Nicolas le Riche



Hic transit Burgundia


Millefleurs armorial tapestry with the arms of
the Duchy of Burgundy (detail), Brussels, 1466.
Wool, silk, gold and silver thread,
3.96 m x 6.87 m.

In Switzerland, ancient, dentally challenged peasants in funny be-antennaed berets still grin ungainly grains at the mention of the battles of Grandson and Murten (1476). "We sure taught him a lesson", they say and laugh. "He" is Charles -- Charles the Bold, as they say the English, though Charles le Téméraire would perhaps be better translated into English as Charles the Rash.

This was a nickname he acquired on account of his violent, unpredictable nature and his inclination to treat his enemies with undue and unchivalrous harshness. The sum total of Charles' achievements was to destroy, in a series of disastrous campaigns, the state his ancestors had built over centuries, Burgundy. They had made it one of the most powerful and richest states in fifteenth century Europe; certainly its most cultured: home of the Flemish oil on wood, tapestry, and the isorythmic motet. He frittered it all on pointless wars which, had he even won them, would have served him nothing. His life ended fittingly: some time after his death, his body was discovered and pulled, naked, disfigured and frozen, out of a marsh outside Nancy, his last siege, as disastrous as all the others.

His father, Philip the Good, had commissioned the above tapestry in 1466 as part of an eight-piece chambre-de-verdure, which dispensed entirely with the depiction of human or animal figures, writes Hali.

Instead, all eight hangings had a ground composed of flowering plants on which the arms of the Duke of Burgundy seemed to float. The escutcheon is surmounted by the jousting helm, which, with its nine bars, indicates ducal rank. Attached to the latter is its cover, the formerly purple lining displaying Philip's personal emblem, a fire steel with fire stone and flames. This emblem is also seen in a larger format in all four corners of the tapestry. Towering above the helmet, the rest is a carved and guilded fleur-de-lis. Laid around the escutcheon is the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the insignia of the chivalric order that Philip founded in 1430. It is one of twenty five such collars that the Burgundian court jeweler made for members of the order, the links in the chain being fashioned like a fire steel. An enormous variety of naturalistically rendered plants are interwoven in the millefleurs ground, but the overall effect is of balance and rhythm.

Philip's son, Charles, reveled in lavish displays and insisted on carrying his state treasury around with him on all his wars. This is how the chambre-de-verdure fell into Swiss hands; and how this piece has come to reside in the Bern Historisches Museum. We know that it was still hanging over the choir stalls at the Bern cathedral shortly before Reformation, but it had been divided into horizontal strips, evidently to make it fit its location.

The remaining seven millefleurs from chambre-de-verdure have been lost.

In honor of this grievous loss, and the loss of the Duchy of Burgundy, and of Charles's ignominious, but fully deserved, death, let us listen in silence to Antoine Busnois' Missa L'Homme Armé.


It's not a big deal to be alive


Some beefy Hollywood thing was several years ago touted as the sexiest man alive. Having taken a look, I thought to my self, holy Christmas! They've gone out and done it! They've cloned Caracalla! and decided that -- being alive was clearly much overrated.

Now I find people who agree with me: not one, but two.


Here Hilary Mantel talks -- very engagingly -- in a series of five five-minute programs -- about her work on the autobiography of Stanislawa Przybyszewska: poor Stanislawa, locked in a 15 square meter room in Danzig/Gdansk, eaten alive by T.B., dead of morphine overdose at age 35, obsessively writing and rewriting and rewriting her endless The Case of Danton.


The play's oceanic length has meant that it's never been staged in its entirety: and the one time it was staged -- in a drastically abridged five-hour version -- it flopped. Perhaps, suggests Mantel, the length of the drama grew out of Przybyszewska's feeling that the only way to do justice to her hero -- Robespierre -- was to write a play which would last as long as the events it describes? Anything shorter would be an abridgment: an abridgment of the accused's right to defend himself.

A twelve-year theater performance, then?

