The die is cast: Hugo, Wilde, Ford, and Joyce, who's next?


The die is cast:

Hugo, Wilde, Ford, and Joyce, who's next?

Dear readers of my blog,

This being the first time that I go for a series of blog posts in the sense of the term “work in progress”, first coined by Ford Madox Ford for the publication of instalments of what was to become Finnegans Wake, the last work in prose by James Joyce, let me simply ask you for forgiveness to have to look through a roughly similar text once again before discovering re-written or added passages – including new episodes or anecdotes.

Original prefatory note:

While the new school year is relentlessly heading for the autumn recess of two weeks, well-deserved by any of the concerned, allow me to recount just one or two anecdotes that made my life as a translator, biographer, and editor turn around four stars of the literary universe mentioned in chronological order of their birth only in the title of this post:

First it was Victor Hugo (1802-1885), discovered for myself in 1983 when I took a single book written in French on my way out from Unna, Westphalia, to spend two terms at Dundee University, Scotland, Notre-Dame de Paris – 1482, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, that is. In fact, it remained the sole volume in French in a rapidly growing library of books in English bought in the University bookshop and at Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Glasgow during my excursions mostly undertaken with a landscape gardener and composer from Munich in his blue Renault 4 car. At a certain point in winter, a window broke, and it took almost a week to have another one imported from the South, for while “snow was general all over” Scotland and England, there was only one road open the man at the garage had told my friend (quotation: James Joyce, Dubliners, “The Dead”, 1605/1606).

Second there was Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) whose Complete Works I acquired in Dundee in December 1983, postponing rather than waiting to start my reading until the back cover had already faded in spring 1989. On the surface, the anecdotal part of that acquisition lies in the fact that I only started perusing Wilde after I had decided to devote the next three or four years of my life to a doctoral dissertation on James Joyce entitled “James Joyce's Own Image”.

Before I forget about it altogether, let me pay tribute to a student of mine whose incisive definition of the literary genre of the mostly orally told anecdote conceived in an e-mail he had send me motivated me to go back in time and unearth as well as unravel some of those stories that allow me to spice a sometimes very stressful existence as a commuting teacher-cum-parent-cum-writer. As I learned from his response circulated a few days after this post had first been uploaded, he is also a very talented parodist profiting immensely from a life with constraints not dissimilar from that endured as members from a tiny minority by the writers dealt with here.

At the time when I started the research for my doctoral thesis, I was resident in a Catholic hall of residence in Münster which, anachronistically for a German institution of the kind even then, provided us with full board – three meals, that is, and all through the weekend, which is no longer the case now in “Deutsches Studentenheim”, originally established in 1928 – and which was then practically run by nuns you might almost call puritan in their approach to life.

If any of the residents, some of whom were really lousy in their treatment of the nuns, discovered a single gray hair in the butter served for the evening meal, however, the kitchen nun, as she was called, exploded like dynamite while having suffered all kinds of humiliations including bickering about the food for months on end such as telling her in the face many a Monday at lunch that them guys were going to have a Schnitzel at the university restaurant instead of the warmed-up food served by her. The only hair of hers you ever saw was not in the soup but on the butter, one is tempted to say.

I, for my part, appreciated the way communal meals were taken at tables laid for four in the basement dining-hall where I also recall memorable discussions over the Westphalian variant of Irish black pudding served on Monday, 13th November, just after the Berlin Wall had opened on Thursday, 9th November 1989. On that particular date, one resident claimed the opening of the Berlin Wall was a media event – as if nothing else had happened but that people had been able to witness it through the media. He later became the business manager of a successful private school that at some point also hit national headlines, becoming a point of interest for the media, that is.

As a matter of fact, there was nothing puritan about the all- male residents of the hall, nor did the priest who headed it wholly despise alcohol. I hardly ever crossed him on the wooden staircase but whenever I did there was always a whiff of alcohol in the air after he had passed me as well as passed the time of day.

All the same, living above him allowed me repose when I wanted to sleep or study. Never again did drunken inmates try to create a riot outside my door – as had happened once or twice when I still lived elsewhere in the hall – next to the toilets and bathrooms, that is.

And study I did, Wilde's works, for example, highlighting any occurrence of the words “image”, “imagination”, “imaginary”, “imagine” in order to link his use of them with that of James Joyce, who was my primary interest. More than thirty years later, the highlighted passages can still easily be found, for while the cover seems to have lost almost all its colouring, the body of the book has been quite well preserved, while, on the whole, it is anything but a volume Wilde, the æsthete might have fancied himself. At the same time, it became the first item in my Wilde collection consisting first and foremost of multiple editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray in both English and German.

