“Get out of my country…”

 The last time I blogged (I kid you not) was in January 2016, just after David Bowie died. Like the Rip Van Winkle character in the viral video, waking up somewhere towards the end of that fateful year, I’ve got some catching up to do. And recent events have made even that string of celebrity deaths look like a mere detail of history… But there’s no time to write anything new just now. I’m late, I’m late for some very important deadlines. Still, the chilling clip of a foreign-accented journalist being manhandled out of a White House press briefing, and the words used against him, brought a past translation to mind, so here it is – a short story by the French/Tunisian/Jewish/Berber writer Hubert Haddad, originally published in the Guardian in 2011:

Spring breeze

by Hubert Haddad

(from Vent printanier, Editions Zulma, 2010)

Stop, my friend! I am afraid – stop! between the trees on the hill, the bent trees on the hill, I saw an eye, unless that eye is a cloud. It fixes me with its troubling stare; stop! It follows our steps along the road, unless that eye is a cloud.
Max Jacob, The Dice Cup

Get thee out of thy country…
(Lekh Lekha)
Genesis 12:1

 Afficher l'image d'origine

An abandoned railway station is like an old man living alone, with its run-down buildings, its tracks covered with weeds and thistles beyond the cracked concrete of the platforms: it goes nowhere and no one ever comes. This is what Michaï told himself, his violin case under his arm, as he approached the irregular outline of the building, with its pseudo-Mittel-European air, its windows topped by crescent mosaics, its stepped roofs culminating in a terrace flanked by two gables. Above the sealed doors, the ceramic sign was still fresh and bright: CHEMIN DE FER DE CEINTURE.Rags and garbage bags littered the adjoining waste ground, like a deserted marketplace. A freight hangar stood silhouetted on a patch of lower ground, overlooking the unloading area. To either side, beyond the signal gantries and pylons, the industrial wasteland extended far and wide, dismal beneath the clouds. Michaï felt older even than his violin, a Lupot, with pegs and an end-button of ivory. The commemoration was scheduled to take place two days from now, on July 16. He was certain not to go, but the municipality’s invitation – received poste restante, on glossy paper with a reproduction of an old photograph of the station when it was still in service – had refreshed his memory.

At first light, released from a vague, formless nightmare, he had taken refuge in a bar in Le Bourget, opposite that other railway station of sinister renown. Leaning his elbow on the zinc counter, he had wondered what could possibly be the use of a life’s end such as his, forgotten in the hearts of men, with no ties, no answering echo. On the television screen above the bar, he glimpsed pictures from the news: the day before, an encampment of Roma gypsies had been dismantled on waste ground in Bobigny. He had recognized the building with its gables, the freight hangar; instinctively, his violin case under his arm, he had set out for the place, two or three kilometers away.

Walking was an exertion at his age, but he enjoyed making his way down the streets of small houses between the Ourcq canal and the cemetery in Pantin, with their views towards Aulnay-sous-Bois, Noisy-le-Sec, and Drancy. There was something timeless about the hidden suburbs, behind the highway off-ramps, the concrete blocks of the housing projects; on a warm day, beneath their leafy canopy, the small villas and allotments had a deceptively rustic air. The scent of lilac opened vistas of memory. He had lived in places like this, before the war, before the winter of time. Later, he had shivered constantly, even in the height of summer, teeth chattering in bright sunshine, defenceless against the icy mists of the past.

On reaching the old station in Bobigny, he remained dry-eyed, but sensed a vague commotion, unawares, like a swimmer scarcely surprised that he can no longer make headway, his legs severed by a single shark-bite. The flapping wings of cloth on the waste ground, the rusted rails among the nettles, the storm vapours blowing on the horizon, were markers for things buried far too deep.

Just then, a short, hunched silhouette crossed the tracks. Michai rubbed his eyes hard, to make the image disappear. This figure, these signs, sprang from the grumbling depths of a loud, black abyss. The gnome was scampering back and forth, as if lost, between the north end of the platform and the waste ground when, suddenly, he stopped. He seemed to have spotted Michaï standing next to the main building like a traveller uncertain where to go. Michaï had come to peer over the rim of a breach in time, reopened a few hours earlier by the watery moon of a TV screen in a bar, and now, here before him, a spectre was scurrying. A closer look revealed a boy of ten or eleven, carrying a heavy bundle. Michaï could just make out his wild expression, his adult clothes cut down to size, the hunted look of a stray cat. The old man approached. With the instinct of a one-time fugitive, he showed his violin, holding it up above the cap on his head. Straight away, the kid seemed reassured. He bent forward and slid two straps across his chest, releasing the pleated fan of an accordion, with a brief whine of the bellows.

Still at a distance, Michaï nodded his head.

“What’s your name?”

“Nicolai, what’s yours?”

“Me? Should I need a name any more? I’m far too old.”

“You’re a musician, where’s your camp?”

The child spoke these words in a sad voice, but with a secret, almost conspiratorial air. Now Michaï understood.

“You’re looking for your family – am I right?”

Nicolaï had stepped over the brambles biting at the remains of the chain-link fence, and stood in front of him, now, his left shoulder stooping slightly under the weight of his instrument. A look of extreme anxiety, mingled with scorn, crossed his face, the skin marbled with the marks of a night spent rough, fragile but defiant – no fingerhold for pity there. The instinctive defiance expressed in his thin features was aimed at nothing and nobody. Only a slight contraction of the lips, and his reddened eyes, betrayed his state of panic.

Michaï glanced along the abandoned concourse. A burnt-out camp fire between four stones, socks hanging on a line, a water container, sodden sticks of bread… The expulsion must have been speedily carried out. It was almost always the same: the local authorities would chase out the descendants of martyrs, so that their memory could be honoured in peace.

“Where have you been until now?” he asked.

The Roma boy jerked his chin at his accordion.

