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20 Books of Summer #1 : Lisbon Poets

June 13, 2020 15 comments

Lisbon Poets. French title: Poètes de Lisbonne. Translated from the Portuguese by Elodie Dupeau.

This is the first billet of my 20 Books of Summer challenge, one of the ghosts of trips past. I bought the poetry collection Lisbon Poets during a trip to Lisbon. Obviously.

It’s a lovely bilingual edition of poems by Luís de Camões, Cesário Verde, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Florbela Espanca and Fernando Pessoa. The same book exists in English, Italian, German and other languages.

The French translation is new, there’s a foreword by Anne-Marie Quint, professor at the Sorbonne. Original drawings by André Carrilho illustrate the book and all this attention to details makes of this edition a nice book to have in hands.

Now I’m not a great reader of poetry and imagine the challenge to write a billet in English about poems you’ve read in a Portuguese/French bilingual edition. I’ll be brief.

Poet seems to be a dangerous profession in Portugal if you look at these poets’ untimely death. Except for Luís de Camões who lived 56 years in the 16th century, they all died young. Cesário Verde was 31 when he died in 1886, Mário de Sá-Carneiro was 26 when he committed suicide in 1916, Florbela Espanca was 36 when she killed herself in 1930 and at 47, Fernando Pessoa was an old man compared to the others when he died in 1935.

Bilingual editions of poetry are great, at least for western languages. I wouldn’t get anything out of a Japanese/French book but for Latin languages, it’s wonderful. Portuguese is a funny language for me as a French: when I read it, I recognize a lot of words but when I hear it, I don’t understand anything. Since I read the poems, having the original beside the French translation was a treat and useful.

I wasn’t so keen on Cesário Verde and Mário de Sá-Carneiro. I found Verde a bit whiny and I disliked Feminina by Mário de Sá-Carneiro because I found it mysoginistic.

My favorite poems were by Luís de Camões, Florbela Espanca and some by Fernando Pessoa. I loved Alma minha gentil, que tepartite by Camões, a beautiful poem about his grief after his lover died. I enjoyed the sensuality in Florbela Espanca’s poems, her assertiveness as a woman. In A uma rapariga (To A Young Girl), she urges girls to live their life, to be bold and go for what they want. Fernando Pessoa’s poems are beautiful. I loved O livro de Cesário Verde, his others full of thoughts about life.

I’m aware that my comments are trite but think again of my challenge here. Even in French, I would struggle to have anything clever to say about poems, so in this context, it’s even worse. I’ll stop then and urge you to get this little gem if you ever go to Portugal. It seems like a good introduction for Portuguese poetry.

Literary escapade: Born to be Wilde

December 10, 2016 30 comments

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all. (Oscar Wilde)

It totally agree with that. In Paris, there’s currently an exhibition about Oscar Wilde’s life and work. It is at the Petit Palais, a beautiful building near the Champs Elysées. The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 World Fair and incidentally, 1900 is also the year Wilde died in Paris. The title of this exhibition is Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu. (Oscar Wilde, the ultimate impertinent). It is the first time such an exhibition is organized in Paris and it is well worth visiting.

dsc_3489

It explains very well Wilde’s education and role models, his taste for art, his admiration for Ruskin and his work as an art critic. A room is dedicated to the conferences he did in America. It is on the occasion of this tour that he said his famous phrase:

We have really everything in common in America nowadays, except, of course, language.

He was like a rock star and had his picture taken like a supermodel by the famous photographer Napoleon Sarony. You needed someone named Napoleon Sarony to immortalize the emperor of irony. For the anecdote: these pictures were so famous that they were used without Sarony’s authorization by various publicists. Sarony went to court and his case reached the Supreme Court who judged that photographs should be included in the scope of the copyright law. (1884)

The exhibition describes Wilde as an intellectual well introduced in London’s high society.

frith_a_private_view

This is A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith. (1881) The painter is on the painting with Trollope, Gladstone, Browning, Millais and Wilde. Can you see him on the centre-right, near the lady with the pink dress? Wilde was also well introduced into the Parisian beau monde. But the exhibition does not focus to much on his life as a dandy. His affairs with men are mentioned but so is his marriage to Constance Llyod. Wilde as a husband and a father are displayed. Unfortunately, after Constance’s death, her family destroyed all the letters Oscar Wilde had written to her, so we’re missing out information on their relationship.

