Wednesday, December 5, 2018

No Way Madame Bovary

Clive James

The first thing to say about Madame Bovary is that it's a terrific story. Other comparably great and famous novels aren't, but it is. Everyone should read it. Everyone would read it, given a free taste. The plot fairly belts along from the first page. Young Charles Bovary clumps into school to be laughed at by the other kids for his awkwardness. In no time he is a medical student, and then a doctor. The beautiful Emma Rouault is his second wife. He wins the right to her hand after setting her father's broken leg. It's a simple job but it gets him a reputation for competence. Fatally, he believes this too. Stuck with him in the depths of nowhere, Emma gradually realizes that she has married a chump. Longing for excitement and a classier way of life, she falls for a charming poseur called Leon. Their incipient affair is a standoff. But with an upmarket louse called Rodolphe she finds sexual fulfillment and plans a future. Sharing no such plans, Rodolphe dumps her. She collapses. Nursed back to health by the unsuspecting Charles, she hooks up again with Leon. This time it really happens. But the extravagance of her double life, financed by money stolen from Charles, gets her into ruinous debt. The loan shark closes in, Leon backs out, and Emma has only one way to go. On a shelf in the pharmacist's shop nearby is a bottle of … but I won't say how it comes out, because some of you might not yet have read the book.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Image source: Karen Kao

Some purists would say you can't. They would say that Flaubert's prose style is the essence of his art, and too near perfection to survive being translated. But we have to ask ourselves what we mean by the word "style." Undoubtedly there is a rhythm and a cadence to Flaubert's prose that only a fluent reader of French can appreciate, although the fluent reader of French had better be French. We are always better judges of tone in our first language than in a second or third. To turn things around for a moment, late-nineteenth-century French critics were under the impression that Edgar Allan Poe was not only a spellbinding tale-teller but also a great master of English prose; and in the twentieth century it was widely assumed in the French literary world that the leading stylist of the English literary world was Charles Morgan, a dim bulb now long extinguished. If we are learning a foreign language, we tend to admire writers in it who are easy to read. One of the early bonuses attached to learning Russian, for example, is that all the standard European fairy tales were rewritten from the ground up by great writers. So within a few weeks you are reading Tolstoy, whose name is on the title page of The Three Bears. It isn't all that long a step to reading Anna Karenina, because Tolstoy's sentences are never very tricky, however high the level of exposition. The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.

It can safely be assumed that Flaubert's prose makes music. More important, however, is that it would be impressive even if it didn't. This is where the second, and richer, meaning of the word "style" comes in. You need only rudimentary French to spot that Flaubert never wastes a word. Every word is to the point, especially in the descriptive passages. In his landscapes trees are sometimes just trees and leaves leaves; but when it matters, he can give everything a specific name. Within four walls he gives every object a pinpoint particularity. If he is looking at things through Emma's eyes, he adds his analytical power to her naive hunger. Emma's wishes may have been blurred by her addiction to sentimental novels, but her creator, never sentimental for a second, keeps her perceptions sharp. Early in the story there is a ball at a grand house—an episode that awakes in Emma a dangerous taste for the high life. In a few paragraphs, using Emma's vision as a camera, Flaubert captures the sumptuous glamour with a photographic scope that makes us think of those lavish get-togethers in War and Peace, in Proust, or in The Leopard. Dickens could lay out a scene like that too, but he would spend thousands of words on it.

Minting his every phrase afresh, Flaubert avoided clichés like poison. "Avoid like poison" is a cliché, and one that Flaubert would either not have used if he had been composing in English or have flagged with italics to show that he knew it came ready-made. Martin Amis's War Against Cliché is nothing beside that of Flaubert, who waged his with nuclear weapons. (He died waging it: his last book, Bouvard et Pecuchet, was about no other subject.) Any translator must be unusually alert to what is alive or dead about his own use of language or else he will do an injury to Flaubert's style far more serious than merely failing to reproduce its pulse and lilt. When Flaubert seems to be saying that Charles's off-putting first wife is long in the tooth, the translator had better be careful about calling her long in the tooth, which in English means "old": Flaubert is just saying that her teeth are long. Unfortunately, evidence continues to accumulate that we are now past the time when more than a few jobbing writers knew how to keep an eye on their own prose. In the second-to-last stage of our language's decay it was enough to write correctly in order to gain a reputation for writing well. Now we are in the last stage, when almost nobody knows what it means to write correctly. Among ordinary pens for hire it is no longer common to write without solecisms; even those who can are likely to bolt phrases together with no real attention to their derivation; and in too many cases the language is utterly emptied of the history that brought it into being. This is a very depleted gene pool in which to go fishing for a translator of any foreign writer at all, let alone Flaubert. One can only salute the boldness of a publishing house still willing to give it a try. It might be wise, however, not to let the salute progress far above the shoulder until we have made sure that what we are acknowledging is a real contribution.

It may only look like one. Perhaps to mark the fact that one of the supreme achievements of French literature is being once again done into English, Oxford's physically handsome new translation of Madame Bovary, by Margaret Mauldon, bears on its cover James Tissot's Young Woman in a Boat, dating from 1870. Tissot, after quitting France the next year, spent the rest of his life being claimed by the English as one of their painters, so the invocation of his name can be counted as a nice cross-Channel touch. But Madame Bovary was first published in 1857. Considering that women's fashions scarcely stayed frozen in those thirteen years, a pedant might wish that a French painter of a slightly earlier period could have been called in; but the young lady certainly has a sensual mouth, which can be said to fit. Already, though, it is hard to suppress a suspicion that in the matter of historical fidelity things are out of kilter, and the suspicion intensifies once the book is opened. Professor Malcolm Bowie, who wrote the informative introduction, makes much ado in his back-of-the-jacket blurb about Flaubert's precision, which the professor assures us is matched by Mauldon's brand-new and meticulously accurate translation of the actual work. Any reader wishing to believe this is advised to start on page one. He had better not open the book accidentally at page 178, on which we find Emma's lover Rodolphe justifying to himself his decision to ditch her. Rodolphe is supposed to be a creep, but surely he never spoke the French equivalent of late-twentieth-century American slang: "And anyway there's all those problems, all that expense, as well. Oh, no! No way! It would have been too stupid."

