Posts Tagged ‘French poetry’

Alfred Giraud’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’, translated by Gregory C Richter. Published by Truman State University Press, Kirksville, Missouri, 2001.
ISBN  1931112029

This is the first full translation into English of this seminal book of poems, originally published in France, in 1884.
The translation, ‘renderings’ he terms them, is by Gregory C Richter, professor of linguistics at Truman state University, Missouri.
He presents here a bilingual, at times trilingual publication of the complete book, Pierrot Lunaire.
He gives the original French text with English ‘render’ per poem per page. As a selection of the poems were early-on translated into German, he also publishes the German version of the poems selected. The German translator Otto Erich Hartleben, he points out, did not stick to straight translation but gave ‘versions’ that at times vary from the the originals.
For those readers with German, this is a special for you. There are translations of several poems by other German writers here also.

1

Alfred Giraud was a Belgian writer. Alfred Giraud was the pen name of Alfred Kayenbergh, from Louvain, Belgium. He was born in 1860, and died in 1929.

Originally a law student, literature was his obsession, and he happily embraced the role of Decadent writer, after Baudelaire, and owned influences by contemporary Symbolists such as Paul Verlaine, Stephen Mallarme, Leconte de Lisle.

Pierrot Lunaire was, surprisingly, his first major publication, in 1884, when he was aged 24. It was a success, and continued to attract attention and influence the European art scene for decades.
He continued to write poetry, plays and critical articles throughout his life.

The German writer Otto Erich Hartleben translated a selection from the work not long after publication, in 1893. He translated the whole book eventually, but it was the selection that became the main source for other artists.

And, yes, I am thinking of Arnold Schoenberg, here. He used Otto Hartleben’s translation of twenty one selected verses for his magnificent sprechstimme Pierrot Lunaire Op21, in 1912. 

Alfred Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire is based on characters from the traditional Italian commedia dell’arte. As well as Pierrot himself, we find here also arch-rival Harlequin. Columbine, though, plays a minor role. We find another, unfamiliar character, the elderly Cassander.

The commedia was experiencing one of its periodic returns to popularity: witness Pablo Picasso’s use of the troupe in his Rose period (1904-6) paintings. Of course, connected with this is Rainer Maria Rilke basing one of his Duino Elegies on the painting, circa 1912-22.
Paul Verlaine’s Claire de Lune, after Theodore de Banville (1842), captures some of the essence of the period, and, of course, Claude Debussy made the essence more concrete, so to speak with his Pierrot song (1881) and the Suite bergamesque.

The commedia was a key cultural element throughout the period.

2
The poems were written in a very strict rhyme pattern, adapting the French syllabic basis of a strict syllabic line of seven syllables.
The rhyme scheme with one or two variations only, is as follows:

A
B
b
a

a
b
A
B

a
b
b
a
A

A thirteen-line poem.

Within this scheme, though, there are other disciplines: the first line is repeated in line seven, and line thirteen. Lines one and two of the poem are repeated in lines seven and eight.

The structure is like that of a Rondel. In poem 50, Bohemian Crystal, the poem’s narrator speaks of rhyming in roundelays/rondels.

Le serenade de Pierrot (poem 6)

D’un grotesque archet dissonant
Agacant sa viole plate,
A la heron, sur une patte.
Il pince un air inconvenant.

Soudain Cassandre, intervevant,
Blame ce nocturne acrobate,
D’un grotesque archet dissonant
Agacant sa viole platte.

Pierrot la rejette, et presenant
D’un poigne tres delicate
Le vieux par sa roide cravate.
Zebre le bedon du genant
D’un grotesque archet dissonant.

(I give the repeating lines in bold.)

Gregory C Richter’s ‘rendering’ is as follows:

Tormenting his viol
With grotesque, discordant bow –
Like a heron standing on one claw –
He pinches out a painful air.

Suddenly Cassander intervenes
And scolds the nightly acrobat
Tormenting his viol
With grotesque, discordant bow.

Throwing aside the viol,
With ultradelicate grace
Pierrot now takes him by his tie
And zebra-stripes the oldster’s paunch
With grotesque, discordant bow.

Rhyme scheme nor syllabic count could be saved, but sense and intent have been. Whatever you think of these translations/renderings they do convey theme and line-sense throughout.
It is also interesting to see this Pierrot not averse to taking the upper hand.

