Posts Tagged 'jonathan lethem'

It: Bullies in our own minds.

I found It: Chapter Two substantially weaker than Chapter One and barely an improvement on the dopey 1990s TV miniseries. I suspect that the TV version will be fondly remembered as a campy artifact long after the glossier, better acted, but equally dumb big-screen retread has been forgotten.

I had a lot of questions coming out of the theatre – number one being what was that magic sewer clown actually trying to do, anyway? – but they’ve all been explored in depth elsewhere. So let’s scroll down to a less central but still interesting mystery: have these films’ creators ever encountered a bully in the real world?


I endured my fair share of bullying as a schoolkid, stood by while others were bullied, and indulged in a little bullying myself.

You may snort that, growing up in a middle-class town in the Canadian prairies, I never faced real bullying of the type that warps its survivors into worldly, battle-toughened souls like you. You’re probably right. But my small-town 1980s prairie childhood, while lacking in sewer clowns, was otherwise quite a bit like the small-town 1980s New England childhood depicted in It. So I feel I’m as qualified as anyone to comment on the plausibility of the bullying depicted therein.

What strikes me about the bullies I’ve met in the real world – as contrasted with the screaming, slavering psychos depicted in movies like It – is how jovial they usually are. I grant that there really are mentally unbalanced sadists who, like Henry Bowers, might like to carve their initials in a fat kid’s belly; but they’re rare – so rare that you’re unlikely to find more than one or two even in the biggest and roughest school. When they do turn up, they tend not to attract admiring entourages because – guess what – they’re scary and no fun to be around. Which means they quickly get ratted on and expelled, or clapped in juvenile detention.

Whereas the cool bully who makes bystanders laugh can go on terrorizing weirdos and outcasts indefinitely. The targets don’t resist, will even laugh along at their humiliation, because it’s not clear where the joshing ends and the cruelty starts. Witnesses and victims are made complicit in the abuse. And when the bully pushes too far he can always fall back on, “Don’t take it so serious, kid, I’m only messin’ around.”


Unlike It, Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude is set in a locale and an era that really are foreign to me. Yet it contains the most relatable depiction of juvenile bullying that I’ve encountered in a work of fiction.

jonathan lethem the fortress of solitude

The hero is Dylan, one of just three white kids (his flaky left-wing mother is proud to observe) attending a mostly black public school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Dylan’s whiteness and wimpiness make him a target:

He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone’s hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by whom once the headlock popped loose and three or four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white. It was routine as laughter. Yoking erupted spontaneously, a joke of fear, a piece of kidding.

He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theatre. “Nobody hurt you, man. It ain’t for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?” They’d spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they high-fived, more like amazed spectators than perpetrators. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy’s too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn’t quite get it, hadn’t learned his role. On those occasions they’d pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock’s shadow. Yoker and yokee had forged a funny compact.

You regularly promised your enemies that what you did together had no name.


Once, I believe it was in fourth grade, I was walking to school with a friend a year younger, and for no reason at all, besides the rare opportunity of dominating someone even weaker than me, I jumped on him and ground his face into the snow. He barely resisted. After a few moments I stood up, brushed myself off, and continued on my way. He trailed after me, red-faced and sniffling. I felt bad immediately but, as far as I can recall, never apologized to him.

That’s the one instance I can think of where I physically bullied anybody. But I fear there were other occasions where I took part in or even initiated the mental torture of other kids, which I’ve forgotten because it never occurred to me to file those offenses under the heading of “bullying”.

Some months ago, discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, I shared this passage about a security officer in a Soviet prison who has no qualms about the brutality his job requires him to inflict on prisoners:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

We’re rarely bullies in our own minds. We’ve seen such people on the stage and in films: they’re pop-eyed psychos like Henry Bowers, tormenting harmless oddballs for no reason at all. Whereas we’re merely reluctant defenders of the social order, using mockery, threats, and (when absolutely necessary) a little roughness to scare sneaks and creeps and deviants back into line.


Last year I mentioned my first meeting with a high school sociopath whose icebreaker was, “Are you a Jew?” In 2017 I reflected on how screenwriters can justify any implausible plot point with the mantra “Because. That. Happens.” And way back in 2010 I discussed Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape, a sci-fi reimagining of the John Wayne flick The Searchers.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

John Wayne and Girl In Landscape.

When John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it.

That’s Joan Didion, in a 1965 essay called “John Wayne: A Love Song” from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she confesses that “although the men I have known have had many virtues…they have never been John Wayne.” They have not – how could they have? – lived up to that standard of masculinity set for her at the age of eight when she first saw Wayne in War of the Wildcats.

Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape is about the child perceiving John Wayne’s sexual authority and figuring out what to do about it. The child is a thirteen-year-old immigrant from Earth, relocated with her father and younger brothers to a rickety frontier settlement on the Planet of the Archbuilders. Her dad is an earnest liberal, keen on reaching out to the planet’s natives, the remnants of a once-mighty race who now dwell in idleness among the ruins of their civilisation.

