I found out before Christmas that my collection of Mayakovsky versions, ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’ And Other Poems, was longlisted for the 2018 Read Russia Prize, given to promote translations of Russian books. I then found out yesterday that it was not shortlisted. (The shortlisted books all look great: I am about halfway through Yuri Machkasov’s translation of Maryam Petrosyan’s The Gray House at the moment, and it is amazing). I was sad for about five minutes, until I got an email to tell me that my second collection of poems, On Trust: A Book of Lies, has been longlisted for the 2018 International Dylan Thomas Prize. I don’t know what to think: it’s an honour to have been considered, of course, and I don’t really have any illusions about making it even to the shortlisting stage. But to dream of fame and glory and (especially) money is nice every now and then.
I read 160 books last year, at a total cost of £747. This number does not record how much I spent on books, as my to-read shelves will attest, but it does make me mildly happy to see that I read more books this year than last year, and that the books I read cost less in total. I am now living in a town with a good lending library, and an excellent research library, so I hope the slight trend downwards will continue over 2018. If we are spared.
My five favourite books of 2017 were these:
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (c.119 AD, trans. Robert Graves 1957). It seemed on one level ridiculous and on another scary to be reading these accounts of megalomania and petty murder in 2017 and wanting to quote bits that seemed apt from almost every page. That’s partly an obvious effect of the Trump vortex (just as Eliot wrote that ‘What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it’, it now seems that all books are about America even when they are not), but also, and more refreshingly, an indication that these worries have a long history and people were upset by them then as now. Even if they could only do as little, or as much, as we can in 2017.
Camilo José Cela, Journey to the Alcarria (1948, trans. Frances M. López-Morillas, 1964). This is a short book (I read most of it in one sitting, in a doctor’s waiting room), and it’s not really a travel book, even though it is about taking a walk from Madrid to the space between Madrid and Zaragoza, by the edge of Cuenca. And it’s not really about Spain, or politics, or the Civil War, or anything much on the surface, but it’s the only book I’ve ever read by Cela that made me think he might actually be a decent person. And I read it at a time of disillusion with Spain and it made me rethink to some extent the coordinates of my annoyance and upset. It cleared my head.
Manuel Vilas, Calor (2009). This was the year I think I really got Manuel Vilas. He’s a writer I had read a few books by, novels and collections of short stories that seemed to me to be too surreal, too far off their own particular axis to be anything other than confusing. But I had his poetry recommended to me by a friend of mine, and Calor, and later El cielo, really knocked my socks off. You have to calm down and go with the flow, but Vilas is able to do things in poems that I haven’t seen anyone else do as well as him: his command of rhythm, of bouldering sentences that go on and on, of humour, of anger, of surreal juxtapositions, of voice… All brilliant, all loveable.
Silvio Micheli, Mongolia: In Search of Marco Polo & Other Adventures (1964, trans. Bruce Penman 1967). Another travel book, this one more overtly about travelling: a man who decides to travel through Soviet Mongolia and spends most of his time arguing with his official guides, going to places he shouldn’t, trying to pay as little as possible for valuable antiques. And in the second half of the book he falls in love, or at least in lust, with a beautiful Mongolian woman whom he then abandons. It’s a good entry in the caddish Italian traveller genre (Alberto Denti di Pirajno, A Cure for Serpents is the C.20th source text): very funny, very unashamed, a happy book.
Muriel Rukeyser, Elegies (1949). I don’t think I’d knowingly read anything by Muriel Rukeyser before last year. This is my fault: I think she’s one of those people that you expect to know and then think you do know. But this was wonderful: almost the last book I read this year and it made me feel hopeful even in the midst of all its mourning.
You who seeking yourself arrive at these lines,
look once, and you see the world,
look twice, and you see your self.
The book I think I have enjoyed the most this year, and carry on enjoying, is Geoffrey Wall’s translation of Flaubert’s letters. But I haven’t finished that yet, so it’s on next year’s list. If we are spared.
So, I was in the Amnesty International Bookshop yesterday, and found, stuffed and crinkled round the back of some other books, a pamphlet with a plain brown manilla cover. Recollections of My Fellow Poets by Count Potocki de Montalk. I only knew the name Potocki from Manuscript Found At Saragossa (1815), an astonishing novel which indirectly saved my marriage (but this is not the time or place to talk about that). However, even that tiny shiver of a coincidence was enough to make me pick the pamphlet up and start reading. The first paragraph of the first recollection, the first words I read by Potocki de Montalk, were these:
‘The poets born in New Zealand in approximately my generation were decidedly better, more interesting and more genuine as poets, than any born in England (as opposed to Ireland etc.) in modern times. The so-called Georgian poets may perhaps have been Georgian, but they were not poets. They were a collective fraud. Each of them in the “first fine careless rapture” of youth wrote about one and a half fairly good poems, and traded on this initial success most effectively for the rest of their lives, both financially and socially. Even now at this very moment, we have a Poet Laureate who is a dreadful poetaster—and look at that insufferable rubbish which T.S. Eliot did about cats. Though he indeed was not an Englishman, but a remarkably efficient imitation.’
