String of Beginnings: Michael Hamburger’s Autobiography

String of beginnings, a lifetime long,
So thin, so strong, it’s outlasted the bulk it bound,
Whenever light out of haze lifted
Scarred masonry, marred wood
As a mother her child from the cot,
To strip, to wash, to dress again,
And the cities even were innocent…
—Michael Hamburger

Of all the autobiographies I’ve read this year, Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings has been the most intriguing to me.  Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, “It was the month of the year when Kafka left Berlin to die. It was the day, March 22nd, of Goethe’s death and his cry for more light.  The year, 1924, was one of relative stabilization after the failure of a Hitler-Ludendorff ‘putsch’ and the success of Schacht’s measures against an inflation so extreme that it had turned most Germans into undernourished millionaires.”  Hamburger describes the autobiography, however, as “intermittent” since it only covers the years of his life between 1924 and 1954.

Originally published in 1973 under a different title, A Mug’s Game, and reissued in 1991 as String of Beginnings, Hamburger discusses in an interview with Peter Dale his reasons for limiting the scope of this second edition of his autobiography and for not publishing a sequel:

At one time I had planned a continuation, but my publisher didn’t want another volume, not having done well with the first.  Also, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write a second book on the same lines, as a factual and chronological account.  I then planned an altogether different sort of book, organized by theme, rather than documentary sequence, and with more freedom of movement and association than the chronological presentation had given me.  It had also become clear to me that it is virtually impossible to write truthfully about living relatives and friends in a non-fiction book—or about one’s own life, for that matter.

In the first chapter of String of Beginnings, he also elaborates on his very strict approach to writing autobiography.  Hamburger feels that too many autobiographies read more like novels because of an author’s tendency to embellish the truth.  He says of this genre, “Neither the chronicler’s nor the novelist’s way is adequate, because too much of one’s life is beyond recall, and the experience that made us what we are lies neither in moments nor in recurrences, but in a fusion of both far too subtle to be retracted.”  Much of the text of his autobiography contains direct quotes from letters to friends, family and acquaintances or paraphrasing from diaries that he kept.  Hamburger never veers from his strict writing standards.

Despite the “chronological presentation” of  his autobiography there are three “strings” that he highlights throughout the book which, he implies, affect him for the rest of his life: writing his own poetry, interacting with other poets and traveling.  Although Hamburger is best know for his translations, especially those of Holderlin which he started work on at the age of fifteen, it is the composition of his own, original poems that occupies his mind more than anything else.  The original title of the book,  A Mug’s Game, was taken from a comment made to Hamburger by T.S. Eliot who was reflecting on the, oftentimes futile, life and career of a poet, “‘A mug’s game,’ T.S. Eliot called it, aware of the risk he shared with those whose persistence was a blind obstinacy, a waste of themselves and others.  Or wasn’t it—even at the worst?  Where even the best is for ever being reexamined and re-assessed, where any new development could be a falling-off or a final defeat, mightn’t it be enough to go on trying?”

And go on trying Hamburger did.  Before he enrolls in the army, he spends a few terms at Oxford where he kept writing poetry and subjecting himself to the feedback of other famous poets.  He knows that his biggest flow is that his verse is too mechanical and he is not really seeing enough of life will translate into good poetry: “Though I published early, and had made literary connections even at this time, without being award of looking for them, the only success I wanted was to write good poems…”  Furthermore, he admits that the influence of poets he worshipped, like T.S. Eliot, was too great on him and he had trouble finding his own voice: “It is easy enough in retrospect to see why it took me so long to write my own poems, good or bad.  All my responses were exaggerated, inwardly over-dramatized, as it were, and utterly unstable, because I was trying out one stance, one identity, after another.”

