Harry Mathews’s The Solitary Twin was published posthumously by New Directions at the end of last year. In some sense, the book is an energetic nod to traditional storytelling, with a series of stories told Canterbury Tales-like by characters within the novel’s narrative. But is it possible for a work to be so conventional as to come full circle and become experimental? Mathews’s Twin makes such a case. The line between true tale and a conceived fiction (nearly as razor-thinly drawn as in his My Life in CIA) becomes at times hilariously undetectable (“real-life” appearances are made by the likes of Bloomberg and Malraux) with the result that that created characters are so convincingly described as to demand a Googling. Was there ever a Utopian-Capitalist community begun in New England by Samuel Butler? Did Raymond Norwood Bell of North Carolina shoot and kill Anton Webern? Did there ever exist a Lehman Brothers philanthropist-gambler named Alistair Ross? Like the imaginary books the Twin’s publisher-character has seen into print, factuality seems irrelevant in the face of delightful possibility. Or put another way, as the author himself makes note: “Nothing can approximate the truly colossal stink that expert writing is capable of.”
The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, NC, came as a happy surprise. We were literally hailed to the collection (like a taxi) by a sparkling Niki de Saint Phalle just outside the main entrance. The core of the collection is formed by works acquired by a family from Zurich and so, by no surprise, postwar Swiss artists figure largely in what is displayed in the splendid building designed by Mario Botta. The series of stacked rooms contain some wonderful Giacomettis, Arps and Miros, but we found ourselves particularly smitten by a scale model of Jean Tinguely’s idiosyncratic Cascade in the windowed lobby. A few days later, we made our way to the 40-foot original in the Carillon office tower, just four blocks north of the museum. Entranced by the whirring mobile floating above a reflecting fountain, we became two small children in the presence of a kindly robotic giant.
Specific reasons for the impossibility of literary translation are outlined so regularly in critical discourse (issues of shape on the page, rhythmic idiosyncrasies, specialized dictions, etc., etc.) the lost list of excuses for noble failures hardly needs restating here But for us more fundamental to any translation’s success is something we can only lamely identify as “personality,” something falling within received categories of temperament but much more unique and specific. Take the translation challenge accepted by Richard Siebuth in A Certain Plume, his superb American take on the marvelous Henri Michaux, polymath and proto-Beat “character,” who refused to be shown in photographic portrait. Michaux’s lyric persona, a sort of alter-ego figure named “Pen” (or, alternately, “Feather” or “Quill”), could only be pinned down in paint (like an errant demon) by Jean Dubuffet. The Belgian ventriloquist has also found himself inadequately, albeit evocatively, described by the words of Lawrence Durrell: His is “a stone-age voice full of veridic information about the state of mind in which poetry declares itself as an absolute value.” Add to this a complex and self-contradictory sensibility, a Surrealist Chaplin playing/being the DadaTramp, and the reader begins to approach some idea of the shape-shifting “Plume.” And yet Sieburth nails this character’s pratfalls; the facing-page original French texts only confirm his hilariously daemonic capture of the ultimate submissive with whom, we suspect, all honest souls would confess to identify. For ourselves, we’d never have believed that the distinctive superciliousness of French authority, before whom the bruised self collapses, could make its way so unforgettably into a dreamworld-asylum English — a language through which, it turns out, the humiliated also walk on ceilings.