Monday, August 08, 2022

Report of the Committee on Agriculture (III)

It's been another unpredictable year in the squash patch. The acorn squash that I planted in the wake of last year's profusion of volunteers didn't come up at all, perhaps because the seed I saved just wasn't viable. It looks like I may have some Black Futsus coming (seed from Baker Creek), and I have some vines that are just starting to run but that I suspect may turn out to be butternuts. In general things are late, perhaps because the spring was a bit cool here and the summer has been hot and dry. I did get some nice gray zucchini before the vine borers wiped them out.
The big surprise (literally big) is this 15-lb. pumpkin, which I didn't consciously plant and which I suspect grew out of last fall's Jack O'Lantern. I've named it Rusty Staub, in homage to le grand orange.

Dominoes (Georges Perec)

Before the former child star Olivia Rorschach sets off on one of her frequent trips, she leaves instructions for her au pair, Jane Sutton, one sentence of which reads "Buy cooked Edam for Polonius and don’t forget to take him once a week to Monsieur Lefèvre for his domino lesson." Perec appends an explanatory footnote:
Polonius is the 43rd descendant of a pair of tame hamsters which Rémi Rorschach gave Olivia as a present shortly after he met her: the two of them had seen an animal-trainer at a Stuttgart music hall and were so impressed by the athletic exploits of the hamster Ludovic – disporting himself with equal ease on the rings, the bar, the trapeze, and the parallel bars – that they asked if they could buy him. The trainer, Lefèvre, refused, but sold them instead a pair – Gertrude and Sigismond – which he had trained to play dominoes. The tradition was maintained from generation to generation, with each set of parents spontaneously teaching their offspring to play. Unfortunately, the previous winter an epidemic had almost wiped out the little colony: the sole survivor, Polonius, could not play solo, and, worse, was condemned to waste away if he was prevented from indulging in his favourite pastime. Thus he had to be taken once a week to Meudon to his trainer, who, though now retired, continued to raise little circus animals for his own amusement.

Life A User's Manual (translation by David Bellos)

Monday, August 01, 2022

11 Rue Simon-Crubellier

When I first read this 1978 novel by Georges Perec in David Bellos's translation years ago I recall being entertained but also perhaps a bit underwhelmed. This summer I'm reading it in the original (with the translation on hand as a crib) as a way to keep up my French. In some ways it's ideal for the purpose. It's made up of fairly short, self-contained chapters that I can read at a relaxed pace of one or two a day, and it's not particularly slangy or conversational (street French not being something I'm up on). The grammar I can handle; the hard part is the vocabulary for material objects (clothes, home furnishings, tools) which Perec delights in ennumerating. (In fact the cataloguing of objects was part of his compositional method.) These are, as it turns out, the very things where my English vocabulary is weakest; thus when Perec refers to an aumônière, I am little wiser when I turn to Bellos and find that this is "a Dorothy bag." My eyes begin to glaze over when Perec, at his most maniacal, devotes several pages to the contents of a catalog from a hardware manufacturer. Fortunately, such extreme moments are rare.

For those unfamiliar with the book, La vie mode d'emploi captures a snapshot of the inhabitants and furnishings of a Paris apartment building at one instant in June 1975. In addition to describing them synchronically, he also moves back in time liberally in order to narrate the stories of the present and former denizens of the building. There's also a frame tale involving an expatriate Englishman named Bartlebooth who wanders the world for twenty years painting harbor scenes, which he sends home and has made into jigsaw puzzles. Puzzles and games fascinated Perec, and the writing of the novel was itself structured by the use of various constraints and procedures, such as a "knight's tour" in chess, in which the knight visits every space on the chessboard exactly once. But arguably the parts are more interesting than the whole.

