We talked at our writers meet this past Monday a bit about Alfred Hitchcock and how he ‘spoke’ his films into existence with the theories he built up from his personal history. Of starting in silent films, moving into films with dialogue – but from this transition somewhere along the line developing a belief that film is a visual media and as he said in an interview – one should not use dialogue unless it is absolutely necessary. As Paul in the group discussion pointed out, this translates into the writer’s maxim ‘show don’t tell.’
Speaking of translation, I started reading a new novel, something I need to do more often but health and constraints make difficult – still, starting the book 2666 by Roberto Bolaño gave me some excitement for a style, and also its pairing with interesting content – that I felt was new to me and gave me new directions for my own work.
He opens that novel with discussions of a writer who various people encounter in their homelands, from a chance meeting with a translation of one of his books, who then go on to receive another, or have a compelling need to find all the books available. And, in the circumstance of finding that the author is not readily available, decide they themselves will become translators of his ouevre into their native tongue.
The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D’Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.
From that day on (or from the early morning hours when he concluded his maiden reading) he became an enthusiastic Archimboldian and set out on a quest to find more works by the author. This was no easy task. Getting hold of books by Benno von Archimboldi in the 1980s, even in Paris, was an effort not lacking in all kinds of difficulties. Almost no reference to Archimboldi could be found in the university’s German department. Pelletier’s professors had never heard of him. One said he thought he recognized the name. Ten minutes later, to Pelletier’s outrage (and horror), he realized that the person his professor had in mind was the Italian painter, regarding whom he soon revealed himself to be equally ignorant.
Pelletier wrote to the Hamburg publishing house that had published D’Arsonval and received no response. He also scoured the few German bookstores he could find in Paris. The name Archimboldi appeared in a dictionary of German literature and in a Belgian magazine devoted- whether as a joke or seriously, he never knew-to the literature of Prussia. In 1981, he made a trip to Bavaria with three friends from the German department, and there, in a little bookstore in Munich, on Voralmstrasse, he found two other books: the slim volume titled Mitzi’s Treasure, less than one hundred pages long, and the aforementioned English novel, The Garden.
Reading these two novels only reinforced the opinion he’d already formed of Archimboldi. In 1983, at the age of twenty-two, he undertook the task of translating D’Arsonval. No one asked him to do it. At the time, there was no French publishing house interested in publishing the German author with the funny name. Essentially Pelletier set out to translate the book because he liked it, and because he enjoyed the work, although it also occurred to him that he could submit the translation, prefaced with a study of the Archimboldian oeuvre, as his thesis, and- why not?-as the foundation of his future dissertation.
He completed the final draft of the translation in 1984, and a Paris publishing house, after some inconclusive and contradictory readings, accepted it and published Archimboldi. Though the novel seemed destined from the start not to sell more than a thousand copies, the first printing of three thousand was exhausted after a couple of contradictory, positive, even effusive reviews, opening the door for second, third, and fourth printings.
By then Pelletier had read fifteen books by the German writer, translated two others, and was regarded almost universally as the preeminent authority on Benno von Archimboldi across the length and breadth of France.
Then Pelletier could think back on the day when he first read Archimboldi, and he saw himself, young and poor, living in a chambre de bonne, sharing the sink where he washed his face and brushed his teeth with fifteen other people who lived in the same dark garret, shitting in a horrible and notably unhygienic bathroom that was more like a latrine or cesspit, also shared with the fifteen residents of the garret, some of whom had already returned to the provinces, their respective university degrees in hand, or had moved to slightly more comfortable places in Paris itself, or were still there-just a few of them-vegetating or slowly dying of revulsion.
He saw himself, as we’ve said, ascetic and hunched over his German dictionaries in the weak light of a single bulb, thin and dogged, as if he were pure will made flesh, bone, and muscle without an ounce of fat, fanatical and bent on success. A rather ordinary picture of a student in the capital, but it worked on him like a drug, a drug that brought him to tears, a drug that (as one sentimental Dutch poet of the nineteenth century had it) opened the floodgates of emotion, as well as the floodgates of something that at first blush resembled self-pity but wasn’t (what was it, then? rage? very likely), and made him turn over and over in his mind, not in words but in painful images, the period of his youthful apprenticeship, and after a perhaps pointless long night he was forced to two conclusions: first, that his life as he had lived it so far was over; second, that a brilliant career was opening up before him, and that to maintain its glow he had to persist in his determination, in sole testament to that garret. This seemed easy enough.2666, Roberto Bolaño, 1. THE PART ABOUT THE CRITICS
Now, why this action-filled tale of the pursuit of reading material and one’s training and accomplishments as a heroic translator and disseminater of the truth, the treasure – has an appeal to someone, like me for instance, will become more clear. And as I finish watching the Hitchcock classic ‘Vertigo’ tonight chasing down a reference I myself made in a short story I’m currently writing to things I read aobut Vertigo’s way of using image as language, position and framing as symbol and sign– What is it I feel myself coming to understand, or perhaps– perhaps– what tower is presently collapsing of what I heretofore understood that is now being unfounded and turned to rubble as I shift these words in my mind… to see anew. We will see…
Jean-Claude Pelletier was born in 1961 and by 1986 he was already a professor of German in Paris. Piero Morini was born in 1956, in a town near Naples, and although he read Benno von Archimboldi for the first time in 1976, or four years before Pelletier, it wasn’t until 1988 that he translated his first novel by the German author, Bifurcaria Bifurcata, which came and went almost unnoticed in Italian bookstores.