His personal life takes a good place in the exhibition but his work is celebrated as well, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé. It was interesting to read about the reception of these works when they were published, see excerpts of their film version or discover the illustrations of the first editions. (*)

Of course, his trial and subsequent conviction to two years’ hard labour took a significant place. I was surprised to read that Wilde was condemned in 1895 for gross indecency and that it was based on a law that was only voted in 1885. I always assumed it was a very old law that had been unearthed for the occasion. I’m shocked to read such a law was passed so late in the 19thC. That’s the Victorian Era for you, I suppose. No wonder that French prostitutes saw so many British customers that some had calling cards in English.

His detention was very hard, at least at the beginning at the Newgate Prison in London. He did hard labour, was not allowed to read anything but the Bible and it was forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. Eventually, he was transferred to the Reading Gaol, near London. Isn’t that ironic to put a writer in a prison named Reading Gaol? The absolute silence imposed in the Victorian prisons must have been a personal form of torture to the brilliant conversationalist that Wilde was.

This section of the exhibition ends with a videoed interview of Robert Badinter. He’s a famous French attorney and he was the minister of Justice in 1981. He fought for the abolition of death penalty in France in 1981 and he remains well-known for that. 1981 is also the year the French Parliament voted that homosexuality was no longer a crime.

In this interview, Badinter explains that he studied closely the Wilde trial for a series of conference about law and Justice. He used this example and the one of all the women burnt for sorcery to demonstrate that Justice is relative. It depends on the time and place. Wilde was condemned to two years’ hard work for something that is no longer a crime. According to Badinter, since Justice is relative, it mustn’t pronounce death sentences. The State doesn’t have the right to take the life of people for crimes that might not be crimes in the future or somewhere else. Thought provoking, isn’t it?

This fantastic exhibition ended with a video of Wilde’s grand-son. He speaks French very well and had kind words to say about his grand-father and his work, even if he never knew him. Oscar Wilde, l’impertinent absolu gave a moving portrait of Wilde. It went beyond the funny aphorisms and the dandy costumes to show an intelligent and multifaceted man. I liked that his family life was shown as well, a part of him often ignored. (The French Wikipedia page about him doesn’t even mention that he was married) I thought that the different angles helped discovering this fascinating artist.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

You were definitely pointing at the stars, Mr Wilde. Some imbeciles might have stared at your finger pointing the stars instead of stargazing with you.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

Night and Sleep by Evelyn de Morgan

________

(*) I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I when a teenager and read The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The Importance of Being Earnest before attending this exhibition, so more about this in the coming week.

My experience with reading poems by Keats

January 31, 2016 31 comments

Poems by John Keats. French copy: Seul dans la splendeur.

keats_poèmesAfter reading his letters to Fanny Brawne, I thought that the least I could do was read some of Keats’ poems. I know, I’m doing things a little bit backwards. Let’s face it, reading poetry in another language is hard. Reading their translation is not satisfying and bilingual editions are the best compromise. So I got myself Seul dans la splendeur, a bilingual edition of a collection of poems by Keats. The English is on the left page, and the French translation by Robert Davreu is on the right page.

I am not going to review poems by Keats only armed with my high school literary baggage and an imperfect knowledge of the English language. The poems are beautiful, eerie, light as feathers and yet deep. They are imprinted with that deep awareness that life is fleeting that only chronically ill persons seem to perceive. (When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be) I preferred the poems with no reference to other literary works (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer doesn’t fascinate me) or Greek mythology. It spoke to the readers of that time but so much to me. I always find it bombastic. Anyway.

I want to write about my reading experience with these poems, even if it’s probably not of much interest to anyone but myself.

I wasn’t happy with the translation. There were complicated French words and I had to look at the original to understand the verse (!!) That’s on me, I should have known these words. Sometimes I felt like the French was taking too much liberty with the original poem. Here’s an example with On Fame (II).

Keats_On_Fame

I don’t understand how grateful becomes qui rend grâce and not reconnaissante or why ripe plum becomes once prune mûre and then prune à maturité when the original repeats ripe plum twice. These are details. My main concern is about the two last verses. In the next to last verse, teasing the world for grace is translated as importun assoiffé de la faveur du monde. If I translated it back, I’d write something like unwelcome visitor greedy for the world’s grace. Does it sound like the original? Teasing sounds light, like poking slightly someone to have them do what you want. Assoiffé is another level of passion and it’s negative.