Just to be certain that Rodolphe never spoke like a Hollywood agent, we can take a look at the same line in the original: "Et, d'ailleurs, les embarras, la dépense … Ah! non, non, mille fois non! Cela eût été trop bête!" The perfectly ordinary, time-tested English idiom "No, no, a thousand times no!" would have fitted exactly. The awful possibility arises that Mauldon has never paid much attention to English idioms like that. Instead she thinks "No way!" is perfectly ordinary. We can take it for granted that she knows the French language of Flaubert's era inside out. (She has already translated, for the same series of Oxford World's Classics, works by Zola, Stendhal, Huysmans, Constant, and Maupassant.) But she has a crucially weaker knowledge of how the English language of her own era has been corrupted. You might say that English has always advanced through corruption, but "No way!" is an idiom so closely tied to the present that it can hardly fail to weaken any attempt to summon up the past. In Alan Russell's translation of Madame Bovary, first published by Penguin in 1950, there is no "No way!" Probably the phrase did not yet exist, but almost certainly Russell would not have used it even if it had. What he wrote was "No, no, by Heaven no!" Not quite as good as "a thousand times no!" perhaps, but certainly better than "No way!": better because more neutral, in the sense of being less tied to the present time.

This is not to say that such glaring anachronisms are frequent in Mauldon's translation. On page 23, when Charles Bovary is seeking Emma Rouault's hand, Emma's father thinks of him as "a bit of a loser," where Russell has "rather a wisp of a man"—which, as well as being less of a jazzy putdown from the late twentieth century, happens to be more accurate: a gringalet, according to my French-English dictionary, is a "little undersized fellow." But apart from a few moments like that, Mauldon is safe from being accused of outright barbarism. What she isn't safe from is the question of whether her translation is really an improvement on Russell's. Why try to improve on it if all she can offer is a prose that sounds—purportedly sounds—less dated? Isn't a dated prose style what we want? Admittedly, Russell translated "nègre" as "nigger." If only for justice, that one word was demanding to be changed, and Mauldon changes it, to "black man." But I can't find even one other word in Russell's translation that sounds dated in the wrong way. All the rest of it sounds dated in the right way—that is, closer to Flaubert in time. It must also be said, alas, that most of it is closer to Flaubert in possessing a sense of style. Mauldon might say that accuracy precluded an easy stylistic flow, but if she said that, she would have to prove herself accurate. Despite the heavy endorsement from Professor Bowie, her accuracy is not always beyond cavil.

The caviling starts early in Part One, Chapter One, where we get this sentence about Charles's parents: "His wife had been wild about him at first; she had treated him with an amorous servility that had turned him against her all the more." According to Flaubert, "elle l'avait aimé avec mille servilités qui l'avaient détaché d'elle encore davantage." Where did the "thousand" go? Russell has the wife "lavishing on him a thousand servilities." You could say that the word "lavishing" is put in—but what Mauldon has left out might matter: the wife did a lot of specific things, not just one. And as so often happens with translators, a deadly knack of weakening points by being untrue to the text is accompanied by an even deadlier knack of missing them altogether by being true to it. Later in the opening chapter (during which Charles grows to manhood in only a few pages of hurtling compression) there is a quick summary of his dissipations at medical school, culminating in a clause in which he "learned how to make punch, and, at long last, discovered love." Thus Mauldon—and indeed, all Flaubert says is that he "sut faire du punch et connut enfin l'amour." But Flaubert doesn't mean just discovering love, he means learning to make love. Flaubert is talking about sex. Russell does better by juicing the text: young Charles "took lessons in making punch, and finally in making love." So the older translation is franker, and thus truer to a novel whose frankness about these things, in the great gallery of nineteenth-century novels, puts Flaubert beside Tolstoy, and ahead of both Dickens and Henry James.

In Part One, Chapter Three, Flaubert pulls off a fatefully resonant effect when Emma drains her glass of curaçao while Charles watches. Flaubert's micrometrically particular style is watching her as well: "le bout de sa langue … léchait à petits coups le fond du verre." Mauldon's version ("the tip of her tongue … delicately licked at the bottom of the glass") misses the repetitive movement. Russell missed it too, but he may have deliberately dodged it, having spotted the pornographic element in those multiple dartings. They are a forecast of that astonishing single-paragraph set piece in Part Two, Chapter Nine, when we can tell what Rodolphe has just done to Emma because the whole landscape has an orgasm. Ever the keen student, Mauldon is well aware that with Flaubert, the man who invented the style indirect libre (although he himself never used the term), any description of anything can relate to the interior lives of the characters in the scene. She is aware of it, but all too often she doesn't spot the way it works.

Even with the direct style, in which emotions are stated up front, she can miss a lot, especially when it depends on an apparently minor point of grammar and syntax. There is a telling example at the end of Part One, Chapter Five, when Charles, after a night in bed with his beautiful wife, goes riding off to work, "his heart full of the night's bliss." Once again Mauldon might have done better to observe the difference between the singular and the plural. Flaubert has Charles's heart "plein des félicités de la nuit." Emma has more to offer than an abstract noun. Sensibly and more sensitively, Russell goes with the numbers: "the joys of the night." Like the thousand servilities, the joys of the night are separable events. She did this, she did that; her husband remembers as he rides.