And why not? The Balinese Ramayana cycle takes seven or eight years to complete; and it derives much of its power precisely from the way it does not end, but, going on and on, interacts with life: from the way its actors and audience live, so to speak, hurriedly and absent-mindedly, in the intermissions of the play, between its acts.

I can't help thinking: an un-stageable drama which yet spell-binds certain readers... is that somewhat like Parnicki's unreadable novels, spell-binding me precisely on account of their impenetrability?

(Look about you: this isn't Kansas anymore: we're right in the middle of Borges territory).


Now, Mantel's strong attachment to Przybyszewska stems from the two women's shared love for Maximillien: the pure, the self-less, the dedicated, the loyal. Mantel herself took an inordinate amount of time out of her life (five years of a twenty-five year old person is well-nigh eternity) to write a novel about Maximillien. A place of greater safety, too, is immense even by the Anglo-Saxon book-by-the-pound ("value for money") standard: 768 pages!


Mantel speaks frankly about her obsession with Maximillien: perhaps like Przybyszewska, she says, she finds dead men more attractive than live ones. Bitter words, but expressive of a notion not unfamiliar to antiquarians: the past is better; and much of its superiority lies in the fact that it is dead: a dead man cannot jilt you, for one; a dead writer who has never written anything stupid can no longer blot out his myth by saying something stupid now; the mystery of a work of art whose author is dead is guaranteed never to disappoint by revealing itself.


Mantel says that Wajda lifted large sections of Przybyszewska's dialogue into his Danton.

Which is incredible: the film feels like an accusation of Robespierre; yet, says Mantel, the play was meant to be his defense. An interesting point about human minds, this: the same text, the same words, diametrically opposed interpretations.

Different brains, clearly.


Googling, I find that Przybyszewska, practically unknown in Poland, is becoming a bit of a minor celebrity in the West: take this, for example. In this, she's much like Bruno Szulc whose prose is thought too baroquely romantic for the Polish taste (which has had a surfeit of baroque romanticism over the centuries); but which sounds new and fresh to Anglo ears fed on the usual mixture of dry fact and cutting wit.

(I have recently had a chance to observe how ordinarily Slavic Nabokov's English prose sounds -- that prose which every anglo seems to think such a thing of beauty, a literary break-through, etc.)


The Mantel mini-series is part of a larger BBC radio series called Work in Progress. It is to be found here. Not all of it is as interesting as Mantel; most is -- plainly embarrassing. The projects people work on seem mostly incredibly pedestrian and uninspired; and what they say about the work is hackenyed and ordinary; one wonders why anyone bothers.

Ian McEwan is surely the dullest man alive. And the fellow who had designed the V&A addition, if the way he talks about it is any indication of the quality of his design, surely deserved to have it yanked.


Some hot types of guys (and gals)


Emmanuelle Haim(above) fits Sir G's definition of one hot chick: she's got big hair; and, sir G imagines, one heck of a butt, too. (Sir G's female detection device is an extremely primitive mechanism, pre-Cambrian, really: big hair plus a good butt are like oxygen and sunlight: they are all one needs to sustain life).

Now, the hair he can see in her promo above (but why not remove that ugly birth mark?). But the great butt he supposes on the basis of the way she conducts Orfeo:

Which is with hell of a lot oomph.

But Emmanuelle Haim is not what Sir G wishes to rave about. It is something out of his line altogether: Ian Bostridge.

Check him out:

Definitely not what you'd call another pretty face. (And never mind the hair and butt)

But what a damn voice, though. And what fantastic diction.

Sir G has lived with Monteverdi's Orfeo these four hundred years, it seems, mainly Nigel Rogers' and His Imperial Highness Nicholas Harnoncourt's; but Ian Bostridge's is the ticket: how about understanding the words as Orfeo sings them?

The effect is absolutely shocking.

Bostridge is kinda cool in other ways: his PhD thesis was on witch hunting (does he note the considerable economic incentives for witch-hunters and how their disappearance led to the end of the practice?) ; and his wife is some doctor or other of some obscure academic science. (Thank you, Ian, for not dating a super-model celebrity).