“My uncles and me, we were playing in the metro like we always do, when the police cornered us…”

Nicolaï had managed to give them the slip, he said. He had wandered for hours on the outskirts of Paris, between Porte de la Chapelle and Porte des Lilas, but hadn’t found his way back to Bobigny. During the night, as he tried to sleep on a building site, on a pile of sand, the memory of the place had come back to him. He had just arrived, now, late in the morning. But the camp had disappeared.

The old man gestured to the boy.

“If you like, we can go and ask at the City Hall, or the police.”

“I’d rather stay here. They’re going to come back…”

“The police are the ones who’ll be back!”

“I’d still rather.”

Michaï shrugged his shoulders, a sad smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Lekh Lekha!” he muttered, between his teeth. He placed some coins in the small hand, blackened by the greasy accordion straps, then turned on his heels with a last look at the sign – CHEMIN DE FER DE CEINTURE – on the front of the building. In July 1944, he had been brought in a convoy to this station, but not for a tour around the outskirts of Paris. He must have had the same vagabond look, after a year spent hiding in livestock sheds and stables, living on the kindness of the Burgundy farmers. He had been taken in by a priest, in a church where he had hidden for that last month. He had no idea how he had ended up in a corner of the Yonne department, near Jonches, always within sight of the bell-tower of Auxerre cathedral. The round-up of July 16, 1942 was inscribed on his soul, like the death of a child… It was early in the morning, very early, on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Barely light. Police wagons were parked everywhere, blocking the streets; dozens of gendarmes and inspectors poured into the apartment buildings.  Michaï had just got out of bed, and been sent on a mission to fill a basket with sand collected from the edges of building sites or the courtyards of apartment blocks, for his cat’s litter. His sisters’ job was to find bits of fat or chicken bones for their pet, in the garbage cans of restaurants – the condition for keeping the animal at home in those hungry times. And so Michaï was able to watch the sudden deployment from behind an empty coal-seller’s cart, blackened with coal dust, at the corner of Rue des Cendriers. Hurriedly-dressed neighbours, some still in their dressing-gowns, were shoved out onto the street at the bottom of their building. In shirtsleeves, with jackets over their arms, they had been ordered out in a rush, and few were wearing their yellow stars. Holding their guns crosswise, the gendarmes rammed them towards the wagons; those who resisted were hit with rifle butts. There were anxious, terrified shouts, old women crying. Weary-looking officers separated the children and adults, beating off those who clung on, with their hats and kepis. Panic-stricken, abandoning his basket of sand, Michaï ducked through the mêlée and ran to his front door, in time to see his sisters pushed outside by plain-clothed inspectors, followed by his mother, shaking with fear, her arms laden with blankets. And last of all, his father, a half-closed suitcase clamped tight under one arm; a gendarme was twisting the other. And now, and then, more than anything else, he remembered his mother’s gaze, looking towards his sisters, and down the boulevard. She was looking for him, of course. He, Michaï. She hoped to see him, and dreaded that he might show himself. His sisters were torn abruptly from her, dragged away towards another vehicle, a platform bus already full of people. They fell against one another. He could still see their slender silhouettes and pale faces. His father cried out to them, in a broken voice: “Don’t be afraid!” A man tried to break free of the police cordon, running off towards Belleville between the trees on the boulevard’s central island. Shots rang out in the dawn light. On Boulevard de Ménilmontant and all over the neighbourhood, and everywhere in occupied France, people from Poland, Romania or other such far-flung places were arrested, herded together, put into convoys; accented Jews, artisans, pregnant women, old folk. With a sharp, dry retort, the doors of the wagons slammed shut forever on a life of cautious happiness.

It was over. He would never see them again, neither his father, nor his mother. And his slender sisters receded still, further and further in his memory, like the lines of trees on a road to the horizon. He alone had escaped the rafle du Vel’ d’hiv’, the round-up at the Winter Velodrome, thanks to a bit of sand collected before dawn for the litter of the old tom cat that had seen him enter this world. The house-cat had fled. And his sisters and mother were no more real to him now than the shapes of clouds.  Sixty-seven years had passed. He still heard his father crying out to them, “Don’t be afraid!” They had all left for Auschwitz-Birkenau, via Drancy, from the station at Le Bourget. Had he not been betrayed and deported in turn, two years later, he would never have understood their fate.

Michaï glanced one last time at the deserted railway lines. The Roma boy was hopping from one foot to the other, out there on the waste ground. With his accordion on one shoulder, his silhouette stood out like a hunch-backed angel or gnome against the backdrop of wasteland, girders, and factory chimneys.

Slowly, his violin pushed up under his arm, Michaï wandered deep into the maze of small villas, far from the main traffic routes. The City Hall offices loomed at the foot of a cascade of irregular rooftops, a jumble of red tiles and slate. He walked up Rue de Bresse and found himself passing under the périphérique freeway. A black tunnel stinking of urine, swept by a warm gush of air, cut the daylight in two. Strangely, when he emerged at the far end, sunshine had broken through the grey cloud. Quantities of swallows babbled on the cables overhead. The azure sky was tinged coppery red. The storm rumbled in the distance. Michaï walked slowly past the fences and hedges. Rue Adam, Les Abricotiers – the streetnames spoke to him of nothing but this radiant moment of peace, in Drancy. He knew where his wanderings would lead, inevitably, as they did every year in the warm weather, but before that, he wanted to savour the moment. Wherever he went, he liked the moments just beforehand best of all, the moments with the power to save us.

Clusters of blossom tumbled over a low stone wall; the brazen scent went straight to his head. How could nature be reborn each spring without the universal, crushing blast of nostalgia? Just then, he thought he heard the whine of a harmonica, and turned his eyes to the tall fences of the little houses on the opposite side. But all he saw was a cat on a concrete gate-post. A prospect of a tiny garden, with its flowerbeds and arbours, brought him back to the depths of the mystery revealed by the merest shift in his thoughts, more changeable than the breath of wind in the lilacs.

