By Everett Mull
Translated by Cecily Killen
ISBN 01411.81266; Hardcover $25.00
Review by Allen Roberts
It is a great event when new use can be given to a poorly understood but widely owned and discussed text, in some cases nearly as great as the creation of the work itself. There are certain works that have eluded the shallowest interpretation from the moment of their breathlessly ambitious publication, books doomed to pass from grandfather to grandson as artifacts, impenetrable objects, mouldering in musty attics and in the collective consciousness of all those who have but once lifted a serene fly page and been faced with structure, sentences, words and runes, all indecipherable. Everett Mulls life-work, known in literary circles as Space (a more sedate reduction of Space: The Final Frontier, the waggish working title used by former Dartmouth professor Charles Huffman in his groundbreaking 1965 analysis of the text) has been, for fifty years, just such a burden on the nervous minds of the literary world. The text has, until now, laid bare the feebleness of the academic community; it is a monolith against which the finest talents of a generation of critics have dashed themselves to splinters, their own deconstruction turned back upon them. At long last, though, our Joan has arrived, bringing with her the prophecy of, if not victory, at least the hope of battle rejoined. Cecily Killen has finally produced a long-awaited translation of Space, and while the specter of Mulls unreadable original manuscripts has not been vanquished, Killens circumnavigation of the text will provide much-needed rest for those academics blessed with foggy memories or lax principles, or for those simply too exhausted from the struggle to carry on. This translation is a truly humanitarian act; a Pyrrhic victory is not yet a defeat.
The original work, by the most accurate accounts, was under construction almost continuously beginning in 1903 and continuing right up to its first and only publication in 1950. Mull, while not a strict recluse, led a solitary life in a two-room house in the Germany Valley, West Virginia, eating and canning vegetables from a sizable garden and so remaining mostly self-sufficient. A terse diary, comprised mostly of notations on each days activities, shows that during the forty-seven years commented on, Mull composed nearly every day. It is assumed that all of this effort was exerted on Space, a likely case if one considers the enormous volume and intricacy of the work; no other manuscripts have been discovered on the exhaustive excavations of Mulls house and property. Mull had one close friend, Buck Marshall, who lived six miles north in his and Mulls boyhood town of Riverton. Mull visited Marshall once a year, on the summer solstice, and on his last visit before his death in 1951, Mull entrusted Marshall with a handwritten manuscript and a specially carved set of typesetting dies, engraved with thirty-three unique symbols corresponding to the marks found in the manuscript. In the same visit, Mull asked where he might make an audio recording; local evangelist Ward Angeley generously offered the use of the low-wattage radio station attached to his church (the steeple and cross doubled as the transmitter) and in two sessions each on June 23 and 24, 1951 Mull committed to tape what are now known as the Apostolic Recordings, consisting of over ten hours of vocal sounds which share the rhythms and inflection of speech but which are not discernable as any known language. In the eyewitness accounts of Angeley and Marshall, recorded in multiple interviews with Huffman during the early sixties, both men insist that Mull was reading from his manuscript, and Marshall, after some scrutiny, was able to determine the page on which Mull began reading, significantly at the start of the works central book known as the Saros. This set of recordings is the Rosetta stone-cum-tabula rasa that has goaded critics and believers alike, infusing the cold face of the cryptic manuscript with the pulsing humanity of spoken words; the two cannot be considered separately, and as a whole they are undismissable.
The brief popularity and continued infamy of Space in the literary community was built on the foundation of these recordings. In them critics found a correlation between the solidity of print and the immediacy of speech that was at least familiar, that of rhythm; the rhythms of the work are indeed beautiful, if bizarre, and this became the context in which the work was integrated into the canon. Theses were written, courses were taught, linguists analyzed and dissected the recordings for any sign of recognizable language: none was found. When naïve undergraduate students raised their hands with questions about theme and content, professors brusquely deferred the question with vehement exhortations for the students to focus, to really feel the rhythms and the abstract perfection of the sounds echoing tinnily from the speakers of institutional tape decks. The academic world was blackmailed, held at knifepoint by a figure as impenetrable as a Mondrian.
No longer. Killens English translation of Space (Killen chose to retain the socially-selected title for clarity) has thrown a gossamer bridge across the rift that Mull tore in the mirrored unity of language. While the difficulties of the translation process have been explored extensively by critics, the task undertaken by Killen exceeded the very boundaries of thought. In an interview with Lillian Borrat, Huffmans protégé and head of English graduate studies at Queens University, Ontario, Killen described the process as shamanistic. I listened to the Apostolics in a continuous loop for three years, wearing a headset until my hair grew intertwined with it. Before writing I would sit up for two days, sleepless, listening and watching the sun fill the room in the morning and drain away at night. I sought to separate my scribbling hand from the taint of myself by bleaching my personality and subduing my mind. I have tried to experience the text as purely as possible; my translation is at best a recording of that experience.
The translation retains all the discernable structures of the original manuscript, seeking to match even the individual word-rhythms as closely as possible. While its length will still be a deterrent for most, the study of the translation is essential; it will revitalize the text like blood rushing into a numb limb, sublimating the lead weight of unreadable pages from thousands of long-suffering bookshelves. The wood creaking with relief: it is nearly palpable.
(Entry by Allen Roberts)