Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Conversations with Burton Pike

Tomi Ungerer, Moon Man
On Friday I had the pleasure of visiting my Doktorvater, Burton Pike, in his little New York City apartment, in a tall tower-like building surrounded on all sides with the new New York of boutiques and bars and young, eager, rich people zipping about their perennial busy business. Earlier, I had stopped in at McNally-Jackson on Prince Street, to see what the hipsters were reading. The New York Times had just printed an article in the style section about the bookstore owner, Sarah McNally, and how she spent her Sundays. Apparently, she is reading Musil's "super old book, The Man without Qualities," and the Times printed a quote from the novel about rushing about--the modern condition. At the bookshop, I bought Burton a copy of Carl Seelig's wonderful book, Walks with Walser (trans. by Anne Posten), which documents Seelig's visits to Walser in the mental hospital, and the hikes they took together, stopping at little Swiss inns and restaurants for exquisite little feasts, well lubricated with lovely cold wines and refreshing spirits, peppered with Walser's bon mots and reminiscences. A lost world, but one still accessible in words, paradoxically available in a shop that is the very epitome in some ways of the new world that seems to cancel out the old one. Walser told Seelig things, things that no author today would dare to say.

Burton was telling me things too, and I should have been taking notes as he reminisced about his life, including stories about his long-time friend, Tomi Ungerer (who had been cancelled back in the 60's, for the unpardonable sin of being both a children's book illustrator/writer and someone who drew erotic or pornographic drawings). Burton had Ungerer's books and pictures in piles along two sides of the living room, about to be sent to an archive at an American university. They had met in Switzerland, when Burton was on a Fulbright, I think. And Burton was enchanted with Ungerer's wild spirit. There was much drinking and, I gather, wandering about late at night along ancient streets. Over the years, he would watch Tomi draw, images seemingly appearing out of nowhere...a line of ink becoming a building, a person, a situation, and he would ask Tomi how he created what he did, but Tomi was unable to tell him. The creation, an enormously prolific generation of images, seemed a miracle. Astonishing.

He told me of his time teaching American literature in Germany, including putting on a Gertrude Stein play with the students. He had a little office and the students would come knock on the door. Like all the other professors, he would say, "Herein" (come in), and they would come and sit down, but say nothing. Eventually, he asked one of them why they came, if they had nothing to ask. This student told him that all the other (German) professors would also say "herein," but that once they came in, the professors would send them away, telling them that they had no time. Apparently, they just wanted to experience the novel sensation of being welcomed by a professor.

He mused about how we end up being what we are and doing what we do, saying that with him the big life choices seemed to come mostly by chance. In high school, the music teacher had called to him in the hall way, "You're tall; do you like music? Do you want to play the double bass?" And he did like music, so he did. This led to some of the most joyous experiences of his life, including playing in a jazz trio and singing in the midst of a choir of voices in Switzerland, singing the Saint Matthew's Passion, a wonderful experience he likened to being a thread in a carpet.

And why, and how did he come to be fluent in German and French. Another mystery. But perhaps related to his love of music, his innate sensitivity to rhythms and cadences, melodies and tones, something that has meant a great deal for his translation work. When translating the Nachlass to The Man without Qualities, he has said that he was stuck until he discovered that Musil read his drafts aloud to Martha. Then he began to read the words aloud, discovering the key to how to translate them. It was all about the sound. Perhaps this is also why he always remembered what a German professor had told him about Thomas Mann, when Burton admitted to be working on him: "Er hat," the professor declared, "kein Melos" (He has no melody). Musil certainly does.

We talked about Musil's sentences and decided that they had a particular remarkable pattern. While Kafka's sentences begin saying one thing and often end up contradicting what their beginning states, Musil's sentence begin with something familiar and then proceed onto something deeper. They complexify along the way. And in so doing, they teach us how to think. We even attempted a sort of musical version: la la la da la da/da la da la da da/ PLUMP. An approximation of how he sort of leads one along lightly and calmly, and then sort of drops a small bomb towards the end, to wake us up.

We talked of contemporary fiction, which he found mostly shallow and uninteresting compared to the depths and infinite unfathomableness of Musil and Proust. He also spoke quite a bit about Woolf's To the Lighthouse, as a remarkable example of how a work has its own life and parameters.Once a work has come into a certain form, it sort of crystallizes there and the poor artist cannot alter it any further. The only choice at that point is to start another work. The great books are great, he suggested, largely because of their perfectly idiosyncratic forms--forms related intrinsically to their authors' idiosyncratic natures. The strangeness of the beginning of In Search of Lost Time, the impossible unending form of Musil's Man without Qualities, the oddity of Kafka's Castle. And it should go without saying, that we are not talking about some sort of forced attempt to be new or avant garde, but rather of a true impression taken of the very particular personal individual strangeness of the authors, a faithful impression, unadulterated by some preconceived idea of what a novel should or should not be.

We praised Iris Murdoch and Natalia Ginzburg and Clarice Lispector, all writers who emphatically saw and wrote in their own idiom. We talked about how Steiner, whose After Babel Burton had encouraged me to read in graduate school, asserted that all language use is a form of translation. A translation of one person's idiolect into something others could approximately understand.

I mentioned that there had been a twitter "thread" asking translators what they love most about translation, and, for his answer, he quoted the e.e. cummings poem, ending in:

there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

And I suppose that sentiment, an American version of the old Baudelairean, "anywhere, anywhere, out of this world," uttered in a room high up above the madding crowd of contemporary New York, as if inside an eternal timeless-spaceless mind, explains a great deal about our love of literature.

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