Posts filed under 'Surrealism'

In Review: Can Xue’s Frontier

[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people.

Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.

The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XXI

Book of Monelle translator Kit Schluter brings to English the haunting final installment of Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes”!

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime XXI. The awaited shade

The little guardian of the Temple of Persephone has laid out honey cakes sprinkled with poppy seeds in the baskets. For a long time now she has known that the goddess never so much as tastes them, for she watches from behind the pilasters. The Good Goddess remains unmoved and sups beneath the earth. And if she were to eat of our foods, she would rather bread rubbed with garlic and vinegar; for the bees of Hades produce a honey flavored of myrrh and the women who walk in the violet meadows there-below rattle black poppies without end. Thus the bread of the shades is dipped in honey that smells of embalmment and the seeds scattered upon it come with a desire for sleep. And thus why Homer said that the dead, governed by Odysseus’ broadsword, came by the ruck to drink the black blood of sheep in a square trench dug into the soil. And only this once did the dead partake of blood, in order to regain their life: customarily they repast on funereal honey and dark poppies, and the liquid that flows through their veins is the very water of the Lethe. The shades dine on sleep and drink of oblivion.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XIX and Mime XX

“Then I enfolded her in my arms—but clasped nothing besides the beguiling air.”

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime XIX. The mirror, the golden pin, the poppy

First to speak, the mirror:

I was shaped in silver by a skilful craftsman. At first I lay hollow like his hand and my other face looked like the ball of a wall-eye. But then I was given curvature enough to reflect images. Finally Athene breathed her wisdom into me. I am aware of the desires of the girl who holds me and already I tell her that she is pretty. Still at night she rises and lights her bronze lamp. She directs the gilded flight of the flame towards me, and her heart craves some other face than hers. I show her own white temple and her sculpted cheeks and the swelling tips of her breasts and her eyes full of curiosity. She almost touches me with her trembling lips—but the golden burning lights up her face alone; all else remains dark within me.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XVIII

Sam Gordon and Katie Assef with two very different translations of one of Schwob’s most captivating pieces.

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime XVIII. Hermes the Psychagôgos
(trans. Sam Gordon)

I conduct the dead, whether they be shut up in sculpted stone sarcophagi or contained in the bellies of metal or clay urns, bedecked or gilded, or painted in blue, or eviscerated and without brains, or wrapped in strips of linen, and with my herald’s staff I guide their step as I usher them on.

We continue along a rapid way men cannot see. Courtesans press against virgins and murderers against philosophers, and mothers against those who refused to give birth, and priests against perjurers. For they are seeking forgiveness for their crimes, whether they imagined them in their heads, or committed them with their hands. And having not been free in life, bound as they were by laws and customs, or by their own memory, they fear isolation and lend one another support. She who slept naked amongst men in flagstoned chambers consoles a young girl who died before her wedding, and who dreams determinedly of love. One who used to kill at the roadside—face sullied with ash and soot—places a hand on the brow of a thinker who wanted to renew the world, who foretold death. The woman who loved her children and suffered by them hides her head in the breast of a Hetaira who was willfully sterile. The man draped in a long robe who had convinced himself to believe in his god, forcing himself down on bended knee, weeps on the shoulder of the cynic who had broken the oaths of the flesh and mind before the eyes of the citizens. In this way, they help each other throughout their journey, walking beneath the yoke of memory.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XVI and XVII

“Translating a poem from 1894 into a language that has evolved and cast off as much as English has is no easy task.”

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime XVI. Sismé

She whom you see withered before you was named Sismé, a daughter of Thratta. First, she came to know of bees and flocks; then she tasted the salt of the sea; finally, a merchant trader lured her to the white houses of Syria. Now she remains enshrined like a precious statuette upon a stone plinth. Count the rings sparkling on her fingers: she has lived as many years. See the bandeau, taut about her crown: here, so timid, she received her first loving kiss. Touch the star of pale rubies that sleeps where her bosom once lay: there rested the head of a beloved. Near Sismé have been placed her faded mirror, her silver jackstones and the long amber pins that once wound through her hair; as come her twentieth year (there are twenty rings), she was adorned with treasures. A wealthy magistrate gave her all a woman could desire. Sismé will never forget him, and his jewels are not spurned by her fragile, white bones. In kind, he built this ornate tomb to protect his tender departed, and he surrounds her with perfumed jars and golden vessels for his fallen tears. Sismé is grateful to him. Yet you, if you wish to glimpse the secret of an embalmed heart, unclench the tiny joints of this left hand: here you will find a small, humble glass ring. This ring was once transparent; but with the years it has become hazy and obscure. Sismé loves it. Be silent and see.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime XIV and XV

"Labourer of lesser forms, he translated us into his clay language […] but failed to comprehend the pent-up desire of things."

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime XIV. The Parasol of Tanagra

Thus extended by my moulded rods, plaited with clay straw or woven with earthen fabric reddened by firing, I am held to the rear and towards the sun by a young girl with beautiful breasts. With the other hand she lifts her tunic of white yarn, and above her Persian sandals one may perceive ankles fashioned for electron rings to adorn. Her hair is wavy and a large pin traverses it at the nape of her neck. Averting her head she reveals her fear of the sun; she resembles Aphrodite come to incline her head.

