Monday, July 17, 2017

Alone

Iris Origo, Leopardi: A Study in Solitude

Robert Galassi (translator), Canti



He lived under conditions of "unbearable oppression," in a Catholic household of such strictness that he felt himself always alone in his sinfulness; bereft of love, incapable of spontaneity, ill in body, sick at heart. (39-40). His father, Conte Monaldo, a banal reactionary and minor grandee,  belonged to an ancient, if fading family; he was, after a fashion, the master of Recanati a small hill town in the Marches, fifteen miles from the Adriatic. (Leopardi could smell the sea on his walks). The poet's mother, Countess Adelaide, a woman of narrow and fanatical piety, was the true master of Recanati, a domineering woman whom the Count deferred to in all matters relating to both his household and his children.  As a child, Leopardi was dressed as an abbot and surrounded by priests. To say he was cloistered is an understatement--he lived as a monk lives, secluded, repressed, fearful, and guilt-ridden. Yet he would become the greatest Italian poet since Dante, one of the finest philologists of the 19th century, and a philosopher of great depth and originality. He died, aged thirty-eight, in 1837.

"Everything that will follow in two centuries of Western lyric poetry is here [in Leopardi]: a new self-consciousness of the writer's alienation from life, with the constant companionship of pain and the consolation of the power of memory--all evoked with unmediated directness and haunting, expressive beauty." (Jonathan Glassi, from the Introduction to the Canti).

Iris Origo, Leopardi's fine biographer, evokes the fruits of the poet's melancholy solitude in the pages of her engaging and empathetic Study in Solitude--how, for example, after an idyllic spring wandering the "fields and lanes" of Pisa, and experiencing--as was the norm with Leopardi--the pangs of unrequited love--he returned to his solitary study at Recanti to write the beautiful song "Silvia":

Silvia, rimembri ancora
Quel tempo della tua vita mortale, 
Quando belta splendea
Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi,
E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare
Di gioventu salivi?  

(Silvia, do you still recall
the time during your mortal life,
when beauty shone
in your laughing and startled eyes 
And you, lively and thoughtful, 
arrived at the threshold of youth?)
[my translation]

Origo provides readings of many of the Idylls and Canti, as well as ongoing psychological insights into the poet's state of mind as he wrote his verses and the great, unclassifiable text we know as Zibaldone. In terms of the reach of his interests, his erudition and clarity of mind, no one rivals Leopardi among early nineteenth century poets aside from Coleridge--indeed, the two poets, different in so many respects, were remarkably alike in their engagement with poetic expression as a form of world-making. For Leopardi, words were real--more real than anything else--and from them one could, as he did, craft a reality more accommodating, more habitable, than the one in which he lived.

Anyone new to Leopardi, or wishing to extend his or her grasp of this great poet's work, could do no better than to read Origo along with Galassi's accurate and poetic renditions of Leopardi's finest work. At some level, I believe that Leopardi is like Rilke--untranslateable for the simple reason that his language is so uniquely his own--but Galassi has done a remarkable job of bringing these great lyrics to English readers.







Leopardi: A Study in Solitude, is published by Books and Co./Helen Marx Books' Galassi's versions of the Canti, with an excellent introduction by FSG.

George Ovitt (7/17/17)



Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Uses of History



News from the Empire by Fernando Del Paso

                        “I’ll tell you,” she said, in the same hurried and passionate whisper,
                        “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation,
                        utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole  
                        world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter—as I did!

                                                                                               Charles Dickens

True history, insists historian J.H. Plumb in his 1969 book The Death of the Past, is basically destructive in the way that, by its very nature, it attacks those mythical, religious, and political interpretations of the past by which cultures and nations sanctify themselves, cleansing “the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful past.” It is a passage that might very well be used to describe certain types of literary fiction as well, novels—like War and Peace and The Man Without Qualities, like Del Paso’s truly magisterial News from the Empire—that not only cleanse the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful, mythical past, but enrich and complicate it by adding flesh and feeling to its bones. History—as novelists know well—is finally an eminently personal thing.  

