Archives: March 2017

Papa the Investor

Andrea di Robilant for the Paris Review
hemingway-italy-pigeons

How Hemingway became a major shareholder in a venerable Italian publishing house.

Ernest Hemingway had a rough time with his Italian publisher, Einaudi, the venerable Turin-based house that still prints a good portion of his titles today. The issue, as is so often the case, was money: Einaudi, Hemingway complained, were communists looking for any excuse to withhold his overdue royalties. After 1947, he’d grown so exasperated that he refused to publish another book with them. So it’s all the more startling to discover that in the spring of 1955, he quietly agreed to convert a large part of his growing credit with the house into company stock, becoming a major shareholder overnight. Hemingway was usually very prudent with his money—and the chronically mismanaged Einaudi was hardly a safe investment. But having a stake in the publication of his own books, he hoped, would make it easier to get his hands on his growing pile of Italian cash.

As an author, Hemingway had gotten a late start in Italy. During the twenties and thirties, when the Anglophone world consecrated him as one of its brightest talents, he was persona non grata in the country. His blacklisting started as early as 1923, when Hemingway, still a young reporter for the Toronto Star, described Mussolini as “the biggest bluff in Europe.” In 1927, he wrote a few sardonic sketches on Fascist Italy for the New Republic. But it was the 1929 publication of A Farewell to Arms, with its antimilitarism and its powerful description of the rout of the Italian Army after Caporetto, that made him an enemy in the eyes of the Mussolini regime—a reputation further sealed by his support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. 

Thus Hemingway’s books were banned in Fascist Italy even as the works of other American writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, were brought into translation with success and acclaim. But as soon as Mussolini fell, in 1943, publishers scrambled to buy up the translation rights to his novels. The first Italian edition of The Sun Also Rises was published by a little-known company, Jandi Sapi, in the early summer of 1944, only weeks after General Mark Clark’s troops liberated Rome. A Farewell to ArmsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and To Have and Have Not came out in quick succession with different houses the following year, immediately after the liberation of Northern Italy. The translations were hurried and the first editions sloppy; it was unclear which house owned which rights, if it owned any at all.

(…)

Foreign to Oneself

Amanda DeMarco for Asymptote
Foreign_to_Oneself_538

Writing for Asymptote, Amanda DeMarco explores the value and limitations of translation.

Introduction

This essay about foreignness and translation is strictly composed of quotations. However, I have taken the liberty of replacing select words and phrases with “translation,” “translator,” and the various verb forms of “translate.” 

It is one of a series of texts I have made that use various collage techniques to create a voice—one that could not possibly be my own. Others can be found in Hotel and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The collage approach has been useful to me in examining various experiences of voicelessness and alienation, but also reveling in the downright Dionysian profusion of voices that can be summoned from the books I love. 

Dionysus, if you’ll recall, was a foreigner too. 

Foreign to Oneself 

One of the great experts on history, culture, and the art in Berlin—Walter Benjamin—once wanted to compose a description of the city using only old descriptions, with all of the monuments described by close contemporaries from the time of their creation. The result would be rather like seeing one’s backyard reproduced with extreme fidelity, but in such a perspective that it becomes a place which one has never seen or visited, which never has existed, which never can exist. This is just like translation. Both are limited, as legends are limited, by being—literally—unlivable, and by referring to the past. Every legend, however, contains its residuum of truth, just as all magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshold we all step into other worlds. 

Travel is a substitute for life. So is translation. Both mean getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story so tightly to your chest; the bigness of the world is a redemption. In translation, you have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. After all, literature is the ideal form of possessing the world for a wanderer, or a refugee; to miniaturize is to make portable. 

