Gilbert Alter-Gilbert Interview 1

Gilbert Alter-Gilbert is a critic, translator, and literary historian whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals. His book-length translations include:

For Xenos Books, he's working on three short story collections in translation: On a Locomotive and Other Narratives by Massimo Bontempelli (Italian); Metaphysical Tales by Giovanni Papini (Italian); and Unsavory Tales by Léon Bloy (French). For Green Integer Press, he's doing additional book-length translations: The Fantastic Tales of Alberto Savinio [sample] and Jesus Christ, Flashy Adventurer (tentative title, which I think should be made permanent) by Francis Picabia.

Alter-Gilbert has acted as redactor, revisionist, ghost writer, and factotum for many periodicals. He's also an art and architecture critic. In this capacity he's done reviews, catalog essays, and book prefaces.

I first encountered Alter-Gilbert in his role of anthologist, through Life and Limb: Selected Tales of Peril, Predicament, and Dire Distress. He has several other anthologies in the offing, such as Pipe Dreams: The Drug Experience in Literature for Leaping Dog Press. He discusses some of these forthcoming collections in his first response below, but I want to share his story about The Riddle of Existence: A Compendium of Short Philosophical Fiction: This work was under consideration for publication by OUP, whose editor asked Alter-Gilbert to cut the length of the manuscript from 2,000+ pages to just over 200.

Some of the many authors Gilbert Alter-Gilbert has translated: Cristina Peri Rossi, Max-Pol Fouchet, Francis Jammes, Mohamed Choukri, Kajii Motojiro, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Enrique Anderson-Imbert, Felisberto Hernández, Ana María Shua, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Santiago Dabove, Marco Denevi, Fernando Sorrentino, Jean Richepin, Augusto Monterroso, Norberto Luis Romero, Charles Nodier, and Meliton Barba.

Above, Photograph: Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, oil portrait by Valentin Popov, 2002
Below, Photograph: Portion of Gilbert Alter-Gilbert collection of literary memorabilia

This post will morph slightly over the next few weeks as I add additional links to the authors and movements Alter-Gilbert discusses. (I'll also attempt to add accent marks to names. I realize I'm incredibly inconsistent with accents throughout my entire blog.)

I'll soon post excerpts from Alter-Gilbert's translations of Asturias, Carco, Huidobro, Lugones, Redonnet, and Girondo. He has also given me permission to post his not-yet-published translation of "The Infusion" by Léon Bloy.

Alter-Gilbert provided me with some anecdotes from literary history. These appear throughout the interview.


The Interview

JRMS. --Leaping Dog Press will publish two of your anthologies of international writing and you've edited anthologies in the past.* Can you talk about the genesis of the two new collections, how long it took you to compile them, and discuss your research methods? How do you make selections – out of often vast oeuvres – from previously untranslated authors?

