Monday, May 19, 2014

stencil #038 gavrilo princip


Losing the plot

Like all serious-minded kindred spirits, Gavrilo Princip, the hero of Hans Koning’s novel, Death of a Schoolboy (1974), is drawn to the abyss:

“I had been on a school outing from Sarajevo, up the Bjelasnica Mountain…When we came out of the forest onto the bare rock, we had to walk or crawl across a ledge…on one side the ground fell steeply away…The older boys told us there was nothing to it: the trick was simply to look ahead or to the left, never into the abyss…Once they told you that, every muscle in you started pulling your head to the right to look precisely in the forbidden direction. And not just with fear; you felt a strange temptation to tumble down into that valley, to jump, as if that wouldn’t have meant getting killed but freeing yourself…”

             Stencil sticker: Gavrilo Princip, High St Northcote

And in Zagreb, too! (strategic placement courtesy of my chess partner)

Speaking of voids, my long absence from blogging is due to the fact that I have been working on a second literary translation (the first is still yet to find a publisher). Like Gavrilo Princip, the protagonist of the novel that I am translating is a historical figure (ironically from exactly the same period, serving as a nurse in the very war said to have been sparked by Princip himself), and like Death of a Schoolboy, it is not a documentary account, rather it is a novel about history. I have just completed the first draft of the translation, and before I begin on the second draft, I thought I would take a break to post on Koning’s novel which I recently re-read. 


This year marks 100 years since a young Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. He has been framed variously as: a revolutionary (Bosnian) hero; a radical (Serb) nationalist; a naïve, misguided idealist; but most commonly as the ruthless terrorist whose deed set off the chain of events that triggered the outbreak of the First World War. After his arrest and conviction, Princip, who was too young to receive the death penalty, was sentenced to twenty years in prison, where he died four years later from malnutrition, medical neglect and disease. Whether or not he was a terrorist or a freedom fighter, or can indeed be held responsible for causing the deaths of millions in the First World War, is certain to be widely argued in the coming months (see for instance this recent interesting article in the Guardian by Srećko Horvat); my stencil, however, is intended purely as a nod to Hans Koning’s compelling portrait of this controversial figure.
 

Unlike the current literary trend for breezy, entertaining recreations of the lives of historical figures in rather weighty tomes, Koning’s spare, first-person narration breathes quiet, dignified life into his protagonist in his wholly compelling story of Gavrilo Princip. In its less than 200 pages, Koning succeeds in creating a complex and thoroughly convincing portrait of his hero. We understand Princip’s bitterness against an oppressive enemy; we feel his youthful, ardent desire for freedom; we share his bookish sensitivity and love of life, but also his awareness of the absurdity of life.


Making his way from Belgrade, where he has been studying, to Sarajevo, to carry out the planned assassination, Princip describes the journey on foot that he and co-conspirator, Trifko Grabež, take through the wild Bosnian countryside:

“Our magic walk…I had never before been so tired, so wet and muddy and hungry. But we called it our magic walk. We were in a high state, hard to put into words, a state of excitement or, at times, of exaltation even. Why, I don’t completely know…Can you imagine being too weary to take another step and at the same time feeling intensely and superiorly alive?...There’s a mood I’ve named for myself the splinter-of-time awareness. It rarely comes over me, and till then only when in a depression of hopelessness. I want to explain what it means. The first time I thought of it in that particular way was in school, our Latin professor describing the Roman games in the Colosseum. I faced an amphitheatre packed with men and women in the bright sunlight, and I was to die. They looked at me without seeing me, seeing only a nude animated body about to be ripped open for them, to give them a sensual shiver of pleasure. Then, standing there, I thought, this is only a splinter of time, a sliver with eons. They and I will all die at the same moment…It may all sound confused. The walk through the woods with Trifko was such a splinter of time. Nothing else existed or mattered. And within that present we were magically happy.”

When Princip wonders if we can imagine how he feels, the answer is unequivocally yes. And when he suggests that the mood he describes might sound confusing, it isn’t. It is quite lucid. In probing beyond the known facts of his life, Koning reveals quite a remarkable depth of characterisation, portraying Princip grappling with ideas about existence and his actions that reveal a delicate mind.


