Category Archives: Recommended Reading

A New Year’s Gift

In this last blog post before Christmas, we take a look at a festively themed quatrain written by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé in 1896. One of a group of poems called ‘Dons de fruits glacés au Nouvel an’ [Gifts of glazed fruits at the New Year], these four lines commemorate the turning of the year in a single crystallised image:

Le temps
                nous y succombons
Sans l’amitié pour revivre
Ne glace que ces bonbons
A son plumage de givre.

[Time
                we succumb to it
Without friendship to relive
It glazes only these sweets
With its feathers of frost.]

Stéphane Mallarmé

A very brief bit of background about Mallarmé…

Stéphane [Étienne] Mallarmé was born in Paris in 1842 and died in 1898 in Valvins, near Fontainebleau. He is one of the most famous French poets of the second half of the nineteenth century and is often linked to the Symbolist movement, although Mallarmé himself resisted this categorisation to a degree. The Symbolists were broadly interested in pursuing the ‘Idée’ and adopted Mallarmé’s attempt to ‘peindre, non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit’ [paint, not the thing itself, but the effect it produces]. They sometimes took an avant-garde approach to poetic form, and were amongst the earliest writers to experiment with vers libre and prose poetry. Mallarmé himself produced poetry in both verse and prose, as well as critical work and the long experimental poem Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. His poetry is known for its syntactic playfulness and linguistic precision, each poem representing a challenge to the reader and opening up a space for potentially limitless interpretation. Blank space, nothingness, the void – these become the source of artistic creation as the poet sought to bring something out of nothing, striving to evoke no one flower but, rather, ‘l’absente de tous bouquets’ – the ideal flower that cannot be found in any real bouquet.

So what about the poem itself?

This quatrain is an example of what Mallarmé called ‘vers de circonstance’: circumstantial poems, written for a particular occasion or in response to stimuli he encountered in his everyday life. For instance, in addition to writing a number of poems around holiday times to mark the Christmas, New Year, and Easter periods, he wrote toasts to be given at special dinners, birthday poems for his friends, and even snippets of poetry to his correspondents when he sent them letters, the poems a playful way of representing the recipient’s address.

These vers de circonstance are often amusing but they can also gesture towards some of the more serious themes within Mallarmé’s wider work, a more lighthearted way for him to reflect on the deeper questions he had explored elsewhere. Let’s dive deeper into this example…

Close reading

The opening words of the poem reveal its central concern: time and the effect of time on personal relationships and on the writing process. We are told that ‘nous succombons‘ – we succumb – to time, thereby personifying it in an image that suggests oppression or temptation and yielding. Time is also the subject of the verb ‘glacer’ and the possessor of a ‘plumage de givre’: two icy images of an abstract temporal figure.

And yet, there is someone else also present in this poem: the speaker. And the speaker is not isolated and solitary, but speaks in the first person plural, ‘nous succombons’. Who is this ‘nous’? With whom is the speaker interacting? We don’t know exactly, but what we do know is that the poem accompanies a ‘don de fruits glacés au nouvel an’, a gift of glazed or candied fruits, or bonbons, to commemorate the new year. We might therefore assume a degree of friendship between the speaker and the addressee as they are close enough to exhange this gift. The bonbons are an illustration of intimacy and this is also true of the poem itself, where that ‘nous’ acts as a link binding two people, a textual representation of their friendship.

Speaking of friendship, that ‘sans amitié’ might feel out of place at first (this is one of the challenges of reading Mallarmé!). Who, we might ask, is friendless? We are tempted to assume it is the person most recently referred to in the line above – the speaker and his nameless addressee. But this does not make sense, because we know that the speaker and his addressee are exchanging a festive gift and that neither of them can therefore be thought friendless. The only other option is that time itself must be friendless. The personification of time, together with the icy imagery, suggests that time is a lonesome figure, which can only freeze the world around it, whereas the speaker and his addressee have the warmth of companionship.

Candied orange slice.

But it’s not all solitude and misery because there’s an element of humour at work in this poem as well. Immediately, our eye is drawn to the split first line: by breaking the line in this place and indenting ‘nous succombons’, Mallarmé offers us a visual pun on the verb ‘succomber’ as the second half of the line submits to the first by continuing below it.

