Tag Archives: Istanbul

The mosaics of Torcello

4 Feb

 

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In an essay by Kathleen Raine on ‘Yeats’ Holy City of Byzantium’, there is a quotation from A Vision in which Yeats speaks of mosaicists as being at the heart of a community of philosophers and craftspeople and painters:

‘I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosopher worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even  . . . . I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious aesthetic and practical life were one, the architect and artificers – though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract – spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic-worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people.’

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Santa Maria de Assunta, central apse

 

Kathleen Raine, in her essay, suggests that the dome of the old Aghia Sophia in Constantinople ‘would have been inlaid with those mosaic figures who seem to stand in an optical space outside, not behind, the surface on which they gleam’. Of course, the mosaics of Aghia Sophia are gone now, and Constantinople is – and has been since 1453 – Istanbul. But I am wondering whether the mosaics of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, Venice, which I visited last month, don’t have that same quality of occupying a space beyond their immediately visible surface. The effect of these images, which we observed for only ten or fifteen minutes on a quick visit to the island, was dramatic and lasting. My own photos were not very good, so I have downloaded some that I found on the Italian Ways website.

We had taken a boat tour of three islands (Murano, Burano and Torcello), but I was only really interested in Torcello, which was the first of the islands in the Venetian lagoon to be occupied, in the sixth century or so. It was – and is – an island of low lying marshland, but it grew to sustain a population of around 20,000 between the 7th – 11th centuries, when its inhabitants started moving to the island that constitutes modern Venice, almost certainly as the result of a malaria epidemic. The island became depopulated, its buildings raided for materials and stone to be rebuilt in the new place. All of its great buildings and palaces have utterly vanished, and its population now is around 75. Only a few buildings and two churches remain, one of which is the Assunta.

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View of Torcello with the Basilica of the Assunta in foreground

We walked along the bank of the single canal that divides the island as far as the church and then returned straight back to our waiting launch. It was a cold and rather bleak winter’s afternoon. I cannot remember there being any birds, though I imagine there must have been. Once inside the church, I felt an immediate sense of familiarity with the place – one of those rare sensory responses that you cannot quite identify, and which afterwards strike you as carrying a message you cannot decipher. Something like déjà vu, but not exactly. Afterwards it occurred to me that perhaps I visited with my parents as a young child; I cannot remember (and doubt whether my siblings will either, and both my parents are dead) but I had a strong sense that I had been there before.

Thinking back to the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, reflecting on the mosaics we found there . . . and reading the essay by Kathleen Raine on Yeats’ ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ I am reminded of the way the mosaic makers of Byzantium, and early Venice, were philosopher-craftsmen or women – and the mosaic makers’ art was something assimilative, in the sense that mosaic synthesizes from the world and makes concrete, fixes in time ideas and emotions and colours and pieces of stone and ceramic and other shapes from the material world, creating something shapely and beautiful and somehow, at the same time, apart, looking in on us as though ‘outside, not behind the surface on which they gleam . . .’

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John Berger and symmetries

7 Mar

John Berger

Following the death on the 2nd January of John Berger, a favourite writer and an inspirational human being, I was led to read (or re-read, if the annotations in pencil were truly in my hand, even if my memory of reading the book itself has vanished) his essay and our faces, my heart, brief as photos; and I was reminded, with a degree of both joy and relief, that reading and writing form a continuum, and that the one almost inevitably begets the other.

While lying in bed, reading John Berger’s strange and arresting essay, I began to drift off, as happens all too frequently when reading at night (or in the day, for that matter) and the words I read took on other shapes, that is, the eye, even though closed or half open, conjures phrases, lines, sentences; I see them, they are relayed to my brain in half sleep as though they were print on the page, but when I return my gaze to the page, no such line exists; it has been pure invention on my part, and I have taken the story off at a tangent, into a kind of dream zone, in which I rewrite the text not as image, specifically, but as words on the page which are not in fact there. I have, while drifting off, re-written the text on which my eyes were resting before I was overtaken by sleep  so that it takes a new departure, unrelated to what precedes it or what the author actually wrote.

Now, this is something, as I say, that I do quite regularly when tired; it involves a shifting from what is ‘real’ – on the page – to something which I have invented, which comes from me (I imagine) or to which I am distracted or called as if by a force outside myself or the text itself.

This happened when I was reading Berger. Waking, and reading on, I find, on page 52 of his book, the following lines. Berger is in the post office collecting a post restante letter from the woman he loves, and to whom the essay appears to be addressed, as a love letter of sorts, and he says this:

A voice belongs first to a body, then to a language. The language may change but the voice stays the same. I recognise your voice before I know in what language you are speaking. In the post office you pronounced the name you had written on the envelope, yet it was not the two words which I heard, it was your voice.

And when I read that, I thought ‘Ah yes, that is exactly what happens to me!’ In other words, I saw Berger’s comment as a direct correlation – or confirmation – of the thought I had just had about superimposing my imagined words onto the words of the text. Berger is in the post office; he hears the young women clerks talking, and he superimposes the voice of his beloved onto the text of their words. It echoes, analogously, what I have just written: the text (any text) is there in front of you, but you see (or hear) something quite distinct, authored by some(one) other.

The strangeness of this world, and all its symmetries! Reading Orhan Pamuk’s autobiography of his early years in Istanbul – which also serves as a biography of the city in which he has lived all his life – he comments that:

‘. . . what is important for a painter is not a thing’s reality but its shape, and what is important for a novelist is not the course of events but its ordering, and what is important for the memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account but its symmetry.’

Is this what guides the writer of memoir – a questing after symmetry? Or of synthesis?

To be continued . . .

Angry in Piraeus

10 Mar

houses sultanahmet

Flicking back through old photographs, I find one taken while returning from an evening out with friends in Istanbul, and passing some wooden-fronted houses in a twisting street, near the shore, that seemed to belong entirely to a world of things forgotten, specifically one of those nostalgic evocations of the old city invoked by Orhan Pamuk in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of City.

It was with real pleasure, then, that I read Maureen Freely’s bewitching essay in the Cahiers series produced by the American University in Paris, called Angry in Piraeus (the title is explained by Freely’s childhood memory of attempting, as a linguistically gifted nine-year-old, to moderate between her father’s splenetic discontent and an implacable Greek taxi driver). She evokes a scenario, familiar to some of us, of being caught between two angry parties and two sets of rules, and having to act as interlocutor between individuals who do not share a common language, and realising, of a sudden, that this is what all human communication is like, but more so. And the antidote? Freely describes what it might be for her:

‘ . . . If asked to describe paradise on earth, I would depict a city I have never seen before, a city I could wander through without anyone quite seeing me. A maze of narrow lanes would send me past gate after locked gate, courtyard after sunlit courtyard. In each there would be another drama, another cast of characters conversing in a language I was hearing for the first time, but that had existed for many millennia, and that I would now attempt to explore, word by word.’

 

 

The last digression of Patrick Leigh Fermor

7 Jun

 

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

 

Reading the final ‘long awaited’ – which in this instance meant waiting for the Death of the Author in 2011 at the age of 96 – third volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his 1934 trek across Europe, three questions occur to me about the inability of PLF to complete and publish the book while still alive.

1)   the accumulation of digressions (both of writing and in life); indeed what amounted to PLF’s compulsion to digress (of itself no bad thing);

2)   his failure of memory, aided and abetted by the loss of certain of the relevant notebooks;

3)   an inability to contemplate the end of his journey which must, by some not-so-strange interior logic, also mean the end of his life.

An article by Daniel Mendelsohn in the current issue of The New York Review of Books also suggests a combination of factors, most particularly the digressions that formed such a substantial part of Paddy’s life and work. “We shall never get to Constantinople like this,” the author announces in a meta-textual aside, which constitutes “a humorous acknowledgement . . of a helpless penchant for digressions literal and figurative . . .”

Indeed, “the author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following.”

The naivety and sheer joy of unfettered travel; the “ecstasy” that Paddy describes on “realising that nobody in the world knew where he was” – a sensation, as Mendelssohn points out, that would be practically impossible for travellers today, but which I recall from my own wanderings in the 1980s as having provoked a similarly feverish sense of total liberation; the wonderful lists that pepper his writing, eliciting new tastes and new sensations and a constant hunger to celebrate life as fully as possible; his unerring ability to stir in the reader a desire to write – which to me constitutes a failsafe criterion of all good writing; and finally – almost because of its flaws – and certainly because of what we know to have transpired in the two earlier volumes, and the unbearable anticipation of the thing – which was like a Sword of Damocles for PLF in later years – all of these help to make this book one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year thus far. While reading it too, I am more conscious than I was during the preceding two volumes of Paddy’s tendency to confabulate. At more than one point Paddy confesses that he cannot truly remember what happened next, but continues anyway, and even interjects passages of outrageous fantasy to spice up the story. A quotation from Javier Marías’ novel, The Infatuations, comes to mind:

“Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention. Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.”