The number of  poets—famous, infamous and obscure—that he meets during his time at Oxford is astounding.  Hamburger argues, “To write about oneself is to write about other people…” and the “other people” whom he discusses most in his autobiography are poets.  He meets Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, David Gascoyne and Peter Hofler, just to name a few.  The  most intriguing writer of them all for me, however, was a close friend whom he simply refers to as “X.”  X is about ten years older than Hamburger and is an academic; they had a falling out over the publication of Hamburger’s autobiography so Hamburger keeps X’s identity a secret throughout the book.  But X’s impact on Hamburger’s career and life as a poet is inescapable and the entire autobiography would fall apart with the exclusion of this friend and fellow author.   (I’m still curious to know the identity of X and I’m sure that someone has figured it out.  So if you know his identity please leave me a comment!)

The final “string” that one follows through the thirty years of Hamburger’s life is that of traveling.  Even though he and his family emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933, he gets his first real experience of Europe when he is a soldier in the British army during World War II.  He is stationed in both Italy and Austria and his favorite activities in those places are those which take him away from tourist areas and off the beaten path.  After his first visit to Paris he decides that big cities are places he would rather avoid: “If I have no business in a large city, and no close friends, all I find there is ghosts—‘the soul of all those who have lived there.’ absorbed by walls.”  One of my favorite, amusing stories in the book is when he is traveling in Austria, after being released from the army, and he moves from one small town to the next.  In one of these backwater places he stays at a rather strange little hotel which he eventually realizes, after many days, is a brothel.   Italy becomes one of his favorite places to visit, especially the countryside around Florence and Fiesole: “What really captivated me about Italy was the least palpable of phenomena—the mere smells on the banks of the Arno, the precise colour of olive trees, silver-white-green-blue-grey, something about the landscape at Fiesole that I couldn’t describe. ‘Self-sufficiency of the landscape, architecture, people,’ I noted. ‘No need for transcendence.  How the sun melts the written word.'”

Michael Hamburger lived until the age of 83 and I am so sad that there is no autobiographical account of the years between 1955 and 2007.  How did his life evolve in his last forty years?  What other poets did he meet?  How did he view the development of his poetry?  To what other places in the world did he enjoy traveling?  And in his interview with Peter Dale he alludes to his marriage with poet Ann Beresford and some of the troubles they had over the years which I would also have been interested to learn more about.  Maybe some day there will be a thorough biography of Michael Hamburger which will continue with his string of beginnings.

For the extra curious, these are the editions of the books I’ve discussed in my post:

A Mug’s Game by Michael Hamburger. Carcanet Press, 1973.

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger. Skoob Books, 1991.

Michael Hamburger, A Reader.  Declan O’Driscoll, ed. Carcanet Press, 2017.

Michael Hamburger in conversation with Peter Dale. Between the Lines, 1998.

Leave a comment

Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, German Literature, Nonfiction

Goethe’s Roman Elegies Translated by Michael Hamburger

I was just going to tweet the text of this poem, but Michael Hamburger’s translation of Goethe’s Roman Elegies is so sublime and beautiful that I decided it deserved a blog post instead.  I have been reading, along with his autobiography A String of Beginnings, the Michael Hamburger Reader from Carcanet Press.  In addition to his translations, this fabulous volume contains his own poetry and essays.  Hamburger, who began translating Goethe at the age of fifteen, comments about his poetry: “To reflect on the untranslatability and elusiveness of Goethe’s poetic work as a while is to go straight to the heart of his uniqueness, his staggering diversity and the extent to which many of his most original poems—especially the earlier lyrics—are inextricably rooted in their own linguistic humus.”

From Goethe’s Roman Elegies

V.

Happy now I can feel the classical climate inspire me,

Past and Present at last clearly, more vividly speak—

Here I take their advice, perusing the works of the ancients

With industrious care, pleasure that grows every day—

But throughout the nights by Amor I’m differently busied,

If only half improved, doubly delights instead—

Also, am I not learning when at the share of her bosom,

Graceful lines, I can glance, guide a light hand down her hips?

