Sunday, July 16, 2017

Papillons noirs

How to translate badly, lesson one: Make the translation rhyme.

I've begun to think that any real aesthetic appreciation of a translated poem would have to be found by reading the original, and that all I can do is to give a rough, incomplete idea of what the poem says -- necessarily incomplete, because poems depend more on the skilled use of language than on meaning as we think of it when we talk about other forms of communication. If I were to impose a rhyme scheme, I would cloud this already vague idea.

With all of this in mind, here is my rough translation of another poem by Albert Giraud, from Pierrot Lunaire: Rondels Bergamasques (Alphonse Lemerre, Éditeur. Paris, 1884).

PAPILLONS NOIRS.

De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire,
Et l'horizon semble un grimoire
Barbouillé d'encre tous les soirs.

Il sort d'occultes encensoirs
Un parfum troublant la mémoire:
De sinistres papillons noirs
Du soleil ont éteint la gloire.

Des monstres aux gluants suçoirs
Recherchent du sang pour le boire,
Et du ciel, en poussière noire,
Descendent sur nos désespoirs
De sinistres papillons noirs.

- - - - - - - - - -

Sinister black butterflies
Have extinguished the glory of the sun,
And the horizon resembles a grimoire
Smeared with ink every night.

There issues from occult censers
A perfume troubling to the memory:
Sinister black butterflies
Have extinguished the glory of the sun.

Monsters with sticky proboscides
Hunt for blood to drink,
And from the sky, in black dust,
Upon our despairs descend
Sinister black butterflies.

How could this go wrong? Easily!

Sinister black butterflies
Have snuffed out glory from the skies;
Like some grimoire, the horizon lies
Daubed with ink at midnight's rise.

From censers used for auguries,
Fumes coil to pierce forgotten sighs:
Sinister black butterflies
Have snuffed out glory from the skies.

Slimey beast proboscides
Hunt for blood-atrocities,
While from the clouds like blackened sties
Descend on every dream that dies
Sinister black butterflies.

Perhaps, like a physician, a translator should first do no harm....

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Reviewer's Duty to Damn

John Ciardi, on principles for reviewers at The Saturday Review.


1. The reader deserves an honest opinion. If he doesn't deserve it give it to him anyhow.
2. No one who offers a book for sale is sacrosanct. By the act of publication and promotion, the citizen-human being forfeits his privileges as a non-competitor. Having willingly subjected himself to judgment he must accept either blame or praise as it follows. If in doubt, assume that the book is signed by Anonymous.

3. Evaluation must be by stated principle. The reviewer's opinion is only as good as his methods.

4. A review without reference to the text is worthless.

5. Quotation without analysis of the material quoted is suspect.

6. If you cannot document a charge, pro or con, do not make it.

7. Poetry is more important than any one poet. Serve poetry.

8. Limitations of space often make it difficult and sometimes impossible to apply these principles as carefully as one would wish. No space limitation, however, is reason enough for forgetting that these principles exist.

-- From
"A Reviewer's Duty to Damn."
The Saturday Review, February 16, 1957.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Smell of Yesterday's Blood



When I say that horror is not a genre, but a mood, a suspicion, a perspective, I assert this not to condemn genre, but to recognize that the qualities I love in one type of story can often be found in unexpected form elsewhere.

To give one example: here is a passage from an Isaac Babel story, "Crossing into Poland."

"The commander of the VI division reported: Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff had left Krapivno, and our baggage train was spread out in a noisy rearguard over the highroad from Brest to Warsaw built by Nicholas I upon the bones of peasants.

"Fields flowered around us, crimson with poppies; a noon-tide breeze played in the yellowing rye; on the horizon virginal buckwheat rose like the wall of a distant monastery. The Volyn's peaceful stream moved away from us in sinuous curves and was lost in the pearly haze of the birch groves; crawling between flowery slopes, it wound weary arms through a wilderness of hops. The orange sun rolled down the sky like a lopped-off head, and mild light glowed from the cloud gorges. The standards of the sunset flew above our heads. Into the cool of evening dripped the smell of yesterday's blood, of slaughtered horses. The blackened Zbruch roared, twisting itself into foamy knots at the falls. The bridges were down, and we waded across the river. On the waves rested a majestic moon. The horses were in to the cruppers, and the noisy torrent gurgled among hundreds of horses' legs. Somebody sank, loudly defaming the Mother of God. The river was dotted with the square black patches of the wagons, and was full of confused sounds, of whistling and singing, that rose above the gleaming hollows, the serpentine trails of the moon."

