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The Rubaiyat


Complete Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I know some verses relatively well in Russian, but haven’t found them in the English translation yet. One of my favourite is this (my literal translation from Russian):

To live life wisely, there’s a lot to know,
Two ground rules remember for a start:
Better be hungry than eat whatever food,
And better be alone than with whoever.

Чтоб мудро жизнь прожить, знать надобно немало,
Два важных правила запомни для начала:
Ты лучше голодай, чем что попало есть,
И лучше будь один, чем вместе с кем попало.

Please note that, as I said above, this is a literal translation. I couldn’t find the English version, so I rendered the text from Russian into English, to give an idea. As I don’t know the language of Khayyam, I wouldn’t actually translate this verse from Russian, since the Russian text is already a translation. I’m writing this, having discovered that my rendition has been quoted elsewhere on the web as a variant of the English translation. It must not be used as such.

On Plagiarism

Blessed be the times when medieval monks simply ‘continued’ the chronicles and annalles that had been started by other monks. Today the family of the monk who started the chronicle could very well have sued the family of the monk who continued it for violation of the copyright.

The question of originality is something that always bothers artists, critics and the audience alike. There’s no point to narrate the perils that have postmortem befallen William Shakespeare or Mikhail Sholokhov because of some scholars’ zealous attempts to prove they were plagiarists. In truth, since our world is so old, originality may be a strange thing to desire, as it’s very likely that there will be oblique links between you and a certain, let us say, Hume, even if you’ve never heard of the chap.

I’m thinking: perhaps the change in attitude to plagiarism has to do, among other reasons, with how people see their place in the world. In the past, when the world’s exact frontiers were still undiscovered and its historic past was still largely undeciphered, to borrow from someone or to openly cite them for inspiration had meant to find links between yourself and this vast territory of the Unknown. It was not considered bad; instead, it gave perspective to your experience and donned importance to anything you had to offer.

These days it’s different, and it seems that people are suffering from agoraphobia. Although they say they like exploring the big world, they in fact always want to get back to their communities and homes. Globalisation, we’re told, is challenged by localisation. There are so many groups and communities, and some of them only exist in the virtual world of the Internet. We didn’t become any more knowledgeable. What the philosopher said is still true. ‘I only know that I know nothing’ – the land of ignorance grows, as the limits of knowledge expand.

Paradoxically, this Brave Huge world scares (to one extent or another) authors of any kind. They want to be unique, but what if they’re doing exactly the same thing now that someone has already done in the past and they simply didn’t know about it? However, even if you know that you’re totally unique (if such thing is still possible today), then you certainly cannot prohibit others from being inspired by your work.

I guess, the best thing to do is to acknowledge the fact that 1) the world is too old, and it’s not your conscience that should be troubled by ‘plagiarism’ but rather that of your predecessor who was a ‘pioneer’; and that 2) inspiration, aside from talent, is among the reasons why we have artists. To conclude, this is the translation of an extract from the talk of Andy Warhol, one of the gurus of Pop Art, with Adrian Darmon:

AD: Where do you find yourself vis-a-vis Picasso?
AW: He’s dead, and I’m in his place. On the artistic level, I think I’ll be a milestone.
AD: Do you take yourself seriously?
AW: I’m doing things seriously, with aesthetic taste.
AD: And without plagiarism?
AW: I don’t understand the meaning of your question. In any case, the artists are inspired by the works of others.

Exercises in Loneliness – II

A few pearls of wisdom from the Memoirs by Casanova:

My errors will point to thinking men the various roads, and will teach them the great art of treading on the brink of the precipice without falling into it. It is only necessary to have courage, for strength without self-confidence is useless.

As for the deceit perpetrated upon women, let it pass, for, when love is in the way, men and women as a general rule dupe each other.

(Casanova knew this better than anyone – his affair with La Charpillon (Marie Anne Auspurgher) was the fascinating, if impossibly bitter, case of deceipt perpetrated by a woman upon a man. The ‘affair’ which was never consummated and which cost Casanova 2,000 guineas culminated in a “journee du dupe“, when Casanova was denied access to La Charpillon under the pretext that she was dying. Unconsolable, he decided to throw himself in the Thames, but was talked out of it by a friend who happened to pass by. Together, they went to Ranelagh Gardens, where Casanova saw his expensive darling dancing, offensively healthy and beautiful.)

