Saturday, October 20, 2012
David Mitchell: By the Book
Published: October 18, 2012 - New York Times
The author of “Cloud Atlas” would like to drink dodgy Crimean wine with Chekhov and play a few rounds of Anglo-Russian Scrabble.
“Postwar,” by the historian Tony Judt; David Finkel’s account of U.S. forces in Iraq, “The Good Soldiers”; and a proof of Nadeem Aslam’s new book, “The Blind Man’s Garden,” which I haven’t started yet. Plus my notebook, in case a decent idea ambushes me after turning out the light.
What was the last truly great book you read?
The Icelander Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,” which I read last year on a trip to the country. Even in chapters where nothing happens, it happens brilliantly. I thought Kevin Powers’s “The Yellow Birds” was shot through with greatness, too. If “a truly great book” implies thickness and scope, then maybe it doesn’t qualify, but either way Powers has written a superlative novel.
And the worst or most disappointing thing you’ve read recently?
I’d rather not put the boot in publicly — it spoils my day when I’m on the receiving end.
Where do you get your books, and where do you read them?
If the book is still in print and from a mainstream publisher, I’ll use my local bookshop here in Clonakilty in West Cork; I’ll Amazon it if I’m after something more oddball from, say, the University of Hawaii Press; or use AbeBooks if it’s out of print or print-on-demand. I like to browse the bookshelves of charity shops in university towns, in case serendipity hands me something wonderful I had no idea I wanted. Up to 10 proofs a week wriggle through my letterbox from editors and publishers (even though I’ve stopped blurbing), and occasionally there’s a well-chosen diamond.
What’s it like to see “Cloud Atlas” turned into a movie? Any major changes in the transition that threw you off?
First, there’s a primal wow to be had from seeing your characters walking and talking, larger than life, played by faces I’ve known for much of my life. Second, there’s a slower-burning pleasure in merely thinking of your story being out in the world, trickling into minds, wherever there are cinemas. Then, inevitably, the film gets lost in the hurly-burly of life, and I don’t think about it at all, at least until the next interview.
None of the major changes the film made to my novel “threw me off” in the sense of sticking in my craw. I think that the changes are licensed by the spirit of the novel, and avoid traffic congestion in the film’s flow. Any adaptation is a translation, and there is such a thing as an unreadably faithful translation; and I believe a degree of reinterpretation for the new language may be not only inevitable but desirable. In the German edition of my last novel, my translator Volker Oldenburg rendered a rhyming panoramic tableau by rescripting the items in order to make it rhyme in German too. He judged that rhythm mattered more than the exact items in the tableau, and it was the right call. Similarly, when the Wachowskis and Tykwer judged that in a translation (into film) of “Cloud Atlas” Zachry’s and Meronym’s future needs more certitude, then I trusted them to make the right call. They want to avoid melodrama and pap and cliché as much as I do, but a film’s payoff works differently to a novel’s payoff, and the unwritten contract between author and reader differs somewhat to the unwritten contract between filmmaker and viewer. Adaptations gloss over these differences at their peril.
There is one brief scene where the directors continue a character’s story arc further than I imagined, in the case of Cavendish. This extension feels so right that I’ve incorporated it into the book I’m working on, making it “canonical” so to speak. Here’s hoping the Wachowskis won’t object. . . .