In Part One, Chapter Seven, Emma finally admits to herself that her marriage is boring her to metaphorical death. "Pourquoi, mon Dieu, me suis-je mariée?" Russell, perhaps redundantly but at least faithfully, doubles the invocation of the deity into "O God, O God." Inexplicably, Mauldon switches it to the mundane: "Why in the world did I ever get married?" This seemingly tiny emendation counts as a heavy loss when one considers Emma's habitually blasphemous relation to the Church. In her downhill phase she will use the house of God as a trysting place for adultery. If we count as a poem any length of writing that can't be quoted from except out of context, then Madame Bovary is a poem. We might monkey with its language, but we mustn't monkey with its internal consistency.

Strangely enough, on the face of it, an amateur literary stylist is less likely to do that than a professional scholar. But really it is not so strange. From before World War I until well after World War II, in the long heyday of the gentleman translators, the leading practitioners were not always supported by a cheering squad from the academy, but they could write a confident prose of their own, however daunting the foreign model. Among them they had most of the big languages covered, and almost all of them were casually at home with French—which, in an era when Greek and Latin still dominated the syllabus, was more commonly acquired on vacation than in the schoolroom. C. K. Scott Moncrieff's Proust eventually needed upgrading as to accuracy, but Terence Kilmartin, who wrote an elegant prose himself when moonlighting from his job as literary editor of the Observer, was properly respectful of the standard Scott Moncrieff had set in matching Proust's flow; and in the final stages D. J. Enright, another part-timer, was properly respectful of Kilmartin. There is not likely to be a further advance on the Proust that Kilmartin and Enright gave us, although there will probably be no shortage of boondoggles like the recent group effort by which various translators took on a section each, thus inadvertently proving that a single voice was the only thing holding the original together. "Either you got the voice," as the great soprano Zinka Milanov legendarily said, "or you don't got the voice."

The amateurs had voices of their own with which to pay respect to the foreign voices they loved. In the decade after World War II the well-connected bunch of translators who were grouped around Roger Senhouse, a Francophile who raised dilettantism to the level of a profession, did a collective job of translating Colette that will brook no superseding, mainly because the job was composed of individual spare-time efforts, each answering to a passion. Even more wonderful than her books about Cheri, Colette's masterpiece, Julie de Carneilhan, will never need translating again; the job was done for keeps by the prodigiously gifted Patrick Leigh Fermor while he was cooling down from his wartime adventures. In the same fruitful few years of recovery from the physical battle against barbarism, the petite nineteenth-century French novels that buttressed the achievement of Madame Bovary and sometimes even preceded it—Constant's Adolphe, Maupassant's Bel-Ami, Daudet's Sappho—were translated by people who saw fidelity to them as a delightful but temporary duty, not as part of a long slog to corner a market. Most of those translations showed up in the prettily handy postwar series from Hamish Hamilton called the Novel Library. Now long defunct as a commercial proposition, the series is catnip for collectors in secondhand bookshops all over the planet. One of the Novel Library's particular jewels was the 1948 translation of Madame Bovary by Gerard Hopkins, who had the elementary tact to render "mille fois non" as "a thousand times no." (I could as easily have used his renderings as Russell's in the task of measuring Mauldon's, but the Penguin translation is the one most of us in the old British Empire grew up with, just as most Americans grew up with Francis Steegmuller's translation.)

The impulse behind the great wave of amateur translations—and this was especially true in the immediate aftermath of World War II—was a generous desire to bring foreign cultural treasures within reach of ordinary people. It was the era when patricians, having seen civilization taken to the brink of ruin, still thought it might be preserved if enlightenment could be spread more equally. Book lovers who knew that their multilingual education was a privilege wanted to share it with people less lucky. The work was aimed directly at the public, not at the academy. Presumably Mauldon is looking to the public too, but her pages of notes at the end of this book are looking to Professor Bowie: they are proof of academic diligence. To put it bluntly, recent translations tend to be busywork, and earlier ones tend to be the real tributes, even when inaccurate by scholarly standards.

No doubt this new translation of Madame Bovary is a labor of love. But affection and affectation don't sit well together. In his introduction Professor Bowie quotes his protégé's translation of the paragraph about Rodolphe that contains the most famous thing Flaubert ever wrote about human language. According to Mauldon, Flaubert said it was "like a cracked kettledrum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity." Well, it certainly sounds precise. But it isn't, quite. In his introduction to the first, 1950 edition Alan Russell revealed that he thought Les liaisons dangereuses was a seventeenth-century novel—wrong by a hundred years. (He quietly corrected the blunder for later editions, but it remains a pretty noisy blunder to have made.) But he knew that a chaudron isn't a kettledrum. Back in Sydney, in the First Kogarah Company of the Boys' Brigade, I played the kettledrum often enough to know that its barrel can be pretty seriously cracked and it still won't yield a dud note. It does that when its skin is split. If Flaubert had meant a kettledrum, he would have said so. What he meant was a kettle. Russell rendered the word that way, and so did Gerard Hopkins.

So much for accuracy as a fetish: it is bound to lead one into trouble when one strays into the territory of stuff that won't stay still to be researched. And in that territory lie the things of the mind. As his learned admirers, from Francis Steegmuller to Julian Barnes, have had so much constructive fun telling us, Flaubert would go to any lengths in the quest for factual precision. But Flaubert was a creative genius: he was putting his research to work in aid of psychological perceptions that were uniquely his. One of those perceptions was that he himself was Madame Bovary. No wonder he loved her. Loving her, he gave her novel everything he had. Henry James thought that Madame Bovarywas as good as Flaubert ever got. James was wrong to believe that the book was a tract against immorality. If it was, then its author notably failed to heed the lesson. But James might have been right to believe that everything Flaubert subsequently wrote added up to a decline. Even Proust thought that le mot justemade a fetish out of what should be taken for granted. The Monty Python crew translated Wuthering Heights into semaphore, and incidentally proposed that in a novel, story comes before language. So it does, even when the language is a miracle.

