Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Catalan Victory

The original cover for Solitude (source: Wikipedia)

In taking a chance with a relatively unknown work of literature, one sometimes turns up buried treasure. Victor Català’s 1905 novel Solitude, for me, is one such work; more than a few of its indelible scenes have settled in for good.

I’m probably not alone in my ignorance of Català, whose fame has remained largely within Catalonia, where the author is regarded as among the finest of 20th century Catalàn writers, primarily due to Solitude and its pioneering depiction of female sexuality and desire. Català’s absurdly patriotic name, meaning “Catalan Victory,” is rather obviously a pseudonym. It belonged to Caterina Albert i Paradís (1869-1966), a writer of poems, plays, numerous short story collections and two novels, whose early work garnered swift attention and high praise. Following Solitude, however, Albert published only sporadically for the remaining 61 years of her life. Assuming the rest of her work is anything like this exceptional novel, those periods of silence may represent a substantial loss.

Beginning like a female version of Dino Buzzati’s Desert of the Tartars, Solitude follows the young Mila on the long road to a lonely mountain hermitage, where her new husband Matias has accepted, for reasons incomprehensible to his wife, the position of caretaker. The journey creates a rich chiaroscuro of hope and foreboding, echoed by correspondingly dramatic descriptions of the rugged landscape. Signs of disaffection in the marriage appear on the way. In one of Albert’s characteristically robust and specific images, Mila glances at her husband, whose back,

broad and soft as a pillow, strained against the black jacket that stretched from armpit to armpit, as if in constant danger of ripping asunder.

‘How fat he’s gotten since we married,’ thought Mila, remembering how tight all his clothes had become, so that he seemed crammed into them like a straw doll in its rags.

Once installed at the hermitage, a “house full of bolts” described with as much melancholic intensity of feeling as Buzzati’s mountain fortress, Mila begins tackling years of neglect. Over weeks she spends scrubbing walls and floors, clearing cobwebs, and dusting the figure of St. Pontius and the chapel’s morass of relics, Mila’s recognition of Matias’ laziness and indifference to her own needs crystallizes. Her almost complete isolation is otherwise peopled only by a kind shepherd, Gaietà; his eight-year-old assistant Baldiret; members of Baldiret’s family from the nearest farm, including Arnau, who develops a strong attraction to Mila despite his betrothal to another; and Anima, a louche, nearly feral peasant, “more beast than man,” who survives by hunting rabbits with a ferret he calls his “wife” and whose unexpected, irruptive visits to the hermitage provoke unease. Given this stage-small cast of starkly defined, even symbolically named characters, the reader can discern early on, helped by ample foreshadowing, the direction interactions between them are likely to take. Any predictability, though, is more than outweighed by Albert’s inventiveness, bold, precise descriptions and distinctive style, and by the grand landscapes against which this drama plays out.

Approaching the end of Solitude, I began to wonder the same thing that Mila herself articulates: “What else could possibly happen?” For despite flashes of happiness and pleasure, Mila’s life reads like a catalog of drudgery and misfortune. As her husband spends more time with the miscreant Anima and in gambling away the couple’s meager savings, Mila’s isolation increases, leaving only Gaietà and Baldiret, while not tending their flock, as companions and protection against Anima’s disconcerting appearances.

Albert conveys the coarse texture of Mila’s existence through vivid naturalistic detail that can take on a decadence Zola might have envied, as in a scene graphically documenting the skinning of a rabbit, one of several potent set pieces that add to the novel’s force. Another depicts a religious festival at the hermitage that combines the rural revelry one might find in a painting by Brueghel the Elder with the caustic grotesquerie of one by George Grosz, as the mob-like celebrants leave behind

…an espadrille, a new jug, a dirty napkin tossed behind some blackberry bushes, a pocket knife amid all the refuse: greasy paper, orange peels, squashed roses, well-gnawed spare ribs, bits of chicken covered with black ants, dead campfires…all the festival’s repulsive debris.

Especially unforgettable - surely one of the great food scenes in literature - is an account of a meal of large snails the shepherd has gathered to serve with some garlicky aïoli. After roasting them in a fire - “souls in torment…still begging for more, hissing and sputtering like sinners in Purgatory” – the hungry group pulls them from the embers, “soldered together with dark, sticky paste” and oozing “a yellowish-green liquid,” with Anima nauseatingly “crack[ing] the shells between his teeth like green almonds, and, after spitting out the pieces, swallow[ing] the snails.” But Albert’s descriptive power comes in a wide range of registers, even edging into the surreal, as when Mila has a dream of St. Pontius pelting her with scarlet hackberries that enter through a gash in her forehead, or the ethereal, as in a later description also involving snail shells, here filled with oil and “nailed to doors, balconies, and windows,” forming

diminutive lamps [that] glowed in the mountains’ high solitude, where the scent of violence still seemed to linger, and outlined the hermitage with tiny points of light, making it look like a fairy palace in one of Gaietà’s stories.

