About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Death – and sex – in Venice: Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight

Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight Pushkin Press 2002; 1937 first publication

Everyone seems to love this novel, from Nicholas Lezard, late of the Guardian, to Len Rix, its gifted translator, who points out in an afterword that every cultivated Hungarian reads and loves it; Journey by Moonlight is to Hungary what Catcher in the Rye is to America, it seems.

Szerb Moonlight coverWhat’s not to like about it? Journey by Moonlight was written by an erudite, sensitive, polyglot academic Hungarian, born to a Jewish family but assimilated into the Catholic faith, who died a brutal death in a Nazi labour camp in 1945. Offered an escape route by concerned friends, he opted instead to share the fate of his fellow Jews and intellectuals in such camps.

Its opening lines are compelling, riffing ironically perhaps on Thomas Mann (and anticipating du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, without the genuine dread):

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

This is, the deadpan narrator informs us, protagonist Mihály’s first visit to Italy; he’s 36, and on his honeymoon. But ‘he secretly feared [Italy]’, associating it with ‘grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children’. It’s the same

Instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.

Ok, so far I’m with the fans; this is wittily dry, ironic, funny. The style and tone are poised, laconic, observant and engaging; this voice isn’t fooled by Mihály’s emotional disarray and callow selfishness. There are some terrifically funny asides, like this one about Mihály’s wife, Erszi, as she lies alone in bed brooding anxiously as her husband goes on a drunken situationist dérive through those alluring back-alleys of Venice, like a Beckettian version of Mann’s von Aschenbach:

Women are usually better at lying awake and thinking…She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

It’s often darkly funny like that, with that wry narrative voice dipping into postmodern self-reference and metafiction. What follows is a complex, meandering modernist take on this man-child’s self-conscious ‘journey’ into himself as he strives to reconcile the twin lures of eros and thanatos – death and sex in Venice – and various other points en route to Rome.

There’s a wildly funny sequence after he ‘loses’ Erszi on a train journey (‘not unintentionally’, as the narrator knowingly puts it) in search of himself and his adolescent fantasy friends, and hooks up with a ditzy, sexy American art student called, of all things, Millicent. She asks, for example, who was the Italian artist who painted trees like the ones they had walked past:

“Botticelli,” replied Mihály, and kissed her.

“Ooooh,” she said, with horror on her face. Then she kissed him back.

Just the right number of Os in that ‘Oooh’. As they make love the narrator caustically points out that Mihály’s passion is a pursuit of ‘fantasy and not physiological fact!’

Her healthy mouth was entirely American (oh, the prairies!), the little hairs on her neck were foreign…”Geography is my most potent aphrodisiac,” he thought to himself.

This is closer to Mel Brooks than Mann or Gide – and why not?

But Mihály isn’t a pseudo-cynical mixed-up, grieving teenager like Holden Caulfield, or tortured artist: he’s a grown man of limited talent, from a privileged family, tempted to reject the cosy bourgeois life Erszi represents in order to go off on his spiritual-erotic psychogeographical quest in search of himself and a rebellious, bohemian dream for which our narrator has made it clear he’s just not suited. I’m afraid I found him boring – despite that sophisticated, ironic narrative critique of him.

There’s far too much sub-Freudian stuff like this: ‘Those Etruscans were perfectly aware that dying is an erotic act’, a creepy academic tells Mihály in a particularly over-long section of the novel. This kind of nonsense gives him ‘a frisson’; this was the kind of immature talk he’d loved in his little ménage as a youth in Budapest. The brother and sister at its heart, Éva and Tamás Ulpius, and his fellow acolytes (they reminded me of the characters in Cocteau’s weirdly absurd Les enfants terribles), had got off on enacting gruesome little dramas involving death, murder and suicide. This is what Mihály is longing to rediscover or re-enact in Italy.

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Despite the numerous occasions when the novel has some seriously and perceptively funny things to say about the existential angst at the heart of modern life’s darkness (oddly enough there’s little direct reference to the rising fascism in Italy that Mihály pays characteristically little attention to when it bursts through his self-absorption), it doesn’t all hang together.

For example, at one of the tragi-comic climaxes of the narrative, when Mihály’s intention to commit suicide like his revered late friend Tamás is thwarted by a pretty girl whisking him away to be the most badly-chosen godfather ever at a christening, his grumpily whining confusion is brilliantly evoked in looping, free indirect style:

They burst in on him with their precious stupid business, the way people always burst in on him with their precious stupid business when life was sublime and terrible. And sublime and terrible things always happened to him when life was stupid and precious. Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

That’s very funny and good, but the novel’s general impact is a bit of a disappointment after its big build-up on the jacket blurb. Maybe I’m just not in the right place, reading it just after going back to work after a long summer break. Maybe reading about a pretentious 36-year-old’s ‘Inbetweeners’ crisis (with a shot of Gide’s immoralists about him, too) came at the wrong time for me. I can appreciate its dark ironies, that aloof, unreliable narrative voice – and the looming threat of fascism that’s always there, even when unstated…  I’d be interested to hear what others think of it.

 

Unhappy families: Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring

In 1913 the journey from Moscow to Charing Cross, changing at Warsaw, cost fourteen pounds, six shillings and threepence and took two and a half days. In the March of 1913 Frank Reid’s wife Nellie started out on this journey from 22 Lipka Street in the Khamovniki district, taking the three children with her…

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverSo begins The Beginning of Spring, the third of the Penelope Fitzgerald novels I read in the Everyman trilogy. Set in Russia, significantly just before the twin catastrophes of WWI and the Revolution, it’s completely different from the other two, set in England in the recent past, and both wry comedies. This one is too, but it’s darkened and chilled by the harsh early spring of Moscow, and the Russian tendency towards tragedy and intrigue.

