Feministing Reads: Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear

The “death of the author” has long been the subject of endless debate—at least in circles run by literary critics. Whether or not the author is actually dead, the debate goes, should the author’s original intent matter to a critic’s interpretation?

Those who argue it shouldn’t contend that readers share a secret contract with any given text, one that renders the author’s intentions irrelevant. These critics, however, have the luxury of interpreting the text in question after it’s been finalized. Translators do not. A foreign text demands that a second voice speak on its behalf, but the extent to which the translator should conform to an author’s guessed-at intentions is always unclear.

In the afterword to her 2012 translation of The Passion According to GH, the translator Idra Novey describes the difficulties of balancing the ecstatic prosody of the author’s Portuguese with its roughshod approximation in English. Novey translated the novel by the puzzling, lyrical and mysterious Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector decades after the author’s death. “You can ask a question but you don’t get an answer,” Novey writes of translating Lispector posthumously. “The author just stares at you and says nothing and you wonder if the best thing to do would be to get up and run out of the room.”

Book coverThe absent, silent stare of an author dominates the mood of Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, released by Little, Brown and Company in February. The protagonist, a Novey-like translator of Portuguese by the name of Emma Neufeld, navigates the cryptic texts and flighty friendship of Beatriz Yagoda, a popular and Sphinx-like Brazilian writer. But when Yagoda suddenly disappears into an almond tree with a suitcase, Emma wonders whether she knew ever really knew Yagoda to begin with. She doesn’t ask it outright but she questions whether her translations were always an art of parsing ghosts, regardless of whether the ghosts are technically alive.

As in a pulpy adventure-slash-romance novel, Emma soon boards a plane to Brazil to search for her beloved, missing author. There, she is joined by Beatriz’s devoted daughter and unbearably handsome son. The unlikely trio discover that Beatriz had a secret gambling problem, funded by crude gun-toting loansharks—the first of a series of stock characters scattered throughout the novel. With the author in hiding, the debtors soon chase after Emma and Beatriz’s family to get their money back. Meanwhile, Emma ignores her boring boyfriend back in Pittsburgh and falls in love with Beatriz’s son, Marcus. The story is narrated by these multiple characters, which leads it to occasionally read like a collegiate creative writing exercise.

But the novel’s success lies less in its predictable plot and uneven experimentation and more in its reflections on the mysteries and delights of translation and interpretation. When Emma attempts to hide the evidence of having slept with Marcus from her panicked boyfriend, she recalls encountering a similar dilemma in her translation work, known as “domestication.” Domestication, as defined by Novey, is the idea that “a translator could justify moving around the objects in a sentence if it made it easier for her audience to grasp what was going on. She could even change an object into something more familiar to the reader to avoid baffling him with something he wouldn’t understand.” Novey writes that Emma, as a translator, was “experienced enough now to intuitively know what could be moved and what couldn’t — when the location of an object was, in fact, its meaning.”

The problem of where meaning lies and to whom vexes everyone’s attempts to guess the location of the missing author. But Novey plays with this idea of domestication in more than one sense. Emma rebels against the attempts of her boyfriend to dictate the confines of her life. Beatriz Yagoda’s editor consoles himself with his powers to domesticate her latest unfinished manuscript and enigmatic letters, only to discover that he misunderstood its meaning all along. In her unceasing awareness about taking up too much space, Emma also recalls the gendered dimensions of a practice like domesticating. Novey writes, of one particularly tense moment, that “Emma knew the distance—how far to retreat to be respectful yet still present. To remain available yet silent.”

Emma wonders about the limits of the interpretation, asking what it means to know an author’s entire body of work, almost by heart, while at the same knowing so little about that author’s inner biography. “In the nearly ten years that Emma had spent translating Beatriz,” Novey explains, “it had never occurred to her to consider whether her author’s body possessed as many complicated secrets as her fiction did. But why wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it have to?”

In a wondrous scene of the pleasures and perversities of readerly identification, Emma reads Beatriz’s unfinished manuscript for clues to her disappearance. While reading, Emma momentarily imagines herself inhabiting the body of her revered and missing author: “[Emma] imagined Beatriz looking down as she scrubbed her arms, considering her breasts and the ribs visible beneath her skin, remembering who had touched her and where, the men all over Rio who had turned to observe her and her green eyes and had no idea what she would go on to write. Who wouldn’t have cared if they had known.” When Beatriz’s son Marcus finally reads one of his mother’s novels for the first time, he tells Emma that he had “no idea” that “so much of it was about adultery.”

“Well, and also” he adds, “the dream lives of pigeons.”

Beatriz Yagoda’s actual prose, when imagined by Novey, is sublime: “For I know something,” Novey writes as Yagoda, “about the dream life of pigeons. I know their dreams are not unlike the floating thoughts of a woman who’s forgotten herself in a bath. A woman who’s willed herself into a slumber as the water streams, steaming, from the faucet over the full tub and onto the floor, slowly leaking into the room below.”

The novel’s celebration of “the splendor of translation” is occasionally reflexive. In a moderately happy ending to the outlandish story, Emma and Marcus end up together on the beach in Brazil, where Emma has since moved. They see an eccentric woman near the fronds of a palm tree who reminds them both of Beatriz. She is writing in the sand with her toe, “stepping closer to the water with each word.” The waves foam around the woman’s ankles but “she kept on composing, wading in and in, her words beginning to dissolve as she wrote them.”

The relationship between authorial intention and textual meaning ends on this slippery image: is the woman writing, or are these just idle, accidental squiggles on the sand? “Surely she would be reasonable and stop when the water met her knees,” Novey writes of this unruly woman. But to its credit, Novey’s novel stays silent on this question of where the author’s intention ends and the reader’s interpretation begins, on how any woman writer should mean, should be. It ends, instead, with the defiant question: “And if she didn’t? If she kept going?”

Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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