Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sunetra Gupta, On Reading

"I read to 'hear', and thus to be immersed in, particular voices. Writing that is devoid of voice, disengaged from style, carries very little interest for me. In current times, style has come to be seen as an enemy of clarity, and it may well be so, but clarity is not a quality I demand of literature. I prefer to slowly savour passages of intriguing beauty, or gradually penetrate a difficult poem. One of my most fulfilling reading experiences, probably about twenty-five years ago, was with Stephen Spender's translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies -- I remember that I would read an elegy and put it aside hardly comprehending any of it, and then return to it the following evening to try again. Eventually, what it yielded was immensely valuable to me, and not even because the translation itself was particularly satisfactory. I had established, through my labours, a strange relationship with the original text. I had no acquaintance with German, and yet certain words like 'kindertod' pierced me with sadness, and reading the original with Spender's often extremely literal translation beside it created a unique transport. From this I learnt that voices, even foreign voices filtered along odd angles, have the power to transform. More recently, I had a similar experience reading Henry James's little known The Other House. At first, I felt slightly repelled by it, and set it aside expecting to shelve it away sooner or later. But the following day, I picked it up again and felt compelled to reread it, and eventually came to comprehend its choreography. It now stands out to me as a book whose narrative is almost entirely driven by style -- and the disturbance that it caused in my mind opened my eyes to the idea that narratives of integrity always emerge from style, although perhaps not quite as starkly as in The Other House. The words we use to tell a story are not just the clearest way to join a set of pre-determined dots -- they are the words themselves, and the voices that they compose, from which narratives arise."

{Sunetra Gupta's fifth novel, So Good In Black, will be published in the United States by Clockroot Books in March of 2011. She won the 2009 Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award for her scientific achievements. Sunetra, who lives in Oxford with her husband and two daughters, is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University's Department of Zoology, having graduated in 1987 from Princeton University and received her PhD from the University of London in 1992. Visit her website here for more information.}

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