“Every Jew scheduled for arrest must be taken to the primary Centre, with no unnecessary exchanges of words, and no comment.” So said a directive issued by France’s national guard,  at the time of the mass round-ups. But it was the Germans, ably supported, who had finally taken the “Jewish question” in hand. Luck had been on his side until then, for no good reason – mathematical probability always lets a few ants escape the great bath of quicklime. He was betrayed too, in the end, by a bigoted pest of a woman; arrested, beaten to a pulp, and taken to the camp at Drancy, the terminus of a calamitous convoy, almost two years after his father and mother. While the Allies secured victory in the battle of Normandy, the deportations continued, in greater numbers than ever. A continuous, appalling mass transit, like sick cattle shunted to the gates of the slaughterhouse. He was one head in this vast herd of death. Then came the transfer at the station in Bobigny. The wagon doors soldered shut. Packed inside for a journey more terrible than the throes of death. Those who died of thirst or suffocation were spared the worst. After that, how to keep the memory of something no human being had ever known, anywhere? When the deportees were let out, four days and four nights later, when the sliding doors were pulled back, screeching and grumbling amid the roars of armed men in helmets, death was on every face. Everyone was made to follow the terrified herd of new arrivals between rows of barbed wire, through a landscape and sky of mud. Young people in uniform struck terrified old people with their boots, and the butts of their rifles, before emptying their magazines into a group of small children crouching in a corner. Perhaps they at least felt a measure of pity. The gas chambers were for the great mass of those who had been spared, those who had passed without too much difficulty through the first circles of Hell.

Michaï paused beneath a tall gate-post, with its cat, watching the sunlight play on a bed of roses. How had he managed to escape a second time? Well-developed for his age, with broad shoulders, he had been assigned to roof repairs until exhaustion and hunger unmasked his thirteen years. Winter had come. The bombs had brought Germany to its knees. The Russians were at the gates of the crematoria. Bombers were flying over the camps. In the frenzy of the extermination lines, amid the cries of the SS and their lackeys, after a fall that left him half buried in the foul snow, he had found himself in the middle of a group of children of all ages, some with wounds to their faces and necks, their hands red. Pressed one behind the other, frozen in their filthy rags, eyes wide with the horror of the day. Pushed with them towards a group of grey buildings from which rose lines of smoke, he had time to notice the marker sewn on the shoulder of a tiny boy crying in a dull voice for help: a brown triangle. The others all wore the same. Except for him, Michaï: his was a yellow star sewn by an obliging woman at Drancy, the only star amid the triangles. Amid the chaos, the horrifying screams, the barking, he must have gotten into the wrong line, unnoticed. A baby-faced German soldier spotted him suddenly, bent over to pull at his jacket, inspected the badge and looked scandalized, as if he had found a mouse in a batch of ducklings. “Geh weg!” he yelled, throwing out his arm by way of explanation. “Du bist nicht Gypsy!” Michaï did not know it yet, but the incident saved his life, a few metres from the gas chambers. He was sent back to his own column, the Jewish children on their way to anther block, in another sector of the Lager, where other Sonderkommandos were waiting for them, under the gaze of armed sentries, a prospect offering less chance of escape than a minefield. The electrified barbed wire buzzed like a row of hives. And so what really happened next? There was a great din – exactly what, he could not tell. Machine gun fire crackled from the tops of the watchtowers. A dizzying vortex dragged the blazing corners of the world down with it. Suddenly, geysers of soil and steel opened a breach in the dust. Michaï, fists over his ears, saw figures dressed in striped uniforms pouring into it, heads lowered, running wildly. He copied them, unthinking, running straight ahead, oblivious to the volleys of automatic fire that felled the fugitives here and there. Deafened, he raced towards the fields and hills, crunching snow underfoot.

What happened after that was known only in his nightly dreams. One thing was certain: his star had saved his life. Thanks to the triangles, thanks to the Roma children pushed just ahead of him into the dry showers of death. And was it not, truly, a curse of sorts? They had suffered only a single moment of horror: the horror that stayed with him always, pursuing him like his own shadow.

The spring breeze carried an odour of soot. On Rue des Abricotiers, smoke rose from the chimney of a tiny bungalow. Someone who felt the cold like he did, no doubt. All the flowers of all the gardens could not hide the charnel house of his memory. Yet there had been other moments, the quiet of melancholy, encounters he had never dared hope would come his way. As much as his star, music had been his saviour. He had learned to play on Rue de la Chine, with a music master by the name of Ocholowski, an old friend of his parents who never forgave himself for surviving his own grandchildren. A very pious man before the war, and almost blind afterwards, he had given away his books and ceremonial objects, apart from the mezuzah on his doorframe, and the eternal lamp. On the major holidays, he no longer went to the synagogue, but played his fidl alone at home, and his music was more poignant than all the prayers together. One day, when Michaï turned twenty and knew all the secrets of the klezmerim, Master Ocholowski made him a gift of his most precious instrument, a Lupot with pegs and an end-button of ivory. “Now, go and get yourself hired for all the parties, if there are enough Jews left to spread a little joy!” the old man urged him, dissolving into laughter a few weeks before he was taken into hospital. His pupil had learned his lesson well: for over half a century, he played at weddings and barmitzvahs, on the feasts of Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, most often solo and sometimes with other klezmerim, players of the tshekal, piccolo or clarinet. But age had caught up with him; he was as old as Master Ocholowskinow, and still on the road, his Lupot under his arm, but people hardly ever called on his services. And so he sometimes played for nothing, or almost nothing, on street corners, in the towns and suburbs.

