Comments on Timothy’s translations
“Huge congrats to Timothy Ades on his virtuoso renderings of French poetry for this collection of songs by Isabelle Aboulker. Any translation of Tim’s ALWAYS does that impossible thing – to keep the rhythm, the MUSIC of the poem alive while transmitting the pure essence of the text, the nexus of ideas, the poet’s core intent. It’s actually unbelievable. He is are truly one of the great translators of our time.” – Zoe Martlew.
‘Such a natural organic translator. The man is always a continual delight.’ – Dónall Dempsey.
‘Is there any poet you haven’t translated?’ – Tom Deveson.
‘A heavyweight translator’ – George Szirtes
‘I knew immediately that you were excellent at translating the most impossibly tricky poems and that you might do it more and more. What an amazing success story’ – Cornelie Usborne
‘Ah – Timothy. I think he’s the one translator I’ve read (of not too many, admittedly) whose translations make poems sound as if they are original creations.’ – Steven Isserlis
Bertolt Brecht: Selected Rhymed Poems, in ‘Translation & Literature’, 2006
‘Tim’s translations are superb. They deserve to reach a wider readership.’ – Angus McGeoch.
Robert Desnos, Surrealist, Lover, Resistant
Edmund Prestwich in the Manchester Review, February 2018
Thoroughly enjoyable and very clear to read through – Claire Crowther.
Robert Desnos was obviously a truly interesting, original and worthwhile person and poet. I have read a good number of his poems/your brilliant translations. It is a lovely and well produced book. – Prof Oliver James.
‘…a prodigiously difficult task… a remarkable degree of success. …Adès finds language to match Desnos’ dizzyingly brilliant French. …Above and beyond even the skill that has gone into the making of this outstanding book, of more than 500 pages, I am in awe of, and deeply grateful for, the sheer hard work which Timothy Adès has put into this impressive achievement.’ – Acumen Literary Journal
Am loving the Desnos book I had for Christmas. The Rrose sequence is delightful and inspiring. – Wendy Holborow, poet
‘Altogether, this is a book I’ve greatly enjoyed reading and sometimes wrestling with, a worthy transmission of a major poet with much to offer to very different tastes.’ – Edmund Prestwich in The Manchester Review
A very kind friend writes: ‘Grâce à toi, j’ai redécouvert Desnos et sa poésie que je ne connaissais que superficiellement. Mais quel art fabuleux que de transcrire ainsi un tel talent. J’ignorais à quel point de virtuosité, tu pouvais ainsi traduire. Si! Parce que j’ai des souvenirs très précis de l’Art d’être Grand-Père de Victor Hugo. Mille fois bravo! … Je trouve que ton livre révèle un superbe exploit de finesse, de sensibilité et de fusion poétique et aussi fantaisiste de cet auteur surréaliste au destin chaotique. J’adore ouvrir une page au hasard: comme une bouffée d’air qui transporte l’esprit vers des paysages variés de nostalgie, de gaité, d’amoureux souvenirs, de tendresse.’
‘Awesome translations of Desnos’ – Martyn Crucefix
‘As this is an Arc production, it comes as no surprise at all that the book is beautiful. It’s well worth the small extra wait of a few months… Tim & Arc, it’s fabulous.’ – Andrew Heald
‘I’m delighted with this publication, it’s an absolutely stunning achievement! Congratulations and thanks for your hard work.’ – Simon Palmer
‘[The poems are] so rich and powerful I want to read them again and again… Timothy Adès’s translations not only convey the rhythm, sense and spirit, and even the varied idioms of the French poems, but also are remarkable poems in their own right. I feel this book in all regards merits a major international award. …I’ve loved books, and French poetry, since I was 5, and this volume outshines all.’ – Anthony Gilbert
Roger Caldwell in ‘London Grip’ (online) considers an impressively substantial volume of poems by Robert Desnos with translations by Timothy Adès:
André Breton once declared that surrealism was the order of the day and that Robert Desnos was its prophet. Whilst surrealism in its heyday threw up a number of remarkable poets in France, on this side of the Channel, David Gascoyne apart, most of those British poets who used surrealist techniques in the 1930s and 1940s are long forgotten. Indeed, there were those who found that its forced incongruities – Pound spoke of “any decayed cabbage cast on any pale sofa” – tended to be too mechanical and arbitrary. But on the Continent (and not only in France) it was otherwise, and Desnos was one of many who found a release of the imagination in following the surrealist creed.
Breton, of course, was all too much the Pope of the movement: never an easy man to agree with, most of his acolytes found themselves excommunicated at one time or another. Desnos’ break came in 1929 when he declared that “the gates have been bolted on Wonderland”, though they never quite were, even in the poems written in occupied France, when an imagery of torture-cells, fetters, passwords and watchmen entered his work. Desnos was a brave and active member of the Resistance. Arrested in 1944, he spent the rest of his life in various concentration camps, and died in Terezin, aged only 44, of typhus some weeks after the War had ended. He had packed a lot into his relatively brief life, his radio-work, his novels, his writings for children, as well as the poetry for which is chiefly remembered.
