June reading log

The Discourse of Lorenzo Valla on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine (1443)- Lorenzo Valla (trans. Christopher B. Coleman, 1922)

Utopia (1516) – Sir Thomas More (trans. Ralph Robinson, 1556)

A History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury (in progress)

The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932) – Carl L. Becker

“The Aleph” – Jorge Luis Borges (trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni)

The Mahé Circle (1946) – Georges Simenon (trans. Siân Reynolds, 2015)

Le crime paie, mais ce n’est pas évident – Giorgio Manganelli (trans. Dominique Férault, 2003; in progress)

Agalmamemnon (1984) – Christine Brooke-Rose (in progress)

The Rise of Pseudo-Historical Fiction: Fray Antonio de Guevara’s Novelizations (2004) – Horacio Chiong Rivero

Fragments of Lichtenberg (2008), “Des ébauches prises sur le fait” (2014) – Pierre Senges (trans. Gregory Flanders, 2016)

Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants (2010) – Mathias Enard

Borges & Copyright, 2/2

Since my last post on the Katchadjian-Borges copyright case, I’ve discovered this — Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s account of his experiences with the Borges literary estate in the years after Borges’s death.

Di Giovanni translated much of Borges’s work in close consultation with him, but was shunned and aggressively pursued for bullshit reasons by Maria Kodama, who is the heir to Borges’s literary estate, and the plaintiff, of course, in the current Katchadjian case. A translator’s nightmare. Well worth the read. It’s said that di Giovanni’s translations are superior to those which are currently in print in the Collection Fictions anthology. I haven’t compared them, but you can access the di Giovanni translations of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius, Tertius” and “The Aleph” if you know how to google. (Recommended.)

Borges & Copyright (1/2)

It’s not uncommon these days to hear that copyright is an obsolete concept, or at least no longer a tenable one. People download images and songs willy-nilly off the web and repost them on their blogs or social media accounts with little regard for that antique if not by now quaint notion of intellectual property. So what? Usually no one cares, or the practice is so pandemic that resistance is assumed futile.

I’m spurred towards this crotchety line of thinking by the recent example of an author, Pablo Katchadjian, who wrote and had published a short (very short) book that incorporated and expanded on the Borges story “The Aleph,” and who now faces serious consequences from an Argentinian criminal court. See Fernando Sdrigotti’s article at The Guardian, “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, not a crime.”

While I admit that the charges and possible penalty are entirely out of proportion to the alleged crime, I do lack sympathy for someone who purports to be professionally engaged in literature and who has the gall to appropriate another author’s work — not yet in the public domain — for their own project with nary a thought to permissions or rights agreements. Sdrigotti cites the other Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” but doesn’t bother to mention that it’s there a question of a centuries-old work long in the public domain being appropriated. If I recall, Menard doesn’t even publish his plagiarized text, does he? Correct me if I’m wrong. He only reproduces a passage of a certain length — less even, I think, than the 4,000-word length of “The Aleph” in question here.

The article’s title suggests some of the confusion — yes, Katchadjian’s Fattened Aleph may be a “legitimate experiment,” a remix as it’s so popular to say in this day and age; it may even be quite brilliant; but is it legal to publish it? “Re-working Borges is a legitimate experiment, but without rights in order it ought not to be published.”

I’m not in favor of draconian punishments for copyright violators — nothing is more repugnant to me — but artists above all should see that copyright and intellectual property law serve a vital function, not least protecting the livelihood of artists.

The Princess Collated (2/2)

This post follows the previous day’s post “The Princess Collated (1 of 2).” Now, to compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves in its various translations…

MitfordandMmeLafayette

Pictured: My copy of the Mitford translation and The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles, alongside the modern Flammarion edition of La Princesse de Clèves.

 

La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second.

At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. (Buss, 1992)

The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. (Mitford, 1950) 

Note how Mitford reverses the sentence structure to improve it, and how she opts for an active verb structure (years | saw | object), whereas Buss uses a weak, passive one (… were displayed). The superlative structure jamais… avec tant d’éclat que becomes through Mitford such as has never been equalled. Compared to the slight awkwardness of Buss’s “At no time in…”, beginning on a negative (which, to my ear, sounds like a trial lawyer pleading a defendant’s innocence), Mitford’s phrase has a pleasant cadence and an appropriate elegance. Instead of magnificence and gallantry, which would be literal translations, from Mitford we get opulence and gallantry — a definite improvement. Buss’s translation has splendour and refinement, losing gallantry altogether.