A-G. --The anthologies slated for publication by Leaping Dog Press are Pulse of Doom: Selected Tales of Fate and Fatalism and Gnostic Clock: A Tenebrist Miscellany. Pulse of Doom is intended as a sort of sequel to my compilation Life and Limb: Selected Tales of Peril, Predicament and Dire Distress, an earlier collection of short fiction concerned with the operations of destiny (even if masquerading as chance or coincidence) in human affairs. In Life and Limb, the emphasis is on situations of immediate jeopardy: in one story, a teenager, on a dare, scales the crumbling ladder of a derelict gas tower, gets stuck when some of the rusted rungs collapse, and finds himself dangling precariously in mid-air, unable to go up, unable to come down; in another, a man walking home through a field overgrown with tall grass tumbles into an abandoned shaft and finds himself trapped in a pit from which he can't escape – the common denominator of these accounts is the existential predicament of immediate physical threat to life and limb. In Pulse of Doom, the focus is on tales of predestination in which, no matter how drastic or devious the extremes the protagonist may adopt in an effort to outwit fate, everything slowly eventuates towards a foreordained conclusion. Detonation may be delayed, in other words, but is nonetheless inevitable. The second anthology scheduled by Leaping Dog is Gnostic Clock, a compilation of dark and pessimist writings down the ages. I've always been fascinated by this genre because it appeals to my Schopenhauerean tendencies. The pessimist attitude naturally strikes a responsive chord in anyone spiritually honest, since the fact of the matter is that the human condition, metaphysically speaking, is largely, if not ultimately, one of solitude and forlornity, despite all the warm and fuzzy expedients man has contrived to conceal it. As for why I am attracted to the anthology format, I suppose it's because I have a deep-seated taxonomic streak. Something in me wants to scientifically classify everything, analyze, dissect. (In literature, the Goncourt brothers notably exhibited that proclivity.) There are rich fields for discovery still waiting to be explored. What slays me is that there are major research departments, programs, facilities and staffs devoted to absurdly precious and insular endeavors such as examining glove styles or eating habits during the time of Ben Jonson instead of opening up entire bodies of literature neglected or never adequately appreciated or understood. Pulse of Doom was one of several anthologies I researched simultaneously at one period. The others were The Riddle of Existence: A Florilegium of Short Philosophical Fiction; Saturnian Harvest: Selected Tales of the Grotesque and the Malign; Worlds Within Worlds: An Omnibus of Imaginative Literature; and Anthology of Alogical Literature. With regard to investigative methods, I'm omnivorous, ruthless – I plow through everything indiscriminately, covering all the global troves. Where literary production is concerned, cultures are most definitely not created equal, but where ore is present, there are often vast depths and recesses which have not been adequately tapped, and where the skein of literary excellence is rich and abundant. In compiling the anthologies I consulted publishers' catalogs, drew upon resources of libraries around the country, made many pilgrimages to university reading rooms and catacombs containing special collections, used interlibrary loan services, the internet, scanned the latest publications in the bookstores, and followed up references hoarded over a lifetime of reading. Along the way, I encountered a certain amount of obstructionism but, occasionally, help from unexpected quarters. It's amazing how difficult it's become to obtain certain titles. Alas, ours is a post-literate era! At any rate, when I do hit the library, I tend to roll through the stacks like a threshing machine, just gobbling up everything in sight. When I find a prospective diamond in the rough, I make a quick mental translation, or seek a translation or compact exegesis in English, if it exists. But my decoding faculties are fallible, and I can't get to everything. There are always more treasures waiting to be unearthed – after all, that's what keeps things interesting…

"Balzac kept wax dolls in his desk drawer as writing aids to remind him of his characters."

JRMS. --From reading your many introductions and prefaces, I know you think a lot about how to introduce the authors you translate to English-speaking audiences. Do you like writing these intros? Do you think of yourself as a literary historian? Who are your role models as literary historians?

