Dedalus News & Blog

Edyta’s blog:A thought on the first sentence and David Madsen’s Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf

Anybody who has ever written a blog, a story for a creative writing class or a letter, knows the moment when the sheet of paper is lying in front of you, the pen is in your hand and you are eager to begin. You cannot wait to read the whole piece afterwards and hear what your friends and tutor will think about it. And so you’re sitting and you’re playing with the pen, thinking about the brilliant idea you have in your head. But after the first ten minutes you realise that you have absolutely no clue what to write first and as time is passing, you are starting to sweat a bit, remembering the tutor’s words about the importance of the first sentence. How it sets the mood. How it encourages the reader to keep reading when it is ambiguous, intelligent or witty. Or all in one, preferably.
You think about Dickens’s opening line for A Tale of Two Cities and about Austen’s first sentence about the commonly acknowledged truth from Pride and Prejudice and you wait for the spark of genius. When that does not arrive, you try to remember any tips you received during class; you hope to remember something. And here it is, Hemingway’s advice to write one true sentence. That’s it. But what does true mean? True to you or to all? Is it something that you are certain of, something which is a fact? At this point you are convinced that there is not a single thing that you know for a fact except that you are not doing very well at the moment.
When I read the reviews of Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf I noticed that what a few critics paid special attention to was the novel’s first sentence: ‘This morning His Holiness summoned me to read to him from St Augustine, while the physician applied unguents and salves to his suppurating arse.’ They praised it and no wonder as it is truly a great opening and one which makes everybody struggling to write jealous. It is witty, provocative and throws you into a world of excess and multidimensional characters. Madsen’s first line makes you ask numerous questions – Where is it? Who’s telling the story? What will happen next? – and offers endless possibilities.
However, as I kept reading, the story was revealing even more humour and more interesting scenes and characters. I thought that although I admire Madsen’s ability to open his novel in such a powerful way, the overall opinion of the story would not be as positive as it is and the novel wouldn’t be placed on The Guardian’s list of ‘1000 Novels To Read Before You Die’ had it not been for the following sentences and chapters. In other words, it seems to me that it is the general idea for the story which makes you appreciate the piece and which makes it an excellent work. Let us all – students, bloggers and writers – forget about the perfect beginning, write whatever comes into our minds and piece it together later. Perhaps that’s how Madsen did it.

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Edyta’s Blog; The Dark Domain

From time to time you find yourself reading a book discovered by chance. The book is in your hands and you start reading without having expectations of any sort as you know nothing about the story or the author. Some of these chance encounters vanish from your memory whereas others turn out to be pleasant surprises and you want to tell everybody about your discovery. Such was my reaction to Stefan Grabinski’s collection of short stories entitled The Dark Domain and here are a few reasons why you should read it.
Stefan Grabinski was born in 1887 in Kamionka Bużańska. He studied Polish literature at Lviv University. He is mostly known for his numerous short stories although he also wrote a few novels. As Miroslaw Lipinski, the translator of the stories, states in the introduction, Grabinski was never widely recognised in Poland as horror fiction wasn’t very popular in my country at the time. I hadn’t come across his works before. It is Grabinski’s gift for story telling and for his ability to juxtapose the mundane with the supernatural in a gentle way which makes reading him so rewarding. Although his stories bear many characteristics of both speculative and Gothic fiction, Grabinski does not frighten but instead unsettles the reader.
The collection The Dark Domain starts with a short story entitled ‘Fumes’ and from the beginning we are surrounded by powerful images of weather which set the mood of suffocation and danger as gusts of wind plough through everything in their path. In the midst of this turbulence there is a wanderer who is looking for a shelter and he finds it at a house of a peculiar host. What ensues is a story of ambiguous identities, sexuality and death. Indeed, these are the themes which permeate all Grabinski’s pieces in the collection. No wonder, as the author struggled with tuberculosis from the youngest age and witnessed the First World War. The vision of death was, therefore, present in his life and permeated his fiction to a great extent.
‘Fumes’ is the first short story of the collection which introduces us to Grabinski’s imagination and the next pieces are just as ambiguous, placing the author in the genre of Gothic as well as fantasy by which he was influenced. Like Faulkner in his ‘A Rose for Emily’ and Poe in his ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ the author sets his stories in realistic places and introduces supernatural phenomena within that mundane environment. Each of his stories is but a few pages long and in each of them Grabinski succeeds at depicting figures which are dead yet still alive (‘Szamota’s Mistress’), who have unusual abilities to play with elements (‘Vengeance of the Elementals’) or whose identity is questionable (‘Fumes’). There is typical for Gothic fiction atmosphere of gloom and suffocation and a few abandoned houses as well as the theme of ambiguous identity (‘Strabismus’). At the centre of each of the stories is the main – always male – protagonist, a vagabond, gravedigger or a gentleman who finds out that the boundary between reality and dream, life and death or pleasure and pain is elusive.
The multiplicity of characters and themes and the talent for telling stories are the two characteristics of Grabinski’s fiction which made me eager to read more. The collection The Dark Domain will appeal to everybody interested in the supernatural as well as Polish literature enthusiasts and for those who enjoy a gripping story which is difficult to forget after you’ve finished.
Few if any readers of The Dark Domain will disagree with Miroslaw Lipinski that Grabinski is ‘one of the great voices of the supernatural’.

