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This item is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Letters to the Editor
Anthony Barnett writes:

I considered writing a full review but I may be out of my depth. I hope this letter will suffice. It is a complaint about style, not about accuracy. In 1992 Carcanet published a virtually complete volume of Clarice Lispector’s newspaper chronicles, up to 1973, under the title Discovering the World, translated by Giovanni Pontiero. A selection from that translation was published in the USA by New Directions. In 2022 New Directions in the USA and Penguin in the UK published a new translation, by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, under the miserable, tiresome title Too Much of Life: Complete Chronicles (which it really is not, as some entries appear to be missing, and not only those whose omission is justified along the way in a footnote – though there are a few added entries from other, post-1973, sources, and an interesting afterword by one of Lispector’s sons). Why this new translation? Pontiero’s original, clearly a labour of love, has a beautiful clarity, with absolutely appropriate cadences; it never jars. The new translation often does. Too often one is brought up short by a thoughtless, questionable tone. It is, in this respect, not that well written. Read any entry and then go back to Pontiero’s translation, if you can, and you will see.

Emma Tristram writes:

You quote Peter Popham under your editorial in PN Review 262. He said that in the editorial in issue 261 ‘you seem on the verge of saying something. Then in the gnomic final paragraph you funk it.’

The editorial in 262 is similar. You say ‘This is not the case with the poetry of some of our voluble necropolis-averse contemporaries’. The referent of ‘this’ is not clear – is it ‘how the poem says is what the poem says’ (the previous few words)? You go on: ‘…who nourish their art on an imagined future rich in relevance and leave the realised past (“a circumflex over the kidney beans”) well buried. They don’t leave it behind [your italics]; they have not gone that way.’

So as well as being voluble and necropolis-averse, their ‘how’ is not their ‘what’. They imagine a future rich in relevance. And they leave the realised past well buried, without leaving it behind, because they have not gone that way.

The past you seem to wish they hadn’t left buried is illustrated by a quote from Bouvard et Pécuchet, which you were making gentle fun of earlier in the editorial.

This is gnomic. I’m trying to work out what poets you are wanting to criticise and why.

By not saying more, you risk leaving the impression of someone wincing at modern trends but not wishing to give details for fear of being censored!

Michael Schmidt replies:

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate there is a problem. There are certain things that, if one says them boldly, will close down discussion with a large part of a constituency. And said boldly, that very boldness may falsify them. I would speak more bluntly in a one-to-one discussion with someone I knew. But when one is addressing a readership which can’t answer back, to ‘funk it’ (which isn’t what I intended to do) is not dishonest: the in-your-face statement is never quite what one means either. At seventy-five I come with a lot of luggage: verbal memory, education, things which I value and do not in any way regret; knowledge, ditto. I cannot call on that authority as ‘authority’ when I am talking with people who are resisting or rejecting the traditions that inform my writing and editing. I want to remain in contact with readers from whom I learn so much: what I try to do is to suggest that there are values which retain value, that we learn a great deal poetically – formally and thematically – from the living dead, and that no aspect of culture is exclusive to any one person or set of people. A love of form, and of the adequacy of enactive rather than or as well as declarative language, is always hard to advocate in an age when personal narrative seems in danger of displacing all else. I didn’t mean to make fun of Bouvard and Pécuchet except in the ironic spirit of Flaubert himself: their failed experimental garden is a wonderful creation, and hilarious, too. One of the tones I like best is the one that avoids earnestness… he says earnestly.

The poets who I feel sell themselves short are those who, given their grievances, deny themselves so much pleasure and resource. Diversity means adding to, enhancing, not subtracting and cancelling what still gives.

I appreciate your letter and tone. I agree there is a problem of expression. I have probably said too much here but I hope I have not given offence. I do wince at some modern trends, as you tactfully put it, because they seem to me to lead to diminution… Others of course add wealth. 

This item is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

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