A-G. --I regard the function of introducing authors as a sacred office, and approach it with the utmost solemnity. I enjoy the impresario factor – it's a quiet but genuine thrill to introduce a "new," important writer. I like writing prefaces and introductions because so many authors are intriguing personalities and their lives are every bit as dramatic and poignant (and, in some cases, mysterious) as their works. As I've written neither a full-length literary biography nor a full-length book of criticism, I think it unlikely anyone in authority would officially consecrate me a literary historian as such, unless it was to extend membership in the League of Soi-disants. Admittedly, however, if I may be permitted to indulge in a modest exercise in self-stylization, I suppose I can legitimately claim to practice a sort of esoteric literary archaeology which entails sustained and repeated forays into the adjunct disciplines of paraphilology and cryptohermeneutics. Literary historians I admire are too numerous to list. Off the top of my head, I would mention John Drinkwater, Joanna Richardson, Roger Shattuck, Angel Flores, H. P. Lovecraft, Louis Untermeyer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Paul Vangelisti, Seymour Menton, Enid Starkie, Wallace Fowlie, Jorge Luis Borges, Douglas Messerli, Clifton Fadiman, Robert Peters, Michael Richardson, Babette Deutsch, John Fitzell, C. M. Bowra, Arthur Symons, Leon Vincent, Chris Baldick, Lafcadio Hearn, the Goncourts, de Quincey, Michael Holyroyd, Lewis Turco, William Hazlitt, André Breton, Max Brod, Edmund Wilson, Mario Praz, Gary Kern, and George Slusser. Historians and critics I don't admire would comprise at least as long a roster. As for theorists in the mold of René Wellek (and anyone who has seen his personal library will readily concede his breadth of learning), the attempt to systematize the span of all things (an impulse to which I myself am profoundly prey) is, by its very nature, doomed to failure, and inevitably backfires so that we wind up exiting through the same door as in we went. The highly entertaining, cerebral antics of the semiotics-structuralist-post-structuralist-deconstructivist-situationist crowd – Lacan, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, et al., makes for great intellectual diversion but ultimately leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when everything gets lost in a labyrinth of circular saws and cognitive cul-de-sacs. Except for the fun factor inherent in the sheer ludic dynamic which drives them, these new systems, attitudes and approaches ultimately prove synthetic and empty, and bear an uncomfortable resemblance to all the dry-as-dust scientific and mathematical methodologies that have shanghaied philosophy during the past century. If you could package it as a weapon and dispense it as an aerial spray, you could neutralize entire populations – leaving them limp and dizzy and screaming for analgesics…

"William Faulkner, on the occasion of being invited to speak at the University of Mississippi shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize (while all his books were out of print), declared, 'When I was here, you had nothing to say to me. Now I have nothing to say to you.'"

JRMS. --You mentioned that you were going to publish a couple volumes with John Calder, though he retired before this could happen. What were the projects?

A-G. --The first project was to have been a volume of short stories by Alberto Savinio. The second was to have been any book I chose to do. A generous offer! Unfortunately, the dogs of indigence closed in on Calder and forced him to shut down what had become a literary institution – a backlist of 5,000 serious titles, all of the highest order – many classics, many, many works in translation – all the top guns of twentieth century letters – Calder was, for example, Robbe-Grillet's English publisher. He was a close personal friend of Samuel Beckett, and also his publisher. He published in English translation all the newest plays in European theater. Actually, my understanding with Calder immediately preceded his bankruptcy, not his retirement. Despite desperate business reverses, Calder valiantly soldiered on from that period of fifteen years ago or so, and persevered in what he considered a bitter-cold cultural climate in Britain, Europe and the rest of the world, making a stand until finally overwhelmed by the forces of philistinism and driven into retirement, still defiant, this past year. [Ed. One World Classics purchased Calder's backlist.] Calder is a fascinating figure. A gentleman of the old school, he will always hold a shining place in my memory as the perfect picture of a proper British publisher, in his double-breasted navy blue blazer, with one brass button missing, stoically holding forth about toeing the line against the predations of all-encroaching barbarism. Calder authored an indispensable apologia for literary endeavor entitled The Defence of Literature, in which he asserted that writers ought to be coddled and cherished and supported in every possible way as a priceless cultural resource. Now, here are the thoughts of an enlightened individual! I count myself fortunate to have met him and to have met in Paris, years earlier, when he was already of advanced age, another legendary publisher, José Corti – both inspiring, dedicated, visionary men. "Men of insight, men of granite, knights in armor bent on chivalry" as Van Morrison would say. As fate would have it, an edition of Savinio short stories appeared from Atlas Press about a year or two after Calder and I discussed ours. The translation, by James Brook, is excellent. [Ed.: see this post.] Meanwhile, a fresh collection of Savinio stories translated by little me, consisting of the original mix and a number of additional items, is tentatively scheduled for publication by Green Integer. A professional recording of character actor Paul Benedict reading many of the early translations was made in the late 1990s, and was to have been released by Audio Literature, Inc. of San Francisco. Whether or not that recording will ever reach the marketplace remains to be seen, but it must be noted that Benedict's renditions of the Savinio texts are sparkling and delightful; a voice better suited to the material can't be imagined. [Ed.: This is the same Paul Benedict who played Harley Bentley, the tall, eccentric neighbor on The Jeffersons and the Mad Painter on Sesame Street!]

