Saturday, September 1, 2018

Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

A Review of Zora Neale Hurston’s

Barracoon: The Story of the

Last “Black Cargo”

Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2018

The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”
Zora Neale Hurston
Edited by Deborah G. Plant
Amistad ($24.99)

In 1931, anthropologist and future novelist Zora Neale Hurston attempted to publish Barracoon, her narrative of the life of Cudjo Lewis (aka Oluale Kossula), the last surviving passenger of the last slave ship to bring human cargo to America. It was to be her first book, but it received unanimous rejection because of her use of dialect to capture Cudjo’s remarkable voice. Hurston’s subsequent fiction and nonfiction revolutionized the literary use of dialect, however, transforming readers’ and scholars’ ideas of what kinds of American language could be considered artistically and intellectually acceptable, and so nearly ninety years later, Barracoon finally arrives in a landscape that Hurston herself helped create.

A barracoon is a seaside holding station for slaves on the coast of Africa and is thus the last transition between the slaves’ old and new worlds. It’s a curious turning point to use as the title for a book on this subject, but Hurston’s Barracoon is nearly unique among American slave narratives in that it portrays the worlds before and after capture, told by a native African who wasn’t born into slavery. The barracoon was Cudjo’s first glimpse of the enormous, malevolent sea, which in the terrifying account of his Middle Passage strikes the reader as a kind of Homeric monster, and while most slave narratives can only portray the dramatic transition from slavery to emancipation, giving the impression that emancipation equals freedom, Cudjo’s narrative encompasses the arc from freedom to slavery to a different and compromised kind freedom, allowing him to focus at great length on the totality of the world that first created him. Hurston was initially frustrated by Cudjo’s reticence to answer her questions about the aspects of his story that she was looking for, and at his insistence on giving his full family history and painting an expansive picture of his lost world, but she quickly discovers that his memory of Africa is the goldmine that she didn’t know she was seeking.

Cudjo Lewis, photographed
by Zora Neale Hurston
Letting Cudjo (mostly) speak for himself, Hurston gives free rein to his astonishing memory and narrative power as he describes an entirely unknown universe to her. This is the book’s most arresting material, portraying a paradise lost that’s as complex and problematic as it is beautiful and fascinating and delightful. It’s uneasy reading to see Cudjo’s idealized society also include a savagery that led to his capture and sale by a rival tribe to the American slave-trading savages who dragged him across the sea to hell, but this ugly larger picture is a necessary part of the book’s enlarged scope, leading Hurston to some of her most important and disturbing conclusions about human nature.

Cudjo’s life in America stretches out much longer, with five years spent in slavery and more than sixty years spent scraping out an existence in postbellum Alabama, but he never stops thinking of himself as African. After emancipation he immediately starts planning to return home, and when this proves impossible he helps found an enclave of freed Africans called Africatown, which recreates a mini version of their homeland and buffets them a bit from the discrimination that they received from white and black Americans alike. He marries another African, has five children, and over the ensuing decades he buries them all in the family graveyard that mirrors some of the African death customs that he’d described to Hurston. Near the end of the book, when he allows Hurston to photograph him, he puts on his best American suit but leaves his shoes off, because he wants to be seen and remembered as African.

This is as heartbreaking a story as could ever be imagined, and in Hurston’s brilliant mimicking voice it sings as a kind of epic song. Her prose isn’t yet the silky instrument that it would later become, and she pads the story a bit with material gleaned from other sources and surreptitiously puts it into Cudjo’s voice, but Cudjo’s extraordinary mind and personality burst through the pages as the primary force of his narrative, even as Hurston’s artistry (and lapses) make themselves palpably apparent. While we feel Cudjo with the deepest immediacy, readers of Hurston’s later work will also see that her dense literary sensibility adds layers of reflective color and shading to how we perceive his story.

Hurston the enchanter.
A writer of the highest sophistication, Hurston has the ability to tell a story that’s entirely original and moving and “real” while also weaving itself into a dazzling tapestry of literary allusions and games, as when in her 1937 masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God she has brilliant fun playing with the Bible and Dante and Cervantes and Proust. Arriving at the end of Barracoon’s last chapter, entitled “Alone,” Proust’s woundedly nostalgic ghost seems to whisper through Hurston as the final words of the book leave Cudjo “full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.” Cudjo strikes the most resonant and lasting chords in the reader’s mind, but as in Don Quixote, where we realize that it’s Quixote who’s the enchanter who has himself and Sancho under a narrative spell, and that as an enchanter he’s also a reflection of the larger enchanter, Cervantes himself, Hurston’s readers will see her embarking here on this same kind of artistic odyssey. Cudjo couldn’t be more real to us, but in this first sally Hurston the enchanter begins to make her presence nearly almost as real.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Marcel Proust’s Letters to His Neighbor

