Saturday 21 July 2007

Simon Turner - What is an 'important' writer?

I'm in the process of devouring as much of B. S. Johnson's output as I possibly can in a short space of time. I've already chomped through Christie Malry's Own Double Entry (don't be too impressed, it's very short) and Albert Angelo, and am now in the midst of The Unfortunates, Johnson's famous 'book in a box', composed of 27 loose-leaf sections designed to be read in any order (with the exception of a first and final section, marked as such).

I mention Johnson, as he seems to be something of an interesting test case for how difficult or neglected writers can become (even partially) absorbed into the mainstream over time. And Johnson was certainly neglected, at least by the reading public, even if his books were capable in their time of garnering reviews from such literary heavy-weights as Anthony Burgess and Samuel Beckett. If Johnson (who died in 1973 at the age of forty with seven novels and a raft of other writings and projects under his belt) is enjoying something of a resurgence of late, it's in no small part due to Johnathan Coe's biography of him, Like a Fiery Elephant. Surprisingly, considering its rather esoteric subject, Coe's book received quite a lot of attention in the press (all of it, as far as I could tell, glowing), and succeeded in putting Johnson back on the literary map. Indeed, Coe had stated this aim in his introduction to a 1999 reissue of The Unfortunates, where he claimed it was time to rescue Johnson from literary purgatory, and place him firmly within the bounds of the mainstream.

Of course, that's not quite happened, and it's unlikely that we'll ever live in a world where Johnson sells as much as, say, Jodi Picoult or Tom Clancy, though it would be interesting. But Coe has certainly got people thinking and talking about Johnson, at least within those circles which do think and talk about such things (like the poetry blogging community, for instance), and that can be no bad thing. What is regrettable is that such a resurrection of Johnson's fortunes had to happen so long after his death. Gertrude Stein once noted how, once a great work - Ulysses, say, or Picasso's 'Guernica' - has gained a degree of respectability over time, it's difficult to look at or read those works with the same degree of shock, even anger or distaste, that original audiences and readerships must once have felt. Once something becomes a classic, Stein argues, the heat goes out of it. Not that the 'heat' has gone from Johnson's output, but the fact that his life and work is being discussed once more by the mainstream literary press suggests he is now sufficiently in the past to become an 'important', a 'classic' writer. Mark Twain's definition of a classic was "a book which everyone praises but no-one reads", and it would be a shame if this fate were to befall Johnson, as reading him fresh, as it were, without the weight of reputation, is a wonderful, invigorating thing.

All this is linked in my mind (bear with me) with a review of Sean O'Brien's translation of Dante's Inferno in the Guardian, back in December of last year, or rather, links with the response the review received. The author of the review, Eric Griffiths, is a Dante scholar, and the co-editor (with Matthew Reynolds) of a wonderful anthology entitled Dante in English, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. All this is useful background: Griffiths, as a reviewer of any translation of Dante, must be given the benefit of the doubt: he probably knows a thing or two about the subject. However, as I suggested above, it's not the substance of the review I'm concerned with so much as the response the review garnered on the letters page the following Saturday. Fiona Sampson, currently editor of Poetry Review, took Griffiths to task in the following terms (I'm quoting the letter in full):

"Eric Griffiths rehearses old chestnuts from the translation wars such as the challenges of anachronism ("Down with the damned", December 9). But his misapprehension of Sean O'Brien's project - of creating a Dante for our times - does a grave disservice to an important book. Griffiths objects both to the inevitable loss of the music of the Italian original and to those reworkings that make a poem anew. He misses altogether O'Brien's grave, English music of stress and vowel; the authority and originality of his invention. Given these lacunae, it's perhaps a relief that Griffiths concludes by eschewing translation: but his proposal that we read exclusively in the original fits uncomfortably with any intelligently wide-ranging literary appetite."

For the record, I should note that Griffith's main objection was not to "reworkings" on O'Brien's part, but outright mis-translations which completely altered - one might even say mutilated - the meaning of Dante's original. What's most fascinating about this letter, however, is the fact that Sampson feels it necessary to speak of O'Brien's "authority" and "importance". A question presents itself: if the work is as "important" and authoritative as Sampson claims it is, does it really need the defence she gives it? Moreover, the letter seems to give the impression that literary importance can be ascribed at will by the marketplace, rather than developing organically as readers and critics gradually reach a consensus as to the classic status of a work. The importance of O'Brien's Dante must be proven over time, as Johnson's has been.