A Visual Key to Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny

The highly abstract and poetic idiom of Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny can easily obscure its documentary basis: virtually every episode in the novel is based on some historical or visual record. Painting and photography are particularly important to decoding it. Gimferrer has stressed that the reader need not track down all his references, that what is important is the writing’s poetic force. As a reader, that was sufficient for me, but as a translator, I felt a need to better know the text’s background. My editor at Godine and I considered illustrating my translation; in the end, it didn’t happen; but since I still have a folder of images relating to the text, which not only aided my understanding of it, but also gave me an appreciation for the Fortunys and their artistry, I thought I would put this up here, in case anyone else were interested.

Chapter One: The Man in the Turban

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Man With the Turban

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Battle of Tétouan

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Contino

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Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – Self Portrait

Chapter Two: The Outsiders

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Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Chapter 3: The Flower Maidens

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Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – The Flower Maidens

Chapter Four: The Tragedienne

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Eleonora Duse by Vittorio Corcos

Chapter Five: At Palazzo Martinengo

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Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo by Luis de Madrazo

Chapter Six: Villa Pisani

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The Amores statues in Villa Pisani

Chapter Seven: Interlude

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Émilienne d’Alençon

Chapter Eight: Eros’s Mirror

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Study of a Nude by John Singer Sargent

Chapter Nine: A Visit

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Marcel Proust as a Young Man

Chapter Ten: Latitudes

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Condé Nast in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Eleven: Ornithology

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Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies

Chapter Twelve: The Traveler

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Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Chapter Thirteen: Embellishment

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Sketch for a Fortuny Retractable Dome

Chapter Fourteen: Visions

Chapter 14 Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini and L. Casati in the Palazzo Leoni by Mariano Fortuny.jpg

Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini, and L. Casati at the Palazzo Fortuny, by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Fifteen: Henriette

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Portrait of Henriette Fortuny by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Sixteen: Nocturne

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Liane de Pougy

Chapter Seventeen: Return to Villa Pisani

Villa Pisani

Chapter Eighteen: Theaters

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Portrait of the Comtesse de Béarn

Chapter Nineteen: Intermission

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Enrico Caruso

Chapter Twenty: The Wax Figures

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-One: Instants

Chapter 21 Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy, in aviator costume.jpg

Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Lovers

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Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Sphinx

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Dolores del Rio, from Journey Into Fear

Chapter Twenty-Four: Encounters

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Charles and Oona Chaplin

Chapter Twenty-Five: Episode

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Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino

Chapter Twenty-Six: Sisterly

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Lillian Gish in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Table Talk

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A window in Granada, by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Portrait

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A portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Business

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The Fortuny Venise Logo

Chapter Thirty: The Dwelling

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A Fortuny Pattern

Chapter Thirty-One: The Resolution


Mary McCarthy as a young woman. Kay wears a Fortuny gown in her novel The Group.

Chapter 31 Julie Christie in Fortuny need permission

Julie Christie in Fortuny tunic and leggings.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Incursions

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Orson Welles in Othello

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Orson Welles in the New York Times

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Second of May

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Goya: The Second of May, or the Charge of the Mamelukes


Goya, The Second of May, 1808

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Bell

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Fortuny’s system of indirect lighting

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Japanese Salon

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Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: The Artist’s Children in the Japanese Salon

Ausiàs March


That Ausiàs March (1400-1459) is unknown to general readers in English is a serious omission to a proper conception of the breadth of the western poetic tradition. A knight and nobleman working in the shadow of Petrarch, he abandoned the conceits of the troubadours and the somewhat virginal idealism of stilnovismo for a more concrete and intimate treatment of his obsessions. In his morbidity, he recollects the Kirchhofsgedanken of the German poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, though March is elegant and sorrowful whereas Gryphius is grotesque. I first encountered March’s name in the epigraph to Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony:

QUI no és trist, de mos dictats no cur, / o’n algun temps que sia trist estat

Only those who are sad / or have been sad at some time/ need bother with my works.

Robert Archer, Cervantes Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London, has done valuable work on Ausiàs, but there is still no rhymed translation of his work in English. I have toyed with the idea of doing one, but the difficulty I’ve had in getting easier or more patently appealing authors published is potent suasion thereagainst, particularly as even a poor rendering of the original requires a great deal of effort.

I don’t consider that there’s much room for absoluteness in translation, and whether mimicry of rhyme and meter yield the best version depends on the poet in question, the translator’s sensibility, the in-and out-languages, and the reader’s particular tolerances and proclivities. As a translator, I instinctively feel there is something lackadaisical about translations indifferent to the form of the original, but as a reader, I must admit that the singsong qualities of the many rhymed translations of, say, Pushkin or Baudelaire, is a deeply irritating distraction.

Regardless, I have stopped working crosswords because I don’t know enough about movies or sports, and attempting a rhymed translation, however questionable the result, offers a similar sort of amusement. It is not perfect: “erstwhile friends” seems very weak to me, and “Absence eats into it,” which I hear as –––UUU, is cacophonous.  I am having trouble cutting and pasting the original Catalan, but it is the first poem in this anthology, which also includes English prose versions.

Take me as one who savors dreams,
Who savor finds in frenzied thoughts:
As one whose fancies harbor naught
But vanished time, and absence deem
A solace lorn that torment feigns to flee
But falters, and falls prone before its claims.
No good do times to come proclaim:
For me, what’s best nor was nor is to be.

My heart dilates with love for time expired,
With love for what is not, for absence pure,
Until my thoughts, in reveries immured
Are rent from bliss and singed by loss’s fire:
Like one condemned to death, who waits,
Deplores his fate, but lately solace meets,
Is given word that soon he will be freed,
But rashly slain when falls the fated date.

Pray God my thoughts were rendered dead,
My life elapsed in listless sleep;
Wretched is he whose recreant musings reap
The fruits of languor in his rival’s stead;
Whose dreams, when he for succor pleads
And cries for venom’s bitter taste
Are like a foolish mother’s haste
His ruinous vagaries to heed.

Better were to suffer pain
Than add a modicum of bliss
To the anguish in my mind’s abyss.
For when the thought of cheer has fled again,
My joy perforce to torment turns,
As a sick man’s craving something sweet
Makes every meal a joyless deceit,
Short solace is by doubled sorrow spurned;

Or like the hermit long estranged
From home and from his erstwhile friends,
Convinced his plaints have met their end,
Then finds his memories unchanged
When chance brings one across his way
Who breathes new life in pleasures passed
Then leaves, and joy cannot hold fast;
For sorrow heeds the call when good abates.