Archimboldi’s situation in Italy, it must be said, was very different from his situation in France. For one thing, Morini wasn’t his first translator. As it happened, the first novel by Archimboldi to fall into Morini’s hands was a translation of The Leather Mask done by someone called Colossimo for Einaudi in 1969. In Italy, The Leather Mask was followed by Rivers of Europe in 1971, Inheritance in 1973, and Railroad Perfection in 1975; earlier, in 1964, a publishing house in Rome had put out a collection of mostly war stories, titled The Berlin Underworld. So it could be said that Archimboldi wasn’t a complete unknown in Italy, although one could hardly claim that he was successful, or somewhat successful, or even barely successful. In point of fact, he was an utter failure, an author whose books languished on the dustiest shelves in the stores or were remaindered or forgotten in publishers’ warehouses before being pulped.
Morini, of course, was undaunted by the scant interest that Archimboldi’s work aroused in the Italian public, and after he translated Bifucaria Bifurcata he wrote two studies of Archimboldi for journals in Milan and Palermo, one on the role of fate in Railroad Perfection, and the other on the various guises of conscience and guilt in Lethaea, on the surface an erotic novel, and in Bitzius, a novel less than one hundred pages long, similar in some ways to Mitzi’s Treasure, the book that Pelletier had found in an old Munich bookstore, and that told the story of the life of Albert Bitzius, pastor of Lutzelflüh, in the canton of Bern, an author of sermons as well as a writer under the pseudonym Jeremiah Gotthelf. Both pieces were published, and Morini’s eloquence or powers of seduction in presenting the figure of Archimboldi overcame all obstacles, and in 1991 a second translation by Piero Morini, this time of Saint Thomas , was published in Italy. By then, Morini was teaching German literature at the University of Turin, the doctors had diagnosed him with multiple sclerosis, and he had suffered the strange and spectacular accident that left him permanently wheelchair-bound.(Continued from above, very next passage) 2666, Roberto Bolaño, 1. THE PART ABOUT THE CRITICS
I am writing about… what am I writing about — in my short story currently underway, I mean. It is a story of teaching and technology, androids replacing human teachers, and how consciousness and life and value and strength emerge. “Emergence” being a technical term in Artificial Intelligence. Semantically related to “emergency.”
Manuel Espinoza came to Archimboldi by a different route. Younger than Morini and Pelletier, Espinoza studied Spanish literature, not German literature, at least for the first two years of his university career, among other sad reasons because he dreamed of being a writer. The only German authors he was (barely) familiar with were three greats: Hölderlin, because at sixteen he thought he was fated to be a poet and he devoured every book of poetry he could find; Goethe, because in his final year of secondary school a teacher with a humorous streak recommended that he read The Sorrows of Young Werther, in whose hero he would find a kindred spirit; and Schiller, because he had read one of his plays. Later he would discover the work of a modern author, Jünger, with whom he became acquainted more by osmosis than anything else, since the Madrid writers he admired (and deep down hated bitterly) talked nonstop about Jünger. So it could be said that Espinoza was acquainted with just one German author, and that author was Jünger. At first he thought Jünger’s work was magnificent, and since many of the writer’s books were translated into Spanish, Espinoza had no trouble finding them and reading them all. He would have preferred it to be less easy. Meanwhile, many of his acquaintances weren’t just Jünger devotees; some of them were the author’s translators, too, which was something Espinoza cared little about, since the glory he coveted was that of the writer, not the translator.
And mark that well. What glory one aims to achieve, and how it does decide their pursuits. It will important later when we are clinging to certain heights discussing fear and falling.
As the months and years went by, silently and cruelly as is often the case, Espinoza suffered some misfortunes that made him change his thinking. It didn’t take him long, for example, to discover that the group of Jungerians wasn’t as Jungerian as he had thought, being instead, like all literary groups, in thrall to the changing seasons. In the fall, it’s true, they were Jungerians, but in winter they suddenly turned into Barojians and in spring into Orteganites, and in summer they would even leave the bar where they met to go out into the street and intone pastoral verse in honor of Camilo Jose Cela, something that the young Espinoza, who was fundamentally patriotic, would have been prepared to accept unconditionally if such displays had been embarked on in a fun-loving, carnivalesque spirit, but who could in no way take it all seriously, as did the bogus Jungerians.