Also, to carry on expanding on the phrase by Huysmans that appeared on The LOOK’s Front Page

There is only one reason for literature to exist, to save those who write it from the tedium of living,

here are a couple of extracts from Casanova’s Memoirs that quite potently prove the Frenchman’s point:

I have written the story of my life,.. but am I wise in throwing it before a public of which I know nothing but evil? No, I am aware it is sheer folly, but I want to be busy, I want to laugh, and why should I deny myself this gratification?… By recollecting the pleasures I have had formerly, I renew them, I enjoy them the second time, while I laugh at the remembrance of times now past, and which I no longer feel.

Indeed, for the man who had been to many countries and places and had known (literally, as figuratively, speaking) many people, to find himself as a librarian in an old chateau in Dux must have been frustrating, especially as his health had also begun to deteriorate. With nothing interesting happening around him in the chateau his only resort was his own past, which thought he captured with the well-known ‘my life is my subject, and my subject is my life‘.

[The quotes are from the unabridged English translation of Casanova’s Memoirs (London, 1894)].

Exercises in Loneliness – I: Directors and Writers

The first post in the series titled Exercises in Loneliness that gave the start to a book under the same name compares the directos’ and the writer’s views

Exercises in Loneliness – 1

I remember speaking to one film director who deplored the fact that he had to write an article about his film. In his words, he’d be happy to talk about it for as long as he could, but writing was weighing him down. As the person who, instead of a silver spoon, was probably born with a pen, I obviously asked what he didn’t like about writing. His answer was that writing was ‘a lonely experience’.exercises-in-loneliness

Of course, as I’m writing this at an ungodly hour I have to admit that, physically, writing is the lonely experience. But mentally it can be quite stimulating and even scandalous, if one considers the works of Marquis de Sade, some of which he wrote in prison, and some – in asylum.

Back in 2006 being alone felt exhilarating. I craved independence, and I had got my hands full. Not that I didn’t want to share work or success, but I was determined to succeed alone, first and foremost. Unconsciously, perhaps, I was drawing inspiration from the famous New York, New York song, paraphrasing it as «if I can make it on my own, I can make it with someone else».

As I was to find out, we can all do things on our own but they often take awfully more time than if we did them in a company of like-minded people. Having gradually revisited my attitude to loneliness, I nonetheless kept my opinion of writing. It is not a lonely experience, for when I write I imagine the whole world that I inhabit both as an actor and a creator. My company is my characters, and even when I compose an academic essay or an article about a community leisure centre I am still surrounded by facts, figures and personalities. This is a thrilling experience, although I realise it may be more interesting, complex and fulfilling to operate a set of living people than the world that only exists in your head and maybe used to exist for real a good few centuries ago.

The longer you are alone, however, and the more you cherish your solitary state, the more you become insensitive to the outer world. Such scenario is not inevitable but loneliness becomes a habit, it blinds you, and it might take a bigger or lesser catastrophe to shake you out of this routine. You turn into Tony Camonte from Scarface, obsessed with power your solitude grants you and fully oblivious to the woes of others.

Other posts in the series Exercises in Loneliness.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut studies the 20th century children’s crusade in the context of World War Two and Dresden Raid

In 2000 I was going through a ‘love affair’ with the works of Kurt Vonnegut. When I went on a research trip to St. Petersburg I finally  bought his Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that alluded to Vonnegut’s imprisonment and survival in the Dresden raid.
Speaking of the raid of Dresden: I know exactly that until the year 2000 I had huge inhibitions writing about war. Russian literary accounts of the Great Patriotic War were by and large realistic, based on the personal experience of their authors. I had no personal experience, except for reading those accounts, viewing wartime photos, watching films (very touching) and listening to the story of my grandma’s evacuation, so I felt kind of trapped.