Like Mendelsohn, I found The Broken Road’s incompleteness, paradoxically, to be more fitting than any neatly circumscribed ending that the author might have engineered. After so much deep description, after so many early mornings waking by the roadside with a sense of the sheer limitless possibility of the unfinished journey, after so much continuous pointless peregrination, any kind of ‘arrival’ would only have been a let-down.

While listing, above, the three reasons for the unfinished nature of the trilogy, a fourth, not entirely facetious option came to mind. Paddy famously never referred to the ultimate destination of his journey as Istanbul, but as Constantinople. Since ‘Constantinople’ did not exist under that name (nor had it, strictly speaking, since 1453), Paddy was never going to arrive. Instead we are allowed to share with him the nostalgia (which he shares with Cavafy) for a broken Hellenic world, for the ghosts of Byzantium, and a burgeoning sense of the terror that was about to descend on Europe in the years immediately following his journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Losers’ Club

13 Mar

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Following a comment made about my last post; namely Tom Gething’s remark that not getting it is essentially another way of getting it, I am reminded of the pragmatic consequences of not getting it, in relation to The Loser’s (sic) Club, an association of persons – I am not quite sure whether or not ‘membership’ is a valid descriptor here for one who has been randomly recruited – but you can read about it on Bill Herbert’s blog, Dubious Saints.  The story concerns a very wet night in Istanbul in which Bill, Zoe and myself decided, at Bill’s insistence, that we find the place, the real place, rather than allowing it to remain where it clearly belongs, in the realm of the imagination. We even had a general direction, if not a precise map location. This urge to conjure the subliminal or the rumoured into actual existence is precisely the kind of ‘getting it’ that most handsomely illustrates Phillips’ thesis. Getting it, (in this instance, locating and identifying a place called The Loser’s Club) becomes a sort of insanity, and is most definitely to be avoided.

And yet . . . one can see the allure. The club – or rather our desire for it – beckoned us on under the persistent downpour, through street after street of not getting it.

You will notice that on the sign, (photo courtesy of Nia Davies, a ‘member’ of the club) that the apostrophe is placed before the s, indicating that there is only one loser in the loser’s club. This shatters all concepts of a club. A club of one is something of a paradox, if not simply a contradiction.  It also means that if the eponymous loser is not at home, then no one will be there to open the door.

I must ask myself: did not getting it, I mean, not getting, or finding, the losers’ club (in his post Bill opts for a more felicitous use of the apostrophe) enhance or enrich my life? I don’t know, because I never got there. We went somewhere else instead, and that was OK, but you never know what you’ve missed when you don’t get it, you only know what you get, which isn’t what you originally sought, and therefore isn’t it.

 

 

 

 

Poets who translate

27 Jan

Dome of Aghia Sophia

 

It is our last day in Istanbul, and the rain continues, as it has done since Friday evening, shrouding the Bosphorous in grey mist. Before catching a taxi to the airport we snatch a visit to Aghia Sophia, that magnificent evocation of the implausible. The days of translation, of this particular kind of translation, have drawn to an end. Yesterday evening WN (‘Bill’) Herbert, Zoë Skoulding and a certain Richard Gywn, along with our respective translators, Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen and Efe Duyan read our work at the Nazim Hikmet Centre in Kadikö on the Asian side. We went by ferry through the soft rain, a rain almost as comforting as the sahlep we slurped, that peculiar sweet beverage of orchid root, milk and cinnamon, the liquid polyfilla of the Levant, as Bill calls it.

 

Istanbul reading

 

We had an early dinner at Çiya, one of Istanbul’s most successful new restaurants, whose owners have set out to collect recipes from lost corners of Turkey and recreate them in a modest but harmonious three-storey building. I should really say they have translated recipes found on research trips, dug up from family notebooks, dictated by aunts and grandmothers, and have brought them to an Istanbul all too well known for its predictable variations on ratatouille and lamb combinations as a reminder of the glorious culinary past of Anatolia. These recipes have been translated from a time and place distinct from our own, rejecting the universalist culture in which the staple has become ever more dull and tasteless.

It is easy to forget that translation is something we are engaged in, without option and at all times, from the very start of life.  It is an activity that is by no means confined to those who term themselves ‘translators’.

