Literary notes II. French verse and German prose read in the context of Irish literature in English
Dear readers of my blog,
the calendar for 2023 has been keeping me busy for the last couple of weeks. You may wonder why? The answer is simple: Günter Plessow has translated so much of Oscar Wilde’s poetry into German during the past nine months or so that I am regularly called for as first reader and editor of one or the other poem now available for inclusion in the ongoing calendar project as well as in an also bilingual anthology of Wilde’s poetry, which is in progress.
No matter which verses Wilde wrote, they are exacting, not least when it comes to annotating them. So when I had just finished composing and translating the preface to the forthcoming calendar, I received a parcel from my publisher’s distributor including the last copies of the first edition of my critical edition-cum-translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), which is going to be relaunched in the spring with revisions, a new cover and collage work by Ulrich Hoepfner.
Also included in this parcel was a review copy of a bilingual collection of poetry by the French writer Jean-Louis Giovannoni entitled Garder le mort – Den Toten Bewachen, English: “Guarding the Dead”, with an afterword by the well-known French writer Éric Vuillard. I had ordered it when seeing it advertised as one of the best-selling titles in 2021. So far, Elsinor had declined to publish poetry collections in most cases, so I was intrigued by the fact.
Working with two languages in various combinations: English – German, English – Italian, English – French, French – German, Italian – German has been part of the Oscar Wilde calendar project in recent years, and the ongoing cooperation with Günter Plessow has intensified my study of translations of verse into German, so I was also interested in reading and evaluating this volume in the light of my own experiences.
The cover is as sober as the language Giovannoni uses to imagine in no nonsense terms the physicality of death – such as that observed by attendants of a wake and those who witness the bodily decay of their loved ones from close range. Still a young man when he first published this long-term secret favourite of poetry cycles in French in 1976 – the image shows a copy of the first edition sold second-hand – Giovannoni dedicates his collection to two women one of whom being his mother.
Interestingly, the very first time I had read about a wake was as a 17-year-old in Albert Camus’ famous novel L’étranger (1942), which he also wrote as quite a young man which, however, despite all the graphic details included had not been triggered by the loss of his mother. It was later still that I learned about Irish wakes, memorably so at the James Joyce Foundation Zürich during its 1991 summer workshop entitled “Documentary Insights” when director Fritz Senn put on an Irish brown cloak to show how the dead were clad in Ireland in Joyce’s day. This image locked firmly in my mind’s eye illustrates what is the difference between writing in prose about death – as did Joyce many times in all his major stories and novels – and doing so in verse in a language such as French lacking the variations of words that English is famous for and which made it so difficult for versatile writers such as Wilde to find the right simplicity to write about what really matters in life until he had been in prison himself.
As a witness to how man turns from a living being to a corpse, any writer would need to search for the right words – “le mot juste”, as Gustave Flaubert would have it – and this is true for Giovannoni, too, who in the last French edition published a “Version préparatoire”, not included in the featured bilingual edition. Like Wilde and Joyce, Giovannoni obviously worked meticulously, choosing, for example to start each and every new syntactic unit with an upper case. This is something that ought to have been redone in German, for every reader would have understood the reason.
Well framed by a preface authored by the two translators and the postface by Éric Vuillard, the volume can be read if not properly reflected on in one sitting. Modern French poetry needs an introduction in Germany, and reading the postface first provides you with one that also links Giovannoni and Oscar Wilde – though not at first sight. You need to study Wilde’s poetry with a view to understanding how he always strove to create prose in order to come to terms with reality and how he in The Ballad of Reading Gaol turned a classic genre into the tale of a man’s dying as seen by his fellow prisoners – nothing is imagined here, and like Wilde’s compatriot Samuel Beckett, who after World War Two wrote only in French, Giovannoni writes poems devoid of “any remains of religion, of grace, of frenzy, of ardour” (p. 149). This is perhaps also why Giovannoni, a social worker by profession, was honoured by a special issue of La Revue des Sciences Humaines in 2020, sub-titled “Le geste des mots”, the gesture of words, that is, which reflects the physicality and non-spirituality at the same time as the social impact of his writing. It is not the ivory tower from which he writes, nor the literary elite he is writing for, instead Giovannoni is at the centre of man’s basic incomprehension: “On mourra sans rien comprendre” ‒ “We will die without understanding anything” (p. 138).
