David Bowie’s most overused word

Of all the things I thought I might blog about as 2016 gets underway, David Bowie’s death was certainly not one (typing the words still produces a faint shiver of disbelief); still less so, a small point of contact between the great man and one of “my” authors, Gabrielle Wittkop. But there it is: while immersed in the Bowie links filling my Facebook newsfeed (like the Man Who Fell to Earth in front of his bank of TV screens), I was delighted to see his Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair, and this suitably off-beat answer to the question “What is your most over-used word?”: chthonic.

Not “chthonic” as in “sonic” pronounced by a Starman down a crackly radio link to Ground Control, but “chthonic” as in:

chthonic, adj.

a. Dwelling in or beneath the surface of the earth.

1882   C. F. Keary Outl. Primitive Belief v. 215   The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.
1885   19th Cent. Dec. 920   The original chthonic character of the wife of Zeus.
1903   Daily Chron. 29 Dec. 3/3   Two great and contrasted forms of ritual—the Olympian and the Chthonic, the one a ritual of cheerful..character, the other a ritual of gloom, and fostering superstition.
1941   T. S. Eliot Dry Salvages v. 15   Driven by dæmonic, chthonic Powers.
1957   V. G. Childe Dawn European Civilization (ed. 6) xviii. 331   The invaders..patronized native cults or gave them a new celestial, rather than chthonic, orientation.

And, by extension:

1928   H. G. Baynes & C. F. Baynes tr. C. G. Jung Contrib. Analyt. Psychol. 118   The chthonic portion of the mind—if we may use this expression—that portion through which the mind is linked to nature, or in which, at least, its relatedness to the earth and the universe seems most comprehensible.

(“chthonic, adj.” OED Online.
Oxford University Press, December 2015.
Web. 14 January 2016.)

I was delighted because Bowie’s “most overused word” actually occurs (in French) somewhere towards the beginning of Gabrielle Wittkop’s dark novella Sérènissime Assassinat, and hence also somewhere towards the beginning of my translation of the same, under the title Murder Most Serene, out now from Wakefield Press in the US. In a palazzo on the Fondamenta Rezzonico, in the dying years of the Serene Republic of Venice, Wittkop offers a chilling portrait of the assembled cast of her wonderfully arch, decadent poison-fest, not least:

“…Reclining deep in a bergère, Ottavia Lanzi, at seventy-one a lofty, still slim figure in her gown of richly woven black atlas. Her once-brown hair is powdered to a silvery shade that offsets her fiery gaze. Widowed at eighteen, just weeks before Alvise’s birth, she has never remarried. She has written burlesque poetry, and a quite remarkable treatise, Il canone principale della poetica venexiana. […] She steers her thinking firmly in the direction of the Enlightenment, but completely counter to that which is darkest within her, chthonic and archaic: her wild, Pythian raptures.”

When I reported this tiny “Bowie and me” connection on Facebook, Wakefield Press‘s pubisher Marc Lowenthal commented: “I’d like to think he would have been a Wittkop fan if he had gotten the chance to engage with her books.”

On Twitter, Bowie’s local NY bookshop, McNally Jackson, confirmed that:

“We were lucky enough to occasionally get to sell books to David Bowie, who, in addition to being, you know, Bowie, was also a great reader. He bought great stuff, read weirdly and widely—across genres, in translation—and he was chatty and curious with staff. So here’s to Bowie, a hero forever and ever. Also, Bowie once said that one of his most overused words was “chthonic.” That alone is enough to earn a place in our hearts forever.”

So this eclectic genius read “weirdly and widely” (and in translation…) and claimed to have overused a small word packed with so many consonants it’s almost Welsh, that stands for the whole vast, dark world of things subterranean and sub-conscious, and pre-conscious, and ineffable.  Precisely the things evoked in the Blackstar videos, it seems to me: ideas beyond language, subliminal, communicable “across genres” and across media, in music, images and soundscapes combined. Something far more deeply interfused (as Wordsworth put it). Something understood.

Like Marc,  I’d like to think Bowie would have loved Wittkop’s writing, and  Murder Most Serene. He certainly seems to have appreciated Venice: one of his last public sightings was on a trip there with his daughter, Lexi. A 2013 video for Louis Vuitton/L’initiation au voyage, featuring Bowie on harpsichord singing I’d rather be high, brings the pages of Wittkop’s book vividly to life.

Venice was also the setting for a truly great, recent celebration of Bowie’s contribution to British national life (one he endorsed more enthusiastically than the offers of a knighthood and a CBE). In 2013,  Jeremy Deller’s English Magic transformed the British pavillion at the Venice Biennale into an alternative mini museum complete with its very own tearoom, and a gallery devoted to Bowie’s 1973 UK Ziggy Stardust tour, displaying a map, photographs and an assessment of its importance as a turning point in British culture. Resonating with the installation’s anti-capitalist theme, extracts from the lyrics of Bowie’s song The Man Who Sold the World flanked the entrance, while its melody – in a haunting rendition by the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London – became part of the soundtrack to the English Magic film. The Melodians themselves – in all their splendid cultural, ethnic and generational diversity – played live at the opening.

