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  • Chateaubriand and the birth of Decadence
    Posted on Mar 23, 2021
    When I was 18 years old a friend and I cycled the length of the Cherbourg peninsular in Normandy at what felt like walking speed, in the face of constant and dispiriting headwinds. At last, reaching Combourg in Brittany, I was very struck with the chateau, which has some impressive round towers topped by battlements and conical roofs, like something out of a Gothic romance. The castle is especially famous because it was for a time the home of François-René de Chateaubriand, the celebrated French writer and politician, whose family had acquired the property in 1761. The castle has long been r…
  • Amy Levy: A London Poet
    Posted on Mar 17, 2021
    ‘The east wind blows in the street to‐day; / The sky is blue, yet the town looks grey’ begins ‘A March Day in London’ by Amy Levy (1861-1889). Greyness, biting wind; aimless and repetitive movement in a restricted space; simultaneous weariness and restlessness: the atmosphere Levy evokes feels curiously familiar at this time: From end to end, with aimless feet,All day long have I paced the street.My limbs are weary, but in my breastStirs the goad of a mad unrest.I would give anything to stayThe little wheel that turns in my brain;The little wheel that turns all day,That turns all night with…
  • Bertolt Brecht’s Baal and the Anti-heroes of Decadence
    Posted on Mar 10, 2021
     Fig. 1: Brecht, Baal, cover of the first edition (Potsdam: Kiepenheuer Verlag, 1922) In his new book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music Alex Ross suggests that Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal was inspired in part by the violent and dysfunctional relationship of Rimbaud and Verlaine. Curious as this connection might seem, Brecht was indeed an avid reader of French Decadent poetry and this influence shaped his play as well as Brecht’s image as enfant terrible of the early decades of twentieth-century German theatre. Ross’s book is about ‘a musician’s influence on non-musicians - res…
  • Cultural Translation
    Posted on Mar 3, 2021
    People reflect places reflect people. We all grow from our geography. This is at once an exciting phenomenon, giving rise to a wealth of cultural diversity, yet also a massive challenge to humanity, both in terms of the problems caused by xenophobia and in apparently simple difficulties of translation. For those apparently simple translation difficulties turn out to be significantly complex, creating gaps in mutual understanding at the level of language, ways of life, behaviours and, when one reaches the level of poetry, metre, rhyme and the many more refined subtleties of verse such as allite…
  • Poldowski (1879-1932), composer inspired by Verlaine
    Posted on Feb 24, 2021
    Who is Poldowski? The name suggests a man with Polish origins. Poldowski was a composer, but the name is a pseudonym adopted by Irène Régine Wieniawska. If her surname sounds familiar, it is because she was the daughter of the celebrated violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski, a Pole who settled in Brussels, though she never knew her father as he died less than a year after her birth. The youngest of four children, she was the only one to pursue a musical career. Most of Poldowski’s extant compositions are songs (to both English and French texts) or chamber pieces, and during her lifetime …
  • The sensual vertigo of a receding reality
    Posted on Feb 18, 2021
    Whilst the era of COVID continues to be marked by a tragic and unconscionable loss of life, by poor mental health and by the loss of income and work opportunities, for the more fortunate amongst us it is characterised mainly by a boring and monotonous daily routine, in which we see only the people we live with and only go out for a swift route march around a nearby public park. Whilst it is not physically threatening, this boring routine needs to be watched carefully. It can only too easily develop into the darker form of philosophical boredom known as ennui, which is an existential challenge …
  • Staging Decadence: On sick performance and theatre’s chronic maladies
    Posted on Feb 9, 2021
    It has long been commonplace to say that there is something wrong with theatre. Theatre breaks down with the forgotten line, or the wilful child performer taking matters into their own hands. Theatre’s ‘wrongness’, or tendency to break down as a consequence of its precarious liveness, might also be said to condition its ontology.1 However, for an elite group of fin-de-siècle writers, theatre’s ‘wrongness’ – its taking place in the drab materiality of the here-and-now – meant more than the mesmeric pull of live performance’s vulnerabilities. For French and Belgian champions of fin-de-siècle sym…
  • Judith Gautier’s Japanese passion
    Posted on Feb 3, 2021
    In an earlier blog for R&V, I explored the contribution that Judith Gautier (1845 – 1917) made to popularising Chinese poetry in France through her 1867 anthology of translations Le Livre de jade (https://tinyurl.com/u4gwyay). Like many of her fellow authors, including Mallarmé and Huysmans, Gautier was also fascinated by Japanese culture and aesthetics, a passion first aroused by seeing men in traditional costume at the 1862 Universal Exhibition in London, which she visited with her father Théophile, the Parnassian poet and critic. Some twenty years later, this early exposure to things Ja…
  • On translating the poetry of Albert Mérat
    Posted on Jan 26, 2021
    Albert Mérat’s poetry is deceptively simple. Its straightforward style is actually a distillation of observation, sensitivity and emotion which results in a purity of expression conveyed with a natural sense of rhythm that came partly from a lifelong love of music. Poetry was almost his sole medium. Apart from a prose diary that he kept on one of his journeys to Italy, and some ‘fantasies’ that he gave to Paul Verlaine and which seem not to have survived, all his writing was in verse. Mérat writes without archaisms or colloquialisms, and his sentence construction (with some exceptions in the …
  • The Songs of Hugo Wolf
    Posted on Jan 19, 2021
    Audiences still find Wolf difficult. They flock to Liederabende devoted to the songs of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann or Strauss; but Wolf, one of the greatest of all Lieder composers, they find difficult. Touring North Germany with the Italienisches Liederbuch, Helmut Deutsch once found the songs described by the press as „fast vergessene Lieder“ (‘almost forgotten songs’), and although complete performances of the Italian Songbook are relatively common in Great Britain, entire recitals devoted to Wolf’s other songs are rare. Fischer-Dieskau relates in Hugo Wolf…
  • Decadent London and the origins of cinema
    Posted on Jan 13, 2021
    ‘Let’s admit it: France invented cinema’ – thus proclaimed the director of the Cannes Film Festival, who also happens to head the Institut Lumière in Lyons, on 28 December, celebrating the ‘first public film show to a paying audience’ on that day in 1895. This has been repeated so often that it’s widely accepted as historical ‘fact’, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.1 Somehow, France and cinema seem to belong together, just as ‘Decadence’ seems quintessentially French, even though it was unquestionably an international movement. But if London was where Rimbaud’s and Verlaine’s stormy…
  • Looking for mistakes in Proust
    Posted on Jan 4, 2021
    Marcel Proust, Scheherazade by Konchalovsky When we launched the special lockdown blog back in March 2020 I undertook to read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust in the C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin English translation. Nine months later and I am pleased to report that I have now completed the first of the three volumes, representing just over 1,000 pages. As well as reading the novel, I have also been catching up on some of the secondary literature about the author. The most recent addition to this is Proustian Uncertainties, a short book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Isra…