Category Archives: Literature in Translation

Qualis Apes: Vergil, Tolstoy and Bees

Dido Building Carthage. J.M.W. Turner. 1815.

In Book I of Vergil’s Aeneid, when the epic hero lands in Carthage after surviving a violent storm at sea, he encounters the Queen, Dido, and its inhabitants in the midst of building their city.   Vergil uses one of his most famous similes to describe this communal activity in which the Carthaginians are engaging.  In Aeneid 1.430-436 Vergil writes(translation is my own):*

Just as work drives the bees under the sun
in early summer throughout the florid countryside
when the adults of the hive lead forth the young,
or when they store the liquid honey
and stuff the cells with sweet nectar.
Or when they receive the deliveries of those
arriving, or ward off, having formed a
phalanx, the drones—a lazy swarm—
from the hive; The work seethes and the
fragrant honey is redolent with thyme.

Building a city is a communal activity, and with this simile Vergil emphasizes that the sum is greater than its parts.  There is a feeling of hope and a bright future.  It’s also striking that, in addition to supervising the building of their hive, that the bees ward off danger and protect their home.

I have written in a previous post about Tolstoy’s Homeric influences, but as I was reading the last third of War and Peace, his elaborate similes and metaphors have struck me time and again as being rather Vergilian.   My suspicions were confirmed when Tolstoy uses an elaborate metaphor involving bees to describe the relinquishment and subsequent destruction of the Russians’ beloved “Mother Moscow.”  The inhabitants know that the French are marching towards their city and they would rather run away than submit to foreign rule.  Tolstoy uses the bees as an extended metaphor and completely and ingeniously inverts Vergil’s simile.  The city is destroyed, there is no hope for her, and instead of protecting their home, the inhabitants—from the governor to the upper classes to the peasants to the serfs—utterly abandon their home to the enemy. Tolstoy  writes about deserted Moscow:

In a queenless hive no life is left though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.

The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance is smells of honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way.  But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it.  The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound that meet the bee-keeper are not the same.  To the bee-keeper’s tap on the wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly compressed, and producing by the rapid vibration of their wings an aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from different parts of the deserted hive.  From the alighting-board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odour of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey.  There are no longer sentinels there sounding the alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defence of the hive.  There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.

Napoleon in Burning Moscow. Adam Albrecht. 1841.

The metaphor goes on for the next page and a half in the Maude English translation.  Tolstoy portrays Napoleon standing on the Poklonny Hill outside Moscow with eager anticipation at his entry.  To him all things look normal, as they should be with a magnificent city,  but once he enters the gates he is bitterly disappointed to learn that Moscow is empty.  This place, without its people, is just a shell of its former self.  Tolstoy’s metaphor, I think, also has an underlying tone of hopelessness that foreshadows defeat not for the Russians but for Napoleon himself.  The author stresses the point in his narrative that the army’s dispersal throughout the deserted city and Napoleon’s extended stay in Moscow were contributing factors in the ultimate failure of the French army.  And finally, the bee metaphor is also apt for discussing Tolstoy’s theme of soldiers being individual yet important parts of an enormous whole which I also discussed in my previous post.

I will finish War and Peace in the next day or so.  I thought I would be immersed in this epic for a few months, but it has so captivated my attention that I am reading it every free moment I have and will finish much more quickly than planned.

*For the extra curious, here are the lines of the Aeneid I translated above in Latin:

Qualis apes aestate nova per florea rura               430
exercet sub sole labor, cum gentis adultos
educunt fetus, aut cum liquentia mella
stipant et dulci distendunt nectare cellas,
aut onera accipiunt venientum, aut agmine facto
ignavom fucos pecus a praesepibus arcent:               435
fervet opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella.

 

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Respice Futurum: Some Reading Plans for 2018

Henricus Respicit Futurum.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, The Woodstock Academy where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now, is one of the oldest public schools in the United States and has a simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” These two simple Latin words capture the idea that one moves towards the future while also reflecting on the past— it is the equivalent of moving forward on a train while sitting in a seat that is facing backward.   Respice Futurum is an fitting description for thinking about my reading plans for 2018

Respicio in Latin means more than “looking back.” One of my favorite translations of this word is “to have regard for another person’s welfare.” The Stoic philosopher Seneca, for example, applies respicio to the idea of self-improvement in his work De Clementia: sapiens omnibus dignis proderit et deorum more calamitosos propitius respiciet. (A wise man will offer help to those who are worthy and, in the manner of the gods, he especially will have regard for those in need.”) A good person, Seneca argues, always looks towards his future but uses experiences from the past to inform his decisions.  So as I look forward to books I intend to read in 2018, I can’t help but consider which literary selections in 2017 have influenced my choices.  Which books, based on previous choices, will give me a chance for deep reflection and even self-improvement?