Wise woman, when love is old and grey
Absence eats into it like a worm
If constancy does not hold firm,
Ignoring what the envious say.


Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports

Introspection Explained

Fascinating piece on the possible limits of introspection at The Three Pound Brain, courtesy of Germán Sierra.

Three Pound Brain

Las Meninas

So I couldn’t get past the first paper in Thomas Metzinger’s excellent Open MIND offering without having to work up a long-winded blog post! Tim Bayne’s “Introspective Insecurity” offers a critique of Eric Schwitzgebel’s Perplexities of Consciousness, which is my runaway favourite book on introspection (and consciousness, for that matter). This alone might have sparked me to write a rebuttal, but what I find most extraordinary about the case Bayne lays out against introspective skepticism is the way it directly implicates Blind Brain Theory. His  defence of introspective optimism, I want to show, actually vindicates an even more radical form of pessimism than the one he hopes to domesticate.

In the article, Bayne divides the philosophical field into two general camps, the introspective optimists, who think introspection provides reliable access to conscious experience, and introspective pessimists, who do not. Recent years have witnessed a sea change in philosophy of mind circles…

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José Saramago and the Elephant

This morning, the Portuguese newspaper Público reported that the rights to José Saramago’s estate had been granted to the Andrew Wylie agency, a company known for negotiating exorbitant sums for its clients and for transforming allegedly progressive cultural figures into the kind of money-grubbing upper-crusters they publicly claim to despise. In the documentary José y Pilar, Saramago digresses prophetically about the inspiration for his novel A viagem do Elefante. Having seen, in a European country, the foot of an elephant in an antique shop refashioned as an umbrella stand, he thought of the animal’s birthplace in faraway India and the travails it must have suffered through before arriving at its ridiculous destiny.

FullSizeRenderIt is difficult to see what distinguishes the treatment of the writings of  the lifelong communist Saramago, offspring of a peasant family in Ribatejo, from the indignities suffered by this mysterious animal for the amusement of the wealthy.

In their imaginative sensitivity, Saramago’s meditations on the elephant’s vanished life recollect those of Flaubert concerning the twin of an obelisk at Luxor, stolen away and shipped to France to be erected in the center of Paris:

Perched on its pedestal, how bored it must be in the Place de la Concorde! How it must miss its Nile! What does it think as it watches all the cabs drive by, instead of the chariots it saw at its feet in the old days?

Paris obelisk  - sketch of the capstan used to raise it in Paris - from The Architectural magazine

Nabokov’s Critique of Dostoevsky: Some Thoughts

fyodor-dostoevsky_2-tI am not sure of the nature of the enduring attraction Dostoevsky holds over me. Nabokov, who esteemed him poorly, but whose offhanded tone often conceals real depth of thought, particularly as regards matters artistic, made a number of acute observations about Dostoevsky, chief among them that he was a playwright of brilliance burdened by a novelist’s ambition. This dramatic disposition leads to a negligent attitude with regards to the sensory textures that form the bedrock of poetic truth (incidentally, this is what is magical, though it tends sadly to be passed over in favor of more obviously lurid sexual and political aspects, in the better novels of Mishima, the fact that nothing exists outside of time: the white faces of the Kabuki actors, “powdered even more meticulously than usual,” a golden fan giving off scarlet reflections as it oscillates, a “late-flowering gentian.” Nabokov rightly notes such details are absent in Dostoevsky):

If you examine closely any of his works, say The Brothers Karamazov, you will note that the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist.

Nabokov goes on to describe the novel as:

a straggling play, with just that amount of furniture and other implements needed for the various actors: a round table with the wet, round trace of a glass, a window painted yellow to make it look as if there were sunlight outside, or a shrub hastily brought in and plumped down by a stagehand.

All this is true, and yet I cannot contemn Dostoevsky as an artist, and in his most heart-wrenching moments –– Ivan’s rejection of theodicy, which he cannot reconcile with the suffering of children, the shimmering suppressed chapter of the otherwise mediocre Demons, or the episode of Ilyusha and the toy cannon, which even Nabokov acknowledges the excellence of (I cannot help but mention, because Nabokov himself was so merciless with readers who got such things wrong, that the cannon in question is brass or bronze and not silver, as Nabokov has it) –– in these moments, he reaches a degree of pathetic sublimity to me far more moving than the bombast of Tolstoy when one of his personages has some grand realization or other, though I understand why Tolstoy is thought the better artist.

Perhaps the gravamen here is what passes for a novel, and how much this has changed in recent years. While the roman à clef and its analogues have existed for centuries, they bore a basic similarity to the novel proper, which could be described in terms of a number of generic criteria; this is true even for many of the apparently quite radical books gathered under the rubric “modernist.” Since the late 1960’s, however, the novel has come to be defined apophatically: for me the book that marks a turning point is Peter Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance, though there must be many precedents I am unaware of. From that time forward, the novel becomes a refuge, however nominal, for a kind of prose that, while eschewing conventions of character and plot, longs for a kind of poetic freedom that established non-fiction genres abjure.

Nabokov describes Dostoevsky as a genius of spiritual morbidity. It is representative of the kinds of radical divergences of symbolic longings upon which so much of artistic taste is founded that Dostoevsky’s expression of this genius, which strikes me as sublime, should not even enter, for Nabokov, into the domain of art as such. One is used to disagreements of taste arising from disagreements over principles, but I find very little inapposite in Nabokov’s ideas about Dostoevsky: Dostoevsky is a sentimentalist, a blowhard, his plots are creaky, he writes potboilers, he has little feeling for the sensual, and yet for me, none of this matters, I can find all that is missing from him in the writings of others and these others do not quell my desire for what he offers. Nabokov claims to be an advocate of disinterested appreciation, I myself have always considered this idea to be a chimera, the aesthetic transposition of court etiquette into the domain of the spirit. It is clear, in any case, that Nabokov’s objection to Dostoevsky is as much personal as aesthetic, that he finds him a distasteful character, and his remarks on the subject are illuminating:

We must distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive.” A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at the Traviata. A whole century of authors praised the simple life of the poor, and so on. Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoevski, we mean the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.

