Monday, 14 January 2008

The book freeze

A small book written by a French academic is currently causing a stir in the UK. It’s entitled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read – and I haven’t read it, but I can talk about it, thanks to all the reviews and blog posts I’ve found about it on the Net. It’s a guilt-free approach to literature, and we’ve all put it into practice at one time or another. We all talk about books we haven’t read; plays/films/exhibitions we haven’t seen. Does it matter?

Well, as far as not reading books is concerned, if, like me, you suffer from ‘Completion Syndrome’, you have to ignore certain books: it’s a question of survival; you might go mad otherwise. I am totally incapable of leaving anything unfinished – especially books. Once I start reading I am in danger of getting an attack of ‘reader’s block’, and that is very painful.

The first time it happened, I was trying to read The Scarlet Letter. I wasn’t enjoying it and when I came across a particularly stodgy page I froze. And that was it. I couldn’t drop it, but neither could I put it aside and give up on it. So I didn’t read another book for a good long while, until I forced myself to skip that page and a couple more, and finally managed to resume reading. I was triumphant when I got to the end. And I can now say I’ve read The Scarlet Letter, although, as Pierre Bayard points out in his book, we forget most of what we read and I have indeed forgotten the intricacies of Hawthorne’s novel. Was it worth the trauma? Probably not.

My most recent attack of reader’s block was even more distressing.

My father's eldest brother was a famous Jewish writer in the first half of the 20th century. (He lived in the USA and I was 11 when he died in 1959 so I don’t remember much about him – except he was very imposing and a bit scary, and yet cuddly, and very generous.) His novels and poems are part of the school curriculum in Israeli schools; there is a street named after him in Tel-Aviv. He was highly regarded by his peers around the world. There was even talk of a Nobel Prize in the 1930s, but it couldn’t happen in the political climate of the period. Anyway, only a tiny number of his books have been translated into the two languages I read, so, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to acquaint myself with his entire oeuvre, only with the novel that won him most of the acclaim, a few short stories and a couple of poems. I was delighted when another one of his books (a semi-fictional depiction of life in a small Russian community in Belarus before the First World War) was published in France a while ago. I acquired a copy and prepared for a good read. However, to my dismay, I struggled and finally stalled. It was The-Scarlet-Letter-big-freeze all over again, and this time the author was a member of my family. Had he usurped his fame? Sadly, I put the book down and didn’t pick another one up.

And then my cousin (the writer’s daughter) wrote to me and in the course of her letter mentioned that book and its execrable French translation, which harmed her father's reputation). Of course! I couldn’t read it because the translation is an absolute disgrace. I took the book out of the big pile by my bed, sat down and started reading where I
’d left off. I was able to edit the French – in my head – and work out what it should have sounded like, and the book is wonderful. The colourful characters (one of whom, a small child, is my father) are so endearing, and the whole atmosphere is funny and melancholy at the same time. I love it.

As a literary translator, I usually defend translators because they always get the blame when readers can’t get on with foreign books (and, until I started reading blogs about literature, I had never realized how quick people were to condemn the translators), but this particular one should be slapped – or even shot.

Hooray, I don’t have reader’s block any longer and I’m ready to tackle that big pile again. The next book is not a translation so if I freeze again I will know straight away whose responsibility it is. Alain de Botton, you have been warned.

Update (24/01/2008): I changed my mind about what to read next because cute Alain never disappoints me and I know I won’t be ‘frozen’ with him, so there's no rush. Instead, I turned to a Nick Hornby book I bought as a hardback (and I don’t like hardbacks: I don’t have the space for them in my tiny flat) as soon as I flicked through it in Books etc. – so long ago that it’s now in paperback.

Anyway, it’s entitled The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (I know!) and it’s about reading and books and life, etc. I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying it! And, on page 5, I found this, ‘I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a TV programme.’ I will from now on, Nick. I promise. Unless I have absolute proof that it’s a bad translation, of course.


  1. Hello Bela,

    In the name of good translation (or indeed any translating into English) have you been following the whole Arts Council/Dedalus/Arcadia she-bang? Dedalus have a petition going here:

  2. Yes, I have, B. It's an outrage. I intended to sign the petition the other night, but got interrupted by something. I will do so anon.

  3. I know this feeling so well, J! I've been stuck in the middle of the same book for over a year now. I do pick other things up and read them, but feel guilty when I do.

  4. It's terrible, isn't it, R? I obviously have it even worse than you: I love reading so I stuff myself with whatever I can lay my eyes on - newspapers, magazines, reams and reams of articles on the Net - but I cannot have another book in my hands while I'm stuck. Where does it come from? Some 'relaxed' people can have five novels on the go. I get cold sweats at the mere thought.

