Water Trails of the Ceriso

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Sierra Nevada Mountains seen from Owens Valley, California

This is Mary Austin country. I am overwhelmed by her writing these days. Seem to think of almost nothing else. Whenever I glance at something to be translated, or open a computer file containing some of my own work in progress, none of it seems to register. Instead, Mary Austin’s images from ‘The Land of Little Rain’ (1903) crowd into my mind from every direction. I’m sure this has some significance, apart from Austin’s overpowering artistic genius, of course, but I have yet to figure out what it is. Indeed, her images won’t allow me even to much consider the question. Luckily with Kindle you can underline things as you read without ever once marring the pages of a book. Here are some passages I noted early this morning while reading Chapter 2 of the Austin book I mention above, a chapter entitled ‘Water Trails of the Ceriso’. It’s about the various paths creatures large and small use to get to water in the desert.

‘It needs but a slender thread of barrenness to make a mouse trail in the forest of the sod. To the little people the water trails are as country roads, with scents as signboards.’

‘It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights from which to study trails.’

‘The coyote is your true water-witch, one who snuffs and paws, snuffs and paws again at the smallest spot of moisture-scented earth until he has freed the blind water from the soil. Many water-holes are no more than this detected by the lean hobo of the hills in localities where not even an Indian would look for it.’

‘It seems that the wild creatures have learned all that is important to their way of life except the changes of the moon. I have seen some prowling fox or coyote, surprised by its sudden rising from behind the mountain wall, slink in its increasing glow, watch it furtively from the cover of near-by brush, unprepared and half uncertain of its identity until it rode clear of the peaks, and finally make off with all the air of one caught napping by an ancient joke. The moon in its wanderings must be a sort of exasperation to cunning beasts, likely to spoil by untimely risings some fore-planned mischief.’

‘I have seen badgers drinking about the hour when the light takes on the yellow tinge it has from coming slantwise through the hills.’

‘The rabbits begin it, taking the trail with long, light leaps, one eye and ear cocked to the hills from whence a coyote might descend upon them at any moment. Rabbits are a foolish people. They do not fight except with their own kind, nor use their paws except for feet, and appear to have no reason for existence but to furnish meals for meat-eaters. In flight they seem to rebound from the earth of their own elasticity, but keep a sober pace going to the spring. It is the young watercress that tempts them and the pleasures of society, for they seldom drink. Even in localities where there are flowing streams they seem to prefer the moisture that collects on herbage, and after rains may be seen rising on their haunches to drink delicately the clear drops caught in the tops of the young sage.’

The Land of Little Rain

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East face of Mt. Whitney as seen from the Alabama Hills, Inyo County, California

 

Here are some quotes from the first chapter of ‘The Land of Little Rain’ (1903) by Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) who lived at Independence, California, not far from the scene pictured above. I’m periodically driven from within to reread this fine book–so forcefully that I can’t resist, no matter how hard I tell myself that there are other books to be explored. One thing I love about it most: it’s not anthropocentric, but rather focusses on the land, the elements, the birds and plants, the insects and natural processes of the great southwestern desert regions.

 

‘A land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it.’

 

‘The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations to the seasonal limitations. Their whole duty is to flower and fruit, and they do it hardly, or with tropical luxuriance, as the rain admits. It is recorded in the report of the Death Valley expedition that after a year of abundant rains, on the Colorado desert was found a specimen of Amaranthus ten feet high. A year later the same species in the same place matured in the drought at four inches.’

 

‘If you have any doubt about it, know that the desert begins with the creosote.’

 

‘There is neither poverty of soil nor species to account for the sparseness of desert growth, but simply that each plant requires more room. So much earth must be preempted to extract so much moisture. The real struggle for existence, the real brain of the plant, is underground; above there is room for a rounded perfect growth. In Death Valley, reputed the very core of desolation, are nearly two hundred identified species.’

 

‘For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars. It comes upon one with new force in the pauses of the night that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people. It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars move in the  wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant, as if they moved on some stately service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.’

 
 
 
 

The Oak Grove

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Ivan Shishkin. ‘The Oak Grove’. Oil on canvas, 1887. The Museum of Russian Art, Kiev, Ukraine.

Here is a poem I originally wrote in Spanish, then translated myself into English. I am more comfortable with the Spanish and found it difficult to create a satisfactory English version, retaining something of the rhythm of the original without sacrificing too much of the literal meaning. Eventually I gave up being too strict in the latter department and ended up adding a few words that weren’t present in the Spanish. All of which points out a conviction of mine, and one I share with many others: though derivative in its beginnings, a translation, unless it is merely a tool for understanding the original work, must stand on its own as a piece of writing. That is what I have attempted to do here. The painting shown above is of course quite Russian. Yet it has an oddly Californian spirit to it. Were I to walk into such a scene, it would never occur to me that I had so much as crossed the line into a neighboring American state, much less two continents and an ocean.  

