Tag Archives: translation

The Iliad: Progress report 5

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 12 line 42 to Book 14 line 407

For the last five months, I’ve beenreading roughly 70 lines of The Iliad each morning, and it’s a great way to start the day. I expect to finish reading it by the end of this year

Books 12 and 13 are mainly accounts of horrific fighting. There’s some attention to tactics as the Trojans, supported by Zeus, attack the Greeks’ ships, and the Greeks, surreptitiously helped by Poseidon in spite of Zeus having forbidden it, inflict serious damage right back.Robert Fagles’ translation goes for anatomical precision where Pope, for example, is much more general and so less visceral in effect. I actually gasped aloud at least once. I’ll spare my reader’s sensibilities and not give an example.

I have so many questions. Is this an anti-war poem – a cry of despair about ‘the surging inhuman blaze of war’ (Book 12, line 205)? If so, what to make of its talk of glory and the joy of battle? Like this (Book 13, lines 398–399):

Only a veteran steeled at heart could watch that struggle
and still thrill with joy and never feel the terror.

If The Iliad is a foundational text of western culture, what kind of civilisation is this, where killing and robbing the freshly dead are honourable deeds? What is a man in this culture? What are we to make of the seemingly endless lists of warriors? Do they refer to stories and histories that were familiar to the book’s original leaders and listeners? Or are at least some of them Homer’s inventions? (Either way, it’s a formidable feat on Homer’s part.) Are the gods there as light relief, or as anything more than a whimsical embodiment of the idea that things aren’t always under human control?

Today I’m in the middle of an episode in which Hera decides to seduce her brother–consort Zeus. Many lines have been spent describing her alluring attire and perfuming. She has tricked Aphrodite into giving her a breastband, ‘pierced and alluring, with every kind of enchantment woven through it’, and bargained with Sleep to knock Zeus out after she has had it off with him. Now she flies to Zeus on Mount Ida and ‘at one glance / the lust came swirling over him, making his heart race’. He then tries to sweet-talk her into going to bed with him, little knowing that this is exactly what she is planning. To my mind, his seduction speech is hilarious. He says his lust for her at this moment is greater than any he’s ever had for goddess or mortal woman, and proceeds to list his past conquests. I’ve peeked ahead and see that his speech works, or at least it doesn’t put Hera off. And after all the horror of the battlefield, here’s the passage about the gods making love that I’ve just glimpsed in tomorrow’s reading (Zeus is the son of Cronos):

With that the son of Cronus caught his wife in his arms
and under them now the holy earth burst with fresh green grass,
crocus and hyacinth, clover soaked with dew, so thick and soft
it lifted their bodies off the hard, packed ground ...
Folded deep in that bed they lay and round them wrapped
a marvellous cloud of gold, and glistening showers of dew
rained down around them both.

Phew! And I expect that the rest of Hera’s plan, which will let Poseidon come out into the open to help the Greeks, will also go ahead … up to a point.

It’s brilliant story-telling to have this interlude as an emotional respite in the middle of the terrible man-on-man fighting and killing. But to return to my question: does it represent some understanding of the nature of the gods; is there a theological point to the episode? I expect a lot of scholarly ink has been spent on that and similar questions.

I have no idea. In the same way, I don’t understand the ancient Greek concept of the Hero, which is very important to this book. But the abrupt change of perspective that happens when the story turns to the gods felt strangely familiar. I realised that having recently read the current issue of Southerly (my blog post here) and then read news items on the current election campaign, I had encountered a similar switch. First I was immersed in personal accounts of people who have suffered under the Australian government’s policy about ‘boat people’. Then, coming up for air, I read the abstractions and personality-based coverage of the election, some of which would be mildly laughable if it wasn’t so consequential., where if refugees and asylum seekers in detention are mentioned at all, they are counters in a game of wedge and counter-wedge. So if I happen to say that a particular politician is godlike, please understand that I have the petty, lustful, self-serving, deceitful and arrogant gods of Homer in mind.

The Iliad: Progress report 4

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), beginning Book 10 to Book 12 line 42

As I continue my slow read of the Iliad, I keep being shocked by the intensely physical descriptions of the fighting. The warriors are surely meant to be admired, but it’s hard to imagine anyone reading without revulsion the accounts of spears penetrating just above the nipple, heads and arms severed, the ground littered with corpses, clothing drenched in blood. There’s one gruesome moment when Odysseus and Diomedes extract information from a Trojan spy then kill him in cold blood, while Homer lets us know he was a bit of a wannabe anyhow. It could be straight out of The Sopranos.

I’m still surprised each time by the way an individual’s death on the battlefield is followed by elegiac lines about his peacetime life war and the people who will now be left grieving. I’m still taken aback each time the narrative slows down to dwell on the splendour of this hero’s armour, or the luxurious appointments of that one’s tent – Nestor, for example, has an ornate ceremonial mug that only a very strong man can lift unaided. The luxury feels a bit Trump-like to me, though I doubt that’s how it felt to the original audiences.

Mostly I’m in awe of the way, amid the back and forth of the war and the squabbling of the gods, the main characters are clearly drawn, and the narrative arc is clear. Achilles has withdrawn from the battle in a rage, leaving the Greeks (called the Achaeans in this translation) at a disadvantage while the great Trojan warrior Hector dominates the battlefield. Achilles refuses the increasingly desperate pleas of his countrymen. Now, at the end of Book 11, Nestor proposes to Achilles’ close companion Patroclus that he, Patroclus, re-enters the battle wearing Achilles’ armour. This would terrify the Trojans by giving he appearance that Achilles was back, and Patroclus himself would be able to do a lot of damage as he would be fresh to the battle. Patroclus hasn’t yet conveyed the proposal to Achilles and is busy tending a wounded man, but we now see that all those descriptions of armour weren’t just a bit of colour, but laid grounds for a major plot development.

Now, at the start of Book 12, there’s a passage foreshadowing the end of the war, when Hector will be killed, Troy stormed in the tenth year of the war and the Achaeans sail home triumphant. Then the gods Poseidon and Apollo will divert all the rivers of the region to wash over the great rampart that the Achaeans had built to defend their ships. And all traces of the city of Troy and the presence of its attackers will be wiped away:

So, in the years to come Poseidon and god Apollo
would set all things to rights once more.

This is surely a classic midpoint, an image of the end of the story coming immediately after the moment when the tide of the story, if not of the battle, turns.

The Iliad: Progress report 3

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), Books 7 to 9

With some interruptions, I’ve kept up my daily reading of The Iliad over the past month.

Natalie Haynes’s 24-minute version of the epic (link here) summarises some Books with a single word: ‘Fighting.’ The fighting in those books has a hideous physicality, as we are told precisely which body parts are pierced or hacked off. This month’s reading has included a couple of such books. Perhaps because of the current news from Ukraine, I wasn’t enthralled by the violence or by the descriptions of beautiful armour and bickering gods that punctuated it. I began to wonder if the full text actually added much to the Classics Illustrated comic I read when I was 11 or 12.

Then along came Book Nine, and I’m enthralled. At the end of Book 8, the Greeks/Achaeans have suffered terribly at the hands of the Trojans, who are led by Hector and backed by the capricious Zeus, and are in danger of having their ships destroyed. Book 9 is the night that follows, and it boils down to a series of persuasive speeches. Agamemnon sends a delegation to plead with Achilles to return to the fight. The delegation is welcomed by Achilles as friends. They eat and drink before getting down to business (I don’t remember who is supposed to have the motto, ‘First we eat, then we do everything else’, but they may have stolen it from the ancient Greeks). Odysseus lays out his case; then Phoenix, who regards Achilles as the son he never had, makes his appeal. Achilles firmly, civilly, even affectionately, hold firm and sends them packing, and all the time Achilles’ friend Patroclus is a silent presence, behaving like a head servant who ensures that the guests are made welcome and oversees the preparation of bedding for Phoenix, who stays the night.

The speeches are long, and persuasive. It feels that Achilles must yield. Then he answers, revealing the imperviousness of his hatred for Agamemnon, the intensity of his wounded pride, and – this was the revelation to me – the depth of his love for Briseis, the enslaved woman who was taken from him. One way or another, women are definitely chattels in the Iliad, but individuals stand out: not just Helen and Andromache, but also the women taken as booty. When the delegation have left and Achilles and Patroclus go to bed for the night, Homer tells us the names of the woman that each of them sleeps with – in case you’re interested, they are Diomede daughter of Phobus, and Iphis from Scyrus respectively.

You know how I like to compare translations. I looked up Alexander Pope’s version of the sleeping arrangements and was interested to find that while Pope definitely suggests sexual activity, Fagles is careful to remove any such suggestion. Here’s Pope(I probably don’t need to say that here ‘Lesbian’ means ‘from Lesbos’):

But in his inner tent, an ampler space,
Achilles slept; and in his warm embrace
Fair Diomede of the Lesbian race.
Last, for Patroclus was the couch prepared,
Whose nightly joys the beauteous Iphis shared

Fagles, line 810–814, has this:

And deep in his well-built lodge Achilles slept
with the woman he brought from Lesbos, Phorbas' daughter,
Diomede in all her beauty sleeping by his side.
And over across from him Patroclus slept
with the sashed and lovely Iphis by his side

Naturally I looked further, and found Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation (link here):

But Achilles slept in the innermost part of the well-builded hut, and by his side lay a woman that he had brought from Lesbos, even the daughter of Phorbas, fair-cheeked Diomede. And Patroclus laid him down on the opposite side, and by him in like manner lay fair-girdled Iphis

And lest this be seen as contemporary US and Victorian prudishness joining forces, I found a 2009 translation by Englishman A S Kline (here) that likewise refrained from mentioning Pope’s embraces or nightly joys. I don’t know what this means, unless that 18th century Englishmen saw sex everywhere while we moderns are much less obsessed with it. Hmm.

The Iliad: Progress report 2

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998), Book 3 line 190 to end Book 6

I’ve been reading a couple of pages of The Iliad each morning for a couple of months now – with a break over the New Year when I was away from home. The slow read is a terrific way to encounter this book for the first time, not just because it allows me to mull things over rather than ploughing ahead for the story, but also because I get to notice the way The Iliad crops up in other parts of my day.

For example, in George Clooney’s movie The Tender Bar, which we watched on a streaming service this week, The Iliad is the first book the protagonist is required to read at college, as the foundational text of western literature; the professor insists that they read, and buy, his own translation.. On Twitter, someone commented on a photo of a tennis player in the Australian Open, ‘I still think he looks like something out of The Iliad.’ (I love that ‘still’.)

Rather than give an account of the fighting and blustering and wounding of gods that has gone on in these last weeks (yes, I did say wounding: Aphrodite gets a cut on the hand and Ares is badly wounded by a spear – who knew?), I’m just going to blog about a tiny moment towards the end of Book 6.

