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Developing writers don’t discover original voices out of nothing, or by just themselves; one truism about becoming a good writer is that it’s necessary to be a good reader first. As that ingenious phenomenon of world literature, the late great Roberto Bolaño, kept saying: “reading is more important than writing.” (And how interesting in this context that almost the whole of Bolaño’s oeuvre is shaped around writing about writers). Writers gravitate toward other writers with whom they feel mysterious affinities, or like kindred spirits. They learn how to read for technique, for structure, for innovative language, for models they can use and assimilate (or appropriate) into their own writing; but more than this, they are naturally interested in the lives and habits of other writers, especially world-level masters, as if to unlock out of their biographies the secrets of the creative process.
Before an audience with dozens of young writers in it, I recently heard Aimee Bender give a lecture about creative process titled “The Question of Intention.” She read a translation (the older, better one, by Norman Thomas di Giovanni) of the Jorge Luis Borges essay “Borges and I” as an example and point of departure for her talk about her own unpremeditated process of writing stories and novels, like feeling her way through them. As Borges does in his essay, Bender identifies with a duality between her conscious self-in-the-world and her lesser-known, more subconscious writing-self who, somehow, mysteriously knows just what to do, what words should follow. Key in this for me is that Bender has developed her strikingly original, very American style from studied sources in Borges, and in Italo Calvino, with elements of García Márquez and Milan Kundera in there, too, and of course fully informed by her deep reading of her contemporaries who write in English. Her novels, An Invisible Sign of My Own and The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, read to me as especially inspired by influences from translated literature. Her talk (soon to be an essay) reinforces the importance of reading outside any narrow language or cultural tradition.
So it has been always with the best American writers. Who could imagine the poetry of Eliot and Pound (those biggest of the great big Modernist killer tomatoes) without finding early sources in French symbolism, or their obsessive compulsions to take from Renaissance Italian and Greek classics (and everything else, too, down to Eliot directly lifting or cribbing lines translated from the German in Marie Von Habsburg’s diary for The Waste Land—and on and on)? Who could conceive of the Beat Generation—Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Rexroth, Corso, Burroughs, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman, et. al.—without volcanic sources in Rimbaud and Apollinaire, tempered by classical Japanese and Chinese poems and philosophy? Ernest Hemingway drew from Spanish writers of the generation of ’98—from Pío Baroja, Vicente Blasco Ibañez, and Miguel de Unamuno—who, along with a generous tutoring in metronomic repetitions by Gertrude Stein, helped to shape his style. Who could envision a Raymond Carver without having read translations of the stories of Anton Chekhov? Writers of the Jewish-American emergence of the 1950s and ’60s—Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Richard Stern, Irving Howe, and others—were strongly influenced by reading Proust, Flaubert, Stendhal, and, yes, Honoré de Balzac, along with models found in Isaac Bashevis Singer translated from Yiddish and stories by Isaac Rosenfeld, who wrote in English (in addition to their close study of the Moderns along with New Criticism in college classes). One key to fully comprehending what Thomas Pynchon wrote is to read Ralph Manheim’s translations of the “epic theater” of Bertolt Brecht. The young Robert Coover steeped himself in translations (and later, the originals) of Spanish baroque writers of the Golden Age: Cervantes, Quevedo, and Calderón de la Barca, among others. And so on: David Foster Wallace talked about influences from García Márquez and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, mixed in with Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo—what a combination. Rick Moody studied Thomas Bernhard and talks about this in interviews; Lorrie Moore absorbed Italo Calvino, Manuel Puig, Michel Foucault, and Giovanni Boccaccio in her years at Cornell University; the new young Hispanic-American phenomenon Daniel Alarcón talks up a combination of Roberto Bolaño, Heinrich Böll, and the longer stories of Anton Chekhov as influences; and we could go on here, citing examples almost as numerous and various as the books in that delirious Borges fiction, “The Library of Babel”—into near infinity.
None of these influences (or appropriations) happened as simply as stating them this way makes them seem. And not all preeminent American (or Canadian) authors claim such global influences: Joyce Carol Oates speaks mainly of Herman Melville, James Joyce, Henry James, and Emily Dickinson as sources, only on occasion of Flaubert; Alice Munro points to Katherine Mansfield, and to her youthful shock at first encountering D. H. Lawrence, but she was drawn to translations of Chekhov, too, as early models; and Jennifer Egan only has two books in translation on her “most influential” list (as far as I know)—Tolstoy’s War and Peace and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Still, how can developing writers not see how crafting an original American voice may depend on inspirations discovered in world literature?
For this reason, translated literature has long been a staple of reading lists taught in the creative writing programs. As examples (to add to the writers already noted), for thirty years, Tobias Wolff has treated Tolstoy and Chekhov as must reads for his students; Junot Díaz works from a shifting mix of titles in his classes, some written originally in English but most translated from Spanish (the Latin American landscape he knows so well) and also from other languages. George Saunders (whose innovative, surreal stories vibrate with influences drawn from such diverse sources as Donald Barthelme, Nikolai Gogol, and Dr. Seuss) famously teaches a course on “the Russians” at Syracuse University; and on and on (and we could make a longer list of teacher-poets here, too, who can be even more expansive and multinational with their reach into translated poetry in workshops because the intensity and brevity of poems makes this possible). Almost every creative writing teacher I know uses at least a few core works of world literature for craft and technique, and for models of the forms.