This new bilingual edition of his poetry provides for the first time for English-speakers a comprehensive collection, from the adolescent imitations of Rimbaud’s ‘Le bateau ivre’, the first productions of the tyro surrealist, through the effervescent poems of love, absurdist narratives of the middle years, to the sonnets and classical allegories of the war years, and on to the sadly few (for most were lost) poems written in the camps. It is essential, in Desnos’ case, to have his original French to refer to, for his virtuosic way with his native language, his exuberant word-play find no near-equivalents in English. Much of his work, whether composed in the strict quatrains that characterize French poetry from Baudelaire on, or in the form of songs – some taking on the rhythms of nursery-rhymes – poses problems, some insuperable, for translators. Adès works hard to find effects in English analogous to those of the original, and often valiantly succeeds, though the result may be at some remove from a literal version. He is not helped, of course, by the fact that rhyme-words are notably fewer in English than French, and that Desnos ransacks French lexis for ingenious rhymes. Adès’ task, as he admits, is easier with Desnos’ free-verse writings where literal translation is more the order of the day, as with the exultant dithyrambs of his love-poetry. However, such are the waves of voluptuous fervor that the reader’s eyes can momentarily glaze over – the translator’s also, it seems, for in one line of ‘The Night of Loveless Loves’ Adès reads ‘oronge’ as ‘orange’ (‘la fausse oronge’ is French for fly-agaric, or the magic mushroom) and thus makes utterly baffling what is in fact one of Desnos’ less cryptic lines. This poem is interesting in reminding us that surrealism is a successor to Romanticism in that the charnel-house imagery of phantoms, corpses, and cerements is all traditional Gothic: the sheer energy and erotic charge, however, are all Desnos’s own. Adès’ brief biographical notes are essential in these poems: it helps to know that in French ‘Yvonne’ rhymes with ‘anemone’ (Yvonne George, a night-club singer, was his first love) and that Youfi who eventually became his wife had a mermaid tattoo (hence the frequency with which the word ‘sirène’ occurs).
In ‘Rrose Sélavy’ he took over Marcel Duchamp’s feminine alter ego in an experiment in automatic writing. For Adès this is one of surrealism’s essential texts. Perhaps so, but I found it too much of a jeu d’esprit that has faded somewhat over the years: there are things to admire, but for me Desnos’ ebullience, sheer impudence and richness of verbal play is put to more telling effect elsewhere in this volume. There is something both child-like and life-enhancing in his work: at its best it has a unique charm it is hard to resist. Certainly, throughout his career, he has the gift of coming up with phrases that haunt the ear. He celebrates in his lover “that little fold between ear and nape, where the neck is born”. The beauty of an ageing woman survives like “a poker in a burnt-out house, unscathed.” Somewhere, he tells us, “morning shatters like a pile of dishes.” He can invoke “the superb grottoes of the Ludicrous Islands” where “very silly birds . . . chat to crocodiles.” He frequently employs double (sometimes multiple) uses of words: in French ‘souci’ means both ‘worry’ and ‘marigold’ and in an inspired neologism Adès Englishes it as ‘worrigold’.
In the dark days of the occupation when the sky “is hollow as an empty oyster” he writes strict sonnets with such fluency it is as if his thoughts came ready-made to him in that form. By now he is looking for a poetry which moves with a sense of inevitability – which, one would think, is about as far from surrealism as you can get. He also uses classical myth in this period in poem-sequences that managed to pass the German censorship: the eroticism was evident, the political message was visible only to the attentive reader. Desnos is a poet of exceptional gifts: the sheer range of his work is the mark of a poet of major ambition. He is, of course, best read in French, but that Adès is able to convey so much of his spirit in English is a remarkable achievement. We hear Desnos’ authentic passionate voice in words like these: “And me alone alone alone like withered ivy in a suburban garden alone as glass / And you never another you but you.”
Many thanks for this excellent review. Just one thing – I haven’t misread ‘oronge’. There’s a good and a bad orange-hooded mushroom with white dots, this is the bad one, and I wrote ‘the dubious orange-hood’. Oronge is a corruption of ‘orange’. Apart from that, yours is the first and so far the only review of what I think is a remarkable book!
Storysongs / Chantefables
“Oscar (4 years old) and Lily (almost 2) came over to play and I had a great time reading a few song/poems to them, before we started building houses with dominoes
and playing hide and seek. A great time was had by all, and Oscar took off, proudly carrying the book under his arm.” – Carol Ades.
“It’s lovely — and for a child in particular there’s the fun of turning it around and getting to realise which language comes first for which poems. It’s a sort of adventure which I’m sure will catch Noah’s imagination. And as he gets older I hope he’ll also come to appreciate the quality of the language as well.” — Trisha Tomlinson.
“It’s gorgeous! I love the front/back upside down thing so much … brilliant. The graphics are beautiful and the layout is beautiful and the translations are beyond beeeeeauauautiful!” — Veronika Krausas.
“A delight for readers of all ages! We enjoyed the illustrations very much. I thought the translations very subtle, clever, pertinent and appropriately humorous!” — Georgie Colvile.
