Tuesday, March 29, 2016

De grands chantiers d'affolement

Translating Verhaeren is beyond my skill, and so I forced myself to do it. I've never been wise.

The Corpse,
by Émile Verhaeren.

In her dress the colour of bile and poison, the corpse of my reason is dragged along the Thames.
The bridges of bronze, where the carriages bang together with an interminable sound of hinges, and the sails of dark boats, let their shadows fall upon her. Without a moving handle on its clock face, a tall belfry masked in red stares at her like someone immensely [preoccupied?] with death and sorrow.

She died from having known too much, from having wanted too much to sculpt the motive, on the pedestal of black stone, of every being and of every thing; she died, atrociously, from an expert empoisoning; she died, as well, from a delirium for [towards] an absurd and red empire. Her nerves had burst, on some bright evening of celebration, when she felt its triumph drift, like eagles, over its head. She died not being able to take any more, with her ardours and desires crushed; infinitely exhausted, she killed herself.
Along the funereal walls, along the iron foundries where the hammers beat out sparks, she is dragged to the funeral.

These are wharves and barracks, always wharves and their lanterns, unmoving and slow spinners of dim gold from their lights; these are sadnesses of stone, a brick house, a castle keep of black where the windows, glum eyelids, open to the fog of night; these are vast marinas of insanity, full of dismantled boats and of sail yards docked against a sky of crucifixion.

In her dress of dead jewels that solemnizes the horizon's hour of purple, the corpse of my reason is dragged along the Thames.

She moves toward the perils in the depths of shadows and fog, to the long, dull noise of heavy bells breaking their wings at steeple corners. Unfulfilled, leaving behind her the great city of life, she heads for the black unknown, to sleep in the tombs of the night, down there, where the slow, strong waves, opening their limitless pits, swallow, for all eternity, the dead.
- - - - -

La Morte,
Émile Verhaeren.

En sa robe, couleur de fiel et de poison,
Le cadavre de ma raison
Traîne sur la Tamise.

Des ponts de bronze, où les wagons
Entrechoquent d'interminables bruits de gonds
Et des voiles de bateaux sombres
Laissent sur elle, choir leurs ombres,
Sans qu'une aiguille, à son cadran, ne bouge,
Un grand beffroi masqué de rouge
La regarde, comme quelqu'un
Immensément de triste et de défunt.

Elle est morte de trop savoir,
De trop vouloir sculpter la cause,
Dans le socle de granit noir,
De chaque être et de chaque chose,
Elle est morte, atrocement,
D'un savant empoisonnement,
Elle est morte aussi d'un délire
Vers un absurde et rouge empire
Ses nerfs ont éclaté,
Tel soir illuminé de fête,
Qu'elle sentait déjà le triomphe flotter
Comme des aigles, sur sa tête.
Elle est morte n'en pouvant plus,
L'ardeur et les vouloirs moulus,
Et c'est elle qui s'est tuée,
Infiniment exténuée.

Au long des funèbres murailles,
Au long des usines de fer
Dont les marteaux tonnent l'éclair,
Elle se traîne aux funérailles.

Ce sont des quais et des casernes,
Des quais toujours et leurs lanternes,
Immobiles et lentes filandières
Des ors obscurs de leurs lumières
Ce sont des tristesses de pierres,
Maison de briques, donjon en noir
Dont les vitres, mornes paupières,
S'ouvrent dans le brouillard du soir;
Ce sont de grands chantiers d'affolement,
Pleins de barques démantelées
Et de vergues écartelées
Sur un ciel de crucifiement.

En sa robe de joyaux morts, que solennise
L'heure de pourpre à l'horizon,
Le cadavre de ma raison
Traîne sur la Tamise.

Elle s'en va vers les hasards
Au fond de l'ombre et des brouillards,
Au long bruit sourd des tocsins lourds,
Cassant leur aile, au coin des tours.
Derrière elle, laissant inassouvie
La ville immense de la vie;
Elle s'en va vers l'inconnu noir
Dormir en des tombeaux de soir.
Là-bas, où les vagues lentes et fortes,
Ouvrant leurs trous illimités,
Engloutissent à toute éternité
Les mortes.

- - - - -

POÈMES, by Émile Verhaeren.
Mercure de France, Paris, 1917.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Frost in the Moonlight

Yes, that present participle in sentence 4 is grammatically awkward; an infinitive or the simple past would have made more sense. But I like the visual details, the movement, the simile about autumn grasses, the simplicity.