Hector, the great Trojan hero, has been sent back from the battlefield to pass on instructions to the women of influence to appeal to Athena for help. While he’s in the city, he drops in on Paris and Helen, whose liaison is the cause of the whole horror. He chides Paris for staying away from the battle (after being removed by Aphrodite from the middle on a one-on-one combat with Ajax), and he refuses Helen’s seductive invitation to sit with her. Then he seeks out his wife Andromache, whom he finds on the battlements watching the fighting below:

She joined him now, and following in her steps
a servant holding the boy against her breast,
in the first flush of life, only a baby,
Hector's son, the darling of his eyes
and radiant as a star ...
Hector would always call the boy Scamandrius,
townsmen called him Astyanax, Lord of the City,
since Hector was the lone defence of Troy.
The great man of war breaking into a broad smile,
his gaze fixed on his son, in silence.
   (Book 6, lines 471–480)

A baby! I’m no expert, but I can’t think of any other babies in epic poetry. And this isn’t just any baby, but one who brings a broad smile to the face of a great warrior in a moment’s respite from hideous bloodshed.

Before Hector returns to the battle, Andromache pleads with him not to make her a widow and leave the baby an orphan. He replies that he won’t be killed unless it’s his fate and no one can escape their fate, but the one thing that weighs him down is the thought of her being taken into slavery. Then:

In the same breath, shining Hector reached down
for his son – but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse's full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror –
so it struck his eyes.

Hector and Andromache both laugh, Hector takes the baby in his arms, and we realise that this is a story about human beings who are very like us. I’m pretty sure I’ve read similar stories about soldiers returning from the wars of the 20th century. For all its strangeness (the nurse, the bronze and horsehair, the unspoken cultural stuff about the firstborn son), this moment is astonishingly alive. Knowing as we do that Hector is to be killed (not a spoiler – I imagine that the first listeners of The Iliad knew how the story was going to turn out), we’re all the more moved by it.

It’s worse than that. I did a bit of a dive, and found that, though there are a number of stories about the baby, the main one says the Greeks threw him from the city walls so that he couldn’t rise up to fulfil the promise of his nickname and lead the Trojans in a war of revenge. And Hector’s speech about Andromache being enslaved by the Greeks was just spelling out what the first audiences knew was actually going to happen. The sweet domestic moment is a tiny, hopeful eddy against the dark tide of fate.

Then Hector, ‘slow to turn from the spot’, heads back to the war, to be joined by the insufferable Paris, who is described in this way:

glittering in his armour like the sun astride the skies,
exultant, laughing aloud.

This is amazing story-telling.

Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen

Toby Fitch, Sydney Spleen (Giramondo 2021)

There are four poems with the title ‘Spleen’ in Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857). Toby Fitch’s Sydney Spleen is roughly structured around those poems – its first three sections begin with his version of one, and the third section finishes with his version, or perhaps re-imagining, of the fourth.

The translations are a long way from word-for-word French-to-English transcriptions. Only the first of the four preserves Baudelaire’s conventional line-by-line layout, but even in it the Fitch version moves the action from Paris to Sydney, and in its final couplet, rather than two court cards muttering sinisterly about their defunct loves, the looming climate catastrophe disinters ‘whole centuries of fear’. On close reading, though, these versions astonishingly true to the originals – recreations of the same mood of disgusted melancholy in a different cultural, geographical and ecological context. (I have had quite a bit of nerdy fun comparing these versions with other more conventional ones. If you’re also inclined that way, you can find Baudelaire’s first ‘Spleen’ and a handful of English translations at fleursdumal.org. The Fitch version is online here.)

In the rest of the book, poem after poem vents its spleen on this city and this country, articulating – to quote the excellent back-cover blurb – ‘the causes of our doom and gloom: corporate rapacity, climate change, disaster capitalism, the plague, neo-colonialism, fake news, fascism’. They do it with gusto, with dazzling wordplay, and with the engagement of a parent of small children and owner of an ailing small black dog.

I’m not a critic or a scholar. Mostly, I read poetry for pleasure, and even though in a number of the poems in this book I have no grasp of their organising principles or structures, there is almost always something to give pleasure. I feel a little the way I did on first hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ or ‘Desolation Row’ – the words have a magic that doesn’t depend on me understanding them. For example this, from ‘New Work Metaphorics’ (page 19), which seems to be the inspiration for the book’s cover:

I've got over 73
tabs open in my hot
skull right now, one of which
on death-cult capitalism says, There
are more important things than living and
I agree with the whole of my man-o'-war
heart still beating its stung drum.
Skeletal, diaphanous, I am
traversed by grace,
a windowpane

The image of multiple open tabs in one’s hot skull is fabulous. I don’t understand that man-o’-war image, but I love it.

There are poems that play around with the n + 7 game invented by the Oulipo poets in the 1960s – you take a passage and replace every noun with the one that comes seven after it in the dictionary. A pretty soulless activity you might think, but when you do it to a certain kind of public utterance, and tweak it a little, the results can be savage, as in this mangled mash-up of Scott Morrison’s ‘I will burn for you’ and ‘This is coal’ speeches (in ‘Captain’s Cull’):

I will burnish for you every deadbeat, 
every single deadline, so you can achieve,
your amnesties, your assemblies, your destinations.
That is what's at the torch of my aid. 
And this is coalface. Don't be afraid. Don't 
be scared. An ideological, pathological 
feedback of coastline won't hurt you.

There are poems that use homophones to similar effect, like this, from ‘The Last few Budgets in a Nutshell’:

Wort I'm swaying is, Barry, the primonastery
has my combpleat confit dense. It's imply
inTrumpting bracket creep and I tink the sir plus
is a goner schtick. HoWeber the diss royalty of sum
has been outray juice.

So many levels of splenetic wonderfulness in ‘the sir plus is a goner schtick’!

There are found poems, including one that claims to have been copied verbatim from the label on a bottle of water, and others that play around with found texts. There are prose poems that may be accounts of dreams, especially a sequence titled ‘Pandemicondensation’. And there are poems that take us on a ride through conversations with the poet’s young daughters, online idiocies, dire environmental news, encounters with the police, and more, all tossed in together but somehow making a whole.