This last comment is most important, marking as it does what is precisely so despicable in tearjerker books and films (for a witty send-up of a particularly awful subset of this genre, which one might dub that of the sagacious retard, see the Dewey Awards skit from Mr. Show here). Sketching out an innocent being, pulling the usual heartstrings, and then subjecting that creature to some florid disaster is a cheap technique, and one Dostoevsky employs promiscuously; yet whereas Nabokov seems to think it is for effect, I liken it to what traumatology refers to as intrusive memory. Zinaida Trubetskaya reports that Dostoevsky confessed to her that when he was a child, a drunken soldier had raped one of his playmates. He ran to fetch his father, a doctor, but it was too late; the child bled to death. Dostoevsky was famously affected, like Nietzsche as he fell into madness, by the brutality of a coachman beating a horse in the street. The recurrence of situations in which children, but also countless other avatars of innocence, are abused and degraded, fits neatly with the concept of repetition compulsion, according to which, by means of symbolic re-enactment, one tries to gain control of a traumatic situation that has entirely overwhelmed one’s capacities.

In his attempts to approximate the psychology of the wicked, Dostoevsky comes sufficiently close to the bone that the presentiment of a degree of contamination is not unwarranted. This seems to me the origin, not only of a part of Nabokov’s comments on his sentimentality, but also of the calumny spread about him by the writer Nikolay Strakhov to the effect that Dostoevsky had, with the aid of a governess, raped a child in a bathhouse. (He appears to have purposely twisted an anecdote Dostoevsky recounted from his newspaper reading, which he was considering placing in a novel, and the accusation has never been taken seriously, to my knowledge). In fact, as Nabokov notes, the profiles Dostoevsky comes up with, to use the contemporary cliché, are highly dubious, and tell us more about Dostoevsky’s hysterico-religious tendencies than about the depths of the criminal mind:

He liked to torture, and because of this, he raped a child (Notes to The Demons)

His plots are risible, his only plausible psychological types are ramifications of his own shortcomings (zealous enthusiast, drunken sentimentalist, desperate profligate, brooding habitué of that moral masochism Jankélévitch so brilliantly describes as pseudo-austerity), and yet there is something about him that is indispensable to me: an unwillingness or incapacity to look away from deviance and a sense that to do so it is to vitiate, in some fundamental way, the entirety of the human experiment.

The Exhaustion of the Poetic Lexicon

Every language has words that determine its poetry; words in one language are possessed of a poetic efficiency that they lack in another. Think of the sonority of morte: in Italian it carries great weight, for one thing the syllables are similar to notte, the words are almost synonyms… In part, certain words determine thematics, while others have ceased to be poetic for the abuse they have undergone; “los labios rojos,” for example, no longer functions poetically, now it has to be said a different way. There are many words in Catalan from the XV century that have not aged, that have been preserved in their disuse…

Thus Pere Gimferrer in a recent interview. It is true that words need to be left in peace to be adequate for poetry; if we think of the ideas of making-strange, making new, of the uneven Venetian pavers in Proust that symbolize those ripples in the tranquil effluence of time through which poetic awareness comes into flower, we see that the inappositeness thereto of any word that has been too much handled, the coarse textures or irregularities of which have been smoothed away by too many hands. Cyril Connolly remarks that in the age of Dryden, there was really no such thing as bad English writing; the act of putting words to paper was too new, nothing had yet been corrupted.

I wonder is the caducity of words always the outcome of mendacity. When Gimferrer refers to the poetic concept of “red lips,” he is speaking of something that gained its force as a departure from the strictly real; red lips are a striking image to the extent that the color of lips is not red, by use of this adjective they are made to stand out like Derain’s blue mountains or scarlet trees. But at the point at which people forget what color lips actually are, the word “red” becomes shorthand for the supposed color of a detail in nature that readers and writers have ceased to really look at; the cliché has supplanted the reality in the collective imagination. The words ruined by Business English are characterized generally by patent dishonesty (what large company has not at various times described its customers, its shareholders, its employees, its employees’ well-being, etc. as its “number-one priority”?) or by a kind of brute augmentation that is the linguistic equivalent of plastic surgery, hiding the paucity of thought behind syllabic superfluity: proactive for active, reference for refer, orientate (once a charming word meaning “to face the orient”) for orient, operationalize for use… Borges, commenting on Jorge Manrique, praises the power of the simplest words and metaphors, which he claims have greater immunity to such destruction; I am not sure if he is right.

The poetic possibilities of a language are defined in part by what ambits remain untouched by this progressive degradation. Anyone who reads in various languages can attest to the perdurant vitality of themes in one language that have been poetically exhausted in others. “I would die for you,” “I would walk to the ends of the earth for you,” and so on can no longer be said in English because the rank dishonesty with which they infest popular culture has left them toothless, but one can imagine a less meretricious culture in which they might still hold force. Gimferrer complains that Castilian is losing “poetic efficiency” from overuse, and has advocated for Catalan as a “prestige tongue,” perhaps in the hopes that a marginal but ceremonial status will preserve it from lyrical enervation.

Of course languages can be renewed as well. Acquaintances have always shown themselves perplexed by my interest in rap music, and generally consider it a conceit, a kind of reverse dandyism or provocation. That is absurd. For me English-language poetry in general, though I am not an expert, has become so withered and bound up in packaged arrogance and literary posturing –– this without mentioning its entrenchment in a system of privileges and perquisites dispensed on the basis of social placement, particularly in the academic realm, and hence, in the final analysis, on class –– that it inspires distaste rather than interest.

Rap has continued to engage, with the full battery of poetic resources, a sphere of authentic, lived concerns –– however truncated or ignoble they may be –– at a time when the majority of poets have lost all relation to their real longings and true natures, whether as social or spiritual beings. In addition, the best rappers have emphasized the fundamental importance of assonance, alliteration, variable stresses, and internal rhyme to English poetry –– the more naturally poetic elements of the language, as against a fixation on Italianate and Provencal forms grafted onto a tongue that diverged drastically from both its Germanic and Latinate progenitors. However distasteful many listeners may find rap to be, there is a force in its words and their employment that lies worlds apart from the soggy linguistic attenuation of a great deal of modern English poetry and popular song.

On a different note, Hölderlin describes the Ideal as the subjective ground of poetry in his (for me) very difficult essay Über die Verfahrungsweise des poetischen Geistes. I wonder if Proust has something similar in mind when he speaks of the spiritual obligations that impend upon us as though from another world when he describes the death of Bergotte:

Toutes ces obligations, qui n’ont pas leur sanction dans la vie présente, semblent appartenir à un monde différent, fondé sur la bonté, le scrupule, le sacrifice, un monde entièrement différent de celui-ci, et dont nous sortons pour naître à cette terre, avant peut-être d’y retourner revivre sous l’empire de ces lois inconnues auxquelles nous avons obéi parce que nous en portions l’enseignement en nous, sans savoir qui les y avait tracées – ces lois dont tout travail profond de l’intelligence nous rapproche et qui sont invisibles seulement – et encore ! – pour les sots.

