Monthly Archives: October 2017

Comites Camillae: Some thoughts on Companions by Christina Hesselholdt

In her narrative that follows the lives of five close friends living through the trials and tribulations of middle age in the 21st century, Hesselholdt includes a conflated translation of two of the most famous poems by the Roman poet, Catullus: “My girl’s sparrow is dead…It would not leave her lap, but hopped around now here now there…He chirped constantly to his mistress alone.”  The poet engages in a passionate, tumultuous love affair with a married,  Patrician woman named Clodia (disguised as Lesbia in his poetry) and in Poem #2 he writes about his lover’s sparrow with whom she enjoys playing and teasing. (The poem is commonly view as an erotic metaphor—Lesbia plays with her “bird” when she is missing her poet-boyfriend, Catullus.)  The tone of Poem #3 changes dramatically as Clodia’s sparrow has now died and Catullus’s words serve as a mock eulogy for the dearly departed little pet.  The death of the sparrow is also foreboding, it shows Catullus’s angst about his relationship with this woman whom he knows, on some level, will bring him grief and suffering.  It is his friends, his companions (as he calls them in Poem #11—comites in the Latin ) that he relies on to get him through the rough times.

Much like Catullus, the characters in Companions struggle with loneliness and isolation in their love lives but their friendships are something to which they cling for security and reassurance amidst their various crises.  Hesselholdt’s narrative explores different types of love—romantic, filial, platonic—and the existential angst that these emotions cause.  Time and again the theme of death is considered in the author’s fragmented, intertextual, and postmodern writing.  Forty-year-old Camilla is the central figure in the narrative—or her thoughts, at least, get the most attention.  She is married to Charles who suffers from chronic, debilitating back pain and his illness has put a strain on their relationship.  Camilla’s mother is also troubled by various afflictions, both mental and physical, which are a constant source of stress for Camilla.  In addition, her dear, depressed friend Edward lives alone with his dog in the house in which his parents committed suicide by hanging themselves.  Camilla is surrounded by weakness, illness, and sadness and her thoughts are often about mortality— that of her own and those around her.

Early in the novel Camilla takes a trip to Belgrade to give a lecture and loneliness and isolation weigh on her.  Her thoughts apply to her trip as well as her current state of mind at this point in her life:

Why does the journey reinforce this existential loneliness—never am I closer to death and the abyss than when I am alone on a journey.  I know the answer already.  An unknown among unknown faces.  And unknown, unmemorized stretches.  Kingdom of the dead, glittering, indistinct features, averted eyes, withdrawal, fleeting shadows, bloodlessness.

When she is back home interactions with her mother and her husband also evoke images of death.  She says about her mother:

The other day I saw a painting by Kiefer, a painting of an enormous sunflower at the foot of which, a man is keeled over, (the title of the painting is Sol Invictus) I thought, that was how it was to be a child of hers.  The sunflower head looked like a shower head.  One moment warmth, the next in danger of drowning.  I am the one who is keeled over at the foot of the flower.  I have died the sun death, I have died the flower death.

She says about Charles and their relationship:

Married life with Charles is linked to the Osama bin Laden era, we were so in love in September 2001 that it was not until late morning on the twelfth that we realized what had happened on the eleventh, and the dissolution of our relationship took place in the days around bin Laden’s death.  Two images frame it:
1. Bodies in Free fall
2. A face shot to pieces
The end of him. And us.

And other intermittent thoughts that Camilla has that threaten to consume her and pull her down into the abyss:

I need to keep my mind active, give it something to work on, just like you use prayer beads or knitting needles to prevent your hands from becoming pendulums that heavily and resignedly pull the body down or on the contrary swing into the air or rub and pick and chewing gum for the mouth, otherwise it (the mind) fiddles with catastrophes like the outcome of which always results in coffins or in any case deathbeds or farewell letters, immensely trivial, but for that reason no less troublesome.

