Monday, June 27, 2016

What people!

At Oreanda they sat on a seat not far from the church, looked down at the sea, and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.

What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card-playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one's time, the better part of one's strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his "lower race," his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
Three non-sequential paragraphs from Anton Chekhov's "The Lady With the Little Dog," translated by Constance Garnett. And this from Chekhov's "The Bishop":
After an hour or so of hemorrhage the bishop looked much thinner, paler, and wasted; his face looked wrinkled, his eyes looked bigger, and he seemed older, shorter, and it seemed to him that he was thinner, weaker, more insignificant than any one, that everything that had been had retreated far, far away and would never go on again or be repeated.

"How good," he thought, "how good!"

Monday, June 20, 2016

not the It that you think about

"Eleven Definitions"

I
it
came from somewhere or other
(don't remember the starting point)
must arrive
(forget where)
and now just travels around

II
it
is not the It that you think about
it
is the nothing in the room that
makes you turn abruptly around

III
it
is so small with a small "i"
with soft ears and warm paws
no one has seen it yet
and that is the proof
of its existence

IV
it
is the force with which
the leaf falls from the tree
into the water pail

and muddies the heavens

V
it
is also the repose
in which the force collects itself
and clears up the heavens

between two leaves

VI
there is something in common
between beetles and roses
and that is
it

VII
it
is in the turning of the "t"
or between the "i" and the "t"
or the devil knows where

but the devil doesn't know either

VIII
you believe it is God
yet God
would be written immensely

IX
you say it is death
yet have your words been heard
by death?
once I tasted him
he was hard and sour
had to spend the whole evening spitting

X
it is dwindling and brittle
you name it and it dies
you catch it and it goes away
and melts into emptiness
it

XI
(the successful attempt)
From Kleines morgentliches Verbrechen by Georgi Gospodinov, in my translation from the German. This is the first poem in the book, which I assume is a sort of "setting the tone" piece, a claim being staked, a flag planted on the beach, etc. A Modernist declaration about Modernist poetry, maybe. Anyway, Gospodinov's book of poems is full of things like that, in contemporary language. Some of the poems are very short:
God is altogether
red and plump
God is a tomato.

There's nothing offensive in that
to either party.
That one was a little harder to push into English, because German sentence-building rules are not the same as English sentence-building rules. Syntax, that's the word I was looking for. Different syntaxes, what fun. Anyway, I'm reading Bulgarian poems in a German edition as part of Bulgarian Literature Month. I don't know from poetry, but I am certainly enjoying Gospodinov's poems. Make of that what you will. I think I'll translate some more of them in the coming days. We'll see. Time is short, work is busy, I am lazy, et your own cetera.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

in the back row with James and Leopold

He saw the priest stow the communion cup away, well in, and kneel an instant before it, showing a large grey bootsole from under the lace affair he had on. Suppose he lost the pin of his. He wouldn't know what to do to. Bald spot behind. Letters on his back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.

Meet one Sunday after the rosary. Do not deny my request. Turn up with a veil and black bag. Dusk and the light behind her. She might be here with a ribbon round her neck and do the other thing all the same on the sly. Their character. That fellow that turned queen's evidence on the invincibles he used to receive the, Carey was his name, the communion every morning. This very church. Peter Carey, yes. No, Peter Claver I am thinking of. Denis Carey. And just imagine that. Wife and six children at home. And plotting that murder all the time. Those crawthumpers, now that's a good name for them, there's always something shiftylooking about them. They're not straight men of business either. O, no, she's not here: the flower: no, no. By the way, did I tear up that envelope? Yes: under the bridge.

The priest was rinsing out the chalice: then he tossed off the dregs smartly. Wine. Makes it more aristocratic than for example if he drank what they are used to Guinness's porter or some temperance beverage Wheatley's Dublin hop bitters or Cantrell and Cochrane's ginger ale (aromatic). Doesn't give them any of it: shew wine: only the other. Cold comfort. Pious fraud but quite right: otherwise they'd have one old booser worse than another coming along, cadging for a drink. Queer the whole atmosphere of the. Quite right. Perfectly right that is.