As a story, Madame Bovary is fit for worship, but it should be worshipped critically, as man-made and not a sacred text. At one point Emma confides her sexual frustration to her maid, Felicité. But nothing comes of it. Flaubert might have had the idea that Felicité would be part of the action as Emma's confidante. If so, he forgot about it, and then forgot to take that bit out. It was a big uncertainty to leave in. There is no uncertainty about the style, but there again, the wrong kind of worship leads to myopia. Blinded by the dazzle, Mauldon just doesn't seem to see the absurdity of leaving some of the French as French. Various periodicals are read by the characters in the novel. Mauldon leaves their titles untranslated. So did Hopkins, but Russell was daring enough to give rough English equivalents. The tacit claim behind leaving French words as they are is that your sense of accuracy is so highly developed that if you can't find an exact equivalent, the word should be left inviolate. But in that case, why translate the thing at all?

The question is all too well worth asking, alas. Judging from its introduction and appended apparatus, this translation is looking for a home on the kind of university syllabus in which students are encouraged to believe that they can absorb foreign literatures without ever bothering themselves with the languages in which they were written. In that regard America's economic dominance of the earth has made the English language imperialistic beyond the dreams of the people who invented it. No doubt it had to happen. Most of the amateur translators were already primed with at least one of the two ancient languages when they arrived at university, after which they acquired three or four of the modern languages as easily as if dipping themselves in paint. Those times won't be coming back. Nor will the once universal assumption among the literate that their time at university was merely the beginning of an education that would last for the rest of their lives.

But surely some of the effort put into the illusory omniscience of today's comfortably monoglot students could be put into teaching them at least one foreign language as a compulsory subject; and surely, in that case, French should be the first on the list. One doesn't ask for perfection. Anyone, even starting late, can learn enough French to know that Flaubert didn't actually sound like any of his translators, no matter how accurate. Using Proust as my handbook, I spent fifteen years learning to read French, and I still don't read it much less haltingly than I speak it. But I can read enough of Flaubert's Madame Bovary to know that a translator who can't carry the reader with her own style will put that marvelous book further away, even while she strains every nerve to bring it close.

Credits:  This article appears in the October 2004 issue of The Atlantic.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Even Here

Vladimir Lucien

Why does it not surprise, that even here, even now,
there are things that must be left unsaid.
That in the linked letters of our cursive fences,
we have found ourselves on the outside of ourselves.

Even here, alone in the one-roomed page, where
the light never goes off, these words are only pieces of our broken shadows.

There is a silverfish in our heart, leaving spaces where
there were things it was not correct to feel for, where our words are buried
in that deepening hole in the pages of the book of life
under the elegant sepulchre of poetry.

Even here, there are things that must not be spoken of,
and even that must be done beautifully.

Note:  Vladimir Lucien is was born in St. Lucia.  He is the winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.  "Even Now" appeared in The Caribbean Review of Books.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Interview with Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

Osvaldo Ferrari: Many people still ask whether Borges believes in God, because at times they feel he does and at times that he doesn’t.

Jorge Luis Borges: If God means something in us that strives for good, yes. If he’s thought of as an individual being, then no, I don’t believe. I believe in an ethical proposition, perhaps not in the universe but in each one of us. And if I could I would add, like Blake, an aesthetic and an intellectual proposition but with reference to individuals again. I’m not sure it would apply to the universe. I remember Tennyson’s line: “Nature red in tooth and claw.” He wrote that because so many people talked about a gentle Nature.

Ferrari: What you have just said confirms my impression that your possible conflict about belief or disbelief in God has to do with the possibility that God may be just or unjust.

Borges: Well, I think that it’s enough to glance at the universe to note that justice certainly does not rule. I recall a line from Almafuerte: “With delicate art, I spread a caress on every reptile, I did not think justice was necessary when pain rules everywhere.” In another line, he says, “All I ask is justice / but better to ask for nothing.” Already to ask for justice is to ask for much, too much.

Ferrari: Yet, you also recognize in the world the existence of happiness—in a library, perhaps, but other kinds of happiness too.

Borges: That, yes, of course. I would say that happiness can be momentary but that it also happens frequently, it can happen, for instance, even in our dialogue.

Borges: There’s another significant impact—the impact that prompts most poets to hold on to the notion of another world, a world apart from this one. Because there’s always something in the poet’s words that seems to send us beyond what is mentioned in the writing.Borges: At times I feel, how can I put it? Mysteriously grateful. When I have an idea that will later, sadly, become a story or a poem, I have a sensation of receiving something. But I do not know if that “something” is given to me by something or someone or if it bursts out on its own. Yeats held a doctrine of a great memory and thought that it wasn’t important for a poet to have many experiences because he inherited memory from his parents, his grandparents, his great-grandparents. This multiplies itself in geometric progression until he inherits humankind’s memory and this “something” is revealed to him. Now, De Quincey thought that memory is perfect, that is, I have in myself everything that I have felt, everything that I have thought since childhood. But there must be an adequate stimulus to find this memory. He thought—he was a Christian—that would be the book used in the Final Judgment, the book of everyone’s memories. And that could lead us eventually to Heaven or Hell. But, deep down, that mythology is alien to me.

Ferrari: How odd, Borges, it seems that we are talking constantly through memory. Sometimes, our conversations remind me of a dialogue between two memories.

Borges: In fact, that’s what it is. If we are something, we are our past, aren’t we? Our past is not what can be recorded in a biography or in the newspapers. Our past is our memory. That memory can be hidden or inaccurate—it doesn’t matter. It’s there, isn’t it? It can be a lie but that lie becomes part of our memory, part of us.

Ferrari: As we have talked about faith or its absence, I want to mention something about our times that seems strange to me. Over the centuries, men in the Protestant and Catholic West have worried about the dilemma of the soul’s salvation. But it seems to me that recent generations do not think that it is even a dilemma.

