Published in 2021, Rod Mengham’s Midnight in the Kant Hotel is a retrospective piece, looking back on the art world after some twenty years as a curator (fifteen of them at Cambridge’s Jesus College). It’s a series of essays covering different themes and artists across that period: it introduces itself as a book about time, about the way that our relationship to art changes as we grow and develop. “Layering your perception of a painting or a sculpture through acquaintanceship confirms one thing at least – that in your own life experience, what really gives substance and complexity to individual artworks comes out of the history of your relationship with them.” I wanted to touch briefly on a passage in the first essay, where Mengham is discussing how the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois explored domestic space.
“Against the supposition of Robert Frost that good fences make good neighbours, Bourgeois opposes the sentiment that good fences are obsolete. Her installations reconfigure the moment of invasion, the capitulation of the private, yet re-present the moment, restage it endlessly, rendering it inescapable. Bourgeois’s art is meant to confront fear and rebuild trust, yet the restoration of a perimeter, the repair of all the breaches in the fabric, is a work that is ravelled and unravelled repeatedly, like Penelope’s weaving.”
The style is what you expect from a Cambridge don: you wouldn’t be surprised, for example, to learn that this first chapter deals with Bourgeois, the Russian-American artist Ilya Kabakov and Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 sculpture House in less than ten pages. The references in this passage – both Robert Frost and the Odyssey crammed into the same breath – are almost de rigueur. You’d be disappointed not to see that sort of behaviour. In a sense, then, it’s not a unique or special passage – it’s representative of the broader chapter, and the book as a whole. I’m only really tugging it out because it sent me somewhere else.
In 2020, Michael Cooperson, a translator and professor of Arabic at UCLA, published Impostures, a startling translation of al-Hariri’s twelfth century Maqamat. The Maqamat is in the vein of Arabian Nights, in that it’s a collection of loosely related short tales – but it’s much more built around wordplay. So for example al-Hariri wrote the 28th tale (of 50) without using dotted letters, which means he avoided about half the Arabic alphabet. For obvious reasons, the Maqamat has never really been considered translatable – we’ve got literal translations, of course, bringing across the basic sense, but it’s difficult to preserve the linguistic fireworks that make up the heart of the original Arabic text. That’s where Impostures is special: Cooperson translates each of the tales in a different dialect or vernacular, or with a different constraint, conveying a sense of the linguistic range and power of the original by establishing that range in his own right. It’s a fascinating case study of the act of translation, of what it means to bring across the spirit rather than just the literal sense of the words. For the 28th tale, for example, Cooperson obviously can’t reproduce the exact practice of avoiding dotted letters; instead, he imitates the style of George Perec’s 1969 La Disparition, a French novel famously written without using the letter ‘e’. It works as well because the main character of the Impostures is a trickster and a shapeshifter, someone always appearing in various guises and performing absurd linguistic acrobatics – so the whole thing hangs together around this deliberately performative style that does much more to evoke the spirit of the original than any plodding literal version.
The dust jacket of Cooperson’s Impostures has a promotional quote from Esther Allen, another translator who won a 2017 award for her translation of the Argentinian novel Zama. Allen describes Impostures as a “wild romp through languages and literatures, places and times, that bears out and celebrates Borges’s dictum: ‘Erudition is the modern form of the fantastic.'” That is exactly how erudition functions in Mengham’s book. As a memoir, Midnight in the Kant Hotel translates lived experience into historical record. Like A Moveable Feast, it becomes fantastical as it moves through time, as its readership increasingly and inevitably becomes those who weren’t there to see it for themselves. Mengham engages energetically in that act of translation too; in the introduction, for instance, he records his proximity to various movements and art collectives in Poland in the mid 1980s. “If I propped myself up in bed in my two-room flat, my back would be resting against the wall on the other side of which Strzeminski gave lessons fifty years ago.” The erudite references are part of that package. They give continuity to Mengham’s experiences, grounding them in a shared heritage of art and literature. He draws a thread from his time in Łódź to Virgil to 193 Grove Road: it’s all one community, he suggests, one people, with their works speaking back and forth to each other across time. Erudition is a rhetorical method used to construct this imagined community: each connection or reference not only brings one artist directly into dialogue with another, but also gestures towards the greater communal web – towards the implied community, towards the canon. It’s a tool of mythmaking, a way to give meaning and coherence to the ongoing artistic endeavour. It is, as in Borges’s dictum, the modern form of the fantastic.
Erudition in Impostures has some similar basic functions. It’s a rhetorical gesture that speaks to the depth and breadth of the English language, unifying its literary and linguistic modes across time. As one text in fifty styles, it insists on the relationship between those disparate parts. And yet there’s an underlying ambivalence that doesn’t exist in Mengham’s work. In Impostures, the linguistic games are carried out by a huckster, by the trickster figure of Abu Zayd, who’s always after a quick bit of money or a way to get out of trouble. They’re adopted insincerely, for convenience, for play. They are impostures, acts of pretence and deception. The erudition of Impostures‘ construction is impressive, but it takes on some of that same tincture. It’s not a full-throated act of mythmaking, it’s a distraction. It’s a linguistic game deployed to hide the lack of unity at the core. Where Midnight insists on the continuous artistic tradition, bridging the gap between Frost and Virgil in a couple of sentences, Impostures is the work of a translator – someone only too aware that these different works are maybe not as connected as we’d like to think. Impostures isn’t identical to the Maqamat. It’s a translation – not the same work but a new work, an artist’s impression of the inaccessible original. So too with Impostures‘ stylistic adoption of Woolf, Dickens and Shakespeare – not genuine instances of the original works, but translations, masks, impersonations in lieu of the real thing. Not unity – just its appearance. Impostures isn’t the Maqamat. The gulf between them can’t be crossed. The best we can have is a clever impersonation.