Only thus I appreciate marble;  reflecting, comparing,

See with an eye that can feel, feel with a hand that can see

True, the loved one besides may claim a few hours of the daytime,

But in night hours as well makes full amends for the loss.

For now always we’re kissing; often hold sensible converse.

When she succumbs to sleep, ponder, long I lie still,

Often too in her arms I’ve lain composing a poem,

Gently with fingering hand count the hexameter’s beat

Out on her back; she breathes, so lovely and calm in her sleeping

That the glow from her lips deeply transfuses my heart.

Amor meanwhile refuels the lamp and remembers the times when

Likewise he’d served and obliged them, his triumvirs of verse.

—Michael Hamburger, trans.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben

Macrobius was a Roman grammarian, philosopher and author who lived and produced his most important work, the Saturnalia, in the early part of the 5th century A.D. The Saturnalia is a symposium, a conversation among friends, that takes place on the day before and three days during the Saturnalia, the festival dedicated to celebrating the harvest and the Roman god Saturn. The conversation encompasses a wide range of topics that include religion, literature, philosophy and rhetoric. In Book 1, a dinner guest describes the Egyptian belief that four important deities preside over the birth of every human (this translation is my own):

The Egyptians explain the significance of the Caduceus at the begetting of all humans, which is called genesis, by saying that there are four gods present at the birth of each person: Daimon (Spirit), Tyche (Chance), Eros (Love), Ananke (Necessity). The first two they wish to be understood as the sun and the moon, because the sun is the source of spirit, heat and light and both the procreator of human life and its guardian, and thus it is the Daimon or the deity of a person being born; the moon, however, is Tyche, because she is the guardian of bodies which are thrown about by the varieties of fortune. Love is signified by a kiss; nesessity is signified by a nod.

Giorgio Agamben, in his latest short philosophical work entitled The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa), borrows these four gods from Macrobius to build his discussion and definition of the word “adventure.” And following the example of Goethe, who, in his Urworte, adds Elpis (hope), Agamben translates these deities as Demon, Event, Love, Necessity and Hope. He writes, “Every human is caught up in the adventure; for this reason, every human deals with Daimon, Eros, Ananke, and Elpis. They are the faces—or masks—that adventure—tyche—presents us with at each turn.” Agamben argues against the modern definition of adventure, which is seen as an event that is strange and out-of-the-ordinary, and wants to replace it with a more universal term that corresponds to our everyday Being and experience in the world. “The idea that adventure is something external—and therefore eccentric and bizarre—with respect to ordinary life defines its modern conception,” he asserts.

Agamben begins, as usual, with the history and etymology of the word “adventure”; previous authors have argued that the term comes from the Latin advenio as the neuter, plural, future, active participle—adventura. But, Agamben points out, there is no proof of its use in Classical Latin. He concludes, “Whether it derives from the classical and Christian Latin adventus (the advent of a prince or a messiah), as is likely, or from eventus, as the late Du Cange suggested, the term designates something mysterious or marvelous that happens to a given man, which could be equally positive or negative.” And in the love poetry of the troubadours, adventure is used to describe not only the event but also the story that is told about the event:

The aventure (or aventiure) may be marvelous or fortuitous (in which case it means “chance”), beneficial or malefic (one will then call it bonne or male aventure; the term seems to be equivalent to “fate” or “fortune”), or more or less perilous (it will thus stand as a challenge to the knight’s courage); however, it is not always easy to distinguish between the event and its transposition into words.

It is this medieval idea of adventure towards which we ought to return, Agamben argues. In the next two chapters he elaborates on the influence that Eros (Love) and Tyche (Event) have on the concept of adventure. Eros is the very thing that gives life to the demon, it is Eros that drives us to abandon ourselves to the adventure and the event without reservations. Eros and adventure are intertwined “..not because love gives meaning and legitimacy to adventure, but, on the contrary because only a life that has the form of adventure can truly find love.” And, as far as the event is concerned, “Not only are the event and speech given together in the adventure but—as we saw—the latter always demands a subject to whom it must be told.” A refreshing, hopeful, even playful definition of adventure emerges from Agamben’s essay. In the concluding chapter, Elpis (Hope), is the concept that links all of the other ideas together. But this is not the modern concept of hope from silly Internet memes or self-help gurus; it is more immediate, in the here and now, the hope that affects the essence of our Being daily: “Just as hope overcomes its satisfaction, so too does it surpass salvation (and love).”

