The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Puir Family [La famijja poverella]

Wheesht nou, my darling bairnies, bide ye quaet:
yir faither's comin suin, jist bide a wee.
Oh Virgin of the greitin, please help me,
Virgin of waymenting, ye that can dae't.

My hairts, I wuss that ye cuid ken hou great
my luve is! Dinna greet, or I sall dee.
He'll bring us something hame wi him, you'll see,
and we will get some breid, and ye will eat...

Whit's that ye're sayin, Joe? jist a wee while,
my son, ye dinnae like the dark ava.
Whit can I dae fir ye, if there's nae yle?
Puir Lalla, whit's the maitter? Oh ma bairn,
ye're cauld? But dinnae staund agin the waa:
come and I'll warm ye on yir mammy's airm.
Hesperus Press, who published the excellent Words Are Stones, have begun a new line, Oneworld Classics. As with their main imprint, I'm a little underwhelmed by some of their choices - do we need another edition of Wuthering Heights? - and I guess we'll be seeing more translations by J.G. Nichols, whose writing has left me cold, so far. These are minor cavils though, and blown away by the genuine delight of discovering Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli's sonnets, translated into energetic, earthy, vulgar English by Mike Stocks - and finding at the back, incredibly, twelve translations into Scots by none other than Edinburgh's own Robert Garioch.

Such a surprise. It brings it closer still, even as a non-Scots speaker. You're sitting there reading Stock's version, admiring, enjoying, sometimes charmed, sometimes disgusted - and then it's as if Belli has disappeared off the page, metamorphosed into an Edinburgh street person, and is standing right behind you, breathing down your neck.

...Belli was the great master of the [Roman] dialect and a scholarly recorder of the filth and blasphemy. [p. 242]

There were a lot of these sonnets - 2,279 - in three fat volumes, and I sometimes thought of dedicating my life to their translation. It would have been a useless venture, for who in the Anglophone world would care about an obscure dialect poet? There were some, not all Romans, who believed Belli to be the greatest poet of the nineteenth century, but his greatness rested on the use of a dialect difficult to translate. Robert Penn Warren, on one of his regular visits to Rome, gave it as his opinion that the nineteenth century greatness had to be shared between Belli and John Keats. [p. 327]
High praise indeed. From You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess.

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Monday, June 25, 2007


Of minor interest to me, and still less to anyone else, most likely. Came across this, which I know I've quoted before, in Anthony Burgess's introduction to Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year:
There are people who still find Defoe hard to take as a novelist, and this is because they have become accustomed to regarding the novel as a form almost aggressively 'literary', full of barely concealed machinery, self-conscious fine writing, the personality of the novelist himself peeping through as a show-off divine puppet-master, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent. Up to the time of the first dissenting writers (men like Defoe and Bunyan) which happened also to be a time of great literary artificiality, literature had been almost exclusively in the hands of men with a classical education. Elizabethans like Nashe and Dekker and Greene produced, as did Defoe, fictional works about a real, low, smelly London, but all in a language - for all its conversational vigour - highly contrived and often reeking of the lamp. And, after Defoe, the novel was again in the hands of the cultivated who could not resist showing off their cultivation [...]
[Never in Defoe do we find] the evocation of classical heroes or the sewing on of classical tags.
This intrigued me a little, but I haven't read widely enough to tell whether or not it's a fair judgement. I do know Herrick uses classical references and mimics classical forms, and in this he follows Ben Jonson. Marvell does too, I think.

Then came across the entry on euphuism in The Reader's Encyclopedia by accident. Apparently it's related to culteranismo in Spain, also known as Gongorism, which the encyclopedia describes as:
Designed to appeal to the cultivated (los cultos), it is characterised by an emphasis on Latin terms and syntax, by frequent allusions to classical mythology, and lavish use of tropes, metaphors, hyperbole and antitheses.

Gongora, after whom the style is named, apparently had an ongoing feud with Francisco de Quevedo, author of The Swindler. This is the second of the Two Spanish Picaresque Novels published by Penguin and would be worth the price of purchase alone, if it weren't preceded by the even better, truly wonderful Lazarillo de Tormes, which should be made available in an audio version read by Eli Wallach.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007


Part of the introduction to William Painter's Palace of Pleasure, (1575):
[These tales are] pleasaunt so well abroade as at home, to avoid the griefe of Winter's night and length of Sommer's day...Delectable they be for al sortes of men, for the sad, the angry, the cholericke, the pleasaunt, the whole and sicke.
From Italian Tales from the Age of Shakespeare, ed. Pamela Benson.


I find Painter's promise to the reader charming, and indeed accurate, but it's nonetheless a bit of a shtick. Surely someone in the 16th century must have replied to Painter along these lines:
"Verily I say to you, if thou dost travail in the fields of advertisement, thou art a scurvy knave, and thou shouldst kill thyself. Nay, I speke troth."

In addition to the pleasure of the stories themselves, there's another benefit. Because they're written in 16th century English, they've set me up nicely for a serious attempt at Riddley Walker. In fact I'm finding it a doddle, and I honestly can't see why people have trouble with it. Smug git orl rite ent I.

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