I wish I liked this more than I did but am left feeling underwhelmed. Rabih Alameddine writes about a woman who lives in Beirut, translating English and French literature into Arabic with a new book every year, for fifty years, living alone after her impotent husband left her a few years after their failed marriage began. This book had all the markers to be a slam dunk hit for lit nerds, but something about the tone was off. Allusions to authors and their work swirl on every page, (rightly) expecting you to be able to hop along between each stepping stone across the pool. But yet, this didn’t penetrate my soul, possible because written by a man, he only relies on the usual suspects for inspiration.
He also sneaks in a bit of drama between the narrator and her elderly mother, attempted to be dumped at her doorstep by her half-brother. Instead, the translator ventures over to visit, gives her mother a foot bath and pedicure. The most satisfying relationship is that between the women in the building, those survivors from all the horrors Beirut has seen over the past 50 years.
There are some interesting musings on the nature of translation, some shit-talking about Constance Garnett’s classic Russian translations (she was self-taught… who isn’t?); the reason we can’t tell Tolstoy apart from Dostoyevski is because we’re reading Garnett instead. He also goes off on Hemmingway and how boring he is, how there’s no depth but yet critics and college boys insist that the meaning is beneath the surface.
The good parts:
He quotes Marianne Moore from her essay If I Were Sixteen Today in an epigram, “The cure for loneliness is solitude.”
It seems melancholic, but I liked:
I used to dream that one day I’d have friends over for dinner and we’d spend the entire evening in sparkling conversation about literature and art. Laughing and cavorting and making merry, Wildean wit and sassy, delightful repartee parried back and forth across the room. My salon would be the envy of the world, if only the world knew about it.
Also, the most common text found on Roman graves:
Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.
I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.