I shudder to think of a world without great books such as this. And worse, the disappearance of quality second hand bookstores where one might encounter them. Fortunately, there are still a few excellent second hand bookshops near where I work (Red Wheelbarrow) and live (Brown & Bunting) and (Allsorts—which is where I came across my copy of Koning):





I don’t remember what I got from my parents on my 15th birthday, but I’m certain it was nowhere near as impressive as Carolyn’s gift from her parents. I hope she was grateful. The $10-15, written in different ink to that of her parents’ birthday dedication, suggests otherwise: perhaps for Carolyn the book’s worth lay in what she thought it had cost, or what she thought she could get if she sold it. I certainly wouldn’t have got rid of my copy, but I’m grateful that Carolyn did.


When I look around at my bookshelves, full of exceptional friends and loyal companions—like Alain Fournier’s Le Grande Meaulnes, and Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies, to mention only a few of the hundreds—I can’t imagine a life without having read them, a life without reading. In El amor de mi vida (2011), a collection of essays dedicated to “the worldwide fraternity of book lovers”, Rosa Montero sums it up perfectly: a life without reading would be “instant death...like living in a world without oxygen”; but as the piles and stacks of companions has grown over the years (of late verging on the insane with the ease of online ordering and free delivery), I feel as though I’ve lost the plot—litera(ture)lly!


A while back, I was on the verge of unreservedly recommending Wuthering Heights to a friend who was tossing up whether or not to read it. Apart from the mild shock of discovering that she hadn’t ever read it, I was about to tell her how much I thought she would enjoy it, but I stopped short of recommending it when it dawned on me that I couldn’t recall the plot.


What actually happens in Wuthering Heights (and is that why I enjoyed it)?


Later that night, I conjured up a nightmare scenario: of me in the stand, being torn to shreds by the prosecution yelling title after title at me, demanding evidence of the plot, which I fail to provide:  What happens in Buddenbrooks? The Mill on the Floss? The Return of the Native? How can you say that you loved them when you can’t even remember them! For crimes against forgetting, we sentence you to—p(lot)urgatory. 


Is it really necessary to remember the plot?


Javier Marías to the rescue! In his latest novel, The Infatuations (2013; tr. Jull-Costa), Marías’ characters discuss Balzac’s novella, Colonel Chabert (1832). Eager to hear the outcome of the story, the main protagonist of Marías’s novel asks the man who is telling her about Balzac’s story what happened to the Colonel. He replies:

“What happened is the least of it. It's a novel, and once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention...”

I have to agree. If I were to recommend a book, let’s say by the much revered writer, Soledad Puértolas, rather than recounting the plot (which would be difficult anyway given that character rather than plot predominates in much of her work), instinctively I would talk about the intimate tone of her novels and the kind of characters that populate them: melancholy loners, obsessively questioning themselves and their existence, restless and in search of meaning.


In fact, I probably could have described Wuthering Heights—and almost any novel I might recommend—in the same way: a book about tortured, brooding, melancholy, obsessive characters in search of meaningful connection.

Although it’s impossible (and quite unnecessary) to remember the plot of every single book I’ve ever read, I like to think that, like the formation of the planets through the process of accretion, the thousands of stories that I have read have played a significant part in the formation of my own melancholy, obsessive character, who, like Gavrilo Princip, has spent most of his waking hours reading books by men and women who worried about all the problems of life.

moody night shot

Saturday, April 27, 2013

linocut #001 - adalbert stifter


Linocut sticker: Adalbert Stifter, Lygon St Brunswick East
ironic juxtaposition (photo courtesy of Sachiko)
I

Discovering Adalbert Stifter (a neglected writer no one reads) has been momentous. I came across his short novel The Bachelors (1850; tr. Bryer) in the ‘In Translation’ section at Reader's Feast Bookstore which along with Collected Works Bookshop (that has an even more impressive fiction in translation section) are two of the few places still worth leaving the house for and getting on a tram to go to—havens in what is otherwise becoming an increasingly oppressive and unlikeable city. 