A Review of Marcel Proust’s

Letters to His Neighbor

Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2018

By Marcel Proust
Translated by Lydia Davis
New Directions ($19.95)

Marcel Proust, author of the world’s longest and perhaps greatest novel, In Search of Lost Time, was a near-invalid who sequestered himself during most of his novel’s composition inside a cork-lined, shuttered bedroom, banishing pollen, noise, sunlight, people, and everything else in the world other than his own voluminous memories. Stories of his reclusiveness have become so legendary and proverbial that inside views of his life—such as his housekeeper Céleste Albaret’s profoundly illuminating memoir, Monsieur Proust—read like gospel to pilgrims in search of more shards of the true Proust. He didn’t write any memoirs himself, unless you count his great roman à clef as a memoir, but his epic correspondence forms a kind of double mirror to his endlessly refracting novel, and so when any new artifacts documenting this monster of neurotic hermeticism come to light, it’s like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran. Who knows how much of Proust’s correspondence lies unread in private collections, or lost in someone’s attic, but the latest discovery of twenty-six of his letters to his upstairs neighbor, written over a decade during the composition of his novel, will delight any Proustian and will tide the faithful over until new relics come to light.

An American dentist named Charles Williams lived and worked in the flat just above Proust’s—a nightmare for any sensitive person, let alone one who only slept during the day—and nearly all of the letters in this volume are hilariously labyrinthine requests for quiet. Three are addressed to Dr. Williams himself, while the twenty-three others are addressed to his wife, Marie, who like Proust also had ongoing health problems and whose sensitivity and intelligence very slowly made their mark on her complaining neighbor’s empathy. Some of these letters are simply ingenious in how they wend their way toward their true purpose—quiet, please!—but Proust couldn’t help becoming connected to his fellow sufferer upstairs, and while almost never actually coming into contact with her he nonetheless gave much of himself to her, and he received perhaps just as much in return. Responding to a letter she wrote him while she was on vacation (and thus not even around to complain to), he revels in her perceptive descriptions and reflects his own crepuscular experience right back at her:

You, with your pictorial and sunlit words, have brought color and light into my closed room. Your health has improved you tell me, and your life become more beautiful. I feel great joy over this. I cannot say the same for myself. My solitude has become even more profound, and I know nothing of the sun but what your letter tells me.

Gradually recognizing each other’s finely attuned minds, the two eventually began exchanging books—always through intermediaries, despite being a floor apart; in fact, he even sent some of his letters to her via the mail—and early on he began offering her published samples of his ongoing novel, despite his qualms about their level of polish and completion. Sending her magazine excerpts of what eventually became the work’s second and third volumes, he illuminates his expansive method as he subtly impresses her with why she and her husband need to give him the quiet that his labors require:

But will these detached pages give you an idea of the 2nd volume? And the 2nd volume itself doesn’t mean much; it’s the 3rd that casts the light and illuminates the plans of the rest. But when one writes a work in 3 volumes in an age when publishers want only to publish one at a time, one must resign oneself to not being understood, since the ring of keys is not in the same part of the building as the locked doors.

Those Daedalian keys eventually took seven volumes to become almost integrated into the novel’s full ground plan, Proust’s fully articulated vision halting just short of completion when he died eight years later, his revisions and expansions having ballooned the three volumes that he mentions in this 1914 letter into seven nearly perfect halls of mirrors.

Renowned Proust translator Lydia Davis reproduces the author’s idiosyncratic usage and orthography faithfully, mimicking the improvised quality of these dashed-off letters with a slashing verve, and she includes photographs of many of the letters so that readers can see their slapdash nature for themselves. The volume’s original French editors Estelle Gaudry and Jean-Yves Tadié contribute helpful endnotes, which Davis translates, expands, and emends to great effect, although Davis unfortunately has her hands tied with Proust-biographer Tadié’s labored foreword. Davis’s afterword also indulges in a few too many of her own peccadillos, such as way too much extra-Proustian information about what the bank that occupies Proust’s former apartment looks like now, which is totally irrelevant to what Proust experienced himself. The real magic of her afterward comes in its coda, which tells the story of the grandson of a Norman florist reading extracts from these letters online and subsequently disclosing Proust’s flower-buying habits and etiquette with the Williamses and others, noting the thirty-two times that he visited the shop between 1908 and 1912. Unearthing these intricately revealing records is the true Proustian pursuit, redeeming Davis’s mini-gospel of its few apocryphal lapses and elevating this volume’s host of testamentary material to nearly the level of the letters themselves. A tiny reliquary, this book’s illuminated codex now serves as a minor pilgrimage site for all true Proustian communicants.

