Friday, October 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (Andy Warhol Never Saw *This* Coming)

...on the internet, everyone is famous for fifteen people.

-- Shaenon K. Garrity

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch: a Review

Hereville is terrific. Stylish, entertaining, extremely well-done with an engrossing story and fabulous page-layout: plus, above all, Hereville is charming.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the first published graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, a political cartoonist and blogger that I've followed for a number of years. In fact, I was a reader of Deutsch's Alas, a blog (where he posts as "Ampersand" or, informally, "Amp"), before I realized that he was a cartoonist or interested in comics -- only to discover that he was not only a comics reader but a comics creator, which was a nice surprise. Eventually I realized that the fabulous little drawings on the blog were his; and even eventuallier I realized he drew other things, too. Deutsch even cross-posted one of my blog posts at Alas, which was nice of him (since his is a real blog with actual, y'know, traffic). All of which is to say that I was predisposed to be biased in Deutsch's favor, knowing him to be a thoughtful and interesting blogger and (in an internet-acquaintance fashion) a nice guy. So you should sprinkle this review with the salt of possible bias, to taste.

But for what it's worth, in my view, Hereville is a delight.

Hereville is, I think, a book that's well served by it's three-tiered title, so I'm going to follow that to introduce it.

Hereville is set, apparently, in the contemporary U.S., but aside from a few oddities such as electric lightbulbs, you'd never notice it: I think even a careful reader could go through the entire work imagining it in a small village in some unspecified Eastern European past. (There are lightbulbs, but no cars, no computers, no phones; the language spoken is called Yiddish (although the text itself is in English with only occasional Yiddish or Hebrew phrases.)) It's set in a remote village, one that is the entire world for its characters: no mention or thought is given to the outside world, save for the fact that one of Mirka's half-siblings seems to have been raised there (and, thus, unlike her siblings, knows what a pig looks like).* Everyone in the town is Orthodox Jewish (Hasidic, I think); at one point two of Mirka's sisters are shocked at the notion that the witch they've encountered might not be Jewish. So the setting of the town, it's feel, is very well captured by it's title: "Hereville". This is a village which is, to its residents, simply "here".

If the title captures the essence of the location (although no more than that: it is wonderfully evoked, with a real life breathed into the somewhat out-of-time setting), then the sub-title equally pithily captures the book's plot: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the tale of just that, how a heroine came by the sword that she will (presumably) use in future adventures. (I should say, however, that the story is a complete story -- sure, there are a few mysteries are left unanswered, and there are clearly room for many more tales staring Mirka, but you do get a complete story with an honest-to-Hashem ending and narrative closure.) Save for the name (and gender) of the heroine, it would have a familiar ring: lots of famous heroes got their swords in various oft-told ways, and this is how this particular hero got hers.

And that should give you some idea of the story, too: it's a fairy tale -- not a fantasy set in a complete secondary world, nor an invasion fantasy or anything like that, but simply a tale which takes place with trolls and witches and dragons lingering (initially) out of sight, off the margins and outside the town borders. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that it was based upon a Jewish folktale, although to my knowledge it isn't. But it has the rhythm of a retold fairy story, or perhaps two or three stitched together.

Finally, Hereville's sub-subtitle** -- Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl -- captures the protagonist as compactly as the title captures the setting and the subtitle the story. Mirka is an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl, who wants to fight dragons -- although she hasn't yet met one; but in the meantime she has a troll (and other creatures) to contend with. The "yet another" might suggest a sense in the book that Mirka is one of a crowd (e.g. in a Buffy sense that, of course young girls fight vampires/trolls), but that's not how it's played in the work: "yet another" is a sly wink at the audience: why not write about a Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl? -- although no one's done it before.

Pivoting off the protagonists' age, I should mention that Hereville is being marketed as a kid's book -- ages 9-12, I believe -- and that it certainly has the feel of a book aimed at that age group. And I would unhesitatingly recommend it for (and indeed buy it as a gift for) any kid in that age range -- or, indeed, old enough to follow the story: there's nothing objectionable here for younger kids, just possibly a bit complicated in spots. As for older readers, my only hesitation is precisely that it does feel like, well, a book for pre-teens: a witty, entrancing and extremely well done, but nevertheless not a graphic novel intended for a sophisticated, adult audience. If you think that reading a kids' book is going to disappoint... well, avoid Hereville.*** But for anyone who, as an adult, read Jeffy Smith's Bone or Harry Potter, Hereville is very highly recommended. (Oh, and if anyone happens on this post who's read and enjoyed Hereville but not Bone, go read Bone. Really. It's like what Hereville may be once Deutsch does another nine volumes or so.) Deutsch himself has said in an interview that he thinks of Hereville as "middle reader that anyone can enjoy"; I'd second that, save for adults who don't like to read middle reader books (you know who you are).