Paul Valéry considered himself a businessman and not an artist, and thus it was that he published his works in exquisite, highly limited editions, in order to command high prices."

A-G. --Francis Carco was the very prototype of the Left Bank bohemian of the early years of the twentieth century. He was the chronicler of the demi-monde – the "netherworld" inhabited by pimps, prostitutes, burglars, street toughs, petty criminals of all sorts. In treating this shadowy milieu – his chosen subject – he walked a tightrope slung between sympathy and dispassion. He was also a biographer and critic who hobnobbed with everyone who was anyone in the art scene of his day. There is a three or four hour documentary about Jean-Paul Sartre available at your local video rental store which contains, towards the end of the last reel, some footage of an awards banquet in Paris, where all the literary heavyweights – the Legion of Honor set – have turned out. Lo and behold, there, a couple of years before his death, stands Francis Carco with his large, leonine head and mane of dark hair, wearing a tailored suit, puffing on a Gauloises, cutting an ironic figure as the most distinguished and stately of the lot!

Jack London hired a young Sinclair Lewis, among others, to furnish him with plot outlines and story ideas."

JRMS. --Have you looked into the South-American / French literary cross-pollination that seemed to happen repeatedly in the early twentieth century?

A-G. --Of course, but, in this regard, I must defer to the observations and analyses of the leading authority on this phenomenon – Jason Weiss – whose masterful study The Lights of Home illuminates the matter admirably. So many of the Latins spent time in Paris, soaking up the latest trends during the formative years of Surrealism and so on … the most significant of them chummed around together while consorting with the rest of the international Parisian avant-garde. Uncannily (or, inexorably), several of the most famous of these epochal cultural cohorts were roommates!

JRMS. --You've translated numerous writers from Argentina. I know you're interested in writers such as Lugones (and even earlier authors never published in English) who influenced Borges. Can you discuss some of them?

A-G. --Lugones was a monster of intellect and, at the same time, something of a bête noire, a freak. He was an autodidact as well versed in science as in letters, and unquestionably one of the leading Latin American minds of his time. His immediate Argentine antecedents were Eduardo Holmberg, whose work (except for one short story) hasn't been translated into English, and Eduardo Wilde. Holmberg was heavily influenced by the German Romantics; Wilde by the English and French Naturalists. The prose of these illustrious pioneers is poetic and highly colored, if quite unalike in other respects. Borges can trace his patrimony as a proponent of "imaginative literature" through Lugones, Holmberg and Darío and beyond them to European and American (i.e., Hawthorne and Poe) models who influenced them. Borges worshiped Leopoldo Lugones, who was his idol although, when he was young, Borges made a remark Lugones considered insolent. Lugones challenged Borges (whom he hadn't met) to a duel and, when informed of Borges's blindness, reportedly said, "In that case, you had best advise that impudent whelp not to make opprobrious comments he is not prepared to defend with his person!" Stern, proud, courtly and ceremonious, Lugones held supreme sway over Argentine letters during his lifetime (1874 - 1938) until he fell desperately in love with a tender young flower of Argentine femininity by the name of Emilia Cadelago. He idealized her with all the glory and majesty a great poet at the height of his powers could bring to bear, but he was a married man thirty years her elder and when the beloved senorita, mortified and ostracized because of the situation, refused to prolong their liaison, Lugones committed suicide a la Werther. Borges was influenced by another important contemporary: the eccentric, if avuncular, philosopher manqué Macedonio Fernandez who, though a fully licensed attorney, preferred to spend his days (and most of all, his nights) strumming his guitar and indulging in fanciful metaphysical speculation. A sort of offbeat eminence grise of the Pampas, Fernandez was better known for his personality than for his writing, the best of which is marked by satire and sardonic paradox. Perhaps it was Fernandez who, with his twisted humor, fostered in Borges the acerbic wit and penchant for the felicitous phrase which led him to mint such gems as "the original is unfaithful to the translation" and, when someone clumsily attempted to slight his friend Santiago Dabove by remarking that he had written only one book, Borges quipped, "Yes, but how many people have written even one?" Borges must be credited with formulating his own literary modalities, original and distinct. Despite being thoroughly steeped in the grand cosmopolitan tradition of fantastic fiction, Borges managed to fashion a body of work that is not discernibly derivative and, for the most part, is cut from whole cloth. But he didn't spring from a vacuum…