(Yet anyone who had a historical understanding of French chivalric or even English chevalerie would be better off with gallantry I think — centuries of tradition and connotation reside therein! Knights wooing maidens, fighting Saracens, bearing heraldry, performing feats of valour to no end. Think of Buss’s poor, unsuspecting readers who don’t know what they’re missing !)

Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.

The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite. (Buss, 1992)

 The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women.  His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling. (Mitford, 1950)

… This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it. (anonymous)

As with the first sentence, Mitford takes the liberty of freely altering the theme of the phrase, reordering clauses and building a totally new sentence. It’s an astonishing liberty she takes, and astonishingly successful. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux becomes The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. (Did Mitford even working from the same text as Buss?! It seems doubtful for a moment. Perhaps not; there’s no mention of Henri’s dad, François I, in the original. The sentence becomes periodic, with three modifying clauses interceding — almost four — before we learn we are dealing with a great lover of women. Yes!

Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements

Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation…  (Buss, 1992) 

He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them… (Perry, 1891)

He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it… (Mitford, 1950)

Note the lean, functional terseness of the Mitford — no comma even. But also note how Buss’s beginning with the word since (i.e., because? I can’t help but read it any other way) ineptly alters the sense of the phrase. It is absent from the original, but the addition subtly suggests a prince who only partakes of exercise since he’s not good at much else — we go from une de ses plus grandes occupations to the fatal his main occupation, how very boring this sounds in English!; and what an ungallant king who hardly does anything but play sports, because it’s the one thing he’s capable of doing well !; whereas Mitford easily paraphrases, much of his time was given up to it, not sounding dull, but relating information.

 

Nancy Mitford, ladies and gentleman. An amazing mind and an amazing body of work. Spend some time.

It’s hard to know why Penguin, who once published the Mitford translation in 1963 — and who knows what other years, go figure, at WorldCat — went on to publish what appears, judging from the first one or two paragraphs, to be an inelegant and somewhat sloppy, if not flawed and inferior, translation.

Mitford’s translation is currently published by New Directions, as are four other of her books in the NYRB Classics series.

The Princess Collated (1/2)

This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.

Today an article at Steve Donoghue’s blog led me to whip out my New Directions edition of La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette, translated by Nancy Mitford, and to compare its first lines to those of the Penguin Classics translation, by translator Robin Buss (who has, apparently, done a good two handfuls of French translations for Penguin Classics). This is an extraordinary book, not only because it’s a seventeenth-century novel, written by a woman, beautifully told, and very entertaining. Some context from Wikipedia:

La Princesse de Clèves is a French novel which was published anonymously in March 1678. It is regarded by many as the beginning of the modern tradition of the psychological novel. […] The action takes place between October 1558 and November 1559 at the royal court of Henry II of France. The novel recreates that era with remarkable precision. Nearly every character – except the heroine – is a historical figure. Events and intrigues unfold with great faithfulness to documentary record. 

Alright! If you haven’t read it, it has my highest recommendation. It clocks in at a short 150 pages, so there’s some incentive — you won’t get stuck at page 220.

Now, let’s do a little comparison of the original with the various English translations I’ve tracked down. For some I’m sure, nothing could be more tedious or sleep-inducing, but not for this guy…

Here’s the original French-language opening (and here is the novel’s full French text, with modernised spelling):

La magnificence et la galanterie n’ont jamais paru en France avec tant d’éclat que dans les dernières années du règne de Henri second. Ce prince était galant, bien fait et amoureux ; quoique sa passion pour Diane de Poitiers, duchesse de Valentinois, eût commencé il y avait plus de vingt ans, elle n’en était pas moins violente, et il n’en donnait pas des témoignages moins éclatants.

Comme il réussissait admirablement dans tous les exercices du corps, il en faisait une de ses plus grandes occupations. C’étaient tous les jours des parties de chasse et de paume, des ballets, des courses de bagues, ou de semblables divertissements ; les couleurs et les chiffres de madame de Valentinois paraissaient partout, et elle paraissait elle-même avec tous les ajustements que pouvait avoir mademoiselle de La Marck, sa petite-fille, qui était alors à marier.

And here are the first lines of the Robin Buss translation (Penguin Classics, 1992):

At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite. 

Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.

