Saturday, December 22, 2007

Not Just One Less Bookstore

I knew la Librairie de France was possibly one of the last remaining French-language bookstores in New York City, but I didn't know it was the last French-language bookstore in the entire United States.

And it's going to close in 2009.

Here's the notice they gave to me a few days ago:


After 74 years at this same location, as the oldest and only remaining
retail tenant of Rockefeller Center from 1935, our lease will expire in 2009. Because of overwhelming New York City rents, especially those on Fifth Avenue--approximately $1,000 a square foot, and projected even higher in 2009--it will be financially impossible for us to continue at that time.

Although many of our customers assume that we are a subsidized French government entity, ours is an independently operated third-generation family-owned bookstore with no financial support whatsoever.

It has been a great experience. In 1935, we were invited to be the first
tenants in La Maison Francaise. During the Second World War, we published more than 200 works of French authors exiled from 1940-1945 in the United States. Our bookstore was a vibrant center of French cultural production and is the only French bookstore in the country.

You may wish to take advantage of our extensive selection of books on sale, as well as rare books on our lower level. [MD: You certainly do! I bought Marcel Proust's letters to Andre Gide--who knew?--there a couple days ago.]

To you across the United States and abroad who have supported us throughout almost a century, we extend our heartfelt appreciation and gratitude. You make every workday a pleasure. We are going to miss you when it is over.

Vachement sucky news. Go as much as you can in 2008 to stock up on books other than in English. The woman in the fabulous basement told me all of the other foreign-language bookstores have gone under, as well, so get ready for a dull desert of mono-language in NYC/US.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Desperately Seeking Utopia

In the course of continuing my research for this essay on the infinite library, I remembered that I had momentarily entertained the idea of translating Claude-Nicolas Ledoux's manuscript on the Royal saltworks, after seeing the original at the fantabulous Utopia show at the NYPL a few years back.

What I hadn't remembered was that Ledoux's plans for an ideal city, named "Chaux," sprang from his construction of the saltworks. The city was never realized, but according to the catalogue for the show, it represented "a decisive breakthrough."

To discover what this breakthrough so decisively broke through, it took a bit more flipping through the catalogue, and a quick glance at the index for Ledoux's contemporary (or teacher?), close-to-my-heart Boullée. Here's a bit more information: Boullée and Ledoux are "considered the very embodiment of the transition ... blah, blah ... that privileged the enchainement - the flow of a dominant movement through an urban composition, a building and every component thereof - and used visual ploys to reflect a social hierarchy. Instead, they ushered in the modern era by creating autonomous architecture - freestanding, determined by function, devoid of superfluous ornament, and so forth - the built framework for a new society that promised liberty, equality, and fraternity."

It's fascinating to me that in the process of becoming "modern" and discarding hierarchy, somehow composition was lost along the way. Would it have been possible to discard the existing social hierarchy and yet retain composition, or community (can I conflate composition with community?)? Is this a question that Jane Jacobs answered? How did this proto-modern architecture eventually morph into such disturbing monumentalism of the 20th century? I do see so many branches good and bad from Boullée's/Ledoux's designs - Le Courbusier, I.M. Pei, Mies van der Rohe, skyscrapers, communist block architecture, housing projects, the Mall, fascistic monumentalism...

In a slight digression, I've been thinking a lot about classicism, since Boullée's designs were classicism on a ginormous scale, but also because I've been reading a semi-trashy book on prehistoric cave paintings (The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis if you must know). Despite the generally drippy writing, and the sentimentalism, and occasional sexism, it's still a fun read at least because he brings up the question of why we continue to respond to these basically untranslatable images and compositions (apparently, it took archaeologists a long time to realize the paintings were compositions). That sounds like a dumb question, and I guess it is, but Curtis links it back to the impressive durability of paleolithic culture. Cave painting persisted for basically 20,000 years: Lascaux is thousands of years younger (18,000 years ago) than Chauvet (32,000). Compare that to today: try sitting Frank O'Hara in front of a computer and see what happens (although who knows--he'd probably be texting like a pro in no time, and have an entry on Facebook or whatever). Anyhoo, Curtis feels the length of time paleolithic culture endured qualifies it as a "conservative" and therefore "classical" culture that expressed a society's shared beliefs. This took me a bit by surprise and made me ponder what a conservative--in the way he uses the term--poet would be. If I try to express the culture I'm in, am I conservative? How far out from my culture's shared beliefs do I move before I'm not a conservative poet? If I'm in it, am I of it?