Before passing on to the next writer I might just add that I had been allowed to remove my belongings including a “massive collection of classical music records” to that particular room because another resident who left the hall for a spell as a publishing trainee in Munich had put in a word for me. It was him as a publisher in his own right for some years that I eventually approached in July 2011 on the advice of another former long-time resident to ask if he wanted to re-issue my translation of the uncensored version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, first issued in 2000 to mark the 100th anniversary of Wilde's death. Having swapped rooms once, we have now been swapping texts for almost a decade.

James Joyce (1882-1941) being the third in line of the authors I have spent both reading and writing after having read their works, I had “met him” first in the person of a fellow student who in the autumn of 1981 volunteered to tutor the more than four hundred beginners enrolled to read English at Münster University at the time. Herbert Beste was then taking part in a seminar on James Joyce's novel Ulysses that culminated in a party celebrated in the seminar room on the 100th birthday of its author on 2nd February 1982, which was a Tuesday, while Joyce had been born in Rathgar, Dublin, on a Thursday.

While I was not present at that party, I never forgot about it, nor about the fact that Joyce's novel had been published in Paris on his fortieth birthday, which, again, was a Thursday. I went on to study Joyce myself, beginning to read his works in Dundee from December 1983, starting off by the more accessible prose of his collection of short stories Dubliners and his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I do remember sitting in the polyclinic at Dundee waiting to see a dentist while reading and annotating a story from Dubliners. This and other texts by Joyce are simply ideal to while away the time because at each reading you are sure to discover something new, a series of “very” qualifiers at the beginning of the story “Clay” which I spotted at another doctor's this morning. I had acquired my first edition of Dubliners and others in Münster in July 1983, never realizing until very recently, that they had been illustrated by a famous artist, Robin Jacques (1920-1995), before I went on to buy Ulysses some time in early December 1983.

The fact that you might celebrate another party on the anniversary of a book's publication appealed to me so much that I envisaged devoting a book to Ulysses to be issued on the 75th anniversary of Joyce's latter-day odyssey of Dublin. It duly appeared in the autumn of 1996, coinciding with Ireland being the special guest of the Frankfurt Book Fair but, it is fair to say, it did not cause a stir in either the Joyce community of the German-speaking countries nor outside of it. Only much later, in reworking my biography of James Joyce between 2007 and 2009, did I realize that he was passionate about both the birth of books and his own birthday.

Now, almost twenty-five years later, I am still studying the works of Joyce, trying, for example, to do a new translation of Dubliners, which is all but easy in a period when teaching in a day-school has become as intense as teaching as a live-in master at a boarding-school. I experienced this only once, for six weeks, that is, at Schloß Salem, in the spring of 1985 when, apart from teaching four lessons of French a week to a year nine class, I was able to type a seminar paper on masters and servants in Charles Dickens's novel The Pickwick Papers as well as read the first few chapters of Richard Ellmann's biography of James Joyce and practice the double-bass part of Anton Bruckner's Second Symphony in my bedroom with en-suite bathroom.

Such a spell at a boarding-school of which not only readers of Enid Blyton might have dreamed, is particularly prone to producing a host of anecdotes worth telling one's children. So hardly had I arrived when two teenagers boys wearing then fashionable clothes living on the same floor knocked and asked me with very innocent faces would I be so kind as to allow them the use my bathtub since they were so cold in their rooms. Little did I know then of the species of boarding-school youngsters who'd been abandoned by their parents to live a life of their own making based on the lavish pocket money account their father and mother had established for them with the financial officer of the school. In fact, one or both of them were chucked out later in the year for abuse of drugs.

I had been truly taken advantage of, my fellow teachers laughingly told me over coffee, but this did not deter me from pursuing my studies of literature in the well-furnished library nor from building a reputation of a friendly student teacher who did not like to have an undisciplined class nor a floor of unruly boys running along to the toilet when they were supposed to do their homework in their rooms. Soon they tired of my catalogue of tedious questions and remarks and stayed in their rooms.

