Monday, May 12, 2008

Wee review

This is going to be short, with nothing significant in it, so I figure that I might as well make sure that the illustration is worth looking at. For those who wonder about my process, it's creating the images that takes most time. Getting links to various sites takes time, too, and coming up with the ideas and the writing is nearly no time at all, but the illustrating takes an eternity, and I'm often not very happy with the results in any case.

T is pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print;
A book ’s a book, although there ’s nothing in ’t. -- Byron
First, a book, and then a movie. That's the way of things, after all. All books turn into movies when once they're watered with sufficient money and vanity. The main page article at Wikistupidia today was Battlefield Earth -- a film designed and executed as a war against humanity. Had it possessed any force, it would have qualified as a form of assault. It, you see, was a book. I don't know why it had been a book, except that it required delusions on the part of fewer people to appear that way.

The book I have to review as a word of warning, but slight warning, is Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I bought it on my last paycheck exsanguination, and I did so on the advice of the reviewers at
  1. The New York Times
  2. The New York Review of Books
  3. Times Literary Supplement (link not available).
I did so, and now I have to demur from all of those established, celebrated, and wise reviewers.

One hates to show one's own vainglory, but this one does hope that you readers mine are clicking on the links, as I have made an effort to have them be entertaining and even metaphorical. If you have, then you already have a sinking feeling in the pits of your stomaches or stomae, because you have seen the author's photograph at the Simon Armitage site. It's the kind of thing that can cause fits. As a man of limited beauty, myself, I do not begrudge the Poet his half-face Mesmer portraits, nor his grimace of portent.

I got the book on Friday, and today is Monday, and it is done. What I found interesting about myself during reading was that I spent far less time reading the translation than I did reading the Pearl Poet. I couldn't keep my eyes on the right hand side of the page. I was magnetically drawn over to the noble verse itself. Part of this is because I have read the poem in Middle English before, so the language isn't that much of a barrier to me. However, when I was not drawn to the left, I was often as not catapulted there by the translation.

Oh, there are stinkers. Stinkers are inevitable in any translation. I have to pick on the poor poet some time (although I suppose he is not so poor now that his book is selling like mad, and I think of how Aurelian Townshend died "a poor pocky poet" who would write a century of sonnets for a few pence), so I'll stick in my thumb and pull out something dumb.

Around 2116, we get this:
He's lurked about too long
engaged in grief and gore.
His hits are swift and strong --
he'll fell you to the floor.
Well, "he'll fell you to the floor" kind of sounds dumb. It's not Anglo-Saxon litotes. It fails to undercut enough to catch the spirit of "that was a good king," but it's following on a description of chopping and maiming and clobbering and mincing people. It's the kind of thing that makes you rub your eyes, do a double take, and fly to the left page to see what the Pearl Poet wrote. Was our glaring contemporary being fair?
He has wonyd here ful yore,
On bent much baret bende.
Ayayn his dyntes sore
Ye may not yow defende
is what our unknown poet wrote. Don't ask me to translate it, please. You can pretty much do that yourself. You don't need my efforts.

Oh, alright!

He has lived here for years,/ On doing much grief and gore bent./ Against his sore blows/ You may not yourself defend.

Simon Armitage has decided to go the "fluid" route and avoid the stiffness of previous poets (dunces including W. S. Merwin and Tolkien, we gather) who tried to maintain cognates where possible. Being knocked down just seems a little less fluid and a little more watery. I don't consider it quite the same in force as being defenseless. Never mind, though. Perhaps Mr. Armitage's squire is telling Gawain that Bersilak is a black belt in Aikido or Tai Chi.

What bugs me, though, and the reason I am dissatisfied and constantly jumping to the left, is not a particular weak spot here or there. I commend Mr. Armitage generally on his translation. If his goal was liveliness and a translation into contemporary poetry, he did a fine enough job. What scarred my mind as I tried to read the translation was not any given word choice, but the fact that the alliteration is whatever happens to fit the form and sense for contemporary British English. The Pearl Poet was not a fool, I think we can all agree, nor a shoddy craftsman. Double negatives were still in his language, but they were not at all necessary. The general subject-verb-object monotony of Modern English was dominant for him, too. However, he varies. He chooses which consonants to alliterate, decides when to repeat words, knows when a double negative will be amplification.

There is a muscularity to his preferred consonants. He likes p's and t's when men are being mainly, and he likes l's and m's when ladies are lounging (and lying). The effect is to make the throat work, to make the sound embattled, to create importance with repetition. With Armitage, you can easily miss that there is any alliteration present, but with the Pearl Poet, there is no way you can forget it. His linguistic effects are not pyrotechnic, but they are expert. Form and sense are perfectly married. They're so perfectly married that we sit back and stare, slack jawed, at how one human could have gotten every word right over the course of thousands of lines.

Listen to the original lines, above. Listen to how the 'you not defend you' acts as a sign of absolute doom, how impossible the situation is as the page presents it. "Knock you down" is not merely an accidental bit of bathos, it's a sign that fluidity has come at the cost of appreciation.


Oh, the movie?

Well, I'm watching "The Holiday." Critics were dismayed that it did not do well at the box office last year. One made a bitter comment about how the public had decided, instead, to go see some fart and vomit comedy instead.

Well, I don't know about the latter very much. After all, I watched pieces of "Jackass" on Comedy Central last night and laughed until tears came to my eyes, but I did so with my finger on the "flip back" button on the remote so that I would not see at all any of the bits that offended me. However, I will say that "The Holiday" is about letter perfect as romantic comedies go.

I don't generally like romantic comedies, as my own romantic life is more farce than comedy, and I do not find that the happy ending ever comes. After all, any ending is necessarily not happy, when it comes to romance, and freezing the action at the moment of marriage and claiming that all of time has been soaked in bliss, that the future is only an unending line of joys, can no longer fool me. However, for clever dialog, true characterization, and innovative situation, I have to say that "The Holiday" gets very high marks. Oh, and beautiful people who would never be without suitors have to go through much suffering to find suitable suits. Other than that, it's pretty good.

Sorry to have taken so much of your time today.


Anonymous said...

Thank you.

The Geogre said...


Once, I was at a conference, and I was presenting a paper on a rather bad novel from 1754 or so, and an elderly scholar asked me, "Should I read it?" I paused. He repeated, "Should I read it?" I said, after lots of qualifying, "No, probably not." He said, "Thank you. Most of these papers tell me about things I need to read. It's nice that one tells me about something that I don't have to read.

The Simon Armitage translation is lively. I'd send any teenager to it. I'd send anyone past the age of majority to Merwin's, probably.