Category Archives: Literature in Translation

A Sense of Expectation and Agonizing Impatience: Some Thoughts on Dante’s Purgatory

Aeneas and the Shade of Creusa. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. 1663. Engraving

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on the Divine Comedy, “Conversation about Dante” is a magnificent work of art in and of itself.  The Russian poet uses the most sublime language to describe the complexities of Dante’s poetic speech,  rhythm and structure; he compares various parts of the Divine Comedy to the intricate workings of a beehive, the elaborate geological structure of granite and marble, and the rich timbre of a cello:

Dante’s cantos are scores for a special chemical orchestra in which, for the external ear, the most easily discernible comparisons are those identical with the outbursts, and the solo roles, that is, the arias and ariosos, are varieties of self-confessions, self-flagellations, or autobiographies, sometimes brief and compact, sometimes lapidary, like a tombstone inscription: sometimes extended like a testimonial from a medieval university; sometimes powerfully developed, articulated and reaching a dramatic operatic maturity, for example, Francesca’s famous cantilena.

The density of the cello timbre is best suited to convey a sense of expectation and of agonizing impatience.  There exists no power on earth which could hasten the movement of honey flowing from a tilted glass jar.  Therefore the cello would come about and be given form only when the European analysis of time had made sufficient progress, when the thoughtless sundial had been transcended and the one-time observer of the shade stick moving across Roman numerals on the sand had been transformed into a passionate participant of a differential torture and into a martyr of the infinitesimal.  A cello delays sound, hurry how it may.  Ask Brahms—he knows it.  Ask Dante—he has heard it.

Mandelstam uses Inferno, Canto XXXIII and the description of the death of Ugolino and his sons by starvation at the hands of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa to prove his point about music and the cello.  But the scene in Purgatory, Canto II, of Dante’s attempted embrace of his beloved friend Cascella is, to me, equally “encased in a cello timbre, dense and heavy…”: (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)

And one drew forward now, I saw to me
to take me in his arms with such great warmth
it moved me, so I did the same to him.
Ah shadows, empty save in how they look!
Three times I locked my hands behind his back
As many times I came back to my breast.
Wonder, I think was painted over me.
At which the shadow smiled, and so drew back,
while I, pursuing him, pressed further on.

Any good commentary will explain that these lines are an allusion to Aeneid 6 where Aeneas has traveled to the Underworld and sees and tries to embrace the spirit of his beloved father, Anchises: (All translations of Latin and Ancient Greek are my own)

Aeneas speaks to his father: “You, oh father, and the sad image of your spirit appearing to me so often are what drove me to seek out these thresholds. My ships wait on the Tyrrhenian sea. Allow me to grasp your hand, father, allow me father, and do not shrink away from my embrace. Speaking thus his face was soaked with large tears. Three times he tries to embrace his father’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escapes his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.

As I was reading this Canto, however, what came to my mind, before the scene with Anchises, was a similar encounter earlier in the Aeneid between Aeneas and his lost wife Creusa in Book 2.  For me this double allusion increases the pathos of the futile attempts at embrace that occur in the Roman underworld and in Dante’s Purgatory.  As he is trying to escape Troy that is burning down around him, Aeneas loses his wife and tries to go back to the city to save her.  But he only finds Creusa’s spirit whose parting words to him are to continue loving their son and as a final gesture Aeneas tries to embrace her.  The lines in Latin are exactly the same as those in Aeneid 6:  “Three times he tries to embrace his wife’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escaped his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.  The additional knowledge of the exchange between Aeneas and Creusa (it’s a shame that most commentaries don’t mention it)  makes a greater emotional impact when reading Dante’s reunion with Cascella and creates what Mandelstam describes as “a sense of expectation and agonizing impatience.”

