Monday, February 19, 2024

Prickly issues

The poet Donald Hall was born and raised in suburban Connecticut, but he spent many of his summers at his maternal grandparents' farm in New Hampshire in the 1930s and '40s, an experience he recollected in a memoir entitled String Too Short to Be Saved. Though he was capturing a disappearing way of life, and remembering it fondly, he largely avoided the lure of nostalgia. There are golden afternoons spent haying and tending chickens in the book, but there is also alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide among the neighbors. He would later own up to embellishing a bit; in a reprint he confessed that the abandoned railroad on Ragged Mountain that he described didn't actually exist. It was another passage in the book, though, that initially perplexed me. Hall describes a day on the farm in the company of his grandfather:
We walked slowly uphill to the barn, which looked like a rocky ledge of Ragged in the gray light. When we were nearly to the milk shed, he suddenly pointed upward at the branches of the great maple next to the old outhouse. "Look!" he said. "There's a hedgehog!" I followed the angle of his finger and saw what resembled a bird's nest at a fork in the branches, indistinct in the late light. "Let's see how you are with a shotgun these days," he said.
The animal is dispatched, not by Hall, who misses four times, but by his grandfather. In a later chapter, when the grandfather is dead, Hall returns to the farm, spots three more "hedgehogs" in the trees, and brings them down.

As any naturalist can tell you, there are no wild hedgehogs in New England or anywhere in the Americas, nor do they readily climb trees (pace Maurice Sendak), nor are they considered agricultural pests (though they were once popularly thought to suckle milk from cows). There are, of course, porcupines, but no one who had grown up in New England (and was later educated in part in the UK, where there are hedgehogs), would be likely to confuse the two. So what gives?

As it turns out, Hall was simply following vernacular tradition. Although "porcupine" (unlike "opossum" and "skunk") is a European word dating to the Middle Ages, few English colonists to New England would have ever seen an Old World porcupine, as the closest ones live in Italy, and faced with a spiny creature they simply borrowed the familiar name "hedgehog." The usage was common enough to have been written into law; as late as the early twentieth century the state of New Hampshire was paying bounties for killing "hedgehogs." The bounty was repealed in 1979, by which time the word had been corrected to "porcupines."

Another word for hedgehog is "urchin," from Latin ericius (see Spanish erizo, French hérisson). Today that word refers to a street waif, but its original meaning is preserved in the name for the spiny echinoderms known as "sea urchins."

Image: "Hans My Hedgehog," from The Juniper Tree.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Who was Rará?

Cortázar's short story "Carta a una señorita en París" (Letter to a Young Lady in Paris) is narrated by a man who has a peculiar propensity to spontaneously regurgitating a baby rabbit from time to time. A little musicological puzzle has popped up in it. In the first paragraph, the narrator moves into a borrowed Buenos Aires apartment, where he is reluctant to disturb (though he will) its "closed order, constructed even in the finest networks of air, networks that in your house preserve the music of lavender, the fluttering of a powder puff, the interplay of the violin and viola in the 'cuarteto de Rará'," whatever that last phrase may refer to. That's my rough translation; the word translated as "powder puff" is cisne, which literally means "swan," hence the "fluttering." Paul Blackburn's version, published in End of The Game and Other Stories, reads as follows:
... it offends me to intrude on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air, networks that in your environment conserve the music in the lavender, the heavy fluff of the powder puff in the talcum, the play between the violin and the viola in Ravel’s quartet.
Ravel? Why Ravel? For that matter, what was the "Rará quartet" or the "quartet by Rará" alluded to in the original. The allusion has baffled several commentators ("I have obtained no reference to this musical piece, if it exists" — Descifrando a Cortázar), and only one critic seems to have hazarded an explanation. Monica Kanne, in her thesis Estrategias de la traducción: Un estudio de estrategias de traducción y su aplicación práctica glosses it as "una pieza musical (del año 1949) del compositor italiano de música clásica contemporánea Sylvano Busotti (1931-)," that is, "a musical piece (from 1949) by the contemporary Italian classical music composer Sylvano Busotti" (actually Sylvano Bussotti, who has since died).

At first glance, this seems plausible. Although I haven't been able to trace a Rara Quartet by Bussotti, he did compose a Rara Requiem and direct an art film entitled Rara. He would have been only in his teens when Cortázar's story was first published (in his collection Bestiario) in 1951, but he was in fact precocious; the IRCAM database of contemporary music lists compositions as early as 1937 (when he was six!), though I find no record of an early string quartet. Still, it's a bit of a stretch that Cortázar, living in Buenos Aires at that time, would have had any exposure to the work of a teenaged Italian composer. As it happens, though, there's a simpler explanation: Blackburn's translation is correct, because "Rara" was a nickname of Maurice Ravel. (Per biographer Benjamin Ivry, "Ravel was known in his own circle as Rara.") Blackburn may have known that already, or Cortázar may have explained the reference (the two conducted a long correspondence). Author or translator or editor (or all three) decided that the allusion was too obscure and clarified it. Ravel's String Quartet in F Major is easy enough to find:

There are even excerpts of a version for ondes Martentot, a kind of precursor of the theremin: