Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Last Week in Marienbad

Last Saturday night two distinguished translators, Frank Wynne and Daniel Hahne, took part in something new to me during A Leap in the Dark - a so-called 'translation slam'.

They each independently completed a translation from the French original of a short prose text - the opening monologue (attributed to 'VOICE OF X') from the novelisation, by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais, of the film L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad). They didn't see one another's version until just beopfre the programme began, and an absorbing conversation followed in which they picked the bones out of the text and explained their choice of phrase or word (such as 'building/edifice' for the French 'construction'), how they achieved an appropriate cadence and so on. It was a masterclass in close reading and sensitive interpretation and I could have listened for hours.

I'd like to reproduce just a couple of lines of the exercise to show how two translators tackle the same text. The similarities are as revealing as the differences.

Version originale

Une fois de plus –, je m’avance, une fois de plus, le long de ces couloirs, à travers ces salons, ces galeries, dans cette construction – d’un autre siècle, cet hôtel immense, luxueux, baroque, – lugubre, où des couloirs interminables succèdent aux couloirs, 

                                                                      From  L'Année dernière à Marienbad  by Alain Robbe-Grillet  and Alain Resnais
                                                                                                                                                       (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1961)

Translation 1 (by Daniel Hahne)

       Once again –, I walk on, once again, along these hallways, across these rooms, these galleries, in this building – from another century, this vast hotel – luxurious, baroque, gloomy – where endless hallways follow on from hallways, 

Translation 2 (by Frank Wynne)

Once again, I walk on, once again, through these hallways, these salons, these galleries, in this edifice – from another century, this vast hotel, opulent, baroque – mournful, in which hallway follows endless hallway 

It was a wonderful evening, with a musical translation from Helen Ottaway (a beautiful  piece called 'Dove' scored for harpsichord but played on the on the piano), Astrid Alben talking about and reading the work of the Dutch poet F. van Dixhoorn (known as 'Dix') and Aea Varfis van Warmelo giving an astonishing performance of Apollinaire's poem 'l'Avenir'. This, it struck me, was something entirely new and I hope she'll develop further this brilliant way of reading and translating at the same time interpreting a poem in a foreign language. 

Monday, 25 May 2020

Spring Journal Canto X by Jonathan Gibbs

Last Friday's Leap in the Dark began, as usual, with the latest canto of Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, read 
impeccably by Michael Hughes. I struggle to find adequate superlatives to describe what Jonathan has achieved already, 
and will go on to achieve, withe this astonising, urgent, vital work-in-progress. It is a poem for our times. 

Here is the tenth canto, with the author's kind permission:


And work this year will see no cap and gown
In the vestry of Westminster Cathedral
No procession up the nave, no lunch in town,
No garden party back on campus to celebrate graduation.
And I think of the ends of other terms,
Other marquees in other university grounds,
And memory reaffirms
The thrill and exhilaration of ending something well,
Among friends, who you know you will leave behind,
As you push on into life; these are they with whom
You will reconnect, if time is kind,
And look back on how what you achieved together
Set the tone
For what you would achieve apart,
Posing in variant groups, for camera or phone:
Exhilaration is the grandparent of nostalgia.
It’s odd that these moments should claim
Our attention; they were not when we were most alive,
But when we paused life to give it a name.
Life was something happening in the background,
Expressing itself in textures and scents:
A television on somewhere else in the house,
A table you worked at, a creosoted fence,
A tally as vast and arbitrary as our 25,000 genes,
Each one waiting for its cup of tea and madeleine,
Its apotheosis in a hiccup or a sideways glance,
Or the half-heard refrain
Of a pop song dopplering from a passing car.
But we tossed our caps and raised a glass,
Half-drunk already on expectation of the future;
That prosecco must taste flat to the class
Of 2020. The door opens for them onto a wasteland,
No jobs, no prospects; the economy is scarred
As the buzzword has it, but what caused the scarring,
And why weren’t we better prepared?
A stab-proof vest, not miracle gels, would have been preferred.
They won’t take it for granted that things
Will get bigger and better and better and bigger
They won’t expect to just pull on the strings
To have cushy days roll in from over the horizon.
While for me school – a grammar school in Essex –
Did provide a fertile bed for growth, though not just as
Defined by the dominant metrics
Of exam results and future earnings.
We ran comedy shows on the school hall stage 
And formed ramshackle bands in the prefab huts
Left there from a simpler, humbler, beiger age; 
We covered them with murals, and now they’re gone.
So there are no junior ministers or captains of industry
In my generation’s notable alumni
But comedians, musicians and journalists,
From off of TV, and the main stage at Glastonbury.
We didn’t get to go on the dole,
But we did get to make schooling a frolic
And a revel – though maybe the whole
Thing’s the same big sentimental trick
Each generation gets to play
On itself, and these kids will look back at their education 
With the same grating whimsy, and say,
Those days, indeed, were golden; we were so young; and the times were just.
And today is the warmest day
Since August last year; the sky belongs to the condescending clouds
And the few contrails
Of planes that passed earlier unheard; this morning the bird
Song seemed to come not just 
From the gardens close by, but round them,
Through airways clear of smog and dust,
From all the birds of SE26 and SE20. 
And I think of the Year Sixes,
Who may not get to get their last weeks of primary school –
Yes, ending something well carries riches
Not all of which get reinvested in what comes next.
And though the schools may still open
In June, in spite of the cares and concerns;
The bond of trust has been damaged, if not broken,
For all education is built on trust, then love, 
And only then on grammar and spelling,
And the basic numeracy of what R equals today.
Tomorrow there’s no telling
What children will bring home with their homework.
And the summer looms like a bright black hole,
As infections decrease and we raise our heads
And ask ourselves if we understand the role
We are being asked to play in the next stage of this terrible opera.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Seed by Joanna Walsh

