Tuesday, March 7, 2023

From Sonny Liston to Marcel Proust

In the first place, if Sonny Liston had fought Marcel Proust, the fight would have lasted a shorter time than the two fights Sonny Liston had, one winning the Heavyweight Championship of the World, one defending it, against Floyd Patterson. Both those fights ended fast.  In the first bout, on September 25, 1962 in Chicago, challenger Liston knocked out champion Patterson in 2:06 of the first round.  A left hook to Patterson's jaw, one knockdown, and it was over.  Patterson, who president John F. Kennedy had telephoned, telling him how imperative it was that he (the good Black) beat Liston (the Black who had been in prison, tussled with cops, and had mob connections), left Chicago after the fight wearing a fake beard and mustache, so embarrassed was he by his performance. In the second fight, held on July 22, 1963 in Las Vegas, Liston knocked Patterson down three times and the fight lasted 2:10, four seconds longer than the first fight.  The crowd, reacting to Liston's victory, booed.

Now all this, at least about the first fight between the two men, is the main subject of a long essay I recently read called "Ten Thousand Words a Minute", by Norman Mailer. Published in Esquire Magazine in 1963, it's Mailer at the top of his game, which means talking about something he loves with brilliance and funny insights, expanding outward from his subjects -- Liston versus Patterson, boxing -- into any number of subjects about the United States at the time. It is also Mailer being Mailer, which means you get silly and at times antediluvian ideas mixed in with the thought-provoking ones.  And as always with Mailer, when he discusses race and Blackness, there are things now, if they didn't then, that read as cringe-worthy.  But he was one of the foremost boxing writers who ever lived, and if you like boxing, as I do, and love reading about its history and how it has tied to the culture and world around it, he makes for pleasurable and stimulating reading.  But this is reading, just to be clear, that is about a subject I'm interested in. It's not surprising I would come away from a foremost boxing writer writing about boxing and like what I've read.

But what about when you read a writer on something you don't have a longstanding interest in?  Or any particular interest in, really.  What about then, and when, without question, do you know that a writer is great?  It's not necessarily when they write about a subject you love and that you know in depth. Sometimes it’s when the writer tells you about something you know virtually nothing about, haven’t thought about much, and will never ever do (not that I'd box), and still, as you read, it’s fascinating. That writer can be great company and you may feel that you're in a cafe or bar with them, just talking.

This has been my experience reading Essays Two by Lydia Davis, the companion book to her, you guessed it, Essays One. Her first book of essays concentrated on writing and writers, and this one focuses on the activity Davis has pursued throughout her professional career, as a way to make a living: translation. The book consists of numerous pieces connected to her translation endeavors, and these include her work translating the first volume of Proust's seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, which is Du côté de chez Swannor Swann's Way.

I happen to have finally started reading Proust myself, and I'm working my way through Swann's Way.  I'm only about 200 pages in, so I'd rather not talk too much about the experience of reading Proust yet, but I can say that reading Swann's Way in the Lydia Davis translation, from a little over 20 years ago, is what led me not to reading Davis herself (I've been reading her short stories for years), but to acquiring this particular book of hers.  When I first looked through it, I saw that it has a lot of Davis dissecting Proust and talking about the joys and challenges of translating him, and I was persuaded to buy it.

And how is Davis on translation, breaking down the art and the craft of it? She's got me immersed. I'm totally into these pieces and actually wish at times that I had become a translator, in whatever language. Davis compares translating to sentence-by-sentence problem solving, and since she is a fiction writer as well, she talks in great detail about how translating differs from fiction writing but also how it can help your fiction writing. She talks about how such complete engagement with language, when translating, benefits her, in myriad ways, when it comes to her own writing. After all the years of doing it, she has plenty to say about translating, and the fact that she's made it as interesting to me as, say, boxing, is evidence yet again of what a great writer she is and what a great writer can do.

A certain writer's obsession becomes your obsession (or at least to you a strong point of interest), and you love exploring the subject with them. I liked hanging out with Mailer talking about Liston, but I'm enjoying even more spending time with Lydia Davis talking about translation and Proust.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heard Pete Dexter speak at the Philadelphia Main Library some years ago. Dexter wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News for years, and was best friends with fellow columnist, the late, great Jack McKinney. At the library, Dexter told this story: Jack, apparently, knew how to box and once attended a party at Norman Mailer's place in NYC, where, at some point in the evening, found himself ironing Mailer's wife's hair.
Norman happened upon them, and took umbrage, feeling that the action was inappropriately intimate. Apparently, McKinney told Mailer something to the effect of "Relax, Norman.' Incensed, Mailer punched McKinney in the jaw. Surprised but unhurt, Mckinney said, 'Cut it out, Norman.' Chagrinned, Mailer threw another punch that McKinney easily slipped, again admonishing Mailer to cut it out.
Norman apparently thought better of trying a third punch and left the room.