The part of the book I really love is the fourth section, a single prose poem in 25 parts called ‘Morning Walks in a Time of Plague’. It’s exactly what the title says. The poet goes for a morning walk during Covid lockdown with his partner, their two young daughters and their little black dog. In the first eight parts they go to the lovingly evoked ‘chicken park’. I’ve been to that park with a little girl more than once, and am delighted that it has been immortalised. Here it is:

In the rest of the poem, they go to Camperdown Cemetery, whose celebration in verse I’ve already blogged about (here).

Both these places come wonderfully alive in what purport to be – and I believe mostly are – straightforward accounts of daily visits to these locations. Sometimes the adults join the girls’ imaginative play, which mostly involves unicorns, or alicorns to be precise. Occasionally they yell at them. Sometimes they get lost in their phones, reading news about the pandemic or plague-related texts from Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus and contemporary scholars, the latter via Twitter. The narrator is aware that the late John Forbes lived nearby (I’m guessing it was in the sunlit brick building in the photo above), and quotes lines from his poetry. The two imaginative worlds co-exist easily with the natural world of high winds, dropping pine cones and orgiastic lorikeets. Once the poem moves to the cemetery, the context broadens out to include precolonial and colonial history, as well as a pervasive sense of mortality, and, oh, a hint of Lovecraftian horror. All this happens in unforced prose narrative, so that one barely notices the dark, melancholy undertow: the dog’s body is failing, the girls have little accidents, there are countless tales of the buried dead, they come across a dead bee, and all the time the pandemic looms just outside the poem’s frame.

It’s hard to find a short passage that conveys the pleasure that this poem gives, but here’s an attempt, from the 17th part, featuring the poet’s daughters Evie and Tilda:

Once we reach a clearing, Evie spots an alicorn flock in the 
sky. They eat the belly-sized candlenut leaves we offer them.

When we reach the other swamp mahogany, in the 
northwest, it's clear the lorikeets are coming and going 
between the two, raucously. The tree's thick chunky brown 
bark looks super tough but up close is pliant, squidgy.

Tilda needs to do a 'bush wee', which ends up going down 
the backs of her legs into her gumboots.

On the way home Evie finds a feather which I decide is
from a pigeon, though she says it has too much shine.

In the back alleys we meet, perched on a back gate, a black-
and-white cat adept at keeping his distance from our loose 
hands. 

It is forbidden to spit on cats in plague-time, writes Camus.

See what I mean? This is funny, affectionate, and melancholy all at once. The play between adult and children is fresh and respectful. There are notes on nature and some acute social observation – the cats of Newtown are notoriously self-possessed. These paragraphs quote The Plague, feature My Little Pony figures, and arguably allude to Bluey. With apparent effortlessness, they invite us into an intimate world. The tiny hints of something being amiss, in the description of the tree’s bark and the trouble with Tilda’s wee, are unstrained, and we could almost forget there’s a pandemic on, but the cat sets off an association that reveals the pandemic is always hovering in the poet/father’s mind.


For quite a few years now I’ve enjoyed the fruits of Toby Fitch’s labours as organiser and MC of poetry readings, editor and critic. I’ve heard him read, I’ve read a number of his poems in journals, and I’ve tagged him in this blog a number of times (here’s a link). I used to see his distinctive unruly head of hair behind a stroller in the local park (not the chicken park) accompanied by the small black dog. But though he has had seven books of poetry published, Sydney Spleen is the first I’ve read. I’m very grateful to Giramondo for my review copy.

Proust Progress Report 22: The end

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2334–2401

Finished!

Seven volumes, 2401 pages, finished!

Having read a little of À la recherche du temps perdu first thing most mornings for the last 22 months, I’ve reached the end. My copy of the book has suffered: not only has the print on its covers worn way as in the image to the left, but the back cover has broken free, taking the last four pages with it.

I probably should have something brilliantly perceptive to say, but nah! I’m enjoying Patrick Alexander’s translation of the whole work one tweet at a time at @ProustTweet, and seeing how much I missed by reading it with my inadequate French; and I’ll probably read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life sometime soon, but if my life has been changed I can’t tell (yet).

In the final 70 pages, Marcel continues his detailed account and analysis of the currents and undercurrents of high society, of the toll taken by time on his A-listers as seen at his last matinée. When he meets Gilberte’s daughter, he realises that this young woman is like a place in a forest where many roads meet (‘les «étoiles» des carrefours‘) – so many threads of his life, so many relationships converge in her person, and through her he is able to see how different parts of his story interconnect.

But then, with hardly so much as a paragraph break, he moves on to contemplating the huge project he is about to embark on – namely this book. There are wonderful passages about his plans and expectations. Having long since lost his fear of death, he now fears it again, but now he fears it for the sake of his work, not for himself. He will write all through the night, perhaps for a thousand nights, but cannot know whether his destiny will, like Scheherazade’s sultan, allow him to live another day in order to hear the rest of a story:

Et je vivrais dans l’anxiété de ne pas savoir si le Maître de ma destinée, moins indulgent que le sultan Sheriar, le matin quand j’interromprais mon récit, voudrait bien surseoir à mon arrêt de mort et me permettrait de reprendre la suite le prochain soir.

And there’s this, about what it would mean to take on the project:

[L’écrivain] devrait préparer son livre, minutieusement, avec de perpétuels regroupements de forces, comme une offensive, le supporter comme une fatigue, l’accepter comme une règle, le construire comme une église, le suivre comme un régime, le vaincre comme un obstacle, le conquérir comme une amitié, le suralimenter comme un enfant, le créer comme un monde sans laisser de côté ces mystères qui n’ont probablement leur explication que dans d’autres mondes et dont le pressentiment est ce qui nous émeut le plus dans la vie et dans l’art.

