Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Friday, February 8, 2013

For Verne's Birthday

"Complaining doesn't have to do any good -- it's enough all by itself."

Did Jules Verne see to the heart of the American soul? He himself made no such assertion but had his plucky American character Ned Land say it.

In observing Jules Verne's birthday today I thought I would celebrate the statement, and try to live up to its spirit.

I read his novel Lighthouse at the End of the World earlier this week -- and enjoyed it. The dialogue sounded stilted and less naturally Vernesque than I thought it should, which made me think the translator might have little experience in writing fiction ... and made me wonder if perhaps he took out too many exclamation marks.

"What! Too few exclamation marks in a Verne novel!" you say.

My reaction exactly.

Something I thought completely and strangely awkward, however, I saw in the translator's introduction. On the first page, in all-capitals, the word "PLOT" appeared before me. The introduction begins thusly: "Lighthouse at the End of the World (1905) by Jules Verne (1828-1905) is not well known in the English-speaking world ... Before studying its composition, characters, and themes, it is useful to summarize the plot ... "

Can this translator have any sympathy for Verne at all? Or for Verne's readers? What provoked him to summarize the story at a point when the reader has barely opened the book? I had no choice but to skip the introduction as a whole and go on to the story. Later I went back to read the translator's words -- and promptly found a use for those missing exclamation marks: for I needed something to pencil into the margins. In this "plot" the translator seemed to be making things up. I can repeat the statement that most surprised me, since it is not quite a "spoiler," being at best a misleading statement of actions: "The pirates draw in an American ship, killing all on board except First Officer Davis." Does this sentence not suggest to you that the pirates killed a ship's worth of American sailors? Yet such an incident failed to appear in the novel I read. (Were the editors at University of Nebraska Press asleep already, on page two of text?)

The translator then ends his "plot" with this: "The climax involves much drama and bloodshed." I believe this puts things a little strongly. His exaggeration cheapens his subject, unfortunately -- for this reader. I believe other intractable Verneians might feel similar disgruntlement.

I think the problem here may have arisen because the translator feels on secure ground, as translator, without feeling quite on the same ground as a writer. (His footnotes, I should add, seems to reflect a genuine scholarly impulse.)

I rather like this novel and hope to do more thinking on it someday. In the meantime since it does have a symbolic dimension it comes in for a small reference in my current book, which I will here just call Wonder Tales.

Before diving into the book, when reading the back-cover matter, I took pleased notice that William Butcher published something called Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography. While the "definitive" claim seems foredoomed to inaccuracy and gives off an unpleasant scent of self-importance, I have been wanting to catch up on more of the Verne materials that have cropped up, here and there, in the last few decades. After seeing what Butcher does, however, in foisting a "plot" of Lighthouse onto readers before Verne himself has a chance to squeeze in edgewise one of his own exclamation marks, I feel a bit more inclined to look for non-definitive books.

The first "review" of my own C.M. Kornbluth, as it happens, said in effect that I had probably written the definitive life of Kornbluth. In everything he said about the book this reviewer showed he had failed to read it before making his knowing pronouncements -- an accidental oversight on his part, no doubt (the book is immense, after all, compared to his paragraph of comment); and after saying his bit on the subject the reviewer laid this deep-sea whopper on my platter, fished from who-knows-what depths of ignorance. Had I planned to write the definitive biography I would never have begun the book in 2008. In C.M. Kornbluth I undertook to re-introduce Cyril to the reading world and to inspire others to pursue studies of his life and works. To this day I offer the book as an invitation, an exploration, and an introduction -- albeit an introduction with well-documented detail and some, I hope, critical vigor. Do I offer or did I ever offer C.M. Kornbluth as the last word? You may answer that yourself.

The "reviews" written without knowledge of the book being reviewed do considerable damage, even when not appended to a sales site at that thrice-be-damned cultural imposter named Amazon. I rather wish this particular reviewer would take back his statements about C.M. Kornbluth, even though all of them are favorable -- but wish especially that he would take back the one suggesting my book might be definitive.

It does me no good to wish this, of course.

And this quite satisfies me, since I have resolved to take Ned Land's words to heart.