Wednesday, February 01, 2023

'He Is Never Academic or Purely Didactic'

We live in a golden age of translation. Thinking only of fiction, let’s give thanks for Boris Dralyuk’s Isaac Babel, Michael Hofmann’s Joseph Roth and Robert Chandler’s Vasily Grossman -- among the greatest writers of the last century. Babel I first read more than half a century ago, in less-than-pungent translations. For this reader, Roth was a latecomer. I had to wait until the nineties when Hoffman published the first of at least eleven Roth translations, including novels, stories, journalism and letters. Grossman I didn’t encounter until 1985, thanks to Life and Fate. Chandler has subsequently made six other Grossman titles available to English-language readers. Not to sound greedy or ungrateful, but I wish to nominate two other writers overdue for translation into English.

First, the Austrian feuilletonist Alfred Polgar (1873-1955), whom I know almost exclusively through the chapter Clive James devotes to him in Cultural Amnesia (2007):

“On his home ground, Polgar had made German the ideal instrument for a body of prose so charged with the precision of poetry that it gives a picture of his era no other writer could match for wealth of registered detail and subtlety of argument: not even the magnificent collected journalism of Joseph Roth is quite in the same class.”

I associate Polgar with the Viennese coffee houses and such writers as Karl Krauss, Peter Altenberg and Egon Friedell. The feuilleton is a form that seems never to have successfully left Europe – brief prose vignettes, “casuals,” compact essays or sketches published in newspapers. Stefan Zweig called them “oracles.” James warns that “Polgar’s prose is probably fated to remain accessible only to readers of German,” which is discouraging but he adds: “In the doomed attempt to translate it, we should switch our attention from his last phase to his early glory, in which his exuberant sensitivity to the scope of civilized life can still be appreciated even if the English words chosen to duplicate it are clumsily assembled.” Polgar’s closest English-language cognate is perhaps Max Beerbohm, though I suspect that’s not right.

The other writer ripe for translation is the Polish essayist Jerzy Stempowski (1893-1969). I’ve read three of his essays and wrote about them here and here. Adam Zagajewski wrote of him:

“An erudite who seems to have read the entire Western literature in original languages, he is never academic or purely didactic in his writing. Formed by the tradition of the Enlightenment, he never succumbs to a rationalistic dryness of style. Just the opposite: he is a poet always able to elevate his discourse by a sudden turn of phrase, by a metaphor, a rare simile. He is an aesthete with strong political opinions, somebody who hates tyranny and totalitarianism but believes a writer should be elegant even when dealing with tyrants.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

Please make one tiny change to Polgar's birth year. Also, it's interesting to read about someone I've never heard of.