Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Effi Briest, the tragic, eponymous heroine of Fontane’s novel, is the only child of a  German aristocratic couple living on an idyllic country estate outside of Berlin.  When Effi is seventeen years old, she is married off to Baron Geert von Innstetten who is twenty years her senior.  In addition to the age gap, their very different views on life doom the marriage from achieving any peace and contentment from the start.

When we first meet Effi she is playing in the garden on her parent’s estate, her favorite place in the world.  Effi loves nature and is a carefree spirit who always laughing and taking great delight in socializing with her family and friends.  An hour before she is engaged to Innstetten she is playing tag in the yard with her three best friends.  When she is introduced to her finance, she is excited at the prospect of marrying a man who is ambitious and will provide a good life for her.  Innstetten is a Landrat in Kessin, a senior politician that oversees a large rural population.  But during their engagement there are hints at the aloofness of her future husband in the letters he sends to her.  Effi mentions to her mother that “most of what he writes I could put on the noticeboard at the town hall where his official announcements are posted.  Geert isn’t a Landrat for nothing.”  Effi’s statement is a perfect example of Fontane’s subtle and allusive narrative—we are given hints about the great contrast between Effi’s needs and Geert’s inability to fulfil those desires.

When Effi moves to Innstetten’s home in Pomerania, she is still very much childlike and innocent.  She is oftentimes frightened by noises she hears in her new home and an old legend about the previous owner and his “Chinaman” adds to her terror.  The local Prussian nobility is unwelcoming and aloof and, except for a town chemist who is especially warm and kind to her, Effi is socially isolated.  Innstetten is oftentimes away fulfilling his administrative duties and when he does spend time with his wife he only gives her “one or two tired if well-intended caresses.”  She is oftentimes unhappy and doesn’t realize that it is due to the fact that her marriage has failed to satisfy her emotionally or physically.   It is no big surprise that Effi engages in a brief yet passionate love affair with Major Crampas, a reputed womanizer who is more passionate and expressive than her husband.

But Effi, in the end, develops no real attachment to Crampas and decides that the best course of action for herself and her family—she has an infant daughter by this time—is to stay with her husband who is being promoted through the ranks of the political system.  When Effi and Innstetten move to Berlin for his new ministerial post, Effi believes that the affair is something in the past, a long-forgotten indiscretion.  She still has bouts of sadness because she misses the emotional and physical connection with Crampas but she puts aside her own needs for the sake of her husband and daughter.

Innstetten, who was a former suitor of Effi’s mother, has spent his life working and improving his career.  After the rejection by Effi’s mother, he has denied himself intimate human connections or marriage.  But the thought of having another chance with a young woman who greatly resembles his former love is too tempting.  He seems delighted with Effi and throughout their honeymoon and the early days of their marriage he is very complimentary and affectionate to his young wife.  But once he settles back into his routine he takes on the role of an authority figure.  It is Crampas who points out to Effi that Innstetten has assumed the role of “pedagogue” in their marriage.    Effi’s high spirits and vigor are greatly contrasted with her husband’s restraint and self-control.  He is a man of the law and sees the world in terms of moral imperatives and absolutes.  Effi’s affair is her attempt to free herself from these constraints.

Effi keeps her love letters from Crampas locked away in her sewing box and six years after the affair has ended, while they are living in Berlin, Innstetten discovers the letters quite by accident.  Even though he still loves his wife, his strict adherence to his values causes him to make decisions that destroy his entire family.  He challenges Crampas to a fatal duel, throws his wife out of his home and doesn’t allow Effi any further contact with her daughter.  Innstetten’s handles the situation in the only way he feels right, but his morally correct actions bring him no peace or comfort.  Several years after Effi is gone, he has a vulnerable moment and confides in one of his only friends: “But I’ve forgotten how to be glad about anything.  If I said that to anyone other than you, it would just sound like a glib phrase.  But you can follow my drift.  Look at this place; look at how empty and desolate it all is.”