This is also what I felt in December 2018 when a literary friend whom I had translated from the French for 22 years, Yves Broussard (1937-2018) had passed on and I learned that he had given his body to science, was not asking for a burial nor a ceremony of commemoration, so as to disappear completely, physically, that is, from our world. With his demise, I eventually grasped the meaning of the French verb “disparaître” that is also used to denote a person’s death.
Many of Broussard’s poems, which I translated in a laborious and time-consuming process over a period of 17 years before the volume Mesures de la vie was published as a bilingual book in 2013, still refer to some such “remains of religion, of grace, of frenzy, of ardour” (Vuillard), while he also introduces the language of the world into his poetry, coming clear a long time before his death in a poem entitled “Marseille” when he recovered from a “stupid fall” and could not but think of fellow poet’s Joë Bousquet’s years spent in his “bedroom in Carcassonne”, something Broussard would not experience in the same way, but eventually when I visited him each time I came to Marseille from 2013 through 2018, he was closer to the state of “Painful immobility” suggested in the poem in April 2000 before another “fall”, shortly after his final move to the Alpine village he had always spent his summers in, rendered impossible the continuation of his “life’s work”. (Yves Broussard, “Marseille”, in: La Nuit Tremblée, Châtelineau: Le Taillis Pré, 2002, pp. 44/45.)
There was, however, a literary ceremony of commemoration in December 2018. This is not what happened to Wilde, though both his death as a social being and a writer occurred before he passed on on 30 November 1900, so writing about him in the tone used by Giovannoni might be helpful after all.
As opposed to the verse that is so hard to find in another language, which is why I hesitate to criticize another person’s translations of poetry in public, the prose is often as hard to find in one’s own language, something that Wilde was aware of when his career came to a halt in 1895 and the only thing he could still write was letters and the unique poem “The Ballad of Reading in Gaol” in 1897. Thus it was with great joy that I opened to read the short novel by Annika Büsing entitled Nordstadt. This is related to one idea communicated by the first-person narrator quite early on (p. 6) about the North of many urban centres being the social flash-point – which I can confirm with respect to the town I grew up in – Unna in Westphalia – as well as with respect to the North Side of Dublin – being north of the River Liffey – and with respect to Marseille where all the social flash points are in the Cités du Nord de Marseille. Of course, since the author grew up in the Ruhr Area where I happen to have grown up, too, the language she writes is familiar, and it is a prose I would have liked to have written but have not so far been able to find for myself. So I taste and savour with great pleasure all the words and phrases I had heard and used so often when a youngster in Unna, Westphalia.
The cover image shows a swimmer doing backstroke. Having learned to swim in an open-air pool at Kamen, Westphalia, before going for a swim in the indoor pool at Unna for many years, which was not always such an exhilarating experience for me as for Nene, the first-person narrator of this novel, I can, however, sympathize with her finding the swimming-pool the place where she could escape from her family, and her father in particular. It is also where she finds both a home and a work place and where she encounters the love of her life.
Swimming being a metaphor for mastering one’s life, just as those individuals who succeeded in putting into practice the American Dream often also were successful swimmers, it is no coincidence that Nene tries to pass on her passion for swimming and for survival, that is, to her friend – I hesitate to call him boyfriend – Boris. He is full of rage, living many bad days every month, for he does nothing to earn a living while lying about it all the time as well as being found out, so their dates are also “fair to middling” if not grandiose failures. The novel is no variation on Wilde’s dialogue essay “The Decay of Lying”, but more than once when finding Boris out the first-person narrator says that by lying people seek to change the world by means of words, and she is only reconciled to certain things in life when she finds that one of her colleagues at the indoor pool, who had been aware of her sufferings from her father as a girl and teenager, stated bluntly that at long last that bloke had been coffined. No nonsense rather than euphemistic chit-chat it was that Nene needed and wanted to share with Boris.
