Saturday, September 17, 2022

KNJIGA: Geoffrey Chaucer, "Legenda o dobrih ženah"

Geoffrey Chaucer: Legenda o dobrih ženah. Prevod in spremna beseda: Nada Grošelj. Institutum Studiorum Humanitatis, Ljubljana 2011. 978-961-6192-51-4. 165 str.

Geoffrey Chaucer je bil angleški pesnik iz 14. stoletja — verjetno edini srednjeangleški avtor, ki ga laik, kot sem jaz, z zmerno količino truda še lahko za silo razume. Pred mnogo leti sem kupil njegova zbrana dela v eni knjigi in jih prebral približno polovico, med drugim tudi Legendo o dobrih ženah; ker pa sem doslej seveda že vse pozabil, sem prišel na misel, da bi prebral Legendo še v slovenskem prevodu (za katerega sem šele pred nedavnim opazil, da obstaja).

Pravzaprav sem radoveden, zakaj se je prevajalka odločila prevesti ravno to delo, ko pa je eno od Chaucerjevih krajših in manj pomembnih; je pa res, da so pravzaprav bolj ali manj vsa njegova dela taka, razen Canterburyskih zgodb, te pa je že prevajal Marjan Strojan. Drugače tej knjigi ne morem očitati ničesar posebej resnega; prevod se mi je zdel prijeten in berljiv, tu in tam so pod črto koristne opombe, na začetku pa zanimiva in ne predolga spremna beseda (med drugim o okoliščinah, v katerih je pesnitev nastala, in o virih, iz katerih je Chaucer jemal snov zanjo).

Kot človeku, ki ne mara sprememb v jeziku, je v mojih očeh velik plus pri tem prevodu tudi to, da je v naslovu uporabljena beseda žene v svojem starejšem pomenu women namesto v današnjem wives. Radoveden sem, ali je kdaj kdo naredil kakšno raziskavo, kako je prišlo do tega, da se je besedi žena pomen tako temeljito skrčil iz woman na wife, da jo je dandanes v prvem od teh pomenov popolnoma izpodrinila beseda ženska (ki je, po obliki sodeč, morala nekoč nastati kot pridevnik). Še sredi 20. stoletja so novoustanovljeno žensko revijo poimenovali Naša žena in s tem vsekakor niso mislili le na poročene ženske; ko pa so bili izdajatelji prisiljeni pred nekaj leti ime zamenjati zaradi zapletov z blagovno znamko, so revijo preimenovali v Slovenska ženska — beseda žena je bila torej prej tam le še po inerciji, za na novo skovano ime pa se jim ni zdela več primerna. Toda zdaj revija spet izhaja pod starim imenom oz. pod nekakšno kombinacijo obeh. — Prav mogoče je tudi, da v našem lokalnem zdravstvenem domu še zdaj nekje visi tabla „dispanzer za žene“, ki sem jo tam videl pred časom, razen če so jo morda v zadnjih nekaj letih pri kakšni prenovi odstranili in zamenjali. —

Ena stvar, ki me je pri prevodu v tej knjigi vendarle motila, pa je tale: v izvirniku se verzi lepo rimajo, v prevodu pa so pogosto namesto rim le asonance. Poleg tega, ker so verzi jambski, je zadnji poudarjeni zlog tudi zadnji zlog v verzu sploh, tako da za asonanco med dvema verzoma ni treba drugega, kot da imata oba v zadnjem zlogu isti samoglasnik. To si je težko razlagati drugače kot s prevajalsko lenobo; v dobrih starih časih so se prevajalci pri teh rečeh bolj potrudili.

Kar je še huje: ne tako redko se tudi samoglasnika ne ujemata zares, največkrat zaradi razlike v dolžini — in tisto se potem res ne sliši dobro. Tule so primeri takšnih nepravih ujemanj že samo iz prologa: jásobràz (vrstici 48–9); znášràd (69–70); obràzškrlát (111–12); táldivjàl (195–6); lagàlmarjetica (217–18); lásobràz (249, 251); vsèmdiadém (298–9); dálznàl (366–7); znàlpostáv (412–13); o vàszagát (460–1); dálpozdràv (496–7); možápeklà (513–14); samozvánprestàl (568–9); brálomejevàl (572–3).

Še ena stvar, ki me moti, je platnica — kričeča pisava, v kateri je napisan naslov na njej, in nekakšna kvazi na pol erotična fotografija ženskega trupa pod njo, dajeta občutek, kot da bi poskušal nekdo s cenenim senzacionalizmom zavesti bralca v misel, da je knjiga veliko modernejša in bolj eksplicitna, kot je v resnici. To sicer ni težava le te knjige; izšla je v zbirki Dialog z antiko in kot lahko vidimo iz njene spletne strani, imajo vse knjige iz te zbirke na naslovnici neke bolj ali manj posrečeno izbrane (za moje pojme bolj manj kot bolj) fotografije, verjetno naročene s kakšnega stock photography websitea. To izgleda tako, kot da bi se nekdo po sili trudil dajati vtis, da so ta (večinoma antična) dela relevantna tudi za današnji čas; in če je tako, založbi tega seveda ne morem zameriti, saj se morda čutijo v to prisiljeni, da sploh lahko prodajo kak izvod; drugače pa se meni zdi, da je pravi odgovor na vprašanje „ali je tole antično/srednjeveško delo relevantno tudi za današnji čas?“ sestavljen iz treh delov: „(1) upam, da ne; (2) j**i se, ker si sploh vprašal; in (3) to delo je vredno pozornosti že zato, ker je bilo relevantno v svojem času in ker je eno od redkih ohranjenih iz tistega časa, ne glede na to, ali je relevantno tudi v našem ali ne.“ Kajti konec koncev, kaj pa je na našem času tako pomembnega, da bi se morali spraševati, ali je neko delo iz preteklosti slučajno relevantno tudi zdaj? Mi sicer slučajno živimo ravno v tem času in ne v kakšnem drugem, ampak samo zaradi tega še ne sledi, da je ta čas kaj pomembnejši od ostalih.

Kar pa je pri tej knjigi daleč najhuje: narekovaje uporablja vedno angleške “ ” namesto slovenskih „ “ ali » «. Oh, kaj bi dal, da bi mi bilo dano postati diktator Slovenije — s kakšnim užitkom bi pošiljal ljudi veslat na galeje za take prestopke!

Prolog

Pesnitev se začne s precej dolgim prologom, ki obsega kar petino celotnega dela. Menda ga nekateri štejejo za najboljši del pesnitve in najbrž imajo kar prav, saj je bil meni od cele pesnitve najmanj všeč ravno ta prolog, torej menda že mora biti dober. V njem je za moj okus čisto preveč navduševanja nad pomladno naravo, cvetlicami in podobnimi stvarmi; še posebej pa so pesniku všeč marjetice („cvetka vseh cvetic“, 53, 185) — obsedenost z njimi je po vsem videzu sodeč pobral iz francoske poezije, kjer je bilo to sredi 14. stoletja nekaj časa v modi (str. 15).

Sčasoma se pesniku v sanjah prikaže bog ljubezni in mu očita, da je v svojih prejšnjih delih prikazoval ženske kot nestanovitne in nagnjene k varanju; zdaj bo moral za kazen napisati pesnitev o dobrih ženskah, ki so se odlikovale po svoji zvestobi in v več primerih tudi trpele zaradi moških, nevrednih njihovega zaupanja. Boga ljubezni spremlja devetnajst žena, večinoma iz antične mitologije, ena ali dve pa sta zgodovinski osebnosti (249–69). Vodilna med njimi je Alkestis, slavna po tem, da je bila pripravljena umreti namesto svojega moža. Verjetno je Chaucer nameraval napisati legende o vseh devetnajstih, vendar jih je potem napisal le devet, pa še od tega je zadnja nedokončana.

Posamezne legende

Legende same so mi bile precej prijetnejše branje kot prolog, četudi sem nekatere med njimi že poznal od prej. Najbolj me je pri njih motilo, da so tako kratke; pesnik preprosto nima dovolj prostora, da bi pošteno povedal svojo zgodbo. Vmes se pogosto še celo izgovarja, češ da se mu ne da tega pisati na dolgo, da bi bilo dolgočasno, da bo tu nekaj izpustil ali povzel in da si lahko bralec več prebere v virih, na katere se njegova pesnitev opira (od teh virov je glavni Ovid, nekaj tudi Vergil in še razni kasnejši avtorji; str. 19–22).

Nad tem njegovim hitenjem in krajšanjem sem bil precej razočaran — zakaj se je sploh lotil pisanja tega dela, če se mu ni dalo povedati zgodb, kot se spodobi? Iz Canterburyskih zgodb vidimo, kako lepo zna Chaucer pripovedovati, če si vzame čas za to; škoda, da si ga tukaj ni. No, razlog za to je sicer verjetno precej banalen: vtis, ki sem ga dobil ob branju spremne besede, je, da je bilo to delo sprva napisano za zdolgočasene dvorne dame in gospode, ki so si z njim malo krajšali čas in ki so vse te zgodbe tako ali tako že poznali iz približno istih virov, iz katerih je zajemal tudi Chaucer (str. 22).

Legenda o Kleopatri

To je edina zgodovinska oseba med devetimi ali desetimi, o katerih je Chaucer dejansko napisal legende. Po tem, ko Antonij in Kleopatra izgubita pomorsko bitko proti Cezarju (to je imeniten akcijski prizor, 634–50), stori Antonij samomor, kmalu zatem pa mu sledi tudi Kleopatra, in to še na bolj dramatičen način, kot sem ga imel v spominu: izkopati dá jamo, ki ji bo za grob, in jo napolniti s strupenimi kačami, nato pa skoči vanjo, da jo kače s svojimi piki ubijejo.

Legenda o Tizbi iz Babilona

Žalostno zgodbo o Piramu in Tizbi sem poznal že od prej, sem pa pozabil, da sta bila iz Babilona. Piram in Tizba sta zaljubljenca, ki se odločita skupaj pobegniti od doma, ker starši ne odobravajo njune zveze. Zaradi spleta okoliščin in nesporazumov dobi Piram vtis, da so Tizbo požrli levi, zato v obupu stori samomor; nato Tizba, ki je pred levi v resnici uspela pobegniti, najde njegovo truplo in stori samomor še sama.

To je, kot rečeno, žalostna in zelo ganljiva zgodba, vendar si nisem mogel kaj, da si ne bi želel, da bi bila Piram in Tizba malo manj prenagljena v svojih reakcijah. Če se Piramu ne bi tako mudilo s samomorom, bi bilo vse še v redu. Je pa seveda res, da najbrž nihče ne bi hotel brati pesnitve, katere vsebina bi bila „zaljubljenca se uspešno izogneta levom in nepotrebnim samomorom in potem srečno zaživita skupno življenje v sosednjem mestu“. Morda je tako zgodbo celo kdo napisal, vendar se srednjeveškim menihom ni zdela dovolj zanimiva, da bi jo prepisovali, in se je zato izgubila tako kot še 99% ostale antične književnosti :)

Zanimivo pri tej zgodbi se mi je zdelo tudi to, da so v tistih časih očitno levi prežali takorekoč takoj zunaj mesta, celo tako velikega mesta, kot je bil Babilon. To so bili res drugačni časi.

