Friday, August 24, 2012

The superiority of classical restraint in writing

At the Paris Review, Harry Mathews on translating Georges Perec and Marie Chaix:
The photograph of Marie Chaix on the back cover revealed a woman of thirty-two and great attractiveness. When John Ashbery first saw her, he remarked how pretty she was, then corrected himself immediately: “No, not pretty—beautiful.” Her beauty was not that of any stereotype: strong-featured, full of energy and passion. From the start I fantasized about having one of my noncommittal affairs with her. I knew ahead of time that I was safe from any deeper involvement, since she was married and the mother of two little girls. What I did not know was that she had never cheated on her less-faithful husband but now felt inclined to indulge in a small infidelity of her own.
Our interest in one another had preceded our meeting. Two months before, in the hope of one day winning her, I had composed a four-page handwritten letter intended for her, in which I deployed every seductive wile my experience as a writer could supply. I was pleased with the results and confident that they would dispose Marie to think of me as someone more than her translator.
It then occurred to me that this was a shabby way to approach the woman I had come to know in her book: an intensely serious and compassionate human being who had generously taken her readers into the intimate, moving world of her feelings. I tore up my handwritten letter and replaced it with a page containing a dozen typed lines of a formality for which written French is perhaps uniquely capable (“Madame, I have the honor and pleasure of being the translator of your admirable book…”). This was the letter I mailed her.
Marie’s reaction was not what I had foreseen. She later told me that her first impulse was to drop everything and get on the next train to Venice. She wanted to see this mysterious American who had unexpectedly appeared in her life. It was as though my original letter had been encrypted in its typewritten replacement. (This incidentally delighted me as definitive proof of the superiority of classical restraint in writing to the rhetoric of expressionistic overtness.)

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