Dante’s Shoe Soles

It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.

I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.

Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:

The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.

Interpretative Revelation

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Nabokov, Pale Fire (62-63)

Rare Birds

Where does the Blogger’s Code (you know those self-appointed men that harangue from street corners) stand on updating old posts? I’d never thought much about it, except to correct typos, until I read One Activity You Should Do On Your Blog Every Day. Then I forgot about it for a few days.

Today I’ve been reading Lev Losev’s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life and reflecting on the subject of genius. Losev writes:

“Genius” is not a scholarly term. Its common use is mainly emotive: “You’re a genius!” For me, “genius” is first and foremost a cognate of “genetic.” A one-in-a-million genetic makeup creates a person of unusual creative potential, willpower, and charisma. It may offend our democratic sensibilities to admit that such rare birds are so different from the rest of our common flock, but in fact they are.

That’s a definition I can accept. It lead me to search Time’s Flow Stemmed for how often, in a delirium of enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, I overuse the term. My search led me to an old post on Aristotle’s hypothesis that mastery of metaphor is a sign of genius. Revisiting led to the sacrilegious act of updating an old post, then to an act of time travel, linking from that old post to one four years later.

Brodsky, almost certainly a genius, in an essay about artistic creativity said, “The lesser commenting upon the greater has, of course, a certain humbling appeal, and at our end of the galaxy we are quite accustomed to this sort of procedure.” Brodsky’s phrase: that the lesser cannot comment upon the greater. This pinpoints my intuition about most literary criticism, that however brilliant the critic, there is always something important left out.

Reshaping People

I adore Richard Rorty’s introduction to the Everyman edition of Nabokov’s Pale Fire:

But Nabokov helps us remember that we can only respect what we can notice, and that it is often very hard for us to notice that other people are suffering. He also reminds us of the main reason why it is so hard: we all spend a lot of time inventing people rather than noticing them, reshaping real people into characters in stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, stories about how beautiful and rare we are.

So This Is How I Turned Into A Dog

This is entirely unbearable!
As though bitten all over by malice.
I rage not like anyone could possibly,
Like a hound at the bareheaded moon –
in its face
then howl at everything.

Nerves, it must be….
Go outside,
take a stroll.
And in the street didn’t calm down at anyone.
Somebody shouted about the good evening.
I have to answer her:
she’s an acquaintance.
I want to.
I feel –
but can’t like a human being.

What is this barbarity?
Am I asleep, what gives?
Squeeze myself:
the same as I’ve been,
the same face I’ve grown accustomed to.
Touch my lips,
and out from under my lip –
a fang.

Quickly I cover my face as though blowing my nose.
Rush homeward, redoubling my stride.
Carefully rounding the policeman’s post,
suddenly thundering:
“Policeman!
He’s got a tail!”

I trace it with my hand and freeze like a post.
What the hell,
better than all the fangs in the world,
I hadn’t noticed in my mad pace:
from under my jacket
fanning behind me a giant tail,
huge and canine.

What to do now?
One hollered and a crowd grew.
A second merged, then a third, and a fourth.
They trampled an old woman.
She, crossing herself, shouted something about the devil.

And when my face stiffened with broom-like mustaches,
a mob piled up,
tremendous,
furious,
I got down on all fours
and began to bark.

Vladimir Mayakovsky
(Translated from Russian by Alex Cigale)

Better than a Dublin jarvey!

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire - Ilya Repin (1880-1891)
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire – Ilya Repin (1880-1891)

Mehmed IV, Sultan of the 1676 Ottoman Empire, demanded that the Cossacks submit to Turkish rule. The Cossacks reply, led by Ivan Serko, is one of the finest streams of invective since Rabelais:

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!

O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we’ve no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother.

You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, Armenian pig, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig’s snout, mare’s arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother!

Appollinaire wrote a versified version of the Cossack’s letter. In Beckett’s edition he wrote in the margin: Better than a Dublin jarvey!

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

 Virginia Woolf with father, Sir. Leslie Stephen

Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out [PDF] published in 1915, though conventional in form, carries all her later themes.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Invisible Presences [PDF] by Molly Hoff.

Italo Calvino’s short story The Adventure of a Photographer [PDF]. This is from Calvino’s Difficult Loves collection.

Italo Calvino’s Borgesian, enchanting collection of stories Cosmicomics [PDF].

Mary Ruefle’s essay On Fear captures perfectly the distinction between feeling and emotion.

Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction [PDF] is one of the best of the VSI series, and a rock-solid theory primer.

The highly recommended Companion to Philosophy and Film [PDF] embraces “both the philosophical study of cinema and the investigations of films’ philosophical dimensions, implications, and pedagogical value”. If nothing else read Kovác’s Andrei Tarkovsky (p. 581).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist [PDF], (the title might be better translated as The Anti-Christian), is Nietzche’s onslaught on the decadence of Western Christianity.

Anton Chekhov’s Letters to His Family and Friends (trans. Constance Garnett) [PDF]. These are beautiful.

Franco Moretti’s The Slaughterhouse of Literature [PDF].

Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

Such darkness in Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, ostensibly the tale of a haunted, fictionalised Dostoevsky returning to nineteenth century St Petersburg to mourn and collect the papers of a dead stepson, who has apparently become the political tool of local nihilists.

Although Coetzee’s Russian backdrop is superficially different from his earlier works, his theme of a tortured protagonist that must humble himself to learn to love, against an undercurrent of violence and death, is familiar territory. The tension in The Master of Petersburg is created from a confrontation of moralities and questions around authorship.

This Wikipedia post on the book suggests a confessional aspect to The Master of Petersburg, which I’ll investigate further when time permits. The intertextual relationship with Dostoevsky’s Demons is clear and fascinating. I love when a writer of Coetzee’s ability continues a literary conversation started a century earlier.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Naked Lunch Screenshot
Naked Lunch Screenshot

William Burrough’s seminal Naked Lunch [PDF], a great book to dip into, to read in any order. Great stuff, as is Cronenberg’s film interpretation.

I’ve read Rilke since adolescence and, in a sense, cannot imagine how differently I would view art and beauty without his influence. The ten letters in Letters to a Young Poet [PDF] have enriched me immeasurably since first reading the lines, “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

In The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow) [PDF] Derrida looks at the animal in Western Culture.

Derrida’s Writing and Difference [PDF] collects many of his early essays and lectures. Derrida’s writing at this stage is vibrant and, by Derridean standards, approachable. Included in this book is Cogito and the History of Madness, in which Derrida notably takes on Foucault’s concept of madness.

In this last Derrida link {PDF], he interviews jazz saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman, revealing on both sides.

Deborah Parsons’ Theorist of the Modernist Novel [PDF] traces modernism through the texts of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.

Maurice Blanchot’s short, dreamlike novel, The Last Man [PDF].

William Gass’s short essay on language in fiction, The Medium of Fiction [PDF].

everything lost is a curiosity, an obscure, early notebook written by William Burroughs in Latin America during 1953, provided in handwritten and transcribed form.

Sometimes I think that Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures are better than his fiction. Lectures on Russian Literature [PDF] is brilliant. You won’t agree with Nabby on everything but you can’t fail to be stimulated by his arguments.

A brief, worthwhile essay on trauma narratives: Mending to Live: Memory, Trauma and Narration in The Writings Of Kazuo Ishiguro, Herta Müller and W. G. Sebald [PDF].

Raoul Vanigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life is a key text of the Situationists, covering broadly similar ground as Adorno, the ways that late capitalist society can pervert communication and depersonalise “subjects”.