Review: Compass by Mathias Énard

The English version of Compass is translated by Charlotte Mandell and being published by New Directions in the U.S. and Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K.  It won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and has been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

My Review:
Compass takes place over the course of one, long night during which Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist, suffers from a terrible bout of insomnia.  The symptoms from his recently diagnosed illness, the memories of an unrequited love, and the dissatisfaction at his mediocre academic career all contribute to his sleepless night.  Instead of chapters, Énard uses time stamps to denote the hours that are slowly ticking away as Franz runs through years of memories.  Sarah, a French Academic with whom Franz has spent many years in love, sends him an article she has written from Sarawak, in Malaysia, which is her current place of residence.  It is unclear at the beginning what Franz and Sarah mean or have meant to each other, but Franz slowly unravels their complicated history throughout the course of his sleepless night.

As an academic musicologist, Franz has had a deep interest in the music of the Middle East, which studies have brought him into close contact with many orientalists, including Sarah.  Compass is a travelogue, an historical essay, a literary catalog and a music lesson on the Orient.  Franz takes us on his travels from Istanbul, to Palmyra, to Damascus, to Aleppo and to Tehran as he explores eastern music and his growing, emotional attachment to Sarah.  The Orient becomes just as beautiful, enchanting and elusive as his love for Sarah.   When Franz and Sarah are suddenly forced to end their travels together in Tehran, Franz nurses his wounds by going back home and retreating into himself and his academic career.  Sarah consoles herself by wandering father east where she ends up spending quite a bit of time in a Buddhist monastery.  But the objects in his apartment are a constant reminder of his travels with her in the east:

My glasses were under a pile of books and journals, obviously, I’m so absentminded.  At the same time, to contemplate the ruins of my bedroom (ruins of Istanbul, ruins of Damascus, ruins of Tehran, ruins of myself) I don’t need to see them, I know all these objects  by hear.  The faded photographs and yellowing Orientalist engravings.  The poetic works of Pessoa on a sculpted wooden book stand meant to house the Koran.  My tarboosh from Istanbul, my heavy wood indoor coat from the souk in Damascus, my lute from Aleppo bought with Nadim.

The disjointed and rambling narrative structure is fitting for a man whose mind cannot rest over the course of a sleepless night.  He jumps from one topic to the next: his illness, musicology, literature, archaeology and, of course, Sarah.  Some might find this stream-of-consciousness style frustrating but a more straightforward narrative would not have been as fitting or appropriate for Franz’s state-of-mind and circumstances.  One common thread that runs through his thoughts are the connections between East and West.  He has a joke compass that points east which is fitting for Franz since his thoughts are always pulled in that direction.  He discusses travelers, writers, musicians, academics and archaeologists who were fascinated by Orientalist travels and study.  One of my favorite examples Franz brings up is the Swiss author, journalist, traveler, and even occasional archaeologists,  Annmarie Schwarzenbach whose wanderlust brings her to different parts of the East.  Schwarzenbach flees the turmoil brewing in Europe in 1933-34 and travels to Syrian and the desert, where Franz and Sarah follow in the footsteps of this interesting woman’s Eastern journey.

More than any other book I have ever read, Compass made me want to travel to the Middle East, to the desert and to the ancient ruins of the Orient;  but the narrative also made me sad that such a journey isn’t feasible nowadays.  The Baron Hotel that Franz and Sarah stay at in Aleppo, and probably the entire neighborhood, has been reduced to a pile of rubble.  The descriptions of his travels in Palmyra were particularly striking to me.  Franz and Sarah, with a few other travel companions, sleep among the ruins of an ancient fort in Palmyra: “A night when the sky was so pure and the stars so numerous that they came down all the way to the ground, lower than you could see, in the summer, when the sea is calm and dark as the Syrian badiya.”

