Posts Tagged ‘identity’

A kind of translation

August 10, 2010

Shadowselves – photograph by Liz Mathews

I’ve been reading a lot of books in translation recently, in one of those enjoyable chains of association that’s set off by chance, one thing leading to another, with new discoveries as well as re-discoveries of new contexts for things read separately before.  The problems (and odd advantages) of translation are perennial provokers of thought and discussion, but there’s no arguing about the different light that another literature can cast even on familiar ideas.

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, for example, in a lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is referenced by that other much-translated Portuguese writer José Saramago, in his The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which I haven’t yet read; I’m still on The Elephant’s Journey.  (After Saramago’s recent death, I was moved to read an account of his funeral in Lisbon, attended by  tens of thousands of people, many of them carrying his books.  There was a photo of a book held in the air like a flag, then the inevitable editorial comment that it was hard to imagine a similar outpouring of grief for a British writer – or any other kind of artist, you might add.)

Reis was one of Pessoa’s personae; in the Book of Disquiet he writes as Bernardo Soares.  The introduction explains that he had over 72 distinct ‘heteronyms’ which he used when writing the works which were largely unpublished in his lifetime.  Externally, Soares appears much the same as the writer, but Pessoa found the character different enough to merit its own name; ‘It’s me minus reason and affectivity’.  (Completely other, then…)  These complexities and levels of irony will be discussed and unravelled by scholars, perhaps in perpetuity, but at a simpler level the proliferation of authorial personae perhaps gives a clue to the crucial difference between the writer and their work, which seems almost imperceptible to many otherwise sophisticated readers.

Before going any further, I must confess here that I have read a review of a book by someone I know and immediately remarked that it sounded very autobiographical, before I’d even read it.  (But at least I can differentiate enough to understand that because murder is committed in the book, it doesn’t mean the writer is a killer.)  Any writer must be aware that their audience – if they are lucky enough to have one – contains a proportion of people who would simply lump all of Pessoa’s 72 heteronyms into one authorial autobiography, unmitigated by art.  I first encountered this long ago, at a literary festival, where I read a short story of a very lyrical and fantastic kind, then had an impertinent audience question about the ‘revealing’ nature of the piece.  It really hadn’t occurred to me that the poetic tale of archetypes (mermaids, gypsies at al) could be taken as any kind of personal confession.

This incident has recurred in various manifestations; one which I found disturbing was when a reader questioned me about the dedication in my long poem MOTHERTONGUE – apparently my relationship to the dedicatee (and who they were) made a difference to whether the work would ‘emotionally ring true’.  The implication of this is that a writer’s literal circumstances are what make the work ‘ring true’ or not, rather than some element within the writing and – indeed –  that they can only write about their actual life experience with any emotional conviction.  So, no writing divorces for the happily united, or vice versa; no observation, imagination, empathy, or even research? 

Then, imaginative works are open to the blunt interpretations of cod-pyschology, as though the artist is innocent of all such readings and might ‘accidentally’ reveal their secrets. Recently, in a very obvious train of thought onwards from news about my forthcoming novel, a relation remarked that – in a book he’d actually read – the hero was obviously the author’s fantasy-self, since a succession of beautiful women ‘couldn’t wait to get into bed with him’.  (I could only assure him that my novel is just like that.)  I comfort myself with the fact that The Principle of Camouflage has three very strange narrators, who couldn’t  – surely – be interpreted as anybody’s fantasy selves; not nearly as close as Bernardo Soares to Fernando Pessoa. The lowering part of this is the knowledge that some readers – perhaps the most avid – skim through books for scandal, intimate details, possible revelations, ignoring the dull truth that it’s a little more subtle than that. 

The moment comes when every artist has to accept this as a hazard of the work, and just get on with it.  I was half appalled, half encouraged when I read Maureen Duffy’s introduction to her first novel That’s How It Was – even this brilliant book has suffered from its own absolute success.  Since the author described it as directly autobiographical, it seems that some readers failed to perceive its superb technical command, and read it as an artless outpouring of youthful emotion.  She writes of these undervaluing admirers who have ‘failed to grasp its purpose and structure…[who] believe too that its vividness and intensity were a welling up from memory rather than the deliberate exercise of style’.

If it’s a kind of translation, from lived experience to art, maybe an awareness of the translating process is crucial to the appreciation of the work. And perhaps, for those who risk exposing their imaginations in print, the idea of the 72 alternative authors interposing themselves between the life and the work, will prove to be a virtual guard of honour.
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A soldier without a name

June 24, 2010


Mightier than the sword – photograph by Liz Mathews ( detail from her artist’s book ‘Boon, blessing’, text FB)

In the ‘Identity’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection recently, one of the identities on display was Claude Cahun, the surrealist photographer whose self-portraits express gender ambiguity, masks and disguises, performative selves and personal mythologies, like a demented lesbian Cecil Beaton crossed with Cocteau. Cahun and her partner Marcel Moore were good examples of self-invention, (if not mythomania), and also – in an exhibition probing the sources of creativity – of artists who made their lives into their art. Cahun’s life and work has been rediscovered, and her association with the surrealist groups in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s acknowledged in various exhibitions, but this one also showed some of the work she and Moore made during the Occupation of the Channel Islands, as warriors of art.