Compass: A Playlist

Compass

Mathias Enard’s Compass (22 March 2017) follows the restless night of an ethnomusicologist, Franz Ritter, as he drifts between dreams and memories, revisiting the important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran, as well as the various writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. To accompany the publication of the novel, we have compiled a playlist (below and on spotify) of some of the many pieces of music that feature in the text:

Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.1 Gute Nacht – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.2 Die Wetterfahne – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.3 Getfror’ne Thranen – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.21 Das Wirsthaus – Franz Schubert
Winterreise, Op. 89, D.911: No.24 Der Leiermann – Franz Schubert
Kindertotenlieder, I: Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, II: Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, III: Wenn dein Mütterlein – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, IV: Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen – Gustav Mahler
Kindertotenlieder, V: In diesem Wetter – Gustav Mahler
Le Chemin de Fer, OP. 27 – Charles-Valentin Alkan
Chant des chemins de fer OP 19 No.3: C’est le grand jour, le jour de fête – Hector Berlioz
Simon Boccanegra: Che dicesti? – Giuseppe Verdi
Simon Boccanegra: Che ripose? – Giuseppe Verdi
Simon Boccanegra: Piango perchè mi parla – Giuseppe Verdi
Mystic – Shahram Nazeri & Hafez Nazeri
Kurd Shepherd Melody – Thomas de Hartmann
Kurd Melody from Isfaha – Thomas de Hartmann
Sayyid No, 10– Thomas de Hartmann
Der Erlkönig, D328 – Franz Schubert
An die Entfernte, D.765– Franz Schubert
Turkish March, Op.113 No 4 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Harmonia Caelestis, No.1 – Péter Esterházy
Harmonia Caelestis, No.6 – Péter Esterházy
Harmonia Caelestis, No.29 – Péter Esterházy
Harmonia Caelestis, No. 55 – Péter Esterházy
Roméo et Juliette, Op17, H, 79, Pt 4 – Hector Berlioz
Hungarian Fantasy, S.123 – Franz Liszt
Grand galop chromatique, S219/R14 – Franz Liszt
Symphonie Fantastique, OP.14: IV – Hector Berlioz
Symphonie Fantastique, OP.14: II – Hector Berlioz
An die ferne Geliebte, op.98: 6 –Ludwig van Beethoven
Le Desert: Part I: Song of the Desert – Félicien David
Le Desert: Part I: Sunrise – Félicien David
Le Desert: Part I: Entry into the desert – Félicien David
Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin Op. 42: – Karol Szymanowski
Scheherazade, Op.35: The story of the Calendar Prince – Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Mârouf, savetier du Caire: Dances – Henri Rabaud
The Song of Majnun: Scene 3 – Bright Sheng
Tristan & Isolde: Einleitung – Richard Wagner
Piano Sonata No.32 in C Minor, Op111: II Arietta – Ludwig van Beethoven
Carmen, GB 9 : Prelude (Allegro giocoso) – Georges Bizet
Symphony No.3, Op.27: Chant de la nuit – Karol Szymanowski
Con forza, assai marcato – Robert Schumann

Out of the Iron Closet

Masha Udensiva-Brenner for Guernica
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In search of acceptance, a gay Russian man seeks asylum in the United States:

March, 2015

Sitting in his seat, the plane scheduled to leave JFK for Moscow, Lev noticed how nonchalantly the passengers browsed their computers and iPads, their papers, and magazines. The doors had just closed, the flight attendants were giving their safety speeches, and Lev felt himself falling into a wild panic. It was March 2015, and he had been in the US seeking asylum for nearly two years when he felt he couldn’t take it anymore—his lover, the only person he had become close to during his time in New York, had just left the US for good; he desperately missed his friends and family; and his asylum proceedings were plodding along with no end in sight. He decided to go home, where at least he could see his mother, but now, with the plane doors closed, he couldn’t breathe.

He grabbed a flight attendant’s arm, and told her he had to get off.

She didn’t understand, so he jumped out of his seat and ran to the front of the plane, where he approached the pilot as he entered the cabin.

“I am not going to fly,” he said.

The pilot looked around. “It’s not going to be easy to get you off.”

Scared of causing a commotion, Lev told him to forget it and rushed back to his seat.

Minutes later, both pilots found him.

“Will you fly or not?” the head pilot asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you have to decide.”