Finally, I have never read a book that has caused me to buy so many other books based on the literary observations contained within.  My “to-read” stacks have grown by leaps and bounds this past week as I made my way through Compass.  The amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this erudite book is astonishing.  Descriptions of  Pessoa, Magris, Schwarzenbach and Hedayat to name a few, have caused me to add all of these authors to my always-growing library.  Some of the writers Enard mentions are so esoteric that I was disappointed not to find them in English translation—the surrealist French poet Germain Nouveau, for example.   It is truly a great thing when one piece of literature gives one such a full list of further reading.  One could form an interesting book club to go through the volumes mentioned in Compass and spend many months exploring and discussing Franz’s syllabus.

What have others thought of Compass?  Will it make the shortlist?  How does it compare to his previous novel, Zone?

About the Author and Translator:
Mathias Énard is the award-winning author of Zone and Street of Thieves, and a translator from Persian and Arabic. He won the Prix Goncourt in 2015 for Compass.

Charlotte Mandell is a French literary translator who was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1968. She went to Boston Latin High School, the Université de Paris III, and Bard College, where she majored in French literature and film theory. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the poet Robert Kelly.

 

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Excellence and Honor in Logue’s War Music

Achilles and Agamemnon, Book 1 of The Iliad, Roman Mosaic

I continue my discussion in this post of Logue’s War Music by focusing on the Homeric Greek concepts of arête (excellence) and tîmê (honour).  For those who are interested, I have discussed in previous posts the ideas of kleos and aidos and how Logue deftly weaves these concepts into his startling translation of the Iliad.

When the Greeks land on the beach at Troy, they are really fighting two different wars: one against the Trojans and one amongst themselves.  The heroic code that is established in this warrior culture ensures that there is constant conflict and fighting among the soldiers themselves.  It is not surprising that Agamemnon and Achilles have a fight over prizes; what is surprising is that it took nine years for this argument to finally erupt.  They each strictly adhere to the values of arête (excellence) and  tîmê (honor), but their different applications of these concepts to their own circumstances causes a great deal of conflict, misunderstanding and arguing.

The Greek word arête, which comes from the superlative adjective aristos (the best), can simply be translated as “excellence.” H.D.F.  Kitto includes a thorough discussion of arête is his book The Greeks.  He points out that arête can be used to denote the excellence of the entire man, body and soul.  He states:

If it [arête] is used, in a general contest, of a man it will connote excellence in the ways in which a man can be excellent—morally, intellectually, physically, practically.  Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Phaeacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song.  He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arête.

Kitto points out that Achilles is the hero who possesses this all-around type of excellence in the Iliad.  But arête can also be applied to more limited contexts as well.  Achilles, for example, places an emphasis and importance on his arête as a warrior, as a fighter, as the best fighter among the Achaeans.  He knows that the Greeks will not be successful without him and he is the reason they have sacked and looted many cities around the Troad.  It is this second example, this more specific application of arête, excellence on the battlefield, upon which Logue builds the conflict in his first book of War Music.  In his typical, forceful, succinct and shocking style Logue’s Achilles sums up the Greek’s modus operandi: “We land. We fight. We kill.  We load.”   And Achilles reminds Agamemnon of his prowess in battle: “Since I arrived, my Lord,/ I have sent 20 lesser Ilion towns/Backwards into the smoke.”  He further reminds Agamemnon that Briseis, a beautiful woman whose husband Achilles destroyed, is given to him by the Greek warriors as a prize “In recognition of my strength, my courage my superiority.”  Achilles views Briseis as a prize, a special reward for his arête in battle.  So when Agamemnon takes away Briseis in order to make up for his own, lost prize, Achilles sees this as an insult to his work and his arête.  Logue highlights the fact that Agamemnon can’t understand Achilles’ argument over the prize because the king views arête very differently.