"Rilke, who cherished women and flowers with equal relish, contracted blood poisoning from a wound to his hand caused when he was pricked by a thorn from a bouquet of roses he offered up in an act of courtship; the wound became infected and killed him."

JRMS --I'm fascinated by fleeting literary schools of the nineteenth century. Can you discuss some of the French movements: the frantic school, bouzingos, Jeune France, salons of Victor Hugo, Charles Nodier?

A-G. --The Nodier and Hugo cenacles, as they came to be known, were more or less coeval and somewhat overlapped. Nodier's came first. It convened at the Arsenal Library, where Nodier, whom one scholar has dubbed "the pilot of French Romanticism," held court. Regulars included Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, Alexandre Dumas and Alphonse de Lamartine. As chief librarian (in the Borges - Paz mold), Nodier presided over evenings which resembled gala fetes or small palace balls more than conventional salons. Soirees at the Arsenal were fashionable affairs at which dandified men of letters and other glitterati mingled with elegant ladies in gaily-bedecked rooms enveloped by exchanges of dazzling conversation in a cocktail party atmosphere. Nodier's daughter was apparently quite a dish, and it was chiefly her allure that was the magnet for many of the young poets in attendance. Hugo frequented the Arsenal gatherings and soaked up Romanticist doctrine while formulating plans to bring together artists of like mind intent on ushering in the new school and dethroning the classicism then prevailing over aesthetic endeavor. After collaborating with Emile Deschamp on the journal La Muse Francaise (the unofficial organ of French Romanticism), which drew still more young bloods such as the budding luminary Prosper Mérimée, to the cause, Hugo, in conjunction with Charles Augustin de Sainte-Beuve, formed a second cenacle, which began to hold meetings of its own. These consisted largely of readings and recitations excitedly received by appropriately emotional devotees in the more-or-less reserved, if romantically-inflected setting of Hugo's medieval-décor-drenched home. Participants, in keeping with what was not so much a tenet as a tendency of Romanticism – that of hero-worship – gravitated to Hugo, as they had orbited around Nodier before him. Hugo resoundingly achieved his goal of displacing classicism with the success of his play at the notorious Battle of Hernani (where he had packed the playhouse with Romanticist sympathizers) and, having won the day, no longer felt the need for concerted activism. (Though, for the rest of his life, he continued to attract followers and hangers-on wherever he went.) At around this time, a group of relatively recent recruits to the Hugo circle – Theophile Gautier, Petrus Borel, Gerard de Nerval, et al., splintered off to form the Petit Cenacle – a dedicated cell of extremists determined to carry Romanticism to even wilder heights. Hugo, Nodier, Deschamps and their confederates in the first wave cenacles were known as the Grand Romantics in contradistinction to the Petit Cenacle constituents, known as the Lesser Romantics. Later, the members of the Petit Cenacle changed their name to Les Jeunes France (Young France). All the while, a flurry of coetaneous cliques and coteries swirled around both Sainte-Beuve and Deschamps. The Frantic School was closely associated with Nodier and those writers who shared with him a predilection for supernatural themes, vampire lore, and other dark subject matter derived from the gothic novel which, it must be remembered was, in the 1820s and 1830s, still a relatively new phenomenon of which certain elements enjoyed a lingering fashion. The gothic novel created a huge sensation in its day, and stock features of crumbling, fog-enshrouded ruins, forsaken glades, haunted castles, chain-rattling ghosts and doom-laden protagonists filled readers with dread, frenzy and hysteria; hence the term "frantic." The Frantic School is also known as the Frenetic School. A good example in this vein is Nodier's collection of tales and anecdotes Infernaliana. I like to think of Aloysius Bertrand, too, as a writer of this brand. Among the public-at-large, Frenetic School came to be known as one of the synonyms for the Bouzingo. The Bouzingo (sometimes called Bousingo or Bousingots, and meaning noise, racket, uproar, ruckus) were a collective of flamboyant Bohemian writers and artists probably named after the roaring boys of seventeenth century England. Forerunners of Anthony Burgess's Droogs, the roaring boys were drunken rowdies who traveled in packs, blustering boisterously through the moonlit streets of London, roughing up passersby, ambushing maidens and generally wreaking havoc and raising Cain. Jaded, disaffected youth out on a tear, they were amoral pranksters intent on amusement at any cost. No matter how much mayhem they brought about, they were generally left alone because of their aristocratic affiliations. It was undoubtedly these same ruffians