Baudelaire, Correspondences

I don’t like the English translations of Baudelaire much. Is this one any better? I don’t know, but it was a way to amuse myself for a half-hour.

In nature’s shrine, where pillars quick
Perchance let mingled words emerge,
Man wends through symbol-forests thick,
Whose knowing gazes him observe.

Like echoes mingled from afar
In deep and tenebrous unity,
As vast as night, as clarity,
The perfumes, sounds, and colors hark.

Those perfumes cool like children’s skin,
Some oboe-sweet and prairie green
–– and others, rich, and rank with sin

Expansive as infinities
Of amber, resin, musk, incense,
Intone the bliss of soul and sense.

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.


Sebald’s untranslated interviews

Only recently did I become aware of Auf ungeheuer dünnem Eis, an anthology of interviews with W.G. Sebald, edited by Torsten Hoffmann. Who knows why it isn’t translated? Beyond offering insight into Sebald’s early concerns, his sometimes surprising sources, and his manner of composition, it gives much to consider for writers inclined to reckoning with disaster and tragedy, but hopeful of sidestepping the sanctimonious kitsch and self-regard that often thwart the longing for gravitas.

Most interesting for me were the frequent references to natural history: concerning Karl Kraus, Sebald speaks of the “corruption of society as an almost natural-historical phenomenon”; the same goes for the degradation of syntax and grammar between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and particularly of the conception of mankind:

What a Roussea produced in a single day in correspondence alone, composed in consummate French! For us today, such a thing is almost impossible, and I have the feeling that our weakening grasp of language across the course of time is a generalized, almost natural-historical phenomenon.

Mankind does not consist, as we still hoped in our liberal daydreams in the 19th century, of emancipated, autonomous individuals. It constitutes an at times heterogeneous, but in principal homogeneous mass. This mass has a molecular structure – that is, individuals – which may transition into another aggregate state. The more one heats a mass, the faster the molecules move, and all at once, the point is reached at which the fluid of mankind takes on a gaseous form.

… the individual, the lone autonomous essence, the superordinate, that is a mere dream we have elaborated in our bourgeois epoch. In fact, man is a collective phenomenon…

Regarding his method, Sebald speaks frequently of bricolage and of the need to foment coincidence, by travel and by an intimate engagement with primary source materials (an aspect of Sebald’s work seemingly lost on his legions of imitators):

This is a form of aboriginal labor, of pre-rational thinking, in which one rustles about in casually accumulated debris until a pattern somehow emerges.

On the importance of the material in his work: Things have a mute history… in objects, something like a mute, wordless history is condensed.

On Kafka: he experienced his own life as illegitimate.

He dwells as well on the diminished meaning of place-names in a time of unrelenting progress, of the relation between architectural monumentalism and paranoia, the evocativeness of black-and-white photography, the distinction between melancholy and depression, but I ought not quote too much here. The most painful and also most poignant impression the book leaves me with is Sebald’s sense of the transitory nature of the human perspective, which emerges as the outgrowth of overdetermining organic processes and will vanish, despite the delusion of individual sovereignty, at those same processes’ behest, leading one to wonder to what extent the longing for suicide inspired by the unfathomable magnitude of life on earth is actually a form of nostalgia…

NB: The translations here are approximate and should not be quoted.


