Since Marguerite collects angels, Be an angel and come, You may shed your wings if you wish …
… from seven o’clock into eternity …
I suppose it’s been a long time since my blog posted any new or useful content here. I’m not certain these remarks will be useful to anyone — I hope that they will — but it’s time I said a few words about Marguerite Young (1908-1995).
I’m no expert on Young or her work, but I have acquired a number of her (somewhat rare) books and I have read around in them a fair amount. From my very partial reading of just one of her books, I became convinced she was a genius, and I admire to no end her ability to write beautifully in the florid idioms and rhetoric of the English Renaissance and Baroque eras. People say that she is obscure, forgotten, unknown, unread. The Paris Review published a piece not long ago that reinforces this cant. It is sloppy work indeed to borrow (or adapt) your headline from a throwaway phrase appearing in Young’s New York Times obituary: “The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed” (by Meghan O’Gieblyn, Paris Review Blog, Sep 19 2018). To me this rankles because from the outset Young is framed as a little read author. Now, supposing your publication’s readers are interested in literary excellence, what does the size of an excellent author’s readership matter to begin with? Furthermore, to gauge the size of a readership is no pat task. Who can say who’s picking up her books in old shops and taking them home? I think of that Rilke line: “you whose course is wrongly entered on every chart” (Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, p. 74). Now as for that book everyone is talking about just this moment, whether Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries or that new Houllebecq about to be published… I don’t give one hoot.
Every writer who is not a household name is obscure until one “discovers” them, as simple as that. Is S.J. Perelman obscure? Nathanael West? Heinrich von Kleist? Nathalie Sarraute? Madame de Lafayette? You tell me. They’re all among my favorite writers… I have known about Marguerite Young for five or six years I think. She was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. If you read her, or even if you don’t, now that you have heard of her, she will no longer be obscure to you. Her books are there waiting, stored on the shelves of libraries and shops, entirely out of print, not always exorbitant. She is not obscure, she is lucid. Moreover, her work is available freely on the Internet in the form of a series of radio adaptations produced by Charles Ruas. There is a truly epic amount of audio available there, including Young in interview — you can hear her speak.
Without being a critic of her work, I have been an advocate of her work on twitter for some time. I have even helped a few readers discover her work. One of them read the entirety of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling! It’s a very strange feeling as a reader to know that you encouraged another reader to embark on a journey of 1,200 pages, and that they made the journey intact.
But the book which has fascinated me to no end, with many interruptions, is not Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, but Young’s Angel in the Forest: An Epic of Two Utopias – A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America (1945). Judging from the title, this work might be a rather dull work of local history, a work of social and religious import, an entry in the utopian catalogue. It is all of these things, I have found it dull at times, though stupefying and wondrous in almost the same instant. Young’s greatest achievement here is to have captured something of the anarchic character of the American interior before it was organized by modernity but to have done so using a phraseology that puts one in mind of the (baroque) elegance of the King James Bible and of John Lyly. (Marguerite Young’s MA thesis was written on the latter, in fact.) I fear it is an inexhaustible work and that even by reading it over many times it will continue to surpass me. Gobsmacked I am by it. Here are two exemplary (and representative) passages from Angel:
Frederick walked in a larger maze than any he had planned, the wilderness, both actual and political. He was a traveling salesman, purely mundane. In that capacity, he had run into all kinds and conditions of men—desperadoes, carpenters, anchorites, botanists, Indian chieftains without tribes, counterfeiters, ragged tailors, preachers without congregations, blacksmiths, prostitutes who looked like fallen angels and smelled like skunks, giants, dwarfs, a mannish bearded lady in a Kentucky tavern, men whose canes concealed swords, false millenniasts, robber barons quoting the work of John Wesley, pregnant women, Shakers, a Punch-and-Judy show, coffinmakers, teamsters, human imagination gone hog-wild. (54)