who gave rise to the expression rakehell. The Bouzingo drank from human skulls, played musical instruments at all hours, conducted orgies and dabbled in drugs. In fact, it was the Bouzingo outgrowth from the original Petit Cenacle crew – Gautier, Nerval, Bertrand and Borel who, along with newcomers Philothee O'Neddy [Ed.: great name], Augustus MacKeat, Joseph Bouchardy, Alphonse Brot and Xavier Forneret, instituted the celebrated Hashish-Eaters Club. The Bouzingo group, though posing as an antithesis to Nodier's official romanticism, was simply an offshoot of the broader trend and took its cue from the "black" romanticism of Nodier as represented by his vampire and ghost stories and the sort of dark subject matter, lurid scenes and settings, gloomy harbingers and brooding metaphysics usually associated with Edgar Allan Poe; "black" in this context harks back to the terms "black magic" and "black mass" and suggests overtones of forbidden knowledge, unspeakable secrets and dark doings. Much of this was conceived in emulation of the Byronic anti-hero, who was the bearer of hidden griefs, a scandalous past and foretokenings of doom; Nerval and Gautier favored ornate descriptive prose, and reveled in bringing to life far off places and times in a highly vivid fashion. They all brought psychology into their writings in a big way – but then, so did Nodier. Though not all of the second-generation Romantics had spent time at Nodier's cenacle, their concerns weren't much different than his; the difference was one of degree. They wanted to prove themselves more daring, more willing to go out on a limb, to delve into hitherto uncharted, proscribed territory, to flaunt taboo. They probably regarded the somewhat older Nodier as a bit formal and tame for their tastes, that's all. This being said, Bouzingo wasn't the only literary shock squad to surface in the wake of the Petit Cenacle. Soon a motley array of movements was flitting across the stage; following them all is like chasing a chameleon through a kaleidoscope. Binding their adherents was a passionate pledge to a credo of agitation, provocation and subversion and a tireless enforcement of their chosen directive to shock society, skewer the bourgeoisie, and banish any remaining arbiters of classicism whom they regarded as a bunch of ninnies. At one point, French writer Jules Levy organized a series of exhibitions featuring work by a group facetiously called the Incoherents (Incomprehensibles), which came to be a catch-term for all manner of artistic fauna of the period. There were the Hydropathes (Water Drinkers), which had boasted the participation of Henry Murger in its first incarnation; the Hirsutes (Hairies); the Fumistes (Humbugs); the Chat-noiristes (Black Cats) or Chat-nouristes (Cat Feeders), named in honor of their hang-out, the Chat Noir cabaret, where they purred their satires, songs and poetry; the Zutistes (Kiss-Offs), who claimed Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Germain Nouveau and Charles Cros among their number and who took particular delight in mercilessly deriding the Parnassians (famously, the Countess Nina de Villard hosted a vibrant Parisian salon which welcomed Zutistes and Parnassians both!); and the unforgettably denominated Jemenfoutistes (F***-Alls). Many of these subsets or cells of the Petit Cenacle or, at least, of its spirit were simply loose-knit aggregates of writers, painters, dramatists, actors, musicians, flaneurs, faineants, cut-ups and cognoscenti who banded together at cafes and studios for all-night gab sessions and general camaraderie. Then there were the Meditators, dilettanti who produced no art but considered themselves artists by dint of sensibility alone. [Ed.: "Baby that's me."] Striving to match or outdo their escapades was a crowd of still more revolutionary scribes: the vers-librists; the instrumentistes; and of theories: paroxysme; synthetisme; integralisme. In contrast, the Parnassians comprised a major movement of late nineteenth-century France. C. M. R. Leconte de Lisle, Theodore de Banville, Sully Prudhomme, Francois Coppee, Catulle Mendes and Jose Maria de Heredia constituted the nucleus of their society. Originally designated by the labels Les Impassibles, Les Formistes or Les Stylistes, the Parnassians rejected Romanticism in favor of a detached, objective outlook and their program evolved into a formal, structured movement that rose to prominence and maintained itself on the stage for some time. Besides the Symbolists and Decadents, the other important late nineteenth-century movement was, of course, Naturalism, the conscious development of which was pursued by the Medan group, centered around Emile Zola. Assembling at Zola's country residence were perennial members Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paul Alexia, and Leon Hennique. Similar to Parnassianism in its dismissal of Romanticism, if not sharing Parnassianism's lofty dispassion and Olympian ideals, Naturalism laid the foundation for several species of modern fiction.

