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.

Advertisements

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.

Back from the Book Fair

After three vists to Earls Court in consecutive years, the London Book Fair starts to feel familiar: stunning stands up front, English PEN’s literary café and the welcome haven of the Literary Translation Centre at the very back, the distractingly fleshy covers on the S&M stand posted at the crossing-point between the halls, that ubiquitous downward-and-sideways glance of eyes to badge that precedes almost every conversation, folk riding the escalator to the International Rights Centre like so many Chosen Ones being  elevated slowly to an unseen apotheosis…

And the sheer grim awfulness of the IRC itself: a Piranesi-esque prospect of row upon row of tiny desks and flimsy coat lockers, dimly-lit, utterly unadorned and closely guarded. Like passing from the vast spaces, gilded glamour and frescoes of the Doges’ Palace in Venice, to the harsh workaday reality of the tiny, plain offices behind the panelling. Kind of…

I enjoyed just one busy afternoon meeting fellow translators at the LTC, clients and contacts at the Bureau International de l’Edition Française and the IRC, then more clients and contacts entirely by chance on the steps outside, before heading to the exceedingly pleasant King’s Head pub in Hogarth Place with translators from French, Russian, Japanese and more.

The Venice comparison was no doubt prompted by the book I was (mostly) peddling this year – Gabrielle Wittkop’s novel Sérénissime Assassinat, a dark tale of murder, decadence and corruption of every kind in the declining years of the Serene Republic. My translation comes with a French Voices award for publication in the US, and I left the Fair grateful for contacts supplied by the book’s French publisher Gallimard.

Nicholas Lezard hailed Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac (ECW Press, 2011) as a masterpiece (in Don Pabst’s translation) last year. The latter is clearly from the (very) far side of her work, but there’s much to enjoy in her more mainstream writing, too. More anon – and news of a US publisher, perhaps.