Friday, October 02, 2015

Faithful objects

María Paz Otuño, writing of the late Spanish novelist Ana María Matute:
Her idea of order was her own; with her writings she was very meticulous: she knew where everything was, what it was, and whether or not it was of use; entirely the opposite of the disorder that presided over her life, her apartment, her table. Only what really mattered to her (books, pages, texts, pencils, papers, paint pots, brushes, figurines...) was ordered in the manner she thought fit, every object occupying its place in the world, in her world. They were her "faithful objects": "I refer to little things, ordinary and humble: a piece of red pencil, a key that no longer opens anything, a coin from before the war, who knows what, an infinity of things that stubbornly accompany us wherever we go, that resist abandoning us, stubborn in the face of, first, our indifference, then our curiosity, and finally our love." Objects that meant so much to her and that, when they disappeared, took away with them a little part of her life. "Perhaps to live is to lose things" – and in her case nothing could be more true: she left few material things behind, perhaps because she lived so much.
From a text appended to the end of Demonios familiares, Matute's final, unfinished novel. The passage is very simple, but allows almost endless possibilities for translation; in this case the translation is mine.

Earlier posts on Ana María Matute:

Last words (on Demonios familiares)
Bonfires (on Primera memoria)
Childhood (on Paraíso inhabitado)

Monday, September 28, 2015


Bacbuc threw something into the fountain, and suddenly the water began to boil fiercely, as the great cauldron at Bourgueil does when there is a high feast there. Panurge was listening in silence with one ear, and Bacbuc was still kneeling beside him, when there issued from the sacred Bottle a noise such as bees make that are bred in the flesh of a young bull slain and dressed according to the skillful method of Aristaeus, or such as is made by a bolt when a cross-bow is fired, or by a sharp shower of rain suddenly falling in summer. Then this one word was heard: Trink.

'By God almighty,' cried Panurge, 'it's broken or cracked, I'll swear. That is the sound that glass bottles make in our country when they burst beside the fire.'

Then Bacbuc arose and, putting her hands gently behind Panurge's arms, said to him: 'Give thanks to heaven, my friend. You have good reason to. For you have most speedily received the verdict of the divine Bottle; and it is the most joyous, the most divine, and the most certain answer that I have heard from it yet, in all the time I have ministered to this most sacred Oracle.'
Translation by J. M. Cohen (1955).

Harry Mathews:
Consulting his watch, he continued: "The hour is right, you won't have to wait. Here's what you do: take the boot off your right foot, and your sock if you're wearing one, and stick your leg in up to the knee. Keep it there for a minute plus eight seconds, which I'll time for you; then remove it quickly. The prophecy will follow."

I did as I was told, although I could not believe we had reached the bog. It was nearly dark.

Supporting me by my left elbow, the Count said, "Ready? Now," and I stepped forward. My foot sank slowly into heavy mud still warm from the sun.

A minute passed. Renée counted the final seconds: ", eight," and I extracted my leg from the mire.

Following the Count's example, I knelt down. In a moment there was perhaps a liquid murmur or rumble and out of the ooze, as if a capacious ball of sound had forced its passage to the air, a voice distinctly gasped,


The mud recovered its smoothness. After a pause, the Count shook his head and said, "Aha! Rather enigmatic. But there won't be more. And," he chuckled, "you can't try again for another year."
I've found only passing mention of the possible influence of Rabelais on Harry Mathews (truth to tell, there isn't all that much critical literature on the latter), but here the inspiration seems clear enough. Since I've been reading Mathews for decades but Rabelais only recently, this gives his novels an interesting new light — as does the description of the intricately contrived, magnetically opened temple in Chapter 37 of Le cinquième livre de Pantagruel, wherein is engraved the motto "All Things Move to their End." Readers of the last chapter of The Conversions will no doubt know what I mean.

N. B. J. M. Cohen regarded the chapters describing the Temple of the Bottle as "so dull that it would be charitable to ascribe them to another hand." Without weighing in on the debate over the authorship of parts of the cinquième livre, I can't quite agree. They're certainly bizarre, but maybe they just were ahead of their time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sharing a world

A bit of incontrovertible wisdom from Herakleitos, in Guy Davenport's rendering: "We share a world when we are awake; each sleeper is in a world of his own."

Couldn't we equally well say, though, that the opposite is (also) true, that in sleep we return to what is common to all, but that in the light of day we must, each of us, live out our own solitude?

Friday, September 18, 2015


This unidentified and undated snapshot shows the effects of time and much handling; it may have been folded in half at some point before being pasted onto a low-quality paper backing, most of which still adheres to the reverse. Perhaps before that it was kept in a wallet. It shows two men walking together, one of them holding the hand of a small child. There's a woman a few steps back who may be part of the same group; the camera has caught her just as one foot lifts from the ground.

A block of row-houses appears in the background, but the lot to the right may be vacant, and the sidewalk has been neglected. Based on the clothing styles I'm guessing that the photo dates from some time after 1950.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


'So you come from Paris,' said Pantagruel. 'And how do you spend your time, you gentlemen students at this same Paris?'