Last Friday night A Leap in the Dark featured the author Joanna Walsh in conversation with her publisher Emma Warnock of the excellent Belfast-based. independent No Alibis Press. www.noalibispress.com 

Joanna generously provided this note introducing a short passage from Seed, as follows:

Seed is a story told in the voice of a teenage girl, isolated in industrial countryside at the end of the 1980s. When I wrote Seed I spent a lot of time thinking about what a voice is and what a character is, and I ended up thinking that a character can be many voices: porous voices sliding into each other, coming out of their environment, the body, and the words they read and hear around them every day. Here's a little piece of my book, 'Seed'. I hope you'd like to be one of the voices of Seed and read it together with me.


I am working toward a sentence that can say everything at once. I think I can make one but not yet about the valley and the town all in the same sentence and about now and about what has been everything I remember and what the valley remembers a sentence that takes into account each blade of grass—yes the topside that flashes white and the underside that is deep blue the smell when you walk on it—and the same for all the stems of wheat that catch the sun all together like they’re one thing like a giant metal monster and the fields at all the times of year all together the fields liquid green the gold the stubble that sticks out of the ground the straw on the roads the smell of fields burnt thick like tar hanging in the air their colour deeper than anything still not black as nothing’s black in nature only words and there is no need for prepositions because everything is at the same time and in the same place there are lots of verbs lots of doing words but layered on top of each other like people all speaking at once. It is like how time crosses the valley like the wind that puts its shape into things always everywhere at the same time like what I said about the shape in the settee I mean sofa I mean it’s invisible but is the past and the present at the same time.

It takes less than one second to say.
I do not know how long it takes to write.

I can’t make any sentence about the future. I don’t know if I can make one about anything outside the valley."

What happened on the night I'll remember for a long time

Around thirty members of the audience, all in lock-down and scattered over the planet, joined together reading the passage aloud, simultaneously but at different speeds. It was an uncanny, moving experience. Through headphones (and these are recommended on Zoom to cut down on reverb and feedback) the effect was immersive, a throb and murmur of voices inside one's head, some familiar, some not, coupled with one's own. Like being part of a hive mind, or at least a community with a shared purpose. It was both communal and isolating. It was wonderful.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

A Leap in the Dark: Saturday 23rd May

A Leap in the Dark 16    8pm Saturday 23rd May 2020

Tonight’s Leap is about translation, both musical and textual. 

Helen Ottaway will premiere her modification of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and (later) translate one of her compositions from harpsichord to piano. Distinguished translators Frank Wynne and Daniel Hahne will lock linguistic horns in a translation slam; the poet Astrid Alben will talk us through the translation of syntactical illusions, Aea Varfis-van Warmelo  and David Collard will perform Apollinaire’s great modernist poem Zone in French and English and Aea will also offer some thoughts on poetry in translation.

There's no charge for taking part but please make a donation, no matter how large, to The Trussell Trust or your local equivalent outside the UK.