Thomas Bernhard’s Women

Miguel Sáenz is Spain’s foremost translator of German literature, with some forty books to his name by authors ranging from Dürrenmatt to Handke to Christa Wolf. I had the honor of being published alongside him in an issue of literatur/a devoted to Josef Winkler. In addition to translating the entirety of Thomas Bernhard’s major works, Sáenz published a biography of the Austrian writer in 2004. While Bernhard still awaits a definitive treatment in the Leon Edel / Richard Ellmann style, Sáenz’s book is meritorious and an enjoyable read; I hesitate to say it should be translated, as it becomes clearer to me by the day that I am profoundly alienated from whatever criteria other people employ in the adjudication of worthwhile literature; regardless, it is nearly twice as long as its predecessor by a decade, Hans Höller’s Thomas Bernhard, and it brings to its considerations the special kind of feel for an author that derives from a lifetime spent wrangling intimately with his works. I translated this selection two years ago and have only made perfunctory attempts at publishing it, and now I am too busy to try too much to send it around, so I am putting it up here.

In the Kirchenwirt, a Gasthaus in Ohlsdorf, during the days dedicated to Thomas Bernhard in March of 1994. After various lectures, a group of Germanists sips beer serenely. “I have the feeling,” someone says, “that we’re repeating ourselves, that we are always saying the same thing… Why doesn’t anyone talk, for example, about what we all know, that Bernhard was gay?” Objections follow.

It was, of course, a provocation; but the question has been stated numerous times. Was Bernhard homosexual? I doubt it. Nor even bisexual, if one can even speak of preferences. As to whether he ever engaged in homosexual relations, I will hold my tongue, but there is nothing to impede my laying out the following:

In his untrustworthy conversations with Kurt Hoffman, Bernhard expresses himself ambiguously: “I have had every imaginable sort of relation possible with woman and with men… Whether it’s a woman or a man, in the end, it’s all the same. It would be better if more men did it, in that case we’d likely suffer less from overcrowding.”

The narrator of Woodcutters, on whose identification with Bernhard (though not one hundred percent!) there is no need to insist, says, with respect to the marriage of the Auersbergers (that is—though not one hundred percent!—the Lampersbergs): “They talk over and over about the things they have…They mention their fish hatcheries and their windmills and sawmills, but not their beds, and we let ourselves be impressed by them and we fall into their traps and into their beds.” Later he says: “At one time, you loved this man, more or less, I thought, observing him from off to the side, in another time, as it may be said, you were completely ensorcelled by this man.” And in another passage, even more directly: “Auersberger has always had young writers in his vicinity and in his bed, I was the first he invited up to Maria Zaal, I now thought. One of the first to fall into his trap, I said to myself.”

For his part, Gerhard Lampersberg published in 1987, in a costly limited edition, the book Perturbation (a title which, almost certainly, coincides with that of the French translation of Gargoyles), a kind of macaronic in German, French, English, and Latin. Only the cover, which reproduces the book Woodcutters hacked to pieces, permits one to know that it is a kind of rebuttal to Bernhard. It has three characters: a and c are two men between whom an amorous relation sparks up, and b a suffering woman. Years later, Lampersberg would publish another book—diarium—with three drawings, two musical scores, and a date: 1962. The story is the same (although more explicit), but this time it is only in German and the characters are named anton, joseph, and anna.

In any case, there is a fact that supports my convictions that, whatever his relations with Gerhard Lampersberg may have been, Bernhard was not homosexual. In one of his conversations with Hoffman, Bernhard tells him that, in reality, he would have to be constantly engaged in lawsuits: they had just published a collection of his theatrical works in Spanish with a prologue “in which Lampersberg appears and … moreover, there is talk of a homosexual relation.” It appears Bernhard was badly informed, as this prologue, which I myself wrote, does not state that such a relation existed, but his reaction would make no sense if he were in fact homosexual.

Nevertheless, it is certain that, as Reich-Ranicki has said, in the world of Bernhard, women play “a subordinate role and are, particularly in his early books, monstrous and malevolent beings, often patently terrifying and repulsive.” In the rest of his works—Reich-Ranicki recognizes—there is another sort of woman, but divested of physical presence (Joana in Woodcutters, Maria in Extinction)… In brief, “for Bernhard, women were either repugnant or fairy-tale figures.”

Ria Endres entitles one of the chapters of her doctoral thesis (which irritated Bernhard enormously) “La femme n’existe pas.” In Bernhard’s writings—she says—“the woman is almost always absent.” “Women do not have a name. In the novel The Lime Works, Konrad’s wife is simply called, ‘the Konrad woman.’ She is subordinated to her husband. In the other texts she is spoken of as the sister, the innkeeper, and so on. In most cases she lacks a bodily presence. Her spectral character is most evident in the novel Correction. This beloved figure of the sister is stripped of all sensuality.”   Endres’s thesis, very feministic, arrives at certain indisputable conclusions: “The fear of contact with the female is great. For this reason, she appears only as a stereotype: saint or whore. The fear of any possible sexual desire toward women is frequently projected as a rejection of images of corrupted filthiness.”

In his works, Bernhard occasionally alludes to intimate relations with women. His first sexual experience—he says—took place in Traunstein. “When I was eight years old, Inga, from the Winter family, the youngest of the daughters of the saddler, opened my eyes on the balcony of the Winters’ saddlery, or tried to do so, in any case.” In Woodcutters he insinuates having had relations with Jeannie Ebner (ten years his elder) and says that he read her “poems by Éluard, at the same time tickling the soles of her feet… while she, more or less nakend…” But the truth is that Jeannie Ebner denies having ever been his lover. In regards to the alleged relation between Bernhard and the suicide Joanna Thul, described in the same book (“Naturally, a naked princess, I had said to Joanna, laid out in bed. And you the naked king, she had responded.”), the shopkeeper Marielies Felnhofer, a friend of the latter, finds it impossible to imagine that she ever had any sort of “relation” with Bernhard.

In his conversaions with Hoffman, Bernhard refers to the count and countess of Stolberg and their castle (in reality a Kasteel or country manor) near Aachen; he relates having gone to mass at the cathedral with the countess and her children and adds, referring to one of the latter: “I was there because of her. And then, suddenly, everything came to an end…” Nevertheless, as Huguet has demonstrated, the tale of this alleged relation between Bernhard and Ludmilla Stolberg and his visit to Kasteel Puth in 1961 or 62, with the intention of visiting his birthplace in nearby Heerlen, is far from reliable.

