Looking up to her window

In looking for images for the book cover for The Woman in the Window, The Woman in the WindowI stumbled upon something both surprising and depressing at the same time. Most of the images that come up through the various major search engines if you enter “the woman in the window” are of a particular sort. I’m not talking about pornography.

What I was looking for were images in which a man is standing before an imposing facade, probably stone but at least tallish and dark and rather cold looking, from which a woman looks out from a window above. Or there might just be a window but no woman, but we all know that she’s back there somewhere, just as we all know this image in our mind. It’s at least Shakespearean, maybe Medieval, and if you start trying to think of examples from various famous and non-famous books, and then films on top of that, it’s hard to stop. This is where the title of the book comes from.

But it’s hard to find images from that angle. Most of them aregirl-in-window of women at a window but seen from inside, by someone in the room with her. This is not at all the same thing. This was the surprising part.

Why it should be depressing comes from the analysis of one of the treatments of the woman-in-the-window trope that I explore in the book. When Humbert Humbert looks at Lolita at the window, he is in the room with her, swoman-window-24595030pying on her, noting down aspects of his perverse infatuation in tiny scribbles in a notebook that he keeps hidden and locked inside his desk. He looks at her as she leans over the casement, talking with Kenneth Knight, a boy from her class who has exactly the right sort of name to be standing below her window in the traditional pose, and he realizes that he (Humbert) is seeing her somehow incorrectly. It was as if, he admits, he were seeing her through the wrong end of telescope.girl,window,inspiration,back,dark,hair,woman-8e148f1b9d41d95791a0ae830037b577_h

Nabokov was a very smart writer. He knew how to work a trope. He also understood what was gathered up inside this particular one. And he destroys it and all that’s supposedly inside it in his lovely and terrible book. What does it say about our society that looking at her through the wrong end of a telescope, spying on her in effect from inside her room, is no longer perverse but utterly mundane?

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The Man Between the Woman in the Window

Man_Between-front_largeOne of the reasons The Woman in the Window took so long to finish is that I was always working on other things at the same time. I think all seven of the books I’ve translated came out during the time I was writing WiW, suggesting that it might be a very good thing for my translation work to start on another long book project! (Why this is so I’m not exactly sure, but I’ve made a mental note and plan to verify at the first opportunity.)

I’m not going to list the many other projects that germinated and in some instances matured during the same period–it helps me to think of this as a period–because doing so would probably make me feel tired, but one project has the opposite effect. It makes me feel warm and inspired, and it is a volume I co-edited on the life and work of Michael Henry Heim, which is called The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & a Life in Translation.

Heim was my teacher at UCLA, a dear friend, and an academic father for me and many others. He served as a role model translator and public intellectual. His English title for Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a title he fought for against the wishes of the American publisher and the author, serves as the basis for this blog’s subtitle. My variation is just one of hundreds that are currently searchable online, a fact that Sean Cotter, one of the co-editors for the book, has written about at Words without Borders.

Sean and our other co-editor, Esther Allen, put a lot of work into the book, and whatever success it might have is due to their efforts, and of course those of our publisher, the indefatigable Chad Post at Open Letter Books, who first wrote about the project at Three Percent. It will come out, like WiW in October of this year. (I don’t think it is possible to plan to have two books come out in the same month at two different publishers, one beginning with “The Woman…,” the other with “The Man…,” but if there’s a publicist reading this who might find it a happy coincidence, please feel free to drop me a line.)

There will be multiple launches, which are in the works–one at the annual ALTA conference in November, another in New York in, we think, April. Possibly another before that, also in NY, in December. This is a book for anyone who likes to read books about how books are born, especially books that were not born in English until someone like Heim worked his magic.

Dangerous Post-Project Time

I’m remembering a passage from Notes from Underground that I’m choosing right now not to go look up because I’m writing and have put a do-not-disturb sign on my door (which means you, too, Dostoevsky!) in which the U-man wonders if maybe people sometimes put off finishing things on purpose, maybe out of fear, as if completing something might mark the beginning of the end somehow. This struck me as true when I first read it as a youngster, and I still think it is, but like so much else, you see that it’s not that simple when you’ve lived a little more. The Woman in the Window took me a long time to finish, but I also never struggled to do so; I worked on it steadily, turning it this way and that, refining and shifting until I thought it was right and what I had was a shaped whole.

Still, the most difficult time, I think, if not to say the most dangerous one for the project itself, was when I thought I could see the end. Was this on some deep level due to fear? I don’t think so, but it’s not easy to remember everything one feels over, oh, say, a decade or so. What I do remember is the feeling that, at certain moments in the middle, I knew what I was going to write, what I needed to write, that the argument was in a sense laid out in front of me and all I needed to do was “write it up,” as some social scientists sometimes refer to the final part of their research when the data is in, and they just need to conjure up some prose to present it. This is the most wrong-headed idea about writing there ever was, and I certainly wasn’t right in thinking that the argument and the words were somehow out there already and just needed to be put to paper (screen). But it was a palpable sense, and in that way, very dangerous because once you have an inkling of that sort of feeling, it is just a tiny step more to stop writing altogether: the outcome feels known already so why put it down, why go to all that work to slog through putting down something you already (think you) know?

As I say, you don’t know, and it’s a false feeling, and it’s wrong-headed from the start to think of writing as something you use to put down a finished thought and not, what it is, a way of working through the thoughts themselves. This means that a thought, the thing you think you’ve come to understand, changes, develops, matures with each phrase and punctuation mark that you use to try and express it, that the answers to the questions you are working through are never formed until the last revision of the last draft of the last sentence is done. That is your best answer because you’ve finally finished the writing and revising, and you can’t work on it anymore.

Not without a reprint, at least. Or a second edition. Oh, God, will this never end?