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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Roland Barthes: Journal de deuil

Barthes' Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook) have recently been published in France.

Benjamin Ivry gives an even-tempered account of the history, controversy and people surrounding the publication of these two posthumous works in The Chronicle Review, but I'm reading the first book at the moment, and grief seems to be a recent theme here.

There's a line in Barthes' Bereavement Diary, that the measure of grief, according to the encyclopaedia, Memento Larousse, is eighteen months for a parent. The context and the bald giving of this fact suggests Barthes finds this measure unlikely - although it is among the earliest entries, which runs from 26 October, 1977, to 15 September, 1979. I am reading the book slowly so perhaps Larousse will be proved right. Unlikely though, isn't it?

I'm reading the book for several reasons.

Long, long before I taught within a university and, so, ignorant of Critical Theory and its impact, I read Barthes for the thrill of reading him: the quick notations, the spry insights, the world considered as other than it was conventionally perceived. I read The Lover's Discourse, Camera Lucida, and Roland Barthes, not fully aware that a system - a whole Theory indeed - had been made from them. I read them as I read Yeats or Blake, aware that some greater cosmology was being suggested but one that seemed, also, independent of the work and its immediate impact on me.

I am reading Journal de Deuil because I like reading him - he seems like one of those authors that, as Holden Caulfield suggested, you might want to ring up after you have been reading him. And I especially like the works that take the form of a notebook.

I like reading notebooks. Writers' notebooks especially. Susan Sontag, writing on Elias Canetti, described the notebook as 'the perfect literary form for an eternal student. . . . The notebook holds that ideally impudent, efficient self that one constructs to deal with the world.” That self, thought Sontag was one 'incapable of insipidity or satiety... a mind always reacting, registering shocks and trying to outwit them.' That seems a perfect description of Barthes use of the form, too.

The second reason - cf The Thought-Fox below - was I thought it would help my French along. The only thing I really enjoyed about French in school was translating it back into English: we never had to do it the other way, just as we seldom used the 'tu' form. It was never expected that we would actually speak to French people except to ask directions or to be served in shops.

And, despite its subject, the book looks affable. Some 270 pages long, it is mostly white space. Each entry, and few of them are long, is given a page. A friend, the intellectually glamourous Georges-Claude Guilbert, said he read it in a sitting - or a standing - in a bookshop in twenty minutes. I wont manage it at that speed.

Another reason is that le deuil is one of my favourite words in French - or rather a favourite sound - as in feuille and acceuil. It's one of the few French sounds with which I feel confident after I learned to say it by imagining a yo-yo in my throat: deuil-euil-euil-euil!

Hill and Wang, FSG
in New York have acquired the English Language rights, and a translation is due soon.

In the meantime, I'd translate the title as Diary of Grief, which might sound stiff, but it also sounds starker - 'bereavement' seems too light and lightening a word - and 'diary' (although it shouldn't) sounds to my dim English ears much more of a daily account than 'journal' and, so far as I have read, the very burden of time - of what death does to time, what time does does to the dead - seems one of its most prominent themes.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Stations of the Cross

After reading an article in The Times on Friday, 10 April, by Eamon Duffy, I realised that making the 14 Stations of the Cross on Good Friday was, if not my first experience of narrative, my first experience of a narrative that was structured.

The key points of the drama are outlined, characters purposefully introduced and despatched, the action rising to a pitch - the three falls under the cross punctuating the narrative - and its melancholy finish is deceptive and writerly: the resurrection can go undepicted: it is the story's true, unspoken and bright conclusion.

An old Jesuit dean, the parish priest, would lead the congregation from Station to Station. There were set prayers, possibly set hymns, and, at each one, he would evoke the human drama of each scene. Detailed and imaginative, his intent was to animate each scene, not make it relevant, but to make it real. In this intent, he seems a figure of a very distant past. Whenever I read or reread Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, I can imagine him moving amongst its pages.

A tiny figure, white-haired, hunched, a strong croak in his voice, he was, simultaneously, a benign and frightening presence to me precisely because his own passion for The Passion was so deep and physical: I remember sermons he gave in which he would bang his head with his fist, call out across the church, stretch his arms wide in exaltation or humility. I have never met a priest his like again. All others since have seemed lukewarm and desirous to please, even when objectionable.