Here’s the first lines from an anonymous translation hosted at Project Gutenberg:

Grandeur and gallantry never appeared with more lustre in France, than in the last years of Henry the Second’s reign. This Prince was amorous and handsome, and though his passion for Diana of Poitiers Duchess of Valentinois, was of above twenty years standing, it was not the less violent, nor did he give less distinguishing proofs of it.

As he was happily turned to excel in bodily exercises, he took a particular delight in them, such as hunting, tennis, running at the ring, and the like diversions. Madam de Valentinois gave spirit to all entertainments of this sort, and appeared at them with grace and beauty equal to that of her grand-daughter, Madam de la Marke, who was then unmarried; the Queen’s presence seemed to authorise hers.

And here is Thomas Sergeant Perry’s version, (Little Brown, 1891):

There never was in France so brilliant a display of magnificence and gallantry as during the last years of the reign of Henri II. This monarch was gallant, handsome, and susceptible; although his love for Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had lasted twenty years, its ardor had not diminished, as his conduct testified.

He was remarkably skilful in physical exercises, and devoted much attention to them; every day was filled with hunting and tennis, dancing, running at the ring, and sports of that kind. The favorite colors and the initials of Madame de Valentinois were to be seen everywhere, and she herself used to appear dressed as richly as Mademoiselle de la Marck, her granddaughter, who was then about to be married.

Lastly, we have Nancy Mitford’s translation:

The last years of Henri II’s reign saw a display of opulence and gallantry such as has never been equalled in France. The King himself, charming to look at, the very flower of his race, and a worthy successor to his father, François I, was a great lover of women. His passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, began when he was barely twenty, but was none the less violent for that, nor were the tokens she received of it any the less dazzling. 

He excelled at all forms of sport and much of his time was given up to it; every day there was tilting at the ring, hunting, tennis, ballets and the like. Madame de Valentinois’s colors and cyphers were very much in evidence, and so was she herself, dressed in a style which would have been more suitable for Mlle. de la Marck, her own grand-daughter, who was then just growing up.

This post is continued in “The Princess Collated (2/2),” in which I compare the opening lines of La Princesse de Clèves as alternately translated by Robin Buss and Nancy Mitford.

Selections from reader reviews of The City of God

I was thinking about reading The City of God by St. Augustine, but I got bogged down by the question of what edition to procure: I ended up at Goodreads looking at the various editions and user reviews, and, although I am normally most stringent about attribution and intellectual property matters, I’m going to make an exception and indulge myself in a little game Edwin Turner of Biblioklept likes to call “selections from [  ] reviews of [  ].” (If you’re one of the authors of the selection I’ve quoted from this page & you object to this use of your review without proper attribution, kindly notify me & I’ll act accordingly.)

* * * * * *

Selections from reviews of St. Augustine’s The City of God 

4 stars just for style alone.

I stumbled across Augustine when I was teenager and I remember this being much more profound. 

He’s too tough on sex. Even marriage sex is shameful?

I had no idea what I was getting into when I began this book. It sometimes felt like it would never end, but it was a great experience.

His arguments are piss-poor and he cherry picks evidence in a manner which comes across as being childish and willful. It definitely gave me a better understanding of why Christianity is such a fragmented belief system. Any religion which claims unfocused crap like this as being “foundational” is going to have huge problems down the road.

I found myself getting annoyed by the superfluous wording and repetition of a thought.

I wanted to read this book for several reasons: obviously it is classic and also I enjoy reading Augustine, but at the same time I am sometimes puzzled why we so earnestly labor to prove that America was the new Israel? I think that this book would be helpful to American christians, as I see parallels in our “expression” of Christianity in America with the decline of morality within our society as well.

The City of God is a work of almost infinite tedium. Augustine indulges every half-baked whim of biblical exegesis, shoddy philosophy, selective reasoning, and fanciful speculation that pops into his head. Many readers have mistaken this random mishmash for depth of thought.

It’s so perfectly organized and clear, despite the convoluted subject matter, and sometimes so charmingly snarky, it just made me want to go back in time and hug him. His theology is a little disappointing, though.

Six is the perfect number?

He thought he found a giant’s tooth. Probably a dinosaur?

He does have some awesome insights though, so it was definitely worth reading. Also, all that Dark Ages pessimism and lack of scientific knowledge–it was expected (obviously), but still really sad. Made me want to go back in time (again), pat him on the back, and explain to him how a magnet works. 

Needless to say, my lack of faith remained unshaken in the end.

