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.

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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

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’ (1): the Sword Swallower

At long last, I’ve been to see the Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern. After two hours, I was still in room 1, where the pages of Matisse’s book Jazz are displayed, frieze-like in glass-topped cases around all four walls, with the artist’s original cut-paper collages mounted above. A rare opportunity (unless you own one of the original editions, or a recent facsimile) to enjoy the text pages and pictures in sequence, as Matisse intended.

Two hours of reading and looking prove what I’ve long suspected – that Matisse’s refutal of any connection between the dazzling cut-outs and  his scrolling lines of script is utterly disingenuous. Twice in the text, up front and again at the end, he insists that the flowing calligraphy serves as neutral wallpaper:  resting the eye between the vivid colours of the pictures. Move along, he insists, nothing to see (or read)  here… But there is, and how.

Yet many (even most) art historians overlook the close interaction of Jazz’s words and imagery. Writing just a few years  after the book’s publication, the great American museum director (and Matisse’s personal friend) Alfred H. Barr is categorical:

‘Though five or six pages of text come before every stencil there is little obvious relation between them. They were intended more as a kind of interstitial padding to rest the eye between bouts with the dazzling plates. Matisse explains [this] in a preface to the text […]. Besides the first and last paragraphs […] there is only one line referring to the specific subject matter of the prints, and that concerns lagoons.’ [1]

This may go some way to explaining why (frustratingly for many visitors I overheard) the Tate has not included small translated text panels, enabling non-French speakers to experience the words and pictures together. We are perhaps too eager to take Matisse at his word and overlook his text: afraid to by-pass the master’s opening pronouncement. But Matisse’s book offers rich rewards for anyone prepared to ignore him and read on. And with supreme, classical apophasis, it seems to me that’s precisely what he is inviting us to do – provided we can read French, of course. For while the text of Jazz has often been translated, the resulting English versions have never been published ’in situ’, interleaved with the pictures  in the original order, so that the precise interaction between the two may be fully appreciated by art lovers with no command of the book’s original language.

Alastair Sooke’s excellent, short study of the cut-outs, Henri Matisse, A Second Life (piled high in the Tate bookshop and well worth a read) quotes American art critic Jack Flam: [‘Jazz’ is] the closest thing to an autobiography Matisse has left us.’ Jazz is indeed an intimate, autobiographical narrative, charting the progress of Matisse’s art  and soul, from horror at the slingshots and arrows of criticism levelled at him from time to time (and especially just before and during the Second World War) to the joy and serenity of his final years, so vividly expressed in the later cut-outs. Alastair Sooke gets to the heart of the pain, violence and catharsis that are the essence of Jazz: ‘For me,’ he says ’the juxtaposition of the overt brightness of the illustrations and the darkness of some aspects of their subject matter is what makes Jazz such a powerful and moving work of art.’  Sooke also acknowledges some connection between the words and pictures: ‘This undertow of violence and melancholy is reinforced by the text, which refers to the “violence” of the colour plates and begins with an image of bodily mutilation: “He who wants to devote himself to painting must begin by cutting out his tongue.”’ But Sooke gives little evidence of the detailed interaction between words and pictures throughout Jazz. I would take his statement a step further. For me, the precise interweaving of Matisse’s remarkable, often underestimated text with the in-your-face brightness and inherent, dark pain of the pictures, is what makes Jazz such a powerful and moving work of art.

Take the opening reference to the artist cutting out his tongue: Matisse is quoting one of his own, earlier statements on art, before pondering why he has now chosen to express himself with ‘means other than those which are inherently [the artist’s]’ – namely words, rather than colour and form. The big, scrolling words in Jazz are ‘PURELY VISUAL’ he says (spectaculaire in French, meaning ‘there to be looked at rather than read’). The script is interrupted here with block capitals for the only time in the book: Matisse is protesting too much, bien sûr. He goes on to state his intention to do just what we might expect:  since the neutral, black-and-white script is a visual necessity, breaking up the vivid colour, he will use the text pages to ‘set down some remarks and notes taken over the course of my existence as a painter’, and begs ‘the indulgence generally accorded to the writings of painters.’ We have permission to read his words after all, but must accept them as random jottings of no special merit. I beg to differ. Matisse knows full well what he is about – remember, he has just emerged from the agony of war and life in a society split asunder by occupation and rival loyalties. A place where everyone, collaborators and resistants alike, learned to dissemble and communicate under cover.

Some commentators have linked the opening reference to the severed tongue with the picture interleaved with pages 93 and 94 of Jazz – the Sword Swallower.

A white-faced, bald head is shown in profile, flung uncomfortably far back, the throat swelling and the jaws forced painfully wide to receive three elongated rectangles containing pointed, undulating black blades. A small, three-petalled, floral cut-out stands for the eye. Certainly, this image of oral pain has some connection to the cutting out of tongues. But there’s more. The text immediately preceding the picture (on p.  93) reads:

A new picture should be something unique, a birth bringing a new figure into the corpus of the representation of the world through the mind of man. The artist must bring all his energy, his sincerity, and the greatest modesty to bear as he works, discarding the old clichés which come so readily to hand and may choke the little flower  which, for its part, never comes as we expect.

Here, then, is the artist choked by visual cliché, struggling to nurture ‘the little flower’ of fresh creativity: a clear link to the Sword Swallower’s pose, and the sprouting form of the small black cut-out in the middle of the white globe of his head – the artist’s eye and/or a budding type for the ‘new figure’ which Matisse’s cut-outs engender in the corpus of representational art.

The text immediately following the Sword Swallower reads:

A musician said: In art, truth and reality begin when the artist no longer has any understanding of what he does, or what he knows, and there remains an energy that is all the more forceful for being thwarted, compressed, constricted. And so we must present ourselves with the greatest humility, all white, all pure, with complete candour, the brain seemingly empty, in a state of mind analogous to that of the communicant approaching the Holy Table…’

This after an image of a pure white, blank, profile head, thrown back in the manner of a communicant ready to the receive the Host, but receiving instead a trinity of swords thrust painfully down the throat. Without the text, our understanding of the picture may be quite different. ‘See the man singing?’ said a woman to her small son as I moved slowly around the room at Tate Modern. ‘See all the singing coming out of his mouth?’ Perhaps the Sword Swallower is the embodiment of the often painful process of artistic inspiration (in every sense of the term), and the agony and ecstasy of the creative outpouring that results?

Clearly, these are not merely (as Matisse states on p.141 at the end of his text) ‘crystallisations of memories of the circus, popular fairy tales or travels’ interspersed with pages of a painter’s musings and jottings. There is more afoot:  the words and pictures in Jazz are working together in detail, page by page, to generate much deeper, subliminal meanings, inexpressible by either medium in isolation. Matisse is wrestling with the intimate matter of his ‘artist’s existence’ and more besides, expressing himself not merely through ‘those means which are inherently his’, but through words and pictures combined.

More of this anon…

flower

[1] Alfred H. Barr, Matisse, his art and his public, 1951.

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.