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Reading Europe Blog: Now and at the Hour of our Death

Now and at the Hour of Our Death follows journalist Susana Moreira Marques as she attempts to report on a project of palliative home care in Trás-os-Montes, in the Planalto Mirandês. Susana writes about death in a way no journalist ever has and in a range of generic registers: travel notes, standard narrative, stream of consciousness, interviews, as well as what seem to be personal confessions. Rather than erase herself from the text, as most journalists would, she guides us through her impressions and transformation during her experience “at the end of the world” (or of Portugal) and of life.

At no point does Susana attempt to provide an objective account of her experience, nor does she presume to be able to extricate herself from the piece she is writing. This demonstrates a willingness to be part of the story that involves us, as readers, more deeply in it. Which is precisely the book’s strength: Now and at the Hour of Our Death, from the very beginning, from its very title, claims not to be about her or you or I or them, but about us. It is about now and about the hour of our death.

As Susana winds her way along the country roads of Trás-os-Montes, from household to household and family to family, we travel with her and come to understand, as she does (when she embraces Sara at the door of her house after a conversation full of tears and wine), both a fundamental and terrifying truth (one we go through life forgetting so that we can go through life): we think death happens to other people, that grieving and loss happen to other people, but we are other people.

Broken into three sections – ‘Travel Notes about Death’, ‘Portraits’ and ‘When You Return from the Journey no Sane Person Wants to Go On, You Will…’ – the first section of the book lays down a sort of philosophical and emotional groundwork that echoes subtly throughout the rest of the book.

‘Notes’ is made up of a series of vignettes. Susana herself admitted she didn’t quite know what to call them either, but the term vignette both captures the sense of a brief, evocative impression, as well as that of a portrait photograph whose edges fade into the background, which seems fitting since those people (or perhaps characters?) who populate Now and at the Hour of Our Death are inseparable from their setting. In short sections she calls her Survival Guide, Susana claims “Make people characters. Don’t stop crying over characters,” blurring, or questioning, the line between reality and fiction, between life and fiction. These vignettes don’t only serve to raise questions, but also to universalize the highly personal experiences in the second section, ‘Portraits’, where Susana gives an account of each person’s imminent death (or the deaths of their loved ones). When we witness Sara losing her father (or Paula dealing with her own illness, her own mortality), struggling over having lived far from him, we see it in our own lives, feel it in our own skin, because we are all either sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers or fathers and (both life and) death happens to us all.

Now and at the Hour of Our Death might seem like a requiem composed solely for those cancer patients in Trás-os-Montes – like the daguerreotypes Susana mentions towards the end of the book taken by photographers after a person’s death, their eyes still open. It is not only for Sara or Elisa or Paula or João and Maria that Susana writes this book, but for Trás-os-Montes itself, where a certain kind of love and living exists. It is a paean to a place, to “a land [that] seems to run on like time itself,” to a way of life indivisible from those who live in it. Life is spilling out of this end of the world, fading or trickling away, and with the death of these Joãos and Paulas, of Sara and Elisa’s father, of Maria’s husband, the shadows, slowly the houses, deserted, fall, and there will no longer be a village.

Now and at the Hour of Our Death is a beautiful work that sets out to be about death but ends up being about a whole way of life.

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British Library Blog for Crossing European Borders with Diego Marani’s ‘The Interpreter’

As in previous years, the British Library will host 2016’s European Literature Night on 11 May. As a taster, we look at a newly-translated work by an author who featured in 2014’s event.