Agamemon’s focus is not arête on the battlefield, but instead he places importance on arête as a king and leader.  Logue’s Agamemnon states: “As being first means being privileged,/ So privilege incurs responsibility./ And my responsibility is plain:/To keep the army whole. To see it hale./To lead it through Troy’s Skean Gate.”  Agamemnon’s arête, his excellence, depends on his status as king and ruler of the Greeks and this status, he feels, is tied directly to any prizes the Greek army retrieves from pillaged towns.  As leader he has first choice of the best prizes and when he is forced to give up his most valued prize, Cryzia, then he feels it is his right to take someone else’s “she” as recompense: “What does it matter whose prize she I take?/ But take I shall, and if needs be, by force.”  Logue has perfectly captured Agamemnon’s concept of arête with these forceful words.  Logue is intimately familiar with the intricacies of Homeric culture and underscores the fact that Achilles and Agamemnon cannot understand or even relate to one another’s arguments over Briseis since they each value very different forms of arête.

As Achilles and Agamemnon are arguing, they each make it a point of accusing the other of having no tîmê (honour) .  The Homeric idea of tîmê is tightly bound to a hero’s arête.  Through arête in battle Achilles gains a prize, Briseis, which becomes a symbol of tîmê for him.  When Achilles is stripped of this prize,  his tîmê  is also threatened.   Agamemnon, on the other hand, equates tîmê with the respect that should be shown to a king.  To be forced to give up his prize and not have another in its place is damaging to Agamemnon’s  tîmê: “..as the loss of an allotted she/Diminishes my honour and my state,/ Before the army leaves the common sand/Its captain lords will find among their own/Another such for me.”

Neither hero can relate to or see the other’s side because they each view arête differently and as a result gain tîmê by very different means. Logue perfectly captures the misunderstanding between these men, especially through the insults that he has them launch at one another.  Achilles accuses Agamemnon of having no tîmê and he knows what to say that will be the most offensive and insulting to the king:

“Shame that your King is not so  bound to you
As he is bound to what he sniffs.

Here is the truth:
King Agamemnon is not honour bound.
Honour to Agamemnon is a thing
That he can pick, pick up, put back, pick up again,
A somesuch that you might find beneath your bed.

Do not tell Agamemnon honour is
No mortal thing, but ever in creation,
Vital, free, like speed, like light,
Like silence, like the gods,
The movement of the stars! Beyond the stars!
Dividing man from beast, hero from host,
That proves best, best, that only death can reach,
Yet cannot die because it will be said, be sung,
now, and in time to be, for evermore.”

What I find so brilliant about Logue’s “translation” is that in this one, succinct speech his Achilles explains the specific meaning of Homeric tîmê as something that has religious significance and is something that lives on when a hero dies.   As I stated in my first post, I found it unsettling that Logue was not trained in Ancient Greek nor was he interested in a line by line translation of the Iliad.  He does, however, capture the true essence of these Homeric heroes as well as their mores and traditions with his startling, compact, unexpected and poetic lines.  The Iliad is a war poem and it should be jarring—Logue’s rendition of this epic has reminded me of this and has given me a new enthusiasm and excitement for Homer which I never thought would be possible since I have read it in Ancient Greek and English so many times.

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Review: Nay Rather by Anne Carson

I have been on an Anne Carson reading binge lately and have also been slowly making my way through the Cahiers Series so I was thrilled when I discovered that Carson wrote Cahier #21.  Her essay in this Cahier, entitled “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,”  includes her thoughts on the issues of resistance in translation, the untranslatable, and  the mistranslated.  Silence, which is oftentimes a problem with ancient manuscripts, is her starting point: “Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation.”  Carson points out that silence can be both physical and metaphysical;  physical silence, for example, happens when a manuscript of Sappho has been torn in half and there is empty space. This part of her discussion particularly resonated with me because it is one of the issues with ancient texts that my students have the most difficulty.  As I am translating Catullus this semester with my university level class, it bothers them to the point of argument, distraction and frustration when a piece of a text has been reconstructed with several possibilities from different editors.   They want to know exactly which word Catullus wrote in the original transcript and they don’t want to hear from me that such literary puzzles can be “fun” to figure out.

