The Lydian

Today my translation of Théodore de Banville’s ‘La Lydienne’ (The Lydian) was published by Black Sun Lit on their web site.

The Lydian is a statue of Queen Omphale, queen of Lydia in Greek mythology. Théodore de Banville’s story is about a sculptor who creates a marble statue of her and falls in love with it. With her. His love is so powerful that she comes to life…

There are a few real sculptures of her in the world and even more paintings, particularly accompanied by Hercules who was her slave for a year. This sculpture by Constantin Dausch is my favourite of all those I’ve seen online:

Omphale by Constantin Dausch, Museum im Kornhaus Bad Waldsee

It’s been more than a year since I’ve had any of my translations published, so I’m having a very good day.

The original was written in 1882. For me the second half of the 19th century was one of the greatest eras for literature. If you too enjoy fantasy and “art for art’s sake” (de Banville’s literary philosophy), this story will be a good one for you.

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Translating is hard work!

Today it’s a month since I last wrote on my blog. I think that in six years of blogging this has been the longest break.

When I reached my hundredth Great Opening Line I had a plan to write about the forthcoming publications of a few of my translated stories. Two journals offered to put my work out there in May and July, but I’m still waiting. The editors aren’t answering my queries so, unfortunately for us all, I’m in the dark. The translations are ‘The Lame Angel’ and ‘Tears on the Sword’ by Catulle Mendès’. I’m particularly hoping the latter will eventually appear in an anthology: Fairytale Riot produced by the Agorist Writers’ Workshop. They have a delightful cover ready, which looks promising:

Cover of forthcoming Vol. 4 of ‘The Clarion Call’: Fairytale Riot

Translating stories is hard hard work. The first draft is easyish, then there are months of redrafting and tweaking before submitting them to publishers and journals. What follows is a long wait. And while I wait I translate more stories: draft, redraft, tweak, submit. And after that, there’s marketing and promotion…  When an editor promises to publish a story and then doesn’t deliver, it’s hard to know whether to promote or forget. Ever the optimist, I’m going to promote another project: Stories to Read by Candlelight.

My translation of Jean Lorrain’s small book of stories, Contes pour lire à la chandelle, was accepted by Odyssey Books back in September 2017, and I’ve now discovered my name on their list of forthcoming publications for September 2018. That’s next month!

It will be illustrated, which is a bit thrilling for me, since the stories are 19th-century fairy tales, some of which I’ve read in illustrated 19th-century journals, as you see in the example below, and which I’ve imagined in a 21st-century edition. It was very exciting when the Odyssey Books editor, Michelle Lovi, offered to decorate the pages of the new book.

Alfred Daguet, page decoration for ‘La Princesse Mandosiane’ by Jean Lorrain. This illustration was included in ‘Les périodiques illustrés (1890-1940)’, a small book that was hard to hold open with one hand!

I’ll keep you posted on any of my work that makes it out into the wider world. All going well, there should be a new book of old tales available soon in bookshops, real and electronic.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 31

It was late, and Holofernes’ guests quickly withdrew. Bagoas closed the tent from the outside, dismissed the attendants, and everyone went to their lodgings to sleep, tired from too much drinking. Holofernes had collapsed onto his bed, completely drunk. Judith was left alone with him in the tent.

Opening of Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith

Judith and Holofernes, Jan de Bray, 1659, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I like the opening of this chapter, which in many versions of the book of Judith is given the title ‘Judith beheads Holofernes’. Even if this spoiler is present, the opening sentences contain enough intrigue to keep us reading. Holofernes is dead drunk, passed out, and all his guests have been asked to leave, except for Judith…

As an art history student I studied a few paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes, but when I viewed this one at the Dutch Masters exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales last month, I thought I’d do well to read the story. It’s a good one. I recommend it. One thing I learnt is that the maidservant who is most often present in the artworks as a tense witness, was in fact asked by Judith to wait outside the tent. As the opening lines say, she remained alone with Holofernes. Like his fellow Baroque artists, Jan de Bray has included the maid, but I was drawn to this painting because of what he excluded. He portrays Judith in the moment before she brings the sword down on his neck, in contrast to painters who preferred the following moment with all its gore.

Judith was a beautiful Hebrew widow who convinced an evil general of Nebuchadnezzar that she could help him to kill the Jews in her town. She was lying. He invited her to his banquet, and under the spell of her beauty, he drank more than he’d ever drunk on any day of his life, and collapsed. Judith dispatched her enemy and saved her town.

The lines quoted above are my translation of a French translation from a 1997 bible published by the Société biblique française.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 23

Two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.