[From The Collected Stories, edited and translated by Walter Morison. Meridian Books, 1960.]

Everything I love in horror fiction can be found here: similes that convey unease ("like a lopped-off head"), vividly-evoked settings full of troubling details ("the smell of yesterday's blood, of slaughtered horses"), metaphors that suggest an uncanny threat or process ("the serpentine trails of the moon").

But do these details (and grimmer ones to come) make this a horror story?

One response would be to say, "Horrific matter, horrific moods, make a story horror." I can understand this, and I'm tempted to agree with it. But I'm also tempted to say that what we normally consider horror fiction is just one small group of stories within a larger framework that acknowledges the power and presence of a mood. Horror is an inescapable aspect of life; it is not limited to a genre.

How you feel about this, and whether you agree or disagree, will depend on your own perspective, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But from my point of view, this ambiguity, this uncertainty, implies a freedom to explore the nuances of a mood without limitations of style or content or expectation. Not only is the road wide open, but there are many roads, and they all veer off towards a storm-cloud horizon without fences and without maps.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hoarded Life And Beauty



More thoughts on Walter de la Mare, and on the difficulty of expressing how a story works....

In my slice of the world beyond the internet, I am surrounded by readers, but no one else in my life reads horror fiction. I often wonder if people find it foreign, inaccessible.

Both H. E. Bates and Seán Ó Faoláin have argued that modern short stories are closer in impact and scope to lyric poetry than to plays or novels. I concede their point, and I would call it even more true for horror stories, where causes are often unclear, where effects can be vivid but inexplicable, and where consequences are often left to implication.

Because of their kinship with poems, horror stories can be hard to describe, and their impact can be hard to understand. Why do they often work so powerfully? We might as well ask why a poem works. We can examine a poem's techniques, metaphors, and imagery, but by the time the sun has gone down, we are left in the dark with a piece of writing that cannot be paraphrased. The only way to grasp its effect is to read it from beginning to end.

One of the fascinations of Walter de la Mare's short fiction is that it relies even more than most on these elusive "poetic" qualities. Yes, the plots can be taken apart, the prose can be analyzed, but the lingering effect is more akin to the ripples of a dream. This makes it easy to enjoy, but hard to describe and even harder to recommend.

A case in point: again, "The Tree," from 1922.

I have read the story five times, now, and each reading has made it more disturbing. I believe I understand its meaning, or at least one of its meanings; these are for you to find on your own. But the power of the story goes beyond this rational awareness of what (in part) it seems to imply.

If a story like this cannot be paraphrased, then how can it be reviewed? One solution would be to describe the plot:

"A wealthy fruit merchant pays an angry visit to his half-brother, an artist whom he considers a lazy good-for-nothing parasite. But the merchant is uneasy about seeing, once again, the almost-alien tree that has become an obsession for the artist."

What would this tell you? Not much. Would it compel you to read the story? Most likely not, because it fails to give you any sense of how the story might actually feel as you read it.

But if I were to quote from it, at length?

...This old man, shrunken and hideous in his frame of abject poverty, his arms drawn close up to his fallen body, worked sedulously on and on. And behind and around him showed the fruit of his labours. Pinned to the scaling walls, propped on the ramshackle shelf above his fireless hearthstone, and even against the stale remnant of a loaf of bread on the cracked blue dish beside him, was a litter of pictures. And everywhere, lovely and marvellous in all its guises -- the tree. The tree in May’s showering loveliness, in summer’s quiet wonder, in autumn’s decline, in naked slumbering wintry grace. The colours glowed from the fine old rough paper like lamps and gems.

There were drawings of birds too, birds of dazzling plumage, of flowers and butterflies, their crimson and emerald, rose and saffron seemingly shimmering and astir; their every mealy and feathery and pollened boss and petal and plume on fire with hoarded life and beauty. And there a viper with its sinuous molten scales; and there a face and a shape looking out of its nothingness such as would awake even a dreamer in a dream....