It’s only on a second reading that the little clues and hints as to why Nellie has left her printer/publisher husband become apparent. Here’s the first description of him, with Fitzgerald’s trademark economy with words, trusting her reader to ponder the layered significance:

Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage.

Does this mean that Muscovites are a dramatic lot, and only histrionic behaviour will register? Or that Frank finds it difficult to engage with souls as ardent as Nellie’s (don’t be fooled by her music-hall name)? Maybe he’s just not very good at acting – in all senses of the word.

She’d left him a note to tell him she’d left him. He knows it’s a momentous message, as they rarely wrote to each other in this way:

It hadn’t been necessary – they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.

 

These are Frank’s thoughts, indirectly narrated. But has he intuited that she was unhappy with her marriage? Fitzgerald is too subtle an artist to tell us. The possibility is hanging in the air somewhere in Frank’s vicinity. We are party to his perplexity and slow-dawning realisation.

He wonders how much he’ll miss her and the children:

…he couldn’t tell at the moment. He put that aside, to judge the effect later.

Fitzgerald shows this entire marriage and its fissures, this perplexed husband, his wife and their natures, in the first three pages of the novel.

What follows is an intriguing examination of Frank’s response to this crisis. It reads at time like a domestic sketch by Turgenev or Chekhov, but has an unmistakably English take on marital disaster. There’s the semi-comic figure of Frank’s Tolstoy-worshipping accountant, Selwyn, who writes soulful poems in Russian ‘about birch trees and snow’. Like his spiritual master, Selwyn delights in ‘charitable enterprise’:

With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting round for a new misfortune.

Frank tends to patronise him, realising much too late that he’s underestimated him. Selwyn’s selfish philanthropy is presented with deceptive lightness; he’s more dangerous than he looks here; Fitzgerald’s prose is always poised to surprise.

The children, when they mysteriously reappear in Moscow, sent back ‘like parcels’ by their bolting mother, are preternaturally astute – far more so than Frank – as they were in Offshore. Jacqui Wine has written well about this (link at the end), so I’ll refrain from doing so here.

The formidable Mrs Graham, the English chaplain in the city, is one of several brilliantly depicted characters (Nellie’s brother, Charlie, who turns up to try to help Frank in his extremity turns out to be genial but delightfully useless, is another). Frank, we are told, was not afraid of her, ‘or at least not as afraid as some people were.’  Here she is when Frank goes to seek her advice about Nellie’s desertion of him:

‘Mr Reid?’ she called out in her odd, high, lightly drawling voice. ‘This is an expected pleasure.’

‘You knew I was going to come and ask you something?’

‘Of course.’

Restless as a bird of prey which has not caught anything for several days, she nodded him towards the seat next to her.

 

Such vivid, witty characterisation is only one of this novel’s rich rewards. As in the other two novels in the Everyman edition, there are some wonderfully pithy narrative comments. Here’s one chosen at random; Frank’s children are in the kitchen, gossiping about the young woman, Lisa Ivanovna, perilously pretty and apparently fragile, who he has recruited to care for them in Nellie’s absence:

Perhaps children were better off without a sense of pity.

As ever these seem to be Frank’s thoughts we’re privy to; for once he’s probably right: they cheerfully transfer their affections from their mother to Lisa with the insouciant rapidity of youth. And these thoughts are filtered through the sensibility of the poised, non-judgemental, omniscient but reticent narrator – who prefers to withhold as much as she discloses. For that’s how are lives unravel in reality: unmediated, mysterious.

As with Offshore and Human Voices, which I wrote about last, I’d recommend this short, wise novel. It has one of the finest, most startling last sentences of any novel.

Mansky_District,_Krasnoyarsk_Krai,_Russia_-_panoramio_(6)

Mansky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. By Александр Ромашенко, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60549878 (public domain via Wikimedia commons)

There’s one scene near the end which I found baffling, and I’d love to hear what other readers made of it if they’ve read it more successfully than I have. Lisa has unwillingly taken Dolly, Frank’s little daughter, deep into a birch forest in the country at night. In a clearing –

Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close against the trunk, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces towards Lisa…Dolly saw now that there were many more of them, deep into the thickness of the wood.

‘I have come, but I can’t stay,’ said Lisa. ‘You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.’

Then they go home.

What’s happening here? It seems like a witches’ sabbat, a mystical-spiritual meeting maybe. Or political? It seems a sort of epiphany, but for whom? Who is Lisa communing with?

As noted above, Jacqui has an excellent review of the novel at her blog.

 

 

 

 

 

Music and silence: Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices

 

Broadcasting House

Langham Place, damaged by a bomb in the Blitz; in the background, BBC Broadcasting House, looking like the Queen Mary. Attribution: By Ben Brooksbank, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20532090

 In my previous post I suggested that the three novels in this trilogy published by Everyman are all very different in subject matter and approach. The first two, however, have a London setting in what, for Penelope Fitzgerald, would have been the fairly recent past.

She worked for the BBC during the Second World War; Human Voices is set in Broadcasting House (referred to in HV as BH, built in Art Deco style to resemble an ocean liner) during the Blitz of 1940, and lived in a Thames-side barge in the early 60s, which is the setting for Offshore.

