Sunday, August 23, 2015

A View of DFW From Israel: Assaf Gavron on David Foster Wallace

I’ve been thinking about David Foster Wallace a lot lately -- catalyzed by the release of the movie End of the Tour, reading David Lipsky’s book on which it is based, and re-reading some of DFW’s pieces, both fiction and non-fiction.  When I read about Wallace and his all-too-short life, I feel sad -- but when I read Wallace himself, I don’t feel that way at all; rather, intensely stimulated by his intellect and humor. It was natural to me, given my other interests, to wonder if Wallace had ever been translated into Hebrew. He would be a challenge to translate into any language, since his style incorporates so much idiomatic American speech.  Judging from this article,  a few books of his have indeed appeared in Hebrew translation (all after his death), though no one (apparently) has yet taken on the task of rendering Infinite Jest into Hebrew.

That doesn’t mean that DFW has no admirers in Israel, however.  The above cited Wikipedia article has a link to an appreciation of Wallace that appeared shortly after his death, written for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth by the novelist, musician, and translator Assaf Gavron, which appeared on October 3, 2008.  Since we have a natural interest in views of American letters from abroad, I have undertaken to render this piece of Gavron’s into English, which I give below. Occasional short comments from me are in square brackets.  Footnoted comments by me are signaled by asterisks.


David Foster Wallace has not been translated into Hebrew [no longer true--EMC] and it is reasonable to assume that he never will.  For this reason, his suicide two weeks ago, in contrast to the flood of eulogies and memorials overseas, passed here in complete silence. 

For several years I tried to interest at least five publishers in Israel in putting out his long article “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again,” from the collection of the same name. I called. I had meetings.  I sent the book. One of the publishers, it doesn’t matter which one, even lost my copy, so I bought another one. I said, “This is the funniest thing you will ever read in your lives.” I said: “You will cry, it’s so funny.”  I said: “This guy, you just don’t ....” They didn’t go for it. No one other than me (and I don’t have the means, although I swore that I would do it when I did) wanted to bring out in Hebrew David Foster Wallace’s impressions of his voyage in a luxury cruise ship in the Caribbean, impressions written originally for the periodical Harper’s and published there serially [actually not serially-EMC] in the ‘nineties.

For starters, allow me to give you a short paragraph, footnote 53 of the text, and it doesn’t matter what the footnote refers to: *

53 This is counting the Midnight Buffet, which tends to be a kind of lamely lavish Theme-slash-Costume-Partyish thing, w/ Theme-related foods--Oriental, Caribbean, Tex-Mex--and which I plan in this essay to mostly skip except to say that Tex-Mex Night out by the pools featured what must have been a seven-foot-high ice sculpture of Pancho Villa [the Hebrew translation actually reads “a famous Mexican general”] that spent the whole party dripping steadily onto the mammoth sombrero of Tibor, Table 64's beloved and extremely cool Hungarian waiter, whose contract forces him on Tex-Mex Night to wear a serape and a straw sombrero with a 17" radius53a and to dispense Four Alarm chili [Hebrew paraphrases as: “spicy chili”] from a steam table placed right underneath an ice sculpture, and whose pink and birdlike face on occasions like this expressed a combination of mortification and dignity that seem somehow to sum up the whole plight of postwar Eastern Europe.
53a (He let me measure it when the reptilian [rendered as “lowly”] maitre d' wasn't looking.)

This is just a small sample, but it is pure David Foster Wallace. The footnote, the footnote-within-a-footnote, an entire paragraph which is only one breathless sentence, a description of a static scene that somehow, from buffet meals on a luxury cruise, gets to the political situation in postwar Eastern Europe -- and, most importantly, the humor.

I first encountered (the works of) David Foster Wallace in January 1997, in a big bookstore in New York. On a table there was a giant pile of copies of a giant book by the name of Infinite Jest. This was the edition in soft cover of the book that had come out in the previous year. The picture of the author, 34 years old at the time, the pure chutzpah of a writer at such an age putting out a 1079-page novel, the flood of reviews from all the important newspapers, and several sentences that I sampled at random from the book -- all these convinced me to buy it.

I don’t remember a lot from that first reading. I remember that it continued through some long nights. I remember superfluous pages, arcane descriptions, but I remember most of all excitement and amazement. I remember laughing out loud. What is certain is that the experience of reading Infinite Jest was enough to cause me to buy and read every word that Foster Wallace had published.

Infinite Jest is a funny novel, full of imagination and excitement, about a tennis academy in North America in the not-too-distant future (if I am not mistaken 2011, that is, 20 years from the time that the novel was written). It is also about Alcoholics Anonymous, Quebecois freedom fighters, differential equations and more. It is a parody of an America addicted -- to drugs, alcohol, sports, sex, entertainment and more, bubbling with humor and creative energy.

Infinite Jest tested the infinite possibilities of the novel.  Wallace broke down the format and put it back together again in unexpected ways.  He wrote sentences several pages in length.  He switched from style to style.  He turned the footnotes (which take up almost 100 pages of the 1079) from a tedious academic tool to a creative and sexy technique.

The contemporaries of Foster Wallace, like Jonathan Franzen (who was his best friend), Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Michael Chabon and others, noticed these experiments , used them as a template, and refined them,  for novels which were more coherent, more accessible, and shorter, easier for people to buy and easier for literary juries to award prizes to. I would like to think that I too learned a thing or two from Infinite Jest, both in fiction and in experiential journalism.

Infinite Jest was to be his last novel**. He had published a novel before it, as well as a collection of short stories, and after it two more collections.  Although his rare talent was evident, the last story collections (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion) were uneven, and went in darker and gloomier directןons. They include, along  with flashes of brilliance, some absurd stories that were in part unreadable. Other than fiction, Foster Wallace, as noted, published a few collections of essays that had previously appeared in all of the important periodicals in the US.

He maintained that journalism was not suitable for his style (for example as a writer who does not believe in limitations of space and word count), but evidently he was wrong.  Among his brilliant essays there are profound analyses of cooking lobsters, tennis (he was a professional*** player at the youth level), mathematics, and a visit to the State Fair in Illinois, the place of his birth.****

Concerning the experience of watching the tennis player Roger Federer he wrote for the New York TImes, “It was impossible. It was like something out of ‘The Matrix.’ I don’t know what-all sounds were involved [rendered in Hebrew as “what sounds came out of my throat”], but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs [rendered as “eyeballs from the all-for-a-dollar store”].”

David Foster Wallace was not the greatest or most successful writer of his generation.  But he was perhaps the most impressive.  Daring, intellectual, pure, uncompromising, exciting, and a comic genius. His experiments were a catalyst for many writers who were very distant from him.

Foster Wallace suffered from clinical depression.  Last summer he stopped using a particular medication because of severe side-effects, and from that point on his condition grew steadily worse. On Friday, September 12, he hanged himself.

*All quotations from DFW are given in the original English. The footnote from “Fun Thing” is from page 296 of the paperback edition.

**The Pale King was published posthumously in 2011.

***He was not a professional,but was a regional youth league player.

****Actually, he was born in Ithaca, N.Y., but was raised in Illinois. 

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