I should just make this blog the blog of questions, since that's all I have tonight.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

infinite research

I've been assigned an essay on the "infinite library," based on an answer to an interview question I was given at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. So I'm rereading Borges's story, "The Library of Babel," and lo and behold, last night very serendipitously found a book on Étienne-Louis Boullée, the pre- and during French Revolution architect, who almost designed the Bibliothèque Nationale, or national library for France. Here's his design for the library, which like many of his designs, is classicism on an impossible scale.

Anyway, the book. I found it last night in the rare book room of the Strand, which itself is almost an infinite library--this quality of infiniteness granted by the complete hodge-podgery of its selection. Ashbery leans against an 1880s tome on quiltmaking (well, not quite--the A Nest of Ninnies was leaning against something completely discordant, but it I don't remember what it was. Something like quiltmaking.); Walter Mosley printer proofs against the Japanese Country House, and so on and so on. And then there are long, long shelves with books that "have not been priced yet" and probably never will. I sat with my son Ismael in a huge old leather chair and let my eyes run over the shelves as I fed him: shiny spines next to leather, beat-up paperbacks next to boxed oversized art books, and perched on piles of "not priced yet" goodies, some tiny book, I recall on typesetting (should've taken it...). Oh, but I'm digressing--back to the book on Boullée! It's by one Helen Rosenau and the text is impressively uninspired, dull almost to the same degree that Boullée's designs were gasp-inspiring. I had been hoping for some sort of context, in how his designs, severe and classical and above all, gargantuan, fit into the time of the Revolution, mais non, rien, nothing, except translations of his own writings (and yes, gorgeous reproductions of his designs, of which I'm still not sure how many made it into actuality).

Here's a couple of excerpts:

Inside the city
The interior walls of the city are decorated differently and lead one to suppose the presence of a double wall. I consider that such multiple defenses not only make the city appear unassailable, but also give variety to my subject.

Gates of fortified cities
My various city gates consist of walls flanked by Towers. The basement of one of them is made of supplies of Cannon Balls under Trophies made of the arms of Giant warriors. The arch, or rather the archivolts, are made of gun barrels.

And here I was wondering how his work fit into his times. Seems like his work would fit well into our times as well. Or all urban times, perhaps.

In the meantime, on discussing the infinite library essay with Andres Clerici, Andres sent me some intriguing links on Borges-related authors, such as Oliverio Girondo and the aforementioned Xul Solar. Andres also mentions Cortazar's story, "La Casa Tomada," and his book "bestiario," "a great book from 1951." Andres also says Borges was good friends with Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose novel Morel's Invention was recently (relatively at least, for translations--2003) translated and published by New York Review of Books Classics.

What do these authors have to do, actually, with an infinite library? Well, that's the point. In order to research an essay on an infinite library, one has to cast out in all directions, almost randomly, in order to approximate that sense of infinity. How can one humanly support such infinite research? A: With either great enjoyment or great stress, especially since the essay is due in about two weeks.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

translation is tricky work

Translation is such a tricky business, particularly instantaneous translations done on the fly early in the morning pre-café. Once again I am reminded that I can take nothing for granted when I translate: so many times I've "gone on my nerve," to quote Frank O'Hara, only to find I've missed an idiomatic expression or my brain has not-so-helpfully filled in a gap, reading one word as another.

Anyway, I apologize for mistranslating Captain Haddock's juron "Flibustier" as "filibuster." While using filibuster as an insult is certainly interesting, Flibustier is something else altogether. Having not learned my lesson, a rough translation sans dictionary reveals that the Flibustiers were actually a bunch of "aventuriers" (may I infer pirates?) who in the 16th and 17th centuries messed (incredibly bad translation here) with Spanish holdings in America. I'm leaving it at that until I get my hands on a dictionary because their history looks fascinating (and apparently the etymology of "Flibustier" is related to "free booter). I wonder what Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey) has to say on these folks!

More soon. In the meantime, Saturday we went to a book party for two new translation releases. John Ashbery's translation of Pierre Reverdy's Maison Hantée, or Haunted House, has finally been published by John Yau's Black Square Editions, alongside an edition of Ron Padgett's translation of Reverdy's prose poems. I was disappointed that the poets didn't read at the party (the party was held at Cue Gallery in Chelsea and it's true that art galleries do make abominable venues for poetry readings--the echo! The echo!); however, you can hear readings and interview here.

