Sunday, December 09, 2012

Now, that's an opening

I wrote yesterday that the opening chapter of David Whish-Wilson's novel Line of Sight reminded me of Leonard Sciascia. Here's the passage from Sciascia I had in mind, the opening of Equal Danger:
District Attorney Varga was conducting the prosecution in the Reis trial, which had been going on for almost a month and would have dragged on for at least two more, when, one mild May night, after ten and not later than twelve, according to various testimony and to the autopsy, they killed him.
Read that sentence slowly and think how how Sciascia has laid out the story it tells. Then read the sentence that follows immediately, in the same paragraph:
The testimony, in point of fact, did not strictly coincide with with results of the autopsy…
Not a bad way to start a crime story, I'd say.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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14 Comments:

Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

A great example of Sciascia's ability to describe, in a quite formal voice that distances, or at least deflects us, until the revelation of a terrible crime, and then almost immediately suggest an entire plot.

I remember with my first novel being influenced by Joseph Roth's capacity to do this in his opening sentences, as well, although the focus was more on character.

When I first read 'Day of the Owl, I saw how useful this strategy might be in a crime novel.

Thanks for posting it...

December 09, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Perhaps equal credit goes to author and translator. Every well-read reader knows the pain of reading a clunky translation.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

The first sentence is good; the second sentence is the killer. It's almost like a hockey pass (first sentence) to set up a goal (second sentence). Well done.

I second R.T.'s comment about the translator. As I learned from Peter's panel in Indianapolis, there's a lot more to a good translation than slamming the whole book into Google translator and hoping for the best.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Here is another thought: The reader who knows only one language (e.g., I know only English, but I studied Latin half a century ago) is at the mercy of the translator (and the editors and publisher). The author, of course, is also at the mercy of the translator. For better or worse, this makes translators rather powerful forces in literature. The wide variety of good, bad, and ugly translations of classical texts is proof of the translators' powers.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you're right. Sciascia has obiously had some elegant English-language translators over the years.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, that first sentence is like a dazzling array of passes between, I don't know, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in a memorable all-star game.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., translations of classical (or just plain classic) texts are another matter. A perfectly serviceable translation can grow dated and be superseded by a newer version.

When criticizing a clunky translation, I try to be careful to say a translator is a bad writer and has done only half his (or her) job, rather than just calling him a bad translator. And, as I always, I blame the publisher, because that's who ultimately approved the release of bad writing to the public, whether that bad writing is translated or otherwise.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave, the opening scene of Day of the Owl may be my favorite in all of crime fiction. And I've been wanting to read The Moro Affair for some time, so thanks for using it as the source of your epigraph.

The New York Review of Books has published a number of Sciascia's books in handsome trade paperback editions in recent years, a great service to the world.

There's something electrifying about the formal, distanced voice like that in a crime novel. I have a visceral reaction to it that is not easy to explain. Maybe such an opening tells readers sharply and immediately that they will find no easy serial-killer, crazy-man escapism here.

(My CAPTCHA generator must sense I am writing about Sicial murders. The verification word is hithood, a fair description of the operational side of Sciascia's Sicily.)

December 09, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I have three different perspectives on translations:

(1) In prose fiction, including crime and detective genres, I am fairly tolerant of translations, willing to accept good writing and ignoring (and remaining ignorant about) problems involving faithfulness to the original.

(2) In poetry, I am very intolerant of translations because so much in poetry relies so much on diction, rhythms, tropes, and (sometimes) rhymes; so I am always skeptical about English versions of poetry originally written in other languages.

(3) In drama, I am always conflicted because I am interested in readable and faithful translations, but I also insist upon translations that "translate" well to the stage, which does not happen all the time with otherwise commendable English translations.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you should read David Hinton on the challenges of translating T'ang Dynasty poetry into English. You can do so in his introduction to the selected poems of either Tu Fu or Po Chu-I (I forget which.)

December 09, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Thanks for the recommendation.

I am reminded of two examples:

Moliere's plays in French take advantage of a certain meter and rhyming couplets (because of the words available in French) that need considerable revision in English; the most faithful translations do not "play" as well as the less faithful ones.

_Lysistrata_, based on the early 20th century translations is interesting and playable, but a couple of translations in the last 20 years have used colloquial, "street language" that "play" much better on modern stages. Whether one or the other is more faithful to the original Greek is perhaps not the issue. "Performance" is perhaps the only issue.

Then, although this is not normally thought of as translation, I offer you the example of Shakespeare. Late 16th and early 17th century Shakespeare would never work on modern stages, so we have modern editions that seek to strike a delicate balance among faithfulness, readability, and performance. "Nuff said.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. The translation depends on the audience. Is it a reading transaltion? A performance translation? A scholarly translation? Nothing, however, excuses the sort of thing I wrote about here.

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Dave Whish-Wilson said...

You're right Peter, and I can't praise NYRB enough for releasing the Sciascia works in paperback. I can't remember the translator off the top of my head, but I remember Granta got a poet, Michael Hofman to translate Joseph Roth's work, who as far as I can see did a terrific job (but then again, my German is pretty 'mongrel', and I wouldn't know if he'd improved Roth's work or not, except to say that it reads beautifully.)
Re Day of the Owl and the excerpt from Equal Danger you've provided above - there's something deeply satisfying, as you say, about a writer who uses a 'warm' tone to describe something chilling in a very matter-of-fact, or deadpan way...

December 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Equal Danger's translator was one Adrienne Foulke. The NYRB edition includes no biography for her, an oversight, but she appears to have done translations from French as well as Italian.

I think of deadpan description of chilling matters as distinctively European, especially French and Italian, , at least when it comes to crime writing, though I suppose Chandler and Hammett sometimes came close.

I've never read Joseph Roth by the way. Your comments have me investigating his work.

December 09, 2012  

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