Mr Bloom looked back towards the choir. Not going to be any music. Pity. Who has the organ here I wonder? Old Glynn he knew how to make that instrument talk, the vibrato: fifty pounds a year they say he had in Gardiner street. Molly was in fine voice that day, the Stabat Mater of Rossini. Father Bernard Vaughan's sermon first. Christ or Pilate? Christ, but don't keep us all night over it. Music they wanted. Footdrill stopped. Could hear a pin drop. I told her to pitch her voice against that corner. I could feel the thrill in the air, the full, the people looking up:
Happy Bloomsday, all.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"While alive, he had hay fever. Now he was lying there, piled with flowers"

The first idea is that memory is a labyrinth. Then the book becomes a labyrinth, language becomes a labyrinth, history a labyrinth, all life a labyrinth. Nothing is straightforward, and everywhere you turn looks like the dead end of sorrow, because all light, all love, all that is good, is trapped within this labyrinth. The images pile up: of mazes, of burrows, of tunnels, of ants leaving the anthill to be trampled by an unfeeling child who is god, of Minotaur torn from his mother's breast to be thrown into the maze where he will be murdered by a foreigner aided by Minotaur's half-sister. Are we all Minotaur, then? Half man/half beast trapped in a labyrinth, waiting for our killer to appear?
That which has not been told, just like that which has not happened--because they're of the same order--possesses all possibilities, countless variations on how they could happen or be told.

Alas, the story is linear and you have to get rid of the detours every time, wall up the side corridors. The classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides. Before you fix its boundaries, the world is full of parallel versions and corridors. All possible outcomes potter about only in hesitation and indecisiveness. And quantum physics, filed with indeterminacy and uncertainty, has proved this.

I try to leave space for other versions to happen, cavities in the story, more corridors, voices and rooms, unclosed-off stories, as well as secrets that we will not pry into...
Georgi Gospodinov wrote The Physics of Sorrow in response to a 2010 Economist article which declared Bulgaria to be "the saddest place in the world." Physics is less a story than a catalogue--one of the conceits of the novel is that Gospodinov is collecting material for a time capsule that will be like Noah's Ark, holding an example of every form of Bulgarian life/experience--of the sorrows of Bulgaria. We read Gospodinov's memories, and the memories of his family, and the memories of people he meets by chance. The narrator at one point begins buying anecdotes from strangers, all to be included in the time capsule of the novel. The narrator becomes obsessed with quantum physics, attempting to reverse the flow of time, to bring the dead back to life, to undo all the sorrows endured during history. He gives up this experiment when he realizes that moments of horror, even when lived backwards, remain horrific and who could put someone through such pain a second time?
Our history and literature textbooks--we got a kick out of adding finishing touches to the painfully familiar photographs inside. A mustache and a pirate's skull cap on top of the general secretary of the communist party's head, which was as round and bald as an egg. And on the poet-revolutionary Hristo Botev's heroic face--may the gods of literature forgive me!--I drew round, John Lennon-style glasses. The glasses completely transformed the fearsome Botev into a slightly bewildered, bearded hippie of Bulgarian revolutions, which are as a rule unsuccessful.
The threads, the long straight passages that at first look like the central movement of the novel (the story of Gospodinov's grandfather, the story of the Cretan Minotaur) get lost as the narrative moves into the labyrinth and the narrator follows side passages, stumbles in the darkness and finds heaps of hidden and abandoned sorrow. Once in a while he makes his way to the main passages again, but he leaves them after a few uncertain steps and takes us back into the depths of the labyrinth. We don't know where we are going, but after all there is nowhere to go but further into the infinite twisting paths. But at least the labyrinth contains everything: not just sadness, but love and humor and beauty are also buried in the darkness.
Brezhnev died the very next year.[...] I was twelve and had kissed a girl for the first time the day before, albeit in the dark during a game of spin-the-bottle at a birthday party. First kiss, first death.

That marked the beginning of the end. Soviet general secretaries started dying off every year or two.[...] In fact, the whole period I was in puberty can be briefly described through the prism of the complex political context of the '80s.
First kiss (with a girl).
Brezhnev dies.
Second kiss (different girl).
Chernenko dies.
Third kiss...
Andropov dies.
Am I killing them?
First fumbling sex in the park.
Chernobyl.
To return to the Noah's Ark image: in the midst of all this sorrow Gospodinov has given us a dove in the form of the protagonist's young daughter, who is a ray of light in the labyrinth, and possibly a guide out of the dark. The Ark matters because it is designed to outlast the present, to wash up on some future Ararat at the dawn of a new world. Will the dove return with an olive branch? It is too early to tell.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"the struggle, as they say, is epic" (the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov)

