Friday, September 24, 2010

Pulled off my shelves #1: Alison Turnbull’s Spring Snow—A Translation (London: Book Works, 2002)

Thank you Sina for bringing me aboard lemonhound— I’m excited to be involved. This “pulled from my shelves” series will be my weekly exploration of concrete and conceptual books which I think have been overlooked or under-discussed; a chance to bring some texts out “from the vault”, dust them off and see where they lead…

I have a rippling fear when I complete a novel that just beyond the limits of my knowledge another writer has published a similar project, and done so in a manner more deft, more intricate, more … better.

The Oulipans’ term anticipatory plagiarism refers to the very problem “when someone steals your original idea and publishes it a hundred years before you were born.” The term places the artist at the top of the literary food-chain with all texts feeding her contemporary work while excusing any gaps in research into potential influences

Only after I had already completed and published Local Colour (a page by page response to the colour palette of Paul Auster’s Ghosts) did I find Alison Turnbull’s Spring Snow—A Translation (a page by page response to the colour palette of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow). As soon as I encountered the book I was both anxious and thrilled.

With Spring Snow—A Translation, Turnbull reads Mishima’s original not for plot, for character or for any other traditional reading trope. Instead she reads simply to record the occurrence of more than 600 colour words. She then lists each of these words by page number and chapter. The book takes the cataloguing even further by presenting a chart of 12 blocks on each page—each swatch representing a different colour from Mishima’s original in the order they it occurred.

Reading here is not a search for a narrative-driven epiphanic moment, it is simply a charting of encounter with the text on the page. Mishima’s Spring Snow is loosened from signification – the words no longer point at a larger narrative, they point only at colour. Turnbull’s translation of Spring Snow focuses not on the narrative, nor on the problems of moving from one written language to another—she treats the language itself to a filtering; embodying Beckett’s defense of Joyce’s Work in Progress: “[h]ere is direct expression—pages and pages of it.”

The colours, through repetition, build a suspense and crescendo which is loosened from traditional narrative. Derrida, writing on Blanchot, asked “How can one text, assuming its unity, give or present another to be read, without touching it, without saying anything about it, practically without referring to it?” Each page of Spring Snow is a completely unique, diagrammatic representation of the occurrences of certain words. By reducing reading and language into a paragrammatical statistical analysis, content is subsumed into graphical representation of how language covers a page.

Turnbull’s translation is not such much a single translation as a workbook for further translations – one can imagine what other narratives could form around the occurrence of those particular hues scattered in that particular order. Barthes argued that “The Text requires that one try to abolish (or at the very least to diminish) the distance between writing and reading, in no way by intensifying the projection of the reader into the work but by joining them in a single signifying practice.” The emphasis here is on latency, Turnbull unlocks Mishima’s text as only one of a series of potentialities; a single volume in a Borgesian library of texts swaying around anchored chroma.

Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled "Seen of the Crime" is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here:

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