“I’ve ordered and received a copy of this beautiful book. I shall read it with joy, then take it to my daughter and family in France — her three small bilingual boys will love it.” — Ruth Hanchett.
“A charming children’s book “Storysongs” (Chantefables) — with playful poems by the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos (1900–1945) superbly translated into English — is published by Agenda Editions…” – ParisVoice webzine.
How to be a Grandfather
‘I received your book a week ago, and have happily begun reading How to be a Grandfather this Easter. Although I assumed I would enjoy it, it’s moved me very much. I was raised by my mother and my grandfather, and to the latter, the French language and French poetry was a fundamental part of his life. …Why your translation moves me is because of how you’ve rendered Hugo’s relationship to his grandchildren, which reminds me so much of my own. Like Hugo, my grandfather used to watch me sleep – while impatiently waiting for me to wake up! – so we could continue talking. I dare say Little children who let us be little again describes his last 20 years with me and my brother.
‘There is so much wit and warmth in both Hugo and the feeling of the poems, and I am so grateful you sent it my way.
‘They reach us just as we are failing. Or equally, as I sometimes feel when I miss my grandfather terribly, I came into this world as he left it.
‘Thank you for making me feel closer to him again.’ — Meriam Braanaas
Reviewed in London Grip, winter 2012/3 by Merryn Williams
(Reproduced by permission)
Timothy Adès has produced new translations of Victor Hugo’s poems about being a grandfather. Merryn Williams finds that many of them have stood the test of time …
Victor Hugo (1802–85) is best known in this country as the author of Les Misérables, but he was also a prolific poet and a great humanitarian. He was a democrat, passionately opposed to the monarchy and the power of the Church, and, as the translator explains, we in Britain don’t understand why people feel strongly about these things. He was forced to go into exile in Guernsey, and that is where some of these poems were written. Four of his children died before him but his beloved grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne, spent a great deal of time with him in his old age.
Timothy Adès has produced a complete translation of his last book of poetry, L’Art d’être Grand–Père, most of which has not been translated before. Like the originals, they rhyme, and they are reasonably accurate. This one is typical:
Jean talks: she burbles, sweet and low;
Tells nature things she doesn’t know,
Tells groaning waves and moaning woods,
Flowers and nests, all heaven, the clouds,
Offering insights, by a smile,
From shimmering dream and roving soul:
A formless murmur, blurred and hazed.
Old grandpa God gives ear, amazed.
Doting grandparents should perhaps be careful before they go into print, and many of these poems are too sweet for my taste. But I was interested in the political poems, which deal with subjects like Napoleon, the Second Empire and the Commune. The test of a translation must be whether it works as a poem in the new language, and ‘June 1871 (The End of the Paris Commune)’ certainly does work:
A woman told me this: ‘I took to flight.
My baby at my breast, poor little mite,
Cried, and I was afraid she might be heard.
Imagine, Sir, the child was two months old,
No stronger than a fly. I tried and tried
To stop her mouth with kisses: but she cried,
Rattling. She would have fed, but I was dry:
I only wept. That’s how a night went by.
I hid behind a door. I saw the glint
Of arms, the guns of killers, on the hunt
For my husband. Morning broke. Behind that door,
A curse on it! my darling cried no more.
Sir, she was dead: I touched her, she was cold.
I ran, not caring if I too was killed,
Anywhere, with my daughter. People called
Out to me, but I fled, I don’t know where,
Into the fields, and dug a hole with bare
Hands, in some paddock, in a place of shade.
It’s hard to bury one your breast has fed!
I laid to rest in earth my angel, sleeping’.
The father stood beside her: he was weeping.
Nothing old–fashioned about this one; it could be happening anywhere in a war zone. The book has left me determined to find out more about Victor Hugo.
On Victor Hugo How to be a Grandfather
“[Often] one forgets that one is reading a translation at all … This is great poetry of childhood, and …, not co–incidentally, it is among the finest poetry of old age … I strongly recommend [it] for the accomplishment of the translator and for the thought–provoking quality of much of what is translated.” — Glyn Pursglove
“The fact that the poems speak to me in such a timeless, warm and engaging way, that they illuminate Hugo the man so favourably, is entirely due to your luminous translations.” — Dr Maggie Butt
“I’ve been reading your Hugo translations with great pleasure. I wouldn’t have known about those poems if it hadn’t been for you. Hugo does what more of our contemporary poets should do — really offers himself, with frankness and modesty (which of course takes a lot of confidence). Your translations are fluent, scrupulous and they capture the substantialness and tone and charm of the originals.” — Meredith Oakes
“We see a tender, more private side of Hugo who dotes on his grandchildren… The zoo, in particular, is of great interest to Hugo… I appreciate the brevity of [the translator’s] preface, its light touch a modesty that allows us to immerse ourselves in the Hugolian light verses right away.” — Fiona Sze–Lorrain in Poetry Salzburg Review
See Lucy Hamilton’s review in Long Poem Magazine: Review of Timothy Ades: How to be a Grandfather.