—David Wiley

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey

On First Looking into Wilson’s Homer

A Review of Emily Wilson’s Translation of HomerOdyssey,

Including a Discussion with the Translator

Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2018

Translated by Emily Wilson
Norton, $39.95

Book clubs have always had a dubious reputation among elite readers and writers. From soi-disant elitist Jonathan Franzen deriding the Oprah Book Club for picking what he called “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” novels (note that Oprah’s second selection for the club was Toni Morrison’s staggering Song of Solomon), to bona fide elitist Vladimir Nabokov mocking book clubs in the introduction to his second English-language novel, Bend Sinister, serious literary folk have always turned their noses up at the amateur reading public, despite greatly profiting from it. Being almost totally antisocial, my own proclivities have mostly leaned in that direction too, but after moving to the East Coast a few years ago with no job, no contacts, and no plan—and being the virtual definition of the word amateur myself—I cautiously dipped my toe into a few area book clubs as a way of meeting likeminded people, and the results have been illuminating. A few groups were just people who wanted to get out of the house and gossip, with some attendees not even having read the book, while a few other groups treated the books with more seriousness and sophistication, and after some trial and error I eventually discovered a magic cabal of serious readers who were devoted to examining classic literature in profound depth. The first discussion I attended with this group was for Dante’s Inferno, and I was amazed to discover that the group’s facilitator had named her only child Dante. These were my people.

Homer and his homeys on Mount Parnassus
(detail), Raphael, 1509–10
We immediately went on to read the rest of Dante’s Comedy, which I was thrilled to reread along with such a diverse crew of barkmates, and since then we’ve gone on to discuss a virtually Dantean panoply of my old favorites: Virgil’s Aeneid, Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Nabokov’s Lolita, among many, many others. We’ve also surged forward into territory that’s been new to me, finally getting me around to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, Jean Toomer’s Cane, Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts, Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, as well as the aforementioned Bend Sinister. The general trend these past two years with them has been toward digging deeper into the foundations, though, as the three-meeting Dante discussion eventually led us to a two-meeting discussion of the Aeneid, which has now finally led us back to Homer. We spent two pitched meetings on the Iliad, and then we went straight into the Odyssey, and in an amazing stroke of authorly coincidence, a new version of the Odyssey came out in the short time between our two meetings, and it was by a translator who works just blocks from our meeting-place: University of Pennsylvania Classics professor Emily Wilson. So we invited her to our second Odyssey discussion, and she agreed to attend, seemingly descending from the skies as if she were Athena.

Emily Wilson
Five years in the making, Wilson’s Odyssey stands unique among modern Homer translations—as well as among all English translations of the poem. Written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, upending the entrenched modern practice of creating a more freeform Homer, Wilson’s is also the world’s first translation of the Odyssey into English by a woman, an astounding anachronism in a time when there are more women than men in the Classics field, as well as far more women book-buyers and readers in general, with women being statistically more educated overall now than men. This Odyssey is a much belated achievement, and in Wilson’s bold hands it slashes through decades and centuries of overgrown brush to create a dramatically fresh and relevant Homer for the Trump/#MeToo era. Eschewing the circumlocutions that English translators have long used to mask much of Homer’s most unsettling elements, Wilson calls a slave a slave (rather than a “thrall” or a “maid”) and makes no attempt to soften the poem’s brutal sexism, classism, and imperialism. Our hero marauds and pillages, happily destroying cities and tearing apart families in his quest for fame and riches, and even in his own hometown his closest friends are merely his property.

Wilson also deliberately leaves in the narrative gaps and inconsistencies that other translators usually try to minimalize or smooth out. Answering the group’s questions about some of the poem’s imperfectly organized power relationships, Wilson stressed how she let the poem stand as close as she could to the original, letting Homer make his own mistakes:

It’s unclear how much you are supposed to interrogate the central fantasy of the poem, that Odysseus is going to be always in exactly the same position in his household, as the father, son, husband, slave-owner, and dominant member of the community on Ithaca…. In real life, things change; fathers get older, sons inherit, relationships change. The poem is in some ways committed to obscuring that fact, but it also reminds us of it. Odysseus, in his “disguise” as a wrinkled, bereft old beggar, looks the way he might in real life, if twenty years have passed; yet Athena, the goddess who steers the plot, insists that his “real” self is immune from time or age. I wanted readers of my translation to be able to see where the gaps are in the narrative, to notice the interesting tensions and contradictions.

Of course, Odysseus is also returning to Ithaca to become the things that he never really got to be before departing for the Trojan War twenty years earlier—he’d been a very young man then, with a newborn son and a still-active father, so he’d never really gotten to be a father, patriarch, or king yet—but Wilson allows us to debate these points ourselves by letting all the text’s confusions stand. Why isn’t Odysseus’s father, Laertes, still the king of Ithaca? And how would the line of succession work if Odysseus’s wife Penelope married one of her suitors? Would that man become king, or would Odysseus’s son Telemachus merely pay a dowry and become king himself? We asked Wilson all these questions, and she told us that her translation leaves these points deliberately unresolved because Homer doesn’t clear them up himself and in fact often implies widely contradictory lines of resolution.