Based on my past experiences, there are a few of my favorite publishers that put out spectacular books year after year.  A few of these titles I am looking forward to are:

Seagull Books:

Villa Amalia, Pascal Quignard
Eulogy for the Living, Christa Wolf (trans. Katy Derbyshire)
The Great Fall, Peter Handke (trans. Krishna Winston)
Monk’s Eye, Cees Nooteboom (trans. David Colmer)
Lions, Hans Blumberg (trans. Kári Driscoll)
Requiem for Ernst Jandl,  Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)

NYRB Classics:

The Juniper Tree, Barbara Comyns
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin (trans. Michael Hofmann)
Kolyma Stories, Varlam Shalamov (trans. Donald Rayfield)
The Seventh Cross, Anna Seghers (trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo)
Anniversaries, Uwe Johnson (trans. Damion Searls)

Yale University Press:

Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel
A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan
Journeying, Claudio Magris (trans. Anne Milano Appel)

I am also looking forward to more publications from Fitzcarraldo Editions, New Directions, Archipelago Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, Persephone Books (whose bookshop I hope to visit in the spring) and the Cahier Series. I’ve also heard that new books by Kate Zambreno and Rachel Cusk will be coming out later in 2018 and I am eager to read new titles by both of these women.

While I am waiting for the books listed above to be published, I will dip into German and British classics which I have loved reading over the last year. Here is what I have sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention in 2018:

German Literature:

Hyperion, Holderlin (trans. Ross Benjamin)
The Bachelors, Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)
The Lighted Windows, Heimito von Doderer (trans. John S. Barrett)
brütt, or The Sighing Gardens, Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)
On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane (trans. Peter James Bowman)

British Literature:

Marriage, Susan Ferrier
The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (I’d also like to continue reading her volumes of essays and diaries)
To the Wedding and G., John Berger
Pilgrimage, Vols. 3 and 4, Dorothy Richardson

Russian Literature:

I was disappointed this year not to get around to this stack of Russian literature in translation books as well as Russian history books I have sitting on my shelves—

Gulag Letters, Arsenii Formakov (ed. Elizabeth D. Johnson)
Found Life, Lina Goralik
City Folk and Country Folk, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)
Sentimental Tales, Mikhail Zoshchenko (trans. Boris Dralyuk)
October, China Mieville

(I’ve toyed with the idea of starting War and Peace as well, but who knows where my literary moods will take me)

And for some Non-fiction:

I am very eager to read more George Steiner: Errata, The Poetry of Thought and Grammars of Creation are all on my TBR piles.
I am teaching a Vergil/Caesar class and an Ovid (Metamorphoses) class in the spring and in preparation for these authors I would like to read some of Gian Biaggio Conte’s books, especially Latin Literature: A History and Stealing the Club from Hercules: On Imitation in Latin Poetry.

I know, this list seems impossible, ridiculous, all over the place. But who knows what rabbit holes I will fall down, or where my journey will take me. All I can say for sure is that 2018, much like 2017, will be filled with great books and interactions with other wonderful readers. Happy New Year!

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Filed under British Literature, Cahier Series, German Literature, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction, Seagull Books, Virginia Woolf

Slightly Exhausted at the End: My Favorite Books of 2017

I received several lovely books as gifts for Christmas and tucked inside one of them was a handwritten notecard with this quote by William Styron:  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.  You live several lives while reading.”  I thought this sentiment was perfect for writing about my list of books this year that have provided me with rich and deep cerebral experiences;  these are the  books I have thought about on sleepless nights, these are the books that have left me figuratively and literally exhausted.

Many of the books on this list are classics, written in the 19th or 20th century.  Only a couple of titles that were published this year have made the list.  There is also a predominance of classic British and German literature.

Mrs. Dalloway,  To the Lighthouse and The Waves, Virginia Woolf.  This was the year that I finally discovered the wonder that is Virginia Woolf.  Of the three titles I read I couldn’t possibility pick a favorite, they all resonated with me for different reasons.  I’ve also enjoyed reading her essays along side the novels.

Pilgrimage, Vols. 1 and 2, Dorothy Richardson.  I started reading Richardson towards the end of the summer and was instantly captivated by her language and her strong, daring female character.  I made it about half way through Pilgrimage before taking a break.  But I will finish the last two volumes in the new year.

Map Drawn by a Spy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.  This is another great title from Archipelago books and a chilling account of the author’s escape from his homeland of Cuba.  A unique, eye-opening read on the mindset of those living under an oppressive, totalitarian regime.

And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos and Bento’s Sketchbook,  John Berger.  I initially picked up And Our Faces when Scott Esposito pointed it out on Twitter several months back.  I just happened to be walking by one of my bookshelves one day and it caught my eye.  I haven’t stopped reading Berger since.  I also remembered that I had a copy of Bento’s Sketchbook which came recommended by someone with impeccable literary taste who said it is one of those “must read” books.  He was not wrong.