“I do not recall how I learned of this title, but I am happy that I did. Victor Hugo was devoted to his two grandchildren Jeanne and Georges, the children of his son, Charles Hugo, who had died prematurely. At the time of his son Charles’ death, Victor was a widower. This collection of poetry has never been in print before in English, and was to be the last he wrote. All I can say is this; that after reading one of the poems contained herein, I want to know all I can about Victor Hugo and his work. Hugo is best known as the author of Les Misérables. He made sketches as a pastime, which Van Gogh and Delacroix were both so impressed with, they felt that if Hugo had pursued painting he would have surpassed all the contemporaries of his time. One can’t do everything, we are glad he wrote…!! I urge you to find a copy of this rare title and treasure it.” — Giovanna Brunini, blog post, 20 May 2014
March 19, 2004 Times Literary Supplement
In Ur and Ziph
SELECTED POEMS. By Victor Hugo. Translated by Brooks Haxton. 124pp. New York:
Penguin Classics. Paperback, $12. – 0 14 243703 4
THE DISTANCE, THE SHADOWS. Selected poems. Translated by Harry Guest. 256pp.
Anvil. Paperback, Pounds 12.95. – 0 85646 345 0
SELECTED POEMS OF VICTOR HUGO. Edited and translated by E. H. and A. M.
Blackmore. 631pp. University of Chicago Press. $35; distributed in the UK by Wiley. Pounds 22.50. – 0 226 35980 8
HOW TO BE A GRANDFATHER. Translated by Timothy Ades. 95pp. Hearing Eye.
Paperback, Pounds 8.95. – 1 870841 88 3
Most French people look on Victor Hugo as their greatest poet, but the English-speaking world has always been strangely resistant to him. Many poets who came after him are part of our culture in a way that Hugo himself has never been.
Even Jules Laforgue and Tristan Corbiere -seen in France as minor poets -have been more widely translated and adapted than Hugo.
And yet Hugo is a far greater, more varied, and even more “modern” poet than most of his successors. His music is as resonant as Baudelaire’s, his images no less striking than Rimbaud’s, and his psychological understanding and scope are greater than that of any nineteenth-century European poet except Goethe. One of the strangest tricks that critics and anthologists have played on Hugo is to ignore his humorous poetry and then berate him for his lack of humour. His humour, however, is remarkably varied. The attacks on Napoleon III in Les Chatiments (1853) are memorably vicious. In “L’Expiation” God makes Napoleon I reimagine both the retreat from Moscow and the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon assumes that these visions are the punishment for his sins but eventually learns that his true punishment is to see his name being made a mockery of by Napoleon III; his own battleground eagle has become his nephew’s fairground eagle.
The humour of Hugo’s poems about children, on the other hand, is good-natured.
“Le comte de Buffon fut bonhomme . . .”, a poem about being “taken around” the zoo by his two small grandchildren, constitutes a delightful ars poetica -and it has been well translated by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore:
Personally, I don’t expect God to keep himself under control, not always,
You have to put up with some vibrant excesses
From such a great poet, and not lose your temper
If the master who tinges peach-blossom so subtly
And arches the rainbow right over the ocean he pacifies
Should give us a hummingbird one day, and next day a mastodon.
Bad taste is one of his quirks,
He likes to add dragons to chasms and maggots to sewers,
To do everything on an astonishing scale,
To be a combined Rabelais-Michaelangelo.
That’s what the Lord is like; and I just accept it.
These lines could have been written by Pablo Neruda, and there are striking similarities between the two poets. Both led long and productive lives; both also played an active role in politics and were forced into exile because of their opposition to dictatorships. Both defended their right to write about every subject and in every style, regardless of accusations of bad taste. Both attempted vast disjointed epics; Hugo’s La Legende des siecles (1859-83) is even more ambitious than Neruda’s Canto General. Hugo, however, is both a finer craftsman than Neruda and more deeply interested in what lies outside him. He wants not only to denounce but also to understand his tyrants; there is sympathy, as well as rage, in his portrayal of the defeated Napoleon. And in “Betise de la guerre” he evokes not only war’s horrors but also its terrible seductiveness, referring to war as a thundercloud “Ou flotte une clarte plus noire que la nuit”.
It is sad that the least satisfactory of the three bilingual volumes under review, Brooks Haxton’s selection for Penguin Classics, will probably be the most widely read.
Although Haxton’s versions of some of the more conversational poems are fluent, he all too often confuses the meaning of passages that are denser or more elevated.
Two terse lines from “Pendant une Maladie”, “Mes mains sont en vain rechauffees; / Ma chair comme la neige fond”, are expanded by Haxton to “The nurses warm my hands, but still / my flesh feels like a snowdrift / on the bones”. Harry Guest’s translation is starker and more powerful: “Nothing warms these hands. / My flesh sweats like melting snow”. A strictly literal version of the last line, “My flesh melts like snow”, might have been still more powerful. Haxton makes a similar blunder in the last lines of “Booz endormi”:
A narrow crescent in the low dark of the west shone, while Ruth wondered, lying still now, eyes half opened, under the twinging of their lids, what god of the eternal summer passing dropped his golden scythe there in that field of stars.