So that's what Hereville is; how it is is superb. It's elegantly written and plotted, and fabulously drawn. You'd never guess from reading Hereville that it's Deutsch's first book; it reads as if it could be the work of a far more mature artist (writing and drawing, of course, for kids). And, unsurprisingly, there's a reason for that. Hereville began life as a web comic, and it was published in a complete, earlier form on the web. Then Deutsch revised every page for the book version, and got another artist to do the coloring.

You can still read the web comic version at the link -- but I actually recommend against it. It's similar enough that you might not want to read the better version -- and the latter version really is distinctly better. Good as the web comic is at times -- his layouts are already great -- Deustch just improved a lot, as a writer and as a comics artist, between his first two drafts.

If you want a taste of what the revision entailed, take a look at this blog post where Deutsch lays out two versions of the same page, earlier and later. It's the same story, and if you look quickly it might not seem that much different. But it's the difference between satisfactory prose and elegant writing, between a fine likeness and a great one, a rough version and a full one: the details are just much better, and it makes a cumulative difference in reading any narrative when this is the case -- even if only a subliminal one. So even if you don't notice it, you'll like Hereville a lot more if you read the book version. Use the web comics version to give yourself a taste, if you must, but then go buy the book.

(If you're interested in Deutsch's process, he has another great blog post where he walks the reader through the various choices that went into the composition of one of his panels.)

I would say that Deutsch's writing is elegantly simple, while his art his elegant, easy to read, and formally complex. Let's take the writing first. The story, as I've said, reads like a fairytale -- straightforward, compelling, with a marvelous social world in the background, but essentially a pretty simple narrative. The characterization -- primarily of Mirka and some of her siblings, although also of her stepmother, and of the pig -- is quite good, capturing their differences while making each interesting and rounded. The plot is quite well constructed, and is quite gripping. (And that very gripping nature is used, narratively, to convey the power of the Jewish Shabbat (sabbath): it interrupts the story, a moment of narrative stillness that makes the reader feel and not just see the way that the day works itself into the rhythm of the observant Jewish week. It's one of the best artistic effects in the comic. (And then, right after Havdalah -- Sabbat's end -- the story picks up and continues full pace.))

As far as Deutsch's comicscraft goes, it's also superb. His faces are very simple, Hergé-esque things, but (as simple faces in comics do (for reasons that Scott McCloud analyzes in Understanding Comics)) they work very well: usually the eyes are dots, save in close-ups when they become a bit fuller. Deutsch is expressive with figure, and very focused on making sure both the "camera" angle and the panel transitions are both varied and help push along the narrative.

But what stands out in the illustrations are the page layouts and the lettering. Deutsch uses all sorts of innovative and interesting layouts, which don't complicate the story at all -- they're not hard to read, the way good but challenging comics artists can be (e.g. J. H. Williams III, who for all I love his work sometimes makes you struggle to figure out the reading order). They're just rich and varied and delightful.

Here's an example of how one works. On the fourth page of the comic Fruma, the heroine's stepmother, is arguing with Mirka. Then, almost at the end of the work, on p. 131, Mirka's arguing with someone else -- and the precise same layout is used. This shows how she is modeling her argument after that of her stepmother without being heavy-handed about it: it's just a nice echo brought up by the page layouts. They're really quite close: the expressions and stances that the three overlapping figures in the top right-hand corner of the page are the same in both cases. It's a marvelous, subtle touch. (A very similar, but not quite identical, layout is used in a second discussion between Fruma and Mirka -- this time not an argument, but an informative lecture -- inbetween the two, on p. 69.)

Deutsch uses a rich variety of layouts, viewpoint angles, types of panel transitions, etc, to keep the art lively. It's obviously the work of a dedicated, careful comics reader as well as artist.

Deutsch's use of lettering and ballooning is also very rich. He uses them very expressively, giving the balloons cartoony shape and form that help convey meaning: in one place, a word balloon turns into a weight pressing on another character's head; in a second place, a word balloon physically pushes another character over. When Mirka tumbles down a cliff, her exclamation balloons turn and twist every which way, and the balloon's tails turn into a tangle. And so forth. It's not ostentatious, but its a rich narrative tool, one that works well with his generally cartoony art style.

