Monday, November 01, 2010

A Simple Story: The Leonardo (Sciascia) code

I'm about done with Bouchercon posts, and I have no more crime-fiction conventions until Thursday, so I can now return to my regular reading.

Leonardo Sciascia's novella (or long story) called A Simple Story, reissued by Hesperus Press in a new translation by Howard Curtis, begins with a one-two punch of sardonic observation and ends with irony just as sardonic. As the story opens, police in a small Sicilian town receive a phone call on the eve of a festival honoring St. Joseph the carpenter,

"who seemed to have inspired the bonfires of old furniture which were lit in the working-class neighborhoods almost as a promise to the few carpenters still in business that there would be no lack of work for them. The offices were almost deserted, even more so than on other evenings at that hour, but they were still lit, the way the offices of the police were usually kept lit in the evening and during the night, by tacit agreement, to give the townspeople the impression that the police were ever alert to the safety of the public."
Good god, an opening like that snaps the reader to attention. In such a world of deception, one must — readers included — be ready for anything, and the mental alertness that this demands is exhilarating. Sciascia's world is not one in which the police must solve a mystery, but rather one in which everything is a mystery.

Sciascia's skeptical wit also appeals, as perhaps all skeptical wit does, to the intellect, and I like this example especially:

"But as the commissioner's attitude had annoyed him, and as he was almost entirely devoid of what is usually called esprit de corps — which meant regarding the body to which he belonged as the most important thing of all, considering it infallible, or, if it was not infallible, untouchable, overwhelmingly right, especially when it was wrong — he had a mischievous idea."
Oh, man, that's what I want to be when I grow up.
***
Howard Curtis' previous crime-fiction translations include novels by Gianrico Carofiglio, Jean-Claude Izzo and Caryl Férey. He's built a nice niche translating gialli and polars that pack a punch.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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39 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

Oh, man, that's what I want to be when I grow up

Please, Peter, we all know that you're 50+ so be sensible and admit that you grew up a long time ago. At least as far as anybody grows up.

The passage you quote in English from Sciascia is one I had to read several times, just to try and make some sense of it. I don't know what the original Italian was, but the English is horrible:

But as the commissioner's attitude had annoyed him, and as he was almost entirely devoid of what is usually called esprit de corps — which meant regarding the body to which he belonged as the most important thing of all, considering it infallible, or, if it was not infallible, untouchable, overwhelmingly right, especially when it was wrong — he had a mischievous idea.

Peter, beureaucrats write better English than that. The passage by itself (without context) makes no sense at all. It is so badly written that you can't tell if the subject of the sentence regards the body to which he belongs as infallible or not infallible.

The Wikipedia link you provide describes Sciascia as a communist. To my mind his communism is no different from Catholicism. It's just something that offers a paradise for true believers. If you despise wicked Italian society with its connections between the government and the mafia then there is a wonderfully clean, idealistic alternative: communism.

This notion might have played 80 years ago, but it's just idiotic now.

Peter, why is it people who consider themselves intellectuals, particularly in Europe and South America, are so often seduced by failed, idiotic ideologies like Marxism?

November 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, there's no accounting for taste in prose. One man's delightfully complex sentence may be another's gibberish, so I won't argue with you about the sentence in question.

But Sciascia's communism is not especially relevant to my liking for the passage I quoted. It does not take a Communist to be skeptical of esprit de corps and to resist pressure to believe that one's organization is always right. I find it easy to sympathize with a character who resorts to mischief to strike back at such pressure. (In this case, the mischief is to take the case, on the sly, to the Carabineri, a rival police force to the character's own.)

November 01, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I have heard good things about Sciascia for many years, yet still not gotten to him. Here's hoping I do.

November 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He's published in those handsome New York Review of Books editions, among other places, so his work could ornament your shelf in more ways than one. I recomment the opening chapter of "Day of the Owl."

November 01, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Thanks. The NYRB selection is a further incentive.

November 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some nice Sciascia covers in the NYRB collection.

November 01, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

I have to agree with Solo on this one (there's a first time for everything). That's a horrible sentence. It feels like it was translated by Babelfish or Google or something. I feel that he would have done better to break it up into a couple of shorter, snappier sentences.

November 01, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I liked the first paragraph of Sciascia's and the second one I like also, although it took some pondering.

