(dead letter office, BABEL Working Group, an imprint of punctum books, Brooklyn, New York)
As the blurb puts it ‘You will find in this Memoir what it means for an alien to search for his family in a book outside the time of its writing. You will find him discovering that translation is a personal story and that poetry might not have a home without it.’
I have increasingly become one of those people whose reading, unless I am focussed upon a particular piece of writing that I am committed to, seems to take on a life of journeying of its own. I read something and then find I need to travel down a path which arises from some memory of having read something else which in itself triggers another pathway and…I am going to have to read everything I have ever read as well as read all those things I have only heard of which have been recommended. I need to speak all languages. I am tumbling off the walls of Babel:
Therfor was called the name of it Babel, for there was confounded the lippe of all the erthe. [Genesis 11:9, translated by John Wyclif, 1382]
Having read Ben Hollander’s Memoir American which arrived in the post yesterday I feel energised and bewildered: I want to set off on those pathways. This is one of the most exciting short books I have come across for a long time and I can only suggest to you all: READ IT!
The central study of a section from Charles Reznikoff’s By The Well of Living and Seeing is a delight as Hollander contemplates what it means to hear/see ‘an American poet’s voice transformed when it is written under the influence of other languages which do not need to manifestly show themselves to be felt present in the poem, and which we know are evidenced in the poet’s life.’
And now I am being drawn in a way to re-read Paul Auster’s City of Glass (Faber 1987) with its disturbing opening sentence ‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.’ And then I am dragged off to look again at Rod Mengham’s, Language (Bloomsbury 1993) with its study of the ‘crazy attempt to erect a structure that might bridge the gap between earth and heaven’ showing the depth and intensity of a human need to be furnished with a language that not only matches the world of physical phenomena ‘but which in some sense brings that world into existence.’ And, yet again, I am now impelled to search the shelves for George Gissing’s autobiographical sketch, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft in which he says
How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion. Yesterday I was walking at dusk. I came to an old farmhouse; at the garden gate a vehicle stood waiting, and I saw it was our doctor’s gig. Having passed, I turned to look back. There was a faint afterglow in the sky beyond the chimneys; a light twinkled at one of the upper windows. I said to myself, “Tristram Shandy”, and hurried home to plunge into a book which I have not opened for I dare say twenty years.
Read Ben Hollander’s Memoir American at your peril; you don’t know where you might end up!