Camilla describes Alma, her life-long, closest friend as blonde, “my GPS, my light in the darkness.”  It is Alma that shows up in Belgrade to help her navigate the city and it is Alma who is a comforting presence throughout her childhood while she is dealing with her mother’s various issues.  Edward, Kristian and Alwilda are also close companions that provide her with support and distraction and we get their points-of-view from time to the in the text as well; they themselves are dealing with the ups and downs of various relationships.  But it is Alma who is the companion that is her constant source of solace.  They are friends from childhood and there are, fittingly, many descriptions of their traveling adventures–from England to Belgrade to Greece.

Companions is laden with references to other authors and pieces of literature; Woolf, Plath, Bernhard, Nabokov, and even a quote from Epicurus can be found within the pages of Hesselholdt’s narrative.  I had wondered if the character of Camilla is in any way autobiographical as it is evident that the author inserts her own literary preferences into the text.  Hesselholdt has especially tempted me to read Woolf’s The Waves and Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet before I return to Companions for a second read as her multilayered and nuanced book is worthy of, and in fact demands, more than one reading.  The author, in discussing Durrell’s novels through the thoughts of Camilla, subtly shows us how we ought to approach and read Companions:  “The existence of the absolute unique frame of reference is rejected; all depending on where the events in the books are seen from, they appear different.”

I apologize for my scattered thoughts about this book.  I found it overwhelming to think about.  Please visit Times Flow Stemmed for Anthony’s more coherent and enlightening ideas about this book: https://timesflowstemmed.com/2017/10/23/christina-hesselholdts-companions/

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Filed under Dutch Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction

Love Stories Must Never be Left Unfinished: Irretrievable by Theodor Fontane

“Love stories must never be left unfinished and when harsh reality has cut the thread before its time, then it must be spun out artificially.” This seems to capture perfectly the sad fate that Fontane writes for the married couples in both Effi Briest and Irretrievable. Each story features a marriage in which, although a minor indiscretion has occurred, one of the spouses chooses a desperate and unnecessary end to their relationship, their family and their lives.

Set between 1859-1861 in Schleswig-Holstein, five years before the German-Danish War, the novel  deals with Count Helmut Holk who has been married to his beautiful and devout wife Christine Arne for twenty years. Even though they have very different personalities—he is easygoing, indecisive and not spiritual, she is moralistic, self-righteous and cold— their attraction, admiration and affection for one another, at first, was rather strong.  They build and move into a beautiful castle that overlooks the sea.  And they have two teenage children, a boy and a girl, for whom Christine is searching out boarding schools that will provide them the best education.  Schleswig-Holstein at this point in time is still ruled by Denmark and the Count has an important position as an attendant at the court of the Danish princess.  Just before the Count leaves his family to serve the princess in Copenhagen for several months, there are signs that the Holks’ marriage is starting to show signs of wearing thin on both of their nerves.  Fontane describes Christine’s thoughts just before the Count is called to Denmark:

In spite of having the best of husbands whom she loved as much as he loved her, she yet did not possess that peace for which she longed; in spite of all their love, his easy-going temperament was no longer in harmony with her melancholy, as recent arguments had proved to her more than once to an ever-increasing degree and even though she would strive with all her might to resist her tendency to disagree.

I felt that Holk was the more sympathetic of the two characters throughout the story.  Fontane lets us view the marriage from the outside, through the eyes of Christine’s brother and two local clergymen, who all agree that her moralizing and constant judgment of her husband is too much and is driving them further apart.  When Holk goes to Copenhagen, the time, distance and experiences with the Princess force him to realize that what he really wants is a partner who gives him warmth, affection and understanding;

Ah, all that bickering and nagging! I’m longing for a new life, one that doesn’t begin and end with religious tracts, I want harmony in my home, not a harmonium, joy and mutual understanding and air and light and freedom.  That’s what I want and that’s what I have always wanted, ever since the first day I arrived here, and now I’ve been given the sign that I’m going to be allowed to have it.