On the Mountain, his first important narrative text (written in 1959 but published posthumously, thirty years later) in clearly autobiographical: a sort of mixture of writer’s notebook and diary (court reporter, pneumoperitoneum, Salzburger). But most interestingly, it contains murmurings of accounts of love affairs that never show up again in Bernhard’s ouvre (if I am not mistaken, it contains the only, if very chaste, kiss in his published work: “I kiss her on the neck.”).

In brief, there appears to be no firm evidence that Bernhard ever had a lover. The Lampersbergs state that he “knew no other women in his life [besides Hedwig Stavianicek]” and Gerhard Lampersberg speaks funnily of the young Bernhard’s naivety: “He once kissed a cousin of my wife’s [Annemarie Siller] and (laughing) thought he had to marry her!” Hennetmair says that Bernhard liked women, but always older ones, mothers, really, rather than women, and adds, with little conviction: “From time to time, when he was young maybe, there was a girl from out in the fields, of the kind you’d want to throw out the window afterward…” (He seems simply to be repeating something Bernhard said toward the end of his interview with André Müller, when asked, definitively, if it were necessary to have someone: “There’s always some milkmaid somewhere who shows up at the right time. No, it’s not necessary.”) And in his diary of 1972, Hennetmair confesses to knowing nothing firm in this connection; asked by a journalist if Bernhard had a female companion, he says he imagines that Bernhard does what many priests do, enjoys the favors of well married women so that no problems might arise.” Regarding Bernhard’s relation to Hedwig Stavianicek, when Maria Fialik asks Franz Josef Altenberg, who knew him well, whether his “so-called Aunt” was Bernhard’s lover, he responded, “I believe so. I also believe that, in another time, there was a real relationship. Anyway, he always said that.”

In his interview in Majorca with Krista Fleischmann, Bernhard says: “In my case, sexuality was very limited because, in the moment when it began to arise, no?… I fell deathly ill. And I was therefore, for years, very restrained and limited… But between the ages of twenty-two and thirty, everything was there, I believe, as it should have been and as is normal, no?” And he says something similar to André Müller: “The sexual has never interested me. Nor was it possible, simply on account of my illness, because during the time when all that should have been naturally and was supposed to begin, I was in no shape to do it.” Nevertheless, Bernhard recognizes that sexuality was important: “Without eroticism, there is no life… Sexuality plays an enormous role in every human being, regardless of how it is expressed… There is no human being without sexuality.”

Gerhard Lampersberg affirms that Bernhard was “asexual,” and, finally, an anonymous party interviewed by Gemma Salem in Vienna in 1991 asserts: “Bernhard had what is called the sexuality of the angels. Nothing to do with women, nor with men. None of that interested him.”

It remains the case that Bernhard preferred the company of women. In his long interview with Krista Fleischmann in Majorca, he speaks his mind at ease, recurring to all the traditional stereotypes of feminine inferiority…., but it seems evident that he is not speaking seriously.

Who were the women Bernhard regarded highly?

Much has been said and written about Hedwig Stavianicek (1894-1984), Bernhard’s “aunt,” probably the only person he ever really loved and the only one to whom he was eternally faithful. Nevertheless, she seems not to have been the object of any exhaustive research and there is only diffuse testimony, often somewhat contradictory, from those who knew her as Bernhard’s companion. A few antique photos of Stavianicek (née Hofbauer) show her to have had an attractive countenance in her youth, but this had certainly faded by the time she met Bernhard in Gravenhof, and in the published photos, always wrapped in furs, shawls, or cloaks, she seems rather Bernhard’s grandmother than his aunt.

The first time Hedwig Stavianicek appears in print in most likely in Bernhard’s interview with André Müller in 1971. Later, in their 1979 encounter, she flits in and out of the conversation as if it were rehearsed: “His aunt sits down. I am a spectator at a theatrical performance. It appears to be, I think, an erotic spectacle. In place of contact are words, and the words are embraces…” To Müller’s question, “To what degree is your aunt important for your life and work?” Bernhard replies without hesitation, “She is, since the time I was nineteen, absolutely the most important being in my life.”

Ingrid Bulau describes her as “extraordinarily energetic, intelligent, cultured and very well mannered,” and says moreover that it was she who assured that Bernhard worked in a “hard and disciplined way.” Franz Josef Altenberg states that she was “extremely intelligent” and that Bernhard “learned a great deal from her. That is indisputable. She had such intelligence and a very sharp tongue, she was undoubtedly an enormously sardonic woman.” And Bernhard himself confesses: “I have never been content in my life. But I have always had a great need for protection. With my friend, I have found this protection. She has always made me work. She was happy when she saw that I was doing something. And that was wonderful. We have taken trips. I carried her heavy bags, but I learned a great deal.”

Annemarie Siller states that Hedwig Stavianicek “was truly his life partner. I mean to say that, when we were young, she was always the aunt, or later, the doctor. She was always a very distant person, much older than Thomas Bernhard, but she truly pulled him up from the mire and was always there at his side.” And Gerda Maleta writes to Bernhard: “If you ever loved anyone in your life, it was only your “life partner,” whom you called Aunt or Hede, a person much older, who was your example and your friend… That friendship of nearly forty years marked you, and you learned from her certain life-experiences, certain refinements in your dealing with different people and different situations. She also gave wings to your thoughts, as you said numerous times. That life partner accompanied you down many roads, and we, your friends, had to accept her and recognize her. You stayed beside this woman until her last breath… Your dedication, fidelity, and altruism toward your life partner were admirable.”

Their relations, of course, were not always idyllic. In fact, though they lived together in Vienna for years, and although Stavianicek, when she went to Ohlsdorf, naturally stayed in Bernhard’s house, and although they took innumerable trips together, they could not bear more than a few weeks in a row. She tyrannized him, but Bernhard avenged himself, as he did with every other woman, by standing her up for long waits.

In any case, the pages he devotes to her death in Old Masters are among the most moving he ever wrote, and his wish to be buried alongside her (and her husband!) arouses alarm, but also respect. When Hedwig Stavianicek died, Bernhard’s despair was immense. Ingrid Bülau says that “He was absolutely crushed and felt himself so miserable that, personally, I cannot but believe that really, he was never able to get past this loss. She was truly … the dominant force in his life.” And Hilda Spiel seconds her: “I believe that, after the old woman’s death, who was for him his life’s partner, he put an end in reality to all human relations.” There is no doubt that if Bernhard had any “love” in his life, that love was Hedwig Stavianicek.