Moreover, the more oppressive tone of ‘succombons’ is offset by the fact that it rhymes with ‘bonbons’. The reference to sweets lightens the mood: we may be talking about submission but we are also talking about candy. Putting aside the possibility of some nightmarish Willy Wonka vision, the bonbons add a dose of characteristic Mallarméan playfulness to a serious reflection on our relationship to time. In this reading, time might appear less as an oppressor exerting pressure, and more as a temptation to which we might reluctantly give in – and it is difficult not to hear the echo of ‘temps’ in ‘tentation’.

Besides the succombons/bonbons pairing, there is another important rhyme in the poem: revivre/givre. ‘Givre’, meaning frost, is a reference to the sugar which coats the fruit offered in the poem. If we speak of ‘une orange givrée’, we mean a candied orange, with ‘givré’ in this sense a synonym for ‘glacé’. If you picture a slice of candied orange, it is easy to see how the sugar resembles frost. But this is no accidental allusion to frost, just as ‘glacer’ is no accidental allusion to ice: winter imagery is common in Mallarmé’s poetry and is a means for him to think about the creative process. In his earlier poetry, this is a way of figuring sterility, an anxiety about writing in the fin de siècle (the late nineteenth century) when Mallarmé would write in another poem, ‘Brise marine’: “La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres” [The Flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books]. Creativity has been exhausted and time, that icy figure, has rendered poetry infertile.

In this sense, the winter imagery of this quatrain is in dialogue with some of Mallarmé’s other, more extensive texts. We might think particularly of his text ‘Hérodiade’, a dramatic poem related to the story of Salomé, and which centres around a virgin princess who frets over her own purity. Sterility is a central theme in this text, and Hérodiade expresses this with reference to both coldness and her mirror: ” la froideur stérile du métal,/ […]/ Assez! Tiens devant moi ce miroir./ Ô miroir!/ Eau froide par l’ennui dans ton cadre gelée […]” [the sterile coldness of the metal,/ […]/ Enough! Hold this mirror before me./ O mirror! Cold water frozen by ennui in your frame […].].
This alignment of the mirror with coldness recalls the double meaning of ‘glace’ as both ice and mirror. Thus, when this new year’s quatrain refers to time’s ability to ‘glacer’ the bonbons, we might consider that time is not only glazing the fruit but is also mirroring it or rendering it double. Where might we look for the reflection or double of the fruit? Perhaps to the poem itself, which acts as the fruit’s double, a glazed offering of friendship as a riposte to temporal suspension.

Besides ‘Herodiade’, the other clear intertextual reference is to Mallarmé’s sonnet ‘Le vierge le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’, which focuses on the image of a swan trapped on a frozen lake, unable to fly. Traditionally, swans have been a metaphor for poets, and the fact that Mallarmé’s swan is grounded indicates we are once again dealing with the question of poetic sterility. This poem alludes to many of the things mentioned in our New Year’s quatrain, evoking in particular “Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre/ Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!” [This hard, forgotten lake which is haunted beneath the ice/ By the transparent glacier of flights which have not taken off!] and also referring to the swan’s ‘plumage’. The fact that ‘plumage’ appears again in the New Year’s quatrain reinforces the suggestion that this quatrain was written with Mallarmé’s earlier sonnet in mind. In the quatrain, the word ‘plumage’ gestures towards the fronds of sugar on the candied fruit which may resemble feathers, but it also alludes to a ‘plume’, a feather or quill, and is therefore a nod to the act of writing. By reading this quatrain alongside Mallarmé’s other writing, we see the themes of sterility and writing come to light.

So it becomes clear that this is a poem about poetry: about what it means to write and the frustrations of the creative process, which can feel sterile or infertile. Nonetheless, while the Mallarmé of the 1860s, who wrote ‘Hérodiade’ and ‘Le vierge le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’, was anxious about sterility, we should bear in mind that Mallarmé’s later poetry moved away from this preoccupation and towards a different way of understanding the bare white space of winter: as a blank canvas waiting for the writer and reader to bring it to life. The mirror’s surface, the icy lake, the blank page: these become a space of endless potentiality. The New Year’s quatrain, written in 1896, may be more reflective of this later Mallarmé than the early Mallarmé. This is why it is important that ‘givre’ rhymes with ‘revivre’: there is room here for renewal and creative hope. What’s more, the ghost rhyme latent in a poem such as this must surely be ‘livre’, another reference to writing. In this light, time may offer potential for renewal as opposed to a sterilising of creativity, and we might indeed read that ‘succomber’ as an indication of temptation rather than oppression.

