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.

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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.

Dog Days

It’s hot. La canicule here in France – officially defined as a temperature of 20°C or more by night and 33°C or more by day, for a period of three or more days. Wikipedia confirms and clarifies my vague notion of the word’s etymology: from the Latin canicula or ‘little dog’, another name for the Dog Star Sirius which rises and sets with the Sun (in the northern hemisphere) between July 24 and August 24. The Dog Days. What better time, then, to enjoy the canine-themed summer edition of World Literature Today. ‘Four legged fictions’ includes prose and poetry from  Esther Rusquets, Mark Tredennick, Jacques Roubaud, and Jean Rolin (in my translation).

http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2013/july

And if you enjoy Rolin’s canine take on the charitable initiatives and economy of a run-down neighbourhood of Mexico City, you might like this, from the same book,  Un chien mort après lui (‘A Dead Dog After Him’) – an anthology of the author’s encounters with stray dogs and their attendant human communities around the world:

Santiago de Chile

My room at the Hotel Foresta is just half-a-dozen blocks from the Moneda Palace and facing it, Constitution Square. And a few months before, this square was the theater of an unusual news story, the hero of which was a dog. Not only that, but a dog bearing the name El Rucio, or Red-face, which was also the nickname attributed by his men to France’s Napoleonic Maréchal Ney. As a long-time fan of the latter, the fact that he and the dog are virtual homonyms inspired an interest in its misadventures that I may not otherwise have felt, or not to same degree at any rate. In the articles about him in the Chilean press, El Rucio, and others of his kind implicated in the same news story, were described with a variety of nouns testifying to the rich canine vocabulary of the Spanish language: can, perro, perro vago or perro callejero, quadropedo, or quiltro – the latter a specifically Chilean term with affectionate overtones, borrowed from the language of the Mapuche Indians. These are the circumstances in which the animal achieved his notoriety.

On the eve of Michelle Bachelet’s investiture as president of the republic, thirty or so dogs living around the lawns and shrubberies of Constitution Square were rounded up by the police and liquidated by various means. The disappeared – all without trace – included La Shakira, Al Maton, and Isabelito (aka Pituto), to the great displeasure of some of the locals, mostly executive types because this is essentially a business neighborhood, who, ministering to the dogs’ various needs, saw themselves as their guardians and protectors. (Some, like Fernando Rolleri and Carolina Guerrero, who we will meet again later, had even organised themselves into a not-for-profit association of canine benefactors, referred to in the press by the initials OPRA). Of all the stray dogs on Constitution Square, only El Rucio had reappeared after the round-up. Described as a “mix of German Shepherd and Golden Retriever,” he also happened to be the most popular member of the pack, thanks to his gentle, playful nature (it said in the newspaper) and his seniority: eight years beneath the windows of the Moneda Palace so that he had, it was noted, seen off three heads of state in succession.

The press was united in its account of all of the above. As was the online community of bloggers and social networkers. Accounts diverged subsequently, however, on two points of equal importance: who had ordered the massacre, and under what circumstances had El Rucio managed to escape? On the first point, a head of department at the Ministry of Public Health – one Doctor José Antonio Segura – was willing to accept responsibility for the deed, noting that his colleagues had only resorted to such extreme measures after trying in vain to persuade the locals – including, no doubt, the benefactors of the OPRA – to adopt the dogs targeted for eradication. (Which deed was necessary, said José Antonio, due to the threat posed by the “dominant” dogs who, disturbed by the intrusion of such a large number of people into their territory, were likely to attack members of the public during the presidential inauguration). Doctor Segura’s words failed to satisfy the online community, nonetheless. Perros.wordpress.com, in particular, claimed to have spent “no less than two weeks” tracing the animals, attributing ultimate responsibility to a man by the name of Ilbaca – or Llabaca – the “director of the Santiago Sanitation Authority”, against whom the blogger called for criminal charges under a law forbidding the killing of dogs “except in the case of epidemics or a threat to public health” (the square’s dogs could not be carrying rabies, the blogger continued, “because there are no rabid bats in the center of Santiago”). Perros.wordpress.com ended by stressing that this massacre of innocent creatures augured ill for the “new Socialist government”, arousing legitimate suspicions of a hidden political agenda behind his or her words (especially given that Michelle Bachelet’s government was not Socialist as such, but a coalition).