I have read this delightful book a few times since last week and one thing that has bothered me about it is the translation of the Ancient Greek word daimon as “demon.” Although it can be used as an alternative for “daemon” (a spirit or numen), demon, in the monotheistic, Christian sense, has a decidedly negative connotation as something evil. In Ancient Greek daimon is used to denote a spirit in relation to a deity, and can also be translated as “power” or “fate”. Macrobius’ description, cited above, of the Egyptians belief that it is the source of heat, light and a guardian for humans at birth is very similar to the Ancient Greek understanding of it. (I’ve discussed the word daimon more thoroughly elsewhere in the context of Ancient Greek tragedy in a review of Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides Bakkhai.) Agamben is arguing that this spirit, this Being, present at birth is the every day, driving force behind adventure. Maybe I am mistaken, but it seems that an English speaking audience would automatically assume that demon is used in the negative, Christian context. I don’t have access to the Italian text, but I wonder what the word for daimon is in Italian and if it is closer to the original Ancient Greek meaning? Perhaps it would have been more beneficial for the sake of his argument if the translator used the Latin word daemon or, better yet, left it untranslated as daimon?

12 Comments

Filed under Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Philosophy

The Vital Force of the Kore: The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando

The Ancient Greek goddess Demeter (Ceres to the Romans) was associated with the harvest and agriculture and was worshipped at her temple in Eleusis.  The Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells us that the goddess has a daughter, Persephone or Kore, fathered by Zeus, who was abducted by Hades and forced to live in the underworld with her husband for part of the year.  The story of Demeter and Persephone can be viewed as a nature myth—Persephone represents the seed, planted under the ground and fertilized by Zeus, that grows in the spring as the harvest and whose maturity is represented by Demeter herself.  The story can also be viewed as an etiological myth whereby the seasons are explained—the months in which Persephone spends with her husband in Hades Demeter does not let anything grow and thus it is winter.  Finally, the story of Demeter can be viewed as a charter myth that explains the origins for the rituals that take place during the Eleusinian Mysteries at the temple of Demeter.

During the autumnal celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were organized by the Athenian polis, there were rituals that involved fasting, a procession with sacrificial pigs, purification in the sea, and the consumption of a sacred drink.  The nocturnal procession went from Athens to the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis where initiates would gather in the Hall of Initiations, the Telesterion, where the hierophant (sacred revealer) revealed the “holy things.”  It was said that Demeter bestowed two gifts to her initiates: a stalk of grain and the mysteries that were said to hold a promise to a happier afterlife.  The mysteries that took place at the annual celebration were kept secret by all participants.

In his essay, The Unspeakable Girl,  published in English by Seagull Books and translated by Leland De La Durantaye and Annie Julia Wyman, Italian philosopher and author Giorgio Agamben begins with a discussion of the Ancient Greek word Kore.  Agamben’s writing is challenging but of the few things I read so far, he begins with the etymology of important words, which makes his narrative, for me, more accessible.  He writes:

The Greek term kore (masculine form: koros) does not refer to a precise chronological age.  Derived from a root meaning ‘vital force’, it refers to the principle that makes both plants and animals grow (koros also means ‘offshoot’ in the botanical sense.)  A kore, can thus be old, like the Phorcydes, called denaiai korai, the ‘long-lived girls’ and the graiai, ‘those with white hair.’ Aeschylus calls the terrifying avengers of blood crime Erinyes (or Furies), korai, as well as graiai palaiai pades (ancient children with white hair.)

