Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

Arguably the most enigmatic of the Ancient Greek gods, Poseidon is not as revered or respected as his brother Zeus, the god of the sky, lord of the universe, nor is he as feared as his brother Hades, master of the gloomy and dark underworld.  Poseidon’s realm is the sea, the ultimate middle child whose domain is the middle of the earth, the watery depths that occupy the space between sky and underworld.  Peter McDonald’s new, verse translation of the Homeric Hymns, beautifully and succinctly captures the multidimensional nature of this deity:

Hymn 22

To Poseidon:

Here the first great god that I
mention is Poseidon, mover
of the earth, the unpastured sea;
ocean god, presiding over
broad Aegae and Helicon.
Earth-shifter, the gods assigned
you a twofold part, the one
horse-taming, the other to find
safety for ships; I salute
you Poseidon, carrier
of the world and absolute
god with black and streaming hair:
keep your heart in charity
with those sailing on the sea.

It is this greatly feared, earth-shifter, master of the sea, to whom Cees Nooteboom decides to address a series of letters.  The author, writing these notes from his Mediterranean garden on the island of Menorca, imagines the lonely deity still ruling over the sea with his trident and his seahorse-drawn carriage.  Nooteboom uses the image, history and myth of this long-neglected deity to meditate on time, space, mortality and death; he is especially captivated by the anthropomorphic nature of god who is prone to anger and vengeance.  Nooteboom has many questions for Poseidon, among the most important of which are how he feels about being forgotten and abandoned for all of these centuries since the emergence of the one God and His Son:

I have always wondered how it felt when no one prayed to you any longer, and no one asked anything of you.  There must, once upon a time, have been one last supplicant.  Who was it? And where?  Did you and the other gods talk about it?  We look at your statues, but you are not there.  Were you jealous of the gods who came after you?  Are you laughing now that they too have been abandoned?

The tone of Nooteboom’s letters ranges from deeply philosophical and meditative, to humorous and playful.  On the one hand he feels sympathy for a god who is supposed to be immortal, but is no longer worshipped—in a way this abandonment has been like a death for this neglected ancient deity.  But on the other hand, Poseidon has a certain amount of freedom now to talk with the other gods and laugh at the irony of his situation:

What is a human being to the gods?  Do you despise us for being mortal?  Or is the opposite the case?  Are you jealous because we are allowed to die?  Because your fate is, of course, immortality, even though we have no idea where you are now.

No one talks about you anymore, and perhaps that hurts.  It is as if you have simply vanished.

In between the twenty-three letters he pens to Poseidon, the author also includes meditations, observations and thoughts about time and space via objects (his watch, a dying aloe plant), places he visits (a museum, an airport in South Korea, a beach), and newspaper articles (a story about infanticide or a looted Egyptian museum.)  Nooteboom’s thoughts about the looted Egyptian museum reflect the seventy-nine-year old’s ever-increasing awareness of his own mortality.  As he reads an article about the looting of a the museum, he is captivated by the head of a mummy that has been discarded on the floor, separated from the rest of its body:

Is a person who has been dead for a few thousand years as dead as someone who died last year?  Is there a hierarchy in the kingdom of the dead, giving those with more experience of death a different status from the newcomers, those who have not yet been touched by eternity, but who still smell of time, of life?  Are there social distinctions between mummies and corpses?

This book gave me a fresh perspective of not only the god Poseidon, whom I have to admit I had never given more than a passing thought, but also of how we look at the concept of divinity and immortality.  Nooteboom concludes his letters: “Of course I know that I have been sending letters to nobody.  But what if, tomorrow, out on the rocks, I should happen to find a trident.”

About the Author:

Cees Nooteboom (born Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom, 31 July 1933, in the Hague) is a Dutch author. He has won the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the P. C. Hooft Award, the Pegasus Prize, the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prijs for Rituelen, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Constantijn Huygens Prize, and has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

His works include Rituelen (Rituals, 1980); Een lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Truth and Semblance, 1981); Berlijnse notities (Berlin Notes, 1990); Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991); Allerzielen (All Souls’ Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Paradise Lost, 2004). (Het volgende verhaal won him the Aristeion Prize in 1993.) In 2005 he published “De slapende goden | Sueños y otras mentiras”, with lithographs by Jürgen Partenheimer.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Nonfiction

