Tag Archives: Classics

Damnosa Quid non Imminuit Dies?: The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom

The first few pages of Nooteboom’s novella The Following Story called to mind the same eerie calmness one finds in Kafka’s Metamorphoses.  Herman Mussert goes to sleep in his apartment in Amsterdam but wakes up a hotel room in Lisbon where twenty years previously he had spent a few days with his lover.  Mussert recognizes the room but doesn’t know how here got there or which body he occupies—his current one or the younger one he had on his visit twenty years ago.  He decides to retrace his steps around Lisbon while remembering the events in his life that caused him to visit this city before.

When he was in his early thirties Mussert was a classics teacher at a high school; he loved teaching Latin and he was very successful at it.  In the first part of the book Nooteboom is writing about metamporhosis-–how his character’s life, his career, his loneliness have evolved over the past twenty years.  Mussert had an affair with a colleague, a fellow science teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose obnoxious husband also works at the school and is having his own affair with a student.  The centerpiece and most clever piece of the narrative takes place in Mussert’s  and Marina’s  classrooms when they observe one another’s lessons.  While in Maria’s class Mussert learns all about beetles who use the carrion of rats to mate and reproduce.  Mussert also teaches a lesson on metamorrphosis, that of Phaeton borrowing his father Apollo’s  chariot and crashing it while carrying the sun.  “It is obvious from the start,” Mussert thinks, “that disaster will befall him, that Apollo’s foolish son will come crashing down with his golden chariot and fire-breathing horses.”  Nooteboom’s language is filled with striking images that foreshadow Mussert’s fate.

The catalyst for change in Mussert’s life is his love for Maria.  Life after Maria involves solitary nights with his books, his cat, a different career and an attempt to forget about his time with her.  His strange and sudden appearance in Lisbon brings all the stages of his metamorphosis back to him:

Ignis mutat res (fire changes everything), I muttered, but my matter was not to be changed by any fire. I had already changed. Around me there was burning and melting, other two-headed creatures came to life, but I had long since lost my other, so red-haired head, the female half of me had broken off.  I had become a sort of cinder, a residue.  My reason for being here, on this perhaps or perhaps not sought-after journey, could well be a pilgrimage back to those days, and if so I, like a medieval pilgrim, would have to visit all the sites of my brief hold life, all the stations where the past had a face.

In the second part of the book Mussert suddenly finds himself on a ship, sailing on the ocean, then on the Amazon river, which becomes an elaborate metaphor for his  voyage to the afterlife. Nooteboom’s narrative is filled with images of death and allusions to the underworld.  Mussert describes the last few days of his teaching career, during which time he was giving a lesson on the Crito and Socrates’s death, which ends suddenly and tragically.  Mussert’s fellow passengers on this trip, a priest, an airline pilot, a child, a journalist and an academic, all take turns telling tragic stories of loss suffered during their lives.  And Mussert thinks about his translation of Horace Odes, Book II, and in particular his translation of the lines: Damnosa quid non imminuit dies?  Time corrupts all. What has it not made worse?

As the ship makes its way down the river, the underworld and death metaphors become more obvious with Nooteboom’s stunning language:

The water turned a deeper, more disturbing shad of brown. Large pieces of wood floated on the surface. This was the throat of the great river, this was where the continent spat out its gut, this mud had been carried down from the Andes, through the wounded jungle guarding its last secrets, its last hidden dwellers, the lost world of eternal shadows, the tenebrae. Procul recedant somnia, et noctium fantasmata,  Protect me from bad dreams, the phantasms of the night.