The work of the surrealists was condemned as decadent by the Nazis, so the women’s previous work wouldn’t have endeared them to the occupying forces, any more than their sexuality and Jewish backgrounds. But rather than keep a low profile, they embarked on a personal resistance campaign against the Nazis. Although possession of a camera was punishable by death, they took clandestine photographs of the occupation in action, and also spread anti-war propaganda among the German soldiers. (Their acts of resistance are detailed in Barbara Hammer’s film about Cahun, Lover Other, which shows some of the forbidden photographs of Nazi soldiery on parade on the beach outside Cahun’s house, or on the streets of the once-British island.)

When they were eventually caught, both women were condemned to death and six years in prison, for the propaganda and the photography. On hearing the sentence Cahun asked which would come first, the execution or the jail term? The severity of the sentence, and the deadly seriousness of the prosecution, gives an idea of propaganda on a large scale; sabotage of morale by means of printed leaflets, subversive photographs, a big security breach.

Instead, the exhibition cabinets displayed little scraps of paper, offcuts almost, shakily inscribed with faint pencil-words; lines from Goethe or Schiller about peace and universal love. There were one or two more conventional ‘our leaders have betrayed us’ type messages from ‘a soldier without a name’, a few child-like cartoons of war or quotes from the BBC, but most of the documents were just little snippets of German poetry. These flimsy, improvised statements of resistance seemed intensely moving, within the context, rather like being condemned to death for doodling a peace symbol on the back of an old envelope. What courage, yet at the same time what a tiny gesture!

Cahun and Moore didn’t die for their acts; they spent the remainder of the war in prison under sentence of death, but the liberation came in time to save them from execution. After the war, they continued to work with photographs, making some strange images to mark their private victory, such as Cahun celebrating over Nazi war graves. These later images, as well as the subversive surrealist fantasias, are a reminder of why totalitarian regimes always fear art, just as they fear laughter.

The death sentence was a kind of recognition of the unquantifiable results that a scrap of poetry might have on a free mind, of the way in which even the idea of a dissident soldier without a name might work on the imagination of the others. It seems that the act of defiance hadn’t been so small after all, that far from being an over-reaction death was the only possible way to silence these artists who were naive enough to believe that the pen was mightier than the sword, and might change everything.

Island Stories

May 26, 2010


Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews

A sense of the past is a combination of empathy and knowledge, imagination and history. It’s often built up of a familiarity with the literature and art of a particular era, combined with the later re-interpretations and critiques of that period, which stimulate our own creative engagement with it. For lucky readers, this process begins in childhood, with books which may be simple histories, but are still an imaginative exploration of the past, that strange other country.

Our Island Story, that classic imperialist text, was recently reissued with all its propagandist sentimentality robustly intact. It remains a compendium of all the legends – Alfred burning the cakes, Gloriana riding to defy the Armada – which are part of English national identity. Other, later, children’s books attempted a more subtle process of presenting the past – often in great, authentic detail – not always in the authorised version.

Some of the classics of the mid-20thC, by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Violet Needham, Bryher, Naomi Mitchison (Travel Light), to mention only a few, questioned the accuracy of the accepted histories children were taught, raised questions about gender roles, the status of women, the ethics of war, slavery, capital punishment, even the tensions between tradition and development. Also, they made important connections between how things were at the time of which they were writing, and the time in which they wrote.

In this revealing of the past within the present, contemporary art has a crucial role, whether it’s in the form of a children’s historical novel, or a satirical poem. Of course, every kind of art gives a far better understanding of its own period (to a later audience) than any amount of factual information could. A film that is a work of art, such as Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, is the perfect example of such revelatory time-travel. But, if the art of the past reveals its own moment to us, our contemporary art has to re-interpret those eras in order to present our own fully – and so the process goes on.

After those wonderful books had cast illumination on some parts of the past for me, I moved on to Mary Renault, Robert Graves (I, Claudius was confiscated at school as unsuitable for a nine year old), Paul Gallico’s weepy The Snow Goose. Since my mother was a historian and also an excellent storyteller, I also heard stories of the past, in the form of poetry and contemporary quotation, as well as anecdote. This was a lucky extension of the great tradition of spoken story which transmitted events within living memory, as well as those of the more distant past, in a line of direct descent. (Both John Aubrey and John Clare mention seeking out the older women to tell them historical details which are not otherwise on record.) Such personal storytelling still forms an extension of public history, and often presents an alternative version, as many spoken history projects demonstrate surprisingly.

It’s one of the (many) functions of art to both commemorate and question the events of the past which have taken on a mythic significance, become part of that patchwork background which is – for better or worse – our sense of historical identity. Legends, folktales, fables, or even popular history clichés, are fascinating to the artist/writer as the focus of so much collective imagination, such national passion. What we read as children first, or heard recounted, is inevitably part of what Kathleen Raine called the ‘imaginative transformation of a historic into an archetypal event’; a fertile site for excavation.

I’m taking part in a contemporary art event, The Dunkirk Project, one element of which is the River of Stories, an online interactive installation which invites participants to contribute their own story to the collective memory or re-imagining of the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, one of our great national myths. All the accounts, anecdotes, poems, comments, or stories, will combine not into a literal history, but a strong current of imagination, memory and re-enactment – into a work of art, indeed.