In May 2013 I emerged from the pavillion buzzing – actually tearful – with excitement, ideas and happiness. Like Bansky at Weston-super-Mare last summer, Deller gave us some very fine reasons to be proud to be British (though not the ones endorsed by the sort of people who accept their offers of knighthoods and CBEs). As for Bowie, well, even if that viral tweet about the world being 4 billion years old and “you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie” turns out to have been originally intended for Justin Bieber (yes, Justin Bieber…) it still expresses precisely how I felt then and there, on the steps of the British pavillion, with his music ringing in my ears, and images of Ziggy dancing before my eyes.

So Bowie, and Venice, and Wittkop, and me, all connected through one small, allusive word in my latest translation. Apophenia again! (It’s a fascinating condition, I’ve blogged about it before…). A good enough way to kick off 2016.

The Longest Day

A week ago today, France celebrated its 33rd Fête de la Musique, an event instigated on June 21, 1982 by Jack Lang, as President Mitterrand’s Minister of Culture. Conceived as a kind of amnesty for amateur street musicians, it was much-loved for decades but is now bemoaned in almost equal measure (“Oh là là, c’est la dé-faite de la musique!!” etc.). Traveller and raconteur Jean Rolin takes up the story (from Zones, in which Rolin becomes a stranger in his own city, circumnavigating the French capital’s notorious banlieues, the outlying zones of the city’s transport system, beyond the périphérique beltway). His description is as perennial as the grim concrete limbo he portrays:

Tuesday June 21, 1994

Around eight o’clock, I ate dinner on rue Saint-Blaise – the upper section, the part that has been saved, by some burst of organised outrage, no doubt, from the dismal fate of the lower section, metamorphosed now into a purgatory for the expiation of the poor and the fermenting of insurrections to come. Today is the Fête de la Musique. (Lord, preserve us from the Fête de la Musique, preserve us from Jack Lang – may we never see his like again – preserve us from commemorations, from two-hundredths, and from fifty-somethingths, preserve us from all that the State sees fit to organise for our edification).

At 10 p.m. a band – The Insects – began to play in the open air at the foot of the church of Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, to a heterogeneous audience consisting essentially of the very young, and African families, and children dancing on the kerb, in that way that children do.  Innocent enjoyment filled the air, and all through the neighbourhood only one old curmudgeon was to be seen, crossing the square with his hands over his ears. The Insects’ music was not, it has to be said, notable for its delicacy or refinement; the singer bawled into his mic fit to burst his external carotids, and the drummer and bassist thrashed their respective instruments with equal fury. From my spot near one of the amps, I noticed – as long ago, when I had occasion to visit a nightclub, and to enjoy the experience – how music of this sort, at saturation point (and only then), has the power to induce a sense of absolute, faraway calm, and inner silence, like the desert night. When it stops, it can be hard to move on. Besides, the more I watched The Insects, the more I decided they were a thoroughly likeable crew. I liked the way everything about them expressed their ostentatious embrace of a truly unhealthy existence – white nights, alcohol, cigarettes and the rest. They were in bad shape, and they were doing everything in their power to make matters worse. Here, at least, were three young men unlikely to be encountered jogging beneath the trees in a public park. I should add that I found all of this pleasing and heartening only inasmuch as they were clearly having a blast. When they had delivered their set, the group’s leader informed the assembled company that The Insects would be playing the following month in a nightclub, which he identified by name only. Then, struck by the realisation that he was not addressing the band’s usual audience, and that this evening’s crowd– too young, or too old, or too entirely this side of the périphérique – had doubtless never heard of the venue, and would be quite incapable of finding it unaided, he seized the mic again with a mischievous but by no means disdainful (in fact rather affectionate) leer, and added “That’s in Pigalle… Tossers!”

fete-de-la-musique1English translation copyright Louise Rogers Lalaurie, 2015, courtesy of Editions Gallimard.
Jean Rolin, Zones, © Gallimard, 1995
Photograph of the Fête de la Musique from http://www.talkinfrench.com by Frédéric Bibard
http://www.talkinfrench.com/10-exciting-must-experience-french-festivals/

Events, events… (3) Launching “Tregian’s Ground”

To the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, on April 28, for the launch of Tregian’s Ground by Anne Cuneo, co-translated with Roland Glasser and published this spring by And Other Stories.

Tregians-Ground_-17-sept-FINAL-300x460

Already hailed on Twitter as ‘Wolf Hall with harpsichords’, Tregian’s Ground is the fictional memoir of its not-at-all fictional hero Francis Tregian, the ‘gentleman and musician’ of the book’s sub-title. Francis was a Cornish recusant, persecuted under Elizabeth I and generally thought to have died in the Fleet prison, though Anne has him living incognito, and in exile, in Switzerland, where he takes it upon himself to set down the story of his colourful ‘life and sometimes secret adventures’. Tregian has been identified by Anne and others as the compiler and scribe of the celebrated Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an important compendium of early keyboard scores in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum. And while scholarly debate continues to rage on the subject (doubtless with all the swashbuckling panache of Anne’s novel – ‘Have at you, Sir!’, ‘On guard!’), we felt duty bound to side with our author, and to celebrate the long-awaited English translation of her 1993 best-seller at the home of the Virginal Book itself.