The last verse goes on with the negative vibe coming off the translation of the previous one. Again, if I translated back Pourrisse son salut pour une idolâtrie barbare, I’d write Ruins his salvation for barbarian idolatry. How can fierce miscreed become barbarian idolatry? Does the English have another meaning in Keats’ times? Were the words stronger then than they sound to me now? I hope an English native reader also fluent in French can help me with that. And of course, the next question is “who am I to challenge the work of a professional translator”?…

Something entirely different. My being a French reader did something funny when I arrived to On the Grasshopper and Cricket.

keats_grasshopperAs you can see in the translation of the title, a grasshopper is une sauterelle. Sauterelle is a feminine word and the end of the word with elle suggests femininity as well. If I were a cartoonist and I had to draw a sauterelle with human characteristics, it would be an elegant and graceful woman. So, I can’t picture a grasshopper as a he and when I read the original poem, it was a bit disturbing. It’s strange how our native language shapes our minds.

The footnote on this poem says that Keats wrote it in a contest between he and Leigh Hunt to see whether they were able to whip out a poem about grasshoppers and crickets in fifteen minutes. That’s how talented Keats was: fifteen minutes to write a beautiful poem that transports us to a hot summer day in a second. His untimely death seems such a waste of talent. Or perhaps it’s wishful thinking on our side and his talent was a comet in his youth, like Rimbaud.

In San Francisco’s snowless winter The gray weeks rinse themselves away.

September 20, 2014 28 comments

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (1986) French title: Golden Gate, translated by Claro. (It should be good)

 “…Don’t put things off till it’s too late.

You are the DJ of your fate.”

Seth_Golden_GateThe Golden Gate is a novel and it relates something quite banal, the lives of a group of friends in the San Francisco area. They are named John, Janet, Philip, Liz and Ed. They’re you and me. John, Janet and Phil were at the same university. At the beginning, they’re single and lonely. John works in an office, has a great job, is good at it but his life is empty. Janet decides to push him into dating by placing an ad in a paper. This is how he meets Liz and who later brings into their group her siblings Ed and Sue. Phil is now raising his six-year old son Paul by himself after his wife Claire fled to the other side of the country. He quit his job after Claire’s departure to take care of Paul and because he was working for a company designing weapons. Phil is an anti-nuclear war activist. Although things weren’t exactly perfect between them, he doesn’t understand why Claire left and more importantly how she could leave her son behind. He’s still recovering from his divorce. Janet is part-musician, part-sculptor and she tries to make a name on the art scene. She used to be John’s lover at university. She hides her fragility behind an apparent strength and a proclaimed autonomy. Ed is homosexual and a fervent Catholic, an explosive combination for his peace of mind. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.

Now, that seems quite banal and simple. Except the interwoven relationships between the characters aren’t conventional. Except that each character is troubled and flawed. That would be enough material to write a good novel. This novel is exceptional in its form and its style.

As the Appetizer showed you, The Golden Gate is a novel in verse, more precisely in tetrameters. It’s divided in 13 chapters, all composed of poems of 14 verses. (sonnets, right?) For example, the second chapter is made of 52 poems. I’m sure I missed part of the beauty of the text because my English isn’t good enough, especially my pronunciation. We French people never know where to put the stress on English words and I’ve just discovered in my English literature manual that it’s important for poetry and the construction of verses. (Plus in French, as far as I know, we only have syllabic verses) Well, I loved it anyway.

Vikram Seth achieves a tour de force. As the poet pulling the strings of the story and the pace of the narration, he’s present in his text as the bard, the man who tells the story and interacts with his readers. For example, he intervenes just after he’s described John and Liz’s young love. His description of John and Liz’s new relationship reminded me of the fantastic scene played by Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg in I’m not there and illustrating the song I want you. I was indeed thinking that the passage was heading towards corny when he disarmed all criticism with this:

Judged by these artless serfs of Cupid

Love is not blind but, rather, dumb.

Their babblings daily grow more stupid.

I am embarrassed for them. Come,

Let’s leave them here, the blessed yuppies,

As happy as a pair of puppies,

Or doves, who with their croodlings might

Make even Cuff and Link seem bright.

Let’s leave them to their fragile fictions—

Arcadia, Shangri-La, Cockaigne—

A land beyond the reach of pain—

Except for two slight contradictions,

To wit…but what transpires next

Is furnished later in this text.

Seth knows it’s time to move on and he does.

Self-deprecating humour and witty interactions with the reader are one of the highlights of the book. Then there’s the sound of his poetry, the way he depicts San Francisco and his incredible gift to put human feelings into words. The text is light, sad, deep, funny and witty. It is set in San Francisco and like the Golden Gate, the characters wander in life with their feet in the clear and their nose in the fog. Seth’s words drizzle in a lovely mist and envelop the events and the characters of the text in a special aura.