Beware of reading too much Latin poetry: Stendhal’s Italian Chronicles

The nine stories in this collection are Stendhal’s translations and retellings of historical records from Italy in the 16th century which depict the upper classes behaving very badly: forbidden love, murder, adultery, torture, poisoning are all found within the pages of Stendhal’s translations.  Written between 1829 and 1840, most of the stories in this volume were not published until Stendhal’s death.  He tells us himself, in the beginning of “The Duchess of Palliano”, why the stories from this time period and in this part of Europe so fascinated him. Stendhal believes that “Italian passion” is something that no longer exists in the literature and culture of his own era.  Love, in particular, he observes, has given rise to so many tragic events among the Italians and Stendhal is fascinated with visiting Italy and searching through the archives of Rome, Florence and Siena to find stories of these “Italian passions”:

In order to get some idea of this “Italian passion,” that our novelists speak about with such assurance, I found it necessary to study history; and I found that the great histories written by men of talent, though often quite majestic, say almost nothing of such details. They tend to take note only of the follies committed by kings or princes.

Stendhal, in his extensive research, has a penchant for finding stories in which upper class Italian women from prominent 16th century families fall in love with men of lower rank for which unforgiveable indiscretions they are put on trial and condemned to death.  In “The Duchess of Palliano,” A Duke, in service to his uncle Pope Paul IV, takes advantage of his authority by pillaging local villages and engaging in all sorts of erotic debauchery.  One of his favorite pastimes is bringing home mistresses, one after the other, while at the same time expecting that his wife, the Duchess of Palliano, remain faithful and look the other way as far as his own sexual trysts are concerned.  Inevitably, the neglected Duchess falls in love with a handsome young man of the court and through a series of betrayals the Duchess and her lover are found out.  Her lover’s throat is slit and the Duchess herself is put to death by strangulation.  Stendhal doesn’t hold back from translating the gruesome details of these Italian chronicles—descriptions of torture, murder, suicide are all included in these passionate stories.

The longest story in the collection, “The Abbess of Castro” is one that has the most passion because of the primary source letters that Stendhal translates.  Elena de Campireali, the daughter of a noble family who possessed great wealth and many estates in the kingdom of Naples, is the central figure of this tragic story.  Elena’s father and brother are horrified when they learn she has fallen in love with a lower class brigand named Giulio Branciforte.  I found Stendhal’s introduction to Elena’s story particularly amusing:

It would appear that Elena knew Latin.  The verse she was made to learn spoke always of love, a love that would seem completely ridiculous to us if we were to come across it in 1839; that is, it treated of passionate love, love that was nourished by great sacrifices, love that can subsist only in an atmosphere of mystery, and love that is always found accompanying the most horrible misfortunes.

A fair warning from the author for those who might engage in too much translation of Catullus, Ovid, or Propertius!

Guilio visits Elena every night by standing under her balcony window and giving her a bouquet of flowers with a letter attached.  Stendhal includes translations from large excerpts of their passionate letters.  Guilio writes to Elena in one of the notes embedded in her flowers:

To tell the truth, I do not know why I love you; I certainly cannot propose that you come and share my poverty.  But what I do know is that if you do not love me, my life is worthless to me; it is useless to say that I would give it up a thousand times over for you.  But before your return from the convent, this life was not an unfortunate one; on the contrary, it was full of the most wonderful dreams.  So I can say that the sight of my happiness has made me miserable.

Stendhal has a valid point: we don’t see letters like this in the 19th or, for that matter, in the 21st century, do we?  Like the other stories in the collection, there is no happy ending for these two lovers.  Even though they profess their undying, eternal love for one another, in the end they cannot prevent her family from keeping them apart.

Despite the fact that these stories end in with the lovers’ deaths, they are full of passion, intrigue and interesting historical descriptions and details that Stendhal uncovers through his research.  Italian Chronicles is a fascinating look into the lives of 16th century Italian nobility through the eyes of the astute, erudite 19th century French novelist.

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation

A Bibliophile’s Conundrum: How do you organize your books?

There have been complaints recently by my family members (i.e. my husband) about the piles of books that have taken over various parts of the house.  The kitchen table has two stack of books that are getting so high they are threatening to topple over and crush one of the cats.  The book piles are also in the way of the cats’ favorite window from which they view the yard; notice the picture of Henry attempting to navigate around the books in order to watch a chipmunk that has made a nest under his favorite window.