In these stories, slipped contrapuntally in among passages chronicling the hard life at the hermitage, Gaietà recounts enchanting, occasionally gruesome folkloric legends sprouted “from every field, rock and branch,” and that draw on Catalonia’s Aragonese and Moorish past as well as the gloomy history of the hermitage itself. Under their spell, Mila emerges from her solitude and finds herself drawing closer to the shepherd, both alarmed and pleased by the feelings he arouses in her. The young Baldiret too gloms hungrily onto any suggestion of story, a precious resource in a life of such scarcity and deprivation.

This weight of ancient myths on the present, making almost palpable the fantastical world of fairies, spirits and phantoms, is reminiscent of the novels of Albert’s Sardinian contemporary Grazia Deledda, as is the nearly ethnographic attention Albert lavishes on particulars of rural customs and superstitions. One comes to know the landscapes, flora and fauna, peoples and manners of the region. In contrast to Deledda’s gauzy evocations, however, Albert’s descriptions are hard-edged, physical, raw. Her focus on the poverty and harsh, sometimes violent quality of life in the mountains also calls to mind the alpine novels of Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, with whom she shares a similar painterly, almost cubistic style of description.

Though literary portraits of women trapped by marriage and other social institutions and tormented by desire are hardly unusual, Albert’s protagonist perseveres in ways that contrast strongly with female characters of an earlier generation. Unlike Flaubert’s Emma Bovary or Ana Quintanar in Leopoldo Alas’ novel La Regenta (with whose life, though of a completely different class and social milieu, Mila shares many similarities), Mila, in an effort to extract herself from her oppression, wages a defiant protest against her condition.

Solitude, with its carefully constructed, intrepid aesthetic pleasures; agility and modernity; and powerful portrait of female conviction and courage, is a novel I’m pleased to have discovered and eager to pass along. I’ll be equally eager to read Caterina Albert i Paradís’ second, more experimental novel - the intriguingly titled Un Film (3,000 Metres) (A 3,000 Meter Film) - should it become available in English translation.

Solitude is translated by David H. Rosenthal and published by Readers International. I learned of the book when translator Peter Bush mentioned it during a recent talk. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"ABBA ABBA" - Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli and His Translators

Tomb of Anthony Burgess (source: Wikipedia)

While only about a tenth of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli’s 2,279 Romanesco sonnets seem to be in print in English, ample compensation for this paucity can be found in the richness of the approaches and supplemental material of what is available in English. Several translations have been made into dialect: by Peter Dale into Strine, an Australian dialect; Harold Norse into Brooklynese; William Neill and Richard Garioch into Scots. Others - Mike Stocks, Eleanor Clark, and former U.S. poet laureate Miller Williams – may hew more closely to standard English, but the diversity of directions they take in translating Belli’s eruptive language makes them all worth reading. Williams’ book, Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli, includes the Romanesco originals on facing pages as does Stocks’ Sonnets: Guiseppe Gioacchino Belli which also provides an invaluable biographical sketch of Belli, a useful bibliography, a few illustrations, and even, generously, a selection of Garioch’s translations into Scots. Norse’s small book, The Roman Sonnets of Guiseppe Gioachino Belli, has a cover design by collage/mail artist Ray Johnson and supplies readers with both an appreciative preface by William Carlos Williams and a rich, illuminating essay by Alberto Moravia, who situates Belli’s work in its Italian historical and literary context, noting that, “If one thinks of Belli as the contemporary, or practically so, of the first Romantic generation and of the first naturalists, one can gauge what an extraordinary phenomenon his poetry was.” A noticeable quality in some of this material is a palpably heavier weight given by a few of these translators and essayists to Belli’s religious irreverence and street cred, with one referring to the “diabolic” nature of his language and another praising him as a poet of “blasphemy.” One translator who seems to make a more rounded assessment of Belli’s range, talent and significance is Eleanor Clark, in a remarkably rich chapter in her equally rich book, Rome and a Villa (incidentally, why this book doesn’t routinely show up on lists of great travel writing in English is beyond me; a chapter on Rome’s fountains alone gives a flavor of the Roman street possibly unmatched by any writer since Belli himself). Clark puts forth a compelling argument, one she acknowledges possesses a whiff of hyperbole but that she affirms nonetheless, for Belli as one of the great writers not just of Italy and of his time, but of all places and all times. Clark includes in her essay a number of her own translations along with their Romanesco originals and - a tremendous service none of the other translators seems to have considered - a guide to the pronunciation and idiosyncrasies of Romanesco (though another guide to Romanesco – as well as a good number of Belli’s sonnets - appears on Andrea Pollett’s Virtual Roma site). While at first glance the dialect may strike one as almost indecipherable, Clark demonstrates the relative ease with which those with a basic knowledge of Italian can approach it - the chief difficulty in translation being not the dialect itself but approximation of Belli’s fiery energy and radically shifting tone. Clark’s guide allows even those not fluent in Italian the possibility of hearing the essential musicality of Belli’s sonnets. Those perhaps too timid to try their Italian aloud can alternately turn to YouTube to hear a variety of readers, including actor Vittorio Gassman, read from Belli, or can try out Maurizio Mosetti’s Italian site, which includes some of Peter Dale’s sonnets with links to audio files for a few versions in Romanesco

