Saturday, March 31, 2012

El ingenioso hidalgo

I have to confess to my shame that until now I have never read Don Quixote in its entirety, or even close to its entirety, not in Spanish and not for that matter in English, in spite of the fact that I was more or less a Spanish major long ago (I say "more or less" because I went to a college that didn't use such conventional terminology as "a Spanish major"). I did read one or two of the Novelas ejemplares ("Rinconete y Cortadillo," I think) at some point, and I probably read at least a portion of the translation of Don Quixote included in the old Viking Portable Cervantes, a book I seem to have deaccessioned in one of my periodic cullings of my bookshelves, as I can no longer put my hand on it.

So, making up for lost time, and fulfilling the kind of solemn vow that the good knight might himself have made (without, however, subjecting myself to the privations he likely would have imposed upon himself), I am slowly making my way through the original text, at the rate of about a chapter a day, which so far seems to be a sustainable pace. I'm using the Vintage Español text edited by Florencio Sevilla Arroyo, and keeping at hand Charles Jarvis's serviceable 1742 translation as well as a well-worn paperback dictionary. The latter, however is not as useful as it might be, given that the words I most need to look up are usually obscure terms relating to horsemanship and the like which have fallen out of use in the modern language and thus aren't in this dictionary.

The Vintage Español edition has more than 1,800 glosses -- placed, fortunately, at the bottom of the page, not in the back -- which are very helpful, though they occasionally gloss terms whose meaning seems reasonably clear, even to a non-native. In addition to Jarvis's translation I also looked at Tobias Smollett's, which seems quite good as well, but the edition was bulkier and I decided that having two translations at hand was redundant. There are advantages and disadvantages, I suppose, to using 18th-century translations; by doing so one does get something of a rough equivalent of the effect of the deliberately archaic language Cervantes employed (all those initial "f"s instead of "h"s, and forms like sucedióle instead of the modern le sucedió), but on the other hand there are occasional passages in Jarvis that are now more inscrutable than the original text.

Cervantes was an older contemporary of Shakespeare, and conventionally both figures are regarded as the founders of the modern literary traditions in their respective languages, though that is probably not true in either case in the way that it is for Homer, or for that matter Dante. It's true enough that Cervantes is the oldest writer in the Spanish-language tradition who is widely read in translation, though Spain had a flourishing literature before him, which he both draws on and mocks. His novel famously makes a burlesque out of the whole tradition of chivalric romance, and the whole premise of the novel is that its hero has gone mad due to the evil effects of reading such books, but the storytelling conventions of romance nevertheless strengthen his own narrative. A case in point is the episode in Chapter 19, in which Sancho and Don Quixote, traveling at night, come upon an eerie procession. In Jarvis's version
They discovered about twenty persons in white robes, all on horseback, with lighted torches in their hands; behind whom came a litter, covered with black; which was followed by six persons in deep mourning; and the mules they rode on were covered likewise with black down to their heels; and it was easily seen they were not horses by the slowness of their pace. Those in white came muttering to themselves in a low and plaintive tone.
The episode ends, as Quixote's adventures invariably do, in misunderstanding and disaster and to great comic effect, but before it does the whole otherworldly scene could easily have come out of one of the earliest Grail romances by Chrétien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach. The reader has the benefit of both worlds, on the one hand the build-up of suspense and uncanniness that relies on old enchantments, and on the other the comic deflation that bespeaks a new, modern, jaded world-view.

And not just modern but postmodern. One of the most astonishing episodes in the early chapters comes just a few pages later, when Sancho suddenly refers to his master by the sobriquet of el Caballero de la Triste Figura, "the Knight of the Woeful Countenance," or as Jarvis has it, "the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure." (There is a double meaning, as Quixote is both sorrowful in appearance and a sorry sort of knight indeed.) Quixote, his curiosity piqued, asks his squire how he came up with this name, and Sancho characteristically gives a very down-to-earth explanation alluding to Quixote's weariness after combat or to his lack of several teeth. Quixote, however, immediately contradicts him:
["It's not that,"] replied Don Quixote, "but the sage, who has the charge of writing this history of my achievements, has thought fit I should assume a surname, as all the knights of old were wont to do... And therefore I say, that the aforesaid sage has now put it into your head and into my mouth, to call me 'the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure,' as I purpose to call myself from this day forward: and that this name may fit me the better, I determine, when there is an opportunity, to have a sorrowful figure painted on my shield."
So here, in the midst of the narrative, we have fictional characters, whose story we are conditioned by readerly custom to follow as if they were real people, explicitly referring to the fact that they are in truth nothing but the inventions of an authorial mind, one who can intervene at any moment to alter their fate -- and yet by referring to Cervantes (or to his putative source, the Arabian historiographer Cid Hamet Ben Engeli) as a participant in the action, they in effect make the author a character in his own fiction.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Ghost in the Euclid Arcade

It will be dawn soon. The first light of morning will drift down through the lattice of glass and steel above my head, and as it does the shadows along the galleries will thin out and disappear. Before the doors open and the crowds come in I will slip into a crevice and wait, silent, unsleeping, until darkness returns. I can hear birds outside now, bickering, calling to each other. Sometimes one flies in from the street and flutters above for a while, searching for an exit. For me there is no escape.