This group of friends has fairly common inner struggles: what’s my part in this world? Who would remember me if I died? How do I deal with death and grief? How do I recover from a broken relationship? How do I reconcile my job with my beliefs? While exploring his characters angst and making them move forward with their lives, he also discusses nuclear war, homosexuality, marriage, feminism, civil disobedience.

He shows John’s prejudice and inflexibility of mind, Ed’s struggles between his earthly love for a man and his faith, Phil’s honesty with himself and Liz’s internal conflict between her job and her convictions. For me John is the most troubled, the one who has the strongest mental barriers to isolate him from happiness. He lives his life with sadness sitting on his left shoulder and the weight of miscommunication on his right shoulder. He’s grounded in loneliness. With his poetry, Seth conveys the sensation of these toxic hands on John’s shoulders. You’d want to hug John to ease his pain. Phil is living in a cloud of loneliness but he’s better equipped to fight it and reach out for the companionship he craves.

It’s a lovely text, for its take on human experiences and its bright description of our world’s beauty:

It’s spring! Meticulous and fragrant

Pear blossoms bloom and blanch the trees,

While pink and ravishing and flagrant

Quince bursts in shameless colonies

On woody bushes, and the slender

Yellow oxalis, brief and tender,

Brilliant as mustard, sheets the ground,

And blue jays croak, and all around

Iris and daffodil are sprouting

With such assurance that the shy

Grape hyacinth escapes the eye,

And spathes of Easter lilies, flouting

Nomenclature, now effloresce

In white and lenten loveliness.

It’s difficult to write anything after that. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I really recommend this book. It’s 300 pages long but let yourself ride the tide of Seth’s poetry.

PS: Cuff and Link are cats. There’s another cat in the book, Charlemagne. He’s Liz’s pet and the description of his jealousy of John’s place in Liz’s life is absolutely hilarious.

The Golden Gate : Appetizer

September 19, 2014 9 comments

5.1

A week ago, when I had finished

Writing the chapter you’ve just read

And with avidity undiminished

Was charting out the course ahead,

An editor –at a plush party

(Well-wined, -provisioned, speechy, hearty)

Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook

Where my Tibetan travel book

Was honored–seized my arm: “Dear fellow,

What’s your next work?” “A novel…” ” Great!

We hope that you, dear Mr Seth–”

“…In verse,” I added. He turned yellow.

“How marvelously quaint,” he said,

And subsequently cut me dead.

 

5.2

Professor, publisher, and critic

Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced.

A writer is a mere arthritic

Among these muscular Gods of Taste.

As for that sad blancmange, a poet–

The world is hard; he ought to know it.

Driveling in rhyme’s all very well;

The question is, does spittle sell?

Since staggering home in deep depression,

My will’s grown weak. My heart is sore.

My lyre is dumb. I have therefore

Convoked a morale-boosting session

With a few kind if doubtful friends

Who’ve asked me to explain my ends.

 

This reader to Mr Seth just says: “Thank God writers are stubborn and do as they please.”

To the readers of this post, she promises “See you soon with a billet about this luminous book.”

But more importantly she cries out THANKS SCOTT!!! 🙂

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, made into a play

March 16, 2014 16 comments

The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (1923)

Gibran_prophete_livreI don’t remember how or when I first heard of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. My copy dates back to 1993; perhaps Amin Maalouf mentioned him in one of his books. Anyway. I had fond memories of that little book of wisdom, so I jumped on the opportunity to see a stage version of this text.

Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was a Lebanese writer, born in a small village in the North of the country. He later moved to Boston with his mother and siblings, moved back to Lebanon to study in Beirut. Then, he spent a couple of years in France before immigrating to New York. He wrote The Prophet in English and it was published in America in 1923. It was immediately a huge success.

The Prophet is a collection of parables. In the introduction, the prophet Almustafa is about to leave the city of Orphalese, where he has spent twelve years in exile. He’s saying goodbye to the place and its people when they question him about life. What does he have to say about love, marriage, self-knowledge, children, pain…? In twenty-six chapters, Almustafa will answer the questions. It’s a bit written like the New Testament, a bit like poetical philosophy and I suspect a bit in the Arabic literature tradition. (I wouldn’t know that since I haven’t read any, just heard about the importance of its poetry in novels by Maalouf, Mahfouz or more recently Awwad) Gibran’s text is a mix of Eastern and Western culture, of poetry and philosophy. Each chapter is one to three pages long and tackles with a different question. It explores life from a human point of view and gives advice to live your life more peacefully. Personally, I like his vision of marriage, children, giving, joy and sorrow or teaching. I want to share with you the part on Reason and Passion, it will be a long quote but it gives you an idea of the atmosphere of the book and the tone of the text:

AND the priestess spoke again and said: Speak to us of Reason and Passion.

