The French enjoy wordplay, I said to M. -- is my impression -- and I was considering French overall, but French is huge, and my mind, putting itself through a swift process of summarisation (concentrate on a flower, advises Ruskin, when the Alps get overwhelming), whittled the idea down to one sentence, or the impression of sentence -- specifically, a part of Jacques Derrida's Demeure, a speech that came with sentences that were so difficult for the translator* that she wrote out her translation and then added the French words as well, so that we could see what Derrida had been trying to do, for example: "I will attempt to speak of this necessary but impossible abidance [demeurance] of the abode [demeure]. How can one decide what remains abidingly [à demeure]?"
(Which is not only a record of Derrida but also a record of the translator's battle as she stands on that crossing between one language and another, a lone Horatius not defending her narrow bridge but struggling to let the invading army across.)
Each new chosen word is like a mirror, tilted slightly back at the one before it, picking up part of its reflection, but reflecting a landscape of its own as well; it comments on the last one and advances it, or -- in other words, a pun.
But behind that impression of Demeure I felt a cloud of other French words pressing forward, Georges Perec, Raymond Roussel, the film Ridicule in which aristocrats hang themselves from ornamental garden trees because the language-games of Versailles are beyond them -- I couldn't think of an example in English, I couldn't even think of a pun (used seriously, I mean, in the public arena -- a pun in public -- not a pun of my own but a quotation, an example of someone else's pun). I tried but nothing would come into my head.
Days later on Sunday evening I was at a basketball scrimmage for the UNLV basketball team. This scrimmage, in which the team splits in half and plays a reduced version of a full game, is an annual tradition, said the journalists later, writing about it, but I went because it was free and I hadn't seen basketball played live before. The new-season's team had already introduced itself to the fans on Friday evening at an event on Fremont Street, bringing along cheerleaders, the new coach, and a set of fireworks. "Friday night was all about the hoopla," said the coach on Sunday before the scrimmage started, "tonight is all about the hoops." So there was my English-language word game, and I was thunderbolted, I was very excited: radiance, radiance, it existed.
In a very small way the conversation had primed me to pay attention, as Ruskin, writing about landscape artists, wants them to understand the anatomy of a tree, and learn to see it, otherwise he is afraid that they will be distracted by the superficial and obvious details on top, "the bark and moss of the trunk." Instead the artist should perceive "the swell and fall and change of all the mass," which is ruled by the "leading lines" of the hidden woodgrain. "[A]s an artist increases in awareness of perception, the facts which become outward and apparent to him are those which bear upon the growth or make of the thing." The "make" here was wordplay. So if I had not been watching for the skeleton or wordplay spirit-dwelling of those words, they would have flown past me meaning almost nothing, glib slogan, cheap phrase, but, hearing them acutely, I noticed how interested he sounded, as if he were not simply a man who was remembering easy lines, but a man who enjoyed being there, and was relishing his basketball, or I might have only imagined that upwards excited smiling inflection in his voice, because I was pleased too; I had received a present, and everything at that moment (which had collected like a concentrated globe) was waiting for the opportunity to mean more than it seemed.
* Elizabeth Rottenberg.
Ruskin's tree comes from Modern Painters. The new coach's name is David Rice and the team is so rapt with hm that they've made a teaser trailer. "Everybody pulls for DAVID. Nobody ROOTS for Goliath. But there was once a time. When this DAVID. Was Goliath." He used to be a stunning player, they mean. Now he is a coach. Another teaser.
David Bellos, Perec's translator, had a good article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
In Chapter 51 of Perec's masterpiece, "Life A User's Manual" (1978), the character Valène imagines a painting of the apartment house in which he lives with its façade removed, showing all its street-side rooms with their contents and the characters who lived there. The project is laid out as an inventory of items numbered from 1 through 179, and each "item" is a summary of a story told elsewhere in Perec's 99-chapter novel.
I was translating the novel, so I had to locate the stories to which the lines referred. But in doing so I noticed (thanks to some prompting) that each line of the inventory was exactly the same length. Exactly 60 keystrokes.
On top of that, the inventory is separated into three blocks, two of them consisting of 60 lines and the last one of just 59. The "great compendium," as Perec called it, thus consists of three squares, the last one slightly defective.