David Bowie’s most overused word

Of all the things I thought I might blog about as 2016 gets underway, David Bowie’s death was certainly not one (typing the words still produces a faint shiver of disbelief); still less so, a small point of contact between the great man and one of “my” authors, Gabrielle Wittkop. But there it is: while immersed in the Bowie links filling my Facebook newsfeed (like the Man Who Fell to Earth in front of his bank of TV screens), I was delighted to see his Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair, and this suitably off-beat answer to the question “What is your most over-used word?”: chthonic.

Not “chthonic” as in “sonic” pronounced by a Starman down a crackly radio link to Ground Control, but “chthonic” as in:

chthonic, adj.

a. Dwelling in or beneath the surface of the earth.

1882   C. F. Keary Outl. Primitive Belief v. 215   The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.
1885   19th Cent. Dec. 920   The original chthonic character of the wife of Zeus.
1903   Daily Chron. 29 Dec. 3/3   Two great and contrasted forms of ritual—the Olympian and the Chthonic, the one a ritual of cheerful..character, the other a ritual of gloom, and fostering superstition.
1941   T. S. Eliot Dry Salvages v. 15   Driven by dæmonic, chthonic Powers.
1957   V. G. Childe Dawn European Civilization (ed. 6) xviii. 331   The invaders..patronized native cults or gave them a new celestial, rather than chthonic, orientation.

And, by extension:

1928   H. G. Baynes & C. F. Baynes tr. C. G. Jung Contrib. Analyt. Psychol. 118   The chthonic portion of the mind—if we may use this expression—that portion through which the mind is linked to nature, or in which, at least, its relatedness to the earth and the universe seems most comprehensible.

(“chthonic, adj.” OED Online.
Oxford University Press, December 2015.
Web. 14 January 2016.)

I was delighted because Bowie’s “most overused word” actually occurs (in French) somewhere towards the beginning of Gabrielle Wittkop’s dark novella Sérènissime Assassinat, and hence also somewhere towards the beginning of my translation of the same, under the title Murder Most Serene, out now from Wakefield Press in the US. In a palazzo on the Fondamenta Rezzonico, in the dying years of the Serene Republic of Venice, Wittkop offers a chilling portrait of the assembled cast of her wonderfully arch, decadent poison-fest, not least:

“…Reclining deep in a bergère, Ottavia Lanzi, at seventy-one a lofty, still slim figure in her gown of richly woven black atlas. Her once-brown hair is powdered to a silvery shade that offsets her fiery gaze. Widowed at eighteen, just weeks before Alvise’s birth, she has never remarried. She has written burlesque poetry, and a quite remarkable treatise, Il canone principale della poetica venexiana. […] She steers her thinking firmly in the direction of the Enlightenment, but completely counter to that which is darkest within her, chthonic and archaic: her wild, Pythian raptures.”

When I reported this tiny “Bowie and me” connection on Facebook, Wakefield Press‘s pubisher Marc Lowenthal commented: “I’d like to think he would have been a Wittkop fan if he had gotten the chance to engage with her books.”

On Twitter, Bowie’s local NY bookshop, McNally Jackson, confirmed that:

“We were lucky enough to occasionally get to sell books to David Bowie, who, in addition to being, you know, Bowie, was also a great reader. He bought great stuff, read weirdly and widely—across genres, in translation—and he was chatty and curious with staff. So here’s to Bowie, a hero forever and ever. Also, Bowie once said that one of his most overused words was “chthonic.” That alone is enough to earn a place in our hearts forever.”

So this eclectic genius read “weirdly and widely” (and in translation…) and claimed to have overused a small word packed with so many consonants it’s almost Welsh, that stands for the whole vast, dark world of things subterranean and sub-conscious, and pre-conscious, and ineffable.  Precisely the things evoked in the Blackstar videos, it seems to me: ideas beyond language, subliminal, communicable “across genres” and across media, in music, images and soundscapes combined. Something far more deeply interfused (as Wordsworth put it). Something understood.

Like Marc,  I’d like to think Bowie would have loved Wittkop’s writing, and  Murder Most Serene. He certainly seems to have appreciated Venice: one of his last public sightings was on a trip there with his daughter, Lexi. A 2013 video for Louis Vuitton/L’initiation au voyage, featuring Bowie on harpsichord singing I’d rather be high, brings the pages of Wittkop’s book vividly to life.