 Both novels concern small, unworldly communities, peopled by characters whose eccentricities are exposed with detached amusement; they aren’t judged. The riverside and the BBC are refuges for the lost, a place of solace for the lonely. The characters are shown in shifting patterns, interacting with those around them (there’s little conventional plot), and the reader is left to consider what their minor dramas signify. It’s that tone of humorous, often ironic sympathy, with an underlying menace and even violence that gives them both their distinctive effect. They both end with a distressing scene of catastrophe.

Tube shelter

Tube station air-raid shelter in the West End during the Blitz. By US Govt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s inevitable that Human Voices has a more sombre impact, given that the BBC was attempting to keep the public informed of the war’s disastrous progress; in 1940 France, like most of Europe, had fallen, and invasion of England seemed imminent. The BBC, a microcosm of the nation, was struggling to maintain its task: to broadcast continuously in the face of increasingly difficult circumstances. The lifts don’t function fully (to preserve energy), senior staff more or less live in BH (and their marriages implode as a result) and confusion is rife: ‘The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.’ The building is often shaken by bombs. Casualties are commonplace, even among BBC staff. A Blitz spirit prevails in the building as it does outside.

A central theme of the novel is the insistence by the BBC that they avoid what is now notoriously referred to as ‘fake news’:

Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is telling the truth. Without prompting, the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and, in the long run, would be more effective. And yet there was no guarantee of this. Truth ensures trust, but not victory, or even happiness.

The author isn’t frivolous. Despite her cast of amusing, bumbling and obsessively selfish or flawed characters, Fitzgerald has a serious message here. She did this in Offshore, too: the occasional step away from narrative detachment and levity to pronounce something of profound significance. Even with the ironic undertone in this example, her point is telling. All wars are reported mendaciously. People are always lied to by their leaders. This applied in 1940, in 1980 when this novel was published, and it still applies perhaps more than ever before today. Neither will the truth necessarily make you free.

Once the characters in the BBC have been introduced, it’s apparent that the institution has a crippling hierarchical structure. In this respect it resembles one of the stuffier English public schools or less prestigious military regiments (from where most of the senior staff were – probably still are – recruited). Referred to by the initials of their post, like DDP and RPD, they are comically self-important and often deluded about their own merits. Very like the characters in Offshore, in fact – where another hermetically detached community clings to its customs on the margins of ordinary life.

Once again I commend you to other blogs for plot summary. I’d like just to pick out a few salient features.

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz

Aerial view of the city during the Blitz. By H.Mason – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1342305/The-Blitzs-iconic-image-On-70th-anniversary-The-Mail-tells-story-picture-St-Pauls.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19771597

Annie Asra is employed by the organisation when she is just 17, and she’s a breath of fresh air. She’s refreshingly blunt and outspoken without being cruel – qualities which her colleagues are unfamiliar with.

Broadcasting the truth is discussed by Waterlow, one of the more eccentric BBC producers, responsible for drama and the arts (as precarious in 1940 as they are now), with Annie, when she asks with characteristic forthrightness why he seems to have so little to do.

The BBC is doing gits bit [he thinks that imitating her Midlands accent is amusing]. We put out the truth, but only contingent truth, Annie! The oppostite could also be true!

Annie refuses to be so cynical, or to accept that ‘truth’ is relative. When she asks what the BBC could possibly find to broadcast ‘that’s got to be true’ in his terms:

He gestured towards the piano.

‘We couldn’t put out music all day!’

‘Music and silence.’

The most important broadcast described in the novel is the ten minutes of silence that followed when Jeff, one of the two central characters, a senior figure in the BBC, ‘pulled the plug’ on a French General who, it was assumed, would speak extempore in praise of the continuing struggle against the Germans by the surviving Free French forces, but instead had launched into a defeatist harangue.

It’s typical of Fitzgerald’s wry take on the world that she shows Jeff being reprimanded for his initiative.

The novel’s title seems to be taken from Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ – ‘then human voices wake us and we drown.’ Radio is mostly about voices (no TV in 1940). The voices in this novel also serve, as perhaps they do for emotionally paralysed Prufrock, to attempt to reconcile real life – the Blitz, war, death, cruelty, tragedy, comedy – and something more transcendent and mystical, like music and silence. When a central character dies at the end, it’s for his voice that he’ll be remembered, rather than his kindness to others.

Annie’s love for her boss, the serially predatory but deeply vulnerable Sam, isn’t entirely convincing in its resolution, but the novel is worth reading – like Offshore – for its quietly compassionate presentation of characters trying to get by in a dangerously confusing world, and for its well-crafted prose. Here’s just one closing example.

Annie is shown as a child helping her piano-tuner father:

When at last he took out his hammer and mutes, ready to tune, his daughter became quite still, like a small dog pointing… [He continues tuning:] It was a recurring excitement of her life, like opening a boiled egg, the charm being not its unexpectedness but its reliability.

Human flotsam: Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore coverThe handsome hardback Everyman in my picture contains three of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels: Offshore, Human Voices and The Beginning of Spring. It seemed a shrewd choice to take on my extended foreign travels recently, compacting as it does three books into one. I wasn’t disappointed.

Most of the other 20C writers I’ve posted about in the recent past – Pym, Comyns, Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Wharton – have a distinctly identifiable voice, style and zone of interest. Penelope Fitzgerald never writes the same novel twice (though they all feature mischievous, often dark humour and surprisingly bereft characters who are outcasts, eccentric, struggling with life’s vicissitudes, constrained, thwarted, adrift – and violence is usually imminent).