Legenda o Didoni, kartažanski kraljici

To je ena od boljših legend v tej knjigi, ker ni tako kratka in ima zato pesnik končno dovolj prostora, da lahko zgodbo kolikor toliko spodobno pove. Enej je vodja skupine Trojancev, ki ob koncu trojanske vojne uspešno pobegnejo iz mesta; ustavijo se na afriški obali, kjer se v Eneja zaljubi kartažanska kraljica Dido. Tudi Enej ji obljubi ljubezen in zvestobo (1233–5), toda kmalu se je naveliča in naskrivaj odpluje naprej proti Italiji, Dido pa nato v obupu stori samomor (in to z Enejevim mečem, ki ga je ta prikladno pozabil ob odhodu).

Žalostno se mi zdi, da je šla Didona delat samomor zaradi takega nevrednega človeka, kot je Enej. Nevreden je še toliko bolj, ker, če prav razumem, so mu bili bogovi že prej povedali, da bo moral sčasoma oditi v Italijo in ustanoviti tam novo kraljestvo, torej bi bil moral vedeti, da se z Didono ne sme zaplesti ali pa jo mora vzeti s seboj; in tukaj vidimo (1316), da je bila ona tudi res pripravljena oditi z njim. Ker je vendarle šel brez nje, je to znak, da se je je res naveličal in je bila njegova pot v Italijo le prikladen izgovor.

Škoda, da se ni Dido odločila ostati živa; lahko bi poslala nad Eneja kartažansko ladjevje, ki bi zmlelo Eneja in njegove ladje; otrok, ki ji ga je bil zaplodil (1323), pa bi bil kot nalašč za to, da o prvi priliki konča v kakšni peči kot daritev Molohu, saj je to konec koncev vendarle Kartagina. V konfliktu med Kartažani in Rimljani sem vedno navijal za Kartažane in tole bi bila odlična priložnost, da se nastanek Rima sploh prepreči. Kdo ve, nemara pa je kdo že napisal kak alternativnozgodovinski roman na to temo :)

Legenda o Hipsipili in Medeji

Načelo „nategni in pobegni“, ki smo ga srečali pri prejšnji legendi, se nadaljuje tudi tukaj v še popolnejši različici. Jazon s svojimi argonavti se na poti proti Kolhidi ustavi na otoku Lemnosu, kjer zapelje tamkajšnjo kraljično Hipsipilo. Chaucer na koncu sijajno povzame ta del zgodbe: „Na kratko: Jazon je gospe postal/ zakonski drug in spraznil njen trezor,/ da si je prateža nabral za pot;/ zaplodil ji je še otroka dva,/ pa dvignil sidro za ves večni čas.“ (1559–63) To bi bilo skoraj smešno, če ne bi bilo hkrati tudi žalostno. Hipsipila po vsem videzu sodeč ne stori ničesar pretirano dramatičnega, vendar sčasoma umre od žalosti. No, po svoje je sicer tudi to dramatično; še dobro, da si dandanes ljudje po ločitvi ponavadi sčasoma poiščejo novo zvezo in ne žalujejo sami do konca življenja — ampak, spet, taka zgodba, četudi bi jo bil v antiki kdo napisal, se najbrž ne bi ohranila do danes.

Kakorkoli že, na Kolhidi se v Jazona zaljubi Medeja, hči tamkajšnjega kralja; pomaga mu priti do zlatega runa, nato pa pobegne od doma skupaj z njim in argonavti. Tu bi se zdaj dalo napisati čudovito dramatično zgodbo, polno umorov in nasilja — toda Chaucer, naj ga vrag pocitra, tega ne stori! V peščici verzov nam le pove, da je Jazon sčasoma zapustil tudi Medejo in si našel drugod še tretjo ženo (1656–60). Niti besede o tem, da je na begu iz Kolhide Medeja umorila svojega bratca, da bi se zasledovalci zamudili s pogrebom njegovega trupla; pa o tem, da je kasneje nagovorila hčerke kralja Peliasa, da so le-tega umorile, češ da ga bo Medeja potem oživila prerojenega in pomlajenega; pa da je še kasneje, ko jo je Jazon zapustil, umorila njegovo novo ženo, njenega očeta in še vsaj dva svoja otroka, ki ju je imela z Jazonom; pa da se je kasneje poročila z atenskim kraljem Egejem in ga skoraj uspela pripraviti do tega, da bi ubil svojega sina Tezeja.

Skratka, Medeja je ena od najboljših negativk v celi grški mitologiji; strastna in maščevalna čarovnica, ki verjetno vedno nosi črno spodnje perilo, z ene roke ji kaplja strup, z druge pa kri; pri Chaucerju pa ne dobimo od vsega tega popolnoma ničesar. Žalostno dejstvo je, da se taka Medeja pač ne vklaplja v Chaucerjev koncept — v teh legendah hoče pisati o ženskah, ki, ko so prevarane, žalujejo ali storijo samomor, ne pa o takih, ki se krvavo maščujejo z nekaj dobro merjenimi umori. Zato tiste dele antičnih mitov, ki štrlijo ven iz tega okvira, preprosto zamolči.

Legenda o Lukreciji

Za to zgodbo sem bil prej že slišal, vendar podrobnosti nisem poznal ali pa sem jih pozabil. Tarkvinij mlajši (sin Tarkvinija Ošabnega, zadnjega rimskega kralja) si poželi Lukrecije, žene viteza Kolatina. Medtem ko je slednji na vojski, Tarkvinij z grožnjami prisili Lukrecijo, da se mu vda. Lukrecija, da bi zaščitila svojo in moževo čast, pove sorodnikom, kaj se je zgodilo, nato pa stori samomor. Ko se zgodba razširi po Rimu, se ljudstvo v besu dvigne in nažene oba Tarkvinija iz mesta, monarhijo pa zamenjajo z republiko (Lukrecijin vdovec pa postane eden od prvih konzulov; op. 83 na str. 120).

Pri tej zgodbi mi je všeč to, da za razliko od večine drugih legend v tej knjigi Lukrecija vendarle dobi nekakšno zadoščenje, četudi šele po smrti; posrečena pa je tudi ta kombinacija osebnega in političnega: posledice ne prizadenejo le Tarkvinija osebno, ampak se spotoma izvede še revolucija v državi. Kakor sicer nisem velik ljubitelj Rimljanov, se mi pa njihova republika po malem vendarle dopade; navkljub vsem svojim pomanjkljivostim je ravno republika tisto obdobje, v katerem so ustvarili svojo veličino; doba cesarstva, ki ji je sledila, pa je bila za moje pojme tragedija in en sam dolg počasen zaton. Redkokatero posilstvo se tako dobro razplete; škoda je le, da ni še Lukrecija preživela. Všeč mi je tisti pregovor, da je srečno življenje najboljša oblika maščevanja, vendar pri legendah v tej knjigi ta pregovor žal ne velja.

Legenda o Ariadni

Ariadna je hči kretskega kralja Minosa, ki mu morajo Atenci vsako leto poslati nekaj ljudi, ki jih on potem zapre v labirint, kjer jih požre pošastni Minotaver. Enkrat je med žrtvami tudi Tezej, sin atenskega kralja Egeja; Ariadna se v Tezeja zaljubi in se mu odloči pomagati. Približno do sem sem zgodbo poznal, podrobnosti od tu naprej pa ne; pohvalno je, da zgodba tu pri Chaucerju ni tako okrajšana, kot so nekatere druge v tej knjigi. Ariadna priskrbi Tezeju ne le nit, po kateri je znana (da se ne bo izgubil v labirintu), ampak tudi orožje (drugače je bilo mišljeno, da so Minotavrove žrtve neoborožene) in „kroglice iz voska in lanu“ (2003–4), ki naj bi jih metal Minotavru v gobec, da se mu bo zaletelo in ga bo medtem lahko pokončal. Lepo je bilo videti takšne podrobnosti, ki jih v drugih legendah tako pogrešamo.

Kakorkoli že, Tezej obljubi Ariadni, da se bo z njo poročil, in ko ubije Minotavra, pobegne s Krete skupaj z njo in njeno sestro Fedro. Spotoma se ustavijo na nekem otoku, kjer se Tezej sicer poroči z Ariadno, vendar še isto noč odpluje naprej brez nje — ker je njena sestra lepša! (2172) Tu zgodbo potem Chaucer zaključi malo hitreje, kot bi si človek želel; menda se kasneje z Ariadno poroči bog Bakh in jo povzdigne v boginjo, iz njene krone pa nastanejo zvezde v ozvezdju Bika (str. 136).

Tu je sicer zelo pohvalno, da se stvari za Ariadno končajo tako ugodno; vseeno pa je v tej zgodbi še nekaj nedokončanih niti, ki me zelo žulijo. Kaj si na primer o vsem skupaj misli Fedra? Ali odobrava to, da bo Tezej takole zapustil Ariadno in se predvidoma kasneje v Atenah poročil z njo? Upam, da ne, saj je bilo prej videti, da se Ariadna in Fedra dobro razumeta. Kako bo torej izpadlo, ko bosta Tezej in Fedra prišla v Atene in bo ona tam njegovemu očetu in vsem ostalim povedala, da je Tezej že poročen z njeno sestro, ki jo je zapustil na nekem otoku ob poti?!

In, konec koncev: če je Minos tako mogočen, da mu Atenci še vedno vsako leto pošiljajo žrtve za Minotavra, potem je menda tudi tako mogočen, da lahko zdaj pošlje nad Atene ladjevje z nalogo, da se maščuje nad Tezejem in pripelje obe dekleti nazaj na Kreto. Kako da Ariadne in Tezeja ni skrbela ta možnost, ko sta se dogovarjala za beg s Krete in za poroko?

Legenda o Filomeli

To zgodbo sem približno že poznal, saj sem jo pred nekaj leti prebral v eni od renesančnih tragedij iz zbirke I Tatti Renaissance Library. Traški kralj Terej se poroči s Prokno, hčerjo atenskega kralja; čez nekaj let želi Prokne spet videti svojo sestro Filomelo, zato odpotuje Terej v Atene, da bi pripeljal od tam Filomelo na obisk v Trakijo. Res jo pripelje v Trakijo, toda ne na obisk k Prokni, pač pa jo nekam zapre in posili. (Boy, that escalated quickly.) Filomela uspe poslati po nekem služabniku sporočilo Prokni, kaj se je zgodilo, in ta pride do nje in jo reši.