Early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. Maybe we don’t change that much in this respect, as we continue to translate others, and ourselves, in and throughout the course of a lifetime, with varying degrees of success. The fact that we exist as part of a functioning element within society (family, school, member of this or that group or organisation) consigns us necessarily to different modes of translation.

Literary translation concretizes and makes specific acts of translation that otherwise exist in our everyday lives. Poets who also translate join a community of international poet-translators who are enabled, through a process of collaboration, to sharing their respective poetry with new audiences. Many lasting friendships are made in the process, as well as dialogues being opened between cultures in essential and surprising ways.

This is what the organization Literature across Frontiers – under its indefatigable director Alexandra Büchler – manages to such good effect. In meetings across Europe practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who have different first languages but share another language in common (English, most commonly, but any language will do) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very stimulating process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they gel as a team. Working as a small unit has other benefits – there are always at least two perspectives – indeed, as many as four or five– on a single poem, and this multiplexity of approach can lead to small epiphanies in the act of translation. Translation is not only a linear and logical progression of a text from one language to another; it is also a process of revelation, an uncovering, de-layering: a transmutation of materials, an act of linguistic alchemy.

Sometimes, needless to say, translation goes all wrong. I have written about this before, in relation to restaurant menus, a constant source of entertainment for anyone who travels. But in the last few days, Istanbul has coughed a few examples of translation weirdness that are equally diverting. I post a selection below.

 

Dried Nute

 As Class

TITIZ

The other side of the other

22 Jan
Cat in Sultanahmet

Cat in Sultanahmet

 

In my last post I mentioned that perennial companion and source of consternation, the other, the doppelganger, the one who walks beside us, both ourselves and not ourselves.

I cited the introduction from Orhan Pamuk’s memoir of Istanbul, but cut the quotation short. I did this on purpose, because Pamuk leads off into the dark side of the other, to the fear of replication that beset him when he once came to grips with the awfulness of one’s own doubling:

On winter evenings, walking through the streets of the city, I would gaze into other people’s houses through the pale orange light of home and dream of happy, peaceful families living comfortable lives. Then I would shudder, thinking that the other Orhan might be living in one of these houses. As I grew older, the ghost became a fantasy and the fantasy a recurrent nightmare. In some dreams I would greet this Orhan – always in another house – with shrieks of horror; in others the two of us would stare each other down in eerie, merciless silence.

‘As I grew older’. There’s the rub. Just as all literature leads us back to children’s stories, as Borges notes, so, in an inverse sense, stories that begin as childhood diversions, of daydreaming and harmless fantasy, with time become the stuff of nightmares. The prospect of possessing (or being in the possession of, possessed by) a double, a version of oneself both intimate and foreign, both known and unknowable, intrudes into consciousness with the stealth of a thief, come to steal our bones, come to steal our soul.

After reading my last post, The one who walks alongside us, a friend commented that in Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’, he refers to the terror implicit in the concept of the double, the creeping horror of replicating something long known to us, once very familiar, but which has now become terrifying. What could be more familiar to us – and therefore possess the greatest potential for horror – than ourselves?

In literature, notably in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Alfred de Musset, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Bernhard, we frequently encounter something approaching a paranoid state revolving around the persecution of the ego by its double. Otto Rank, Freud’s precursor in the study of the double, compares these imaginary creations to their authors’ symptoms, through which the theme of the double reveals a psychopathological dimension. Well . . . you might see it that way, you might even, as Freud suggests, see the expression of the double as a symptom of the ego’s inability to outgrow the narcissistic phase of early childhood, but that would be to pathologize a great number of writers, and I don’t for one moment believe in the notion that you have to be mentally ill to be intrigued by the notion of a double, or to write effectively on this theme, or to be encouraged to think there may be some profound connection between an awareness of one’s own otherness (expressed in many ‘traditional’ cultures as an animistic belief in immortality) – or to believe that after a certain age it should be regarded as an unhealthy or pathological condition.

We all possess the ability to imagine ourselves as other, and this imagining, or daydreaming, is the beginning of all literature. How appropriate then, that when a writer sets out to put down an account of his or her own life, they seem best able to do this by imaging their story as one that happened to someone else. It seems to be the core paradox that confronts anyone who writes a memoir, and has certainly been my own experience.

Pamuk too, apparently: “I’d have liked to write my entire story this way – as if my life were something that happened to someone else, as if it were a dream in which I felt my voice fading and my will succumbing to enchantment.”

More to follow. Written either by me, or the other bloke.

 

View from Megara Palace

 

Sultanahmet shack

 

Flying carpet