“Passing” is irritatingly ambiguous, but “twinging” sticks out grotesquely. It is as if Haxton, understandably worried that he can’t reproduce Hugo’s music, has tried desperately to compensate with something striking of his own. The Blackmores, curiously, blur and overcomplicate the very same image: “and Ruth, without a stir, // Wondered -with parting eyelids half revealed / Beneath her veils . .
.”. The original is simply “se demandait . . . ouvrant l’oeil a moitie sous ses voiles”, translated by Guest as “and Ruth was wondering through half-opened eyes”.
Guest is an accomplished poet himself, and he has a reliable sense of which poems can be made to work for a modern reader, and what strategies to adopt.
Sometimes he reproduces Hugo’s rhyming couplets as such, sometimes he turns them into blank verse, sometimes into free verse. Many of his versions are formally perfect. Here are the second and final stanzas of “The Sower”:
On fields now drowned by nightfall In rags one old man sows The gold of next year’s harvest Into the rows . . .
The dark is spreading over The sounds that come from far.
The sower’s hand now reaches The highest star.
The Blackmores slip up more often than Guest, but they too are sensibly pragmatic in their attitude to rhyme and metre and many of their versions -like their “Le comte de Buffon” -read well. And I have never seen a better- produced volume of poetry in translation. As well as nearly 600 pages of bilingual text, the Blackmores include a general introduction to Hugo’s career, brief introductions to each book of Hugo’s, and notes on individual poems. All this is clear and informative. Anyone interested in Hugo would do well to buy both this volume and Guest’s.
Timothy Ades’s translation of the whole of the appealing L’Art d’etre grand pere (1877) lapses all too often into doggerel:
Now the paths are all tangled, we’re losing our way,
And in all the wood’s shadows the butterflies play.
George is keen to plunge in; Jean is happy and gay;
Readers familiar with Ades’s fine renditions of Jean Cassou’s 33 Sonnets of the Resistance (reviewed in the TLS, September 19, 2003) and his work for the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, will be disappointed. It seems as if Ades is at his best when faced with a technical challenge that would make others despair. His rendering there of the version of “Booz endormi”, minus the letter “e”, which Georges Perec includes in his novel La Disparition, is far more accomplished than anything in this book. Here are five of the last eight lines:
In Ur and Ziph and Mizpah, not a sound.
A good bright moon was shining on its way Among night’s blooms, down a dark sky, profound, Inlaid with starry studs; and so Ruth lay, Half-glancing through a shawl, and calm at last . . . .
“Booz endormi” is one of Hugo’s most obvious masterpieces. Others, however, such as “Betise de la guerre”, are still hardly known. The two most widely cited French selections of Hugo from the last fifty years contain, according to the Blackmores, only one poem in common. Critics, translators and readers have barely begun to come to terms with a vast poet memorably described by Jean Cocteau as “a madman who believed that he was Victor Hugo”.
My rejoinder: May 21, 2004
The challenges of Hugo
Sir, -Robert Chandler (March 19) rightly calls Victor Hugo “a vast poet with whom we have barely come to terms”. To do so, we will need to go beyond the anthologies and plunge into the individual books. Hearing Eye, in publishing my version of his last book, How To Be a Grandfather, finds itself ahead of the field.
Sadly though, Chandler misses an array of splendid poems -incidents and visions of childhood, nature poems, invective, narrative. He finds only “lapses”. He says, “It seems as if (Timothy) Ades is at his best when faced with a technical challenge that would make others despair”, kindly referring to my “Boaz”, written with rhyme and meter and without the letter “e” (and published elsewhere). Translating forty-eight poems of How To Be a Grandfather with rhyme and metre is a much greater challenge. I know, being the only person to have done either. (Gilbert Adair’s e-less version of “The Raven” in Georges Perec’s novel A Void should be better known.) I turned Hugo’s alexandrines into tetrameters, pentameters, hexameters, anapaests. The lyrics verged, as usual, on the impossible. Fortunately, the poetry came through.
On Jean Cassou 33 Sonnets of the Resistance
“The expression of freedom under constraint, the embodiment of thought in fetters.” — Louis Aragon
“Mostly [the translation] works, and sometimes brilliantly.” — Steve Cox
“Triumphant… it is difficult to see how a free–verse translation could have achieved a comparable result.” — Peter France
“Exemplary” — Anthony Rudolf
“Excellent” — Lucy Hamilton
“An arduous task performed admirably well” — John Pilling
“We are fortunate … creatively vigorous … the personal dedication required…” — Will Stone
A fine review by Sebastian Hayes
‘I had never heard of Cassou till Timothy Adès, his gifted translator, brought him to my attention.