Over more than three decades devoted to teaching developing writers, I’ve used a series of must read lists of translated books and stories. Though the kinds of books and the source languages they are translated from keeps shifting, I always talk up cross-cultural and cross-language influences and appropriations by American writers. I tell the story of how young John Irving, fresh from his experience abroad in Austria, mainly in Vienna, studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under Kurt Vonnegut and the Chilean surrealist José Donoso (not so much a magic-realist, though Donoso is talked about as a writer in that “boom” movement for his signature book, The Obscene Bird of Night). Also, Irving recently had read The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass, which had a transformative impact on his imagination. Somehow, out of this mix of influences—Vonnegut’s sharp wit and social farce, Donoso’s dark surrealism, and the boldly experimental language and highly politicized, baroque imagination of Grass—from these authors along with his deep study of almost everything ever written by Charles Dickens, John Irving’s own writing style emerged: developing first with Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man, building into The World According to Garp, that breakthrough book that set a very original John Irving voice, and each big new Irving novel still reads to me like a deepening experiment with and variation on these influences and assimilations.
A more recent, less well-known story I tell is about is Dan Josefson, whose first novel, That’s Not a Feeling—a book with multiple point-of-view characters set in a rich kids’ private school like something in between a reformatory and a treatment center for troubled youth—was published in 2012. Josefson had spent six years painstakingly working on the manuscript, then another four trying to get it noticed by editorial powers that be in New York without success, not even able to find representation by an agent. While a student in the MFA in Creative Writing International program at UNLV, Josefson had won awards and earned fellowships, among them a prestigious Fulbright for a year in Romania; and he had put a strong focus on reading literature in translation, most significantly novels by Thomas Bernhard, about whose work he wrote a scholarly essay under the guidance of a professor of German. One of the central characters in Josefson’s novel speaks in a quirky, obsessive voice that carries echoes from Bernhard, and there are other direct influences—I sense Milan Kundera; and Josefson mentions W. G. Sebald in an Atlantic interview with David W. Brown, adding: “A lot of what I read is European stuff in translation—for whatever reason, that’s the subset of works I feel most at home with.”
According to Josefson, without an agent, in despair about ever seeing his book published, he submitted it on his own to Soho Press, where it landed in the proverbial slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts that have at best a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting any further. However improbably, his manuscript made it to the desk of the new literary editor at Soho, Mark Doten. Long an enthusiast of Thomas Bernhard, the Bernhardian echo in That’s Not a Feeling caught Doten’s attention. Though Josefson invents several different narrative voices, a distinct one for each of his characters, crafting them together architectonically (one of the achievements of his book is how he pulls this off so naturally), it was the shape-shifting voice from Bernhard that initially moved the editor to consider the manuscript. Soho Press published the novel to enthusiastic reviews; it was selected for the Barnes & Noble “Discover New Writers” series; it earned profitable sales; and so a very talented, deserving author was launched. Josefson has just been honored with a prestigious Whiting Award. I find that telling this story ups the eagerness of developing writers to read literature in translation.
I like to talk to students cross-culturally, too, about what happens on the other side of the language barriers, and how this in turn reaches us, if we’re lucky. I tell the story and even project a timeline diagram to show how Gabriel García Márquez discovered anachronological novel structures and studied how to construct long sentences that feel like epic journeys by reading Spanish translations of William Faulkner; and I tell how, as a young journalist in Colombia, when he first read the translated first sentence of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he realized he wanted more than anything to devote his life to writing fiction. I’ll sometimes play a game in class with the originals, too, discussing how Faulkner’s use of Southern dialect, especially in dialogue (or in internally voiced lines) has been by necessity made more neutral or “standard” in the language of the Spanish translations, more formal; and possibly how this strangeness in translation gave rise to a less quotidian formal tone for the epic voice García Márquez developed to write about even his most uneducated rural characters and the remote village life of his legendary Macondo. In other words, this linguistic strangeness arising from translations (or this treason committed on the original, to paraphrase the cliché that translation = treason) may be one of the primary influences for García Márquez to come up with such a charmingly dignifying, high-style authorial voice to tell his stories. In class, we consider this formality in tone, also the slightly elevated language Gregory Rabassa chooses for his translations into English (especially evident when undercut, often comically, by the more low-style, dialogued “topper” lines at the ends of long Marquezian paragraphs). We discover Faulknerian language reshaped and reprocessed, as if melted down in a crucible then re-molded through three creative assimilations into the translated passage we’re reading.
Recently, we played a similar game in a graduate seminar with passages from Thomas Bernhard’s Correction (translated by Sophie Wilkins) and Concrete (translated by David McLintock)—both absurdist novels of ideas written in the voices of obsessed intellectuals manqué. We considered these alongside passages from Katherine Silver’s translations of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror—dark, obsessively voiced testimonies of murder and cruelty set in Central America during the era of the dictatorships. When compared, these passages offer striking examples of how Castellanos Moya appropriated a whole manner of writing from Thomas Bernhard (mainly from reading the Spanish translations), especially in Castellanos Moya’s use of such quirky, paranoid voices written into breathlessly unbroken Bernhardian paragraphs that go on for whole chapters in solid blocks of prose. But students also see immediately how Castellanos Moya appropriated a Bernhardian style all the better to express his own dangerously lived and deeply felt subjects, working from searingly real tragic sources in the cruel political viper pit that has been the recent history of El Salvador and Guatemala, and how Castellanos Moya makes an art that is absolutely original and wholly his own, powered by a fierce necessity to witness.