In the novel, I took an immediate liking to the old uncle who lives in isolation on a remote island, sharing his affinity for reclusiveness and sympathising with his preoccupation with death. Whereas Victor, the vigorous young nephew he summons to a visit, takes an instant dislike to him and is sorely tested by his uncle’s misanthropy. The story centres on the mutual understanding that develops between the two with the uncle’s negative example serving as a warning to Victor to abandon adolescent gloom to ensure he doesn’t follow a similar path to bitter loneliness:

“Everything falls apart in a moment if you haven’t created a life that lasts beyond the grave...” laments the old uncle, urging his nephew to marry and start a family.

While I don’t share this same instinct for progeny or feel disappointed at the thought of not living on through anyone after my death, I can’t help but be deeply moved by the uncle’s unflinching self-awareness, by his admission of the terrible lack he feels at having missed out on love and at his ultimate fate:

“Quite alone he sat on his island…everything, everything was too late, and something once missed could not be made up for.”

Heeding his uncle’s advice, Victor’s nuptials provide the story with its happy ending. But not before a final, rather heavy-handed reminder in the form of a parable, guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of those readers terrified at the thought of eternal oblivion, that: one perishes, is obliterated and is totally extinguished if “his life has left no copy of itself”.

Copies of myself, I can do without; but I won’t be exiting the planet before reading copies of Stifter’s other books.

Those critical of Stifter's highly stylised prose, particularly of his later work such as the novel Indian Summer (1857; tr. Frye), argue that his writing topples over into pedantry and tedium. One German poet went so far as to offer the crown of Poland to whoever could finish it. Samuel Frederick tells us the novel so disturbed its readers that successive editions of the work radically reduced its three volumes of over 1,300 pages – one 1940 edition butchering it to less than 60 pages. Fortunately, Wendell Frye's English translation of the novel has not been as severely culledit comes in at 500 pagesand though I found it deeply satisfying, I could have read more. There is much that is consoling in Stifter’s work given that it is predominantly taken up with the themes of beauty, morality and the magnificence of nature. Nevertheless, as Thomas Mann has pointed out, there is also in Stifter’s work "a predilection for the excessive, the elemental…the catastrophic, the pathological". Darker themes are revealed below the surface; his narratives often focus on isolated outsiders and many of the stories issue in a tragic conclusion—as did his own life.



II

When I read Stifter’s biography on the back flap of The Bachelors, I was struck by the euphemism employed to describe his suicide: ‘He died in 1868 of self-inflicted wounds.’

Though I generally prefer the wryness of a good dysphemism, I understand why the biography doesn’t read: ‘He murdered himself in 1868’ or ‘He died in 1868, two days after cutting his throat.’

I don’t deny the more palatable function of euphemisms. I’m partial to using them myself—a favourite of mine being my earlier reference to ‘exiting the planet’ (something I dwell on and refer to quite a bit). I suppose that saying ‘He died of self-inflicted wounds’ is accurate after all, and perhaps its further appeal lies in its less common usage. It’s also a rather elegant and exalted cover for the awfully messy way Stifter chose to exit the planet.

At the time I was reading The Bachelors, I also happened to be re-watching the brilliant Mexican telenovela Cuna de lobos (Den of Wolves, 1986) where I encountered a similar euphemism—albeit in Spanish—when the Chief of Police breaks the news in the final episode—SPOILER ALERT!—of Catalina Creel’s death by saying:  ‘Ella lo hizo por su propia mano.’ This had been translated into English as ‘She did it with her own hands’ (which you could be forgiven for interpreting as a dysphemism). A much better way of expressing it in English would have been: ‘She died by her own hand.’ Or better yet, ‘She took her own life.’ What is certain is that ‘She died of self-inflicted wounds’ wouldn’t have worked at all because there is nothing heroic or ennobling about the character of Catalina Cr(u)eel.