This lighthearted quatrain, therefore, is more than simply a few trite lines composed on the occasion of sending a friend a gift of candied fruit. The poem itself is a present, an embodiment of friendship, and it is also a comment on the writing process. Permanence, the act of creation across the blank page, fin-de-siècle stasis and renewal: all are encompassed in this small text. Poetry thus becomes a way of submitting to, but also resisting, time. It is a new year’s gift to us, as readers, an offering of renewal.

We hope you enjoyed that reading of a festive quatrain in our last post before Christmas. We’ll be back on 8th January and all that remains to be said is Happy New Year – or bonne année!

Literature Masterclass: Dürrenmatt

You may remember that in the past this blog has featured clips from our sixth form literary masterclass: our tools and tips for sixth formers approaching literature in a foreign language for the first time. Past episodes have included a French introduction to ‘Time and Tense’ and an introduction to ‘Theatricality’, also with a French focus. Today, we shift the focus to German and consider the theme of ‘Perspective’ in a text that is commonly studied as part of the German A Level: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. Dr Karolina Watroba explores this topic in the video below, showing how a few key quotations can reveal the shifting points of view represented in the play.

German Classic Prize – ‘Der Sandmann’

Earlier this month, the Oxford German Network launched their third annual ‘German Classic Prize’. This is an essay competition for sixth formers (those going from Year 12 into Year 13 over the summer), which is designed to explore and celebrate a different ‘classic’ German text each year.

This year, the prize focuses on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’ (1816) – one of the most captivating short stories in German literature and a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. Hoffmann’s eerie and mysterious tale centres on a young, impressionable student called Nathanael, who becomes convinced that he is pursued by a shadowy figure called Coppelius. Filled with Doppelgänger, mechanical dolls, alchemistic experiments, inexplicable fires, uncanny optical toys, and misaddressed letters, ‘Der Sandmann’ explores the power of the imagination as it erupts into a dark obsession.

The Oxford German Network is offering free study packs to Year 12/ Lower Sixth students who wish to take part. You can find more details about this here – be sure to request a study pack by midday on 10 June 2019.

In connection with this prize, the Oxford German Network has also produced a fantastic video podcast series about the text. One of these videos forms part of a special tie-in with our Virtual Book Club.

The episode below is a discussion between doctoral student, Karolina, and three undergraduates about an extract from Hoffmann’s short story. The full story is available here, and the extract under discussion begins ‘Seltsamer und wunderlicher’ and runs until ‘nicht anzufangen.’

Virtual Book Club returns to French

The Virtual Book Club is back, and this episode features a discussion of a text in French. Here, Junior Research Fellow, Macs, talks to undergraduates Isobel and Hector about a short extract from Rachid Boudjedra’s Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée (Paris: Denoël, 1975, pp. 173-4).

They consider questions such as:

  • What is the style of this passage? Is it difficult to read and understand and if so, why?
  • Is there a relationship between the style and what’s happening in the excerpt?
  • What kinds of translation take place in this passage?
  • How does the protagonist respond to the image of the lotus? Is it right to say that he’s reading the advertisement even though he’s supposedly illiterate? Is he misreading it? What would a “correct” reading of this advertisement look like?
  • What language skills are required to read a map or an advertisement?

If you would like to be sent a copy of the text so you can follow the discussion, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

The next episode will be on German, and will be a special tie-in with this year’s German Classic Prize. Stay tuned…

Virtual Book Club: Italian Episode

In January, the Virtual Book Club returned with our first ever Spanish episode. Swift on its heels, here is the second episode of 2019, which focusses on Italian. This episode is a discussion of an extract from Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities), by Italo Calvino. The discussion is led by doctoral researcher Rebecca, with undergraduates Pauline and Maga. If you would like to sign up to receive a copy of the text, or to receive information about future episodes, please email schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Out last Italian episode is available here. Stay tuned for the next episodes in French and German over the next few months!

Virtual Book Club: Spanish Episode

Good news, bookworms! After an extended hiatus while this year’s cohort of undergraduates settled into the academic year, the Virtual Book Club is back, this time with an episode focussing on Spanish. This episode features a discussion about an extract from El castigo sin venganza (Punishment Without Revenge), a seventeenth-century play by Lope de Vega.

The discussion is led by doctoral researcher Rebecca, with undergraduates Lottie and Hector. They consider how the extract deals with questions of masculinity, honour, and morality, and ask how our reading as a twenty-first-century audience might differ from that of an early modern audience. Sixth formers interested in the Medieval and Modern Languages course at Oxford might be interested to know that the course offers the opportunity to study literature throughout the ages, from the medieval to the present. This episode is designed to offer a glimpse into the early modern period, and how some of the central questions asked by writers at that time continue to resonate in new ways today.