Such is my mistress and earlier we have roamed through the meadows strewn with hyacinths, when she was in the rosy flesh and I made of yellow straw: the white sunshine kissed me on the outside, and below my dome I was embraced by the fragrance of the virgin’s hair. And the Goddess who transforms things having granted my wish, akin to a water-swallow falling with spread wings to caress with its beak a blossom born in the midst of a pond, I gently plunged onto her head. I lost the reed maintaining me far from her in the air, and became the hat covering her with a quivering roof.

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Translation Tuesday: Marcel Schwob’s Mime XII and XIII

"The fig trees have shed their figs and the olive trees their olives, for a strange thing has come to pass on the island of Skyra."

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime XII. The Samian wine

The tyrant Polycrates gave orders to bring three sealed flasks, each containing a different delicious wine. The conscientious slave took one flask made of black stone, one flask of yellow gold, and one flask of clear glass, but the careless steward poured one Samian wine into all three flasks.

Polycrates looked at the black stone flask and raised his eyebrows. He broke the plaster seal and sniffed the wine. “This flask,” he said “is made of base stuff and the odour of its contents does not entice me much.” Picking up the golden flask, he admired it. Then, having unsealed it, “This wine,” he said, “is doubtless inferior to its beautiful container with its wealth of vermilion grapes and lustrous vines.” Grasping the third flask, that of clear glass, however, he held it up to the sunlight. The sanguinolent wine glinted. Polycrates popped the seal, emptied the flask into his cup, and drank it in one. “That,” he said with a satisfied sigh, “is the finest wine I have ever tasted.” Then, setting his cup on the table, he knocked the flask, which smashed into smithereens.

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In Jazz-like Dialogue: Interviewing Guest Artist Robert Zhao

In conversation with Robert Zhao, Asymptote's featured guest artist for the summer issue

As the guest artist for Asymptote’s summer issue, Singaporean visual artist Robert Zhao Renhui contributed our cover image and illustrated 15 texts in the Fiction, Nonfiction, Drama, and Latin American Fiction Feature sections. I interview him about this experience, as well as the relationship between image and text in his art practice.

I’ve been following your trajectory for quite a few years, but it’s safe to say that the Asymptote summer issue is presenting your work to an audience that is largely unfamiliar with your practice. How would you explain your art, and the Institute of Critical Zoologists, to our readers?

I am interested in both photography and nature, so in my work, I use photography to investigate our dialogue with nature. The Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ) is an umbrella concept under which I create and present my work. The meaning of the ICZ takes shape with each of my projects and exhibitions, which create different realities and fictions.

05_Lisa_and_the_Heavenly_Body

Could you describe the process of creating/selecting images for this issue?

There was a tension between choosing images that were too literal a representation of the text, and pictures that encapsulated a very personal connection to the text that regular readers may not get. My guiding principle was that my images should be in a jazz-like dialogue with the text, and occasionally surprise the viewer. I submitted a few pictures for each essay, leaving it up to the journal to do the final selection. In some cases, I didn’t know what was chosen until the issue was published. READ MORE…

Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime X and XI

"The inhabitants bore their heads where we keep our stomachs; when they waved at us, they bowed their bellies."

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here.

Mime X. The Seaman
(trans. Hannah Embleton-Smith)

If you doubt that I have plied the heavy oars, look at my hands and my knees: you will find them worn as ancient tools. I know every weed of the underwater plains that are at times purple and at others blue, and I have absorbed the science of every coiled shell. Some of the weeds are endowed with human life; their buds are transparent eyes, like jelly, their bodies like the teats of sows, and they have scores of slender limbs, which are also mouths. And among the punctured shells, I have seen some that were pierced over a thousand times; and from each little opening came and went a fleshly foot upon which the shell would move.

After crossing the Pillars of Hercules, the ocean surrounding the land becomes strange and wild.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime VIII and IX

Mime 8 is romantic; Mime 9 dark (when was the last time you read the words "torturer’s hill?"). Phillip Griffith and Susie Cronin translate!

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here

Mime VIII. The Nuptial Eve

This new-wicked lamp burns a fine, pellucid oil before the evening star. The threshold is scattered with roses that the children have not gathered up. Dancers balance the last torches that wave fiery fingers into the shadows. The little flutist has blown three more harsh notes into his flute of bone. Porters have come bearing cases brimming with translucent anklets. This one has coated his face in soot and has sung me a song that mocks his deme. Two women, veiled in red, smile in the settled air, rubbing their hands with cinnabar.

The evening star rises and the heavy flowers close. Near the wine vat covered by sculpted stone, a laughing child sits, his radiant feet strapped into sandals of gold. He waves a pine torch and its vermillion braids whip out into the night. His lips hang open like the halves of a gaping fruit. He sneezes to the left and the metal sounds at his feet. One bound and I know he will be gone.