In considering the possibilities of translating what the Chief of Police says, I suddenly realised that instead of suffering the anticipated anguish over how best to phrase it, I was actually enjoying coming up with alternatives. The dread of having to make a choice was strangely absent.

Clifford Landers sums up what is for me the paralysing angst of (literary) translation:  “Literary translation entails an unending skein of choices…The role of choice…cannot be overemphasized…at every turn the translator is faced with choices – of words, fidelity, emphasis, punctuation, register, sometimes even of spelling.”

But then all of a sudden—and in spite of oft repeated, sworn claims to the contrary—I suddenly decided to begin translating a novel.

It’s got to be said, though: I’m full of shit.

(NB: self-criticism in the form of a dysphemism should be treated with a high degree of suspicion. It’s often a means of eliciting sympathy. You don’t expect anyone else to be hard on you when you’re hardest on yourself. “I’m full of shit,” “I’m fucked,” “I should be shot,” are intended to elicit “No, you’re not,” “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” or the nauseating “You’re only human.”)

It was my chess partner who a couple of years ago first suggested the idea I take up literary translation but self-doubt prevented me from considering it seriously. Besides, I thought the mental anguish and the moral dilemma of committing the crime of a bad translation would unhinge me further. However, once planted, the idea persisted and grew into a secret desire. But whenever discussion turned to the topic of doing literary translation, I repeatedly rejected the idea resorting to dysphemism to obscure my real intent: “Nah, I’d be shit at it,” to which the expected response was duly returned: “No, you wouldn’t.” 
 
The support from my chess partner was crucial, but in the end it was my encounter with Adalbert Stifter and re-watching Cuna de lobos that finally cinched my foray into translation.  

During my long absence from blogging, I completed the translation and have now begun approaching publishers. I will resist the urge to insert a self-deprecating dysphemism here and simply state: I would really like it to get published.




III


Meanwhile, further parallels between Stifter and Cuna de lobos emerged after reading Stifter’s brilliant short story Brigitta (1844; tr. Watanabe-O’Kelly).

A major theme underlying both narratives is that of seeing and seeing truly.

In Cuna de lobos, the theme is developed through the symbol of the eyepatch. Ruthless matriarch Catalina Creel goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure her biological son—and not her stepson—inherits the family company. For years she has worn an eyepatch to cover an injury that she attributes to her stepson. However, the eyepatch actually conceals a healthy eye. Her pretence at half-blindness masks her true intentions, keeping everyone around her in the dark. She wears it to inspire guilt, pity and fear in a perverse attempt to control her stepson by destroying his confidence. In the opening episode, her husband reveals he has discovered her secret and that he intends to expose her but she poisons him before he can do so. The eyepatch also functions as a symbol of self-deceit and an inability on the part of those around her to see what is really going on. In the course of the novela, those fortunate to escape her murderous wrath gradually learn to see her for who she truly is. In the case of Catalina Creel, it is not the eye(s) that are the window to her black soul but the eyepatch.