Comparing the two versions raises new puzzles. Why, for instance, in the list of paintings created by a tenant named Franz Hutting, did Bellos translate
14 Maximilien, débarquant à Mexico, s'enfourne élégamment onze tortillas
14 Maximilian lands in Mexico and daintily scoffs four nelumbia and eleven tortillas
and for that matter what on earth are "nelumbia"? Why does
21 Le docteur Lajoie est radié de l'ordre des médecins pour avoir déclaré en public que William Randolph Hearst, sortant d'une projection de Citizen Kane, aurait monnayé l'assasinat d'Orson Welles
21 Dr LaJoie is struck off the medical register for having stated, in front of Ray Monk, Ken O'Leary, and others that, after seeing Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst had put a price on Orson Welles's head
with the parts in bold (my emphasis) being apparently gratuitous additions by the translator?

As it turns out, there is method to Bellos's changes. According to a table available here, each painting description in the original conceals the name of one of Perec's friends and associates. Thus "s'enfourne élégamment" hides (Paul) Fournel, which Bellos has reproduced with the mysterious "four nelumbia." Similarly, "Kane, aurait" reveals (Raymond) Queneau, prompting Bellos''s "Ray Monk, Ken O." (Harry Mathews, by the way, is tucked into "Joseph d'Arimathie ou Zarathoustra.")

These diabolical devices, of which there must be many examples throughout the novel, add to the book's fascination, but also provoke some frustration. What else, one wonders, is one overlooking as one reads innocently along?

Thursday, July 21, 2022


Georges Perec:
Sometimes Valène dreamt of cataclysms and tempests, of whirlwinds that would carry the whole house off like a wisp of straw and display the infinite marvels of the solar system to its shipwrecked inhabitants; or that an unseen crack would run through the building from top to bottom, like a shiver, and with a long, deep, snapping sound it would open in two and be slowly swallowed up in an indescribable yawning chasm; then hordes would overrun it, bleary-eyed monsters, giant insects with steel mandibles, blind termites, great white worms with insatiable mouths: the wood would crumble, the stone would turn to sand, the cupboards would collapse under their own weight, all would return to dust.

Life A User's Manual (translation by David Bellos)

Friday, July 08, 2022

Fugitive lyrics

In 1975 I took a course taught by a folklorist who had a parallel career as the producer of a number of commercial recordings of folk music. Though the course was aimed at grad students and I was only a sophomore, I was allowed to enroll, which probably wasn't such a great decision all around as it turned out, but the semester did at least leave a few lasting impressions. In particular, I recall two songs he played us in class that came from recordings he had made in the course of field work in the UK. I still remember parts of them almost verbatim (no doubt because they were off-color), and since I can't find any trace of the exact lyrics (though they must be documented somewhere), I present them here.

The first was a version of the notorious comic song known as "Seven Nights Drunk" or "Our Goodman." The premise of the song is that the singer, a habitual drunkard, is being cuckolded by his wife. When he presents her with the evidence of this, which is increasingly unmistakeable as the song progresses, she blames it on his drunken befuddlement and comes up with one far-fetched explanation after another to account for what he thinks he sees. A typical first verse goes as follows:
As I went home on Monday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a horse outside the door, where my old horse should be
So I called me wife, the curse of me life, will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that horse outside the door where my old horse should be.
Ay you're drunk, you're drunk you silly old fool
As drunk as drunk can be
That's a lovely sow that me mother sent to me
Well it's many a day I've travelled, a hundred miles or more
But a saddle on a sow, sure I never saw before.
The lyrics go downhill from there, depending on the version, but the final one below is typical:
As I went home on Sunday night as drunk as drunk could be
I saw a thing in her thing where my old thing should be
Well, I called me wife and I said to her: Will you kindly tell to me
Who owns that thing in your thing where my old thing should be
Ah, you're drunk,
you're drunk you silly old fool,
still you can not see
That's a lovely tin whistle that me mother sent to me
Well, it's many a day I've travelled a hundred miles or more
But hair on a tin whistle sure I never saw before
The last verse I remember was similar, but instead of a tin whistle it's "a rubber tree" or "a rubber tree plant," and the last line (which I've probably Americanized) was "But a rubber tree plant with hair at the roots I never done seen before."

