Category Archives: Opinion Posts

Some Words are Worth a Thousand Pictures

*A bit of a warning that this is not my usual post about books. It is deeply personal and sad.

What a difference a day makes. Isn’t that how the song goes?

On July 1st I was in the garden reading poetry, lots and lots of poetry and Esther Kinsky’s book Grove which is newly translated into English by Caroline Schmidt and thinking about a review of it for Music & Literature; I had finally just gotten my hair done since the moratorium on such things because of Covid had lifted. And I stopped at the pet food store to buy more (a lot more) food for the birds and chipmunks I’ve been feeding on our deck.

On the afternoon of July 2nd my daughter and I were just about to go swimming when we noticed a car in our driveway which startled both of us. We live in the country, out in the woods, and have a quarter mile long driveway so random, unannounced visitors are a rare occurrence. It was my daughter who first said, “That’s a state police car” and my heart started beating even faster. Different things began to go through my mind as to what the police could possibly want with us. Was I speeding somewhere? But I hadn’t driven on the highway, or much at all really, because of Covid. Did I go into a business without wearing a mask? But, once again, I had barely left the house since the pandemic. When I think back on all of the petty and ridiculous scenarios going through my head I feel silly and naive. When the officer asked me to identify myself and to speak to me alone without my daughter I was still clueless.

“Your husband was riding his motorcycle on US-24 east in Indiana ma’am and there was an accident.”

And desperately, “Well where is he now?

“At the coroner’s in Wabash County, ma’am. You’ll have to contact the Indiana state police.”

Alan had left on June 20th for what would be his third cross country trip from our home in New England to Montana. On that horrible day, July 2nd, a Thursday, he was on his way back home to us and was expected to arrive on Friday. He was a serious and avid motorcyclist and camper and enjoyed every minute of planning his trips and taking them. Locally he would meet with his friends from the Connecticut Rockers to ride and talk bikes but he also had a wonderful network of friends he met through Adventure Rider that were scattered across the US and Canada. A tough, stoic, yet gentle and kind group of men, their meet up in Montana had become a yearly tradition that they enthusiastically looked forward to. Alan considered them brothers—as an only child he always said that friendships were particularly important to him.

I met Alan in 1997 when we were both graduate students in the PhD program for Classics at the University at Buffalo. We liked each other instantly and like quickly grew into love. He had a bike, a Honda CX 500, when I met him so his passion for this hobby is something he had for more than 20 years. He learned everything he could about motorcycles and was meticulous about maintenance and repairs. He was also obsessed with safety, researching and discussing with his friends the most up-to-date safety gear. On the day he was killed it was 90 degrees f. and he had on a brand new, full-face helmet, a custom made Aerostich riding suit, and the highest quality gloves and boots he could find. He had certain rules about riding as well: he never went over the speed limit, he didn’t ride with other groups of bikes, and he didn’t ride at night. To say that he was careful would be a gross understatement.

But he was killed anyway. Yes, killed. He didn’t just die. He didn’t have bad luck, it was not an “accident”—I hate that word. The driver of the truck that killed him went through a yield sign and pulled across the highway–yes, the highway since such things are allowed in Indiana—directly into Alan’s path. A “failure to yield the right of way.” Negligence, stupidity, carelessness.

Two broken legs, two broken arms, a fractured pelvis, a fractured skull, broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, internal bleeding, lacerated organs and a complete atlanto occipital dislocation. A destroyed Triumph Tiger and all of his carefully packed belongings broken and strewn across the highway. And in that moment my life—our life together—was shattered as well.

November 18th of this year would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. We were happy, very happy. Our relationship wasn’t perfect. No relationship is, especially if it lasts 20 years. We both made mistakes. But there was a lot of kindness, and patience and forgiveness and love. A lot of love. We both taught Latin in secondary schools in New England which is where we decided to move after our days in Buffalo. I always thought it was hilarious that we did well for ourselves as teachers of what people call a “dead language.” But Latin, and sometimes Ancient Greek, sustained our household quite adequately and, more importantly, we both loved what we did. In 2006, after suffering an initial miscarriage, we had a daughter who is the best of both of us. She is kind and funny and smart and adorable.

