At the heart of a dictatorship is the ability to control a country’s narrative, to embed an authoritative view into the personal, to elide difference in favor of a universal meta-story. Characters and subjective viewpoints judged “out of line” are relegated to the margins where they are placed in an ontological vacuum. Against this totalizing force, art finds potency in its ability to assail the putative objectivity of the dictatorship’s narrative, to create new stories, to offer the gaze of the individual free from hegemonic forces.
In 1983, with a Guggenheim fellowship and his acclaimed novel A Boy’s Own Story in tow, Edmund White left what he calls New York’s “gay ghetto” and moved to Paris. The site of what White thought would be a jaunting continental vacation, a respite from the AIDS outbreak and the long shadow cast upon the utopian project of sexual liberation, Paris served as his home until 1998 and ushered in a renaissance for one of the progenitors of the gay novel.
In his new memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (Bloomsbury, 261), White recounts these fifteen years abroad in loosely strung vignettes that read like feuilleton, a vortex of societal gossip tinctured with White’s erudition and humor and dotted with anecdotes on an inexhaustible parade of celebrities: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Emmanuel Carrère, Alan Hollinghurst, Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, Harry Matthews, Yves Saint Laurent, Azzedine Alaïa, Paloma Picasso and far-away glimpses of the Rothschilds. If this list sounds both fascinating and exhausting, it is because White’s social life is both of these things. Yet Inside a Pearl is underpinned by the morose awareness that death haunts each page. In the midst of the allure and maddening craze of it all, of the glint of celebrity, the lunches at La Tour d’Argent, Le Grand Véfour, Le Voltaire and Lapérouse, the holidays spent at Gstaad, the fantasy and ornate pretention of an expat flaneur in Paris, White’s frank portraiture of friends and lovers who have died from AIDS-related complications revolves at the center as larger concerns with gay identity are filtered through existential crisis.
To translate may be “to turn from one language into another.” But there is another meaning—to “remove from one place to another”—the underlying current being that the felicitous translation is not merely one of technical and semantic moves. Translation, as Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” purports as much as lampoons, is an act of rewriting for a culture with a wholly different epistemic, lexical, and historical foundation. Those things that revolve around and jut forth through the translated text— from editorial interjections and the frameworks of the material book to a culture’s sensibilities and history—render the text as a protean force shifting among its many allegiances.
Yet at the root of every translation is an awareness of inherent impossibility, a situation where something like Pound’s logopeiea (“the dance of intellect among words”) stops when one flits outside an author’s aesthetic realm. Faced with the buttressing sentences of Raymond Roussel’s story “Parmi les Noir”—“Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard…” (The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table), “Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard…” (The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer)—even the most inventive translator could only restate the French with an underlining gloss explaining the movement between “billard” and “pillard.” Aesthetic recalcitrance is so firmly rooted in the original text that a translated version does not give itself up to the individually, historically, and lexically formed subjectivity of any new context.
Kate Milliken is a graduate of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Tin House summer writing workshops. She has recently published her first collection of short fiction, If I’d Known You Were Coming (University of Iowa Press, 134 pages), for which she was awarded the 2013 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Stories from this collection have appeared in a variety of publications, including Fiction, New Orleans Review, and Santa Monica Review. Her story, “A Matter of Time,” was published in ZYZZYVA’s Fall 2013 issue.
Told in the intimate details of Milliken’s prose style, If I’d Known You Were Coming’s stories—some of which follow recurring characters in new contexts, while others add to the thematic resonance while being unto themselves—coalesce into a stark display of the implications of tragedy on the American family. Toward this end, Milliken presents situations in which, as in the case of “A Matter of Time,” the banal of a dinner party is disturbed by dark undercurrents that expose her character’s fantasies and despair. At other moments, Milliken is interested in the aftermath of tragedy and in how characters inherit and are constrained by traumas to which they have been both passive victims and active participants. Milliken’s work seems to be an attempt to wrest agency from the past, to embrace human possibility before old memories and pains devour us.
Kate kindly agreed to be interviewed by email about her new collection, writing, and her future endeavors.
In a 1917 appraisal of Siegfried Sassoon’s first collection of war poems, The Huntsman, Virginia Woolf lauded the poet for revealing all those things about the present war that are “sordid and horrible.” To Woolf, Sassoon’s poetry surpassed mere reportage to offer civic value by underlining the tacit complicity of a silent British home front. Sassoon is able to produce in his poems, Woolf writes, “an uneasy desire to leave our place in the audience.”
Pity, it would seem, is what Woolf admires in Sassoon’s war realism; pity is the impetus of this “uneasy desire” to leave the audience. Wilfred Owen, who stopped imitating Keats for working in the shadow of Sassoon’s realism, famously expressed the primacy of this quality in a preface he drafted to his poems (before dying in battle): “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
But poets Ivor Gurney, David Jones, and Isaac Rosenberg cultivated a poetics of individual experience around the Great War, as well, one in which poetry is not a melodramatic witness meant to upend glorified depictions of war (such as with the work of Sassoon and Owen) but a site of imagination, trying to carve a space for humanity in reaction to depraved and destructive forces. In Gurney’s words from a 1916 letter to Marion Scott, the artist is a point of crystallization wherein later generations can learn “what thoughts haunted the minds of men who watched the darkness grimly in desolate places.”