As far as I know, none of Stifter’s characters wears an eyepatch, but in Brigitta, it wouldn’t be out of place if Major Stephan Murai were to wear one as a symbol of his own problems with seeing truly. Brigitta centres on the subject of inner versus outer beauty. To the (open-eyed) surprise of many, handsome Major Murai is drawn to ugly Brigitta Maroshely.  What others fail to discern and that Murai intuits is her inner beauty. Though equally drawn to him, Brigitta makes an impassioned appeal when he begins to woo her:
“Do not do it…do not court me, you will regret it…I can demand no other love than the very greatest. I know that I am ugly, therefore I demand a greater love than the most beautiful girl on this earth. I do not know how great, but it seems to me as though it must be without measure and without end.”
Murai is no cad. He is motivated by genuine affection and is sensitive to qualities beyond outward appearance. They marry, have a child and for a short time are happy. But he’s not immune to the allure of physical beauty. While out hunting one day, a chance encounter with a beautiful young woman stirs up latent desire. His responsewhich could barely be described as frottage (“…he pulled her suddenly to him, pressed her to his heart…”)does not lead to anything untoward (“…and before he could see whether she was angry or joyful, leapt onto his horse and fled away”); but later, when he and Brigitta are visiting a neighbour, Murai encounters the young woman again; Brigitta witnesses the flush of delight that passes between her husband and the girl. It devastates her:
“…Brigitta’s heart was destroyed. A ball of shame, as big as the world, had grown up in her bosom…finally she took her swollen, screaming heart in her hand and strangled it.”
Brigitta cannot forgive Murai’s wandering eye and asks for a divorce.  A long separation ensues but circumstances draw the couple back to one another; a near tragedy that involves Brigitta’s son proves the catalyst for the couple reuniting. Another significant theme in the work of Stifter is his insistence on people's educability; for Brigitta, and particularly for Murai, separation and maturity have provided greater insight; both have learnt to see (one another) truly. Murai’s capacity for love is revealed to Brigitta through the care and concern he shows her and her injured son, while Brigitta’s inner beauty, which Murai had intuited all along, becomes manifest in her forgiveness:
“I was wrong, forgive me, Stephan…I never imagined how good you are – it was only natural after all, there is a gentle law of beauty which attracts us.”
 “…the law of beauty does attract us, but I had to wander the whole world until I learned that it lies in the heart and that I had left it at home in a heart that had had the best of intentions towards me…”

Wolves also feature prominently in both narratives.
 
The opening credits sequence of Cuna de lobos sets the menacing mood and tone of the series: a pack of wolves tears at the flesh of its dead prey, referencing the fate that is to befall the naïve and unsuspecting protagonist of the telenovela.




The name of the actress playing the role of ruthless matriarch Catalina Creel appears over an image of a wolf baring its teeth, foreshadowing her character's predatory nature which is quickly established in the opening episode: Big Bad Wolf Catalina Creel poisons her husband to keep him from revealing the secret of her healthy eye and to ensure her son Alejandro, a wolf cub in Armani suits, inherits control of the family company. However, her late husband’s will stipulates that control of the company will go to whichever of his sons produces an heir first. Unfortunately, Alejandro’s wife Vilma is infertile so he concocts a wolfish plan, that Vilma goes along with, to prey on an unsuspecting young woman, Leonora, by seducing her, arranging a sham marriage to her and getting her pregnant in order to abduct the child as soon as it’s born and pass it off as his and Vilma's.


In Spanish the word ‘cuna’ refers to a cot or a cradle, but in English the title of the telenovela is translated as ‘Den of Wolves’. The English translation doesn’t convey the significance of the reference to the cradle and the future heir to the empire within it, but ‘Den of Wolves’ is more appropriate than ‘Cradle of Wolves’.

The predatory wolf trope makes its appearance in Stifter’s short story Brigitta, also. Murai’s wolfish desire, stirred up while he is out hunting (!) in an encounter with a beautiful young woman with 'gazelle'-like eyes, is meant to be understood as the chaotic forces latent within humanity generally (for a more thorough reading of the wolf as a symbol of danger and desire see Robert C. Holub’s essay: Adalbert Stifter’s Brigitta, or the Lesson of Realism). And Later in the story, when Murai rescues Brigitta’s son who is set upon by a pack of wolves, the description of Murai leaves no doubt as to the lupine analogy:

“...the man was almost terrible to behold…almost like a beast of prey himself he leaped upon them.”


IV - Addendum

One eyepatch and one wolf trope leads to another.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity of revisiting Harold Robbins’ The Pirate (1974), especially as my New England Library First Edition copy sports such a fetching cover…

…though, given the plot, the eyepatch as a symbol of half-blindness would have been better worn by the sheik standing behind the glamorous woman.

The story centres on ‘lone wolf’ Baydr Al Fay, who is raised as an Arab, unaware that he is actually a Jew. We learn of his true identity in the compelling prologue in which his mother dies giving birth to him in a desert sandstorm. Much could have been made of the themes of identity and seeing truly but the novel fails to live up to its opening. But that’s no surprise. Robbins is less interested in exploring these themes than in delivering his standard fast-moving, plot-driven narrative interlaced with explicit sex and violence. Robbins keeps Baydr in the dark, withholding the revelation of his true identity from him, and focuses instead on Baydr’s brutal and rapacious exploits. The symbol of the wolf and the pirate serve only to perpetrate a stack of negative stereotypes of Arab characters.
  
