Paschalis Nikolaou reviews The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith

Translated into the French by Benoît Domis and re-translated into the English by Nicholas Royle (Subterranean Press, 2013)

A play with authorial identity predates the metatextual detonations of The Gist; here is a writer known as “Michael Marshall,” his “webspace” informs us, for his work as a suspense novelist, but whose alter ego, a horror and science fiction writer, is “Michael Marshall Smith.” It is not unusual to have alternate iterations of a name in distinguishing, say, between genre and literary fiction—Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks come to mind, or John Banville and Benjamin Black—and sometimes the practice speaks of necessities in publishing rather than artistic intent (this was partly the case here; the appearance of a similarly titled book in 2001 by one Martin J. Smith triggered a decision which the author then turned into conscious strategy). Nor should we lose sight of the uses and dramatizations of pseudonym in the horror genre especially: perhaps one of the most well-known and relatively recent examples being Stephen King’s The Bachman Books; the eventual uncovering of the author’s identity arguably led to one of King’s more consequential fables, his 1990 novel The Dark Half.

But this splitting of the writing self weighs heavy in the title page of The Gist. The volume contains Michael Marshall (Smith)’s long-ish story, barely a “novelette,” followed by a translation into French by Benoît Domis, followed by Nicholas Royle’s back-translation into English. A one-page afterword (“The Gist of the Gist”) explains how things began and progressed:

CONCEPT: The idea behind this project has been to explore the process of translation, and to celebrate the way in which individual writers bring their own creativity and vision to versions of the text, while remaining true to the Gist.

During his French translation, Benoît was allowed to ask Michael for clarification, in the usual manner. While Nicholas was preparing his translation of the text back into English, however, he was allowed only to make any such enquiries of Benoît, again in accordance with usual practice.

The French version functions as a wall between the two English versions, therefore a barrier through which we hoped the Gist would nonetheless emerge.

We believe it has.

So, a name that has already split in two segues into a single authorial self that is shared with two translators, and is staged on the book’s spine and title page (‘Smith—Domis—Royle’). It quickly becomes apparent that very few things in this book will work in linear rather than simultaneous fashion: as the afterword explains, the original English story is already designated a “version”; it encompasses translation, invites it in. This is very much a part of the work’s dramatic intention.

But unusual textual manifestations aside, what of the tale itself? What kind of tale can anticipate its own repetition, inhabit its own versioning in every sentence? Without giving too much away, readers of “The Gist” re-experience aspects of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote” via the genre of horror. The story pays attention to translation as both process and plot, vision and device, but also re-engages familiar characters and conventions. Portnoy, an antiquarian book dealer, asks John, a translator he regularly employs, to work on a text that seems to be in a completely unknown language for one of his clients. Portnoy needs him to, at the very least, “uncover the gist” of what it says. There is nothing new in this trope; it recalls the Necronomicon in several of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, and the rare bookdealer-cum-detective played by Johnny Depp in Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. Mysterious manuscripts, alien tongues, doppelgängers, body-snatching, and possession—these are tropes that have long histories. They take advantage of the dramatic possibility inherent in a self once thought undivided, but multiplying when written down; they arise from the impossibility of expressing truth and identity in language that appears to give an account of the world around us but inevitably ends up discussing fiction itself (self-referentiality naturally spirals in texts like these: it is hardly surprising that Menard picked Don Quixote, that most enduring example of pseudotranslation, for his own impossible project). Here, translation as reduplication, as possible—and perilous—alterity, is used to express situations that it also seems metaphorically to embody. For instance, the protagonist, John, repeatedly loses himself (“I photocopied a few random pages on the little printer/scanner/copier thing I have, and took them with me to the pub. At some point in the evening I lost track of them, a little before I lost track of myself”). He is aware of being followed, and keeps describing a confusion that occurs there and somehow, elsewhere. Michael Marshall Smith builds his world using metonymy rather than metaphor, narrating incidents that are simultaneously literal and allegorical, occurring in at least three different places at once.

The story of “The Gist” naturally anticipates all sorts of echoes and variations: our awareness of the book’s construction inevitably seeps into the way we read the action. Ironically, this dizzying effect requires immense precision in the story’s design and presentation. Pull quotes and text highlighted in red appear on nearly every page, offering both emphasis and artifice (like Subterranean Press’s edition of The Gist itself, the mysterious tome is also “laid out in a style between Arts and Crafts and Roycroft”). Such typographical enhancements multiply the tale’s meanings and remind readers that narratives are negotiated in language, despite the limitations and failings of both. As John tells us,

[t]hings rarely stop and start at easily identifiable points, after all. If they did, then it would be much easier to know when to hold up your hand and say ‘Wait, hang on, hang on, stop—I’m not sure I like where this is going’. Life tends to shade from one state to the next, to evolve, or devolve, to grow and develop, or fade and fall apart. Books and sentences and words hide this, with their quantized approach to reality, their pretense that meanings and events and emotions stop and start—that you can be in one state and then another that is different and that the whole of life is not one long, continual flux. Whole languages collude too, especially the European ones, setting object against subject and giving precedence to the latter over the former: only rare exceptions like certain Amerind dialects structuring themselves to say ‘a forest, a clearing, and me in it’, instead of the individual-as-god delivery of ‘I am in a clearing in a forest’.

