Lost In Translation

“Such remarks don’t bear scrutiny. Did I actually say that? I do remember saying once that maybe the greatest female novelist in English was Constance Garnett. Sometimes I try to lighten the gloom of discussions but I notice that no one laughs. Instead you see a few people writing down the name.”

— Elizabeth Hardwick


Related, though different: “The Translation Wars,” by David Remnick, “Tolstoy translated,” by Rosamund Bartlett, and “A Singular Woman,” by Hilton Als.


“Bloomsbury is . . . like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season. It is not a natural place for fish, but rather a water stocked for the fisherman so that he may not cast his line in vain. . . . To see the word “Ottoline” on a page, in a letter, gives me the sense of continual defeat, as if I had gone to a party and found an enemy attending the bar.”

— Hardwick in “Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf”

“Attending the bar”… And thus we see the source for “bartender.” Makes sense immediately on seeing it, but I never thought about it before.


Hardwick enjoyed teaching; she finds it annoying that so many writers complain about their teaching responsibilities. “There’s nothing to it,” she told me. “You just go in and do your rap. The thing you get bored with is that you have so few ideas.”

— “A Singular Woman”

This doesn’t happen every day.

I was looking through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and came across this footnote by the editor, H.H. Milman, in re Procopius:

“…the extreme and disgusting profligacy of Theodora’s early life rests entirely on this viratent libel.”

“Viratent”? Really? Did a Google search, which was… Hm. Inconclusive. Went to the OED… No hits.

Wow. That’s what I call a rare word.


Let me tell you a tale.

It was my senior year in college, and I was in the living room of the cool multi-room “apartment” some friends had in one of the dorms. (That would be Doug Frankenfeld, David Bloom, Dan Nimmo, & Andrew Chittick, all living in Harwood Court.)

Anyway, Andrew had a subscription to The Economist, and I was flipping through it one day.

I read a book review of a selection of James Joyce’s papers. It had been edited by an Irish don at the University of Cork whom the Economist described with delicious hauteur as, “undistinguished even in Irish academic circles.” Seems when Joyce had died during WWII, somehow his papers wandered back to the Irish National Library in Dublin, where they were promptly put under seal at his behest for 50 years.

That wasn’t the fun part, though. The fun part was, said Irish don thought Joyce’s papers should be put under seal for an additional 50 years, because he felt their publication would be, “irreparably damaging to the body of modern literary criticism.”

That got me to wondering. What on earth would be that damaging? That Joyce, Pound, Eliot, et al. were all sleeping with each others’ wives? Nah — we already knew that. That they were plagiarizing from each other? Nah — that’s known, too.

About the only thing I could think of was a letter that said something along the lines of:

Dear Ezra:

Can ye believe they’re buying this bullshit? I write a complete piece of crap, slap the title “Ulysses” on it, and they’re hailing it as a “masterpiece of the 20th Century.” Balls! Just shows that literary critics will never admit they don’t understand something, no matter how incoherently you write it. Put in just enough erudition to tease them, and they’ll go hunting for the “real meaning” of a thing for decades.

Tell you what — I’m going to spend the next ten years working on something I’ll call “Work in Progress,” and then publish it under a relatively innocuous title… “Finnegans Wake,” or some similar twaddle. I’ll try to type it myself, blind as a bat though I may be, and get my illiterate secretary — have you met him? Beckett? — to put it in manuscript form. The bastards will never admit they don’t understand a word.

Love and kisses,



OK, fast forward to 2005 or so. Twenty years later.

I’m between contracts at The Client, and on a 100-day break. I think to myself, “Self… It’s been a long time since I saw anything about the Joyce papers. Shouldn’t they be out by now? Or shouldn’t there have been a decision to lock them up again?”

Such is the world we live in today that I went online to the National Library of Ireland. I couldn’t find the book. I went to the library of University College Cork, Ireland. I couldn’t find the book. I couldn’t find any relevant mention online of the Joyce papers, and the attendant foofaraw.

Hm. What was the name of that Irish don? Only one way to find out…

So I trundled on down to the University of Washington library, where they have a bound set of The Economist on the shelf. I start pulling down the most appropriate years. Turns out The Economist ran semi-annual indexes back then, so I look in them for listings of reviews of books about James Joyce.