The strengh of Fontane’s narrative lies in the character of Effi that he creates for his story.  Effi stands among famous 19th century female characters like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as an example of a daring woman who resists the sexual, emotional and even political restraints that are imposed on her.  Effi finally returns to her parent’s home, the one place she was truly happy and free to be herself.  She dies, full of heartache and grief, but is buried in her favorite place in the garden and, as a last act of defiance and free will,  she requests her own, original name be carved on her gravestone: Effi Briest.

(I read the Penguin Classics version translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.  Persephone Books has also published a translation by Walter Wallich that was reviewed by Ali at her blog: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/effi-briest-theodor-fontane-1895/).


Filed under Classics, German Literature

The Labor of Sad Mortality: David Ferry’s Translation of The Aeneid

This is my review of David Ferry’s new translation of  The Aeneid (University of Chicago Press, Septemeber 2017) that  originally appeared in the September issue of Open Letters Monthly.

My first encounter with translating Vergil’s Aeneid was in my third year Latin course in high school. I was not very impressed. I distinctly remember thinking, how could anyone consider this work, which is a blatant plagiarizing of Homer, such a masterpiece? I mean, come on, the Roman poet even admits in the first two words of the epic—arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and a man)—that he is going to steal his material from the Ancient Greeks.

It wasn’t until I translated The Aeneid again, during my second year in college, that I began to understand fully and grasp the genius and beauty of the Latin hexameter, the poetic devices and the decidedly Roman characters that Vergil created. The Augustan Age poet, whose full name was Publius Vergilius Maro (making his name more correctly rendered in English as Vergil, and not the popularly used Virgil) composed over 10,000 lines of Latin verse, in 12 books, the first half of which deal with his hero, Aeneas, wandering around the Mediterranean Sea while being pursued by an angry goddess. This brave man, who is described in Homer’s Iliad as a valiant warrior, has escaped from his homeland of Troy as it is being looted and burned by the Greeks and he is looking for a new place to settle. Vergil’s poem, in telling the story of the aftermath of the Trojan War and how Aeneas’ settlement in Italy will lead to the founding of Rome, is a distinctly Roman contribution to the Homeric tradition. The first six books are Vergil’s nod to The Odyssey, the focus of which epic is also on the virum (man) who is trying against impossible odds to get home. Books VII-XII of The Aeneid focus on arma (warfare) and serve as Vergil’s attempt to compose a Roman Iliad as he tells the story of Aeneas’ landing in Italy and his battles against the Rutulians.

The classicist Anne Carson, in her book Nox which contains an English translation of a poem composed by the Roman poet Catullus, describes her experience with Latin translation: “But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translation as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch.” For centuries, scholars have been groping around in that dark room, searching for that evasive switch whereby they might shine a new light on Vergil’s epic. John Dryden, Richard Lattimore, Stanley Lombardo, Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles are just a few of the brave classicists who have attempted to render The Aeneid into fluid English that captures the poetry and brilliance of the original Latin. David Ferry, whose translation of The Aeneid was  published by the University of Chicago Press in September of 2017, is the latest scholar to add his name to this illustrious list of translators.

The language of the Ancient Romans is succinct and tight, oftentimes lacking grammatical structures that add to the complexity of a Germanic language like English. Latin contains no articles, has only six verb tenses, and has a much smaller vocabulary than most modern languages . Whereas word order is of the utmost importance in comprehending a sentence in English, Latin is inflected so that nouns, pronouns and adjectives are assigned different endings to indicate their case and use (subject, direct object, etc.) in a sentence. So how does a translator deal with these linguistic differences while at the same time taking into account the meter and figures of speech that are also contained within the lines of Vergil’s Aeneid?

In the Preface to his translation, Ferry cites a line in Aeneid XI that helps to elucidate the important and distinctly Roman themes and concerns in Vergil’s epic. When Aeneas and his men are preparing to collect and bury the dead heroes from the battlefield the scene begins:

Aurora interea miseris mortalibus almam
Extulerat lucem referens opera atque labores.

Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,
And with it bringing back to sight the labor
Of sad mortality.

Ferry explains the significance of these lines:

This beautiful two-line sentence with which Vergil’s Latin introduces this passage from book 11 is definitive. It defines for us how we are to experience the telling of this heartbreaking scene; it is also, I believe, the definitive declaration of how to read the whole continuing enterprise of the poem, the accounting of what men have done and what has been done to them and what they must do to mourn, here and in every episode of the work.

When the epic begins, we are in medias res, in “the middle of things”, as Aeneas and his men are sailing the Mediterranean and Sicily is in sight. Aeneas is battle and sea weary and is looking forward to landing his ships when a vicious storm threatens to drown his entire crew. Despite the fact that he has suffered so many hardships, he continues to be subjected to the cruel whims of the gods and fate. This windstorm has been sent by the goddess Juno who is still angry that any Trojan might have escaped the burning of Troy, especially the very man who is fated to set in motion a series of events that will result in the founding of the city that will one day destroy her beloved Carthage. The force of the tempest and the wretched state of Aeneas and his men are fully captured in Ferry’s poetic rendition:

All winds together, Notus and Eurus and Africus, and
Southwest, East and South, teeming with tempests,
And vast tsunami roll toward helpless shores.
And then were heard the cries of terrified men,
And the shriek of the vessels’ cables; all light of day
Was suddenly ripped away from the Trojans’ eyes;
Black night upon the ocean waters, thunder
From pole to pole and sheets of shaking lightening
Tell of the mariners’ deaths now there at hand.

There are two aspects of Ferry’s delivery of these lines that are particularly noteworthy and that make his translation stand apart from others who have come before him. Ferry’s incorporation of poetic devices into these lines relate the immediacy and swiftness with which the storms swallow the ships. He uses polysyndeton, repeated use of the connective “and”, which punctuates the vast number of winds that are working against the fleet. Ferry further extends the polysyndeton into an anaphora, the repetition of the first word in a line, by repeating “and” once again, at the beginning of three consecutive verses that describe the ferocious winds and the reaction of the horrified men and their battered ships. One of the most disappointing features of modern versions of The Aeneid is that translators tend to leave out these poetic devices that are deliberately placed in the text and are so important to experiencing the tones and textures of the original Latin.

It is not surprising that Ferry is sensitive to using such figures of speech in his translation because of his background as a poet. Although his translations of Vergil’s Ecologues and Horace’s Odes have been widely praised, it is Ferry’s original poetry for which he has been more widely recognized. In 2012 he won the National Book Award for his collection of poems entitled Bewilderment. His discussion in the preface about his choice to use iambic pentameter for this translation of The Aeneid further underscores his talent as a poet who recognizes the importance of choosing an appropriate meter whether it be for an original piece of work or for a translation. Like generations of English translators of ancient epic that have come before him, Ferry agrees that this meter works best in the language in which he is working: “In my view, the forward-propulsive character of English speech favors iambic pentameter, in which iambic events naturally dominate, with anapestic events as naturally occurring.” The rhythm of unstressed and stressed syllables (x –) that the iambics provide are especially fitting for the rolling out of the winds as they descend over the ocean in the lines translated above

Ferry’s word choice of “tsunami” also stands out in his translation of this scene. The Latin phrase that Vergil chooses in the original to describe the sea that threatens to swallow Aeneas’ fleet is vastos fluctus. Fagles renders these words as “huge killer-breakers” and Fitzgerald goes with “high combers”. These previous attempts seem rather flat and archaic compared to Ferry’s use of “tsunami,” which word will cause a 21st century audience to conjure up images from the media of homes and villages destroyed by such a force of nature.