The Quest for Christa T., Christa Wolf.  I first discovered Wolf last year when I read her Medea and Cassandra.  Surprisingly, I think of all the Wolf  titles I’ve read so far, The Quest for Christa T. has been my favorite.  I have also gotten about half way through her memoir One Day a Year which I am hoping to finish in the new year.

Effi Briest, Theodor FontaIne.  I saw a list of Samuel Beckett’s favorite books and Effi was on the list.  I immediately picked up a copy and read it.  This is a title that is worthy of multiple reads, one that indeed left me exhausted yet eager to start all over from the beginning.

Other Men’s Daughters, Richard Stern.  It is no surprise that my list includes at least one title from NYRB Classics.  I had never heard of Stern and this book made me want to explore more of his writings.  This is a tale of a marriage and divorce, but Stern’s writing is not typical of this genre in any way whatsoever.

Penthesilea, Heinrich von Kleist.  Kleist’s story of Penthesilea and her brief yet powerful relationship with the hero Achilles was captivating.  I oftentimes avoid retellings of Ancient myths because they veer too far from the original stories, but Kleist’s rendition of these events from the Trojan War deftly incorporate his own backstory with these ancient characters.

Poetic Fragments, Karoline von Gunderrode.  This was another title that I came across on literary Twitter.  For all of the negative things that can be said about social media,  it has definitely served a great purpose for me through interacting with a community of liked minded readers.  Thanks to flowerville, in particular, who has steered me toward many a great German classic that I would otherwise not have been made aware of.

Blameless, Claudio Magris.  As with other Magris novels I have read, I was impressed with the high level of the author’s erudition mixed with poetic language and intriguing plot.  Much like Compass which is also on this list,  it is not an easy read, but for those who enjoy a literary challenge then I highly recommend Blameless

A Terrace in Rome, Pascal Quignard.  I have been slowly making my way through all of  the Quignard that is in translation.  A Terrace in Rome had  all of the elements that I love about a Quignard title; it was poetic, passionate, philosophical, enigmatic, and beautiful.  I am especially eager to get a copy of Villa Amalia which Seagull Books will soon be publishing.

Compass, Mathias Enard.  This is one of the few books actually published this year on my list.  This is a book for those who really enjoy books.  My TBR pile grew by leaps and bounds collecting just a fragment of the titles mentioned by Enard in his fascinating story of a musicologist who suffers from a sleepless night.

Now I’m exhausted just thinking about these books all over again…

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, History, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Poetry, Virginia Woolf

When, if not now?: The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Between 1960 and 2010, Christa Wolf recorded her thoughts, impressions, and experiences on the same day, September 27th, in each of those years.  In 1968, the same year in which The Quest for Christa T. was published, Wolf spent time in a hospital to treat her recurring depression. In her diary for that year she writes:

Now, while writing, I begin to feel better. Just the process of writing already helps. So it will probably remain the only thing for me after all. But ‘life’—that is: political, national life—runs along the old tracks. Sometimes it seems to me that it races towards a bad end. And we stand next to it and give woebegone commentaries. But once you have jumped the tracks with such force, you do not get back on them again…

The Quest for Christa T. follows the lives and friendship of two women, the unnamed narrator and Christa T., from World War II through the 1960’s when East Germany is under communist rule. The narrator, in a nonlinear narrative, uses her own memories, Christa’s letters and diaries, and discussions with others who knew her to piece together the life of her friend who died at the age of thirty-five from leukemia.   Although the novel is not overtly political, there is a constant sense of disillusionment and restlessness that Christa T. suffers and, the like author with whom she shares her name, her only solace against this is to write.  One of Christa T.’s diary entries reads: “To think that I can only cope with things by writing!”

As the narrator describes Christa T.’s life, childhood, education, friendship, career, first love, marriage, children, an affair, she also explores important questions about identity.  One can collect a list of biographical facts about a life, but what, truly, is the essence of that person?  Can we ever reconstruct the reality of another person?  Wolf’s style of writing is complex and reading this disjoined narrative requires a great deal of concentration and reflection—my favorite kind of book.  The novel is full of deeply philosophical passages such as:

You’ll certainly remember what we used to say when one of us was feeling forlorn: When, if not now?  When should one live, if not in the time that’s given to one?  It always helped.  But now—if only I could tell you how it is…The whole world like a wall facing me.  I fumble over the stones: no gaps.  Why should I go on deluding myself: there’s no gap for me to live in.  It’s my own fault.  It’s me, I’m simply not determined enough.  Yet how simple and natural everything seemed when I first read about it in books.

