In the New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O’Brien reviews the complete Richard Wilbur verse translations of Molière, published in a new two-volume set by the Library of America. O’Brien doesn’t say so, but it’s a little odd for the Library of America to choose these volumes to republish. There are other works in translation in the catalogue, which focuses on “great American literature,” but those works either concern America herself (Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) or, as with Ezra Pound’s translations, are rendered so loosely as to constitute new works.
According to Wilbur, however, the task of the translator is to replicate the original as much as possible in the translated text. O’Brien writes:
If Pound sought the freedom of radical recasting, not only of the original text but of English poetic diction, Wilbur asserted that “one shouldn’t bother with it at all unless one is willing to be slavish to try to get over into English everything that’s there in the original.” Characteristically, he chose to approximate Molière’s rhymed couplets as closely as possible, only substituting iambic pentameter for alexandrines. He saw this as far more than a matter of personal preference, laying out in his introduction to The Misanthrope a multitude of aspects otherwise lost, not least
“the frequently intricate arrangements of balancing half-lines, lines, couplets, quatrains, and sestets. There is no question that words, when dancing within such patterns, are not their prosaic selves, but have a wholly different mood and meaning.”
O’Brien notes that the Library of America’s decision to publish Wilbur’s Molière “seems to open wider the welcoming prospect of more volumes addressing literary translation.” That seems clear. How it fits the Library of America’s mission to republish classic works of American literature is less so.
Regardless, Wilbur’s Molière translations are wonderful, and it’s nice to read someone who clearly appreciates them. O’Brien writes:
His language neither updates nor historicizes: “The diction mediates between then and now, suggesting no one period.” There is a ’twould here and a naught there, but the overall tone is never antiquarian. On the other hand, Wilbur was resistant to aggressive attempts to drag Molière into the present day, complaining about productions recasting Tartuffe as a beaded 1960s guru or The Misanthrope’s Alceste as “a hippie who ‘tells it like is.’” As much as possible he goes for a pointed, plainspoken exactness: “You could at least have beaten me more gently.” (The Bungler) “We have but one death, and it lasts so long!” (Lovers’ Quarrels) “Let’s put off friendship, and get acquainted first.” (The Misanthrope) He manages to make speaking in rhymed couplets the most natural thing in the world.
That is absolutely true. If you haven’t read any of Wilbur’s translations of Molière, you should pick this volume. O’Brien goes on to write about Molière and his work. Give the whole thing a read.
In other news
Margot Enns reviews Hana Videen’s The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English:
Modern English has its fair share of strange phrases. We “book it” to late appointments, and people “drive us up the wall.” Southerners use “bubba” to refer to a young brother, Canadians “chirp” (tease) one another, and the British are “chuffed” at hearing some great news. Vocabulary is the product of our environment, and because of our increasingly digitized and virtual reality, Modern English terms are becoming increasingly abstract. In her remarkable new book, Hana Videen … shows that Old English speakers were not so different from us. The abundance of words they used to describe their surroundings reveal the people of AD 800 as nuanced and intelligent. Wordhord is not only an almanac of Old English vocabulary but an exploration of the culture of the Old English people through their language.
You’ve probably already seen the images of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, but if not, here it is.
William Blake in the flesh:
Blake was short, pale, and a little overweight, with the accent of a lifelong Londoner. He was dressed in old-fashioned, threadbare clothes and his gray trousers were shiny at the front through wear. His large, strong eyes didn’t seem to fit with his soft, round face. Robinson noted in his diary that he had “an expression of great sweetness, but bordering on weakness—except when his features are animated by expression, and then he has an air of inspiration about him.” For all his wild notions and heretical statements, Blake was pleasant company and easy to like. The aggressive and hectoring voice of his writings was not the Blake those who met him recall. Many years later, another guest at that party, Maria Denman, remarked, “One remembers even in age the kindness of such a man.” What made Blake so fascinating was the casual way in which he talked about his relationship with the spirit world.
Carl Rollyson reviews Taylor Brown’s novel Wingwalkers:
William Faulkner wanted to fly as much as he wanted to write. His post-World War One novel Soldier’s Pay features a young cadet, who just missed serving in the war, claiming he would rather have been mortally wounded than not to have flown and fought. So it was for Faulkner, who, stuck in a Canadian RAF camp when the war ended, was so distressed that he returned home with wings he had not earned and a factitious limp. In short, he created himself as a work of fiction. Taylor Brown, steeped in Faulkner biography, uses that Faulkner persona to create a novel that is an original portrayal of a world gone wild over flying.
F. Scott Fitzgerald idolized John Keats. A new book considers how he resembled him:
In Bright Star, Green Light Oxford scholar Jonathan Bate appreciatively explores the similarities in the life and work of Fitzgerald and Keats… Both Fitzgerald and Keats came from humble origins, had lively and distinguished peers, and were possessed by a genius that wasn’t fully recognized until after their deaths. Romantics to the bone, Fitzgerald and Keats were equally motivated by their human muses, Zelda Sayre and Fanny Brawne, as by their longing for Beauty with a capital B: the ideal, the unattainable, that which is so imaginatively close and yet so physically far away.
Stephen Schmalhofer reviews Les Murray’s posthumous collection of verse Continuous Creation: “It is a too-slim volume from a fat genius. Murray’s incarnational poems are not filled with airy abstractions, but with souls joined to bodies.”
Joseph Bottum reviews Ross Douthat’s account of suffering from chronic Lyme disease: “The New York Times columnist’s account of his struggle for a diagnosis, then a treatment, for Lyme disease is instructive not only in negotiating the modern American healthcare system but also in what friends are for.”