In the church I knew as a child, the Stations of the Cross were representational scenes done in a Georgian mode. The Times article which made me remember them came illustrated with the Eric Gill woodcuts that are the basis for the bas -reliefs in Westminster Cathedral. I like Gill - and woodcuts generally - but the woodcuts don't seem to be strongly pious, but the sharp lines, deep blacks and white spaces make for drama, and while the other figures seem stiff and curiously uninvolved by what they witness, the Christ figure is movingly done, growing progressively limper as the story reaches its climax: his drooping body in death and at the deposition is particularly affecting.

Below are the woodcuts or you can see them as slides here

Monday, 13 April 2009

Ted Hughes The Thought Fox/La Pensée Renarde

Illustration by Jon Harris

Away in France for some weeks, the last news of England I had was of the death of Nicholas Hughes and the tired revisiting of 'the curse of Sylvia Plath.' I'd rather think of Nicholas Hughes as the recipient of the some of the finest letters from his father. They are the ones in the Selected Letters I find most moving and illuminating.

In these letters, Ted Hughes' account of himself seems to verge on the Shakespearean - imagine a Romeo who did not die with Juliet, but who went on living, dogged by scandal, a divisive figure still, a Romeo who loved again not always wisely, not always well, a Romeo who grow up, grow old, who pursued a fallible but as honest a life as he could manage and then, finally mortal, this ancient Romeo, like Lear, realises 'I have taken too little care of this' and revisits and finally possesses the grief he may have evaded but that was also stolen from him.

The grief is there - owned and owned up to - in the final works and in those letters to his son. I think, to be the recipient of such letters, the son must have been a significant man himself, not just a patient ear but an attentive and responsive ear. You do not write such letters to someone who cannot equal them.

I wondered if Hughes' poetry had much impact in France, but it seems not. There is Joanny Moulin's Ted Hughes: la langue remunerée, which discusses the work in French but presents the poetry in English; Moulin also translates some of Hughes' poetry for l'Anthologie bilingue de la poésie anglaise (Pléiade), but I couldnt find this or any other translation.

I had an idea that Hughes would translate well in French - particularly the later work - and I wanted to improve my French - it needs it. I thought, in the manner of a crossword puzzle, I could while away an hour or two each evening by flicking through the dictionary, and it was also something I could ask the staff and students I was working with: eg how to replace Hughes marvellous monolyllabic '...that now'and again now, and now, and now...' and avoid the use of 'maintenant'.

What follows is my translation, with errors and infelicities in abundance, sans doute. There were often comments along the way which went, 'You can't do that in French,' but sometimes, it became clear, Hughes does things one 'can't do' in English, such as the long sentence that straddles the majority of the poem - particularly stanzas 3-6 with its shifts in subjects and from plural to singular, but it's these very shifts that creates the poem's wary sideways creep that leads to poem's strong conclusion.

Indeed, even its title, The Thought-Fox takes two nouns and uses one of them as an adjective in a way that would look clumsy in another context.

The Thought-Fox

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

La Pensée Renarde

Je m’imagine cette forêt du moment de minuit:
quelquechose d’autre est vivant
à coté de la solitude de la pendule
et cette page blanche où mes doigts se placent.

Vers la fenêtre je ne vois aucune étoile:
quelquechose plus près
mais plus profound de dedans l’obscurité
entre dans la solitude.

Froide, délicatement comme la neige foncée,
une truffe de renarde touche brindille, feuille;
deux yeux accompagnent un mouvement
qui là et puis là, et là, et là

laisse des impreintes nettes dans la neige
entres les arbres, et prudentement une ombre
boiteuse reste en arrière près d’un moignon d’arbre creaux,
ombre d’un corps hardi à venir

à travers des clarières; un oeil,
une verdeur d’elargisssement et ‘d’approfondissement;
brilliante, concentrée, elle s’occupe de son affaires

jusqu’a ce qu'avec une puanteur renarde, soudain, âcre, chaude,
elle entre dans la trou foncé de la tête.
La fenêtre est encore sans étoiles; la pendule tic-tac;
la page est imprimée.