In English:

[The writer] would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces as for an offensive, to bear it as a load, to accept it as a discipline, to build it like a church, to follow it like a fitness routine, to overcome it like an obstacle, to win it like a friendship, to feed it like a child, to create it like a world, bearing in mind those mysteries which probably only have their explanation in other worlds, the sense of which is what moves us the most in life and in art.

Later, typically, he undercuts this heroic tone, saying that the project is less like building a cathedral and more like sewing a dress. He says that Françoise, his barely literate housekeeper, understands the nature of the work better than many educated, literary people.

The prospect of death hangs over the closing pages, and the knowledge that his anxiety was well founded – this volume and the preceding one were published after Proust died – intensifies the poignancy. Having lived with this book for nearly two years, if only for a couple of minutes a day, I’m now surprised to find I have an urge to start all over again. Here’s the last sentence:

Aussi, si elle m’était laissée assez longtemps pour accomplir mon œuvre, ne manquerais-je pas d’abord d’y décrire les hommes, cela dût-il les faire ressembler à des êtres monstrueux, comme occupant une place si considérable, à côté de celle si restreinte qui leur est réservée dans l’espace, une place au contraire prolongée sans mesure puisqu’ils touchent simultanément, comme des géants plongés dans les années à des époques, vécues par eux si distantes, entre lesquelles tant de jours sont venus se placer – dans le Temps.

I had serious trouble translating that, and when I looked up Stephen Hudson’s translation (here) I got the impression that he had trouble too. Here’s his (the ‘…’ in the first bit marks the omission of several phrases that aren’t in the edition I’m reading):

If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to … therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time.

I don’t think mine’s any better, but here it is:

So, if a long enough time was left to me to accomplish my work, first of all I would not fail to describe men in it, making them resemble monstrous beings that occupy a place so much more substantial than the restricted one reserved for them in space – a place, rather, that extends immeasurably because, like giants immersed in the years, they simultaneously touch all the distant periods they have lived through, between which so many days have been placed – a place in Time.

That ‘longtemps‘ at the start of this sentence reaches all the way back to the first sentence of the first novel:

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.

Journal Blitz 7

Given the lack of government support for the arts in general and literary magazines in particular, it’s no small miracle that so many of them survive and continue to publish excellent work. I do my little bit, subscribing to three and buying an occasional one-off as the spirit moves me. Then I find time to read them, sometimes falling terribly behind.


Jessica L Wilkinson (editor), Tricia Dearborn (guest editor), Devika Belimoria (artist), Rabbit 31: Science (2020)

Rabbit is a ‘journal of nonfiction poetry’. I don’t subscribe, and I’ve only read one previous issue, Number 10 (my blog post here). Like that issue, this one is beautifully designed – it features gorgeous images made by Devika Belimoria using a mysterious (to me) process involving acrylic paint and macrophotography.

The Science issue is edited by Tricia Dearborn, whose poetry I love. Whereas Tricia’s own science-related poems tend to be accessible to a non-specialist reader (as I have testified in blog posts here, here, and here), some of the poems she has chosen here are dauntingly technical. But one good thing about anthologies is one can skim, though I didn’t skim very much at all.

To give you a taste, here’s a sampling of opening lines:

From ‘Perpetual Motion’, a series of prose poems by Amit Majmudar:

Amazonian nomads, last studied in the 1940s in Brazil (in that
anthropologist's recordings of their dirges, you can hear chainsaws buck
alive in the background), had a religion based on the quest for eternal
life – only immortality wasn't a quality, as it is for us, but a place they had
to keep walking to find

From Jacqui Malins, ‘If you’:

If you are reading this I may be dead
or alive and you have survived past
infancy

Jilly O’Brien, ‘No Laughing Matter’, which is a prime example of what Tricia Dearborn’s editorial describes as ‘science at play – revealing the world, cracking bad jokes and considering the big questions’:

Pierre met Marie in the lab
He had his ion her

Jaya Savige, ‘Starstruck’:

I cannot honestly claim to have met Stephen
Hawking. But once I was skidding down the steepest 
bridge in Cambridge – in the rain, on my rusty BMX 

As well as the science poems, this Rabbit contains the winners of the 2020 Venie Holmgren Environmental Prize, with clear and accessible notes from the judges; a number of articles including one by Tricia Dearborn about her own poetry’s relation to science; a stimulating interview with Astrid Lorange; an essay adapted from a performance piece; and several reviews of recently published books of poetry. All good reading.

I have taken Rabbit 31 into the sauna with me over a couple of weeks. It was ideal reading in that contemplative environment, but alas, it’s bound with glue, and my copy is now pretty much a loose-leaf gathering of poems, images and articles. (Also I was mocked for inappropriate sauna behaviour.)


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Southerly 80!, Vol 79 No 1 (2019)

Southerly, Journal of the English Association, Sydney, has turned 80, and though no issue has appeared since this one came out in 2019, rumours of its death were apparently exaggerated. At least, the website is back up and running.

As befits a journal of such longevity, this Southerly has something for a range of tastes: poems, stories, memoirs, critical articles, notes about literary history, and a substantial number of reviews. A handful of contributors have been around for the majority of the journal’s lifespan, while others are writers appearing in print for the first time.

