…And a Dream: Anna Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar

As I was reading Anna Soror, the third and final novella in Yourcenar’s Two Lives and a Dream, I kept thinking about the images of love that Ovid creates in Amores.  The beginning poems in Amores Book I, in particular, depict Love (Amor)—personified as  Cupid replete with arrows— as something to be feared because of its (or his)  unpredictable nature.  The poet himself has fallen victim to this volatile and unruly emotion and he is tortured because it is something over which he has no control.  He begins Amores 1.2 (the translation is my own):

Esse quid hoc dicam, quod tam mihi dura videntur
strata, neque in lecto pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somno noctem, quam longa, peregi,
lassaque versati corporis ossa dolent?
nam, puto, sentirem, siquo temptarer amore.
an subit et tecta callidus arte nocet?
sic erit; haeserunt tenues in corde sagittae,
et possessa ferus pecora versat Amor.

What should I call this, that my bedsheets seem
so hard to me, and my coverlets do not stay in their
place on my bed, and without sleep I have passed
the night, oh for so long, and the weary bones
of my tormented body are suffering? For I think
that I would feel it if I were tempted by love.
Or could it be that cunning Love has crept up
on me with its hidden arts? It will be thus;
Love’s subtle arrows have pierced my heart and
savage Love disturbs my breast which he
already occupies.

The image of Ovid’s tumultuous night recalls the character of Don Miguel who suffers from fevers, insomnia and exhaustion because he is in love with his sister, Anna.  Their story takes place in Naples in the late-16th century when their father, Don Alvaro, is serving as the Spanish Governor of that city.  They live in an elaborate, well-guarded castle and they are raised together by their mother, Donna Valentina, a pious women who cares deeply for both of her children.  Mother, daughter and son form a close bond that largely isolates them from the rest of the world.  When the three of them travel to southern Italy to oversee the grape harvest on one of the family estates, Donna Valentina is taken to her  bed with fever and her ensuing death devastates both of her children.  When their mother dies, the brother and sister oftentimes find themselves alone and this causes a strange tension between them.

Yourcenar, through an extreme example with incest, is attempting to make the same point about love as Ovid did with his poetry; love is unpredictable, it cannot be controlled, and no matter how hard we try to resist it or fight it or reason it away, it is an emotion to which we are all susceptible.  Yourcenar treats her characters with compassion and understanding.  Her story is not shocking, lewd or salacious, but instead she highlights the torment that Miguel and Anna feel in their deep and innocent love for one another.  Their feelings are very subtle at first and neither one of them understands why they are suffering from constant anxiety, haunting dreams and extreme fatigue.  Yourcenar is a master at slowly and steadily building tension in her stories.  She describes Don Miguel on one of his sleepless nights:

He no longer repressed his nightly fantasies.  He awaited with impatience the half consciousness of the mind falling asleep; with his face buried in his pillows, he gave himself over to his dreams.  He would awake from them with his hands burning, his mouth stale as if from a fever, and more obsessed than the day before.

And later, when brother and sister consummate their love during a brief period of joy and passion, Yourcenar’s text is subtle and sensitive.  She only composes a few lines about their sexual encounter: “In the darkness, she discerned his anguished face , which seemed eroded by tears.  The words she had prepared died on her lips.  She fell upon them with an anguished compassion.  They embraced.”  Don Miguel and Anna do not apologize or regret their relationship, but they fear eternal damnation so each chooses a penance in the hopes of mollifying their sin.  Don Miguel volunteers for a dangerous mission to rid the Mediterranean of pirates and dies in battle.  Anna, despite marrying and having two children, never feels the same joy that she experienced in her five days spent with Don Miguel.  Throughout her life she wears hair shirts and prays constantly in the hopes of being released from her sin.

Yourcenar does not shy away from exploring different kinds of forbidden love in her other writings.  In An Obscure Man, for instance, Nathanaël has an intimate, physical relationship with another man that he enjoys and for which he feels no remorse.  He knows the world would judge him for engaging in what are considered unnatural acts, but he refuses to believe that his genuine affection for another man should be considered wrong.  Yourcenar makes it clear in Anna, Soror that Don Miguel and Anna, likewise, are unapologetic for their sincere, kind and passionate love.  It is the church and its laws which they are taught to obey that condemns their connection and it is because of the church that each chooses a penance.