So, later, instead of boycotting my class, as they might have done if my approach had been anywhere like that used by their form master, a teacher of mathematics, who once told me in the hall he always had his little cane to discipline them, they only tried to play an age-old trick on me, tripping me up on a thin thread, trying to do so, for I had anticipated such a feat, when the last day had come all too soon. It was only in 2011 when stories of widespread abuse in various boarding-schools in Germany – including schools like Salem but excluding it, it is fair to say, for they had soon after I left started to establish some discipline – hit the headlines that I was able to place the strange sentence of that form teacher about keeping discipline intact with his little cane. Then only did I realize why the class always needed comic relief when I came in after him.

The students also linked my name to a winter vegetable, black radish common in the Lake Constance region, calling me “Riesenrettich”, giant radish when I left the school grounds in the car of the manager of the youth orchestra who had come to take me over the Alps to the village of Burgeis in South Tyrol in order to rehearse and perform Bruckner's Second Symphony. It was one of two Volkswagen he had had especially outfitted for the transport of either double-bass or drums, the second front seat having been taken out, so that we sat in the back seat feeling like children again who had travelled like that in the 1960s and early 1970s in our parents' first bottle-green, then white, later yellow Beetle.

I was not his only prey that day, for Gerald Fitzgibbon, a Scottish student of music, who also spent some time as assistant teacher at Salem, whose father was then still a housemaster at Gordonstoun School, Scotland, and who played the violin and the viola, was willing to join us. In fact, at Salem, he did not teach on his own but as a native speaker of English relieved the marking load which would otherwise have proved too much for a German teacher whose incompetence I became privy to in my short spell at Salem School.

While it occurred to me last week that the time at Salem School is the only blueprint I can recall for the sort of school life as we are experiencing it at present, the moment I started talking about it to colleagues it also dawned on me that what the four writers shared in however different ways dependent on time and place as well as local colour was their time spent at various boarding-schools.

You should know that in the 19th century such schools outside Germany were most often run by priests or nuns, while Salem following a fundamental change in German politics had become secularized in 1803, so that when Kurt Hahn and Prince Max von Baden founded the boarding-school a century ago they did so only on the premises of a former monastery – all of which does not mean, however, that anyone schooled there might miss the monkish spirit even though the present owner is not even catholic but has a Reformed priest preach every Sunday in the Schloss chapel.

In my own adolescence, sending me to a boarding-school had sometimes come up in my parents' talk about school when I seemed to become more recalcitrant than they might bear. Since neither had ever attended one, this proved an empty threat.

Now, however, intensified contact with students, albeit at a distance and veiled by facial masks once you are outside the classroom, means that you see and sense them everywhere: moving, standing around, with the complete building moving round in queues or columns of people before and after each double lesson, so that images of classes passing by in single file or in the form of a unified group stick in your mind – just as you would not easily forget a squabble about food at a Salem School table of eight always presided by a teacher.

So, to come back to the four writers I have been revolving around since 1982: Joyce, Hugo, Wilde, and, fourthly, Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939), who I first learned to associate with the city of Münster when at a conference at York in April 1993, all attended some sort of secluded school institution or several of them, mostly run by priests at the time: for Joyce in Ireland both in the country and in Dublin, and for Hugo in Madrid and Paris and by surprisingly open-minded people at Portora Royal School for Wilde and by teachers who had been fed the diet of the German educationist Fröbel in the case of Ford who, incidentally, was half-German through his father Franz Hüffer, who had been born and bred in a publishing family in Münster, Westphalia. I had to wait until now to introduce Ford to you since after having acquired books by Joyce and Hugo as well as Wilde in 1983 I lay in wait for a decade to find the fourth to complete the quartet of writers I was going to spend my working life on with – as I would only find out later still – a kind of irregular rhythm of moving from one to the other, sometimes working on two or three at the same time – just as if I allowed life to cast its die rather than following a plan.

Joyce and Wilde later went on to attend two different universities in Dublin, with Wilde also graduating at Oxford, while neither Hugo nor Ford ever became an academic in the literal sense. Hugo as a member of the Académie française, which elected him in 1841, and Ford who taught at an American college in the 1930s had their own share of academic experience but neither did they master a degree nor did they lack self-confidence when facing the university.

Hugo was quite clear about the Latin Quarter, the university quarter in Paris, at the time of writing Notre-Dame de Paris – 1482. The novel is as much a document of the time of its writing as a historical reconstruction of the late Middle Ages, mingling the voices of the young head or French literary Romanticism and the narrator of a novel set in late mediæval France. This, however, has not become as clear in the German translations as it can be inferred from the original French text which, in parts, if you have translated Wilde as well as Ford and Joyce, reads like a precursor to many writers of the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, whereas most translations were cut to hasten the dramatic plot to its dénouement. As it happens, working on a translation dating from 1969, allowed me more than a glimpse of the odd translation history which given the sheer length of the text is difficult to recount.

