Against Translation

A couple of years ago we rented a beautiful apartment in London, a large flat where we must have stayed four or five times. It was perfectly comfortable and perfectly private, and the location, directly behind the British Museum, was ideal for visits to theaters and museums. It was decorated in the taste of a refined gay man of my parents’ generation. It had good Chinese porcelain, carefully chosen oriental rugs, witty French prints. It also contained the kind of photographs which, in that mysterious way, have grown dated without becoming quite old — gently pushed, by an accumulation of tiny changes, into the past. Some minute evolution in eyewear, some invisible reformulation of lipstick, some arcane improvement in cameras, betrayed their age. They did not look ancient. But though I couldn’t say exactly why, I knew that the pretty young bride was now middle-aged, and that a lot of the jolly middle-aged folks at Angkor Wat were now dead.  I also knew, as soon as I walked inside, that the house belonged to an American. I saw this by the shapes and colors of the books on the hallway shelves. It had never occurred to me that American books from the middle part of the twentieth century had such a specific appearance. Few had dust jackets. Their bindings came in serious colors: rusted reds, navy blues, vomity greens. Some were bound in something that looked like floral wallpaper, and that must have looked lovely when fresh; but few made the strenuous effort to be attractive that later books would. Their type was generously spaced. Their paper was sturdy, made of crushed rags.  I was unprepared for them to strike such a chord. Even before I saw the titles or the authors, I knew exactly what this library was. These

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