Though Clark perhaps succeeds in taking the fullest measure of Belli, her essay still misses being the most singular of these contributions, an honor that must certainly go to Anthony Burgess’ short novel ABBA ABBA. Taking Alberto Moravia’s comment about the extraordinary nature of Belli’s work in contrast to his Romantic contemporaries and literalizing it to spectacular effect, Burgess folds his own translations of 71 of Belli’s sonnets inside an ingenious fictional account in which the author invents a brief meeting in Rome in 1821 between Belli, the most realist of early 19th century poets, who finds “God in cabbage patches and beer-stains on a tavern table,” and English Romantic John Keats – that poet of “nature, romance, fairyland, heartache, the classical world as seen in a rainy English garden.” Though the imagined encounter takes place quickly – a collision of poetic souls beneath Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes that provokes questions concerning the purpose and practice of art and poetry – the repercussions reach far.

ABBA ABBA derives its resonant title from three sources: the rhyme scheme of the initial octave of the Petrarchan sonnet form; Christ’s last words on the cross (“Father, father” or “Abba, Abba” in Amharic); and Burgess’ own initials (the words in fact appear on Burgess’ tomb). Burgess weaves all three significances into his novel, most obviously by including Belli’s sonnets and a couple by Keats, but also by presenting a moving portrait of Keats dying of consumption while living above Rome’s Spanish Steps and, finally, by a self-reflexive and fiendishly clever Nabokovian coda (readers are cautioned to note that what appears to be an appendix actually carries the title: “Two”).

In ABBA ABBA Burgess revels in language, playing Keats’ ethereal lyricism against the street smart linguistic wantonness of Belli’s Romanesco, and both against mortality. The degree to which Burgess celebrates language is clear from his freely dragging in other impressive linguistic displays - from Shakespeare to Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy to the sermons of Jeremy Taylor – in order to supplement the lyrical conversations and feverish monologues he invents for the dying Keats and the tart, incisive repartee he summons for Belli. He even has Keats make an awkward effort to translate a notorious sonnet by Belli containing myriad Romanesco slang words for penis (“What would the Edinburgh Review say of this? Would Leigh Hunt print it in the Examiner and go to jail again on behalf of Free Speech?”), while on Belli’s side Burgess places a coy appreciation of Keats’ famous sonnet on Mrs. Reynolds’ cat, perhaps the closest the English poet ever came to Belli’s insistence that the sonnet be brought “low,” dethroned from its “Petrarchan coronation.” Nor does Burgess stop with English; a few sample lines of Carlo Porta’s translation of Dante into Milanese dialect make it into the novel, as does an evident relish on Burgess’ part in revealing attributes in English poetry that derive from Italian and/or dialect - for example, having Keats discover, via John Florio’s first Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, a clue to Shakespeare’s own dialect: “and now it flashed on him where the joke was in Falstaff’s words: ‘reasons are as plentiful as blackberries.’ Of course: raisins.” The second part of the novel takes the form of an afterward, offering a brief biography of and essay on Belli that, like Clark’s, underscores the strikingly original, lively, vernacular quality of Belli’s work and stressing his kinship with Gogol and influence on Joyce’s Ulysses. The translations – selected entirely from Belli’s religiously-themed sonnets – follow the brief, clever coda to which I’ve alluded above. The result of this short, ingenious and audacious exercise (a mere 85 pages excepting the sonnets) is a tour-de-force, a rapturous example of the literary novel about literature and a terrific feat of conjuring, via imagination, Moravia’s observation.