In ‘A Bell Note’, David Brooks, retiring editor, offers a fascinating account of his years in the chair, including the difficulty of producing the journal with mostly unpaid labour (contributors are paid, but not editorial staff) in an environment that has become increasingly hostile to literary magazines, or at least to the notion of funding them. His account of the role of literary magazines in the funding economy is worth quoting:

The government was using the journals as a means, on the one hand, of arm’s-length funding of writers (through their payments to contributors), so that, at ground level, it did not have to involve itself in deciding which writers to fund, and, at another level, the journals’ decisions as to who was worth publishing and supporting aided the Board in its decisions concerning which writers to give individual grants to. The journals, in other words, were supported because they were a vital filter in the government’s wider program of support for Australian writing. But increasingly, in the last two decades, this ground has shifted. Literary journals continue to perform this same function, but it’s now largely for the publishing industry; to the government they are supplicants, mendicants.

Richard Nile’s ‘Desert Worlds’ is a survey of the way literature has portrayed the Australian soldiers’ sojourn in Egypt in 1916. It’s almost as if the proponents of patriotic myths should be very glad of the disaster of Gallipoli, because without it those gallant men might now be remembered as racist, sexist, drunken hoons.

Alison Hoddinott’s ‘Poetry and Musicophobia’ does a quick tour of distinguished poets and other writers who have been, not deaf like Henry Lawson, but tone deaf – unable to hold or even recognise a tune, even while being extremely sensitive to the musicality of language. There are amusing anecdotes about Hal Porter, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath, among others.

’Editing Daniel’ is a brief account of the life and work of Daniel Thomas, art historian and gallery director, written by Hannah Fink, co-editor of Recent Past: Writing Australian art, the first collection of Thomas’s writing.

Jumana Bayeh’s ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’ glances at a couple of pages of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story where, she says, an Arab-Australian character appears in an Australian novel for the first time, then goes on to a fascinating discussion of two much more recent novels by Arab-Australians, Loubna Haikal’s Seducing Mr Maclean (2002) and Michael Muhammad Ahmad’s The Lebs (2018), with Edward Said’s Orientalism as theoretical backdrop.

There’s a wonderful variety of poems, including: the melancholy ‘wrap’ by joanne burns (whose apparently is reviewed by Margaret Bradstock elsewhere in the journal); the harrowing ‘Explant (caveat emptor)’ by Beth Spencer (I had to look up breast explant surgery to understand this poem); Anne Elvey’s poem in memoriam Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Grevillea Robusta’; and Jaya Savige’s ‘Coonoowrin (Crookneck)’, on which I spent far too much time and still have only deciphered less than a quarter. Just in case my reader shares my love of impossible word puzzles, here’s the opening of that last-named poem:

Hushbound, mountchain, coiled for-kin ache
revenant, calm. Warm hay be stark enigma flags, but cannot 
rarely be sore heart to tune and luck upon your sighin'?

Decoded:

Husband, mountain, [unintelligible] 
[unintelligible], come. We may be [unintelligible], but can it
really be so hard to turn and look upon your son?

If you can fill in the blanks, the comments section is open.

Of the reviews, Michelle Cahill made me want to read David Brooks’s The Grass Library; Toby Fitch reviewing Dave Drayton’s P(oe)Ms offered valuable insight into some contemporary poetics; Oliver Wakelin on Luke Carman’s Intimate Antipodes, perhaps inadvertently, caught me up on some literary gossip.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 237 (Winter 2019)

As a marker of how far behind I am in my Overland reading, while I was reading this issue, the last one edited by Jacinda Woodhead, the fourth edited by her successors, Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, has landed in my letterbox.

Mind you, Overland isn’t all that committed to timeliness either. The punchiest article in this issue, ‘Crocodile tears‘ by Russell Marks, is a blistering criticism of a book published in 2016, Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater. After noting that the book met critical acclaim and won awards (not to mention modified praise from bloggers such as me, link here), it goes on:

All of this should come as a surprise because Saltwater‘s myriad problems could have excluded from publication altogether.

Drawing on his own extensive experience as a lawyer working with and for First Nations people, he makes a very convincing case that Cathy McLennan’s memoir of her time as a young lawyer working for an Aboriginal legal service in Townsville is full of poor legal practice which the older McLennan seems to endorse, is misleading in many ways and feeds a racist agenda, while distracting readers from its reactionary politics by ‘vivid and shocksploitative descriptions of her clients and their lives’. (I searched online in vain for any rebuttal of the article.)

The only moment that felt seriously dated was a citation of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in Hannah McCann’s ‘Look good, feel good‘, an otherwise excellent article about the emotional labour of beauty salon workers. Though The Beauty Myth may well hold up, it’s hard to imagine an article in Overland these days quoting someone who so bizarrely argues against masks and basic contact tracing mechanisms.

My other highlights in this issue were: ‘Only the lonely‘ by Rachael McGuirk, discusses the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ from the perspective provided by her family’s long-term, harrowing experiences with drugs, mental illness and the justice system, ‘Inspired and multiple‘ by Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, who describe their process of co-translating poetry as ‘a dance in chains’; ‘At the crossroads‘ by Con Karavias, a history lesson about the German revolution that raged from 1918 to 1923, but will never be restored to mainstream respectability because to do so would be to acknowledge that conservative forces unleashed Hitler and Nazism in order to crush it.

Of the four short stories, ‘Womanhood‘ by Mubanga Kalimamukwento, a Zambian coming of age story involving female genital modification, had most impact on me. ‘The Sublime Composition‘ by Gareth Sion Jenkins incorporates elements of Microsoft Word’s track changes feature in a deconstruction of an incident recorded in Thomas Mitchell’s journals of exploration, but it’s an extract from a work in progress, a taste rather than a meal.