John Wayne appears in the character of the first settler in the valley, who has a far more ambivalent relationship to the natives. He is the only one who speaks their language, understands their customs, even participates in their rituals. But he has contempt for them, and he fears being corrupted by them. He is

tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly – resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you, watching, even as his charisma wrenches you closer, into an alliance, a response that’s almost sexual.

That’s Lethem writing (in his 2005 essay collection The Disappointment Artist) about John Wayne’s character in The Searchers, which he has acknowledged as the inspiration for his novel. Girl In Landscape is the The Searchers inverted, told from the point-of-view of the young girl rather than the cowboy antihero. But Lethem has softened and decomplicated the story for the comfort of modern readers. His natives are benign, meditative pacifists, rather than the murderous Comanches of the original, making the settlers’ terror of their sexuality seem paranoid and ludicrous.

Eventually, the young girl stands up to the cowboy, and although her motives are laudable, her methods are extremely dicey. In the final chapter we see the beginnings of a friendlier, stabler, more matriarchal society – the antagonistic male forces have been banished, at least temporarily, and order reigns. It’s a satisfying conclusion for modern readers, because we’re not really comfortable having John Wayne around – not the women, who (despite their lingering girlish ideals of maleness) aren’t eager to be tossed over his shoulder and carried off like chattel; not the other men who find themselves feeling shrunken and irrelevant in his presence. But of course, it’s convenient to banish John Wayne, when there are no Comanches around.


The Master and Margarita – the best translation?

In a mostly adoring essay entitled “You Don’t Know Dick”, Jonathan Lethem admits what’s obvious to anyone who’s ever cracked one of Philip K. Dick’s novels:

[Dick is] that species of great writer, the uneven-prose species: Dickens, Dreiser, and Highsmith are others. Russians will tell you Dostoyevsky is too, and that we don’t know this because translators have been covering his ass. [1]

I don’t know which Russians Lethem has been consulting, and I can’t tell whether he’s implying that Dostoyevsky’s writing is as clumsy as Dickens’ (no great shame in that) or as clumsy as Philip K. Dick’s (yikes). But now I wonder, have English readers been ill-served by these deceptively elegant translations? Are we missing something of the original homely flavour of Dostoyevsky’s sentences? Do we not deserve access to a version of The Idiot that is as badly-written as the one Russians cherish?

I was reminded of Lethem’s comment while reading The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov’s most famous novel, written in the 1930s but unpublished until 1966, has been translated into English at least six times. The best-known versions are by Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Michael Glenny (1967), Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (1995), and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1997).

So my first task, when my book club settled on The Master and Margarita for its next meeting, was to determine which translation I wanted to read. Based on the excerpts provided on the About Last Night blog, I decided I would seek out Glenny’s. But I live in a small town, and there aren’t many copies of The Master and Margarita available in the half-dozen or so good used bookstores hereabouts. To be precise, I found one: the Penguin Classics Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. [2] It was in good shape and it cost ten bucks, and it seemed easier to just grab it rather than wait for the Glenny edition to arrive, more expensively, via Abebooks.

After our meeting, I borrowed the Glenny and Burgin-O’Connor translations from fellow book-clubbers. As a service to the reading community, here are two more versions of the opening paragraph, for comparison with the Ginsburg and Glenny versions excerpted on About Last Night:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers. [Pevear-Volokhonsky]

One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them – fortyish, wearing a gray summer suit – was short, dark-haired, bald on top, paunchy, and held his proper fedora in his hand; black horn-rimmed glasses of supernatural proportions adorned his well-shaven face. The other one – a broad-shouldered, reddish-haired, shaggy young man with a checked cap cocked on the back of his head – was wearing a cowboy shirt, crumpled white trousers, and black sneakers. [Burgin-O’Connor]

There doesn’t seem to be much to choose from in these samples, so let’s dig a little deeper into the book. Here’s an awkward paragraph: the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth (a talking cat) have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (“crow”, in the Glenny version). Pevear and Volokohnsky offer:

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs.

Granted it was late and I was sleepy, but I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air”, but rather “everyone” – Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context this makes sense – it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. Still, there’s no reason to muddle the reader this way, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin and O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs.

(Incidentally, this is the only one of the three translations that chooses to capitalize “Master”; which seems appropriate, since the character is given no other name.)

What Burgin-O’Connor and Pevear-Volokhonsky have in common is that they labour to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. (From Burgin and O’Connor’s Translator’s Note: “[W]e have tried, as far as possible without sacrificing clarity, not to break up Bulgakov’s long sentences and to adhere to his word order.”) Glenny’s version reads more easily because he has been freer in his punctuation:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase.

…But then, Glenny omits the information that the Master is “lifeless and inert” – for what it’s worth. Obviously he has made the editorial decision that the Master’s exhausted state is communicated well enough in surrounding paragraphs that it can be economically left out of this one.