And at that moment, as if an angry and helpless thought could make itself audible even above the hungry racketing of mice and the melancholic whistling of a paraffin lamp -- at that moment the corpse-like countenance, almost within finger-touch on the other side of the table, slowly raised itself from the labour of its regard, and appeared to be searching through the shutter’s cranny as if into the Fruit Merchant’s brain. The glance swept through him like an avalanche. No, no. But one instantaneous confrontation, and he had pushed himself back from the impious walls as softly as an immense sack of hay.

These were not eyes -- in that abominable countenance. Speck-pupilled, greenish-grey, unfocused, under their protuberant mat of eyebrow, they remained still as a salt and stagnant sea. And in their uplifted depths, stretching out into endless distances, the Fruit Merchant had seen regions of a country whence neither for love nor money he could ever harvest one fruit, one pip, one cankered bud. And blossoming there beside a glassy stream in the mid-distance of far-mountained sward -- a tree.

We can break a story into pieces, scan it with a microscope, and learn a lot about the craft of writing. What we cannot describe, what we can only experience in privacy, is the effect of a story as a whole, because, again, like a poem, a story can be impossible to paraphrase.

And so, for my part, I would rather avoid many details of plot; I would rather let people see a long and characteristic section of prose, because this, at least, would give people some idea of how reading the story might feel.

If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Limitation of Filming

A counter-argument to my previous post.

One limitation of imagery in film is that it can be comprehensible at first glance.

Of course, camera trickery like fade-ins or blurring can delay comprehension, as in the flashback sequence from Once Upon a Time in the West, or a deeply subjective viewpoint can be used to present initial confusion, as in the David Lynch adaptation of Dune, when Duke Leto, dying, mistakes another person for the Baron Harkonnen. But I suspect most audiences would recognize these tricks as unusual methods of presentation in a medium otherwise more suited to clarity -- even if that clarity shows unusual perspectives or juxtapositions, as in Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera.



In writing, by contrast, a subjective impression can be built clause by clause, and because narratives often rely on subjective points of view, the readers do not feel any need to reject the method as a contrivance.

My favourite example of this gradual build-up by subjective impressions can be found in a story by M. R. James, "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance":



"The main occupation of this evening at any rate was settled. The tracing of the plan for Lady Wardrop and the careful collation of it with the original meant a couple of hours’ work at least. Accordingly, soon after nine Humphreys had his materials put out in the library and began. It was a still, stuffy evening; windows had to stand open, and he had more than one grisly encounter with a bat. These unnerving episodes made him keep the tail of his eye on the window. Once or twice it was a question whether there was -- not a bat, but something more considerable -- that had a mind to join him. How unpleasant it would be if someone had slipped noiselessly over the sill and was crouching on the floor!

"The tracing of the plan was done: it remained to compare it with the original, and to see whether any paths had been wrongly closed or left open. With one finger on each paper, he traced out the course that must be followed from the entrance. There were one or two slight mistakes but here, near the centre, was a bad confusion, probably due to the entry of the Second or Third Bat. Before correcting the copy he followed out carefully the last turnings of the path on the original. These, at least, were right; they led without a hitch to the middle space. Here was a feature which need not be repeated on the copy -- an ugly black spot about the size of a shilling. Ink? No. It resembled a hole, but how should a hole be there? He stared at it with tired eyes: the work of tracing had been very laborious, and he was drowsy and oppressed.... But surely this was a very odd hole. It seemed to go not only through the paper, but through the table on which it lay. Yes, and through the floor below that, down, and still down, even into infinite depths. He craned over it, utterly bewildered. Just as, when you were a child, you may have pored over a square inch of counterpane until it became a landscape with wooded hills, and perhaps even churches and houses, and you lost all thought of the true size of yourself and it, so this hole seemed to Humphreys for the moment the only thing in the world. For some reason it was hateful to him from the first, but he had gazed at it for some moments before any feeling of anxiety came upon him; and then it did come, stronger and stronger -- a horror lest something might emerge from it, and a really agonizing conviction that a terror was on its way, from the sight of which he would not be able to escape. Oh yes, far, far down there was a movement, and the movement was upwards -- towards the surface. Nearer and nearer it came, and it was of a blackish-grey colour with more than one dark hole. It took shape as a face -- a human face -- a burnt human face: and with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth an appearance of a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them."