Bel canto, p.35
Bel Canto, p.35Ann Patchett
SA: Getting back to translation: of course, translation is the biggest problem in opera. We were talking about the English National Opera the other day.
SA: Which has this ridiculous policy that everything must be sung in English. I saw a production of Parsifal there in 1986. ENO’s tenor was sick so they flew in Siegfried Jerusalem to sing Parsifal, and of course he could sing the part in his sleep, but in German. So he’s singing away in German and everyone else is singing in English. And — no surprise — they were equally unintelligible. To my ears, anyway.
SA: Now, in this passage early in chapter six you reveal that the singers are sometimes totally ignorant of what they are singing: Roxane sings Rusalka beautifully, of course, but Gen — who speaks Czech — is aware that she “did not know a word of Czechoslovakian. She sang the passage of every syllable, but none of the syllables actually managed to form into recognizable words of the language. It was quite obvious that she had memorized the work phonetically, that she sang her love for Dvořák and her love for the translated story, but that the Czech language itself was a stranger which passed her by without a moment’s recognition.” Beautiful! Now we know!
AP: I appreciate the compliment but the story’s not mine. That came from Christopher Potter [AP’s U.K. editor at Fourth Estate]. Christopher was one of the first people to read this book when I was finished with it. He’s the greatest opera buff in the world. I told Christopher that I wouldn’t send the book to any other publisher in the U.K. and that they [Fourth Estate] could pay me whatever they felt like paying me in return for his editing the book for opera.
SA: What a deal.
AP: The deal was all mine. He was great. He took out a lot of — I’m not a sentimental person but there were probably twenty sappy lines in the book and Christopher took them all out. I was so embarrassed when I got the manuscript back to see he had drawn lines through these really emotional, corny things I had written about music. But the whole thing about Rusalka was his. He’d gone to see Rusalka with some friends, one of whom was Czech, and they came out raving about how great it was and the Czech friend said of the singers, “Yeah, but they couldn’t speak Czech. They had no idea what they were singing.” That’s the kind of thing that I never would have come up with on my own and I feel so fortunate to have been able to steal if off somebody else.
SA: Well, that’s what being a writer is all about.
AP: Yes, absolutely. [Laughter]
SA: Unlike some authors I’ve known, who basically want their publisher to operate like a kind of souped-up Kinko’s, you seem to really enjoy the give-and-take of the editorial process.
AP: It’s very important. My friend Elizabeth McCracken, who is completely invested in my fiction as I am invested in hers, edits my books for me. She’s the only person who reads my work while I’m writing it and I take whatever she has to say very seriously. Originally the book had a first person prologue and a first person epilogue, both by Gen — which then implied that the whole book was written by Gen. The basic theme of the prologue was, “This is the story of how I met my wife.” Elizabeth told me to get rid of the prologue. What she told me, and I think this is absolutely right, was that I had a fear about pulling off the third person narration, so I had stuck in a first person prologue so that I could say, “What looks like a third person narrative really is not.”
The biggest achievement of this book for me, the thing that I am most proud of, is the narrative structure — that kind of third person narrative that I think of as Russian, wherein the point of view just seamlessly moves among the characters. That was the hardest part of writing the book. It was what took me so long. It’s the thing I’ve wanted to do since I started writing fiction.
SA: That makes a lot of sense, because Gen as narrator would have seriously unbalanced a story about the finding of friendship and love, I think. Much of Bel Canto is dedicated to his learning to translate these emotions for himself. Take Fyodorov’s declaration of love for Roxane: it had the wonderful effect of thrusting Gen into the professional role that Roxane occupies — that is, professing emotion, not just processing information. It’s an interesting reversal of that Rusalka passage, because here Gen must confront the fact that while he knows what he’s saying, he understands how to communicate the emotion of what he’s saying about as well as Roxane understands Czech. It’s also a useful prelude to what is, finally, a surprise in the epilogue. But let me ask you, because these matters of meaning and interpretation seem so well funded — does your interest in translation stem from your own experiences? Do you speak or read any other languages?
AP: Well here you go, there’s the really penetrating and embarrassing question.
AP: No, no — because something this book grows out of is my enormous shame of not speaking any other languages. I can do a hotel and restaurant French, and a hotel and restaurant Italian, but I don’t have another language and it’s something that I really, really dislike about myself. And of course the other thing is that I have no talent or training at all in music —
SA: I was going to ask that next.
AP: I think of these qualities as being two great measures of what it means to be a cultured person, and I completely dropped the ball on both of them. Truly, the writing of this story comes out of that shame, and wanting to examine it and make peace with it.
There are all sorts of things that I set up for myself to do when I write a novel. But in the end they don’t have anything to do with the story. That was one — coming to terms with my musical and foreign language deficits, and the other one, which is more important, was to try to find a way to grieve for the things that you read about in the newspaper. Because once we get into these big numbers — plane crashes, earthquakes and typhoons, hostage situations and school shootings — we see it and we experience it for a second and then we abstract it. It’s too far away, or there are too many people, or it’s not a circumstance we could ever be involved in. And so, as we were discussing earlier, we forget all about it.
But I was so moved by the Japanese embassy story and it took place over such a long period of time that I really got to think about what was happening there. When the guerillas were all shot I really did want to experience it. I wanted to find a way to take some time to feel bad about that loss. I’ll never know what really happened. I can be pretty sure it bore little resemblance to what I heard on the news. Still, I wanted to find a way to experience it, to take emotional responsibility for it. On a moral level. To be able to say there’s been a real loss and I need to stop and grieve for these people.
* * *
About the Author
ANN PATCHETT is the author of three previous novels, The Patron Saint of Liars, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Taft, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; and The Magician’s Assistant. She has written for many publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Village Voice, GQ, Paris Review, and Vogue. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Jacket design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich
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Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
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