The Programme

1 Welcome from the Pale Usher

2 Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, a musical box strip modified by Helen Ottaway 

3 Translation slam with Frank Wynne and Daniel Hahne


4 Helen Ottaway performs ‘Dove’, the 4th movement of her ‘Suite of Somerset Apples’ 

Helen writes: 

Dove is a cider apple from the Glastonbury area. Last year I arranged this piece for 2 cellos and it was performed in a cider orchard very near Glastonbury. The original is for 2 high sweet registers of the double manual harpsichord, the lute stop on one manual and the 4’ stop on the other.  The parts played by the two hands are played in the same register – something tricky and not so successful if attempted on the piano.  So on Saturday I will transpose the lower part down an octave - a musical translation from harpsichord to piano.

5  Astrid Alben: Bridge or Banana - translating syntactical illusions

6 ‘Zone’ by Guillaume Apollinaire. A new translation performed by Aea 
   Varfis-van Warmelo and David Collard

7 Apollinaire’s ‘l’Avenir’ performed in French and English by Aea Varfis-
  van Warmelo

8 The Pale Usher signs off

The Company

Astrid Alben is a poet and translator. Astrid translates contemporary, experimental poetry from the Dutch and Flemish. Her translations are published in MPT, Jacket, Poetry International Rotterdam, Versopolis, Poetry Review and Poem. She is the translator of F. van Dixhoorn and the Dutch Poet Laureate Anne Vegter. Her latest collection is Plainspeak, published by Prototype in 2020.

Daniel Hahne is a writer, editor and translator, with some seventy books to his name. His work has won him the International Dublin Literary Award, the Blue Peter Book Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, among others. He is a past chair of the Society of Authors, and the trustee of a number of organisations that work with literature and free expression.

Michael Hughes is the author of two acclaimed novels: Countenance Divine (2016) and Country (2018) both published by John Murray, the latter winning the 2018 Hellenic Prize. Under his stage name Michael Colgan he recently appeared in the acclaimed HBO television drama Chernobyl.

Helen Ottaway is a composer and sound artist. She is lead artist with Artmusic, creating and producing collaborative, site-specific art work. She has written for many forces from string quartet to choir and orchestra and recently has started to include found sound in her work. Her writing for hand-punched and hand-wound musical box began during an artist’s residency in Sri Lanka in 2017. Back in the UK she continues to compose for and perform on the instrument.  
www.artmusic.org.uk   https://helenottaway.bandcamp.com/

Aea Varfis-van Warmelo is a trilingual actor and writer.

Frank Wynne is a literary translator. Born in Ireland, he  moved to France  in 1984 where he discovered a passion for language. He worked as a bookseller in Paris and again when he moved to London  in 1987. He translated and published comics and graphic novels and from 1996-2001 he worked in online media.

He began translating literature in the late 1990s, and in 2001 decided to devote himself to this full time. He has translated works by, among others, Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Ahmadou Kourouma, Boualem Sansal, Claude Lanzmann, Tómas Eloy Martínez and Almudena Grandes. His work has earned him a number of awards, including the  Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán. His translation of Vernon Subutex was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2018 and his translation of Animalia by Jean-Baptiste de Amo won the 2020 Republic of Consciousness prize. His website is www.terribleman.com

The Pale Usher is David Collard, who organises these gigs.

The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.
  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Our next Leap in the Dark is on Friday 29th May and will feature 

- music from composer Helen Ottaway  

- canto XI of Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, read by Michael Hughes

- another yoga session with David ‘Guru Dave’ Holzer

- ‘The Binding Problem’ with psychologist and author Hugh Fulham-McQuillan 
   of Trinity College Dublin in conversation with novelists Kevin Davey 
   and Eley Williams

- Letter from Mexico City by Paulette Jonguitud

Please remember to make a donation to The Trussell Trust (or your local equivalent). Thank you.

Stay well!

The Pale Usher 

Friday, 22 May 2020

A Leap in the Dark: Friday 22nd May

A Leap in the Dark 15    8pm Friday 22nd May 2020

This evening’s Leap features the author Joanna Walsh (Hotel, Vertigo and Worlds from the Word’s End) discussing her forthcoming novel Seed with Emma Warnock of the Belfast-based No Alibis Press. Novelist Kate Armstrong delivers A Letter from London and we’ll have another yoga lesson from David ‘Guru Dave’ Holzer. There’s the latest, keenly-anticipated canto of Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, read as usual by Michael Hughes, who will later join two other writers from Northern Ireland - Wendy Erskine and Emma Devlin - for the Settee Salon. 

There's no charge for taking part in A Leap in the Dark, but please make a donation, no matter how large, to The Trussell Trust.