Borges: That seems pretty serious to me, that a person or people do not possess an ethical instinct or sense, doesn’t it? Moreover, there’s a tendency, or a habit, of judging an act by its consequences. Now that seems immoral to me, because when you act you know if your acts are evil or good. As for the consequences of an act—they ramify and multiply and perhaps balance out in the end. I do not know, for example, if the consequences of the discovery of America have been good or evil, because there are so many. Even as we are talking, they are growing and multiplying. Thus, to judge an act by its consequences is absurd. But people tend to do this. For example, a contest or a war is judged according to failure or success and not according to whether it’s ethically justified. As for the consequences, as I said, they multiply in such a way that, perhaps in time, they balance out and then become unbalanced again. It is a continuous process.

Ferrari: With the loss of the ideas of salvation and damnation, there’s the loss of the ideas of good and evil, sin and virtue. That is, there’s a different version of things that excludes the earlier world view.

Borges: People now only think about whether something is advantageous. They think as if the future doesn’t exist, or as if there is no future other than an immediate one. They act according to what counts in that moment.

Ferrari: And that way of being, of being preoccupied with immediacy, has turned us into “immediate” beings, perhaps even into futile ones.

Borges: I completely agree.

November 4, 2014, 1:15 pm

Credits:  This interview appears under the title Borges and God: in The New York Review of Books.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


Agha Shahid Ali

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

Credits: This poem appears in the collection The Half-Inch Himalayas, 1987. It can also be found online at

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Yes and No Poem

Laura Riding

Across a continent imaginary
Because it cannot be discovered now
Upon this fully apprehended planet—
No more applicants considered,
Alas, alas—

Ran an animal unzoological,
Without a fate, without a fact,
Its private history intact
Against the travesty
Of an anatomy.

Not visible not invisible,
Removed by dayless night,
Did it ever fly its ground
Out of fancy into light,
Into space to replace
Its unwritable decease?

Ah, the minutes twinkle in and out
And in and out come and go
One by one, none by none,
What we know, what we don't know.

Credits:  This poem can be found at

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


Rita Dove

I love the hour before takeoff, 
that stretch of no time, no home
but the gray vinyl seats linked like
unfolding paper dolls. Soon we shall
be summoned to the gate, soon enough 
there’ll be the clumsy procedure of row numbers
and perforated stubs—but for now
I can look at these ragtag nuclear families 
with their cooing and bickering
or the heeled bachelorette trying 
to ignore a baby’s wail and the baby’s 
exhausted mother waiting to be called up early
while the athlete, one monstrous hand
asleep on his duffel bag, listens,
perched like a seal trained for the plunge. 
Even the lone executive
who has wandered this far into summer 
with his lasered itinerary, briefcase
knocking his knees—even he 
has worked for the pleasure of bearing 
no more than a scrap of himself
into this hall. He’ll dine out, she’ll sleep late,
they’ll let the sun burn them happy all morning
--a little hope, a little whimsy 
before the loudspeaker blurts
and we leap up to become
Flight 828, now boarding at Gate 17.

Credits:  This poem can also be found at  Painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Lorca's Bones

Jon Lee Anderson

In the Andalusian city of Granada, a little road leads uphill, past the forested ramparts of the Alhambra, to a cemetery. The earth there is a deep, raw red, and the olive trees that punctuate it are green and gray and very old. The cemetery wall is high and long, the same color as the earth, and it is crowned with rough clay tiles.

Twenty feet or so along the wall from its southwestern corner, there are egg-size gouges in the plastered brick. The marks are impacts from bullets. In the summer of 1936, more than a thousand people were brought to the cemetery in open trucks, day after day, to be shot against the wall by firing squads. American tourists who were staying in the little hotels down the lane later told of their horror at being awakened before dawn by the grinding gears of the trucks as they went uphill, and then, minutes later, hearing the volleys of gunfire. On August 16th, thirty people were shot at the cemetery, while down in the city the poet Federico García Lorca was taken into custody. Two days later, Lorca was murdered, along with two bullfighters and a schoolteacher.

Lorca was handsome and dark-haired, and walked with a curious, flat-footed gait that made him instantly recognizable in Granada, where he had grown up. He was a son of the local élite; his father was a wealthy granadino landowner. But, in what was a conservative, provincial city, the family was also associated with the Spanish Republic and its liberal values; one of Lorca’s sisters was married to Granada’s Socialist mayor, who was among those killed on August 16th. With his 1928 book of poetry, “Gypsy Ballads,” and his 1932 play, “Blood Wedding,” Lorca had become Spain’s most renowned poet and dramatist. Among his closest friends were Salvador Dali, with whom he had a turbulent love affair, and Luis Buñuel, the film director. Lorca had toured Spain since 1931 with his own theatre group, La Barraca, for the Republic’s Ministry of Education. At the age of thirty-eight, and more or less openly gay, Lorca was a highly visible figure with known Republican sympathies. And that, in the Granada of the summer of 1936, was enough to get a person killed.

On July 17, 1936, a forty-three-year-old general named Francisco Franco had launched a military rebellion against Spain’s left-leaning government. A cabal of military officers seized control of Granada three days later. In the three-year civil war that ensued, Franco and his ultranationalist Falangists received military assistance from Hitler and Mussolini, and more than half a million Spaniards were killed before the Republic finally succumbed. In April, 1939, Franco formally initiated his dictatorship. It lasted until his death, in 1975.

The old execution ground at the cemetery was deserted when I visited late one recent afternoon, but a bouquet of red roses lay drying against the wall, beneath a cluster of bullet gouges. The impacts were roughly at the level of a standing man’s groin. I said as much to my companion, Juan Antonio Díaz, a professor of English and German philology at the University of Granada. He remarked, “Not if you were kneeling. They would hit you at head height.”

A moment later, Díaz cursed. “They have taken the plaque. I knew they would.” He pointed to a blank patch on the wall. A few months earlier, Granada’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, of which he was a member, had installed a small plaque: “To the victims of Francoism who were shot at this wall.” Without it, there was no sign that anything dramatic or historic had ever occurred here.

