Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Literary Bible

Frank Kermode has reviewed David Rosenberg's new "Literary Bible" in the NYTimes Sunday Book review, although published on New Year's Eve. It is a fairly interesting review, and it helps that Kermode is a good writer in his criticism of the book. First off, the title itself sounds a bit pompous to me. Referring back to the "Book of J," a book that includes Rosenberg's earlier translations of "J" with Harold Bloom's commentary, I would agree with the general spirit of the assessment of "J" as...

a sublime writer, an “uncanny” writer, among the greatest of all writers. She was a “strong” poet — not a religious writer, any more than Shakespeare was. Indeed, she was a comic writer whose powerful and eccentric character, more Kafka than Moses, has been obscured by clerical interpreters in the 3,000 years since she wrote. Part of Rosenberg’s task was to produce a style of translation that might fairly represent the rocky magnificence of J’s language.

But I would say this for nearly the entire Bible as well. It is difficult to agree with Bloom's overly specific hypothesis of the writer as an upperclass woman living in Jerusalem in the court of Rehoboam in the 9th century BCE who was, in fact, Bathsheba (based upon absolutely no evidence). I take the point that there is no evidence for anyone else, but that hardly supports such a strained hypothesis. That period of literature seems to revel in anonymity; we are the ones who seem to have trouble with this. I also personally do not privilege J...or...if there is a J (since, as Kermode points out, Rosenberg sidesteps the issue of the difficulty of separating J and E).

It was a difficult program, and one may say, with some reservations, that on his own terms Rosenberg makes it work. He must have regretted the failure to claim those opening lines of Genesis — “In the beginning. . . . ” — as J’s. His version of Genesis in “A Literary Bible” remains substantially the same as the version in “The Book of J,” but there were problems new and old to deal with. For one thing, some scholars regard J and E as not so readily distinguishable as Rosenberg and Bloom would have liked. The Bible being a collection of sometimes very diverse literary forms, the translator is bound to meet new styles and new problems. The language of the Bible supports, generally speaking, a rhetoric quite foreign to English, persistently and artfully repetitious and prone to untranslatable punning and wordplay — a feature far more natural to Hebrew than to English.

With these reservations, however, I must say that I think "P" or the final redactor of the Pentateuch was an amazing literary artist. Having said this and having promoted reading the Bible in the way one reads Shakespeare--and therefore not saying we read the "Bible as literature" because that sounds condescending (we don't say we read "Shakespeare as literature" because we know it is literature; the same should be true with the Bible), nor should we promote the "literary Bible." That sounds pompous. Was not the authorized version (a.k.a. the King James version) a "literary" translation? Does the Bible really need such help to be "literary"? The title reeks of literary heavy-handedness; perhaps,however, merely a bad editorial decision.

Kermode notes, however, that the results are mixed: that Rosenberg seems more at home in the poetry of the bible rather than its prose:

The results are disconcerting at times. Rosenberg may underestimate the difficulty of representing or imitating the ancient Hebrew; perhaps the entire problem of modern representations of the past eludes him, as when he complains about “sour grapes scholarship” that wants to date J and E to the seventh century B.C., “thereby throwing their historical accuracy into question.” But how can this be? After such a change the book would inhabit a different historical past and its relation to modern perceptions of history would change; but it would be, as it always was, a historical or fictional construct that could not sensibly be accused of falsity to contexts transiently imposed on it.

There is a similar confusion about language in these early passages, odd sentences that seem to belong in neither Hebrew nor English. “To its fruit she reached; ate, gave to her man, there with her, and he ate”: “Who told you naked is what you are?”; “The man named his wife Hava: she would have all who live, smooth the way, mother.” What is intended to illustrate a style like that of J and other ancient writers leaps from one language but is broken as it lands on the other, and we are left with a sort of pidgin.

There is less of this as the narrative advances and story takes over. In fact one forms a general impression that Rosenberg is happier with the poetry of some later books than with the prose of J and E. I felt this in his Isaiah:

all flesh is grass and the
reality of love is there
wild flowers in the field
and all flesh blooms
no longer than a flower . . .

And I felt that the section concerning the Suffering Servant — the prototype of the Messiah for Gentiles as well as Jews, the man called to lead the nations but despised and rejected — benefited from being accorded a verse translation.

now all the world’s kings reside
In their own plush tombs
and sleep at prominent addresses
But you’ve been kicked out of the mausoleum
you’ve been clubbed like
a Nazi collaborator. . . .

The Psalmist, addressing God, prays exquisitely for “the mercy of your attention,” and is made, as in Psalm 22, to sound like George Herbert, an Anglican rather than a Jew, but not a bad model for a pious poetry: “Lord, My Lord, you disappear / so far away / unpierced by my cry.”

Rosenberg says he searched for an English equivalent to “the complex illusion of spokenness in Job’s speeches” and in doing so found it helpful to bear in mind “American poetry’s struggle with natural speech.” He therefore studies William Carlos Williams’s “sense of timing” and the performances of John Coltrane. In the same cause he permits himself “the occasional cliché and idiom of popular culture,” said to reflect Job’s “satiric use of officialese.” The method has its risks, some touched on above, but on the whole it succeeds, and Rosenberg emerges with honor from his long wrestling match with an opponent who goes by the name of J.

Thus the very astute Kermode ends on a positive note, although from his own review it sounds to me that Rosenberg has not successfully wrestled with J, but has done very well with Isaiah. While Kermode's examples of troubling and beautiful translation choices appear apt, to know for sure, we'll just have to read it for ourselves.

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