a permanently busy thoroughfare near the big north London train stations”, and every evening, after she had completed her menial work pulling files, she would step out into the smog and make her escape from “the crepuscular cellar”. “Crepuscular” is the word I was waiting for.

The use of that word is an intriguing choice on the part of Kinsky’s translator, Iain Galbraith, since Kinsky’s original text, in German, describes the cellar simply as “dämmrigen”: “dim”. Strictly speaking, in English, “crepuscular” is an adjective that applies only to motion or behaviour, not to a static space like a cellar. Foxes and badgers are crepuscular animals, awake and active twice a day, once in the hours between sunset and true darkness and again between the softening of night and the first rays of dawn. The light at these times of day is crepuscular, too, moving as it does, ever so slowly, from one state of illumination to another. With regard to a space like the cellar, dank and dim but not in a state of activity or flux, a term of greater precision but similar poetry would be “twilit”. “Crepuscular” might apply to the people who work there, but not to the cellar itself. Still, I was happy to see the word appear in River — and reappear five or six times throughout the novel — because even if it felt askew, it didn’t feel like an error of judgment on the translator’s part. It is, in fact, the word most apt to describe the mechanics of River as a whole, as the novel sets about enacting an aesthetics of the crepuscular.

That said, Anna MacDonald’s review of River, published at 3AM Magazine, is by far the best review of this book out of the many I have read.

Beautiful, But Not Sublime

Like most readers new to Olga Tokarczuk, I was won over by Jennifer Croft’s recent translation of the novel Flights. This week, for Splice, I’ve taken a look at how Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ more recent translation of Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead compares to the dizzying heights of Flights:

No doubt, by this point, readers who discovered Tokarczuk with Flights will suspect that Drive Your Plow sounds like something rather different. It certainly is, and there’s no escaping the feeling that it’s a comparatively minor work. That’s not necessarily to fault the novel on its own terms. Like Flights, it does something exciting, something structurally daring, in casting onto the page a handful of dissociated topics and striving to foreground the spirit that unites them. Unlike Flights, however, it doesn’t leave much to the reader’s imagination, as the whodunit narrative and the consistent first-person narration work together to funnel everything through Janina’s consciousness. The connections between events are explicated and streamlined, closing down the spaces for speculation that Tokarczuk meticulously carved into FlightsDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a simpler book, more of a closed circuit, so carefully and holistically constructed as to seal off the access points that would invite readers to participate in making it meaningful. To put this in terms that William Blake would appreciate, it’s a beautiful book that arrives in the wake of a sublime one; it is thoughtful and suspenseful, cinematic and gripping, but its beauty is easier to regard and admire than to immerse oneself in.