Sunday miscellany, 2

Another Sunday! The vernal equinox was mid-afternoon yesterday, apparently, so now we’ll have more sunlight than nighttime until mid-September. Hurrah. I bought tulips today to celebrate.

Rather a linguistic bent to my reading this week, I realize, looking at the pile above. I started the week with Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia, which is genuinely sui generis in form if not in content: it is a science fiction novel-in-verse set on a station in deep space and written in Orcadian, the dialect of the Scottish island of Orkney. There’s a running “standard English” translation at the bottom of each page. The sci-fi element let the book down a bit, I felt, by lacking originality: the general plot setup of disadvantaged industrial workers risking hazardous galactic conditions to harvest a natural resource + mysterious megalithic structures suddenly displaying activity = not exactly new in this genre. Giles never seems that interested in their genre conceit anyway: I couldn’t help but feel that Deep Wheel Orcadia might have been better served by simply being set on Orkney. What does set the book apart is its language, and the translation choices: “birlan”, for instance, has such nuance as a word that it’s glossed into English as “whirlrushdancespinning”. This is both a good thing (the aforementioned nuance is clear) and not: translators, even those who are just glossing instead of providing a full translation, are tasked with, amongst other things, providing clarity, and that requires choice. Glossing, for instance, “tides” as “seatimetides” where, from context, it clearly means one of those things but not the others, is not helpful enough to make up for being confusing.

On to The Mabinogion, a collection of twelfth-century Welsh legends, in a delightfully sprightly and often funny translation by Sioned Davies of Cardiff Uni, published by Oxford World’s Classics. I do so love OWCs: stylish and appealing to look at, a broad selection, a reasonable price, good scholarship. Long may they reign. The Mabinogion isn’t a single story; it really is anthological, bringing together disparate tales from two sources (the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest). The first four stories are known as “the four branches of the Mabinogion”, and they’re by far my favourites: inspired more by pagan and Celtic lore, they’re where you find the enchanted ladies made of flowers, the kings of the underworld, the fairy hounds and the wizards. These are gorgeously fluent and easy of reading, as well as having a clear and comprehensible humour. The tales that follow are largely Arthurian, and not quite as enjoyable; the story of Owain (or Yvain) was all right, but “Peredur son of Efrawg” and “Geraint and Enid” are largely dull slogs. I was most disappointed by the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, which promised great things (the story of how a cursed young man wins a giant’s daughter for his bride by completing a list of impossible tasks) but was bogged down by the repetitive nature of the task-list and the peremptory way in which tasks are achieved. (I suspect this is a tale that would fare much better heard than read.) Worthwhile for the first four tales alone, though.

Then! Oh then! I started the Russian Spring Reading Challenge at the end of the week with Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and I loved it. Apparently it sparked national controversy in Russia upon its release in 1862 (directly after the Emancipation of the Serfs), and I can see why. The story follows two young men, Arkady and Bazarov, as they visit their respective families in the countryside. Bazarov is a nihilist who disdains all manner of authority; Arkady, slightly younger, is dazzled by Bazarov’s boldness and charisma but can’t quite bring himself to repudiate such things as art, nature, and love. The writing style is limpid and engaging (assisted no doubt by the translation, by Peter Carson), and the characterization is brilliant; Turgenev spent a lot of time figuring out who his characters were before he worked on a plot, and you can tell, because even when they do peculiar, contradictory things, they feel like real people. Bazarov’s painfully earnest parents, Arkady’s pompous uncle and well-meaning father, and above all the women, including the magnificently self-possessed Anna Sergeyevna Odintsova, with whom Bazarov falls in unrequited love… and a few tiny, brilliant moments in which we see Bazarov through a peasant farmer’s eyes, and his egotism is brutally skewered. It is that rarest of things, a character-driven state-of-the-nation novel. An excellent start to my spring reading plan. I’ll leave you with this lovely example of the writing, from a scene in which Arkady’s uncle Pavel Petrovich visits his brother’s mistress, Fedechka:

The small, low-ceilinged room in which he was standing was very clean and comfortable. It smelt of new varnish on the floor, of camomile and lemon balm. Chairs with lyre-shaped backs stood along the walls; they had been bought by the late general in Poland, during the campaign against Napoleon. In one corner rose a bed under a muslin curtain, next to an iron-bound trunk with a domed lid. In the opposite corner a lamp was burning in front of a big dark icon of St Nicholas the Thaumaturge; a tiny china egg hung on the saint’s breast, attached to his halo by a red ribbon. On the window-sills stood glass jars of last year’s jam, green and translucent, and carefully sealed; Fenechka herself had written ‘goozberry’ in big letters on their paper covers; it was Nikolay Petrovich’s favourite jam.

Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev, London: Penguin Classics, 2009

7 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany, 2

  1. I read The Mabinogion when I was a teenager – no idea which translation! I remember having a similar experience – loving certain tales but really struggling with others. Can’t remember which ones, but there were a few that had incredibly repetitive descriptions of parades of people etc. I got on better with a retelling collection called something like Celtic Mythology, IIRC.

    1. That’ll almost certainly have been Culhwch and Olwen, with the parade of people. Culhwch asks Arthur’s court for help with his tasks and 260 warriors are listed by name!

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