Slaughterhouse-Five and the Fluidity of Time

So I bought Slaughterhouse-Five. The rest, as usual, is history: I was researching in the day, and as soon as I’d get to my spartan hotel room and had a cup of soup I’d be reading the book. I’m aware that the way I’m speaking of this book makes it sound like it was un-realistic, if compared to Russian literature about war. This is obviously not true. What is true, however, was that on my then memory Vonnegut was the first author who reached out to my experience. The subtitle of his novel – The Children’s Crusade – and the fact that his characters were more or less of the same age as me simply forced me to put myself in their place and to read the book, as if it was my story.

What I quite love about Slaughterhouse-Five is its Tralfamadorian dogma of everything taking place simultaneously, namely the past, the present and the future existing together at once. I don’t share it, but I do appreciate its connection to the subtitle, and how the subtitle can give a focus to the novel.

The Children’s Crusade

The chidren’s crusade per se is a disputed historical fact. If chronicles are to be trusted, in the 13th c. multitudes of children from Western Europe assembled for the journey to the Holy Land, but on their way either perished or were sold into slavery. This is an irrational act, and in addition to telling us how strange were the Middle Ages, it also brings into question the validity of war (Second World War in our case). Regardless of whether or not this children’s crusade had actually taken place, it belongs to the medieval period. And in medieval painting, as we know, one and same picture (~a depiction of a saint’s life) very often told the story of an event in the past, in the present and in the future. The view is obviously very similar to how Tralfamadorians saw life. So, this is the first, ‘historical’, interpretation of the subtitle that gives a focus to the novel, as well.

Homo Ludens

The second, ‘psychological’ interpretation connects the subtitle to the children’s attitude to death (basically as something that is not real) and to the possibility of living through all things at once. Consider the games where in the space of a small room children build a ship, a castle and a battlefield; and also the games where events are shuffled, skipped or repeated, depending on the game’s scenario and rules. If we speak of children playing war, everyone always remains alive (otherwise no players would be left).

The two themes in the ‘psychological’ interpretation are explored in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (The Playing Man), published- incidentally – in 1938. In children’s games, everything that is happening is not happening ‘for real’, and whoever is killed will rise again. Billy Pilgrim’s journeys through time in Slaughterhouse-Five resemble this childish indiscrimination between the real and the imaginary. But when this inability (or unwillingness?) to underpin oneself in the boundaries of physical world reappears in an adult, the question rises: did these adults ever begin to see the difference between the real and the non-real?

The children’s crusade therefore becomes ever more emblematic, as it not only symbolises the selling of children to war and the irrationality of war, but also underlines this infant disbelief in the tragic nature of things as the form of fatalism that stems from a convinction in the unlimitedness of time, space and, ultimately, a human life. Children are therefore not simply those who are young, but those who take life for granted and play by the rules of fate, denying free will.

J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres

The beauty of Prevert’s saying J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres is sadly lost in the English translation… but perhaps Man Ray’s famous Kiss rayograph renders the meaning

J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres.
I prefer your lips to my books.

This is one of my favourite phrases by Jacques Prevert. Not only is it beautifully romantic, it also presents a nice example of what sometimes is lost in the process of translation.

The play on words is obviously lost, which you can notice, even if you don’t know French. The melody of the phrase is also distorted in English translation. ‘Lips’ and ‘books’ are two short and brisk, muted words, while ‘prefer your’ doesn’t capture the music of ‘jaime mieux’. I have no idea how this phrase was translated into English or other languages, and if a translator managed to recreate any effect of this phrase. I can only imagine it being communicated to some extent in Italian, through ‘labbra’ and ‘libri’, respectively.

Other posts in Jacques Prevert and Archives.

Update 2020: On another note, Man Ray’s famous rayograph The Kiss, produced in 1922, is vaguely related to the theme of Prevert’s saying. Being an artistic enquiry into a photographer’s private life, The Kiss may be seen as reinterpreting the quote the following way: j’aime mieux tes lèvres que mes lumières (I prefer your lips to my light). In both cases, be it a book or lighting, the authors clearly state that Love means more than Art.

Man Ray, The Kiss. Rayograph (1922): another interpretation of loving lips more than the artistic medium

Los Cuadernos de Julia: Meaning and Content

Los Cuadernos de Julia blog ows its title to the 1997 novel by Mario Vargas Llosa and is an open writer’s notebook.