I cannot but keep returning to Irish literature. While I have never read At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O’Brien (1911-1966), simply the idea of swimming as a powerful image made me associate this strong story with one of the classics of Irish writing, while the Forty Foot Hole in Dublin Bay as mentioned in Ulysses is quite the opposite of an indoor pool in a social flash point of the German Ruhr Area where nature seems to have gone away completely. At least this is the case in the novel Nordstadt. So has the all male set-up of the Forty Foot Hole.
Both the first-person narrator’s father whom she hates too much to visit in the nursing-home and her lover – if one might call him that – are failures with Boris hating himself for that. It is impossible to find out what her father, who had also fathered her half-sister Alma living, of course, in the southern part of the city and running a successful goldsmith’s business, thought of himself – not least because the first-person narrator tells her own story and refuses to tell stories about her father (p. 69). Anyway, he was a drunkard and beat Nene, so one day she was taken out of the family and later also taken care of by her half-sister who then “gave her life some order” (p. 60).
While there are no connections whatsoever in any plot summaries of At Swim-Two-Birds and Ulysses, the mere fact that O’Brien was and remained a government official for most of his working and writing life might induce Büsing to keep her teaching job if this novel is praised by critics and writers, while selling poorly – as did O’Brien’s first novel which only ever became popular in 1960 – at a time when Wilde’s surviving son was serious in having letters including De Profundis published without any censorship on his part. In fact, O’Brien not only writes about a student of Trinity College Dublin, he had himself been one, thus sharing the alma mater with Wilde rather than with Joyce who had attended University College Dublin, which was a Catholic institution. Joyce did like At Swim-Two-Birds. Needless to say that this fact alone rather than inducing many other people to read it might have deterred people from doing so at the time, given that Joyce preferred to stylize himself as “a minority of one”. Among other things, he had declared several times that he was no critic.
Be that as it may, I need to digress on Irish literature every now and then in order to continue introducing other matters into this blog, but if there is any resemblance between Dublin and the Ruhr Area, it is about a mixture of people from all walks of life whose languages and idiosyncratic tics are kept alive by Büsing, and I hope she goes on to make her voice heard in the choir of writing in German.
Last but not least, let me refer to the 100th anniversary of Ulysses on 2 February 2022. I first heard about it walking the streets of Unna in Westphalia almost 50 years ago when I was not yet tuned to listening in to a particular Unna brogue – something I last enjoyed recently when buying food stuffs in the marketplace on 28 January 2022. If ever you happen to go there, you will hear people speak German in a very characteristic accent – and something quite similar can be inferred from Büsing’s novel. In this we can look up gratefully to the achievement that Joyce’s modern epic means for literature today: he has allowed everyday culture to enter literature.
If you still don’t know what I mean, then you should consult the book shown above which I edited 25 years ago and in which Joyce’s Ulysses is depicted and explained in a German context. Was nun Herr Bloom. Ein Almanach. «Ulysses» zum 75. Geburtstag. Daedalus Verlag Münster. It is still in print, and I feel unashamed to say today, it is not dated either.
Jörg W. Rademacher, January 2022
Yves Broussard. Maße des Lebens. Mesures de la vie. Gedichte. Herausgegeben und übersetzt von Jörg W. Rademacher. Trier: WVT, 3. korrigierte Auflage. 144 S. € 15.00.
Annika Büsing. Nordstadt. Göttingen: Steidl. 128 S. Erscheint am 28. Februar 2022. € 20.00.
Jean-Louis Giovannoni. Den Toten Bewachen. Garder Le Mort. Gedichte. Nachwort von Éric Vuillard. Deutsch von Paula Scholemann und Christoph Schmitz-Scholemann. Coesfeld: Elsinor. 156 S. € 16.00.
Jörg W. Rademacher (Hg.). Was nun Herr Bloom. Ein Almanach. «Ulysses» zum 75. Geburtstag. Münster: Daedalus Verlag. 332 S. € 19,95.