Gösta Berlings saga

It took several months, but I finally finished Gösta Berlings saga. I read it years ago in English; now it was time for Swedish. The only problem is that when you read dense Swedish for most of your work day, there’s not a lot of brain left over for dense Swedish for fun. As a result it took me much longer than it normally would to finish a book of this length and linguistic heft. (Not to compare the quality of writing in a Selma Lagerlöf novel to that of a financial report!)

Cover of Gösta Berlings saga by Selma Lagerlöf
Image courtesy Ansgar Forlag

It’s Gösta Berlings saga, it’s good, the end. What’s more interesting about the book is how many English translations there are. The English translation I originally read was the 1918 edition put out by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which is essentially Lillie Tudeer’s translation with supplemental material from Velma Swanston Howard, and I remember it as a bit of a slog. I can’t put my finger on it, except to say that it felt very dull and dead. But there have since been three other translations and I thought it would be fun to look at how they all handle that iconic opening line.

The original:

Äntligen stod prästen på predikstolan.*

Or Äntligen stod prästen i predikstolan, depending on which edition you’ve read. Mine is from 1920, so rather than i.

The Lillie Tudeer translation (1894):

The pastor was mounting the pulpit steps.

This is obviously, at a bare minimum, not particularly faithful to the original.

The Pauline Bancroft Flanch translation (1898):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

Already we’re much closer to the original.

The Robert Bly translation (1962):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is not a wholly new work but an edited and revised version of the Flanch translation, so not at all surprising it’s identical to the previous one.

The Paul Norlen translation (2009):

At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is an entirely new work, and straightaway we have a little extra flavor in the text.

Since I’m writing this in English, I suppose I should leave off with a recommendation for which translation to pick up. Well, it goes without saying that I’d give a pass on the omnipresent Dover Thrift Edition or any other version of Lillie Tudeer’s translation. I’m the most curious now about Paul Norlen’s translation, though I have an all-or-nothing brain and so will probably burn through all three of the other versions in short order anyway.

Forever Novels and the Terrible Trivium: Camp NaNoWriMo

Normally I wouldn’t bother talking about my Forever Novel, at least not here. It’s on brand, sure, but it’s a little too personal and a little too embarrassing. Would you trust an editor who had spent over eight years on a novel and didn’t have a completed, polished draft to show for it? Probably not. I don’t know that I would. Never mind the temptation to start talking about what my Forever Novel is actually about, which I’m both dying to do and which I would prefer never to do. But since I’d like to keep up my weekly-ish schedule here and I’m out of book reviews, and since I’ve been busy with Camp NaNoWriMo this month, I guess I have no choice except to talk about writing. (It dawned on me, in the middle of writing this post, that I could have just nattered on a bit about my trip to Paris, or short stories I’ve read recently, or the books I was going to read next, or the books I’m currently reading, but oh well.)

My Forever Novel

I wrote the first draft of my Forever Novel during National Novel Writing Month in 2014. I completed the sixth round of revisions on it last week, meaning that I won Camp NaNoWriMo by meeting my self-appointed goal of revising the last 25 chapters out of a total of 156. I then overshot my goal by immediately going back to the beginning and reading through the newly revised manuscript from the beginning and—as you do—immediately making further edits. For an idea of scope, we’re talking about just a hair over 80,000 words.

I’m glad I met my goal for Camp NaNoWriMo, not least because this particular round of revisions was unusually tricky and was where I made the deepest and most painful cuts. This is the revision where I figured out the skeleton of the whole weird thing. It’s nice to finally know what I’m dealing with.

But is it anything I want to deal with?

There was certainly a personal, emotional value in writing this Forever Novel, from the first mad NaNoWriMo dash in 2014 to this rather casual rounding off last week. The entire process was a surprisingly effective way of expunging a particularly dysfunctional friendship from my psyche. Anything I ever wanted to say to the other party in real life just got dumped into the novel. Approaching all of that from a writerly perspective helped me see how much was petty spite that really didn’t serve the story, and as I cut those elements out from the story, it also seemed to drain all of the petty spite out of myself. Or did the various drafts only reflect my own maturation back to me with each passing year? Hard to say. Either way, I’m now left with a weird, ambitious story and a feeling in the pit of my stomach that my reach has exceeded my grasp.

The truth is, not every project has value. Or perhaps a kinder way to phrase that is: not every project has value in its completion. The only value this project might ever have is helping me process and discard a hang-up I’d been nurturing for fifteen years, give or take. If I feel obligated to see it through to completion, to the point of excluding other projects and losing that sense of play and exploration, is that really a good thing? Marcy Dermansky went for the jugular right in the opening paragraph of this essay for LitHub:

A lesser-known fact about me: In addition to writing my own novels, I am a developmental editor. I help authors improve their novels. Sometimes these novels get sold; sometimes—as one of my despairing clients knows all too well—they don’t. About a year ago, she came back to me wanting to work on a sixth draft based on the suggestions of an interested agent. “At this point,” she said. “I just want this novel to be over.”