Chaucer tu zgodbo konča, kar pomeni, da smo (podobno kot pri Medeji) prikrajšani za nekaj nasilja in, kar je še bolj obžalovanja vredno, za maščevanje. Zgodba se namreč nadaljuje tako, da Prokne ubije svojega sina Itisa, ki ga ima s Terejem, in slednjemu podtakne sinovo meso v hrano. Kasneje Prokne in Filomela pobegneta pred Terejevim besom, bogovi pa jih vse tri spremenijo v ptiče različnih vrst. Mogoče se mi zdi tudi, da to maščevanje ni bilo preveč po Chaucerjevem okusu, ker je Itis po našem pojmovanju nedolžen; toda mislim, da so dali stari Grki več na sorodstvene vezi kot mi, in sumim, da se jim Proknino maščevanje ni zdelo pretirano. Na misel mi je prišlo, da bi lahko Prokne možu v spanju enostavno prerezala vrat; toda po drugi strani, potem on ne bi imel časa vedeti, da se mu je maščevala, in za njim bi še vedno ostal sin, ki bi ga sčasoma lahko nasledil; z umorom sina pa se je Prokne Tereju maščevala huje in primerneje.

(To, da je Chaucer zgodbo končal tam, kjer jo je, je problematično še z nekega drugega vidika: očitno je, da zgodbe tam še ne more biti konec. Prokne in Filomela sta še vedno v Trakiji in si verjetno ne želita spet priti Tereju v kremplje. Jasno je torej, da bo bralca zanimalo, kako se zgodba nadaljuje, in škandalozno je, da si jo pesnik upa kar takole končati.)

Legenda o Filidi

Ta zgodba mi je bila popolnoma nova; če sem že kdaj prej slišal zanjo, sem jo popolnoma pozabil. Tezej, ki smo ga že srečali v eni od prejšnjih legend, ima sina Demofonta, ki ni padel daleč od drevesa. Na poti domov s trojanske vojne doživi Demofon brodolom nekje v Trakiji, na obali dežele, ki ji vlada kraljica Filis. Demofon ji obljubi, da se bo z njo poročil, in odpluje v Atene, češ da bo pripravil vse potrebno; seveda pa se potem ne vrne več. Ko Filis sprevidi, da jo je prevaral, mu pošlje očitkov polno pismo (iz katerega navaja Chaucer nekaj precej dolgih odlomkov), nato pa stori samomor. Jojmene! Kaj ji je bilo tega treba? Kot da ni dovolj žalostno že to, da se je pustila prevarati takemu človeku — toda še veliko bolj žalostno je, če zaradi tega potem stori samomor... Še dobro, da ljudje v resničnem življenju ne posežejo tako zlahka po svojem življenju kot tragične junakinje iz grške mitologije.

Ob tej zgodbi (in še nekaj prejšnjih) mi je prišlo na misel še nekaj: pa kakšen za vraga je ta starogrški mitološki svet, da se v njem kraljice in princese pustijo vse po vrsti nategniti (v več kot enem smislu) prvemu zapeljivemu brodolomcu, ki ga viharji prinesejo na njihove obale? Človek bi si mislil, da ponavadi razmerja med kronanimi glavami niso bila ravno tako enostavna; da je vsaka taka poroka v prvi vrsti politična odločitev, da se pred njo precej časa pogovarjajo diplomati in ambasadorji, ministri in svetovalci, kaj pa si o vsem skupaj mislita potencialni ženin in nevesta, je zadnja stvar, ki se pri tem komurkoli zdi pomembna.

Ta zgodba mi je bila zanimiva še iz nekega drugega razloga: iz nje vidimo, da se mit o Tezeju, Ariadni in Minotavru dogaja le eno generacijo pred trojansko vojno, saj se je le-te udeležil Tezejev sin. Doslej nisem imel pravega občutka za to, kakšen je medsebojni časovni položaj teh dveh mitov. Še ena zanimiva stvar pri tej zgodbi pa je ime Filis — zdaj torej vidim, od kod so Američani dobili ime Phyllis, ki je bilo tam svojčas precej priljubljeno (nekje do srede 20. stoletja).

Legenda o Hipermestri

Zgodbo o Danaidah sem od prej približno že poznal: kralj Danaos je imel petdeset hčera, njegov brat Egipt pa petdeset sinov; na bratovo zahtevo je moral Danaos dovoliti, da se njegove hčere poročijo s temi svojimi bratranci. Toda Danaju je bilo prerokovano, da ga bo ubil zet, zato hčeram naroči, naj svoje može na poročno noč umorijo. Vse razen ene, Hiperm(n)estre, to tudi res naredijo, ona pa svojega moža Linkeja pusti pri življenju (kasneje ta tudi res ubije Danaosa).

Pri Chaucerju je zgodba sicer nekoliko drugačna: Linkej je tu Danajev sin, ne Egiptov; Egipt pa se imenuje Egist in ima hčerko Hipermestro. Poleg tega naj bi se poročila le Hipermestra (z Linkejem), ne pa tudi njene sestre. Egist poskuša z grožnjami pripraviti šokirano Hipermestro do tega, da bi umorila Linkeja; toda ona le-tega posvari in skupaj pobegneta iz Egistove hiše. Na begu pa Linkej ne čaka nanjo in ker je Hipermestra počasnejša, jo Danaj ujame in jo da zapreti. Tu se legenda prekine, ker je Chaucer ni dokončal. Radoveden sem, kako bi se zgodba nadaljevala. Kaj misli Danaj storiti s Hipermestro? Če mu je prerokovano, da ga bo zet ubil, mu nič ne pomaga, če se zdaj znaša nad njo. Ali bo Linkej, čeprav je Hipermestro zdaj tako strahopetno zapustil, kasneje vendarle prišel nazaj in jo rešil ter ubil Danaja?

Chaucer se v zadnjih verzih (2716–18) zgraža nad Linkejem, ker Hipermestri ni pomagal, in to se po eni strani sliši smiselno, po drugi strani pa — kaj pa naj bi bil naredil? Nesti je menda ja ne more hitreje, kot lahko ona hodi sama, torej bi bil v tem primeru učinek le ta, da bi Danaj ujel oba in ne le nje. Ali bi lahko Linkej pričakal Danaja in se spopadel z njim? Morda, če le-ta ni imel s seboj večjega števila ljudi (te podrobnosti pa nam Chaucer ne pove). Skratka, mislim, da imamo še premalo podatkov, da bi lahko Linkeja dokončno odpisali.

*

Ta knjiga, skratka, je lahko čisto prijetno branje, ni pa spet nekaj, ob čemer bi človek omedleval od užitka. Če bi bil pripravljen Chaucer povedati te zgodbe na daljše in z več podrobnostmi, bi bile lahko še precej prijetnejše. Mislim, da je zdaj že razprodana, ampak na zadnji strani piše, da je stala 17 evrov; veseli me, da sem si jo sposodil v knjižnici, ker bi drugače dobil občutek, da od nje nisem imel za 17 evrov branja. (Za primerjavo: moj izvod Chaucerjevih zbranih del (s slovarčkom in precej opombami vred, skupaj 1327 strani), ki sem ga kupil leta 2000, je imel takrat priporočeno ceno 14 funtov, zdaj pa jo ima 25 funtov.)

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Saturday, July 30, 2022

BOOK: Saul David, "The Indian Mutiny"

Saul David: The Indian Mutiny. London: Penguin Books, 2003. 0141005548. xxiii + 504 pp.

I'm not sure when I first heard of the famous Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, but I suspect it may have been in fiction — I vaguely remember it being mentioned in one of Jules Verne's novels (some googling suggests it must have been The Steam House), and of course in Doyle's The Sign of the Four, one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. I never read up on the mutiny in any real detail, however, and it was with a view to remedying this that I bought the present book more than ten years ago.

Now that I finally got around to reading it, I found that I wasn't really quite as interested in the subject as I probably imagined I would be when I bought the book. (There seems to be a pattern here, as I already concluded the same thing about the previous two books about Indian history that we've seen on this blog — John Keay's India and The Honourable Company.) This, of course, is in no way the fault of the book, just a mismatch between me and the book. Apart from that, I can't really complain about it. It is well written and the author is clearly keenly interested in the topic and has resarched it in great detail.

But, as is often the case with historical events that involve a lot of fighting, the most interesting part of the story for me was the lead-up to the mutiny rather than the mutiny itself. I had been vaguely aware of the idea that the Indian soldiers objected to the presence of animal fat (beef or pork, depending on whether they were Hindus or Muslims) in rifle cartridges, but it turns out, unsurprisingly enough, that the real underlying causes of discontent were deeper than that.

Soldiers' wages had not been increased for more than 50 years by then, while the costs of living, as well as the wages of many civilian occupations, had increased significantly over that period (pp. 28–9). This also meant that the social status associated with being a soldier had declined. Moreover, in an earlier period the soldiers might have had the chance to seek better terms from some other employer, some Indian maharaja or another, but by the mid-19th century the British had annexed so much territory in India that soldiers had few alternatives but to work for them. The amount of warfare also declined and with it the opportunities for soldiers to supplement their income by looting (p. 31).

Speaking of annexations, it seems that the British had signed treaties with a number of native princes, according to which these local dynasties could continue ruling their territory, but if a prince died without an heir his country would ‘lapse’ into British hands. It was not uncommon in India for a prince to adopt an heir if he had no sons of his own, but the British refused to recognize such adopted heirs and used this excuse to annex several princely states in the first half of the 19th century (pp. 6–8). The mutiny basically started as an organized conspiracy consisting partly of disaffected Indian soldiers and officers, and partly of dispossessed princes who hoped to regain their thrones (pp. 45, 229, 390, 397–8); the bulk of the mutineers joined it because these princes promised them better pay and status than they had had under the British. The mutineers may also have felt encouraged by exaggerated reports of recent British defeats in the Crimean war (p. 49).

The rumours of beef or pork fat on the rifle cartridges were spread by the conspirators to get more of the soldiers on board with the mutiny.* They were apparently not entirely unfounded, in the sense that when starting a new process of manufacturing rifle cartridges, the government had not taken sufficient precautions to ensure that those types of fat would not be used (pp. 54–5); but the British, to their credit, were pretty serious about not wanting to offend the religious feelings of their Indian soldiers, and even went so far as to offer to provide non-greased cartridges and money with which each Indian unit could then buy their own grease and apply it by themselves (p. 55). The agitators then changed their objections and started claiming that the paper in which the cartridges were packed was greased with objectionable fat (pp. 55, 58) — it would all have been funny if it hadn't been about to lead to so much bloodshed...

[*Part of the reason why this issue was so effective was that religion is a social phenomenon and not just a personal one (p. 81). Even if e.g. a Hindu soldier did not think there was any beef fat on the cartridges, he would still lose caste with other Hindus as long as enough of *them* believed the rumour about beef fat.]