Better still, the Fitzwilliam offered to display the manuscript in its spectacular, red-walled central gallery, a glorious setting for our readings from the translation, interspersed with harpsichord music by Byrd, Morley, Farnaby and others, performed by Anne’s long-standing friend and colleague, Patrick Ayrton. There could be no more fitting tribute to the author – one of Switzerland’s best-known journalists, broadcasters and writers of genre fiction – who died of cancer just before her book was printed and published in English. Anne had kept a close eye on proceedings, throughout, and she would be with us now. As she herself had said, just a few months before: ‘Patrick will be my voice.’

Patrick_2

Francis’s life and sometimes secret adventures are full of encounters with the great and good of his day – English musicians Thomas Morley, William Byrd and Giles Farnaby, Elizabeth I, Cardinal Allen, Henry Wriotheseley (Earl of Southampton, the putative ‘onlie begetter’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets), even Shakespeare himself. Appropriately enough, we spotted a huge, glittering portrait of the Virgin Queen gracing one wall of the gallery, opposite the Virginal Book in its vitrine.

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton. British School. Oil on canvas, height 188 cm, width 109 cm, circa 1603.

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton. British School. Oil on canvas, height 188 cm, width 109 cm, circa 1603.

Rachel Sinfield of the Fitzwilliam put us straight. The lady was not Elizabeth I but Elizabeth, Countess of Southampton, the wife of Henry Wriotheseley. Earlier, unaware of this happy coincidence, I had decided not to read my translation of a passage featuring our hero and ‘Mr W.H.’ as bachelors-about-town in Tudor London, but I can share it here:

I had never heard so much gossip in all my life [as here in London]. Utter strangers would take you aside in a window-seat and cheerfully review the entire assembled company, and much of the rest of society, too. I prefer not to imagine what was said about me.
‘People are surprised you do not take a closer interest in women,’ says Henry (being of the same age and rank, we now call one another by our Christian names). ‘They wonder whether you prefer men. Fine and handsome as you are, with such extraordinary eyes, it’s inconceivable that you should love no one, and there are many who would love you.’
I had heard rumours to the effect that the young Earl might prefer men himself. I had seen him retire with a young woman, and with a young man, too. I did not know what to think. From the way Henry framed his question, I understood: he was testing the terrain, with great delicacy. His personal beauty was indeed troubling. Even I felt it, who have never had a taste for men. And his openness and generosity in every gesture, every smile, his apparent purity of heart, despite the occasional flash of cunning, his ready accessibility to all, conferred on him an irresistible charm. Even Shakespeare, that indefatigable ladies’ man, had succumbed to it. This angelic youth invited confidences, an innocent smile playing at his lips, and I fought hard not to tell him everything. But I had to cut short the gossip and supposition.
‘I do love a woman, indeed, with all my heart,’ I told him. ‘And I beg you not to ask me her name. I cannot tell you, for my own honour and hers. I should appreciate it, too, if the news did not reach my family.’
‘You can depend on me,’ he said, with a bow. I’m not sure he believed me. ‘And you?’ I asked, as if to return Wriothesley’s polite interest.
‘Oh, I . . . My family would like me to marry Lady Elizabeth Vere, the daughter of the late Earl of Oxford, and Lord Burghley’s granddaughter. He is my guardian and has even managed to secure the promise of marriage. I know it would be an advantageous match. She is charming. But – how shall I say this, Francis – I am not ready to live with a woman. All around me, everyone marries according to their family’s wishes, and then the husband goes his way and the wife hers. My mother tells me this is quite normal in married life. But I . . . I see the power of love. I see that it can lead to appalling tragedy, that the wisest men have lost their minds for love. Look at Shakespeare – Emilia Lanier has led him a fine dance: when it comes to her, he is like a child. I know all that, I see it, but I dream of a marriage of true minds, a woman who will fill my life with long years of happiness. Com- pared to that, all my wanton nights are mere lust in action. Nothing more.’ He confided in me quite spontaneously, with warmth and honesty. He expressed what we all dream of, but seldom put into words. I understood how Shakespeare had found inspiration in this young man. He was a stimulant, a revealer of truths. […]

While staying at Southampton House, Tregian enjoys a night’s music-making with his friends Thomas Morley and Giles Farnaby:

We barely notice the fading light, and then we have no desire to take our leave.The Morleys’ lackey runs to fetch Jack, my valet, who is waiting for me at The Bear nearby, and he takes our excuses to the Southamptons and Farnabys.
We part at first light, having sung and played all the night through. I note down the pieces written by my two friends and those by their best- loved composers – Bull, Dowland, Ferrabosco and others – and leave with my pockets stuffed full of music.
I reach the courtyard of Southampton House at dawn, cheerful and dishevelled, dragging my valet behind me like a man walking in his sleep. I find Henry awake.
‘Ah, I knew you would succumb to the charms of an English lady, sooner or later!’ he says, laughing out loud. ‘Or was it an English man?’ he adds quietly, with a wink.
‘Two English ladies by the name of Euterpe and Terpsichore,’ I inform him. And without waiting for a reply, I climb the two flights of stairs to bed, with my valet at my heels.

