Views and Reviews
by Alidë Kohlhaas
Winter storms and winter flu have made reading and listening to music the major activity for this writer in January. While I did not get to read Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning novel, "The Blind Assassin", I did read the book by one of her rivals for the year 2000 prize, Trezza Azzopardi’s "the hiding place".
This Welsh writer with a Maltese name spun a dark tale about a side of Wales we don’t usually get to see, namely its underworld, and the decay of Cardiff during the 1950s to ‘60s. The story’s voice is the youngest daughter of a Maltese peasant, who had hired on as a ship’s hand, but left as soon as the ship hit its first port, Cardiff. As a British subject, he had no difficulty staying and so settled there. His passion for gambling delivers him into the hands of the Sicilian underworld of this Welsh city. It’s a well-told tale of a man’s and a family’s disintegration, but this superbly rendered story is also about love and redemption. It was created by a young writer, of whom one hopes to hear more. [the hiding place, by Trezza Azzopardi, Key Porter Books, 282 pages, $21.95]
In 1995 I had the pleasure of reading Günter Grass’ "Ein weites Feld". Now, I know, it was a very controversial book and many Germans, including the press, hacked it to pieces. The controversy went so far that the book’s publisher felt obliged to release a book, "Der Fall Fonty" (The Case Fonty), which was a collection of all the critiques, pro and con that had appeared in the German press.
For me, Grass’ book was a pleasure because it dealt directly and indirectly with German history, good and bad. Best of all, it had as its protagonist a man, who became the alter-ego, the reincarnation of the writer Theodor Fontane, whose work I enjoy reading.
At the time I wrote, however, that I did not think the book would do well in translation since it deals with German history in such a way that unless you know it well, the events past and present make little sense. In addition, I then felt that a foreign reader, who is unfamiliar with Fontane – and few foreign readers know his work - would be puzzled by the events in the book. In other words, "Ein weites Feld" was too German, to regional to gain a wide audience.
It took five years for the English translation to come out. That is a long time. Most translations are published within 12 to 18 months. My impressions were, therefore, confirmed. I have tried to approach the English version of the book with a completely open mind, but from the very first moment of reading, I knew this was not a good translation. It starts with the title, "Too Far Afield". Ein weites Feld and too far afield are two phrases of completely different meaning. The German phrase first appeared in German literature in 1857 in a book by Adalbert Stifter, "Nachsommer" (Indian summer). Fontane, of course, made it famous in his novel, "Effi Briest", when Effi’s father tells his wife: "Ach, Luise, lass ... das ist ein zu weites Feld." (Oh, Luise, leave it ... that is too broad a subject.") The Fontane quote is listed in the opening pages of the book, but its translation is simply wrong. A too broad subject and going too far afield are two different things.
I literally slogged through "Too Far Afield", which was provided with a brief historical chronology - very much needed for the uninitiated, and not supplied with the original book - but I became more and more frustrated by the often awkward phrasing, changed meanings and the destruction of Grass’ poetic lines. There is no need for such change because generally there are in English equivalents or fitting metaphors, similes or idioms to ensure proper meaning.
Anyone, who has never read the original, may find this book interesting, although still puzzled by the reference to "the Immortal", whose birth is given as 1819 (Fontane’s birth year) and death in 1918 (Fontane died in 1898). In the original, the Immortal is called Der Unsterbliche, but anyone who knows German literature, will know who is meant.
I should have known better than to attempt a reading of this book in English, because once one knows the original, a translation can only be a let down. I can recall reading two of Margaret Atwood’s books in German translation, and I was horrified then of how the Canadian imagery had completely vanished from the novels. The translator obviously had no idea of this country’s idioms, its culture and practices. The same can be said of the translator of Grass’ book. It is a dead give-away when someone has to admit in the translator’s note that he/she needed help with questions of German idiom from another individual. As I said, I loved the original. Sadly, I cannot say the same of the translation, although I loved its dust jacket. [Too Far Afield, Günter Grass, Harcourt, 659 pages, hardcover, $45.00]
Anton Schindler, Ludwig van Beethoven’s friend and biographer, had this to say about the composer’s Symphony No. 6. The Pastoral: "As the painter completes each element and brings the whole into a united picture, so Beethoven also did in this tone painting. It begins peacefully in the foreground; the manifold parts are always resolved quietly. After the terrifying and fearsome depiction of the thunderstorm, the background again resolves itself peacefully, and when in the final measures the distant note of the hunting horn is heard, we feel as if we were in the great concert hall of nature. Praise be to thee, exalted master!"
This piece of music has been played over and over again in my house in the past few weeks because the particular recording I recently acquired captures exactly the mood and essence of what must have been in the composer’s mind when he wrote it. The recording is of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s rendition under the baton of Karel Ancerl, who led the TSO for almost five years, until his untimely death at 65 on July 4, 1973.
This piece was first issued in the early ‘70s by the CBC. Now the master tapes have been painstakingly restored and digitally remastered to wonderful effect. I have several other recordings of this symphony, but none seems to have caught my attention more than this Ancerl directed work. It is light where it needs to be, it soars in the right places, and it has tonal darkness of the right kind when required. In it, the master composer and the master conductor seem to have melded into one, each knowing suffering and yet, each knowing how to go beyond it to paint a tonal picture of pure joy.
Also on this recording is Bohuslav Marinû’s Symphony No. 5, a very different work, yet also quite exciting. There are slight infusions of jazz in a composition that can perhaps best be described as neo-classic. It has three movements, each filled with great musical surprises. If you cannot find the CD in your favourite CD store, it can be ordered directly from CBC Records at (416)205-3498 [Karel Ancerl - Toronto Symphony, CBC Records, Perspective, PSCD 2021, 66:42 minutes]
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