Metaphysical silence happens when it is impossible to translate a word directly from one language to another.  Carson’s example of this is taken from the word molu which appears in Homer’s Odyssey.  Molu is a plant that is sacred to the gods and Hermes gives this plant to Odysseus in order to protect himself from the magic of Circe.  Carson says about Homer’s use of this word and the intentional silence it engenders: “He wants this word to fall silent.  Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.  You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or google it and find out where to buy some  The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to the gods, the word stops itself.”  When one encounters such words in teaching an ancient author it is difficult to convey to the students that translation is not an exact science.  It has been my experience, however, that my students enjoy the metaphysical silences much more so than the physical silences because they are able to have a debate over the metaphysical by using their previous knowledge of an author’s body of work, as well as their mythological and historical backgrounds.

Also included in this Cahier is a poem that Carson has composed about the Cycladic culture entitled “By Chance the Cycladic People.”  The order in which the lines appear in the text were determined by the author through a random number generator.  This unique strategy of mixing up her poem is a way in which Carson provides us with her own example of a poem that resists translation.  We can put her poem back into the correct order.  But should we?  Are the lines really meant to be put back into the original order or can we get a deeper understanding of her verses by seeing them in this random order?  I chose not to put them back in order but instead I noticed patterns of images and themes that reoccur throughout the verses: the sea, pots and pans, boats, mirrors, etc.   I wonder how others have chosen to deal with this poem?

At the end of this Cahier, Carson provides seven different versions of a translation from a fragment of the Ancient Greek poet Ibykos.  Her first translation is a traditional, straightforward translation of the Ancient Greek text.  But with the other six translations she limits herself to a series of specific words.  One translation is rendered using only words taken from John Donne’s “Woman’s Constancy, another translation is rendered using only words from stops and signs found in the London Underground.  My favorite is the translation of Ibykos she does using only words from p. 47 of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.  Carson’s brilliance as far as translation and the nuances of this craft come into full play through her seven translations and we also see that she has a fantastic sense of humor.

 

Finally, the art work in this cahier is a series of drawings and gouaches by Sicilian artist Lanfranco Quadrio who was inspired by his reading of Carson’s text.  A piece of his work appears on every other page in the Cahier with verses from Carson’s Cycladic poem.  There is a primitive nature to them but they are also very colorful which reminded me of Cycladic and Minoan art.

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Review: The Reconstruction by Rein Raud

This title was published in the original Estonian in 2011.   This English edition has been translated by Adam Cullen and is being published by Dalkey Archive in April 2017.

My Review:
Enn Padrick, the narrator of The Reconstruction begins writing in a journal in order to catalog his private investigation into his young, adult daughter’s bizarre death: “I didn’t know it when I began, but I do now: I don’t want to blame anyone or anything; or if I do, then only myself.  But I needed clarity.  I don’t want to find fault; I want to find out—if I only can.”  Enn’s daughter, Anni,  had been living in a quasi-religious commune with three other friends, all of whom died in a fire on their isolated, Estonian farmstead.  All four residents were found lying side by side in a second floor bedroom and each one of them had a small packed suitcase; a fifth suitcase was found in another room on the first floor, indicating that an additional resident had escaped this tragedy.  Enn has been diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer and decides that he wants to spend his last several months trying to unpack the mystery of his daughter’s strange death.

The Reconstruction is divided into two parts, the first of which, entitled “Fish Tracks in Water” is taken up with Enn’s description of his early days at Tarfu State University where he studied Ecology and met his wife, Maire.  I found the descriptions of Enn’s life in Estonia during the Russian occupation particularly fascinating.  Rein Raud captures the general mood of what I would call a resentful acceptance of Soviet occupation through Enn’s memories of his earlier life: “I was a Pioneer and a member of the Komsomol (the Leninist Young Communits League) and hated the Soviet regime just like everyone else—not especially believing that it would even end, but also not of the opinion that it could be served with integrity.”  Soviet rule lingers in the background of Enn’s life and has a great effect on his relationships, especially his marriage and his interactions with his in-laws.