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original Spanish and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

 

Writing about Rimbaud

This week’s post explores one of the most famous French poets of the nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud, whose collections include Une Saison en enfer and Illuminations. Rimbaud captured the imagination of his readers, both on account of his experimental writing style and his turbulent personal life. Prof. Seth Whidden, Fellow and Tutor in French at The Queen’s College, has recently published a biography on Rimbaud. Here, he reflects on the writing process and the tricky relationship between life and literature.

Writing about one of France’s most famous authors was a daunting task, but what made it less so was what makes his story so compelling to all lovers of literature: year after year, generation after generation. If Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is French teenagers’ perennial favourite, it’s because during the course of his short life and even shorter literary career — he stopped writing poetry by the age of 21 and died at the age of 37 — he embodied some of the fundamental urges that we all have known, at one time or another: bursts of creativity; seeing how far rules can be bent before they break; and the desire to pick up and move away, expanding horizons and learning about self and the world.

Étienne Carjat [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It was those urges that I tried to capture in my recent biography. Some of it is well-known, and almost didn’t need to be recounted: his childhood in sleepy Charleville (now Charleville-Mézières), in eastern France; his brash arrival in Paris and torrid relationship with fellow poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), which ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in a Brussels hotel room; Rimbaud’s departure from poetry and Europe, criss-crossing half of the globe and ending up spending the last fifteen years of his life as a trader in the Arabian peninsula and present-day Ethiopia. Looking back at all that he did, it’s almost possible to forget that he wrote some of the most enduring poems in the French language, blowing his way through centuries of rules to create new ways of thinking about and writing poetry. His innovations include a collection of prose poems — poems set in paragraphs rather than verses — entitled Illuminations. In addition, some time before he left Europe in 1875 he wrote the first two free-verse poems (poems in verse but lacking end-line rhyme) in French.

Mixing life and literature can be dangerous business: reducing a poem to a biographical detail flattens the poem and removes so much of what makes literature sing (how it sounds, how it’s rhythmed, how it feels, how it moves the reader…). Instead, I set out to weave two parallel stories. Yes, of course, it is helpful to know that ‘Le Dormeur du val’ is dated October 1870, and so Rimbaud set out to his presentation of war’s bloody interruption ruining the bucolic Ardennais countryside just weeks after France capitulated in Sedan, a dozen miles from his hometown. But that knowledge doesn’t tell the full story of the poem, far from it: it leaves out how the final line is prefigured (spoiler alert!) in the repeated vowel sound of ‘bouche ouverte’ of line 5; of how the standard twelve-syllable line is destabilized several times, with punctuation an accessory to the crime:

C’est un trou de verdure où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

It is a green hollow where a river sings / Madly catching on the grasses / Silver rags; where the sun atop the proud mountain / Shines: it is a small valley which bubbles over with rays. // A young soldier, his mouth open, his head bare, / And the nape of his neck bathing in the cool blue watercress, / Sleeps; he is stretched out on the grass, under clouds, / Pale on his green bed where the light rains down. // His feet in the gladiolas, he sleeps. Smiling as / A sick child would smile, he is taking a nap: / Nature, cradle him warmly: he is cold. // Odours to not make his nostrils quiver; / He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast, / Silent. He has two red holes in his right side. (translation from Rimbaud, Complete Works, trans. Wallace Fowlie, revised Seth Whidden, Univ of Chicago Press)

Life-writing can help connect some dots, though, and such connections are what makes this biography slightly different from others. In order to appreciate what made Rimbaud’s poetry so revolutionary, it’s important to understand the norm from which he made such a clear departure. Readers of this book will learn some of the basic rules of French prosody: just enough to be able to feel some of his creativity and rule-breaking. They will also see that his creativity doesn’t stop when he leaves Europe; instead, I propose a new way of looking at his African period. Rather than repeating the formula that has served the Rimbaud myth well for over a hundred years — Europe means poetry; Africa means commerce — I propose a new narrative in which inquisitiveness and creativity are constants in his life, informing his activities in both periods of his adult life. It can be easy to keep poetry elevated on its pedestal and assume that a life after poetry is an uninteresting one — easy for literary critics who love poetry, anyway! — but if poetry is just one manifestation of a broader creative force, then there can be other possible moments of creativity. They might not measure up to the brilliance of his poems, but their presence in the story of his life might be worthy of a little more attention.

Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide: the reader of Rimbaud’s poetry, first; then the reader of this biography. My final chapter poses a series of questions, and I hope that anyone interested in creativity, rule-bending, and seeing the world will recognize therein some of the questions that we all ask from time to time: about literature, about life, about ourselves and about the world around us.

Bringing Kafka’s Castle to Life

To celebrate publication of the new critical edition of Franz Kafka’s final, unfinished novel Das Schloss (The Castle), Carolin Duttlinger and Barry Murnane from the Oxford Kafka Research Centre hosted a day of activities with sixth-form students, two student workshops on editing and adapting Kafka, and a podium discussion to discuss the legacy of the novel. The day-long event brought together specialists from Oxford, Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle, and award-winning playwright Ed Harris, who recently adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4. In this blog post Barry Murnane, Associate Professor in German at St John’s College, introduces Kafka’s novel.

Playwright Ed Harris with the students on the study day

Das Schloss is not exactly the most obvious introduction to Kafka’s works. Written over a period of about seven months in 1922 while Kafka’s health was deteriorating (he had been diagnosed with what was probably tuberculosis several years earlier), Das Schloss is a rambling narrative that tells us how a protagonist known only as K arrives in a snow-covered landscape dominated by a castle and has to find his place in the local community:

“It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Mount, mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, transl. Anthea Bell. Oxford: OUP, 2009, p5)

Calling himself a “Landvermesser”, or “surveyor”, K finds himself in the middle of a society that is apparently dominated by a gigantic bureaucracy and he becomes involved in constant conversations with the locals trying to understand how this bureaucracy works.

Kafka in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where he began writing Das Schloss

For one reason or another, K never seems to ‘arrive’, however, and ends up constantly walking and talking in circles. On the one hand, he seems blameless because the castle authorities are not exactly forthcoming with any information. On the other hand, K appears at least partly responsible for his failure in that he treats the locals as little more than stepping stones on his way to the castle, including a potential lover called Frieda. It’s unclear how the novel would have ended: Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, says that Kafka told him on his deathbed how the novel was meant to finish with K being ‘accepted’ into the Castle and its community, but it seems a long way to go before K. would be accepted anywhere, never mind by the Castle authorities. Instead, we see a novel project trailing off into a “scheinbare Leere”, the seeming void, that K looks into at the start of the novel.

Thanks to the new critical edition of Das Schloss edited by Peter Staengle and Roland Reuß and published by the Stroemfeld-Verlag we now get a real sense of how Kafka actually wrote. Their edition reproduces the exact manuscript alongside an easy-to-read transcription, warts and all. The new edition is ground-breaking, but it puts an emphasis on scholars to make the overload of information it provides accessible. There is no easily consumable narrative of K against the Castle: we see passages where K is a less than positive hero figure, stubbornly refusing to actually listen to what people are telling him and treating women with little respect. One interesting thing is that the material of the manuscript itself shows no real sign of a struggle as Kafka begins to run out of steam with the project: the ductus of his handwriting remains smooth, flowing, perhaps even more so than at the start.

It is astonishing how relevant Kafka’s discussions of bureaucracy and social life in The Castle still are. With Oxford German Studies looking to build up to the centenary of Kafka’s death in 2024, the new edition of the novel is an ideal opportunity to discuss Kafka’s legacy and importance today.

Virtual Book Club: German episode

The Virtual Book Club returns once more, this time with an episode focussing on German. The German episode features a discussion about a short story by Franz Kafka, ‘Der Kaufmann’ [The Tradesman]. Here, Joanna Raisbeck leads the discussion with undergraduates Hannah and Colleen, as they consider the questions: what is the tradesman worried about?; what does he think about in the lift?; and why do you think he has these thoughts in the lift?

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original German and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Literature Masterclass: Theatricality

In March, Dr Simon Kemp gave us an introduction to ‘Time and Tense‘ for sixth-formers studying French literature. We return to the literary toolkit today with an introduction to another aspect of literary analysis you might wish to consider, particularly when looking at plays: theatricality.

In this presentation, Dr Jessica Goodman, Tutor in French at St Catherine’s College, gives us an overview of this concept, touching on questions like who is talking and to whom?, what is happening onstage and offstage?, and what difference does the presence of the audience make? Join us for all the ‘drama’ below…