The Introduction notes how the book divides into three parts. The opening poems and last poems are more peaceful in mood, whilst the central section, poems 17-30, veer into the grotesque. Think of Belioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Here we find poems on Absinthe, Suicide, Decapitation.
Poem 23, Begging for Heads has some wonderfully grotesque imagery:

A bucket, red and full of sawdust
Lies within your clenched embrace,
O Guillotine, mad escapee,
Wandering before the prison!

Could we say of the form, that the first stanza establishes the scene, the second one examines the scene, and the third one explores it further?

3

I was so looking forward to this book; it has been prohibitively expensive.

You could say the tone, rather than the characters, capture that period when Romanticism blended into Aestheticism. There is also the influence of more classical attitudes here, the Parnassian writing the younger Alfred Girauld admired.
Pierrot, himself, although quite a ‘dandy’, does not have the effete quality that later works delimit for him.

How would you characterise the work?
It is not a psychodrama, except in the most basic sense: the author plays lightly with personal themes, but more robustly with cultural elements and atmospheres of his place and period.
There is no main narrative, or through-line as such; each poem encapsulates the ‘mood’ of the theme. Some veer off into different directions: there are several boat-based poems.
The Ménage à trois of the commedia story: Pierrot-Columbine-Harlequin, is alluded to (poem 11) but not central to the book.
In its way it is a very Roman Catholic book: Pierrot’s suicide, whether real or emotional appears in poem 18, but this is followed by the increasingly diabolical poems of the central section.
Poem 31 returns to images – decor – of the opening poems, and the chance to begin anew, but not necessarily changed by the experience: we still have Cruel Pierrot, poem 45, a mocking moon, poem 43. In poem 50, Bohemian Crystal the author has done with the character Pierrot, and steps forward; or another narrator does.
The image of the Bohemian crystal – symbol, he calls it – is an interesting re-take on the crystal flagons of poem 3’s Dandy from Bergamo.

There is a suggested circling of structure, but it is unproductive to look for paralleling as in chiasmic structures. Although poem 6, Pierrot’s Serenade (above) where Pierrot thrashes Cassender, does hold a close position in the structure of the book to poem 45, Cruel Pierrot, where once again Cassender is pummelled.

Tacitly acknowledging the classic commedia storylines, Alfred Giraud here produces an original work.

I place the book with Federico Garcia Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads, in that they both create their own landscapes out of the known world, and fictionally explore characters and events occurring there. These landscapes are part based on known, ‘real’ times and places, just as, say, Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, was a created place based on a number of Border Ballads, and his real environment, including his time’s current themes and attitudes.

And yet, I find myself disappointed by the book.
I expected, that is, wanted, something harder, something more realised and concrete, like in the Gypsy Ballads, the moon glinting like tin, perhaps.
Pierrot’s moon is of another kind: Moonstruck is translated

The wine we drink with our eyes
Flows from the Moon in green waves…

an absinthe moon perhaps – but there is not the passion of Green, how I want you green of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Somnabular Ballad.

Pierrot The Dandy, poem 3, begins:
A fantastic Moonbeam
Lights up the crystal flagons

Of the sandalwood washstand
Of the pale dandy from Bergamo.

And I have to admit, I love the detail.


But perhaps it is the cumulative effect of the verse form, that it is limiting the emotional and imaginative ranges possible.

There are very welcome footnotes throughout – many references are no longer current. The opening poems refer to Breughel, but it is Jan, Breughel The Younger, known as Paradise Breughel, more famed for his flower and landscape pantings.

Alfred Giraud’s images are literary, whereas Federico Garcia Lorca’s are more tactile, drawn from oral sources and then transposed through surrealist techniques married to his own idiosyncratic responses.

There are many gems to be found in Pierrot Lunaire, make no mistake. It is a book to keep going back to again and again.

4

And now here’s my challenge to readers: have a go at the verse form, see how it works for you.

Here’s mine, one for the present times:

A Man From Wuhan

A man stands at his window
I wave, he does not wave back.
We chatted a day back;
He stands at his window.

The street is quiet down below
only TVs answer back.
The man is at his window,
I wave. He does not wave back.

That lull after they all go;
They cleared our block an hour back.
My wife, he‘d said… bad attack.
None come, one by one they go.
A man stands at his window.

There is a lot to be learned through imitation: compare the effects of my use of static verb-structures and tenses, and Alfred Giraud’s active, moving ones, for example.
Try it.

Keep well, my friends, and stay safe.