Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

We’re starting the week with the fifth installment of the Translator’s Diary, a column by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. As Kling translates the 909-page  Die Strudlhofstiege by Heimito von Doderer for New York Review Books, he is allowing us to peek into the ebb and flow of his thought process. Here is Kling’s dispatch from the prestigious Omi International Arts Center. (Intrigued? Don’t miss the first, second, third and fourth installments.) 

Abstraction Meets Craft: My dateline this month is Ghent, New York, where I am writing from the idyllic Ledig House at the Omi International Arts Center. Ten translators, five from English to German and five from German to English, are presenting work in progress during a week of close reading and feedback. I’m grateful for the practical comments about the part of Strudlhofstiege I presented, especially suggestions for bringing out more fully the playfully interwoven levels of the narrator’s voice. That’s crucial, because he’s not only the main event, he’s the only event, the sole governing sensibility, digressing and freely associating as eccentrically as the narrator of Tristram Shandy. He loves the drollery and irony of shifting registers, creating variety by deft incongruities in elevating or lowering the diction. An example: two characters challenge a third character’s plan, because they know from experience it will miscarry. The passage I brought to the workshop said that they were “stubbornly resistant,” but the native German speakers found my rendering one level too high. I had mistakenly retained the narrator’s formality from the beginning of the sentence to the end, even after he had adroitly switched gears. We entertained “they nixed the plan” or “they put the kibosh on the plan”—both now a level too low, we agreed—until I settled on “they balked” or “they dug in their heels.” General endorsement; on to the next refinement.

Meanwhile, my efforts in earlier posts to trace the ancestry of that narrating voice as an aid to grasping its full scope and range—thank you, readers, for not logging off—made me afraid I was straying too far from the practicality of craft. However, the group showed me how a seemingly abstract concern, which I feared might be taking me away from the text, was in fact leading me back to it, since understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

“Learned Wit,” Scholastic Universality, Baroque Elaboration: One participant ratified my search by encouraging me to read Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s German novel The Island of Second Sight (published 1953, translated into English by Donald O. White in 2010). It’s a wonderful discovery in itself and eye-opening in its kinship with Doderer. Thelen subtitles his book a volume of “applied recollections,” a term applicable in moderation to Strudlhofstiege as well, since the narrator is likewise the sole presence and presents a mammoth set of memories that lie decades in the past. Vigoleis, Thelen’s alter ego, similarly glories in asides, digressions, parentheses, addresses to the reader, convoluted backtracking and remote tangents, filigree, pyrotechnics, set-piece lyric rhapsodies, and meta fiction, proclaiming his joy at leading us on wild goose chases and detours around the mulberry bush. These narrators even digress to explain why they’re digressing! Same associative approach, then, but Thelen hews closer to linearity than his Doderer “cousin,” who reconfigures the narrative line into curlicues and zigzags of the kind Sterne draws in Tristram Shandy. Thelen develops from the base line of a story in straight chronological order; Doderer skillfully blends and blurs two time periods, 1908–1910 and 1923–1925. In both cases, the distance in time between the incidents themselves and their accounts creates reflective irony as the basic mode of observation.

Looking at their historical context, these novels encompass more than just irony. They appear at first to be solipsistic, self-indulgent romps—exactly what readers say they hate about Strudlhofstiege—but their affinity with Sterne lends them an additional dimension. Tristram Shandy seems too zany and idiosyncratic, too full of bawdy references and irreverence to derive plausibly from a lofty intellectual tradition that shaped Western culture for centuries, all the more since François Rabelais’s lewd, transgressive, boisterous Gargantua and Pantagruel novels constitute one of Tristram Shandy’s most obvious ancestors. Yet scholars repeatedly trace Rabelais and Sterne to the mode of “learned wit” that ran through the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, characterized by the effort to unify all knowledge in a system whereby taxonomies, categorizations, classifications, and structural similarities can link any individual phenomenon or discrete entity to any other. Rabelais and Sterne create anarchic spoofs of—but also profound homages to—their forebears. The whole universe can potentially be connected by a single organizing mind. That was the dream of Newton and Swedenborg, thinkers who saw no gap between physical science and metaphysics, empirical process and alchemy. Surprisingly, perhaps, the source impelling this vision of universal order was the Scholastic modality of Thomas Aquinas, enduring enough to haunt its later adversaries. Locke and Hume repudiated Scholasticism as a system of truth but were no less universal-minded, though from different premises. It was the central ambition of Diderot and the Encyclopedists to arrange everything in an organized system.

Art gradually transmuted the objective, outer-directed cosmic comprehensiveness of Scholasticism into the subjective exercise of psychological observation without forfeiting the ambition to universal insight. Proust aspired to make memory the enabler of omniscience; Joyce wanted first Dublin on a single day (Ulysses) and then the dream visions of one man in a single night (Finnegans Wake) to compass all time and space. Broch revealed though Virgil’s last eighteen hours the whole spirit of a vast culture (The Death of Virgil), and Musil launched a kind of Zeno’s arrow in The Man Without Qualities, guaranteeing through open-endedness that his chosen one-year time span could never end and would thus pass into the infinite potential of eternal incompleteness. In contrast to the markedly circumscribed worlds in Beckett or Nicholson Baker, the all-encompassing range of Dos Passos in the USA trilogy or the scope of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest reveal the ambition to contain the entire world.