The most heart wrenching and difficult parts of the story were the descriptions of Christa T.’s tragic illness and death.  When she is diagnosed with an advanced form of leukemia at thirty-five she is at a happy, content point in her life and even though she had an affair, she has settled back into her marriage and has two young children.  As her death approaches Wolf repeats the phrase “When, if not now?” a few times within the text and this is also the line with which she ends the novel.  A simple phrase, yet so profound.  Something we all contemplate in our own lives, especially as we approach middle age.  It is no wonder that the GDR kept a close eye on Wolf and informed bookstores to sell this book only to serious members of the literary community.

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

Quiet Failure: Stories by Gottfried Keller

In the Foreword to the German Library (Volume 44) edition of Gottfried Keller’s stories Max Frisch writes:

Assuming that the American reader still has this volume in his hands, I would like to point out to him that Gottfried Keller fought for liberalism but was not naïve; he soon grew bitterly apprehensive that middle-class liberalism, the great social achievement of his century, might disintegrate into a profit society pure and simple, without utopias, without transcendent values.  And that is what we have today.  Or so I fear.  If you read further you will find there is something strangely disturbing about these stories: One life after another ends in quiet failure.  You won’t notice it immediately because the man who tells these tales has a sense of humor.  He likes people even though he sees through them.  He is kind.  He knows a lot about the relationship between money and morals, for example, and he doesn’t cover it up; because he still has hope.

He would be horrified at his country—as he would be at other “democracies” as well.

Frisch’s words about Keller ring true even more so today than when he wrote them in 1982.  Keller’s novellas in the first part of this volume are set in an imaginary place that he calls Seldwyla, a small town where everyone knows each other and gossip is rampant.  The men he depicts are hard working but because of their stubbornness and narrow views of the world they bring about their own downfall.

In “The Three Righteous Combmakers,” Jobst, Fridolin and Dietrich are all craftsmen who work for a Seldwylan combmaker.  The craftsmen in Seldwyla are usually itinerant, never working for one employer for very long.  But these three men refuse to leave their present employer and they all start saving money and pinching pennies to the extreme in order to eventually buy the combmaking business.  Gottfried deals with the ridiculous frugality of these men with his typical humor.  The men are too cheap, for instance, to even think about taking a wife because of what it would cost them: “He was not accustomed to think of marriage, because he could conceive of a wife only as a person who wanted something from him that he did not owe her…”  One day, however,  Zus, the daughter of a local laundress, captures the attention of all three men when they learn she is in possession of a small inheritance.  They argue, fight, and make fools of themselves to win her hand in marriage; their uncompromising adherence to their plans to get Zus’s money causes the “quiet failure” of all three men.

In the story entitled “A Village Romeo and Juliet,” the farmers that Keller depicts from Seldwyla are equally as stubborn and uncompromising as the combmakers.  Marti and Manz are diligent men whose farms are prosperous because of their work ethic.  But when a land dispute arises between the men, their focus on this petty issue causes them to neglect their farms and their families.  Both men end up penniless and are forced to give up their once productive and beautiful farms.  In addition their children, Sali and Verena, fall in love but understand the impossibility of any marriage because of the disapproval of their fathers.  What makes Keller’s story different from the typical star crossed lovers tale is that Sali and Verena willingly and even enthusiastically take their own lives in order to control their own fate.

What I appreciated most about Keller’s writing in “A Village Romeo and Juliet” was his detailed descriptions of nature and the Seldwylan countryside.  Like the landscape, the feelings that the lovers have for each other are beautiful, raw and natural.  When the couple meets for the first time, Keller sets the scene:

Sali went directly out to the quiet, beautiful hillside over which the two fields extended. The magnificent, quiet July sun, the passing white clouds floating above the ripe, waving grain, the blue shimmering fiver flowing below—all this filled him once more, for the first time in years, with happiness and contentment instead of pain, and he stretched out full length in the transparent half-shade of the grain, on the border of Marti’s desolate field, and gazed blissfully towards heaven.

And when the lovers unite in that same field, their words are passionate and genuine, making their ending that much more tragic: “‘Oh Verena,’ he exclaimed, gazing into her eyes with candor and devotion, ‘I’ve never looked at a girl; I’ve always felt that I must love you some day, and without my wishing it or realizing it, you’ve always  been in my mind.'”

Keller himself had an interesting life and his writings all have some kind of an autobiographical element.  He said, “I have never produced anything which did not have its impetus in my outer and inner life.”  Even though was a rather short man, he was quick-tempered and got into a lot of fist fights over the course of his life.  He was also quick to fall in love and preferred young, tall and beautiful women.  But he was never able to find that one special woman with whom to settle down and marry; every time he got close something got in the way (one of his brides-to-be committed suicide, for instance).  His tendency towards fist fights, his unfilled love life , and his struggles with money are all carefully and meticulously reflected in these humorous yet tragic stories.

This collection from The German Library includes ten of Keller’s novellas.  A very worthwhile literary purchase.  What else is everyone reading this year for German Literature Month?

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Literature in Translation, Short Stories