What was the variety of nature—but a construct of the imagination, a public fantasy, a veering, Athena with the face of Mary, Mary with the face of a woman who squatted on the road, as the pod of her body opened? The erection of a conclusive system would probably be forever beyond man’s powers, Frederick thought. There could be nothing simply and absolutely so—but many possibilities, alluring as bypaths, many visions, deformities, grandeurs, scandals, soldier kingdoms, overladen horses, warped glories, holy cities. The external world, on its entrance to the mind at Harmony, had been ferried from reality to the most fearful unreality—as if the kingdom of God cometh not with observation of nature. Suppose the gulf between the finite and infinite to be itself infinite, however? It would be better to accept the tangible reports of the sensations, wherever possible—parasitic tufts on the maple, a bird in the bush, hooked seeds, the zebra stripes of sunlight on dark grasses, orange trumpet flower, a woman’s breasts. Better to have been a nomadic pioneer, wanderer like nature herself, who leaves her footprints in the marshes. Better to have slept all night in an Indian village, among cripples, babies, and old, flea-bitten dogs. Better to have taken a chance with the worst of men, even the gambler, if he gambled for the love of gambling and not for the false love of a false God. For then men would at least be undeceived. (57)
As I said, her work is out of print. I am lucky to have a lot of it before me, I appreciate it greatly. As a resource for her future and present readers I am taking the liberty of posting some photos of her books and a few very brief excerpts. “Fair use” in copyright being always subject to interpretation, I feel only slightly trepidatious sharing these materials. (If you can prove that you are a copyright holder and you are opposed to the sharing of these brief materials, drop me a line and I would be more than happy to cease and desist.) I think that the Tables of Contents of the two rather ancillary volumes may prove useful to some readers and researchers in locating relevant texts. Lastly, I know that the material aspects of the books may be of interest to some readers.
Also, to this blog’s loyal readers, the many thousands, the happy few — Happy New Year!
Young’s first book, a collection of poems, Prismatic Ground (1937), and “Spring” therefrom.
Young’s second (or third book?), Moderate Fable and Other Poems (1944), and two poems therefrom. Angel in the Forest would be published the following year.
The above edition of Angel in the Forest (with its Table of contents after) is not the original 1945 edition, but a beautiful 1966 reprint by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Note that the jacket text added to the title – An Epic of Two Utopias — A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America — is not a true subtitle as it doesn’t appear on the title page or in most bibliographic information. It’s a very nice paratext though, all the more for it being ambiguous in that way. The first edition seems to have had the subtitle A fairy tale of two utopias. I have never seen a first edition of Angel.
Inviting the Muses (1994) was edited by Steven Moore (with input from scholars of Young’s work, including Miriam Fuchs and Martha Sattler) during his time at Dalkey Archive Press, and it contains stories, essays, and book reviews Marguerite Young wrote over the decades. Curiously, Marguerite Young reviewed a lot of books in 1945. The other book reviews are chronologically very few and far between.
A very useful chronology of Young’s life, by Martha J. Sattler:
Marguerite Young, Our Darling (ed. Miriam Fuchs, Dalkey Archive, 1994), contains a wealth of ancillary materials, including about ten photographs of Young (see below), the invitation card to the release party of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965) up at the top of this post, the above chronology by Martha Sattler, and so on.
And for good measure I’ll leave you with one of the many thousands of striking passages in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling — from page 265 in the Dalkey reissue. Let’s hope that the French translator Claro manages, as he has been trying I know, to convince a French publisher to take on this book and pay him to translate it.
P.S. Many before me have made guideposts to Marguerite Young’s work, and I would be remiss if I didn’t provide at least a few links, so here goes. They are all themselves full of links, so much to explore:
You finish a long article, revise it, submit it, respond to the fact-checker, revise it further, and resubmit it. Then you wait a year. One day you will receive a fat tome in the mail, one that will be sold for $320 USD to a few dozen research libraries across the USA and maybe Canada. And this is your first “scholarly” publication, properly speaking. (Maybe.) At any rate, I find the situation absurd. Consider the price of the book: $320 USD. (That’s to pay me and the fact-checker and the editor, I suppose.) Then there are the size and the heft of the thing, which are almost too much. I can find no proper link to the table of contents or the list of contributors. Presumably university students and profs whose institutions have a subscription to the right consortium will be able to access my essay on Paul Metcalf in PDF form, though I can’t verify that right now.
