Archive for April 27th, 2012
Two things about Coetzee’s recent review of Stanley Corngold’s new translation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the NYRB:
1) The extended first section of the review, which deals with the play of truth and fiction in Goethe’s novel, seems like it might be relevant to – that is, it might be an oblique commentary on – Coetzee’s own recent (and incessant, from Lives of the Animals forward) entangling of the truth and fiction. For instance:
The image of Werther as a twin or brother who has died or been killed and returns to haunt him recurs in a poem entitled “To Werther,” written when Goethe was near the end of his life. Between Goethe and his Werther self there was a complex, lifelong relationship that swung back and forth. In some accounts, Werther is the self he had to split off and abandon in order to live (Goethe spoke of the “pathological state” out of which the book emerged); in others, Werther is the passionate side of himself that he sacrificed, to his own cost. He was haunted not only by Werther but by the story of Werther he had put out into the world, which called out to be rewritten or more fully told. He spoke at various times of writing another Werther and of writing a prequel to Werther; but it would seem he could not find his way back into Werther’s world. Even the revisions he did to the book in 1787, masterly though they are, were done from the outside, and are not at one with the original inspiration.
Difficult not to read this in relation to Coetzee’s ostensibly late-life depictions of “himself” – or depictions of fictional depictions of himself – in Summertime and elsewhere. Yet another reframing – is his portrayal of himself (or, again, portrayal of portrayals of himself) as emotionally desiccated a kind of yin to Goethe’s yang, something he had to “split off in order to live,” or do something else than live. Anyway, bears some thinking through, this.
2) Corngold and his translation are mentioned only twice in the course of this long essay. The first time is to criticise the fact that the translator does not retranslate a long excerpt that Werther recites from The Works of Ossian but rather inserts Macpherson’s original. The second mention is simply to introduce some consideration of another broad question:
Corngold’s scholarly concern about anachronism raises a wider issue: With works from the past, how should the language of the translation relate to the language of the original? Should a twenty-first-century translation into English of a novel from the 1770s read like a twenty-first-century English novel or like an English novel from the era of the original?
A great question, but one that leads off from rather than back into Corngold’s own translation. So, after these two slight incursions into the edition at hand – incursions that mostly offer Coetzee to offer brilliant riffs of his own on the topics which and implicitly leave Corngold looking a bit under-rigorous in these spots – Coetzee makes a jarringly abrupt turn into the final paragraph of the review:
The Sorrows/Suffering of Young Werther has not lacked for translators. Among first-rate modern versions are those by Burton Pike, Michael Hulse, and Victor Lange. Corngold’s new translation is of the very highest quality, punctiliously faithful to Goethe’s German and sensitive to gradations of style in this extraordinary, trail-blazing first novel.
Wait, what? Sounds like the first paragraph of a more conventional review, the 800 word pieces you see in other magazines and newspapers. After all this, just “very highest quality, punctiliously faithful… sensitive to gradations of style”? After all of these complex and provocative analyses that Coetzee has offered – only some of them provoked by anything specific to the translation ostensibly under consideration?
In other words, it seems as though Coetzee here has written something like a pastiche of the style of the “long-form” reviews that we’re accustomed to find in the LRB and NYRB, where the expectation is that the reviewer does her or his own routine about the topic and then, only late, turns back to the book at hand. Which is what he does here too, but comically starkly, as if to make yet another point – this one performative – about the issue of writerly personality and its vicissitudes.