In both his page layouts and lettering, the largest influence on Deutsch's work appears to be Dave Sim's Cerebus. I checked, and he admits as much in his post on the completion of Cerebus, but honestly I think I would have seen it anyway: the lettering and page-layout in Hereville is simply and unmistakably very Simmesque. But since Sim is a quite extraordinary cartoonist, one of the best to work in the medium (if also possibly the craziest and most misogynistic), this is by no means a bad thing: indeed, a fair amount of Hereville's stylishness and formal inventiveness can be traced to a thoughtful absorption of Sim's lessons. (Plus, y'know, it's shorter, and feminist rather than misogynistic.) Deutsch learned from Sim, but the work is his own, and is very well done.

Another influence, I think, is manga: he uses a lot of manga-esque motion lines and the like to convey action. -- And actually, I'm guessing here -- or perhaps only showing my own limited cultural frame -- but I suspect that another influence was Scott McCloud: Deutsch's use of motion lines, of what McCloud would call aspect-to-aspect transitions, and the like, strike me as ones that betray the influence not only of the sort of comics McCloud talks about but McCloud's own specific analysis as well. (And this is not at all a bad thing, in my view.)

When discussing the art, I should make mention of the coloring. The coloring in the web comic was Deutsch's own; in this book he brought in an outside colorist, Jake Richmond, to re-color the art. It's a huge improvement. Richmond uses a subtle palette for most of the book -- not a two-color palette -- there are at least three or four colors he uses in addition to black and white -- but it's from a fairly narrow temperature range, with a rich, warm orangey feel, that gives the book the feel of a two-color work. Then, towards the end of the book, in the final climactic scene -- which, unlike most of the work, takes place at night -- he switches to a different palette with a similar range but this time in a cool, blueish zone. It's very effective. And the three-page transition at the end of the scene -- sunrise, plus one other page which I shan't spoil -- mix the two palettes in a very marvelous way, before ending the comic with a few pages in the main color palette used in the book. It's terrific, and adds a lot to the work.

I'd like to show some sample pages, just to give a sense of what I'm talking about, but Deutsch has only posted a few so far, and frankly, they're not my favorites. Still, here are a few pages from Hereville just to give you a sense of his artistic style:

I do have a few quibbles with the work, although only minor ones. Mirka's stepsister Rochel has what seems to me a very boyish face: I kept thinking it was one of Mirka's brothers in close-up shots (she dresses as a girl, and not at all as a young Orthodox boy, so it's clearly not -- but it's just a little bit off). And from a production viewpoint, the very end of the book is badly put together: the final page, while definitely an ending, is abrupt enough that one thinks there could easily be another page or two of denouement: but without any words such as "The End", or a blank page to signal a closing, or even the text acknowledgements page to signal an end to the strictly comics portion of the work, the text slides straight into two pages of DVD-extras. It's just a bit awkward -- like stumbling over an uneven pavement tile -- and could be easily fixed by doing any of the things I mentioned above.

But yes, these are quibbles. My main complaint, and it's a serious one, is that volume two is not out yet. I mean yes, I know that volume one's official publication date isn't until November and everything, but the story reads quickly, is engrossing -- and feels like the beginning to a long series (a la Bone or any number of manga). I was ready to set the volume aside and go on to Hereville: How Mirka Found the Time. Draw faster, Amp!

Highly recommended for any and all kids, for fans of virtuoso use of the comics medium, for fans of fairytales, and for any adults with enough of a taste for kids' books to read and enjoy a great one.

Update: This review was subsequently cross-posted at Berfrois.

* I don't really have any idea where Deutsch is going with his series, but I can imagine some very good narrative potential in letting the series age with Mirka (à la Harry Potter), showing her eventually leaving Hereville and having to confront different cultures, different people and different beliefs.

** Generally speaking, I think sub-subtitles are awkward (excepting things like "a novel" and so forth), but they are currently endemic to graphic novel publishing, and for a good reason: graphic novels are frequently published in series, so that the "title" of a volume is often the series title, and the "sub-title" is the volume title: thus if an author wants an actual sub-title, they need to enter into the swampy domain of the sub-subtitle. Thus, Hereville will be (I presume) the title of Deutsch's ongoing series; How Mirka Got Her Sword is the title of the first volume of that series; and its subtitle is Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl. Excpet that it's a sub-subtitle, so we can have future Hereville books: and it'll be worth it, once we do.