He can also write. Here is the archive of his contributions to the Times' Literary Supplement.

Brains. Wow.

Listen to the Orfeo. It's incredible.

(PS. Why is it that all my posts on music sound so... dumb?)


One thousand words' equivalent, or, another maginificent Lisbon building



Answering Sir C, sort of, or regarding certain aspects of travel

Sir C is right in saying that few people have the resources, the freedom, and the gumption to assume the traveling life before thirty, but in my case the gypsy life was forced upon me -- we had been made political refugees -- while I was still in tender teens. This would have been an unhappy fate for most, but it proved a happy one for me: once I was forced to assume that life, I found that I had a natural proclivity for it; took to it like duck to water; and have not made the least effort to settle down since.

In fanciful hours, drink in hand, I am tempted to look for genetic causes of this proclivity: my ancestors were sword-carrying, horse-mounted military gentry; as soon as ice melted on the Dnieper, they hit the trail and spent the next 8 months of warm weather campaigning as far as Crimea, Moscow, or Istanbul: they covered several thousand kilometers in the course of a typical summer. And their ancestors (they claimed) were Herodotus' Scythians, a nomadic tribe which had once ranged in the great open spaces between the Danube and the Tian Shan. I like the idea of a Scythian gene knocking about somewhere in my DNA.

But that's stuff and nonsense: I want to say something important here.

The model of one possible successful traveling life is this: one arrives at his new home with the intention of being there three to five years; one then does his level best to enjoy being there (make friends, go to theater, try all the weird food); but when the inevitable comes -- the urge to move on -- one moves on to another place which he chooses to be his home for the next three to five years.

Myself, I do not do too much research in advance, as that could only slow me down and -- possibly discourage me from going. My reasons for choosing a new destination are usually not good: because the girls (I think) are good looking; or because I think the literature beautiful; or because I want to see more of the puppet theater; or because I need a climate change.

Usually, these assumptions turn out all wrong -- girls are not half as pretty as I had imagined; the climate is warmer, but humid; and absolutely no one reads the old books; but that's the way it works: you can only find out how a place really is by going there. Advance research is mostly bunk. I am one reason why: if I find a place I like and others ask me how it is, I lie. It's terrible, I say. (There is only so much meadow; what nomad needs other nomads in his?)

There is one more thing I would like to say in this connection: that most people who do dream of traveling approach the project the wrong way. First, they assume that the model for traveling is 1) set aside the money, 2) go and burn it while traveling; which sets the cart before the horse. If the point is to be there, then why waste all your time here making the money to go there? It's much better to go there (wherever your there is) and look for ways of making the money on the spot. Be there already. Now.

Most people also assume that travel is a visit; but that's nonsense. Who wants to be a tourist? The way to do this right is to go and live there (however short). That's when you learn how it really is.

So, to all of you who dream of going places but never seem to, here is what you must do: pack your bags -- pack as light as you can -- and go, now, today, this afternoon. Best sell the house and all the stuff you have accumulated there, too, while you are at it. Nothing concentrates the mind -- and offers as much hope of assures success -- as a singularily focused mind.


On translating a sentence from Parnicki

Here is a bit of the Parnicki prose for you.

It is true that I did fool myself for some time that I might be able to transform that boys’ – yours, Stanislaw, whom at some time I may have called Telemachos or Telegonos – that boys’ ever increasing tendency for self-love, which is to say, the most terrible sin of pride; transform it, transmute it, reidentify it into its opposite, such as noble pride rooted in two things: the understanding that to possess great intellectual gifts is not a merit, as it is an unsolicited gift of god, of which it is well to be proud but with pride no greater than is proper to an undeservedly selected vessel; and, second, in constant meditation on the divine warning: to whom more is given, from him more will be expected.

The following items are not in the original Polish:

1. The phrase that boys' -- when it appears for the second time. It is necessary to repeat it in English or else the flow of the sentence will be broken off by the interjection "yours, Stanislaw, etc." and the connection between the first that boys' and ever increasing tendency will be lost. In Polish the connection between the first that boys' and ever increasing tendency is not lost due to the handy mechanism of case agreement.

