Portrait of a reader driven by horror vacui

There is a fascinating feature in today’s New York Times Magazine by Jack Hitt about John Kidd, a James Joyce scholar who “disappeared” two decades ago. The article, titled “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar,” initially focuses on Kidd’s very-public (for academia, anyway) fight with Hans Walter Gabler. Gabler claimed to have produced a corrected version of Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, and Kidd delighted at picking apart his “corrected version,” exposing minute errors to the literary world. As the article progresses though, Hitt draws a compelling portrait of Kidd as a kind of highly-artistic reader of encyclopedic literature driven by extreme horror vacui, fear of the void. A couple of paragraphs from late in the essay, in which Kidd explains his translation of The Slave Isaura  (after the pair has escaped some knife-wielding thugs):

One day, Kidd and I got up early to make our way to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, where he works. Crossing a vacant square beneath an aqueduct, we suddenly realized that five men with knives were tailing us; soon, they were chasing us. Kidd, a former high school sprinter, grunted a suggestion — run! — and we poured out our best 100-yard dash to a nearby food cart. Street vendors, Kidd explained later, collect money all day and are typically armed and tough. As we sailed under the cart’s umbrella, our churrasquinho-monger stepped up beside us and glared. The thugs melted away.

Inside the refuge of the academy, Kidd keeps a permanent cubicle occupied by a big old PC and a few books. For years he has been working on the first English edition of the novel “The Slave Isaura.” Kidd is translating the 19th-century book with a few rules he felt compelled to devise. The work will be in two parts, and every word in Part 1 will have its lexicographic partner in Part 2. If “cat feet” appears in Part 1, expect “cattail” in Part 2. His sense of what pairs up can get quite intricate, but that’s part of the fun, he told me. So he maintains lists of all the possible pairings and where and whether he has used one: six foot, six foot under, footing, foothills, footloose, footprint. There is a logic to the work, and the part I read resounded with the baroque tone you might expect of a translation that will obey his other rule: It will use every word exactly once.

Already, the work is nearly twice as plump as Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Kidd was particularly excited to show me his key apparatus — the homemade thesaurus where he keeps a running crosscheck on the entirety of the English language. So far, it runs to some 3,000 pages.

“As much as humanly possible, the 19th-century dictionary of English is in here,” he told me. His translation is titled “Isaura Unbound,” and he wanted me to understand its ambition: When the book is finished, it will be a complete reordering of one entire English dictionary into a single work of art. Take that, void.


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