I haven't been able to identify the other song, which was sung by two British sisters who weren't professional performers. With the tape recorder running the song had a refrain of "Just you remember when you're kissing your man / he's trying to get another kiss from you as soon as he can!" Only when the machine was turned off would they agree to sing the saltier version, which ran "Just you remember when you're kissing your man / he's trying to get another rattle out of your tin can!"

Looking back now, I wonder how much my memory has distorted the details. (Did I, perhaps, borrow the "rubber tree plant" from "High Hopes"?) But in a way that distortion is the whole point: that's how oral tradition twists and preserves material from one generation to the next.

Monday, July 04, 2022

Ambition (III)

Georges Perec:
She’d have done better to sell up and go back to the farm where she’d been born. Rabbits and chickens, some tomato plants, and a couple of beds for lettuces and cabbages -- what more did she need? She would have sat by her fireside amongst her placid cats, listening to the clock ticking, to the rain falling on the zinc drainpipes, and the seven-o’clock bus passing by in the far distance; she’d have carried on warming her bed with a warming pan before getting into it, warming her face in the sun on her stone bench, cutting recipes out of La Nouvelle République and sticking them into her big kitchen book.

Life A User's Manual, translated by David Bellos
The woman in question, Madame Moreau, is the sole proprietor of a prosperous hardware manufacturing business employing 2,000 people.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Articles of Faith

Things as I see them.

There is no God.

There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Devil. There are no angels or demons or ghosts. There are no miracles.

There is no afterlife, no reincarnation. Whatever the "soul" can be said to be, it dissipates when the body dies.

There was no Original Sin, no Fall, and thus nothing to redeem. There was no Incarnation. Whatever the truth about his sayings and doings, Jesus was an ordinary human being. His mother was not "conceived without sin" any more or less than everyone else, nor was he the product of "virgin birth." He did not "die for our sins," he was not resurrected, nor will he return.

The universe is not concerned with our existence. In fact, even to say that it is "indifferent" is to engage in indefensible metaphysics. The universe is not capable of having an attitude towards our existence or its own. It simply exists. Why and how there is something instead of nothing is a question that neither theologian nor scientist is capable of illuminating.

Morality and ontology have nothing to do with each other. A godless universe is no more or less moral than a universe with a god in it. I once heard an Episcopalian priest, in the aftermath of one human-produced atrocity or another, say that if he thought for one moment that what had happened was God's punishment for our sins, he would put aside his priestly garments and walk out of the church forever. And so, in his place, would I.

The only true "sin" is cruelty, and the most fundamental virtue is compassion. There are more virtues than sins, because all sins ultimately come down to the same thing.

Religious institutions and religious leaders are susceptible of the same virtues and failings as everyone else. Many do good work, but many are corrupt and hypocritical. Much of the cruelty in the world is the outcome of religious belief, but much is not.

If religion gets you through the night, keeps you off the sauce, and maybe makes you a slightly kinder person, then more power to you, but if it serves as a cover for hatred and oppression, you'll get no respect from me.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Effingers (Coming Attractions)

One to watch out for: a promised English-language translation of Gabriele Tergit's family saga Effingers, which was originally published in Germany in 1951 but only recently "rediscovered" and reissued there to general acclaim. Robert Normen has a description on the website of The German Times:
In the best way, this epic 900-page novel resembles another historic family saga: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Mann’s story of four generations runs from 1835 to 1877. It may be no coincidence that Tergit’s book begins the very next year. Effingers is set against the backdrop of a changing German society steeped in the comforts of Bismarckian Prussia. Modernization and an economic boom bring affluence and changing norms, which are reflected in the contrasts between the city of Berlin and Karl’s and Paul’s small hometown in southern Germany. After World War I, anti-Semitic sentiment slowly but surely takes hold and the Effinger family must reluctantly learn that they are not the German clan they aspired to be.
NYRB Books has previously published a translation by Sophie Duvernoy of Tergit's earlier novel Käsebier Takes Berlin, and they have signed Duvernoy up for Effingers as well, though apparently no date has been announced. In the meantime, a snazzy-looking Spanish-language version has just been issued by Libros del Asteroide in Barcelona.
More information is available at The German Times.