Current stack of books on the kitchen table

 

Henry attempting to navigate around the current stack of books on the kitchen table

Then there are the various piles on the coffee table, the top of which table can barely be seen because of the amount of books. (As I look at this photo I realize it’s probably not a great idea to have so many candles among my books.)

But it is not that I am lazy or unwilling to move my books.  My issue is one of organization and trying to make decisions about which books go where and oftentimes these important decisions paralyze me.  I like to keep the pile of books that I really want to read immediately (which has grown impossibly large) as close to me as possible, thus all of the Vergil books currently hanging out on my coffee table.  I also like to categorize books by my favorite publishers: thus I have a handsome collection of Seagull Books and New York Review of Books.  But then I also like to collect books by author and by topic.  And finally, my Classics books are organized by subject—Greek tragedy, for instance, and within each of those categories books are further organized by author—Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.

Some of my Seagull Books Collection

 

Some of my NYRB collection

The conundrum I have comes when a book falls into more than one shelving category; for instance, I have collected many Ann Carson books, but one of them is a NYRB publication, so where do I put that book?  It seems that it ought to go in the Carson section, but then my NYRB collection seems lonely and incomplete without it.  And what should I do with the Bachmann/Celan Correspondence book that I recently reviewed?  I want to put it with the other Seagull titles, but then again I have a growing section of Bachmann books and a small section of Celan poetry.  Oh, and I also have a shelf of books all about letters and correspondence (the Letters of Virginia Woolf, Love Letters of Great Men, Nabakov’s Letters to Vera, etc.)

Books from my Classics collection

Nothing aggravates me more than when I can’t find a book because I forgot where I shelved it.  I have been looking for my copy of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening for weeks.  Did I put it with the philosophy books?  It isn’t with the other Nancy titles.  I bought a translation of Propertius’s poetry that has the exact same cover as the Nancy book.  Should I have a section of books that have the same covers?  It’s really exhausting.  My husband has generously offered to build me another bookshelf or two; although this also further enables my habit of book hoarding.

How do my fellow bibliophiles organize books?  I would love to see some photos!

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Filed under Anne Carson, New York Review of Books, Opinion Posts, Seagull Books

Ave atque Vale: Nox by Ann Carson

Nox

nox, noctis, f.  noun. [cf. Skt. nak, Gk. νύξ , Eng. night]  The time between sunset and sunrise, night; noctis avis, an owl; in contexts implying nightfall;  personified as a god or goddess;  nocte, by night, at night;  diem noctemque, day and night, without cessation or pause;  in noctem, for use at night-time;  nox aeterna, perpetua, i.e. death; the conditions of night, nocturnal darkness, etc.; in a fig. context, as symbolizing concealment or mystery; also chaos, turmoil.

Nox is a fitting title for Ann Carson’s eulogy of her older brother Michael whom she hadn’t seen in many years.  Nox refers not only to his death, but his absence, the blackness, and mystery that surrounded his turbulent life.  Carson’s brother had gotten into trouble because of drugs and, in 1978, instead of going to jail he fled to Europe and her family rarely heard from him.  She writes that he phoned her “maybe five times in 22 years.”  Nox is an accordion style, color reproduction, of Carson’s memorial notebook that contains texts, photos, letters, and sketches.  The entire notebook is housed in a gray box which little tomb of sorts seems appropriate for such a project.

Ann Carson chooses Catullus Poem 101 as the starting point, the inspiration for this notebook and scrapbook she keeps about the troubled life and death of her brother.  Catullus’s brother is also older than him and died far away from Rome, in the Troad.  Catullus’s poem is meant to serve as a private eulogy delivered at his brother’s graveside, long after the formal burial and death rituals have taken place.  Similar to Catullus, Carson is not able to be at her brother’s funeral because his widow didn’t find his sister’s contact information until two weeks after the memorial service.  She writes about her experience with Catullus Poem 101:

7.1  I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101). Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Troad. Nothing at all is know of the brother except his death. Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave. Perhaps he recited the elegy there. I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times. Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy. No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind. I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I cam to think of translation as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

The very first page of Nox has a complete copy of Catullus poem 101.  From there Carson gives a lengthy definitions for every single word in the Catullus poem.  These definitions occupy the left-hand side of the notebook, while the right-hand side is dedicated to her own personal observations, photos, and mementoes of her brother.  Through the personal stories, anecdotes and observations about her brother and the few experience they shared together, Carson does successfully capture the sorrow and the “deep festivity” of a Catullus poem.  She talks, for instance, about his nickname for her when they were younger.  He calls her “pinhead” or “professor,” names that imply some sort of acknowledgement for her intellectual gifts.  And later on, in one of their few phone calls, he sounds melancholy except for a brief moment when he calls her “pinhead.”