Earlier this spring I was in the process of preparing an article on the work and life of Edward Dahlberg to feature in the same series, when I received notice that the series was definitively cancelled. What a pain in the ass. I was already at work on the article. I have racked my brains for an alternative publication outlet that would be interested.
Anyways, I touched a lock of Metcalf’s hair in New York City. To my surprise, it was more auburn than brown. I saw other things in the archive, including a photo of Metcalf in a wetsuit hamming it up in his New England kitchen with his wife Nancy. A picture of Charles Mingus, annotated by Nancy — “Paul’s favorite picture of Mingus.” A medical note about Paul’s dizziness in the months before his heartattack in 1999. A certificate of “excellence in safety” that he received one of the years that he was a schoolbus driver on the outskirts of Asheville, NC. Photos of him in a firefighter’s jumpsuit, also from the Asheville years. His elementary school composition notebook. Much else. The remnants of a lifetime.
The audio of Pierre Senges discussing The Major Refutation at Shakespeare and Company is at Soundcloud. The event was in November. A few readers of this blog may be interested in that discussion, with Shakespeare & Co’s astute commentator.
The Major Refutation is a nonpareil book that I came to translate. It was published in late 2016 by Contra Mundum Press. It’s a fake Renaissance treatise arguing that the newly discovered Americas don’t exist. Pierre Senges is brilliant.
Should’ve posted this link a while back; I really wish that I could embed the file to display here tidily, but no dice, it plays havoc with the CSS layout.
It’s an amazing coincidence I guess, but a member of the audience seems to accuse Senges of being complicit in the mythologization of America at the very end of this recording. It’s like he stepped right out of the book, Guevara’s shadow.
I chanced upon Ives’s name first in a Joseph McElroy interview — a reference to the “haunted montage” of the 4th symphony in “Mid-course Corrections” — and then I found further allusions in some of the writings/interviews of Paul Metcalf. More recently I read a review of a biography of the musician and composer in Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays. Now I have acquired that biography, David Woolridge’s From the Steeples to Mountains (Knopf, 1974).
It is very good, written somewhat in the style of Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, or even at times with the typographically-inflected quotation-and-collage techniques of Metcalf. I am basically devouring it, which is rarer and rarer for me; it usually takes me weeks to even finish a book of 200 pages. What a fascinating figure Ives was.
One anecdote is too sweet not to share. When Ives was living in NYC as a young bachelor, when he was at the piano writing new compositions and practicing, he would from time to time get a word of strong approval from a neighbor across the way, shouting distantly or unseen, a neighbor by the name of Dick Schweppe. Apparently Ives never learned Schweppe’s profession, and trusted his opinion all the more for that. In his notebooks from the time, Ives occasionally makes a note of Dick Schweppe’s approval.
Embarking on a 10,000-word article on Metcalf yesterday, or today, and re-reading his first published work, Will West, you re-read that paragraph that gobsmacked you when you first read it & suppose to yourself that even though Will West is a rather inferior work of art it nevertheless contains what might be the most cogent and necessary formulation of Metcalf’s credo, manifesting itself in his subsequent body of work year after year:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
A chilling admonition, and timely as ever. Lest we be ignorant of our past or our country’s past. (Come to think of it, is this just a transparent gloss on Santayana’s old adage that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”? Damn.)
When does a footprint or a deposit of feces or urine (used by many species of animals for communication) become ‘writing’?
– Walter J. Ong, Orality & Literacy, p. 82
The first book I translated, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (La réfutation majeure, 2004) is at long last available for purchase from the publisher and many fine booksellers.
The full title is The Major Refutation: English version of Refutatio major, attributed to Antonio de Guevara (1480–1545). The publisher is Contra Mundum Press (on other occasions the publisher of Miklós Szentkuthy and lots of other interesting authors). Here is the publicity page at Contra Mundum’s website, where you will find a link to a free 25-page sample.