He assumes a 6000 year old earth

In summary, Augustine gets a hug and a pat on the back, because despite being more than a thousand years old, his work has more personality than most things written today.

A Beautiful Province

Two recent online articles draw attention to the situation of Québecois literature in translation. These two articles have a lot of overlap, and they both share the position that Québecois and/or Francophone Canadian literature are too often ignored, due to either the language/culture barrier, lack of interest from publishers and readers, and/or the resulting paucity of English translations. I’m glad these articles are out there and bringing attention to the issue, but if an outsider reads them, one might, I think, get the wrong impression.

Let’s start with the article which was published first, “Too Different and Too Familiar: The Challenge of French-Canadian Literature” by Pasha Malla, in The New Yorker. It is partly a review of Raymond Bock’s Atavisms, translated by Pablo Strauss for Dalkey Archive Press. This is a book that, when it was published in 2010, earned its author a reputation for being one of the most promising young authors in Quebec literature.

Malla remarks that, “Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America […] is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French.”

I’m not sure what few Canadians is meant to imply here, but the overall numbers are considerable. For example, according to Statistics Canada, in 2011, about 1.1 million people outside Quebec in Canada reported French as their mother tongue in Canada. And nearly 2.6 million people reported being fluent enough to conduct a conversation in French — 11% of Canada’s population outside Quebec (source). Furthermore, 2011 at least 81,085 Albertans speak French as their first language, giving Alberta the fourth largest francophone population in Canada (source). One should also note that the French language appears to be slowly rising in Alberta and British Columbia (source).

If I’m touchy about this, it’s because Malla does a disservice to French-Canadians, and I would even say to francophones in Canada generally — including me, whose first language is not French. He appears to be ignorant of Canada’s formidable Franco-Albertan demographic. (Nor am I Franco-Albertan.)

Let’s move on to “Why the Book I’m About to Publish Will Be Ignored” by Carmine Starnino, an accomplished poet and editor. This is a good article, discussing the state of Quebec poetry in translation in particular; but it seems either to demand that the reader of the article be fluent in French, or to insist on the principle of untranslatability. Why else would you cite French verses without interpreting them for an audience that, by default, one must assume reads only English?

[Pierre Nepveu] is a master of the perfect opening, of lines that seem electric and inevitable (“rien ne tient lieu de retour, / tout est étrange comme si c’était hier”). Craft aside, an almost primal awe for mortality holds together his most memorable passages (“Les verbes majeurs nous obsèdent,” he writes, “naître, grandir, aimer, / penser, croire, mourir”). At his best, he belongs in the company of masters like Gaston Miron. And he’s as good as anyone English Canada has produced.

For an article about French literature in translation, why not at least tell us what’s at stake? Again:

What impressed me most was how their poems never seemed static, tidy, or vapid. Saint-Denys Garneau’s line has always stayed with me: “Je ne suis pas bien du tout assis sur cette chaise.” He loathed being stuck in one place. […] His hope was to find “l’équilibre impondérable entre les deux” because “C’est là sans appui que je me repose.”

I’m certainly glad that attention is being brought to the literature of Québec by these two essayists, but my gripes stand. Who wants to fight? Just kidding.

May I refer you, in closing, to two excellent reviews of the aforementioned Atavisms translation by P Strauss (which I have not read): by J.M. Schreiber and P.T. Smith

Update: Partisan Magazine recently announced that the bilingual Canadian journal of literature in translation Ellipse will relaunch after a brief hiatus. Ellipse was founded in 1969.

May reading log

The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1542; trans. R. Adorno & P.C. Pautz, 2003)

‘The Opening of the Will’ (c. 1800) – Jean-Paul Richter (audio at Librivox)

‘To Build a Fire’ (1908) – Jack London (recommended: audio at Librivox)

‘The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind’ (1933) – Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hoffman)

Goethe and One of His Admirers (1956) – Arno Schmidt (John E. Woods, 1990)

Acquaintance with Grief (1966) – Carlo Emilio Gadda (trans. William Weaver, 1969)

‘The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved’ (1970) – Hunter S. Thompson

Fragments of Lichtenberg, ‘Shylock dans le miroir,’ ‘Entreprise et renoncement’ (2006 – 2011) – Pierre Senges

‘Court of Last Opinion’ (2015) – Joseph McElroy

Pierre Senges at Hyperion

Two more of my translations of Pierre Senges’s work were published last week, along with an annotated bibliography of his 14 or so books (“A Library of Imposture; or, a Short Annotated Bibliography of Pierre Senges’s Books”). All this can be found in the latest issue of Hyperion, the biannually published journal of Contra Mundum Press. The two translations are

* “The Last Judgment (detail),” a short text on the subject of Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) and his commission to paint loincloths over numerous of Michelangelo’s nudes in the Sistine Chapel, after the Council of Trent deemed that nudity offensive.

