Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Dull New Global Novel

Tim Parks has posted a thought-provoking essay in the New York Review
of Books blog on the globalization (and translation) of literature.

...In recent months authors in Germany, France and Italy—all countries
with large and well-established national readerships—have expressed to
me their disappointment at not having found an English language
publisher for their works; interestingly, they complain that this
failure reflects back on their prestige in their home country: if
people don't want you elsewhere you can't be that good. Certainly, in
Italy where I live, an author is only thought to have arrived when he
is published in New York....

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author
perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national,
the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes
a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing
in the 1960's, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex
politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would
require a special effort on the reader's and above all the
translator's part if they were to be understood outside his native
Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian
Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerhard Baaker, or the Italian Alessandro
Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor
offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has
spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make
things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me
they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become
impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of
highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as "literary" and
"imaginative," analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special
effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political
sensibility that places the author among those "working for world
peace." So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk
always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as
Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they
rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the
kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and
literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the
way this or that linguistic group really lives. In the global literary
market there will be no place for any Barbara Pyms and Natalia
Ginzburgs. Shakespeare would have eased off the puns. A new Jane
Austen can forget the Nobel....

Read the whole essay here: