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CONTEST Comment 2: Ozick’s omnibuses

Although not as bus-sized as those of another author she admires, Ozick’s own collections of essays are as authoritative as anyone’s: Art & Ardor (1983), Metaphor & Memory (1989), Fame & Folly (1996), Quarrel & Quandary (2000),Ozick

and, breaking the mold, The Din in the Head (2006), in which the tête-bêche title-piece Continue reading ‘CONTEST Comment 2: Ozick’s omnibuses’

CONTEST Comment 1: Ozick on Openings

Ozick too compares Alter’s opening with the King James.

1611:

In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darknesse was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God mooved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light.’

Continue reading ‘CONTEST Comment 1: Ozick on Openings’

CONTEST! Win the beginning…

ALL’S WELL THAT BEGINS WELL; OR, BEFORE ALTER’S WELTER

From the beginning, the genius of Robert Alter’s Genesis has been roundly, and rightly, resounded, but amidst all the attention the origins of an allusive alliteration have eluded even expert exegesis:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”

While some readers wondered whether “When” (instead of “In”) is the b‘ in b’reshit, reviewers were undivided in finding, “welter and waste”, Alter’s rendering of tohu-vavohu, uniformly–or, rather, unformly–wonderful.

Of all who were astounded by Alter’s achievement, it was another author–and alliterative authority–who offered the most consonant commentary. In an enchanted essay, Cynthia Ozick observed:

What genuinely startles is the inspired coupling of “welter and waste,” with its echoes of Beowulfian alliteration perfectly conjoined, in sound and intent, with the Hebrew tohu-vavohu. A happening of this kind is one translator’s own little miracle; no committee could hope to arrive at it.

Indeed, James Wood compared Alter’s choice favorably to the only committee unworthy of the name:

The King James Version has “without form and void” for Alter’s Anglo-Saxonish “welter and waste”, but Alter, as throughout this massive work, provides a diligent and alert footnote:

“The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility”, and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.”

Alter was not the first to use an “Anglo-Saxonish” alliteration to approximate the rhyming pair. In fact, although nowhere do his notes attest to it, his careful choice of W-words is almost certainly a covert allusion to the first book in any language to translate tohu-vavohu with double Ws. And that is not all: the allusion itself is double. For the words themselves–welter, waste–are a certain allusion, and (although no reviewer I know has noted it) one that can scarcely be called covert, to a well-known English poem.

The first reader to respond with What the first book was, What those W-words were, and, what’s more, Whither Alter is absolutely alluding (that is, to Which poem) will receive a complimentary copy of the first edition of the scarce sefer. It is presumed that anyone answering will already possess the poem.

Send your answers to schoen@schoenbooks.com. (The Comments section will remain closed until the contest is complete.) Commentary concerning the contest and complementary content complimenting Robert Walser coming soon.