The better part of this book is essentially a Renaissance treatise addressed to Charles V. According to its author, the New World would be an illusory, non-existent land, the object of a collective fraud perpetrated by a coalition of cartographers, merchants and government actors, all greedy for gain. Sound familiar? Plus ça change…
It took a long time – many months, much worry over etymologies and syntax, a touch of my sanity; a willing editor/publisher; countless queries to the author, who encouraged me in my efforts. All that and much more. It took a special perversity, too, to refute the continent of my birth, and a special pleasure.
Is that journey over, now that the book is published? I think it stays with me. So many of its passages are seared into my mind. They are already starting to fade from memory. Then perhaps some years from now I will pick up the book, and remember the sentences anew.
The retail price of the book is $16 or $18 USD, depending on who you buy from. Give a copy to that special truther in your life. Ask your local librarian to acquire a copy. Tell your colleagues at work about it to make them suspicious. Read it in the bath. Read it for fun.
Statistics reveal that Caucasians in the United States are dying earlier, I recall reading some months back in a national newspaper. Alcoholism, addiction, and suicide play no small part there, it said. Southern Ohio, where I grew up, is no exception. Stories reach me now of the early deaths of my former associates: a cousin of mine, a chronic alcoholic who survived numerous car crashes, once severed his carotid artery, and was saved by doctors. Years later he dove into shallow water and was paralyzed; he died two years later from meningitis. The neighbor-boy down the street from where I grew up died last year of an overdose (opiates, I presume). My one-time tennis teacher drank himself to death, my parents factually inform me. (He was 41; he might have had a new liver, but refused to abjure alcohol.) The Daubenmire boy is dead too (opiates or heroin). The younger brother of one of my classmates, a Navy cryptographer, took his own life. There is no end to these stories.
I was in the dumps before the shit hit the fan. After the catastrophic events of Tuesday, I go on, mired in the same uncertainty as everyone, reading The Life of Tymon of Athens, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, consulting my preferred source of ultra-contemporary information and opinings (Twitter), wracked with doubts as to the goodwill of the American electorate.
I am luckier than some, nay, than so many, if not all. Though I’m American, I live in Canada, generally considered a more peaceful, tolerant nation (with many exceptions). I migrated here during the final years of the last Republican president, and I’ve remained here since that time, excepting the occasional visit. And yet my exile does nothing to allay the despair and inquietude I feel at the victory of such a malignant cad as this Donald Dump. Our feelings verge at times on despair.
Peace, to those who love it; and knowledge, knowledge, that the struggle goes on. Take heart, friends. Once more, unto the breach! – Hell and its minions are at the door.
“Texts can be felt to have intrinsic religious value: illiterates profit from rubbing the book on their foreheads, or from whirling prayer-wheels bearing texts they cannot read. Tibetan monks used to sit on the banks of streams ‘printing pages of charms and formulas on the surface of the water with woodcut blocks.'”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 92
“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”
– Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, p. 14
A third sign of his decaying faculties was, that he now lost all accurate measure of time. One minute, nay, without exaggeration, a much less space of time, stretched out in his apprehension of things to a wearisome duration. Of this I can give one rather amusing instance, which was of constant recurrence. At the beginning of the last year of his life, he fell into a custom of taking immediately after dinner a cup of coffee, especially on those days when it happened that I was of his party. And such was the importance he attached to this little pleasure, that he would even make a memorandum beforehand, in the blank-paper book I had given him, that on the next day I was to dine with him, and consequently that there was to be coffee. Sometimes it would happen, that the interest of conversation carried him past the time at which he felt the craving for it; and this I was not sorry to observe, as I feared that coffee, which he had never been accustomed to, might disturb his rest at night. But, if this did not happen, then commenced a scene of some interest. Coffee must be brought ‘upon the spot,’ (a word he had constantly in his mouth during his latter days,) ‘in a moment.’ And the expressions of his impatience, though from old habit still gentle, were so lively, and had so much of infantine naïveté about them, that none of us could forbear smiling. Knowing what would happen, I had taken care that all the preparations should be made beforehand; the coffee was ground; the water was boiling; and the very moment the word was given, his servant shot in like an arrow, and plunged the coffee into the water. All that remained, therefore, was to give it time to boil up. But this trifling delay seemed unendurable to Kant. All consolations were thrown away upon him: vary the formula as we might, he was never at a loss for a reply. If it was said—‘Dear Professor, the coffee will be brought up in a moment.’—’Will be!’ he would say, ‘but there’s the rub, that it only will be:
Man never is, but always to be blest.’