* * *

May, 2013

Though Lev spent his first nights in New York City sleeping on a bus-stop bench near city hall and brushing his teeth at Starbucks, he maintains the experience wasn’t traumatizing. As soon as his flight from Moscow landed at Kennedy Airport in May 2013, he felt so free that nothing could have brought him down—not the fact that he spoke almost no English, nor that his living arrangements had dissolved, nor that he didn’t know a single person in the entire city. When he emerged from the A train on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, he was in awe.

For three days Lev wandered the streets, gazing at the throngs of people and savoring his newfound happiness—even the sky seemed iridescent. On the fourth day, unable to bear the possibility of never seeing his mother again, he went back to the airport and, with his meager savings, bought a ticket home for the following evening. But when it came time to leave, he lost his nerve and stayed.

(…)

Camera Obscura

Emma Bielecki for The Junket
Camera obscura

Emma Bielecki writes on photography as memory made permanent and Alzheimer’s:

A pinhole camera is a simple device: light passes through an aperture into a box, and an inverted image of the outside is projected on to the opposite wall. Build-your-own kits are sold as novelties, although they are not that novel (indeed, their charm is precisely their quaintness; they vibe old-school, authentic, real). The history of the pinhole camera, written in the margins of the histories of art, science and epistemology, stretches all the way back to the fifth century BC, when the Chinese philosopher Mi To first described one. He called it a ‘locked treasure room’. Locked, presumably, not just because it is an enclosed space, but because the images it generates – fugitive, flickering, ephemeral – are so tantalisingly ungraspable.

It was Nicéphore Niépce, in post-Revolutionary France, who first unlocked the treasure room when he invented a process for fixing the images produced by a camera obscura, capturing them on a glass plate coated with Bitumen of Judea. He called it heliography. His sometime collaborator, sometime rival, Louis Daguerre, who continued refining the process after Niépce’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage in 1833, preferred the word photography, which was already being used in English to refer to the parallel research being conducted by Henry Fox Talbot. Sun-writing, light-writing – both terms elegantly gloss the means by which a photographic image is produced: light rays bounce off an object in the world and on to a photosensitive surface, passing through an aperture to focus them. ‘Photography you are the shadow / Of the sun / Which is its beauty’, wrote Apollinaire. The (analogue) photographic image is a trace; it is, therefore, indexical, physically linked to the thing it depicts. In that respect, of course, it is quite unlike writing – at least the kind of writing you’re reading here, alphabetic writing: a word after all is merely a set of squiggles and scratches with a purely conventional connection to the thing it signifies. But like writing, photography is a means of making the impermanent permanent, and the absent present.

On my wall hangs a photograph of Bob Dylan in 1965. He’s at a press conference, sitting behind a table. (The oversized lightbulb on the table makes the scene immediately recognizable to even the casual Dylanologist; it features in the opening scenes of Don’t Look Back.) Sitting across the table is a journalist, and behind her a row of photographers. But the photographer who took this particular shot was standing behind the table, behind Dylan. He’s said something to capture his attention, because Dylan has twisted round in his seat to face him. His cigarette is between his lips and his eyebrows are raised, with a slightly quizzical air. Every time I look at the photograph there is a moment where the 50 years between then and now collapse. It’s partly because of the cans: slung round Dylan’s neck they give him a curiously contemporary look. (If the history of the headphone through much of the 20th century describes the pursuit of inconspicuousness, culminating in the invention of the earbud, fashion historians of the future will surely point to unnecessarily oversized circumaural headphones as one of the distinguishing features of early 21st-century style, doubtless identifying it as part of the same nostalgic craving for the paraphernalia of analogue culture that has resurrected the pinhole camera.) But it’s not just because of the cans. It’s the peculiar gift of photography to bring past and present, here and there, into immediate contact. The photographer, manipulating lights and mirrors, a master of optics, is a kind of magician who specialises in one trick, generating the illusion of presence.

