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04.28.11

The Best of Brit Lit

Each week, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement picks his favorite reads. This week: Tim Parks on why translators are overlooked in the Nobel Prize, a history of Broadway, and the complicated life of Benjamin Britten.

All Hail the Nobel Translator!

A novelist is not famous today unless internationally famous, not recognized unless recognized everywhere. According to the novelist Tim Parks, writing in the TLS this week, “even the recognition extended to him in his home country is significantly increased if he is recognized abroad. The smaller the country he lives in, the less important his language on the international scene, the more this is the case. So if for the moment the phenomenon is only vaguely felt in Anglophile cultures, it is a formidable reality in countries like Holland or Italy. The inevitable result is that many writers, consciously or otherwise, have begun to think of their audience as international rather than national.”

One might have thought that this trend would raise the often down-trodden status of translators. But Parks argues the opposite is the case. “If a writer is to be projected on to the world stage, his work must be translated into a number of languages. If a certain amount of promotional hype is to be generated around a book, then the publisher will make sure that these translations are commissioned and completed in a number of territories more or less simultaneously and prior to the publication of the book in its country of origin. In this way, the novel can be launched worldwide, something that increases its profile in each separate territory. Translation thus becomes an all-important part of the initial promotion of a novel, which may well find fewer readers in its original language than in its many translations. Yet translators are becoming less rather than more visible. Few readers will be aware who translates their favorite foreign novelist, even though that person will have a huge influence on the tone and feel of every page.”

The problem for translators, as Parks argues, is that readers want a direct connection with those elevated to global status. “In an instant, as when a pope canonizes someone, the chosen writer’s status is transformed and his work transfigured from contemporary to classic. This is done with exactly the same logic, the same authority, as when the Vatican decides who is to be among the elect in heaven: that is to say, with no logic or authority at all. Yet we hunger for such transformations because it is through the attention given to them that literary ambitions of the most extravagant kind are legitimized.”

But “the thought that a work of literature has been mediated by a translator, that it is not the real thing, undermines the notion of the supreme achievement of this Nobel individual, and above all, the idea that the writer and his writing are the same throughout the globe. Readers, wherever they are from, want to feel that they are in direct, unmediated contact with greatness. They are not eager to hear about translators. The writer wants to believe his genius is arriving, pristine, unmediated, to his readers all over the world. So the prize is important, while the translator must disappear.”

Song and Dance

A biography of the American songwriter Dorothy Fields is in many ways a biography of the 20th-century musical, writes Judith Flanders in the TLS. Dorothy Fields? Although Broadway was virtually her family’s home address, her parents were models for Neil Simon, and her credits include On the Sunny Side of the Street and A Fine Romance, her name is “unknown to all but the most enthusiastic theater-buffs.”

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Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater. By Larry Stempel. 848 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $30. ()

If one woman’s life is not enough to tell the story of a great American art form, Flanders considers too Larry Stempel’s Showtime and Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, a book which, unusually for books on this subject, explains “how a show actually works.” Stempel’s overview begins with the early days of American theater, with musical productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other early 19th-century musical theater. “The surviving evidence for these entertainments is scant, and in any case it was not from these origins that musicals as we know them developed, but from the variety shows that started out as “refreshment, with entertainment” and soon became “entertainment, with refreshment.” By the 1880s, theater was more or less industrialized, with a small group of theater-owners running orderly circuits across a large geographical area, fielding full companies, or performers, on set routes, and establishing the pattern for the next two centuries, whereby American theater became not an art form, but a business.

The business they were running was a confection of several sources. “Spectacle, special effects and choreography were derived from burlesque, now sanitized and transformed into a family-friendly evening, usually with material written by the performers for their own standardized characters. Converging with this was operetta, from Europe, which incorporated popular dance music, but, more importantly, had text and music no longer written by the performers but by specialists—by musicians: a precursor to Tin Pan Alley, which merged ethnic sensibilities and backgrounds with Jewish writers and African-American song styles producing a distinctive new voice. As Flanders describes, “it was the string of 'Princess Theater' musicals (including Oh Boy! in 1917) by Jerome Kern, with P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, which moved away from the fractured structure of variety, focusing on music that developed out of mood and situation (if not yet character) to present a coherent world-picture on stage. With Show Boat (1927), Kern moved on again, finding musical solutions to structural problems, creating a narrative out of both words and music, bringing to the musical theater the narrative heft of the melodramatic stage. This step forward took time. When it was done, the songwriters were in charge.” And so they have stayed.

Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley’s Particular Relationship

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Lennox and Freda. By Tony Scotland. 624 pages. Michael Russell Publishing. £28. ()

The composer Lennox Berkeley was the mentor, and briefly lover, of Benjamin Britten. The aristocratic Berkeley was “utterly in awe” of the dentist’s son from unfashionable Lowestoft, writes Ian Bostridge, reviewing an intimate biography, Lennox and Freda, that portrays both a marriage and the gay life that was its preamble. Berkeley was of the same vintage as Cyril Connolly (1903), and the enemies of promise which Connolly anatomized in the pre-war literary world were as much of a reality for the aspirant composer as for the writer: politics; sex; money (too much or too little); the temptations of meretricious work or popularity; and, most notoriously, “the pram in the hall.” At the outset of his career, Berkeley was close to Maurice Ravel, and it was Ravel who had written in a letter to the ex-wife of a composer colleague: “We are not made for marriage, we artists. We are rarely normal.” In the end, the problem for Britten and Berkeley was the same. They both required peace and stability despite growing to artistic maturity in a bohemian, disordered, sexually abandoned milieu—a milieu which they ultimately found threatening and insufficiently supportive for their modes of creative endeavor. The solution for Britten was the formation of what James Fenton, in a recent piece in the TLS, has called a “heteronormative” relationship with Peter Pears, a gay marriage avant la lettre. Lennox followed a more traditional route, married a woman, Freda Bernstein, and had children.

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.