“In 1861,” writes Del Paso in his prefatory remarks to the novel, “Benito Juárez suspended payment on the foreign debt of Mexico. This suspension was the pretext that the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, used to send an army of occupation to Mexico with the purpose of creating a monarchy there, at the helm of which would be a European Catholic monarch. An Austrian, Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg, was chosen. He arrived in Mexico in the middle of 18164 accompanied by his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium.  The book is based on these historical facts, and on the story of the tragic end of this ephemeral Emperor and Empress of Mexico.”  


  
Indeed Maximillian, for all his good, liberal intentions, proved particularly ill-suited to the post, to the demands of successfully contending with both the international intrigues that had brought him to power there and with the increasingly violent divisions within Mexico itself. Preferring to ‘chase butterflies’ on his estate at the ancient Borda Gardens in Cuernavaca, gardens perhaps most recently made famous as the site of the final scene of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano in which the body of the novel’s hero, the British consul Geoffrey Firmin, is dumped like so much rubbish into the barranca below:

¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDIN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!

Maximillian’s death, by firing squad, was scarcely more distinguished than that. 


What is particularly remarkable about this novel, aside from its often extraordinarily fine prose, is that, for all its historical sweep and grandeur, it is rendered up for the reader on a decidedly intimate, decidedly human scale, filtered as it is, in large part, through the mad and fevered reveries of the aged, long-widowed Carlota, an embittered, broken-hearted, remarkably Miss Havisham-like woman who, passes the time, following her inglorious return to Europe, in “mercurial madness,” pining daily for her late husband and true love, Maximilian, and berating the world for its indifference to such refined, once-noble fates.  


The novel opens with her haughty, still imperious voice:

I am Marie Charlotte of Belgium, Empress of Mexico and America. I am Marie Charlotte Amelie, cousin of the Queen of England, Grand magister of the Cross of Saint Charles, and Vicereine of the Lombardo-Veneto Provinces, which Austria’s clemency and mercy has submitted under the two-headed eagle of the House of Habsburg I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria, daughter of Leopold. Prince of Saxe-Coburg and King of Belgium, known as ‘The Nestor of Europe,’ and who would take me onto his lap, caress my chestnut tresses, and call me the little sylph of the Castle of Laeken. I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria Clémentine, daughter of Louise Marie of Orléans, the saintly queen with the blue eyes and the Bourbon nose who died of consumption and of the sorrow caused by the exile and death of Louis Philippe, my grandfather, who, as King of France, showered me with chestnuts and covered my face with kisses in the Tuileries Gardens. I am Marie Charlotte Amélie Victoria Clémentine Léopoldine, niece of Prince Joinville and cousin of the Count of Paris; I am sister of the Duke of Brabant, who became King of Belgium and colonized the Congo, and of the Counts of Flanders in whose arms I learned to dance, at the age of ten, under the shade of flowering hawthorns. I am Charlotte Amélie, wife of Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Prince of Loraine, Emperor of Mexico and King of the World, who was born in the Imperial Palace of Schönbrunn, and who was the first descent of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to cross the ocean and tread on America soil; who built a white palace for me with a view of the sea on the shores of the Adriatic; who later took me to Mexico to live in a gray castle with a view of the valley and the snowcapped volcanoes and who, on a June morning, many years ago, was executed in the city of Querétero. I am Charlotte Amélie, Regent of Anahuac, Queen of Nicaragua, Baroness of Matto Grosso, and Princess of Chichén Itzá. I am Charlotte Amélie of Belgium, Empress of Mexico and America. I am eighty-six years old and for sixty years now I’ve quenched my lunatic thirst with water from Roman fountains…
  

Rounding out this singular voice and perspective are those of a wide variety of contemporary players, both distinguished and prosaic, ranging from Napoleon III, Count Metternich, Emperor Maximillian, and Benito Juárez to a patriotic camp follower, a cuckolded palace gardener, and a randy Basque priest. For those with a fondness for Mexico, News from the Empire is a demanding, if exceptionally rewarding tale.


Peter Adam Nash