And he answered, saying:

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.

Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.

But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

YOUR reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.

If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.

For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.

Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;

And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

I WOULD have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.

Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.

AMONG the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows – then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.”

And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky, – then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”

And since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

I won’t tell more about the book as The Prophet is a highly personal text for the reader. It resonates differently according to who you are and what your life has been. I believe that everyone can find something good for them to meditate. If it’s a personal journey for the reader, it must have been a personal one for the author too. I’d love to ask Gibran why he wrote something so oriental and personal in English and not in Arabic. It’s his native tongue, he studied in that language (and in French) while English is his third language. Few authors choose to write in another language than their mother tongue. Sure, writing in English helped being published but was that all?

Gibran_prophete_pieceThe Prophet was made into a play by Noredine Marouf. I saw it in a tiny theatre in Paris, the Guichet Montparnasse. Imagine: there’s room for fifty spectators, seated on five rows of benches. The stage is minuscule. We were nine spectators and it was the premiere. The actor and director Noredine Marouf was a few meters away from us, I’m sure he could see every move we made on those benches. He stayed after the show was finished and chatted with us. He said he was nervous for the premiere and we gathered he wasn’t happy with his performance. He’d been working on the text for ten months but it didn’t take away the anxiousness of the premiere. He explained that he chose to work on this text because Gibran’s words speak to him and because he wanted to play something that would make the audience think. He wanted to bring more than entertainment and to leave us with thoughts to ponder when we went home. We were nine people in the audience and one of us was Lebanese. She pointed out that Gibran’s village was really a tiny village and that it was incredible that he moved out of there to live in cities like Paris and New York, especially at his time. Nordine Marouf confessed that working on Gibran’s text had been trying, that he had ached physically while learning the text, as Gibran’s words sank in. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the preparation of the play. He said that with powerful texts as this one, at first, the actor carries the text on their shoulders and after a while, the text carries them. Noredine Marouf is French of Algerian origin; his parents are from Oran. Like Gibran, like Maalouf, his personal history is made of the fruitful meeting of Eastern and Western cultures.

So yes, it’s true, the acting wasn’t perfect. But being there, nine people on benches in a tiny theatre and discussing the play and its preparation with the director and actor was a treat. If you have the chance, go and see Noredine Marouf tell Khalil Gibran. He will be there until April 27th. These theatres must survive and as Gibran points out in the chapter about Bying and Selling:

AND if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.

For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

For most of you who won’t have that opportunity, the book is available and worth discovering or re-reading

Dante’s Inferno: Veni, vidi, vici

May 28, 2012 28 comments

Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri. circa 1317.

On a crazy impulse of optimism, I started to read Dante’s Inferno. OK, a trip to Florence prompted it as well. To be honest, before reading it, Dante’s Inferno meant little to me, a poem with horrible descriptions of hell and some vague notions about Dante’s true love Beatrix. Nothing more. You can say I started it with an open mind, not enough cultural references and a little apprehension about how much I’d get from the book. Let’s face it, I’m not able to discuss Dante’s work and I bet thousands of scholars did it thousand times better than anything I could write. I’m just able to relate my response to it.

I read the French translation by Rivarol which dates back to the 1780s. I didn’t choose the translation, I just went for the free kindle version and it happened to be by Rivarol, with many typos. But it’s free, I can’t complain. Then I checked an online book store, Rivarol’s seems to be a famous translation. I suspect it’s not always faithful to the text but when it comes to a book written in Toscan in the 14thC, I don’t mind that it’s a bit unfaithful as long as it helps me read the book. And Rivarol is good to make Dante’s masterpiece accessible to a naïve audience: the language is light and easy, the footnotes are relevant and helped a lot. It’s in prose, I don’t think I could have read a version in verses anyway. Now, the book.

Dante is visiting the inferno with the Roman poet Virgil as a guide. The Inferno is composed of 33 canti and each one describes a torture inflicted on souls who committed the sin aimed at that specific circle. The sins are various from gluttony to sodomy, via hypocrisy, ruse, bribery, corruption, deception, betrayal and all kinds of religious and political misbehaviours or crimes. In each canto, Dante gets to talk to one or several souls stuck there to atone their sin.