The first, Offshore, notoriously won the 1979 Booker Prize against stiff opposition. I don’t intend summarising the plot – two of my favourite bloggers, Max and Jacqui, have done a great job giving an overview and critical response – links at the end of this post.

Max is particularly astute about the two astonishingly precocious (but endearingly innocent) children of the central character, Nenna: Tilda (6) and Martha (11) – so there goes one part of the post I intended to write!

Both of them embody the quiet, confused desperation of this novel’s fragile cast of impractical characters, adrift metaphorically and sometimes literally on their leaky Thames-side barges, buffeted by the winds of the world. Most of them are lost, lonely, waiting for something tangible in their lives – which resemble the inexorable tides of the river they float precariously upon. As in the Elizabeth Taylor novel I discussed earlier this month, the E.M. Forster notion of how characters ‘connect’ – or fail to – is central. That one of the members of this marginal community of drifters is a male prostitute called Maurice is pertinent.

Nenna, a former musician, whose artistic career was curtailed by her husband’s fecklessness and by motherhood, is more of an outsider than the rest of the houseboat community at Battersea Reach, being a Canadian expat whose bourgeoise sister constantly urges her to come ‘home’ and acknowledge her life in England is a failure. Yet she loves her boat and life ‘on the very shores of London’s historic river’, refusing to comply with the world’s promptings.

This is a novel interested in character and mood – its rewards lie in the language and the precision and compassion with which Fitzgerald places her characters in juxtaposition, struggling to make sense of themselves and their direction. It’s also suffused with warmth and humour, overshadowed by the tragic, shocking events towards the end.

Fitzgerald is also prepared to risk lengthy descriptions; she vividly evokes the mutable, muddy essence of bankside life in the early 60s to show both its romantic, intoxicating appeal and its grittily Dickensian reality. Here’s a typical early example, where in four beautifully modulated paragraphs she describes this fluvial world’s most significant rhythm: the tide turning. Tilda is ‘up aloft’ the Grace’s mast, ‘fifteen foot of blackened pine, fitted into a tabernacle’ (great word):

Her mizzen mast was gone, her sprit was gone [I initially misread that as ‘spirit’!], the mainmast was never intended for climbing…[Tilda] was alone, looking down at the slanting angle of the decks as the cables gave or tightened, the passive shoreline, the secret water.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, Blue and Gold: old Battersea Bridge, via Wikimedia Commons

This is photographic realism full of concrete details and salty, nautical terminology, conveyed with the precision of an imagist poet. But she also does what all good writers do: she makes us perceive the beauty in what might otherwise be dismissed as ugly, dirty, decrepit…familiar. There’s a long tradition behind such descriptions of the ‘sweet Thames’, one that passes from Spenser through to Turner, Whistler (who features in the narrative at one point) Conrad (one of the boats is called ‘Lord Jim’), more ironically and wistfully in Eliot and later visual and literary artists.

A tremor ran through the boats’ cables, the iron lighters, just on the move, chocked gently together. The great swing round began.

Not many novelists deploy language and imagery so well. In this scene the progress of driftwood, temporarily ‘at rest in the slack reaches’, takes on an almost mystical symbolic significance that’s beautifully transmitted through the rapt gaze of the little girl clinging to the top of the mast, feeling the turning tide’s surge and its relentless surge. She’s uninterested in that urban ‘ratless’ world which consumes the interest of most people: ‘the circulation which toiled on only a hundred yards away’; she has a mudlark’s eye for the river’s gifts, but is acutely aware too of its dangers.

Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver

Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver – view from Battersea towards Chelsea, where ‘Offshore’ is set:[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When she thinks of the many who’ve drowned in that muddy river, she feels ‘distress, but not often’ – unlike her big sister and her bohemian mother:

But her heart did not rule her memory, as was the case with Martha and Nenna. She was spared that inconvenience.

Here again she elides the concrete – drowned sailors’ boots, become flotsam – and the abstract: memory, sensibility. All this to create a memorable character: Tilda has the elemental indifference of a seabird, a piece of driftwood or the river itself – yet Fitzgerald shows how she’s still vibrantly alive.

Although at times the central metaphor of the novel, the river, becomes a bit too intrusive and obvious, and some of the characters are two-dimensional (but they aways have life) Fitzgerald assembles her cast of misfits, losers and dreamers with engaging sympathy: she never judges them.

What little plot there is largely involves Nenna’s struggle to confront the reality of being abandoned by her husband – he doesn’t want the liminal existence she’s embraced ‘offshore’; neither does he want her sexually or emotionally. Their marital argument at the heart of the novel is the most visceral and shocking I’ve ever seen portrayed in fiction.

There’s a particularly fine, sagacious cat, as muddy and flawed as the humans in the novel; Stripey fights a complicated war with the wharfside rats, her survival as precarious, and her sex life as mysterious as those of the humans she disdains.

I’d urge you to read Penelope Fitzgerald.

Links to other discussions of this novel:

Jacqui Wine here

Max here (who provides links to other good reviews)

 

[I’ve managed to refrain from using the word ‘riparian’ in this post, even though it would have been particularly apposite.]

Hello Catalunya

Yesterday I posted my goodbye to Berlin – helping son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons (2 and 3) pack up and prepare to move to Sant Cugat del Vallès, a suburb of Barcelona.