Reason enough, one should think, to keep well away from the four-hour, (hard-to-find) mini-series of the novel made in 1978. But then, I’m a sucker for (tracking down) this vanished TV-format—and while I'm waiting to hear back from publishers about my translation, I've got plenty of time to spare.

(For a more detailed appraisal of The Pirate, read Joe Kenney's shrewd review.)

(And explore the wonderful blog dedicated to neglected Writers No One Reads.) 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

frame up #003 dezső kosztolányi


Tormented trio, from left to right: 
Géza Csáth, Dezső Kosztolányi  & Dezső Brenner 
(1908, Szabadka - today's Subotica, Serbia)

 (And now outside The Book Grocer, High Street, Northcote)

 4. “Hell is—other people!”

A recent Sunday lunch with my parents brought to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit (1944; tr. Gilbert) in which three characters are brought to a room at the entrance to Hell where they expect to suffer eternal punishment. While waiting to enter, they begin tormenting one another and come to realise that there is no need for Hell when it is our inter-personal relationships that are the source of all despair. Implicit in this revelation, however, is the fact that although they can be (and often are) hellish, our interactions with others defines us. We can’t do without other people. (There’s no point deluding myself.) Instead of (bitter) tears, the play (and the family lunch) ends with (resigned) laughter:
GARCIN: … [Laughs.] So this is hell I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone…Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!
(ME [groans]: Hell is—family lunches!)
INEZ: Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes—all useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. So here we are, forever. [Laughs.]
(MUM [moans]: Dead! Dead! I wish I was dead! Have some more rice. [Laughs.])
ESTELLE [with a peal of laughter]: Forever. My God, how funny! Forever.
GARCIN [looks at the two women, and joins in the laughter]: For ever, and ever, and ever.
(DAD [looks at Me and Mum and starts laughing]: It’s been this way for ever and ever.)
[They/We slump onto their/our respective sofas. A long silence. Their/our laughter dies away and they/we gaze at each other.]
GARCIN: Well, well, let’s get on with it…
(ME: Well, well. Let’s have another beer…)
(IT’S) CURTAIN(S)
The tormented interactions of a different trio in Hermann Hesse’s Gertrude (1910; tr. Rosner), a novel in the form of a memoir, similarly espouse a fatalistic view of the unavoidable pain and despair entailed in relationships.

Kuhn, a young composer, recounts his troubled relationships with two singers who disrupt without fully dislodging his inherent desire for solitude:
“So strange is the human being that in the midst of my new life and fulfilled wishes, I was sometimes aware of a slight, fleeting, subconscious desire for solitude, for even boring and empty days. It then seemed to me that the time I had spent at home and the dreary uneventful life from which I was glad to escape, was something desirable.”
Though he is drawn out of voluntary isolation when he is befriended by opera singer Heinrich Muoth and when he meets and becomes attracted to singer Gertrude Imthor, Kuhn seeks to return to seclusion when Gertrude marries Heinrich instead.

Brooding and forlorn, Kuhn reveals his desire to return to a life of solitude to his old teacher, Konrad Lohe, who accuses him of suffering from a mental disorder:
“You are suffering from a sickness…that one comes across every day amongst sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness…Those who suffer this illness only need a couple of disappointments to make them believe that there is no link between them and other people, that all people go about in a state of complete loneliness, that they never understand each other, share anything or have anything in common…”
“…it is pure fiction that there is no bridge between one person and another, that everyone goes about lonely and misunderstood. On the contrary, what people have in common with each other is much more and of greater importance than what each person has in his own nature and which makes him different from others.”
Kuhn submerges his grief, finding solace in inspired creativity by transforming his ordeals into a successful opera:
“…the sounds of my overture solemnly rose to me…The pleasures and troubles of the past days, the hopes and sleepless nights, the passion and the longing of that period confronted me, detached and transformed. Emotions experienced in secret were transmitted clearly and movingly to a thousand unknown people in the theatre.”
Heinrich and Gertrude’s marriage proves disastrous, confirming Kuhn’s view of love as a brutal passion. Kuhn considers trying to win Gertrude back but decides against it when he realises that in spite of her destructive relationship with Heinrich, she will never love anyone but her husband.