If another cried out—‘The coffee is coming immediately.’—‘Yes,’ he would retort, ‘and so is the next hour: and, by the way, it’s about that length of time that I have waited for it.’ Then he would collect himself with a stoical air, and say—‘Well, one can die after all: it is but dying; and in the next world, thank God! there is no drinking of coffee, and consequently no—waiting for it.’ Sometimes he would rise from his chair, open the door, and cry out with a feeble querulousness—‘Coffee! coffee!’ And when at length he heard the servant’s step upon the stairs, he would turn round to us, and, as joyfully as ever sailor from the mast-head, he would call out—‘Land, land! my dear friends, I see land.’
– Thomas De Quincey, “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant”, 1827
(Bravo to Adelaide University for their wonderful collection of public domain eBooks, including a rich De Quincey treasure-store. This reader finds it appalling that so much of Thomas De Quincey’s writing, among the finest in the English language, has remained long out of print. Certain of his more well-known texts like Confessions of an English Opium Eater and The English Mail Coach and The Vision of Sudden Death remain ever in print, but what’s lurking beneath? Alas, we dig on still, spurning this vulgar age.)
A text fragment, composed as a caption to the above, can be read now at TXTOBJX. Composed first in French before being adapted to English, the text is one of a series of texts corresponding to fifteen postcards depicting scenes in and around the French village of Quimper.
I visited Quimper ever so briefly in the fall of 2004. Fine, fond memories. It was only years later, while living in Ottawa, that I came upon the postcard booklet at a used book sale. (Trigger flashback…)
P.S. TXTOBJX is seeking submissions, so why not write something short and wild and send it to them?
O how many have we seen in the court of princes, to whom it had been better for them that they had been no lordes of their will, & lesse of their desires, because sythens they did that they might & desired, begon to do that they ought not to do? If the man ye offendes vs ought to aske pardon, let euery man aske pardon to himself before any other, for in my life I found neuer none yt hurte me so muche as my self, I haue been only the procurer of mine own hurt. Who made me fall into pryde, but mine only presumpsion and fondnes? Who durste haue prisoned my sorowfull heart with enuye, but lacke of naturall gouernement? who durst haue inflamed myne inwardes with the fyer of yre, if it had not been my great impacience? what is the cause I am so great a gurmander, but that my bringyng vp was to delicate? what is the cause I haue not departed with my goodes to the poore and nedye, but the excessiue loue I had to my riches? who gaue leue to my flesh to rise against my folish desire, if my heart had not been fixed in voluptuous pleasures? O my soule, of all this domage & open faultes, to whom do you lay ye blame, but to myne owne sensualitie? Great folly it is, ye thefe beyng within the house, to seke for him without: euen so it is with vs a manifest faulte of experience, when seyng in vs the blame, and yet charge another with the occasion: by this we ought to perceiue that we shall neuer cease to complaine vntil the tyme we begyn to amende. Oh, howe often & many tymes hath vertue fought with the botome of our consciences, whiche stirred vs to be good, and our sensulitie resisted, whiche is vaine frowardnes, by the which battail folowed a darke corrupte judgement: but to conclude, we of oure selues as of our selues are very miserable.
Sunday and I am stricken with ennui. Thus this. Lines stolen from Antonio de Guevara’s A Looking Glass for the Court (a.k.a. A difpraife of the life of the Courtier, and a commendacion of the life of the husbandman, a second-degree translation of Menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldea, 1539, Englished from the French translation of Anthony Alaygre by the “Vicar of Hell,” Sir Francis Bryan, 1548).
(Can some intrepid publisher publish this, please? (It would be nice to also see a translation of the never-before-Englished Arte de marear on the market, too. I’m not going to hold my breath.))