And now my 14 year-old daughter asks me questions like, “Is daddy in heaven?” “Are we going to be poor?” “Will we ever be happy again?” “Are kids going to treat me differently at school because I don’t have a dad anymore?”

A failure to yield the right of way….

I keep having these conversations with him in my head about what happened to his precious bike and his camping things and what paperwork I have to file and who I have to call and how his students and colleagues and motorcycle friends have all been stricken with such grief by his sudden death and how to carry on now. But there is no “we” anymore. Just a mountain of paperwork and chores and decisions that need to be made on my own. The little routines we had are what I miss most—going to bed together, him making me coffee in the morning, watching silly TV, sharing bad jokes, debating over who Henry our tuxedo cat liked better. The loneliness and the emptiness without him is the worst pain I’ve ever suffered. Truly unbearable.

Now that our daughter is about to begin high school we had had many discussions about what we wanted to do when we retired. Various ideas about moving farther north in New England or closer to where our daughter might attend college were always tossed around. But no matter what we decided to do, it would be together—just the two of us, empty-nesters.

But these plans, too, were shattered on that highway in Indiana.

Alan and our daughter.

Alan really had a dislike for social media—the only place he really engaged with people in a meaningful way was on his Adventurer Rider motorcycle forum. So out of respect I never posted about him or shared photos. But since he was killed it has felt cathartic and therapeutic for me to post photos and memories and anecdotes—a small glimpse into the man he was and our happy life together. His quick and sardonic wit were unmatched—one of the qualities that attracted me to him the most. He wore bow ties to work (when we were at work) nearly every day; he was a gifted teacher who connected with students and prided himself on his ability to lecture and engage kids at every level (he was voted faculty member who is most quotable three years in a row); he loved notebooks and fountain pens; even in winter he would work on, improve, and maintain his two motorcycles and camp in the woods on our property. And more recently he took up blacksmithing and set up a makeshift forge in the yard. I’m still not sure what to do with the anvil and giant bag of coal I have sitting in his workshop.

Alan and Henry.

Alan’s belongings, scattered across that highway, have been respectfully and lovingly packed and returned to me by one of his motorcycle friends—the last person to see him alive—who happens to live in Indiana. Today his travel journal arrived and I began reading it and looking through his various notebooks. He had an obsession with notebooks and today, alone, I found a dozen of them around the house and in his workshop. They are mostly filled with to-do lists, travel plans, travel descriptions, packing lists and notes for teaching. His wit, his talent as a teacher, and our everyday life together–those little routines I mentioned—are all present in these notebooks. I felt closer to him reading these than I have since he was killed—as he wrote in one of them, “Some words are worth a thousand pictures.” And a passage he composed for a lecture to first year Latin students felt like he was speaking to me now:

The Greeks and Romans thought of the universe by picturing it as a tapestry—one that was constantly being woven, but never to be completed. Three divine weavers called the Fates created the tapestry of the universe—Lachesis, Clotho, & Atropos—who spin the wool, measure the thread, and cut it. Each thread is a human life. And all of these threads interconnect. You cannot tamper with one without unraveling the others. Although individual life-threads come to an end, they still have their place and interact with others.

That thread, Alan’s thread, cut too soon on that highway in Indiana. And my thread and my daughter’s so interconnected with his own. And all of the wonderful people interconnected with me—friends, and colleagues and Twitter people and readers of this blog who have reached out with love and support. Proof that his theory of those interconnected life threads is so true.

Teacher, friend, colleague, husband, father.

July 2nd.

A failure to yield the right of way.

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John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Geneviève Barque: An Interview with Translators of Sade

Aline & Valcour is an epistolary novel written by Marquis de Sade in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille. Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes which are beautifully and expertly translated by the husband and wife team of John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Geneviève Barque. I had the pleasure of interviewing them about their translation and their process as a team via email in February 2020.

1. You both have very interesting and different backgrounds as far as your careers are concerned. Can you describe how you came to the decision of translating Sade’s Aline & Valcour together?