TD jnr and I ended up having to drive the family car, with disgruntled cats, the 1800 km via

Greta

Greta

autobahn (roadworks everywhere), autoroute and autopista. So not much scenery to admire – endless, mind-numbing motorway embankments. It took two days.

Having an academic background in medieval hagiography, I was ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of the Catalan saint after whom the town they were moving to was named. Cugat is the Catalan for St Cucuphas.

He was a missionary of African origin, martyred in the fourth century under the persecution of Diocletian. He suffered some of the more unpleasant tortures before his dispatch, involving iron nails, scorpions, vinegar and pepper.

Monastery of Sant Cugat

Monastery of Sant Cugat

As his remains were said to have been buried at the site of his death in what became Sant Cugat, it seemed natural for the Benedictines who founded the monastery there in the ninth century to dedicate the house to this saint.  My picture shows the handsomely restored building in the town centre.

After a few days of unpacking and exploring the new neighbourhood, and discovering the local mosquitos particularly like the taste of Mrs TD, we all drove into the city and had a tapas lunch near the Ramblas – no sign of the recent awful attack – and took the boys to the Ciutadella park where there’s a fountain which famous local architect Antoni Gaudí helped design.

 

Ciutadella park

That’s me in the shadows by the hind leg of the mammoth in Ciutadella park

Arc de Triomf

The Arc de Triomf, near Ciutadella, designed for the 1888 World Fair by Vilaseca i Casanovas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day Mrs TD and I, enjoying some adult time away from toddlers, visited the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s still unfinished cathedral. When we were here last summer we didn’t go inside; this time we did, and it was breathtaking. Here are some images to finish with.

Sagrada Familia

This figure in the Sagrada Familia looks sinister for a cathedral

Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Carvings outside

Sagrada Familia

Goodbye to Berlin

Goodbye to Berlin

Yesterday’s post on Elizabeth Taylor was the first in a few weeks. I thought I’d explain why.

My stepson, his wife and two nervous cats and two small boys were moving from Berlin (Prenzlauerberg district, in the former East sector) after many years there, working in the music business. They were going to Sant Cugat, 20km north of Barcelona.

Mrs TD and I flew over to help. I took a load of photos, quite sad to think we’d probably not go back to Prenzlauerberg. We’ll certainly revisit Berlin centre, though.

Carl Legien estate

Carl Legien estate, designed by Bruno Taut, on which is found the lovely Café Eckstern

Here’s a selection of those pictures, my valediction to an interesting area of the city, full of psychogeophraphical surprises – there are statues, carved details, murals, Bauhaus design – all round this area. Like the area around the café mentioned below: workers’ accommodation designed by Bruno Taut (associated with the Deutscher Werkbund, which included Walter Gropius) in the early 30s.

Just look up or around: there’s always something worth lingering over.  As I did in a post way back, my Berlin dérive...

Here’s the hof being used to store boxes before loading on the truck, with Berliners’ ubiquitous bikes parked next to them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s the removal truck:

 

 

 

 

 

pumping station

An old pumping station

 

pumping station

The pumping station looked indifferent from the distance, but there were delightful architectural details, iike this Berlin bear over a doorway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corner figure

Another little artistic detail over a corner

Girl statue

This charming statue is just outside the house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And we had several coffees, muesli, croissants, bagels and cakes from our favourite café round the corner: Café Eckstern – which I wrote about affectionately earlier this year 
Cafe Eckstern

Police hippy van

Typical Berlin scene: hipsters have pimped this former police van and made it into something wildly different: the word ‘Polizei’ may not be visible in this picture, but it’s there, dimly surviving just below the windscreen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enough pictures for one post. Next time, Sant Cugat, after a LONG road trip with those traumatised cats.

Complications, embarrassments: Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75), The Soul of Kindness. VMC 2012; first published 1964

Elizabeth Taylor’s ninth novel is not her best; it verges at times on soap-opera, and some of the characterisation is dodgy (like Liz, the unconvincing, scruffily antisocial artist). But it’s still one to be savoured slowly for the subtle prose and insidious, perceptive wit that shows with human warmth the vicissitudes of living among other people who know themselves as little as they know you. A former university acquaintance of mine was noted for her frequent marginal comments on MSS she edited when she turned to publishing: LTRDSW – let the reader do some work. That’s just what this author does when she’s at her best: she doesn’t spell everything out.

Take one random example. Richard Quartermaine, a successful but bored businessman, has by chance met a near neighbour, Elinor, on his commute home, and they’d taken tea together. He neglects to tell his wife, Flora, heavily pregnant with their first child, on his return. Flora is a variation on Emma: a meddler in other people’s lives, invariably with catastrophic consequences (one of them in this novel turns out to be fatal).

The narrative here takes the point of view and voice of Richard, contemplating the ‘placid beauty’ and ‘appealing gaze’ of Flora, all innocence and complacent ‘Botticelli calm’:

She seemed to be as busy as anything, just bearing her child. Full-time job. He brushed a thought from his mind.

From his guilty interior monologues earlier it’s evident that this ‘thought’ is disloyal to her, and that he’s in some way attracted to the less flawed Elinor. By not admitting their tea together, that guilt is compounded. Taylor trusts her readers to know what’s going on.

Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness coverThe disasters that befall those whose lives Flora interferes with are competently recounted in the novel, but for me the more interesting plot involves this…whatever it is… between waveringly loyal Richard – frustrated by his wife’s childlike schemes and indolent self-satisfaction, oblivious to and unaware of the damage she causes – and Elinor, whose blimpish MP husband neglects her, leaving her starved of affection. In Richard she sees a sympathetic fellow sufferer and potentially more satisfying connection. Is he?