All in all, a very turbulent, very fertile epoch…

[Ed.: The above response will keep me busy for months.]

"A one-of-a-kind, jewel-encrusted copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam fabricated over the course of a year by Tiffany's in New York, went down with the ill-starred Titanic."


JRMS. --You've translated and written about "the Cruel Tale." How does this fit into the larger movements of the time?

A-G. --It fits into them and stands apart from them, simultaneously. The cruel tale is not a movement, but a genre. The term conte cruel was coined in 1870 by the French writer Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam to characterize the stories in his eponymous collection published that year. In effect, the genre goes back many centuries, even to Roman times. Examples pop up here and there, in the Middle Ages, in the eighteenth century. But, after Villiers de L'Isle-Adam created the tag, the name stuck and the cruel tale came into its own, being implemented consciously and deliberately as a specific form ever since. The cruel tale is marked by bitter irony and by a mocking fate expressing the disdain of the cosmos for puny mortals and their best-lain plans. The so-called "dark" romantics – those who dwelt on unsavory aspects of existence and on matters of the occult and shadowy metaphysical questions, produced a number of cruel tales. Succeeding generations, represented by such figures as Alphonse Daudet and Jean Richepin in France, and by Ambrose Bierce in the United States, served up a rich banquet of cruel tales during the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the period contemporaneous with Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, or immediately following. In the twentieth century, with the explosion of modernism, the "cruel" tradition continued and expanded on many fronts around the globe, perhaps most notably in Latin America and in Asia. Some of its practitioners have been adherents to clearly-defined aesthetic schools and movements, some have not. At the present time can be found some superb variants on the cruel tale tradition in the works of Liliane Giraudon and Marie Redonnet in France, and Takashi Atoda in Japan.


"Lovecraft spoke with an English accent, though no one in his family was British and, not only did he never visit England but, in his entire lifetime, never ventured farther than 500 miles (in order to visit Richmond, Virginia, the city of which his literary idol, E. A. Poe, always regarded himself a citizen) from his ancestral home on College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island. Through correspondence, Lovecraft entered into a marriage agreement with a lady before he had ever actually seen her; their original acquaintance was as pen pals."


JRMS. --Tell us about Oliverio Girondo.