In my ignorance, I didn’t expect this strange mix of Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece and Christianity. For example, three characters are by Satan’s side: Judas, Brutus and Cassius. One Christian reference and two from Ancient Rome. Virgil guides Dante through his journey and it places the young poet under the protection of this monument of poetry. The inferno resembles the Hades. We encounter Charon, Cerberus and some tortures reminded me of the ones from the Greek mythology. It’s the be-attached-with-your-liver-eaten-by-a-bird kind of torture. But it’s mingled with Christian themes and references. For example, one circle imprisons fortune-tellers. Virgil says:

On est sans pitié pour des maux sans mesure. Ne sont-ils pas assez criminels, ceux qui osèrent être les émules d’un Dieu?

Here pity most doth show herself alive,

When she is dead. What guilt exceed his,

Who with Heaven’s judgement in his passion strives?

It’s a strange condemnation in Virgil’s mouth since the Roman people believed in auspices, oracles and couldn’t make important decisions without consulting priests, magicians and fortune-tellers.

What I didn’t expect as well is the political aspect of the book. In each circle Dante meets and talks with people he recognises. He wrote The Divine Comedy in exile. He’s incredibly upfront: he gives names of various famous people and make them end up in hell in the appropriate circle according to their past life (war crimes, abuses, political fights) In Canto 19, he meets Pope Boniface in the third valley, where he condemns the wealth and greed of the Church.

Oh! si l’antique respect pour vos ombres pontificales n’enchaînait ma langue, elle vous poursuivrait bien plus âpre ment encore, pasteurs mercenaires! car votre avarice foule le monde ; elle est amère aux bons et douce aux méchants. C’est de vous qu’il était prédit à l’évangéliste, quand il voyait celle qui était assise sur les eaux se prostituer avec les rois ; celle qui naquit avec sept têtes, et dix rayons qui s’éclipsèrent avec les vertus de son époux. C’est vous aussi qui vous êtes fait des dieux d’or et d’argent; et si l’idolâtre encense une idole, vous eu adorez mille. Ah! Constantin, que de maux ont germé, non de ta conversion, mais de la dot immense que tu payas au père de ta nouvelle épouse

If reverence of the keys restrain’d me not,

Which thou in happier time didst hold, I yet

Severer speech might use. Your avarice

O’ercasts the world with mourning, under foot

Treading the good, and raising bad men up.

Of shepherds, like to you, th’ Evangelist

Was ware, when her, who sits upon the waves,

With kings in filthy whoredom he beheld,

She who with seven heads tower’d at her birth,

And from ten horns her proof of glory drew,

Long as her spouse in virtue took delight.

Of gold and silver ye have made your god,

Diff’ring wherein from the idolater,

But he that worships one, a hundred ye?

Ah, Constantine! to how much ill gave birth,

Not thy conversion, but that plenteous dower,

Which the first wealthy Father gain’d from thee!”

I didn’t know you could speak so freely in the 14thC without risking your life. I can’t imagine it in the France of that time but perhaps I have misconceptions about freedom of speech in the Middle Ages. After all, I’m not a specialist.

There are constant references to Florence and the politics of his time. Thank you, Count Rivarol, for all the explanations included in the footnotes. They helped.

I have little to say about the style, especially for English-speaking readers. You wouldn’t read the same version as me and the quality of the translation is crucial. Dante does create powerful images and poetic metaphors.

Vers le retour de l’année, jeune encore, où déjà le soleil plonge son front pâlissant dans l’urne pluvieuse : quand le jour s’accroît des pertes de la nuit, et que les voiles transparents de la gelée imitent au matin la robe éclatante de la neige, le pâtre qui n’a plus de fourrages se lève et regarde autour de lui ; mais voyant partout blanchir la plaine, il se bat les flancs, et troublé par son malheur, il rentre sous ses toits, court, s’écrie et se désespère. Il sort enfin, et renaît à l’espérance lorsqu’il voit qu’un temps si court a changé l’aspect des champs: déjà la houlette en main, il chasse devant lui son troupeau, qui bondit sur la verdure.

IN the year’s early nonage, when the sun

Tempers his tresses in Aquarius’ urn,

And now towards equal day the nights recede,

When as the rime upon the earth puts on

Her dazzling sister’s image, but not long

Her milder sway endures, then riseth up

The village hind, whom fails his wintry store,

And looking out beholds the plain around

All whiten’d, whence impatiently he smites

His thighs, and to his hut returning in,

There paces to and fro, wailing his lot,

As a discomfited and helpless man;

Then comes he forth again, and feels new hope

Spring in his bosom, finding e’en thus soon

The world hath chang’d its count’nance, grasps his crook,

And forth to pasture drives his little flock:

So me my guide dishearten’d when I saw

His troubled forehead, and so speedily

That ill was cur’d; for at the fallen bridge

Arriving, towards me with a look as sweet,

He turn’d him back, as that I first beheld

At the steep mountain’s foot.

But it’s hard for me to say what comes from Dante and what comes from Rivarol’s interpretation. However, I did get the gory details I expected:

Un homme se présenta d’abord, ouvert de la gorge à la ceinture: ses intestins fumants pendaient sur ses genoux, et son cœur palpitait à découvert.

As one I mark’d, torn from the chin throughout

Down to the hinder passage: ‘twixt the legs

Dangling his entrails hung, the midriff lay

Open to view, and wretched ventricle,

That turns th’ englutted aliment to dross.

Nice vision, isn’t it?

So after struggling to read it, what’s my opinion? I’m glad I read it but I guess I won’t remember more than what is in this billet. I don’t have enough education in literature and history to fully grasp the beauty and the innovation of this text.

PS: I used the free English translation by Cary. I hope I found the right passages corresponding to the French version. Honestly, I hardly understand that kind of English, I did my best.

Three libertarian poets: Prévert, Vian, Desnos

October 10, 2010 8 comments

This week-end, I saw Jean-Louis Trintignant on stage, saying poems from Jacques Prévert, Boris Vian and Robert Desnos.

  It was the first time I ever heard poetry in a theatre. An accordionist and a cellist were on stage too, playing after a succession of poems was finished. I didn’t know accordion could be so beautiful and match so perfectly with cello. But I’m really ignorant as far as classical music is concerned.

These poets were all part of or close to the surrealist movement. The selected poems were eclectic, but war was a recurring theme, as they were written in the first half of the 20th century. I can’t talk about the 30 poems Jean-Louis Trintignant has recited for us, it would be too long. I selected a poem from Boris Vian, which touched me particularly. I couldn’t find a translation, so I wrote it. I left the French text for the Francophone readers and for the Anglophones who can read French.

 

Explaining why a poem reaches something in me is not easy. The words are simple, scarce and yet the images are vivid. He is alive for the love of simple things. There is a lingering sadness behind the words, like in a painting by Edward Hopper.

 The following poem from Robert Desnos was written in a concentration camp, before he died. It was written for his wife Youki.

This short poem is poignant because we know he died shortly after. He also tells in veiled terms how he is affected by his detention. He has become a shadow, and the images of his wife he mentally called to resist are worn out. They don’t work any more. His body is a shadow but so is his mind. The concentration camp is a dark country and his wife lives in the sun, where he hopes to go back. Impressive.

 Jacques Prévert is impossible to translate. There are too many play-on-words and witty use of the French language to satisfactorily translate him.

 The surrealist poets are among my favourite. I wish some poems from Paul Eluard, whom I really like, had been included in the show.

 Jean-Louis Trintignant has a soft voice. He is ageing now – he will turn 80 in December – but his voice is that of a young man. His body is a traitor, as he seemed to struggle to stand up, needing the help of his musicians to take a bow. But he gave life to these poems, including rhythm, breathes, pauses and irony when needed.

 It was a pleasure and an honour to see him.

An Amazing Dating Guide Book from Augustan Rome

July 22, 2010 12 comments

 I took five years of Latin at school and though I am totally unable to translate anything, I am still fascinated by Ancient Rome. The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria, in Latin) is a poem composed of three books written by Ovid about love relationships. The first two books are aimed at men and were published one or two years BC. The first part teaches them where to meet women and how to conquer them. The second part explains them how to keep their conquests. The third part is dedicated to women and was published a few years later, probably upon women’s request, according to the afterword.

In my French edition, the poem has been translated in prose, as, according to the translator, the beauty of the poetry is hardly transposable in French. I appreciate that option, the reading is light and better reveals the modernity of the subject. This translation is meant to be read as any translated book and not to be used in Latin classes to train students. These translations are heavy because they stick to the text very closely to help students find their way in the puzzle of Latin language, which has a tricky way to construct sentences. However, I’m sorry for the English quotes, I didn’t find a version translated in prose in English, and I didn’t want to translate a translation. My edition also has many footnotes to explain the references to mythology and it is really helpful. Unfortunately, the numerous play-on-words included in the Latin text are impossible to translate, but it’s good to know Ovid was also witty and funny.

 The advice given to men explain how to act, how to be handsome and all the tricks that can be used to seduce and be loved. Some passages are incredibly modern, as this one, which could take place in a classroom or a cinema:

Don’t forget the races, those noble stallions:

the Circus holds room for a vast obliging crowd.

No need here for fingers to give secret messages,

nor a nod of the head to tell you she accepts:

You can sit by your lady: nothing’s forbidden,

press your thigh to hers, as you can do, all the time:

and it’s good the rows force you close, even if you don’t like it,

since the girl is touched through the rules of the place.