First line of the story ‘Solomon’s Wise Judgement’, 1 Kings 3:16

The lowest of the low approach the highest of the high. It’s an extraordinary situation evoked by concise, simple language. I try to imagine two prostitutes approaching Queen Elizabeth and demanding a hearing, but I’ve immediately restricted the meaning to my own experience, and, voilà, the opening line has hooked me in. (A little research later reveals that ancient Eastern monarchs often sat in judgement at the city gates and anyone could appeal directly to them for a legal decision. But it’s too late, I’m already curious and reading on…)

This story from the second half of Chapter 3 of the first book of Kings in the Bible was frequently chosen as a subject by artists up until the 1700s, obviously drawn in by the first line!

The painting below is one of my favourites because of its Caravaggesque chiaroscuro and drama, and the emotion of each player evident on his or her face. The essence of the story: two prostitutes each have a baby boy, one accidentally smothers hers while she sleeps; she steals the other baby, claiming it’s hers. Now the women are before King Solomon, arguing over ownership of the boy. The king asks for a sword to be brought to divide the live baby in two so each woman can have half. The real mother, whose love is greater, tells him to give the other woman the baby rather than have it cut up. The child lives because of Solomon’s wisdom.

Solomon’s Judgement, José de Ribera, c1610, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, abounds with stories that are short and to the point, and therefore get straight into the main idea in the first sentence. It’s a good source for great opening lines.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 19

In his thirty-fifth year, the dwarf of the Barnaboum Circus started to grow.

Opening line, ‘The Dwarf’, Marcel Aymé 1934 (my translation)

Sometimes an opening line of a story or book can distract a reader from everything else in that moment. He reads on, regardless of the noisy world around him. Nothing matters but the next line and the next.

A shrewd author can arouse this desire in the holder of his book. He can capture our attention by stating an impossibility as truth, and leave us begging to know the consequence. Marcel Aymé is not only a master of beginnings, but his first lines deliver what they promise: intriguing stories that answer a “what if…” question. So, what if a man who’d always been short suddenly grew to normal height?  He might, like Valentin in “The Dwarf”, discover the delights of seeing his favourite woman, a circus bareback rider, face to face.

Sixty years after it was first published, this was one of five Aymé stories selected for an art book produced by Bird & Bull Press, printed by letterpress from metal type, on mouldmade paper, without any digital aid, and illustrated with wood engravings by Gaylord Schanilec. I’m fortunate to live close to the National Library which holds one of 150 copies, and this week I spent an hour totally distracted from the holiday season by the tactile and visual pleasure of this special book. Here’s a taste of the illustrations: the dwarf is depicted at the circus, before he began to grow:

Wood engraving, Gaylord Schanilec, 1994

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46 Great Opening Lines: 17

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

Luke 2:1, King James Version

While ‘all the world’ that Caesar Augustus had in mind was all the Roman world, this story is about the birth of a child, Jesus, who would change all the expansive Western world, and indirectly much of the rest of the world.
Augustus, 1st century, Vatican Museum

Back in 1611 when the King James Version of the Bible was published, ‘all the world’ was bigger than the Roman world, but not as big as ours. Today’s translators qualify the extent of Caesar’s decree:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (New International Version).
They’ve defined the ‘world’ as Roman, and the decree as a census, a population registration, through which Caesar would be able to tax everyone. The records would also be used for military service, though Jews were exempt.
Census at Bethlehem, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566

Pieter Bruegel the Elder back in 1566 made it easy for us to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging through the December snow to register their names in Bethlehem (though he painted a Flemish village…). His painting of the census is amazingly detailed. A high-resolution version on a large screen is the best way to see all the activities. There’s Mary on a donkey with Joseph heading towards the tax office where a group is already waiting to register and pay, women are preparing food, people are carrying heavy loads over a frozen lake, there are children playing and people bent and laboring, and even some castle ruins. An image I’d like to see on a Christmas card.

And now it’s Christmas Eve, and time for bed. Tomorrow my family and I will celebrate the birth of Jesus with feasting and gifts and pleasure. And freedom.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 11

1918. 8 March. There is so much influenza about that they’ve had to shut the university.

Opening line, The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla, 1966, translated by Peter Bush

 

Catalonia is in the news and on my mind. I’m reading Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook. And it’s in my face, for my desktop picture is a 1915 painting, L’esmorzar (Breakfast) by Joaquim Sunyer, one of Pla’s favourite Catalan artists.

Sometime last year I found this image online, bright and deep and earthy. But for an unknown reason I can’t find it again, so here’s a photo of my desktop picture. And my desktop. I so enjoy this painting that I haven’t removed it from my screen since I found it. The couple look friendly, as if they’d happily prepare me a meal even if I don’t speak Catalan, or even Spanish. They’re tanned from working outdoors, probably producing the food on their table and the tables of the townspeople. They’re rugged and strong, a little reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters but healthier.