Confusion reigned, too, over the circumstances of El Rucio’s escape. According to Fernando Rolleri, president of the OPRA (the aforementioned association of dog lovers) the police officers assigned to round up the dogs had kept him to one side on their own initiative because he had become, in their eyes, something of a mascot (su regalón). A woman named Ana María Jara – a banking executive – confirmed that she had seen El Rucio taken away with the others, and agreed with Rolleri’s supposition. But Carolina Guerrero, also described in the July 6, 2006 edition of Las Ultimas Noticias as “president of the OPRA” (making at least two in this august office) and otherwise as “an attractive female executive” and “El Rucio’s best friend,” discounted this theory, confirming for her part that the now-legendary dog had escaped the round-up by chance, and that on the same day, in unspecified circumstances, he had been the victim of an attack that had almost taken out one of his eyes, and seriously wounded one of his legs. Or rather one of his “little paws”, in the words of another newspaper, so that the doggy, reinstated now in his usual spot on Constitution Square, was refusing to “shake hands” as he had always done before. This was confirmed by a photograph showing him lying down, head cocked to one side, with the Moneda Palace in the background. Inevitably, visitors coming upon the palace from the intersection of Agustinas and Morandé are reminded of the pictures of Allende sporting a military helmet, or of tanks firing and Hawker Hunters flying overhead – fitting pointers to the triviality of my own perspective on the scene.

As for our canine hero, I encountered him shortly afterwards – unmistakable with his long reddish-blond coat and blue wall eyes. In the north-east corner of Constitution Square, beside a bed of red sage bushes, El Rucio lay in the shadow cast by a statue of General José Miguel Carrera, and almost across the booted, laced-up feet of a man in khaki uniform, sporting a flat-topped cap, immediately identifiable as one of the police guards who had probably saved his life. A great many other uniforms stood motionless, at ease or on guard, around the edges or down the middle of the gardens extending in front of the Moneda Palace. As for the dogs, they were once again present in large numbers (nature having taken its course), and among them I noticed a very pretty little bitch, her head divided into two differently-colored zones along a meridian from the top of her skull to the tip of her muzzle. Lying stretched out across a path lined with trees, and continually stepped over by passers-by, she feigned sleep with such determined obstinacy that she might have been mistaken for dead, were it not for the rise and fall of her ribcage, and the occasional pricking of an ear. At the end of this first visit, I returned to the Hotel Foresta along Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. On the corner of O’Higgins and Ahumada, a dog lay curled on the sidewalk, as if in his very own virtual basket (perhaps his mind’s eye had conjured its wicker sides and the stuffing in the cushions), forming a tight circle, nose to tail, the latter luxuriantly fluffy with a hint of red, making him looking exactly like a fox in children’s story book. At the end of Santa Lucia I reached the banks of the Mapocho river at the Loreto bridge. The brown waters rolled by with a muffled roar, pricked all over with neat, fixed ripples between the almost sheer sides of its concrete embankments. In the distance, the snowy peaks of the Andes were just visible in the haze, and for a moment the scene was a vivid reminder of the banks of the Miljacka as it flows through Sarajevo, so that it seemed to me – relentless good cheer being difficult to maintain, along with our defences against dark thoughts like these – that the two rivers, at least one of which had borne quantities of corpses downstream, shared the same malevolent, funereal quality.  And it so happened when I returned to Constitution Square that evening, shortly after sunset, while the business district disgorged its daytime population of office workers, that I was attacked with no apparent motive by the entire, assembled pack of dogs – a good thirty of them – including the little two-tone bitch, living up to her descriptor, I felt, but with the notable exception of El Rucio. I owe my salvation to nothing more than a sudden change of heart on the part of the pack which, having spotted an even more detestable or apparently more edible figure on the sidewalk on Teatinos, left off attacking me and threw themselves upon him with even greater fury, so that the unfortunate man was forced to fight them off like the hapless prey he was, signalling his distress with much waving of arms and loud cries, attracting no more assistance on my part than he himself had demonstrated just a few moments before, with myself in the role of the helpless victim.

English translation copyright Louise Rogers Lalaurie, 2013

French edition: Editions P.O.L., 2009.      

Photograph of Santiago de Chile (and perhaps El Rucio himself) by Basti: http://takeyourbackpackandgo.com/chile/santiago-de-chile-the-city-of-dogs

Classics revisited – and Austen at 200

Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been celebrating vicariously with BBC Radio 4, including a delightful report from the Austen house this morning, delivered from the very spot on which Jane received her first copy from the publisher.  She read it aloud to a lucky listener that same day, making no mention of herself as the author. I haven’t  re-read the novel itself for at least two decades,  but know I would find a great deal more in it now than I did back then. As when looking afresh at any work of art one hasn’t experienced for years…

The 2002 Matisse/Picasso exhibition at the Galeries du Grand Palais in Paris opened with the two painters’ self-portraits hung side-by-side, both of which I had last seen (in print only) almost two decades earlier, as a history of art student. Faces I had registered then simply as ‘two famous men’ sprang to life now. Picasso (or I ) had effected a kind of reverse Dorian Gray shift: he was younger than me this time around, forceful, sensual, stocky, muscular, determined, burning with inspiration. Matisse was no longer just a well-known artist painting a famous picture of himself with green flesh tones instead of pink: he looked cautious, wary, reserved, questioning the choices he was making on the canvas. On the brink of middle age, he was still a far cry from the twinkly, iconic persona of his last years. The paintings hadn’t changed but I had, and there was so much more to see in them now.