I was, to say the least, intrigued. The pamphlet cost a steep £8.00, and the Bohemian continuation to this story would have me slipping it into the waistband of my trousers and sidling out the door of the bookshop. But I have a conscience, and the Amnesty International Bookshop has CCTV. So, this afternoon, I slid over to the University Library and found the following books:
Count Potocki de Montalk, Recollections of My Fellow Poets
Count Potocki de Montalk, Whited Sepulchres: Being An Account of My Trial And Imprisonment for a Parody of Verlaine and Some Other Verses
Count Potocki de Montalk, Surprising Songs
Stephanie de Montalk, Unquiet World: The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk
There’s a rather uncomfortable nexus to be found in some English writing of the 1930s, where patriotism bleeds into jingoism bleeds into fascism (the blood and soil rhetoric that sounds so strange to me, reads as insincere however sincerely it is meant): I’m thinking of Roy Campbell and Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton and the shonky bits of Pound and Henry Williamson and his otter. Potocki de Montalk fits into this rough group quite neatly; he was the founder of The Right Review, which aimed to provide an intellectual background to an extreme right-wing worldview (and ended up being a private press to publish Potocki de Montalk’s own work). Potocki de Montalk is also, obviously and visibly in his writings, an eccentric, though I’m not sure if he’s a crazy-as-a-fox eccentric or a real one. This makes him quite funny: the degree of spleen which he manages to display, his command of an anecdote, mean that it is pleasant to spend a couple of hours in a library with him, in a miasma of obscure threats and joyous obscenity:
‘His Majesty’s Police at the time of my arrest were, owing to the villainies of a certain person who shall be nameless till I print in France, under some grave misapprehensions, which probably had more to do with the proceedings against me, than the actual matter of my obscene poems.’
‘Here Lies John Penis
buried in the Mount of Venus.
He died in tranquil faith
that having vanquished death
HE SHALL RISE up again
and in Joy’s Kingdom reign.’
‘There were some amusing incidents in Brixton. The night of our “reception” we were put through a questionnaire, together with a number of other prisoners. When it came to my turn, and the officer asked: “What’s your religion?” I truthfully replied: “Pagan”. The officer began to write it down, and spelt it out wrongly. “P-A-G-A-N” I explained. Next came Mr. Glass. “What’s your religion?” “Pagan.” This was duly written down. After us came an unfortunate Cockney debtor in a bowler hat, a sort of petty Micawber, a hopeless and resigned recidivist where debts were concerned. He was of shortish stature, a little bent; and moderately cheerful in the best tragical Cockney manner. He was about forty-five, and characteristically kept his hat on his head. “What’s your religion?” asked the officer. “Pagan,” said the Cockney proudly. Everyone looked up and smiled, including the officer. A ray of Apollo’s brightness had penetrated “Reception”. But all the same the officer would not allow mere Cockneys to arrogate to themselves the religious luxuries claimed by literary prisoners or aristocrats. Mr. Glass, being with me, was allowed to be a Pagan, but to the debtor the officer said with humorous severity: “You were Church of England last time. Religion, Church of England,” he repeated as he wrote it down.’
Is he any good? Not really. He’s a good example of the minor poet who clearly embodies the trends of his time: unlike the true innovators, he’s using the themes that others have discovered without making anything new of them. I found several lines in Surprising Songs I quite liked (maybe liked enough to steal them for myself), but not a whole poem. He also suffers from existing at this 1920s cusp of wanting to write about sex but still being trammelled by not having a legally permitted or emotionally secure vocabulary to do so.
All the same it was good to feel your colder western will
flooding against mine like volts of light
in disastrous, sacramental fight—
cold against cold, heat against heat, like volts flooding on steel.
I was not made for rivalry or battle—I am no warrior,
old fighting blood has turned in me to peace,
the earl’s crown is woven with laurel leaves—
but your blonde hostility was good, made the sky starrier.
All the olympian fights of earth are waged on this wise
and one may not wear armour nor shed tears.
The soul is sculptured on the tips of spears
into beauty; and at our pain is sorrow in the skies.’
And here’s another one to finish with, but you see how it falls apart in the final few lines.
‘I hope, surely, that some day I shall write
poetry like Skryabin’s music or like a zoned
American skyscraper in the modern style.
Meanwhile I offer this: and though this is
not in the manner “dernière mode” nor quite
the latest in sophistically-toned
verse, these songs may hold the drawbridge while
I think up something much more like Ulysses.
The cleverest modern mental machinery
working on the gold of English words, will not
manufacture with all its expert skill
in micrometric measurements of time,
a single book of real poetry.