A-G. -–As the scion of a family of Argentine beef barons, Girondo had the means and the leisure to put himself at the service of public cultural enrichment, which he did, generously and unstintingly, throughout his life. Money from the family cattle empire afforded him, like other wealthy Latin literati such as the Chilean Vicente Huidobro, to engage, along with his wife the poet Norah Lange, in extravagant enterprises of personal indulgence such as champagne-and-cocaine-laced voyages beneath the stars on the decks of glamorous transatlantic ocean liners plying the distances between Buenos Aires and Cherbourg and to bring back from Europe the latest intellectual trends and aesthetic ideas. Because his literary output was slight, some have accused him of indolence of mythic proportions, but such an assessment is probably unjustly harsh, because Girondo's mental formation was such that he sought a chimerical and impossibly elusive aesthetic absolute. He wasn't interested in pursuing existing writing styles, no matter how avant-garde or experimental. In fact he was so perfectly and intrinsically an avant-gardist, spiritually speaking, that he was determined to attain absolute originality and absolute purity, or to create nothing. The most significant aspect of his trajectory as a literary artist was his quest after linguistic essences. In this he shared the concerns of poets such as Francis Ponge, Roberto Juarroz, Peter Handke, and Vicente Huidobro. In between hosting salons and soirees for the Argentine cultural set and boosting the careers of countless younger literary aspirants, Girondo spent a lifetime cloistered in his study, amidst looming wall-to-wall ledges of recondite and recherché tomes, searching out the polyperspectival meanings and music, oblique verities and poetic valences resident in the spaces in and around the semiotic prisms of words and their linkages. Like the alchemists of old, Girondo seemed convinced that if he could milk a single word for all it was worth, if he could bleed it dry, exhaust it, drain it completely, he would arrive at a result akin to the splitting of an atom, or the conversion of base metal into gold. He was also convinced, years before Harold Pinter came on the scene that, in any syntax, there is as much meat in lapses and lacunae, as in words themselves. He was gravely injured in a car accident, from which he suffered horribly the last few years of his life. When he was informed that the house of his birth was to be demolished and paved over with a new boulevard, he joked, with characteristic black wit, that he had been killed in the same place he'd been born: in the middle of the street…

JRMS. -- You've translated some writers with appalling political views (like Céline) -- do you know of any international writers of great quality who have been buried because their political views were trash?

A-G. --Yes – Léon Bloy! Strictly speaking, it was his religious, not political, views which got him in trouble. Like Céline, he was anti-Semitic – or, rather, he was Semitophobic, you might say. Nevertheless, he believed that the Jewish people would redeem mankind and rescue the planet and he wrote a book titled Salvation Through the Jews! Bloy is a titanic moralist. In his manner, his attitude, his writings, his whole relationship to the world, he resembles an Old Testament prophet! He is terrifying! Giovanni Papini is another who is underrated because of his religious beliefs. Marxist troglodytes who stalk the groves of academe have deemed that writers with religious foundations should not be taken seriously. It's inexcusably petty to dismiss such writers out of hand merely on account of their religious proclivities. Cotton Mather is arguably more interesting to read than the majority of recent Nobel laureates and Bloy and Papini endured personal hardships and spiritual struggles that put to shame those of Augustine and St. John of the Cross and make them look like namby-pambies. The precious, hand-wringing academic mafiosi who blackball such writers are a pack of pretentious, politically-correct poltroons. Countless brilliant writers have been suppressed or, worse, ignored, simply on account of unorthodoxy. The roster ranges from Johann Most, the German anarchist who, at the other end of the religious scale, penned the atheist classic The God Pestilence, to the children's writer Eugene Field, best known as the author of Wynken, Blynken and Nod, whose sub rosa texts contain hundreds of imaginative terms for the human pudenda.

JRMS: -- Do you think some things are untranslatable?

A-G: -- No. Translation is an interpretive art and, as such, infinitely plastic, infinitely flexible. Any given work is translatable in an infinite number of versions. The bigger question is: what is translation and what is mistranslation? Or, to put it another way: is there such a thing as false translation?


And thus concludes the first interview on A Journey Round My Skull (which is somehow now one year old).

Hopefully there will be follow-up interviews with Gilbert Alter-Gilbert. (Notice that I optimistically numbered this interview.) I'd like to hear more of his thoughts on translation, mistranslation, and false translation.