Enn’s father-in-law had risen to an important rank in the Soviet hierarchy through the agricultural sector and enjoyed all of the privileges and perks to which he was entitled by the system.  They lived in a nice apartment in a coveted area and Enn and Maire live with them for the first part of their married life and when their daughter is young.  Enn has no ambitions to become a politician or work for the Soviet system like his father-in-law, so there seems to be some resentment on Maire’s part that her husband can’t provide luxuries for their family.  When Anni, their only child, is a little older they do manage to get their own apartment through Maire’s father’s connections.  Even though they are living on their own, in a different city, Enn’s obligation to his in-laws is still evident: “Life was hard during those final years of the Soviet Union, of course—shelves were empty, and if we hadn’t had Maire’s parents’ access to the privileged grocery stores, our diet would definitely have been much more meager than it was; but even that wasn’t so important.”  The last part of this clause is particularly striking because, although he is still dependent on his in-laws and the old Soviet system, Enn is beginning to experience personal freedom as he lives apart from his in-laws and political freedom as the Soviet hold over Estonia is coming to its end.

As Anni gets older and the remnants of Soviet occupation fall away, opportunities are opened up to her and other Estonian youth that would have been unheard of a decade earlier.  Anni graduates high school with honors and is number one on the university acceptance list for French studies.  Anni moves to Paris and studies sociology and politics in that city for a few years.  Part of Enn’s journey takes him to Paris where he discovers more about the nature of her studies and the types of people she interacted with while in Paris.  Enn and Maire are proud of their daughter, but while reflecting back on those years Enn realizes that even at that point in her life he did not know his daughter very well at all:  “What did I really know about my daughter at that point—about her as a person?  I can honestly say: almost nothing.”  Enn’s realization that his adult daughter was a stranger to him is one of the saddest and most poignant revelations in the entire book; it is only well after her tragic death that he begins to understand anything about her experiences and her life.

The theme of religion and how we each deal with our own mortality pervades Rein’s narrative.  Enn is facing the end of his life due to a chronic illness as he investigates his daughter’s death.  He doesn’t adhere to any particular religious beliefs but he feels that being a good person, the best that he is capable of, is important for him during his final days.  Gaining a deeper understanding of his daughter feels like, for him, the good and right thing to do. The second part of the book, entitled “Birchback” is mostly taken up with Enn’s interviews of Anni’s friends as he tries to piece together her final year of life on the religious commune.  Birchback was originally the home of an artist named Joel and his wife Veronika.  They decide to open up their estate, which is a former farm and homestead,  as a type of retreat where people can come and do workshops and practice self-reflection and self-improvement.  There is no specific brand of religion that any of the residents at Birchback practice, but there are many discussions about the benefits and dangers of religious beliefs, especially when devotees take their spiritual practices to an extreme.

It is not unusual for young adults who are trying to figure out their place in this world to have some type of an existential or religious crisis.  The scattered and confused characters at Birchback who do strange things in the name of religion, like shaving their heads and taking a vow of silence, become a symbol in the book for the crisis of faith and mortality that happens for Estonian youth after the Soviet occupation.  Estonians were forbidden for so long to practice any type of Christianity that when they are faced with a freedom of religion,  many young people like Anni and her friends  experiment with different and unusual types of spirituality.  After Enn comes to a better understanding of the strange and tragic path his daughter’s life had taken, he reflects on the role that religion can play in the life of a person who is having a vulnerable moment:

As far as I understand it, experts on religious psychopathy often say that the tendency to turn to religion is simply a human trait that some have and others don’t.  Something like musicality or mathematics skills.  That’s complete bullshit.  No one is protected from it.  Someone simply appears in your life at the exact moment you’ve hit a dead end, presses the right buttons (comforting some, questioning some, or simply being near others,) and then even the most rational mind, the most cheerful spirit is capable of withdrawing from his or her former principles.