*** Also: consider get your moods adjusted, lowering the seriousness and stuck-up-itedness somewhat and dialing up the fun-loving, delight-in-childish-tales settings.

**** A propos of nothing (hence, the lack of an upper reference for this footnote) here's a cute drawing Deutsch did of Kitty Pryde (of X-Men fame) putting an orange on a seder plate, which, if you know what the latter is supposed to mean, is really cute. (According to the linked article, the meaning that's come to be ascribed to it isn't what it originally meant... but that's another story.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Problem With Research is That Sometimes You Get a Null Result

I put some effort into researching this on a statistical basis. To cut it short: I can show you nothing. For whatever I looked, the picture is always the same: No development, no trend, no correlation. It is presented below, since I had done it. But the worth is dubious, you may as well skip this section. Quite depressing for one who set out to discover hidden wonders in the world of numbers.

-- "Robert", analyzing the footnotes in the work of Terry Pratchett

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Collected Writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Civil War

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not only one of the finest writers in the blogosphere -- one who writes with compassion, sophistication and grace about "how the mysterious mixture [of humankind] behaves under the varying experiments of Time" (to use George Eliot's phrase) -- but he's also an autodidactorial historian, who has been publicly teaching himself along with his readers about the Civil War for several years now. And in addition to his generous presentation of interesting history, his writing on it -- the crispness of his prose, the sureness of his judgment -- has simply been amazing. Coates is doing, in other words, some of the best writing on history you can find today.

And now someone has compiled a complete list of all Ta-Nehisi Coates's Civil War Posts, with links, ranging from his first post on the topic, from a little over two years ago, to his most recent, from yesterday.

And there was much rejoicing.

I haven't read all of them myself -- there's just too much, and my blog reading is too sporadic. But those I have read (quite a few) are fabulous, and I intend to read the rest as I have a desire to procrastinate the time.

In the meantime, if you want a few to start with -- just to get a sense of why I'm singing his praises -- I recommend this post on The Ghost of Bobby Lee as a good place to start.

Update (August, 2011): That link seems to have gone dead. But this is a separate compilation of Coates's civil war writings -- indeed, a better one, since it has annotations on (some of) the posts to indicate what they're about. So go, read, enjoy.

On the Vanished Translations of Georges Perec's La disparition

A Vanishing: A Void, Vanish'd!

I recently re-read (for this) the published English translation Georges Perec's lipogrammatical novel La disparition, A Void (translated into English by Gilbert Adair). (A lipogram is a literary work that consciously omits a single letter of the alphabet; Perec's novel, and Adair's translation, omit the most common letter in both English and French, e.) This time through, I was very conscious of the quality of the translation.

Now, writing a lipogram is obviously difficult -- you must avoid many if not most common words -- thus translating a lipogram into a lipogram is doubly difficult. The original author has merely to guide his story to avoid topics that would require forbidden words; the translator has no such freedom, and must find a way to express certain concepts even if they contain e. Thus Perec's novel deals a lot with sleep and death -- whose French equivalents, "dormir" and "mort" are e-less; Adair had to find ways around this. That he was able to do so at all was remarkable, and his translation has got a lot of praise -- largely, I think, on "dancing bear" principles ("it's not how well it dances but that it dances at all"). And the first time through I was impressed very much for that reason.

But in the meantime I read an essay by Ian Monk -- like Georges Perec, a member of the French literary group the Oulipo -- called "On G. Adair's A Void" (it's at the link, but you'll have to scroll down or search for Adair; it's down a bit). Monk's review -- itself a lipogram in e -- basically pans Adair's translation for being unfaithful to its text. He cites four examples to make his point; here's the third:
Original: "Portons dix bons whiskys à l'avocat goujat qui fumait au zoo."

Adair (p. 39): "I ask all 10 of you, with a glass of whisky in your hand - and not just any whisky but a top-notch brand - to drink to that solicitor who is so boorish as to light up his cigar in a zoo."