Jocelyne: It started a long time ago, not long after we moved from Paris to New York. In 1996, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I came across a copy of Aline et Valcour. I’d never read Sade (I knew John had) but I found this particular novel extremely interesting. In long parts it read like a page turner, which was unexpected. There was a visual quality to the way Sade wrote this novel, a theatrical quality. Then, too, Sade himself seemed to invest parts of himself in every character, even though they express diverse points of view. Especially interesting was the appearance of a major character, Léonore, in the latter part of the book. She lends the whole novel a liberating quality. She’s modern in the sense of being assertive, anti-religious, unwilling to be seduced but willing to take chances. Overall the novel had a powerful effect on me. Then in 2007, we were looking for a new project. I didn’t know the book had never been translated, but John did. That was when we started.

John: I’d been involved with Sade’s work since the late 1980s, and I knew something about his increasing significance as a literary icon across the 20th century; and it seemed to me he was exceptionally relevant today, in a time of political and social turmoil. I’d read his novel Juliette very carefully, making an index of its themes and characters. But I only actually read Aline and Valcour when we translated it. I was astonished by its coherence, by Sade’s attention to character and to the wealth of ideas that they express. It’s not at all didactic like Rousseau can be in his fiction, nor is it a libertine tale like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Rather, as he states, it’s a philosophical novel that takes you through a complex story weave from beginning to end.

2. Can you describe the process and methods you used in order to translate together as a team? What sort of challenges arose for you while working together?

Jocelyne: We’ve always worked the same way. I translate a first draft, John edits that draft. Then we reconcile, more than once, usually. We have no trouble working together. We stop to solve problems such as voice and vocabulary. In terms of challenge, the process with Aline and Valcour was not always simple and direct. We went through the book several times, sentence by sentence, which is not easy with a novel that’s more than 800 pages long. But we didn’t have a deadline, so it could be done.

John: People would ask if we argued over words or phrases. No, we didn’t. It just took effort to find the right translation. We would return to various puzzling passages and sometimes had to investigate etymologies of words, or historical aspects of the text. We benefitted from the wealth of knowledge on the Internet, but in revising the text we always worked from the book in French and the manuscript on paper.

3. As I was reading and writing about Sade’s novel I got very extreme views about his life and writing. Readers adore and appreciate his work or think he was a vile person whose writings should be forgotten. What types of reactions did you get as you were working with Sade’s text?

Jocelyne: We were not much exposed to the critics of Sade. Most of our friends are translators or educators in one way or another. So they understand enough about Sade to know he was not all about cruelty and sexuality.

John: There’s a literature of denigration around Sade, and it flows out of and into the popular imagination. The only thing was that after we received a grant from the NEA, we were attacked by the right-wing press.

But you should realize that Sade is a major thinker who was long neglected, especially in the Anglo world. His sulfurous works were translated in the sex-drenched 1960s, mainly by Austryn Wainhouse, and to considerable acclaim, yet in the popular press he was still tarred as a pornographer.

4. The three-volume translation of Aline & Valcour is incredibly smooth and flows beautifully. Sade seems to translate well into English. Were there any parts of the novel, however, that you found particularly challenging to render into English?

John: Here was where our collaboration counted. Sade translates cleanly into English if you take the time with his vocabulary and sentence constructions, some of which are very long indeed, to see and hear what he’s after, which is usually quite precise. I had a good grasp of Sade’s underlying ideas, and Jocelyne could critique the English formulation and phrasing to avoid unnecessary baggage. When I would hear her say, of a tentative translation, “C’est lourdingue,” which she did often (meaning “clumsy, heavy, annoying”) I knew we were in for a discussion about how to rephrase and rework.

5. Why do you think that Sade is an author who is still relevant in the 21st century and why should we still be reading and thinking about his work?

John: Like Lucretius and Spinoza, Sade is an atheist. He effectively belongs to what Jonathan Israel has delineated as the radical (as opposed to moderate) Enlightenment. His relentless materialism has a good fit with science and the real world as it has come to be characterized in the past 200-plus years, in ways that such thinkers such as Hume and Voltaire do not. In the wake of the Holocaust and in the presence of an interconnected world, Sade is more relevant than ever.

6. What translations projects are you both currently working on?

Jocelyne: We are finishing translation of an autobiographical account of a well-known thief, Rédoine Faïd, who specialized in robbing armored trucks, like Brinks. He’s currently in prison. When that’s done we’ll start Ce qui n’a pas de prix, a terrific cultural critique by Annie Le Brun, who is in fact a Sade specialist.