Worse was discovering what the members of the group thought about his own attempts at fiction. Their opinion was so negative that there were times-some nights, for example, when he couldn’t sleep-that he began to wonder in all seriousness whether they were making a veiled attempt to get him to go away, stop bothering them, never show his face again.
And even worse was when Jünger showed up in person in Madrid and the group of Jungerians organized a trip to El Escorial for him (a strange whim of the maestro, visiting El Escorial), and when Espinoza tried to join the excursion, in any capacity whatsoever, he was denied the honor, as if the Jungerians deemed him unworthy of making up part of the German’s garde du corps, or as if they feared that he, Espinoza, might embarrass them with some naive, abstruse remark, although the official explanation given (perhaps dictated by some charitable impulse) was that he didn’t speak German and everyone else who was going on the picnic with Junger did.
That was the end of Espinoza’s dealings with the Jungerians. And it was the beginning of his loneliness and a steady stream (or deluge) of resolutions, often contradictory or impossible to keep. These weren’t comfortable nights, much less pleasant ones, but Espinoza discovered two things that helped him mightily in the early days: he would never be a fiction writer, and, in his own way, he was brave.
He also discovered that he was bitter and full of resentment, that he oozed resentment, and that he might easily kill someone, anyone, if it would provide a respite from the loneliness and rain and cold of Madrid, but this was a discovery that he preferred to conceal. Instead he concentrated on his realization that he would never be a writer and on making everything he possibly could out of his newly unearthed bravery.
How would we frame this would-be writer, shunned by his peers, if we were a Hitchcock film painting the man in visual frame? Shrunken in the realm of his desire, but with his newfound character moving boldly into his next venture- changed, the resolution simultaneously the transition, the transitition simultaneously the chord striking out toward some new challenge and fate.
He continued at the university, studying Spanish literature, but at the same time he enrolled in the German department. He slept four or five hours a night and the rest of the time he spent at his desk. Before he finished his degree in German literature he wrote a twenty-page essay on the relationship between Werther and music, which was published in a Madrid literary magazine and a Gottingen university journal. By the time he was twenty-five he had completed both degrees. In 1990, he received his doctorate in German literature with a dissertation on Benno von Archimboldi. A Barcelona publishing house brought it out one year later. By then, Espinoza was a regular at German literature conferences and roundtables. His command of German was, if not excellent, more than passable. He also spoke English and French. Like Morini and Pelletier, he had a good job and a substantial income, and he was respected (to the extent possible) by his students as well as his colleagues. He never translated Archimboldi or any other German author.
Besides Archimboldi, there was one thing Morini, Pelletier, and Espinoza had in common. All three had iron wills. Actually, they had one other thing in common, but we’ll get to that later.
He never translated Achimboldi or any other German author.
He never translated Achimboldi or any other German author.
This novel which opens on a group of heroes, translators all, and then rounds them off with this new writer turned wanderer, one is forced. Forced? By frame, by one’s own view, to wonder…
I read on, and the academic discussions at the conferences the translators, the factions discussing and arguing to and fro the points they perceive in this imaginary writer’s works – is tinted with language of political turmoil, war, fascism and anti-fascism.
Which is very much a home tone for those who climb high and think deep and in their own discussions, in their own mind, wonder at the conflicts in their own nature, the powers and swaying of interpretation and cataclysms of subjectivity and objectivity.
I get about 40 pages in on my amazon made reading machine, not hooked up to its own native software and features so that I might read ebooks freely without the commercial investigations of controlling influence reaching out from the tool in my very hands and then… Fall back into my life and wander some more, work on my own writing, put in a few weeks of work on a short story. Remember a reference to Hitchcock’s way of making a viewer see what he wants them to see as I hit upon the concept of ‘Vertigo’ in my own story, then find my way back here to this novel, abandoned. For the time being, but so alive in my mind. So wanting to know, where does he go with this? What is Roberto Bolaño wanting to show me? As much as I take the word and vision of artists like the collective voice of God distributed among the prophets of every man’s insight into the cosmic mystery of Being and Life and Light, how seriously is the thread I hold onto and whether it leads me out or into the labyrinth, or, down from what height I cannot, for this moment, stand.
“How strange it is to be anything at all.”