This, similar to our "That quick brown fox is jumping onto a lazy diva", is a familiar typist's workout and should contain all symbols from A to Z (barring, naturally, what it cannot contain in this book) and is also an important, but vain indication to Anton Vowl's pals as to what is going on. Not only is this translation's volubility absurd, but it also lacks all of four symbols: m, q, v and x. How about: "Quick! pour six whisky drams for an unjovial solicitor bringing cigars to a zoo." If not, Anton Vowl's post scriptum is void of any point.
It seems, to me, a pretty damning critique. And this time around I found myself constantly wondering about the translation and checking (despite my oxidized-to-the-point-of-nonexistence French) the French original. There were certainly unfaithful passages (although there were also some pretty clever solutions, it seemed to me, and a few touches that were added but which struck me as very worthy additions). And there was the occasional omission -- for some reason, the prefatory poem is entirely absent from Adair's version. (I've posted an English version, see the link.) But what else can one do (besides learn French) -- I mean, it's not as if two people are going to produce lipogrammatic translations of Perec's fun but (let's face it) quirky and hardly-Harry-Potter-territory novel. Right?

Well, actually, I just found out that that's wrong. In fact there are two other English translations -- plus a few fragments by yet another translator. That's the good news. The bad news is that neither of the others have been published.

The translation situation is summed up by this note from David Bellos's article -- now 17 years old and quite outdated (note that he refers to the Adair translation as "pending" -- from the Review of Contemporary Fiction (vol. 13, no. 1), "Appendix: Georges Perec in English". Bellos writes:
La Disparition. Paris: Denoel, 1969. The first fragment of Perec's lipogram-novel to appear in English was in Harry Mathews's article "Vanishing Point," in American Book Review (November-December 1981). Further passages translated by Harry Mathews appeared in "That Ephemeral Thing," New York Review of Books, 6 June 1988. A translation of the whole novel by John Lee, entided Vanish'd!, and another translation by Ian Monk, remain unpublished. Extracts from John Lee's translation appeared in 1988 alongside his article "On translating La Disparition" (see below), and Lee's English versions of Perec's lipogrammatic translations of well-known French poems were published in PN Review (Manchester, UK) 15.6 (1989): 18-19. Gilbert Adair's translation, provisionally entitled A Void, is due to be published in London by Harvill in 1993.
So two translations -- done, it seems, prior to (or at any rate concurrently with) Adair's -- exist. But they aren't published, save for the excerpts from the apparently-uncompleted version by Oulipian Harry Mathews -- and save for the noted excerpts from Lee. For the Lee, the cite is to The Times Literary Supplement, 2 September 1988 (I haven't been able to track it down yet); a few brief excerpts of the translation were also published, subsequent to Bellos's bibliography, in the journal Palimpsests, no. 9.

What else can we learn about them?

Well, the main source of information seems to be a later issue of that same journal Palimpsests; issue 12 devotes several articles specifically to the comparison between the Adair and the Lee translations. Unfortunately, the journal is published in French -- which means that for pretty much anyone who can read it, the issue is moot save as a matter of literary theory and intellectual interest. Nevertheless, a few pages of one of the articles -- Sara R. Greaves's "Une traduction non plausible? La Disparition de Georges Perec traduit par John Lee" -- is available through Google Books, and a footnote to the first mention of John Lee's translation Vanish'd! gives some useful bibliographical information, useful even to those with heavily oxidized French:
On peut consulter cette traduction non publiée à L'association Georges Perec, Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, Paris. Il en était question dans un numéro précedent de Palimpsestes: "De La disparition de Georges Perec à Vanish'd! de John Lee: la traduction traduite". Paris: PSN, 1995: pp. 105-115, ainsi que dans mon memoire de maltrise, "La Traduction d'un Lipogramme", visible également à l'Association Georges Perec. L'autre traduction est d'Ian Monk, et n'a pas non plus été publiée.
So unless my French is betraying me, it seems that you can go to the Arsenal Library in Paris and read Lee's Vanish'd! there. (Why it hasn't been published isn't clarified.) But Ian Monk's translation -- which Greaves, like Bellos, gives no name for, although a number of web sites claim that it is called A Vanishing -- is n longer going to be published ("n'a pas non plus été publiée") and it's not clear why. A real pity, since I'd really like to read Monk's translation in particular.

If you scroll down in Greaves article, you can read a few snippets in Lee and Adair's translations, which she quotes as she compares them. One of the bits she quotes is the fourth sentence whose Adairian version Ian Monk critiques in his essay.