There were also some organizational issues with the British Indian army that made it easier for the mutiny to erupt. Promotion, both of Indian soldiers and of British officers, was almost entirely by seniority, which made it harder to motivate people and reward competence; it also led to an overabundance of exhausted, worn-out officers in their late 60s in the higher ranks — not exactly the best prospect for a vigorous response. Moreover, in what was otherwise a commendable effort to cut down on the abuses of an earlier period, most of the officers' powers to punish their soldiers had been taken away from them in favour of a much more centralized and impractically bureaucratic process, with the result that the officers' authority over their men declined considerably (pp. 41–4).

*

Once the mutiny actually started, the book got considerably less interesting for me. We see a more or less similar story repeated in one town after another: rumours begin to fly, the sepoys grow restless, and finally someone steps forward and shoots an officer or something like that, and the rest then follow and the mutiny is on. The British, whether soldiers, officers or civilians, then barricade themselves in some fort or barracks, and those that don't get there in time are massacred by the rebels, and their houses broken into and looted. In some instances the British managed to disarm the units whose loyalty they doubted and thus prevent them from mutinying, but there were also surprisingly many examples of British officers swearing up and down that *their* unit would surely remain loyal, only to find out very shortly how very wrong they were.

The book goes into a lot of detail about this, we hear the names and ranks of countless officers, the exact counts of different types of soldiers involved, etc. etc., which is no doubt very interesting for some people, but not for me. There are too many of these people, and most of them don't have a sufficiently big impact on the story as a whole that I could be bothered to remember their names.

The mutiny didn't really affect all of India, but seems to have been concentrated around the North-Western Provinces (so named because they lie north-west of Bengal; not really that much in the north-west of India as a whole); we see the mutiny erupt at Meerut (a little north of Delhi), then Delhi itself (where the ‘King of Delhi’, a descendant of the former Moghul emperors now subsisting on a British pension, reluctantly agreed to join the mutiny, though he had little real control over it; pp. 104, 119, 122), Ferozepore and Peshawar (in the Punjab), Agra, Lucknow, Cawnpore (in Oudh), Benares and Allahabad, etc.

A fair share of massacres and atrocities were perpetrated in the process. Perhaps the most tragic of these occurred at Cawnpore, where the Britons (both soldiers and civilians) were besieged for several weeks in terrible circumstances; finally their position grew desperate enough that they accepted an offer of safe passage from the rebels (p. 208) and surrendered, but were then treacherously massacred very soon afterwards (p. 215). There was another massacre of British civilian prisoners at Cawnpore about a week later (pp. 253–4).

I almost felt sorry for the victims at that point, until I remembered that they were, after all, occupying a country belonging to another people. I can hardly blame the Indians for massacring British people in India, just like I couldn't blame the Britons of today if they suddenly decided, for whatever reason, to massacre the Indians currently living in Britain. Ideally every people should live within its own boundaries and have as little as possible to do with other peoples; then there would be no need of massacres and atrocities. My ideal world would be one of small, isolated, homogeneous communities, each surrounded by a palisade wall and eyeing with well-deserved suspicion and distrust the neighbours who live beyond it.

Anyway, the British, for their part, eventually responded with atrocities of their own, indiscriminate reprisals and mass executions imposed by summary courts that didn't inquire too closely into how much any given individual was or wasn't guilty of involvement in the mutiny; and often the victims were forced to eat pork or beef before being killed (pp. 233, 237, 259, 334). Governor Canning, to his credit, tried to rein in these excesses, but he was under pressure from Britain, where the public opinion was baying for blood, having been agitated to a frenzy by reports of rebel atrocities (pp. 237–8).

The British sent some troops from Britain and also redirected some units originally on the way to China, but these reinforcements were slow in coming. There's an interesting discussion on pp. 280–2 arguing that the rebels were closer to liberating India than is commonly supposed: “If the rebellion had spread into western and southern India, some of the ruling princes and significant elements of the Bombay and Madras Armies would have turned against the British, and the game might well have been up.”

The mutiny started in May 1857, and it was not until September that the British took control of Delhi again (p. 302); by then the mutiny was clearly on a downward trajectory, but it was not over until late spring 1858. Some of the rebel leaders went into hiding and were only captured years later (pp. 369–70).

[An interesting detail: British officers occasionally exchanged messages in Greek, so the rebels wouldn't understand them if they intercepted them (pp. 311, 322).]

The British carried out various reforms in the wake of the mutiny. The government of India was officially transferred from the East India Company to the British crown (p. 370; but I wonder how much that meant in practice considering that the EIC had not been functioning like an actual business company for decades by that point). Amnesty was offered to the rebel rank and file (p. 371). Native princes who had stayed loyal were also rewarded, among other things with a promise that the British government would recognize adopted heirs in the future (p. 376). Numerous changes were also made in the Bengal army, not only to prevent future mutiny but also to modernize and strengthen it (pp. 377, 399–404).

*

All in all, parts of this book were interesting, especially those dealing with the causes of the mutiny and with the post-mutiny reforms; but the details of the military operations were really not for me. Incidentally, I can't help thinking that the mutiny would make for a fascinating alternative-history scenario: what would the subsequent history of India (and for that matter, of the British empire) have been like if the mutiny had succeeded? Many British imperialist moves in the later parts of the 19th century were motivated by securing their control of India and the routes that led to it, so if they had lost India in 1857, the subsequent history of their imperialism might have turned out to be much less ambitious. And in India itself, in place of the huge republic that we see today, there might be a patchwork of princely states, perhaps loosely connected under a neo-Mughal emperor in a manner reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire. It would be a more colourful picture, that's for sure, and I'm always in favour of more disintegrated political structures; but I'm not sure if it would actually be better for the ordinary people living there.

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BOOK: Yuri Tynianov, "Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar"

Yuri Tynianov: Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar. Translated by Susan Causey. London: Look Multimedia, 2018. 978-1-9999815-0-1. xii + 406 pp.

I have no idea where I first heard of this remarkable and unusual historical novel; very possibly it was on the Language Hat blog, which had a couple of posts about it back in 2010. A few years ago it was finally translated into English and I got around to reading it now.

I enjoyed it, though reading it required a bit more work than I would have liked — this book is not exactly from the Walter Scott school of historical novel writing. Although it is not terribly long (400 pages in the present edition, though admittedly there is a decent amount of text per page), impressively many people appear in it and impressively many things happen. The chapters are further subdivided into a number of short sections, often no more than a couple of pages long, almost like scenes in a play; this, together with the author's fondness for very short paragraphs,* helps him keep things moving at a rapid pace all the time.

[* I couldn't help being reminded of another historical novel written about the same time and likewise based on real people and events, which likewise used very short paragraphs: Klabund's Borgia (published in 1929, while Death of the Vazir-Mukhtar appeared in 1928). I wonder if this is just a coincidence, or are they both part of some larger trend that was in fashion at the time. Or maybe that's just what all modernist writing is like anyway.]

He is helped in this by a slightly impressionistic style, but this also leads to a downside: there is often something of a vagueness to the way he tells things, which made it harder for me to have a clear idea of what is happening and when. Occasionally the narrative jumps back in time to belatedly provide some potentially useful background information that should have been given much earlier; and some background information is never provided at all. For instance, the book opens with an extremely vague preface about the Decembrist revolt, but as someone who knew more or less nothing about it except that something by that name had indeed happened in 1825 and had been quashed, this preface told me next to nothing. Griboyedov, the protagonist of the novel, seems to have been vaguely in touch with people involved in the revolt, but not so closely as to be implicated himself; and his subsequent career in the service of the government seems to be regarded by the author of the novel as something of a betrayal of his former connections to the Decembrists.

Anyway, fortunately the rest of the novel is not quite as vague as that, though we still get a short super-impressionistic vague section now and then. But I shouldn't complain too much; I suppose all this is necessary so that the book can have been considered literary art and not mere genre shlock, and so reading it may be somewhat likened to eating one's vegetables: not the tastiest possible thing, but hopefully good for one in some sense. —

It is an ancient privilege of Russian writers to abuse and confuse their readers by trying to come up with as many different ways of referring to the same character as possible. I loved to hate this technique in Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, and Tynianov here also makes full use of it. A character may have a name, patronymic, surname, one or two nicknames, one or two titles, and all this is never introduced together, but little by little as other characters drop this or that bit of information in passing, leaving it to the reader to figure out which names fit together and belong to which character. A man may be Ivan Fyodorovich on one page, Jean on another, Paskevich somewhere else, the General a few pages later, Count Yerevansky still elsewhere, and so on ad nauseam. In the end I was reduced to writing an improvised index of characters in a blank page near the end of the book — the publisher would have done the readers a great service if they had provided something like that by themselves.

There are also many words and phrases in an impressive range of foreign languages, not just French (which we sort of expect in Russian novels set in the 19th century) but also English, German, Italian, Georgian, Persian and quite possibly some others that I've overlooked. Fortunately, in the present edition such things are all translated in footnotes; but even so, the abundance of Persian vocabulary often struck me as excessive and confusing. When I encounter chelonger on p. 373, I certainly can't be expected to remember that it had been glossed in passing as “locksmith” on p. 334. At that point it would almost have been better to add a gloss each time such a word appears, or to add a separate glossary at the end of the book. But more importantly than that, it isn't obvious to me that saying chelonger instead of “locksmith” accomplishes anything. If this Persian word conveys any shade of meaning that a plain “locksmith” doesn't, we are in no position to know this from the two or so passing instances where it is used in this book. Exotic words are fine when they refer to exotic concepts, but here it seems to be just pointless; and there are a lot of such dubious exotic terms in the Persian sections of the novel.

As is not uncommon with historical novels, this one is inspired by real people and real events, but as I don't know anything much about the historical background, I couldn't tell where exactly the boundary between fact and fiction lies. At any rate, what we read in the Wikipedia article about Griboyedov, the protagonist of the novel, agrees quite well with what happens in the novel, so I guess that any liberties taken by the author must be in fairly minor matters, and in little details that are valuable in a novel but that you can hardly expect to find their way into the historical record.

The plot

<spoiler warning>

The novel is set in 1828–29 or so. Griboyedov is a poet and playwright (and an acquaintance of Pushkin's — incidentally, they share the same name: Alexander Sergeyevich; p. 121), but also a diplomat working for the Russian Foreign Ministry, hoping to benefit from the influence of a powerful relative, General Paskevich, to advance faster in his career. G.'s relationship to the ruling regime seems to be somewhat ambiguous: on the one hand he is a civil servant, on the other hand he used to have uncomfortably close ties to the Decembrist rebels (pp. 100, 195, 231–2), and his main literary work is a play that is apparently subversive enough that he hasn't been able to get it past the censors despite years of trying.