‘…We should all be grateful to Timothy Adès for bringing this remarkable human document and notable piece of literature to the non-French reading public. (I would probably have had to be put in incommunicado myself to even think of taking on such a daunting task as translating these poems while keeping to rhyme and stanza form.)…’
Read the full review on the Poetry in Translation blog…
Cell mysteries – Will Stone – Review in September 19, 2003 Times Literary Supplement
33 SONNETS OF THE RESISTANCE AND OTHER POEMS. By Jean Cassou. Translated from the French by Timothy Ades. Todmorden: Arc. Paperback, 107pp.Pounds 8.95. ISBN 1 900072 89 0.
. Jean Cassou (1897-1986) was incarcerated in a Vichy prison for resistance activities over the winter of 1941-2. To sustain himself through the regime of confinement, in which writing materials were banned, he somehow managed to commit to memory the thirty-three sonnets he composed during those nights of captivity.
Cassou chose to express himself in sonnet form, as it afforded him a rhythmic framework and formal rhyming mechanism more easily lending itself to recollection.
The 33 Sonnets were first published in 1942. In 1944 Louis Aragon, employing the “nom de guerre” of “Francois La Colere” and referring to Cassou as “Jean Noir” for clandestine reasons, wrote a laudatory introduction, which is reproduced here.
Aragon’s own writing style, which employs a host of stirring metaphors, is perhaps galvanized by the impressive imagery of the sonnets he so admires. He seems to be celebrating Cassou’s work as a return to or remnant of that line of French poetry, exemplified by poets such as Nerval and Mallarme, in which the sonnet “inscribed in the mysterious line of the intimations of France” is the natural genre for a lyric poet, particularly one who is speaking directly from the dungeon of the self. Aragon interprets Cassou’s poetry as being intimately connected with the soul of France, as if Cassou alone in his cell in the darkness is shouldering the entire weight of French sorrow, and then -through a poetry of heroic inwardness – overcomes his situation and emerges victorious.
Alongside the predictable rhetoric of wartime “patrie” -all those hearts beating in the courageous breasts of French heroes -we are granted several insights. “If what you expect from this poet is prison poetry, descriptions of the life led there, even the cries that go up from the dungeons of stone, then you will be simply left holding these sonnets, like children with pretty shells, not knowing how to hear the sea inside them.”
There is a sense of mystical poetic essence, of a dreamlike quality which brings to the fore Nerval’s mantra “Le reve est une seconde vie”. As with the sonnets of “Les Chimeres”, which hover uncannily over those of Cassou, the consistent, balanced rhythm of such a poetic form only encourages this metamorphosis from real-time memory to vision. In the wake of Nerval, where a single line from a sonnet can evoke an image of teasing ambiguity and alluring obscurity, Cassou writes:
“Verse un email de neige dans ses seins et presse / ses bras vides sous de splendides oripeaux”.
In Timothy Ades’s version:
“Pour snow’s enamel in her breasts, and / press her empty arms with splendid trumperies”. Again, in an earlier sonnet:
“Mes yeux qu’en ton douloir mon douloir ebloit, / trous de flamme beants, alentours multiplient, / comme en la roue du paon autant de bleus ocelles, / tes regards dechires aux rochers de ma nuit”
“My eyes are dazzled by our misery, / two yawning flame-pits. As a peacock’s tail / teems with blue eyelets, my eyes multiply / your glances, which my crags of night impale”.
There is just enough suggested here to draw the reader into a tantalizing labyrinth of curiosity and pleasurable mystery.
The contents of the sonnets cannot be easily explained. They are shards of hope, regret, loss and anger, couched in a phantasmagoria of language which blurs their edges, distancing them from the reality which bore them, those myriad recollections, or “unrelenting thoughts that all link hands . . .”.
Cravings, fears and tender reflections are woven into a tapestry which has little relation to the reality which triggered the image and seems to be always one step ahead of a comfortable explanation. The images are as if washing up nightly onto a mind which is fighting to retain them and use them to sustain itself against the onerous burden of external forces caused by privation and imprisonment. The poetry comes in that strange hiatus between sleep and wakefulness when the anxiety caused by an emotional need for sanity and a restoration of liberty gradually releases, allowing images stored up to rise to the surface of consciousness. The fear of losing one’s mind is starkly expressed in the following lines: “L’opacite, deja, ou je passe frissonne, / et comme si son nom etait encor Personne, / tout mon cadavre en moi tressaille sous ses liens”. Ades renders them: “Now where I tread the dark reverberates. / My corpse, confined inside me, palpitates; / yes, I could still be known as Nobody”. Lacking any other forms of revolt or means to act, the words themselves must carry the entire life force of the poet, hence their potency and boldness of imagery. Basic necessary human endeavours are cajoled through sheer will into responsive language:
“I roam white peaks that my conniving brow / embezzles in its labyrinth’s black sky. / No other road is open to me now / a tramp thrust deep inside my own sad cry”.
Later, in sonnet XXV, we move to a more familiar nostalgia for Paris, but even here the evocative image of “une chambre aux murs de miel / et d’aube vieille, au plafond bas” seems to drift across the language barrier with a certain grace and understated elegance, settling into its new language with a little delicate shoehorning.
“Paris, so long my love, so long ago, / inside a room, low-ceilinged, walls the shade / of honey and old dawn: pale frost displayed / my proud and pensive face, a mirror-show.”