Another scholarly article, Alison James's "The Maltese and the Mustard Fields: Oulipian Translation", is not online, although you can read a summary here, and if you belong to an academic institution you might be able to access the entire thing. James quotes both the first and the third of Monk's four examples. Here's what she says about the third (i.e. the sentence which I previously quoted Ian Monk's discussion of): important plot development is based on Perec's adaptation of a common pangram (a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet). The French sentence "Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume" ("Carry this old whisky to the blond judge who is smoking") becomes the e-less version "Portons dix bons whiskys à l'avocat goujat qui fumait au zoo" ("Carry ten good whiskies to the ill-mannered lawyer who was smoking at the zoo"; 55). This note in Voyl's journal leads Amaury Conson to track down the lawyer Hassan Ibn Abbou at the zoo. Adair's translation expands the sentence, retaining most words from the original while displacing some of them: "I ask all 10 of you, with a glass of whisky in your hand—and not just any whisky but a top-notch brand—to drink to that solicitor who is so boorish as to light up his cigar in a zoo" (A Void 39). Adair circumvents the constraint by using Arabic numerals for the number 10, while shifting its reference to the number of listeners (thus avoiding the problematic plural "whiskies"). This solution respects the novel's general constraint (the lipogram) although not the supplementary local one (the pangram). On the semantic level, it adapts the sentence's meaning, but retains the element required for the novel's plot (the lawyer who smokes at the zoo).

Lee also opts to keep the number 10, but by adopting Roman numerals is able to preserve the (pseudo-)pangram, with an X that functions both as number and letter: "Quick! X hot tots of brand whisky for an unjovial solicitor smoking at Paris zoo!" (36-37). Of course, this sentence is unlike Perec's in that it does not resemble a familiar English pangram. So Lee adds an ironic parenthesis: "(viz. a quick brown fox jumps at this lazy dog, as any typist will know, but such a translation would play havoc with our story, wouldn't it?)" (Vanish'd 36-37). Lee's double lipogrammatic pangram not only makes the wordplay more explicit than it is in Perec's French text, it also identifies itself as a translation and comments on the gap that separates it from the original text. It ironically hints that the translator, far from being a "lazy dog," is a faithful one who is forced to choose between different loyalties: to plot, to constraint, to meaning.
I will say that while I agree with Monk's critique of Adair's version, I'm not particularly enamored of Lee's either. It's really too bad that Ian Monk's seem to have vanished into a void.

...and that's all I've learned about the vanished translations for now. I must admit I find the life-imitating-art disparition of the two other versions more frustrating than amusing. I'd like to read them! Or, at the very least, read in them. Publishers -- why not bring them out?

In particular, if anyone knows why Ian Monk's translation is unavailable even to scholars (in contrast to Lee's which can at least be seen if you haul ass over to the Arsenal Library) -- or knows of any way to contact him to ask! -- I'd be grateful if you'd leave the information in comments.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jacques Rouboud's "La Disparition" in English Translation

The French edition of Georges Perec's lipogramatic novel La Disparition begins with a poem ascribed (perhaps truthfully, perhaps fictitiously -- I have no idea) to his fellow Oulipian Jacques Roubaud, which is also titled "La Disparition". The French text of the poem is as follows:
La Disparition

Un corps noir tranchant un flamant au vol bas
un bruit fuit au sol (qu'avant son parcours lourd
dorait un son crissant au grain d'air) il court
portant son sang plus loin son charbon qui bat

Si nul n'allait brillant sur lui pas à pas
dur cil aujourd'hui plomb au fil du bras gourd
Si tombait nu grillon dans l'hors vu au sourd
mouvant baillon du gris hasard sans compas

l'alpha signal inconstant du vrai diffus
qui saurait (saisissant (un doux soir confus
ainsi on croit voir un pont à son galop)

un non qu'à ton stylo tu donnas brûlant)
qu'ici on dit (par un trait manquant plus clos)
I'art toujours su du chant-combat (noit pour blanc)


For some (to me) inexplicable reason, however, the sole published English translation of the work (A Void, translated by Gilbert Adair (1995)) does not include this poem at all, in any form.

There exists, however, an unpublished English translation by John Lee titled Vanish'd, and Lee, unlike Adair, translated the poem. So, courtesy of Google Book's edition of Palimpsestes #9, here is the translation:


A black thing wings a flamingo, low flying,
Bound along ground (which, prior to flight, not light,
Brown'd a grinding sound in flood fo air), plying,
Carrying its blood afar, coal carrion in fright

If nobody was coming braggingly to pass,
Galling brow now, plumb on sagging arm a bind,
If, falling, stark cicala, out of sight, out of mind,
Moving, gagging, gray sick luck, out of compass

Alpha, inconstant sign of truth's diffusion,
Which might know (grasping (on a night of calm confusion
So you think to sight its bridging footfall)

This NO, flaming gift to your plumbago, writing)
That thus is said (by missing mark, most shut of all)
That long-known art of wordplay-swordplay (black for whiting)

-- Trans. John Lee

The Google Books link has a few other tantalizing snippets of Lee's translation from that issue of Palmipsets, although in usual GB fashion it cuts out lots of pages to make sure you can't just read it (copyright forfend!)