  

Reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, in my teens, I loved the superficial fun of Lizzie and her father’s ongoing private joke, their arch derision of the lesser-brained members of the Bennet family. I felt the Bennet girls’ acute pain in love and loss, too, of course. But the subtlety and depth of the book’s characters were mostly lost. The same fictional folk are revisited in the Guardian this weekend (‘Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at 200 : looking afresh at a classic’). Messrs Bennet and Darcy undergo perceptive analysis and character assassination courtesy of John Mullan and Sebastian Faulks, Mrs Bennet gets a more understanding hearing from Bharat Tandon, and Lydia enjoys a dazzling rehabilitation thanks to Paula Byrne. I look forward to reading it all again, with what the French so charmingly call l’avantage de l’âge…

Another Austen bicentennial piece on Radio 4  – coupled with the reference to newly-published books arriving in the post – put me in mind of a couple of my recent translations. Bear with…

Sue Limb’s delightful audio letter from Mr Bennet imagined the ever-jaded Mr B. writing to Lizzie from Bath, where he and his dear lady wife are celebrating their wedding anniversary. Mrs B’s excited squeals announce her return from a shopping trip, on which she has bought ‘a Jane Austen fridge magnet, a Jane Austen T-shirt, a Jane Austen Thermos mug, a Jane Austen enamelled keyring, and a Jane Austen zipped hoodie…’.

This was bound to strike a chord with someone who spent most of last summer and autumn  translating two big books on Monet’s garden in Giverny (an exhibition catalogue for the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris and the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul), and Marie-Antoinette’s garden at the Trianon (Flammarion, 2013).

Who among us has not bought or at least seen a Monet waterlilies teatowel, mouse-mat, mug or croaking frog garden alarm in a museum gift shop at some point in the last decade or so? Not to mention a Marie-Antoinette guest soap assortment, teacup-and-saucer, or kitten-heeled satin slipper Christmas tree  decoration? Revisiting these two icons, and their equally iconic gardens – rescuing them from the gift shop and chocolate box lid, helping us to see them afresh – is what both books and their English translations are all about.

Giverny is perhaps easier for us to reinstate as a bold, avant-garde Gesamtwerk, than Marie-Antoinette’s Trianon playground. But Elisabeth Feydeau’s book (devised with Versailles head gardener and consultant editor Alain Baraton) succeeds in the undertaking, I think. Marie-Antoinette was, like Mrs Bennet, trying to do her best with the means at her disposal. In the context of Versailles, the Trianon was a genuine attempt at unaffected naturalism, an immersive environment that drew on painting, architecture, garden design, colour, fragrance and movement, counterbalancing the infinite tedium and massive scale of the static allées next door. Visitors to the Trianon could climb hills, float in boats, enjoy trysts in shady grottos, escape unseen down hidden flights of steps. The Temple of Love, on an artificial hillock overlooking a lake, was planted all around, we are told, with fragrant, white-blossoming shrubs whose petals and scent swirled and filled the air, like a snowstorm in a glass globe. White was Marie-Antoinette’s favourite colour, and she may even have understood (subconsciously or otherwise?) how white can function in bright sunlight against a vivid green background to generate retinal suggestions of contrasting colour, at the corners of our vision – provided we are prepared to look beyond the evidence of our eyes and experience colour and form as direct, abstract sensations, rather than the constituent parts of familiar motifs.

Marie-Antoinette’s social conscience was expressed at the Trianon too. Her hamlet with its kitchen gardens seems to have been intended, in part, to encourage the French poor to grow their own food in the face of famine – especially potatoes, which she saw as a solution to the acute problem. Which is why the Queen donned a potato-flower coiffure when the botanist and potato advocate Parmentier was received at Versailles. ‘Let them eat potatoes’ has a more practical ring, n’est-ce pas?

We have a duty, then, to keep working hard to rescue classic texts, classic paintings, iconic gardens, any and every aspect of The Culture, from the relentless petrification and superficialisation that come with great familiarity and huge popularity.

In that ongoing effort, translation has its role to play.

Did I see a Sid Vicious Union Jack tea-cosy on sale in London in the hazy, crazy summer of 2012? I think perhaps I did…

  • Monet’s Garden: Masterpieces from the Musée Marmottan Monet, exhibition catalogue, Musée Marmottan Monet/Sakip Sabanci Museum, 2012. Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Charles Penwarden.

Events, events… (2): International Translation Day

Coincidentally, the francosphere (see ‘Events, events… 1’) was the subject of my first conversation,  over coffee and signing-in, at International Translation Day, held a few weeks ago at London’s King’s Place. Clive Boutle of Francis Boutle Publishers champions a list including a fearless collection of ‘lesser used languages of Europe,’ such as Breton, Channel Islands Norman, and (forthcoming) France’s ancient langue d’Oc (Occitan). This more than set the tone for a fascinating day that extended well beyond the scheduled nine hours or so of debate and discussion on all aspects of literary translation.

Distinguished publisher Christopher Maclehose presented an up-beat State of the (Translation) Nation during the first plenary session, outlining more awareness-raising initiatives, funding programmes, residential workshops and mentoring schemes than most of us have world enough and time to even think about registering for. Many are quite recent developments, and as Christopher rightly pointed out, all are the fruit of the work of tireless activists like the session’s Chair, Daniel Hahn  of the British Centre for Literary Translation.  Christopher concluded bravely (addressing a sea of eager translators, remember) with a publisher’s wishlist of areas insufficiently covered by literary translation as we know it – notably literary travel. Music to my ears… Maclehose Press is, hopefully, drowning in submissions (including mine) even now. In fact, a number of UK/US publishers are looking at one of my favourite travel (or ‘anti-travel’) writers, French psychogeographer Jean Rolin, currently (Dalkey Archive Press published The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, my translation of his account of a journey from Antwerp to the Congo, in 2011). Fingers crossed… I’d love to translate more of Rolin’s work, and he would, I think, find an enthusiastic readership in English (readers of travel writing, and Congo aficionados, certainly picked up on Explosion – it has featured on Amazon’s list of ‘Congo’ best-sellers, alongside Tim Butcher, Redmon O’Hanlon et al., since publication). Discovering ourselves and the rest of the world through other cultures’ eyes goes to the heart of what literary translation and curious reading are all about.

Comments by bookseller Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles, during the morning session, were so interesting, to the point, and downright encouraging that I couldn’t help wishing more mainstream publishers were present to hear him. Readers love literature in translation, he said. Tables of translated literature frequently out-sell other categories, he said. Foyles is keen to promote more, he said. Prompted by a question from the floor, he agreed to look into providing tables of translated literature cheek-by-jowl with the original texts. With this music ringing in our ears, we sallied forth to break-out sessions on getting started in translation, funding, reader engagement, and languages and translation in schools.

Over lunch, I  ‘huddled’ with Sophie Lewis, editor-at-large for UK indie publisher And Other Stories, and fellow members of the Emerging Translators Network (Roland Glasser, Tom Russell and Lesley Lawn), to plan two reading groups aimed at unearthing new French titles for translation and publication.  Groups members will read and discuss a shortlist of three or four recent French novels or short story collections, with meet-ups planned in London (contact Roland Glasser) and Paris (contact me) in January and March. A great chance to get involved with one of the UK’s most innovative and exciting new publishing houses (the people who brought us Deborah Levy’s Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home, and much else.) Interested readers of French are all welcome.

My choice for the afternoon break-outs was an absorbing session on the changing face of book promotion in the social media age, with Bethan Jones of Harvill Secker and Rosa Anderson of Fiction Uncovered, fuelling a lively discussion on the best ways to involve authors and their translators, and innovative ways around the occasional language barrier (in the case of the former). This provided plenty of food for thought:  plans to promote Antoine Laurain’s novel  The President’s Hat, which I co-translated recently with Gallic Books, include an online interview with the author, hopefully in the New Year.

The highlight of the afternoon was a talk by Dominic Dromgoole of the Globe Theatre, and ‘Globe to Globe’ director Tom Bird, about the revelation that was this summer’s festival of Shakespeare in translation, and their concomitant discovery of so many other countries’ often astonishingly intense relationship with our national bard. Hugely interesting, and disarmingly presented in ice-cool, off-the-cuff style. Three fabulous performances of Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy – in English, Spanish and an (I think) un-identified African language – didn’t altogether corroborate the old adage that its opening lines always retain the same cadence, rhythms and stresses when translated. Rather, what struck me most was how effectively Hamlet’s discursive, argumentative questioning seemed to morph into other ‘national characters’ (and other sexes – the Spanish Hamlet was a woman), while his essential personality appeared quite different in all three. The English performance was one of the most perceptive I’ve seen – Hamlet emerged as terrified and sleep-deprived, paralysed by traumatic stress, clinging to reason against the odds. Quite different from his (equally plausible) cantankerous, feisty Spanish incarnation,  or his African alter-ego, determined to externalise and confront his dilemma by talking it over with himself out loud: a thoroughly sane man in an insane, out-of-control situation.

The day ended with the presentation of this year’s Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, to  Chinese-English translator Philip Hand, for his translation of Han Dong’s entertaining short story The Wig – sadly we weren’t treated to a reading (the story is online at the Granta Web site), but we were treated to more than generous drinks and nibbles, and a chance to carry the day’s conversations on into the evening, out through the doors of King’s Place, and into the nearest pub…