From Josef Winkler, Graveyard of Bitter Oranges

I no longer remember Volker Lehrer, the older of the teacher’s two boys, save that he used to wear leather short pants and red wool stockings, that he was a dim-witted loser who tried too hard, and that he used to wrestle on the ground with his brother Gabriel, who liked to run up behind him and kick him in the seat of his leather trousers. Perhaps I remember Gabriel better because he is dead, and it arouses me more to write about the dead than to write while I think about the living. When his mother, Frau Bergjordan, as we used to call her, wanted him to come home, she would open the living room window in the schoolhouse where they lived, put a shrill black whistle to her lips, and empty her lungs into it. Does she stand sometimes before his grave, stuff the mouthpiece of her black whistle between her lips, and call out to him, telling him to come home? Dinner’s ready! You’ve got homework to do! There’s nothing else for you to do in the village once the evening bells have rung! Gabriel Lehrer took his life a few years after Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from the same rope in the parish house barn in my village. Gabriel was found dead by his mother and father, with a bullet in his blood-drenched head, in his parents’ room in Villach. His father, who taught me in my first two years of school, also took his own life a few years later. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills; shortly before, the doctor had diagnosed him with terminal cancer. He, who had spent his retirement traveling all over the world, said a few days before his death, Soon I will take my final journey! Sometimes, when he heard his mother’s long, shrill whistle, Gabriel would hide out on the Aichholzers’ farm, in the stables among the restive horses, in the hay shed, or behind the mill, and he would stay there for hours without moving. Ten or twenty times, and half an hour later ten or twenty times more, and again, ten or twenty times after another half-hour, and ten or twenty times after twenty more minutes had passed, his mother would blow her lungs out into the mouthpiece of the shrill black whistle, peering between the two flaps of the open window on the second floor of the schoolhouse and looking left and right before giving up for another hour. When she lies on her deathbed, will she breathe her last sigh into the black whistle she used in the village to summon her two sons, Gabriel and Volker? The church bells resounded through the village at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. Through the snowcapped village, irregular and strident, Miss Bergjordan’s whistle would blare whenever she wanted her two boys, who were always fighting, closer to hand. Lunch is ready! The water’s running in the bathtub! The wood’s not been chopped yet! Back when I used to steal money from my father or mother –– I no longer know exactly from which, maybe from both, to split the blame, the debt they owed me for my birth –– I would go to Paternion and buy stacks of Fix and Foxi comics from the shortsighted tobacconist, whom I stole from often enough too, and after I had leafed through them, I would give them to Gabriel Lehrer to read. Sometimes we would sit in an old carriage in the Aichholzers’ tool shed behind the stables. Chickens would run past us or settle down not far from our feet, nestling their bodies in the warm, dry earth, and peacock feathers lay here and there, the warmth of the birds’ bodies still present in the feathers’ waxy white quills. Gabriel Lehrer would ask me where I got the money to buy the comics. I would give an evasive answer. I used to take the church circular from house to house, I was the first acolyte, and in the spring I sold bouquets of snowdrops to passing tourists, from a young age I earned my own money, like the street children in Naples. Besides the comic books, I bought profiteroles, macaroons, and cream horns that we devoured in the carriage shed, bent over those tawdry stories. Gabriel Lehrer would trade these pulps the next day at the high school in Villach, and that day or the day after, we would be able to settle in again, the sharp scent of chicken dung in our noses, and pore over our reading in the Aichholzers’ shed until his mother’s shrill whistle would make us raise our heads. We would hide the dime store sagas under a dusty board in the carriage shed and set a time to meet back there, so we could read further. Later he suggested I give him the money so he could go to Villach and buy new Fix and Foxi comics, because the selection, as he described it, was much better there than in the country tobacconist’s. Resolutely, while my mother wandered through the cemetery with her watering can, I walked into the pantry, opened a drawer, and took out her wallet. If there was only one tenner among the loose change, I wouldn’t touch it; but there were many mixed in, so I took one, maybe even two. A few days later, Gabriel Lehrer –– who has taken his own life, like his father, in the interim –– brought me the tattered, ratty pulps he claimed to have bought with my money. Does he now, lying beneath the earth –– with blood still pouring from the bullet wound in his head –– read to the end those Fix and Foxi comics we never managed to finish, because the shrill piping of his mother as she leaned out of the house, looking around between the two flaps of the windows, blowing over and over into her black whistle, always interrupted us?

Graveyard of Bitter Oranges is available from Contra Mundum Press

Juan Benet on James Joyce

For the past two months I have been reading, in a typically overcompensatory fashion, the complete works of Juan Benet, to prepare for the foreword I will append to my translation of his Construction of the Tower of Babel, which I believe will come out in early 2017. Benet is a remarkable writer, peerless in twentieth-century Spain. His mind was nimble, his curiosity nearly boundless, his syntax as intricate and subtle as DeQuincey’s and his vision as unique, though far more extensive and recondite, as that of Rulfo, Faulkner, or Bernhard. His reputation hasn’t fared as well as it might have: in Spain, he is said to have disciples but no readers; in France, Pascale Casanova has written intelligent appraisals of his achievement, and his important work remains in print, but I don’t have the sense that its influence has reached writers of later generations; Suhrkamp published several of his books in Germany, though slowly they have gone out of print except for one. He was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa in the eighties: the books seem to have gotten decent reviews – A Meditation was blurbed by John Gardner – but Jeremy Davies, formerly of Dalkey Archive, is the only person I know who has read them. I imagine he suffers in translation: though an advocate of the grand style and contemptuous of Iberian insularity, there is something deeply Castilian, even Madrileño, in his writing, particularly in his stock of idioms, that doesn’t carry across easily: in the Rabassa translation, these swatches of local color vanish at times into incomprehensibility, as when the old commonplace coger el rábano por las hojas is translated literally. I would not be surprised to find similar occurrences in the French and German versions.

