Monday, January 9, 2012

Three Thoughts on Translation, Elation, and Relation (Part 2)

Part 1 here.


On July 4 of the same year, the weather in Provincetown, Massachusetts was disappointing. Thick clouds hung low over the harbor that runs parallel to shop-lined Commercial Street. Cool gusts of drizzle blew in sideways from the dark, choppy water. My parents were visiting a friend there for the holiday weekend, and I eagerly joined to escape my Providence apartment for a few days of seaside play. In the afternoon, we were supposed to migrate to a house with a view of the annual parade, a characteristically flamboyant affair involving dozens of patriotic drag queens. But I was allowed to spend the morning (originally marked for the beach) shrouded in a hoodie on the deck of Sharen's condo, reading Fitzgerald's last completed novel Tender Is the Night.

Tender is a terrible novel in many ways, and, over-conscious of Bob Dylan and Woody Allen's withering pigeon-holing of Fitzgerald readers, I was trying very hard to stay attuned to its flaws. They're easy to find. Fitzgerald was drinking heavily at the time he was writing the final draft, and it shows in the text's poor organization and irritatingly overwrought themes of aging, decline, the tragedy of wealth, and the emptiness of society. But page by page, snips of Fitzgerald's language would prove so gorgeous that I couldn't help loving it. I enthusiastically underlined passages, like this one, that supported my theory that Fitzgerald was really more of a failed poet than he was a prose artist:

The conductor shut a door; he telephoned his confrere among the undulati, and with a jerk the car was pulled upward, heading for a pinpoint on an emerald hill above. After it cleared the low roofs, the skies of Vaud, Valais, Swiss Savoy, and Geneva spread around the passengers in cyclorama. On the centre of the lake, cooled by the piercing current of the Rhône, lay the true centre of the Western World. Upon it floated swans like boats and boats like swans, both lost in the nothingness of the heartless beauty. It was a bright day, with sun glittering on the grass beach below and the white courts of the Kursal. The figures on the courts threw no shadows.

I didn't much care what would happen to Dick, the psychiatrist who marries his beautiful rich patient, or Nicole, his insane spoiled wife, or Rosemary, the dewy starlet who seduces Dick. I cared about the decorations, the non-plot-related paragraphs or even sentences whose intense concentration of talent and keenness marked them as the novel's real substance. It was almost time to leave for the parade when I came across this conversation between Nicole and her soon-to-be lover Tommy:

“Five years,” [Nicole] continued, in throaty mimicry of nothing. “MUCH too long. Couldn’t you only slaughter a certain number of creatures and then come back, and breathe our air for a while?”

In her cherished presence Tommy Europeanized himself quickly.

“Mais pour nous héros,” he said, “il nous faut du temps, Nicole. Nous ne pouvons pas faire de petits exercises d’héroisme — il faut faire les grandes compositions.”

“Talk English to me, Tommy.”

“Parlez français avec moi, Nicole.”

“But the meanings are different — in French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity, and you know it. But in English you can’t be heroic and gallant without being a little absurd, and you know that too. That gives me an advantage.”

“But after all —” He chuckled suddenly. “Even in English I’m brave, heroic and all that.”

She pretended to be groggy with wonderment but he was not abashed.

It's probably important to admit that, this specific summer, I was (possibly due to overindulgence in Fitzgerald novels) guilty of feeling, as Cynthia Ozick puts it in Foreign Bodies, "proudly, relentlessly, unremittingly conscious of [my] youth." At the time, this consciousness didn't seem even slightly embarrassing, so I jumped up from my seat, heart actually pounding with the possibility that Fitzgerald and I could have shared a thought. Even such a trifling thought.

I had to move. Downstairs, out into the street. I strode down quiet lanes of antique wooden cottages to Commercial, the town's main drag, where the drag queens were already preparing for the afternoon festivities. Hairy breasts and knee-high glitter boots; three-inch lashes and five-o-clock shadows. Fantastical wigs and opulent lipsticks. More convincing performances of femininity than I had ever been able to muster, to be sure. The town, with its quaint Puritan-cum-Portuguese weathered seaside aesthetic, provided a delightfully bizarre background for such technicolor extravagance. Inhaling salt air, I hurried along, dodging the slow-moving crowds already gathering in defiance of the dreary day.

Not surprising at all, I suppose, that I finally halted at the used bookstore. Tim's has been around forever and is always stocked with all the classics and that half dozen books you never knew you needed. I really needed nothing - had a stack waiting for me back at Sharen's - but wanted in my swooning college-girl way to be surrounded entirely by spines. I wandered the shop's tiny rooms, lingering at last in the Anthology section. A very old, squat book caught my eye. It was edited by Edmund Wilson, a critic whose name I had just learned via Fitzgerald. But it was the title that mattered: The Shock of Recognition.

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