Sunday, June 8, 2008

John Crowley's The Translator

Our reading group gathered to discuss John Crowley’s novel The Translator. It’s a narrative about a Russian poet in exile (Innokenti Falin) who alights on a Midwest college during the Kennedy years. Isolated from his native language, Falin asks a writer’s-blocked coed poet (Kit Malone) to translate his poems, and so they collaborate both poetically and personally. The story and characterizations suggest parallels with Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire; with signposts from Paradise Lost (e.g., a Miltonic ‘youth and maid / golfing in the chequer’d shade’) and appropriate circuities through Lewis Carroll. [Favorite Alice references in the book include the young Kit’s self-examination “as though she were catching a bright centipede in its damp crevice, she discovered what she had not known before, that she had a hole there: not how far it went, or where it led.” And when she “looked at herself in the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet;…she then opened the door…to find, behind her face, not the contents of herself but only this stuff”. Kit’s looking-glass perception is projected onto the entire narrative as if she had passed into Falin’s world via his open eyes, which were “not probers or perceivers….. but only portals”.]

Frost lectures the nation:
The Nadezhda Mandelstam epigram “poetry is power” is quoted to inform the reader that poetry is, and will be, significant to the narrative. Robert Frost had lectured to President Kennedy for “an Augustan age….a golden age of poetry and power” for America, (and this Roman theme is echoed in Kit’s “saying” of Baudelaire’s Spleen). Yet, it appears that the Augustan importance of poetry in the Soviet Union had caused Falin – framed by his public role as poet – to flee his country. He is a ‘lesser angel’ – both innokenti and fallen from the ‘nation’s angel’ of Russia. The festering Russian/American duality that dominates the novel feels as if it can only be stitched by the IRBM contrails of a fatefully-spun Cuban Missile Crisis.

A U2 spy plane, one of many “great feeble angels, long-winged and slow, all eyes”:

Crowley presents other dualities. Some are clear: The consciousness of the 60s is painfully birthed in Kit’s inner self as an extended “warning tremor” that erodes her 50s expectations - Just as the displaced orphans of the Revolution (besprizornyi) are indicative of the real inner Russia as opposed to the officially-sanctioned Soviet version of it. [In Crowley’s documentary film The World of Tomorrow, the 1939 New York World’s Fair is a precarious aspirational façade that eventually crumbles under the real inner “warning tremor” of impending world war.]

1939’s aspirational façade:
Sometimes the boundary between dual truths is deliberately vague, e.g. in the political allegiances of the secondary characters Jackie and Milton; and in the political intrigue: “Knowing they don’t know everything, but not knowing what it is they don’t know”. And, as in early Eden, it is not clear if Falin and Kit have had sexual intercourse. However, their emotional bonding is clearly announced by the specific use of the word ‘they’ in this passage: “she turned her body so that she could place her head on his stomach…and [she] thought; and the worlds turned and multiplied as they thought, each within all the others.” Yet, despite Kit’s aspiring reach, Falin remained ungraspable as if her pursuit was danced along Keats’ Grecian urn. Where does Falin disappear to - “too small to see any longer or even remember”? And is that disappearance into silence a required political quid pro quo?

The writer as crafty tease:
At our RacFest a few weeks back, the author asked us ‘Is the story real or a fantasy?’ - a fantasy perhaps consistent with the Nabokov assertion that all great novels are fairy tales. Crowley’s terse dualist teasing did not divert us, his careful readers, from the belief that the story is not fantasy, because he had deftly placed appropriate clues to ensure its credibility. Yet, by mustering such unresolved dualities, a crafty writer who teasily dangles the carrot of Edenic closure before his reader, creates an ungraspable aspiration toward further re-reading.

However, for those who seek such closure, he provides a jeweled catharsis via the de facto climax of the narrative when the grown-up Kit visits St. Petersburg (after the Soviets’ ‘angel’ had fallen) and she reflects to the elder Gavril: “What we had together were not his poems, really, but mine. I think that he hoped he could pass on to me something he couldn’t keep any longer” - To which Gavril replies “Not his poems into other poems, then. Himself into another poet. You began then to write again. So then it was he who was truly the translator.” She nodded. The streetlights and the Neva sparkled in her vision and she pressed the cuff of her shirt to her eyes. “Yes, she said. “All along.”

The cathartic Neva, seen through sparkling tears:

And, because we are only casually informed that the older Kit eventually married and had children, her encounter with a lesser angel of the Russian besprizornyi (who is also named Innokenti) consonantly brings her looking glass journey full circle.