Hear Ye!

I probably spend about as much time reading my words aloud as I do typing them into my computer. We may think we read books only with our eyes, but the mental circuitry of language connects to our ears. The ancient Sufi poets sometimes spoke of sifting the sands of a beach with one’s eyelashes to remove the pebbles of imperfection. That’s what reading aloud lets a writer do. It takes a lot of work and you can never remove all the pebbles, but it’s still the best way of gauging writing-in-progress that I know.

Mohsin Hamid

Reminds us of Matt Bell ("[T]here was never a day when I worked on the book in silence").

And of Frost, who remarked that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader." 

And, while we're at it, of Flaubert, who "once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing." 

SxS: In Other Words, What Do You See?

Eager for her rendezvous with lover Léon, Emma Bovary, under Flaubert’s direction, wakes early and looks out the window onto the square. What does she see?

Le petit jour circulait entre les piliers des halles, et la maison du pharmacien, dont les volets étaient fermés, laissait apercevoir dans la couleur pâle de l’aurore les majuscules de son enseigne.

In other words:

The early dawn was broadening between the pillars of the market, and the chemist’s shop, with the shutters still up, showed in the pale light of the dawn the large letters of his signboard.
(Translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, 1888)

Or, in later words:

The first light of morning was stealing into the pillared market place; and on the pharmacist’s house, its shutters still drawn, the pale tints of dawn were picking out the capital letters of the shop sign. 
(Translation by Francis Steegmuller, 1957)

There’s a lot to talk about here, but what do I seeeven after Emma has slipped away for her trip to the city? I see, most lastingly, those capital letters that Steegmuller lights up with the colors of the early morning. And what do I stumble over and therefore not see, not as sharply? Aveling’s “chemist’s shop” (rather than the sunlight) “showing” the “large letters of his signboard.” I return to the original and, using what little French remains accessible from my high school classrooms, note that Aveling followed Flaubert’s syntax more closely than did Steegmuller. 

I must find the translation of this sentence offered by Lydia Davis, now of Man Booker Prize fame, in part because she also offered the following, in The Paris Review, when her rendering of Madame Bovary was published in 2010:

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have…. All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third — how well the translator writes — may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second — how he or she approaches the task of translating — and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.  

Curious about how the trip to the city went for Emma? Find out here.

SxS: Flaubert on How to Look and Feel like Death

Emma Bovary, returning again from passionate hours with Léon in the city, sits among others in the stagecoach. Flaubert — and, dutifully following, translator Francis Steegmuller — gives us the others first:

One by one the Hirondelle’s passengers would fall asleep, some with their mouths open, others with their chins on their chests, leaning on their neighbor’s shoulder or with an arm in the strap, all the while rocking steadily with the motion of the coach; and the gleam of the lamp, swaying outside above the rumps of the shaft-horses and shining in through the chocolate-colored calico curtains, cast blood-red shadows on all those motionless travelers.

See how Flaubert directs us to see. First, the portraits of sleep — the open mouths here, the bowed heads there, the sideways slumps, the limp arms. Sleep has stilled the passengers. But then each member of this tableau is “rocking steadily” (“tout en oscillant régulièrement”) as the coach travels on, and we see these bodies — these heads, shoulders, arms — more clearly owing to the motion.

At the semicolon we reach the hinge of the sentence. We leave these bodies for a moment and move outside the coach to the source of the action — to where the horses pull; we need only see their “rumps” to know of their exertion. The “swaying” lamp above the rumps will take us right back inside, with both moving and colored light that will re-present the travelers. When we see the sleepers again, “blood-red shadows” pass over them; the overlay has the effect not only of re-stilling them but deadening them. And yet we know that they are being jostled by the movement of the coach. I love that Flaubert insists on referring to the travelers as “motionless” (“ces individus immobiles”). I think this tension vivifies them, ironically, in the mind’s eye, and that last untrue adjective underlines their unconsciousness; they feel nothing. They areemotionless.

The perfect set-up for introduction into the paragraph of our suffering heroine, in a sentence whose relative brevity contributes to her insularity. As Steegmuller translates:

Emma, numb with sadness, would shiver under her coat; her feet would grow colder and colder, and she felt like death.

The nothing she feels is from feeling too much. Her involuntary motion is from a different source — not from without but within, “under her coat.” The body part Flaubert shares is her feet, also from within (“colder and colder”). She does not look like death but explicitly feels it.

(For more related to stagecoach horses and the swaying lamps above them, see “From out of the darkness.”)

"The birth of this sentence is a huge event."

Four moments from A Must-Read by Brian Simpson in Johns Hopkins Magazine:

1.  “You will see through what complex mechanics I manage to make a sentence.”
—Gustave Flaubert in an April 15, 1852, letter to his lover Louise Colet

2.  What Flaubert really cared about was the language. It had to be beautiful, rhythmic, precise. He’d spent the last five years writing and rewriting the book to accomplish that goal. He frequently wrote 12 hours a day, beginning in the late afternoon and continuing through the night. He recited the words aloud, bellowing in a full-throated roar. He once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing.

3. Earlier in his career, before he had published anything, Flaubert wrote more quickly with less revision and less satisfaction. “With Madame Bovary, he started erasing, repeatedly changing things before going to the strongest thing,” says Neefs. Most passages followed an accordion process, growing in the early drafts and then slowly contracting as Flaubert trimmed his text and worried over each sentence’s nuance and rhythm. Less than a year into the writing, he wrote to Louise Colet, “What a bitch of a thing prose is! It is never finished; there is always something to be done over. However, I think it can be given the consistency of verse. A good prose sentence should be like a good line of poetry — unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous.”

4. While still a PhD student at Hopkins, Matthey came to appreciate the power of la critique génétique when she learned how another giant of French literature, Marcel Proust, struggled to find the right way to begin À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). The opening line is: Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. (“For a long time I used to go to bed early.”) “The process is fascinating. It took him forever to find this sentence. When you see the manuscripts and how he came to that — it’s very moving to see that sentence coming from very deep writing,” says Matthey. “The birth of this sentence is a huge event. It didn’t come out of his brain just like that, as a magical event.”

"A shape in space and time"

"Flaubert’s famous search for the ‘mot juste’ was not a search for words that glow alone, but for words so precisely placed that in combination with other words, also precisely placed, they carve out a shape in space and time."

               —Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One