Monday, January 25, 2021

transgressive books

Maria Dahvana Headley, Beowulf: A New Translation (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
B. has been trying to get this from the library for months, but they keep denying it exists and giving her The Mere Wife instead. I simply went online and ordered a copy.
This is supposed to be the feminist translation of Beowulf, but there isn't room for much feminism in Beowulf. What this one does is clearly reveal, scrubbed of all the formal and archaic language that traditionally surrounds the poem, how intensely masculine a story it is. Told in blunt modern language that retains the terseness of the original ("The Geat was ready to rumble, pissed now.") and festooned with exclamations of "Bro" and "Dude", it's a story of warrior jocks, with no room for the pale sorts you'd imagine studying Anglo-Saxon in a classroom.
One major feminist point by omission: Headley makes clear that descriptions of Grendel's mother as a monster are artifacts of past translations, not of the original poem. So she omits them. Though the remaining descriptions of Grendel's mother are alarming enough.
Tolkien is mentioned once, in the introduction, for Headley to disagree with his statement that "if you wish to translate, not re-write, Beowulf, your language must be literary and traditional." I'm sure that Tolkien would have responded that Headley's translation is a re-writing, but then Tolkien thought the only need for a Modern English translation was as a crib: he didn't think Anglo-Saxon was a difficult language for a Modern English speaker to learn.

Derf Backderf, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams Comicarts)
I'd seen praise of this graphic-novel retelling of the 1970 tragedy, so I ordered it too. As a recounting it turned out to be excellent, covering the complex events of four days of protest with clarity which the visual format makes an essential contribution to. It's meticulously researched, as well, with 26 pages of source notes. This is, obviously, a backloaded story, mostly intended to explain how it got to the point where the shootings, which begin on p. 218 of a 280-page book, happened. There's a lot on the background and personal lives of the four victims, something which the story-telling format is well-equipped to fill in, but it also gives perspectives of other students, the National Guard soldiers, and the authorities; and for this, a lot of expository text on the outside agitators that the authorities feared is given: necessary for context, though mostly irrelevant to the Kent State protests.
The re-creation of the physical setting is meticulous, but the art style is extremely ugly and the drawings of faces grotesque and clotted. A guardsman, for instance, is stated to be a 22-year-old student, but with glasses and in his helmet, he looks like Phil Silvers. And most of the people have what looks like a drop of snot dripping down from their nostrils. I'm sure that's not what it's intended to be, but I can't figure out what it is intended to be, and that's what it looks like.

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