Wilde, Ford, and Joyce on the one hand, while not all equally present in the public eye in the German-speaking countries have more or less been faithfully translated, so that when you look for a passage in a translation of Dubliners, it is not difficult to identify the passage you want to compare with your own German version of it.

For Hugo, on the other hand, it is imperative to know both the original and several German versions in order quickly to find the reference. This is part of a translator's and an editor's task, at the same time the differences mean that Victor Hugo's massive volume of about six hundred pages has so far been treated rather unfairly by publishers and translators alike. It would be interesting to know if the same is the case for translations of the novel into English.

This spring, I had the chance to study the history of this particular novel in terms of its gestation as well as concerning its production while discovering riches unknown of in my own private library during the lock-down. It is clear now that Victor Hugo had difficulties in finding his feet when writing after he had negotiated a very favourable contract with a publisher all too keen to have him on his list, so that he overlooked that his manipulations had been seen through by the coveted author of 27 years who, in turn, sought to manipulate the publisher to serve his own material ends.

At the time of discovering any of the four writers for myself, I was still unaware of what labyrinthine pathways I would follow in the almost forty years that have passed since I left my parents' home to study foreign languages at Münster University. With hindsight, it becomes clear that I needed to discover Ford Madox Ford for myself to learn to discover things which were supposed to be hidden. For any of those scholars and biographers who had tried to extricate information from Ford's lateral descendants living in Münster from afar had had to learn to live with the laconic message that almost everything of value concerning Ford had been lost in the bombings of the Second World War. In the nine years I stayed on at Münster after having established the link between Ford and the Westphalian capital in York – which has been twinned with Münster since 1958 – I managed more than once to discover that the Hüffer family had been making up a story adding the phrase “Westphalian facts” to what Richard Ellmann, the American scholar and biographer, had had to endure in Dublin when exposed to “Irish facts” while researching the life of James Joyce.

At the same time, Münster University Library proved to be a place that housed a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the version printed by Lippincott's Magazine in 1890, the uncensored version I first published in a translation in 2000 before producing the English text in 2014 on which, yet again, the Italian version was based published in 2019.

In 2001, just a year later, when the catalogue of Münster University Library was still being digitized, I found a huge folder with Georges Victor-Hugo's series of watercolours from The Battle of Champagne 1915/1916 waiting for me on the desk of the rare book section. I could not believe my eyes, and taking with me the whole series in the form of slides when I moved to East Frisia in 2002 I was as yet unaware that owing to this move, motivated by all sorts of reasons, I would one day, on the 26th February 2015, that is, find out that the German troops on the other side of the trenches also sometimes drawn by Hugo had been from East Frisia and Oldenburg.

Georges Victor-Hugo being the only grandson of Victor Hugo, he shared that fate with Stephen James Joyce (1932-2019) and Oscar Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland who I had the chance to meet and correspond with on several occasions since 2000. I have never met any of Ford Madox Ford's grandchildren or their numerous offspring but have been in an interesting artistic exchange with Oliver Soskice, grand-nephew of Ford's and great-grandson of Franz Hüffer who inherited a portrait of Hüffer's figuring in a book of texts of various genres by father and son Hüffer that I edited and translated in 2003.

This artistic exchange covers both pen drawings made by Oliver Soskice for short animal poems by the late Yves Broussard (1937-2018), a French poet who spent all his life in Marseilles living for most of the time not far from the flat where he had been born on the kitchen table, and quite different drawing made to accompany my own translation of James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners. Since we cannot meet at the moment, telephoning across the North Sea is a good means of communicating about, for example, for what kind of shoes the first-person narrator in the story “An Encounter” is made to wear when walking the flat outskirts of Dublin's riverside area where he and his friend meet a strange oldish man. Another topic we talked about recently is the “very long nose” of Maria in “Clay”, the story set on Hallow Eve which I just managed to translate a few days before Hallo'een this year. Read this following sentence, and then you know why a draughtsman calls Joyce's formulation an “artistic mistake”: “the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin”. This always happens when Maria laughs, and it recurs word for word in another scene: “Maria laughed and laughed again till the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin”. Trying to visualize this, you might easily agree with the artist that this is a feat you can only achieve in literature where the adverb “nearly” is enough to indicate that what is possible in thinking may yet be impossible in reality.