2. The verb transform must likewise be repeated in English -- though in this case I introduce the repetition earlier than it occurs in the Polish sentence -- since by the time we get to that part of the sentence (fifty words since last period) the sentence no longer holds together: the English reader will have forgotten that be able is waiting for a verb -- which does not come in the text until thirty four words later.

Of course, one could go about the translation in another way: by cleaning up the text; cutting up the long sentences into shorter ones, readily legible in English, and removing the subordinate clause interjections from the middle of other sentences and placing them on their own feet, as their own creations. In other words, by rewriting the book.

Which is not what I am trying to do, though I do not always manage: in fact, I did cut this sentence up a bit: the semi-colons are not in the original text which does not require them for clarity. Yet to me, they seemed required in English; and a smaller crime against the writer's intent than full stops.

Such a rewritten book would be more readable in English. But would it work? Would it achieve the effect which is intended here?

This sentence is part of a dialogue reconstituted from memory by a man undergoing papal judgment (the said Stanislaw named in the sentence). He is tortured by what had happened (the murder of some monks) and the issue of his own guilt and hurt (they had raised him but then cast him away). The speaker is one of the monks who had raised him but who will burn that night; the man recalls the monk's words, but also lies about them.

I believe that the convoluted prose portrays well the confusion in his head.


On translating Parnicki

Highly inflected grammar creates alluring degrees of freedom. Consider case agreement. This is the grammatical rule per which the noun and all adjectives which modify it must be in the same case. Here are two examples from Polish:

odważny wielorybnik (brave whaler)

białego kaszalota (white killer-whale)

It may not be immediately apparent to you that białego and kaszalota agree, but trust me, they do. Any speaker of Polish can immediately tell that białego is white in singular, masculine, and accusative; which is also what kaszalota is – killer-whale -- masculine, singular, accusative; and that therefore the two words go together.

On the other hand it is immediately apparent that odważny (brave, singular, masculine, nominative) agrees with wielorybnik (whaler, singular, masculine, nominative) and that these two go together.

Therefore, a sentence like

Odważny wielorybnik zabił białego kaszalota
(Brave whaler killed white killer-whale)

May be scrambled as

Białego zabił odważny wielorybnik kaszalota
(White killed brave whaler killer-whale)
Odważny zabił białego kaszalota wielorybnik
(Brave killed white killer-whale whaler)
etc. without loss of meaning or clarity.

Really. In Polish, unlike English (or Chinese) sentence order is immaterial to meaning. This means that a sentence of five words can appear in 5! = 120 possible permutations and yet in everyone of them mean the same thing.

But the point is not the permutations; the point is that an adjective-noun group can be broken up by other material and yet remain legible; this intruding material can be of great length, perhaps being a subordinate clause; or even several. This allows Polish sentences to go on and on and on and yet remain transparent long after an English sentence of the same length would become completely and hopelessly incomprehensible.

Such capacity for complexity invites intelligent men (it is almost always men -- it's a form of sexual display) to try their hand at it; and to show off their grammatical prowess by piling these things on.


Parnicki’s prose does this in spades. It’s easily the most complex, convoluted, long-winded prose I have ever read. I am dazed by it.

Often as I read I feel at the very limit of my cognitive powers, the meaning of the sentence overflowing my memory buffer, various dangling bits of the sentence slipping beyond the spotlight of my attention and receding into forgetfulness. The sentences appear to fall apart. I have to back up and start again. It is like working my way through a thorny thicket. There is a sense of dislocation but also – adventure. I love it.

Translating is even more difficult: most sentences I have to write and rewrite several times before they make sense in English; often I am stuck in the middle of one, realizing that trying to keep the two – the Polish original and the growing, transforming English -- has exhausted my powers of cognition and the two sentences appear to run in different directions, become two different sentences. I must then go back and start from scratch.

And sometimes I discover Polish sentences which I do not understand. Perhaps they are too long for my brain and perhaps their author had intentionally run them this long in order to make them unclear to me; or perhaps they exhausted Parnicki’s own powers of cerebration and defeated him: perhaps he did not understand them himself.