Elinor’s childlessness is a Taylor trope, usually signifying lack of emotional fulfilment, and — her habitual central theme – loneliness.

The first time they’d awkwardly got together she’d told Richard how busy her husband was – implying his neglect. Richard blurts out:

‘Aren’t you lonely?’ immediately wishing that he hadn’t – definitely not a question to put to another man’s wife…

‘Sometimes I am,’ she then admitted.

Flora gives birth in a nursing-home after a long labour. Visited by Meg there after the birth of her daughter, she asks her friend to be godmother. The reader knows that Meg is not her first choice – but it wouldn’t occur to emotionally stunted Flora to consider this hurtful to her closest friend. When Meg tells her she doesn’t believe in God, Flora’s response typifies Taylor’s economy in revealing character and her mordant precision with language:

‘But of course you do, darling,’ Flora said comfortably.

Back to Flora’s husband and Elinor. It’s not quite a flirtation, and certainly not an affair. There are several further liaisons, after that furtive teashop meeting. We’re given numerous insights into the loveless marriage Elinor endures with her boring, thoughtless husband. Finally, she detours past Richard’s street, having spent a soul-numbing break in a drab seaside resort (while her husband was abroad) that only intensified her sense of loneliness, and then a humiliating solitary day in London that ended with her being chatted up by a tedious pub lothario. The narrative provides her thoughts as she nears Richard’s house, torturing herself by imagining his idyllic life with his lovely wife and baby, newly returned home :

Richard was one of her given-up hopes. She had not wanted much of him – his company and conversation.

Really? She goes on the consider that he merely used her for company when his wife was confined. When he invites Elinor in for a drink (she hadn’t realised he was alone), she reconsiders, in directly narrated first-person thought that artfully slips straight into semi-revealing third-person free indirect thought, an indication of how incompletely honest she’s being with herself?

‘He’s really my only friend…How dreadful if I did something to lose him. It was all she wanted – and had happened with miraculous luck – to talk to sit and have a drink with him, for him to be at ease with her, to take her for granted. She had not fallen in love with him, and desired nothing that belonged to Flora: but he must have something left over from that, which he could spare her; everybody has something left over.

Another rare instance in the novel, perhaps, of a character confronting the reality of her connection with another human being.

Meg’s interior monologue continues:

Marital complications she abhorred – husbands and wives in a changing pattern. Complications; embarrassments. If, for instance, as he crossed the room now with her drink – if, instead of handing it to her, he should put it down on the little table beside her and take her into his arms…even imagining this she was overcome with confusion and dismay. [Author’s ellipsis, tellingly]

So – maybe she’s not as honest with herself as she appeared to be earlier. The scene ends with a trademark Elizabeth Taylor disappointment; as she leaves, Richard half-heartedly invites her to visit more often – to see Flora! Elinor’s thoughts on this:

He was always easy with her, always kind and equable; but behind his urbane manner might conceivably be bored, or irritated, or embarrassed…Kind, neighbourly words [she muses as she walks home]. All he had to offer. We all talk like it most of the time, to make the wheels go round.

What’s worse than wondering if the one you’re attracted to doesn’t reciprocate your feelings? The possibility that you bore, irritate or embarrass them. We all think like that. But few writers depict it so poignantly.

 

 

Aside: calenture

I was glancing through my copy of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, that early novel of hers (1859) full of earnest Methodists and wronged maidens (did Hardy get the idea of Tess’s infanticide from this?), and noticed this odd word:

Book 1, ch. 7: The Dairy

The dairy was certainly worth looking at: it was a scene to sicken for with a sort of calenture in hot and dusty streets–such coolness, such purity, such fresh fragrance of new-pressed cheese, of firm butter, of wooden vessels perpetually bathed in pure water…

 

Adam Bede

Picture of Adam Bede in his carpenter’s workshop, from an early American edition. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the OED online (as ever, thank you, Cornwall Library Service for this free resource; I’ve omitted most of the citations):

Etymology: < French calenture, < Spanish calentura fever, <  calentar to be hot, < Latin calēnt-em hot, burning.

  1. A disease incident to sailors within the tropics, characterized by delirium in which the patient, it is said, fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it.The word was also used in the Spanish general sense of ‘fever’, and sometimes in that of ‘sunstroke’.

1593    T. Nashe Christs Teares f. 45   Then (as the possessed with the Calentura,) thou shalt offer to leape.

1719    D. Defoe Life Robinson Crusoe 19   In this Voyage..I was continually sick, being thrown into a violent Calenture by the excessive Heat.

1721    Swift Bubble vii   So, by a calenture misled, The mariner with rapture sees, On the smooth ocean’s azure bed, Enamell’d fields and verdant trees.

 

  1. fig. and transf. Fever; burning passion, ardour, zeal, heat, glow.

1596    T. Nashe Haue with you to Saffron-Walden sig. F3v   Er hee bee come to the..raging Calentura of his wretchednes.

a1631    J. Donne Poems (1650) 158   Knowledge kindles Calentures in some.

1841    H. Smith Moneyed Man III. ix. 238   The mirage of a moral calenture, which conjures up unexisting objects.

So it would seem to be this second, figurative meaning that Eliot intends. Given the simmering passions among the main characters in this scene, the erotic connotations are surely intended.