The Programme

1 Welcome from the Pale Usher

2 Spring Journal canto X by Jonathan Gibbs, read by Michael Hughes

3 Joanna Walsh in conversation with Emma Warnock

4 Letter from London by Kate Armstrong


5 Yoga with David ‘Guru Dave’ Holzer

6 The Settee Salon with Emma Devlin, Wendy Erskine and Michael Hughes

7 Another yoga session with 'Guru Dave' 

9 The Pale Usher signs off

The Company

Kate Armstrong was born in Crewe and grew up in Yorkshire. Her first novel The Storyteller was published by Holland House Books in 2016 and was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. She is currently working on a memoir about mental collapse, recovery, and Himalayan climbing, tentatively called Beyond The Mountain.  

Emma Devlin is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast. Her work has featured in Blackbird and The Bangor Literary Journal. She can be found on Twitter: @theactualemma

Wendy Erskine is the author of Sweet Home, an acclaimed debut collection of short stories originally published by Stinging Fly in Ireland and later by Picador.

Michael Hughes is the author of two acclaimed novels: Countenance Divine (2016) and Country (2018) both published by John Murray, the latter winning the 2018 Hellenic Prize. Under his stage name Michael Colgan he recently appeared in the acclaimed HBO television drama Chernobyl.

Jonathan Gibbs is a writer and critic. His first novel, Randall, was published in 2014 by Galley Beggar, and his second, The Large Door, by Boiler House Press last year. He has written on books for various places including the TLS, Brixton Review of Books and The Guardian. He curates the online short story project A Personal Anthology, in which writers, critics and others are invited to 'dream-edit' an anthology of their favourite short fiction. Spring Journal is a response to the current coronavirus pandemic taking its cue very directly from Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal.

David Holzer is a dedicated yogi, author, blogger and journalist. He founded YogaWriters (www.yogawriters.org) and has taught workshops in yoga for writers in Mallorca, where he lives. Hundreds of people have taken his Yoga for Writers course on the DailyOm platform. His writing appears regularly in Om yoga and lifestyle magazine.

Each Friday David will be taking us through a simple yoga sequence that can be done by anyone of any age in the comfort of a favourite chair.


Please take care when practicing yoga. Should a pose feel that it could be harmful to you, do not attempt it or come gently out of the pose.

Breathing is a key part of yoga. Please breathe comfortably and naturally through your nose at all times. If your breath becomes forced, slow down the speed of your practice.

If you feel any kind of sharp, sudden pain anywhere in your body stop practicing right away. Be especially aware of your joints, particularly your knees.

Joanna Walsh is an internationally-published writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. She is also a critic (The Guardian, The New Statesman, Los Angeles Review of Books), and an editor at 3:AM Magazine and gorse editions. She was a judge on the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize and won the Arts Foundation Award for Creative Non-fiction in 2017. She founded @read_women. She is the author of Vertigo, Hotel, Fractals, Grow A Pair, Worlds From The Word’s End and the digital work Seed-story.com. Her ‘novel in essays’ Break.up was published in the UK by Tuskar Rock Press and in the US by Semiotext(e) in Spring 2018.

Emma Warnock is the editor at No Alibis Press, a small and relatively new independent publisher of fiction based in Belfast and founded by David Torrans, owner of No Alibis Bookstore. 2020 publications are Seed by Joanna Walsh and a new collection from Ian Sansom. Information about publications, episodes of podcasts and videos, and contact details are available at: www.noalibispress.com

The Pale Usher is David Collard, who organises these gigs.

The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.
  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Tomorrow night we’’ll have some fine music by our regular contributor Helen Ottaway and we’re delighted to welcome back the distinguished translator Frank Wynne (who appeared in our very first Leap). Frank will be in conversation with his fellow translator Daniel Hahne and together they’ll engage in something new to me - a translation slam. They’ll both tackle a passage in French chosen by The Pale Usher’s son, talking us through the process. The audience will vote on which version they prefer. 

We’ll also have Apollinaire’s great modernist poem Zone, performed by Aea Varfis-Van Warmelo in a new translation by David Collard. (Originally delivered in a real-world performance a lifetime ago, on 29th February - Leap Year night.) And after that some thoughts from Aea on the business of translating poetry.

Please remember to make a donation to The Trussell Trust (or your local equivalent)

Stay well!

The Pale Usher 

Thursday, 21 May 2020

On Joanna Walsh and Hitchcock

This blog comes with a flimsy pretext.

Prompted by the imminent appearance of the writer Joanna Walsh on tomorrow night's A Leap in the Dark, I dug up this unpublished blog about the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock based his great film Vertigo. Because Joanna wrote a novel with the same title. Vertigo, I mean. So, come to that, did W. G. Sebald. But he's not a guest on A Leap in the Dark.