The colours of south-east France and north-east Spain (or Catalonia) are warm and inviting, baked yellow and clay red, like the colours of the Catalan flag, like the colours in this wall plaque I snapped in Port-Vendres, not far north of the French-Spanish border.

This sense of real life, of a colourful realism, is what I’m reading in Josep Pla. The book is a diary written over twenty months, beginning the day Josep turns 21, but it wasn’t published until he was 69, by which time he had transformed it with added stories, reflections and a little stretched truth. It’s filled with descriptions, yarns, recalled childhood images, and plenty of cynicism. More than anything it revives my own pleasant memories of Pla’s part of the world, Catalonia.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 4

At least two hundred poor beggars were counted sleeping out on the pavements of the main streets of Sydney the other night – grotesque bundles of rags lying under the verandahs of the old Fruit Markets and York-street shops, with their heads to the wall and their feet to the gutter.

‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’, Henry Lawson, 1896

The economic recession and strikes of the early 1890s forced a lot of Australia’s country people off the land and into urban areas, only to find there were no jobs there either. ‘Dossing Out’ and ‘Camping’ is a short story that paints a clear picture of the poverty of poor beggars who had been sleeping in the park but were driven out by rain, onto the streets, under the verandahs.

The title refers to ‘dossing out’ in the city and ‘camping’ in the bush, two different ways of living with no money. In the bush, Lawson writes, you can light a fire, boil the billy, make tea, catch a sheep and fry a chop, wash your shirt, wash yourself, whistle and sing by the camp fire, breathe fresh air and make poetry.

George Washington Lambert, ‘Sheoak Sam’, 1898

In the city, when you doss out, there’s no possibility of lighting a fire to cook over. And a man is generally too hungry to make poetry.

The story ironically appeared in the collection While the Billy Boils.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 3

When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.

1 Kings 10:1

‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon’, Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales

I have this painting on my living room wall. When I first saw it in the Art Gallery of NSW I fell in love with it, already being enamoured of Orientalism with its hot, deep colours and ancient drama and mystery. This painting is massive; it’s exhibited in an equally impressive broad gold frame, but even unframed, the painting measures 2.3 x 3.5 metres. Perhaps it was the size of it that had me suspending disbelief and imagining myself as a spectator in King Solomon’s court. I bought the print from the gift shop, had it framed, and over the years have put it up and taken it down. I’ve developed an occasional discomfort with the bare-breasted queen, lower in the space than the king, and approaching only because he bids her. Right now it’s up.

However, reading the opening line of this biblical story leaves me more impressed with the Queen of Sheba. After all, she was there to test the king with ‘hard questions’. This is good, it got me in, it’s exactly the kind of opening line that makes us read on.

She is, in a few alternative English translations of just this one verse, portrayed as quite a powerful and mysterious queen. Some translators have her trying him with subtle questions, with difficult questions, with riddles, or with enigmas. I particularly like this one in the Wycliffe bible:

But also the queen of Sheba, when the fame of Solomon was heard, came in the name of the Lord to assay him in dark and doubtful questions.

Can you imagine what kind of question would be dark and doubtful? Edward Poynter was evidently taken in by this opening line, whichever version he read (probably the King James bible). From the first, he was drawn into the story and stimulated to paint it for us all. May you read a great opening line like this, and may it lead you to an even greater achievement.

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The Travelling Sketchbook

Many months ago I joined a group of women bloggers who wanted to contribute to a travelling sketchbook, the brilliant idea of Anne Lawson. The blank sketchbook was made by Anne in Melbourne and posted off to the first person on the list who posted it to the next one and so on and so forth until it reached me, the last one on the list. Consequently, being last, I had all the previous entries to follow. A hard act. Here are the creations, page by page:

The sketchbook has now returned from its round-the-world trip back to Anne’s house. It’s been a unique pleasure for each of us to decide on a suitable contribution and then execute it.

For me it was an unusual day. I’d been wondering how I’d find time to think about my contribution let alone write something in the book. But I’d gone to meet a student that day who forgot about her lesson, so I unexpectedly found myself with a whole day free. I went home and set about writing a number of meaningful quotations with a calligraphy pen, ending up with ten. I chose the neatest one that best fitted the page size. Then I added a piece of machine embroidery I’d made for a textile art course years ago. It was freely embroidered inside a wire coat hanger, then cut away. I had made several of them and attached them to a shawl for the course assessment, but had this one left over. Now it isn’t left over any more.

Thank you Anne for your idea!

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