Though Kuhn is resigned at the end to the idea that “fate [is] not kind, life [is] capricious and terrible, and there [is] no good or reason in nature”, he draws further solace from social commitment and obligation instead, lending his support to Heinrich and Gertrude throughout their destructive marriage:
“…we can draw close to one another in times of need, understand and love one another, and live to comfort each other.”
He ends his account with a belief in greater contentment in old age.

There is no such deliverance for the tormented trio in Dezső Kosztolányi’s magnificent - brilliant! -  novel Skylark (1924; tr. Aczel).

When Akos and Antonia Vajkay’s unmarried adult daughter, Skylark, spends a week away from home for the first time, painful truths about their relationships emerge. Released from their pact of living in isolation with their prosaic daughter, the parents rediscover the pleasures of social life – eating out, meeting up with old friends and attending the theatre. Drunk on life liberated from the constraints of being anchored to a socially unwanted child, Akos and Antonia are both appalled and compelled to express their unspoken discontent:
“I want to talk at last…We don’t love her…It’s true…We hate her. We detest her…We’d much rather she wasn’t here. Like now. And right now we wouldn’t even mind if she, poor thing, were…”
It’s a devastating confession of a brutal truth they have kept buried in order to cope with their despair.  A truth that Skylark herself is fully aware of and has also supressed in order to bear her pain:
“Patience. Patience. There are those who suffer so much more…she lay on her cold and barren girlhood bed, where nothing, save sleep and illness, had ever happened. She pressed the full weight of her body downwards, like a corpse into its bier.”
But confessions and revelations don’t lead to change. After Skylark's return home, everything goes back to the way it has always been. The book ends with her bitter tears flooding her pillow and her parents’ resignation to their narrow, frustrated lives. The trio remains deadlocked in illusory comfort.

Tormented relationships may be inevitable but the solace afforded by literature provides us at least a degree of contentment.

Monday, August 20, 2012

stencil #037 - cesare pavese

Cesare Pavese in High Street(art) Northcote
in company with Forever

3. The need for solitude 

Although I’m no longer (chronologically) an adolescent, I could easily succumb to hikikomori. I definitely have the traits associated with the syndrome. To be honest, the desire for solitude has accompanied me my whole life. Yet, I still put on a t-shirt each morning and leave the house (most days). I still accept responsibilities and (like Slobodan Galac) I still vote for love.

In his recent book of essays, Robert Dessaix tells us he treats his aversion to the crowd by withdrawing from it “from time to time.” He suggests it’s probably not a good idea to flee for too long – till midday is sufficient, after which one should re-join the world in order to “delight the senses, fall in love…and amble about.” He has a point. Withdrawing fully would put an end to my chances of getting back on a plane one day, the happiness and satisfaction I find in companionship and ambling to bookshops.