Agamben concludes that “Kore is life in so much as it does not allow itself to be ‘spoken’, in so much as it cannot be defined by age, family, sexual identity or social role.”  The philosopher uses this idea of Kore as the unspeakable for a further discussion of the mysteries involving Demeter and Kore that take place during the Eleusinian rituals.  His thesis is that the mystery is not so much a sacred object that is revealed or an event that happens during the ritual, but a mystical transformation which the initiates experience that is unspeakable—not unspeakable in the sense that it is prohibited to be spoken about but in the sense that there is no language that adequately expresses the experience.  Agamben cites and discusses key passages from Aristotle and Plato who describe the acquisition of philosophical knowledge as a mystic experience or initiation.  Agamben concludes, “When she was abducted by Hades, Kore was ‘playing (paizousan) with the girls of Ocean’ (kouresi syn Okeanou; Homeri Hymnus in Cecerem 5.5).  That a girl at play became the ideal figure for the supreme initiation and the completion of philosophy, the figure for something that is at once thought and initiation and thus unspeakable—this is the ‘mystery.'”

And why should the modern reader care about initiation into ancient mystery cults.  This is, perhaps, my favorite part of Agamben’s argument; he makes this ancient thought and practice relevant to a 21st century audience: “Whether it be Lucius in The Golden Ass or Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the novel places us before a mysterion to which life itself is at once that which initiates us and that into which we are initiated.”

“The goddess threw herself like a maenad down the woody mountainside.” Pastel on recycled paper. Monica Ferrando.

This Seagull edition also includes gorgeous paintings by artist Monica Ferrando as well as her translations of Ancient Greek and Latin text sources for Demeter, Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, Literature in Translation, Philosophy

Love is Not Blind: A Renaissance Love Elegy by Cristoforo Landino

Mercury slays Argus while he is guarding Io. Peter Paul Rubens. 1636-1638.

The Italian Renaissance scholar Cristoforo Landino (1424-1498) is best known for his philosophical dialogues written in the vernacular Italian of which he was an advocate.  But, in the style of Latin love elegy—Catullus, Ovid and Propertius—he did compose a series of poems about his love affair with a woman he tenderly calls Xandra.  In the following poem entitled “Conqueritur de Amore” (Complaints about Love) he vehemently dismisses the commonly held notion that love is blind (translation is my own):

Alas, whoever believes that Love is blind is indeed deceived: Argus, the ferocious monster, didn’t have as many eyes in his head as my lover! For what shadows or what out-of-the-way places are able to secretly snatch me away in safety from her eyes? The riverbanks and the rivers overflowing their curved banks and the leaf-covered fields are my witnesses, for it is among them that, desiring to put aside my shameful, fiery passion, I have sought to complain pointlessly about the savage lashings of my mistress. For you, oh wild beasts, have often seen me wandering around among your mountains in a vain attempt to hide myself. And what have I accomplished? That cruel god, Cupid, never guides his path away from my heart. Are there no other mortal hearts for you to burn with your little torches? Or what about immortal hearts? Or do you prefer to safely relax with your fellow deities with whom you’ve made a sacred pact? You are certainly sure to tire out those bloody weapons of yours as I now stand in resistance. But your bow only holds me in its sights. Go ahead and lead forward, you three Fates, you savage spirits, your distaffs that you have imposed upon us so harshly; I just pray that there is a limit and an end to my madness. There is no limit for a grand love. But my Xandra knows what your quiver is capable of, she knows full well about adverse love. Although she might be capable of conquering fierce tigers and Sicilian giants or conquering Harshness itself, she nevertheless does not look at my wounds with dry eyes. My girl is indeed harsh, but she is not that hardhearted.

This poem is particularly indebted to Ovid for its mythological allusions to Argus and Cupid; Ovid is fond of calling the amorous god “savage boy.”  I especially like that, although the poet is trying to hide from all seeing eyes of his love, in the end he playfully acknowledges that she does have a soft spot for him and he for her.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized