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Friday, November 13, 2009

"Watered-down Modernism" and watered-down watered-down Modernism

In 1997, Michael Hofmann expressed despair about the prospects for foreign literature in English translation. He does so in a review of a book heralded as in the tradition of Proust and Mann and 'one of the great novels of modern times'. However:
[Péter Nádas's A Book of Memories] is a bastard of romantic schlock and watered-down Modernism. To describe this as 'claiming and extending the legacy of Proust and Mann' is quite breathtaking. Yes, Nádas’s sentences are long and relatively abstract, but they have none of Proust's openended inquisitiveness or the purpose and design of Mann. They are without risk, without discovery, without grandeur. Far from resembling or – ha! – outdoing Proust and Mann, this is utterly epigonal writing, a third-generation Zweitaufguss for middlebrows.
Another writer whose three volumes are said to "constitute one of the great novels in modern European literature" and are also "already being compared with Proust" is reviewed by Margaret Drabble in this week's TLS (not online):
[Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow] has been compared to Proust ... But the trilogy also suggests an upmarket James Bond.


  1. Oh thank g-d, I was worried I might have to read the Nádas at some point.

    I am still interested in Marías, although I was planning on starting with "A Heart So White."

  2. I enjoyed "All Souls" and the two volumes of YFT. You'd enjoy them too. He's a fine writer, but there's a reason why he gets all the attention and more adventurous writers like Vila-Matas get ignored or dismissed by the insiders.

    Someone had told me "A Heart So White" had similarities to Bernhard. This happens a lot it seems and suggests that people miss what makes great writers great. As the comparisons of Marías with Proust suggest, the hype is everything and nobody needs to look too closely at the comparison. However, I did three years ago: http://this-space.blogspot.com/2006/07/more-perplexity-responses-to-javier.html

  3. Steve,
    You might think me a bit of a prat, but what is "epigonal writing" eigentlich? Can you give an example?
    Many thanks in anticipation,

  4. If an epigone is (as defined by my dictionary) a distinguished follower or imitator, then an example might be Nick Cave's latest novel (reviewed on this blog recently) in which he writes like Martin Amis.

  5. Many thanks Steve, so much for 'Webster'. I'll bet 'epiogone' is in my li'l ole Wordsworth - now sadly falling to bits.
    I must confess that I'm an epigonist. I recently epigoned Wallace Stevens with a poem called 'Sunday interlude'.
    I always seem to epigone the last poet I read. Don't know why. Just do.

  6. Or, to a much less utter extent, Flann O'Brien writing like Joyce.

  7. Well there's nothing wrong with being an epigonist Gwilym. But if you were to publish a collection and every review said you'd "already been compared to Wallace Stevens" it would fair but misleading, wouldn't it? i.e. Wallace Stevens is one of the great modern poets for a reason and it's because he is/was unique and not because, at the beginning of his career, he was "already being compared to Whitman" (or whoever).

  8. Is a 'great writer' a failed epigonist?

    A mockingbird makes every song its own.

  9. Don't believe the backlash. Nadas and Marias are both great geniuses who deserve to stand beside Proust, Musil, and James in the canon. They are two of the greatest half-dozen writers at work today.

  10. PS. What does "Zweitaufguss" mean?

  11. 1) What backlash?

    2) No idea.

  12. "Zweitaufguss" means "second brewing" (of coffee for example)

  13. I'm with you on Nadas (based, I'll admit, on limited reading). I had what seems to be the same reaction as Hoffman when he was first published back in 1997: I had just been reading Proust, and from the first page I could tell that these comparisons were being made by people who hadn't read any Proust lately.

    Marias, however, I'll argue for. He takes from Proust some of the sinuosity of language and the desire to slow the progress of thought to single moments that can be isolated and studied, but his overall aims as a writer are different and worthy, and through the first two volumes Your Face Tomorrow has been stunning.

  14. I think Waggish scared me away from Nadas. Before I unload my copy of "Fire and Knowledge," can anyone recommend a highlight, perhaps one of the stories from the 60s/70s?

  15. Taking it right out of Europe, I lived in Tokyo about five years ago and read a whole heap of translated versions of Kobo Abe, Kenzaburo Oe, Natsume Soseki and more.. I know that at least two of the translators, I think working for Tuttle, Dale E Saunders and Donald Keene did a great job (from my perspective at least). Not sure if I've said that and completely missed the point of the post.

    James Bent.. jamesbent.com - Outre, daily offbeat fiction



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