Besides, shrewd critics, poetry is what
a poet writes, and therefore we are still
unchallenged princes in the realms of rime.’
I spent most of the time I was reading him thinking that he was the kind of author who, if I had discovered him when I was a teenager, might have been a cult for me and anyone else who I was talking about books with. But I am too old for cults, and have no one to talk to.
There’s a documentary about him on YouTube (posted by someone with the username ‘Gaelic neoreactionary’, which seems about right): I’m going to go and watch it now.
It’s difficult to know just how much you should blow your own trumpet when trying to make people read your books. I suppose there’s no right answer, and the apparently modest assertion that the work will if good enough find its own readers is arrogant as well; arrogant in a different way from the idea that you should shout from the rooftops and expect people to listen, but arrogant nonetheless.
Anyway, the last thing I want this post to do is come across as arrogant. But, I do need to show thanks to a number of people who have been kind enough to say things about my new book, On Trust: A Book of Lies, and whose testimonials haven’t, for whatever reason, been used on the book itself or in much of the supporting material sent out to booksellers. So, I will post them here, mainly as a way of saying thank you to the people who have spent time and energy saying pleasant things about me, and whose time and energy would otherwise have gone to waste.
‘What Promethean splendour! This fictional self is decked out in dick jokes, tenderness and all the latent eroticism of a Ferrero Rocher advert. Settle down in the back, there. Womack is talking.’
‘Whether writing about love, fatherhood, alienation or watching beheading videos on Youtube, Womack writes uniquely and playfully like the lovechild of Lorca and P. G. Wodehouse might – ‘always cakewalking on the edge of the abyss’.
‘On Trust’ directly questions the nature of confession and how perhaps all of us are editing our lives away; ‘my mouth was closed up/ my lips were sewn with strange thread’. Here is a writer who is skilfully anti-biographical and potent – ‘An invisible man sleeping in your bed’ – always creeping closer and closer towards our anxieties. He is both confidant and manipulator; ‘pour me a beer’, he writes, ‘and I’ll remember my geography’.
Womack’s slippery and charming collection – ‘I repeat, any writing has no single author’ – constantly challenges our very human need to hunt for the honest and the confessional in poetry. Whilst strip-mining this search for his own poetry, Womack, reveals himself to be a thoroughly talented troublemaker.’
‘In James Womack’s excellent new collection On Trust the poet is not the speaker but a weaver of stories and selves: “This is a book of lies; these notes are true.” The dynamic between memory and fiction makes for bright, observant and richly wry poems; but also for poems of melancholy, damage and separation. This is an intense, spirited and brilliantly-structured book.’
So, to the three of them, thank you. I am always touched by the extent to which people are willing to go out of their way to help and support one another. (Of course, if any of what they say makes you feel like buying my book, then that is an added bonus.)
One thing I should add is that my friendships with Richard and Chrissy derive from our having participated in the Aldeburgh Eight Seminar, way back in 2013. This has been to date the most significant and confidence-boosting event connected to my writing, and it is a real shame that it no longer exists.
This is a photo of the transhumancia, which is the custom of driving flocks from summer grazing to winter pastures. It has recently been reestablished in the area surrounding Madrid, and the flocks are symbolically driven through the centre of the city at some point in the middle of October.
Cécile Menon, the brain behind the publishing house Les Fugitives (apparently delivery drivers ring the office bell and ask if Les is at home), sent me their latest book, Translation as Transhumance, a translation, by Ros Schwartz, of Mireille Gansel‘s Traduire comme transhumer.
It is rare that I get to write about things that I uncomplicatedly love. Maybe this is because love is always complicated; maybe it’s also because there’s not that much out there worth loving. But this was a book which I loved. It is a series of short chapters, half-reminiscence, half-philosophy, about translation, and about the care which all true translation requires. I love it because it appeals to the Romantic idea of the translator, the single figure swimming down into other worlds and coming back with her hands full of pearls, and I love it because it is unafraid to show that translation is a very personal act, connected to how we learn to speak, how we learn to fall into language, how our childhood and our families organise our responses and our lives in ways far beyond our awareness.
Ah, maybe one reason why I don’t write about things I love is because it is hard to talk about them. Well, it’s a wonderful book, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in translation, or words, or other people.
The most famous thing that W.H. Auden said was probably ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. It’s a line that’s often produced as a justification for inaction, or else an attack on the idea of poetry. Why are you wasting your time with this, when poetry makes nothing happen? The problem is that it’s a cut-off quote: it comes from Auden’s ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats‘, and the relevant section of the poem runs as follows:
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
So, poetry is not a force for change. Writing about mad Ireland will not make Ireland less mad; writing about the rain will not stop the rain from falling. This is obvious. What happens next is less obvious and more hopeful. Poetry survives. It is immune to political interference. It travels from the basic springs of human experience, the ‘Raw towns that we believe and die in’ (hey, nice zeugma!) and makes its presence felt subtly: it is ‘A way of happening, a mouth’. Poetry does not die, and its effect is not immediately and bluntly transformative; rather it is inscribed in the way in which we exist and interact with the world. Not for nothing did Yuri Olesha say that writers are the ‘инженеры человеческих душ‘ (engineers of human souls): a writer is not focussed on achieving particular goals, but instead works to change the ways in which people approach the world. Ways of happening.