As Ovid’s poem progresses, he realizes that there is no fighting against Love (Amor) so he willfully surrenders to passion and embraces his fate.  The torment of the first scene of the poem in which he is tossing and turning in his bed fades away.   In the Postface to this collection of novellas, Yourcenar’s description of  her characters feels very similar to the force of Love that Ovid experiences: “Their passion is too powerful not to be acted upon, yet, despite the long inner conflict which precedes their fall, is immediately felt to be an ineffable happiness, so that no remorse penetrates them.”

I would also like to share this great article in the New Yorker about Marguerite Yourcenar that Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed recommended to me.  Yourcenar is a fascinating writer and I am looking forward to reading her memoirs as well as her historical fiction novel about the emperor Hadrian: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/becoming-the-emperor

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Two Lives…: The Novellas of Marguerite Yourcenar

Two Lives and a Dream, which includes three of Yourcenar’s novellas, was originally published in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart).  The English version I read was translated by Walter Kaiser and published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  The first two stories in the collection An Obscure Man and A Lovely Morning take place in mid 17th century Amsterdam and England and describe the rough and turbulent lives of a man named Nathanaël and his illegitimate son named Lazarus.  My first impression of Yourcenar’s writing is that she was a master storyteller, especially in the genre of historical fiction.

We are introcuded to the character of Nathanaël in An Obscure Man with a description of his childhood in Greenwich, England to which place his Dutch  parents have emigrated and live in a small community of expats.  Nathanaël was “weak chested and afflicted with a slight lameness” so he was not sent to work on the docks with his father and his brothers.  Instead he becomes an assistant to the town’s schoolmaster who educates him and teaches him Latin, which skill will come in very handy later in his life.  As a teenager, Nathanaël falls in love with Janet, an apprentice to a tapestry maker, whom he defends against the violent advances of a local drunk.  When Nathanaël fears that he has killed the intoxicated man he stows away on a ship bound for the Caribbean and later the primitive wilderness of Maine and Canada.  When the rest of his crew perishes in a shipwreck off the coast of Canada, Nathanaël is saved by an older couple and their daughter, Foy, with whom he falls in love.  Their life in the wilds of the New World is harsh as it is difficult to live such a primitive existence.  But his time in this wilderness, with its simplicity and his uncomplicated love for Foy, comprise some of the happiest moments in his life.

After spending two years in the New World, Nathanaël loses Foy to consumption so he decides to make his way back to England and then to Amsterdam where he works for his uncle as a proofreader in his printing business.  One night he meets a prostitute named Sarai in a local tavern and their sexual connection leads him to believe that he loves her.  But he learns that Sarai is a liar and a thief and when she becomes pregnant he wonders if the child, a boy named Lazarus, is really his. Nathanaël eventually loses contact with Sarai and his son and he becomes a valet in the home of a wealthy politician.  Throughout the story, Nathanaël’s health worsens as he is prone to fits of coughing and fever.  His master sends him to the Frisian islands in the hopes that Nathanaël will regain his strength, but instead he dies alone on this island among the waves of the sea and the nesting, peaceful birds.

Nathanaël’s life is always in flux as the story moves from one interesting episode in this obsure man’s life to the next in rapid succession.  One of the few constants in his life is death and loss.  Death Drives the Cart would certainly be a fitting title for this collection had Yourcenar chosen to keep it.  I don’t think I’ve ever read such a short book with so many death scenes.  But Yourcenar uses this theme to reflect on the value of life, which actually serves to make the book uplifting and even thought provoking.  Even though Nathanaël has endured the brutal hardships of an average, obscure man in the 17th century, every where he turns he encounters the kindness of others.  A dying Jesuit priest, Foy’s parents, a coworker, an employer all demonstrate to him that kindness is not hard to come by in this world.  And Nathanaël himself develops into a kind and compassionate man—he once saves a puppy from being fed to a lion which is a unique example of his good character.  A Lovely Morning, the very short sequel to Nathanaël’s story shows that this kindness is extended to his son who escapes the streets of Amsterdam by being invited by generous strangers to act in a traveling theater group.

As Nathanaël is dying on the Frisian island, he takes stock of his life and decides that overall he has been a good and decent man.  His tolerance for all people, regardless of race or religion, is a perfect example of how we all ought to live and is a timely message of tolerance that counters the violence and disgusting display of bigotry demonstrated by hate groups in my country this weekend.  I will end with an apt quote from Yourcenar that includes some of Nathanaël’s thoughts during the last few hours of his life:

People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth the wind has sown in it.  Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God.  Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer to one another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks and works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence.

