Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Life Adrift

9781603841986Graham Sanders’s 2011 translation of this memoir (previous translations were called ‘Six Records of a Floating Life’) is a gem. Its author, a Qing dynasty private secretary, was born in 1763, and the book was first published in 1877, after the unfinished manuscript (it includes only four of the titular six records) was discovered in a secondhand bookstore in Suzhou.

Shen Fu calls himself a scholar but, like his father, he failed the civil service examinations, and much of the pathos of the memoir comes from the tension between the life of leisure that he and his wife wish to lead and what they must forego in order to afford it — their literary drinking games, for example, mean they have to pawn their belongings to buy wine, and sometimes they wear such threadbare clothing or scruffy shoes that they don’t think it respectful to call on friends at their workplaces.

Relationships, whether with family members, friends, sworn siblings, potential lovers, community members or monks, are portrayed in all their nuance and social intricacy, but it’s the relationship between Shen Fu and his wife that is most remarkable and moving. In fact, Six Records is in large part a depiction of the deep love and intimacy between Shen Fu and the intelligent, talented, hardworking and forbearing Yun, whom Shen Fu mourns after her death, possibly from ovarian cancer, at only forty-one years of age. Shen Fu’s relationship with Yun makes him something of a feminist for his time; it is intriguing to see their anguish over some gender-based social mores and their attempts to circumnavigate them. It was with great delight that I reached page 59 before it became apparent that the couple did have children — such is Shen Fu’s devotion to narrating his life with Yun.

In his introduction, Sanders beautifully describes the highly innovative narrative structure of ‘layering episodic narratives atop one another':

Each record starts and ends at a different point in his life, yet they all overlap significantly in the time they cover. The narratives proceed chronologically put at different paces, expanding and contracting the time of narration at different points in the plot […] The individual records work together to produce a multilayered collage of Shen Fu’s memories; the very structure of the book mimics the shape and behavior of human memory itself. Our memories are selective, inconsistent, recursive, colored by mood; we both recall and forget as a way of finding reasons and patterns in the welter of chaotic particulars and emotional associations that are left behind in the wake of our daily experiences.

I’ve fallen in love with the representations of Shen Fu and Yun as they live on, centuries after their mortal selves have turned to dust. It’s been something of a tendency of late: last month I fell in love with Ibn Fadlan after reading his tenth-century account of travelling 4,000 kilometres from Baghdad to visit the Bulgar khan on the Volga River in present-day Russia. Also, Six Records is one of those books whose footnotes nudge you onto other intriguing books and details that exquisitely expand your frame of reference.

Sanders’s translation brings you so close to Shen Fu that his delight in his soul mate is your own, his heartbreak, yours too.


There, there and over there *pointing*

Firstly, thanks to Kill Your Darlings for unlocking my essay on interpreting and the historic interpreter La Malinche today, which they’ve done as part of their Advent Calender — what a nice surprise! You can read all the unlocked pieces as they become available.

Secondly, I got really, really excited about an interview I read last week. In it, Helen DeWitt (a review of whose The Last Samurai you might remember I posted) talks about such brilliant ideas as language restaurants and language gyms, and about the kinds of possibilities that might open up if involving designers in the early stages of the writing process. It is over here at BOMB Magazine. I wish someone would throw money at DeWitt already.

Finally, I really enjoyed this Radiolab podcast on Nihilism, which traces the influences of Eugene Thacker’s academic book In the Dust of this Planet on, among other bits of pop culture, True Detective and Jay-Z. It has got me thinking about structure, too, which is used to great effect throughout.

P.S. My search for a post pic also turned up this one, bahaha:

Translation challenges and joys

SangreI’ve been in a state of elation for the past week with the news that Claudia Salazar Jiménez has won el Premio Las Américas.

After reading her début, La sangre de la aurora (2013), I was flooded with admiration for what the book is and does — for its formal innovation, its bending and breaking of grammar to create an atmosphere of chaos and fear, its switching between perspectives, its focus on the role of women during Peru’s internal conflict with the Shining Path and its interrogation of social class, gender, sexuality and identity politics — in short, for there being so much at play in this slip of a book. It’s a brutal, beautiful story, and a powerful marriage of substance, emotion and style. I contacted Claudia and, to my delight, she was enthusiastic about my translating it. We even got to meet when we were both in Peru in July (she now lives in New York).

For the past few months I have been working on a translation of the opening, which I’ve sent to a few journals for consideration. I’m also keen to apply later this year for a grant that would allow me to translate the rest of the book, and would help attract a publisher. More and more I’m realising how difficult the business side of things is, how similar, in that regard, literary translation is to writing. The long response times, if a response is ever forthcoming, the uncertainty, the having to financially support yourself otherwise while you do it, the need for blind faith.

And then, from the blue, such a piece of news.

Higher Arc #4 selling like hotcakes!

