The Interpretive Impulse

890px-Las_Meninas,_by_Diego_Velázquez,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth

As a writer of fiction, the act of filling the blank page gives me an exhilarating sense of imaginative freedom. The horizons seem endless. The same must be true for composers and painters.

Yet sometimes I envy the interpretive artist.

Maybe these thoughts have been prompted by listening to András Schiff’s humane and amusing lectures on each of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, an open invitation into a great musician’s workshop. They reveal the mad ambition necessary to record the whole cycle. Beyond mere technical virtuosity and interpretive artistry, the task requires total immersion in the works, years of study and research. But what could be a higher calling than anchoring your creativity to a master?

I think that’s why writers are frequently drawn to the supposedly subservient roles of translator, adaptor, or critic. The impulse to interpret an existing text — in another language, in another medium, or in an essay — represents the desire to be the best kind of reader, to grasp the intimacies of a book’s structure, to know the contours of its sentences. Ray Bradbury showed that impulse at a fantastical extreme in Fahrenheit 451 — the reader who memorises and in essence becomes a book in order to preserve it.

Of course, the Fahrenheit 451 approach is too selfless and too much like religious worship for any kind of creative, critical reader. It is not enough merely to absorb a work of art. The ultimate homage is to re-express the work by filtering it through the self — personalised, recontextualised, embellished, contested. See, for example, Picasso’s obsessive studies of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. This week I visited the Museu Picasso in Barcelona to look again at his forty-five canvases from 1957 that comprehensively analyse, break apart, and remake the forms, motifs, and characters of the original in his own style. Picasso wound up with what he acknowledged would be “a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter.” Nevertheless, it had become Picasso’s Meninas.

Fortunately Velázquez was by then safely in the public domain and available to Picasso’s appropriation and sacrilege. Pablo Katchadjian, a contemporary Argentinean author, has not been so lucky. He has been weighed down with outrageous legal problems since he self-published a chapbook called El Aleph engordado in 2009. He had taken Borges’ classic 1945 story ‘El Aleph’ and, as an experiment, “fattened” it to twice its original length. Borges’s widow, exercising her powers as heir to the copyright, has unrelentingly pursued Katchadjian for his supposed criminal “plagiarism.” Apart from the basic wrongness of the charge and staggering disproportion — the chapbook was published in a mere 200 copies — the legal action ironically demonstrates an indifference to Borges’s influence on successive generations of authors. In effect it advocates banning certain types of critical and creative reading.

It is as absurd to prohibit writers from creatively wrestling with great books as to silence pianists exploring Beethoven. Most writers discover a few crucial books early on that help them understand aspects of worldly experience, furnish them with powerful myths and metaphors, introduce them to characters they come to know as intimately as friends. Consider Orson Welles as a reader. Throughout his career, he returned repeatedly to the same books and, perhaps more importantly, to the same characters as source material for his films, theatre, and radio dramas. He never seemed to want to give up reinterpreting Don Quixote and Falstaff, Moby Dick and The Merchant of Venice, Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen.

As a film critic and historian, I’ve come to specialise in adaptation studies. I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the hand-annotated manuscripts of Welles’s screenplays, many of which were never produced. It has been intimately illuminating hanging out with Welles at the point of his pen, being able to relive his thought processes as a writer. Comparing an original novel or play to its adapted screenplay, I attempt to fathom the reasons behind Welles’s choices. Why this specific change? Why this cut? Why this new and original scene?

Most of Welles’s interpretative choices were designed to re-tell a story cinematically rather than with words. On this point, Welles was a formidable translator. Sometimes Welles argued against the original author’s worldview, as in his 1962 version of Kafka’s Trial. He refused to allow Josef K. to submit meekly to execution “like a dog” because he found it unbearable after the Holocaust. Welles also personalised his source material, incorporated autobiographical elements, and even synthesised different literary touchstones. Welles’s and Oja Kodar’s late 1970s screenplay The Dreamers, for example, adapts two stories by Isak Dinesen about an opera singer named Pellegrina Leoni. Several settings are relocated to places of autobiographical significance to Welles. This includes the Triana neighbourhood of Seville, where Welles had lived as a teenager amid the brothels and the bars. In Triana, Pellegrina briefly becomes an unacknowledged incarnation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, another of Welles’s favourite books which he had attempted to adapt directly for screen and which fed into The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Radically reinventing his beloved books, Welles’s adaptations wound up more personally expressive than his own original stories. Certain books become part of a writer’s inner life. Heirs may own the copyright, but these books belong to us. In turn, we belong to these books. They call for our interpretation.

Edinburgh, December 2017

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