Michaï resumed his distracted pilgrimage. He avoided the grim Avenue Jean-Jaurès, taking Rue Jules-Guesde, and Rue Auguste Blanqui instead. Again, he thought he heard a dull, vibrating sound, like the horn of the old platform buses. But now here he was, walking down Rue Arthur Fontaine, intersecting at right angles with Rue Blanqui, running the length of the great concrete U shape formed by the Cité de la Muette housing scheme. Just beyond its open end, level with the commemorative livestock wagon positioned like the accent of the Hebrew letter het – the eighth in the alphabet, shaped like a horseshoe – Michaï stood gazing at the enclosed space: an ordinary, residential building in an outlying dormitory district, with four floors and a hundred doorways, populated by ordinary families, a concrete block with truncated arms, facing the symbol of the deportation.  Tens of thousands of hapless people had awaited their final journey here, behind windows unfinished at the time, devoid of glass, staring down into the grey dust of a municipal building site transformed into a temporary internment camp. Now children played in sandpits, mothers pushed strollers in the gardens, people could be seen laughing on the floors above. Michaï walked past the wagon and stopped at the right-hand end of the het. He took his violin from its case, put the case down on the ground, and launched into the Yiddishe Mame, playing it over and over, for his two sisters and his mother, for his father who told him over and over again not to be afraid, for the children of Birkenau, with the brown triangles.

Suddenly, the vibrating sound began again behind him, rich and full this time, like the vibrant chords of an accordion bellows, in expert hands. Michaï trembled with inexpressible joy. Nicolaï was advancing towards him along the central space, working his instrument as he walked. No better accompaniment for the fidl, than an accordion! The two musicians upped the tempo, faster and faster until the children left their games, coming closer one by one; and now the old timers came too, and the mothers pushing their strollers. Coins were tossed from the windows, ringing out on the concrete walkway. The Yiddishe Mame was like all the best gypsy tunes, echoing gaily in the vast central space of the Cité de la Muette.

A Yiddishe Mame
Nothing better in this world
A Yiddishe Mame
Oy vay! ‘Tis bitter when she’s gone!

Michaï smiled at the Roma boy. Nothing ages better in this world than our encounters with others. They had a road to travel, still, together.

English translation © Louise Rogers Lalaurie 2011

David Bowie’s most overused word

Of all the things I thought I might blog about as 2016 gets underway, David Bowie’s death was certainly not one (typing the words still produces a faint shiver of disbelief); still less so, a small point of contact between the great man and one of “my” authors, Gabrielle Wittkop. But there it is: while immersed in the Bowie links filling my Facebook newsfeed (like the Man Who Fell to Earth in front of his bank of TV screens), I was delighted to see his Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair, and this suitably off-beat answer to the question “What is your most over-used word?”: chthonic.

Not “chthonic” as in “sonic” pronounced by a Starman down a crackly radio link to Ground Control, but “chthonic” as in:

chthonic, adj.

a. Dwelling in or beneath the surface of the earth.

1882   C. F. Keary Outl. Primitive Belief v. 215   The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.
1885   19th Cent. Dec. 920   The original chthonic character of the wife of Zeus.
1903   Daily Chron. 29 Dec. 3/3   Two great and contrasted forms of ritual—the Olympian and the Chthonic, the one a ritual of cheerful..character, the other a ritual of gloom, and fostering superstition.
1941   T. S. Eliot Dry Salvages v. 15   Driven by dæmonic, chthonic Powers.
1957   V. G. Childe Dawn European Civilization (ed. 6) xviii. 331   The invaders..patronized native cults or gave them a new celestial, rather than chthonic, orientation.

And, by extension:

1928   H. G. Baynes & C. F. Baynes tr. C. G. Jung Contrib. Analyt. Psychol. 118   The chthonic portion of the mind—if we may use this expression—that portion through which the mind is linked to nature, or in which, at least, its relatedness to the earth and the universe seems most comprehensible.

(“chthonic, adj.” OED Online.
Oxford University Press, December 2015.
Web. 14 January 2016.)

I was delighted because Bowie’s “most overused word” actually occurs (in French) somewhere towards the beginning of Gabrielle Wittkop’s dark novella Sérènissime Assassinat, and hence also somewhere towards the beginning of my translation of the same, under the title Murder Most Serene, out now from Wakefield Press in the US. In a palazzo on the Fondamenta Rezzonico, in the dying years of the Serene Republic of Venice, Wittkop offers a chilling portrait of the assembled cast of her wonderfully arch, decadent poison-fest, not least:

“…Reclining deep in a bergère, Ottavia Lanzi, at seventy-one a lofty, still slim figure in her gown of richly woven black atlas. Her once-brown hair is powdered to a silvery shade that offsets her fiery gaze. Widowed at eighteen, just weeks before Alvise’s birth, she has never remarried. She has written burlesque poetry, and a quite remarkable treatise, Il canone principale della poetica venexiana. […] She steers her thinking firmly in the direction of the Enlightenment, but completely counter to that which is darkest within her, chthonic and archaic: her wild, Pythian raptures.”

When I reported this tiny “Bowie and me” connection on Facebook, Wakefield Press‘s pubisher Marc Lowenthal commented: “I’d like to think he would have been a Wittkop fan if he had gotten the chance to engage with her books.”

On Twitter, Bowie’s local NY bookshop, McNally Jackson, confirmed that:

“We were lucky enough to occasionally get to sell books to David Bowie, who, in addition to being, you know, Bowie, was also a great reader. He bought great stuff, read weirdly and widely—across genres, in translation—and he was chatty and curious with staff. So here’s to Bowie, a hero forever and ever. Also, Bowie once said that one of his most overused words was “chthonic.” That alone is enough to earn a place in our hearts forever.”