Athena and Owl (detail), Mycenaean
In contrast to this laissez-faire attitude toward the original text’s foibles, Wilson necessarily has to make her own active decisions about how to marshal Homer’s farrago of Greek dialects—which in its Babel Tower of inherited lines and phrases ranges over hundreds of years and miles of ancient Greek culture—into a modern English that holds together as a unified and pleasurable reading experience. Her decision to recast Homer’s dactylic hexameter into blank verse is a bold and fascinating move, because like her choice to leave in all the poem’s archaic textual and moral problems, the form of her translation also stands as both a modern and a fascinatingly old-fashioned statement. Her cadences read as freshly as the latest Internet gossip, allowing readers to devour her seamless song in headily intoxicating gulps, but her deliberate and mesmerizing rhythms constantly remind us that this poem is also pure artifice, reproducing for modern readers a good portion of the formal artistic experience that ancient Greek listeners and readers would have had with the original. Discussing how as a pan-Greek poem Homer’s text would have sounded wholly artificial to every single person it attempted to encompass within its linguistic sphere, Wilson described to us how outlandish and archaic this work would have seemed even the day it was completed:

Imagine that there are some phrases which are Chaucerian English, and then there’s a little bit of Brooklyn English, and then there’s a little bit of Cockney in here, and then a little bit of Irish. Homeric Greek is a mix of different dialects, from different time periods and different places in the Greek-speaking world. . . People must have got accustomed to this artificial language, which was how poetry sounded.

Few modern translators attempt to cast Homer into a line-by-line mirror of the original, instead letting their verses spill over onto each other and spread out as they endeavor to capture the full scope of each line’s and book’s meanings. Robert Fagles’s acclaimed translation exemplifies this freeform/free-verse expansiveness, creating a prosy but very useful and enjoyable edition that captures much of Homer’s resonances within its brimming-over verses. Before Wilson’s version, the only line-by-line translation I’d read was by Richmond Lattimore—another poet-scholar who worked and taught just a few miles from where I live now—but his version doesn’t stick to any kind of regular meter. Compared to the approximately eighteen syllables of Homer’s dactylic hexameter (which includes leeway for occasional spondaic substitutions), Lattimore usually sticks to a mere fourteen syllables, and so despite giving himself great freedom with the rhythm, he necessarily has to condense Homer’s sense into a consistently tighter line each time. Taking this approach to an even further extreme, Wilson’s iambic pentameter telescopes this already dense condensation into a pithy ten syllables per line, making her identical number of lines about 5/7ths the length of Lattimore’s syllable-count, and about 5/9ths the length of Homer’s, but as with every other aspect of her translation, Wilson’s meter is a slashing knife that clears the area of many of her readers’ preconceived notions and expectations. Not everyone will approve of this highly pointed version of Homer, but the readers in our group—many of whom had read several other versions before, including the original Greek—were unanimously enthralled by her poetry’s intense economy.

Odysseus and the Sirens (detail)
Carthaginian mosaic, 260 CE
Another big departure in this translation is how Wilson eschews most of Homer’s ubiquitous metrical repetitions (“rosy-fingered dawn,” “the wine-dark sea,” “wily Odysseus,” etc.), instead creating a fresh and varied look at each epithet and cliche each time it comes up, which allows the reader to experience a different shade of it each time—shades that are all accounted for in the original but that get lost when a translator picks just one color and sticks with it for the entire poem. “Everyone knows Homer repeats,” Wilson told us as she explained her license with Homer’s deep-rooted rhythms:

Each of the epithets means multiple different things, and I translate them one way here and a different way somewhere else…. I think there’s a fake authenticity evoked by translators who say to themselves, “I’m going to just do it like this, because that’s what the dictionary says,” or who try to replicate Homeric repetition by a rigid repetitiveness of their own. You can still tell that it’s a repetitive text in my translation, and that’s still central to the experience of reading the Odyssey.

In addition to their function as conveniently snug metrical plug-ins, Homer’s repetitions served as a way of remembering, and of stressing to the readers and listeners of a much less literate epoch than ours what was important to remember. Repetitions in our era often serve a diametrically different purpose, both artistically and rhetorically, and Wilson made some of her most compelling points about the thrust of her new translation as she teased out its aggressive stress on fresh verbal expression: “I want to feel that you can feel every word,” she told us, in part addressing the poetic demands of her exceptionally keen and modern ear, which refuses to bore her readers with rote recitation, but her approach also strives to keep her readers awake and engaged in how it frames the things that it actually says:

If somebody says for the gazillionth time, “Crooked Hillary,” you’re not pausing and thinking, “What exactly does he mean by that? Let me go check some facts.” No, the purpose of repetition in that instance is, “Let me not check any facts. Let me glaze over.”