When reading a Parnicki novel I can usually persuade myself that I have somehow caught the drift of such sentences; but when I am obliged to put them into English, and therefore to make explicit that meaning which I thought I had divined in them, I discover that actually, no, the meaning which I had thought I had spotted in it is not there; that a different meaning appears to reside in it.

The style has its enemies. More than one critic accused Parnicki of hypergraphia, possibly not without good raison: I wonder myself sometimes. But, whether Parnicki had consciously chosen this style for the job, or whether he simply cannot help himself, being unable to write any other sort of prose, is not as important as the fact that the prose seems to suit the novels whose theme is almost invariably very bright men lost in the thicket of their own thoughts. No one can screw up his life as successfully as an intelligent person; and Parnicki’s novels illustrate how that mechanism works. The style of the novels puts the reader right in the middle of all these complicated, hopelessly entwined thoughts; and takes him right to their disastrous ends where they lose themselves in the shadows of meaninglessness.

(The potential complexity of thought is possibly infinite; it is certainly far greater than the smartest brain can handle. The key to successful cerebration is simplification: the cognitive equivalent of the Gordian knot solution; simplifying without over-simplifying, of course, so as not to lose all subtlety, so as not to primitivize life; but simplifying all the same; estimating, ball-parking, rule-of-thumbing; not sweating out the detail whose meaning falls in the parts per million).

I have no hope of rendering Parnicki’s style in English well; or of creating anything but the faintest intimation of the kind of impression it makes on the Polish reader. I certainly have no illusion of its commercial potential: the most successful of his novels was published in an imprint of 10,009 copies. But translating him seems the natural next step to my life-time engagement with his work: it offers a new, active way of engaging him and his prose. And, as frustrating as it is, it is also tremendous fun.


r/K nations or the national character and the expatriate experience

August 12 marks a private anniversary of sorts: thirty years -- what words should I use -- in exile? abroad? on the road? Thirty years, seven countries, five languages, three continents. Dozens and dozens of classical art forms.

An irresistible desire overcomes one from time to time, usually at night, to try to synthesize that enormous mountain of half-digested information collected more or less haphazardly over the years. The desire is always best resisted, but when it isn't, the results, though certainly useless analytically (no one has a brain big enough to synthesize properly), are not necessarily entirely uninteresting. At the very least they offer something curious to quibble about with friends after a couple drinks.

For instance: that all nations can be divided (tongue-in-cheek) into two types: the r nations and the K nations 1.

Let the K nations be those like Japan, Thailand, Turkey and Portugal: where people are polite, considerate, reasonably welcoming and helpful towards strangers, but with a certain measure of reserve, a comforting distance. One lives in such places with great comfort and with very little bother; but also with no local friends: the natives are impenetrable; all efforts at establishing close friendships are gently but firmly rebuffed. Out of necessity, expats in such places turn towards each other and the expat life is good, social, interesting.

And then there are the r nations: like India, Taiwan, and Bali, where the natives have no sense of propriety and crowd upon strangers overwhelming them with sociable, warm, generous hospitality, instant friendships, searching questions (what on earth are you doing here, yar?), uninvited droppings-by to inquire about Aunty's health, outrageous gifts calling for a revanche, causing in the process all sorts of sticky pleasures and -- problems (should I be paying for this? what do they want of me, really? but I do not want to go see cinema at 1 am!). In such countries expat life is downright hostile, every foreign resident seeing himself as a sort of Marco Polo smoothly entering his exotic milieu and rudely shaken to see that another has entered it also, and just as smoothly.

Where does Poland fit into all this? I am not sure: I never seem to go there feeling foreign enough; but foreigners seem to like being there for its welcoming social life, so perhaps it is an r nation.

Where the United States fits into all this, I am not sure. Perhaps nowhere. The United States is the New World, by design and intention, and it does not fit the old world mold in any way I know.


1 The reference is to the r/K selection theory. It is meant to be facetious.