The people of the Huns . . . exceed every degree of savagery. Since the cheeks of the children are deeply furrowed with steel from their very birth, in order that the growth of hair, when it appears at the proper time, may be checked by the wrinkled scars, they grow old without beards and without any beauty, like eunuchs. They all have compact, strong limbs and thick necks, and are so monstrously ugly and misshapen, that one might take them for two-legged beasts or for the stumps, rough-hewn into images, that are used in putting sides to bridges . . . they have no need of fire nor of savoury food, but eat the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any kind of animal whatever, which they put between their thighs and the backs of their horses, and thus warm it a little. They are never protected by any buildings, but they avoid these like the tombs, which are set apart from everyday use. . . . They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together, and they wear the same clothing indoors and out. But when they have once put their necks into a faded tunic, it is not taken off or changed until by long wear and tear it has been reduced to rags and fallen from them bit by bit. . . . They are almost glued to their horses. . . . From their horses by night or day every one of that nation . . . eats and drinks, and bowed over the narrow neck of the animal relaxes into a sleep so deep as to be accompanied by many dreams.
– Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 325 – 391 A.D.), quoted by Jacques Le Goff in Medieval Civilization, trans. Julia Barrow (Blackwell, 1988).
Of the nouveau roman authors, I think of Michel Butor as being one of the most fascinating. Without really going into why (perhaps for another post, or who knows, maybe an eventual essay), I’d like to share some pics of the books of his I have in my library.
Not all of Butor’s books are entirely successful, they can be frustrating and strange to read, but I think they are all bold in their trying to do something that has probably never been done before. In other words, Butor is a very original writer. He never used the same method twice.
Here we see:
L’emploi du temps (1956) (translated into English as Passing Time)
La modification (1957)
Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (1967) (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape)
Let me say first of all that I have not read La modification or L’emploi du temps, though I have begun them and skimmed around a little.
Along with the steeple chase to insanity that is Degrees, Mobile is perhaps the book of Butor’s for which I have the most affection. The typographic splay and wild heterogeneity of the material incorporated into the text makes for a truly exhilarating, discombulating ride. If I’m not mistaken, the book was the product of Butor’s stay in America, during which time he toured the country extensively.
The tendency to collate disparate material, suggesting an impression of simultaneity or of parallel or tandem reading, is also present in Portrait of the Author as a Young Ape. (Before I looked at a dated bibliography, I mistakenly thought that this book predated some of the others in this collection. Not so.)
For now I also have Inventory, a collection of essays variously taken from the first 3 vols. of Répertoire, the 5-volume set of essays published by Editions de Minuit.
More on Michel Butor in another post, perhaps. Life calls.
“In 1748, the Oneida Sheckellamy, an intermediary on the Indian-white frontier in the Ohio Valley, went to considerable lengths to converse with a German visitor. A colonist translated the German’s words into Mahican, then a Mahican woman translated them into Shawnee for her husband, who in turn translated them into Oneida. Shickellamy’s reply went through the several translators in reverse order: Onedia to Shawnee to Mahican to German. More than two thousand miles to the west, in what is now Montana, the American explorers Lewis and Clark encountered similar problems in opening diplomatic relations with the Flathead or Salish Indians in 1805. No one in the American party spoke Salish. To communicate, the Americans delivered their speech in English, which François Labiche, one of the party, translated into French. Toussaint Charbonneau translated the French version into Hidatsa; his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who had lived among the Hidatsas, translated the speech into Shoshone. Finally, a Shoshone boy living with the Salish translated it into their language. One wonders how much of the original speech remained intact after traveling the length of this elaborate linguistic chain.”
– Colin G. Calloway’s New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (2nd ed., Johns Hopkins UP, 2013. P. 129.)
This week Andrei at The Untranslated posted the first installment of a really fascinating interview about Portuguese literature. The interviewee is Miguel, who keeps a literary blog called St. Orberose.
The interview is packed with information; most immediately I am excited about one of the books it mentions in particular, the Tragic History of the Sea (collected and edited in the 18th century by Bernardo Gomes de Brito, trans. Charles R. Boxer).