Nonetheless, as has been said, Bernhard appreciated women’s company in general. He could be charming to women, he found it funny that they would fall in love with him, and, on his journeys, his ideal was to have a woman at his side taking care of him, accompanying him… and leaving him in peace when he wanted it. His friends the O’Donnells speak of the “ladies” that hounded him, fighting amongst themselves, and say that “it diverted him a great deal to confront these ladies with one another. In an innocent way, obviously.” Some of these ladies wrote to him and, at times, showed up at his house uninvited, which he did not at all care for. Franz Josef Altenberg asserts that it enchanted Bernhard to sow a bit of discord in marriages. “He liked that a great deal, it interested him.” Maja Lampersberg, nonetheless, believes there was always something strange in his relations with women, as though he feared going too far…

When the journalist Asta Schieb leads Bernhard to notice that, in his books, with few exceptions, women are rather disagreeable and asks whether this corresponds to his personal experience, Bernhard replies: “I can only say that for a quarter of a century, the only relationships in my life have been with women…Everything I have learned has been only from women… After having learned from my grandfather… I have always sought refuge and protection from women who in many ways were far beyond me. Above all, women leave me rather tranquil. Around women, I can work.”

Be that as it was, after Bernhard’s death, many women have appeared who had more or less close relations with him and who, at times, have felt themselves obligated to divulge them. The depth of friendship seems to have varied greatly. Among the closest friends of Bernhard, the following can be cited:

Ingrid Bülau, the pianist Bernhard met when the two of them studied together at the Mozarteum. Later, in Hamburg, they played music together frequently, and they also took numerous trips oversees. Their friendship was lifelong and she was among the few people put up by Bernhard in his home in Ohlsdorf. About Thomas Bernhard, she states: “In reality, he had a very timid way of being. It was there early on, this inner shyness, and it never left him, it was always there.” According to Wieland Schmied, when Hedwig Stavianicek died in 1984 and Thomas Bernhard felt himself to be irrevocably alone, he considered the possibility of marrying Ingrid Bülau.

Annemarie Siller (later Countess Hammerstein), choreographer and costume designer, met Bernhard at the Lampersbergs (she is Maja Lampersberg’s cousin and, by marriage, that of the Countess Üxküll) and designed set-pieces for his early plays. They traveled together to Poland in 1963 and 1975, and he always introduced her as his “childhood friend.” Nevertheless—according to her—Bernhard was a very sick man and the only thing that interested him was being famous, having his monument in stone. And “when someone says to a girl that the only thing that interests him is having his monument in stone, there is no greater romantic disappointment.”

Gerda Maleta, widow of an Austrian politican. In her villa in Oberweis, near Gmunden, Thomas Bernhard carried out—he says—sociological research. Gerda Maleta accompanied Bernhard on journeys to Italy, Portugal, and Spain, as she has recounted in a book written as a long letter to the writer. Her testimony is important because, according to her, the Hunting Party actually takes place in her home and The President is a portrayal of her family. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the trip to Sicily in the company of monsignor Spadolini that Bernhard relates in Extinction was in fact undertaken with Gerda Maleta and monsignor Cesare Zacchi, papal nuncio in Cuba (and described discreetly by Maleta in her book as Enrico).

Gerta Maleta and Thomas Bernhard never addressed one another with the informal “du”: “You preferred distance, both verbal and physical.” And, by her account, Bernhard was, “in reality, a moralist.” Of his peculiar relations with women, Gerda Maleta gives an explanation that rings true in spite of its triteness and sentimentality: “As a child, he did not experience maternal love. For that reason, perhaps—this is my opinion, it may not be correct—he saw in every woman his mother.” Gerda Maleta is a fount of interesting information: “Many affirm or have affirmed that you preferred married women to single ones. On that theme I cannot speak. One thing is certain: you detested the word “friend” and avoided it in many ways. Only your aunt Hede was the center of your life and thus, your life partner. To everyone else, you doled out parts to play.”

Hilde Spiel (1911-1990), the writer, a very close friend of Bernhard’s, said that “he was one of the kindest people I have ever known,” and that her relationship with him was “strange, not always easy, but very beautiful.”

Concerning the actress Marianne Hoppe, a theatrical legend and a great interpreter of numerous works of Bernhard’s (The Hunting Party, Destination, Heldenplatz), their relation is known almost exclusively from her own declarations on television and in newspapers: “Everything is love, that’s what Bernhard always said…” She accompanied him on several journeys as well as in his last Christmas holidays in Torremolinos.

There were other women in Thomas Bernhard’s life: Grete Hufnagl, former vocal student at the Mozarteum, always ready to help or accompany him; Christa Altenberg (princess Altenberg), who had met him when she was a student under Gerhard Lampersberg; Agnes, the Baroness von Handel (the widow of Teufl) who said once to André Müller, in reference to Bernhard: “Affairs? Him? Never.”

The relations between Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann deserve a more detailed study. Bachmann is, without the least doubt, the Maria of Extinction (though there are probably traces of her in the Persian woman in Yes as well) and the page suit that Bernhard describes in the protagonist’s dream is documented perfectly in a photograph (and is probably the same that Hilde Spiel speaks of on a certain occasion). Bernhard admired Bachmann’s poetry, but also her intelligence: “I loved Bachmann a great deal, she was a very intelligent woman. A strange combination, no? Most women are stupid but acceptable, and agreeable in the right circumstances; intelligent as well, but rarely.” In The Voice Imitator, he dedicates a very felt page to her: “In a Roman hospital… century… I took trips with her… The news of her death… completely empty.”

Bernhard also loved Christine Lavant (1915-73), the sick poet, full of compassion for humanity, whom it was impossible not to love, and prepared an anthology of her verses as “a fundamental testimony of a human being mistreated by all well-thinking persons, as a great poetry still not known in the world as it should be.”

In any case, from a strictly literary point of view, can it be said, with Reich-Ranicki, that of the two great themes of literature—love and death—the first was unknown to Bernhard? (Reich Ranicki compares him in this connection to Kafka, who at least, he says, felt nostalgia for love). Everything depends on the concept of love brought into play. According to Bernhard, “love is completely different for every person. Love is everything, no? Love can be everything, because everything in the world can be loved right now…The word love can be written, but love cannot be described.” For Karin Kathrein, “there are always love stories in Bernhard. Wittgenstein’s Nephew is a quite beautiful love story.” Concerning his theatrical work, Peymann affirms: “If I think of Bernhard as probably the greatest writer of the present day, it is because he expresses so much about amorous relations… Bernhard presents the truth and the contradictions of those relations, because he understands love for what it is: a struggle for power.” According to Krista Fleischmann, the novel that Bernhard planned to write before death cut it short was to have been a bona fide love story, with the strange title Breaking One’s Head.