The Oak Grove

The oak grove is deep and overly pensive.
In light diffused and dryish of nights,
The mischievous pranks of leaves encounter
In a freshet invading the places of reeds.

Here in my sandy and shifting arroyo
The pallid air is fragile and wan
And memories once so heavy and laden
Empty with advent, with coming of day.

Where is the garden of personal past?
Where the inflowing of stream everlasting?
The future condensable, yet to be turned,
Will be quicksand unsteady and earth distilled.

Fig trees with sun and breezes would suit me,
A sky of watered silk, of resin and blue,
With suspect cherry trees there at their center
And high in their branches a chattering moon.

El Robledo

El robledo está demasiado pensativo.
En las trasluzes ya sequízos de las noches,
Las mataperradas de las hojas se encuentran
En una riada que invade la izaga.

Aquí en mi arroyo sabuloso
El aire macilento es quebradizo,
Y los recuerdos en otro tiempo tan cargados
Se vacían con el adviento del nuevo día.

¿Donde está la huerta de mi pasado?
¿Donde el afluente duradero?
El futuro erial y condensable
Sera arena movediza y sosería.

Un higueral con sol y brisas me gustaría,
Un cielo de muaré, azul, teoso,
Con cerezos sospechosos en su centro
Y una luna habladora en sus ramos.

Anna Akhmatova’s ‘Trade Secrets’

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Anna Akhmatova, 1889-1966

On June 20 I posted my translation of Akhmatova’s poem ‘Creation’, which she wrote in 1936 and which came eventually to form the first part of a five-part poetic cycle she would call ‘Trade Secrets’, composed of poems she began in 1936 but would not complete as a whole until 1959. The cycle focusses on how a poem is created, how the poetic Muse inspires, who the poet is and who the reader. Here is my translation of the second poem in this cycle. The poem has no separate title, but was written in 1940. Following my translation is Akhmatova’s Russian original. 

 

I have no need of odelike armies
Or the charm of elegiac fancies.
For me, all verse should be inappropriate,
Not what people expect it to be.

If you only knew from what refuse
Verses grow, shamelessly,
Like dandelions, yellow by the fence,
Like foolish burdock, goosefoot!

An angry cry, the scent of fresh tar,
Upon the wall a secret mould,
And already a verse resounds, provocative, kind,
To your joy and mine.

 

Мне ни к чему одические рати
И прелесть элегических затей.
По мне, в стихах все быть должно некстати,
Не так, как у людей.

Когда б вы знали, из какого сора
Растут стихи, не ведая стыда,
Как желтый одуванчик у забора,
Как лопухи и лебеда.

Сердитый окрик, дегтя запах свежий,
Таинственная плесень на стене…
И стих уже звучит, задорен, нежен,
На радость вам и мне.

Truman Capote and the Coast of Maine

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Jonas Lie. ‘Main Seascape’. Oil on canvas, 1920’s. Private Collection.

Truman Capote’s path briefly crossed mine in 1974, when I was a very young man and living in Palm Springs, California, where my parents had a house. Truman had a house there too, and was in town at the moment, which I knew because I had just seen him interviewed on a local television station. The next day, he walked into the Palm Springs Public Library where I happened to be perusing volumes on a tier of shelves beside the front counter. I had my back to the counter when he entered, but there was no mistaking the truly bizarre voice of the diminutive man who suddenly stood there chatting with the astonished librarian, who addressed him most respectfully by name. As he offered to autograph any of his books they might have on the library shelves, I found myself fascinated by his pinkish-green complexion and truly unhealthy appearance. From a distance of perhaps eight feet, he turned to look at me for a few moments, and I felt totally unnerved. The whole package was by far the oddest assortment of personal features and traits I had ever encountered. He must have eventually tired of seeing how I stared, because he suddenly smiled sweetly, then turned back to the librarian, whose assistant had brought a few Capote volumes to be signed. It was a memorable experience indeed.