Trotting down the Fitzwilliam’s monumental staircase at the end of our afternoon in the company of Francis, Morley, Farnaby et al., we felt every bit as cheerful. Our valets weren’t at our heels, but I trust Anne was with us in spirit.

Patrick_1 Tregian_2With thanks to our translator colleague Martin Cassell for his photographs of the event.
Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Harpsichord hire: Dr Dan Tidhar, Consultune Ltd., Cambridge

Furtive translation

Imagine my delight – after June’s post Of Mermaids and Mandalas, with all its talk of apophenia, fish-scales, mermaid’s tails, translated relics and the exotic bedazzlement of medieval Christian art – at finding myself quite by coincidence in Conques, a tiny village in the depths of the French department of Aveyron, noted for its fish-scale rooftiles and the bejewelled splendours of its medieval treasury, brought there by what the local church authorities are pleased to call ‘furtive translation’  (the smuggling of sainted relics from one place to another).

20140614_162500Conques5

Apophenian heaven! (As explained in my last post, apophenia is defined in Wikipedia as the ‘ “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but […] has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general.’ I am an  enthusiastic sufferer.)

Conques today is a place of miraculously preserved, Harry Potter-ish, Diagon Alley-esque quaintness, a gem on the pilgrim path through France to Compostela,  surrounded by wild woods, far from the madding world, its most obvious modern intrusion being the understated, monochrome windows by Pierre Soulages adorning the great basilica of Sainte Foy (St Faith).conques4conques1

Foy (pronounced fwah) was a 4th-century Christian convert and martyr, and the object of an important cult in her native city of Agen, until five hundred years later, when a monk from Conques removed her relics, ostensibly to save  them from the sack of the region by Norman invaders (but with the collateral benefit of transforming his isolated hermitage into a popular and lucrative pilgrim attraction). Whether stolen or ‘furtively translated’, the relics brought visitors,  wealth, art and  renown to the tiny hamlet: a soaring twin-towered basilica, fabulous carvings and the extraordinary gold reliquary containing Faith’s remains.

Conques7Enthroned as the centrepiece of the basilica’s astonishing treasury, this is as rich and strange an object as anything that has come down to us from the Christian church of the early Middle Ages – as if a piece of the Pala d’Oro in Venice had broken away and morphed, CGI-wise, into human form. Apparently constructed (in part) using the gold bust of a late Roman emperor, studded all over with multicoloured gems, enamels and Antique cameos, the dazzling gold case encloses a wooden base known rather wonderfully in French as the âme or soul. Analysis of the object during restoration work revealed successive stages of elaboration, before the piece was again smuggled away for safe-keeping, probably from zealous Protestant iconoclasts in the 16th century. The idol (it looks for all the world like some exotic pre-Columbian artefact) was hidden in the masonry of the choir, at the heart of the basilica, and Conques sank once again into neglect and oubli.

The village’s second renaissance came in the 19th century, thanks to Prosper Mérimée in his capacity as France’s national Inspector of Historical Monuments. Arriving in Conques, and wondering at the basilica’s extraordinary carvings, especially the Judgement lintel over the west door, he declared that he ‘had been unprepared for the discovery such riches in such a desert.’ Restoration work began, and Ste Foy was exhumed from her hiding place. Today, that 9th-century act of ‘furtive translation’ draws fascinated pilgrims and tourist crowds to Conques. The tiny village is a site of unexpected marvels and inspiration, presenting treasures from another place to a delighted public.

Literary translators (furtive or otherwise) and their readers will of course appreciate the analogy.

Of mermaids and mandalas

I haven’t blogged for months, but at last I find myself between translations, riding the TGV south from Paris, with a window to write. A real window, too, with distant views of the eastern edge of the Massif Central, its smoky blue skyline like the top of a great wave gathering height. Time to think about books translated, and translations to come, and things I’ve read recently for private pleasure in this brief break from work. Connections emerge. Like the heroes of Jean Rolin’s The Explosion of the Radiator Hose or Sebald’s Vertigo, I’m an enthusiastic apophenian, prone to a condition defined by Wikipedia as the ‘unmotivated seeing of connections […] which has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general…’.

Jean Rolin’s Congo journey (Dalkey Archive Press 2011) was my first full-length fiction translation, and I’m about to start work on my fifth, for Wakefield Press. Sérènissime Assassinat (‘Murder Most Serene’) is a fabulous Venetian poisonfest by the strange, dark and wonderful Gabrielle Wittkop, set at the decline and fall of the Serene Republic, where the grisly deaths suffered by the serial wives of Count Alvise Lanzi provoke gossip and speculation among the denizens of the Libro d’Oro, the city’s celebrated Golden Book, its pages inscribed with the names of Venice’s oldest and grandest families.

Venice is a fitting backdrop for a work of translation: the city owes some of its splendour to an act of translation in the other (true? literal?) sense – the bringing across of the remains of the evangelist and Christian martyr Mark from Alexandria, making it an important place of pilgrimage.  And Wittkop is the perfect writer to celebrate Venice’s characteristic mix of beauty and decay, its stunning assertion of civilisation and art (all that gold and marble, colour and architecture, all those glittering mosaics) in a featureless wash of sea and sky, its embodiment of human ingenuity and rottenness alike, its determination to celebrate life amid the persistent whiff of death. Like her cinematic kindred spirit Peter Greenaway, Gabrielle Wittkop’s work is full of all these things. Unafraid of death, she put an end to her own life in 2002, at the age of 82, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, choosing to skip the unenticing final episode of a long, richly eventful, sexually adventurous existence, and to die as she had lived – in her own words – ‘a free man.’

Wittkop loved Venice, the mermaid city, wedded to the sea. Like her writing, Venice is outlandish, beautiful, and a rich source prurient fascination (all those smells, all that fluorescent seaweed slopping at the foot of marble palace walls). And so to the pages of Vanity Fair (the March 2014 issue; I have it with me on the train). Lili Anolik’s brilliant piece All About Eve has this to say about L.A. party girl and boho intellectual Eve Babitz, scarred by horrific burns following a motor accident:

‘…she tells me what her skin looks like (“I’m a mermaid now, half my body.”) That last remark is the one that knocks me out the most. I love it not simply because it shows how tough she is, how un-whining, but because of its sneaky eroticism. She’s comparing her burned epidermis – a painful and grisly condition, a disfigurement – to the scales of a mermaid, the femme fatale of the sea. As an image it’s grotesque and romantic at once. Not just sexy, perversely sexy. Not just perversely sexy, triumphantly perversely sexy.’

This is pure Wittkop. A couple of years ago, leading a discussion of her writing with MA students at the University of London Institute in Paris, I found many who shared my enthusiasm, but others unable to suspend their moral abhorrence: one passage, from Gabrielle’s memoir Chaque jour est un arbre qui tombe, describes the fascinating beauty of a leper’s skin, and the same man’s piercingly human, ‘salacious’ eye, jewel-bright in its exotic setting.  Wittkop’s novel The Necrophiliac (translated by Don Bapst; ECW Press 2011) was hailed by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian as a masterpiece, but perhaps not one you’d care to be seen reading on your morning commute. Triumphantly, perversely sexy.…

It’s an imaginative leap from Venice to the icy expanses of the Finnmark wilderness, and Oliver Truc’s début crime novel Le dernier lapon (‘Forty Days Without Shadow’ in my translation; Little, Brown, 2014). But beauty and mortality are here in abundance, too, not to mention grotesquely fascinating body parts (a pair of severed human ears). And violent death, in a shocking murder and the slow agony of an entire people, the Sami, Europe’s last indigenous nomads. There’s even the potential for mermaids, unlikely as that may seem: one of the best reads of my work hiatus has been Elisabeth Gifford’s Hebridean novel Secrets of the Sea House, which includes a reference to the intriguing theory that mermaids (or Selkies) in the stories and legends of the north-western Scottish isles might well be our last record of a lost people – the Sea Sami, expert kayakers, travelling far from their base on the Norwegian coast, skimming the waves in slender, sealskin craft, their legs encased (crucially) in glossy, waterproof sheaths made from strips of translucent seal gut. Mer-people par excellence, and proof that truth can indeed be stranger than the imaginings of fiction. Strange but true… it occurs to me that yet another mermaid appears in my co-translation of Antoine Laurain’s Parisian ‘fairytale’ The President’s Hat (with Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken of Gallic Books). The ‘mythical, fish-tailed creature’ is the emblem and muse of perfumier Pierre Aslan, under whose aegis he makes a triumphant return from the deserts of depression to new inspiration and life (her trident is a perfumier’s scent strip-holder).

Mermaid

 

I’ve finished a long-standing read in my short break between books: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road (John Murray 2013), the concluding volume of the trilogy that began with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Mermaids are conjured in the pages of the author’s Green Diary, written when he was a young man of twenty, touring the monasteries of Mount Athos in the mid-1930s:  ‘The first glimpse of Simonopetra is magnificent. It is perched high up on the mountain, looking as if it grows straight from the peak beneath it, the brick blending as imperceptibly with the rock as a mermaid with her tail…’  A few pages on, and a fishtail flash of gold returns us to the quasi-Venetian splendours of a frescoed monastery church, with its ‘host of saints and martyrs, the serried ranks of their haloes diminishing in the distance, and interlapping as neatly as fish scales.’