Talking to Oliver Soskice also showed me that the first-person narrators of “The Sisters”, “An Encounter”, and “Araby”, the first three stories and only ones with such a viewpoint in the collection, are all just 12 or 13 years old, unnamed, and concerned for the first time of their lives with death, male attitudes to sexuality, and their own budding sexuality. In a dialogue, even over the phone, you need to spell out things you would presuppose in writing and which in the process of translation – when you are at a distance from both your own thinking and your own voice – you need to jot down in an extra-journal.

And I daresay with keeping a journal very regularly since 1987 that ought to contain all contacts on top of everything else these day I am at a loss about where to find time and space for yet another diary recording my ideas as a translator.

While it was best to avoid having any personal contact with Joyce's descendant – which is what I learned when I first heard and saw him at a Joyce Symposium held at Monaco – I once tried to get in touch with a descendant of Victor and Georges Victor-Hugo helped by the late poet and architect Yves Broussard who as a friend had provided me with the address of a great-great-grandson, goldsmith working in Aix-en-Provence.

The only reaction to my queries about Georges Victor-Hugo I ever received was some information I suddenly found posted on a genealogical website which on a second visit some weeks after the first held some details about Georges Victor-Hugo's second marriage. This in turn helped me to fill in some lacunæ in his curriculum vitæ.

I had been kept at distance, it is true, just as it would now prove fruitless to look for more matter on Hugo grandfather and Hugo grandson in the South of France after the big auction at Sotheby's in 2012 of which I was then unaware. Literary detectives, however, need not despair for it is possible to find anecdotal nuggets in published diaries. In Jean Hugo's journal, for example, there is a passage recording the visit of Merlin Holland and a friend in the 1960s, so that Wilde's grandson and Hugo's great-grandson, a painter in his own right, once met in person. I did try to involve Merlin Holland in an exchange on that, sending him the quote. Again, there was silence.

Moving in that labyrinth of literary and personal lives, with some artworks thrown in for a change, I might say that in our present time of necessary social distance involving the need to communicate indirectly it is perhaps helpful to learn to think both deep and across countries and cultures. For this is still possible and along with reading between the lines might help to pass the time fruitfully until life takes off again.

It is time to come to a close, to ring off, so to speak. I want to do so by referring to two documentaries that Arte is going to show on 21st October 2020 dealing with Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray (21:45 hours and available online until 19th December), entitled: “Dorian Gray, or: The Picture of Oscar Wilde”, also featuring Merlin Holland. This is almost twenty years after a shorter film was made including an interview I gave Arte in the rooms of The Ehrenpreis Center for Swift Studies at Münster University, which, however, I never came to watch on TV because it had been scheduled for another day and then surprisingly shown two days earlier. Oscar Wilde's father as an ear specialist had diagnosed Swift's final illness in a book held in the Münster institution.

A week later, also on Arte, at 22:00, there is another documentary devoted to Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, entitled “Victor Hugo – the people's advocate” (accessible online until 4th February 2021).

Literature is a passion that never passes and which you can follow in almost every place and at any time – even now. So do not hesitate to make your choices. Wishing you all the best,

Jörg W. Rademacher, 5th to 9th October 2020 (only a week now from Oscar Wilde's 166th birthday, with the new printed calendar in two versions English-German-French; English-German-Italian in its final proofs)

P.S. You may find revised and enlarged versions of this post uploaded in the future, for when writing it the “portals of discovery” (James Joyce, Ulysses) opened so wide that I failed to introduce everything I thought interesting in the space of only a few days.

P.P.S. Of course, I did not avoid the temptation of watching the documentary on Oscar Wilde and found it extremely interesting not least because of the appearance of two people, the grandson and a researcher now working at Oxford, who I had met in person in Oxford/London and Vienna respectively. If you have a chance to watch that, do not miss the occasion because all the people interviewed seem to have been placed in the same Paris apartment “derelict but chic”, as one of the concerned twittered later, to answer questions about the text, the translation, the two editions, and the aftermath of the scandal in 1890 that turned the novel into a piece of evidence in the 1895 trials. I need to put it in general terms: look closely at how the people interviewed sit there and move – without wearing any masks, obviously, because the film was done in 2019 – and what masks, make-up, outfit they wear while being placed in the witness box for Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray.

As yet, I have not had a chance to watch the documentary on Victor Hugo but will do so eventually and also relay my impressions in another up-date of this post.

Leer, 7th November 2020




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