Translation is radical politics: an interview with Max Porter

Updated: Jun 15





Max Porter is a bookseller turned acclaimed author. His 2015 debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, was an intense hybrid of poetry, prose, rude jokes, the work of Ted Hughes, examination questions, and anything else that fit. It won the Dylan Thomas Prize and was followed by Lanny and The Death of Francis Bacon. Long a supporter of collaboration and translation, he has worked in the theatre with Cillian Murphy and curated the Cheltenham Literature Festival. He spoke to our editor, James Appleby.

We’re here at the Spotlight on Catalan Culture at the London Book Fair. What does Catalan culture mean to you?

You know, I used to be an editor. And the London Book Fair was frenetic, chock-a-block, business-business, books-as-products mayhem. So to be here on a very specific mission to celebrate Catalan literature – yeah, it’s a real treat.

My experience of being published in Catalan has been one of my most joyful. I have a huge amount of affection for the place and for the publishing community there. Conversations with my Catalan translator are some of the best I’ve had with any translator. It’s the attention to detail. Crow in their version of Grief is the Thing with Feathers is distinctly Catalan. He swears more. He’s got a slightly punky vibe about him.

I know you have an affinity for Irene Solà’s When I Sing, Mountains Dance.

One goes into slumps with reading… I’ve got seven hundred proofs in my hallway and I felt very thinly spread. Out of nowhere comes this spell song, know what I mean? This swirling, sexy… like, wild, creepy… explosion of what seems to me the good stuff. The true stuff. Especially in its concerns with deep time, the relationship between humans and the landscape, and between humans and the non-human. There was a moment when I thought it might’ve been written for me as a present.

I thought it might touch on your interest in animism. What was it? The roe deer? The bear?

I liked the roe deer! I liked the bear! I think it was the mountain. The mountain saying, Don’t talk about me! And then here’s a little more about me… It was the humour. The self-deprecation of the various voices. I won’t bore you with my poetry but here’s one of the best poems ever written. I just thought that was such a deft touch in a book that is celebrating so many romantic traditions and tropes. To slide that affectionate satire in… it’s just genius.

Maybe we could talk a little about Francis Bacon, whose death is the subject of your most recent book. The triptych is something you return to. Why do you find this form so attractive?

I mean, it’s perfect structure. It’s perfect form. It’s an invitation to collaboration but also an untouchable solidity. It teaches you a great deal about how to look and how to pattern. To have a central image whose complexity is buried in its relationship with the things either side of it… that seems to me a pretty good definition of what it’s like to grow up with brothers and sisters, or what it’s like to be in a marriage. I dunno – I just love books that are written in three. Even when I’ve tried not to write books using the number three, I keep on doing it. I wrote two novels last year that ended up being discarded or repurposed. They were triptychs, as well. It’s the magic number, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s the fact that the triptych allows me to put back into literature some of the energies of music or art. It’s pretty central to why I write. And when it comes to Francis Bacon… I think those paintings are something like the most bombastic creations in the history of Western painting. Because of the technical feat but also the sheer theatricality… and the size: just bigger than human. I think they’re riveting, repellent, complex, gorgeous.

Watching interviews with Bacon this morning, I was interested to hear him speak about preparatory sketches. In one interview, Oh yeah, really important for me. In another, I’ve never done them in my life. What about your own preparation?

I prepare less than I used to – but only because I have permission to write now. So rather than feeling nervous and awkward, taking a notebook into my bedroom, scrawling and doodling and trying to get somewhere, now I can just open a blank page and get where I want to go. I’m getting better at knowing when I should bin something… when something is fraudulent or lazy.

The thing about Bacon and his preparatory sketches is that he was a bullshitter. I used to be very judgemental of that, but I’m more patient with it now – you’re required to bullshit a bit. If you’re asked, Where did the idea for Lanny come from? one hundred and seventy times over the course of six months, by the end you’re like, I don’t know. I dreamt it.

But Bacon was hugely sensitive to the accusation that he was never a good draughtsman, and so the spontaneity of the paint or the violence of the image is a repost to what he deemed to be taken more seriously, that is, the perfect draughtsman. So maybe in the lie we most often tell is the inadequacy we feel most deeply – I dunno.

What about Alice Oswald? What’s her influence on your work?

I really like her. I like that she doesn’t do any of the crap. I like that she’s completely free of ego in a world where… like, the stench of poets’ egos… Alice is just refreshingly detached from that. But I believe in the poet as a figure with an almost shamanistic value to our society. And when I revisit those early books of her, I am still knocked – physically knocked – into emotional clarity by the potency of the line. And I can only say that about one or two writers. There’s never a wasted or lazy word in her poetry. She’s special.

Ted Hughes is another poet you come back to. I wondered which Ted Hughes you most enjoy. Is it the early work, like The Hawk in the Rain? Or Crow, with its influence on Grief is the Thing with Feathers?

I went through a phase last year of being amazed again by his prose… rereading Winter Pollen like, What an essayist! And as a progressive environmental campaigner, we could really do with him now. As an educationalist, he was way ahead of his time. And my God, the letters! He was a master of the long-term friendship. Ted Hughes – lecturing, farming, shagging, being a bastard, and whatever he was up to – at the end of the day, he takes the time to write a twelve-page letter articulating trickster themes to a scholar he doesn’t know… [Laughs]. But, to answer your question, if you put a gun to my head and tell me to take a Hughes book from the shelf, it’s River.

And I go back to those bloodthirsty chunks at the end of Tales from Ovid. I just think there’s a lightness of touch that comes from him not being a classicist. There’s a sort of… springy, boisterous energy in them that makes them some of the best translations around.

And translation between forms? How was it to work with an actor like Cillian Murphy?

We did a film last year that started as a piece of paper between us – then suddenly we were shooting in the middle of London at 3AM – and the words truly no longer belonged to me. They were stone-cold unrecognisable. I love it when my work is taken apart in front of my eyes. It shows my own work back to me in a way that no editorial process ever could.

Translation is radical politics. One of the problems with the book industry is that we’re dealing with a three-hundred-year-old model of production. And no one really talks about the elephant in the room: that Amazon owns it all, apart from a little bit of activity on the edges. We need to have a conversation about how our content is related to other forms and what happens to it when it becomes a product.

Tell me about a very different way of making and sharing: carpentry.

It’s envy. [Laughs.] Pure envy. One’s sense of inadequacy when one meets craftsmanship that would take a lifetime to master… And I’m a tree-worshipper. In Somerset, near me, you see these trees clinging to a hillside: monstrous, gnarled sea monsters of old ash and oak. My obsession is the ash. It’s an endless analogy for human experience – a refugee tree, sick, and potentially gone quite soon.

I have to ask – what about Shy, your upcoming novel?

Here’s my analogy for it at the moment – and I guess I’ve got a year to make it better. You put a pin at random in a map, and you find yourself in a forest, and in that forest is a million trees, and you choose one tree, and you chop it open to find one ring, and you choose just three hours from that ring, from that life cycle, and you burrow into as much detail as possible of agony and hope and rage, and that happens to be the life of a teenage boy in 1995. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked.

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Find out more about Max Porter on his Faber page or follow him on Twitter @maxjohnporter

Photo credit: Francesca Jones