Venice was also the setting for a truly great, recent celebration of Bowie’s contribution to British national life (one he endorsed more enthusiastically than the offers of a knighthood and a CBE). In 2013,  Jeremy Deller’s English Magic transformed the British pavillion at the Venice Biennale into an alternative mini museum complete with its very own tearoom, and a gallery devoted to Bowie’s 1973 UK Ziggy Stardust tour, displaying a map, photographs and an assessment of its importance as a turning point in British culture. Resonating with the installation’s anti-capitalist theme, extracts from the lyrics of Bowie’s song The Man Who Sold the World flanked the entrance, while its melody – in a haunting rendition by the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London – became part of the soundtrack to the English Magic film. The Melodians themselves – in all their splendid cultural, ethnic and generational diversity – played live at the opening.

In May 2013 I emerged from the pavillion buzzing – actually tearful – with excitement, ideas and happiness. Like Bansky at Weston-super-Mare last summer, Deller gave us some very fine reasons to be proud to be British (though not the ones endorsed by the sort of people who accept their offers of knighthoods and CBEs). As for Bowie, well, even if that viral tweet about the world being 4 billion years old and “you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie” turns out to have been originally intended for Justin Bieber (yes, Justin Bieber…) it still expresses precisely how I felt then and there, on the steps of the British pavillion, with his music ringing in my ears, and images of Ziggy dancing before my eyes.

So Bowie, and Venice, and Wittkop, and me, all connected through one small, allusive word in my latest translation. Apophenia again! (It’s a fascinating condition, I’ve blogged about it before…). A good enough way to kick off 2016.

The Longest Day

A week ago today, France celebrated its 33rd Fête de la Musique, an event instigated on June 21, 1982 by Jack Lang, as President Mitterrand’s Minister of Culture. Conceived as a kind of amnesty for amateur street musicians, it was much-loved for decades but is now bemoaned in almost equal measure (“Oh là là, c’est la dé-faite de la musique!!” etc.). Traveller and raconteur Jean Rolin takes up the story (from Zones, in which Rolin becomes a stranger in his own city, circumnavigating the French capital’s notorious banlieues, the outlying zones of the city’s transport system, beyond the périphérique beltway). His description is as perennial as the grim concrete limbo he portrays:

Tuesday June 21, 1994

Around eight o’clock, I ate dinner on rue Saint-Blaise – the upper section, the part that has been saved, by some burst of organised outrage, no doubt, from the dismal fate of the lower section, metamorphosed now into a purgatory for the expiation of the poor and the fermenting of insurrections to come. Today is the Fête de la Musique. (Lord, preserve us from the Fête de la Musique, preserve us from Jack Lang – may we never see his like again – preserve us from commemorations, from two-hundredths, and from fifty-somethingths, preserve us from all that the State sees fit to organise for our edification).

At 10 p.m. a band – The Insects – began to play in the open air at the foot of the church of Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, to a heterogeneous audience consisting essentially of the very young, and African families, and children dancing on the kerb, in that way that children do.  Innocent enjoyment filled the air, and all through the neighbourhood only one old curmudgeon was to be seen, crossing the square with his hands over his ears. The Insects’ music was not, it has to be said, notable for its delicacy or refinement; the singer bawled into his mic fit to burst his external carotids, and the drummer and bassist thrashed their respective instruments with equal fury. From my spot near one of the amps, I noticed – as long ago, when I had occasion to visit a nightclub, and to enjoy the experience – how music of this sort, at saturation point (and only then), has the power to induce a sense of absolute, faraway calm, and inner silence, like the desert night. When it stops, it can be hard to move on. Besides, the more I watched The Insects, the more I decided they were a thoroughly likeable crew. I liked the way everything about them expressed their ostentatious embrace of a truly unhealthy existence – white nights, alcohol, cigarettes and the rest. They were in bad shape, and they were doing everything in their power to make matters worse. Here, at least, were three young men unlikely to be encountered jogging beneath the trees in a public park. I should add that I found all of this pleasing and heartening only inasmuch as they were clearly having a blast. When they had delivered their set, the group’s leader informed the assembled company that The Insects would be playing the following month in a nightclub, which he identified by name only. Then, struck by the realisation that he was not addressing the band’s usual audience, and that this evening’s crowd– too young, or too old, or too entirely this side of the périphérique – had doubtless never heard of the venue, and would be quite incapable of finding it unaided, he seized the mic again with a mischievous but by no means disdainful (in fact rather affectionate) leer, and added “That’s in Pigalle… Tossers!”

fete-de-la-musique1English translation copyright Louise Rogers Lalaurie, 2015, courtesy of Editions Gallimard.
Jean Rolin, Zones, © Gallimard, 1995
Photograph of the Fête de la Musique from http://www.talkinfrench.com by Frédéric Bibard
http://www.talkinfrench.com/10-exciting-must-experience-french-festivals/

Events, events… (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…

Events, events…(1) A new journal for the Francosphere

To Paris a couple of weeks ago – and my latest alma mater, the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) – for the launch of Francosphères, a new journal with a mission “to define and question the presence of French language and culture across frontiers and borders, as defined by the Franco postcolonial presence, contact with French culture, and the ‘France of the mind’.”