In the eight pages of poetry, I loved the way ‘Tenor and vehicles‘ by Shastra Deo and ‘Learning‘ by Jini Maxwell resonated with each other. One begins:

Fact: things are like other things. Supposition: liking
tweets is like a simile. 

The other:

There is a very fine line
between writing and just sitting down

Overland has a number of regular features:

  • a guest artist. Number 237 has Matt Chun, who is currently – or was in January 2020 – the Children’s Literature Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, and who brings a children’s illustrator’s sensitivity to these sometimes necessarily grim pages.
  • three columnists: On failure by Alison Croggon; On the school as utopia by Giovanni Tiso; and On writing in water by Mel Campbell
  • the results of at least one competition. This time it’s the 2019 Fair Australia Prize (FAP), an annual prize co-sponsored by the United Workers Union and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. The winners – two short stories, an essay, a poem and a cartoon – share a fresh directness in the way they address issues facing working people in Australian and, in the general fiction prize winner, in India.

And three more journals are now on the shelf above my desk …

Proust Progress Report 21

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2273–2334

If I’d kept to my original plan of five pages a day, or even my second plan of three a day, I would have finished À la recherche du temps perdu by now. But I’ve slowed down and had a couple of gaps, so I’m only just entering the strait.

Not that the pace is picking up, but this last month’s reading has had a definite end-is-nigh feel. As I mentioned last month, a sequence of tiny experiences – standing on some uneven paving, hearing a spoon click against a plate, feeling a starched cloth against his lips – send the narrator into complex rumination about the nature of memory and art.

I won’t even try to summarise his reflections on art, but he has a lot to say about the importance of drawing on one’s own experience, and on paying attention to one’s own idiosyncratic (not his word) responses to the material experiences. The specifics of this, remembered, half-remembered, retained only in the unconscious, are what make a work of fiction live. ‘A book’, he says, ‘is a great cemetery where we can no longer read the eroded names on most of the tombs.’

Un livre est un grand cimetière où sur la plupart des tombes on ne peut plus lire les noms effacés

Having earlier given up on his pretensions to be a writer, he now decides to write a book based on his fresh understanding of a certain kind of memory as a way to transcend time. It’s fabulously self-referential, and it does make me want to start all over again to see how the book lives up to his stated intention.

All that thinking happens in the library of a house where he has turned up for a social event. The musical piece in the next room finishes and he goes into the salon, which is full of people he hasn’t seen for years while out of town at health establishments. And they’re all in fancy dress: the men have stuck white moustaches and beards on their faces and most people are wearing white wigs; one young man has put on ingenious fake wrinkles; a glamorous woman has made herself look overweight … which leads into reflections on old age. Just as he as decided to write a work about transcending time, he is confronted with evidence of time’s inexorable effects on human beings.

Individual humans age, some more devastatingly than others. Some people disappear from society altogether – they may have been the subject of scandal, or they may have been Germans. Some who were barely on the fringes of le monde now have great prestige. Others have swapped dubious reputations for status as men of high moral standing. The same title is now inhabited by a different person altogether. The young have no idea of the origins and history of the people who now shine on the social scene. And who but the old now remember that the still-beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes – Oriane – could once make or break a social occasion by deigning to appear for half an hour, or staying home.

Proust’s contrast between the virtues of solitude and the emptiness of social life is here the clearest it has ever been.

Through all this, there’s what amounts to a roll call of the novel’s characters alive and dead: the devious Morel now gives character references in court; Mme Verdurin is now the Princesse de Guermantes; Bloch is a prestigious man of letters; no one quite remembers how Gilberte became a Guermantes; Oriane is as commanding a presence as ever, but in a flash-forward of three years we see her in sad decline.

The loose ends are being tied up. I have 70 pages to go and am missing Proust already.

Proust Progress Report 20: Getting to the point

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2217–2272

I was away for a couple of weeks over Easter and didn’t take my whopping great copy of À la recherche with me. On top of that, I’ve been reading fewer pages at a sitting because, well, eyes. So I’m slowing down as I approach the end. All the better to savour it (le goûter), I suppose.

At the end of last month’s report I wrote:

According to the IMDB, a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people buttonhole each other on street corners or something is about to change in the next pages.

Well, something changes. Once M De Charlus goes on his way, the narrator is left to wander the dark wartime Parisian streets alone and with a fierce thirst. He enters a seedy hotel, the only building that shows signs of life, and there he overhears a group of young men speak of beating a chained captive. So of course, suspecting that a crime is in progress, he joins them for a chat. His suspicions confirmed, he goes snooping and fairly improbably gets to witness some consensual S&M that, if I grasped the tone accurately, has a broadly comic shock effect. Assuming that I don’t need to worry about spoilers nearly a hundred years after the book was published, I’ll just say that we get to see the dark side of M De Charlus at a ludicrous extreme, and at the same time feel compassion for his misery.

Then, after a time slip, the narrator has what I’m guessing is his final encounter with M De Charlus, who is at an even further and more pathetic extreme, having had a stroke.

At the point I’ve reached this month, three more things have happened: avoiding a carriage in the street, the narrator has stepped on two paving stones of unequal height; he has pressed a starched cloth to his lips; and he has heard a spoon tapped against a plate. Each of these events has triggered a spontaneous, vivid recall of a moment from the past, and has flooded him with intense, joyful emotion. He has been experiencing an overwhelming sense of failure and gloom at his impending death; these three tiny events completely change his mood and restore his confidence. On his way to a social engagement, he pauses to reflect on this transformation, and I guess these pages contain the heart of his thinking about memory and creativity. These triggered memories, quite different in kind from those that are like flicking through the pages of a picture book (feuilleter un livre d’images), allow one to transcend time and make contact with eternity, if only, paradoxically, for a brief moment. It speaks volumes that I’m no longer impatient with Proust’s longwinded and repetitive expositions: I’m now following their twists and turns with avid concentration.