* chapter 6 of La réfutation majeure (2004; The Major Refutation).

This is all quite noteworthy, it involved a lot of work on behalf of myself and the editors, and I’m very proud of these publications.

For the interested, another of my Senges translations is forthcoming in Gorse Journal #4 this September, a short story entitled “Making, Faking” (or rather, “Façons, Contrefaçons”); and there is also the excerpt of Geometry in the Dust that appeared earlier this month at The Brooklyn Rail; not to mention my previous article at this blog, “A Pierre Senges Miscellany.”

Also, Dalkey Archive has announced the publication date for Fragments of Lichtenberg: August 17, 2015. I just received a copy of it the other day in the mail…

All posts at this blog discussing Pierre Senges’s work are archived here.

The Frajerman-Volodine Collaborations

Leading up to the release of their sixth issue, the editors of Music and Literature ran a series of three Volodine-related articles online last week: a review of the recently-published-in-English Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven; excerpts from Les Aigles Puent / The Eagles Reek; and an article by the musician and composer Denis Frajerman on his collaborations with Volodine over the years.

I mention this for two reasons: Volodine has occasionally been a subject of discussion at this blog before, and because I translated the latter of these articles from French. I recommend it as a good introduction to Frajerman’s (experimental) music, which I had the good fortune of discovering through the small translation assignment. You might enjoy it for similar (or different) reasons: there are a number of audio excerpts embedded in the article worth listening to.

Geometry in the Dust

In the newest issue of The Brooklyn Rail‘s InTranslation series, you’ll find a translation I did of the first chapter of Geometry in the Dust (Géométrie dans la poussière, Éditions Verticales, 2004), a remarkable short work of fiction written by Pierre Senges, illustrated by Killoffer.

From my introductory note to the excerpt:

How to describe a city to a person who has no concept of one? Very slowly and carefully, perhaps. The city takes on uncanny, conspiratorial hues: every trash can, every busker, and every alley cat appears, through a paranoid sort of logic, to be the result of a monumental effort of planning and coordination. Metaphysical ramifications and urban myths lurk in every manhole. The city’s jagged, broken geometries, its sewers and subways, doves and streetlamps, cul-de-sacs and dumpsters–all must be accounted for.

I’ve written about Senges at this blog previously (see “A Pierre Senges Miscellany,” which compiles a number of remarks he’s made in the course of various interviews), and am continuing to translate his work, and publish those translations. More to come later this month.

In the same issue, there are new translations of poetry by Apollinaire, Alain Suied, Haji Khavari, Petr Bezruc, Paco Urondo, and Liliane Atlan. The InTranslation series is really quite remarkable, as you’ll find there translations of work by Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé, Anne Garréta, Pierre Mac Orlan, Hans Christian Andersen, Jáchym Topol, Josef Winkler, Alfred Döblin, Julio Cortazar, and Lope de Vega. (As well as the work of many very accomplished translators, including Susan Bernofsky, Anthea Bell, Clayton Eshleman, Donald Nicholson-Smith, Alex Zucker, Edward Gauvin, Alyson Waters, Pierre Joris, Alex Cigale, Damion Searls, William Hutchins, and Harry Morales.)

That’s some company to be in. Hats off to the editors, Jen Zoble and Donald Breckenridge for letting me in.

*

All posts at this blog discussing Pierre Senges’s work are archived here.

April reading log

The Monadology (1714) – G.W. Leibniz (trans. D. Garber & R. Ariew, 1991)

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) – G.K. Chesterton

Into Disaster (1941) – Maurice Blanchot (trans. Michael Holland, 2013; skimmed)

Dark Mirrors (1951) – Arno Schmidt (trans. John Woods, 1995)

The Tudors (1955) – Christopher Morris (skimmed)

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks, 1994; in progress)

La Parole baroque (2001) – Eugène Green (in progress)

selections in Hyperion (2013-2014) – Miklós Szentkuthy, Maria Tompas, et al.

Loitering (2014) – Charles D’Ambrosio (selections)

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!