Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On how Otfrid von Weißenburg produces a new form of German poetry in his Evangelienharmonie (c.863-871)

Look how happy he looks.

By any measure Otfrid von Weißenburg’s Evangelienharmonie is a Great Leap Forward in terms of what it achieves in the history of German literature. Otfrid is our first named German author; the Evangelienharmonie is the most copied Old High German text; its sheer length is unmatched; it is the longest Bible epic since the start of the genre in the 4th century; it is our first instance of a German literature autograph (it being rare even in Middle High German to have works in the hand of the author themselves); and it has as its explicit goal the establishment of German as a literary language, establishing the gospel stories as literary matter worthy of being written ‘theodisce’ or in the vulgar tongue. Of this shopping list of records that the Evangelienharmonie sets, it is perhaps the last which is of greatest interest to us. That Otfrid set out at all to create a Biblical epic in the vernacular of his day is itself remarkable; that it is such a vast, complex work full of structural and poetic innovations even more so. From this marker-stone we can glance back to antiquity, to Ambrosius and Saint Jerome, and forward to the blooming medieval period of Parsival and Tristan and indeed on to Luther’s Bible translation of the 1520s and 1530s.

Monday, 28 November 2016

On Lou Andreas-Salomé

Do you know who this woman is?

If not, don't worry about it, since she's relatively unknown and certainly nowhere near as famous as the three men with whom she most prominently mingled. But I find her fascinating, her history and the complications of her life, so I want to speak a little bit about her today.

This woman is called Lou Andreas-Salomé. She was born in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1861, and thus her name was originally Луиза Густавовна Саломе. Her parents were of north Germanic and French extraction. Her father was an army general.

Friday, 25 November 2016

On how the poetry of Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) aims for a new language to reflect a new world

Like any other author writing after World War II, Ingeborg Bachmann would have been no doubt confronted with Theodor W. Adorno’s famous dictum: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch”[1], that is to say that after Auschwitz no new world - in an intellectual or aesthetic sense - was possible at all, whatever the goals of the poem that tried to create it. As we can see from Bachmann’s pronouncement in Das dreißigste Jahr that there can be “keine neue Welt ohne neue Sprache”, she disagreed with Adorno - proposing instead that a new world was possible, even if only through a shift to a new poetics. Much of Bachmann’s oeuvre can be seen in the light of grappling with this problem, and of seeking its potential solution and expression (“wir brauchen Musik. Das Gespenst ist die lautlose Welt”[2]).

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Class Novel 2: "Joyride" by Guy Adams (2016)

contains SPOILERS

One of the advantages of fiction - indeed, one of the reasons we read it - is that it allows us inside others' heads. We all know the famous Atticus Finch quote from To Kill a Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Compassion is a fundamentally imaginative act, as Ian McEwan memorably said in a non-fiction piece he wrote in September 2001 that's significantly better than any of his own published fiction: an inability to understand the pain or suffering others would go through as a result of one's actions is a failure of imagination. But fiction helps us to go to those places we would never normally be able to visit or sojourn, as distant as any alien world: if the book is good enough, like Anna Karenina, I can feel as though I'm inside the head of an aristocratic 19th century Russian noblewoman, every aspect of which it's quite impossible for me to ever be myself. I can understand how Anna thinks and why she behaves as she does, because ultimately the book allows me to imagine my way into being Anna. Inability to understand why somebody acts in a particular way comes from an inability to see what's inside their head.

Guy Adams' Class tie-in novel, Joyride, takes the premise of "being in someone else's skin" and runs with it in as literal a manner as only science-fiction can. The story's central concept is just that -- hopping from one's own body into someone else's and subsequently wreaking damage, "joyriding" if you will. There are various ways in which this plays out, sometimes sinister, sometimes shocking, sometimes even darkly funny. By some way, I think, the opening stuff with Poppy's joyride (literally, since she steals a car, mows down several bystanders and then kills herself by driving into a building) and Max Collins killing his family by burning his house down is of a powerful heightened reality - eerie and shocking but unable to unsee, much like witnessing a car crash - which the rest of the novel never quite recaptures. This slightly creates the impression that the book peaks very early on and peters out a little after that, which is both a bit unfair but perhaps also not too wide from the mark.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Guest Post: The Living Prison by Adsum T. Ravenhill


This awe-inspiring piece, reflecting on life with a disability, comes from my friend Adsum who previously wrote about the "Class" premiere which we attended together.

I used to be a pessimist through and through. No positivity was allowed to permeate the solid steel walls I had built up around the perceived logic in my mind. I saw it as a fortress, I now know it was a prison. How do I know this? Because I now know prisons all too well, because I live in one.