Lorca’s grave, by the side of a road at the edge of a nearby village, was also long unmarked—he and the bullfighters and the schoolteacher were buried there together, secretly and hastily. In 1966, Ian Gibson, an Irish-born historian who became Lorca’s biographer, identified the probable site, but the bodies remained where their killers had dumped them. Then, late last year, a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón, ordered that Lorca be dug up.

Garzón is famous for finding novel ways to use the law in the name of historical justice. In 1998, he invoked international statutes to secure the arrest, in London, of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. This April, he opened a formal investigation into torture at Guantánamo Bay. His exhumation order was seen as a historic challenge to the silence in Spain about the Franco years—the first official inquiry into the dictatorship’s repression. But it set off a raging public debate in Spain. The problem is that although the Spanish Civil War ended seventy years ago, victor and vanquished were never truly reconciled.

The conflict lives on in unexpected ways. With Garzón’s order came the news that Lorca’s own relatives—a group of nieces and nephews—opposed his exhumation. (In fact, they had said so before, but only now did the matter acquire urgency.) In a tersely worded press communiqué, they said, “We reiterate our desire, as legitimate as those of other relatives, that the remains of Federico García Lorca repose forever where they are.” This was incomprehensible to many in Spain and gave rise to all sorts of rumors—that the family was embarrassed about the poet’s homosexuality; that it had already privately dug him up and reburied him years before. His relatives had said that they wanted to avoid “a media circus.” Instead, they found themselves in a fight over Lorca’s body.

Until Franco’s death, a textbook titled “El Parvulito” was standard issue in Spain’s preschools. In it, the civil war was introduced to four- and five-year-olds on a page labelled “The National Uprising.” Under a picture showing a serious-looking soldier, bayonet drawn, it reads, “Some years ago, Spain was very badly governed. Every day there were shots fired in the streets and the churches were burned down. To stop all of this, Franco rose up with the army, and, after three years of war, managed to throw out the enemies of the Fatherland. The Spaniards named Franco their Chief or Strongman”—Jefe o Caudillo—“and he has been governing Spain gloriously since 1936.”

More than four hundred thousand Spaniards spent time in concentration camps between 1939 and 1947. And over the next three decades, Spaniards continued to be persecuted for political reasons; thousands were executed by firing squad and garrotte. Half a million fled the country. In the jittery, attenuated glasnost that characterized the transition to democracy after Franco’s death, however, politicians adopted a don’t-look-back policy. In 1977, Spain’s parliament passed an amnesty law that sealed the past in what became known as the pacto de olvido, or pact of oblivion. That’s how things stood until a decade ago, when “historical memory” groups, formed by the descendants of murdered Republicans, Communists, and anarchists, began to dig up some of their bodies.

The memory groups’ activities inspired a national lobby for a reckoning with Spain’s past, but the conservative Partido Popular of President José María Aznar, who was in power from 1996 to 2004, was hostile to such demands. Aznar was succeeded by the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, however, and in 2007 Spain’s parliament approved a Law of Historical Memory, which required the state to support the exhumation of thousands of mass graves. The bill also granted citizenship to the descendants of Spanish Republicans who had been forced to flee the country between 1936 and 1955. More than a million people, most of them in Latin America, became eligible, including as many as two hundred thousand Cubans. In February, the first of the new passports were issued.

Despite the law, Spain’s mass graves remain largely unexhumed. Maribel Brenes, a historian who is the president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Granada, has compiled a map of a hundred and twenty-five of them in Granada Province alone, containing twelve thousand victims. Her motive wasn’t personal; one of her grandfathers had fought for Franco. “It’s not about revenge, it’s about documenting history,” she said. “We Spaniards are hypocrites. We threw our hands in the air over what Pinochet did in South America, but no one has done anything about our own desaparecidos”—disappeared ones.

Last October, Baltasar Garzón, in response to a petition filed by thirteen historical-memory associations, decreed that Franco and thirty-four others were guilty of crimes against humanity—“a preconceived and systematic plan of elimination of political opponents through mass killings, tortures, exile, and forced disappearances.” He tallied more than a hundred and fourteen thousand victims. Declaring Spain’s 1977 amnesty null and void with regard to human-rights violations, Garzón ordered an investigation and the exhumation of nineteen mass graves, including the one believed to contain Lorca’s remains.

Emilio Silva, who founded Spain’s historical-memory movement, called Garzón’s order “the condemnation of Francoism that Spain’s parliament has never dared to do itself.” But there was also anger at Garzón. Former President Aznar, whose grandfather and father both served under Franco, spoke darkly about people determined to “destroy” Spain. Then Javier Zaragoza, Spain’s prosecutor-general, filed an appeal against Garzón’s order, challenging his jurisdiction and accusing him of carrying out an “inquisition.”

Zaragoza managed to put a temporary halt to the exhumations. If his appeal succeeded—and there was a decent chance that it would—Garzón’s investigation would be dead. Garzón responded with a preëmptive and risky move. On November 18th, he suddenly announced that he was dropping his federal case and instead referring the crimes he had identified to Spain’s provincial courts. By doing so, Garzón kept the investigation going. There was no doubt, however, that he had suffered a setback.

Two days later, on the thirty-third anniversary of Franco’s death, around fifty people gathered in a rooftop room in a cultural center in Madrid to express their support for Garzón. An elderly woman who had spent time in Franco’s concentration camps spoke, as did Ian Gibson. The Valencian folksinger Paco Ibáñez, famous for putting Lorca’s verses to music, got up and sang.

