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.