The photographer in question was my father, who had worked on Fleet Street before founding his own photographic agency. As a child I wasn’t allowed in his darkroom, but I often imagine him there – happily absorbed in his task, pulling the photo from the stop bath and dunking it in the fixer, surrounded by bottles of developer, stabiliser and toner. ‘Fixer’, ‘stabiliser’, ‘stop bath’ – the language of the darkroom hints at the Sisyphean metaphysical struggle played out there: the struggle to arrest the flux of time. Photography is the art of stabilisation. If my father became a photographer for any reason other than the possibility of earning a good living, I think it was precisely because the photographer is an agent of stability, and his childhood in Central Europe had been characterized by a perilous instability.

(…)

You Haven’t Texted Since Saturday

Michael Robbins writing for the Paris Review

Michael Robbins’ poem in the Spring 2017 issue of the Paris Review:

You haven’t texted
since Saturday,
when I read Keith Waldrop’s
translation of Les Fleurs du mal
on a bench by whatever
that tower is on the hill
in Fort Greene Park
until you walked up
late as always and I do
mean always
in your dad’s army jacket
and said “Hi, buddy”
in a tone that told me
all I needed to know,
although protocol dictated
that you should sit next to me 
and spell it out
and we should hold each other
and cry and then pretend
everything was fine, would
be fine, was someday
before the final
trumpet, before heat death,
zero point, big rip
sure to be absolutely
perfectly completely
probably fine. And 
though it wasn’t and 
wouldn’t be, 
I walked you to the G
then rode the C
to Jay Street–MetroTech.
Just now I took a break from 
this retrospect
to smoke one of the Camels
in the sky-blue box marked
IL FUMO UCCIDE
you brought me from Italy
and page through a book
on contemporary physics.
“Something must be
very wrong,” it said,
and I agreed,
although it turned out
the author meant that “no theory
of physics should produce
infinities with impunity.”
I’d point out that every theory
of the heart
produces infinities
with impunity
if I were the kind of jerk
who uses the heart
to mean the human
tendency to make
others suffer
just because we
hate to suffer
alone. I’m sorry
I brought a fitted sheet
to the beach. I’m sorry 
I’m selfish and determined
to make the worst
of everything. I’m
sorry language is a ship 
that goes down
while you’re building it.
The Hesychasts of Byzantium
stripped their prayers
of words. It’s been tried
with poems too. But insofar
as I am a disappointment 
to myself and others, it seems fitting
to set up shop in almost 
and not quite and that’s not 
what I meant. I draw the line at the heart,
though, with its
infinities. And I have to say 
I am not a big fan 
of being sad. Some people 
can pull it off. When 
we hiked Overlook, you
went on ahead to the summit
while I sat on a rock
reading Thomas Bernhard. 
I’d just made it to the ruins 
of the old hotel
when you came jogging back down
in your sports bra
saying I had to come see the view.
But my allergies were bad
and I was thirsty,
so we headed down the gravelly trail,
pleased by the occasional
advent of a jittery
chipmunk. You showed me pictures
on your phone of the fire 
tower, the nineteenth-
century graffiti carved
into the rock, and the long
unfolded valley
of the Hudson. At the bottom, 
the Buddhists let us
fill our water bottles
from their drinking fountain.
We called a cab and sat
along the roadside
watching prayer flags
rush in the wind. I said the wind
carried the prayers
inscribed on the flags
to the gods, but Wikipedia
informs me now that 
the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread good will and compassion into all pervading space. 
So I was wrong, again,
about the gods. Wherever
you are, I hope you stand
still now and then
and let the prayers
wash over you like the breakers
at Fort Tilden that day
the huge gray gothic 
clouds massed and threatened to drop
a storm on our heads
but didn’t.

The Multiplying Hells of Pierre Guyotat

Blake Butler writing for Vice
Writer Pierre Guyotat

Writing for Vice, Blake Butler talks about the unreadable, and Pierre Guyotat as an alternative to Sadism:

I think I always wanted the writing of the Marquis de Sade to be more fucked up than it is. For all the hype that’d been built up around him, by the time I first snuck in the library in like seventh grade to peek into Justine or whatever all full of adrenaline and some kind of unknown fear, I think I expected to read the book and have it burn me on the face, or at least to feel nauseated to the point it would be hard to even look straight at the words.

