“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

Furtive translation

Imagine my delight – after June’s post Of Mermaids and Mandalas, with all its talk of apophenia, fish-scales, mermaid’s tails, translated relics and the exotic bedazzlement of medieval Christian art – at finding myself quite by coincidence in Conques, a tiny village in the depths of the French department of Aveyron, noted for its fish-scale rooftiles and the bejewelled splendours of its medieval treasury, brought there by what the local church authorities are pleased to call ‘furtive translation’  (the smuggling of sainted relics from one place to another).

20140614_162500Conques5

Apophenian heaven! (As explained in my last post, apophenia is defined in Wikipedia as the ‘ “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but […] has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general.’ I am an  enthusiastic sufferer.)

Conques today is a place of miraculously preserved, Harry Potter-ish, Diagon Alley-esque quaintness, a gem on the pilgrim path through France to Compostela,  surrounded by wild woods, far from the madding world, its most obvious modern intrusion being the understated, monochrome windows by Pierre Soulages adorning the great basilica of Sainte Foy (St Faith).conques4conques1

Foy (pronounced fwah) was a 4th-century Christian convert and martyr, and the object of an important cult in her native city of Agen, until five hundred years later, when a monk from Conques removed her relics, ostensibly to save  them from the sack of the region by Norman invaders (but with the collateral benefit of transforming his isolated hermitage into a popular and lucrative pilgrim attraction). Whether stolen or ‘furtively translated’, the relics brought visitors,  wealth, art and  renown to the tiny hamlet: a soaring twin-towered basilica, fabulous carvings and the extraordinary gold reliquary containing Faith’s remains.

Conques7Enthroned as the centrepiece of the basilica’s astonishing treasury, this is as rich and strange an object as anything that has come down to us from the Christian church of the early Middle Ages – as if a piece of the Pala d’Oro in Venice had broken away and morphed, CGI-wise, into human form. Apparently constructed (in part) using the gold bust of a late Roman emperor, studded all over with multicoloured gems, enamels and Antique cameos, the dazzling gold case encloses a wooden base known rather wonderfully in French as the âme or soul. Analysis of the object during restoration work revealed successive stages of elaboration, before the piece was again smuggled away for safe-keeping, probably from zealous Protestant iconoclasts in the 16th century. The idol (it looks for all the world like some exotic pre-Columbian artefact) was hidden in the masonry of the choir, at the heart of the basilica, and Conques sank once again into neglect and oubli.

The village’s second renaissance came in the 19th century, thanks to Prosper Mérimée in his capacity as France’s national Inspector of Historical Monuments. Arriving in Conques, and wondering at the basilica’s extraordinary carvings, especially the Judgement lintel over the west door, he declared that he ‘had been unprepared for the discovery such riches in such a desert.’ Restoration work began, and Ste Foy was exhumed from her hiding place. Today, that 9th-century act of ‘furtive translation’ draws fascinated pilgrims and tourist crowds to Conques. The tiny village is a site of unexpected marvels and inspiration, presenting treasures from another place to a delighted public.

Literary translators (furtive or otherwise) and their readers will of course appreciate the analogy.

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.

Translation is… bunraku?

Sometimes my commercial and literary translations converge in interesting and unexpected ways. Take a recent project describing a production of bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre) opening this very night at Paris’s Festival d’Automne:

http://en.fondationdentreprisehermes.org/Know-how-and-creativity/Performing-arts/Hiroshi-Sugimoto-at-the-Festival-d-Automne

Bunraku puppetry really has to be seen to be believed: dressed all in black, the puppeteers are in plain sight throughout, bringing the marionettes vividly to life but remaining impassive, visible and invisible all at once.

bunraku

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UV938f46Wpg

I was immediately reminded of the opening of a novel by one of my favourite French writers, the strange, dark and wonderful Gabrielle Wittkop. Sérénissime Assassinat (‘Murder Most Serene’; Verticales 2001, Poche 2002) is an outrageous, Greenaway-esque poisonfest set in 18th-century Venice (my translation won a French Voices award in 2011 and is currently seeking a US publisher). Before beginning her tale, Wittkop introduces her role as narrator:

‘Concealed  beneath  a  hood  and  clad  all  in  black,  the bunraku master controls his puppets’ movements, endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his implacable interference, as we forget all fatalities. The figures breathe, walk, shudder and lie, love or kill one another, smile or sob, but they do not eat, apart from the occasional morsel of poison. This, then, is how it shall be: I remain present, masked as convention dictates, while in a Venice on the brink of downfall, women gorged with venom burst like wineskins. I enjoy presenting their spectacle, and I watch it, too, my own spectator. If, contrary to the laws of bunraku, my figures eat or drink, it is only the better  to foil conjecture. We shall not always know if the dishes are harmless. Sometimes we shall think, quite wrongly, that they may be otherwise; unless, on the contrary, we are trusting when we should be on our guard. And just as in bunraku, the morning’s crime is explained only at nightfall after the turn of dramatic episodes enacted in a series of occult, labyrinthine moves, so the action will unfold in two tempos, passing from 1766 to 1797, as I see fit. One of these tempos is extremely slow because it extends over a great many years, the other is, on the contrary, very fast, moving briskly from one date to the next, rather like a long- jumper leaping over broad chasms in a single bound, then trotting before leaping again, and in this way traversing vast deserts. […] There is a progression, nonetheless, in the rising crescendo to catastrophe, the gradual fraying of the rope destined to break. In the double register of the story, scenes will overlap not like a palimpsest, but like transparent slides, clearly legible, pretending to fit. The figures wear the costumes of their time, their city, the most Asian in all Europe. In place of a magenta kimono emblazoned with a butterfly, we shall agree to an ink-dark tabarro and a chalk-white bauta, bending over a hump-backed bridge. In this metropolis of masquerades, whispered denunciations and informants, Alvise Lanzi’s successive widowings become mysteriously  intertwined. Seek  not, and you shall surely find. Syllogistic endings being fundamentally devoid of interest, however, our chief diversion will be their beginnings, and their ornamental  setting. A  fine setting indeed. Venice purple and gold, with her shot taffeta skies, her leaden skies, a shriek of death in her shadows, the horror of one  who  discovers  a  lethal  incandescence  in  his  own  gut.’

Wittkop compares the bunraku puppet-master to the narrator of fiction, but his kinship to the ideal of the literary translator is clear, too, I hope – ‘endlessly invisible to the audience, who forget his [or her] implacable interference.’ We remain present throughout, ‘masked, as convention dictates, […] our own spectator’, plying an age-old craft to bring stories and characters vividly to life, matching the musical ’score’ of the original text as closely as we can.

  • The Festival d’Automne is the last stop on Hiroshi Sugimoto’s European tour of his contemporary bunraku production, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki: at the Théâtre de la Ville de Paris from October 10 – 19 2013.