Yet, the sense that solitude is inexorable doggedly persists.
“The need for solitude…sooner or later seizes everybody,” states the narrator of Cesare Pavese’s novel, The Devil in the Hills (1949; tr. Paige).
The torment of both desiring and fearing solitude is a central aspect of Cesare Pavese’s life and writing:
“The greatest misfortune is loneliness…That explains the persistence of marriage, fatherhood, friendship, since they might bring happiness! But why it should be better to be in communication with another than to be alone, is a mystery. Perhaps it is only an illusion, for one can be perfectly happy alone, most of the time. It is pleasant  now and then to have a boon companion to drink with…The mystery is why it is not enough to drink and fathom our own individuality alone…” The Business of Living: Diaries 1935-1950 (1961; tr. Murch; Molli).
The restorative power of retreating from time to time was not an alternative for Pavese who was unable to reconcile his desire for connection with his fundamental inclination towards solitude:
“One cannot belie one’s own nature. You wanted to do something strong, to withdraw like a self-possessed stoic, and you have put yourself in the position of not having withdrawn, and not being able any longer to enjoy the natural company you had before.”
Pavese’s diaries and much of his writing hint at the only alternative he felt was available to him:  
“Loneliness is pain; copulation is pain; piling up possessions or herding with a crowd is pain; Death puts an end to it all.”
Many of Pavese’s heroes seek love but believe they’d be better off alone. Unable to connect with others, they remain in perpetual transit between the need for love and the desire for solitude:
“I felt irritated by Carlotta’s air of happiness as she prepared coffee for me. Carlotta drew from me a tenderness that I reproached myself for the moment I was alone again. I spent frenzied moments trying to purge my mind and free myself from even the faintest memory of her...It must be clear that we made love out of boredom, lust, for any reason except the only one she tried to delude herself existed” (Suicides, 1938; tr. Murch).
The narrator of Wedding Trip (1936; tr. Murch) feels similarly disconnected from his wife:
“I’m so happy! Are you happy, too?” and she rubbed her cheek against my shoulder.
I did not feel like that. I was walking with clenched jaws...I felt restless, remote from Cilia, alone in the world.”
Pavese’s heroes see their desire for solitude as a weakness, but one that is preferable to the danger of false communion:
“My real vice...was the pleasure I took in being alone...,” says Clelia, the narrator of Pavese’s novel Among Women Only (1949; tr. Paige).
“I thought of Carlotta who had got along in life, and probably died in consequence.”
Clelia ascribes her own success in life to voluntary solitude and a refusal to get along which she traces back to childhood. During carnival season one year, her father’s impending death had threatened to prevent her attending:
“I cried with anger and I hated him, thinking of the holiday I was losing...But I was crying because the idea of father’s dying terrified me and prevented me from abandoning myself to the carnival...I thought that it was probably in that distant evening that I really learned for the first time that if I wanted to do anything, to get something out of life, I should tie myself to no one, depend upon no one, as I had been tied to that tiresome father. And I had succeeded...”
The extent to which Clelia is prepared to go in order to follow her own desires - striking everyone (family included) off the list - can be viewed as cynical or astute. And depending on whether you see love as an attachment to another or as a mask for selfish needs, then Clelia’s independence can be regarded as lonely or heroic. In the light of the false, empty lives of the idle-rich in post-war Turin, there’s no doubt – at least in Clelia’s mind – solitude has been her salvation.

The novel relates Clelia’s return home to Turin from Rome where she has become a successful couturier. On her return, she befriends Rosetta Mola, a rich, well-educated young woman from Turin’s fashionable society who has attempted to commit suicide. While probing the motives behind the attempted suicide, Clelia is disabused of her initial envy and admiration for Rosetta's milieu. What she observes about Rosetta and her circle is that behind all their wealth and their hectic social activities, they lead empty, disconnected and unfulfilled lives:
“When I was a girl I envied women like [Rosetta] and the others, I envied them and didn’t know what they were. I imagined them free, admired, on top of the world. Thinking over it now, I wouldn’t change places with any of ‘em. Their lives seemed to me stupid, and doubly stupid because they didn’t know it.”
Rosetta eventually succeeds in committing suicide which Clelia attributes to the consequence of going along and ignoring the call to solitude:
“...Having money means you can pay for isolation. But then why do leisured people, with all their money, always look for company and a noisy party?
...At bottom it was true [Rosetta] had no motive for killing herself...[Rosetta] wanted to be alone, wanted to isolate herself from the ruckus and you can’t be alone or do anything alone in her world, unless you take yourself out of it completely.”
Such a drastic solution, Rosetta!?

Not just yet.

There’s still a lot left to read. 

And as my long absence from blogging has proven, it's not that difficult to reconcile long hours, days, weeks and sometimes even months, in retreat with only the company of books.