Not only does Ades retain the form of the original rhyme, he also manages to create an English equivalent which sits comfortably with its self.
Review by John Pilling in PN Review, 2004
After the war Cassou became an important figure in the Parisian art world, responsible for setting up the National Museum of Modern Art, and organizing numerous exhibitions. Although he continued to write poetry and novels, he was never able to capture again the intensity displayed in the sonnets salvaged from that bleak winter of incarceration. We are fortunate to have Timothy Ades’s creatively vigorous English version, since the personal dedication required to translate such a demanding text should not be underestimated. It is a fine achievement.
It seems strange that a figure of the stature of Jean Cassou should enjoy such a secure reputation in France, and here suffer almost total neglect. Cultural insularity? Or a talent too indigenous for export? Something of both perhaps, but a curious outcome, given the way Cassou was in close touch with almost all of the significant post-war writers in Europe during the last forty years of his long life (1897-1986). By virtue of his position as a museum director – Cassou was Conservateur en chef in charge of the Musée d’Art Moderne from 1945 to 1965 – he was of course at the very centre of Parisian intellectual life, and as such inevitably something of an ambassador, though with France and French literature as the primary point of reference. Of Cassou’s great practical and administrative skills there can be no doubt; but it is his creativity which will most matter to posterity. For the fullest picture of an exceptional artistic life there is really no substitute for the splendid Un Musée Imaginé, the lavishly illustrated catalogue published in 1995 on the occasion of a large Bibliothèque Nationale/Centre Pompidou exhibition; but the ever-enterprising Arc imprint has at least opened up a small corner of a hitherto closed book.
Over a long writing career Cassou published several novels, but the work for which he is still best known in France was published clandestinely under a pseudonym during the Occupation by the Editions de Minuit: 33 Sonnets composés au secret (1944) by `Jean Noir’, with a preface by `François La Colère’ (Louis Aragon). The `secret’ composition reflects the circumstances in which Cassou found himself: under military guard in Toulouse from December 1941 to February 1942, after being arrested by the Vichy authorities for his Resistance activities. (He was to suffer further internment later in the war.) In solitary confinement, and deprived of any writing materials, Cassou wrote these 33 sonnets in his head, `half a sonnet a night’ (as he wrote in 1962) for two months. Only shortly before his release was Cassou permitted books, a pencil and some paper on which to give his poems the life they had been denied. In these exceptionally unpropitious conditions Cassou naturally gravitated towards a form that could be memorised. As Aragon writes: `The fourteen lines of the sonnet imposed on the poet […] the necessary framework to link his outward circumstances to his interior life. From now on,’ Aragon goes on to say, `it will be almost impossible not to see in the sonnet the expression of freedom under constraint, the embodiment of thought in fetters.’ Perhaps the most apt confirmation of this previous to Cassou were the Moabit Sonnets of Albrecht Haushofer, written under sentence of death in a Nazi prison in Berlin (translated by M.D. Herter Norton in 1978). Cassou and Haushofer were on opposite sides of the line of conflict, but – unknown to each other – very much on the same side in the world of the spirit.
The challenge of bringing Cassou’s most famous book over into English has been taken up by Timothy Adès, an arduous task performed admirably well, and rewarded by the joint first prize he won in the 1995/1996 BCLA/BCLT Translation Competition. Adès is particularly agile in reflecting (as exactly as linguistic transplantation permits) the form and rhymescheme of the originals, and in paying Cassou this demanding homage he has not felt bound to `iron out’ the awkwardness and oddity which lend an air of mystery to a number of the poems. `Jean Noir’ is dealing with dark matters, and seeing through a glass darkly. Sonnet XX is headed Je suis Jean (V.H.), which could hardly be more direct, although `V. H.’ remains unidentified. (Presumably Cassou has Victor Hugo, and Jean Valjean of Les Misérables in mind, rather than the Spanish poet Vicente Huidobro, though Cassou liked to emphasise the Spanishness of his spirit and the Catalan origins of his surname.). Beyond this tag Cassou presents the poet as a figure with no message and no vision, bearing witness only to the dream of a summer night, and by the start of the sestet as a maker of silence over against the burning word of a splintered firmament. The context and terms of reference are from Cassou’s Catholic upbringing, with thoughts of John the Baptist conjured up only for them to dissolve, as in sonnet III where the images vanish into `profonds miroirs’, or in sonnet VI into `profonds mystères’. Aragon explains the `relative obscurity’ of the poems as directly attributable to the circumstances out of which they arose, even though he insists that this is not `prison poetry, the description of the life led there’, rather `the soliloquy of one who is not addressing some improbable listener, but bearing witness to himself and himself alone’.
