Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen’

Some literary mistakes

October 11, 2010

Last week, I wrote a piece for the Spectator’s Arts Blog about the mess-up surrounding publication of Jonathan Franzen’s latest book Freedom. A week after its much-hyped, viciously embargoed, British release, it was revealed that the publishers had accidently printed an earlier draft of the novel, not the final version. Apparently typos and grammatical mistakes peppered the text, in addition to some ‘small but significant’ changes to characterisation.

Now, after a great deal of fuss, and a great deal of pulping, the copies of Freedom in the shops are free from error. And I am left with no further comment other than that I pity the journalist or PHD student who has been instructed to compare and contrast the two different versions.

In my article (which you can read here), I suggested that typos aren’t the end of the world. Don’t they reveal the human fallibility of the author? Isn’t that somewhat reassuring? And isn’t that particularly apt for a novel about human fallibilty?

Most readers disagreed and I was left with a couple of comments insisting on the ghastly interference of typos.

But the Franzen debacle led me to wonder about other literary mistakes … here are a couple that sprang to mind.

One case is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (which I actually happened to mention in the article because of the repeated typo of ‘Rusdie’ in the author biography in my old paperback). There are some more notorious mistakes in Midnight’s Children. To mention a few:

The characters Picture Singh and Saleem go on a train from Delhi to Bombay which is said to pass through Kurla; land is reclaimed in Bombay using concrete tetrapods; and the singer Lata Mangeshkar is on the radio in 1946.

These are all errata, factual impossibilities: Kurla is on a different railway line; the tetrapods in Bombay have only ever been used to protect the sea wall against coastal erosion – not for land reclamation; and Lata Mangeshkar didn’t enjoy any real success until the 1950s.

But for those who aren’t particularly well-versed in Indian railways, Mumbai’s coastal protection policies, or Bollywood singers, they could easily slip through the net – why would one suspect these things to be false? A more serious error is getting the date of Gandhi’s assassination wrong, which is highlighted in the text when the narrator, Saleem, says:

Rereading my work, I have discovered an error in chronology. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi occurs, in these pages in a wrong date.

Why the mistakes? Why all these factual errors? How is one to trust Rushdie or his copyeditor ever again?

In an essay written in 1983 Rushdie defends these mistakes, claiming that they are intentional, deliberate errors. They interrupt the narrative and force the reader to question the narrator, Saleem (the reader isn’t supposed to question the actual author, Rushdie). With all these mistakes, Saleem is portrayed as full of human fallibility and unreliability. Saleem is, after all, remembering his story and Rushdie emphasises the distorting process of memory:

One of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false … as I wrote the novel, and whenever a conflict arose between literal and remembered truth, I would favour the remembered version.

He highlights the notion of ‘memory’s truth’, to which he gives more importance than actual historical accuracy.

All rather shakey, unreliable ground.

The other literary mistake that springs to mind might be rather less intentional. It arises in a fantastic book – Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih.

The narrator, Meheimed, returns to his native Sudan after spending seven months in England. Salih makes it clear that Meheimed wants to return to his village in Sudan and see it unchanged, as though he never left. But this desired vision of continuity is repeatedly disrupted, most emphatically through the character Mustafa Sa’eed, a newcomer to the village. As the novel progresses, it transpires that this character has also spent time abroad, in Cairo and in England, and Meheimed begins to piece together Mustafa Sa’eed’s story.

The ‘mistake’ occurs when, one evening, Mustafa Sa’eed recites in English, ‘in a clear voice and with an impeccable accent’ a poem, which the narrator says he later found in an anthology of First World War poetry. Here is the extract that appears in the book:

Those women of Flanders

Await the lost,

Await the lost who never will leave the harbour

They await the lost whom the train never will bring.

To the embrace of those women with dead faces,

They await the lost, who lie dead in the trenches,

the barricade and the mud.

In the darkness of night,

This is Charing Cross Station, the hour’s past one,

There was a faint light,

There was a great pain.

There’s no point in googling this, or leafing through anthologies searching for the first line ‘Those women of Flanders’. This poem would never be found in a First World War poetry anthology. What would be found in its place is Ford Madox Ford’s ‘In October 1914 (Antwerp)’. Here is the corresponding extract:

These are the women of Flanders.

They await the lost.

They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;

They await the lost that shall never again come by the train

To the embraces of all these women with dead faces:

They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,

In the dark of the night.

This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;

There is very little light.


There is so much pain.

Mustafa Sa’eed is reciting a bastardised version of Ford Madox Ford’s poem. How on earth has this happened?

Season of Migration to the North was originally written in Arabic and so the poem, in the original text, must have appeared in Arabic as well. When Denys Johnson-Davies translated the novel into English in 1969, he translated the poem into English. Perhaps he didn’t recognise the poem’s provenance and so didn’t find the original for quotation. It seems a bit mean for Tayeb Salih not to have let him know!

What we have now in Season of Migration to the North is an English translation of an Arabic translation of English. It shows what a complicated and distorting process translation can be – how impossible it is to neatly reverse, instead bringing one further and further away from the original.

It is a bit like the distorting process of memory, pointed out by Salman Rushdie. When remembering something, one can’t just reverse time and go straight back to the unchanged moment. In the process of going back things change, details slip, factual impossibilities occur.

And if one takes translation on a bigger scale – the literal ‘bearing across’ not just of language but of a person – a similar distortion occurs. Season of Migration to the North is about the translation of the narrator and Mustafa Sa’eed from Sudan to England and then back to Sudan. And, as I mentioned, Tayeb Salih is keen to emphasise the changes in Sudan when each character returns:

We pass by a red brick building on the Nile bank, half finished…I tell him that when I was here only seven months ago they hadn’t even started building it.