Faculty, staff, post-grads and distinguished visiting academics gathered beneath the glittering chandeliers in a first-floor salon at ULIP’s Paris HQ (shared with the British Council) on Rue de Constantine in the 7th arrondissement, overlooking what is probably the epicentre of the France of most people’s minds – the golden dome over Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides, and the Eiffel Tower gleaming and twinkling in the gathering dusk. Images from the pages of the journal were displayed  on a wall-mounted screen: photographs of graffiti tags from the Paris banlieue formed a slideshow next to a huge, gilt-edged overmantel mirror reflecting the aforementioned chandeliers ad infinitum (when francospheres collide?).

ULIP’s Dean, Professor Andrew Hussey OBE, delivered a passionate, personal address staking the journal’s claim to new terrain in the august field of French Studies, while guest speakers and contributors expanded on the significance of the term “francosphere” as an alternative to existing coinages like “French and Francophone Studies” or “France and the French-speaking world”, with their inevitable, unacceptable whiff of hierarchy, and the risk of donnish quibbles (in the latter case) over the logical (mis)implication that France is not, then, a French-speaking country…

As a jobbing commercial and literary translator, tearing myself away from looming deadlines to attend events like this can be (a little) like retreating shell-shocked from the trenches of the Great War to an evening at the Cabaret Voltaire. Except that the francosphere has been a noticeable presence in my commercial work, too, just recently. Commissions have included translating a new critical study and anthology extracts from the work of Martinique writer Patrick Chamoiseau (whose novel Texaco features in issue 1 of Francosphères, coincidentally enough). Chamoiseau’s novels, pamphlets, memoirs – even a brand-new bandé dessinée album – assert a distinctive French Caribbean Creole identity, full of literary echoes that seem calculated to circumvent mainland French culture altogether and establish connections with “universal” writers like Hemingway, Calvino or Defoe. Professor Hussey’s definition of the non-geographical francosphere, extending “across frontiers and borders,” also struck chords: one of my favourite French authors, Gabrielle Wittkop, spent almost all her adult life in exile in Germany, where she has a large following in translation. Her works are largely set outside France, in India, the Far East, Rome, and Venice (notably Sérènissime Assassinat, a Venetian murder mystery, currently seeking a US publisher in my translation thanks to a French Voices award). My latest fiction translation is a dark, atmospheric crime novel set in the Finnmark wilderness of north Norway, but written by a Frenchman: Olivier Truc has been Le Monde’s Copenhagen correspondent since the mid-90s and is, as it turns out, an accomplished new voice in crime fiction, currently seeking an English publisher at Frankfurt.

*

One of my favourite French children’s books is Georges Lebanc (L’école des loisirs, 2001), by author and illustrator Claude Ponti.  The story includes a wonderful evocation of the geographical scope of the francosphere, and of the power of shared language and culture (through cross-fertilisation and translation) to forge unexpected connections.

Two children, Ysaline and Nanik, share the same Teddy Bear (Nounours Zoreille – “Teddy Big-Ears”), but they don’t know it because they live thousands of kilometres apart, in Bastia on the “French” Mediterranean island of Corsica, and Ikaluit, in north-eastern Canada. When they grow up, each sets out on a world tour, driven “by a mysterious force they are powerless to resist.” Ysaline takes a wonderful, culturally and linguistically-crossed route from Bastia to the north-west coast of Africa, and on to Saint-Pierre et Miquelon off the coast of north-east Canada, followed by “Ile de Quatreure, Terre de Feu, Ile Sandwich du sud, Terre Adélie, Antananarivo, Ile de Kiribati […] Ile Féroé” and finally Paris where, sitting on the book’s eponymous hero George “the Park” Bench, she meets Nanik, who has travelled around the world the other way, via Belo Horizonte, Easter Island, St Helena, Abidjan, Kalgoorlie and Abu Dhabi.

“And the great mystery of their lives,” says Ponti, “is that they had loved one another forever, without knowing it.”