This week Peacock Journal published “The Lame Angel”, my translation of Catulle Mendès’ short story, “L’ange boiteux”. You can read it for FREE on their website. As part of their mission – Beauty First – Peacock Journal‘s editors add beautiful images to every story they publish. Knowing this, and having been published by them previously, I prepared myself for an image of an angel. So this one had me guessing for a while:
They never caption their images, so all I could go on was an assumption that this fresco was by Raphael. It was enough information for Google which immediately threw a few images at me, including this one. Bingo! It’s one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Palace of the Vatican, an image of poets on the mythological Mount Parnassus. But where’s the connection with a lame angel?
There isn’t one. But there is a connection with the author, Catulle Mendès. He was allied with the Parnassian poets at the end of the 19th century whose literature was a reaction against emotionalism and Romantic imprecision. The Parnassians preferred restraint and self-discipline, and often selected classical subjects (eg angels…). Mendès wrote and reworked a number of fairy tales aimed at a Decadent adult readership. There are no fairies in this tale but it does have another mystical winged being, a very sad angel.
If you’d like to read more Catulle Mendès in my English translations, Peacock Journal published another one last year, “The Enchanted Ring”.
Soon a story written by Marcel Aymé, Le Loup, translated into English as The Wolf (by me) will be out in an illustrated edition of Delos Journal. The editor’s decision to illustrate it really blew me away. Life for me is much easier to bear when I’m reading an illustrated book.
Now, in anticipation of the Delos wolf, I’m wondering whether he’ll be fierce or deceptively gentle. In my tall piles of books about fairies and fantasy there are many wolfish images from the 19th and 20th centuries that leave me dreaming about ideal illustrations for my translated tales. Today I pondered over a few of the images that have taken my fancy.
Illustrated fairy tale collections published for children since the 19th century are usually delicate, refined, unreal and rarely violent despite the brutal stories they represent. Take, for example, Arthur Rackham’s fine drawing in which the wolf doesn’t look particularly threatening:
Aymé was clearly inspired by that guilty wolf we’ve all met in fables and fairy tales if not in real life. In his little story (which I hope you’ll read when it comes out later this year…) two little blonde girls remind their visitor, the wolf, that he’s never been good, he’s always been bad, and as an example they evoke La Fontaine’s fable about the wolf and the lamb, depicted here by Gustave Moreau, where the wolf appears a little hungrier than Rackham’s:
Aymé’s wolf claims to have changed his ways, he denies he ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother though we’ve been led to believe otherwise by this illustration by another French Gustave. Gustave Doré depicts the moment just before the wolf is about to take his first bite, his long tongue lolling as Grandma realises her terrible fate.
While Doré’s image would be a wee bit scary for a child, a stretch of the imagination might be needed to associate animal instincts with Shaun Tan’s little sculpture. Today I discovered his illustration for a very abbreviated version of ‘Little Red Cap’ by the Brothers Grimm. It has none of the pretty trees and tendrils of Rackham’s image, but neither does it have the drooling wolves of Moreau’s and Doré’s sketches. It’s composed of two tiny solid characters crafted from clay with the simplest features.
My favourite wolf image this week is one which depicts the kind of wolf you’ll find at the end of Aymé’s story. It’s by Rackham but it’s a far scarier drawing than we saw above. Here, Becfola, of an Irish fairy tale, is perched on branches just out of reach of hungry mouths. It instils in me exactly the kind of fear I’d have if a wolf had chased me up a tree.
I’m anxiously awaiting the appearance of Aymé’s The Wolf. You can be sure I’ll be blogging about it the moment I hear it’s out.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
This story in French is called ‘Frritt-Flacc’, the sound of the hurricane and the torrential rain it brings. Dr Trifulgas is a rich old doctor who demands exorbitant fees from his patients, or else they get no service. In the end, his greed brings him down when he least expects it. It’s a short horror story, but not scary enough to stop me reading it. (I scare easily.)
The opening lines invited me to keep reading, contradicting the advice that a writer should never start with the weather.
And by coincidence, as I write this, torrential rain that has threatened all afternoon has finally begun to fall. I’m not making this up. Fortunately I don’t have to go out with my dog, his lantern, and Dr Trifulgas.
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.
Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.
Opening line of Canto 1, “Hell”, The Divine Comedy, Dante, completed 1320, translated by Charles Eliot Norton.
Dante has lost the “right way” and hopes to find it before he grows old. But he begins his work “Midway upon the journey of our life”, that is, when he was about 43, though it was not midway for him; he died at 56.
Many of us live long past 56, though some old people seem to be still in the dark wood that comes with weariness and a tired mind, a thought that occurred to me this week in the National Gallery of Australia where thirteen old men in electric wheelchairs are rolling around a room aimlessly, dozing, sleeping, or staring into space. They’re not real. They’re an exhibit by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, “Old People’s Home”, part of the Hyper Real sculpture exhibition.
Unlike Dante I’m not in a dark wood turning over thoughts of hell, purgatory and heaven. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to purgatory, but I’m not so certain I won’t end up in its earthly counterpart as a model for the two Beijing artists when they create the female version of Old People’s Home.
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.
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.