'We transfretate the Sequana at the dilucule and crepuscule; we deambulate through the compites and quadrives of the urb; we despumate the Latin verbocination and, as verisimile amorabunds, we captate the benevolence of the omnijugal, omniform, and omnigenous feminine sex. At certain intervals we invisitate the lupanars, and in venerean ecstasy we inculcate our veretres into the penitissim recesses of the pudenda of these amicabilissime meretricules. Then do we cauponizate, in the meritory taverns of the Pineapple, the Castle, the Magdalen, and the Slipper, goodly vervecine spatules, perforaminated with petrosil. And if by fort fortune there is rarity or penury of pecune in our marsupies, and they are exhausted of ferruginous metal, for the scot we dimit our codices and vestments oppignerated, prestolating the tabellaries to come from the penates and patriotic lares.'
Translation by J. M. Cohen (1955).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

St. James Infirmary

Any number of sources will inform you that the classic jazz composition "St. James Infirmary" is derived from an Anglo-American traditional ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," which relates the sad end of a dissolute young man who has fallen victim to syphilis, and whose dying request consists of the instructions for his funeral procession. But are they right?

Those arguing in favor of a connection can point, first of all, to the title institution itself, which is mentioned by name in at least some of the versions of "The Unfortunate Rake," and which may allude (no one seems to be sure) to a long-vanished hospital in London. And then there are lines like the following (from "The Unfortunate Rake"):
Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along
This is evidently echoed in "St. James Infirmary" (in a version recited in a 1931 trademark infringement case) as follows:
Give me eight black horses to carry me
Eight pretty women to sing me a song
Let them sing me a song to my grave
As the bells toll on and on
Those similarities are real enough, but how much do they really tell us? The problem is that the familiar versions of "St. James Infirmary," which have been recorded countless times beginning in 1927, have nothing evident to do with an unfortunate rake dying of syphilis. In fact it's a little hard to say what the song is about. When I first learned the song, many years ago and who knows where, it began something like this:
I was down in Old Joe's barroom
On the corner by the square
The drinks were served as usual
And the usual crowd was there
The narrator then describes one of the patrons (one version calls him Joe McKennedy), who in turn sings what are no doubt the most familiar lines from the song:
I went down to St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table
So sweet... so cold... so fair...
Having described the corpse, most versions continue with something like this (I should note that the lyrics below are, deliberately, a composite, making use of both published texts and ones drawn "from memory," which may or may not match any single existing recording. In any case, the gist is clear):
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She may search this whole wide world over
But she'll never find another man like me
Robert W. Harwood, the author of a fine book on the song which attempts to partially untangle its extremely convoluted history, confesses to finding the "Let her go" stanza "wrong, self-congratulatory, and, in this context, demented," but I think it's darkly hilarious. The speaker — McKennedy, or whoever he is — has been "jilted" by his lover because she has died; the woman will be conducting whatever searching she'll be doing in regions unknown to mortal man. I suspect, in fact, that the stanza has been interpolated into the song from an unrelated source, and originally had nothing to do with death, but if so the borrowing was a stroke of genius.

At this point, the song generally continues with the recitation of dying wishes. But whose — and why? Some observers have attempted to rationalize the lyrics, drawing on the "Unfortunate Rake" tradition, by saying that the woman has died of syphilis and her lover knows that he will soon follow. That's plausible, but it's worth asking whether whoever it was that assembled "St. James Infirmary" in its classic form would have made that connection. If not, can we really say that that is what the song is "about"?

Perhaps the best-known rendition of the song is the one first recorded in 1928 by Louis Armstrong. This version omits the frame verse ("I was down in Old Joe's barroom") and jumps directly to "I went down to St. James Infirmary..." After the "Let her go" stanza, it concludes with the following request:
When I die I want you to dress me in straight lace shoes
Boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain
So the boys'll know that I died standing pat
What if anything remains of "The Unfortunate Rake" in the Armstrong recording? Does it even matter? I would argue that the song as we are most familiar with it is so stylized — so modernized, if you like — that it no longer makes any difference if the narrative is coherent or if it follows its supposed ancestral source, that what we have is a composite made up of bits and pieces of "The Unfortunate Rake" tradition combined with other elements that were originally unconnected to it. What the song "is" now is a melody, a few familiar verses, and a public identity; all the various versions are instantly recognizable as "St. James Infirmary" (even if sometimes they bear other titles) no matter what story-line they seem to convey.

Below is a refreshingly irreverent rendition of "St. James Infirmary" recorded by Alphonso Trent and His Orchestra in 1930.

Friday, August 14, 2015

From the House of Bondage (update)

There is now a tentative publishing date as well as a cover image for the edition of Austin Reed's 19th-century prison memoir The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict. The book, which will carry an Introduction by Caleb Smith and a Foreword by David W. Blight and Robert B. Stepto, is due out from Random House on January 26, 2016; the ISBN is 9780812997095. Here's my earlier blog post.