There was true heartbreak in her voice—and also real animosity for her novel. It was clear to me that she had begun to hate the book she once loved, had been working on for years. And while the one interested agent’s suggestion to move the end of the novel to the beginning, forecasting the events to come, could work, it was more likely not a good idea. I could sense pure dread. All the joy, all the play was gone. “You can rework material to death,” I warned her, and honestly, she already had. “Why don’t you start something new. See what happens. Have fun. Play.”

When that essay appeared in my inbox, I instantly recognized myself in that despairing author. I was not at the stage of animosity or pure dread yet, but I could sense it as a distinct possibility. For the first time, I allowed myself to ask the question: what am I even doing with this project.

The Terrible Trivium

The truth is, I haven’t really seriously worked on any other fiction since 2014 because I’ve been so focused on my Forever Novel. I used to lament that majoring in writing was a pointless endeavor, that if you wanted to write you would; at this point in my life I have to admit that I can see value in having a two-week deadline to churn out new material or else risk failing a class. I might have hated writing short stories (as this blog post nears 1,000 words, you might have noticed I struggle with brevity) but I still wrote them within that rather narrow deadline. Without fail. They were an assignment, and I had to get them done, and so that was that. I have them all still today and I actually kind of like a few of them.

Now adrift in the real world, I don’t have to write short stories when I write. Great! But without the motivating factor of a deadline and a passing grade, it’s all too easy to fall under the spell of the Terrible Trivium.

“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them. “Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin – if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”

Close-up of grains of sand
Photo by Dave LZ on Unsplash

On the one hand, I’ve certainly made progress in the Forever Novel. But if I just keep fussing with it forever—if, like Milo, I keep moving that pile of sand with a pair of tweezers—then I never have to do anything difficult. I don’t have to try any new ideas, I don’t need to worry about failing, I can just keep futzing around with this story for the rest of my life.

Thus, the $64,000 question. Am I doing the hard work? Or am I avoiding it?

Who knows?

Wise Child

Someone in one of the more obscure online corners I haunt was waxing nostalgic about Monica Furlong’s Wise Child a few months ago. My interest was piqued, since it sounded like something I would have loved as a middle schooler, and luckily I was able to find a copy without much trouble at all.

Cover of Wise Child by Monica Furlong
Image courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

After the death of her grandmother and without other family who can support her, the eponymous nine-year-old protagonist in Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, the village cailleach. Over the course of the book, Juniper helps Wise Child transform from a bit of a brat into someone more considerate, thoughtful and self-sufficient. She also teaches Wise Child the healing arts and some of the basics of magic to prepare her for becoming a witch, what Juniper calls a doran.

The comparison that immediately springs to mind is to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. There is certainly a fantastical element but, like Cooper, Furlong keeps the magic grounded in Scottish folklore (or at least appears to, I’m no expert). The prose is a delight to read, even as an adult. Furlong also has an informed understanding of everyday life in medieval Scotland, always specific in her description of foods, textiles, and buildings. This isn’t hand-wavey Ren Faire style Ye Olde Europe.

Unlike The Dark is Rising, and most other fantasy novels, the story in Wise Child is fairly low stakes. The conflict is entirely interpersonal—rivalry between Juniper and Wise Child’s mother, Maeve; the village priest’s animosity towards Juniper. That’s all pretty small potatoes compared to the thousand years of darkness, hurricanes a-blowin’ and rivers overflowin’, cats and dogs living together mass hysteria you usually expect in the genre. This probably accounts for the difference between the distinct characterization of Wise Child versus the sort of bland everyman (everyboy?) of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising. When you’re coming up against the end of the world, the drama overshadows the characters and flattens them. But for interpersonal conflicts and personal development, you need nuanced, layered characters.

I don’t know how I missed this gem as a child. I would have seen a lot of myself in the awkward and precocious Wise Child, I’m sure. As an adult, it was refreshing to dip my toe back in the kind of middle grade reading that wasn’t trying to stealth market to adults (what’s up Young Adult) but that also didn’t condescend to its younger demographic. Wise Child was exactly the light summer reading I needed in a world that’s going up in flames.

Sisters of the Vast Black

Sisters of the Vast Black was a long-time suggestion from one member of the Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Club and it finally made it to the agenda for our July meeting last Sunday.

Sisters of the Vast Black cover art
Image courtesy Tor

Science fiction is usually pretty critical of religion, especially contemporary established religions like Roman Catholicism, so it’s interesting to see a book take it seriously. Not so much for its cosmology or morality, but for the importance it plays in people’s lives, the good it can inspire them to do, and the soft power it can wield in the name of international (or in this case, interstellar) relations and colonization.

Sisters follows a small spaceship of nuns who find themselves caught up in political intrigue, with a potent biological weapon (and its cure) at stake. Also, their ship is a giant sentient slug who has suddenly imprinted on a mate and needs to change course drastically. And because they’re nuns, of course there’s at least one crisis of faith and a character on the run from a very sinister past.

This was a fun read because the world was so creative and rife with interesting thought experiments, but in the end there were a few too many ideas crammed into the space of one novella. (Rather mentions in her acknowledgments that this started as a short story, which must have been very crowded indeed!) A longer book, or fewer plot threads, would have allowed Rather to give each idea the consideration it deserves and to tie everything together a bit more seamlessly. Maybe the sequel will do just that.