Thursday, July 21, 2011

Treadmills, priests, dogs, dusk, sleep, and fathers: an update


Hot summer noontime and it seems all bloggers' thoughts turn to updates about why the intermittent blogging, the veer from the dogged posting, the endearing indolent laze through the hot daze of the dog days.  And here, it is  this way, too.

I'm a likely a third of the way through my novel (Yiddish for Pirates)-- 33,000 words. Five hundred words a day seems all I can manage, what with the nautical terms, the Yiddish-speaking parrot, and such novel intricacies as plot. I've been writing on a treadmill. Literally. Writer friends of mine write this way -- words measured in distance traversed. Imaginary distance walked through. Which makes sense for writing. I wake in the morning, my legs aching, thinking only that I managed to get my character into the Cathedral, and forgetting that I walked nowhere for hours.

A historical novel, it's hard to know how much history belongs in it. How much a character is aware of the history that s/he walks the imaginary distance through. Of course, I'm taking the characters on a guided tour, but it's not a lecture tour. It is, like most lives,  flaneury, and we turn a corner into a historical alleyway or are hit or manage to dodge events hurtling at us along the thoroughfare. I'm resisting the urge -- even if my characters don't always -- to explicate, to present grand themes in grand expository language. I'm not, however, resisting bad jokes. Not all of history's one-liners have to do with exclusive succession of power.

At the moment, I'm in the Inquisition. It's the 1480s and my protagonist is 14 and is something of a freedom fighter. Most people at the time, I'd imagine were pragmatic, phlegmatic, 'nu?'-matic, or as I said, were flaneurs through the unpredicted and unmapped paths of their own lives. And they were frogs in a pot of gradually heating water, adjusting to the temperature until it was too late and they became soup.

I'm pleased with how exciting and compelling the events of my novel have become. There's heroic and amazing deeds, but I'm becoming increasingly concerned that -- though I modelled it after 17th century adventure/exploration/pirate novels -- eg. Defoe, Exquemelin, etc.-- like Borges' great story of Pierre Menard writing Don Quixote in the 20th century, it means something vastly different now. Of course, maybe my narrator (a parrot, after all) is lying. Or can only understand the world through received stories, But still.

That is, however, what makes this an interesting enterprise. For me. Hopefully for my readers.

Recently, Pearl Pirie posting a link to "Translation Telephone", an online application which runs a text through 20 random languages in Google translator. I often do this manually: take a text and translate it back and forth into and out of English to generate interesting variations and new directions for editing and revising a text. It's fascinating how particular languages (at least as rendered by Google) steer the language to particular sensibilities.

Here's a poem that I wrote exploring Translation Telephone.

CREPUSCULAR

1.
the horizon
it is red, bad hair

2.
it is not a good place for the night

3.
dog told me baby
watch the sunset
it needs it
or sleeping dogs

4.
shepherd of the night
I live in another part of the plan
 

*

Here's another kind of translation. I've been reading Mark Abley's fantastic Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages and in the chapter on Yiddish, he writes about some very powerful Yiddish songs which were written during WWII. One was a lullaby to a stranger's child, because the mother had disappeared. I can't quite remember the particulars; there were some other striking quotations. Thinking about this, as well as some disturbing events my son & his girlfriend, currently living in Nicaragua for the summer, reported, I wrote this villanelle. It is a 'memory translation' and an imaginary reconstruction of a text which I've never seen.



LULLABY TO A STRANGER'S CHILD

mother where is the mother sleep
by the window child
father under song

though the old
sing and unsettled ask
mother where is the mother

sleep something broken
in the forest words
father under song

sleep the river father
mother understand
sleep where is the mother

sleep father sleep
carried in pieces
father under song

born, be born, hide
remember together a voice
where is the mother sleep
father under song


*

OK. Time for the treadmill and a priest to pretend that he is a ghost. Soon there will be a murder. Be well. Be cool. Drink whatever liquids are necessary.

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