All that to say – what exactly? (We apophenians are enthusiastic pursuers of signs and hidden meanings, but it’s so much more fun to keep travelling than to arrive…). Perhaps quite simply that, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, ‘the world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’ Or as Wittkop herself puts it in the prologue to Murder Most Serene, with a few imaginative leaps and bounds we may cross broad chasms and traverse vast deserts with ease (see ‘Translation is… bunraku?’ on this blog).

One of the loveliest passages in Wittkop’s writing (and there are more than a few – it’s not all death, transgression and decay) occurs in her aforementioned memoir Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe (‘Each Day is a Tree That Falls’).  The narrator takes a plane flight and finds herself with the gift of time, gazing through the porthole at the sky, until her thoughts resolve themselves – through imaginative leaps, unexpected connections, immanent formal correspondences – into a radiant, ordered pattern of compelling beauty,  ‘like a mandala.’

I’m greatly looking forward to translating Gabrielle’s work.

Dog Days

It’s hot. La canicule here in France – officially defined as a temperature of 20°C or more by night and 33°C or more by day, for a period of three or more days. Wikipedia confirms and clarifies my vague notion of the word’s etymology: from the Latin canicula or ‘little dog’, another name for the Dog Star Sirius which rises and sets with the Sun (in the northern hemisphere) between July 24 and August 24. The Dog Days. What better time, then, to enjoy the canine-themed summer edition of World Literature Today. ‘Four legged fictions’ includes prose and poetry from  Esther Rusquets, Mark Tredennick, Jacques Roubaud, and Jean Rolin (in my translation).

http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2013/july

And if you enjoy Rolin’s canine take on the charitable initiatives and economy of a run-down neighbourhood of Mexico City, you might like this, from the same book,  Un chien mort après lui (‘A Dead Dog After Him’) – an anthology of the author’s encounters with stray dogs and their attendant human communities around the world:

Santiago de Chile

My room at the Hotel Foresta is just half-a-dozen blocks from the Moneda Palace and facing it, Constitution Square. And a few months before, this square was the theater of an unusual news story, the hero of which was a dog. Not only that, but a dog bearing the name El Rucio, or Red-face, which was also the nickname attributed by his men to France’s Napoleonic Maréchal Ney. As a long-time fan of the latter, the fact that he and the dog are virtual homonyms inspired an interest in its misadventures that I may not otherwise have felt, or not to same degree at any rate. In the articles about him in the Chilean press, El Rucio, and others of his kind implicated in the same news story, were described with a variety of nouns testifying to the rich canine vocabulary of the Spanish language: can, perro, perro vago or perro callejero, quadropedo, or quiltro – the latter a specifically Chilean term with affectionate overtones, borrowed from the language of the Mapuche Indians. These are the circumstances in which the animal achieved his notoriety.

On the eve of Michelle Bachelet’s investiture as president of the republic, thirty or so dogs living around the lawns and shrubberies of Constitution Square were rounded up by the police and liquidated by various means. The disappeared – all without trace – included La Shakira, Al Maton, and Isabelito (aka Pituto), to the great displeasure of some of the locals, mostly executive types because this is essentially a business neighborhood, who, ministering to the dogs’ various needs, saw themselves as their guardians and protectors. (Some, like Fernando Rolleri and Carolina Guerrero, who we will meet again later, had even organised themselves into a not-for-profit association of canine benefactors, referred to in the press by the initials OPRA). Of all the stray dogs on Constitution Square, only El Rucio had reappeared after the round-up. Described as a “mix of German Shepherd and Golden Retriever,” he also happened to be the most popular member of the pack, thanks to his gentle, playful nature (it said in the newspaper) and his seniority: eight years beneath the windows of the Moneda Palace so that he had, it was noted, seen off three heads of state in succession.

The press was united in its account of all of the above. As was the online community of bloggers and social networkers. Accounts diverged subsequently, however, on two points of equal importance: who had ordered the massacre, and under what circumstances had El Rucio managed to escape? On the first point, a head of department at the Ministry of Public Health – one Doctor José Antonio Segura – was willing to accept responsibility for the deed, noting that his colleagues had only resorted to such extreme measures after trying in vain to persuade the locals – including, no doubt, the benefactors of the OPRA – to adopt the dogs targeted for eradication. (Which deed was necessary, said José Antonio, due to the threat posed by the “dominant” dogs who, disturbed by the intrusion of such a large number of people into their territory, were likely to attack members of the public during the presidential inauguration). Doctor Segura’s words failed to satisfy the online community, nonetheless. Perros.wordpress.com, in particular, claimed to have spent “no less than two weeks” tracing the animals, attributing ultimate responsibility to a man by the name of Ilbaca – or Llabaca – the “director of the Santiago Sanitation Authority”, against whom the blogger called for criminal charges under a law forbidding the killing of dogs “except in the case of epidemics or a threat to public health” (the square’s dogs could not be carrying rabies, the blogger continued, “because there are no rabid bats in the center of Santiago”). Perros.wordpress.com ended by stressing that this massacre of innocent creatures augured ill for the “new Socialist government”, arousing legitimate suspicions of a hidden political agenda behind his or her words (especially given that Michelle Bachelet’s government was not Socialist as such, but a coalition).