Io! Here comes the virgin’s yellow veil! Her ladies hold her up beneath her arms. Do away with the torches! The wedding bed awaits, and I will guide her into the plush glimmer of the purple cloth. Io! Plunge the wick into the sweet-scented oil. It sputters and dies. Put out the torches! Oh my bride, I lift you to my chest, that your feet do not crush the threshold roses.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime VI and VII

Fruit for a garden god (or is it rather a gnome?) and a drunk slave wearing expensive jewelry. Two translators see the "Mimes" very differently!

Read all previous posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here

Two talented translators took on today’s portion of Marcel Schwob’s Mimes, with different-yet-stunning results that together call attention to the transformative power of translation. Jean Morris begins with her translations, commentary, and illustrations, followed by Virginia McLure’s more modern take on Schwob.

Mime VI. The Garlanded Jar

The jar is honey-coloured earthenware, its base thrown by the skilled hands of a potter, but I smoothed its rounded belly into shape myself and filled it with fruit as an offering to the garden god. Alas, though, the god’s attention is elsewhere: fixated on the quivering foliage, in fear that robbers might breach these high garden walls. In the night, dormice rooted stealthily among my apples and gnawed them to the pips. Here these shy creatures were, at four in the morning, waving their downy black-and-white tails. And here, at dawn, came Aphrodite’s doves to perch on the violet-stained rim of my clay pot, fluffing up their tiny, flickering neck feathers. As I watched here, beneath the trembling noon light, a young girl alone stepped forward to the god with crowns of hyacinths. She saw me, of course, crouched behind a beech tree, but paid me no heed as she laid her garlands on the jar, now emptied of its fruit. What do I care if the plucking of his flowers displeases the god, if the dormice gnaw my apples and the doves of Aphrodite bow their tender heads to one another? Drunk on the heady scent of freshly gathered hyacinths, I twined some in my hair, and here I shall wait until tomorrow for my girl who comes at noon, my garlander of jars.

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English without Pain

An interview with Thomas Smetryns on his untraditional, comic opera made with English language-learning records

Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns wrote one third of Triptych, a new opera commissioned and created by Opera Erratica. His piece A Party uses the English language-learning records L’anglais sans peine from 1950s France as the basis for an absurdist comedy.

How did you come across the L’anglais sans peine records?

I DJ with 78rpm records with a friend, and I was always looking for new material, because we didn’t want to only play the regular Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters songs. I found the German-language records first and then I started to look for them, especially, and collect them. They’re all from the 1950s because they stopped producing 78rpm at the end of the 1950s.

How did you choose which records to use in A Party, your section of Triptych?

I was quite fascinated by L’anglais sans peine because there is a lot of material, it had the book with it, and because it was just quite funny. The accents of the records… the way they pronounce the words, as a Belgian I find them very refined, but for Patrick and other native speakers they are funny just because it’s a very old-fashioned way of talking.

I had already transcribed the whole record, so when Patrick [Eakin-Young, director and co-librettist] and I were trying things out for Triptych, I said he should take a look at it. He was completely enthusiastic, so from then on it went really fast, I think two weeks later I got the first draft of the libretto from him.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime IV and V

What do mites have to do with seduction? And how do you change the color of a tree's fruit? Sam Gordon translates "Mimes"!

Read all the posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here

Mime IV. Lodging 

Inn—replete with mites—this bitten, bloodied poet salutes you. This is not to thank you for the night’s shelter alongside a dark track, the mud of which recalls the way to Hades; but for your broken pallets, your smoking lamps. Your oil festers and your galette moulders, and since last autumn there have been little white worms among the shells of your walnuts. But the poet is grateful to the pig merchants who came from Megara to Athens, whose hiccuping stopped him from sleeping (inn, your walls are thin), and gives thanks too to your mites, which kept him awake by gnawing the length of his body, skittering across his cot in throngs.

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Marcel Schwob’s “Mimes” – Mime II and III

A man masquerading as a woman to sell eels – children begging with a wooden bird – Blaine Harper takes up Asymptote's "Mimes" project!

Read all the posts in Asymptote’s “Mimes” translation project here

Mime II. The False Merchant

A. I will have you beaten, yes—beaten with sticks. Your skin will be covered with spots like a nursemaid’s tunic. —Slaves, bring her over; strike her stomach first; flip her over like a flounder and strike her back. Listen to her; do you hear the sounds of her tongue? —Will you not cease, ill-fated woman?

B. And what have I done, to be brought to the sycophants?

A. Here we have a cat who has stolen nothing, then; she wants to digest at her leisure and rest comfortably. —Slaves, take these fish away in your baskets. —Why were you selling lampreys, when the magistrates have prohibited it?

B. I was unaware of that ordinance.

A. Did the town crier not announce it loudly in the marketplace, commanding: “Silence”?

B. I did not hear the “silence.”

A. You mock the orders of the city, strumpet! —This woman aspires to tyranny. Strip her, that I may see if she is a Peisistratid-in-hiding. —Aha! You were female not long ago. Now look, now look! This is a new sort of marketwoman! Did the fish prefer you that way, or rather the customers? —Leave this young man stark naked: the heliasts will decide if he will be punished for selling prohibited fish in the stalls, disguised as a woman.

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