The volucri somno—winged dream—is specifically Homeric and is Vergil’s allusion to Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the underworld of the Odyssey.  Mandelstam’s concept of that delay of sound as applied to the Divine Comedy seems especially appropriate for these images of shades that reach back to Homer.  Homer and Ancient Greek were not available to Dante so it is only later generations of readers of Purgatory that truly hear the echoes from Book 11 of the Odyssey as Odysseus describes his attempts to embrace his mother, Anticleia:

After she spoke to me I was anxiously wishing to embrace the soul of my mother.  Three times my soul stirred me to embrace her, and I approached her, but three times she escaped from my hands like a shadow or a dream.  And the pain in my heart became even sharper to me.

The number three is often used in Ancient epics but I have always found it particularly fitting for this trope—three embraces are the perfect amount before a person becomes fully and painfully aware of loss and grief.  Any fewer than three would lessen the agony of each of these scenes and any more would make them melodramatic and overwrought.   The first is a naïve attempt to reach out and touch the person that was, in life, so important; the second attempt highlights a sense of denial and disbelief of the loss; the third and final attempt and failure to embrace brings about the painful reality of a physical absence.  This seems like a fitting metaphor for the grief one experiences with death or with any other loss we go through in life.  Cue the heavy, slow music of the cello…

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, Literature in Translation

On the Necessity of Doors: Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

In Bergeners, Tomas Espedal describes his various travels which include sojourns at places like New York and Berlin.  At the center of the book is an extended description of his hometown, Bergen, Norway, which city, as a fifty-year-old man, he is drawn back to settle in.  I read the book in two evenings over the weekend and part of what draws me into Espedal’s writing is the way in which he varies his style; reading his books are like unpacking a treasure chest, one never knows what beautiful short story, poem, or anecdote one will find on the next page.

I’ve underlined, copied and marked up so many passages it would be impossible to share them all here.  But one feeling which stood out to me in his writing is his deep sense of loneliness, so my focus of this post will be on this idea.  When the book opens, Espedal is in New York with his girlfriend, Janne, who announces to him that she is leaving him.  Even though he was married before this relationship, this break-up seems to have disturbed his equanimity.  His interpretation of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne myth alludes to his state of mind and the loneliness he feels with the loss of this relationship:

Daphne runs and Apollo runs after her.  They run. We run.  You run and I run after you.  Apollo runs after Daphne.  They run through the forest, along the river, we run through the city, I run after you.  Almost grab your hair, that long hair which you lose.  You run without hair and increase speed, how fast you run, don’t you know who I am/  I’m Apollo, I’m running after you.  You’re running so fast, I increase speed.  Almost grab your arm, your hand which you lose.  You’re running and weeping.  I run, we run through the city, out of the city, over the bridge, over the river, I can hear your breathing becoming labored, it will run out, you’ll lose your breath.  You lose your hair, lose your arm.  You’re breathing so heavily, so deeply, you’re nothing but breath.

Espedal writes what appears to be a short story entitled “The Guest,” about a man who celebrates his birthday alone; but as is common in his writing, the lines between fiction and autobiography are blurred.  Is this how he imagines his life now that Janne is gone and his daughter has moved away?:

Today is his birthday. His fiftieth. He’s put on his best suit and is celebrating the occasion alone.

The black velvet suit is tailor-made. A white, newly ironed shirt. Silver cufflinks. He smokes a cigarette.

He has a good dinner. Drinks and expensive wine. The living room is adorned with flowers, white lilies, a present to himself.

The lines in the lilies’ leaves are like the veins beneath the skin of the hands holding the cutlery. He cuts his meat.

He takes a mouthful of wine. He looks at his hands, long and carefully, as if they are guests at the birthday celebration.

There is a very brief mention of his wife in the section entitled “On the Necessity of a Door.”  They move to Nicaraqua when she gets a job there and he is thrown off by the open floor plan of their new house that doesn’t have any doors: “An architectural idea: rooms flowing into one another, a short flight of steps up to the kitchen which was open to the living room, a hole in the wall leading to the bedroom, another hole to the guestroom and a longer staircase to a workroom on the first floor.”   He sets up this workroom as an office in which to write and one day when his wife is out of the house he hires a contractor to install a door.  The door is, he feels, a necessary for him but it is not well-received by his wife: “…I was sitting locked in my room working, I was writing.  I heard my wife enter the house, she walked around downstairs for a while, then came up to the first floor, and I heard her halt and give a sigh.  A deep sigh.  Had she foreseen and expected this door?  She took a step forward, put her hand on the door handle, turned it suddenly and tugged as hard as she could at the door.”  They divorced soon after.  Could the various doors he erects in his life be the cause, even now, of his loneliness?