Books I-VI continue with Aeneas and his men suffering additional misfortunes brought on by fate. When Aeneas and what few men he has left finally reach shore, they find themselves in North Africa and are welcomed by a group of Phoenicians, having themselves recently been forced from their home as refugees, led by Queen Dido. Aeneas’ encounter with her and their tragic parting is one of the most poignant and heartrending instances of Vergil’s argument throughout his narrative that fate is destructive and cruel, especially when people try to resist the fortune that is laid out for them. In this epic poem when people stand in the way of fate they are destroyed, and Dido’s tragic death is symbolic of what will happen to her country when, later in their history, they challenge the Romans in war.

When Aeneas lands in Carthage he engages in a physical relationship with Dido and settles into a “marriage” of sorts that is fittingly blessed by the goddess of marriage, Juno, and the goddess of love, Venus. But not even these goddesses can stand in the way of fate. Jupiter sends his messenger, Mercury, down to Aeneas to force him to leave Carthage and set sail, once again, for Italy. As he tries to sneak away, Dido confronts him with a force of emotion that demonstrates the poet’s sympathy for her plight. Dido says to this hero whom she loved and trusted:

…O faithless! Did you think that you
Could hide this deed from me, and steal away?
Cannot our love keep you from doing this?
Cannot your plighted word keep you from this?
Cannot the thought of the death you would leave me to,
Keep you from this?…

By repeating “Cannot” in Dido’s anguished questions, Ferry demonstrates his acute awareness of the stirring and emotional poetry of these lines. When Aeneas is not deterred from his plans by Dido’s impassioned speech, she makes another attempt to persuade him, this time with words that are increasingly insulting and hurtful:

He did not look at me, he did not sigh, when I
Was weeping, and he did not weep himself,
In pity for me and for my love of him.
What shall I say? What is there for me to say?
Great Juno’s eyes do not look at this with injustice.
The eyes of Saturnian Jupiter do not.
There is nowhere where faith is kept; not anywhere.
He was stranded on the beach, a castaway,
With nothing. I made him welcome. Insanely, I
Gave him a place beside me on my throne.
I made his companions safe and saved his fleet—
The fire, oh, the fire rages around me!

Ferry successfully renders the full tension and force of Dido’s argument by emphasizing the third person with which she delivers her speech. Aeneas is not addressed by his name, or even in the second person as “you”, but instead becomes a “he” which is engendered in Ferry’s translation with vehement sarcasm and anger. Furthermore, the “fire” in Dido’s speech foreshadows her suicide and the flames that will pour forth from the funeral pyre that Aeneas will notice as he is sailing away.

Dido’s horrific death, as dramatic as it is, doesn’t even serve as the conclusion of the first six books of this epic. Aeneas also suffers greatly when he loses his father and makes a journey to the dreaded underworld to learn more about what fate has in store for him. There are many more labors and hardships yet to come for him.

The Death of Dido, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, mid-18th century.

When Aeneas lands in Italy, he begins building a fortress for his new settlement and he also attempts to make peace with the Latin tribes who have already built their homes there. The Rutulians, under the leadership of Turnus, vehemently oppose what they view as an invasion of foreigners in their land and, spurred on by Juno, bring about the deaths of many brave Trojans. Similar to the war scenes in The Iliad, fierce warriors, the female Camilla among them, are given their moment of valor on the battlefield.

Aeneas, however, is a distinctly Roman hero as Vergil’s emphasis of his pietas “duty”, reminds us that this isn’t Homer and we are no longer spending our time among the Greek heroes at Troy. Gone is the selfishness of the Homeric heroes who fight at Troy to win kleos “fame” or “glory” for themselves. The Greeks were never one, unified state, and although they were fighting against the Trojans as a group, each hero was fighting for his own glory and his own pride.

The Romans, however, who successfully conquered a vast amount of territory and placed it under the rule of a single leader, are fighting for the glory and the unity of a whole empire. Aeneas, whose epithet throughout the epic is pious Aeneas, is the ultimate example of pietas, which all Romans ought to follow. Bernard Knox, in his introduction to Fagles’ translation writes about this very important, Roman concept: “But pietas describes another loyalty and duty, besides that to the gods and the family. It is for the Roman, to Rome, and in Aeneas’ case, to his mission to found it in Hesperia, the western country, Italy.”