But it didn’t feel like that. There was all this other talking in the book, philosophy and Victorian back and forth. There were dirty scenes too, though they didn’t affect me as much as the anticipation of reading them did. As an adult now there are still certain things I like about Sade, and I’d take his masturbation scribbling over most other straight white male literary fantasy. It never was really his language or even the affect of his descriptions as much as simply his historical existence that I believe has made him stick around as “taboo.”

Years later, when I finally came across the writing of Pierre Guyotat, that whole gap of where the somewhat fizzled damage from Sade’s legacy had left open became suddenly and immediately awakened. Guyotat came with a similarly messed up biographical framework: He was drafted into the Algerian war around age 20 and served there until he was eventually arrested for inciting desertion among the troops and as a result was detained in a hole in the ground for three months. Using that experience and his hallucinations on the battlefields he wrote several books in his early 20s, including 1970’s Eden Eden Eden, which was banned for 11 years in France as pornographic.

Subsequently a petition on behalf of the merit of his work was written, including signatures by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Beuys, Jean Genet, Maurice Blanchot, Max Ernst, Italo Calvino, Simone de Beauvoir, and Nathalie Sarraute, which essentially had no legal effect. Beyond all that, he is notoriously known for having written himself into a coma, writing from such a state of hyper-volatility and obsession that he refused to eat and was hospitalized (and later explored this experience in great detail in his most recent work, Coma, released in English in 2010).

All this context still doesn’t really set you up for the onslaught of full-on linguistic beatdown this man has managed to cram into his words. Where other extreme-aimed texts focus on their subject matter to do the heavy lifting on how they slam into the reader, Guyotat’s language is the primary weapon in his barrage. He uses sound, stink, texture, motion, color, and relentless juxtaposition to break through the simple sheen of something maybe gross or terrifying to immediately graft it onto more: the image not static or pleased to be itself, but constantly unscrolling. His sentences are often full of colons and semi-colons and commas, forcing the eye to continue to move and feed the brain. I mean, here, one paragraph at random, from his Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, which is dedicated to his uncle who was killed in a concentration camp, published in French in 1968, and finally translated by Helen Lane to English in 2003…

(…)

Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk in Granta magazine
snow

An excerpt of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, transated from the Polish, has been published in Granta magazine:

I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of an ambulance having to take me away in the Night.

Had I examined the Ephemerides that evening to see what was happening in the heavens, I wouldn’t have gone to bed at all. Meanwhile I fell very fast asleep; I helped myself with an infusion of hops, on top of which I took two valerian pills. So when in the middle of the Night I was woken by hammering on the door – violent, immoderate and by that token boding ill – I couldn’t come to. I sprang up and stood by the bed, unsteadily, because my sleepy, shaky body couldn’t make the leap from the innocence of sleep into wakefulness. I felt weak and began to reel, as if I were on the point of losing consciousness. Unfortunately it happens to me lately, and is to do with my Ailments. I had to sit down and repeat to myself several times: I am at home, it is Night, someone’s banging on the door, and only then did I manage to get a grip on my nerves. As I searched for my slippers in the dark, I could hear that whoever had been banging was now walking around the house, muttering to himself. Downstairs, in the cubbyhole for the electrical meters, I’ve got the disabling gas Dizzy gave me because of the poachers, and that was what I was now thinking about. I managed in the darkness to seek out the familiar cold aerosol shape, and thus armed, I switched on the outside light, then looked at the porch through a small side window. There was a crunch of snow, and into my field of vision came the neighbour, whom I call Maladroit. He was pulling around him the tails of the old sheepskin coat I sometimes saw him wearing as he worked by the house. From under the coat his legs protruded in striped pyjamas and heavy hiking boots.

‘Open up,’ he said.

With undisguised astonishment he cast an eye at my linen suit (I sleep in something Mr & Mrs Professor wanted to throw away last summer, which reminds me of a fashion from long ago and the days of my youth – thus I combine the Practical and the Sentimental), and without a by-your-leave he came inside.

‘Please get dressed. Big Foot is dead.’