Afterward, I went with Ibáñez and Fanny Rubio, a poet who had helped to organize the gathering, to meet Garzón in Riofrío, a café across the street from the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s high court. We sat in a corner booth. Garzón arrived a few minutes later, with one of his bodyguards. (The militant Basque separatist group E.T.A. has targeted Garzón for assassination; one plot, revealed last week, involved a bottle of poisoned Cognac.) The bodyguard, a young man wearing a duster, stood about ten feet away. Garzón, who is fifty-three and has a distinctive gray streak in his hair, ordered chamomile-mint tea. For legal reasons, he could not speak to me directly about the case, but he allowed me to sit in on his conversation with Ibáñez and Rubio.

Garzón said that he had found himself on his own in the high-court case, without any allies. Senior officials in the Socialist government felt that he had gone too far, and were not willing to back him. But the battle was not over. Transferring the cases to Spain’s provincial courts was a sort of force multiplier. Now it wasn’t just up to him. Judges all over the country would be obliged to investigate, and to do so seriously, whatever their personal beliefs. Presented with a crime, they were required to look at all available evidence, including the grave sites. He had made a thousand Lorcas possible.

“What about Lorca’s relatives saying they don’t want him dug up?” Ibáñez asked.

“Imagine if, as an investigating judge, I was shown to a house where a body was buried in the basement,” Garzón said. “And, when I ordered it to be dug up, the family living in the house said, ‘No, you can’t, that’s our uncle, and we want to leave him there!’ Would I leave him there just because they said so?”

Francisco Galadí, the grandson of one of the two bullfighters killed with Lorca, is a ruggedly handsome man of sixty. When I met him in Granada, he was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. He had worked in the local brewery, Cerveza Alhambra, until recently, when he had been forced to take early retirement. With time on his hands, he had joined the historical-memory association. Before his father had died, a few years ago, he had begged Francisco to recover his grandfather’s remains. “He told me, ‘Don’t leave him lying there like a dog,’ ” Galadí said. “I’ve been fighting for that. What I didn’t expect was that the Lorca family would object.”

Galadí ’s grandfather, also named Francisco, had been a popular banderillero—a torero who makes the bull charge, plunging darts adorned with bright flags into its neck. He was also an anarchist. For a few futile days in July, 1936, he had led the only resistance in the city of Granada to the military takeover. He and a handful of fellow anarquistas had held out in the Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter, under a withering artillery barrage, but eventually their ammunition ran out. “They were in a cave at the foot of the Alhambra, and my father, who was twelve at the time, had gone there to say goodbye. He told him, ‘Vete, hijo’—‘Go, son.’ ” After his son left, the bullfighter surrendered. “They say that he was tied to a horse-drawn cart and that they drove him through the streets, beating him with sticks,” his grandson said. “They say he was one of the bravest, most fearless, of men.”

Once, when the younger Galadí was doing his obligatory military service, in the late sixties, a colonel had asked him if he was related to “the famous Galadí.” He smiled proudly. “You know, in those days, Federico García Lorca was known only by other members of the élite, those people who could read and go to the theatre. But my grandfather, a bullfighter, was well known by everyone, because this was a workers’ city, and they liked the bulls.” Galadí paused, and then added, “I’ve lived with my parents’ fear all my life. My mother is eighty-five now. She was twelve when it happened. They killed half the people in her neighborhood! But it wasn’t just the war, it was the years of repression afterward, of fear and humiliation. She used to say ‘Shush!’ whenever I tried to ask about my grandfather. ‘It’s that they are real hijos de puta,’ she would say. And the rancor is still there today, you know? But they are the rancorous ones. I’ve heard there are some who are going around saying, ‘We should have killed more of them.’ But I’m not interested in looking for the grandchildren of those who did the killing. All I want is to exhume the remains of my grandfather and to give him a dignified burial. The Francoists can express themselves as they like, as they always have.”

Along with Franco, Ramón Serrano Súñer was one of the men Garzón charged with “crimes against humanity.” He was Franco’s brother-in-law, and served as Interior Minister during the civil war. As Foreign Minister from 1940 to 1942, he negotiated personally with Hitler and Mussolini. He was instrumental in arranging the Gestapo’s arrest of Spanish exiles in Occupied France. Some were returned to Spain and, in many cases, summarily shot; at least fifteen thousand were sent to Mauthausen and other concentration camps. In 1948, Serrano Súñer was the first public figure in Spain to admit that Lorca had been killed by Nationalists, though he blamed “uncontrollables.” Until then, Franco’s regime had denied any knowledge of the crime, and the Nationalist media had tried to blame it on “the Reds.”

Serrano Súñer died in 2003, at the age of a hundred and one, but his son, Don Fernando Serrano Súñer y Polo, agreed to meet me at my hotel in Madrid for tea. Don Fernando, who is in his seventies, wore a sharply tailored English suit. His mother and Franco’s wife were sisters. He remarked that Spain’s Falangist movement had been “misinterpreted,” and that he found Garzón’s inquiry into the past “a little depressing.” “It is very pitiful that we are like we are, all these years later,” he said. “Two of my father’s brothers were fusilados and buried in a mass grave outside Madrid. In other words, not all the victims are Franco’s.” Don Fernando said that he admired the way that Americans had reconciled after their Civil War, and he proceeded to recite, from memory, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in Spanish.

The closest thing to a national civil-war monument in Spain is Valle de los Caídos—the Valley of the Fallen—centered on a vast subterranean basilica that Franco ordered built in 1940. Burrowed deep into the granite of the Sierra de Guaderrama mountains outside Madrid and topped by a five-hundred-foot stone cross, the monument took almost twenty years, and the labor of thousands of Republican prisoners of war, to complete. Although it was billed as a resting place for the dead of both sides, and contains the remains of some forty thousand Nationalists and Republicans, it commemorates nothing so much as Franco’s megalomania and triumphalism. When he inaugurated the necropolis, in 1959, Franco spoke about how his enemies had been made to “bite the dust of defeat.” In the main hall, the only marked tombs are those of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Party, and, since 1975, of Franco himself. (The other remains are in sealed catacombs.) Not surprisingly, Valle de los Caídos has become a sanctuary for Spain’s diehard Falangists.