That sailors would suffer the delusion that the ocean was green fields or prairies and they wanted to jump overboard to escape the confines of their ship reminds me of a similar feel to the early parts of Moby-Dick.

Calenture: useful word to have in your repertoire.

This will probably be my final post for a couple of weeks; I’m going on travels with family.

 

 

Literature is the opposite of peace: I Never Talk About it, Pt 2

A character says in the story ‘Couch’: ‘Life isn’t supposed to hurt all the time.’

My previous post gave an introduction/background to this collection of 37 very short stories by two authors, but translated by 37 different translators. The identity and method of each one isn’t revealed until you’ve had time to absorb the story.

Last time I mentioned a central theme in many of them: talking or not talking – ‘In the end I didn’t talk about it’, says the speaker in ‘Cupcakes’, avoiding the tragic subject that fills the room. ‘There’s no point talking about it’, says the voice in ‘Trolls’, this time about the love and death of a much-loved grandmother.

The first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Anglo-Australian literary reviewer Tony Malone (I recommend his site – Tony’s Reading List for its coverage of translated literature; this is his first effort at translation – brave chap!) opens with the words that give this anthology its title.

Véronique-Côté

Photo of one of the two authors of the story collection, Véronique Côté, by Maude Chavin, from the QC Fiction website

Several stories start with this cryptic kind of reference – you have to read on to find out what the ‘it’ is and who the ‘I’ is who refuses to talk about ‘it’. It turns out to be a particular kind of obsession, and this is a feature in several of the stories. The speaker/monologuist (for these were all originally promenade theatrical monologues performed in the streets of Quebec City) is presumably female, for she mentions one or two personal female-specific details (the gender/identity of the speakers in most stories is not usually identifiable; it’s what they say that matters). She’s conflicted about her obsession, which she denies is OCD, and insists ‘I’m normal, I think’ – not entirely convincing. She claims to be adept at concealing it. In paragraph one she says:

It’s humiliating, totally. I don’t want the people I love to notice, I don’t know how I’d be able to go on afterwards.

Later: ‘It disturbs me.’

This confusion, desire to be different or complete, inability to fit in, to understand herself or others, is a recurring feature in these stories. That’s why talking – or not talking – about such things is so crucial, and features so often in them. For what do we talk about when we talk about, or don’t talk about, our anxieties, obsessions, relationships?

Her parents, she believes, should have taught her one thing in life:

 that nothing is missing. Like Buddha, or a monk, or a poem would say, nothing is missing, life has absolutely everything, everything is here, I mean: I’ve never wanted for anything, why am I so scared that all that might change?

The translator here adopts the stream-of-consciousness style that of most of the other stories here, choosing to render what he calls ‘essentially a spoken text’ at a level that’s not ‘too high’ in register and tone (I talked about this at greater length in my previous post). He tries to get the ‘voice’ as close to the original French as possible. I think he’s done a pretty good job. That voice shows pain, regret and longing, and a strong desire to feel impenitent, less ‘scared’ – how many of us haven’t felt that way before? The run-on sentences and comma splices represent the rhythms of the voice of a character who’s floundering, hurting, and trying to limit the damage of life’s experiences.

So who is she addressing here, if she ‘doesn’t talk about it’? The reader. Which positions them in the role of confessor – a highly privileged one, but demanding (and in most cases in this collection, rewarding). For we don’t have the capacity to absolve or forgive (if this is needed). All we can do is try to understand. Which is surely one of the main reasons we read? To broaden and deepen our understanding of human nature.

Steve Gagnon

The other author, Steve Gagnon, attributed to France-Larochelle, from the QC Fiction website

Not all of the stories do this; some are lighter, humorous, lubricious – there’s some pretty graphic sex and talk about sex – or downright revolting; I found the story about a person whose obsession is eating their own snot pretty hard to stomach. And there’s quite a lot of vomiting going on.

But mostly these are wonderful snapshots that reveal a whole life of a spectrum of individual types, from the panic-stricken, the defeated and the ‘social misfit’ to the woman who appears to have everything, but has really ‘passed myself by’.  Often there’s an auspicious or disastrous epiphany. Translators talk about the polish and elegance of the prose of their originals, and mostly they reproduce this skilfully in their renditions.

It’s always difficult to convey the feel of a story collection in a brief post – especially a collection with so many variables (authors, translators). So I’ll just pick out a couple of my favourites.

Children’s fraught relationships with parents or other family members, some of whom die, walk out or become estranged, are the basis of some of the strongest, subtlest stories. Often their love for each other goes unacknowledged, unexpressed, or talked about with honesty too late – and this can be ‘sad’ and ‘a shame’ (from ‘Attic’, in which a mother’s curt, posthumously delivered postcard brings a kind of confirmation but not consolation).

In ‘Wrestling’ the speaker reflects fondly on his (I think this a ‘he’) loving ‘fights’ with his dad when he was a kid. Language, words, talk are again the point here:

I never needed words to say that I loved him, and he never needed them either, we had other ways…My dad and me, we don’t wrestle any more. [My ellipsis]

And he misses these fights, which arose not out of ‘rage’ but love, pride and admiration:

I never talked about this with my dad. Probably because we never managed to develop a common language, we never got used to the fact that there were words between us.

I Never Talk About ItWhat a wonderful sentence that last one is. And his closing words to the story bring a surprising shift in emotional tone. Language brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. This is another deeply moving monologue, honest and raw.