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Being Happy is For What?: Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

One day at school young Joana, the female protagonist in Near to the Wild Heart, asks her teacher a philosophical question that shows she is more thoughtful than most other children: “What do you get when you become happy?”  Her teacher is flummoxed at the child’s unusual question so asks Joana to repeat it.  This time Joana asks, “Once you’re happy what happens? What comes next?”  The teacher asks her to rephrase the question one more time in different words.  Joana comes up with: “Being happy is for what?”

Joana spends the rest of the novel attempting to answer her own question.  What will make her happy and how will she know when she is truly happy?  When she is a little girl she is raised by her widowed father and from a young age Joana displays a unique curiosity about life.  She enjoys role playing with her dolls and spending time with her father and making up spontaneous poems with him.  When her father dies she is forced to live with an aunt and uncle who can’t seem to connect with their free-spirited niece so they send her off to a boarding school.

Despite the fact that Joana enjoys her solitude and likes to feel free and untethered, she marries a man named Octavio anyway. From the beginning of her marriage, Joana feels that her role as a wife causes her to abdicate her freedom and her identity.  She is most comfortable in the morning when Octavio leaves for work.  Did she marry Octavio because she thought it would bring her this elusive feeling of happiness?  Now that she is living with him she is not so sure about anything.  She contemplates leaving Octavio and when she discovers that he is having an affair with his ex-fiancé, Joana is handed the perfect reason to break off the marriage.  With the exception of her father, all of Joana’s relationships are unsatisfactory and disappointing to her.  She  spends a great deal of time pondering the relationship with her husband and their marriage:

It was his fault, she thought coldly, anticipating a new wave of anger. It was his fault, it was his fault.  His presence, and more than his presence: knowing that he existed took away her freedom.  Only rarely now, in a quick escape, was she able to feel.  That was it: it was his fault.  How hadn’t she discovered it earlier? she wondered victoriously.  He stole everything from her, everything.

The style of Lispector’s novel is very similar to her later work, Agua Viva.  The story is told in the third person, but from the point of view of each character’s most inner thoughts. Piece of the plot, like Joana’s thoughts, are given in fragmented pieces of melodic prose.   Joana’s thoughts linger over questions of life, death, solitude, freedom and happiness which are themes that Lispector continues to explore in her later works.  Images of the sea are also prevalent in this novel as Joana feels an affinity to the freedom and boundless nature of the ocean.  When she first goes to her aunt and uncle’s house, she consoles herself by lying on the beach, close to the sea.

The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it.  Even with her eyes closed she felt she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly, quickly, also with closed eyelids.  Then they meekly returned, palms splayed, body loose.  It was good to hear their sound.  I am a person.  And lots of things would follow.  What?  Whatever happened she would tell herself.  No one would understand anyway.

It is fitting that at the end of the story Joana decides to take her father’s inheritance and roam.  The last time we see her she is standing on the deck of a ship, looking out to sea and loving her freedom, her choice and her newly found serenity: “The ship floated lightly on the sea like on gentle open hands.”

I have found that Lispector’s novels, although brief, take quite a bit of time and concentration to understand and appreciate. What resonated with me about this book, in particular, is the idea of finding the right balance between solitude and  company.  But when I closed the last page of the book I had the distinct feeling that I ought to start the book over for fear of what I didn’t grasp in her writing the first time around.

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Love Has Finally Arrived: My Translation of Sulpicia

Euterpe, Muse of Music and Poetry

Since it is Women in Translation month, I thought that it would be interesting to write a little post and offer my own translation of the only female  poet from Ancient Rome whose work has survived.  Sulpicia, born during the Augustan period and a contemporary of Horace, Ovid and Vergil,  wrote six love elegies which were not published on their own, but instead appended to the volume of poetry penned by Tibullus.  Even nowadays her poems can only be found in the Loeb, for instance, as part of the Corpus Tibullianum.  For many years scholars have denied the fact that a woman could have written these poems but it is now widely accepted that it was the daughter of upper class Roman citizens, connected to Augustus’s inner circle, who composed these elegies.  Unfortunately, more recent studies have criticized Sulpicia’s poems and judged them as inferior to her contemporaries because they are missing the literary allusions that are prevalent in other elegiac poets.

After translating Sulpicia’s poems, however, it is evident that she was keenly aware of the elegiac forms of her fellow Roman poets.  Regardless of what one might think of their literary merit, Sulpicia’s six poems, addressed to her lover Cerinthus, are the only opportunity for us to sneak a glimpse into the mind and heart of a Roman female from her own perspective.