The passage that affected me the most as far as his loneliness is concerned was that which concerned his daughter:

My daughter’s move was one of the hardest things I’ve had to bear.  I don’t know whether all parents feel the same way, maybe some are relieved that their child, the young adult, is on the move at last, has left the house, but for me it was a shock and I haven’t got over it yet.  Why a shock?  Wasn’t it expected?  Yes, it was expected, it’s natural that children leave home, it’s necessary, but when it happens, it feels so brutal.

This experience, combined with his girlfriend moving out at about the same time, is too much for him to bear.  He doesn’t find comfort in his quotidian activities and his routines make him feel even lonelier.  He asks, “How can you, at the age of almost fifty, adapt to an empty house?  How can you deal with your own loneliness, what can you fill it with?  How can you live?”  And the only answer he comes up with is simply, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

 

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature, Seagull Books

Duller than a Dull Hick: City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

The stereotypes of country dwellers being crass and uncouth and city dwellers being urbane and sophisticated is one that reaches all the way back to Ancient Rome.  In Carmen 22, Catullus describes his good friend Suffenus whom he admires for being venustus et dicax et urbanus (charming, well-spoken and sophisticated).  The Latin word urbanus, from which the English word urban is derived, literally means a person from the city who is sophisticated.  But Catullus sadly notes that Suffenus is an awful poet and when one reads his compositions he appears to be caprimulgus aut fossor (a goat herder or a ditch digger) and he is infaceto est infacetior rure (duller than a dull hick).  Rus, ruris becomes in English the word rural which is associated with someone who lives in the countryside and is decidedly unsophisticated.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, a nineteenth century Russian author who wrote and published her works under a male pseudonym, uses the stereotype of city folk and country folk to satirize the landed gentry in the time period immediately following the emancipation of the serfs in her country.  Her main character, Erast Sergeyovich Ovcharov, is an urbane and worldly man who is used to living in Moscow and traveling to the most famous cities across Europe.  He is proud of his elegance and refinement and thinks that exposure to his good qualities will elevate the manners of his country neighbors.

Ovcharov’s country estate in Snetki has fallen into ruins and he has not come to any agreement with his serfs who have just been freed so he is forced to spend a summer among the country bumpkins.  Ovcharov is a humorous caricature of the Russian nobility who views himself as a perfect example of charm and wit for the poor country folk who do not regularly visit the city.  He is haughty, condescending and patronizing to his neighbors in the country and he writes political pamphlets that fully display his self-righteous personality.  He comments about the rural gentry women he encounters:

The old rural gentry-woman type has barely changed: moral and physical clumsiness.  On the other hand, the old despotism has disappeared, and the younger generation is spreading its wings.  It spreads them clumsily, crudely, gracelessly, but spread them it does.  It raises its own voice and acts, to some extent, according to its own will.  The second-rate shrinking violet of the past, oppressed by the parental right hand, is also being transformed into a second-rate dahlia.  Still it is a beautiful flower, bright and attractive in a flower bed.  Yes, it’s true: the younger generation of women in the countryside and provincial towns in freer than it was twenty years ago.  Now is the time to show that who deserves thanks for this freedom.

Ovcharov rents a bath house from his neighbor, Natasyha, who is a kind-hearted widow that has successfully managed her own farms and workers for many years.  Natasyha’s daughter, Olenka, is smart and witty and when she rejects Ovcharov’s advances the irony of the situation is hilarious.  It is Olenka, the seemingly country hick, that rejects the urbane, supposedly sophisticated, Ovcharov.  Olenka is smart enough to see Ovcharov for the ridiculous man he truly is.  The author’s wit is subtle yet affective in providing a glimpse into the lives of the Russian upper classes in the 19th century.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

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