Judgement of Paris (after Rubens), by Eleanor Antin,
from the Helen’s Odyssey series, 2007
As the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, Wilson refuses to glaze over the elements of Odysseus and his world that earlier translators have either tacitly given a pass to or deliberately manipulated into self-perpetuating misnomers. Many translators fallaciously have Helen accuse herself of being a “slut,” while Wilson points out that Homer has her use the word “Dog-eyed,” a term that’s generally used to describe powerful female deities, such as the Furies, who “hound” people in the same way that Helen can. Not everyone will like Wilson’s stress on original expression, because it doesn’t reproduce Homer’s relentless refrains, a decision that elides a major part of his songs’ hypnotic songiness—a musical effect that’s now largely lost anyway, as a modern reading public won’t be hearing the poem performed with musical accompaniment—but no serious contemporary reader will miss the sedimentary accretions that centuries of male translators have spuriously built up around their own biases.

In forcing us to see and hear Homer afresh, Wilson conversely accentuates many of Homer’s own biases, and without at all detracting from his artistry’s thrilling grandeur or making us childishly resent his overwhelming poetic achievement, she allows her readers to interrogate the text much more clearly, because we can see and hear it so much more clearly now. Rather than trying to get us to accept Odysseus’s impious cruelties without question, and rather than assuming that we’re all signed on for the archaic assumptions of Homer’s warlord state, Wilson confronts her readers with a world that’s starkly unsavory and unfair:

It’s important to make sure that the poem’s double standards are visible, just as they are in the original. One set of double standards has to do with poor people, beggars, outlaws. We think that if they’re elite people or gods in disguise, they’re great, and we should be super nice to them, and if they’re real beggars… then we should beat them to a bloody pulp and humiliate them.

Charybdis, aka Vagina Dentata,
which is also the name of my favorite album
by the Police, artist unknown
Pointing out how many of the poem’s repeating tropes and images are deeply misogynist, Wilson told us, “I think there is also a focus on ‘How are women’s mouths dangerous?’” Addressing the Sirens, who lure seamen to their death with their voices, and Scylla, who devours passersby with her six heads, and Charybdis, a devouring whirlpool who’s all mouth, Wilson draws attention to the poem’s portrayal of the seductive and destructive power of feminine orifices. She also notes how at the end Telemachus slaughters the slave women who’d ostensibly betrayed their master by sleeping with Penelope’s suitors: He draws a rope around all their necks and hangs them as a group, silencing them in the most immediate and final sense. Nodding to Homer’s grotesquely clever artistry, Wilson also points out how this is part of his way of “tying up” the narrative’s loose ends.

A poster for a production of
Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, 2012
Another of Wilson’s Herculean feats with this new edition is that she wrote all of its nearly one hundred pages of introductory material, added twenty-five pages of illuminating endnotes, compiled an erudite and handy glossary of every proper name found in the book, and consulted with a cartographer who contributed maps of Homer’s fantastical geography, essentially ushering this entire project into existence under her own aegis. It’s a staggering accomplishment, and each facet of it is superlative. Few verse translators should ever be trusted to write their own extra-textual material, because they’re either not scholarly enough, are too scholarly, are not good at organizing their ideas, or are simply not good prose writers. The go-to English-language team for the past few decades has been Robert Fagles’s lucid verse translations highlighted by Bernard Knox’s luminous prose, but Wilson’s voice and approach dazzle from page one of her introduction, making it seem difficult to believe that she could maintain such a momentum in the actual translation itself, which is in fact even more captivating.

Wilson’s combination of translation and extra-textual material opens such a window into the original text and reveals so many of the nuts and bolts of her creative and intellectual processes in transforming it into English that it allows even lay readers to come up with their own alternate solutions. She explains in her notes that Odysseus’s name derives from the word odussomai, which means “to be angry at [somebody]” or “to hate,” so why not refer to him as “odious” one of the four times that she notes Homer punning on his name? Likewise, when Odysseus is trying to pull himself out of the sea and onto the beach at Phaeacia, a wave washes over him and pulls him back, and Wilson notes that the verb for “covered” is kalypsen, a pun on Calypso, whom Odysseus has just escaped. Wilson translates the line as “A mighty wave rolled over him again,” but why not use the word “eclipsed,” to pun on Calypso’s name in English? As with all of the large-scale aspects of this edition of the Odyssey, not everyone will approve of every single one of Wilson’s word choices, but such is her illuminating power that she allows even us amateurs to see what she did and why, and to feel such a rich impression of what Homer intended us to feel.

Odysseus and Calypso, Max Beckmann, 1943
Because no translation could ever encompass all the contents and valences and effects of Homer’s vast and vastly alien poetic universe, there could never be a translation that could mirror all of his songs’ realms of gold, or that could fully satisfy every individual reader or scholar, or that could be in any way definitive or lasting, because translations are entirely ephemeral, as all things are, but Wilson has captured so much of him and us in her edition that it will likely make her the new go-to Homer translator of our time as she eclipses all of her gasping predecessors in her wavely surge. Both a Hercules and an Athena, Wilson left our book club overwhelmed and enlightened and eager for more. Feeling our enthusiasm—a word that in the original Greek means “possessed or inspired by a god”—she teased us at the end of the meeting by confirming that she’s now diving into the Iliad to complete the full Homeric picture. All we can say is, “Please come back and sing us another one.”