Confusion reigned, too, over the circumstances of El Rucio’s escape. According to Fernando Rolleri, president of the OPRA (the aforementioned association of dog lovers) the police officers assigned to round up the dogs had kept him to one side on their own initiative because he had become, in their eyes, something of a mascot (su regalón). A woman named Ana María Jara – a banking executive – confirmed that she had seen El Rucio taken away with the others, and agreed with Rolleri’s supposition. But Carolina Guerrero, also described in the July 6, 2006 edition of Las Ultimas Noticias as “president of the OPRA” (making at least two in this august office) and otherwise as “an attractive female executive” and “El Rucio’s best friend,” discounted this theory, confirming for her part that the now-legendary dog had escaped the round-up by chance, and that on the same day, in unspecified circumstances, he had been the victim of an attack that had almost taken out one of his eyes, and seriously wounded one of his legs. Or rather one of his “little paws”, in the words of another newspaper, so that the doggy, reinstated now in his usual spot on Constitution Square, was refusing to “shake hands” as he had always done before. This was confirmed by a photograph showing him lying down, head cocked to one side, with the Moneda Palace in the background. Inevitably, visitors coming upon the palace from the intersection of Agustinas and Morandé are reminded of the pictures of Allende sporting a military helmet, or of tanks firing and Hawker Hunters flying overhead – fitting pointers to the triviality of my own perspective on the scene.

As for our canine hero, I encountered him shortly afterwards – unmistakable with his long reddish-blond coat and blue wall eyes. In the north-east corner of Constitution Square, beside a bed of red sage bushes, El Rucio lay in the shadow cast by a statue of General José Miguel Carrera, and almost across the booted, laced-up feet of a man in khaki uniform, sporting a flat-topped cap, immediately identifiable as one of the police guards who had probably saved his life. A great many other uniforms stood motionless, at ease or on guard, around the edges or down the middle of the gardens extending in front of the Moneda Palace. As for the dogs, they were once again present in large numbers (nature having taken its course), and among them I noticed a very pretty little bitch, her head divided into two differently-colored zones along a meridian from the top of her skull to the tip of her muzzle. Lying stretched out across a path lined with trees, and continually stepped over by passers-by, she feigned sleep with such determined obstinacy that she might have been mistaken for dead, were it not for the rise and fall of her ribcage, and the occasional pricking of an ear. At the end of this first visit, I returned to the Hotel Foresta along Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. On the corner of O’Higgins and Ahumada, a dog lay curled on the sidewalk, as if in his very own virtual basket (perhaps his mind’s eye had conjured its wicker sides and the stuffing in the cushions), forming a tight circle, nose to tail, the latter luxuriantly fluffy with a hint of red, making him looking exactly like a fox in children’s story book. At the end of Santa Lucia I reached the banks of the Mapocho river at the Loreto bridge. The brown waters rolled by with a muffled roar, pricked all over with neat, fixed ripples between the almost sheer sides of its concrete embankments. In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Andes were just visible in the haze, and for a moment the scene was a vivid reminder of the banks of the Miljacka as it flows through Sarajevo, so that it seemed to me – relentless good cheer being difficult to maintain, along with our defences against dark thoughts like these – that the two rivers, at least one of which had borne quantities of corpses downstream, shared the same malevolent, funereal quality.  And it so happened when I returned to Constitution Square that evening, shortly after sunset, while the business district disgorged its daytime population of office workers, that I was attacked with no apparent motive by the entire, assembled pack of dogs – a good thirty of them – including the little two-tone bitch, living up to her descriptor, I felt, but with the notable exception of El Rucio. I owe my salvation to nothing more than a sudden change of heart on the part of the pack which, having spotted an even more detestable or apparently more edible figure on the sidewalk on Teatinos, left off attacking me and threw themselves upon him with even greater fury, so that the unfortunate man was forced to fight them off like the hapless prey he was, signalling his distress with much waving of arms and loud cries, attracting no more assistance on my part than he himself had demonstrated just a few moments before, with myself in the role of the helpless victim.

English translation copyright Louise Rogers Lalaurie, 2013

French edition: Editions P.O.L., 2009.      

Photograph of Santiago de Chile (and perhaps El Rucio himself) by Basti: http://takeyourbackpackandgo.com/chile/santiago-de-chile-the-city-of-dogs

Classics revisited – and Austen at 200

Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been celebrating vicariously with BBC Radio 4, including a delightful report from the Austen house this morning, delivered from the very spot on which Jane received her first copy from the publisher.  She read it aloud to a lucky listener that same day, making no mention of herself as the author. I haven’t  re-read the novel itself for at least two decades,  but know I would find a great deal more in it now than I did back then. As when looking afresh at any work of art one hasn’t experienced for years…

The 2002 Matisse/Picasso exhibition at the Galeries du Grand Palais in Paris opened with the two painters’ self-portraits hung side-by-side, both of which I had last seen (in print only) almost two decades earlier, as a history of art student. Faces I had registered then simply as ‘two famous men’ sprang to life now. Picasso (or I ) had effected a kind of reverse Dorian Gray shift: he was younger than me this time around, forceful, sensual, stocky, muscular, determined, burning with inspiration. Matisse was no longer just a well-known artist painting a famous picture of himself with green flesh tones instead of pink: he looked cautious, wary, reserved, questioning the choices he was making on the canvas. On the brink of middle age, he was still a far cry from the twinkly, iconic persona of his last years. The paintings hadn’t changed but I had, and there was so much more to see in them now.

  

Reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, in my teens, I loved the superficial fun of Lizzie and her father’s ongoing private joke, their arch derision of the lesser-brained members of the Bennet family. I felt the Bennet girls’ acute pain in love and loss, too, of course. But the subtlety and depth of the book’s characters were mostly lost. The same fictional folk are revisited in the Guardian this weekend (‘Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at 200 : looking afresh at a classic’). Messrs Bennet and Darcy undergo perceptive analysis and character assassination courtesy of John Mullan and Sebastian Faulks, Mrs Bennet gets a more understanding hearing from Bharat Tandon, and Lydia enjoys a dazzling rehabilitation thanks to Paula Byrne. I look forward to reading it all again, with what the French so charmingly call l’avantage de l’âge…

Another Austen bicentennial piece on Radio 4  – coupled with the reference to newly-published books arriving in the post – put me in mind of a couple of my recent translations. Bear with…

Sue Limb’s delightful audio letter from Mr Bennet imagined the ever-jaded Mr B. writing to Lizzie from Bath, where he and his dear lady wife are celebrating their wedding anniversary. Mrs B’s excited squeals announce her return from a shopping trip, on which she has bought ‘a Jane Austen fridge magnet, a Jane Austen T-shirt, a Jane Austen Thermos mug, a Jane Austen enamelled keyring, and a Jane Austen zipped hoodie…’.

This was bound to strike a chord with someone who spent most of last summer and autumn  translating two big books on Monet’s garden in Giverny (an exhibition catalogue for the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris and the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul), and Marie-Antoinette’s garden at the Trianon (Flammarion, 2013).

Who among us has not bought or at least seen a Monet waterlilies teatowel, mouse-mat, mug or croaking frog garden alarm in a museum gift shop at some point in the last decade or so? Not to mention a Marie-Antoinette guest soap assortment, teacup-and-saucer, or kitten-heeled satin slipper Christmas tree  decoration? Revisiting these two icons, and their equally iconic gardens – rescuing them from the gift shop and chocolate box lid, helping us to see them afresh – is what both books and their English translations are all about.

Giverny is perhaps easier for us to reinstate as a bold, avant-garde Gesamtwerk, than Marie-Antoinette’s Trianon playground. But Elisabeth Feydeau’s book (devised with Versailles head gardener and consultant editor Alain Baraton) succeeds in the undertaking, I think. Marie-Antoinette was, like Mrs Bennet, trying to do her best with the means at her disposal. In the context of Versailles, the Trianon was a genuine attempt at unaffected naturalism, an immersive environment that drew on painting, architecture, garden design, colour, fragrance and movement, counterbalancing the infinite tedium and massive scale of the static allées next door. Visitors to the Trianon could climb hills, float in boats, enjoy trysts in shady grottos, escape unseen down hidden flights of steps. The Temple of Love, on an artificial hillock overlooking a lake, was planted all around, we are told, with fragrant, white-blossoming shrubs whose petals and scent swirled and filled the air, like a snowstorm in a glass globe. White was Marie-Antoinette’s favourite colour, and she may even have understood (subconsciously or otherwise?) how white can function in bright sunlight against a vivid green background to generate retinal suggestions of contrasting colour, at the corners of our vision – provided we are prepared to look beyond the evidence of our eyes and experience colour and form as direct, abstract sensations, rather than the constituent parts of familiar motifs.

Marie-Antoinette’s social conscience was expressed at the Trianon too. Her hamlet with its kitchen gardens seems to have been intended, in part, to encourage the French poor to grow their own food in the face of famine – especially potatoes, which she saw as a solution to the acute problem. Which is why the Queen donned a potato-flower coiffure when the botanist and potato advocate Parmentier was received at Versailles. ‘Let them eat potatoes’ has a more practical ring, n’est-ce pas?

We have a duty, then, to keep working hard to rescue classic texts, classic paintings, iconic gardens, any and every aspect of The Culture, from the relentless petrification and superficialisation that come with great familiarity and huge popularity.

In that ongoing effort, translation has its role to play.

Did I see a Sid Vicious Union Jack tea-cosy on sale in London in the hazy, crazy summer of 2012? I think perhaps I did…

  • Monet’s Garden: Masterpieces from the Musée Marmottan Monet, exhibition catalogue, Musée Marmottan Monet/Sakip Sabanci Museum, 2012. Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Charles Penwarden.