The great poets that Cassou invokes by name in his sonnets are an index of his needs and affinities: Paul Verlaine, Rilke, Antonio Machado. But one of the more surprising poems is sonnet IX, a translation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s famous sonnet `Die Beiden’ (`The Two’). Cassou found this poem quite by chance in a copy of Pariser Zeitung, or what was left of it, which lends a particular irony to the last two lines of the poem: a hand reaches out for a cup of wine offered by another hand, and the wine is spilled between them. It is as if Cassou’s translation makes good the loss of `le vin noir’, though only in the virtual world of his mind and his memory. For good measure, though nothing else seems of the same order as the 33 sonnets, Adès adds eight poems from the sequence La rose et le vin (begun in 1941, before the appearance of the `secret’ sonnets, but published later, with a commentary written in the light of Cassou’s subsequent experience of arrest and imprisonment), and eleven `other poems’ from the post-war years. But on this evidence Alistair Elliot seems quite justified in concluding that it was the dark night of the soul in Toulouse and the immediate threat of death which produced `a concentration of [Cassou’s] linguistic powers that he was never to approach again’.
On Jean Cassou The Madness of Amadis
“A dedicated and expert English mediator” — Peter France
“Jean Cassou has a life–story that grips even before one embarks on the poetry …. Poems striking above all for their sheer diversity … that makes Adès a particularly suitable translator.” — Belinda Cooke
“Adès has the enviable gift of lyrical lucidity. He captures the true heart of each poem he deals with and has the astonishing ability to follow the form of the original …. Without strain, he creates a perfect mirror for Cassou’s language … losing virtually nothing of the original quality … That is why so scrupulous, so inventive, so professional, so poetic a translation as this one is so welcome.” — Harry Guest
“A really top–notch translation of an incredible poet” — Bethany W. Pope
Six Poems of Robert Desnos in PN Review no. 200
“The translations are startlingly good” — Michael Schmidt
Alfonso Reyes: Romances of Rio de Janeiro
“I’ve been reading your versions of Alfonso Reyes in The Long Poem Magazine. They are wonderful. I do hope the book you plan of his poetry comes to fruition soon. Meanwhile these are to treasure… I have no Spanish language skills at all, and so I read these poems as poems in their own right. They come as an education to me, as well as a delight, and I love them.” — Séan Street
On Florentino And The Devil by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba
Me parece un esfuerzo ingente y importante. [It strikes me as a huge and important endeavour.] – Carmen Ruiz Barrionuevo, Professor of Spanish-American Literature, Salamanca, Spain.
“Empezamos a leer a Florentino y El Diablo, mi marido en ingles y yo en espanol. Que maravilla! Las dos versions son tan hermosas que no necesitan la una de la otra. El ingles por si solo es una belleza, y el espanol por si solo me llega al alma (lo cual es natural siendo mi lengua nativa..). Gracias, una delicia de libro.”
“We’re starting to read Florentino and the Devil, my husband in English, myself in Spanish. It’s marvellous! The two versions are so beautiful that neither needs the other. The English on its own is a joy, the Spanish on its own touches me to the quick, naturally since it’s my mother tongue. Thank you, a delight of a book.” – Mercedes Bevan
‘It’s wonderful! The English version really sounds like an original poem. So rare in translation!!’ – Steven Isserlis
“…a Venezuelan duel of wit and words between Florentino, a handsome cattleman of the plains, much admired for his improvised verses and songs, and The Devil. The whole is very adroitly Englished and is both amusing and thought–provoking, presented in a bilingual Spanish–English edition with a genuinely illuminating commentary. Warmly recommended.” — Glyn Pursglove in Acumen
Review by John Forth in London Grip:
“Ustedes han hecho un trabajo admirable y no esperaba menos.” — Alberto Arvelo [nephew].
“Together you have done admirable work and I expected no less.”
“Debo decir que el paseo por los Llanos de la mano de Florentino (el diablo me propuso llevarme a las profundidades abismales del infierno, pero me negué a acompañarle), ¡me ha dejado estupefacto! ¡Qué maravilla esa manera de vivir, amar y sufrir llanera, y qué bellos los poemas de Arvelo Torrealba! Pero mi admiracion es aún mayor por el trabajo de traducción y de interpretación de Adès y tuyo. Admito que no es fácil leer y entender la terminología llanera, y está claro que habéis hecho los dos traductores un trabajo increíble.“ — Vicenç Ferrer.
[I must say the Plains ride with Florentino (the devil offered to take me to the abysmal depths of hell, but I declined) has left me astounded! How marvellous is the plainsman’s way of life, loving and suffering, and how fine the poery of Arvelo Torrealba! But I admire even more the work of translation and interpretation by Adès and yourself, Gloria Carnevali. It’s not easy to read and understand the Plains terminology, and it’s clear that you two translators have done something incredible.]
On ‘Classic Gallic Lipograms’
“Little short of miraculous” — Michael Schmidt
On ‘Loving by Will’
‘…open-mouthed in amazement at your achievement.’ – Dr Maggie Butt
“I simply do not know if I can find words to applaud your work as much as I should.” – Stephen Fry
“Absolutely staggering” — a close relative
“Your sonnets are top-notch succour. Utterly elegant and ingenious” — Susannah Clapp
‘Congratulations’ — Philip Hensher
‘This is fantastic!’ — Tara Heuzé, Balliol College