7. What authors–writing either prose or poetry in any language—are you currently reading that you would recommend?

Jocelyne: My reading is mostly in English. I’ll just mention Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I admired for the beauty and skill of the writing and the incredible story he tells. Another is Frank Norris’s McTeague. On a lighter note, I’ve enjoyed reading the series of crime novels by Jean-Patrick Manchette.

John: I’m reading now, for the first time, Stéphane Mallarmé’s Divagations and am enjoying Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. I still read a lot around Sade, so now too Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World and Andrea Pitzer’s One Long Night, a history of concentration camps. On a daily basis, I read Lautréamont. The black humor of Les Chants de Maldoror always resets my mood to good, especially helpful in times like ours.

For more information about this unique novel I have written a blog post for each of the three volumes published by Contra Mundum:

Aline & Valcour Volume I

Aline & Valcour Volume II

Aline & Valcour Volume III

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Filed under French Literature, Opinion Posts

Communication in the Midst of Solitude: My Year in Reading—2019

In his essay “On Reading,” Proust writes, “Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” I try to make reading plans every year but I honestly never know where the year will take me. This year was a stellar year for me as far as these “communications in the midst of solitude” were concerned. But my communications were carried farther by the literary connections for which I am very grateful—-readers of my blog, my fellow bloggers, and, the one that has the most influence on my reading, the wonderful literary community on Twitter. I know that social media is a tough place for some—I’ve seen many come and go. But my little corner of book Twitter has proven to be a wonderful place this year and I would like to thank all of those who have commented, connected, supported my reading on this blog and on Twitter.

Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, trans. by Robert Baldick

A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura by Christine Wuunicke, trans. by Philip Boehm

Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Emily Wilson

Romola, by George Eliot (I only got half way through this one. Not the right time for this book for me.)

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illus. by Dore

The Completion of Love by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Temptation of Quiet Veronica by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil, trans. Shaun Whiteside

Thought Flights by Robert Musil, trans. Genese Grill

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Landscapes by John Berger

The Man Without Qualities Volumes 1 and 2 by Robert Musil, trans. Sophie Wilkins

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Hadji Murat by Tolstoy, trans. Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes

Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, trans. Moncrieff et al.

The Immoralist by Andre Gide, trans. Richard Howard

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, trans. Michael Henry Heim

Aline & Valcour Volumes 1 and 2 by Marquis de Sade, trans. Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons

Notebooks 1935-1951 by Camus, trans. Philip Thody and Justin O’Brien

The Stranger by Camus, trans. Matthew Ward

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt (I have been reading this book for half the year and have about 300 pages left to read which I will finish in the final week of the year.)

Poetry:

I have read more poetry this year then every before because I have been stopping to read selections from the poets that Michael Schmidt discusses in his book Lives of the Poets. Too many to list here. So listed here are only the collections I’ve read in their entirety:

Poets on Poets, edited by Nick Rennison and Michael Schmidt

A Test of Poetry by Louis Zukofsky

Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, trans. David Curzon and Grazyna Drabik

Love and I by Fanny Howe

Lapis: Poems by Robert Kelly

Elegiac Sonnets by Charlotte Smith

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems

Selected Poems by Charlotte Mew

The Last Innocence/The Lost Adventures by Alejandra Pizarnik

Selected Poems of Attila Jozsef, trans. Peter Hargitai

The Withering World by Sandor Marai, trans. John Ridland and Peter V. Czipott

The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolaño, trans. Laura Healy

I’ve also continued to translate my own selections of Ancient Greek and Latin poetry which I won’t bother to list again. But translating Sappho was a particularly rewarding experience.

And finally, I’ve done posts on the fabulous artwork I’ve had the pleasure of viewing this year. I had the pleasure of seeing the Bonnard exhibit at the Tate Modern, The Blake Exhibit at the Tate Britain, The Ruskin Exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art, and, my favorite, The Troy Exhibit at The British Museum. A stellar year for reading, for poetry and for art all around.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Holidays, and Io Saturnalia!