Still… “I don’t need a sister, nor do I need a lover” Bernhard said to Kurt Hoffman; and once, when André Müller asked him, “And if tomorrow you encountered your great love?” Bernhard’s reply was, “There would be nothing I could do to avoid it.”

Miguel Sáenz: Thomas Bernhard: Una Biografía, © Editorial Siruela, 2004

The Translator Martin Chalmers

I met the translator Martin Chalmers in the fall of 2013 in Berlin. I had written him in advance of my coming, in case he might have time for a coffee; I had left my previous employment only a few months before, with the possibly quixotic but at least up to this point practicable notion of translating professionally, and I was eager for whatever counsel I might glean from more seasoned practitioners. Martin had translated one of my favorite short stories, Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy? by Thomas Bernhard, as well as several novels by Elfriede Jelinek, a writer I pretend to like, because there does seem to be something meritorious in her project, though in fact her books exasperate me. That said, I have never forgotten the part in Women as Lovers, Martin’s translation of Die Liebhaberinnen:

they sew. they sew foundations, brassieres, sometimes corsets and panties too. often these women marry or they are ruined some other way.

I had a certain curiosity to ask Martin about an unkind review of Greed, his translation of Jelinek’s novel Gier, by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books. Toward the end of what is actually one of the better essays on her work in English, the author devotes a paragraph to lambasting Chalmers’s version:

With its constant shifts of tone and register, the slippery sideways movement of thought through wordplay and punning, the frequent allusions to other German texts, the idiom of Greed poses almost insuperable obstacles to good translation. Jelinek herself took years to translate Gravity’s Rainbow and it would take a comparable labour of love to translate Gier adequately. As it is, doubtless under tight economic constraints, the publishers have paid for a hit-and-miss, standard, ‘by the page’ translation and the result is a disaster. It’s hard to imagine that Jelinek’s reputation in the English-speaking world will ever recover. It would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.

When we touched on the topic, though, Martin said he would have liked more time to work on the book. He did not seem uncomfortable with the topic, but I saw no point in pursuing it. I have the translation open on my desktop now; I do not see what is so contemptible about it, though I am not comparing it to the original. In any case, six years after the essay in the London Review of Books, it seems clear the book did no damage whatsoever to Jelinek’s standing, which is more secure in the Anglophone world now than in the opprobrious aftermath of her reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.

(In passing: how often, in reviews of translation, does cursory allusion to the original text or to some often trifling solecism serve mainly as a surreptitious allusion to the writer’s own linguistic facility? And is not such dysphemism over allegedly bad translations perhaps misplaced? It is fashionable now to kick the corpses of Constance Garnett, Helen Lowe-Porter, and C.K. Scott Moncrieff, but I would not care to imagine the impoverished state of twentieth-century English-language letters, let alone my own intellectual development, had their work not existed. Even a less than ideal translation is often a bridge to the original. No translation of Dante renders the complex sonority of the end of Canto V, “E caddi come corpo morto cade.” And yet I knew no Italian when I first noticed this line in the bilingual edition of the Divine Comedy translated by John D. Sinclair. Because it was an en-face version, I could manage a fumbling approximation to the original. Probably many are spurred to learn a language by the insight into such discrepancies afforded by what are often decried as inferior translations.)

When I first wrote Martin, he replied he was in Oregon visiting his daughter, and I answered something about the wine there –– a perennial point of interest for me. He said he had just read the curiously titled Die Realität, so sagen, als ob sie nicht wäre, oder die Wutausbrüche der Engel. We met in Berlin shortly after he had left the hospital. He lived near the Hermannstraße metro stop. Like most Americans, I have a poor sense of geography, in the abstract sense of locating Tajikistan on a map and the concrete one of finding a destination and then finding my way back from it. From the days when our cities were founded as grids of numbered avenues and streets marking off blocks of uniform size to the present, where an application guides us between two points and we navigate by looking into the palm of our hand rather than at our surroundings, the American relationship to space has consisted rather of imposition than of interrelation, and European cities, with their curving roads responding not to the needs of the incoming stranger but to historical circumstances of which I am normally quite ignorant, always leave me perplexed; particularly Berlin, where the avenues are so long and their curves so gentle that they often delude you into thinking they run straight. As soon as I left the station I got lost and I arrived to Martin’s building several minutes late

His apartment had a bohemian aspect that reminded me of the communal houses where a close friend of mine had lived in West Philadelphia. His office had a large television beside which was a box of DVDs for a television series –– The Wire? –– and floor-to-ceiling shelves. He explained he had been in the hospital and wasn’t feeling well, although his doctor had advised him to move around. He mentioned how much he paid for his health insurance –– it seemed staggeringly costly; I believed the cliché, widespread among Americans that residents of Europe enjoy unlimited free healthcare.

We met twice: once we went for an ice cream and a coffee, and another time for a beer and a retsina. I cannot separate the meetings clearly in my mind, though I believe one was in the early afternoon and one a bit later. He talked to me about the resort town in the Crimea where he’d been, I believe because his partner, a translator, was to attend a conference there; about a house the two of them either had owned or continued to own in Hungary, possibly his partner’s country of origin. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of life in continental Europe and the differences between Spain, where my wife is from, and Germany. He went to a market to buy some cheeses; it took an inordinately long time before we were served, and I was bothered by the everpresent yellowjackets. He pointed to a long series of elegant homes, which he explained had belonged to the managers of the railways in the early twentieth century, and he talked about the many buildings that had housed both workshops and the workers employed there. We went to a wine shop where he bought a Riesling and something else, one of the lesser German varieties, a Sylvaner or Kerner maybe –– he found white wines more agreeable, he said –– and I decided against a good but expensive bottle, a Ribera del Duero, Bodegas Alión, I think, either for reasons of economy or not to appear extravagant.

He had little advice to offer, beyond the inducement to demand fair payment. I have heard the same numerous times. It is a delicate matter: established translators are no doubt correct in fearing that a crop of eager upstarts, willing to work for little or nothing, is likely to chip away at their income in the long term; if, however, an inexperienced translator demands the same sort of contract terms as a highly sought-after one, publishers have little incentive to take a gamble on the former. There has to be some flexibility. A translator cannot hope to succeed without attracting some sort of notice, and this is often impossible without a period of working for free or for a pittance; however, many publishers, particularly certain small ones who consider the nobility of their artistic mission to exempt them from the responsibility of establishing themselves as a fair and viable enterprise, are more than happy to let idealistic writers and translators work for nothing or for royalties that never actually materialize.