Had Bulgarian poet Nikola Vaptsarov (1909-1942) lived in America, a few generations later, he might have been a protest singer. Had he been a member of my circle in the 1980s, Vaptsarov would've formed a punk rock band. Writing songs is, in general, how young men of my day interacted with the poetic impulse, only later in life getting down to reading actual poetry. In Bulgaria, however (at least according to Georgi Gospodinov's foreword to Kino: the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov), today's intellectuals grew up reading and quoting poetry, especially that of Vaptsarov, seeing him not necessarily as a communist revolutionary hero but as a young man full of life and passion, reading him broadly against Bulgarian daily life. That's how, more or less, I tried to read this short book of poems.
Today I want
                    to write
                               a poem
breathing like
verse for these new times
with the thrill
                   of that lofty
                   winged
                   demon
that had traveled the globe
              from pole to pole.

("Romance" trans. Bilyana Kourtasheva)
I admit that I was mostly unsuccessful the first time through. Vaptsarov's poems sometimes read a lot like the song lyrics my roommate Tom was writing in the 80s for his psychedelic agitprop band Shades of Persuasion, though of course without all of Tom's allusions to moping about girls.
I set off in the morning,
                                 The road to the plant
is crowded
                with overalled
                                     throngs.
We're one in heart,
                            we're one in mind,
and yet
I don't feel I belong here.

("Land" trans. Kalina Filipova)
Vaptsarov did, in fact, call many of his poems "songs." Most of his poems are political statements about the workers' struggle, anti-fascist or anti-capitalist rallying cries, but every poem has its moment, and it is for those moments, according to Gospodinov, that Vaptsarov is read today. The universal, less strictly left political moments. When I read the collection a second time, I found many attractive things among the rhetoric of revolution.
Do you remember
the sea and the machines,
the hold, all filled
with sticky dusk?
[...]
High above us,
high up in the skies
                            the wings of gulls
miraculously fluttered still.
The sky still sparkled as if with mica
and it was still
                     as blue and vast as ever,
and slowly every evening
the sails of ships were lost
                          from our sight
and masts receded in the mist.

("Letter" trans. Kalina Filipova)
"Kino" is the best of the rallying cries, possibly because Vaptsarov steps away from his usual images of smoke, blood and sweat for a moment to take in a film.
Outside, the noise,
the glittering adverts,
and the poster declaring
A Human Drama.
Outside, the noise,
money clutched
in my sweating palm.
"Kino" is an indictment of Western cinema and advertising as empty diversion from the realities of cold hard life.
Is this the way
we really meet--
in limousines?
Our love is born
from toil,
between the smoke,
the soot,
and the machines.
[...]
This is the real human drama.

(trans. Bilyana Kourtasheva)
My favorite poem is the short item Vaptsarov wrote to his wife as he sat in a cell awaiting execution by firing squad at the hands of the pro-Nazi government. Vaptsarov had been involved in anti-government sabotage plots with the Bulgarian communists who wished to bring down the fascists and align Bulgaria with the Allies, especially the USSR. The poet was 32 years old.
Sometimes I'll come home in your dreams,
And sit and watch you as you sleep.
Just leave the door upon the latch,
Then in the darkness I will keep

My soft and silent bedside watch,
An unexpected guest, and when
My eyes have drunk their fill of you,
I'll kiss you, then I'll go again.

("Valediction" trans. Kalina Filipova)
I don't know a great deal about poetry, especially 20th-century poetry, but from what little I've read I am ready to claim that I can (maybe) see, from Vaptsarov's work, that he was caught up in the same wave of Modernism as other European poets during that time: see the fractured formal structures, the typographical play with line breaks, the shifting rhythms and general looseness of the poems. Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has been posting about Soviet poets and I tentatively claim to see similarities between Vaptsarov and Mayakovsky. Better and more experienced readers will likely know better. I can't see what I haven't seen, right?
You come home
drenched
to the bone.
The boat gapes empty.
Two silvery fish alone
glow on the stern in the dark.
Even if Christ himself
were to descend now
what could he do
with two little fishes?

