Monthly Archives: February 2017

Cavafy for the first time

C P Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Chatto & Windus 1990)

0701136626.jpg Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.

Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.

You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.

And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.

There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with dear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.

The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.

Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.

You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:

On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.

Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.

It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.

Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.

Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:

  • MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
  • Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
  • MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.

Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.

 

Ramapada Chowdhury’s Second Encounter

Ramapada Chowdhury, Second Encounter (Je Jekhane Danriye 1972, translation by Swapna Dutta,  Niyogi Books 2016)

9385285440.jpgIt’s easy for English-speaking readers to forget that a vast amount of writing exists in the world independent of the English language: neither written in English nor translated into it. In India, I’m told, there are a number of languages in which novels can find much greater audiences than the one we Anglophones arrogantly assume to be universal.

Bengali is one of those languages. It’s the language of the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and we Anglophones are fortunate enough to have had at lest some of their work translated for us. (Satyajit Ray was one of the names my oldest brother used to conjure up the great world of Culture when he came home from his first term at University – along with Tolstoy, Tchaikowsky and Kurosawa.)

jejakhanedanriye.jpgRamapada Chowdhury’s 1972 novella Je Jekhane Danriye is a gem that would have remained invisible to non-Bengali readers if Swapna Dutta’s love for it hadn’t led her to make it available to us. A film version was released in 1974, but there’s very little information about it on IMDB. The poster for the film seriously misrepresents the book.

It’s a story of young love revisited: two people, each married with a child, meet up again after a twenty-year separation. In their teenage years they had lived near each other and developed a mutual infatuation, which was never consummated in so much as a direct exchange of words. Each of them has cherished the thrilling memory and found solace in it in the midst of humdrum reality, and now it seems a spark has been reignited.

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. The emotional weight of the book hangs on the question of what twenty years can mean in a person’s life. Not only do individuals mature and make choices, but social mores change: while twenty years previously young people could only gaze raptly at each other from their restricted lives, the current teenagers roam the countryside together day and night. Both main characters agonise over the meaning of their rekindled feelings, for themselves, for each other, for their spouses, and for their children (who are engaged in a teenage romance of their own).

By serendipity, I’ve been reading the poems of C P Cavafy at the same time as Second Encounter. I plan to write a little bit about Cavafy in a couple of days, but for now I just want to refer to the many poems in which a fifty year old man looks back yearningly to objects of desire from his 20s. Cavafy’s poems never test nostalgic desire against any kind of reality. He would probably have rejected Second Encounter‘s meditations as appallingly anti-romantic, but I can’t help feeling he might have been a happier human if he had read it and taken its wisdom on board.

In case you’re interested in learning more: I came across a documentary on Ramapada Chowdhury on YouTube, made, I think, by one of his grandchildren. Now in his 90s, he mentions this little book, which the English subtitles call Where One Stands, and says that it was influenced by ‘One Day after 20 Years’, a poem by Bengali poet Jibanananda Das (there’s a poem at that link called ‘After 25 Years’, which may be the one he means).

Halldór Laxness’s Independent People

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)

ip.jpgMy Book Group read Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites – set in Iceland in 1830 – in November. A number of friends said I should read Independent People by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, a book beside which Burial Rites looked shallow. It took a while for IP to become available from the library, and it’s a long book, but at last  I’ve read it.

Let me deal with the Hannah Kent comparison first: to say that a novel isn’t as good as Independent People is like saying a play isn’t as good as King Lear, or a science fiction movie pales beside Bladerunner. The book is monumental. Everything I have ever heard or read about Iceland is in its pages: the landscape, the banking system, the poetry, the weather and the sheep – mainly terrible weather and diseased or starving sheep. Grímur Hákonarson’s wonderful movie Rams could have been a postscript. The current dominance of Iceland’s conservative Independence Party suggests that the book’s satirical probing of the notion of independence is as relevant now as it ever was.

The protagonist, Bjartur, having worked for a relatively rich farmer for eighteen years, has managed to get possession of a small, unpromising and possibly cursed piece of land. He moves in with his bride, and lives a life of unremitting labour and deprivation, refusing all help in the name of independence. It’s not giving too much away to say that things go badly for him in every conceivable way, and he – inspired by the heroes of the sagas – struggles on, defiant and misanthropic. Humans and animals die hearbreakingly, some of the latter at his hand, and some of the former as a direct result of his obduracy or as a result of their resistance to it. Whenever a glimmer of hope shines through the blizzard of Bjartur’s life, the reader braces for the moment when he will sabotage it. And when prosperity comes to Iceland thanks to the First World War, it’s only a matter of time before all is once again grim.

The book was published about the same time as Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, the once much loved collection of stories about families struggling on small farms in Australia. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the way Rudd’s Dad and Dave face adversity together, with naive, cheerful resilience.

For all its grimness, the book is a delight. Bjartur is an unforgettable character. So are the young woman unlucky enough to be married off to him, and their daughter, and his youngest son, Nonni, who I read as representing the author’s point of view (not to give too much away, he escapes and we glean that his new life in America is relatively OK). There are wonderful minor characters, of whom my favourite is the Bailiff’s wife, described as pope-like, presumably with plump Pope Leo X in mind, who ceaselessly spouts romantic nonsense about the joys of rural poverty. I also love the chorus of small farmers who meet regularly and amidst their main talk of sheep disease and weather, pronounce on economics, politics and metaphysics.

The writing is wonderful. As a child of the town with the highest annual rainfall in Australia, I loved this passage (not least for the way it makes us understand that a woman wouldn’t have to be neurotic, as she is described in the last sentence, to be miserable in that place):

Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling – rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.

There’s a lot that’s quotable, though not much that would find its way onto inspirational wall hangings. Some typical aphorisms:

Come what may and go what may, a man always has the memories of his dogs. Of these at least no one can deprive him.

The life of man is so short that ordinary people simply cannot afford to be born.

What does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, if you can really call it a life, is so short?

The most unpleasant feature of midwinter is not its darkness. More unpleasant still, perhaps, is that it should never grow dark enough for one to forget the endlessness of which it is a symbol.

I could go on.

I just want to say a little bit about the translation. Evidently it took J A Thompson eight years to write the English version, and he did it in consultation with Haldór Laxness. The translation has a strong voice of its own, an assurance that means the tone is always absolutely clear – as in that ‘neurotic’ in the passage above. It’s a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. I was happy to find a 2014 English-language MA dissertation for the University of Iceland, The Creative Translator: Creativity and Originality in J.A. Thompson’s Translation of Halldór Laxness’ Sjálfstætt fólk by Abigail Charlotte Cooper (PDF here), that discusses some of the issues.