The key to me, as a proofreader, is the punctuation--those commas, clauses and emdashes. That helps one figure out the author's intentions.

Maybe there is a problem with the translation. Wish I could read Italian.

I'll ask a friend who loves Sciascia's work. He's also the one who's watched countless times each of the Montalbano episodes on Italian tv. And Camilleri was a friend of Sciascia's--right?

On the politics, it isn't so simplistic as outlined nor does it take away from the enjoyment of the writing at all.

A lot of us want the world to be a better place without a lot of the ills that exist because we want people to live decently. So, sue us! To quote another blogger regarding another point entirely.

November 01, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I disagree with both my learned friends on that sentence. I have no trouble following it, though that could be because I read it in context.

Even though Solo is wrong that the sentence makes no sense out of context -- it parses perfectly -- the lack of context could well confuse matters.

I made the point that Sciascia snaps the reader to attention. Without context, that attention could well be absent.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Make that carabinieri in my reply to solo.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you could be right about punctuation. Commas after but and the first and might have helped.

I don't remember if Camilleri was a friend of Sciascia's, but he certainly knew his work. In at least one of the Montalbano mysteries, he has Montalbano reading or thinking about Sciascia.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

The emdashes are pretty crucial, too.

Many articles online, including in the Guardian, discuss Camilleri's deep friendship with Sciascia.

Also, Camilleri, as an aside, much liked and admired Dashiell Hammett, and not Raymond Chandler,for his terse, sharp writing style and social conscience.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I think the translator or copy editor used em dashes well -- to set off the digression.

Sciascia's writing seems even more deeply rooted in Sicily than Camilleri's does, so a friendship between them would make sense.

I have some more Camilleri on the way, I hope. I will keep Chandler and Hammett in mind as I read.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Nothing wrong with that sentence. It's a wordplay on "esprit the corps".

In fact, I like this very much. Will get the book.

I'm of the neoclassical persuasion myself. Satire and sarcasm are wonderful things. If this is a police procedural, it rocks.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., the sentence certainly meanders, but once one recognizes that the portion between the em-dashes is a parenthesis to the main clause, it's easy to follow. And I find its attitude entirely congenial.

Yes, "A Simple Story" is a police procedural, and yes, it rocks.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

An "Ode to the Emdash" is needed here.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've mentioned elsewhere that punctuation marks go in an out of fashion just like clothes do. Not so long ago, writers who thought their sentences deserved more tham mere periods and commas overused the semi-colon. Perhaps they thought that its two-part construction, more elaborate than that of the other marks, lent weight. Now such writers overuse em-dashes instead.

(As a copy editor at a daily newspaper, I'm in good position to chart these changing fashions.)

November 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I think it's the "which meant" after the em dash that isn't exactly right somehow, it's not the fact of there being a clause.

Yes, I am guilty of overuse of the em dash. For some reason, the semi-colon looks too formal to my eye, which is absurd when you stop to thinking of being tiny little squiggles of ink or whatever this is we're writing in now.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, before proceeding, I should verify that I transcribed the paragraph correctly. I'd hate for this confusion to have been due to sloppy typing on my part.

Until I do so though, I have no trouble with the paragraph in question. I read the "which" in "which meant" as a simple pronoun with the two clauses that precede it as a joint antecedent.

Overuse of the em dash? Maybe not. A punctuation mark, no less than a hem line or a hairstyle, is not to be sneered at merely because it's fashionable. It is absolutely not absurd to think of punctuation marks as indicators of formality or sloppiness. To do so indicates a refined sensibility, I'd say.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

It's just a little difficult to get the sense of, is all. You get into the sentence and are not sure if the 'which meant' refers to esprit de corps or to 'he'. On second thought, I think it's that the clause uses "he" instead of one, or something more impersonal and general.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've just figured out what makes the sentence unclear if one finds it unclear: Does "he" refer to the character whose thoughts the narrator is giving us, or does it refer to the commissioner?

November 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, it's not that you can't figure it out, but that you have to go back and figure it out, which isn't ideal. I think the problem is that what's in the clause is a personal definition of esprit de corps, but it isn't necessarily a definition for anyone else but seems to come across as though it was.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe that didn't bother me because the barbed, ironic personal definition of esprit de corps happens to be close to my own.