("A Fisherman's Life" trans. Kalina Filipova)
My shallow reading of Kino: the poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov is part of Thomas Hübner's Bulgarian Literature Month extravaganza. I'm going to be reading Georgi Gospodinov's novel The Physics of Sorrow next. All three books I purchased for Bulgarian Lit Month have a Gospodinov connection; I was not aware of that when I bought them. Titles, covers, I thought. What did I know about authors?
I know where I belong in life
and I
won't easily surrender,
just like that.
I will die an honest worker's death
if I shall die
in our fight
for freedom and for bread.

("The Intellectual Stoker's Song" trans. Evgenia Pancheva)
You can read Vaptsarov's poems here or here, though I prefer the translations in the edition I read, published by tiny Smokestack Books in the People's Republic of Britain.
No, it's not a good time for poetry,
For the ringing joy of a rhyme.
How can a poem ever reach the heart
Through such heavy armor?

("No, it's not a good time for poetry" trans. Kalina Filipova)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"finally in a violent altercation"

It was about a week later that Florence Bradley asked us to go with her to see the second performance of the Sacre du Printemps. The russian ballet had just given the first performance of it and it had made a terrible uproar. All Paris was excited about it. Florence Bradley had gotten three tickets in a box, the box held four, and asked us to go with her. In the meantime there had been a letter from Mabel Dodge introducing Carl Van Vechten, a young New York journalist. Gertrude Stein invited him to dine the following Saturday evening.

We went early to the russian ballet, these were the early great days of the russian ballet with Nijinsky as the great dancer. And a great dancer he was. Dancing excites me tremendously and it is a thing I know a great deal about. I have seen three very great dancers. My geniuses seem to run in threes, but that is not my fault, it happens to be a fact. The three really great dancers I have seen are the Argentina, Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky. Like the three geniuses I have known they are each one of a different nationality.

The performance began. No sooner had it commenced when the excitement began. The scene now so well known with its brilliantly coloured background now not at all extraordinary, outraged the Paris audience. No sooner did the music begin and the dancing than they began to hiss. The defenders began to applaud. We could hear nothing, as a matter of fact I never did hear any of the music of the Sacre du Printemps because it was the only time I ever saw it and one literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music. The dancing was very fine and that we could see although our attention was constantly distracted by a man in the box next to us flourishing his cane, and finally in a violent altercation with an enthusiast in the box next to him, his cane came down and smashed the opera hat the other had just put on in defiance. It was all incredibly fierce.
From The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, 1933. Stein and Toklas met everyone, saw everything, in Paris from 1907-1932. Mighty Reader wondered if Marcel Proust had read about or possibly even witnessed that opera hat being smashed.

Monday, May 23, 2016

they had not yet gone greek

It was just about this time that Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora, rented an atelier in the rue de Fleurus. Raymond had just come back from his first trip to Greece and had brought back with him a greek girl and greek clothes. Raymond had known Gertrude Stein's elder brother and his wife in San Francisco. At that time Raymond was acting as advance agent for Emma Nevada who had also with her Pablo Casals the violincellist, at that time quite unknown. The Duncan family had been then at the Omar Khayyam stage, they had not yet gone greek. They had after that gone italian renaissance, but now Raymond had gone completely greek and this included a greek girl. Isadora lost interest in him, she found the girl too modern a greek. At any rate Raymond was at this time without any money at all and his wife was enceinte. Gertrude Stein gave him coal and a chair for Penelope to sit in, the rest sat on packing cases. They had another friend who helped them, Kathleen Bruce, a very beautiful, very athletic English girl, a kind of sculptress, she later married and became the widow of the discoverer of the South Pole, Scott. She had at that time no money to speak of either and she used to bring a half portion of her dinner every evening for Penelope. Finally Penelope had her baby, it was named Raymond because when Gertrude Stein's brother and Raymond Duncan went to register it they had not thought of a name. Now he is against his will called Menalkas but he might be gratified if he knew that legally he is Raymond. However that is another matter.
What jumped out at me, of course, is the phrase "became the widow of the discoverer of the South Pole." Stein here refers to Robert Falcon Scott, the explorer who led the first English party to the south pole. Scott and his men reached the pole some two weeks, I think, after Roald Amundsen and his men planted the Norwegian flag there. Scott and his party died during the march back from the pole to their waiting ship. He'd kept a diary of the expedition, and his final entry read, "For God's sake, look after our people." Scott's people were Kathleen and Peter, their son. The British government had made no provisions for survivors of polar expedition members and Scott worried that his family would be penniless. Kathleen Scott did not end up penniless, however. She married a politician who was eventually made baron.