If change happens in physical translation, then surely in this tiny microcosm of Ford Madox Ford’s poem, then change must happen too. It can’t move seamlessly from English to Arabic and then back to English – change and disruption must leave their mark. Perhaps Denys Johnson-Davies deliberately continued the process of translation rather than finding the original poem.

Or else there’s rather a glaring mistake. Lucky for the publisher that Tayeb Salih isn’t still around to make such a Franzenesque fuss about it.

Autumnal books

September 27, 2010

The weather has turned. Now summer is definitely over and autumn has set in, with its premonition of winter cold.

At this time of year I have two contradictory impulses. One is to hibernate, to protect myself from the cold. We brought our avocado tree inside from the terrace, knowing that now it needs a bit of warmth and care to survive. When I was very young and used to have a pet tortoise, this was the time of year when we used to bring ‘Fred’ – who we later learnt was in fact a female tortoise – into our garage, tuck her up in a cardboard box of hay and let her sleep until the spring. (I think tortoise care has become slightly more high-tech since the eighties.)

And so I too want to be tucked away, under piles of blankets, jumpers and other warm things, have long hot baths, eat porridge for breakfast, soups and stews for dinner, drink endless cups of hot things – toddies, tea, coffee – no longer iced fizzy drinks. It becomes that much harder to get up in the morning, as the nights get longer, and that much more tempting to spend the evening in, watching a film, reading a book, rather than putting on many layers of clothes, finding an umbrella, venturing out only to get wet feet and an upturned brolly within ten paces of the front door.

But this time of year is also the beginning of something new. It’s when everyone’s back from holidays, starting a new school year, a new Jewish year, new jobs, new flats. It’s the time of year to socialise, to cluster together with friends – dark afternoons in pubs, rainy days playing board games, big lunches and crisp walks. There is a glut of birthdays – parties – and then the run up to Christmas with even more parties. It’s the time to go out and celebrate and dance and drink, perhaps relying rather too heavily on a whisky jacket for warmth.

But the book world is one of the few places where these two contradictory impulses can be happily brought into synthesis.

For the start of October sees the Frankfurt Bookfair – a jam-packed few days during which 300,000 publishers and agents from all over the world meet each other for hectic half-hours to pitch books, deal rights and otherwise shape the near-future of publishing. It’s a new start for books.

And it’s the best time of year for published books. All the houses put out their biggest hits, hoping to get reviews and rising sales in the build-up to Christmas.

It’s the most exciting time to be working in a bookshop. Every week, innocuous cardboard boxes are unpacked to reveal beautiful new hardbacks, glistening with promise. Ah yes this is the one I was reading about in the Guardian last week. Oh, wow, this is the follow up to XXX! Gosh, this one looks beautiful … I suppose the book that arrived on the greatest wave of anticipation was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – ‘launched,’ as The Sunday Times rather brazenly put it, ‘on a tsunami of hype’.

And it’s also the busiest time of year. The bookshop is at least twice (usually three or four times) as busy in the few weeks before Christmas as it is the rest of the year. People want more help, everyone has presents to buy – ‘What can I get my father-in-law?’ ‘What should I get my four-year-old niece?’ ‘Help! What can I get for my boss?’ All questions which come pouring in, leaving one to proffer up an array of books, while dashing between the somewhat fraught customers, wondering if there’ll be any books left to sell the following day. There’s a fantastic feeling of helpfulness. A feeling that, oh, this person has no idea what to buy and I can suggest something that might be perfect. And the grateful smiles and sincere thanks. (And the new-found pleasing dexterity at wrapping books up.)

This all ties in with the instinct of excitement at a new start, at a fast-approaching Christmas. But what is so perfect about books is that they are ideal cold-weather friends.

No more ‘light summer reading’, ‘beach reads’, ‘airport paperbacks’. No no no. Now is the time of year when one can spend time and concentration really reading. Time for new meaty books. Or time to go back to the Classics. Or the Russians. Time to read books that are really long, because now is the time when there is time to read them. Now is the time when you might wake up on a Sunday to pouring rain and really can’t be bothered to leave the house. The time when you make a pot of coffee and get back into bed and spend hours reading because you have a sneaky feeling that the rest of London is still in bed too.

And this impulse to read more, to ‘curl up with a good book’ is perfectly timed, as it is just now that all the best books are being released. So yes there is the new Jonathan Franzen, and there is also the new David Grossman, John le Carré and Peter Ackroyd. It is also time for many of last year’s hardbacks to go into paperback – so we have the new Orhan Pamuk, the new J.M. Coetzee, the new Alice Munro … There are invariably hundreds of new biographies – this year there’s Tony Blair (of course), Stephen Fry, Deborah Devonshire, Chris Mullin to name just a few. And all the new meaty hardback non-fiction, State of Emergency, Them & Us, Mao’s Great Famine, the new Martin Gilbert, the book about Lucian Freud …

It’s so exciting!

And perhaps it’s the one time of year where I don’t feel even the slightest twinge of desire for a Kindle. How wonderful to look and touch all these beautiful new books – because these ones are, really, beautiful. How marvellous to get back to one’s flat and make it look that much cosier with these new books lining the shelves. Heaven to wake up and see them all sitting there in a row, asking to be read, waiting for you to look outside at the rain and offering you such a blissful alternative. I don’t care if it’s a heavy book, because I don’t intend on lugging it around with me any further than from the sofa to my bed – I’m not going on holiday. And I don’t want to go on holiday. Why would anyone go on holiday now, when they can laze around such an inspiring, marvellous, wonderful winter bookland.