All told, the approaches of Burgess and other translators to Belli’s work can only amplify one’s enthusiasm for this exceptional Roman poet. About all that’s needed now is publication of a full English translation of all the sonnets. As Eleanor Clark points out, each sonnet by itself tells a story, but the cumulative effect of reading them together provides an extraordinary portrait of 19th century Rome. The welcome diversity of approaches taken so far by translators suggests, however, that the sumptuous feast of a complete collection might well benefit from having more than a few cooks. In the meantime, what’s here already in English is more than enough to whet one’s appetite.

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Out, everybody, everybody out!" - The Romanesco Sonnets of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli

I’ve been having a ball learning about Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863). Belli is, from first glance, a striking writer, and at second glance even more captivating. The Internet offers a good deal of information about him and examples of his work; while I hesitate to add to that considerable accretion, I do so in an access of enthusiasm and a desire to proselytize: Belli is a writer worth getting to know and too little known. The attention paid to him seems undeservedly piecemeal despite his having had prominent and ardent admirers including, to name but a few, Anthony Burgess, James Joyce and Nikolai Gogol, who likely heard the poet recite his poems in one of Rome’s taverns. Save for a single sonnet, Belli was unpublished during his lifetime, but apparently developed a significant reputation through publicly reciting his poems. Here are a couple:

A Miraculous Relic (Mike Stocks, translator)

This much I know: among the rare sensations
and relics that the Popes have gathered for
the prefect of the Sacristy to store
in holy shrines with the authentications,

Christ’s foreskin – plus his other little bits
and vital members – is the pride and joy;
as relics go it’s just the real McCoy,
and any other relic looks like shit

compared…Now then, my dear good sir, don’t say
this holy foreskin also seems to hail
from other countries which lay claim to it;

have faith my man, have faith, a little bit.
there could be eighty foreskins? Fine, okay -
perhaps it grew and grew, like fingernails.

What Might Have Been (Anthony Burgess, translator)

There’d be, if Adam hadn’t sold our stock
Preferring disobedience to riches,
No sin or death for us poor sons of bitches.
Man would range free, powerless to shame or shock,
And introduce all women to his cock,
Without the obstacles of skirt and breeches,
Spreading his seed immeasurably, which is
To say: all round the world, all round the clock.

The beast would share the happy lot of men,
Despite a natural plenitude of flies.
There’d be no threats of Doomsday coming when
Christ must conduct the dreadful last assize.
Instead, the Lord would look in now and then,
Checking our needs, renewing our supplies.

Though sonnets like the above may initially appear to share some of the “shock value” of Antonio Beccadelli’s The Hermaphrodite, Belli, writing 400 years later, is as a poet by magnitudes more serious, talented and, perhaps surprisingly, devout. Despite an acidic wit aimed at the church in many of his poems, they contain an undercurrent of piety and faith. Though Belli mercilessly mocks Pope Gregory XVI in a number of sonnets, he later defended the Pope against a political challenge and even, towards the end of his life, worked for the church as a theater censor, redacting racier passages from Shakespeare and Italian opera. In a life marked by traumatic family losses and mercurial swings in solvency, Belli was a devoted husband and father. Belli did, though, resemble Beccadelli in one aspect: he too came to renounce his verses, even ordering that his oeuvre be burned. Fortunately for posterity, the friend and confessor with whom he entrusted his manuscripts ignored this request.

Belli wrote copiously in standard Italian throughout his life, including many religious poems and his own zibaldone – a collection of encyclopedia-type essays about all manner of phenomena – that stretched to more than 11 volumes. However, his renown comes almost entirely from the sonnets he put into Romanesco, the Roman dialect, after having been inspired by the Milanese dialect poetry of his contemporary Carlo Porta. Setting out with no less a project than to recreate the Rome of his time in sonnets, Belli wrote 2,279 of these dialect poems. They spread across a vast range of subjects of daily life, not just “the six P’s” for which Rome was famous - “popes, priests, princes, prostitutes, parasites, and the poor” - but also dogs, cats, colds, religious relics, butcher’s shops, advertising, graffiti, empty rituals, lecherous sextons, public executions, winter, beautiful weather, seduction, secrets, small talk, gossip, circumcision, the callous rich, lonely beggars, the annunciation, Abraham’s sacrifice, pregnancy, exhausted mothers, the difficulty of getting children to sleep, Noah’s ark, the rapture, the lottery, food, hunger, and even a sonnet about the pain women can experience in breast-feeding.