And this is what weirdly occurs, in the very next paragraph:

I think of these things as I sit. I find other things changing, too, aspects of the world becoming different. In the local corner store, for example, I discover myself chatting fluently to the strikingly beautiful Polish girl behind the counter, in her own language. I find myself walking away with her phone number, too, which is not the kind of thing that usually happens in my life.

Interlinguistic moments such as these appear constantly in “The Gist”; any attempt to capture reality in language turns either to enchantment or agony.

And then, of course, there are the two translations (“versions”) themselves, inseparable from the whole and taking up two-thirds of the book. Domis’s and Royle’s translations confirm the inevitable distances between languages, but they also reveal elements that survive the meanderings of interlinguistic transfer. The translations are permitted to cohabit with and haunt the original English story. Any proper evaluation of the French translation and its re-Englishing must take into account the role literary translation plays in the literary project itself, noticing how the changes effected by the translations become part of the drama and theme of the story.

In Domis’s French version, titled “L’essentiel,” we come across some interesting false friends and modulations of reflexive verbs, and there are also shifts in the use of tenses, as would be expected in any translation from English into French. Royle then translates from Domis’s translation, which acts as an original, and thus the version sharing the same language with the source text is also the one furthest away from it. As the author and his translator-collaborators hope, the existence of a second English “The Gist” creates a disorienting game of mirrors when the two are read consecutively. In Royle’s rewriting from the French, this is how those same paragraphs above now read:

Things rarely have an identifiable beginning or end, after all. If they did, it would be easy to know when to raise your hand and say, ‘Stop—wait, I’m not sure I like the way this is going.’ Life has a tendency to progress from one thing to another, to progress or regress in fact, to develop, decline or collapse. Books, sentences and words conceal this by their desire to mimic reality, by claiming to give a beginning and an end to meanings, events and emotions. They try to make us believe that you can be in one state and then another, a different one, and that life does not undergo permanent change. Some languages participate in this conspiracy, in particular European languages, opposing object and subject and giving precedence to the latter over the former; exceptions are rare, among them certain Amerindian dialects, which are structured so as to say ‘a forest, a clearing and me within it’, rather than elevating the individual to godlike status and saying ‘I am in a clearing in the forest’.

These thoughts pass through my head while I’m sitting here. I discover other changes, too, facets of the world that are different. At the corner shop, for example, I surprise myself by talking fluently—in her own language—to the gorgeous young Polish woman who works behind the counter. When I’m on the point of leaving, she gives me her telephone number, which is not the kind of thing that normally happens to me.

The second iteration of “The Gist” tends to feature dialogue and description that are more neutral; it gives less prominence to idiomatic London English and slang words, for example. Nevertheless, Royle sometimes arrives (via the French) at some unusual and arresting images. For instance, in the passage above, the “slab-faced landlord” becomes a “monolith-faced landlord,” making readers pause a second, think more consciously. It is a somewhat slower, more considered text. Further close comparisons between the versions in this multilingual triad are beyond the scope of this review, but would be fruitful material for discussion within literary and translation studies.

Its important textual and bibliographic circumstances aside, “The Gist” happens to be a thrilling story—an intelligent and spirited repurposing of long-standing themes in this genre. And there are undoubtedly further iterations and afterlives still to come; its meditations on language, its exploration of (meta-)narrative effects and the literary uses of translation as situation and textuality will be revisited on bookshelves as well as in conferences, and even, perhaps, on-screen. It’s worth noting that The Gist in its present form is a remnant of a much larger, unfulfilled project, whereby Michael Marshall Smith at first wanted to organize an ambitious chain of versions in English, Italian, Polish, French, and back into English (he notes in one interview that there was a necessary rethink after the Italian translator failed to deliver), much like Adam Thirlwell’s anthology Multiples: 12 Stories in 18 Languages by 61 Authors, published in 2013. Despite this reduction in the project’s ambition—only a single crossing into the alterity of French before a return to English—the result is a nuanced, complex, highly self-referential work. This is an original designed to operate alongside its alternate versions and engage in conversation with them. Indeed, the project’s power lies in Smith’s ability to render visible the psychologies of writing as poignant instances of transference, with the author and translator (including in their roles as characters) running rings around each other. It asks anew questions that writers as well as literary theorists have long struggled to answer: how much of the author’s self is contained in a text? How much of it may live, inside others, via the act of writing? Or of translation?