As Miguel describes it:
. . . a collection of 16th century reports of shipwrecks. Ships coming from India, dangerously overstuffed with spices, tended to shipwreck off the coast of Africa; the few survivors made it to land and then started long marches hoping to be saved by some Arab caravan that traded slaves with the Portuguese. These reports, written by survivors or dictated to scribes once they arrived in Lisbon, weren’t trying to be literary, aren’t jewels of language; they have the force of reportage and describe extraordinary things in simple prose; these survivors had to eat bugs, went mad, fought off Africans, were captured, eaten; some were sheltered by tribes, but not for free; the Africans were savvy enough to know Portuguese merchants passing by would ransom them back. People who read this amazing human document will acquire a totally different idea of European-African relationships than the traditional one about oppressors and oppressed (that didn’t become true until the 19th century, with colonialism).
I’m looking forward to part two of the interview, going up soon!
Apart from having seen Hiroshima, mon amour once or twice back in the aughts (for which Duras wrote the screenplay), Ecrire (Gallimard, 1993) was my first encounter with the writing of Marguerite Duras. It’s an unusual book, not only in the way it begins without much in the way of a subject — the author/writer/narrator describing her solitude in an empty house in the Normandy countryside — but then in the way it consists of five very different and seemingly unrelated parts.
I found the first two sections by far the most interesting: “Ecrire” and “La mort du jeune aviateur anglais” (“To Write” and “The Death of the Young English Flyer”). But it was a passage of several pages in that first section, “Ecrire,” that was truly unforgettable. Duras’s narrator describes being in a house, waiting for a friend, and noticing the slow death of a fly over 20 or so minutes. The memory seems to come out of nowhere, as most all of the things she relates in those first two sections do; there is a strong sense of the haphazard and the arbitrary in the way she lets certain memories and thoughts speak, as if they were utterly foreign to her, as if they came from nowhere or from someone else. The tone is one of surprise, revelation, and discovery.
Anyways, the fly. The death of the fly. Duras imputes to the fly’s death a colossal significance. She seems sublimely aware that this verges on absurdity, if not comedy, but avows that, no, in fact, the fly’s death is death in whole, death in its totality, as present and significant as anywhere else on the globe. I read the passage with a feeling of awe and incredulity, wondering if that observation were not rich with irony. But no. It’s a staggering thought, made lucid by short, lucid sentences, a sustained reflection on solitude, and a sense of quiet patience.
The three shorter texts that come after “Ecrire” and “La mort du jeune aviateur anglais” were quite various, and not very memorable. I found it very hard to relate two of them to the rest of the book’s contents at all. This was a little frustrating, and I’m left wondering if I didn’t approach the book with the right mindset or patience. I was under the impression that the book was a unified work, and not, let’s say, an after-the-fact collection of various short pieces. At this time I’m not really inclined to even try to figure that one out.
Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was a dynamo of letters, and I look forward to reading more of her work, in particular La douleur (1985) and L’Amour (1971). Any other recommendations from readers, possibly yourself, are welcome.
“Many Ways to Stuff a Watermelon” is up at Numéro Cinq.
Pierre Senges explores the relationship of writers and fictional characters to libraries. It was hard to translate.
There are sections on Flaubert (Bouvard and Pécuchet), Casanova, Borges, Jean-Paul Richter, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Browne, Émile Borel, Cervantes, Sorrentino, Moby Dick, Diodorus, Réjean Ducharme, Aristotle, Miklós Szentkuthy.
— Brent Staples (@BrentNYT) October 13, 2015
May I recommend a damning critique of Thoreau (“Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?”), written by Kathryn Schulz?
Banish Thoreau from the canon, it urges; he was a rotten thinker and a hypocrite; a good nature writer, yes, but a fabricator of lies and a pontificator on society who cared none for his fellow man, a comfortable curmudgeon whose ability for self-deception knew no limits. I have no love for Thoreau, I haven’t read his work, except for in high school, but I found it interesting to feel myself through her essay, which I found myself agreeing with and disagreeing with in some different respects.