My prison isn't made of thick concrete and barred doors and windows, but instead of over sensitive skin, wasting joints and muscles, surrounded by rivers of fire and burning ash where nerves had once been.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Class Novel 1: "What She Does Next Will Astound You" by James Goss (2016)

contains SPOILERS

"Don't judge a book by its cover", they have said since time immemorial (or, at least, since whenever books had cover art). But what about a book's title? After all, judging a book by its title is fair game, isn't it? Covers are trivial things, commissioned by publishing houses and crafted by people who do those disturbingly creative, visual arts like drawing (shock horror), but titles are noble and full of profundity and depth and meaning? Right?

In a sense this question of judging actual content on the basis of a mere pithy summary, of trusting what you're told, is at the heart of James Goss' novel "What She Does Next Will Astound You" - appropriately, too, given the novel boasts such an excellent title (and a rather lovely cover, too, but that's by-the-by). It's the kind of title you'd simply have to retrace your steps in a bookshop to look at again. It hooks you. Draws you in. It's blatantly constructed with that one purpose in mind: to get you to read it. And that, of course, is why it's so terribly effective, because Goss is both trying to get you to buy his book and simultaneously satirizing our insta-news, BuzzFeed, click-bait, oversharing, five-more-minutes-browsing-the-pointlessness-of-the-Internet culture. You know the kind of titles I mean: "What This Girl Did For A Homeless Man Will Blow Your Mind" or "Top 10 Reasons Not To Eat Ginger With Parsley" or whatever.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

On the significance of the Vorau prologue to the "Ezzolied" (c.1064/5; 1115)


The 11th century Old High German poem Cantilena de miraculis Christi (Song of the Miracles of Christ) that has come to be known as the Ezzolied exists in two recensions; the one from Strasbourg which dates from around 1065 (the Straßburger Handschrift) and the other from Vorau (the Vorauer Handschrift). The latter is both about fifty years younger and, at thirty-four strophes to the Straßburger’s seven, considerably longer and more developed (setting aside the introductory preamble, its 33 strophes reflect Christ’s 33 years of life on Earth). Though there are numerous differences between the two which could be, and have been, examined, one of the most intriguing is the prologue stanza or Prologstrophe (also sometimes called an Einleitungsstrophe) which appears in the Vorauer Handschrift but is absent in the earlier manuscript.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Arcadia, or The Land of Milk and Honey

I entered this poem for the Stephen Spender Poetry in Translation Prize 2016 and now that the prize winners have been named and I'm not one of them (sob! - Just kidding), I am at liberty to pop it up on my blog. "Arcadia, or The Land of Milk and Honey" is a translation into English of the poem "Das Märchen vom Schlauraffenland" by Ulrike Almut Sandig (b. 1979) whose poem "Hinemoana" I have already translated on this blog. The version below is very much a loose translation, more of an adaptation to render Sandig's words - which are very explicitly about German culture, history and myth - into an English that would make sense to most English speakers.“Das Märchen vom Schlauraffenland” is a free-verse soundscape of surreal ideas and images, blending modern-day references to the refugee crisis with a childlike, fairy-tale dream of Germany as a land with nothing evil in it, and juxtaposing the two. The first (and boldest) decision I had to take, as do all translators, was whether I wanted my translation to hew closely to the original or to say something striking and dramatic in English – to be fidèle or belle, as Flaubert puts it. I chose the latter, if only because the cultural reference points in German are so uniquely German, so echt Deutsch, that they speak little to us; rendered in English, they do not stir up an understanding of the relationship between modern and mythical in the way the German words do for German-speakers. On the other hand, images of Caliban in Stratford, of Dad’s Army jokes misquoted, of British chat-shows and comedians, help to build up something of the “national mythos” in the case of Britain which Almut Sandig has already done for her homeland. Where she stresses the works of the Brothers Grimm, I have overlaid my version with Alice in Wonderland, The Tempest (how fortuitous, then, that träumte er wieder from the German original translates directly as “he dreamed again”, almost word-for-word one of Caliban’s most memorable phrases) and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Where she relies on the iconic Socialist hymn Meine Heimat sung in the German Democratic Republic, I have substituted I Vow To Thee My Country (necessitating an elongation of the stanza in the process, probably the greatest structural alteration). This could be seen not as a translation, but as a companion piece to the original: sufficiently distinct, yet unable to exist without Sandig’s words. But that is what I believe all good translations ought to be: self-sufficient, and yet not self-sufficient.