Daniel Grenier, who translated this story, has one of the 37 translators’ most interesting and revealing explanations for his approach to his task. He says it’s ‘destabilizing’ to translate in a language that is not your own:

To understand something is quite different from saying it, or even repeating it…English…is so subtle, so difficult, it’s as difficult and hard as a diamond. [My ellipsis]

‘Light’ is a tender, passionate account of a parent’s fear when contemplating their child’s vulnerability, and the powerful need to protect them, to tell them not to give up (the woman in ‘Olives’ could do with a parent like that).

In ‘Nightmares’ there’s another parental bereavement, and the child’s response is beautifully, poetically conveyed in the translated prose.

‘Dishes’ and ‘Notebook’ deal unsentimentally and innovatively with the notions of reading, writing and humility (‘Hell is being the only person to truly know yourself’).

‘Looks’ is about the impact on a non-academic child of growing up in a bookish family of intellectuals and teachers:

I’m looking for peace. I want peace and literature is the opposite of peace.

I’m out of time. Let me end by just recommending this collection for its unique take on the nature of translation by providing some excellent, brief but powerful stories and some thoughtful, stimulating translators’ insights.

 

Do we use semi-colons when we speak? I Never Talk About It: pt 1

I Never Talk About It: QC Fiction, 2017.  First published in 2012 as Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir by Les éditions du Septentrion

‘Traduttore, traditore’.

I Never Talk About ItMost books of translated fiction foreground (not surprisingly) the original author; the translator – if they’re even mentioned – will get a tiny credit somewhere near the front, probably not on the front cover.

Quebec-based QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books based in Montreal, was set up last year to do things differently, to publish exciting new Québecois voices with translations that are as original and vibrant as the source texts.

I Never Talk About It, published 1 September, is even more daring and innovative than QC’s usual output: 37 stories written by actor-authors Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon are presented with no attribution – we can’t tell for sure which author (maybe both?) wrote which story (it’d be easier in French, I suppose, because of the use of gendered nouns, etc.) OK, some stories are clearly narrated by a woman or man, but that doesn’t necessarily signify the gender of the author.

Here it’s the translators who take a more central position. This is what QC say about the project on their website:

This project aims to show there are all kinds of ways to bring across an author’s voice in translation… at least 37 of them! Translators include literary translation students, first-time and up-and-coming literary translators, world-renowned translators who have won major international prizes, some of Montreal’s best writers and translators, a retired high-school French teacher in Ireland, and francophone authors translating into their second language. There are even people in there who (armed only with a dictionary and the priceless ability to write a beautiful sentence) barely speak French.

As Peter McCambridge, fiction editor of the imprint, says in his Introduction, ‘readers want to read faithful translations, don’t they?’ His question raises some familiar if important points about translated literature. What if readers want something more, something like ‘a different sort of artistic creation’? This volume doesn’t exactly provide answers to that question, but it does offer some textual examples (stories) and commentaries on them to provide some implicit suggestions.

So: ‘let’s start a conversation’, he suggests. ‘Let’s talk about the types of translators and translations you’ll come across in this book.’ The anthology’s title is taken from the opening line of the first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Tony Malone (and found again, in the past tense, in ‘Wrestling’, and with other variations in other stories). And talking – or not talking – is a central theme in many of the stories in the collection, another indication, surely, of their origins in oral-theatrical performance.

Every story is only a few pages long, more Flash Fiction than ‘short story’ – and it’s apparent that each translation is a sequence of personal interpretations and decisions, linguistic leaps, deviations or distortions, however well intentioned. How much of their own personality or ‘reading’ of the story is apparent, and how does that affect our own reading of the text?

Each story is translated by a different person, each with their ‘own unique approach.’ Their identity is only revealed after each story, so as not to influence the reader’s experience beforehand; they were invited to apply a single adverb to describe that approach, and to give a brief account to reveal how and why they completed their task.

The stories’ origin as spoken texts – monologues, in fact – is an important factor. The two writers produced their scripts, which were then performed in various locations across Quebec, and the audience followed the performers as they moved across the city. The stories therefore read differently from the usual literary type, and as readers we can’t reproduce the exact experience of the original audience, watching the actor in a particular urban setting .

The translators frequently refer to their attentiveness to ‘voice’, ‘register’, ‘tone’, ‘rhythm’, ‘pace’. They comment on the intimate or ‘confessional’ nature of the narrative voice, of following the ‘spirit’ not the ‘letter’, striving for a ‘fluid’ style, not ‘forced’. Many refer to the difficulties of rendering the original punctuation, which tends to be looser in French – especially in colloquial texts created to be orally delivered, many of them in stream-of-consciousness mode, which doesn’t lend itself easily to conventional written orthographical and syntactic conventions.

Comma splices, run-on sentences: these posed problems for the translators that wouldn’t have been so apparent to the original audiences, listening to the words spoken in the streets of the city. Every punctuation mark in a written text is a function of a different mode and level of discourse from spoken texts. Is there such a thing as a semi-colon in spontaneous speech?

Some translations are, as one might expect, more successful than others when coping with these matters.

Of course it’s a matter of personal taste how you judge this. I found the stories with typographical quirks – text laid out like poems, say – more distracting than exciting. A bit too overtly “edgy”.

I’d like to say more about the content of the stories and the nature of these translations in more detail next time; I find that I’ve gone on too long already. Note the high-register use of the semi-colon there.

Paperback (advance reading copy).

Links to my posts on other QC Fiction texts:

Brothers, by David Clerson

Listening for Jupiter, by Pierre-Luc Landry