Joanna will be in conversation with Emma Warnock of the Belfast-based No Alibis Press, about her forthcoming novel Seed. Invitees will receive an exclusive extract and introductory note from Joanna in the morning. 

D'entre les Morts is a modestly competent psychological thriller by the French writing duo known as Boileau-Narcejac, first published in 1954. It's fair to say that it would attract little attention today had it not formed the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The novel was recently republished in English, and I was delighted to be given the chance to review it, because the film has been a personal obsession since I saw a faded print screened in a Manchester flea-pit nearly forty years ago. After multiple viewings it remains as fresh and complex and alluring as ever, one of a handful of films that deserve and repay close attention over decades. It is an undisputed masterpiece, although on its release in 1958 the director's forty-fifth feature met with a lukewarm reception and would not appear in the Sight & Sound critics' poll until 1982, when it came seventh. In the most recent poll it was voted the greatest film of all time, displacing Citizen Kane, which had occupied the top spot since the poll began fifty years ago. Such lists count for little, but if pushed I'd argue that Hitchcock is a greater director than Orson Welles while Welles is the greater artist. This is the kind of distinction that used to prompt heated exchanges in the bar of the old National Film Theatre, spiritual home to many a passionate cineaste.

Reading the novel, one experiences (as I note in my TLS review) an unnerving sense of déjà lu, because although the setting is Paris and Marseilles before and after the German Occupation, the premiss is immediately familiar: a wealthy industrialist employs an ex-cop to keep an eye on his troubled wife, Madeleine, who appears to be possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor. The cop soon becomes infatuated with her, attracted by her chilly glamour and aura of sadness, and when he witnesses her apparent suicide he becomes a melancholy, deracinated alcoholic. He later encounters another woman, appropriately named Renée, who appears to be Madeleine's double, her reincarnation. He attempts obsessively to re-make her in the image of his dead lover, scrupulously selecting her outfits, jewellery, make-up and hair (women's hair is a recurring motif in Hitchcock's oeuvre).
Vertigo is an intensely romantic film, but also profoundly morbid. There's a whiff of necrophilia in the movie, and considerably more than a whiff in the novel, where even Madeleine's perfume, Chanel No. 3, is headily redolent of “fresh earth and wilting flowers”. The besotted cop single-mindedly pursues his fantasy, described bluntly by Hitchcock in an interview with François Truffaut thus: “He wants to sleep with a dead woman”.
The director's perverse genius extended beyond a transgressive modern take on the Eurydice myth to explore themes of power and freedom; the power of men over women, of human beings over their fate and our dreams of freedom from death. Hitchcock wasn't especially interested in the mechanics of plotting, and audaciously gave the secret away thirty minutes before the end of the film in a combination of flashback and voiceover. What interested him – and what makes the film a timeless pleasure – is the human dilemma, the dreamy mutability of Kim Novak, who delivers one of cinema's greatest performances.
Later in the Truffaut interview Hitchcock also said: “Some films are a slice of life. Mine are a slice of cake”. Surely what he intended to say – and quite possibly said, using an idiom lost in translation – was: “Some films are a slice of life. Mine are a piece of cake. This casual dismissal of his astonishing virtuosity served to deflect attention from the private obsessions and fears that he smuggled on to the screen, for a popular audience hungry for distraction, sensation and entertainment.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

A Verlaine translation

From 2013, an old blog following another insomniac night. This Saturday's Leap in the Dark (23rd May) is dedicated to translation, so ahead of that here's my two penn'orth:

An insomniac night, so here's a Verlaine translation made (appropriately) during a rainstorm. Am reading his collection Sagesse at the moment, verses he wrote following his release from Mons prison where he served 18 months for shooting and wounding his lover Rimbaud.

He came to England in March 1875 and found employment teaching French, Latin and drawing at a village school in a Lincolnshire backwater called Stickney. He moved after a year to another school in cosmopolitan Bournemouth, returning to Paris in 1877, there to be lionised to death. I'm currently researching Verlaine's two years in England because while his hectic three months' residence with Rimbaud in Camden Town is well-known, the later period in Stickney and Bournemouth is not, although it saw him write some of his best poetry. Here's a sample, with my translation:

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville.
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénêtre mon coeur ?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine.

It rains in my heart
As it rains on the town,
What is this languor
That so soaks my heart?

Oh sweet sound of rain
On earth and on roof.
For my dumb heart again,
This song of the rain.

Rain for no reason
In a heart lacking heart.
What? Without treason?
This grief without reason.

By far the worst pain,
That I cannot explain
Without love, without hate,
That my heart is all pain.