Diego Marani’s The Interpreter (original Italian L’interprete, Milan, 2004, British Library YF.2004.a.24136) begins in Geneva at the United Nations where an interpreter has developed a strange malady and starts speaking gibberish while claiming he has discovered the primordial language of mankind. Before he can be sacked he disappears, then his boss develops the same illness and goes to a sanatorium in Munich for a language cure. While at the sanatorium he decides his only chance of being cured is to find the missing interpreter and find out about the mysterious illness which has taken over his life. There now begins a journey through Europe which takes him as far as the Crimea. This is no travelogue but an exploration of cultural diversity, language, identity and crime.

It is a very entertaining novel with a lot of humour but also dark and frightening. It shows how easily all the certainties of life can disappear and how an individual can be left defenceless to the buffetings of external forces beyond his control. The narrator in the novel loses everything but the power of the human spirit keeps him alive and he fights back. For him life is an obstacle race where the obstacles can change from day to day, and where you must adapt to survive.
As with Marani’s earlier novels, New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs, the importance of language and identity are at the heart of the novel:
Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put in your mouth is your own. It’s a question of hygiene… it’s dangerous to let yourself be contaminated by the germs of another tongue.
It is your language and your culture which give you your identity and make you what you are. When times get tough it is a bulwark against chaos and adversity. Your language and culture help you belong in society and connect you to both the past and the future. Whatever journeys we undertake, we take with us our language and culture and we do not lose them however much our life changes. We can learn new languages and immerse ourselves in new cultures, but we still retain the language and culture which surrounded us in our formative years and in which we were educated. This is why exile is so painful for most adults. Indeed, people who have left their homes for work in foreign countries remain truer to the traditions that they grew up with than people who remain behind in a changing society. For the exile, a country can’t change as it exists only in his mind, frozen in aspic, and it is to this country of the mind that he wants to return. Indeed, as many returning immigrants discover, the country they left behind no longer exists and they can’t readjust to the country which has taken its place.
The themes of the novel are carefully embedded in a thriller plot and do not interfere with a cracking yarn rich in event and the unexpected. Diego Marani shows that he is at home with the detective story, so it is not a surprise that he has gone on to write detective fiction with God’s Dog. The issues raised in The Interpreter are answered, but what the narrator has learnt does not seem worth the price that he has paid and will continue to pay.

Diego Marani will be in the UK from 31 January to 4 February and will be giving readings in London, Bath and Oxford. For details, see the European Literature Network’s website. 

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Timothy Lane’s Translation Blog: A Dutiful Son by Pascal Bruckner