I am sure a lot of readers wonder (or have done, or will do so) why I gave my blog a name in Spanish, Los Cuadernos de Julia. The truth is, i wanted to use it as my online notebook, but the URL containing the desired name was already taken, so I had to invent something… and here my avid readership came to the rescue.

los-cuadernos-de-don-rigobertoLos Cuadernos de Julia is a paraphrase of the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1997 novel, Los Cuadernos de Don Rigoberto. I bought the book (published in English by Faber&Faber) in the summer of 2004, in WHSmith in Blackpool, but didn’t start reading it until after September, as I had to write my MA dissertation first. When I eventually began to read it, it practically blew me away. I know some critics described the book as ‘ambitious‘ (a word I very much dislike), but to me it is simply one of the most original books of the last century. Obviously, as I know no Spanish, I have to thank the English translator for doing a fantastic job. You can read reviews and purchase a copy of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (affiliate link).
Why cuadernos?

‘Cuadernos’ as ‘notebooks’ are a normal part of life of many writers, which is what I am. These present cuadernos are, of course, slightly different, since I decided that I’d be posting here not only random quotations that I’ve been collecting for years, but also reflections on films, music, works of art, phrases I’ve heard or read elsewhere, musings about news stories, etc. I’ve been doing a similar thing on a website for several months, but sometimes there’s more to post than just a couple of quotes from my beloved Jacques Prevert.

My own mother, who isn’t a writer, also used to have two cuadernos – dark thick exercise-books, in which she had collected quotes and poems. When I was 12 or 13, she gave them to me, and some content influenced me quite profoundly. And providing you have read Llosa’s novel, you surely know that cuadernos played a crucial part in the story. So, it is from these two experiences, plus a couple of ‘tangible’ cuadernos I have already had in my life, that the idea for this blog’s title has originated.

My blog as ‘cuadernos’

For a while I wasn’t sure whether to start a blog or not. Two things have finally compelled me to do so. First, the main page of my web radio programme’s website has become way too small for everything I want to put on it. Half of those things will never make it to the programme, like The Quotes on the Front Page, or some news stories, or various other stuff. Yet I do want to share these things with everyone who is interested, hence I have finally succumbed to blogging.

Secondly, I have never managed or even wanted to write a diary, if the diary is to be understood as a narration of one’s private everyday life. However, the notebooks are different, especially because I’m a writer. So, while using the form of a diary, I’m essentially creating no more or less than a writer’s open notebook. Many things will still be left behind, for one reason or another, but I’m glad I’ll be able to do what few publications would allow me to do, not to mention the restrictions of the radio format.

As for the content, it will hardly be up for any strict systematisation, bearing in mind that its author is also a qualified historian who knows a couple of languages and has many side interests. The only thing that consoles me is that even Umberto Eco’s brilliant ideas are reportedly jotted down on small pieces of paper that are scattered around his flat or stuck in the professor’s case. At least, I’ve got ‘categories’ and ‘tags’…

Other posts in Blogs and Social Media, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julia Shuvalova: Poetry and Prose archives.

In the beginning….

What to write in your first blog post may baffle the author. As a writer, I wanted to compare publishing a post instantly to labourig over a piece of paper.

As I was thinking of what to write in the very first post in this first blog of mine, I suddenly realised that you’re probably more compelled to produce something when you stare at the screen rather than when you’re falling short of breaking a pencil because nothing ‘worthwhile’ comes to mind. I guess in my case it had to do with the nature of the blog: once you finish typing  and click “Publish”, your musings will appear in the space where they can be read virtually by anybody, from a college student through a BBC broadcaster to a pensioner. I don’t know yet if the understanding of this may put any pressure on what and how you write. One thing I know for sure: when I was publishing articles online or ‘making’ a website with AOL Homepages, I didn’t have this feeling of being obliged to write something as quickly as possible. In part, I felt so because I wanted to begin to publish other stuff, but in part it was because an empty blog – my blog – looked terrible, so I needed to fill it with something, to write that notorious first blog post… and what could be a better filler than an introduction? 
Read other posts in Blogs and Social Media category.
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