Now I’m getting angry. Feeble though my memory may be, I know it’s not that bad. I know I read that piece.

I start leafing through every individual issue, looking at the book review sections.

I found it.

March 30, 1985.

The review ends, “The publication date — the Monday after this issue of The Economist is published — seems entirely appropriate.”

Bastards. They nailed me. It was an April Fool’s joke. Not as good, perhaps, as George Plimpton’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” (which, curiously enough, was published at the same time — April, 1985), but… damn.

They nailed me.

I tell you this story for two reasons:

* It was a great hoax, and deserves more coverage than it has received.

* When I find out I’m wrong, even when I’ve been telling something as an amusing anecdote for twenty years — if I find out, I’ll say so. I’ll also be quite diligent in finding the facts, sooner or later.

The piece was written anonymously — and a hat tip to you, anonymous Economist scribe. It is, as mentioned, not in any index. So here is “Beginnagin” (I leave it as an exercise to notice the differences between the “quotes” I used above, and the actual piece):


From The Economist, March 30, 1985, page 94:


AFTER THE WAKE: A Selection from the Papers of James Joyce in the National Library of Ireland
Edited, and with a commentary by Dermot O’Grady.
The University College Press, Cork.
185 pages. I£15

It has long been a source of annoyance to Joyce scholars that the National Library of Ireland should have imposed a seal on those private papers of James Joyce that came into its possession shortly after the second world war. These papers, consisting of several thousand letters to and from the harassed and impecunious author, a great many unpaid bills and what appears to be the first draft of a long poem intended to be the successor to “Finnegans Wake”, were retrieved from his apartment in Paris a few weeks after Joyce’s death in January, 1941, by his honorary secretary, Mr Paul Léon. Mr Léon handed the papers to the Irish Free State’s ambassador to Vichy, with the instruction that they should be deposited in the National Library under a 50-year seal if he should fail to survive the war.

Mr Léon perished at the hands of the Gestapo and the papers were duly sent to Dublin, since when they have languished in 16 metal boxes in Kildare Street, uncatalogued and unread until Professor O’Grady was allowed access to them. The senior tutor in Celtic studies in University College, Cork, he has hitherto enjoyed a career undistinguished even by Irish academic standards and it is difficult to imagine why he should have been chosen as the recipient of this honour.

The seal on the papers had been imposed by the library on the advice of Constantine Curran, a schoolboy acquaintance of Joyce’s, whose adherence to the Roman Catholic faith was steadfast, and was not due to expire until 1991. This earlier examination of the papers was allowed apparently on the personal intercession of Dr Garret FitzGerald, the taoiseach (prime minister). He has opened a hornet’s nest.

Professor O’Grady is exceedingly parsimonious in his quotation from the correspondence. This is not surprising, given the incendiary quality of many letters, particularly those written to Joyce by his wife, Nora Barnacle, and by the sensitive nature of the private exchanges, previously unsuspected, which passed between him and Eamonn de Valera. Joyce was formally invited to meet de Valera, shortly after the latter’s installation as president of the executive council of the Irish Free State in 1932, and answered in most unrepublican terms. “Not even an escort of battleships and the loan of a bulletproof vest,” he wrote, “could induce me to set foot in your Free-fire [sic] State, nor would I wish to put in jeopardy the pension which has been so generously been bestowed upon me by the British at the behest of Sir Edmund Gosse. I notice, incidentally, that you persist in the impudence of depicting on your postage stamps a map of the whole island of Ireland although your write [sic] runs in only three-quarters of it.”

The letters written to Joyce by his wife are, as previously suspected, highly pornographic. Professor O’Grady does not sully his pages with more than the barest allusion to their content. Joyce was several times away from Nora Barnacle on what he alleged were business trips and she was in the habit of sending him, at his own request, what he called “dirty letters”. Professor O’Grady makes it abundantly clear that large stretches of the Penelope episode of “Ulysses” (commonly known as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy) were the work not of James Joyce, but of his wife. The passages quoted show convincingly why Constantine Curran, after he had examined the papers for the library in 1951, passionately pleaded for their destruction. In his introduction, Professor O’Grady also calls for continued suppression of the papers for a further period of 50 years beyond 1991.