Phaeton. Gustave Moreau. 1878

 

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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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Sappho Fragment 16

Sappho Fragment 16 (translation is my own):

Some men say that the best thing on this black earth is
a column of horses, others say it is an army of foot
soldiers, and still others say it is a fleet of ships.
But I say that the Best thing on this black
earth is to love someone. It is wholly easy to make this
idea understandable to everyone. For Helen, surpassing
all others in beauty, chose for herself the best man—
he who destroyed all the Majesty of Troy—and she made that
choice without consideration of her child or her beloved parents,
but she was swayed by Love and carried this love far away.
It always seems like a female trait to turn away or to
be light in one’s thoughts. And so now you do not
remember Anaktoria, or so it seems; she whose lovely steps and
whose bright radiance in her face you would like to behold
more than the armies or the hoplites of Lydia. We know that it
is not possible for men on this earth to be completely happy;
We must, however, pray to hold onto our shared memories rather
than to completely forget those experiences.

I have immersed myself in this beautiful and, at times, maddening Ancient Greek fragment for the last two days. I used the longer version of the Ancient Greek text with the last few lines, in particular, reconstructed. I realize this isn’t the standard version with which most are familiar. I see in this poem a stark contrast between male and female, which begins in the first three lines with a primael. Men choose war—cavalries, armies and ships, but women choose love. The best example of this is Helen—she chooses Love in the form of Paris, because, to her,  he is the best (aristov).

As the poem concludes, Sappho turns to Anaktoria who left her (some speculate to marry). Sappho, unlike Helen, doesn’t have a choice. But as memory fades the one option for her is to remember their shared experiences. Her beloved, no longer present, can quickly become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”; the poet must make a conscience choice to remember their time together. But as her memories fade and her lover is no longer present, she can just as easily choose to let her go.

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Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

With Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt takes up the daunting task of tracing the history of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. His engaging style of writing has immediately drawn me into this wonderful book. He writes:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully.

Schmidt’s point about pedigree and influence was proven for me almost immediately in his book with the chapter on Chaucer. The early English poets of the fourteenth century were struggling to break free from the literary supremacy of both Latin and French but, by including the introduction to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Schmidt shows that although he chooses to write in English, Chaucer’s Latin ancestors are never far from his mind:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, or that he dye,
So sende might to make it som comedye!
But litel book, so making thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

The references to Ancient Epic authors is quite obvious, but there is also a hidden allusion in these lines to Catullus that Schmidt doesn’t mention. Catullus was not widely read in this period, but the discovery of his manuscript in 1300 does make it slightly possible that Chaucer know about Catullus’s own libellum (little book) and his introductory poem which is also self-deprecating. In Carmen 1, Catullus begins his collection of poetry(translation is my own):

To whom should I dedicate my new, charming, little book
that I just polished with my dry pumice stone? To you,
Cornelius, you who used to think that my petty scribblings
were actually worth something.

I’ve always suspected that Catullus knows the worth of his talent and that this modesty in the dedication is feigned. Schmidt’s discussion of Chaucer has me wondering the same thing about the English author and his “litel bok.”

I took a British Literature course which was required when I was in high school and I credit this course with making me the reader I have become as far as classic literature is concerned. The first work we read in the class was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which captivated my 16-year-old attention. I haven’t read Chaucer, unfortunately, since I was a teenager, and a pleasant side effect of Schmidt’s book is the rediscovery of old favorites. My plan is to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Gower’s Confessio Amantis from the same time period.

Last week when I translated Catullus Carmen 1 with my Latin students, I also read to them Chaucer’s lines from Troilus and Criseyde. Not a single student knew who Chaucer was; British Literature is not a required course. So sad…

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Inertia Means Trouble for You: Some Thoughts on Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education begins with Frederic Moreau, the pupil of said “education”, meeting, by chance, an older woman whose presence affects the rest of his life. Eighteen-year-old Frederic has been visiting a paternal uncle in the hopes of becoming the heir to his fortune when he encounters Madame Arnoux, Monsieur Arnoux and their young daughter on a steamship traveling out of Paris.  Although Monsieur Arnoux is a garrulous and outgoing man, it is his wife that captures Frederic’s attention (trans. Robert Baldick): “She was sitting in the middle of the bench all alone; or rather he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him.  As he passed, she looed up; he bowed automatically; and when he had walked a little way along the deck, he looked back at her.”  As he walks up and down the deck of the boat, he becomes inert and can concentrate on nothing an no one else but her. But he also hasn’t the courage to speak to such an incredible woman:

Never had he seen anything to compare with the splendour of her dark skin, the seduction of her figure, or the translucent delicacy of her fingers.  He looked at her workbasket with eyes full of wonder, as if it were a thing of beauty.  What was her name, her home, her life, her past? He longed to know about the furniture in her room, all the dresses she had ever worn, the people she mixed with; even the desire for physical possession gave way to a deeper yearning, an aching curiosity which knew no bounds.

Frederic moves to Paris where he attends law school and insinuates himself into the life Arnoux family.   He often visits the object of his desire, but the first half of the novel  describes his love for Madame Arnoux, yet his complete inertia, his inability to act in any definitive way to make her his lover.  I found the second half of the book more interesting as the pace of the narrative becomes quicker and more initeresting.  As the years slip by, this woman continues to be a presence in Frederic’s life and even though he takes up other mistresses he can’t get Madame Arnoux out of his heart or his mind.  He is incapable of committing to a marriage because there is always the hope of being with Madame Arnoux.   Furthermore, his inertia extends to his career since he doesn’t have the attention span to devote to a political career.  He lives on the inheritance from his uncle so he has no real need for a private income.  But having a serious occupation would have benefitted his otherwise unoccupied mind.  He let’s several professional and business opportunities slip through his hands because of his focus on his love and social life.

In the introduction to the Penguin Edition, Geoffrey Wall explains the autobiographical aspect of Flaubert’s novel and quotes the author’s letter to Amelie Bosquet:

I loved immeasurably, a love that was unrequited, intense and silent.  Nights spent gazing at the moon, dreaming of elopements and travels in Italy, dreams of glory for her sake, torments of the body and the soul, spasm at the smell of a shoulder, and turning suddenly pale when I caught her eye, I have known all that, and known it very well.  Each one of us has in his heart a royal chamber.  I have had mine bricked up, but it is still there.”

The object of Flaubert’s secret desire was an older, married woman named Elisa Schlesinger whom he meets as a teenager while on vacation on the Normandy coast.  He, too, would encounter her by chance throughout the years but never confessed his true feelings.

It seemed fitting that this week as I was reading Sentimental Education I was also preparing for my second semester Catullus course for my upper level Latin students.  Catullus is also smitten with an inaccessible, older woman and as I was reading about Frederic and Flaubert, Catullus’s Carmen 51 kept coming to mind.  It is the first, many argue, in the Roman poet’s series of Clodia (a.k.a. Lesbia) poems; Catullus sees Clodia at a party and the first sight of her instantly captivates him and he can only focus on her.  But, like Frederic and Flaubert, he is paralyzed by his feelings and cannot bring himself to approach her.  At the end of the poem, Catullus chides himself for his inaction:

Inertia, Catullus, means trouble for you.
You wallow in your inertia, and you carry it too far.
Such inertia has previously brought about the
destruction of kings and grand cities.

The Latin word otium seemed especially fitting, in my mind, for Fredric. I translated it here as “inertia”, but it can also mean “leisure.” It was originally used as a military term to describe the leisure of the army, when soldiers are encamped and experience boredom. If otium is translated as “leisure” in this Catullus poem then, I think, the meaning of the last few stanzas is completely changed, as it implies that too much leisure gets the poet into trouble. But I prefer to translate it as “inertia,” or “inaction” and see these lines as Catullus scolding himself for inaction which keeps him from being with his true love. This translation of otium also makes more sense in the context of the beginning of the poem during which he is literally and figuratively paralyzed by the site of this woman.

Both translations—“leisure” and “inertia” are equally fitting ways to describe Frederic. His inheritance allows him too much leisure time to get into trouble and his inability to act on his feelings for Madame Arnoux affect his entire life. Otium is the true cause of Fredric’s inability to attain true happiness at any point in his life.

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