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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 98, Volume 20 Number 6, July - August 1994.

Letters from T.J.G. Harris, Jeremy Keens, Michael Hamburger, Tim Love, Norman R. Shapiro
Treason Most Foul

Sir,
I couldn't help but be impressed by the contrast, in PNR 96, between Patrick Bowles's memories of Beckett ('How to Fail') and the chat with the very competent and intelligent Lisa Jardine, who was so filled with optimism and an obvious delight in having achieved success, of a kind.

It was not merely the clear difference in moral authority between Beckett's intense meditations and Dr Jardine's energetic effusions, nor the differences between the preoccupations of the genuine artist and those of the academic and intellectual commentator on the arts, which struck me. Perhaps the profoundest question to emerge was that of what constitutes understanding where the arts are concerned, a question one might point towards by juxtaposing one of Beckett's statements ('My writing is pre-logical writing. I don't ask people to understand it logically, only to accept it.') with one or two of Dr Jardine's ('John Barrell once said to me what a terrible task students now have to master the range of kinds of writing, types of approach and disciplinary frames that you need today to become competent in literature… The students are much better trained than they were before… Literary study is more like an "ology" now in that it's a professional training from which you will embark into whatever field you subsequently move into.').

It is Dr Jardine's phrase about becoming 'competent in literature' that is perhaps the most betraying. One might charitably say that 'literature' is a slip for 'academic criticism', but there does seem to be a confusion in her mind between what is genuinely artistic and what amounts to mere talk, however high-powered, about the arts (the latter being what she prefers). For she is not, after all, training students to become 'competent' and 'professional' poets, novelists or playwrights. Which raises the question as to what 'competence' is in the arts. To say of Beckett, for example, that he was a competent writer would be infantile and absurd. It is the sort of thing that might be said by a certain kind of critic of some fourth-rate 'professional' writer, or of the promising early work of some young writer. Competence is not a great thing, and in the arts is the least one should expect. It is not in itself necessarily of any artistic value: I recall Andre Gédalge's ironic distinction, in his brilliant Traité de la fugue, between 'la fugue d'École' and 'la fugue, composition musicale'. As for 'understanding', there is surely a great difference between, on the one hand, Beckett's no doubt impressionistic but, to my mind, perceptive responses to Eliot and Pound and his brooding on Blanchot's sentence, and, on the other, the systematic application of 'models' or 'frames' to 'disparate material' in order to come up with the kind of 'insights' that you are 'after'. (What's wrong with unexpected and accidental insights, which might well be connected with your experience of that messy thing, life, which you might not be 'after' at all and might not even welcome, and which might well be profound? And what has 'competence' got to do with them?)

I was left, after reading Dr Jardine's remarks, with the strong feeling that there is next to no connexion between the concerns of the true artist and those of the academy, and that this fact should be recognised more clearly - particularly by the young person who would like to be a poet or a novelist and supposes that a LitCrit course might help him or her along the way. (And the young person might notice the condescension apparent in Dr Jardine's description of 'the Common Reader', in whose singular existence, by the way, I don't believe either: think of that prisoner and Waiting for Godot.) I was also struck by the coincidence (despite her professed political views) between Dr Jardine's fascination with training, competence, professionalism and success, and the values trumpeted most loudly by late-capitalist, technological societies everywhere.

T.J.G. HARRIS
Tokyo

Parvenu Fawning

Sir,
As an Australian subscriber/reader I was pleased to see Rod Beecham's 'Letter from Australia' (PNR 95) concerning the Melbourne International Writers' Festival. While recognising the latitude which the letter format allows, I was disappointed by a number of aspects.

As a primarily local festival, Beecham concentrated on three international writers, with only three Australians getting a guernsey. Though I don't wish to appear excessively parochial, PNR often includes Australian writers or reviews and the letter could have been an opportunity to highlight some local talent.

Which raises a second, more important concern. The description of Dr Cassandra Pybus' (the unnamed editor of Island) actions as 'parvenu fawning' is confusing. Dr Pybus is a historian, author of a number of books, and has been editing Island since 1989, during which time she has significantly improved it. Hardly a parvenu. (As an aside on Beecham's aside, while 'which is the best literary magazine in Australia' can be argued ad nauseam to no agreed conclusion, I would question the credentials of any editor or magazine which didn't claim to be the best - I imagine you consider PNR the best in England, if not the UK).

As to fawning, Beecham's own response to Miroslav Holub, questioning the 'effrontery' of Australian poets to read alongside him, seems a much clearer example of fawning. His other off-hand dismissal of local writers-describing John Tranter as 'one of the few Australian poets more interested in writing poetry than being a poet' - underlines his attitude (although I must admit that while the tone of the comment is clear, its meaning is less so).

But again, perhaps I have misunderstood Beecham, and the parvenu is Australian literature, in which case an international festival should have no national component here.

