Saturday, April 27, 2013

linocut #001 - adalbert stifter

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

I discovered Adalbert Stifter's short novel The Bachelors (1850; tr. Bryer)a Writer No One Readsin the ‘In Translation’ section at Reader's Feast Bookstore which, along with Collected Works Bookshop in the Nicholas Building (that has an even more impressive 'In Translation' section), are two of the few places still worth leaving the house and going into town for—havens in what is otherwise becoming an increasingly oppressive and crowded 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. Samuel Frederick tells us the (length of the) novel so disturbed its readers that successive editions of the work radically reduced its three volumes of over 1,300 pagesone 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's taken up predominantly 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.


When I read the short bio of Stifter 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 bio 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 same time that 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 various possibilities for translating what the Chief of Police says, I suddenly realised that instead of my usual anguish over having to choose one way over another, I was actually enjoying coming up with alternatives. The dread of having to make a choice was strangely absent.

Clifford Landers sums up what some might call 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 choicesof words, fidelity, emphasis, punctuation, register, sometimes even of spelling.”

And then all of a sudden—and in spite of oft-repeated 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 few 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 duly returned was: “No, you wouldn’t.” 
My chess partner's gentle persistence has been crucial in getting me to try my hand at translation, but it was my encounter with Adalbert Stifter and re-watching Cuna de lobos that finally got me going.   

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


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 can't 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. 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 sensed all along, becomes manifest in her forgiveness:
“I was wrong, forgive me, Stephan . . . I never imagined how good you areit 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 that 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, which 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 also makes its appearance in Stifter’s short story "Brigitta". 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 wolfish analogy:

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


One eyepatch and one wolf trope leads to another.

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

. . . although, 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 kind of vanished TV-format—and while I'm waiting to hear back from publishers about my first 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.) 

1 comment:

fragmentos said...

Thank you!...great essay!
(just a small remark: even as the direct translation of "cuna" is cot, or craddle, it also means or imply "be born from"