Now find your reason for friendly conversation,

and first of all engage in casual talk.

Make earnest enquiry whose those horses are:

and rush to back her favourite, whatever it is.

When the crowded procession of ivory gods goes by,

you clap fervently for Lady Venus:

if by chance a speck of dust falls in the girl’s lap,

as it may, let it be flicked away by your fingers:

and if there’s nothing, flick away the nothing:

let anything be a reason for you to serve her.

If her skirt is trailing too near the ground,

lift it, and raise it carefully from the dusty earth:

Straight away, the prize for service, if she allows it,

is that your eyes catch a glimpse of her legs.”

I know it’s a long quote, but it shows how eternal Ovid’s words are and how mankind remains the same in its intimate behaviours. The whole books are full of insightful details about dating, even if some advice sound outdated, insulting for women sometimes or if I don’t share his point of view on infidelity.

 To women, Ovid offers beauty advice: comb you hair, choose your clothes in the colour that suits you best, use make-up with intelligence, shave your legs and armpits but beware that all this work remains inconspicuous. Isn’t this amazingly up-to-date?

Then Ovid gives a definition of an accomplished woman, which has been perfectly summed up by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her hair and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions or the word will be but half deserved.” and “to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” No change some 1800 years later. What Ovid describes but of course not Jane Austen is which position a woman should prefer while making love, depending on her physical appearance.

 What sounds also contemporary is his way of claiming equality in pleasure, which has been denied to women during centuries. For a Roman of his time, this was shocking too, as women were considered as passive beings. He also calls for equality in the right of having love affairs, as in this passage:

Secret love’s just as pleasing to women as men.

Men pretend badly: she hides her desire.

If it was proper for men not to be the first to ask,

woman’s role would be to take the part of the asker.”

 In the end, this guiding book smells like freedom. Freedom to love. Freedom to dispose of one’s body. Freedom to have a private life and to prefer a rich intimate life to a wealthy public one. It’s only an evening read and it’s refreshing.

I can’t explain right how strange it feels to connect to the mind of a man who lived such a long time ago and still feel close sometimes. It’s the same perception to be flirting with eternity as I the one I experience when I hear concerts in Antique theatres. A feeling to walk on an eternal path.

From Proust to Baudelaire

May 20, 2010 6 comments

 I’m re-reading Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. During the first evening Swann spends with Odette at the Verdurin’s, he hears the Vinteuil sonata for piano. This imaginary sonata has a phrase which particularly caught Swann’s attention and gave him a great pleasure. This phrase appears several times in the piece and lingers in his mind after he went home. To describe the longing Swann has for this phrase, Proust compares it to a passer by :

Il était comme un homme dans la vie de qui une passante qu’il a aperçue un moment vient de faire entrer l’image d’une beauté nouvelle qui donne à sa propre sensibilité une valeur plus grande, sans qu’il sache seulement s’il pourra revoir jamais celle qu’il aime déjà et dont il ignore jusqu’au nom”

which means, (my flawed translation, sorry) :

He was like a man in whose life a passer-by he once saw just made enter the image of a new beauty which gives to his own sensibility a greater value, without his even knowing if he will ever have the chance to meet her again, she, he already loves and whose name he ignores”

This sentence reminded me of Baudelaire’s beautiful poem A une passante

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son œil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

I looked for translations of the poem and I found four, none of them fully satisfying. Of course, it is almost impossible to translate and keep the music of the original poem, the 12-foot verses, the rhymes, the alliterations and the twists in the syntax. So I chose the one which I think the closest to the original :

The deafening street around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the hem and flounces of her skirt,

Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like a crazy man,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

A lightning flash… then night! O fleeting beauty,
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?

Somewhere else, way too far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, you don’t know where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Both the passer-by and the phrase of the sonata are transient. They are among a stream of people or a flow of notes and yet, they are so singular as to catch the eye of the poet or Swann’s attention. Baudelaire’s poem expresses the flash of the moment, as a photograph would capture it, and in the same time, the words, the punctuation, the syntax of the sentences picture the movement of this woman on the street, haughty and swiftly walking. As for the phrase of the sonata, it seems to fly above the other notes, like a butterfly above a field of wild flowers, musing, leaving, coming back. They are a tiny part of a whole scenery and yet will be better remembered than the entire sonata or the street that day. Proust often writes about memory, how our mind builds, stores and gives back memories.

For more on Swann’s Way, see http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/marcel-proust-swanns-way/

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