—David Wiley

Friday, September 1, 2017

Sholeh Wolpé’s translation of Farīd ud-Dīn Attār’s The Conference of the Birds

A Review of

Sholeh Wolpé’s Translation of

Farīd ud-Dīn Attār’s The Conference of the Birds

Originally published in the

Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2017

Farīd ud-Dīn Attār
Translated by Sholeh Wolpé
W.W. Norton & Company, $25.95

The Persian poet Farīd ud-Dīn Attār’s twelfth-century Sufi epic The Conference of the Birds stands alongside Dante’s Comedy and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as one of the great creative works of spiritual self-discovery. Straddling a place somewhere between Dante’s high fantasy and Bunyan’s naked allegory, The Conference of the Birds is also one of the most ingeniously conceived and plotted narratives in all of world literature, the denouement of its quest as astoundingly transformative as Oedipus the King, but without the horrific eye-gouging. Exactly the opposite, in fact: Like Dante’s Comedy (which had the working title Vision), Attār’s poem leads from near blindness to all-encompassing sight, its self-revelation a wholly moving and satisfying transfiguration. The poem has only been translated into English a few times in the past half century, with wildly differing results, and the Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpé’s new translation now brings it for the first time into the third millennium.

It’s impossible to discuss The Conference of the Birds without spoiling its surprise ending, which is by far the poem’s main feature and selling point. In brief, a conference of the world’s birds meets to decide upon who should be their king, and their avian adviser the Hoopoe tells them of the Simorgh, a legendary bird whose name means “thirty birds.” The Simorgh was first spotted soaring over China, where a single one of its feathers fell to earth and “triggered a titanic tumult in every land.” A single drawing of the feather that was mounted in China’s national art gallery subsequently became the wellspring of all wisdom, and also of all the world’s confusion:

Had the image of that feather not been recorded,
all of the world’s agitation would not have occurred.

All of science and art is but the impression
of that single feather.

A Negar Gari (miniature painting) of the Simorgh
by contemporary artist Nadia Ostovar.
Because nobody can comprehend even the drawing’s attributes—let alone the feather itself—the Hoopoe urges the birds to seek the Simorgh themselves on the distant Mount Qaf, an emerald crag that surround the world and is the place where the sun both rises and sets. The birds all offer up excuses and objections, and after a lengthy harangue from the Hoopoe instructing them on the Sufi path of self-abnegation, the Wayfarers set out to traverse the seven valleys that purify them and ready them to meet their Beloved. Each valley strips away an impeding aspect of their ego, purging the birds of their worldly attachments and radically thinning out the wayfaring flock at each step. Finally, of the initial group of 100,000 only a remaining core of thirty purified birds reaches Mount Qaf to discover that they, the thirty birds, are the Simorgh.

Like King Oedipus, they were the very one that they’d been seeking, but like Dorothy in Oz, they first needed to make the journey toward the emerald horizon in order to discover this fact. It’s not conceivable that Dante could have read this Persian poem, but its similarities to his Comedy are striking, and since much of the thinking of Europe’s high Middle Ages derived from Arabic commentary upon Aristotle and other classics, perhaps the two poems evolved from similar influences. The most startling similarity is how, like Attār’s seven valleys, Dante’s Purgatory cleanses the pilgrim in seven distinct steps of each of the seven deadly sins, leaving him immaculate and ready for the stars. As a crowning pinnacle, and as an encircling frame, Mount Qaf also fascinatingly prefigures both the peak of Mount Purgatory and the Paradiso’s heavenly Empyrean, which exists outside of space and time and is at once the epicenter and the universe’s encompassing outer limit.

From Peter Sis’s 2011 illustrated version
Despite Attār’s brilliantly inspired concept for this poem, its composition and execution unfortunately fall far short of its Florentine counterpart. Attār shows remarkable resourcefulness in his parabolic approaches to the poem’s themes and concepts, and his tone and mindset are also much more sympathetic and welcoming than Dante’s harsh obsession with rules, but Attār lacks a dramatic and descriptive and organizational power that would continuously thrust the enthralled reader toward the poem’s astonishing end. The first two hundred pages (in Wolpé’s translation) are all preamble, with the Hoopoe first countering the birds’ complaints and objections and then answering their questions about the nature of their Beloved Simorgh. Then the seventy-or-so pages that address the seven purifying valleys of their journey are also all prospective preamble, describing what they’ll be like rather than actually describing their advent. Then the birds’ journey itself only fills a page and a half, followed by ten precious pages describing their transcendent transformation. These few dozen mind-bending lines make the entire poem, though. Attār then ends with a fascinating exploration of his own ego, vacillating between shocking artistic braggadocio and profoundly humble self-effacement, a meditation that revealingly illustrates the paradox of the ambitious sage who preaches humility. It’s like that old Onion article about the cocky yogi who declares, “I am the serenest!