Over the following years I read all the Capote I could find, thinking only ‘In Cold Blood’ truly spectacular, but almost all the rest quite decently written and oddly old-fashioned, even mannered and genteel. Perhaps that was the southerner in him. But, aside from biographies and the often utterly hilarious collections of interviews compiled by others over the years, it was always his literary recommendations–positive and negative–which interested me most. His comments on Vidal (‘Gore never wrote anything that was worth much, except perhaps “Myra Breckinridge”, which you can sort of leaf through…’) impelled me to read quite a bit of Vidal and to form my own judgments of his work. Then there was Capote’s response to an interviewer who had said that Ernest Hemingway had written some of the finest sentences ever written in the English language: ‘Something must be going wrong in your brain someplace!’ It was because of Capote who, several years before the Streep/Redford film that made such a splash, said that he thought Dinesen’s ‘Out of Africa’ one of the best books of the century, that I came to read and admire that volume very much myself. And it was because of his enthusiastic praise of Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs’ that I came to explore that truly charming and even haunting book, one to which I periodically return when I want the assurance of a splendid reading experience which will never disappoint. 

It was first published in 1896 and is not so much a novel as a somewhat loosely related collection of short stories depicting life in the fictionalized village of Dunnet Landing and nearby locations along the rugged coast of Maine. Henry James famously called it Jewett’s ‘beautiful little quantum of achievement’, which sounds arch, but I think was most sincerely and admiringly meant. The narrator stays in a room in the quaint home of ‘Almiry’ Todd, who is an expert when it comes to the medicinal properties of herbs and other plants, and who introduces her lodger to the stories and personages which form the backdrop of life in the village. There are retired sea captains and porcelain-obsessed widows, a reclusive elderly bachelor and his sister who spend their summers on a remote island to which they must row in a tiny boat, a one-room schoolhouse which serves as the writing studio of the author of the book. Jewett has sometimes been credited with popularizing the regionalism genre of literature in the United States, so unique and well-received was her small but finely written tome. It reminds me of Wharton’s ‘Ethan Frome’ to some extent, in its depiction of the simplicity and harshness of rural New England life. But Jewett’s book is far brighter and happier. It really is an under-appreciated gem. And, for those who like ‘The Country of the Pointed Firs’, a fine companion volume would be Celia Thaxter’s ‘An Island Garden’, first published in 1894, a woman’s loving account of her old-fashioned garden, planted and maintained with painstaking care below the long front verandah of The Appledore House Hotel, on Appledore Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast. But that is really another story altogether.

The illustration which accompanies this post is a reproduction of a painting by Jonas Lie (1880-1940), a Norwegian-born American artist, younger relative of the Norwegian writer Jonas Lie (1833-1908), whose namesake he was. Lie the younger was born in Norway, where his parents’ home was frequented by such artistic figures as Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Grieg and Georg Brandes. He was brought to America at age 12, after his father’s death, and is most well known for his depictions of New England coastal life and for his New York City scenes. 

 

Anna Akhmatova: In the Summer of 1917

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Arkhip Kuindzhi. ‘Steppe. Cornfield’, 1875. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Here is my translation of a poem written by Anna Akhmatova in July 1917, just a few months into the Russian Revolution, when her entire world seemed to be falling apart. I have attempted to keep something of Akhmatova’s  rhyme scheme, something I don’t usually do when translating poetry. But the Russian original just seems so filled with music that I had to try. I include Akhmatova’s text after my own.

 

I hear the orioles’ falling, mourning song
And greet the summer’s magnificent decline,
While through the grain the sickles move along,
Slicing the wheat and commingled columbine.

Now the skirt of a thin and lovely reaper
Flies in the wind like a flag on holiday,
Now the sound of bells grows ever deeper,
A long and dusty gaze comes carefully my way.

Smiles and caresses, a lover’s gentle praise
Are nothing whatever–quickly comes the night.
Come then, remember that paradise of days
Where guiltless and blessed we wandered in the light.

 

Я слышу иволги всегда печальный голос
И лета пышного приветствую ущерб,
А к колосу прижатый тесно колос
С змеиным свистом срезывает серп.

И стройных жниц короткие подолы,
Как флаги в праздник, по ветру летят.
Теперь бы звон бубенчиков веселых,
Сквозь пыльные ресницы долгий взгляд.

Не ласки жду я, не любовной лести
В предчувствии неотвратимой тьмы,
Но приходи взглянуть на рай, где вместе
Блаженны и невинны были мы.

Thomas Mann: Lübeck, Venice and Davos-Platz

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Thomas Mann’s three great works, ‘Buddenbrooks’ (1901), ‘The Death in Venice’ (1912) and ‘The Magic Mountain’ (1924) need no recommendation from me. And they can hardly bear much more analysis from a literary point of view, though of course one of the distinctive qualities of truly classic examples of fiction is their ability to call forth new insights from generation to generation among those who delve into their treasures. But there is one question I have not so far found asked, at least not in a way which strikes a chord of recognition within me: why do these books appeal so strongly to readers as the decades roll by? Is it merely the importance of the subjects they deal with, or the sterling literary quality of Mann’s writing and powers of composition? I think there’s much more to it than that. I think it’s because all three explore, and on various fascinating levels, the concept of decline, something nearly all of us can relate to whether we’d care to admit it or not, and because they allow us to luxuriate in our contemplation of societal and personal dissolution during the entire course of our reading of these books. And because–and this is really another but not unrelated matter–all three give us a refuge, a place to spend time as we consider what decline might mean. And not unpleasant refuges at that. This fact is part of Mann’s genius.