It was such a great experience for me to translate Catullus poem 101 with my students this year and share Ann Carson’s book with them.  They commented that it made the Catullus elegy more meaningful and they were amazed at the uniqueness of the accordion folded book.  One of them remarked that the scrapbook style of Nox, with torn notes and letters, was fitting for the brother and sister’s scattered and disjointed relationship.

My favorite part of this Catullus poem has always been the very last line. Its emotion, its finality are so perfectly captured by Catullus’s simple words.  It is fitting that Carson ends her memorial with her own translation of this poem—the photocopy of it on the final page is faded and blurred like the memories of her sibling—so the last line of Catullus also serves at the ending of Nox.

atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And into forever, brother, farwell and farewell.

 

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Filed under Anne Carson, Nonfiction

The Heart Will Know How to Live: The Correspondence of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan

I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century.  There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with digital communication.  When I was reading the letters, post cards, notes, telegrams and poems sent between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan I felt like I was eavesdropping or spying on the unfolding of an intense, passionate and, at times tortured, love affair.  I wondered what this correspondence would look like in the 21st century and it occurred to me that texts, direct messages, emails and video chats would not have the same underlying tone of intimacy that one feels while reading the Bachmann and Celan letters.

In May of 1948, Ingeborg Bachmann writes a letter to her parents describing her first few meetings with Paul Celan.  She tells them that Celan has “fallen in love with me, which adds a little spice to my dreary work.”  The letters between Bachmann and Celan throughout the rest of 1948 and 1949 are full of passionate longing, a strong desire to see one another again and misunderstandings that are inevitable with written correspondence.  They make plans to meet many times, but for a variety reasons they don’t get the opportunity to see one another very often for the next twenty years.  Their careers, geography, and other relationships all serve as obstacles that keep them apart.  Celan writes to Bachmann in April 1949:

My dear, you,

I am so glad this letter came—and now I have kept you waiting for so long too, quite unintentionally and without a single unkind thought.  You know well enough that this happens sometimes.  One does not know why.  Two or three times I wrote you a letter, and then left it unsent after all.  But what does that really mean, when we are thinking of each other and will, perhaps, do so for a very long time yet?

And in late May/early June Bachmann responds:

Paul, dear Paul,

I long for you and for our fairy tale.  What shall I do?  You are so far away from me, and the cards you send, which satisfied me until recently, are no longer enough for me.

The excerpts from these two letters are typical of the feelings of absence and yearning that the authors feel for one another.  Stolen moments on brief trips to Paris, telegrams, and letters are not enough to satisfy either one of them.  But as the years progress and they continue with their letters, a deep sense of trust, friendship, love and mutual understanding is sustained between them.  Bachmann becomes for Celan a champion of his work and a mortal and emotional support.  In the early years of their communication she is constantly receiving his poems, giving him feedback and trying to get his work published in various literary magazines.  When the Goll plagiarism scandal happens, she writes to him and encourages him to put that incident behind him.  I also found it sweet and endearing that they continue for many years to exchange books as gifts on one another’s birthdays and at Christmas.

It is touching and selfless that even when they reconnect in 1957 and rekindle their romance, Bachmann encourages Celan to stay with his wife Gisele for the sake of their son.  Bachman also struggles to make the decision on whether or not to live with Max Frisch in early 1958.  As the years go by and it is evident that fate has conspired against them to ever live together, they still maintain an emotional dependence on one another.  Celan’s words dated October 31st—November 1st, 1957 sums up what their relationship evolves into:

Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be.

Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so.  To be—be there for another.

Even if it is only a few words, all breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.

 

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Filed under German Literature, Nonfiction, Seagull Books