That Skillful But Very Slow Housekeeper

I still remember when Proust’s Swann’s Way opened up for me. Every morning before work I’d sit in Intelligentsia coffee shop on Broadway in Chicago close to the fireplace and dutifully struggle through page after page. Ofttimes I’d realize that I’d been staring at the same paragraph for an indeterminate time, my mind elsewhere. Then I read this:

Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.

Reading it never became easier, but I now had something to look forward to. From that point on, the ritual of the whole business became very dear to me: the fire, the hot coffee, peeling off the slip cover before reading (I owned the Modern Library Edition in hardcover, an indulgence that I’d never permitted myself before).
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Molly Springfield shows a kind of determination though that puts my efforts to shame. On display at Steven Wolf Fine Arts are the fruits of two years of labor. Arranged around the perimeter of the gallery are what appear to be photocopied pages from books on various types of paper but all roughly legal size. The books all show that sad bulge in the middle where the copier lid was pressed down on the spine in an effort to flatten out the text. A closer look reveals that the works in Translation are actually graphite renderings using photocopied pages as a model.

There are 28 in all. Springfield set about reproducing the entire first chapter of Swann’s Way as images, using all five of the existing English translations as sources. That means there are subtle differences from one drawing to the next: the variations in font style and font size are the most obvious, but Springfield includes the unique angle of each book’s placement on the glass, as well as delineating every bit of marginalia, underlining and incidental details like the slip of a bookmark peeking out from between later pages.
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I imagine if Proust’s work carries physical associations for Springfield like it does for me, they are ones of aching muscles and tense shoulders. In an Examiner interview she notes, “In terms of my actual physical process, it’s a little physically painful. I have to get into a zone where I’m kind of doing it, but not reading the text as I go along. It’s sort of like a Zen state.” It must have been maddening to force her brain not to make sense of the words and view them purely as physical objects. In college to take some of the tedium out of notetaking in lecture classes I adopted the habit of reproducing as precisely as I could the professors’ handwriting scrawled on the chalk board. I took a kind of pleasure in the fact that all of my notebooks looked like they had been rendered by multiple hands. Of course, reading them was like seeing the information for the first time.
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On a wall of the side gallery you can find her drafts for the introduction to the book that is to come, when all of the pages are finally gathered up and bound together. They are also a playful array of different fonts with scribbled corrections. Whereas the selection of the sources and the title of the show nudge the observer to draw conclusions of intent and suggest symbolic resonances to the project, I rather enjoy contemplating it for its focus on process and production. The act itself, conceived and then undertaken, is the most interesting aspect of Translation to me. The works themselves almost seem a happy byproduct. In this case the artist is more medium than amanuensis. I wish I could have watched Springfield going about her painstaking business, forming circles and serifs with a careful eye to kerning, while unregarded Proust’s words form their lovely sentences as if by accident.

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