I suspect that the sentence would have bothered all of you less had you read it in context. The irony is that the novella is just around forty pages, and we have probably spent more time talking about a single sentence than it would take any of you to test my suspicion by reading the story. And I recommend reading the story.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I can't speak for anyone else, but I admire the sentiment, and I am sure the sentence construction suffers in the translation. I do plan or at least hope to read him.

But sentences are fun. As a matter of fact, I snagged a galley of an upcoming Stanley Fish book called How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Hope to read that one too.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your sentiment would make a catchier and more amiable title than Fish's: Sentences are Fun.

If you got Sciascia's sentiment, then the author and translator have done their jobs. Since I was able to follow the sentence and endorsed its attitude, and since I had been drawn into the story from the first, I was able to regard the twists and turns and the lengthy parenthesis as sly syntactical correlatives of Sciascia's view of the tangled, mutually antagonistic bureaucratic structure of Italian law enforcement. So, while I have not read the sentence in the original language, I'm likelier to regard Howard Curtis' version of it as a little masterpiece of translation than as anything that suffers from being rendered into English. Again, context may help explain this. I had read and enjoyed previous work by the translator and the author, so I knew something of the aims of both. I was part of their world already.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Right. Context is sometimes everything.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though carrying that argument too far could lead to an excessively atomizing theory of reading, i.e., every reader has his or her own version of the story.

Hmm, how much of reading is an individual experience, and how much relies on shared context? I'll need some post-conventions sleep before I figure that one out.

November 07, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Oddly, I just listened to an interview this evening of Myla Goldberg by our local radio liteary guy, Rick Kleffel, and I think they were pretty much in agreement that everyone tells their own version of the story all the time, which I suppose also means their own version of the story they happen to be reading. You or anyone else could find it here if you or they have the time:

http://www.bookotron.com/agony/news/2010/11-08-10-podcast.htm#podcast110810

November 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I will take a listen. I can accept a theory like that as long as its proponents acknowledge that their own theory is just one version of the story.

In practice, this means it will have meaning only insofar they acknowledge that the the phrase their own version of the story has two significant components: their own version and the story.

November 08, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, let me know what you think. I am pretty sure they have fulfilled the first part, but not so sure about the second.

November 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be ironic if propents of a theory based on the infinite multiplicity and idiosyncracy of reading insisted on the universal applicability of their own theory.

November 08, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, they are both very genial, so I don't think they insist on anything.
And what they're really talking about is the variability of memory not fiction, but since they're talking about a novel about memory, it all kind of overlaps.

November 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I'm talking about reading rather than about fiction. Have you had the experience of returning to a novel and finding some detail not quite as you remembered it? I certainly have.

November 08, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Uh, yeah. It seems to come up quite frequently in reading groups. And definitely when I'm looking back and trying to quote something. The
'relevant passage' is never quite what I thought it was.

November 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Qiu Xiaolong's stunning, leisurely opening chapter to "Death of a Red Heroine" loomed so large in my memory that when I returned to it later, I found I had misremembered it as longer than it was.

November 08, 2010  
Anonymous Howard Curtis said...

Only just saw these comments, and thought I ought to say something, as the translator in question. I'm afraid I can't comment on that particular sentence, as I'm in the process of moving house and my Italian copy of the novella is currently at the bottom of a packing case. But Sciascia does often go in for long, complex sentences, full of subordinate clauses - and with occasionally some quite idiosyncratic punctuation. When I first started translating him I was tempted to simplify somewhat, but then I realised that this discursive style was very much part and parcel of Sciascia's ironic, even didactic stance, and I tried to keep as close to it as possible

November 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I'd read Sciascia's crime stories before, so I was familiar with ironic, occasionally mocking stance to which you refer. I don't know Italian punctuation practice, but I found the punctuation of these examples consistent with English and therefore easy to follow.

November 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

That's very cool of you to jump in here in the midst of your moving, Howard. I can see that his style may make more sense in context. Translating such a writer must be quite a challenge.

November 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, with respect to Howard Curtis' having been tempted to simplify Sciascia's style, one often hears of translators altering grammatical or syntactical features that may be acceptable in the original language but not in the target language. I'm glad he decided to preserve Sciascia's style here.

November 09, 2010  

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