The film ‘Vertigo’ blew my mind, I must admit. In the way that we, also discussing films adapted from novels failing to convey the metaphors and symbols surely in the text of the novels they are translated from… A theme of my film viewing in the past few months. With ‘A Hologram for the King’… and more recently ‘Body of Lies.’ Hitchcock’s Vertigo, based on a novel ‘D’entre les morts’ – which I mistranslated from my limited knowledge of French while watching as ‘The Entrance of Death’ but in fact translates to ‘From Among the Dead’ – by Boileau-Narcejac. I feel the film, because of its deliberative use of the ‘language’ of film – DID convey what the story was… Successful in translation.
It communicated to me, in other words. I communed with it. And when this happens, I wanted to whimper ‘Jesus Christ’, honestly. Not even sure, so far as ‘meaning’ as achievement could be reconveyed – remediated – represented – in some other way here. But, the experience of the art being itself the experience of the communication.
Which both terrifies and reassures as the conveyance from one to another reaches impossibility, and rarity, and the vertigo of the attempt of climbing together is the sequoias, who face fire. And the ghosts of the dead possessing one’s loved one’s – or perhaps that is merely a plot, a subterfuge, a crime in the making.
What I want, to spell it out frankly, is to be the master translator, with the pain and dejection in the madrid rain hiding my desire to kill. To communicate, but so that we might not go somewhere, as has been tried, and tried, and tried again.
But so that two, you see. Together. – What I mean is, as Madeleine says in Vertigo: ‘Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”
Though… I don’t think that’s necessarily true…
Let’s talk about that great writer all of the translator fall in love with and seek to convey. What it means if one should seek them beyond…
Then they went back to talking about Archimboldi and Mrs. Bubis showed them a very odd review that had appeared in a Berlin newspaper after the publication of Ludicke, Archimboldi’s first novel. The review, by someone named Schleiermacher, tried to sum up the novelist’s personality in a few words.
Storytelling ability: chaotic.
German usage: chaotic.
Average intelligence and sloppy scholarship are easy to understand. What did he mean by epileptic character, though? that Archimboldi had epilepsy? that he wasn’t right in the head? that he suffered attacks of a mysterious nature? that he was a compulsive reader of Dostoevsky? There was no physical description of the writer in the piece.’
“We never knew who this man Schleiermacher was,” said Mrs. Bubis, “and sometimes my late husband would joke that Archimboldi himself had written the review. But he knew as well as I did that it wasn’t true.”
Near midday, when it was time to leave, Pelletier and Espinoza dared to ask the only question they thought really mattered: could she help them get in touch with Archimboldi? Mrs. Bubis’s eyes lit up. As if she were at the scene of a fire, Pelletier told Liz Norton later. Not a raging blaze, but a fire that was about to go out, after burning for months. Her no came as a slight shake of the head that made Pelletier and Espinoza abruptly aware of the futility of their plea.
Abruptly aware of the futility of their plea. Jesus Christ.
Ahem. – In the instance in Act 2, Estragon is asleep while the boy confronts Vladimir, but when the boy asks what he should say to Godot, Vladimir replies “Tell him you saw me and that… that you saw me… (With sudden violence) You’re sure you saw me, you won’t come and tell me to-morrow that you never saw me!”
Still, they stayed a while longer. From somewhere in the house came the muted strains of an Italian popular song. Espinoza asked whether she knew Archimboldi, whether she had ever seen him in person while her husband was alive. Mrs. Bubis said she had and then, under her breath, she sang the song’s final chorus. Her Italian, according to the two friends, was very good.
“What is Archimboldi like?” asked Espinoza.
“Very tall,” said Mrs. Bubis, “very tall, a man of truly great height. If he’d been born in this day and age he likely would have played basketball.”
Although by the way she said it, Archimboldi might as well have been a dwarf. In the taxi back to the hotel the two friends thought about Grosz and about Mrs. Bubis’s cruel, crystalline laugh and about the impression left by that house full of photographs, where nevertheless the photograph of the only writer they cared about was missing. And although neither wanted to admit it, both believed (or sensed) that the flash of insight granted to them in the red-light district was more important than any revelation they might have scented as the guests of Mrs. Bubis.
In a word, and bluntly: as they walked around Sankt Pauli, it came to Pelletier and Espinoza that the search for Archimboldi could never fill their lives. They could read him, they could study him, they could pick him apart, but they couldn’t laugh or be sad with him, partly because Archimboldi was always far away, partly because the deeper they went into his work, the more it devoured its explorers. In a word: in Sankt Pauli and later at Mrs. Bubis’s house, hung with photographs of the late Mr. Bubis and his writers, Pelletier and Espinoza understood that what they wanted to make was love, not war.
Upon this rung, I suppose it’s best if I climb down rather than try to pull myself up further, or look down, and let fall something I’ll regret. I write and speak and explore because I have not hopelessness left in me, but because I am hopelessly lost and still seek that wandering together I have had communicated to me as the pinnacle. What could possess me to walk with a ghost, or strive to remake an image of what is lost into a revision of love. A head full of memory, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.