An Imperfect Classic

C. K. Scott MoncrieffThe subject of literature in translation always fascinates me. Remember what Ezra Pound said,

English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translations, every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer.

I believe this but I also believe my daughter who is a professor at a large university when she insists that you should read literature in the original language: reading a translation is hardly better than not reading. This seems very much in line with an article appearing in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik. The subject C. K. Scott Moncrieff as exposed in a new biography by Jean Findlay which, of course, also deals with Moncrieff’s greatest triumph, his translation of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust.

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Henry James

It’s not one of the big ones but The Spoils of Poynton is a novel by Henry James and I read it!

Let’s stop and consider Henry James. Difficult to read; never-ending, complex, convoluted sentences; known more for avoidance than for having actually been read; more painful than a Merchant Ivory production. Scary, even. Except for a brief stint, I have successfully avoided Henry James and, until fairly recently, almost all classical American Literature. I never took a college level course in American Literature. I did maintain a great interest in American poets and American playwrights, but I thought the fiction writers were worthy of my disdain, at least the older ones. Oddly, I considered experimental writers as being outside of any nationalistic concerns in many instances, I probably didn’t even know the author’s nationality … experimental writers were their own literary species.

But I have over the last ten or twenty years been trying to catch up on American Literature, having discovered that it’s not all bad. Still, the stories about Henry James haven’t enticed me to start reading his works. The few that I have read haven’t really left me with fond memories. But I got a copy of The Spoils of Poynton at the Book Exchange and since it wasn’t too long, I started reading. What I discovered was a moderately interesting drama by the proponent of Trans-Atlantic Literature … an American writing about society in England and Europe. Thinking back, I seem to remember another novel which was about a New England family that was visited by members of the English society. Exciting?

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