Last November 20th, the anniversary of Franco’s death, his followers came, as they always do, to pay their respects, although, in accordance with the new Law of Historical Memory, police had been ordered to prevent openly Fascist displays. Franco’s tombstone was a slab of granite in the floor, etched with only his name and a cross. There were bouquets of red and white roses, and a wheel of carnations. Several well-dressed older people bowed their heads. A small group of plainclothes policemen stood watching. A man in a red jacket approached, gave a Fascist salute, and dropped to one knee. He then stood up, and saluted once more. One of the policemen came trotting over, but did nothing. A moment later, two more men, with closely cropped hair and small, trimmed mustaches, met at the tomb and gave simultaneous Fascist salutes of their own.

Lorca was buried less than five miles from Granada, on the outskirts of the village of Alfacar. Following the route that Lorca’s executioners took, Juan Antonio Díaz and I drove first to the nearby village of Víznar. We parked in a little square next to an eighteenth-century archbishop’s palace, which, in 1936, was turned into a military command center. It will soon be converted into a five-star hotel. A small road, cut like an elbow around a deep gulch, led to Alfacar past what had once been a children’s summer camp called La Colonia. In the summer of 1936, La Colonia was used as a holding center for the victims of the Nationalists’ purge in the area. (There were other execution grounds, including the city cemetery.) According to Gibson, Lorca arrived as a prisoner before daybreak on August 18th, as did the bullfighters and the schoolteacher. They were then driven a short distance down the road, and taken for a paseo—a stroll.

We walked on that same road. Below us was the vega, the greensward that surrounds Granada, which Lorca wrote about in his 1921 “Meditations and Allegories of Water”:

I was returning from the dry lands. Down in the hollow lay the vega, swathed in its blue shimmer. Through the recumbent air of the summer night flo
ated the fluttering ribbons of the crickets.

We saw rectangular stands of white poplars, as well as the shining roofs of new industrial warehouses, strung along the way to Lorca’s birthplace, the village of Fuente Vaqueros. This view, minus the warehouses, must have been one of the last things Lorca saw.

Behind an apartment building, we came to a fenced-in sliver of hillside which, some years ago, was belatedly preserved as a Lorca memorial park. At its far edge was a lone olive tree, and near it a small stone marker: “To the memory of Federico García Lorca and all the victims of the civil war.” It was the approximate spot where, according to Gibson’s sources, including one of the gravediggers, Lorca and the others had been shot and buried in a trench “behind an old olivo on a bend in the road.” There was nobody else around; a pair of motorcyclists came racing past, breaking the stillness. Walking deeper into the park, we found a stone wall inlaid with Andalusian blue, green, and white tiles painted with Lorca’s verses. One, from a 1918 poem, “Autumn Song,” reads, “If death is death, what then of poets, and of sleeping things, if no one remembers them?”

On May 29th, the Granada judge assigned to rule on Lorca’s exhumation recused herself from the case. This would have sent it to the Supreme Court of Spain, which was viewed as unsympathetic to Garzón. (Two days earlier, the court had agreed to hear a lawsuit, filed by a far-right group, charging Garzón with “prevarication” in the course of his investigation.) But, on June 9th, Granada’s prosecutor filed a grievance appealing the judge’s decision, potentially returning the case to her. Granada’s historical-memory association, meanwhile, declared that if Spain’s courts continued to stonewall its efforts, it would request that the graves be opened as an “archeological site.” Amid these developments,Lorca’s family was silent.

When I asked Juan Antonio Díaz about the Lorca family, he shook his head. “Any normal person, with a close relative—a father, an uncle, a son—who has been mysteriously disappeared, and is known to have been murdered, has to feel the minimal interest in where he might be. In the case of Lorca, this is even greater, because Lorca isn’t only the patrimony of one family but of all decent people of this world. Normal people want to know what happened, and where Lorca is. But it seems there are people who are not normal, and are incapable of resolving their personal and family traumas.”

Laura García Lorca, the poet’s niece, has a breathtaking view of the Alhambra from the living room of her apartment, on the top floor of a building in central Granada. A former actress, with the large, expressive brown eyes of her late uncle, Laura heads the Federico García Lorca Foundation. On the day I visited, she appeared overwrought. All of the media attention, she said, had been extremely stressful.

"We have, I think, never communicated our feelings well,” she said, with a sigh. “So—why don’t we want him dug up? As far as the remains of Federico García Lorca are concerned, for us—and these are things that are perhaps a little irrational—we will not gain any consolation from knowing exactly where his remains are,” she said. “We would like to leave him there.” She went on, “A great deal has been said about all of this; it is said that we don’t want to stir up history. This is an infamy! As a family, we have done everything in our power for the history to be known.”

Laura’s tone turned sarcastic. “But no, it seems it is conservative to not open a tomb, and progressive to open it. They have even said we are homophobes. This is defamation, just plain crazy. It’s not that. It’s that there is a prurient interest in this search for Federico García Lorca. And it is logical; he was a symbol. But we want him to be respected. For us, the prospect of exposing further the degrading circumstances in which he was murdered is very disagreeable. To violate him further would be, for some—very unpleasant.” Laura wept.

After she had composed herself, she said, “We don’t want this to become a spectacle. But it is very difficult to imagine that the bones and skull of Federico García Lorca will not end up on YouTube.”

Laura remarked that those whose relatives happened to be buried with Lorca seemed much more interested in exhuming them than were other victims’ families. “Isn’t it strange?” she said. “The question is, Why do people want to dig him up? Is it that they want the relic, the bones of the saint? Because it adds nothing to history.”

“But why,” I insisted, “leave him in the ditch where his killers dumped him?”

“What ditch?” Laura retorted. “It’s a sacred place. They’re all in good company there.”

Credits:  This article first appeared in 2009 in The New Yorker.

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