But, once again, sacrifices have to be made for this duty to be carried out and this time it will be Turnus whose life is cruelly taken in the course of his fateful encounter with Aeneas. The culminating scene in Book XII is the battle between these two warriors and, once again, Vergil is sympathetic to the vanquished:

Then Turnus saw his opportunity
And confidently raised his threatening sword—
The shouting around him of the Trojans and
His anxious Latins, both sides watch him holding
High his sword—-and then with all his body’s
Strength he struck—and the sword he struck with broke,
And it fell away, and Turnus was left defenseless,
The unfamiliar handle of the sword
Was gone, and there was nothing to do but run.

It is evident from this excerpt, one of the final scenes in the epic, that Ferry stays committed to weaving the poetic devices and figures of speech throughout his translation. His uses of anaphora and other forms of repetition, in particular, combined with the iambic pentameter serve to remind us that this is an epic poem, best read aloud regardless of the language into which it is translated. Ferry’s melodic and sensitive translation make it possible for any audience, whether first time readers or seasoned classicists, to appreciate Vergil’s message about the workings of fate. Although tragic sacrifices, like the deaths of Dido and Turnus, have to be made, something bigger and grander and stronger have the potential to emerge out of the ruins that befall us in this life.

Ferry’s rendition of The Aeneid has allowed me to look at this epic with fresh eyes and as a result has given me a new enthusiasm and excitement for The Aeneid which I never thought would be possible since I have translated it from the Latin on my own and have read various English versions of it so many times. It is astounding that in 2006, at the age of 82, Ferry undertook the most formidable and difficult work of his career by beginning his translation of The Aeneid. At an age when most literary and academic careers are winding down, Ferry has done his very best and most ambitious work.


Filed under Uncategorized

Noli Hoc Tangere: My visit to The Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library

This week I had the opportunity to visit the Beinecke rare books and manuscript library in New Haven.  I was actually born and raised in New Haven and had seen this unique building many times, but to me it was just the odd stamp-shaped library whose books are not allowed to be borrowed.  The panels that make up the building are Vermont white and grey veined marble, one and a half inches thick, which allows natural light to filter through the building but without damaging the rare books.

The exterior of the Beinecke showing the white and grey-veined marble from Vermont.

A view of the marble panels from inside the Beinecke.

Upon entering the building, one is greeted by a glass tower, six levels high, filled with approximately 180,000 rare books—first editions, manuscripts, letters, etc. There is additional space in the Beinecke’s underground stacks for one million volumes. I could not stop staring at this impressive, gorgeous tower and taking photos of it from all angles. Here are a few of the ones I took:

Central, glass tower of books at The Beinecke.

The glass tower of books, The Beinecke.

A view of the glass tower with marble panels in the background.

Anyone can visit the library during its operating hours and view the Gutenberg Bible and Audobon’s Birds of America which are on permanent display. There is also seating around the main floor for anyone to study, read or sit quietly:

Audobon’s Birds of America on display at The Beinecke.

The Gutenberg Bible on display at The Beinecke.

In addition to these permanent books on display, there is also a collection of rare books and manuscripts to view that changes every few months. The current display is a group of Medieval English Manuscripts from the Takamiya Collection:

Takamiya ms 114. Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon. England, late 15th century.

Beinecke ms 84. Boethius, De consolatione philosophiae. England, between 1400 and 1500.

Beinecke ms 923. Folding calendar. France, c. 1290-1300.

Takamiya ms 117. Scribal sample sheet. Germany, c. 14755-1500.

For additional information about the building, an audio tour, and a description of its rare books, manuscripts and papyri visit their website: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/about/about-building

Any researchers, even those not associated with Yale University, can request to view books and other materials through the library’s website. There is a rigorous process for identification and the materials can only be viewed in their reading room which, as one can imagine, is closely monitored. I requested to look at their Dorothy M. Richardson collection, the treasures from which I will share in a future post.