But here is this omitted poem, anyway, so for any readers of Adair's A Void, you can cut & paste this in front of your copy & have a complete version.

Quote of the Day: Martin Luther King, Jr. on Charity and Justice

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

-- Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mandelbrot's in Heaven

Benoit Mandelbrot, RIP.

Rudy Rucker posted some pretty pictures of Mandlebrot sets, along with a personal story of meeting him, here (via).

I'm ashamed to say that when I heard this news, the very first thing I wondered was whether & how Jonathan Coulton would alter the lyrics to this fabulous song.

Update: In this interview (via), Coulton answers my question:
Will you be singing the song any differently now?
A lot of people have been asking, and I don’t think I’m going to change the lyrics. They’re factually incorrect now, but then so is my description of the M-Set and I never fixed that either. Mostly I think of it as a snapshot of the time when he was alive — it’s just how the song goes, that’s all.
Coulton also says this of my blog post title (not personally, just generally):
I feel a little strange every time someone quotes the song line “Mandlebrot’s in heaven.” That’s the obvious line to quote, but I feel bad that I was so glib about his future demise and now here it has actually happened.
Ah well, I guess it was obvious. But it's what I thought, the first moment I heard the news; I hadn't yet seen it elsewhere; so I used it.

Even Those Who Do Remember the Past Are Doomed to Repeat It

While we're all talking about the parallels between the paranoid right of the 1960's and today's Tea Partiers, may I suggest taking the time to read (or reread) Richard Hofstadter's classic essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (alternate link)? It's sort of the 1960's version of this conversation, demonstrating that the John Birch Society wasn't any more novel a phenomenon in its day than the Tea Parties are today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

BDFIJLRTU, or, One-Letter Book Titles

My unsolicited email (not quite "spam" I suppose since I did buy something from the company once) was uncannily on-point today. The web site ABE books sent me a link to this page of theirs celebrating one-letter book titles. Their occasion for this is that one of the works just shortlisted for the Booker prize is C by Tom McCarthy. So they list twenty others, plus some near-misses.

As it happens, I had some time ago stumbled upon John Burkardt's list of one-letter book titles, and quite enjoyed it -- I even suggested a few new ones, and Mr. Burkardt was kind enough to mention my name. I wonder if ABE's spam searchbots saw that? Or is it just coincidence? (I actually suspect the latter).

Not surprisingly, the 21-title list of ABE books and the 23-title list of John Burkardt are pretty similar. By my count, ABE caught only one book that Burkardt missed (the recent C) while Burkardt found three that ABE didn't (two earlier C's, plus Leacock's Q).

Merging these, I present for posterity (or spambots) the following list of 24 one-letter titles:
  • a, Andy Warhol
  • C, Maurice Baring
  • "C", Anthony Cave Brown
  • C, Tom McCarthy
  • c, Thomas Sowell
  • E, Matt Beaumont
  • G, John Berger
  • H, Elizabeth Shepard
  • H., Lin Haire-Sargeant
  • K, Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • K., Ronald Hayman
  • M, John Sack
  • N, Louis Edwards
  • O, Omari Grandberry
  • P, Andrew Lewis Conn
  • Q, Luther Blissett
  • Q, Stephen Leacock
  • S, Harry Mathews et. al.*
  • S., John Updike
  • V, Thomas Pynchon
  • W, or the Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec
  • X, Sue Coe
  • Y: the Last Man, Brian Vaughn et al.
  • Z, Vassily Vassilikos
Subtitles are included only for the Perec and the Vaughn, although more have them (often "a novel" if nothing else), but in each case the one-letter title is clear, at least to my mind (and, it seems, to others').

I'm not sure about that Sowell title, however... a quick google doesn't turn it up. Does anyone have a reference for that?

