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Posts Tagged ‘betrayal’

Kriemhild’s Revenge

February 12, 2016 | by

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s strangest collaboration.

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou weren’t collaborators so much as co-conspirators: they  had one of the strangest, most fruitful partnerships in the history of film, an erotic and artistic alliance that helped the new medium establish an emotional and political grammar. In the course of their eleven-year marriage, the pair, who met in 1920, made roughly a dozen films, often with Von Harbou writing the screenplays—adapted largely from her own work—and Lang in the director’s chair. They shared an expressive aesthetic vision, an exacting work ethic, and an almost tyrannical unwillingness to compromise with others. They changed people’s minds about their movies and, in radical ways, they changed each other. Their dedication manifested in odd ways—even though, a year into their affair, the bloom had already gone off the rose, they continued to live together, work together, and keep up the pretense of monogamy for another decade. She looked past his philandering; he looked past her increasingly fascist politics; they kept a full calendar. “We were married for eleven years,” von Harbou said later, “because for ten years we didn’t have time to divorce.”

When they did separate, in 1933, the break was clean: not even a year later, Lang, having only recently claimed German citizenship, had fled the country. He said he’d met with Joseph Goebbels, who asked him to head the Nazified film unit of UFA—an experience that so spooked him he left that very evening. If his story is factually dubious, it makes emotional sense: Lang saw himself as having chosen art over nationalism. Von Harbou, who stayed behind, thought she had chosen art, too. And this is in many ways the problem at the heart of their romance: Who, if anyone, had betrayed whom? When love is so tied up in art, and art so tied up in politics, what does betrayal end up looking like? Read More »

Poor Judas, and Other News

April 3, 2015 | by


Giovanni Canavesio, The Remorse of Judas (detail), 1491.

  • Poor Judas. He just can’t seem to catch a break—his is perhaps the most reviled name in history, even though he’s the only one of the apostles who has any identifiable human qualities. “At the ancient French Catholic shrine of Notre-Dame des Fontaines, Giovanni Canavesio’s 1490s fresco was undoubtedly the most horrifying depiction of the traitor I came across … Judas hangs from a rope, looking deranged, eyes flashing madly, half in fear, half in threat, his hair a spiky mop … As he breathes his last, a stream of sweet-potato-like entrails spills out of his open stomach, as well as (with Christianity’s usual scant regard for science) a miniature adult. A golden-winged demon is on hand to catch the newborn, with the implication that it will continue to sow the seeds of Judas’s treacherous legacy into future generations.”
  • A refutation of yesterday’s claim that thrillers are conservative and crime novels leftist: “Consider the supreme master of the spy thriller, John le Carré. His cold war novels stood against the mindless jingoism of the period, resisting the Manichean equation of east-west with evil-good … that kind of fury is typical of the fuel that burns through many thrillers. This is a genre whose most frequent theme is injustice: the urge to right a wrong.”
  • “Lewis Carroll, like many other Victorian ‘innocents’, was obsessed by the beauty and incorruptibility of young girls. The camera was a fairly recent invention. He used it to make images of girls dressed as princesses or beggars or—the clearest image of innocence—naked … Carroll’s maneuvers were awkward on the edge of innocence. In 1880 he mistakenly kissed the daughter of one of his Christ Church colleagues who turned out to be seventeen years old. His amusing ‘apology’ to her mother was ill-received, and not long after that he gave up taking photographs.”
  • Mark McGurl on Tom McCarthy and the convergence of avant-garde fiction and lyrical realism: “To produce genre effects is to send up a flare to distracted readers, reminding them of fiction’s capacity to produce its version of the richly artificial pleasures on offer everywhere else in contemporary mass culture. It is to show off the sheer power of fiction to alter the real, to brighten, re-order and re-color it, as in a children’s book. Ironically, this is especially true of the ubiquitous postapocalyptic variant, which imagines profoundly awful, even starkly depopulated worlds … It turns out to be easy for a novelist to kill off almost everyone. This clears the way for the apparently much harder task of rebuilding the social world in terms other than straggling, incipiently fascist authoritarianism. In this mode, every novel is epic again.”
  • Adventures in surreal estate: talking to the developer of a new luxury condo building in Canarsie, at the far end of Brooklyn. “We call it Loft 87 because it’s a little bit more contemporary-sounding … It’s obviously a regular apartment … I’m bringing everything you would see in Bushwick for half the price.”

Recapping Dante: Canto 33, or History’s Vaguest Cannibal

June 23, 2014 | by

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a Sophie’s Choice in medieval Pisa.

Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.

At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.

Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.

He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children. Read More »


Trust and Betrayal

September 27, 2010 | by

I first read Madame Bovary in my teens or early twenties. Although even in high school I was aware of translators and translations, it never, ever occurred to me that the reason I did not like the novel might have been not only its unsympathetic characters (whom Flaubert himself did not like), or the weak and relatively thoughtless heroine (I craved a strong, thoughtful model), but most of all the inadequate translation. There is great trust in translations on the part of many people who don’t know any better and even many who do. Now that I’m aware of how many previous translations of Madame Bovary there are, and how inadequate most of them are, I suspect I read a bad one.

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have. Publishers selecting a translator seem to proceed on the assumption that the most important qualification is the first. “Let’s ask Prof. X, head of the French Department at Y!” Often they completely ignore the second factor—how will Professor X approach the task of translating?—and certainly the third—what is Professor X’s writing style like? All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third—how well the translator writes—may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second—how he or she approaches the task of translating—and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.

Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx, produced the first translation of Madame Bovary in 1888. The Paul de Man revision of the Marx Aveling translation (Norton, 2005, 1965) retains some of her old-fashioned or inappropriate vocabulary, such as “heretofore” and “conjure” for “beg” or “plead.” It integrates explanations or identifications into the text (“the Chaumière” becomes “the Chaumière dance hall”)—undoubtedly helpful to the reader, but a betrayal of the original—and the writing style is poor, the revision making a rather poor style even poorer. For a while it seemed to me the very worst translation out of the eleven. It isn’t. Maybe it’s the second worst. But then, such a thing is hard to judge, because in certain specific passages, it is the worst. Although Marx Aveling was not a brilliant writer, she was a better writer in English than de Man, so where he corrects a mistake of hers, the correction is often not as well written as the original mistake. (This occurred, also, in the Kilmartin and the Enright revisions of Scott Moncrieff’s Proust, where the original impeccable grammar of the earliest version is replaced by an “improvement” that introduces a grammatical mistake.)

The book exists for a couple of wrong reasons, and people buy it for another wrong reason. Wrong reason #1: Norton chose to use the Aveling translation because it was in the public domain and wouldn’t cost anything (I’m assuming, or I was told—can’t remember which). Wrong reason #2 (I’m guessing here): They asked Paul de Man to revise and edit it not because he was conscientious and an excellent writer in English but because he had prestige, a reputation, and scholarly intelligence. He then apparently asked his wife to do much of the work (this is rumor, but from a good source—I’d be happy to have it proved either right or wrong) and did not acknowledge her. Wrong reason #3: People buy the book not because it is an excellent translation of this important novel, but because it has a useful apparatus of essays, etc.—handy for a teacher, for instance. So readers have a collection of useful material to read about the novel, but are reading one of the most important novels in the history of the novel, and one of the most famous novels, in a poor translation.

Lydia Davis's translation of Madame Bovary debuted last week. On October 4, she will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y.

See Also: “Group Think

See Also: Lydia Davis in Feed Magazine, from 2000