I also found the Count’s naivete, especially when he encounters the women in Copenhagen, to be amusing and even endearing.  He is especially captivated by Ebba, the princess’s lady-in-waiting, who flirts with him and uses him for one night of unbridled passion which the Count is clearly not accustomed to.  But he figures out too late that Ebba is just using him as a temporary amusement and his wife, for the better part of a year, will not forgive his indiscretion.  Holk is a character that develops a great deal of personal knowledge and growth in Fontane’s narrative so I found it disappointing that he would even consider going back to Christine; she is still the same dour, melancholy woman he married and their time apart didn’t change that.  He learns the hard way that any happy times that they had previously are irretrievable, there is no way back to the past.

As Fontane says in the novel, a love story can’t have a non-ending—the author couldn’t possibly allow Holk and Christine to live together in their castle, no matter how miserable they make each other.  It’s interesting to note that in Effi Briest, it is Effi’s husband that is the morally stringent, destructive force in the novel because in Irretrievable it is the wife that plays this role.  It is Christine that makes a fatal, ruinous decision (I won’t give it away) that brings a definitive end to their love story, their marriage and the novel.

I am thoroughly enjoying Fontane’s novels and I have a volume of his shorter works that is published by The German Library to look forward to.

(I read the NYRB Classics translation entitled Irretrievable but this novel has also been translated into English as Beyond Recall and No Way Back.)

 

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books

Caveat Regnator: A Translated Excerpt from Seneca’s Trojan Women

Andromache and Astyanax, The Fall of Troy.

What is it like being an advisor to a powerful, narcissistic leader whose main interest lies not in serving his constituency but instead in acting and performing for his sycophantic groupees?

No, I’m not talking about the current state of American politics.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 B.C. in Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder and served as the emperor Nero’s closest advisor.   When he was brought to Rome at an early age to obtain an education that would prepare him for a political career, one wonders if he ever imaged that his fate would be entangled with the affairs of two volatile and difficult emperors. In 41 A.D., during the first year of the reign of Claudius, Seneca was condemned to death by the senate on the charge of having committed adultery with Julia Livilla, Claudius’s niece. Claudius, however, spared his life and banished him to the island of Corsica where he spent the next eight years.

Seneca was recalled early in 49 A.D. by Agrippina, Claudius’s new wife, in order that he might become the tutor of her sixteen-year-old son Nero. When Nero ascended to the throne, Seneca acted as the Emperor’s chief advisor for at least five years. Somewhere in the midst of all of this Seneca managed to write treaties dealing with moral philosophy, volumes of private letters, a work dealing with terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena, a satire on the deification of the emperor Claudius and even several tragedies. Scholars have debated for centuries about when this influential rhetorician and adherent of the Stoic sect found time to compose these tragedies.

Seneca’s extant dramatic works include the Hercules Furens, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus, and the Troades. My post and translation today focuses on the Troades. This play deals with the aftermath of Troy’s destruction, as the Trojan women are standing amongst the ruins of their city and waiting to hear which Greek hero will claim them as plunder. Andromache desperately tries to save her son Astyanax by hiding him inside the tomb of her husband Hector. After Andromache is forced to give up her son, he is thrown by the Greek soldiers from the last remaining citadel of the city. Achilles’ ghost also demands the sacrifice of Polyxena in this play and the pathetic account of her death is related to us in the messenger’s speech. Seneca drew his subject matter from a long tradition of Greek plays that include Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba and Sophocles’ Polyxena, as well as the epic tradition that includes Homer, Vergil and Ovid.