Such unbidden flashes of complete recall, he muses, are like the things one finds in ‘the internal book of unknown signs’ (livre intériieur de signes inconnus), and it is the work of a writer to decipher these signs. This is where today’s reading ended:

Seule l’impression, si chétive qu’en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et à cause de cela mérite seule d’être appréhendée par l’esprit, car elle est seule capable, s’il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l’amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie. L’impression est pour l’écrivain ce qu’est l’expérimentation pour le savant, avec cette différence que chez le savant le travail de l’intelligence précède et chez l’écrivain vient après. Ce que nous n’avons pas eu à déchiffrer, à éclaircir par notre effort personnel, ce qui était clair avant nous, n’est pas à nous. Ne vient de nous-même que ce que nous tirons de l’obscurité qui est en nous et que ne connaissent pas les autres.

Here’s my translation, leaning heavily on Stephen Hudson’s first translation:

Intuition alone, however insubstantial it seems, however hard to grasp, is a criterion of truth and so it alone deserves to be seized by the mind because it alone is capable, if the mind can extract its truth, of bringing it to greater perfection and of giving it unalloyed pleasure. Intuition is for the writer what experiment is for the learned, with the difference that in the case of the learned the work of the intelligence precedes and in the case of the writer it follows. That which we have not had to decipher, to clarify by our own personal effort, that which was made clear before our arrival, is not ours. We ourselves produce only what we extract from the darkness within us which is unknown to others.

Things like the Dreyfus affair or a world war are just excuses for writers to avoid this hard work of figuring out what is actually going on in their own minds.

I imagine whole PhDs have been written about that contention. I’m just going to note it as an interesting and provocative author statement about this massive novel. Or I should say, the beginning of a complex, labyrinthine author statement which I will be reading over the next couple of days.

Proust Progress Report 19: Mentioning the War

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2151–2215

This month’s whole reading has been preoccupied with the War: how it has affected Parisian fashion and the salons, especially Mme Verdurin’s little band of fidèles; how different kinds of masculinity respond to the ardures of combat (the French equivalent of stiff upper lips as opposed to the transmutation of homosexual desire into praise for gallantry; the ridiculousness of people having strong opinions of things they know nothing about; the persistence of Napoleonic strategies in a world that has changed; the hypocrisy of ‘experts’ …). Robert is becoming more like a version of M. De Charlus, and M. De Charlus himself buttonholes the narrator to express his disdain for unthinking patriotism and his sympathy for the Kaiser (whom he confesses he hasn’t written to since the War started, except perhaps once). In the last couple of pages, we are given a flashforward to a shocking revelation about M. De Charlus and Morel, and hopefully an indication that the story is to progress.

I photographed two passages on my way. In the first, the narrator notes that Gilberte’s butler believed what he reads in the newspapers when he must have known from experience that reality was otherwise:

Mais on lit les journaux comme on aime, un bandeau sur les yeux. On ne cherche pas à comprendre les faits. On écoute les
douces paroles du rédacteur en chef comme on écoute les paroles de sa maîtresse. On est battu et content parce qu’on
ne se croit pas battu mais vainqueur.

(page 2173)

My translation:

But we read the newspapers as we love, with a blindfold over our eyes. We don’t try to understand the facts. We listen to the sweet words of the editor as to the words of our mistress. We are beaten and happy because we believe ourselves not to be beaten but victorious.

So the information bubble was already there in Proust’s time.

In the other passage, M. De Charlus reflecting on the way Parisians ignore the war raging a short distance for them, but he could be prophesying about the pandemic and the climate emergency almost exactly a century later:

Les gens vont d’habitude à leurs plaisirs sans penser jamais que, si les influences étiolantes et modératrices venaient à cesser, la prolifération des infusoires atteignant son maximum, c’est-à-dire faisant en quelques jours un bond de plusieurs millions de lieues, passerait d’un millimètre cube à une masse un million de fois plus grande que le soleil, ayant en même temps détruit tout l’oxygène, toutes les substances dont nous vivons ; et qu’il n’y aurait plus ni humanité, ni animaux, ni terre, ou sans songer qu’une irrémédiable et fort vraisemblable catastrophe pourra être déterminée dans l’éther par l’activité incessante et frénétique que cache l’apparente immutabilité du soleil : ils s’occupent de leurs affaires sans penser à ces deux mondes, l’un trop petit, l’autre trop grand pour qu’ils aperçoivent les menaces cosmiques qu’ils font planer autour de nous.

(p 2189)

My translation (taking quite a few liberties):

People go about their habitual pleasures without ever thinking that, if etiolating and moderating influences were to cease, microscopic organisms would proliferate to their maximum, that is to say, make a leap of many millions of leagues in a few days, and so expand from cubic millimetres to a mass a million times larger than the sun, in the process destroying all the oxygen, all the substances that we need in order to live; without ever thinking that if that were to happen there would no longer be any humanity, or animals, or earth. They don’t dream that an irremediable and quite realistic catastrophe could be set off in the ether by the incessant and frantic energy that lies behind the apparent immutability of the sun. They go about their business without a thought for these two worlds, one too small and the other too large for them to perceive the cosmic threats that hover around us. 

Both Proust and his main translator Charles Scott Moncrieff died before this book could be published. (It was translated by Scott Moncrieff’s friend Sydney Schiff, under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson.) I’m still hopeful that Proust managed to get things resolved to his satisfaction, leaving just some polishing undone. According to the IMDB a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people stand on street corners haranguing each other or something is about to change in the next pages.