The following passage is the opening paragraph of A Dutiful Son:
“It’s bedtime. Kneeling at the foot of my bed, head bowed, hands together, I murmur my prayer in a low voice. I’m ten. After a brief review of the day’s sins, I make a request of God, our all-powerful Creator. He knows how regularly I attend mass, how fervently I receive communion, how I love Him above all else. I simply ask Him, implore Him, to bring about the death of my father, while driving if possible. Brakes failing while he’s going downhill, black ice, a plane tree, whatever suits Him best.”
As opening passages go, this is one I certainly won’t forget in a hurry. After all, one immediately asks, what sort of son could feel such a way, and what sort of father could warrant such a prayer? He goes on to describe being beaten by an abusive bullying father, the sense of humiliation he feels in prostrating himself before his tormentor and the poisonous feelings of resentment he felt. But Pascal Bruckner does not give us this picture of violence as the prologue to feelings of victimhood, for he ends his prologue with a note of remarkable, but characteristic resilience:
“Brutal fathers have one advantage: they don’t lull you with their gentleness, their sentimentality, they don’t try to play at being big brothers or mates. They wake you up like an electric shock, make you someone who’s eternally fighting or eternally oppressed. What mine passed on to me was his fury and for that I’m grateful. The hatred he instilled in me also saved me. I sent it back at him like a boomerang.”
Some years ago I read the manuscript of My Little Husband for the first time, the first of Pascal Bruckner’s books to be published by Dedalus. As a creature of the internet age curious to learn more about the writer I was to read I naturally looked up online any biographical information I could find on Mr Bruckner. A number of patterns emerged: a certain imaginative flamboyance, criticism of multiculturalism from a leftwing standpoint, and most curious of all, a question as to whether the author was Jewish or not. There is a lot of anonymous venom to be found on the internet, lazy stereotyping of character traits by ethnicity, and of course people claiming that every significant person who ever lived belonged to their own group; so I was curious whether Mr Bruckner was seen as Jewish because he met certain traits associated with secular Jew; intellectualism, satire, liberalism, a ‘jewish sounding’ surname, views on Israel, etc.
The reality is far more interesting. Mr Bruckner’s paternal ancestry is not Jewish but Franco-German, in fact he describes it as the embodiment of the two nations relations, each new generation choosing one camp or the other. His great-grandfather was unenthusiastic towards Germany, viewing the language as something lumbering and ugly, his Grandfather, despite being a great Germanophile served four years in the Belgian Royal Army during World War One, while Pascal Bruckner’s own father went of his own free-will to be a factory worker for Siemens, part of the Nazi war effort.
And the ‘Jewish Question’ seems to have preoccupied Mr Bruckner Senior. The third chapter is entitled ‘The Semitic Poison’. Bruckner begins this chapter with a memory of a holiday in Austria, when a man staring at the young Pascal abruptly informed him that he knew he was a Jew. After telling his parents of this episode, his irate father ran after the man, with his son in tow and proceeded to explain to the stranger that his son was a pure Aryan, and certain traits of his physiognomy were mostly certainly not Jewish.
He emphasises that a settled dislike of Jews was typical in his parent’s generation, but that in his father it had become a zealous malice that pervaded his whole life. He describes his father reading Jewish authors in order to find additional ammunition for his anti-semitism, reading editorials by prominent figures who disputed the existence of gas chambers, and that the family library had its share of eugenicist literature.
On one occasion he describes challenging a rant of his father’s, asking him why he hated people who had never personally harmed him. His father is so angry that he initially stammers out his response:
“They’ve corrupted everything, defiled everything, trampled everything underfoot. They want to rule the world, they scoff at our most sacred values. The only Jews I like are those who are ashamed of being what they are…. Moreover they’re racists, they don’t want to mix. I don’t like their irony, they don’t respect anything.”
