Friday, August 18, 2017

Montesquieu's Persian Letters and His Fellow Authors

The Persian Letters of Montesquieu have turned into one of the books that cause me to enter a subway train, read a few sentences, and then emerge befuddled as the train reaches my station barely — as I feel — seconds later.

It consists of an imaginary bundle of letters written by, of, or to a pair of Persian men — one younger, one older — who travel to Paris and describe the society they find. The coming excerpt from the 75th letter is not my favourite passage, since I think it is not particularly profound and not aimed at any crucial grievance in societies past or present.

I venture to think, too, that people read far fewer books than one might think from Montesquieu's representations. But it is funny enough to share generally, and personally a comfort to me for not achieving anything authorly by way of publication:

1721 Edition of the Persian Letters
From the Skoklosters Slott collection, Lake Mälaren, Sweden
via Wikimedia Commons

"La fureur de la plupart des Français, c’est d’avoir de l’esprit ; et la fureur de ceux qui veulent avoir de l’esprit, c’est de faire des livres.

"Cependant il n’y a rien de si mal imaginé : la nature semblait avoir sagement pourvu à ce que les sottises des hommes fussent passagères ; et les livres les immortalisent. Un sot devrait être content d’avoir ennuyé tous ceux qui ont vécu avec lui : il veut encore tourmenter les races futures ; il veut que sa sottise triomphe de l’oubli, dont il aurait pu jouir comme du tombeau ; il veut que la postérité soit informée qu’il a vécu, et qu’elle sache à jamais qu’il a été un sot.”

Source: Les lettres persanes, (Copyright Le Figaro, Éditions Garnier)


Rough translation: 'The rage of most of the French is to possess wit; and the rage of those who want wit, is to make books. Nevertheless there is nothing so ill conceived: nature wisely appears to have preordained that the nonsense of men be fleeting, and books immortalize it. An idiot should be satisfied with having annoyed all those who have lived with him; he wants to torment future generations still; he wants his nonsense to triumph over the oblivion by which he might have profited like the tomb; he wants posterity to be informed that he has lived, and to know forever that he was a fool.'

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Found Poem: Idyll in Southern Spain

Fachada de la Real Colegiata de San Hipólito
by Amoluc (?), via Wikimedia Commons
License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Poems can, at times, happen at unexpected places; and despite the tradition of Lieder and more subtle presences of literature in music, it was a surprise when I first leafed through our edition of the Chants d'Espagne by Isaac Albéniz to see the epigraph above "Córdoba."
En el silencio de la noche, que interrumpe el
susurro de las brises aromadas por los
jazmines, suenan las guzlas acompañando las

Serenatas y difundiendo en el aire melodías
ardientes y notas tan dulces como los
balanceos de las palmas en los altos cielos.
Roughly translated: In the stillness of the night, interrupted by the whisper of the breezes scented by jasmine, the gusles* resound, accompanying the serenades and diffusing into the air ardent melodies and notes as soft as the waving of the palms in the high skies.

(German-language Wikipedia: "Gusle")

(Note: In our G. Henle edition, the English translation is rendered so it is the musical notes that are 'in celestial heights' — or, as I put it, 'in the high skies' — and not the swaying palms. But I prefer to persist in my interpretation as it is!)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Paul Valéry's Féerie

Paul Valéry, 1871-1945.

Today° I made much progress in Voltaire's Zaïre and, to misquote Jane Austen's phrase, the reader can guess by the tell-tale compression of the pages that we are hastening to the final state of infelicity. But I've also taken a look at the poems of Paul Valéry. Aside from having the vague idea that he wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I made the conscious decision not to read anything about his work or his biography before I had read some of the poems; and then slipped the book that I found at home into the bag that I take to work. In the U-Bahn, therefore, I opened it for the first time: I saw my grandmother's name inked in the front, and that it had been published in 1944.

Eglinton Castle (c.1830s)
by John Fleming
via Wikimedia Commons
Then I read the poems. The 'pared-down' crystalline diction made me feel awed. I also admired the metaphors, although the meaning was often obscure and needlessly so, and the quality of the poet's mind.

I admired his 'Féerie' a lot, at any rate, even if my French is not reliable enough to understand if there is indeed a heavy erotic subtext there or not!
La lune mince verse une lueur sacrée
Toute une jupe d'un tissu d'argent léger,
Sur les bases de marbre où vient l'ombre songer
Que suit d'un char de perle une gaze nacrée.

Pour les cygnes soyeux qui frôlent les roseaux
De carènes de plume à demi lumineuse,
Elle effeuille infinie une rose neigeuse
Dont les pétales font des cercles sur les eaux…
[. . .]


(Translated based purely on guesswork,