I offer my translation of Sulpicia Poem XIII in which she confirms that the rumors about her love are more than just rumors and she wishes to cast aside all veils and embrace her joys and affections:

Tandem venit amor, qualem texisse pudori
quam nudasse alicui sit mihi fama magis.
Exorata meis illum Cytherea Camenis
adtulit in nostrum deposuitque sinum.
Exsolvit promissa Venus: mea gaudia narret,
dicetur siquis non habuisse sua.
Non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis,
ne legat id nemo quam meus ante, velim,
sed peccasse iuvat, vultus conponere famae
taedet: cum digno digna fuisse ferar.

Love has finally arrived, and a rumor that I tried to conceal
this kind of love would bring me much more shame than
revealing it openly. I begged Venus with my poems and
she brought him right to me and placed him in my lap.
Venus has kept her promises.  If anyone is said to be lacking
in his own happiness, then let him speak about my joys.
I wouldn’t wish to entrust anything to wax tablets for fear
that someone else might read about my feelings before my
love. It pleases me to have engaged in this transgression;
I am tired of wearing a mask because of this rumor.
Let it be said that we have been together,
each of us equally worthy of the other.

I love the tone of this poem, that Sulpicia doesn’t care about rumors and she wants to free herself of societal expectations placed on her.  The digno and digna in the last line is my favorite part of the elegy—both she and her lover are “worthy of” and “fitting for” one another.

What is everyone else reading for #WITMonth?

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I’m Heroically Free: Água Viva by Clarice Lispector

I brought along a copy of Clarice Lispector’s  Água Viva with me on my beach vacation last week thinking that a book whose title can be translated as “living water” or “jellyfish” would be quite fitting.  I quickly realized that Lispector’s book, although a mere 86 pages, would take me some time to read and fully absorb.  I had to approach this text as I would a dense, meditative, philosophical volume of poetry, something to be digested slowly, one small piece at a time.

This book is nearly impossible to critique, but on a the most basic level it can be described as an unnamed narrator attempting to capture her thoughts about intense, philosophical topics such as time, life and death.  She tells us that up until this point she was engaged in painting but has put down her paint brush and taken up her pen and typewriter instead.  Throughout the text she is acutely aware of her process and oftentimes returns to discussions of painting and music and the similarities among all of these art forms.  She is also very fond of describing things in nature—flowers, a turtle, cats, a cave, oysters, the sea are all beautifully described as she experiences them.  The narrator seems to be addressing a lover but so much of the text reads like a personal meditation that the text could very well have been written as a meditation to the author herself.  But, as so often happens with this book, just when we think we grasp her meaning, she reaches for another topic which may or may not be connected.

I noticed during my first time reading through the text that the words free and freedom appeared quite a few times.  I kept this in mind as I read Água Viva  through a second time and had a very different experience than my first encounter.  I actually went back and counted and found she uses the words free or freedom sixty times in this short narrative. The title of her book, which evokes images of the ocean, is especially fitting because of the freedom and weightlessness we feel when swimming in the open sea.  In addition, the narrator’s unstructured writing frees her from the constraints of a traditional narrative and she often returns to a discussion of her process throughout her text:

A new era, this my own, and it announces me right away.  Am I brave enough? For now I am because I come from the suffering afar. I come from the hell of love but now I am free of you.  I come from afar—from a weighty ancestry.  I who come from the pain of living. And I no longer want it.  I want the vibration of happiness  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.

But her interest in freedom goes much deeper than the form, or lack of form, that her writing takes.  The narrator’s existential crisis is being worked out on the pages before us in an attempt at self-knowledge that will make her free.  As I read through her text I was also reminded of the many factors in our lives that make us feel chained down, not free—clearly defined gender roles, time, space, love.  Love, in particular, seems to threaten her freedom on more than one occasion.  But she  always writes her way out of her restraints and embraces her freedom.  I will end with a few of the passages in which she contemplates this freedom:

To remake myself and remake you I return to my state of garden and shadow, cool reality, I barely exist and if I exist it’s with delicate caution.  Around the shadow is a heat of abundant sweat.  I’m alive.  But I feel that I have yet to reach my limits, borders with what? without borders, the adventure of dangerous freedome.  But I take risks, I live taking risks.

Yes, this is life seen by life.  But suddenly I forget how to capture whatever is happening, I don’t know how to capture whatever exists except by living here each thing that arises and no matter what it is: I am almost free of my errors.  I let the free horse run fiery.  I, who trot nervously and only reality delimits me.

And suddenly I feel that we shall soon part.  My frightened truth is that I was always yours alone and didn’t know it.  Now I know; I’m alone.  I and my freedom that I don’t know how to use.  Great responsibility of solitude.  Whoever isn’t lost doesn’t know freedom and love it.

 

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