(The title for this post “Noli hoc tangere” (don’t touch this) was a clever suggestion from one of my Latin students who came up with this caption after I showed my photos and shared my experience in class.)


Filed under Opinion Posts

A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

I had a couple of very intense discussions recently with two people closest to me about the complicated, enigmatic, confusing concept of love—both filial and passionate.

There were two comments, each from a different person, that didn’t sit well with me and that I keep returning to over and over in my mind:

“You can dislike someone but still love that person.”


“You can love someone but feel no affection for that person.”

I did what I always do when I am struggling with something:  I read a book.  Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse is what jumped out at me from my shelves.  Divided into fragments, each chapter of sorts deals with different terms related to love—absence, affirmation, body, languor, tenderness, etc.  The author’s thoughts come from reading Goethe, Plato and Nietzsche, from conversations with friends and from his own life experiences.  Wayne Kostenbaum in the introduction to the translation describes Barthes writing: “Barthes never dissertates.  Barthes never stops to explain.  He is happy to make the lightest of allusions—a lodestone such as “Nietzsche” or “Descartes” in the margins—but to leave the reference unplumbed.”

I will share a few passages that were especially striking to me:

From the fragment entitled “Atopos”:

The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno).  The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos.  I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire.  The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).

Yet I have loved or will love several times in my life.  Does this mean, then, that my desire, quite special as it may be, is linked to a type?  Does this mean that my desire is classifiable?  Is there, among all the beings that I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous (a nose, a skin, a look), which allows me to say: that’s my type!

From the fragment entitled “At Fault”—fautes/faults

Any fissure within Devotion is a fault: that is the rule of Cortezia.  This fault occurs whenever I make any gesture of independence with regard to the loved object; each time I attempt, in order to break my servitude, to “think for myself” (the world’s unanimous advice), I feel guilty.  What am I guilty of, then, is paradoxically lightening the burdern, reducing the exorbitant load of my devotion—in short, “managing” (according to the world); in fact, it is being strong which frightens me, it is control (or its gesticulation) which makes me guilty.

From the fragment entitled “The Ghost Ship”—errance/errantry:

How does a love end?—Then it does end?  To tell the truth, no one—except for the others—ever knows anything about it; a kind of innocence conceals the end of this thing conceived, asserted, lived, according to eternity.  Whatever the loved being becomes, whether he vanishes or moves into the realm of Friendship, in any case I never see him disappear: the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when and how we expect).  This phenomenon results from a constraint in the lover’s discourse: I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.

From the fragment entitled “Special Days”—fete/festivity:

The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected.  What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

For the Lover, the Man-in-the-Moon, the Festivity is a jubilation, not an explosion: I delight in the dinner, the conversation, the tenderness, the secure promise of pleasure: “an ars vivendi over the abyss.”

Barthes’ book of fragments is one that I will dip into over and over again and find something new, fresh, and thought-provoking each time.

Finally, Books, Yo has written a fabulous personal reflection about love in his review of Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc.  Please do take a look at his blog and his fantastic writing.



Filed under French Literature, Nonfiction, Philosophy

Autumn by Hölderlin

Autumn is my favorite season. Even though my profession allows me to have my summers free, I feel the most at peace and at ease during the autumn. I am sharing a lovely, simple poem from Hölderlin (translated by Michael Hamburger) that, for me, captures the contemplative spirit of the season:


The legends that depart from land and sea,
Of spirit that once was here and will return,
These turn to men, and there is much we learn
From time that, self-devoured, moves speedily.

No image of the past is quite mislaid
By Nature; summer’s dog-days fade,
But back to earth at once will autumn fly;
The ghost of showers gathers in the sky.

In a short time how much has passed away!
The countryman observed behind his plough
Sees how the year meets a glad ending now;
Such images complete the human day.

The sphere of earth adorned with rocks revolves
Not like a cloud, which after dusk dissolves;
Within a gold day the earth appears,
And to perfection no complaint adheres.


Filed under Uncategorized