For a while I was struck dumb with shock; without a word I pulled on my tall snow boots and threw on the first fleece to hand off the nearest hanger. Outside, in the stream of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Maladroit stood beside me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved snow fell from him like icing sugar from angel wings.

‘What do you mean, dead?’ I finally asked, my throat constricted, as I opened the door, but Maladroit didn’t answer.

He generally doesn’t say much. He must have Mercury in a silent sign, I reckon it’s in Capricorn or on the cusp, in square or maybe in opposition to Saturn. It could also be Mercury in retrograde – that produces reserve.

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air which reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Man, and for at least half a year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and white clouds of steam came streaming from our mouths. The porch light went out automatically and we walked across the crunching snow in total darkness, except for Maladroit’s headlamp, which pierced the pitch dark in one shifting spot, just ahead, as I toddled along in the Murk behind him.

‘Haven’t you got a torch?’ he asked.

Of course I had one, but I wouldn’t be able to find it until morning, by the light of day. It’s always true of torches that you can only see them in the daytime

(…)

The Mythmaker

James Campbell writing for the Guardian
After Heaney

In this 2006 Guardian piece, James Campbell talks to Seamus Heaney about growing up on a farm in County Derry, politics and his project inspired by a 15th-century Scots poet:

In 1977, Seamus Heaney visited Hugh MacDiarmid at his home in the Scottish borders, when the great poet and controversialist was in the final phase of life. MacDiarmid had been overlooked by the curators of English literature: compiling the Oxford Book of English Verse, Philip Larkin asked a friend if there was “any bit of MacD that’s noticeably less morally repugnant and aesthetically null than the rest?” Heaney, who has always felt at home with Scots vernacular takes a different line. “I always said that when I met MacDiarmid, I had met a great poet who said ‘Och’. I felt confirmed. You can draw a line from maybe Dundalk across England, north of which you say ‘Och’, south of which you say ‘Well, dearie me’. In that monosyllable, there’s a world view, nearly.”

In a literary career that spans 40 years, Heaney’s appointed subject matter has been largely extra-curricular: Irish nationalism, “Orange Drums”, the sod and silage of his father’s 45-acre farm at Mossbawm, County Derry. In 1999, he took the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and hammered it into a weathered English, which sold in astounding quantities and won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. However, it is “the twang of the Scottish tongue”, audible throughout his Derry childhood, particularly “over the Bann in Country Antrim”, that has given him his current project, a modern English account of the work of the 15th- century Scottish makar Robert Henryson. Last year, the small Enitharmon Press published Heaney’s retelling of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid – praised by Bernard O’Donoghue in the TLS as “a poem which is unmistakably his own” – and he is now engaged on the same poet’s witty, homely Fables, with one eye on a new book and another on dramatic recitation.

“I read Beowulf at the Lincoln Center in New York, and a woman said to me, ‘You should do something that actors could do’. And I thought right away of Henryson’s Fables. Billy Connolly would be the ideal speaker. I’d seen him in the film Mrs Brown and I thought that if he stood up and read this stuff – ‘The Two Mice’, for example: ‘Still, being soothed so sweetly, she got up / And went to table where again they sat, / But hardly had they time to drink one cup / When in comes Hunter Gib, our jolly cat’ – he has enough insinuation and intelligence to help bring it within reach of a modern readership. These things are popular, they’re talkable, they’re full of horse sense and roguery.” The limited edition of The Testament of Cresseid apart, his Henryson exists mainly in typescript. He is planning a recital on stage for this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

The only books in the farmhouse at Mossbawm, County Derry, where Heaney grew up in the 1940s, resided “on a high shelf – a dictionary, an algebra and other things I don’t know what. They belonged to an aunt who had done a clerical course and became known in the family as ‘Susan Heaney, a typewriter in London’, where she had gone before the war. The book house, for me, was my Aunt Sarah’s. She had sets of Kipling and Hardy, which she had bought as a young schoolteacher, and which I now have.” Their shared name and initial, “S. Heaney”, decorate the inside leaf, which tickles him. “On Saint Patrick’s Day, a gathering of men would come to the house. There would be some drinks and singing and recitation. So there was a certain sense of ritual enjoyment, but nothing that resembled high culture, no.” His mother was “very devoted to singing and Scottish songs, though she wasn’t a singer herself”, his father “didn’t particularly like music”.