As the novel opens, G. is returning from Persia with a peace treaty he has negotiated there after the recent conclusion of a war between Russia and Persia. The war was a success for Russia, and G.'s treaty requires Persia to pay large indemnities, allow kidnapped/captured Russians to return home, and extradite Russian deserters. Neither G. nor the author of the novel seem to be in any very great hurry, so we see G. visiting his mother in Moscow and various friends and acquaintances both there and in St. Petersburg. Eventually, he presents the treaty to the Tsar (in a fine scene that illustrates vividly the ludicrously elaborate court ceremonial; “the quiet childish game, played by old men embroidered with gold”, p. 37), and both G. and his superiors at the Foreign Ministry are rewarded for their efforts. (A curious detail: the foreign minister, Nesselrode, is really more of a German and can't speak any Russian (p. 32)! — but that's OK, since diplomacy was all done in French anyway.)

While G. waits for his next assignment, we see a few scenes from his life in St. Petersburg; he attends a ballet performance and an examination at the School of Oriental Languages, he meets literary friends, he visits a mistress or two, etc. He also has an ambitious project for setting up an “Agricultural, Manufacturing and Trading Company” — a sort of Russian equivalent of the British East India Company, to improve the economic exploitation of territories that Russia has recently conquered in the Caucasus. G. envisions himself as the director of this company, with powers so extensive that he would be more like a viceroy than a businessman (p. 94); but when he submits his plan to the Foreign Ministry, nothing comes of it because one of his superiors covets the post of director for himself (p. 116).

Instead, they decide to send G. to Persia again, tasked with making sure the Persians actually comply with the treaty they have just signed; notably, the indemnities he is supposed to squeeze out of them would be very useful to finance the upcoming Russian war against Turkey. G. gets promoted to a higher rank in the civil service hierarchy and is sent to Persia as a Minister Plenipotentiary (p. 130), or Vazir-Mukhtar in Persian — hence the title. (Another funny detail: his new position entitles him to have no fewer than fifteen horses draw his carriage when travelling on the state post-roads; p. 135.)

Once again, G. is in no great hurry to get to his destination. On the way they stop for several days at a farm-house because the farmer has a pretty daughter, and they continue only when G. notices that his valet has more success with her than G. himself does :)) (pp. 143–4). They continue to Tiflis, where G. used to live for eight years (p. 154). He is in love with a girl named Nina, the daughter of a Georgian noble family, and plans to marry her before continuing to Persia. Moreover, he wants to present his trading company proposal to some influential people there, including the aforementioned Paskevich (pp. 176, 230). It takes a couple of angry letters from St. Petersburg to finally badger G. into resuming his journey (p. 207); and he is further delayed on the road by a plague epidemic, with G. himself falling seriously ill (p. 242).

As the novel moves towards more exotic locales, the author not infrequently treats us to little historical asides, which I found very interesting. Thus we get short sections about the Persian sack of Tiflis in 1795 (p. 153) and about the Russian conquest of the Caucasus (pp. 172–4), and later almost a whole chapter about Persia (pp. 249–63), where the elderly Shah has an enormous harem which includes one of his own daughters, with whom he has two sons/grandsons :)) (p. 261).

G. eventually makes his way to the Persian city of Tabriz, the seat of Abbas Mirza, one of the Shah's sons, who is the heir-apparent and pretty much the de facto ruler of the country. G. manages to get Abbas to hand over part of the indemnities, but it's clear that the Persian economy is badly depressed, and popular discontent is rising as the government tries to extract more money to pay the Russians (pp. 256, 286, 290). We also see some glimpses of the rivalry between Russia and Britain for influence over Persia; the British are hoping that Persia will side with Turkey against Russia, but that won't happen if Persia is impoverished by the indemnities paid to G. (pp. 280–1, 288). Despite all this, G. gets along very well with the British representative in Tabriz, a Col. Macdonald.

News arrive of Russian defeats in the new Turkish war, so getting the remaining indemnities from Persia is a higher priority than before and G. leaves Tabriz for Teheran to deal directly with the Shah (pp. 283, 287). He is received with great pomp (and carefully ignores some details of court etiquette to assert the status of Russia relative to Persia; pp. 325–8), and does receive some more money; but another important part of his mission now comes to the fore. Under the terms of the treaty, people born in Russian territories but held in captivity in Persia now have the right to return home under G.'s protection. Besides numerous other people, this turns out to include two of the prime minister's wives (p. 337) as well as Khodja Yakub, an Armenian-born eunuch who is now the Shah's treasurer (and apparently the only man in Persia who understands double-entry book-keeping; p. 305, 345–9).

The treaty also covers the extradition of Russian deserters now serving in Persia; there is in fact a whole battalion of them, led by a commander named Samson Khan (formerly Samson Makintsev, a Russian NCO; pp. 70, 263). They come across as a formidable force that is unlikely to allow itself to be extradited without a fight (pp. 342, 354).

G.'s refusal to compromise on these issues finally brings matters to a head. The Shah refuses to extradite Samson (p. 349), and refers the defection of Yakub (who has meanwhile moved into G.'s embassy compound) to a Sharia court, which predictably reacts by declaring jihad. Moreover, it is the holy month of Muharram, when the Shiites are extra fanatical. Between this and the already-mentioned public discontent due to economic depression, high taxes and the like, a large mob of Teheranians gathers and marches on G.'s embassy. His Cossacks are badly outnumbered and despite a valiant defense, the crowd eventually breaks in and kills Yakub and all the Russians, with the exception of one of G.'s secretaries, Maltsov, who bribed some Persian soldiers to hide him.

I was saddened and disappointed by how the novel ends. Maltsov is brought before the Shah and blames G. for the disturbances, not only to save his own skin but because he himself really hates G. at that point (pp. 376–7). The Persians pretend to be sorry and blame the rabble, even though the authorities deliberately dragged their feet before restoring order (pp. 366, 370). And the Russian government — oh, that was the most disappointing part of all. I hoped they would react like Genghis Khan, swoop down with an army and raze Teheran to the ground. That would certainly have been appropriate. But no, they agree that the Persian government is not to blame, they forbid Paskevich from undertaking any anti-Persian military measures, and all they ask from Persia is for a Persian crown prince to come to Russia and repeat personally that the Persian government had nothing to do with the events (pp. 383–4). A prince duly arrives, not as a penitent seeking forgiveness but as an honoured guest of state, and his visit is a great success (pp. 388–97; in fact he has such a good time that he gets syphilis in the process, p. 400). G.'s body, which had been hacked to pieces by the mob, is never recovered, so they just pack some random and sufficiently decomposed body parts into a coffin and send that to his widow in Georgia (p. 404). A new Vazir-Mukhtar is appointed, and G. is soon forgotten.

</spoiler warning>

The English translations

Incidentally, the story of the English translation(s) of this novel appears to be a curious one. It first appeared in English as Death and Diplomacy in Persia (London: Boriswood, 1938; tr. by Alec Brown); but that translation was abridged (it's just 357 pages long). It was reprinted in 1975 (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press).

The book on which the present blog post is based appears to be the first complete translation into English. As we learn from the publisher's note at the start of the book, Susan Causey worked on the translation in her retirement and had just about finished it when she was killed in a traffic accident. Her family members managed to find an editor to finalize the translation, and then also found a publisher (London: Look Multimedia; 406 pages); the book appeared in 2018 (only in paperback, as far as I can tell). The publisher's website appears to be gone now, but the Internet Archive has a few snapshots; they describe themselves as “a specialist publishing company founded in 1991”, and even in 2020 their website still said that “In 2018 Look will publish” Causey's translation.

And then just three years later, in 2021, another complete translation appeared, by Anna and Christopher Rush. This was published by Columbia University Press in hardcover, paperback, and epub editions. This version has 632 pages, but this higher number is largely due to less economical typesetting, because the additional materials in this edition (an introduction, a glossary of foreign words and phrases, an index of persons, and notes) certainly can't account for 200 pages.

So I can't help wondering if it wouldn't have been better to read the Rushes' translation instead of Causey's; but in 2020, when I got my copy of the book, the Rushes' translation hadn't been published yet. Still, what I can do now is to attempt a hasty comparison of the two editions, with the caveat that I haven't actually read the Rushes' translation.

The notes in the Rushes' edition are no more extensive than those in Causey's, except that they appear as endnotes instead of as footnotes. Mostly they are translations of foreign passages in the text, but occasionally they do provide additional information that is not to be found in Causey (for example, mehmandar appears without any explanation on p. 281 of Causey, but it is glossed in the Rush edition); no doubt the reverse is sometimes also true.

The Rushes' glossary of foreign words is not very extensive either, but could be useful because Causey only translates each foreign word in a footnote the first time it appears; if you encounter it again 150 pages later and don't remember what it means, it's up to you to hunt down the original appearance and look at the footnote there. This is where a glossary at the end of the book could be quite helpful.

The Rushes' index of persons looks very useful indeed and contains a good amount of biographical details (such as years of birth and death) not to be found in the novel itself, for as it turns out, nearly all of these persons are historical and not fictional. If something like this had been available in Causey's translation, it would have saved me the trouble of writing a much more modest version of such an index on the blank page at the end of my copy of the book :)

Whereas the Causey edition contains only a couple of brief notes about Tynianov and about Griboyedov, amounting to barely a page or so of text, the Rushes' edition contains a much more extensive introduction by Angela Brintlinger, which provides a lot of useful background information about such things as: the Decembrist revolt; the life and work of both the author of the novel, Tynianov, as well as its protagonist, Griboyedov; the reception of the novel, both in Tynianov's day and later (apparently later critics pointed out that the story as we see it in Tynianov's book is not as close to historical facts as one might think at first sight); the modernist style in which it is written; Brown's abridged English translation of 1938; and she ends with fulsome praise of the Rushes' new translation — but not even once does she mention Causey's version. This last detail counts as a huge minus in my eyes. She writes that “[n]ow the novel is finally available in a full English translation”, as if Causey's translation didn't even exist. In my opinion, if you publish a new translation of a novel just three years after the previous one, it behoves you to explain why you thought another translation was necessary — you should say what you think is wrong with the previous one and what yours will accomplish that the previous one didn't. But to not even acknowledge the existence of that previous translation — that makes it seem as if you considered it so to be far beneath yours that you didn't even think it worth comparing the two. It may be that Causey's version is worse in various ways, but it is by no means so much worse that it would be appropriate to ignore it altogether.

There is one other very prominent difference between the two translations: Causey's translation is badly proofread and very badly typeset. The typesetting of that book is a crime against humanity; a cell in the Hague, and a circle in Hell, await whoever has typeset it; it looks as if it had been typeset in 1995 by the boss's nephew who ‘is good with computers’, using his trusty pirated copy of Word for Windows. It is really an atrocity that after all the hard work put into the translation by the translator and the editor, it ends up being mauled this badly by the carelessness of a typesetter. Most of the time it uses hyphens where there should be em-dashes; doubly nested quotes always open with ‘ ”Foo instead of ‘ “Foo, an obvious sign that someone has been relying too much on a naive automated approach to replace straight quotes by curly ones (no doubt for the same reason, apostrophes at the beginning of words are invariably printed as ‘ instead of ’ as they should be); it is not uncommon for the opening line of a paragraph to be indented more than it should be; a number of spaces between words are missing; typos in punctuation abound, the combination “,.” (an unnecessary comma preceding a full-stop) being a particular favourite; foreign words and names, especially Persian ones, are often spelled inconsistently (e.g. “Melikianets” (p. 317), “Melikiants” (p. 319), “Melikiyants” (p. 355)), sometimes with what I suspect are leftovers of a Russian plural suffix where you probably wouldn't expect it in English.