We talked a bit about Sebald, Chalmers said he had tried to convince Serpent’s Tail to publish Sebald in the early nineties, he said he admired Sebald but that Sebald’s borrowings were far more obvious in German than in English, and that prejudiced his reception in the German-speaking world; he also felt he had been unnecessarily cruel in his essay on Alfred Andersch.

He expressed great enthusiasm for cinema, but I could not follow much of what he said, I don’t have my own opinion about films, which I almost never see, I depend on those of my wife, who watches everything.

Edmund White says it is always the minor writers who matter to us most. I think of this as I read the incidental pieces collected on Martin’s webpage. In tone, they remind me a great deal of Michael Hamburger’s little-known but quite beautiful memoirs, String of Beginnings, which in their turn have about them something of the economical clarity of the first chapter of another minor classic, Harold Nicolson’s Some People. They say nothing, and that is what is so striking about them: their irreducibility. Shklovsky says that a machine has no place in art, because it takes shortcuts. When I think if Knausgaard, who has become famous and whom I have been reading these past three weeks, it occurs to me that so capacious a work allows for a great deal of error, the shortcomings are lost in the work’s magnitude. It cannot be like this for a translator; every translator is of necessity a miniaturist, no matter how long the original text in question, the work succeeds or fails on the basis of the fine details and the harmony they establish; and this feeling for fine detail and the slowness Shklovsky deems necessary for art are evident in Martin’s casual writing.

In the era of hashtag activism translation has become much more prominent, there is the #namethetranslator campaign, and  many advocate for translators to receive what is said to be their due recognition. This is not something I can complain about, because it is to my benefit as well, and yet what attracted me to translating early on was the humility of the office, its relationship to craft in the old sense. The precedence taken by listening over speaking.

Through tortuous channels I heard that Martin was unwell and I wanted to devote a few words to him here in thanks and admiration.

Reading Knausgaard

I have begun reading Knausgaard again after an initial, disappointed first try. It is not especially like Proust, and my guess is that people who make this comparison have not read very much of Proust or the many other very long novels by Arno Schmidt, Anthony Powell, or Marguerite Young with which My Struggle might be compared, at least for variation’s sake. I wonder whether there is something in the Zeitgeist, if Zeitgeist is indeed a real thing, that compels both the literate and subliterate to stories told with a long arc, if there is an overarching cultural drive expressed in the compulsivity with which various persons read My Struggle or the Harry Potter novels or stay up for nights on end burning through whole seasons of Breaking Bad or The Wire; and if there is, what it might mean; whether it might, for example, bear some relation to the voyeuristic tendency that leads one to gawk at a person’s photos on social media or google people one hasn’t seen in years.

Sadly, the better part of book-reviewing, which has come increasingly to fall into the error of calling itself literary criticism, consists in the main of the deployment and redeployment of a small set of adjectives so weak and genetically similar that they resemble a tribe that has lived in long isolation and has no immunity from foreign invaders; as a consequence, when an apparently novel idea comes along, the contagion is near catastrophic. This has happened with the word “banality” in reference to Knausgaard: the notion that he should be praised for making the banal captivating or that the book’s profound allure and alleged banality constitute some sort of paradox. The word is useful because it doesn’t necessarily mean anything and people who write about Knausgaard do not take much trouble to be sure that it does, because then they would have to say something definite and hence falsifiable and taking a proper stand is not a well-developed habit among today’s field of professional, semi-professional, and self-elected literary opinion curators.

It is difficult to see why banality should be more characteristic of Knausgaard’s work than Chekhov’s, or Peter Taylor’s, or countless others’. In fact My Struggle is rife with nuanced discussions of art, emotional conflict, literature, the problem of integrity, and so forth.

My feeling is that actually the writing people have accustomed themselves to is so lacking in the basic skills a writer is supposed to exhibit –– a feeling for texture, for history as embodied in place, sensitivity to detail –– that they are surprised to find a living, still-young writer who displays them consummately, so much so that they herald him as unprecedented. I would not say that Knausgaard is over-hyped, because he writes beautifully and because there is no such thing as the proper amount of hype, in any case; but I have the sense that the exultation characterizing so much of the press surrounding him is as much a product of the deficiencies in literary culture typical of many writers of book-chat as it is of Knausgaard’s obvious talent.

There is a lovely description of frozen green beans in Book One of My Struggle, when Knausgaard is preparing dinner for his brother and his enfeebled grandmother. When he pours the vegetables from the bag, they are “covered in a thin layer of downy frost.” Whether or not a green bean is seen as a dignified subject, it is not at all right to call this observation banal. Elsewhere he describes the folds in an undertaker’s neck as lizardlike. Hundreds of times people look at lizards without noticing how the thin skin of their necks collapses in folds as they turn their head. Knausgaard’s doing so is not a break with what writers have done before; describing things better, more clearly, more truly than others is what writers have done for centuries.

I am never done thinking about the problem of sentimentality in art, and it came back to me this morning, because I am translating an awful book that purports to be a meditation on lost love and lost friendship. Among its less agreeable features are the comic scenes with their tiresome, overwrought jokes to which the characters naturally respond by laughing. The novelist has a poor memory, I think, and so he doesn’t remember what children actually thought was funny; or his powers of observation are poor, and he isn’t quite clear on what people normally find funny; or perhaps he has made the mistake of thinking the story is what matters and so the barest lineaments of a joke will do to move things forward, he can write “everyone laughed” and the effect will be like a laugh track on a syndicated comedy and will similarly trick the dimwitted into believing something comical has transpired.

A writer’s integrity hinges on the truth of such small moments.

Late in the first volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove and Yngve are drinking with their grandmother, and, enlivened by the alcohol, she begins to tell stories from her past. She reminds Yngve of how he stayed with her when he was a boy, and when his father came to pick him up, he had grown a beard, “And you ran upstairs shouting, ‘He’s not my Dad!'” She continues: “And then there was the time we were listening to the radio, and they were talking to the owner of Norway’s oldest horse. Do you remember that? ‘Dad, you’re the same age as Norway’s oldest horse,’ you said.”

It is hard to pin down what is so vibrant and true in passages like this; in some sense, that is the task of aesthetics, to clarify such intuitions.