Askold Melnyczuk | May 2017
Nearly every aspect of the world in which I was raised in Northern New Jersey had been translated from elsewhere. The town, Cranford, shared its name with the title of a famous 19th-century British novel and was known locally as the Venice of New Jersey because it flooded every year. Its earliest residents were the Native American Lenape tribe. Starting in the 16th century they were—often brutally—displaced by the Italians, the Dutch, the British, Africans, the French, the Germans, the Irish, and me—a Slav from Eastern Europe, whose parents arrived in the states from Ukraine via a displaced-persons camp in 1950.
Little of what I read as a kid reflected the immediate world around me. Displacement is a kind of translation and one way to protect yourself against its myriad ills is by pretending you never left home. This, to a degree, was my mother’s approach. A voracious reader still at 96, she led me through the reading lists of her youth. Under her guidance I met not only Taras Shevchenko but also Cervantes, Rilke, Hamsun, Selma Lagerloff, Grazia DeLedda, Kafka, Gabriella Mistral, Guy de Maupassant, Garcia Lorca, Henrik Ibsen, Rabindranath Tagore, and Daniel Defoe—all of whom I first encountered in Ukrainian.
The literature in which I was immersed bore witness to the lives of characters dwelling in societies at least nominally organized around a number of core values inherited and translated from the ancient world of Palestine, as Herodotus called that plot of land between Egypt and Phoenicia. These have been pithily and often elegantly conveyed in all the world’s languages. Among the most memorable arrived in the King James phrasings Shakespeare is rumored (apocryphally, I’m told) to have had a hand in: Thou shalt not kill; love thy neighbor as thyself; let he who is without sin cast the first stone; the meek shall inherit the earth; the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; and so on. It was what the critic Northrop Frye called the Great Code. Most of the characters in the novels I read are themselves trying to make sense of a world in which the people around them don’t play by rules they claim to believe are sacred. How can you say “Thou shalt not lie” while operating an ad agency, or selling weapons, or running for office? As Argentine novelist—and physicist—Ernesto Sabato reminded us, the novel was born out of the spiritual crisis of the Middle Ages, in a world suddenly uncertain about God. From Cervantes to Teju Cole, the novel developed as a response to the intersecting forces of the world’s religions with science and capitalism. Sabato didn’t mention sex but, come to think of it, what other medium offers us a chance to overhear frisky adults brooding about their love-lives, jobs, God, children, and the Tea Party? What other medium deliberately sets out to examine how values preached are actually practiced, both by the faithful and the faithless? I’ve said elsewhere that novelists are the wikileakers of the private life, from Austen to Roth to Jelinek and Muller, they reveal what we think and feel when we believe no one is listening. What other medium can convey the bewilderment of a contemporary city with as much clarity as the light it sheds on its characters’ bottomless interiority? And what medium can do that while making you laugh at the same time?
Consider this, from DeLillo’s Underworld:
You feel sorry for yourself. You think you’re missing something and you don’t know what it is. You’re lonely inside your own life. You have a job and a family and a fully executed will, already, at your age, because the whole point is to die prepared, die legal, with all the papers signed. Die liquid so they can convert to cash. You used to have the same dimensions as the observable universe. Now you’re a lost speck. You look at old cars and recall a purpose, a destination.
The truth is we read literature for pleasure, certainly, but we also read it for power. Great art strengthens our capacity to resist, or at least to manage, the seemingly undifferentiated onslaught of material reality. We read to better understand ourselves and our world. Ideally we do this while simultaneously experiencing aesthetic bliss. Literature translates across time, culture, and language the intimate ways in which those with whom we share the planet feel about their corner of it. But how can art compete with the hyperboles of fact, with a world in which we can inseminate a woman with the DNA of a Neanderthal, transcribe the melody of an arachnid love song, and grow hamburger from seed? What could be more miraculous than Mandlebrot’s fractals, decoding the very trees from which once upon a time we fell to earth? You might well ask.
You wouldn’t be the only ones, and certainly not the first. Charles Darwin in Chapter 7 of his Autobiography observed:
Up to the age of thirty…poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays…. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.
A not unfamiliar lament, in my experience. Imagine how hard it might have been for him to resist the lure of Nova or The Discovery Channel or the trove of epiphanies packaged on premium cable. But Darwin continues:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
If that were all, one might nevertheless be tempted to nod sadly and wonder if one shouldn’t also take a cue from Philip Roth who recently and quite publically gave up not only the reading of but also the writing of fiction, and who now consoles himself with history, memoir, and that sort of thing. When I was an undergraduate, the iconic critic Lionel Trilling, already emeritus in his sixties, visited our campus. During a talk hosted by my literature professor, Robert Maurer—who, coincidentally, had once been a former teacher of Philip Roth’s—Trilling remarked, rather proudly, that he no longer read fiction because fiction was about becoming, and he was interested in being. Though roughly the same age as Trilling, Professor Maurer—whose son Christopher, I believe, became a translator—whispered: “May I never stop being interested in becoming.”
Now I will let you in on something. The writers I love have all been members of a secret society. Holding no meetings, owning no headquarters, asking no dues, and bestowing no benefits, the society is nevertheless rich in members who recognize each other instantly, without any need for secret handshakes or winks. They are bound by their fierce resistance to arbitrary authority and the false claims of phony revelations. They oppose all occupations, including many running 9 to 5; ask no one’s permission to speak; and don’t always make nice. And they hope by their work to create a space inside the reader’s heart and mind that quickens her and enlarges her awareness of her own capacity for creative action.
A little later in his Autobiography, Darwin adds:
On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all? novelists…. I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.
Perhaps there’s something to it then. My own feeling is those of us who are less than certain about where truth and beauty currently reside must rely on literature more than ever. For us it serves as mirror and magnet, showing us who we’ve grown into, and pulling us toward that untranslatable thing for which we are ever in search.
Askold Melnyczuk’s most recent novel is Smedley’s Guide to World Literature. Founding editor of Agni, he currently directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston.