Of mermaids and mandalas

I haven’t blogged for months, but at last I find myself between translations, riding the TGV south from Paris, with a window to write. A real window, too, with distant views of the eastern edge of the Massif Central, its smoky blue skyline like the top of a great wave gathering height. Time to think about books translated, and translations to come, and things I’ve read recently for private pleasure in this brief break from work. Connections emerge. Like the heroes of Jean Rolin’s The Explosion of the Radiator Hose or Sebald’s Vertigo, I’m an enthusiastic apophenian, prone to a condition defined by Wikipedia as the ‘unmotivated seeing of connections […] which has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general…’.

Jean Rolin’s Congo journey (Dalkey Archive Press 2011) was my first full-length fiction translation, and I’m about to start work on my fifth, for Wakefield Press. Sérènissime Assassinat (‘Murder Most Serene’) is a fabulous Venetian poisonfest by the strange, dark and wonderful Gabrielle Wittkop, set at the decline and fall of the Serene Republic, where the grisly deaths suffered by the serial wives of Count Alvise Lanzi provoke gossip and speculation among the denizens of the Libro d’Oro, the city’s celebrated Golden Book, its pages inscribed with the names of Venice’s oldest and grandest families.

Venice is a fitting backdrop for a work of translation: the city owes some of its splendour to an act of translation in the other (true? literal?) sense – the bringing across of the remains of the evangelist and Christian martyr Mark from Alexandria, making it an important place of pilgrimage.  And Wittkop is the perfect writer to celebrate Venice’s characteristic mix of beauty and decay, its stunning assertion of civilisation and art (all that gold and marble, colour and architecture, all those glittering mosaics) in a featureless wash of sea and sky, its embodiment of human ingenuity and rottenness alike, its determination to celebrate life amid the persistent whiff of death. Like her cinematic kindred spirit Peter Greenaway, Gabrielle Wittkop’s work is full of all these things. Unafraid of death, she put an end to her own life in 2002, at the age of 82, after being diagnosed with lung cancer, choosing to skip the unenticing final episode of a long, richly eventful, sexually adventurous existence, and to die as she had lived – in her own words – ‘a free man.’

Wittkop loved Venice, the mermaid city, wedded to the sea. Like her writing, Venice is outlandish, beautiful, and a rich source prurient fascination (all those smells, all that fluorescent seaweed slopping at the foot of marble palace walls). And so to the pages of Vanity Fair (the March 2014 issue; I have it with me on the train). Lili Anolik’s brilliant piece All About Eve has this to say about L.A. party girl and boho intellectual Eve Babitz, scarred by horrific burns following a motor accident:

‘…she tells me what her skin looks like (“I’m a mermaid now, half my body.”) That last remark is the one that knocks me out the most. I love it not simply because it shows how tough she is, how un-whining, but because of its sneaky eroticism. She’s comparing her burned epidermis – a painful and grisly condition, a disfigurement – to the scales of a mermaid, the femme fatale of the sea. As an image it’s grotesque and romantic at once. Not just sexy, perversely sexy. Not just perversely sexy, triumphantly perversely sexy.’

This is pure Wittkop. A couple of years ago, leading a discussion of her writing with MA students at the University of London Institute in Paris, I found many who shared my enthusiasm, but others unable to suspend their moral abhorrence: one passage, from Gabrielle’s memoir Chaque jour est un arbre qui tombe, describes the fascinating beauty of a leper’s skin, and the same man’s piercingly human, ‘salacious’ eye, jewel-bright in its exotic setting.  Wittkop’s novel The Necrophiliac (translated by Don Bapst; ECW Press 2011) was hailed by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian as a masterpiece, but perhaps not one you’d care to be seen reading on your morning commute. Triumphantly, perversely sexy.…

It’s an imaginative leap from Venice to the icy expanses of the Finnmark wilderness, and Oliver Truc’s début crime novel Le dernier lapon (‘Forty Days Without Shadow’ in my translation; Little, Brown, 2014). But beauty and mortality are here in abundance, too, not to mention grotesquely fascinating body parts (a pair of severed human ears). And violent death, in a shocking murder and the slow agony of an entire people, the Sami, Europe’s last indigenous nomads. There’s even the potential for mermaids, unlikely as that may seem: one of the best reads of my work hiatus has been Elisabeth Gifford’s Hebridean novel Secrets of the Sea House, which includes a reference to the intriguing theory that mermaids (or Selkies) in the stories and legends of the north-western Scottish isles might well be our last record of a lost people – the Sea Sami, expert kayakers, travelling far from their base on the Norwegian coast, skimming the waves in slender, sealskin craft, their legs encased (crucially) in glossy, waterproof sheaths made from strips of translucent seal gut. Mer-people par excellence, and proof that truth can indeed be stranger than the imaginings of fiction. Strange but true… it occurs to me that yet another mermaid appears in my co-translation of Antoine Laurain’s Parisian ‘fairytale’ The President’s Hat (with Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken of Gallic Books). The ‘mythical, fish-tailed creature’ is the emblem and muse of perfumier Pierre Aslan, under whose aegis he makes a triumphant return from the deserts of depression to new inspiration and life (her trident is a perfumier’s scent strip-holder).

Mermaid

 

I’ve finished a long-standing read in my short break between books: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road (John Murray 2013), the concluding volume of the trilogy that began with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Mermaids are conjured in the pages of the author’s Green Diary, written when he was a young man of twenty, touring the monasteries of Mount Athos in the mid-1930s:  ‘The first glimpse of Simonopetra is magnificent. It is perched high up on the mountain, looking as if it grows straight from the peak beneath it, the brick blending as imperceptibly with the rock as a mermaid with her tail…’  A few pages on, and a fishtail flash of gold returns us to the quasi-Venetian splendours of a frescoed monastery church, with its ‘host of saints and martyrs, the serried ranks of their haloes diminishing in the distance, and interlapping as neatly as fish scales.’

All that to say – what exactly? (We apophenians are enthusiastic pursuers of signs and hidden meanings, but it’s so much more fun to keep travelling than to arrive…). Perhaps quite simply that, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, ‘the world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’ Or as Wittkop herself puts it in the prologue to Murder Most Serene, with a few imaginative leaps and bounds we may cross broad chasms and traverse vast deserts with ease (see ‘Translation is… bunraku?’ on this blog).

One of the loveliest passages in Wittkop’s writing (and there are more than a few – it’s not all death, transgression and decay) occurs in her aforementioned memoir Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe (‘Each Day is a Tree That Falls’).  The narrator takes a plane flight and finds herself with the gift of time, gazing through the porthole at the sky, until her thoughts resolve themselves – through imaginative leaps, unexpected connections, immanent formal correspondences – into a radiant, ordered pattern of compelling beauty,  ‘like a mandala.’

I’m greatly looking forward to translating Gabrielle’s work.

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One comment on “Of mermaids and mandalas

  1. […] 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 […]

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