It’s packed with extraordinary stuff:

  • A fascinating interview with Evelyn Juers — says interviewer Mieke Chew of House of Exile, ‘It’s as if Juers has an extension to Heinrich Mann’s telephone and she lets you pick up the handset in the spare room, if you promise not to breathe too loud.’ This is the interview that made me (finally) get hold of Juers’s work.
  • Scott McCulloch’s  profile of prolific Melbourne-based rapper R.A.E.D., whose ‘unhinged raps, beats and clips have caused a slew of sensations online’ and whose music McCulloch deems a ‘perpetually shape-shifting and hallucinatory act of self-portraiture': this is one of only two interviews ever given despite many requests.
  • Haunting art by Louise Hearman
  • Translated works from the likes of Yuri Herrera, Yannick Haenel, Antonio Tabucchi, and fiction from Bram Presser

Special thanks to Margaux Williamson and Wayne Macauley for their killer pieces — if their generosity is anything to go by, I can’t wait to get my commissioning on in future! In her piece about Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Margaux makes hallucinatory art of the film review genre, and in his ‘Six Anecdotes’, Wayne, with echoes of Gerald Murnane, gives us wry, fabulist profiles of a beauty therapist, cleaner, ex-footballer, soldier and tram driver.

Head here if you want to snatch up a copy x


On writing what you don’t know

In the beginning there’s that feeling of knowing nothing, of utter stupidity. And the wading through material, the strain and tediousness, the getting nowhere and falling short when you’re learning something new. It can be tempting, I think, to delve ever further into a field or fields of knowledge we’re relatively comfortable in, but reminding ourselves of how ignorant we are in other fields is so refreshing. And it’s a revelation, too, when you tell yourself, Why the hell not? There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to understand any of this — I just need to try harder, read more, think harder, go over it again, keep at it.

A branch of physics is what I’m working at understanding at the moment. How to paint parallels with this concept through words focused on depicting images and recounting moments? Because there are parallels, I’m sure, I just have to find them. Not actively search for them, but open myself up to seeing the connections, and then finding a means of conveying those connections. Parallels isn’t the word, really; it’s too linear. Overlap, maybe, or reflections. Opening myself up to seeing the reflections.

It’s so joyous today because I’m at the point where my reading and note-taking of the past few weeks means I now can see the shape of the section and so have been able to sit down and start writing it. This is this part I love. All the rest is necessary, a means of getting to this moment, but this is when the frustrations and restlessness of before coalesce in a flowing now. Since I had the idea to start this project on 17 August, I’ve researched and written just one other section, a grand total of 1,010 words. The section I’m working on now will probably be a similar length. It’s not much, but the compression will be key, I think, part of the piece’s identity the fact that each section could comfortably constitute a whole book.

This looker took up my time last section:







And now it’s this:

Wish me luck.

Ahoy, yes, time

1. Ahoy, matey

On Thursday, on using one of the City Library’s self-check-out machines I discovered that its instructions were conveyed in pirate. None of the others were like this. I didn’t think to take a photo and the next day, it no longer being Talk like a Pirate Day, all was back to normal.

2. Yes

I’m in the thick of beginning (and wanting to dedicate all my waking hours to) a new project and maybe that’s why Eleanor Catton’s recent move has resonated. If you haven’t heard, she has established a prize for NZ writers to read, nothing more. It’s such a superb statement, putting paid to the idea, as it does, that to write is an act of production, not consumption. As a friend said to me recently, it’s unfortunate that ‘to write’ is verb.

So much of what I’m doing right now, in this incubation period, is reading. When I’m not reading, it must look like I’m not doing anything — I’m staring out the window at the nectarine blossom, taking in the rattle of the train, the dove calls, the play of light and shadow, and all of it is helping, is moving my thoughts somewhere. It’s via a nebulous route that isn’t clear until, from out of the emptying that happens when you are alone and doing nothing else, the clues emerge.

Now that I really would benefit from more time to dedicate to this project — am practically itching for it — I’ve started looking at grant application processes. How the heart drops. It’s hard to decide whether the time away from your project to articulate it to a grant committee is worth the tiny chance at convincing them. Which is why Catton’s words on other grants seem so unfortunately right:

[they] require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing.

I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.

3. A film about time

I saw Richard Linklater’s Boyhood last night. Wow. If you get a chance, spare the three hours to catch it at cinemas before it’s gone.

Translation in the news

Interesting report here in the Guardian on the booming sales of translated literature in Britain.

It speaks to the Anglocentrism of some publishers in the English-speaking world — or at least to their expectation of  Anglocentrism in their audience — that many are reported as having been ‘taken aback by astonishing sales in the UK of overseas authors they had never heard of, despite their blockbuster sales elsewhere’.

Of course, their never having heard of the blockbuster authors points unflatteringly towards the former.

Speaking of translations, Giramondo has one coming out soon — it looks intriguing. I assume the author has translated it, though. (Or might Giramondo be another publisher contributing to the invisibility of translators? Hope not.)