So this eclectic genius read “weirdly and widely” (and in translation…) and claimed to have overused a small word packed with so many consonants it’s almost Welsh, that stands for the whole vast, dark world of things subterranean and sub-conscious, and pre-conscious, and ineffable.  Precisely the things evoked in the Blackstar videos, it seems to me: ideas beyond language, subliminal, communicable “across genres” and across media, in music, images and soundscapes combined. Something far more deeply interfused (as Wordsworth put it). Something understood.

Like Marc,  I’d like to think Bowie would have loved Wittkop’s writing, and  Murder Most Serene. He certainly seems to have appreciated Venice: one of his last public sightings was on a trip there with his daughter, Lexi. A 2013 video for Louis Vuitton/L’initiation au voyage, featuring Bowie on harpsichord singing I’d rather be high, brings the pages of Wittkop’s book vividly to life.

Venice was also the setting for a truly great, recent celebration of Bowie’s contribution to British national life (one he endorsed more enthusiastically than the offers of a knighthood and a CBE). In 2013,  Jeremy Deller’s English Magic transformed the British pavillion at the Venice Biennale into an alternative mini museum complete with its very own tearoom, and a gallery devoted to Bowie’s 1973 UK Ziggy Stardust tour, displaying a map, photographs and an assessment of its importance as a turning point in British culture. Resonating with the installation’s anti-capitalist theme, extracts from the lyrics of Bowie’s song The Man Who Sold the World flanked the entrance, while its melody – in a haunting rendition by the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London – became part of the soundtrack to the English Magic film. The Melodians themselves – in all their splendid cultural, ethnic and generational diversity – played live at the opening.

In May 2013 I emerged from the pavillion buzzing – actually tearful – with excitement, ideas and happiness. Like Bansky at Weston-super-Mare last summer, Deller gave us some very fine reasons to be proud to be British (though not the ones endorsed by the sort of people who accept their offers of knighthoods and CBEs). As for Bowie, well, even if that viral tweet about the world being 4 billion years old and “you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie” turns out to have been originally intended for Justin Bieber (yes, Justin Bieber…) it still expresses precisely how I felt then and there, on the steps of the British pavillion, with his music ringing in my ears, and images of Ziggy dancing before my eyes.

So Bowie, and Venice, and Wittkop, and me, all connected through one small, allusive word in my latest translation. Apophenia again! (It’s a fascinating condition, I’ve blogged about it before…). A good enough way to kick off 2016.

The Longest Day

A week ago today, France celebrated its 33rd Fête de la Musique, an event instigated on June 21, 1982 by Jack Lang, as President Mitterrand’s Minister of Culture. Conceived as a kind of amnesty for amateur street musicians, it was much-loved for decades but is now bemoaned in almost equal measure (“Oh là là, c’est la dé-faite de la musique!!” etc.). Traveller and raconteur Jean Rolin takes up the story (from Zones, in which Rolin becomes a stranger in his own city, circumnavigating the French capital’s notorious banlieues, the outlying zones of the city’s transport system, beyond the périphérique beltway). His description is as perennial as the grim concrete limbo he portrays:

Tuesday June 21, 1994

Around eight o’clock, I ate dinner on rue Saint-Blaise – the upper section, the part that has been saved, by some burst of organised outrage, no doubt, from the dismal fate of the lower section, metamorphosed now into a purgatory for the expiation of the poor and the fermenting of insurrections to come. Today is the Fête de la Musique. (Lord, preserve us from the Fête de la Musique, preserve us from Jack Lang – may we never see his like again – preserve us from commemorations, from two-hundredths, and from fifty-somethingths, preserve us from all that the State sees fit to organise for our edification).

At 10 p.m. a band – The Insects – began to play in the open air at the foot of the church of Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, to a heterogeneous audience consisting essentially of the very young, and African families, and children dancing on the kerb, in that way that children do.  Innocent enjoyment filled the air, and all through the neighbourhood only one old curmudgeon was to be seen, crossing the square with his hands over his ears. The Insects’ music was not, it has to be said, notable for its delicacy or refinement; the singer bawled into his mic fit to burst his external carotids, and the drummer and bassist thrashed their respective instruments with equal fury. From my spot near one of the amps, I noticed – as long ago, when I had occasion to visit a nightclub, and to enjoy the experience – how music of this sort, at saturation point (and only then), has the power to induce a sense of absolute, faraway calm, and inner silence, like the desert night. When it stops, it can be hard to move on. Besides, the more I watched The Insects, the more I decided they were a thoroughly likeable crew. I liked the way everything about them expressed their ostentatious embrace of a truly unhealthy existence – white nights, alcohol, cigarettes and the rest. They were in bad shape, and they were doing everything in their power to make matters worse. Here, at least, were three young men unlikely to be encountered jogging beneath the trees in a public park. I should add that I found all of this pleasing and heartening only inasmuch as they were clearly having a blast. When they had delivered their set, the group’s leader informed the assembled company that The Insects would be playing the following month in a nightclub, which he identified by name only. Then, struck by the realisation that he was not addressing the band’s usual audience, and that this evening’s crowd– too young, or too old, or too entirely this side of the périphérique – had doubtless never heard of the venue, and would be quite incapable of finding it unaided, he seized the mic again with a mischievous but by no means disdainful (in fact rather affectionate) leer, and added “That’s in Pigalle… Tossers!”

fete-de-la-musique1English translation copyright Louise Rogers Lalaurie, 2015, courtesy of Editions Gallimard.
Jean Rolin, Zones, © Gallimard, 1995
Photograph of the Fête de la Musique from http://www.talkinfrench.com by Frédéric Bibard
http://www.talkinfrench.com/10-exciting-must-experience-french-festivals/

Events, events… (3) Launching “Tregian’s Ground”

To the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, on April 28, for the launch of Tregian’s Ground by Anne Cuneo, co-translated with Roland Glasser and published this spring by And Other Stories.

Tregians-Ground_-17-sept-FINAL-300x460

Already hailed on Twitter as ‘Wolf Hall with harpsichords’, Tregian’s Ground is the fictional memoir of its not-at-all fictional hero Francis Tregian, the ‘gentleman and musician’ of the book’s sub-title. Francis was a Cornish recusant, persecuted under Elizabeth I and generally thought to have died in the Fleet prison, though Anne has him living incognito, and in exile, in Switzerland, where he takes it upon himself to set down the story of his colourful ‘life and sometimes secret adventures’. Tregian has been identified by Anne and others as the compiler and scribe of the celebrated Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an important compendium of early keyboard scores in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum. And while scholarly debate continues to rage on the subject (doubtless with all the swashbuckling panache of Anne’s novel – ‘Have at you, Sir!’, ‘On guard!’), we felt duty bound to side with our author, and to celebrate the long-awaited English translation of her 1993 best-seller at the home of the Virginal Book itself.

Better still, the Fitzwilliam offered to display the manuscript in its spectacular, red-walled central gallery, a glorious setting for our readings from the translation, interspersed with harpsichord music by Byrd, Morley, Farnaby and others, performed by Anne’s long-standing friend and colleague, Patrick Ayrton. There could be no more fitting tribute to the author – one of Switzerland’s best-known journalists, broadcasters and writers of genre fiction – who died of cancer just before her book was printed and published in English. Anne had kept a close eye on proceedings, throughout, and she would be with us now. As she herself had said, just a few months before: ‘Patrick will be my voice.’

Patrick_2

Francis’s life and sometimes secret adventures are full of encounters with the great and good of his day – English musicians Thomas Morley, William Byrd and Giles Farnaby, Elizabeth I, Cardinal Allen, Henry Wriotheseley (Earl of Southampton, the putative ‘onlie begetter’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets), even Shakespeare himself. Appropriately enough, we spotted a huge, glittering portrait of the Virgin Queen gracing one wall of the gallery, opposite the Virginal Book in its vitrine.

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton. British School. Oil on canvas, height 188 cm, width 109 cm, circa 1603.

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton. British School. Oil on canvas, height 188 cm, width 109 cm, circa 1603.

Rachel Sinfield of the Fitzwilliam put us straight. The lady was not Elizabeth I but Elizabeth, Countess of Southampton, the wife of Henry Wriotheseley. Earlier, unaware of this happy coincidence, I had decided not to read my translation of a passage featuring our hero and ‘Mr W.H.’ as bachelors-about-town in Tudor London, but I can share it here:

I had never heard so much gossip in all my life [as here in London]. Utter strangers would take you aside in a window-seat and cheerfully review the entire assembled company, and much of the rest of society, too. I prefer not to imagine what was said about me.
‘People are surprised you do not take a closer interest in women,’ says Henry (being of the same age and rank, we now call one another by our Christian names). ‘They wonder whether you prefer men. Fine and handsome as you are, with such extraordinary eyes, it’s inconceivable that you should love no one, and there are many who would love you.’
I had heard rumours to the effect that the young Earl might prefer men himself. I had seen him retire with a young woman, and with a young man, too. I did not know what to think. From the way Henry framed his question, I understood: he was testing the terrain, with great delicacy. His personal beauty was indeed troubling. Even I felt it, who have never had a taste for men. And his openness and generosity in every gesture, every smile, his apparent purity of heart, despite the occasional flash of cunning, his ready accessibility to all, conferred on him an irresistible charm. Even Shakespeare, that indefatigable ladies’ man, had succumbed to it. This angelic youth invited confidences, an innocent smile playing at his lips, and I fought hard not to tell him everything. But I had to cut short the gossip and supposition.
‘I do love a woman, indeed, with all my heart,’ I told him. ‘And I beg you not to ask me her name. I cannot tell you, for my own honour and hers. I should appreciate it, too, if the news did not reach my family.’
‘You can depend on me,’ he said, with a bow. I’m not sure he believed me. ‘And you?’ I asked, as if to return Wriothesley’s polite interest.
‘Oh, I . . . My family would like me to marry Lady Elizabeth Vere, the daughter of the late Earl of Oxford, and Lord Burghley’s granddaughter. He is my guardian and has even managed to secure the promise of marriage. I know it would be an advantageous match. She is charming. But – how shall I say this, Francis – I am not ready to live with a woman. All around me, everyone marries according to their family’s wishes, and then the husband goes his way and the wife hers. My mother tells me this is quite normal in married life. But I . . . I see the power of love. I see that it can lead to appalling tragedy, that the wisest men have lost their minds for love. Look at Shakespeare – Emilia Lanier has led him a fine dance: when it comes to her, he is like a child. I know all that, I see it, but I dream of a marriage of true minds, a woman who will fill my life with long years of happiness. Com- pared to that, all my wanton nights are mere lust in action. Nothing more.’ He confided in me quite spontaneously, with warmth and honesty. He expressed what we all dream of, but seldom put into words. I understood how Shakespeare had found inspiration in this young man. He was a stimulant, a revealer of truths. […]

While staying at Southampton House, Tregian enjoys a night’s music-making with his friends Thomas Morley and Giles Farnaby:

We barely notice the fading light, and then we have no desire to take our leave.The Morleys’ lackey runs to fetch Jack, my valet, who is waiting for me at The Bear nearby, and he takes our excuses to the Southamptons and Farnabys.
We part at first light, having sung and played all the night through. I note down the pieces written by my two friends and those by their best- loved composers – Bull, Dowland, Ferrabosco and others – and leave with my pockets stuffed full of music.
I reach the courtyard of Southampton House at dawn, cheerful and dishevelled, dragging my valet behind me like a man walking in his sleep. I find Henry awake.
‘Ah, I knew you would succumb to the charms of an English lady, sooner or later!’ he says, laughing out loud. ‘Or was it an English man?’ he adds quietly, with a wink.
‘Two English ladies by the name of Euterpe and Terpsichore,’ I inform him. And without waiting for a reply, I climb the two flights of stairs to bed, with my valet at my heels.

Trotting down the Fitzwilliam’s monumental staircase at the end of our afternoon in the company of Francis, Morley, Farnaby et al., we felt every bit as cheerful. Our valets weren’t at our heels, but I trust Anne was with us in spirit.

Patrick_1 Tregian_2With thanks to our translator colleague Martin Cassell for his photographs of the event.
Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Harpsichord hire: Dr Dan Tidhar, Consultune Ltd., Cambridge

Eclipsed!

Listening to the frenzied reports of cloud cover or clear skies over the UK for this morning’s eclipse, I think back to the only total eclipse I’ve experienced, here on the French mainland, on a hillside facing the town of Laon – a medieval and Renaissance citadel that soars, Mont-Saint-Michel-like, above a great, flat plain somewhere north-east of Paris. We didn’t see the sun, there was cloud cover throughout, but still the eclipse was amazing, breathtaking, quite one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. So take heart, people of Britain! (Especially Faroe islanders, where today’s eclipse is complete).

When it was all over, I felt (like the title of a well-known BBC radio programme) “something understood”, and I found myself pondering the words of a great English hymn, Immortal, invisible… Surely Walter Chalmers Smith (who wrote it in the late 1830s) witnessed a total eclipse?

Sitting on the hillside in late morning, gazing out over the plain towards Laon, we worried that a storm was coming: it got darker and darker, and the quality of the fading light was exactly that of thunderclouds gathering in the middle of the day. No hope of the sun poking through, then. Gloom all around (quite literally).

Until suddenly, some of our party started pointing and shouting. I found myself leaping to my feet, calling out loud because it was the only thing to do: a great wall of black shadow reaching from the ground to the top of the sky, and right across the vast horizon beyond Laon on its crag, was advancing across the plain towards us, engulfing everything in its path.

Immortal invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes

The wall of dark moved swiftly, relentlessly, but it didn’t race towards us – that would imply acceleration, the attempt to go faster. No, it just moved, at its own pace (the pace of the machinery of the solar system) and because it was simply an effect of light, this amazing, vast thing made no sound at all.

Unresting, unhasting and silent as night

In a few moments, we found ourselves sitting in total darkness, as if we had walked out and up the hill in the dead of night. The street lights came on in Laon, adding beautifully to the effect. The beam of a car’s headlights hurried along the road below.

We didn’t see the perfect fit of the moon over the disc of the sun, nor the diamond ring, but it was fabulous and unforgettable nonetheless.

Nor wanting, nor wasting thou rulest in might.

The cloud was thinning slightly now, and we saw a few stars. It occurred to me that if a person with no scientific knowledge at all, but an empirical, logical cast of mind, witnessed an eclipse, it ought to be possible for them to figure out the entire truth of the operations of our solar system from that experience alone. The cloak of that great shadow delivers, potentially, a flash of understanding. The sun is blotted out for a moment, and (on a clear day), the entire universe stands revealed.

All laud we would render, O help us to see
Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.

The shadow moved on, and we watched as night receded towards the horizon, away to our left. The day was still overcast, but for a total eclipse, that doesn’t matter at all.

laon-nord-nuit

Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’ (3): The Cowboy and the Knife-thrower

‘What does believing in God have to do with cowboys?’ asked a visitor to her friend as I pored over the pages of Matisse’s book Jazz at the Tate Modern Cut-outs show in London this summer (catch it now, Stateside – Cowboy included – at MoMA). What indeed?

Jazz Cowboy

The Cowboy shows two bulbous, anthropomorphic black shapes, one wielding a lasso or whip, the other caught off balance by the lashing cord. In Jazz, it’s placed immediately opposite a passage of text entitled Si je crois en Dieu? (‘Do I believe in God?’), on pp. 98-102:

Do I believe in God ? Yes, when I’m working. When I am downtrodden and humbled, I experience such a feeling of being helped by someone who makes me do things that are beyond me. And yet I feel no gratitude towards him because it’s as if I find myself in the presence of a conjuror whose tricks I cannot understand. And so I feel frustrated by the benefit of the experience which ought to be the reward for my efforts. I am thankless without guilt.

The passage is inserted between the Cowboy and another picture evoking a circus double-act – the Knife Thrower. A tall, pale blue silhouette of a woman (like an amphora at the bottom of a lagoon) raises her arms while a vivid magenta form seems to leap and dance on the spot, directing a sharp, pointed blade at a cut-away black frond covering her heart: a second image of one passive figure confronted by the mysterious skill and showmanship of another.

Matisse Jazz Knife thrower

And so, perhaps, a connection between these two images and the text they frame begins to emerge. Remember, too, that the passage of text immediately before the Cowboy (see Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’: 1) describes the humility of the act of taking Communion, and that the picture before that is the Sword Swallower, his head thrown back in the gesture of a communicant at the altar rail, gulping down a throatful of jagged knives. There is progress of a kind from the utterly subject, choking sword swallower, to the cowboy’s adversary, not quite bound by the lasso, and finally the tall, pale figure of the knife thrower’s target, quietly self-sufficient, poised, untouched, even victorious, at the end of the sequence. Progress, too, from the sword swallower’s invisible but infinitely more powerful tormenter, to the lasso-wielding cowboy, depicted on more or less equal visual terms with his counterpart, and the knife-thrower, who might almost be dancing in impotent frustration. Matisse has cogitated his relationship with his foes (God, his critics, his innermost demons?) and having written and pictured it, moves on.

The next passage is a glorious hymn to the power of love and happiness. ‘Love wants to rise above, unrestrained by anything here below’ – a phrase surely anticipated in the image of the woman seemingly unperturbed by the knife-thrower. God is no longer a frustrating conjuror, but a sublimated presence ‘above all living things’ (p.118). Not an invisible tormentor, but the fount of all love. The artist must keep travelling and never arrive, says Matisse, because

‘arrival = Prison and the artist must never be a prisoner. A prisoner? An artist must never be: a prisoner of his own self, prisoner of a style, prisoner of a reputation, his success etc… Didn’t the Goncourt brothers write that Japanese artists of the golden age changed their name several times over the course of their lives. I like that: they wanted to vouchsafe their freedom.’

Matisse is preparing the way for a change of artistic identity, a change of medium, and a new sense of personal and artistic freedom. From here, Jazz dives delightedly into the Lagoons that are the book’s clearest pointer to the joyous forms and colours of the later, post-war cut-outs. The artist’s spiritual journey – his personal progress from the lassos and knives hurled by his critics (and darker, more nameless forces), from war, from his own past – is plain to see and read, inexpressible in words or pictures alone, but communicated here by the interaction of both.

The great American art historian Alfred Barr took Matisse at his word (in the opening and closing lines of Jazz), seeing no connection between the book’s text and images, except (most obviously) in the Lagoons towards the end. Like many others, Barr accepted the scrolling text pages as visual ‘background noise’ allowing the eye to rest between the vivid, dancing colours of the plates. But Matisse’s disavowal is disingenuous indeed, as I hope these articles make clear.

Translation is part of the problem. The visitor quoted at the beginning of this piece had the advantage of understanding French (the Tate Modern provided no translation), but she had not engaged in the close reading of the composite visual and literary text that the book requires. For readers with no French, the task is still more difficult. Jazz has been translated several times, but always with the English text as a separate appendix and never ‘in facsimile’, with the English written out in the same, scrolling script, interleaved with the pictures in their original sequence. This is a tall order, of course, but one that might help us to better understand Matisse’s path to the glorious, inspirational cut-outs of his final years.

 matissejazzlagon2

 

 

Reading Matisse’s ‘Jazz’ (2): Icarus

Icarus, interleaved between text pages 54 and 57, is probably the best-known image in Matisse’s book Jazz (still on show at Tate Modern, though time is running short).

Icarus

Similarly, the passage known as ‘The aeroplane’ (pp. 40 to 54 in Jazz) is one of the best-known and most quoted texts in the book:

A simple journey by plane from Paris to London offers us a revelation of the world that our imagination could not foresee. And while we are delighted by the feelings inspired by our new situation, they trouble us, too, when we remember the cares and difficulties we have allowed to vex us on the earth below, visible through holes in the plain of clouds beneath us, when our present, enchanting surroundings existed all the while. Should not all young people be made to take a long plane flight once they have finished their studies?

But what hardly any commentators (since Matisse’s friend and chronicler Louis Aragon) seem to notice is that the two are placed together: first the text, then the picture. Aragon describes the black silhouette falling to earth amid ‘exploding shells’ – a clear reference to the realities of World War II, when Matisse worked on the pictures for Jazz (from 1943 to 1946) – but its impact is all the greater if we come upon it immediately after reading Matisse’s suggestion that all young people should take an extended plane journey at the end of their studies. The account of a plane ride from Paris to London (written in 1946, according to Matisse’s assistant Lydia Delektorskaya) describes something unthinkable just a couple of years before. The experience of rising to a place of eternal sunshine, far above our worldly woes, crystallises the heady relief of peacetime and the (wilfully distanced) memory of war. In this context, Icarus functions as a startling, intrusive flashback: a horrific image of an ambitious, courageous, skilled young person tumbling to earth, struck down, like so many young fighter pilots over the Channel, just when they hoped their wildest dreams might be realised. Text and picture together enact something akin to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

This extraordinary juxtaposition occurs at the heart of an extended sequence in Jazz, opening with the first lines of ‘The aeroplane’ alongside Matisse’s famous Wolf, an image often associated with the Gestapo. The ferocious profile is a savage intrusion into an otherwise delightful sheet of vivid blue and pink space, bordered by sea-green and sunny orange, and dotted with curly fronds.

jazz-le-loup

Immediately after the picture, Matisse continues:

And while we are delighted by the feelings inspired by our new situation, they trouble us, too, when we remember the cares and difficulties we have allowed to vex us on the earth below.

The image of the Wolf – jagged, threatening, red-eyed and sharp-fanged – in the sea of deep azure blue and magenta, dotted with free-floating leafy forms, embodies the twin sensations described in Matisse’s text. He continues:

And when we have returned to our modest, pedestrian condition, we no longer feel the weight of the grey sky pressing down upon us, because we remember that behind that wall, so easily crossed, there is the splendour of the sun, and the perception of limitless space in which we felt, for a moment, so free.

These lines appear either side of a page completely filled with a sheet of pale French grey punctuated by two large holes, one showing a rectangle of grassy green overlaid with black, the other a black field overlaid with pink and white, framing a vivid red heart. The holes in the grey wall of cloud, perhaps?  A suggestion of fields glimpsed from the plane? And that memory of the splendour of the sun, warming our hearts as we go about our pedestrian daily lives back on earth?

matissejazzcoeur

The suggestion of plane flights for young graduates, and the picture of Icarus, come next. Icarus’s own heart is a round bullet-hole of precisely the same red as the motif in the preceding picture. His face is an empty silhouette. The following piece of text reads:

The character of a drawn face  does not depend on its various proportions, but on the spiritual light it reflects. To the extent that two drawings of the same face may represent the same character, while the facial proportions of the two drawings may be different.

Icarus’s face is not a drawing, but a subtracted void: a featureless, characterless black hole reflecting no spiritual light whatsoever…

We celebrate, reproduce and translate, even frame and sell passages of text and individual pictures from Jazz, but we should never overlook the astonishing, sometimes appalling impact of the sequence as a whole.