These sonnets seem like almost nothing else: raw, energetic, caustic, irreverent, comical, daring, sarcastic, cynical, drawing on a long satirical tradition in Italian literature and on the bawdy irreverence of the poesia giocosa of the Middle Ages. Many lance the hypocrisy in the institutional Catholic church and the sense of entitlement of the wealthy - sometimes within the same poem:

The Two Human Species (Eleanor Clark, translator)

We, you know, were brought into the world
Kneaded in shit and garbage.
Merit, manners and stature
Are all stuff of the gentry

To His Excellency, to His Majesty, to His Highness
Vanities, phoney medals, titles and luxuries;
And for us craftsmen and servants
The stick, the load and the halter.

Christ made houses and palaces
For the prince, the marquis and the knight
And the earth for us ass-faces

And when he died on the cross, he thought
To spill, in his goodness, among such tortures
For them his blood and for us the whey.

Belli’s range, though, is both vertical and horizontal; he can shift suddenly from lancing wit and prurient content to a remarkable empathy and insight into suffering - sober, even bitter, glimpses of the struggle of his fellow Romans to survive amid poverty and squalor.  Where in some sonnets he can display a rancor towards women bordering on misogyny, in others he seems unusually attuned and sympathetic to the travails of poor women, particularly mothers:

The Poor Family (Mike Stocks, translator)

Now hush my darlings, hush my little ones,
Your daddy’s coming soon so don’t you worry…
Oh Holy Blessed Virgin Mother Mary,
You who can help me – help me, just this once.

Flesh of my flesh, don’t cry, don’t cry my sweet dear lambs, don't make me die with grief for you.
Your daddy will have scrounged a scrap or two,
And we will get some bread, and you will eat.

If you could understand a mother’s love…
What’s that, Joey, what are you frightened of?
The dark? But son, I’ve got no oil to light.

And Laura, what, what is it, little mite?
You’re cold? Well then, don’t sit there all alone,
Come to your mummy’s arms and warm your bones.

The variety of topics is nearly matched by that of Belli’s experimental approaches to the sonnets and by their daring linguistic diversity. Belli incorporates proverbs, street slang, onomatopoeia, and an enormous variety of voices, from smooth-talking prostitutes to shop owners, from beggars to the rich, from lowly prelates to the Pope himself. Some sonnets get conveyed entirely in dialogue, others in monologue, a couple in baby talk, another by a stutterer, yet another in mocking imitation of bad poetry. Nearly all, as Eleanor Clark observes, present a story or form a vignette, as in the following where the reader can envision a copy writer spelling out the words aloud as he pens an advertisement:

Advertisement (Harold Norse, translator)

Of-St-Cos-ma comma & Da-mi-an
To-se-ll comma or-re-nt-o-ne-l-rge-flo-or
Of-o-ne-of-his-hou-ses comma &th-en-ti-re

Or-ch-rd comma whi-ch-fa-ces-to-th-hi-gh-er
Si-de comma at-num-br-th-ree-fo-ur
Of-St-Sp-i-rit comma wi-th-o-pen-sp-a-ce

Fr-a-st-all semi colon gi-ves-not-ice
To-a-ll comma &sun-dry-ap-pli-ca-nts
Comma th-at-t-mr-row-at-th-pre-c-ise

By-th-Not-ry-of-th-si-te-Mr Bri-gand….
Shove it; and I’ll put in the full point.

Once one starts reading Belli’s Romanesco sonnets, it’s hard to stop. I’ll end here with another poem on a religious theme, one that captures the deft combination of hard-edged wit, underlying religiosity, and ultimate pessimism that Belli exhibits in his work:

The Last Judgment (Anthony Burgess, translator)

At the round earth’s imagined corners let
Angels regale us with a brass quartet,
Capping that concord with a fourfold shout:
“Out, everybody, everybody out!”
Then skeletons will rattle all about
Forming in file, on all fours, tail to snout,
Putting on flesh and face until they get,
Upright, to where the Judgment Seat is set.

There the All High, maternal, systematic,
Will separate the black souls from the white:
That lot there for the cellar, this the attic.
The wing’d musicians now will chime or blare a
Brief final tune, then they’ll put out the light:
                 And so to bed.
                                                             Bona sera.

Perhaps a bit more on Belli later.