In “The Famous Seamus”, a sometimes tart but truly affectionate profile of Heaney that raised eyebrows when it was published in the New Yorker in March 2000, his lifelong friend Seamus Deane wrote that the very act of bestowing the Celticised Christian name on a boy in Northern Ireland was “a signal” that a family “was loyal to the Gaelic, and not the British, account of things”. This account – related to what Heaney has called “the Catholic imagination” – is something to which Heaney pledged loyalty in the opening lines of his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), “Between my finger and thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”, even if history has given them a more emphatic ring than the poet foresaw. He and Deane were fellow pupils at St Columb’s College, a diocesan grammar school for boys from the city of Derry and its surrounding farmlands. The country Seamus was a boarder, the town Seamus a sophisticated day boy. With a fond jab in the bumpkin ribs, Deane remarks that the boarders talked so slowly, “Maghera and Magherafelt … with all their ‘gh’s squatting on the wide vowels … that sometimes you thought a sentence had been spoken when in fact only a place-name had been”.

(…)

Interview: Robert Icke, one of Britain’s youngest theatre directors

Sarah Hemming writing for the Financial Times
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With Robert Icke’s Hamlet currently playing at the Almeida Theatre, we look back to Sarah Hemming’s interview with the young director in 2016, for the Financial Times:

Theatre is the great art form of now,” says Robert Icke. “It happens to you live; we cook the food live. And if it’s not doing that, there’s a teenager in me that starts rebelling and going, ‘I just don’t know what that is for.’”

 Although he is not yet 30, Icke has already proved his originality as a stage director. His 1984 (co-created with Duncan Macmillan for Headlong and currently touring the US) reshaped Orwell’s dystopian novel into a disturbingly timely stage work about surveillance and thought manipulation. The production won Icke and Macmillan the Best Director accolade at the 2014 UK Theatre Awards.

Another Best Director award followed last year, after Icke launched the Almeida Theatre’s Greek season with a revelatory and electrifying new version of Oresteia that approached the 2,500-year-old tragedy as if it were a contemporary text. Icke configured the theatre as a courtroom where nothing was certain — justice, narrative, the role of theatre itself — making us wrestle with our own judgment on the desolate central story.

So how do you follow such a harrowing, blood-soaked epic? In Icke’s case, rather surprisingly, with Chekhov. He’s back in the Almeida rehearsal room with Uncle Vanya, which, in contrast to Oresteia, with its cast of royals and deities, depicts a rundown rural estate peopled with disconsolate misfits.

“I really wanted to do something that was less bleak,” he explains. “Which seems hilarious now I am working on it! I spent 14 months working on nothing but Oresteia, which was blissful — but it’s a dark place to live. So I wanted something that was a bit more emotional; more microscope, rather than telescope. And this story is the opposite [to Oresteia] in a way: nothing actually happens and there really is no plot in the traditional sense.”

We are huddled beside a portable heater in a spartan back office at the Almeida’s north London rehearsal space. On the other side of the door, two cast members are practising lines, committing to memory the farewell scene between Astrov and Elena. Even when delivered with no emotion, it is heartbreaking — one of the many pinch-points in Chekhov’s humane masterpiece of misdirected love, wasted potential and thwarted hopes.

It’s the Russian playwright’s sheer daring that fascinates Icke. “Chekhov talks and talks about how you make it real,” he observes. “He says in a letter — this is paraphrased — everyone runs around on stage firing guns; too much stuff happens. There should be plays where people just eat and then fall asleep and get a bit drunk and say things that they don’t really mean.

“[In Uncle Vanya] characters keep doing things that you wouldn’t expect them to do in a traditional plot structure. So they say something and then don’t do it. He is so good at the unfinished sentence and the thought that nobody responds to. There’s just nothing like it. I can’t think of anyone else now who can achieve that sort of observation.”

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