She was bent, but very tall and slender, and was walking slowly with a cane. Her head was covered with a great hood or wrapping of some kind, which she pushed back when she saw me. Some faint whitish figures on her dress looked like frost in the moonlight; and the dress itself was made of some strange stiff silk, which rustled softly like dry rushes and grasses in the autumn, -- a rustling noise that carries a chill with it. She came close to me, a sorrowful little figure very dreary at heart, standing still as the flowers themselves; and for several minutes she did not speak, but watched me, until I began to be afraid of her. Then she held out her hand, which trembled as if it were trying to shake off its rings.

-- Sarah Orne Jewett, "Lady Ferry." From Old Friends and New, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1907.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Martian Ambiguity

Writers have ways to link the patterns of a story to make it cohesive, but they can also break the patterns and end up with a story that seems fragmented or ill-considered. In "A Martian Odyssey," Stanley G. Weinbaum does both.

Because I had loved "A Martian Odyssey" when I was nine years old, I hesitated for decades to try it again -- so many things from childhood can disappoint us, and American magazine stories from 1934 can disappoint us absolutely. But my reading it a few days ago showed me a story with many strengths to compensate for a few weaknesses.

For one thing, the style is chatty and excitable in ways that might seem dated. The crew of the first Earth ship on Mars have brought a full cargo of exclamation points -- and these people use them! They lob words at each other as Martians hurl darts! They mock each other with friendly gibes! They roar, exult, snap, shrill, ejaculate, growl, shout! And as I read, I wanted them to stop.

On the other hand, there is energy in the prose, and the story moves rapidly. Compared to many American pulp science fiction tales from the 1930s, "A Martian Odyssey" is light on its feet.

And although its noisy space-crew might hover on the verge of becoming national stereotypes, their separate languages, and their frequent inability to understand each other, represent one of the patterns that makes the story fit together: communication is hard enough between people, but harder still between people and Martians.

Weinbaum uses the ambiguity of language to make his Martians vivid. Nothing on Mars can be defined in human terms with precision. Biopods look like plants but move like animals. The silicon creature is mindless, but can build structures with Egyptian skill. The dream beast is whatever its prey wants it to be. The barrel beings are a technological species, but seem limited in both intellect and behaviour.

Tweel himself, the most human-like Martian encountered, is nothing but ambiguous. He looks like a bird, but only at first glance. He seems adapted to local conditions like a native, but one sequence implies that he, or his ancestors, might have landed on Mars from beyond the solar system. Even the name by which he calls himself seems to vary from one context to another.

Yet of all the characters in the story, Tweel seems most at ease with language, and the most adept at its use. The narrator, Jarvis, fails to pick up a single word of Tweel's vocabulary, but Tweel can use a few English words to convey complex ideas. And so, he can describe  the silicon creature ("No one-one-two. No two-two-four."), the dream beast ("You one-one-two, he one-one-two."), and the barrel people ("One-one-two -- yes! Two-two-four -- no!"), in ways that Jarvis can grasp, and that leave him convinced of Tweel's more-than-human intelligence.

Weinbaum links these patterns of communication and ambiguous definition throughout "A Martian Odyssey," and in doing so, implies a stronger sense of story cohesion and subtext than most SF writers of the 1930s could manage. This makes me regret all the more the story's ending, which seems like an O. Henry twist grafted onto a narrative that does not need it. The ending adds nothing to the story's ideas or themes, and seems out of character for Jarvis, who, despite his constant yelling and gibing, is too thoughtful a person to do anything so stupid.

Endings matter, because they allow writers to give the patterns of a story a final coherence. Weinbaum seems to have understood this need for cohesion; I wish he had applied this understanding at the story's end. But narrative strengths also matter, and "A Martian Odyssey" has more than enough to keep its reputation high.

Illustration by Frank R. Paul, from Wonder Stories, July 1934.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Their Thoughts Have Burned Themselves into the Cold Rocks

The challenge in using alliteration and assonance is to make them seem deliberate stylistic choices, and not lapses in revision:

There is everywhere a token of remembrance, of silence and secrecy. Some stronger nature once ruled these neglected trees and this fallow ground. They will wait the return of their master as long as roots can creep through mould, and the mould make way for them. The stories of strange lives have been whispered to the earth, their thoughts have burned themselves into the cold rocks. As one looks from the lower country toward the long slope of the great hillside, this old abiding-place marks the dark covering of trees like a scar. There is nothing to hide either the sunrise or the sunset. The low lands reach out of sight into the west and the sea fills all the east.

-- Sarah Orne Jewett, "The Gray Man."
From, A White Heron, And Other Stories.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1914.