Compared to the two most readily available English translations of The Conference of the Birds, Wolpé’s version alights somewhere between Dick Davis & Afkham Darbandi’s 1984 Penguin edition and Peter Avery’s more scholarly 1998 version. Davis & Darbandi’s translation mimics Attār’s rhymed couplets with English rhymed couplets, to distractingly sing-song effect, and it also unfortunately elides Attār’s self-examining/self-praising epilogue. The more meticulous Avery includes the entire poem and thankfully eschews rhyme while sticking to a strictly lined verse translation, and he also provides extraordinarily helpful and thorough notes. Wolpé varies her translation’s format between verse for the narrative and prose for the Hoopoe’s parables, breaking each section up in a way that’s helpful for uninitiated readers but not exactly faithful to the original. She also elides Attār’s opening invocation to Allah, which Avery includes to gorgeous effect. In all, Wolpé has crafted a fine reading experience with her new translation, breaking up some of the monotony of the poem’s first three quarters with format shifts and chapter breaks and rubric descriptions that keep the reader turning the pages. Her version of The Conference of the Birds may not be absolutely true to the poem’s totality, but it serves as an exceptional initiation for modern lay readers into the Path of the Wayfarer.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

A Review of

Shakespeare and Company, Paris:

A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

Originally published in the

Shakespeare and Company, Paris:
A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
Edited by Krista Halverson
Shakespeare and Company Paris, $34.95

Any young writer who’s passed through Paris at any time over the past six decades and didn’t stay at least a few nights at the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company has simply not done Paris correctly. Founded in 1951 by American expat George Whitman and evolving through a series of names and incarnations until eventually being rechristened after the bookstore that first published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, Shakespeare and Company has housed more than thirty thousand writers and wannabe writers as they explored the City of Lights at invaluable leisure, as well as in considerable squalor. In exchange for free lodging in the upstairs library’s makeshift bunks—or, in the high season, on the floor of the store itself—George only asked for an hour or two of volunteer work per day, a two-page autobiography for inclusion in his vast files, and a commitment to reading one book for each night spent in his sanctuary. Most Shakespeareans stayed for two or three nights, but many stayed for weeks or months, and a few inmates remained in some guise or other for years. George offered these accommodations as a form of forward payment for the hospitality that he’d received in his early years of tramping all over globe, and with his Left Bank bookstore’s Seine-side view of Notre-Dame cathedral he gave more than half a century of writers an inestimable gift of time and space. Virtually every one of his guests has written about the store in some form, and now that George has passed away and the store has been taken over by his daughter, Sylvia (who was named after the founder of the original Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach), an official history has finally appeared: Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart.

A Young George Whitman
Edited by Shakespearean Krista Halverson, this multifaceted and multi-genre history collects nearly a century of material about George and his bookstore, including an account of Beach’s original Shakespeare and Company, a selection of George’s early travel journals, clips of newspaper and magazine articles about the man and his freeform Paris utopia, narratives by scores of store denizens—including an introduction by Jeanette Winterson—several exemplary (and often bizarre) volunteer bios, poems by some of the more well-known store associates, excerpts from an unsurprisingly diverse number of authors mentioning George and his store, and decades of evocative and beautifully laid-out photographs. Threading it all together, Halverson’s exceptionally well-researched and deftly crafted narrative paints a portrait not just of George and his store, but of a city and a country and a century, in rich and informed perspective. Many of the writers and publications associated with the store over the decades have been notoriously shoddy, and Halverson manages to capture the slapdash flavor of the place and its people while transcending the first-draft quality of many of its past exemplars. Perhaps a large part of this book’s gleaming polish can be attributed to the influence of George’s daughter, Sylvia, who inherited the bookstore in 2011 when George passed away at the age of ninety-eight, and who brought it into the twenty-first century while somehow managing to retain much of its original bohemian integrity. Straddling several overlapping and contrasting worlds, this book captures the madness and squalor of the place while being in no way squalid itself, which is a seriously impressive feat.

Sylvia Whitman, her partner David Delannet,
and editor Krista Halvorson
The most valuable part of this book for people who knew George is the selection of his early travel journals, because it captures his mind and voice in a way that was almost totally inaccessible to even most of his best friends. As the book’s narrative mentions, George was not at all a conversationalist, and his essentially solitary personality often seemed miles away from the store, even as he stormed through its center. In fact, many Shakespeareans doubted that this mad King Lear even knew anything about literature, often judging him by the sub-literate Beat and wanna-Beat writers who abused his hospitality, and it’s enlightening to see how extraordinarily well read and sophisticated and intellectually resourceful he was—as well as how good a writer he was, his early voice very quickly maturing in the most curious directions. If this book serves its central character as well as he deserves, it will spawn a fuller collection of his journals, as well as an in-depth biography. These pages are a revelation, but they also seem like a preface to deeper volumes, because it would be a tragedy to let this fascinating man fade away into mere cameo appearances in books by the writers he hosted and inspired.