The Rush edition, by contrast, appears to be typeset decently and profesionally. Persian names generally appear in forms that modern academics are fond of, with their abundance of hyphens, apostrophes, uvular q's and the like. For example: “Fath Ali Shah” (Causey, p. 250) vs. “Fat’h-Ali-shah” (Rush); “Abul Kasim Khan” (Causey, p. 256) vs. “Abu’l-Qasim-Khan” (Rush). I'm not sure if that is necessarily a good thing, however; I suspect that the way in which these names appear in Causey's version is closer to Tynianov's original — he was, after all, writing a novel and not an academic text, and I'm pretty sure he didn't bother with apostrophes and almost certainly didn't try to distinguish the uvular q from the plain old velar k. [That said, there is also one instance of the uvular q in Causey's edition, namely the spelling “Qazvin” (p. 309) for the town in northern Persia.]

Anyway, if I try to draw the line under all this, I suppose that on purely objective terms, the Rushes' edition has to be regarded as the better one; but that very fact makes Causey's version the underdog, and I always support the underdog. How could I not be moved by a book that reaches out to us from beyond the grave, published in the translator's memory by a grieving family, with the very amateurishness of its typesetting serving as a testament to their commitment to getting the book into the hands of the public; how could I not cheer on this little David, when in the other corner there is the Goliath of a University Press with its ready access to all manner of academic knowledge and professional skill, a team of two translators with doctorates and the like — no indeed, I have to support the underdog, and I don't regret having read the Causey translation.

A couple of miscellaneous quotes

Here is a quote for the ages: “The salons everywhere were buffed and gleaming to perfection. It was explained to him that this winter they had begun cleaning the walls and ceilings as it was done in Moscow, with bread — only the soft part. The bread was then distributed to the poor.” (P. 124.) Marie Antoinette had nothing on these people! Where is the asteroid when you need it :S

Griboyedov is... ploughing a friend's wife while thinking about his grandiose future plans: “With obstinate steel he was entering the rich earth, cutting through the Caucasus and Transcaucasia, pushing a wedge into Persia.” (P. 47.) :)))

Here's a small effort to compare several translations. One line that I really liked appears early in the book, when Griboyedov is visiting his mother in Moscow; when he tells her that he won't be dining at home, she alludes to his frequent affairs with actresses by asking: “Délices de coulisses again?” (P. 8. There is also a footnote translating the French phrase as “Backstage delights”.)

I was curious what this line looks like in other editions. The Rushes' translation says: “Actresses again, and all that backstage stuff?” I was surprised to see that the tone is so informal, and that the French phrase was lost. Next I looked at the French translation by Lily Denis (La mort du Vazir-Moukhtar, 1969): “Toujours les coulisses? Toujours les actrices?” (i.e. “Still backstage? Still actresses?”) And finally the original: “Opyat' kulisy i opyat' aktrisy?” (i.e. “Again backstage and again actresses?”).

I can't help being a little disappointed by this experiment; the proverb about translators being traitors has been confirmed again. Of the three translations, only the French one is close to the original. The Rush version removed the rhyme and introduced what seems to me to be an excessively informal tone. And Causey has just plain fabricated a nifty French phrase of the sort which a reader would naturally expect to have been there in the original — I was rather shocked by this, but perhaps she had to resort to it for the sake of keeping the rhyme (even if she had to replace actresses with delights), which would be hard to do in English since the word coulisses is hardly present in that language. Even so, fabricating a foreign phrase that wasn't there in the original strikes me as going a bit too far. Neither of the two English translations comes out looking terribly good here.

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Saturday, June 25, 2022

English no easy 2

Polpismeni novinarji Dela so spet v sedlu! V prejšnji Sobotni prilogi (18. junija 2022) je sicer zelo zanimiv intervju s paleoantropologom Timom Whiteom, v katerem (na str. 11) najdemo tole cvetko:

Ko so prišli v mojo pisarno, so mi pokazali čudovit fosil, velik kot homo erectus cranium, toda žal sem jih razočaral z odgovorom, da gre v resnici za umetniško delo, saj je nekdo uporabil fosilizirano kost slona, nato pa izrezal in sestavil homo erectusa craniuma.

Novinar očitno ne ve, da cranium pomeni črepinjo (zgornji del lobanje), pa si je besedo razlagal kot del imena neke podvrste tega človečnjaka :)))

Malo kasneje v istem intervjuju je še tole:

Najbliže odgovoru je Ardi, kar nam razkriva tudi to, da skupni prednik ni bil tako razvit kot sodobni šimpanzi ali babuni.

Človek očitno ne ve niti tega, da baboon pomeni pavijana. Morda bi se kakovost jezika kaj izboljšala, če bi Delo najelo kakšnega pavijana, vsaj teh napak verjetno ne bi delali :)))

Članek na delo.si je žal zaklenjen, zato je tu še slika:

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Sunday, June 05, 2022

BOOK: Kassandra Vivaria, "Via Lucis"

Kassandra Vivaria: Via Lucis. New York: George H. Richmond & Son, 1898. 480 pp. [Available on hathitrust.org (and also on archive.org, but the scans there are bad, with many fuzzy or partly blank pages.)]

This is probably one of the more obscure books I've read in a good long while. I first heard of the author, rather than of the book, and that purely by chance: I was looking at some other book, I forget which, on archive.org some time ago, and it included an advertisement page listing a few other recent books from the same publisher, and this list included a work of d'Annunzio translated by Kassandra Vivaria — probably The Flame of Life, first published in 1900. Anyway, the translator's name caught my attention, as it sounds so very exotic and puts one in the mind of an exotic dancer or circus artiste rather than of a writer or translator; I had obviously never heard of her before, and naturally I wanted to find out more about her.

It turns out that, with a bit of googling, and thanks to the fact that scans of so many books and newspapers are now available online, you can in fact find out quite a bit about her and her book. Her real name was Magda Sindici; her father was an Italian army officer, poet and writer; her mother was a painter of Spanish aristocratic background* [1, 2, 3, 4]. Via Lucis is her first novel, written when she was only twenty years old; she also wrote some poetry and journalism, but was unable to make a living from it, and she was obliged to write under a pseudonym as a condition for the continued (modest) financial support from her family. In November and December 1898 she wrote a series of autobiographical articles for the Daily Chronicle, but I haven't been able to find them online [1, 2, 3].

[*I found one article that describes her mother as an Englishwoman, but this strikes me as dubious, since nobody else mentions it. Several reviews in the British press say instead that Vivaria had some Scottish blood, which makes more sense: her mother was a cousin of the Duke of Berwick and Alba, and that is a family which originated with an illegitimate son of king James II; but they had been living in Spain since the early 18th century.]

The manuscript of Via Lucis came with the warm recommendations of Gabriele D'Annunzio, and was published in New York by D'Annunzio's American publisher. Rumour had it that Vivaria was going to enter a convent, surely an odd idea considering the decidedly unflattering pictures of convent life that she paints in her novel. In actual fact, she married her British publisher, William Heinemann, a name familiar to me because I have several of his books, mostly Swinburne's poetry (which, incidentally, also features prominently in Via Lucis — two of the protagonists read Swinburne on pp. 274–6, 282–3, and quotations from his poems appear on pp. 39, 408, 451). It was, at any rate, widely believed that the rumours of her plans to enter a convent had been spread by Heinemann himself to drum up publicity for the book [1, 2].

The novel was widely, and for the most part encouragingly, reviewed in the English-language press (New York Times, 30 Jul 1898; The Globe, 4 Aug 1898; Pall Mall Gazette, 24 Aug 1898; The Athenæum, 10 Sep 1898; The Times, 20 Sep 1898; The Sydney Daily Telegraph, 24 Sep 1898; Westminster Gazette, 8 Oct 1898; London Evening Standard, 13 Oct 1898; St. James's Gazette, 8 Dec 1898); most reviewers agreed that, while the novel had some faults, those were outweighed by its good qualities.*

[*Typical complaints were: some parts of the novel drag on a bit; the author's English is at times slightly unidiomatic; occasionally her psychologizing about Arduina's mental processes is a bit unclear; and some objected to the overall impression of pessimism, since Arduina's struggles end in resignation rather than happiness. On the other hand, the reviewers praised the novel's descriptions of an Italian bourgeois milieu, of convent life, Arduina's interesting and complex personality as well as a wide range of minor characters.]

The Bookman published a glowing profile of the novel and its author shortly before it came out (including a portrait of her, which also appears as the frontispiece of Via Lucis), though the actual review after publication was more reserved. But the New York Times called it “a novel of very moderate merit [. . .] it is of course possible that the author is an Italian nun. If so, the translator of her book is a person quite incapable of writing decent English. [. . .] I trust she is a better nun than she is a novelist.” Just ten years after its publication, a critic dismissed Via Lucis in passing: “Such stories as [. . .] Kassandra Vivaria's ‘Via Lucis,’ are forgotten long ago.”

Alas, it seems that her literary career did not continue as auspiciously as it had begun. Vivaria and Heinemann divorced after a few years; she was plagued by debts and had to declare bankruptcy; she went on to translate one or two other books, but doesn't seem to have written any more novels of her own.

*

But enough about the author; let's say something about the story. The protagonist, Arduina d'Erella, is the daughter of an impecunious Italian aristocrat and his British wife.* Her parents separate early and Arduina lives very happily with her mother until the latter dies of consumption; then the poor child is left in the hands of her neglectful, pointlessly domineering and often brutishly violent father and a useless alcoholic governess.

[*Surprisingly many newspaper reviews describe Arduina's mother as American; actually she was the daughter of a British father and American mother, and her parents lived in England until moving to Italy; pp. 12–13.]

Eventually a friend persuades her father to send the governess away and enroll Arduina (now sixteen) in a convent school. She is a bit happier there, and develops a sort of enthusiasm for the religious life (considering what sort of family she grew up in, it's hardly surprising that she doesn't want to marry and start a family of her own). But she thinks that none of the existing religious orders would suit her, including the one that's running her school; they are too narrow-minded. Instead, she wants to start an order of her own, and even draws up fairly detailed plans of its rules, organization, costume etc. In fact it wouldn't be a religious order in the strict sense at all; open to women of all creeds, it would expect its members to see Christ as an example worth following but not necessarily as the son of god (p. 230). Its aim would be to train its members (“to form individually perfect types” and let each arrive “at the highest of which her nature is capable”, p. 229) and send them into the world to cultivate various kinds of intellectual, artistic and philantropic work (pp. 224–5).