Benet is thought of as a fiction writer, and now, those who read him probably start with his first novel, Volverás a Región (Return to Región, in Rabassa’s version, or more literally, You Will Return to Región), read twenty or thirty pages, flip through the middle, read the last page, and give up. Benet is exasperating, but I do not think it is right to call him difficult; demanding seems to me the better word. Over long years of reading, one develops a multitude of bad habits that over time make of what at first was engaged appreciation a indolent receptivity little distinguishable from dozing; this is why so many critics lose their discernment with age and why Schopenhauer commends the art of not reading. It is impossible to read Benet lazily: a page skipped, a detail unattended, and too much is lost. Benet’s vocabularly is immense, encompassing archaisms and the respective parlance of technical science, philosophy, and letters, along with a liberal peppering of foreign phrasings and slang from the cities and countryside. Where one writer may content himsef with a vague description of mountain and lowlands and the position of the sun over some scant vegetation, as likely as not to be adventitious or out of season, Benet will spend ten pages on the geological movements giving rise to the specific landforms, the soil composition and mesoclimate. In his lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses, as elsewhere, Nabokov stresses the importants of a clear sense of the geography a tale sketches out, and draws a number of maps illustrating Bloom’s and Stephen’s travels. For Rusty Lances, his unfinished meditation on the Spanish Civil War, Benet published a topographical map of the imagined territory of Región at 1:150,000 scale.


A map of a route taken in Ulysses by Valdimir Nabokov


Juan Benet’s map of Región

Among doctoral students, who must form the better part of Benet’s readership, little mention is made of his essays, though they are arguably as accomplished as his fiction, and certainly provide a more amenable angle of approach to the body of his work. His expository style is urbane, elegant, and imperious, and gives some sense of his legendary sense of humor, which is not always apparent in his novels. In 1970, he was asked to provide a preface to Stewart Gilbert’s famous book on Ulysses, and with typical contumacity, used the space accorded him as the occasion for a public separation; a divorce, as he called it. The following quotes, representative of his never-quite-systematic but always penetrating aesthetic judgments, are taken from that essay.

A writer who with time – and borne aloft by his predilection for his own highjinks – searches for refinement by means of the substitution of a system of puns for a system of ideas, does not seem to me the most consummate intellectual  – as certain university professors assert with onerous insistence – if it is agreed to that intelligence is not an end in itself and the intellectual is something more than a tinkering mechanic who makes use of his abilities to define the maximal possibilites of artifice.

What cannot be denied is that [Joyce] was an innovator of the genre. What one must ask oneself, however, is whether his esteem derives solely from his innovations… and above all, from his having achieved them in such an explicit and deliberate manner. To begin, I ask myself as well – making use of examples from the past – whether the renovations and innovations of things as stable as the great literary genres – and the social taste they imply – may be achieved through a conscious will totally committed to such an end. I ask myself whether Tacitus, while he wrote the Annals, was conscious of casting into the world the first seed of uncertainty in history, of the lack of confidence in reason…

If the rare spirit makes use of anything, it is of a certain doctrinal uncertainty – as Keats would have it – convinced that its calling is not so much the ascertainment of hidden reality as the elucidation of certain of its many and contradictory enigmas.

What is in its essence original need not be intentionally original and from this I am led to conclude that what is so in its intention is rarely so in and of itself.

… wisdom is nothing more than a moment’s effort on the part of man to overcome and redeem himself from that radical idiocy that constitutes the substrate of his customs and the continuity of his consciousness.

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

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

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.

The Artistic Difficulty of the Woman as Such

ImageOn Sunday, the 28th of May, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh writes to his friend Anthon Van Rappard, concerning the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik, commonly known as Sien, whom he would live with for two years and who would drown herself in the Rotterdam harbor in 1904:

het leven is er over heengegaan en smart & tegenspoed hebben haar gemerkt –– nu kan ik er iets mee doen.