  5. I thought you'd know all about it! Actually, now I'm thinking we probably have someone specific in common.
    Any how I've sent Christopher Frayling a copy of Exquisite Corpse to ponder. I keep getting emails from Dedalus with all the dirt.

  6. I got an email about the proposed cuts to Dedalus and Arcadia from the Society of Authors (to which I belong via the Translators Association). I don't really know more than what was in the press and on their websites.

    I wouldn't be surprised if we had mutual acquaintances/friends. Six degrees of separation and all that...

    I would like to slap Christopher Frayling for real.

  7. That's interesting about the "freezing." If I don't like a book, I do drag my feet (or is it my eyes) a bit, but I either force myself onward immediately, or just say to hell with it and get rid of the book.

    It must be wonderful to read a good story that was written by your uncle.

  8. I admire you, TLP. I wish I could do what you do, but I can't.

    It's wonderful, but it saddens me that my uncle is not around and I can't talk about his books with him. I didn't read anything by him until I was well into my twenties: I was so scared I would be disappointed (after hearing, all my life, how great he was from my father, who worshipped him, and others), but I was blown away by the breadth of his vision, by his characters' humanity, by the sheer poetry and power of the writing.

  9. I've always been able to give up on a book if I didn't like it. But then, I give up on lots of things I start - not sure that's such a good thing.

    I should so like to have a writer in my family. *jealous*.

  10. I'm so shocked to learn that your uncle's books were rarely translated into French and English. Even more dismaying: I looked up a couple of important Yiddish writers on Wikipedia and none of them had entries- and I'm talking really famous writers (including your uncle I think). This is terrible! I hope someone remedies this soon.

    Continuing the theme of great Jewish writers, might I suggest one of Michael Chabon's novels such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? I challenge you to not finish that one!

  11. The Scarlet Letter… Well, that brings back a few memories of my "younger and happier days" as a student. It was (and always will be) one of the set books for French students reading English at the University. I must admit, Bela, that had it not been for the books I HAD to read then, I would have missed out on some literary gems … or had a good time instead of pondering over some stuffy "masterpiece" (did you ever have to read Milton’s Areopagetica??) Looking back on it, I wonder what I did take in considering my limited understanding of English at the time.

    Do these ring a bell?

    A Sentimental Journey (L. Sterne) (I LOVE that book).

    Barry Lyndon

    The Vicar of Wakefield (so endearing!)

    Jane Austen's novels (I LOVE them)

    The Naked and the Dead

    Sergeant Musgrave's Dance

    North and South

    To the Lighthouse / Orlando

    Something by H. James (could never go past page 3!!)

    Confessions of an English Opium Eater

    Winesburg, Ohio


    Not to mention Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, (I LOVE the English romantic poets)

    I've had a look at to see what the set books were. It seems that in my days, the number of set books was far greater. As for the reader's block, I've never experienced it perhaps because if I don't go past page 3, I don't bother!

  12. You still frozen?????

    Rabbit rabbit! Happy February to you. It has an extra day for you to use any way you'd like.

  13. L, I was much less perseverant when I was younger.

    Having a good writer in the family means you have a lot to live up to if you have ambitions to write yourself. But it also gives one a nice warm feeling. As I said, though, I would have liked to be able to talk with him about literature. I never knew him.

    M, Yiddish writers are not very well represented. It’s like everything else: only a few get mentioned all the time, while all the others are ignored. As usual, France is doing much better than Anglo-Saxon countries when it comes to translations. What I want is for my uncle’s masterpiece – a truly wonderful novel that would make a terrific film – to be reprinted in English. I know new readers would love it.

    I have put the novel you’re recommending on my ‘to-read’ list. Thank you. :-)

    JP, the episode with The Scarlet Letter happened in the 1980s. I never experienced the ‘book freeze’ when I was a student. I never had a problem with dropping set texts I didn’t like, at university. I used to do what we called impasses all the time. I won’t list all the books I never read – let’s say the list contains some of the most famous writers. I especially disliked the 18th century (still do). Since we weren’t in the same year and I never tackled the Agrégation, my set texts weren’t quite the same as yours (although a few you mentioned were indeed on my list). I used to read non-stop... other stuff (still ‘proper’ literature, but not always the books we were supposed to read). I somehow got away with it.

    Anyway, as Nick Hornby writes in that marvellously entertaining book of his I’m currently reading, ‘Maybe there are slumbering pockets of ignorance best left undisturbed; no one likes a know-it-all.’

    Hey, TLP, maybe it’s writer’s block I’ve got now! No, I’ve been very busy. But I am reading. :-)

    Rabbit rabbit! Happy February to you too. I’m trying to decide what to do with that extra day; do you know what you’re gonna do with yours yet?

  14. Excellent!! I need to find this book!!

    xox Girl and the City (in Paris)


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