(As she explains later, it isn't necessarily religion as such that is so important to her; it's that she wants to have some sort of impact on the world beyond just being a housewife and a mother. In countries where women's rights had made more progress, having that kind of career might be possible without becoming a nun, but in Italy it wasn't; pp. 412–13.)

Unsurprisingly, nobody takes her wild scheme very seriously, but the priest whom she consults as her spiritual director, one Monsignor Ferri, realizes that if he doesn't discourage her too openly, he might be able to steer her towards becoming an ordinary nun in one of the existing orders.

Meanwhile, Arduina finishes school and spends a summer at the seaside with friends of the family, the Sant' Onofrios. One of them, Prospero, is a 36-year-old naval officer; little by little, she and Arduina fall in love. This puts her in a very difficult bind, having to choose between her religious commitments and her newfound love; whichever she chooses, she'll be miserable. By the end of the summer Prospero proposes to her; but, under the influence of Monsignor Ferri and his jesuitical arguments, she rejects the proposal and resolves to enter a convent after all. Convinced that Arduina is now lost to him for good, Prospero agrees to marry her friend Gabriella, who has long wanted to marry him even though he doesn't particularly love her.

As a novice, Arduina is sent to France and Belgium for some time; at first she throws herself into her new life with zeal, but after two or three years she is worn out in body and mind, and regrets joining. She begins to show symptoms of consumption, the same disease that had carried her mother off at an early age. The Mother Superior of her convent, to avoid accusations of neglecting a novice's health, sends her to spend the summer at the seaside with the Sant' Onofrios again.

Arduina and Prospero still love each other, and despite initial efforts to the contrary, they eventually end up in each other's arms. Her health improves markedly. Gabriella, quite unaware of all this, urges Arduina not to return to her convent; but she returns anyway, and only changes her mind at the very door of the convent.

She disappears without a trace, and it is believed that she has committed suicide; but in fact, not wanting to interfere with Gabriella's marriage, Arduina goes to live quietly with Lizzie Blake, her old nurse and previously the childhood companion of her mother. Three years pass, and Arduina's health recovers almost completely. Eventually Lizzie, worried about how Arduina would fare in case Lizzie dies, makes her whereabouts known to the Sant' Onofrios. It turns out that Gabriella has died meanwhile, Prospero still loves Arduina, and she agrees to marry him.

Unfortunately, their married bliss is short-lived. Soon Prospero grows tired of her, and arranges for the Navy to post him to Constantinople, leaving Arduina behind in Italy. She goes nearly mad with grief, but gradually she comes to feel a kind of resignation, accepting life and the world such as they are. After a while, Prospero realizes that the bachelor lifestyle is no longer for him; he loves Arduina again and asks her to join him in Constantinople. She agrees to go, because he needs her, although she doesn't really love him any more and it will be dissimulation on her part.

*

This novel was quite an enjoyable read. There is an interesting and varied cast of characters; a good number of things happen and I never found the story to be particularly predictable, in fact I was often curious what would happen next. I couldn't help sympathizing with poor Arduina's predicaments, and hoping that she would eventually find a way to be happy; if the book had ended just after she and Prospero get married, that would have suited me just fine. But I guess it is a proof of the author's serious intentions as a writer, and therefore praiseworthy, that she continued the story and brought Arduina into a state of resignation rather than happiness.

Another thing I liked about the novel are the environments in which it was set; these were unfamiliar to me and therefore interesting. For example, what was it like in an Italian seaside town during the summer season in the late 19th century? This novel gives us a few glimpses into that. One interesting detail is that, in the absence of air conditioning, we see people spending much of the hottest part of the day napping indoors, with curtains drawn against the heat etc. Another unfamiliar environment, of course, was the convent, which comes across as a very deplorable institution; how nice it would be if someone invented something like it, but without the narrow-minded religious fanaticism, the meanness and backbiting, the pointless discomforts and self-flaggelation and obsession with obedience and all that other nonsense! And how unfortunate it is that in Arduina's time, the convent was the only alternative that a woman like her had to a life of boring domesticity. Would she be happier if she lived now, when she could have a career and try to make a difference in the world that way? I wonder — considering how intense her idealism was and how high her ambitions would probably be, she would be bound to end up disappointed anyway.

Incidentally, I'm immensely impressed by the fact that Vivaria wrote this novel when she was only twenty, and in a foreign language to boot (apparently she had “an English education”, despite living in Italy). Some of the reviewers in the English press did mention that her language is at times slightly unidiomatic, but almost none of them thought that this was actually detrimental to the style; and as for me, I can't say that I even noticed anything like that. As English is an even more foreign language to me than it was to the author of this novel, I'm used to encountering more or less unfamiliar things in it, and naturally put them down to the gaps in my own knowledge rather than that of the author.

ToRead:

  • Vivaria doesn't seem to have written any other fiction that I could read, but her being something of a protégée of d'Annunzio reminded me that I should some day get around to reading some of his work. I usually hear about him as the evil Italian nationalist who occupied Rijeka in 1919 and established his own proto-fascist state there (possibly with blackjack and hookers). And to be sure, he was all that, but it's still interesting to know that, decades before that, he was also seen as a perfectly normal and actually fairly well-regarded writer. Quite a few of his works seem to be available in English, so that I have no idea where to start.

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Saturday, May 28, 2022

BOOK: Arthur Machen, "The Hill of Dreams"

Arthur Machen: The Hill of Dreams. London: E. Grant Richards, 1907. iv + 310 pp.

After reading Machen's House of Souls a couple weeks ago, and liking it a good deal, I decided to continue with Machen's next book, The Hill of Dreams, a novel first published in 1907. No doubt this book is much better literature than The House of Souls was, and would be appreciated by readers more sophisticated than myself, but for me it has been something of a disappointment. I understood it much less and liked it much worse than the stories in The House of Souls; almost at no point was I really drawn into the act of reading, but had to deliberately push myself to continue, at the relatively slow pace of one chapter a day.

This difference between the two books is no coincidence; as Machen explains in an interesting preface that he wrote to the 1922 edition of The Hill of Dreams, he deliberately set out to write something different from his earlier stories (the ones later collected in The House of Souls) as a result of criticism that this earlier work had received. As he describes it there, writing The Hill of Dreams was quite a struggle for him, and you can't help wondering if Lucian's struggles as a writer here in The Hill of Dreams weren't partly inspired by Machen's own struggles as a writer in real life. (He even describes how a publisher to whom he sent his manuscript later tried to steal a part of the plot and use it in another book (p. xv of the 1922 ed.), which is a milder case of what happens to Lucian in chapter 2 of The Hill of Dreams! Either this is an incredible instance of life imitating art, or Machen is making this up, or he added this to chapter 2 in a later version of the manuscript after sending an earlier version to the publisher who tried to steal from it.)

<spoiler warning>

Lucian Taylor, the protagonist, is the son of a poor clergyman in rural Wales. He has an academic bent but is no good at sports, so the other boys bully him and he keeps mostly to himself, immersing himself in old books, the more obscure the better, and going on rambles through the countryside. One summer day he falls asleep in a secluded spot near the ruins of a Roman fort on top of a hill, and has an odd dream or vision, and feels some sort of presence (pp. 19–22). Eventually his father can no longer afford to keep him in school; Lucian tries his hand at writing, but struggles greatly to put his feelings into words.

He sends his manuscript to a publisher, who rejects it; some time later Lucian is shocked to find, in another book by the same publisher, that about half of its text was stolen from his rejected manuscript! Meanwhile he has another odd experience: while walking home from the nearby town late in the evening, he takes a shortcut and gets lost in the woods. He stumbles on for a while, creeped out by nocturnal sounds and a distant white apparition, but upon catching up with the latter finds it to be simply Annie, a girl from a neighbouring farm. They walk together for a while, and he professes his love for her. After returning home, Lucian decides it would be futile to try exposing the thieving publishers, and instead focuses on planning his next book.

Annie goes away for some time and meanwhile Lucian's love for her turns into a bizarre, quasi-religious obsession. He learns the arts of calligraphy and illumination, and pours out his feelings for her into a medieval-style handwritten book; he develops rituals to worship her; he takes to waking up in the middle of the night and lying on thorny branches until his body is covered in scars. Meanwhile he has increasingly good reason to be disgusted with much of the society around him. Women of the rural upper class treat him with disdain because of his father's growing poverty; he sees a group of boys kill a puppy for sport (pp. 121–3; one of the saddest, most horrid instances of cruelty to animals in literature I've read since that scene of a man beating his horse to death in Crime and Punishment).

But Lucian increasingly learns to pay no attention to people around him; he takes an interest in local archeological finds and begins to imagine, more and more vividly, the ancient Roman town that had once stood there. He feels as if he had discovered a kind of alchemy whereby a man could “become lord of his own sensations” (p. 150). Literature, he discovers, “is the sensuous art of causing exquisite impressions by means of words”, and as if Machen wanted to demonstrate what Lucian meant by this, he gives us a chapter filled with beautiful, decadent prose, in which Lucius takes in the sights and smells of “the garden of Avallaunius”,* and talks to its inhabitants. Meanwhile in real life, he has lost all appetite and is reduced to little more than skin and bones.

[*We are not told exactly who this is; but in one of Machen's earlier tales, The Three Impostors, we see Dr. Lipsius' cultists drinking “wine of the Red Jar that Avallaunius had made”.]

Some time later, Lucian learns that Annie has married someone else; but he doesn't really mind, and he still has the imaginary world that his love for her had helped him access. He inherits a modest sum of money from a distant relative (p. 178), which enables him to move to lodgings in a London suburb and devote himself to writing. He struggles for months, trying to find the perfect way to put his words together, rewriting endlessly and finishing nothing; but he is glad, at any rate, that he is neither a workaday commercial novelist (p. 190) nor, worse yet, a clerk in the City like some of his relatives (p. 198).

Eventually he has a terrible period of writer's block, which drives him to despair and almost (or more than almost?) to madness. He has detached himself from ordinary people (or “barbarians”, as he likes to call them) and their way of life in order to dedicate himself to literature, but now he seems to be finding out that he isn't able to write at all, and might end up being left with nothing, neither human society nor literary work (p. 230). His despairing imagination magnifies harmless everyday incidents to the point where he wonders if he is turning into some sort of monster (pp. 215–17, 232). He resolves to try writing again, convinced that this is the only thing that can save him from perdition.

However, he spends much of the next night in a half-awake state, having dreams and visions of his past life, much of it things we've already seen in this book, but also a few new ones. He remembers his childhood wanderings in the countryside, to the Roman fort and elsewhere, and also more recent rambles in the outskirts of London; he remembers the news of his father's death, which severed his last link with home (p. 285); he remembers a story he managed to publish, which was not even entirely unsuccessful (p. 300). Meanwhile it is a dark and stormy night outside, he can't quite bring himself to wake up fully, and feels more and more a strange sense of dread; his visions become increasingly lurid and bizarre, and culminate with his joining a witches' sabbath led by none other than poor Annie (pp. 303, 306).