(The approved English translation of the Van Gogh Museum is: Life has given her a drubbing, and sorrow and adversity have left their mark on her — now I can make use of it.)

I came across this quote in a Spanish translation of Guido Ceronetti’s essay Dolore-Tempo-Thanatos: la donna in tre immagini. The Spanish translator, who probably did not look at the Dutch, is faced with an ambiguity upon encountering the partitive clitic “ne” in the Italian. The version in Ceronetti’s original text runs: Presentemente posso estrarne qualque cosa. Just afterward, Ceronetti quotes the same phrase in French, which was presumably the language of his edition of Van Gogh’s letters and which, like Italian, has a partitive clitic (en) at its disposal: en tirer quelque chose. The Spanish translator seems not to have had access to the Dutch original, and was unable to judge from grammatical evidence alone whether the ne in the Italian text or the en in the French referred to “sorrow and adversity” or to Sien herself. Compelled by the requirements of his language to make a choice, he has written: now I can make use of her.

Error or no, this elimination of Ceronetti’s ambiguity clears the way for a very fruitful manner of thinking about the text and about Van Gogh’s perception of this woman, in whose agonies he perceived a sort of divine torment that was perhaps necessary to his idea of art. The passage continues:

It is cruel and fascinating, this en tirer quelque chose. If he had not been able to get anything out of her, what would he have done? Would he have punished that body for not being sufficiently a man of sorrows [English in original]? And yet, the secret of Sien was to be precisely the sorrow-body required to satiate Vincent’s need to make himself responsible to any possible outcry against the world’s sidereal silence.

So often, art is predicated on the exploitation of the sufferings of others. In the so-called Western tradition, the sufferings of women have been particularly rich grist for this mill. In a sense, the suffering person is a pretext for, at best, the artist’s communion with his own fixed ideas, and at worst, an opportunity to exploit the guilty conscience of the audience for renown and money. Van Gogh seems, however, to have been decent, taking Sien in despite the scorn he faced from his family and writing, concerning her, to his brother Theo:

you who set great store by manners and culture, and rightly so, provided it’s the real thing – what is more cultured, more sensitive, more manly: to forsake a woman or to take on a forsaken one?

It is true though that he left her not long after.

Klaus Theweleit, in his enormous, unfinished tetralogy Das Buch der Könige, asserts that the history of Occidental art and literature can be examined as a mode of suppressing women’s physicality to permit their re-emergence in art:

… the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the organizing paradigm of the producing couple, which is not so much about the tragic failure to call back the beloved as about a deliberate program of delivering the woman’s body to Hades. In reanimating the body of the dead woman, the man produces new possibility––in other words, “art.”


Julien Green, Diaries

It is so hard to know how complicated life is or is not, or whether its complexity is an abstraction outside of time or depends upon the vicissitudes of self-presentation. Often I have felt that only the jarring, the unassimilable, can rouse one from the spiritual torpor on which the poetic sense of life probably feeds, and present a more just account of how things really are; but then, particularly when I am exhausted or in need of consolation, so-called simple thoughts, elegantly phrased, seduce me with their meditative tenor. 

For some years now I have had the idea that I should read the diaries of Julien Green, but other things always seemed more pressing. It is only because I was so taken with the beautiful cover and shape of this recently published selection, which I could not forget about once I had seen it in LA Central close to the MACBA in Barcelona, which is my favorite bookstore, and bought it the next time I was there, that I finally got around to them. There is a quality of restraint in his writing that recalls the humility of finely crafted instruments or furnishings the beauty of which lies in an absence of excess and an appropriateness to their

8 September 1933

I ask myself often what the sense of life might be, if it does in fact have one, and above all, to what degree the external world exists. What is the meaning, for example, of the disquiet in the Europe of the present moment, the fever in Germany, the anguish of so many men and women who see tomorrow so black and so rife with threats? It is evident that no one can answer this question, but frequently, I have the fleeting impression of glimpsing a world that doesn’t exist, or that doesn’t exist in the manner we imagine. Perhaps the material world has only a symbolic value. This is an idea that has been familiar to me since I was fifteen. Thus it may be that the universal disquiet is the imaginary representation of your own disquiet. The “crisis” is, first of all, inside you. The disorder of the world corresponds to an inner disorder that you rediscover in yourself.


The liberty of dreams cannot be reconstructed in a state of wakefulness.