Where their pages differ, not surprisingly, is the category that Burkardt calls "Close but no cigar" and that ABE calls "Books that almost made the cut". There I definitely prefer Burkardt, where nearly all his near-miss books catch the spirit of the list, whereas ABE just lists a bunch of books with short words as titles. The two-book overlap between the near-miss lists are definitely the most relevant of the bunch, however:
  • N or M?, Agatha Christie
  • U and I, Nicholson Baker
-- but again, I think that Burkardt's near-miss list is mostly relevant -- unlike all the other entries on ABE's near-miss list-- so, if you're silly and obsessive enough to have enjoyed this list thus far, you should click on over for the rest of his titles. (On the other hand, you might say that of course I would consider his list better since I suggested several of the titles on it.)

In fact, one item that Burkardt lists in the "near miss" category is actually one I would argue belongs on the list proper is
  • ∈ by Jacques Roubaud
That's not an "E" however, although some references list the title that way: instead, it's "the mathematical symbol used to indicate that an object belongs to a set" (in Burkardt's phrasing) or -- as it's called in French, "Signe D'Appartenance" (that, in parentheses, is how it's listed sometimes in search engines). Still, even though not an E, it's a one-character title, so personally I'd count it, making 25 such titles in all.

Despite there being 25 such titles, however, overlap in usage (no less than four "C" books, assuming the Sowell is legit) means that a fair number of letters are still up for grabs. Writers of the world, take note! The following books remain to be written:
  • B
  • D
  • F
  • I
  • J
  • L
  • R
  • T
  • U
Abe books does note that "authors and publishers would be wise to move away from this trend as the influence of the Internet continues to affect book-buying. Single letter titles are not particularly friendly to Internet search engines that thrive more detailed data than just A or B." So perhaps those nine will remain un-penned. (Although if we're discounting subtitles, then that's always an option for making a title googleable.) I hope not, though. I'd like to complete my set.

(The other obvious extension here, I suppose, is to numbers. But so far as I can tell, there aren't any books titled 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9. It seems if books wish to be a single-digit number, they spell it out (e.g. One). There are some films -- the one's I've seen in a brief search are 1, 3, 4, 8 and 9 (again, discounting films like Seven that spell it out). And album titles positively abound in single-digit numbers: there are multiple albums called by each of those eight titles, and for some there are a great many indeed. But it looks like these are, literarily, uncharted territory.)

Unrelated postscript: anyone who's read this far will probably also like John Burkardt's marvelously idiosyncratic list of Hapax Leomenon. (What would the plural be of that anyway?) And probably also his list of multiple homonyms (i.e. homonyms with three or more words in the set not just two).

* This is the English translation of a book written partly in English and partly in French, by seven authors, with the French title Semaines de Suzanne.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What If... Dollhouse Had Been a Music Video Instead of a TV Show?

It might have been as good as its best parts, and only four minutes long (h/t to Gerry):

The video is, itself, an SF story, staring Fran Kanz (who had a lead role on Dollhouse as Topher) and Maurissa Tancharoen (who wrote for the show, including co-writing Epitaph One, far and away the best episode they ever did (as well as having a bit role as Kilo)). The story, told entirely in images without words, is not itself based directly on the show, but as io9 put it, it "thematically echoes" it. Certainly it's an elegant little tale, given the constraints it was clearly made under.

The song for which this is the video is "Remains", which was used in "Epitaph One", and which was written by the writers of the episode (Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon) as a budget-saving measure to avoid having to pay royalties for an actual song; I think it's fabulous, myself. But go ahead, watch the video and you can listen to the song, and judge for yourself.

This is all apparently a promo for the DVDs of Season Two of Dollhouse, which are out today. Only worth watching if you've already watched the far superior (and more consistent) Whedon shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog; otherwise don't bother with Dollhouse. But if you liked all those, then there's a lot to like in Dollhouse... at least if you stick to the good parts version and don't go doing something silly like watching the first five episodes of season one.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poem of the Day: After Apple Picking

After Apple-picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

-- Robert Frost

Friday, October 08, 2010

Quote of the Day

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

- Algernon Charles Swinburne,
"The Garden of Proserpine"
(Via). I'd never read the poem before -- I honestly can't remember if I've ever read any Swinburne before at all, though it seems like I must have -- but it's quite something, well worth reading in its entirety.

(Unrelated Swinburnian thought: browsing this collection of quotes (trying to see if any were familiar, i.e. if I had read any before), I came across this line from his poem "Dolores": "Despair the twin-born of devotion." I have to wonder if Neil Gaiman thought of that before creating his twin characters Desire and Despair of the Endless.)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Stray Thought I Had On the Way To Class This Morning

To go, to teach--
To teach-- perchance to bore: ay, there's the rub,
For in our droning on what students we
May put to sleep, must give us pause.