Reverdy is woefully undertranslated, with only "some poems" in English, including "some" from his Quelques poèmes, originally published in 1916, translated by Ron Padgett in Some Translations, Some Bombs in 1963 (a translation followed quickly by Some Things in 1964 by Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and Joe Brainard--the French influence upon the New York School is a perennial interest to me).

Also saw Lydia Cortés and Andres Clerici at the FACE OUT book party, where we discussed Borges, Marquez, and the declining interest of magical realism. Lydia is reading Monday--today!!!--at the Poetry Project, with Mendi + Keith Obadike, so be sure to go. Andres has promised to email me materials on writers like Xul Solar, a teacher to Borges, so stay tuned.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Espèce de bayadère de carnaval!

My dear friend Olivier in Paris sent me for my birthday a compilation of Captain Haddock's "jurons," or insults, with accompanying explicatory texts. For those of you unfamiliar with Captain Haddock, he is the salty foul-mouthed foul-tempered alcoholic sea captain who accompanies junior reporter Tintin on various adventures. My father faithfully read this serial when he was a child and made sure to acquaint me with this essential part of French culture in turn (I can't imagine having to wait for each installment like he did--some parts were so unbearably thrilling). Such a pairing would never happen nowadays--Captain Haddock would be a most unsuitable companion for a young lad today (despite all the money he inherited from his ancestor, Francois de Hadoque).

Anyway, so this morning first thing upon waking I'm flipping through the list of Haddock's infamous insults (one example, roughly translated: "Brutes! Filibusters! Mussels with fries! Autodidacts!) when I stumble upon a word I was trying to research for an essay on John Ashbery's And the Stars Were Shining, recently published in Conjunctions as part of their homage to M. Ashbery (or Jonas Berry, the pseudonym he used to translate French murder mysteries because it was how the French pronounced his name). That word was bayadère.

Here's the original excerpt from my essay:

…the razor, lying at an angle
to the erect toothbrush, like an alligator stalking
a bayadère; the singular effect of all things
being themselves, that is, stark mad

(from “Ghost Riders of the Moon”)

Who hasn’t found their razor lying at an angle to their toothbrush (and beware,
teeth!), but what is a bayadère and why is it/she/he being stalked by an
alligator? Bayadère is missing from my more contemporary French-English
dictionaries, but according to an older one, it is defined as an “Indian dancing
girl.” The Internet reveals that La Bayadère was a ballet choreographed by
Marius Petipa that premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1877.
(Actually, it’s not clear whether Petipa choreographed or produced the ballet.)
In any case, the music was composed by Ludwig Minkus. However, none of the plot
synopses mention the chasing of a bayadère by an alligator. Even more
problematic, there are no alligators in India (in which the ballet is set), only
crocodiles. But Ashbery nimbly excuses himself from the situation he’s gotten
himself into: After all, things—crocodiles, alligators, bayadères, toothbrushes,
razors—being themselves, are stark mad, and “alligator” sounds nicer paired with
“stalking” anyhow.
Obviously, I was having some trouble tracking down a satisfactory definition of bayadère, and here it is in all its glory in L'Intègrale des jurons du Capitaine Haddock. Not only do I discover that bayadères ordained Hindu temples and sang in processions, but that it was one of the very rare Haddockian insults addressed to a woman (the others can be counted on the fingers of one hand: péronnelle, perruche bavarde, tigresse, diablesse).

I don't know why I didn't start my research with Tintin in the first place. Lesson learned!

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Monday, December 03, 2007

italicization as translation

I just began reading Jennifer Moxley's The Middle Room, and while I am thus far struck by many things, the one particularly pertinent to this blog is her use of italics. The italics are many, liberally scattered through the text, and more often than not perch on the edge of awkwardness, giving English words a foreign feel, an emphasis that's a little off in our idiom. While I know comparing prose to soup is problematic (but why, I don't know--I just sense it is so), it's easiest for me to say that the italics "flavor" The Middle Room. They give it the taste of someone and something a little foreign, slightly out of phase with English or American, which is all the more delicious juxtaposed with the book's primary locale of San Diego. I've never been to San Diego, but have had it described to me as more South Californian than South California, by which I envision highways, malls, ranch houses, uber-American-ness, since as goes CA, so goes the nation. Like me, Moxley's revelatory poet is Rimbaud and French writing acts as the door into a different kind of writing, perhaps. I'm continually interested in tracing the currents of innovative poetry back to non-English roots. As I read the book further, I may return to her use of these italics, which seem somehow important to the book, some sort of tiny translations of her own language.

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