In this opening scene in the Troades, Hecuba, the once proud queen of this glorious city,  has a warning for any leader who takes his power for granted.  No wonder the Greeks were afraid of her (translation is my own):

Any ruler who has faith in his power and who reigns supreme in his grand palace and does not fear the fickle gods and gives his trusting spirit to happy matters, let him look at me and at you, Troy:  Never has fortune presented a greater proof that the haughty stand on weak ground.  The pillar of powerful Asia has been overthrown, that extraordinary work of the gods; and even though many came to her aid—Rhesus who drinks from the cold waters of the Tanais, spreading its sevenfold mouths, and the neighboring Amazon who, looking over the wandering Scythians, strikes the shores of Pontus with her unmarried troops, and Memnon son of Aurora who first, greeting the newborn day, mixes the warm Tigris with the red colored sea—Troy still falls by the sword,  Pergamum collapses on itself.  And the highly adorned walls lie heaped in ruins with scorched roofs.  Flames surround the royal palace and the entire house of Assaracus is smoldering.  The fire does not hold back the greedy hands of the victor:  Troy, as she burns, is torn to pieces, and the sky is hidden by the billowing smoke.  This black day, overcome by a dense cloud, is covered with the embers of Troy.

This has always been one of my favorite passages in Latin literature to translate.  Hecuba stands among the burning ruins of her once grand city and, before she laments her sad fate, gives a stern warning to any ruler who might feel secure in his position.  How very Stoic of her.

Maybe this warning does aptly apply to current American (and global) politics?

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They Spill from your Shelves, They Sprawl by your Bed: Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh

I’ve been feeling so restless and scattered lately with my reading (and maybe my life?)  Nothing seems to hold my attention for very long.   After I finished Effi Briest, which book I loved, I ordered more Fontane and while I was waiting for those books to arrive in the mail, I started a few others (well, more than a few).  Since it is the centenary of the Russian Revolution in October, I pulled off of my shelves several books of Russian history and literature that I had every intention of reading this month.  I managed to get about 60 pages into Gulag Letters by Arsenii Formakov and 20 pages into China Mievelle’s book October.  I also set aside 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Russian Émigré Short Stories, which have yet to make it off of my coffee table.

But I was craving more fiction so I read two short books, The Year of the Drought by Roland Buti which I enjoyed, but didn’t take much time to read, and Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place which I thought was interesting but not fantastic.  (I’ve ordered a few more of her books to see if any other of her titles resonate more with me than this first one I read.)  After staring at the three stacks of books sitting on my coffee table, wandering into the book room and staring at my shelves, flipping through the books on my bedside table, and consulting literary Twitter, I thought Joanna Walsh’s new collection of short fiction might be just the thing for me.  And I was right, sort of…

Walsh’s second story in Worlds from the Word’s End entitled “Bookshelves” begins by describing a bibliophile’s collection of books.  I felt right at home in her story, among her books:

They spill from your shelves.  They sprawl by your bed, luxurious, splayed sometimes and discarded at an early page,  broken by your attentions.  On your shelf more books you would like to read are waiting, books you have ordered, their white bodies fat with potential.

But the author acknowledges that sometimes being surrounded by this number of books is overwhelming, one can’t possibly read all of them because “there are just so many to conquer.”  Walsh then asks us to open our minds and imagine, “Something you never thought might happen”:   A being who crawls out of your bookshelf who has read all of your neglected books!  Imagine stumbling upon this being sitting at your table, smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee.  This being has actually read all of your discarded, half-read books, anything that was sitting in a bag for the charity shop, including “ill-judged gifts from well-meaning relatives” and “gardening manuals” and even the  “memoirs of politicians.”  I began to feel better about the stacks of books sitting neglected on my own shelves and a little less guilty about the dozens of books I’ve sent to the charity shop.  I especially like the ending when the narrator realizes that this poor being has read some really lousy books and she feels grateful and even superior for her own literary discretion.

It is fitting that I didn’t actually finish all of the stories in Walsh’s collection, abandoning the book just before I made it through the last few stories.  My attention was diverted by the arrival of Thomas Bernhard’s Collected Poems and Music & Literature No. 8.   So I was hoping that one night, very late, when I can’t sleep that I will stumble into my kitchen and encounter one of my cats, sitting at the table, with a cigarette in one paw, a book in the other, and a glass of wine/whiskey in front of him, who will describe to me the rest of Walsh’s book.

