Monday, January 29, 2007

Wherein I admit defeat

I have bitten off more than I can chew.

This could be be complicated, but I shall try to explain. Many of the litbloggers I read belong to "Slaves of Golconda," an online reading group. I found the name distasteful when I heard it, and was not inclined to become a slave of any kind (no man can serve two masters, and all that). However, the name of the group is taken from a quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

There are four kinds of readers. The first is like the hourglass; and their reading being as the sand, it runs in and runs out, and leaves not a vestige behind. A second is like the sponge, which imbibes everything, and returns it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtier. A third is like a jelly bag, allowing all that is pure to pass away, and retaining only the refuse and dregs. And the fourth is like the slaves in the diamond mines of Golconda, who, casting aside all that is worthless, retain only pure gems.

I understand now the reference of the group name and no longer find it off-putting. However, I have never managed to read the same book the group is reading at the same time they are reading it, so as to join the discussion. I have only read and observed. The current selection is a book called The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz. When I learned that the book was originally written in Polish, I thought it might be fun to read the original version rather than a translation. At first, I couldn't figure out what the book was called in Polish, because none of the Bruno Schulz titles matched the English title. I finally discovered that the Polish title is Sklepy Cynamonowe or "Cinnamon Shops." Both titles are taken from short stories within the collection. Once I discovered the title, I had no trouble finding an inexpensive copy of the book.

I'm glad I didn't pay a lot for this book, because I cannot read it. Consider the difference between these two paragraphs:

Frank walked across the room and opened the door, peering outside to see if anyone was coming yet. The street was empty except for the the postman and a woman pushing a baby carriage listlessly back and forth. He glanced at his watch, wondering if it were too early to begin worrying about Marion's absence.


In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears

In the first paragraph, something is happening. Concrete people are performing recognizable activities. In the second, there is little action, lots of description, and abstract metaphors intended to convey a mood and create an atmosphere.

May I suggest, if you want to read in a foreign language, you choose books of the former type. I wrote the first paragraph to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. The second is the opening paragraph of The Street of the Crocodiles.

I made it through the rest of that first story, in Polish, and by the end had to admit defeat. The story was full of both Biblical and Pagan allusions--that much I did get. There was some kind of comparison between a misshapen flower and a mentally handicapped girl (woman?). Something unpleasant happened between the boy narrator of the story and a much older male cousin at the end of the story, and I'm not even sure I want to be enlightened about the exact nature of the incident. I really didn't even begin to follow the complex, evocative story because the language was too literary, too inexact, and just plain too hard for me.

I decided to skip most of the stories, and read the title stories, "Cinnamon Shops" and "The Street of the Crocodiles." So far, I'm halfway through the first one, and because there was a bit more action, I feel that I've understood the Polish better, but I know I am still missing the deeper and subtler meanings that the author included. (A boy goes to the theatre with his parents, and is sent back home through the winter night because his father has forgotten his wallet.)

I sort of hate to admit it, but I really cannot read this. I don't read with a dictionary, although I will occasionally look up a word. I just read. So, I will go back to W pustyni i w puszczy by Henryk Siekiewicz and find out what happens to the kidnapped children being carried across the desert on camels. There is plenty of concrete action there, and when the author wanders off into a description of, perhaps, a desert sunset, I can at least glean that he is describing a desert sunset, even if I'm not sure what he's saying about it. With Schulz, I am losing the entire point of the story.

Bruno Schulz was an artist as well as a writer (he was killed during WWII), and these stories have inspired a lot of Polish artists. The pictures here are all based upon these stories. The Slaves of Golconda will begin discussing this book on Wednesday, and I will, once again, just be listening in to the discussion rather than participating. It is a humbling experience, but I am consoled that not everything is this hard. Someone shared a Bible resource with me on Sunday, and as I read through the paragraphs, I realized that I understood every single word. If I ever want to read Bruno Schulz again, however, I will read him in translation.


At 2:58 PM , Blogger Stefanie said...

Blogger bleeped my comment so I'm trying again.

Please consider participating in the Slaves discussion. I think you have something you can contribute even if you have not read the whole book. It would be interesting to know whether the Polish is as poetic and beautiful as the English. Stuff like that. Please consider adding your voice to the discussion!

At 4:51 PM , Blogger Isabella said...

Next time I feel the urge to brush up on my Polish, I won't be reading Schulz — I gave up about halfway. Rest assured that the English is just as difficult to make sense of.

At 10:44 PM , Blogger SFP said...

Please do join us! It is an off-putting name for a group unless you know exactly what it refers to.

How far are you from Warsaw? You could take a field trip to the Museum of Literature and check out the Schulz exhibits. :)


At 9:54 AM , Blogger Phyllis said...

Have you been able to find audio recordings of this author's stories? I almost had to admit defeat with a certain Russian author recently. Then I found a CD of his stories. Now I read along as I listen, and I understand almost 100%. I think it's really helping me to read above my level, and with two input sources--audio and print--I'm actually getting it.


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