One final theme that should be mentioned which pervades The Reconstruction as well as Raud’s previous book The Brother is that of familial relationships.  Both of Raud’s novels are very different in plot and writing style, however, each story thoroughly explores the different and pivotal roles that family members play in our lives.  Raud delves into relationships between siblings, spouses, in-laws, children and parents with careful attention to detail and imagery.  Through Enn’s investigation into his daughter’s life, we are reminded that relationships are never easy and we can never become complacent with or take for granted a person that is truly important to us.

About the Author:
Rein Raud is the author of four books of poetry, six novels, and several collections of short fiction. He’s also a scholar in Japanese studies and has translated several works of Japanese into Estonian. One of his short pieces appeared in Best European Fiction 2015.

 

 

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To Grieve by Will Daddario

In 2013, Will Daddario experienced the loss of his father, grandmother, friend, and cat all within a span of five months.  In early 2014, he and his wife were expecting their first child, a baby boy whom they were going to name Finlay, but their precious gift died during delivery.  Daddario writes this short, philosophical, moving chapbook to serve as a chronicle of his grieving process and as a tribute to those he loved and lost. He introduces his writing: “While grieving, I have turned to multiple sources to guidance.  What follows here is my own attempt to act as guide for others who encounter such loss, though, truthfully, the primary audience is myself.”

What struck me the most about Daddario’s handling of grief is that he was constantly moving forward in his attempt to deal with his mourning.  This was, for him and his wife, a very active handling of several devastating blows, one after the other.  Daddario and his wife kept their own notes on mourning and, following the example of Barthes, they wrote reflections on small pieces of paper every day for a year and placed them in a glass jar.  On their son’s 2-year birthday they read through their reflections, many of which are copied here for us into his book.  On August 7, 2014, for instance, Daddario’s wife wrote:

I continue to feel as though I’ve been shot through with a cannon ball, creating a huge hole in me, and that the cannonball is lodged in my body, weighing me down.

And on July 3, 2014 Daddario himself writes:

A new phase of mourning.  Like Barthes says, the “emotivity” starts to subside, but the suffering remains.  We are four weeks to the day after Finlay’s arrival/departure.  What will the next four bring?

Another activity that Daddario and his wife do on a daily basis is to light a candle in Finlay’s room each night as the sun goes down and dedicate that quiet time of their day to reflection.  And each morning they dedicated to “tear time” which allowed them to grieve for another day that would begin without their son.  Daddario also uses reading as an activity that becomes a great comfort for him.  He has a list of 13 pivotal books that include authors such as Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, Karen Green and the poet Rumi.

One final activity that Daddario actively engages in during his experience with grief is his focus on language and unpacking different words which now had a new meaning for him.  He discusses the words solve, resolve, unresolved and buoy and how they all gave him insight into his grieving process.  His analysis of the Ancient Greek word therapeuein, which Michel Foucault lectured on, was especially intriguing to me.  Foucault says of this word:

Therapeuein means in Greek three things.  Therapeuein means, of course, to perform a medical action whose purpose is to cure or to treat.  However, therapeuein is also the activity of the servant who obeys and serves his master.  Finally, therapeuein is to worship (render un culte).  Now, therapeuein heauton means at the same time to give medical care to oneself, to be one’s own servant, and to devote oneself to oneself.

It is this last definition of therapeuein that Daddario truly grasps and practices throughout his grief process.  His self-care is active—he writes, reads, cries, discusses, lights candles, and jogs—which all are the best methods for him of being his own servant.  The biggest and most important lesson for me in this piece of writing is that in the grieving process we must each find our own soothing activities that bring us the greatest devotion to self-care.

This is a link to a conversation between Will Daddario and Kate Jaeger about To Grieve: http://uglyducklingpresse.tumblr.com/post/157616166149/who-can-read-it-kate-jaeger-in-conversation-with

This title is published by Ugly Ducking Presse, which indie press I recently discovered through their collection of poems Written in the Dark which are translated from the Russian.  I am so excited to find these brave, small publishers that bring us such profound pieces of literature.  What are your favorite small press finds?

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