I'm alone now but once there were others. The jeweler who took poison, the lawyer who died in his chair. At night we climbed and descended the stairs, each obeying the axes of his own geometry. As we wandered from gallery to gallery, our footfalls silent on the marble, our heads bent down, we knew each other but never nodded or spoke. How could we speak? What could we say? In time, one by one, they became reconciled to oblivion and faded away.

I made bespoke suits for wealthy men, their names now forgotten. In fifty years not one look of tenderness. What did they know of my childhood, of the woman I married but couldn't keep, who already rests in the earth beside another man, their twined spirits embracing even as they dissipate? It's all different now, of course. The men come in bare-headed or wearing baseball caps, dressed like stevedores, and care nothing for fine work. Let it go.

In the half-light, like an automaton, my hands stitch still but nothing is mended.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


This postcard of the Connecticut River at Greenfield, Massachusetts was postmarked in nearby Turners Falls on January 29, 1909 and sent to a Miss Ruth L. Smith at the Northfield Seminary in East Northfield a few miles away. Founded by the noted evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody in 1879, Northfield was an all-girls school, religious in orientation, though it doesn't appear to have been intended to train clergy in the way that the word "seminary" is usually understood. Moody also founded a school for boys not far away and the two eventually merged. The combined institution still exists but the former Northfield Seminary campus is currently unoccupied.

The inscription on the front is an example of a Masonic or "pigpen" cypher, in which the symbols are obtained by the use of two pairs of grids, one dotted and the other undotted. In the example below, for instance, which is taken from Wikipedia, the letter A would be represented by something like a backwards letter L, while the sign for the letter Z would resemble an upside-down V with a dot in the center.

The above assumes that one begins the grid with the letter "A" and continues in an orderly progression, but there's no reason why one need stick to that arrangement; you could assign the letters randomly as long as both sender and recipient know the key. Even then, in principle the cipher should be readily crackable by the same techniques used to solve newspaper cryptograms, at least if one is sure which language is being represented and that there are no additional levels of trickery involved. So far, however, I haven't managed to decipher this one.

At first glance it shouldn't be difficult to solve. There are some one- and two-letter words, a sequence of repeated words, and some double letters, all of which should be helpful, but there are also some puzzling features. Of the first 20 characters in the inscription, only two appear more than once, as if the writer had deliberately chosen words that contained as many different letters as possible. There are several signs that incorporate a tiny "x" instead of a dot, and I don't know whether or not they should be regarded as distinct letters.

Feel free to take a crack at it and let me know if you come up with anything. In he meantime, below is a roughly contemporary view, complete with piano or portable organ, of another Moody-founded institution, Camp Northfield, which also still exists.

The card was addressed to Gillio Cassari of North Haven, Connecticut, and signed by Coriena [Cassari], both of whom, if my identifications are correct, were born in the 1890s. Gillio died in 1975; Coriena in North Haven in 1985 at the age of 94.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Untitled (Woman with dog)

We seem to have an innate need to tell stories, even when the raw material is lacking. I suppose that it's part of our way of making sense of the world, of explaining why it's the way it is and not some other way that might have been equally conceivable if things had been just a little different, or maybe it's simply how we try to reassure ourselves that our existence isn't utterly meaningless, that there's a narrative to it all, improbable as that seems. In other words, whistling in the dark.

This Real Photo postcard bears no inscription and was never mailed; about all that can be said in the way of external evidence is that the style of Azo photographic paper it was printed on was manufactured between 1904 and 1918. The location must have been far enough north to require a heavy (if seemingly threadbare) coat in the winter. I don't know enough about the history of women's fashion, or about the woodworking we see in the background, to know whether there's more here that could be gleaned by someone with a trained eye.

We start inventing, imagining. Because of her skin color and maybe her bonnet we think that she might have been a domestic servant, that she had just pulled on her coat a moment before and stepped out on the porch so that the photographer -- a friend? a family member? her employer? -- could capture her likeness. The woman faces the lens of the camera head on, but the dog's eyes are intent on something just to the side, so maybe there's a child or another dog running in the yard or across the street, leaving only the most indirect of traces as it passes. But the truth is that what we deduce, and what we can try to guess, will always be less than what we can't know, beginning with her name, her background, her character, her fate, and everything else that really matters.

So I think we should resist the temptation and leave her as she is, posed for the flick of a shutter that will preserve what may be -- but how can we know? -- the only memory of her that still survives, one fleeting, indelible moment of tenderness.