In recollecting this justification Mr Bruckner comments on how weak the explanation is, and passes a judgement that puts one in mind of Iago’s entirely irrational undying malice: “Animosity is based on ignorance of the original grievance”.
With the exception of Phillipe Petain, the hero of Verdun turned Vichy Chief of State, a great number of the figures he mentions whom his father admired were completely unknown to me. What these many names did bring home to me is how little in the English speaking world we understand the trauma and humiliation of France’s defeat. Mr Bruckner makes it clear how much of his father’s anti-semitism and Germanophilia was born out of awe for the power that had beaten France, a bullying underlings reverence for his master, and the bitter resentment of watching that master defeated.
There is much to read about in these memoirs beside the Vichy legacy and anti-semitism, such as the great liberation Pascal Bruckner felt being a young man in a multi-racial Paris listening to African American influence Jazz and Rock and Roll music. But what interested me most on my first and second reading was the intensity and passion of his father’s racial hatred, something like a mania, a religious cult, or a parasite, that once it takes hold of the mind incinerates everything that is not itself and turn everything to its own end. This contrast between the father’s hatred and the son’s tolerance made me wonder how much genuine mature tolerance depends not upon principle and book learning, but seeing and learning from the toxic ravages to one’s character and intellect that life consuming hatred can work.

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Pat Gray’s Blog in the Irish Times about his novel The Cat

As The Cat is republished by Dedalus Press after 18 years, Pat Gray reflects on its many lives, from parable of Thatcherism and the Troubles to a fable of human life and foibles

Pat Gray: In the end it was not a satire on Thatcherism and politics that I’d written, but a curious and colourful fable on life, and the way most of us restrain ourselves because we care too much for each other in the end.

I originally wanted The Cat to be some kind of Animal Farm for the Thatcher years, but gradually the characters Rat, Mouse and Cat seemed to spiral ludicrously out of control. Despite, or maybe because of, this the book was well received when it first came out in 1997, translated into various languages and with a very fine American edition by Ecco Press.
I’d been quite clear at the start that Rat would represent the Labour mainstream, truculent and egalitarian, but ambitious too, while Mouse would twitter away with timid, Liberal intellectualising about any problem. The Cat would transform everything with menace and an appeal to greed.
But the comic human potential of the characters got the better of me and I could not resist the temptations of the genre; the improbable props of animal waistcoats, slippers and the surreal context of scale which required the Rat to hack his way through Berber carpet as if it were as deep impenetrable field of sugar cane. It all became too much fun for me; the Rat with his empty briefcase, the Cat riffling through mail order catalogues, the Mouse with his comprehensive knowledge of Kafka.
Thrown together by bad circumstance, as in Animal Farm, the characters were too human to be able to do away with each other in the end. They bickered and argued in their tiny, claustrophobic world rather than seizing power and dominance. The Cat could not bring himself to eat the Mouse, the Rat lacked the administrative skills necessary for a socialist Utopia, and the Mouse was just basically too timid, too knowledgeable to believe that things could ever be different.
In the end it was not a satire on Thatcherism and politics that I’d written, but a curious and colourful fable on life, and the way most of us restrain ourselves because we care too much for each other in the end.
Maybe there are some echoes in the book of my upbringing in Belfast; the sense of order breaking down and of new forces beginning to stalk the province, the dark potential of empty spaces at night, of hedgerows and gardens and of new, inconceivable methods.
Maybe the Mouse was me, observing that, but unable to act, and the Cat and Rat agents of political opportunism and violence? However, most people who have read it have just enjoyed the animals, and how seriously they take themselves, making do as we all have to.
It’s great that it’s republished now by Dedalus, as the more I look at it, the more ways I can see of enjoying it. So I hope people will laugh and enjoy it too, as whatever kind of tale works for them.