On a more positive note, as one whose relationship with poetry occasionally becomes unsteady, and not wanting to dismiss the quality of other contributor's poetry, I trust that PNR will continue to publish the cantos from David Constantine's Casper Hauser. It is lucid, moving and a pleasure to read.

JEREMY KEENS
Mt Macedon, Victoria

How Insular?

Sir,
Although told of the Penguin edition of Multatuli's Max Havelaar long before the publication of my text in PNR 92, I did not qualify my statement about this author because it remained true. I had neither seen a copy of this Penguin edition on my visits to book-shops - now confined to regional and 'general' ones, admittedly, for reasons it would be a waste of your space to explain - nor come across any reference to Multatuli in such periodicals, general or literary, as I read. I did not say or write that Multatuli and his works had never been noticed or read in this country. In fact I was aware of Edmund Gosse's account of them in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, under Multatuli's real name, Edward Douwes Dekker. The wide currency of that article, too, did not contradict my statement.

MICHAEL HAMBURGER
Middleton, Suffolk

E-Mail

Sir,
Matthew Francis in PNR 95 mentioned computer networks as a possible medium for writers. It's already happening. Well over a million people world wide use the Internet daily. Many thousands of these read the periodicals that exist only on 'the net' and participate in literary discussion groups or workshops.

Once word processing was rare, now most writers are equipped. Perhaps net-access will soon be as common, combining some of the best features of FAXes, post and (answer)phones. the unmoderated bulletin-boards form a huge, harmless, market for budding writers, but the magazine publishers could benefit too, if they adapt. A few already have. Literary (Le. low volume) magazines whose cover price is a vain attempt to recoup printing and distribution costs could be instantly downloaded by interested, widely dispersed readers at their own expense.

TIM LOVE (e-mail tpl@eng.cam.ac.uk)
Cambridge

Fabulists

Sir,
I recently happened upon Matthew Hodges' review of my book, The Fabulists French, in the January-February 1994 number of your journal; and, trudging through his often opaque prose, have reached the conclusion that he did not much care for it. I should like to offer a few observations in response.

First, I challenge any literate reader to comprehend the intricacies of his third paragraph, too long to quote in full, but which, with its dangling and non-referential 'however' and 'in this regard', defies rereading after re-reading. I am sorry, too, if I saw fit to include more fabulists than Mr Hodges could comfortably handle, and fewer fables of each. Sampling, after all, is what an anthology is about; and other critics, far from finding this one 'overwhelming' or 'cluttered and confusing', have enjoyed it for its wealth of examples from a literature usually ignored and even quite unsuspected. I can only assume that Mr Hodges is easily confused. Regarding the amount of scholarly apparatus, which, if I read him correctly, he also finds objectionable, Mr Hodges should remember that this is a university press book, intended to be of use to students and scholars as well as general readers.

As for his other judgements, insofar as they can be discerned: that he did not find my versions sufficiently 'vigorous' (whatever that may mean) and that he found them 'often too similar', are of course his unassailable personal opinions, and it would be pointless for me to assail them. (The latter, mind you, when earlier in the same paragraph, in a tortuous passage that seems to call for word-for-word translations, he goes on to berate me for trying to 'create an English verse equivalent to each poem…') I am only happy that these negative opinions were not shared by the jury of the American Literary Translators Association, which gave The Fabulists French its Outstanding Literary Translation Award for 1992, or by other American critics of stature. I might have suspected a British/American dichotomy at work here were it not for the fact that others from across the Atlantic - notable among them poet Seamus Heaney, whose aesthetic credentials I believe to be no less well developed than Mr Hodges - have praised the quality of the translations and, especially, the wide diversity of styles, tones, diction, and poetic forms, appropriate to each fabulist. Does Mr Hodges seriously perceive no stylistic difference in my treatment, say, of Marie de France and Anouilh? Of La Fontaine and Guillevic? Of Madame Jolivet and Franc-Nohain? Of Kaddour and Déjean?… J'en passe et des meilleurs! His judgement suggests that he did, indeed, read the Table of Contents and the medieval selections, but I have to wonder how much else. In regard to those medieval texts especially, Mr Hodges asserts that they 'obscure the style of some of the more difficult medieval French…' (A most unusual carping when one tries to analyze it!) Now, since I assume that he is a specialist in medieval French verse, perhaps more qualified than I, he might have obliged me and your readers with a few specific examples of this curious assertion.

But I need not continue to belabor Mr Hodges' tangled, self-contradictory, and generally failed attempt at criticism. Its shortcomings speak for themselves and say much more about him as a critic than about me as a translator.

NORMAN R. SHAPIRO
Middletown, Connecticut

This item is taken from PN Review 98, Volume 20 Number 6, July - August 1994.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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