My impression from browsing is that there’s very little to decide between the Pevear-Volokhonsky and Burgin-O’Connor versions; they say pretty much the same thing in slightly different ways. Glenny’s is the outlier. His translation seems easier to read, but the ease may come at the expense of exactitude. Personally I’m not sure how much that matters; I can live with a translation that loses a few details like “lifeless and inert”, even if Bulgakov himself might grumble. (But then, what if I’m missing something more important? – see below.)

But it’s really more a philosophical question than it is an aesthetic one: which should take priority in translation, precision or readability? Consider Shakespeare. Do his foreign-language translators deploy archaic and obsolete words to replicate the (often wearying) experience of reading Shakespeare in English? Or do they use modern words, saving foreign readers the difficulty of  following the involutions of the thought?

What is “difficulty”, anyway? Our language has an unusually large vocabulary, which makes it easier to be difficult when writing in English than in, say, French. What if you need a replacement for an obscure English word and there is no equally obscure French word available? Do you dig out your old Latin textbook and invent an entirely new but authentic-sounding word? (That’s what Shakespeare would have done.)


According to this extract from a book called The Translator in the Text by Rachel May, Michael Glenny’s translation was done from an incomplete manuscript. How incomplete?

When Bulgakov’s novel was first published in the Soviet Union in 1966, the text was heavily censored. Mirra Ginsburg’s translation was based on this censored edition. Glenny’s version came out in 1967, by which time the suppressed material was available in the West. Yet Burgin and O’Connor, in their Translator’s Note, claim that their 1995 effort is the first translation of the complete text. What was still missing from the version Glenny used? Was it just a few disputed lines here and there, of the kind that only purists and scholars quibble over? Or was it whole scenes of politically-sensitive material? Input from knowledgeable readers would be welcomed here.

Having read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “complete” translation, I’m not sure how important those politically sensitive scenes are. Even in the uncensored text, criticism of the Soviet authorities is extremely circumspect and easy to overlook. When the Master, after offending the literary world with a novel on religious themes, is taken away by the secret police, he describes the scene like this:

“[T]here came a knock at my window…”

The Master doesn’t say who knocked. Instead he leans close to his interlocutor and whispers something into his ear, which “agitate[s] him very much.” Then he resumes:

“Yes, and so in mid-January, at night, in the same coat but with the buttons torn off, I was huddled with cold in my little yard.”

The knock at the window came in October: apart from the agitating whisper, no account is given of the missing three months. From the footnotes we learn that “It was customary to remove belts, shoelaces and buttons from the apparel of those ‘held for questioning’.”

Having seen The Master and Margarita in the number two position on the Wall Street Journal‘s list of  Cold War novels, I was expecting a more sensational exposé of Stalinism than that. Does the quietness of Bulgakov’s rebellion make the inclusion of that political material more or less crucial?


If you’re wondering: though I’m not entirely sure I liked The Master and Margarita (but that might just be the fault of the translation), I think you should read it anyway.


1. “You Don’t Know Dick” can be found in Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection The Disappointment Artist.

2. I found it at Westgate Books on 8th Street, easily the best bookstore in Saskatoon.

Update, July 19 2009: I was recently alerted to a wonderfully detailed discussion of The Master and Margarita on the literary website The Valve. I’m going to point you directly to a comment by a Russian speaker named Anatoly, who describes the Pevear-Volokhonsky version as an “awful travesty” – and seems to know what he’s talking about.

Update, June 4 2016: And for further swipes at Pevear and Volokhonsky’s methods, along with a broad-ranging discussion of what constitutes a good translation anyway, check out Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books.

Update, December 4 2021: In his September Monthly Diary, the author and columnist John Derbyshire mentions that his bookshelf until recently contained two unread copies of The Master and Margarita, bestowed on him independently by two different Russian friends, each lauding it as “the great 20th-century Russian novel”.

Conveniently for us, they were different translations – Ginsburg’s and Burgin-O’Connor’s:

Each time I was gifted the book I had a go at reading it in one or other translation, but never got beyond Chapter Two. This month, with my dear deceased Russian friends in mind … I suffered an unusually acute spasm of guilt, and resolved to repay my friends’ kindness by reading The Master and Margarita all through.

I have almost finished, but it’s been tough sledding and I can’t say I’ve gotten much pleasure from the reading.

No, it wasn’t all the allusions and Russianisms that put me off. I actually like that kind of thing. When I needed to have something explained to me, the Burgin-O’Connor translation anyway provides 24 pages of helpful notes. (It is also the better of the two translations. I bailed out for good from [Ginsburg]’s when she used “disinterested” to mean “uninterested” in Chapter 12.)

It’s only that the action of the novel is too fantastical, the satire too heavy-handed, the allegory too convoluted, the personalities too unlike any actual human beings I have ever encountered.

Well, not every book is for everybody.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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