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Dedalus’s Publisher Review of 2015

The book that made my year: Before & During by Vladimir Sharov, translated by Oliver Ready winning the Read Russia Prize 2015 and $2,500 of the $10,000 prize money going to the publisher. Vladimir Sharov who has just won the Russian Booker Prize is a modern-day Tolstoy. Next year we publish his novel The Rehearsals.

Our book that deserved to do better: This could be a very long list but I go for What Became of the White Savage by Francois Garde, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins. It won 10 literary prizes in France, including The Goncourt Prize in the first novel category but did not get one national newspaper review in the UK.

I wish I’d published:The Transylvanian Trilogy:They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanted &They Were Divided by Miklos Banffy, translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen. Published by Gary Pulsifer when he was at Arcadia it is truly wonderful. It is the only Hungarian fiction I’ve read and if there are many books around like this I have really been missing out. I’m just finishing the final volume and will soon have a big gap in my life to fill.

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Timothy Lane’s Translation Blog: Hans Cadzand’s Vocation and other stories by George Rodenbach

Hans Cadzand’s Vocation was the first book by Rodenbach that I read. It passed two tests I imagine every writer would like their work to pass; having finished the book I could genuinely see myself re-reading the work, and secondly, I was curious to acquaint myself with more works by the author. The long nouvelle is less well known and less celebrated than Bruges-la-morte, yet I can’t help but feel this general preference is a matter of precedence. Bruges-la-morte was written first, and while Hans Cadzand extends and develops its style and broadens its milieu, literary judgement has not relinquished its preference for the seminal work.
I think this is a great shame, as I can genuinely imagine a reader being disinclined to read Rodenbach further if they are introduced to him through Bruges-la -morte. Despite my high regard for that work, it lacks something that Rodenbach achieves in Hans Cadzand. That achievement is the creation of characters both individual and real. The protagonist of Bruges- la-morte, Hugues Vianes, strikes one either as a makeshift creation, or as a melodramatic stock figure. I can well imagine the genesis of the Hugues character: from his comfortable siuation in Paris, perhaps in a quiet cafe or a library, Rodenbach wanders in memory through the streets of Bruges, rhapsodising on the spirit of the place, its icons, its climate, its history, trying to evoke scenes that capture the place’s essence. Then working backward from these ruminations he tries to fit them to a character who either feels like Rodenbach, or a makeshift mask. By contrast, Hans Cadzand has at its centre two characters of individuality and realistic emotion.
The prologue introduces us to the Mevrouw Cadzand, and her son Hans Cadzand, a melancholy pair walking home from morning mass. From a well known respectable family, they attract the wondering eyes of neighbours, who cannot grasp the reclusive sadness of this pair. He is such a handsome man, still young, and she has the fortune every mother must surely pray for, her son has not left her side to go out into the world. And yet both carry a despondence between them, enigmatic to the furtive provincial eyes Rodenbach assures us are always watching in Bruges.
From this sorrowful picture Rodenbach takes us back to the birth of a boy born on the anniversary of his parents wedding. The father of this newborn is a scholar of Bruges’ departed golden days, who sadly dies before his son can remember him. He does however leave him a name, Hans, after Hans Memling, the great artist of Bruges. His mother’s nervous love, becomes all the more intense with the loss of her husband, she is besotted with her sweet, pretty, graceful little boy. Hans for his part grows into a serious, studious and pious child. His heart draws him toward the church; the beautiful ceremonies and rituals of mass, prayer, incense, choirs, harmoniums, the rood screen, the whole panoply of sanctity enraptures him. In time, he dreams of becoming an altar boy.
This dream causes his mother some consternation, for it will mean cutting off his soft fair hair. Eventually she allows Hans to have his way, but she mourns the loss of those gentle locks, and when they are cut away, takes them for herself to add to a pillow.
As he gets older Hans becomes more and more religious. At first his mother is comforted that his religious devotion will save his sensitive nature from the temptations that can torment a growing young man. Her equally sensitive and devoted nature longs to keep him with her without impeding his happiness, and his devotion to Christ and the Virgin consoles her that she will not lose her son to a woman.
Her hopes for her son are ruined by a fateful day in his last year of school. His school has an established tradition of organising a retreat for those in their final year, devoted to helping students recognise their vocation in life. One of the speakers at this retreat is a Dominican monk whose eloquent encomium on the virtues of the religious life so enthuses and moves Hans, that he feels sure God has granted him the grace of recognising his vocation. He confides his vocation to his mother, who feels the most intense sorrow that she will lose the life with Hans that she has cherished. Both mother and son are set upon dreams for one another that cannot be reconciled.
His mother manages to convince Hans to put off his entrance to holy orders until he comes of age in the desperate hope that he will lose his commitment to becoming a Dominican. It is during this year when Hans has promised to wait that his mother undertakes to loosen his conviction with the help of an old friend, hoping that Hans will fall in love with her pretty and innocent daughter. One is never in doubt, due to the memorable sorrow of the prologue, that these crossed dreams will lead to some sort of tragedy and trauma, what makes the result so painful, is that one cannot help but sympathise with an affectionate mother and son, so devoted to one another and alike in so many things, apart from their disagreement about Hans’ future. To hurt someone we love because of the love we bare them, must be one of the most tragic of sorrows.
And the city of Bruges is the brocade on which these sorrows are perfectly woven. There are the expected signature descriptions Rodenbach is so fond of when evoking Bruges; the beguinage, the carilloner, the mist on the canals, the mausoleum atmosphere, the ghosts of long departed splendour. But the great success of the nouvelle is that Bruges is described as powerfully through the characters of the drama. Hans Cadzand and Mevr Cadzand, feel like people of flesh and blood, but also growths of the soil of Bruges. Everything about their faith, their love, their dreams, is shot through with the ghostly limbo atmosphere of Bruges. If one tries to imagine this book being set in Paris, Prague or Florence, one would have to rewrite the entire work, because so many of the little nuances of human character are reflections of the city’s character.
I think Hans Cadzands fully achieves the stated aim of Bruge-la-morte’s preface:
“In this study of passion our other principal aim has been to evoke a town, the town as an essential character, associated with states of mind, counselling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act.
And in reality, this town of Bruges, on which our choice fell, does seem almost human. It establishes a powerful influence over all who stay there.”
But the character of the city is expressed more intensely by feeling its subtle shaping of people who have lived their entire lives in its midst.’

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Timothy Lane’s Translation Blog: Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach

Georges Rodenbach
A number of writers are very closely associated with a particular place at a particular time. One naturally associates Wordsworth with the Lake District, many of his most famous poems being composed as he went for long walks over Grasmere; Dickens, despite the diversity of his locations tends to conjure images of a foggy Victorian London of poverty and cruelty. But in neither of those two English writers does their location become something like a living environment as Bruges does in the works of Georges Rodenbach. Bruges does not form a backdrop, it is like the earth and the rainfall that brings forth life after its fashion, like an inescapable element. One can imagine that if Rodenbach had lived in an earlier period he might well have described Bruges as a personified Goddess.
Today Bruges is a major tourist destination, sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North. A quick image search of “Bruges” on the internet will result in many pretty pictures of attractive ivy clad houses on tranquil canals and numerous photos of the Christmas market which make the city look like the inside of a giant snow globe. However, much of Bruges modern splendour is the result of regeneration projects begun towards the end of the 19th century. Once a major port of the Hanseatic league, the silting of the Zwin deprived the city of the access to the sea that had made it such an important port, the city languished in the doldrums for centuries, superseded economically by Antwerp. The many regeneration projects aimed to harness the emerging importance of tourism to transform the city’s fortunes.
It was also towards the end of the 19th century that Rodenbach wrote his major works. The Bruges they describe is a grey ruin populated by joyless religious provincials and sensitive natures drawing in unhealthy influences from its beautiful mummified streets and mausoleum atmosphere. Rodenbach wished to convey the total effect of a place on a person, as a quote from his prefatory note makes clear:
“In this study of passion our other principal aim has been to evoke a Town, the Town as an essential character, associated with states of mind, counselling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act.”
With the above quote in mind, it should be no surprise that the most memorable aspect of this iconic symbolist novel, is the atmosphere of the city of Bruges. The city is the bleak, grey and austere backdrop to a widower’s loneliness and deep sorrow. After losing his wife Hugues Vianes chooses to settle in Bruges, for “the town, once beautiful and beloved too, embodied the loss he felt. Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges.”
His dedication to the memory of his wife is fervently religious. In the home he establishes, he sets aside two rooms for the preservation of objects he deems precious by their association with his wife. He becomes anxious if his housekeeper enters these rooms, so worried is he that her cleaning might damage the many photographs he has of his beloved. Most dear to him of all and preserved in a transparent casket like a holy relic, is the long plait of her golden hair. When not immured with his reliquaries, Hugues traipses the streets of the city, seeking “analogies to his grief in deserted canals and ecclesiastical districts”.
Wandering after his haphazard fashion through the streets in the evening, amidst the closed houses exhaling their “funereal atmosphere” and the “melancholy suburbs lined with poplars”, Hugues contemplates taking his own life. The memory however of his wife and the vague possibility of reunion promised by his spiritual feelings is enough to turn him away from suicide. As he returns home from his melancholy wanderings among the tombs of Notre Dame, struggling to picture to himself his beloved’s face, he is stunned by the resemblance of a passing woman to his wife. Hugues pursues the woman, trying as best he can without giving himself away, to see her clearly and understand how this can be, “A disturbing apparition! An almost frightening miracle of resemblance that went as far as identity”.
In the days following this encounter, whenever Hugues thinks of his wife, he thinks of the unknown woman. The closeness of her resemblance and the morbid intensity of his mourning creates an obsession with this “illusion of his dead wife returned from the grave”. Hugues’ eventually discovers that the woman in question is an actress performing at a local theatre. After introducing himself to her and paying her court, a relationship develops between them.
It is not long before Hugues’ finds this illusion of resemblance fading. His flattering dream is tarnished and he is filled with regret and shame. Despite these bitter feelings, he is unable to break the relationship: the illusion of resemblance has been replaced by the baser feeling of lust. Ashamed of his conduct, fearful of losing his mistress who he suspects of infidelity, Hugues’ once more wanders the Bruges streets at ungodly hours.
This story of morbid obsession and delusion could have easily become a gothic and macabre period piece. What makes it so unique is the evocation of Bruges. Many writing workshops will insist on their students understanding the importance of creating a sense of place, but much more desirable and more challenging – the work of utmost difficulty and genius, requiring greater talent and a longer gestation – is capturing the spirit of a place. Rodenbach manages in a mere eighty pages to make Bruges a place one can’t help but feel. What is more, it is undeniable that had Rodenbach undertaken to place his central character Hugues Vianes in another city, he would have been compelled to create an entirely new story. It is very difficult to imagine the protagonist behaving in the way he does without invoking the cumulative pressure of the city Rodenbach imagines as a charnel house.

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Timothy Lane’s Translation Blog: The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte

Perhaps the most unenviable form of literary fame is to be considered an important precursor of more famous writers. The writer so afflicted is mentioned as an important historical influence on the development of a style or as a pathfinder for a later greater writer, but remains far less frequently read than mentioned. Cazotte’s literary reputation appears to fall into this category. An important figure in the development of the Fantastique, read and admired by Nerval and Hoffmann, but comparatively under appreciated. Jacques Cazotte deserves a little more than our passing attention as a name and a figure.
Jacques Cazotte’s life has something about it of a novella fantastique. He was born in Dijon in 1719. Educated by Jesuits, he studied law, before entering the Marine Civil Service. His postings saw him taken as far afield as the Caribbean. Active in the literary salon culture of the day, he produced works of a light and amusing nature on many of the fashionable literary subjects of the day, these include a series of fables, stories in an oriental manner after Galland, a comic novel and a burlesque of chivalric romance. He joined the Martinists, an eccentric mystical sect of freemasons that followed the teachings of one Martinez de Pasqually. An avowed monarchist, he was arrested and condemned after a number of his private letters that discussed plans for a counter-revolution were discovered. He was guillotined in September 1792.
The Devil in Love is Cazotte’s most famous work. The book’s protagonist is Don Alvaro, a Captain in the King’s Guard of Naples. He is a young Spaniard of aristocratic ancestry hailing from the Extremadura region of Western Spain, famous for being the cradle of the Conquistadors, Cortes and Pizarro. He is full of the pride and hot bloodedness that was long stereotyped as a typical Spanish trait. During a night of carousing with his peers, he is fascinated by an older and maturer Flemish acquaintance, by the name of Soberano. His youthful comrades withdraw and leave him in this man’s company. Impressed by the young captain, Soberano dazzles him with feats that hint at Occult initiation. Our young Spaniard pesters his acquaintance constantly as to how he can also converse with powerful spirits. On being told it would take years of initiation to safely summon spirits, Alvaro impatiently scorns such concessions to prudence and vaunts his courage to pull even the devil himself by the ears.
An assignation is arranged where Soberano’s fellow initiates will instruct Alvaro how to call the Devil. He is lead through the Portici into a deep, dark vault. One of the initiates draws a circle and pentagram in the earth and explains that Alvaro must stand in the centre of the circle, repeat a number of incantations and then fulfil his proud boast. Left alone to complete his foolhardy challenge, Alvaro awaits some sort of trick to be played by Soberano to scare him. After repeating the incantation he invokes Beelzebub three times. A window opens in the air, unnaturally bright light streams into the room and Alvaro is confront by a large ugly camel’s head, that asks “Che vuoi” (What is it you wish). After mastering his initial fear Alvaro orders the spectre to assume a more pleasing shape. The spectre is cowed by the authority in his tone and takes on the form of a little spaniel at his request. After the transformation Alvaro steps from the circle and pulls the little dog by the ears.
With the completion of his bold purpose Alvaro orders his new found servant to transform the desolate vault into a lavish reception for Soberano and his two friends. After the magical transformation of the vault, the little dog transforms into an attractive young page, who is addressed by the name Biondetto (little blond). Alvaro impresses and frightens Soberano and his associates by the extravagance of the reception he lays on for them. But Alvaro little heeds them as he has begun to be distracted by the handsome young page, who at times appears to be no male and no page, but in fact a uniquely beautiful woman.
Alvaro finds himself unable and unwilling to part from his new found servant, who is now consistently in the form of a beautiful woman (called Biondetta throughout the rest of the novella). As well as being attractive and possessing ingratiating magical powers, Alvaro is flattered by his servant’s tale that she was a spirit of the air, a sylph, who chose to take the form of a mortal woman for love and admiration of Don Alvaro’s bravery and worthiness. Alvaro flees his old employment after his temptress cozens him with stories of a plot against him and herself. He travels to Venice where he receives dubious communications from friends and family alike, all of which bear the mark of his companion’s deceptions. He idles away his time attempting to distract himself from her beauty and her charm, but always there seems to be a snare of her art designed to bring them together.
The remainder of the novella focuses on the attempt of Biondetta to seduce Alvaro away from his chivalric and religious duty to save himself until marriage; and to ensure that Alvaro cannot reach Extremadura to receive the guidance of his beloved and virtuous mother. Much of what I have described will naturally sound very familiar from many other gothic and fantastic works: the bold young nobleman, the Italic setting, a Masonic and occult background, spirits and devils, there is even a scene later in the novella where Alvaro attempts to divine his fate with Biondetta by consulting two aged gypsies who naturally have exceptional powers of divination.
One doesn’t need to make a case for the book purely on its influence though. There is something pleasantly exuberant about the rollicking pace and the mixture of styles. I was struck by how many times in such a short little book I saw the possibility of an entirely new tone and story developing. There are so many occasions where Cazotte touches a new narrative path and then moves on, leaving that possibility for another writer to take. When Cazotte introduces his Devil figure twice in the novella with a camel’s head, one feels he could make his devil sinister or into a Bottom-like ass. Indeed Cazotte’s devil goes from ugly abomination to clown, to tame and then to a beautiful gender swapper. Borges praised Cazotte in particular for creating a temptress who so effectively enchants the reader, creating sympathy rather than dread or repugnance.
Cazotte did not write to make a living, or with a pompous sense of literary destiny. Yet for all his apparent amateur dallying with literature, his sparkling little book feels like it is constantly hatching new narrative possibilities. This lies in part down to Cazotte changing the ending from Alvaro becoming the Devil’s agent to an ending where he is unaccountably spared the Devil’s corruption. One can quite easily reconcile the tone and plot of the entire book with an ending of damnation, one of redemption, even a bizarre modern tale where Alvaro marries his demon.
The Devil in Love is an elastic mercurial little book, that rises above the status of influential precursor to be an idiosyncratic minor classic.

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