Meanwhile, my other Fontane books arrived in the post and I’ve started Irretrievable.  So I guess I will stick with German Lit. for a while, but then again…

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Year of the Drought by Roland Buti

Thirteen-year-old Gus Sutter vividly remembers the summer of 1976 not just for the preternaturally harsh drought, but also for the incidents leading up to the disintegration of his family.  Gus, his mother and father, his older sister Lea, and a mentally challenged worker named Rudy live on the family’s farm in the Swiss plateau.  Buti’s take on a coming-of-age story is captivating because of the impending sense of doom and ruin that he weaves throughout Gus’s narrative.  All of the nature around them foreshadows the sad fate of this family; the crops are burning in the sun, the family dog, Sheriff, keeps fainting and their chickens are dying by the dozens in the heat.  The Sutter’s ancient mare, Bagatelle, who never moves from her barn has broken free from her rope and made her way down to the local river to die.  And finally, perhaps the most eerie omen of all, is that Gus has found a dove that cannot fly because its fail feathers have been destroyed by a predator.

The arrival of a strange woman named Cecile, an employee at a neighboring post office, is the first hint that something is wrong with the Sutter family unit.  Cecile seems  oddly close to Gus’s mother and he can’t quite figure out why their relationship makes him so uncomfortable.  His mother has never shown very much affection or emotion towards her family.  Gus’s description of her, the morning after he finds the wounded dove,  is particularly sad since it comes from her thirteen-year-old son who clearly craves his mother’s affection:

I was glad that she had petted my dove, accepted its presence without argument.  Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair.  I would have liked to be in the bird’s place.  I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers.  When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning.  Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness.  She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way.

She is too busy playing the role of mother, housekeeper and accountant to enjoy anything else in life, but Cecile awakens something in her that Gus has never seen before—genuine happiness.  Gus slowly realizes that Cecile is a threat to his family when he discovers that since Cecile has moved in, Gus’s father is sleeping in the guest room.  When Gus questions his father about it, he is ruthlessly scolded for not minding his own business.

The character for whom I had the most sympathy was Gus’s father, Jean.  He inherits his farm from his own father and works from sun up until sunset to make barely enough of a living on which to sustain his family.  He is a man of few words, so it is through his actions that he demonstrates his unique, unconditional love for his wife, even when she abandons him, their children and the farm.   One night at dinner when Cecile encourages Gus’s mother to get a job, Jean nearly chokes Cecile to death in a fit of rage.  Later on, a group of neighbors make fun of Jean because of his wife’s indiscretions with Cecile and he punches and kicks these men until they can no longer stand.  But as revenge, those same men beat Jean with farm tools until he can’t walk and has to stay in bed for days.  Even Gus himself, who makes a disparaging comment about his mother after she leaves, is punched in the mouth and knocked out by his father.  As his wife drifts further and further away from him, he seems to be preparing himself for the inevitable.  Gus observes about his father:

He seemed to have decided that only objects and animals were worthy of his consideration.  He would carefully examine each tool he picked up, as if a pitchfork or a shovel could bring some answer to the problem of suffering.  He had taken to sitting down in front of Sheriff and staring at him, which made our dog uncomfortable, unused as he was to being treated as anything more than part of the furniture.  He would hang his head to the side quizzically, tongue hanging out, as if waiting for an explanation.  The truth was that Dad was training himself for solitude.

Gus’s father, after his wife leaves and the children are on their own, spends his days alone at the farm.  A very sad fate for a kind, honest, hardworking man who loved his wife, his family and his land.  Buti has created a memorable group of characters whom he fittingly sets among a vivid and harsh landscape.

Thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for recommending this book to me.  Please stop by his blog and read his wonderful review of this novel: https://1streading.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/year-of-the-drought/

 

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation