Review: Rude Woods

Now a boar’s pissing in your stream?
What life were you trying to escape?

We’ve almost all heard of Virgil (70BC – 19BC), the Roman poet most famous for having been born in a ditch, written The Aeneid and having shown an Italian poet around Hell and Purgatory (in precisely that order), but I suspect that few of us have a first-hand — or second-hand, admitting the deficiency of our Latin — acquaintance with his work. Nate Klug’s translation of choice excerpts from The Eclogues, also known as The Bucolics, is most welcome then. Available from the Song Cave, it’s titled Rude Woods: Passages from Virgil’s Eclogues.

Far from the city, by the tinkling brook, under the rustling leaves, on the damp, cool earth, in the halcyon sunlight, away from the bustling marketplace, the shouting vendors and streaming crowds, you lie on the hillside, singing tunes, drowsing and chatting with your friends, shepherds you are perhaps, maybe drinking wine. That’s what the phrase pastoral means to me, and probably most of us — although it would be remiss not to mention here William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), where he posits that its constitutive feature is something else altogether.

But what this collection illuminates, and what I did not know before, is the extent to which the pastoral genre is staked less on the unitary, rustic ideal of country life, but rather on a dynamic tension between worldly cares and earthy joy, “a constant dialectic of fear and grief with joy and hope,” to quote W.R. Johnson. As Johnson underlines in the foreword to this volume, these poems were written during the last of Rome’s civil wars. (A link, perhaps to our bellicose, American contemporaneity — perpetual war, the chagrin ever upon our meddling nation like a laurel of leaves.) Accordingly are Virgil’s shepherds “torn between sorrow and hope. Some of them have lost their land and flocks, and those who have not have no reason to feel secure.”

It’s this subdued but dark undercurrent running through Rude Woods that surprised me when I read it, and that I now find most fecund and profound.

This pastoral life can’t cure my madness
or teach the god of Love softer manners.

Another joy is the directness and confidence of Klug’s translation. Shepherds speaking as intimates don’t demur, or hold back; they speak in colorful language, jibing one another. The language sounds natural, and modern.

If you’ve got any valentines for Phyllis,
or praise for Alcon, or shit to say to Codrus,
go right ahead and sing it, Mopsus;
Tityrus can watch your grazing kids.

Only in translations of Catullus’s poems, Virgil’s contemporary, do I remember hearing such a tone. There are other pleasures here, the bliss of grapes and sex and song, but it’s the unexpected ones which I savor the most.

Much thanks is due to the Song Cave for providing me with a copy of this book. And I would be remiss were I not to mention, in closing, that Klug’s own book of poetry, Anyone, was published last month by University of Chicago Press. It looks well worth a read, and perhaps informed by his work on ancient pastoral traditions.

March reading log

Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) – Anonymous (trans. Mark Alpert, 1969)

Life Is a Dream (1635) – Pedro Calderón de la Barca (trans. Gwynne Edwards, 1991)

‘Letter to Sor Filatea de la Cruz’ (c. 1690) – Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (trans. Edith Grossman, 2014)

Marginalia on Casanova (1939) – Miklós Szentkuthy (trans. Tim Wilkinson, 2012)

‘The Approach to Al’Mustaim’ (1936) – J.L. Borges (trans. Andrew Hurley)

‘Cows in Half Mourning’ – Arno Schmidt (trans. John E. Woods)

The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles (1966) – Nancy Mitford (in progress)

Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method (1986) – Carlo Ginzburg (trans. John & Anne Tedeschi, 1989)

But Is It Art? (2002) – Cynthia Freeland

Sort l’assassin, entre le spectre (2006) – Pierre Senges

Roll the Die

Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard (c. 1898) is often referenced as if it were the mother of all neglected and obscure works. This may have been true in decades or centuries past, but in the 2010s it’s a claim that no longer holds water. Witness the following:

Mark Amerika’s CRAPSHOOT, which went live in 2015, a a generative, interactive hypertextual remix that mimics the form of Mallarmé’s poem.

Published in 2015 by Wave Books, Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno’s translation of the poem, supplemented by photographic images. They discuss their work on the translation and presentation here, at PoetrySociety.org. (At Amazon, a portion of the book is available for preview.)

My own 2015 translation of the poem and its preface, soon to be published in Vestiges, the print publication of Black Sun Lit.

At a Center for the Art of Translation event in 2012, Richard Howard read his translation of “Afternoon of a Fawn” and discussed why he declined —  even for +$20,000 — to translate Un Coup de dés.

Lastly, though, if you really want to understand this work’s full significance, look to Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren (originally published by Fayard, 2011; brilliantly — and I don’t mean that lightly — translated by Robin Mackay, 2012, available from Urbanomic). Text from the publisher’s website:

Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page, the typographical play borrowed from the poster form, the multiplication of interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger, always resistant to full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be ‘unique’ and which ‘can be no other’.

The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game. All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but one sole condition: that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of that siren, emerging for a lightning-flash amongst the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.

Lastly, and somewhat unrelatedly, but why the hell not, an ocean of links to drown in (– shipwreck that –)

Earlier this year (2015, magic year, magic number), soprano Marisol Montalvo sang Pierre Boulez’s “Pli selon pli” live with L’Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher. (“Pli selon Pli” is a set of five songs based on poems by Stéphane Mallarmé.)

Hurrah!

Poetry as currency, life on the moon, etc.

On World Poetry Day 2015 (I’m skeptical), in certain coffeeshops it is said, poetry counted for currency. Yet in 1650 Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac posited that on the moon, poetry is the only money there is.

After the meal, we got ready to leave; and with a thousand grimaces, which the inhabitants of the Moon use when they want to show affection, the host took a paper from my Demon. I asked my Demon if it was an IOU. He replied that, no, he didn’t owe him anything, that it amounted to some verses.

– Verses, what do you mean? I answered back, the innkeepers on the Moon are curious about rhymes?

– It’s the country’s currency, he told me, and the total we just paid amounts to a sixain, that’s what I just gave him. I wasn’t worried that I’d come up short; because, while we feast here a week, we won’t ever have to pay a sonnet in a sitting; and I’ve got four of those on my person now, along with two epigrams, two odes, and an eclogue. (my translation)

Etc. It goes on. This book has been translated into English sporadically, time and time again, but it’s hard to find a copy, if not currently out of print. I have a peculiar relationship to the book, having read it at a most turbulent time in my life a decade ago, and again recently, but only in its censored form, which meant that the part I wanted to re-read most, and which had burned itself in my mind, was absent, leading me to refer to another edition, where I learned, yes, definitively, from the editors, of the book’s censorship, because Cyrano had died, the book was published posthumously, and he was, in literature at least, let’s say, a libertine, and he had a friend, a Max Brod-type, who was most in touch with moral matters, morality, etc.

A Pierre Senges Miscellany

Pierre Senges is, to my mind, one of the most profound and amusing writers at work today. The English translation of Fragments de Lichtenberg (2007), a long delayed project at Dalkey Archive, and a very big book indeed, will likely appear this summer. The Adventures of Percival: A Phylogenetic Tale (2009; illustrations by Nicolas de Crécy) was published in dual editions originally by Dis Voir, it seems. (Premise: A gardener mathematician decides to enact the proposition that a chimpanzee working long enough at a typewriter could produce the works of Shakespeare.) It’s my hope that many more of this author’s dozen odd book-length works will be translated and published in English. But until that happens, for your immediate delectation, I offer you the following collection of thoughts, declarations, and quaint biographical tidbits concerning Pierre Senges, which I’ve lifted and translated from the various sources indicated, all freely available on the open web. And check back here in April for a short annotated bibliography of Senges’s works, all of which depart from singular, wildly ingenious pretexts.

*

“Ironic and rigorously autodictactic, Pierre Senges blazes a fairy-tale-like trail through the forest of erudition. A great admirer of Borges, he finds in the Great Library the sources for a multiform, savant, and joyous inspiration. He’s prolific, too: thirteen books in as many years, not to mention his numerous plays for radio, broadcast by France Culture and France Inter, in which he plays happily on the possibilities of radio.” (publisher’s bio)