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, French Literature, German Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Letters, Literature in Translation, Opinion Posts, Poetry, Russian Literature, Swann's Way, Tolstoi

Shattered by War and Repulsed by Fate: The Troy Exhibit at The British Museum

The collection of papyri, sculpture, pottery, paintings and literature on display at The British Museum’s Troy Exhibit is, to say the least, mesmerizing.   A large part of the exhibit is devoted to telling the story of the Trojan Saga through black and red figure vase painting from the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.  It was a special treat for me to go to the museum with @flowerville since, as a skilled potter herself, she helped me appreciate even more the creative process of making these delicate vessels.

Black figure amphora by Execkias. Achilles and Ajax playing a game. c. 540-530 BCE.

 

The marble sculpture of The Wounded Achilles by Filippo Albacini was also something we lingered over for a long time.  It is placed in such a way in the center of the exhibit that it is easily viewed from all sides.

The Wounded Achilles. Filippo Albacini. 1825. Marble with restored gilded arrow.

 

Another view of The Wounded Achilles.

 

The objects that I think we were the most fond of, and certainly most excited to view, were the books.  The displays of literature included Dryden’s 1697 translation of the Aeneid as well as Pope’s handwritten draft of the Iliad which includes his drawing of the Shield of Achilles.

Dryden’s 1697 translation of Vergil’s Aeneid

 

Handwritten draft of Pope’s translation of the Iliad with a drawing of the Shield of Achilles. 1712-24

 

I really could go on and on about the exhibit but these are just a few of the highlights.  One additional piece I would like to mention, which was built as a set especially for the exhibit, is an enormous wooden skeleton of the Trojan Horse as if it were in the process of being constructed by the Greeks.  It immediately brought to mind these lines of Vergil’s Aeneid 2.13-17 (translation is my own):

Fracti bello fatisque repulsi
ductores Danaum tot iam labentibus annis
instar montis equum divina Palladis arte
aedificant, sectaque intexunt abiete costas;
votum pro reditu similant; ea fama vagatur.

Shattered by war, repulsed by fate, and
with so many years now having slipped by,
the leaders of the Greeks, with divine
inspiration from Athena, built a horse
that was as big as a mountain. They covered
up the skeleton and ribs they constructed
with felled trees. They pretended to
pray for a safe return; this rumor
of their departure was spread around.

 

A skeleton of the Trojan Horse suspended from the exhibit ceiling.

 

This was really a once in a lifetime experience for me and sharing it with flowerville made it even more of a special occasion.  Our only real complaint was that there wasn’t enough Latin and Ancient Greek text included with the English translations.  But viewing these artifacts has inspired us both to look at and translate the ancient texts, especially The Aeneid.

 

 

 

 

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Why I translate Ancient Languages

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

Wrath—sing goddess, about the wrath of
Achilles, son of Peleus, a destructive
wrath that brought unbearable grief to
the Achaeans, and which sent many brave
souls of heroes to Hades, and left their
bodies as carrion for dogs and vultures,
the will of Zeus was carried out.

These first five lines of the Iliad are, to me, some of the most profound, beautiful, emotional and simple lines in all of classical literature. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was translating Homer, someone commented, “The field is already populated with several translations. What are they missing and what is new yours is bringing to the table?”

First, “several” translations is an understatement.  Homer has been translated by countless people since Ancient Greek was rediscovered in the Middle Ages!  I have no intention of sharing a full translation of my work because, for me, translation is a very personal matter. I oftentimes print out the text and make notes or jot down bits of translations on a notebook or scraps of paper. Oftentimes I translate silently to myself, or out loud when I ask one of the other two people I know who also know Ancient Greek what they think of a particular translation.  My translations, I guess, are truly ephemeral.

And what I saw in a text like Homer, when I first encountered him at the age of nineteen, is very different from how I experience his works now.  Very different.   But the point of the exercise  for me is to interact with the text. Nothing focuses my attention—especially when I am sad or stressed out, etc.—like an ancient text. The cases, the word order, the verb tenses, the vocabulary—it is an all-consuming experience for me. The few translations I do share on my blog are, once again, very personal renderings of some of my favorite ancient texts, but certainly not read by a wide audience. Every once in a great while I will do a translation on request for someone; and even more rarely I will do a translation for a particular person as a sort of gift. But, once again, these are personal exchanges and experiences, usually only done for an audience of one.

So, what are other translations missing?  Well, not necessarily anything. But they aren’t my own….

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