I first took refuge in ‘Buddenbrooks’, if I may express myself that way, during a long rainy winter when I was devoting most of my evenings to reading. And I found myself totally taken in by the Buddenbrooks family–not just into their story, which I began gradually to consider in some ways my own, but into their home itself, as a not unwelcome if to them unsuspected guest. A friend of mine had recommended ‘Buddenbrooks’ because he had become completely captivated by it, convinced that the Buddenbrooks’ family history mirrored that of his own. He felt, in other words, that his own family had long since gone into decline: over the course of centuries, though there had been periods of real promise and achievement, nearly every branch had died out, died young, died really financially and socially and in terms of any real contribution it might continue to make to the world. He saw himself as the last of the line, so to speak, and thus considered himself an honorary Buddenbrooks. And he wondered if I might feel the same. Which, having read the novel three or four times that winter, I had to admit to myself that I in some ways did. Because which of us cannot  identify with the Buddenbrooks family failures and problems? As I think about the novel now, I am reminded, of all persons, of Eleanor Roosevelt. When once confronted by a reporter with the latest exploit of one of her teenage sons, she simply sighed and smiled, responding, “Oh, dear. Well, families have their own unique, often inexplicable course of nature.” I believe that the decline of the Buddenbrooks family is in many ways a universal one, and that that fact is one of the book’s great draws. The other one is that you get to spend time with the Buddenbrooks in their own home as you contemplate that decline. They give you a very fine refuge indeed. There are worse places to live than a patrician city mansion in Lübeck during the decades when the 19th century was drawing to a close. The accomodations are superb. 

‘The Death in Venice’ has always seemed to me to go, in subject matter and atmosphere, so far beyond mere decline as to venture most boldly into the realm of positive decrepitude and even decay. The very air of the grand hotels and cafés and beaches which form its backdrop practically reeks with pathogens, as Mann uses the story to describe the phenomenon of societal and individual decline. Yet all this–along with writing so exquisite as to be almost painful to read–is precisely what draws the reader in and keeps that reader bound. We may or may not be able to identify with Gustav von Aschenbach’s particular idiosyncracies and fascinations, but we can all find within us a kind of visceral and inevitable sympathy for the plight of a brilliant and successful individual who has quite alarmingly begun to fall violently apart before his own very eyes. And his tragedy, if that’s what it indeed is, also gives us the opportunity–which we really ardently want, don’t we?–of daring to ask ourselves if we might at some point so decline too. Meanwhile, as in our comfortable sojourn with the Buddenbrooks family, we get to stay in a five-star hotel on the Lido in Venice and have everything we might need at our fingertips for the asking, and with no bill waiting for us at home at the end of the month.  Despite the presence of the plague, it seems a glorious place to be. I’d go there just about any time at all.

Of the three novels in question, ‘The Magic Mountain’ offers the most direct and, in some ways, uncomplicated experience of both decline and refuge. Here we are not dealing with several generations of a family whose actions have collectively led to dissolution and collapse. Nor are we contemplating an elderly man undergoing inner torments and the external processes of aging and decay. Hans Castorp is young: he seems enthusiastic and optimistic when he arrives at the sanatorium to visit his ailing cousin, and he can hardly wait to head back to his home in the north to begin his career. Yet he quickly ends up considering himself an invalid and allows himself to be condemned to seven years at what is actually a hospital for terminal patients (for such most of them think themselves to be) in the Alps. But for him it is no condemnation: he rapidly comes to love the life, the regular meals, the agreeable companionship, the time for reading and thought, the freedom from having to worry about a career and the practicalities of life. And I believe it is, in fact, this principal character’s delight at finding himself in such an agreeable refuge, liberated by a supposed illness from having to cope with the cares of the world, which has attracted so many countless readers to ‘The Magic Mountain’ and kept them spellbound there over the years. Because the magic of both mountain and novel is very real. The reader wants to go there too. He or she wants to stay there for a very long time indeed. That is why the novel eventually comes to seem not long, but short. While within its pages we get to consider our own possible decline, and to do that in a glorious setting. Giving us this opportunity as readers is all part of Mann’s great genius. And we can go back to The Magic Mountain whenever we choose. Even if it does makes us contemplate the uneasy possibility of our own decline, or perhaps precisely because of this, it’s a fine place to be.