His argument appears to rest on his contention that to allow the publication of Joyce’s comments on his own work and on the work of other modernist masters, particularly Eliot and Pound, would deal literary scholarship a blow from which it would be a long time recovering. This is a tendentious argument, and the standard of Professor O’Grady’s own scholarship falls well below mediocrity. His text is by no means free of error (Chapelizod, for example, is not in County Wicklow), and the bibliography is grossly inadequate and there is no index. The whole publication is shoddily printed and bound. The publication date — the Monday after this issue of The Economist is published — seems entirely appropriate.

The Strange Coincidences of Miss Hanff

Dug out of my LiveJournal archives.

I originally did this as a comment on someone else’s LJ. But I’d like to get it over here, so it’s more easily searchable — and to get a wider audience.


So. I’ve been owing you this for a while. I mostly do my LJ stuff at my job, where I work the graveyard shift. It’s been such that I haven’t really felt up to it. But, as I say, I owe you, and who knows? This might be the first draft of a letter to Le Carré, where I’d like to see what he says before he dies.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Specifically, 1998, and is on her royal progress as North American TAFF delegate to the UK, and I’m the consort along for the ride.

We go to London, and as a devoted reader of Le Carré and Hanff I want to see two things: “The Circus” and 84 Charing Cross Road. I know neither SOE nor MI6 ever had a HQ near Cambridge Circus, but there you go. I also know that Marks and Co., the bookshop in 84 Charing Cross Rd the book and movie, is now only marked by a brass plaque. Again, no problem, I’m just curious.

So we go to the physical location, 84 Charing Cross Rd and… Well, have you ever seen Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn? There’s a sequence in it when everyone is walking through a stamp fair in Paris, and then suddenly each of them put two and two together, and their heads start whirling about.

This was very like that. Because, you see, 84 Charing Cross Road is just on the edge of Cambridge Circus.

Now, let’s fill in a bit. “Marks and Co.” stands for “Marks and Cohen,” and was the actual shop. Leo Marks — screenwriter of Peeping Tom, friend of Helene Hanff, and cryptographer extraordinaire — was the son of Mr. Marks. If you read Between Silk and Cyanide, Leo’s memoir, you’ll see that he frequently used antiquarian books as the plain text for various ciphers he would send with agents into the field during his days at SOE/MI6. In addition, Le Carré, who worked at MI6 at roughly the same time as Marks (a little later, but not much) does exactly the same thing. Note his use of the Simplicissimus in A Perfect Spy, acknowledged to be his most autobiographical book.

So… If one was a cryptographer who used antiquarian books as plain text, and if one was also the son of the owner of an antiquarian book shop, what would be the easiest way to distribute such books around the world?

One of the big questions that just slides by in 84 Charing Cross Rd is, what in the world was Marks and Co. doing having an ad in the Saturday Review for Miss Hanff to find in the first place? This hypothesis suggests an answer.

But it goes further.

Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins’ character in the movie) had some very interesting neighbors. Namely, Morris Cohen and Lona Cohen (known during their UK days as Peter and Helen Kroger). The Cohens were Soviet spies of long standing, having been among those assigned to Los Alamos to try to get nuclear information during WWII. Not only did they live quite nearby to Frank Doel, they also worked — wait for it — as antiquarian book sellers.

I don’t think that was an accident. I think the Sovs twigged on to what was happening at Marks and Co., and assigned the Cohens to try to keep tabs on Frank Doel. Hanff jokes this about in the book — or rather, she publishes a letter from Nora Doel (Mrs. Frank, played by an almost unrecognizable Judi Dench in the film) that treats the whole matter lightly.

But I think Le Carré also knew what was going on, and placed headquarters at “The Circus” because, even if there was no staff housed there, there were considerable communications going through the place.

Heck, dare we say it? Could Frank Doel be the role model for George Smiley? Was he sufficiently bookish and anonymous in person for that, no matter how much wit comes across in his letters to Helene?

I can’t point to any particular flame. But it seems to me there are quite a few wafts of smoke here. Certainly enough for a Waldropian story or novel. 🙂