Near the beginning, it cites Thoreau’s writing in Cape Cod (1865) about the experience of seeing some shipwrecked Irish on the beach along with their dead. He feels only a sense of dull disappointment at the spectacle, no sense of empathy for the plight of the poor persons, nor a sense of wonder as he might feel “If [he] had found [only] one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place.” Schulz opens the essay with this moment in Thoreau’s thought as being exemplary of what a moral monster Thoreau must have been, and even seems to suggest an (implicit) parallel with the our present historical moment, as desperate Syrian refugees are landing on the shores of the Mediterranean probably as I write — but there is a severe lack of historical context in the way Schulz cites this moment. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for poets, writers, artists, and painters under Romanticism’s sway to seek out the picturesque sublime. The inhuman forces of nature were looked on as the source of sublimity, and for the picturesque effect to be just right, it was always important that the human element not intrude too much, or be absent altogether. It’s this valorization of the sublime that makes possible Thoreau’s indifference to the plight of the shipwrecked — and it’s not necessarily callousness I don’t think, unless we want to apply our standards of judgment and our language of moral description to someone living in a different historical era, in another culture.[caption id="attachment_3202" align="aligncenter" width="512"] Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818[/caption]
It certainly takes some seeing to imagine how relativistic our perceptions are, or what great cultural gap separates us from Thoreau, but taking some account of the powerful hold of the picturesque sublime on the 19th century imagination would go a long way to mitigate our perception of Thoreau standing on the beach of Cape Cod. (To pass definitive judgment on the souls and writings of men who have been dead for 150 years: what a way to spend one’s time.)
Another interesting question the essay raised in my mind was whether or not Thoreau (always) wrote in a way that always reflected his true thought and his character. May be; however, as I read through the quotes Schulz marshalls, I thought I perceived a lot of rhetorical shading, and some intentional ironies. I don’t want to be overgenerous to Thoreau; and again I think we get into a problem of historical perspective, a problem of incommensurability.
For example, one section begins, “Only by elastic measures can Walden be regarded as nonfiction.” Surely true, but, to Thoreau and his contemporaries the idea of a mutually exclusive classification of some books containing veridical truth, and other books of pure invention, would not have been as we know it today. (And today, that separation exists only as an idea, or an illusion.) So here we are treated to an inventory of the many gross liberties Thoreau took in distorting the “truth” (or, as Schulz has it, “the facts”).
At any rate, the great pleasure of this essay is how it shows Thoreau to be an idiot. Which is no small pleasure, because Thoreau appears to have been no small idiot. (I am using the term somewhat affectionately, thinking of the countless idiots Pierre Senges catalogued in L’idiot et les hommes de paroles, and which appear in his fictions. The idiot may be contemptible, but at least he’s relatively harmless! Moreover, like the clown, he is a source of laughter — tonic balm!) For instance:
At one moment, Thoreau fulminates against the railroad, “that devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town”; in the next, he claims that he is “refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.”
How human is it to contradict oneself !! – And ever so briefly, I also caught a passing glimpse of that townsquare idiot-curmodgeon Diogenes, dear Diogenes living in his tub:
“I used to see a large box by the railroad,” he wrote in Walden, “six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night”: drill a few airholes, he argued, and one of these would make a fine home.
Is there not a dose of irony here, or at least some rhetorical intent (as opposed to literal meaning, earnestness)? A touch of self-exaggeration, self-parody, yes — but is it a self-aware tendency, or an entirely unconscious one? I found myself curious to see what Schulz would make of how irony enters into Thoreau’s declarations, how humorous and delicious his contradictions can be. Was he so blind to them? What a motley mess of a man. I get the feeling that there’s been a missed chance to see Thoreau the comedian at work. (Thoreau the joker, the fool, the jester.) But no doubt I am bringing my own obsessions to bear on this old killjoy.
It’s terrific (and rare) to see bold, provocative long-form critiques of much-revered and little-read 19th century American writers in a mainstream publication like The New Yorker. Bravo!
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.)
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.
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.
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.