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Michael Cunningham, The Hours and Jaime Zulaika

Last Monday we had with us Jaime Zulaika Goikoetxea, literary translator mostly from English, but also modern Greek, Italian and French. He kindly accepted our invitation to chat about the world of translation, Michael Cunningham and of course, “The Hours”.

Thank you, Ágnes Fiser-Nagy for the photo!!!

About Our Guest

Comparing with most people this days, Jaime keeps quiet on the social media and anyone looking online for any information about him may be seriously dissapointed. One thing that is clear is that he has a brother, Jesus Zulaika, who followed into his footsteps and also became a translator. It may stay a mistery how it happens, that two brothers both decide to become translators, but there is no doubt Jaime loves literature and reading and that is a for sure a key that allows him to do his work so well!

In a TV programme Nostromo, he once said: “La traduccion es fundamentalmente escribir. Traducir es escribir, pero escribir con partitura” (Translation is basically writing. To translate is to write, but to write with a music score). During our meeting he has explained that the most important part is knowing perfectly well the language you are translating to.

There is no doubt his knowledge of Spanish surpases that of avarage people. Not surprisingly, he is also a writer: an author of Astarté, a novel published in 1980 has not published anything since, but has revealed that he is currently finishing a project that we certainly hope to read one day.

At the moment Jaime Zulaika is working with Anagrama and among many authors he has translated Ian McEwan, John Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Sarah Waters, Jonathan Franzen, Michel Houellebecq, James Salter, Martin Amis, Truman Capote, John Updike, Philip Roth. It is only natural to wonder, which of them did he enjoy translating most and why. Hovewer, the answer seems not to be that easy. Those who definitely were recommended to us, after some pressing and insiting, were McIwan and Julian Barnes. We've already read McIwan in past in Donostia Book Club, Julian Barnes should make our 2017 reading list!

Some of us were also very curious how we can know if it's the translation that fails or simply the author of the original was not that good. Unfortunately there is no trick for that. What we've discovered is that sometimes editorials pressure translators a bit to improve their translations, if they're too close tp the original that lacks in quality. Yikes! That's a little bit disturbing to know!

Michael Cunningham's Bio

We had only 1,5 hour to grill Jaime on so many topics! After these short introduction we moved to Michael Cunningham and his biography. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on Nov. 6th 1952 to Don and Dorothy Cunningham. Due to his father´s work in advertising the family was always on the move, until they finally settled in Pasadena, California when Michael was 10. He received his B.A. (bachelor of arts) in English literature from Stanford University and his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa.

His first short story, “Cleaving” was published in 1981 in Atlantic, his first novel “Golden States” in 1984. Both focused on exploration of American family. He gained critical acclaim in 1990 for the novel A Home at the End of the World, which is quite ironic as that was the work that was supposed to prove to his romantic partner, Ken Corbett, that he's not a marketable writer. It was also turned into a film. Flesh and Blood, another novel, followed in 1995. His work appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, Esquire, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Vogue, and Metropolitan Home. His story "White Angel" was chosen for Best American Short Stories 1989. Michael Cunningham received the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award, both for The Hours. He currently lives in New York City and apart from writing, teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College.

Although Cunningham is gay and was (is?? it would be about 28-30 years together now and we pondered a bit on this one, but there is no clue if they continue together or not) in a long-term domestic partnership with psychoanalyst Ken Corbett, he dislikes being referred to as a gay writer. While he often writes about gay people, he does not "want the gay aspects of [his] books to be perceived as their single, primary characteristic." It's quite curious, because as Jaime has shared with us, during his short promotional visit to Barcelona he was mostly interested in visiting known gay clubs and not so interested in talking about books.