The all-seeing, all-knowing, all-telling narrator of Strudlhofsteige achieves the same effect of encyclopedic exhaustiveness by following in the line of Rabelais’s and Sterne’s comic response to scholastic universality. Connecting Doderer to Aquinas is anything but arbitrary. Once he was introduced to the precision of theological discourse, he became enamored; his diary entries from 1940, when he was taking instruction to become a Catholic, reveal how smitten he was with Patristics. He praises the Church Fathers as the saviors of Western culture and finds the highest expression of all truth in Aquinas, heir to and commentator on the early Fathers.

Doderer’s claim to being a Thomist is usually dismissed as intellectual pretentiousness, at least by those who do not grasp how central a role Thomistic thinking played in his concept and practice of art. It was just after his exposure to Aquinas that his narrative world began expanding; contrast the conventional (though still highly inventive) plot structure of Every Man a Murderer (1938) with the more daring gambits of Strudlhofstiege (1951).

Two key terms in particular may aid resistant readers. The main concept Doderer requisitions is analogiaentis. Since everything is created by God, all existent entities derive from that single source of creation and thereby stand in relation to one another. Nothing that exists is excluded from comparison to anything else that exists, so the task of the searching mind is to explore those inherent analogies. That process forms the basis of all simile and metaphor, modes of apprehension that the resolute empiricists of the British Royal Academy attacked as obfuscation and befuddlement; check the work of Bishop Thomas Sprat, perhaps the most anti-literary commentator who ever lived. For the Thomist, however, the connecting and organizing mind is merely revealing the a priori structure of creation, especially through the caprices and starting associative leaps of that mind’s communication. The writer’s craft is by nature an act of reverence.

Factaloquntuur (not the album by the neo-Nazi metal band Absurd!): facta (as in “artifacts”) comprise the whole physical, tangible realm of creation. Being physical, facta are the only sources of truth to any observer with a physical nature; nothing can enter the mind that does not come through the senses, so physical reality and our way of apprehending it has necessary priority over the abstractions and theories engendered by perception of the physical. Those long descriptions of the city and the country, the weather, a character’s clothing or posture, an empty room or a crowded square; those lyric rhapsodies on mountains and forests and mansions and rustic houses; those vividly evoked landscapes—they are all facta, artifacts that do the talking.

This whole novel itself in fact perfectly demonstrates how analogiaentis and factaloquntuur work. Its relevant passages elaborate the narrator’s conviction that the design of the Steps arises from and thus manifests structural harmony with the terrain, embodying and enhancing God’s creative work. And, as a result, have bestowed upon them the grace-filled presence of an unusually beneficent genius loci. The Steps make a flawlessly congruent analogy to human striving, the narrator tells us, for which reason the chronicle of that striving, namely the novel we are reading, in turn embodies the Steps, recreating them in a different modality. How many who disparage Strudlhofstiege have taken the trouble to examine its structure in light of the author’s own statements? A bad novel cannot be rescued by a theory, but a pertinent theory may help readers discern in what way a good one is good.

Revisiting another platitude relevant to the Thomistic elaborateness that arises from the universalist mentality can likewise provide more understanding. Centuries after the heyday of the Baroque, Austrian art is still repeatedly said to favor its decorativeness and amplification, its all-encompassing scope, its aim to dazzle, and its sheer complexity, which Edward Crankshaw postulates is deliberately designed to confuse and addle the senses. The Baroque is not by any means the only stylistic direction Austrian writers, composers, and graphic artists follow, but it’s prevalent enough that the label has stuck, with ample justification, up to the present. No surprise that it’s often applied to Doderer, then, but without any more meaning than that his work is often convoluted and bewildering.

Here, too, however, we recall that Baroque proceeds from the all-encompassing mindset of learned wit; it is not just a stylistic tic marked by mere surface complexity (when it became that, as it did in France, it passed into insipid fussiness, into the préciosité spoofed by Molière). Reading Strudlhofstiege is not so different from reading those Baroque English masters of encyclopedic digression, Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy) and Sir Thomas Browne (Urn Burial; Religio Medici). Doderer’s teasing, playful, ironic stance is closely akin to the wit of the “metaphysical” poets like John Donne, in which images are “heterogeneously yoked together by violence,” to quote Samuel Johnson’s famous characterization, the “violence” arising from finding similarities in apparently extreme incongruities. Doderer loves doing the same, just as he favors the sensual overload and the virtuosity of a Richard Crashaw or, later, a Gerard Manley Hopkins. In all these writers, far-fetched metaphor swamps the objects being compared in favor of arcane but apt comparison. Even when Baroque writers are skeptics or unbelievers, their extravagance derives from the impulse to reveal by unexpected linkage the unity of all that exists; their ingenuity consists in observing, not solipsistically inventing.

Stay tuned for more from Kling’s translator’s diary next month!
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