§

“From 1994 onwards, Senges trades in his musician’s scales for those of the writer, developing paragraphs on paper, perfecting them, inventorying them, numbering them—not publishing for six years: “Technique in literature is not a bad word for me. It allows one to offer to others what would be, without technique, only obsession or madness.” […] He lived in Grenoble for many years. As for formal study, there was little to none. He was registered as a sociology student, but never set foot on campus: one of the most erudite French writers of his generation, one of the most talented in terms of composition and phrasing, is an autodidact. Maybe that’s why his encyclopedism isn’t at all pedantic: each book is an adventure that allows him to conquer all books, like a child, or a doe running through a forest.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)

§

“I admit the word ‘Baroque,’ if by that you intend its broad, most common meaning: that which lets everything in, which prefers a curved line to a straight line, detour to destination, irony to distraught naïveté, and a certain inelegance in the multiplication of digressions.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)

On Miklos Szentkuthy and the truly endless possibilities opened up through digression : “If I could imitate anyone, it would be Szentkuthy. He takes up literature in a casual, complex-free way. The writer is a satrap who is allowed to do anything, whom no one can reproach because he is a satrap and because he is doing his job.” (Philippe Lançon for Libération, 2008)

§

Eric Loret: By questioning fiction, you obviously question the real. Is your intention to address a certain kind of contemporary mental confusion, a schizophrenia of appearances?

Arno Bertina: I don’t think that’s specific to our time. To be contemporary means to be confronted with confusion.

Pierre Senges: Yes, as with Calderón’s Life Is a Dream. It quickly became “life is a film” or “life is a video game,” but ultimately our intelligence for this problem has hardly evolved. It’s one of literature’s fundamental interrogations. And the society of the spectacle wasn’t invented yesterday either. There’s more to be learned from Saint-Simon than from Debord concerning the agony of appearances. An injunction is often set before the writer: “Tell us about the contemporary world.” But supposedly realist novels that speak of ‘our’ time are books that tell more of a ‘here and now’ that’s commonly accepted at a given moment. An execrable consensus, with its basis only in reality’s most ostentatious signs. You could just as well say “the world is 70% water and two billion Chinese people, so write about Chinese sailors.” Art should promulgate realities. (“Figures implosées,” Libération, 2006)

§

On the occasion of the publication his first book, Veuves au maquillage (2000): “What I set out to do is not description or narration, but rather a commentary on that description or narration; in other words, to approach it from the outset in the second degree.” (Chronic’art)

“I sometimes have the impression that my love of stories leads me into territories that are further and further away from what stories usually look like—and, along with that, the impression that I am telling stories of stories, instead of stories of people.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)

“Literature as commentary might be one of our great, new-found pleasures (what richness!): there’s Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova to be savored, the monomaniacal commentary of the king-in-exile Kinbote in Pale Fire, the Parallel Book of Manganelli which is parasitical to Pinocchio, and more recently the Glossary of Greek Birds of D’Arcy Thompson, accompanied by the (I quote) amateurish commentaries of Dominque Meens. But parasitism or commensalism are hardly new, and literary experts know that better than anyone.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)

“The interpretation of source texts can become a novelistic genre unto itself.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)

§

“I especially like the idea of a literature of hypotheses: there are very strong resemblances between scientific hypothesis and comedic scenario: in both cases, one must start with a postulate, then deduce the consequences and sort out those which are viable from those which are not. That Let us suppose forms the initial point of departure for both scientific argument and the work of the librettist—scientific literature has borrowed a great deal from works of poetic and narrative literature, and poetry and the novel have for a long time been nourished by scientific literature, namely because science, through its qualitative vulgarization, necessarily has recourse to metaphor. In a Carrollian way, our modern imagination (there’s modernity again) is inhabited by Einstein twins of different ages, Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously both dead and alive, and the dactylographic chimpanzee invented by Émile Borel.

Scientists, who create the basis for part of what we know and our criteria for truth, would be well situated to write, fictionally perhaps even, a history of errors, deceptions, and ignorance. Not so much to give rise to a feeling of impotence, because the shortcomings of our knowledge don’t lead us fatally into the absurd, but—without lapsing into a dilettante-ish relativism—so that we might perceive how error and exactitude feed off of each other, how the false enriches the true, how we stand to benefit from received ideas and when it’s better to do away with them.” (2012 Interview with Estelle Mouton-Rovira)

§

Pierre Senges: The imposture of realism in literature supports the imposture of liberalism, which tells us that the free market is reality and not an opinion about reality. Saying a writer must be a realist isn’t an answer, but a question.

Arno Bertina: But literature gladly comes along to pull out the rug from underneath the feet of these people, by showing that the definition of reality is not closed, that there is movement. The humor that is in our books takes into account, I think, the instability and the play inherent in representation. (“Figures implosées,” Libération, 2006)

§

“Generally speaking, a book is one of those rare objects that, if it succeeds, respects us. (…) Advertising doesn’t respect us, political speeches don’t respect us; sermons address us as imbeciles, literary manifestos address us as imbeciles, our neighbors might act as if we’re imbeciles. A bad book takes us for imbeciles. But a good book is one of the few places in the world where we find respect, whoever we might be.” (at remue.net)

February reading log

The Solitudes (c. 1615) – Luis de Gongóra (trans. Edith Grossman, 2012)

Selected Poems (c. 1630) – Francisco de Quevedo (ed. & trans. Christopher Johnson, 2009; in progress)

The Story of My Life (c. 1795) – Giacomo Casanova (trans. Stephen Sartarella & Sophia Hawkes, 2000; in progress)

‘Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard’ (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1848, pp. 346-353) – Charles Mackay

Henry IV (1922) – Luigi Pirandello (trans. Mark Musa, 1995)

Towards the One & Only Metaphor (1935) – Miklos Szentkuthy (trans. Tim Wilkinson, 2012; not finished)

Erik Satie (1930) - Pierre-Daniel Templier (trans. E.L. French & D.S French, 1969; in progress)

La Grande panique (1966) – Jean-Jacques Sempé

The Temple of Iconoclasts (1972) – J. Rodolfo Wilcock (trans. Lawrence Venuti, 2000)

Centuria: One Hundred Ouroboric Novels (1979) – Giorgio Manganelli (trans. Henry Martin, 2005; in progress)

New-York-sur-Loire (2005) – Nicolas de Crécy

Paradoxes of Peace or the Presence of Infinity (2009) – Nicholas Mosley

‘Entretien Croisé de Nicolas de Crécy et Pierre Senges’ (2010)

Review: Õnnepalu’s Radio

Reviewed: Radio (a novel), by Tõnu Õnnepalu, 2002. Trans. Adam Cullen. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014. 650 pgs.

There is no literature anymore, there are just single books that arrive in bookstores, just as letters, newspapers, advertising pamphlets arrive in mailboxes. (…) World literature! That sounds just as hollow as ‘peace-keeping force.’ Some kind of world literature may still exist in the brain of some well-intentioned professor in Eastern Europe.

- Tõnu Õnnepalu, Border State, trans. Madli Puhvel, Northwestern UP, 2000, p. 88

Through prose ruminations, a diary of sorts, a middle-aged gay man tries to solve the puzzle of his former wife’s disappearance. The result is an alluring psychological portrait of the narrator, who is, among other things, a documentary film-maker from Estonia. That’s a summary outline of Radio (Raadio, 2002; trans. Adam Cullen, 2014), which follows Õnnepalu’s first novel, Border State (Piiririik, 1993) as the second of Õnnepalu’s books to be translated into English. The two books share a number of characteristics in common, mainly relating to the invention of similar narratorial personae suffering from similar types of emotional pain, romantic and otherwise. Both works were published under the pseudonym Emil Tode, and both are narrated by Estonian expatriates with ties to Paris.

Radio starts, oddly enough, with a discussion of the cost of a bus ticket from Tallinn to Tartu, the city to which the narrator is returning in 2002 after a decade living in Paris. This period roughly coincided, we learn, with his “marriage” to Liz Franz. Of necessity, everything we learn about Franz is colored by the narrator’s conflicted emotional state. Who is Franz really, independent of our only semi-reliable narrator? It’s an issue the text implicitly raises, although we cannot access her, anymore than the narrator can. Objectively, she is an Estonian-Russian singer who had a handful of radio hits in the seventies. To the narrator, she has all the prestige and grand theatricality of Maria Callas; though the peak of her glory has passed, in his eyes she remains a goddess. As a young boy, he fell in love with her voice and image. It’s recognisably a case of gay male diva worship that persists into the present, although it’s become intensely complicated.

Their “marriage,” which is not a legal union, but rather the narrator’s term for their difficult-to-categorize relationship¬, comes about after a series of initial trysts in the 1990s in Paris. The ambiguous romance (they’re both gay) rapidly cools, though with sexual favors exchanged and prolonged cohabitation. But Franz travels often, sometimes living with an international real-estate mogul. Her regular gifts of money to the narrator become a crucial element in the narrator’s psychology; the notion that he is a “housewife,” a kept man or gigolo to Liz Franz, vexes him. He can’t let go of it, it is the very core of his anxiety, and the reason he is so obsessed with Franz, from whom he’s been estranged on and off for years. “I’ve been working on the subject of Liz Franz for eleven years. Am I starting to get the hang of it?” he asks, painfully.

He is starting to get the hang of it, though. Õnnepalu’s uncanny ability to inhabit his first-person narrator is astounding, and the book stands as an excellent fusion of psychological realism and formal artifice. As a fully imagined character, the narrator also has the vague familiarness of a recognizable “type.” More than anything else, perhaps, his namelessness serves to underline this fact (and also to echo the condition of Proust’s narrator). Other traits (political apathy, religious indifference, coldness towards his family) reinforce the sense that the speaker is a representative of the so-called modern condition. The voice is confident, off-the-cuff, unwavering and immediate. But, due to a reluctance to confront the painful central topic outright, the forty-five chapters unfold by and large through a process of avoidance and deferral. From the start, digressions revolving around minor characters and motifs threaten to overwhelm and bury the Liz Franz question; but it inevitably presses into the narrative in a slow and steady time-release. Observations and analogies concerning biology, anthropology, economics, psychoanalysis, immunology and other miscellaneous disciplines forestall development, arising unannounced and passing with an effervescent lightness that makes them very digestible and stimulating, never heavy-handed. For instance, the quest for a sexual and romantic partner is analogized to the logic of economic markets. Or: “In the psychic aspect, the capacity to forget evidently plays the part of the immune system.” There’s also some excellent factual encapsulations of life, land, culture, and history in Estonia which make Radio a great introduction to the north Baltic region—what was once, we learn, Old Livonia, a kingdom partly in Latvia, partly in Estonia.

In fact, these strong historical and geopolitical registers make Radio very contemporary, and also seem to indicate that it was written with an international audience in mind. Like the opening scene that discusses the relative purchasing power of francs, Euros, and kroons, a number of features suggest a desire to go beyond the idea of the nation. A fascination for borders is made explicit in the title of an art film the narrator made about border-crossing points across Europe—it’s called “Les Frontières”—just as Border State also foregrounds political divisions. Given that Border State was widely translated in Europe and elsewhere, Õnnepalu certainly had reason to expect that Radio too would travel abroad to reach non-Estonian readers with the directness of an airborne radio transmission. The narrator’s verbal tic of parenthetically weaving French idioms into his speech similarly calls attention to the in-betweenness of identity and the condition of bilingualism.

The plot development and pacing are slow, but that’s exactly the point; the style and form are capacious, issuing from a monkish patience and discipline. (At the book’s middle chapter, the narrator imagines leading an ideal life as a Cistercian monk in a medieval Estonian monastery, living quietly alongside other reserved gay men.) And by the conclusion, Radio effects a full dramatic reversal and catharsis which validate and redeem the process leading there. If Radio succeeds through its nearly six hundred pages, as I believe it does, it’s in large part due to the delicate balance of self-pity and stoicism, of complaint and resignation, that its singular voice strikes. In its almost architectural organisation of material, Radio is a lucid and beautiful monument to solitude.

This review first appeared in an issue of Galleon Literary Journal. Galleon is now accepting submissions for its fourth issue.

Mallarmé

But did we really need another translation of that typographically radical turn-of-the-century experiment in verse? Pourquoi pas, right? For now, check out CRAPSHOOT, Mark Amerika’s “generative remix that mimics the form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous 1897 poem,” which recently went live at the website of the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art (coded by Will Luers). It’s radical, alright. If you’re an absolute maniac like myself, also obtain a copy of Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren: a Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Dés (trans. Robin Mackay, from Urbanomic, 2011). Don’t forget to sleep, every now and then.