The Hours”

There is no doubt that The Hours (1998) was strongly inspired by Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Originally Cunningham wanted the book to be the modern, rewritten version of Mrs. Dalloway. But somehow writing about just one character seemed to be to dull. He said in one of the interviews: “I thought about contrasting this day in the life of my reimagined Clarissa with this day in the life of Virginia. So then it was a diptych, and it still felt a little thin, like a conceit. And I got into one of those black moods: oh, this was a mistake, it isn't working out, it's a tinselly little experiment that'll be swept away by time." And then his mother popped into his daydream in the form of Laura Brown, probably his greatest achievement in terms of character. The frustrated housewife with suicidal impulses whom Cunningham created as the third moves through her life in 1950s LA with that sense of disappointed expectation, the shallowness of all things and its flip side, the sudden flights of joy and inexplicable wonderment that underpins the novel. He based the character on his mother, who he thought would be delighted. She was not. "She tried to put a cheerful face on it, but I think she felt indicted and betrayed; mothers, don't raise your children to be novelists." In the same interview he continues: "I realised that part of my attachment to Clarissa Dalloway, and to Virginia Woolf, stemmed from my sense that my mother was a little like an Amazon captured and trapped and sent to live a life that was too small for her. Although she was someone who wasn't really happy just keeping the house, she was obsessive about the house. She could spend all day looking for the perfect cocktail napkins. I began to think, if you take away the result, the end product, mom and Virginia Woolf had something in common; they were both women devoted to an ideal, to the image of impossible perfection, and Virginia Woolf was trying to write great books, and did. Mom was just trying to make a great cake."
So what about the similarities between both novels? The most obvious is the title: originally planned by Virginia for Mrs. Dalloway, survived in her drafts and notes to be finally taken by Cunningham. Both books embark the events of one day only, in case of Cunningham's novel one day for each of three female characters. The main technique, visible in both is stream of consciousness, although in The Hours it's not as heavy and difficult to follow, it's definitely broken by dialouges and first person narration in many parts. The content itself also bares many similarities: both Clarissas, flowers, parties, a glimpse of a celebrity while on errands and Sally in both books as a partner for Clarissa (in Mrs Dalloway only a desired one, in The Hours the relatioship is fullfilled). Stolen kisses appear not only in both novels, but also in each story in The Hours: Virginia and her sister, Laura and her neighbour and Clarissa and Richard vs. original Clarissa and Sally. That are actually scenes that mark one of the main focuses of the novel: the courage to follow one's dreams and desires.
Woolf’s suicide in “The Prologue” is very significant. It, in a way, shows how she can't see herself following her dreams, how her illness stops her from achiving what she wants. Michael Cunningham depicts Woolf as a woman who fights against her insanity and who creates her famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway, which takes place on one day of 1923. In Cunningham’s depiction, she suffers headaches all the time and faces her dilemmas between life and death. Her suicide influences the other two women’s developments of storylines in the parts of “Mrs. Brown” and “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Compared with Clarissa Vaughan, Virginia Woolf refuses to look in the mirror because of her fear. Woolf is described as a woman who treats herself as a “failed writer,” as Laura Brown regards herself a “failed housewife.” On the other hand, Clarissa reflects that people must be disappointed with how plain and shallow her life is. All of them feel and overwhelming sense of failure. In “The Prologue,” we read: “She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric”. Even Richard Brown in the part, “Mrs. Dalloway,” also believes that he has failed. We can say that Virginia Woolf is in the process of writing the novel. Laura Brown is in the process of reading the novel. And Clarrisa Vaughn (nicknamed by Richard Mrs. Dalloway) seems to be in the process of "re-living" the novel. All three stories are interwinding and creating an “overall” story. There are many ways to interpret it, same as many topics to point out as the most important ones. I would love to hear your interpretation. Please share it in comments or send me an email!

Also, I recommend strongly the film "The Hours" (2002). As Cunningham has said: "I may be the only living American novelist who is entirely happy with what Hollywood has done to his novel. I naturally feel slightly embarrassed about that. I worry that if I were a more substantial person, Id be outraged. And yet, they did a remarkable job.". But what to expect from a picture with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman? It's a true masterpiece!