All of which takes me to the question of what I did on my holidays. A few months ago, my friend Ivar, who works for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, wrote to me with an odd request. He was on an organising group, working with the human rights non-profit Crude Accountability to support the Prove They Are Alive! campaign, which lobbies the Turkmen government on behalf of the political prisoners currently incarcerated there. According to the campaign organisers, there are currently 112 individuals who have been disappeared into the Turkmen prison system and who are held there without any access to lawyers, their families, or any external institutions at all. For many of these prisoners, it is not known if they are alive or dead; the natural, sad conclusion for many of them is that they are dead.
In 2004, a number of poems by the former Turkmen Foreign Minister, Batyr Berdyev, were smuggled out of prison and out of the country. He had been arrested in December 2002 and accused of taking part in a coup attempt against the then president, Saparmurat Niyazov. There had been occasional rumours that he was still alive, but nothing since 2007, when the new president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, said in response to a question about Berdyev’s whereabouts that he was sure he had not died. However, these poems are the only concrete indications that Berdyev was alive, and they date back more than a decade.
The Prove They Are Alive! campaign decided to use these poems as a tool to increase public knowledge of the situation in Turkmenistan. They prepared a translation, which Ivar arranged for me to have a look at and work on, and they launched it at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2017, which is still taking place in Warsaw as I write this. It’s a human rights conference; I was told that some parties did not like the phrase ‘human rights’, hence the unwieldy official title. Whatever brings people together.
So, I went to Warsaw. The book was launched in the early-evening slot at the conference, in a room high up the Polish national stadium, which my friend Jon told me used to be a large Russian bazaar. Appropriate-ish. There were four of us to launch the book: Arkady Dubnov, a journalist and expert on Central Asia, who wrote the introduction and who spoke about the current situation in Turkmenistan; me, who spoke a little about how ‘poems from prison’ is an unfortunately prevalent genre in Russian-language writing (I also got to quote Mandelshtam’s delicate statement to his wife: ‘Чего ты жалуешься, поэзию уважают только у нас — за неё убивают’); Janice Helwig, who had known Batyr in Vienna, and who was able to speak about him in warm and personal terms, and Yuri Dzhibladze, who was able to speak about how the Prove They Are Alive! campaign was progressing and what its next steps would be. The meeting was bookended and interspersed with readings of Batyr’s poems in their original Russian and in translation: they are all poems addressed to his wife and son, all trying to create a possible escapist world in words which counter the situation in which he has been placed. Afterwards there were contributions from the floor: it turned out that a large proportion of the audience had direct experience of what it meant to be in a Turkmen prison.
I don’t have much direct experience of human rights activism, but the impression I have is of water gradually eroding a stone. Or else of ants eating a gecko. If it’s done right. Hundreds of tiny actions, or actions which appear tiny at the moment of their performance, but which add up to greater achievements. The gecko is eventually broken down and removed. This book is a small step in the right direction: it has already been sent to various people and their reactions have been largely positive. It is an odd feeling to be told that work you have looked at, had a hand in translating, has made ambassadors feel uncomfortable, has inspired people to think in new ways, and may at some point in the future form some small part in catalysing change. I am not silly enough to think that this book in itself is going to change the world: poetry makes nothing happen, after all. But it might be helpful in performing a kind of small stealthy reassessment of ideas and approaches to this part of the world.
I think this is my favourite of Batyr’s poems. The translation I worked on, slightly altered, is below.
Who said that hope dies last,
When all the bustle, and waiting, and living is over?
If souls are immortal, then the mediator
Between us and heaven is immortal,
And all that has happened might as well not be true.
What has happened to us, even the most trifling thing,
Will be entered somewhere in fate’s registry book,
And elsewhere, probably, our unfulfilled dreams
Will be recalled, woven into someone’s life.
And when we leave our house, where everything is so familiar—
The vase of flowers, the worn-out carpet—
The shadow of our quiet hope will stay at home,
Reflected in the eyes of those who remember us.
And life will continue, just as our own life did once,
And other songs will of course be sung;
Though human hearts, the soldiers of hope,
Will always again and again both suffer and dream.
And when our son looks up with radiant anticipation,
Sure that today his dreams will suddenly come true,
The hopes of every single age gone by
Are harboured in the depths of that sly glance.
The whole of the book can be read here.