The story ends with a twist: Lucian's landlady barges in and finds him more or less dead; it turns out he had been taking drugs for some time now, and this last night was when he finally overdosed. She is set to inherit his meager property; as for the copious manuscripts he has left behind, they appear to be largely illegible and worthless.

</spoiler warning>

I'm reminded of the old story of the curate's egg (“parts of it are excellent!”), but of course it isn't a fair comparison, because there the idea is that the egg as a whole is spoiled and hence worthless even if parts of it are good; and it wouldn't be fair to say that about The Hill of Dreams. It's just that I liked some things about it a great deal even while not enjoying it as a whole.

For instance, in the 1922 preface, Machen describes his intention to change his style (p. x) into something much plainer than that of his earlier stories; I was worried when I read that, but was then relieved to find that his style was not much different here in The Hill of Dreams; it is still beautiful and sonorous and well-rounded, and much of the time it was a pleasure to read it slowly and pay more attention to the sound than to the meaning of the words. Indeed Machen himself puts this fine characterization into Lucian's mouth: “Literature is the sensuous art of causing exquisite impressions by means of words.” (P. 157.) Earlier he writes about language being “chiefly important for the beauty of its sounds, [. . .] its capacity, when exquisitely arranged, of suggesting wonderful and indefinable impressions [. . .] Here lay hidden the secret of the sensuous art of literature, it was the secret of suggestion, the art of causing delicious sensation by the use of words.” (P. 156.) This is presented as Lucian's opinion, but Machen seems to be adhering to it in his own writing in this book as well.

Another recurring thing is Machen's disdain for commercial writers, the sort whose three-volume novels provide “harmless amusement” to the patrons of Mudie's libraries (p. 50). (Incidentally, I was surprised by his reference to three-volume novels, because The Hill of Dreams was published in 1907 and by then the three-volume novel was a thing of the past; but it turns out that he wrote it ten years earlier (1922 preface, p. xv), i.e. just before they went out of fashion.)

Lucian also disdains (and, I presume, so does Machen himself) that intermediate type of writers whose work is “not the utterly commonplace” but “where the real thing is skilfully counterfeited, [. . .] the books which give the reader his orgy of emotions, and yet contrive to be superior, and ‘art,’ in his opinion.” (Pp. 245–6.) By way of example, he mentions two historical novels: George Eliot's Romola (“the clever sham”, p. 246) and Charles Reade's The Cloister and the Hearth (“the real book”, ibid.). From what I've seen of these two books in the wikipedia, they both sound interesting and intriguing and I hope to read them some day. And sadly, from what I know of my own lack of taste and sophistication, I very much suspect that I will enjoy the “clever sham” much better than the “real book”. Probably I've read (and liked) a few clever shams already; I wonder which of the books I've read would merit that label in Machen's eyes? Is The Name of the Rose, for instance, a clever sham or a real book? I enjoyed it a lot when I read it many years ago, but I never could quite shake off a nagging feeling that there is something slightly cheap about how Eco parades out his erudition to impress the reader.

I remember that, when we learnt about fin-de-siecle literature in school, one of its features was supposed to be the attitude that the artist is somehow separate from, and indeed elevated above, the general public. I'm always interested to find such things ‘in the wild’, so to speak, and this idea appears prominently here in The Hill of Dreams. Lucian refers to people around him who have no appreciation for art as “barbarians”, and wonders half-jokingly “whether there were some drop of the fairy blood in his body that made him foreign and a stranger in the world” (p. 210), or if the fairies had substituted him for a changeling that time when he fell asleep in that mysterious thicket at the old Roman fort (p. 231). He does his best to disregard the “barbarians” and their opinions, and withdraw from them both physically (by shutting himself in his garret) and mentally (by exercising his imagination very vividly, as we see e.g. in ch. 4). He believes that “man could, if he pleased, become lord of his own sensations” (p. 150), and he compares the artist to an alchemist: “he held in his hand the powder of projection, the philosopher's stone transmuting all it touched to fine gold; the gold of exquisite impressions” (ibid.). He sticks to this comparison even in his despair towards the end of the book: “It was an interminable labour, and he had always known it to be as hopeless as alchemy.” (P. 289.)

I think it is to Machen's credit that this idea of the artist as being above the general public is not presented uncritically, nor really as something praiseworthy or admirable as you might perhaps expect to see in the work of a fin-de-siecle artist. After all, Lucian and his fate are hardly something we should wish to emulate; he tries to detach himself from ordinary people to devote himself to his art, but his only reward is to become wretched and die prematurely. Even he himself realizes this: “he had lost the art of humanity for ever” (p. 210).

*

But for me, these interesting aspects of the book were outweighed by things I didn't enjoy. Too much of this book is spent on vague descriptions of Lucian's wanderings and visions, whether in the woods of Wales or the suburbs of London, and too often it was hard to be sure whether something really happened or was it all inside Lucian's mind. Indeed if I had to summarize my complaints about this book into a single sentence, it would be that too much of it is taking place inside Lucian's mind. I suppose that for some people that makes it the very apex of literature, but for me it's just the opposite; I just can't bring myself to care that much what is going on inside other people's heads. I can sympathize with Lucian in the abstract, especially with his distaste for the practical-minded and material pursuits of the bulk of humankind; I can admire his zealous dedication to his art; and having absolutely no artistic talent of any sort myself, I can definitely feel sorry for Lucian's inability to actually produce any finished work. But all of that still doesn't make me want to read two or three hundred pages about his rambles and dreams and his slowly losing his mind.

Already in The House of Souls I was slightly annoyed by Machen's tendency to include vague references to fairies and satyrs and the like, and I was glad when he resolved to have “no more hanky-panky with [. . .] the Little People or any people of that dubious sort” (1922 preface, pp. vi–vii), but then while reading The Hill of Dreams I couldn't help feeling that he didn't manage to give up the habit quite as thoroughly as he had promised. He just introduced a little more plausible deniability, but he isn't fooling anybody.

For instance, one of the key experiences from Lucian's childhood seems to be that hot summer day when he fell asleep in a thicket atop a hill with the ruins of the Roman fort (pp. 19–22) — plausible enough, you might say; but then he dreams about being “upon the fairy hill” (p. 20), and his body is compared to that of “a strayed faun” (p. 21); and “the wood was alive” (p. 21), and he senses an odd presence, perhaps a “visitant” (p. 22), when he wakes up. Later we hear that “it seemed as if a woman's face watched him [. . .] and that she summoned to her side awful companions who had never grown old through the ages” (p. 262). Eventually Lucian even wonders if he has been replaced by a changeling (p. 231). Come on, Mr. Machen, you're going to sprain your eyebrows from waggling them so hard! You promised no more fairies, and then this!

And speaking of fauns, references to them positively abound in this book. A wine labelled Faunus appears in Lucian's imaginary sojourn in the ancient Roman town (“Look for the jar marked Faunus; you will be glad”, pp. 153, 155; to see that this is just Machen relapsing into old habits, remember that we already saw “Wine of the Fauns” in The Three Impostors); later he imagines the stories of women who “met the faun when they were little children” (p. 160). Later, while in London, he buries himself into his work partly to avoid the temptation to “listen [. . .] to the singing of the fauns” (p. 183; and see also further references to this on pp. 210, 233). In his last months in London, his look is compared to that of “a faun who has strayed from the vineyards and olive gardens” (p. 240; echoing the “strayed faun” from p. 21).

Is this Symbolism? The time period is about right. Is the faun a symbol? But if so, of what? Sure, it's easy to handwave something about the faun being something primal and authentic, quite possibly wild and dangerous as well, and almost certainly a poor fit for our modern civilization — but surely it cannot be that the purpose of Symbolism is to turn literature into a cheap puzzle-game like this. No, there must be something more to it; but unfortunately someone like me hasn't got the slightest chance to figure out what.

Fauns are not the only old habit of Machen's that returns in The Hill of Dreams. There are also plenty of allusions to the Sabbath, which occur the more often in Lucian's visions the more disordered his mind grows (pp. 219–20, 237–9, 262). At one point he passes what to a sane observer might have been nothing more than an unusually rowdy pub, with a street-walker standing in front of it, but to Lucian the whole affair is an orgy of “Bacchic fury unveiled and unashamed [. . .] Every instinct of religion, of civilisation even, was swept away” (pp. 237–8), and the woman outside is a witch who has “summoned him to the Sabbath” (p. 239), and he would be lost if he had not refused. By the end of the book even Annie, the farm-girl he had been in love with, turns into “the Queen of the Sabbath” (p. 303), and they “celebrate the wedding of the Sabbath” (pp. 305, 306) in a wild access of purple prose that would make even Lovecraft blush.

Actually, it's not that I really mind any of this — I don't — I'm just pointing out that Machen's habit of vague allusions to fairies, fauns and witches continues largely unabated in the present work, and that his protestations of reform in that 1922 preface ring somewhat hollow.

[Incidentally, another interesting recurring element: he keeps mentioning naphtha flares or lamps where he wants to emphasize the luridness and intensity of some orgiastic situation; “the black night air glowed with the flaring gas-jets and the naphtha-lamps, hissing and wavering before the February wind” (p. 233); “[a] flare of naphtha, burning with a rushing noise” (p. 234); “the array of naphtha lamps” (p. 237); “[s]he was in the full light of a naphtha flame” (p. 238); “[t]he lurid picture of that fiery street, the flaming shops and flaming glances, all its wonders and horrors, lit by the naphtha flares an by the burning souls” (p. 247); “the naphtha flares tinged with red” (p. 248); “the sight of an orgy, of dusky figures whirling in a ring, of lurid naphtha flares blazing in the darkness” (p. 292); “the naphtha flares” (p. 302); “hissing jets of light and naphtha fires” (p. 305).]

So in the end, this novel suffers from many of the same downsides that already bothered me in Machen's earlier short stories. We get lots of hinting at fairies, fauns, witches' sabbaths and the like, but is it all real or is it just the disordered fancies of Lucian's increasingly drug-addled mind? (And if it's the latter, why should we care?) Machen plays coy and refuses to quite commit himself, even more so than in his earlier works. But to these downsides The Hill of Dreams adds a new one, namely that it was a slog to read and that too much of it is happening only inside Lucian's head. I'm sure there are plenty of people who would enjoy this book a lot (and indeed the wikipedia describes it as “Machen's masterpiece”), but I for one am just glad that I got through it.

ToRead:

  • George Eliot: Romola (1863), and Charles Reade: The Cloister and the Hearth (1861). Two historical novels, mentioned here on p. 246.
  • Nina Antonia: The Greenwood Faun (2017). A novel apparently inspired by Machen's Hill of Dreams, which indeed is why I started reading Machen in the first place.
  • Judging by the list of his works in the wikipedia, Machen wrote a few more stories after this book, as well as a three-volume autobiography; some of these things sound as if they might make for interesting reading.

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