Sunday, December 11, 2005

The budding grove of ambiguity

André Aciman, in a review of James Grieve’s translation of Proust’s A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, formerly known to English-language readers as Within a Budding Grove):
Should English resolve the ambiguities that were conveniently overlooked or left intentionally opaque in the original French?

One might be tempted to say “yes,” but no is the correct answer. An author says what he says in the very way he says it not necessarily because he is after the utmost clarity, or, for some mysterious reason not unrelated to what we call the creative process, because he wishes to see so far and no further, to see one thing without highlighting all of its ancillary, shadow meanings, but because the words he has selected in the order that he has selected them allow him to suggest things he does not wish to say or know how to come right out and say.

In short, what we call style may not only be the deployment of the fewest possible words for the sake of strategic clarity; but to use Stephen Greenblatt’s more recent coinage, style may also be a form of “strategic opacity.” An author fudges and cuts corners and wriggles in between impossible options and gets away with all manner of ambiguities and contradictions precisely because what he is after cannot be invoked otherwise, because he himself may not even see or wish to see beyond a certain threshold.


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