Sylvia and George Whitman
That’s not to say that this great man was also a really great guy. Halverson’s narrative dances around his personality by referring to him as “irascible” and “cantankerous” while illustrating with kid gloves a few slight shades of how abusive he could be. For a more gloves-off portrait (that’s still entirely loving and grateful), see Jeremy Mercer’s 2005 memoir Time Was Soft There. Clearly in the employ of Sylvia Whitman, who has a deeply moving last word here in a heartrending afterword that more than makes up for the book’s gentle circumlocutions, Halverson has her hands tied in what she can convey in this history, but despite what got left on the editing-room floor (or what was perhaps hidden from her), Halverson mirrors George’s complex sophistication in how she juggles so much competing information and influence to create a document that feels both so satisfyingly full and so tantalizingly suggestive of what’s missing. Halverson is so adroit an editor and writer that for readers who don’t know the bookstore’s ins and outs she only leaves one gaping lacuna in the book’s surface: the relationship between George and his daughter’s mother, who’s never named or described or even alluded to in this book, even when narrating Sylvia’s unconventional upbringing. Like an Old-Testament patriarch, George was nearly seventy when Sylvia was born, but the girl’s mother is completely and conspicuously elided from these pages. Nearly perfectly balancing her dual duties as hired editor and truth-telling chronicler—and outshining any quibbling critique of her herculean efforts—Halverson satisfies insider and outsider alike with this book, creating a work that serves as a brilliant standalone history while simultaneously inspiring untold future volumes. With so many thousands of writers in George Whitman’s prodigious debt, surely this is not the end of his story.

—David Wiley

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Jim Walsh’s Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s

A Review of Jim Walsh’s

Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune

on January 22nd, 2017

By Jim Walsh
University of Minnesota Press, 200 pages, $16.95

Minneapolis native Prince was perhaps the last American pop musician who could legitimately be compared to such prime movers as Elvis Presley or James Brown or Jimi Hendrix. Arriving almost fully formed as a teenage recording artist in the late 1970s, he drew upon a particularly vibrant circle of musical scenes, absorbing the exuberance of disco, the edginess of punk rock and new wave, the fervor of Michael Jackson, and the pyrotechnic thrills of Van Halen and heavy metal, transforming it all into a body of work that was as accomplished as it was ambitious. He flashed through the 1980s in a delirious purple dream, besting himself so often and so brilliantly that he quickly became his only competition, thrusting himself into the 1990s as virtually the only musician left standing, which is the position Jim Walsh’s new book Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ’90s finds him in.

Prince logo.svg
Walsh covered Prince for the St. Paul Pioneer Press between 1994 and 2002, and this book collects all of his articles about the little purple guy as he attempts to continue surging forward. Adding very few editorial comments to this collection of clips—and presumably making no revisions, capturing both writer and subject, who were the same age, in journalistic amber—Walsh eschews hindsight perspective and delivers the reader right into the drama of each moment, making it possible to experience Prince’s development during these years with a sense of urgent suspense. His maniacal energy and challenging diversity suddenly beginning to lose traction in a cultural landscape that would rather be sedated by Seattle’s stultifying borecore or L.A.’s mellow stoner rap, Prince struggled to maintain purpose and relevance in the 1990s, and Walsh documents his wavering trajectory in observant and sometimes painful detail. At the book’s outset Prince had recently changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and it’s telling that for almost the whole era that this book documents Walsh refers to him as “the former Prince.” Nearly every new step seems to herald a return to Prince’s golden age, with Walsh cheering him on (and occasionally lecturing him), but as the decade slacks toward millennium it gradually becomes clear that Prince won’t be reinstating his purple reign in time to celebrate 1999.

Jim Walsh
Following Prince as he tries to recapture his astonishing prime, Walsh’s Gold Experience is in fact a chronicle of the artist’s silver age, and as such it serves more as a record of the journalist’s emotional journey than as a vital document of a crucial time. With his hero going astray again and again, Walsh struggles with acceptance as he’s forced to compare this fluctuating luminary to the dimmest bulbs of the era. It’s astonishing to see Walsh refer to the monochromatic Beck as “state of the art” in comparison to anything that Prince could do, but that’s just how far pop musicianship had descended into dreary incompetence, leaving little room for a true polymath to shine. Vividly capturing the hope and heartbreak of this waning musical epoch, Walsh’s Gold Experience paints a poignant portrait of the artist formerly known as Prince.

—David Wiley